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Valley of Strife

Synn had never imagined she would grow tired of her new station. First pick of the food, eager listeners for every tale she could muster, enough companionship to sate a blackstones' worth of zenii. Yet her lover made himself scarce. Every day was the same now, she'd sit in his seat with a few others hoping to share her status and warmth while Masol leapt into the ring, muddied up and ready to face the newest malcontent hoping for an easy way to recognition, or looking to settle last sun's grudges. She was as partial to watching undressed zene wrestle and squirm as the next zena, but the amount of challenges heaped onto the muscular ruler was reaching absurdity. Every zenii who saw an opportunity for a small measure of approval among their peers now sought to denounce Masol publicly, challenge his wisdom, or challenge his authority. The ones he'd truly beaten into the ground had scrounged for what supplies they could muster and left to try and rule over a blackstone rife with dissent.

He'd lied or mistold his early tale, that much was obvious even to her, but instead of simply trying to smooth it over, show some humility or error, Masol insisted on taking each challenge of his honor personally. Worse, the way he afforded intense attention to each of his wrestling partners and focused only on his own honor shot pangs of jealousy through Synn. She thought back to the early days when that focus had been reserved for her. Worse, she now spent near every morning feeling sick and bloated, some strange affliction rumbling her stomach and giving her unnatural cravings for food. It was - according to hearsay - afflicting many zena all over the valley, yet Masol had eyes only for defending his name and authority.

When he came stalking back to her perch under the blackstone, covered in drying mud, grass and filth, he barely acknowledged her with more than a grunt. Fuming with anger over his latest bout and some perceived humiliation in front of the crowd. A few zenii eagerly rushed to help him get clean; pathetic 'loyalists' who preferred the stability of his rule. They mocked him behind his back and scattered when Synn came close, yet Masol kept them at hand. Their chattering only served to annoy her further - their fawning over him made it impossible for her to cut in and have even a brief conversation with her lover. Not that he seemed interested.

Instead it was Serrat’s presence that calmed her nerves. She felt his hand on her shoulder, and his stern and faint smile as she glanced his way. She smiled back wistfully, before the scarred zene relinquished his brief comforting grip and moved onwards towards Masol. Behind him walked Jem, an ever present shadow behind him nowadays, and Gaher, who still dared not look Synn in the eyes. Synn busied herself with arranging some food baskets, conveniently bringing herself closer to the group as they walked up to Masol and scattered his deceitful fans.

"Kirra and her cohort have officially splintered. They threatened Lonam and his with clubs when they came to check on them. Said something about only following the exact word of the Lady from now on." Serrat mumbled under his breath, still easily perceptible thanks to Synn’s idle eavesdropping. "That's four camps now, not counting the loons bundling under the yarener zena, or the ones sneaking off to the forest at night to look for Nimueh. It's gonna get worse before it gets better."

"They'll come and I'll show them the truth. Not to worry," Masol returned with tranquil fury, wiping his body down with a repurchased yarene. "Do you doubt my ability to defend myself?"

"No," the scarred second intoned with what appeared to be irritation. "I doubt their interest in returning to the fold at all. We worked hard for this, Masol. We can't just let them slip through our fingers."

"If they cower in their corners then we will sweep them up when all others are convinced." the muscular Masol shrugged firmly, discarding the cloth. "What about this yarener… Andromeda? Is she coming?"

"I doubt it," Jem cut in from behind Serrat. She took a step forward and leaned on the scarred zene's shoulder as she explained. "It's been several days since we spoke. In fact, Gaher here-" She shot a thumb towards Gaher, who shrank at the attention. "- says fresh word is she is out in the forest too."

"To find Nimueh?" Masol asked with a voice like rolling thunder. Jem only shrugged. A few moments passed until eventually Masol swore and turned aside, busying himself with a little light flexing. "...It doesn't matter. When the Lady returns, everything will be set in order."

"Worked out so well last time," Serrat muttered. The effect was instant. Masol whipped around on the spot, charging forwards to brush and bristle. He forced his naked chest against Serrat - who did his best to withstand this onslaught of muscle - staring deep into his eyes with a frown marring his handsome features. Jem wisely pushed away from her lean, taking several steps back. Somewhere deep inside, Synn felt jealous even of such rage. Where was this passion when he looked at her?

"You doubt my leadership, Serrat? After all we've been through? Going to forget who made you what you are now?" Masol growled, staring his second deep in the eyes.

Serrat did not seem particularly fazed. It wasn't the first time the two had openly quarreled, and it was doubtfully the last. "Calm down. This obsession with proving yourself is making us weak."

"Maybe you are the weak one," Masol spat back, but did eventually take a step back. "Can't even bring a single yarener into the fold. The next time a group tries to leave, I'll talk to them. Now, I'm due for another bout."

Serrat tried to interject, but it was too late. Masol stormed off in a huff, returning towards his beloved crowd of violent malcontents jeering and cheering in equal measure. Serrat glowered after him and Jem mostly looked amused. Synn watched them closely until she realized that Gaher was watching her in turn. She fastidiously turned back to the baskets.

"That went well," Jem's voice rang out with her lazy sarcasm. Serrat grunted gruffly in return. "Andromeda ain't coming without a fight, I can tell you that much. She may be worse than the wood hag."

"Forget Andromeda. She's clearly got the Lady on her side. We tried, that's what matters. If she makes a move, we'll consider our options. Nimueh- she doesn't seem that dangerous. Could probably be useful if we found a way to talk that wasn't reliant on her deviant magics." He muttered to himself.

"Are we stopping the tales of her evils then?" Gaher cut in with a measure of cautious confusion.

"No. She serves us better alone and ostracized. It's bad enough that a few are seeking her out anyway. Maybe look in to if anyone comes back claiming to have spoken to her. We might be able to send messages." Serrat scratched at his chin, glancing towards the fighting pits.

"I see what you're thinking, shaeska." Jem said with a conspiratorial fit to her voice, making Synn glance over her shoulder at the assembly once more. "I think he’s run his course."

There was a tense silence, before Serrat scoffed and turned to push Jem away with a hand to her face. "Jem. Always too eager for your own good. Be a good zena and shut up, yes?" The zena staggered back a few paces and just snickered. Gaher looked increasingly awkward. "But maybe put out a few questions. See how many of his trusted that are displeased with how things are going."

With that, the group dispersed, and Synn was left standing staring at her jumble of baskets. What had she just listened to? She tried to make sense of it with what little context she had. She put a hand to her stomach and sighed firmly, trying to sort her feelings of discomfort from this new sensation of creeping dread. What would her fate be, if the Lady returned and did not help as Masol said she would?

What if they'd already had that talk?

Synn busied herself with the baskets again. This time, it was to distract herself.

Chailiss Week

Predators in the Night


A solid thunk echoed through the woodlands as the frozen axeblade lodged itself into an imposing tree trunk. The nearby stag bristled and snorted loudly. Moments later, it raised its tail and rocketed away between the trees, escaping into the mists of the forest with a steady cracking of branch and bush as it sped out of sight.

Tala cursed under her breath and pushed out of her hiding spot in the underbrush. Heavy feet tromped over the leaf and root-covered ground, and Tala gripped the handle to wrench her tomahawk free from the wooden trunk. Despite its short time lodged in the wood, the trunk was already frostbitten - turning the grip was enough to crack and splinter it as the point of impact, leaving a frost-damaged crater where the axe had rested.

She stalked into the mists after her quarry; it was either that or another night of sleeping hungry. A good kill would give her food to complete the journey. She had tried not to take too much from the camp, and that cautious generosity had come back to bite her now that she had more or less ran out of dried food. Worse, she wasn't sure of where her real quarry would be. The Flamekeepers were east - that was as good a start as any. If she didn't starve first.

The mist was thick and all-encompassing. It demanded a slower pace; both because tracking could only be done by searching for the tracks left by the big stag, and because running headlessly through the mist threatened serious injury. As such, Tala slowed herself down enough so that the idle howl of the wind and sway of trees quieted her heavy steps through the underbrush. Fortunately, between the panicked escape of her target and her eager interest in tracking before leaving her home, the tracks were easy enough to find and follow - a trail of broken branches, heavy hooves, and disturbed ground.

She stalked for what felt like an eternity, careful to limit her own sounds and breath, eyes shifting between the ground and the misty forest ahead. As long as she followed the track and it didn't lead her too far in the wrong direction, it would be worth it. So with that mindset, she eliminated the last of her worries, and focused on playing the silent predator.

It took more than a few hours. When she picked up the hint of an idle bleat amidst the misty tree trunks, the sun had begun to roll to rest. Darkness had started to blend with the mist, making each passing moment a race against time before further hunting would be futile. The night was the animals' domain. If she couldn't trust her eyes, she would never catch up. Though the cold didn't particularly bother her, she could feel it becoming increasingly chilly. Eventually all prey smaller than the stag would hide away.

She found the shape of the stag bent over a small creek, sipping ice-cold water after what must have been a taxing trot through endless forest. Between darkness and cold fog, it was difficult to make out more than the general shape, yet Tala knew in her heart that her hunt favored her. Fortune favored the persistent it seemed. The throwing axe felt like it throbbed in her hand, muscle memory coming back alive to eagerly remind her of the violent force under her command. Tala stepped forward slowly, inching as close as she dared while her arm lifted and bent back, itching fingers waiting to send the axe flying. She saw the beast's ears flick nervously, and she knew. With a firm throw, she let the axe fly loose through the air, whipping and spinning as it had so many hours before.

The strike was subdued, covered by a shriek of pain and panic from the stag. It made a strange set of grunts and snorts, and stamped off southwards along the creek, quickly vanishing in the mist. Tala rushed forwards with her breath in her throat, looking for her axe and the tracks. She got visual confirmation then. No axe. Blood in the grass. She turned south to follow the trail of speckled red, picking up her pace now.

It didn't take more than a minute of following the blood trail to come upon the collapsed form of the stag. The axe sat lodged in its flank, spreading a deep and icy chill over the bleeding form. Tala moved forward and found the creature staring blankly at her, kicking with three hooves and unable to move the last - it was already frostbitten and immobile from the proximity of her weapon. Tala grimaced and pulled the axeblade free from the crystallized wound, and closed her eyes to catch her breath. She listened to the panicked cries of the stag, battling against a crippling cold and injury. "It's him or me. I'm sorry, spirits." She muttered quietly before opening her eyes and watching the stag. The moment passing, she silenced the animal with a hack of her axe.


The creek was cold and unpleasant, but it made a good source of hand washing and drinking. Tala had dragged her downed stag back where she'd found it drinking, establishing her own little worksite where she could carve and skin at her own pace. She didn't have fire, and hunger thundered enough in her gut that she wasn't sure she would have had the patience to stir a flame anyway. She settled for carving chunks from her kill and eating it straight. It felt immediately empowering to just eat something, anything, and Tala ended up just sitting there for a while after gorging herself on meat. Waiting for her body to recover from the full day of stalking the woods.

A crunch of dirt and branch made her open her eyes. Had she slept? Axe still in hand, she was sat still in front of the dead stag in the dead of night. The mist didn't matter anymore, the darkness was so enveloping that there was no hope of seeing past the trees. Another crack of branches, and Tala turned her head towards the noise.

There it stood, a wolf almost as large as her, teeth bared and head lowered. It had followed the scent of blood, she reasoned, and Tala had been unmoving and silent in the dark. Two predators staring each other down. Tala shifted to move her weapon hand in preparation, enough to spook the wolf and make it growl. They stared at each other for a while, both expectant, but neither childan nor wolf were keen to try their luck.

Tala instead took the remnant of the haunch she'd eaten of before, and chucked it past the wolf to its side. The beast snarled and looked at her and the thrown food cautiously in equal measure. Eventually it slinked towards the discarded meat, took it hungrily, and stalked soundless into the darkness. Tala breathed a sigh of relief, raising her hand to rub at her eyes. No longer particularly keen on sleeping, she leaned forward to commence the harvesting of the stag she'd promised herself and the spirits that she'd do.

The wolf was not gone. After a solid amount of work, she spotted its shape again, stalking at the edge of her tiny makeshift camp. Tala carved a piece of stag and threw it into the darkness, and the wolf accepted hungrily. This pattern repeated itself many times through the night, until Tala was sure she had fed the wolf more than she would have eaten in two days full meals. Eventually the wolf did not return, nor could she hear its paws tramping around in the dark. Exhausted and finished with harvesting as much as she could, Tala settled in to rest again, laying her sparse equipment over her throat to protect her most vulnerable place. She pulled what remained of the carcass around her as further protection from the elements and predators. With her axe held tight in one hand, Tala drifted to sleep.

When she continued her journey east under the protective promise of sunlight the following day, the tracking eyes of the forest saw pawprints trailing the childan's own tracks.

Fortune favors the persistent, after all.




The cloth – rags, really – had finally been bleached white by the sun’s warm embrace. Andromeda smiled, untying the strips from the tree branch where she’d hung them. Deft and nimble fingers guided a needle and wove; cloth was joined with plant fiber and even bark, and streaks of pigment from crushed flowers brought vibrant hues out from the lifeless white.

In the river, spring snails clung to slimy rocks. The moon had been especially bright the night before, and so Andromeda had looked up to meet its eye, and she’d found her mind wandering to these creatures. When she’d at last lulled herself into sleep, in a dream she’d been a snail, a heavy shell upon her back and the river for a home instead of this valley filled with black stones. The whole morning, she’d wondered if those little creatures ever yearned to abandon the safety of their burdensome shells, or perhaps even leave the river. On the muddy banks, there were some forgotten shells, the husks of snails that had lived and died their whole lives on those slimy rocks.

The snails weren’t beautiful, but some of their shells were. She gathered up those with the most beautiful pattern, and slowly embroidered them into the clothes she’d been weaving. Of all the yareners among the zenii, only she had ever cared to use snail shells as a decoration. Such innovation risked making an outcast of her. Though they had not known the valley for that long, wisdom and group-thought had taken root amongst the close-knit, bundling zenii. New ideas were risky and open to derision until they were sufficiently popular or provably effective. But it was also how all ideas started - many zenii were simply content with never risking ridicule. They were content to be fed, and idle by the blackstones repeating what they learned.

Today though, even the laziest among the zenii seemed to rise up in arms. A distant shout caught Andromeda’s ears first, then a jubilant exaltation rippled through the people like an awakening roar. The bustle of activity shot through the blackstones to her right, and spread like fire closer and closer. Even a deaf snail would have picked up such ruckus. A quick glance directed further attention upwards, where a golden comet burned through the sky. It whipped and zipped erratically, following no motion ever seen in a falling star before. Eventually it drove closer, cutting straight through a cloud and leaving behind a glittering trail of golden light. The comet threatened to strike the valley itself, but halted in the sky. It was a diminutive silhouette lounging on a canvas of blue and grey, but cursory inspection still led Andromeda to a simple conclusion. The Lady had returned. Cries and shouts reaffirmed this conclusion, as other zenii began to identify the shape in the sky.

The silhouette hovered for a time before descending amidst the blackstones in the middle of the valley, disappearing out of view behind one of the obsidian pillars. Soon however, her comforting voice sounded throughout the valley. "I have been gone for, like, too long. Fear not, I will heal your worries with, like, mirth. First, I wish to see Andromeda. Come, you know, to me. A new destiny awaits."

Deafening whispers rippled through the crowds like waves. Andromeda wasn’t especially talkative or famous by any stretch of the imagination, so only a few knew her name. Still, some of those were at hand, and they pointed at her. Then others traced their fingers and pointed also, and soon it felt like there were more eyes on Andromeda than there were ever stars in the night sky. For a moment she withered, shoulders slumped and head down, as she tried to hide from the crushing embrace of so many eyes… Why did the Lady summon her of all zenii?!

But then she gulped, realizing that such shyness would only embarrass her if the Lady saw, and made her way towards the middle of the valley where she’d seen Zenia descend. The grounds parted for her, murmuring endlessly and calling out all manner of question and accusation; Andromeda heard none of them as she slowly inched ever closer to the heart of the assembly.

The journey soon grew long and arduous despite the relatively short trek it would normally take. The initial wary respect shown to her ended when she came close to the center; where zenii grew less concerned with who this one additional arrival may be and more intrigued with getting a glimpse of the Lady, discussing all the potentials of her words and absence, as well as clamoring for an uninvited personal meeting of their own. There was no two ways about it - Andromeda had to elbow her way forward, battling willful zenii who competed for. She pressed forward, leaning into the back of some tall zene. “Get off!” he snarled, jabbing backward with an elbow that struck her in the gut and left her gasping. She almost fell down to a knee, but to go prone on the ground in a crowd so thick was to risk trampling, or suffocation. She found the strength to remain upright.

She could call attention to herself, with risk that it got lost in the mass of moving zenii, or provoke the same wary silence as around those who knew her name and face by heart. But perhaps an audience with the Lady commanded such a stint of authority? It was not difficult to see the end of her journey at least - all bodies were directed to a point about twenty paces from a nearby blackstone, like a massive circle swallowing up a single point in the world. Well, she could only hope that the Lady had good hearing.

“It’s me,” Andromeda called out, “I’m here!”

It seemed to be to no avail. Her voice vanished in the masses of clamoring zenii, and for just a moment she thought she heard another zena loudly exclaim that she was Andromeda as well. That wasn't true of course, it was highly frowned upon to take the name of another, and of the two zenii who she knew to have tried, neither had managed to keep their changed names. Then something shifted in the crowd. A certain stillness and wails and gasps. The centre stood still, and only those doomed to wrestle at the edges of the gathering remained moving, now confused and eager to know what was happening. The confusion spread outward from the middle like an inevitable wave, and people starting growing both still and uneasy. Something around the Lady had changed.

Something tugged firmly, inquisitively, at the hem of Andromeda’s yarene, threatening to undo a mended part of the weave entirely. A scent filled her nostrils, like warm honeydew and soft morning grass. A mild sensation of elation and adrenaline rocketed up her spine by the sheer proximity. Despite this, the approach had been soundless, evading her best and sharpest sense. "Wow! the excitable voice of the Lady rang through her ears just beside her, having appeared as if out of thin air. Warm and inviting, but echoing with an intensity that only further attempted to deceive the senses into simple joy. "I'm really, like, loving this design. It's so creative! Who, you know, made this for you? It's, like, so good compared to my own."

All Andromeda needed to do was turn her head, and there she was in all her glory. The Lady, wearing the appearance of a zenii but her hair a golden sheen and taller than near any she knew. Her face invited playful comfort, like a puppy coaxing an onlooker to join in its scheme. Her clothes were as she had previously been seen - white and dirty rags that were a simple mockery of the original idea for a yarene.

She blushed, gasped, stammered, “I…I…”

Hold yourself together!

She breathed in. Maybe it was the air, maybe the Lady’s intoxicating aroma, or maybe just the warmth of those eyes – something lent shy Andromeda courage. “I’m a yarener,” she managed to say. But what had the question even been? Had she answered it?

There was a brief pause. Brief in that it can't have been more than a few seconds of the goddess staring blankly and perhaps expectantly at her, but it still managed to feel like the longest moment of her life. It was enough for her to realize not only was she quiet, but everyone around them too. The crowd was watching, transfixed and hanging on every word spoken. Then, as if nothing had ever transpired, this serene spell broke and the Lady expelled a high-pitched squeal. "I love it, I love it, I love it!" she exalted in open praise. "So I had, like, a reason to meet you before, but now. Whew. Can you make, you know, one for me? As a favor? NO! I've got it! Like an, uhm, a quest! Yes." The Lady stood back from Andromeda and met her demure gaze with a piercing smile, both hands settled to rest on Andromeda’s waist. When she spoke, it was with purpose and weight, almost as if she was imitating another, shorter, more serious person that Andromeda had never met. "I ask this of you, Andromeda. Prove to, you know, me, your worth and I shall bestow upon you your destiny. Make me a yarene fit for divinity."

Oh, what a crushing weight! A thousand thoughts raced through the weaver’s mind faster than the wind. How would she find the cloth? Could she just take what she needed from the others, because she was on a quest from the Lady? What if she couldn’t find more pretty shells or enough shells in the river – instead of being avant-garde to the point that the idea bordered taboo, every yarener would soon be running over to the river to snatch up shells and sew them into their clothes now, she realized with a start, since the Lady had approved – and what if she couldn’t make a design pretty enough for the Lady? What did the Lady really even like? It was overwhelming! Andromeda’s eyes were discs the size of the moon.

“Uh, haha, I have an idea! M’lady!” she stammered, her tongue almost tripping as it raced so fast that her mind couldn’t keep up. But what was her idea? Everyone was looking at her expectantly now. Why had she said that?! “We can trade! Uh, like right now! It would be, uh, an honor to wear your dress, and uh, if you like this one so much, you can like, just have it!”

There it was again, that stunned silence rippling through the crowd. Hundreds of expectant eyes watching the exchange with bated breath. Their expressions were coated with disdain and incredulity. How could she have presumed to make such an offering to the goddess? To twist the goddess’ words in such a fashion? She could see it on them. The expectation of a put-down.

It never came. Instead Andromeda felt the weight of the Lady’s divine hands slam down on her shoulders, intense golden eyes staring into her soul. No words were spoken, the full brunt of silent judgement upon her as the divine being simply stared at her, and then released her just as swiftly, taking a step back. Then the Lady grasped her own torn rags, and simply pulled. There never came a rip, nor did it go over her head, but still the garment came loose, held out in simple offering to Andromeda. The Lady's smile burned bright and challenging, and rippling gasps and exaltations in the crowd threatened Andromeda through context to keep her gaze above the shoulder. Others who looked seemed transfixed, some claiming they were blinded or in pain. The goddess was not meant to be viewed in such a way, nor were the shimmering rags meant to be worn. Such was becoming increasingly clear, when it was too late to back out. "You're so kind, I am, like, totally in awe here." the Lady uttered with warm and inviting breath.

Andromeda squeezed her eyes shut, in equal parts to give the Lady the reverence she was owed and to spare her own sight from being scorched away by the brilliance of Zenia’s radiant skin. Eyelids alone were not quite enough of a shield, and it felt as though the warmth and brightness of the sun struck her face, and golden-orange light still bled through to fill the black void of nothingness that shut eyes were wont to see. Even while rendered sightless, Andromeda managed to slip out of her own yaren and gingerly hold it forward in an outstretched. The two traded, and while Zenia giggled, the zena just turned around to face away and changed as quickly as she could. The Lady’s rags could barely be called a yarene, nor were they made to fit Andromeda - the edges were ragged, there were tears in the silky cloth, and the bottom hem was jagged and uneven, and very, very short. Donning it was easy - what came next was tougher. A tense jolt rippled through her skin, electric tension melting into her form and infusing her with an otherworldly sense of power unlike anything a zenii had experienced before. It was frustrating, itching, exciting, and comfortable all at once. The fabric itself had a life of its own, and each little motion was an incitement to live life and enjoy every sensation. It bristled against her skin, sending impulses straight into her system. It was invigorating, like someone had given her a boost of endless energy. The day’s work and the stresses of life seemed more manageable, if a little dull.

”Wow! This looks great!” the Lady erupted behind her, suggesting it was now safe to look. ”Consider your quest, like, finished. This is better than I imagined, actually. It feels really coarse on my skin, I love it.” she continued, and a murmur of acknowledgement ran through the crowd. Andromeda beamed at the praise, and did not even need to open her eyes to know they would appreciate her work more now, if not publicly then certainly in attempts to replicate her work, just as she’d predicted. A word from the source was all it took to alter perceptions. What did that make her, now?

There was barely enough time for Andromeda to gather her senses before the goddess continued speaking, thoroughly convinced that all attention was ever revolving around her. In a way, she was right at this moment. ”Oh, yes. I remember, now. I had, like, a reason for meeting with you. You are, you know, chosen, Andromeda. Not only by me, but by, like, She who Watches from the Moon. It’s your destiny, I guess.”

A collective murmur of confusion rippled through the throngs – Masol had told them all about Father Moon - Father of the North, as Zenia had once spoken of him in her tales to those few in the know - and how the Lady had departed to court him. What was this about a ‘She’? Andromeda’s face betrayed her puzzlement, but she didn’t need to voice any of the questions; a hundred confused shouts came out from the crowd. Almost buried beneath the ruckus, Andromeda only echoed, “Me? Chosen?”

”Yep!” the Lady answered above the din, almost as though the words were implacable in their journey to her ears. She did not seem to have time or interest in answering any questions about the established knowledge of the assembled zenii. There was a tinge of frustration building in the masses - they did not dare challenge the authority of the Lady nor truly command her attention with more than shouting and outstretched arms nipping at her shoulders, but those who had the blood for hot debates and physical dueling were getting ready to riot. It didn’t take much for word to spread, ripple out into the crowd, and then return to incense them further from someone else’s mouth. None of this seemed to stir concern in the Lady, who put both hands to her hips and glanced around. To her, it seemed Andromeda was the only one worthy of conversation for the time being. ”Yes, you are, like, chosen. I have a gif-.. It's a bit, like, loud around here, isn’t it? Maybe we should, you know, go somewhere a little more rela -- hey!” A shoved zene tumbled into the goddess, disrupting her train of thought. The zene, in his misfortune, bounced harmlessly off of the Lady as though she were a blackstone, made of immovable material. Only now did she appear to watch the group with actual care for the way they acted, and it made her previous smile - that warm glow of welcoming joy - fade into a tight-lipped frown.
Instead of exercising any manner of authority over them as one might expect of a deity, she whipped her hands forwards to grab Andromeda by the waist. In the same motion, Andromeda felt the earth leave beneath her feet, and the shifting mass of faces and voices receded below her as surprised gasps and calls for mercy - and not so pleasant things - erupted below. They sailed to the tip of the blackstones, until her eyes could see past the dark monoliths and view the forest and valley from above. The Lady let go of her waist, but Andromeda did not fall. She felt the earth tug her down in hunger, but the air refused to let her back down. It was like swimming in the sky. Zenia did not even look like she was floating, standing in the air as though she was still on the ground. ”So,” the Lady professed with simple calm, tucking a strand of golden hair behind her ear. ”Where were we?

As enthralling as the Lady’s gaze was, this all felt so unnatural and it was impossible for Andromeda to not look down. Down there, on the ground, where they’d been.

But even as she failed to offer any semblance of eye contact, Andromeda reminded her. “The moon, you said that somebody from there – from him, had chosen me. But what am I supposed to do?”

The Lady tapped at her lower lip with a thoughtful finger, as if the deity had met her toughest question yet. Eventually she smiled and reached back to stroke her own hair gently. When her hands came away from her golden strands, they did so holding an item - a smooth and lustrous vessel with handles on either side. Not unlike a pot, if such a delicate and elegant thing was crafted by the gods and for inscrutable purpose. Perhaps it would see better use holding water than herbs. The Lady extended this divine object towards Andromeda, never taking her eyes off of the zena in question. The shouts and reverent calls from below didn't even seem to register.

"A gift from the Watcher," she began to explain, and Andromeda’s eyes narrowed in confusion. "A bargain has been, like, struck. You have been, you know, chosen. In return for you and hundreds of your chosen kin, like, walking this path, the zenii shall forever be safe from her, uhm, anger. Yeah. You'll, like, lead them in communion with her, I guess. You know?"

Those narrowed eyes had opened wide at the mention of anger.

The Lady was still holding out that strange object that had previously been hiding somewhere in those golden curls of hair. After what felt like a few moments too long, Andromeda finally realized that she was supposed to take it, and so she gingerly touched it. Its silky polish took her by surprise; it was so impossibly smooth that her grip might have failed had she tried to take it by the base, but fortunately it had two handles. It was so glossy that it made the softest skin feel like the bark of a tree, or soft currents of the river like coarse sand. Nothing compared.

But what did it do?

It seemed like a vessel that could hold things, but was that it? Finally, Andromeda asked, “So, the moon is called the Watcher? I, no, a bunch of us have to commune with the Watcher? And he – wait, she gets like, angry?”

Above the din of calling zenii from below, Andromeda detected a brief lull in the Lady’s smile and unflappable demeanor - a sigh, innocent but telling. Before she could register motion properly the Lady’s hand settled on her shoulder, the intense warmth of her arm pressed over her back, and the golden tresses fell to impede vision on her right side. The Lady was hugging and leaning on her with one arm, having moved faster than mundane beings were equipped to handle. "Look, Andie," she began with a soft and calm tone of voice, exactly as one would expect when hearing bad news. "I'm not going to, like, lie to you, you know? That'd be, like, a major, uhm, breach of trust between us and, like, kind of a bummer move from me. It's true that she, uhm, like, gets a little moody, I think. She can be a little hard to talk to, and, like, a bit of a perfectionist I think. But she's doing, like, important work, watching like, all that happens and will happen and making sure it, you know, doesn't get bugs stuck in its hair." the Lady explained with almost conspiratorial and sedate tone. Her free hand flitted in front of Andromeda’s face to accentuate her wild claims, as if drawing up a dreamscape for viewing. It was of course, just a hand moving around. "She and I, like, struck a deal. A future in which you are not only her, you know, chosen, but a guarantee that all your kin shall be safe. Something like that. You are, like, destined for greatness. You'll pour water all over with your new tool, and commune with deities, and, like, lead a team of crack zenii operatives, maybe? It'll be great! And--"

The Lady was cut short as she glanced skywards, her attention briefly stolen by something imperceptible to zenii senses. "Whew. I am being, like, called away to something I don't think I can ignore. I guess the Watcher will, you know, fill you in on the rest!" she continued after a while, cutting her explanation woefully short. Her arm lifted away from Andromeda, relinquishing her from the embrace. Andromeda felt air take in her torn clothes as she slowly began to descend away from the goddess. There was still time, but the Lady seemed to think it was all over, and Andromeda didn’t dare to argue. Instead, her mind just spun as she slowly drifted back to the ground. It wasn’t until her feet almost would have brushed the head of the zene directly below her that the throng retreated – just a little bit – to give her room to land, and then they pressed back in and all eyes were on her.

No, they weren’t even looking at her; they had eyes only for that bone-white ewer in her hands! She clutched its handles just a bit more tightly, just instinctively knowing that it would be bad if anybody took it from her. The tatters of the Lady’s dress (she still couldn’t think of it as her own) seemed to wrap protectively over the ewer’s lips as if to obscure and protect it from the hungering eyes of the crowd, but it wasn’t enough. Only her words would keep them away!

“What’s that?” “Can I feel it?” “The Lady gave you a gift!”

The multitudes of voices all rang out in an indiscernible discord, until at last the pressure became too much and timid Andromeda finally shouted to make them stop,

“It’s from the Watcher! A goddess that lives on the moon! I was chosen to hold it for her! I have to, uh…” she began, strongly at first, “fill it with water, or something! And pour it on things!”

That simple explanation held back the tide - but only for a moment. Her words instilled deep confusion, excitement and jealousy in her kin, and soon the questions came louder and faster than before. It was an endless cacophony of clamoring, made all the worse when the Lady lifted up into the sky to once more disappear entirely. Those initial questions soon became debates and arguments, as the word spread about the mass of zenii and each of them did their best to interpret her words in whatever way they could. Someone tried to grab the ewer and rip it from her, but its smoothness played to her advantage as her kin failed to gain any purchase on the eldritch gift. It would be a long and arduous effort to navigate out of such a crowd, many eager to learn all that had been said in the sky.

The river was no good anymore. Now, three days after the Lady's sudden return and subsequent departure, Andromeda found each stretch of the riverbank populated by all manner of zenii scrounging for snails, pretty stones, and various baubles coming down the river. Trading these luxury items for favors or food had rapidly become a favorite pastime of those who refused to learn the crafts in favor of easier opportunities. As a result, the river was full of people fighting for their own spot. The only places Andromeda could find that weren't far out of the way had already been picked clean by the swarm. Everyone wanted to adorn their tools and yarenes with this new, divine fashion, though few dared approach Andromeda directly other than to ask an endless barrage of questions.

She wasn't alone, of course. The recent meeting with the Lady had skyrocketed her to new popularity and with that acclaim came a gaggle of extremely social and festive zenii that hung on her every word. From them she'd learned that Masol, the more or less appointed ruler of the valley was losing supporters as the news of the Lady’s words spread farther and was debated in full. The revelation created splinter groups in the previously monolithic ruler's camp, with some allegedly outright denouncing the zene and declaring themselves as independent once more. As one of the few who had ever directly spoken to the Lady, Andromeda attracted these malcontents like a warm blackstone on a cold evening, even if most of them were content to socialize on the periphery and leave her alone. Still, there was now a minor throng of people that regarded her word as law, so long as they liked what she said. They offered company, heat and food without any expectation beyond her popularity grazing them. Was this what Masol felt like? They warded off most newcomers asking about the ewer or the Lady, if they saw her being bothered.

Stood there on the riverbank close to the blackstone she stayed by, surveying her old hunting ground, Andromeda heard the soft crush of grass behind her - the rustle of fabric and the click of shells and stones touching during movement. Someone was coming up real close behind her. "Well, well, we finally found you," a zena's voice declared from behind her. "You're easy to lose in a crowd."

Andromeda hadn’t recognized the voice, so she cast a glance over her shoulder to see just who this was that had slipped past her usual flock of adulators. Behind her stood two zenii, a zena and zene wearing longer cut yarenes than the regular ones - she'd heard that was becoming popular, but it meant someone giving up that material. The zena picked at her teeth with a sharp piece of bark, meeting Andromeda’s gaze in the short moment she looked over her shoulder. The zene, was most remarkable in his face full of bruises and nervous expression.

“But I can’t lose the crowd,” she quipped back, eyes returning to her ewer. It was full, and yet she’d never tarnished it by dipping it into the muck of the river… she felt that it was too white for that, too clean.

"That's a good one," the zena murmured with a casual tone. The shuffle of grass and feet proceeded, and soon enough a hand slapped down on Andromeda’s shoulder, clasping her skin with a friendly but controlling grab. The zena shoved her form into her back, leaning her chin over Andromeda’s shoulder. "I bet you're real popular, now. Must be nice. We're not here to get in on that - but I'm hoping we can help each other. You know?"

"Masol wants to see you." The zene erupted as if to clarify, as nervous in voice as he was in facial expression. "To talk, and, and such."

His interruption was enough for the zena to break her face away from bothering Andromeda, though she didn't physically retreat. "Really, Gaher? You see we're having a talk over here. Why do you have to spoil the meal?" There was only shamed silence in return.

Andromeda’s lip stiffened at the mention of Masol, and she finally turned around to face these two of Masol’s lackeys. “If he wants to talk, I don’t see why he didn’t come here himself. Did he lie about all those stories? The ones about, you know, the moon courting the Lady?”

The zena, who remained uncomfortably close after Andromeda turned to face the two of them, offered a wide smile that looked more condescending than friendly. She extended her hand a short distance to brush a lock of hair out of Andromeda’s face, taking a step up as if she’d decided to be her warmth for the day. “Stories are stories, right? Why don't we focus on what's in front of us? Let's not get off on the wrong foot here, arguing about who said what. If you tag along, you can get your answers right from the source. You might find there is much reason in being our friend, you know?” she muttered quietly, her tone conspiratorial and inviting. Behind her, the one called Gaher shifted restlessly on his feet. The zena's gaze dropped down to the ewer in Andromeda’s care, and spindly fingers stretched out once more to caress the divine gift without permission. "Ohh, is this it? The Lady's basket? It's beautiful."

The ewer’s depths housed a small puddle of some surreal fluid that glowed, that sang, that was clearer than water. It had condensed out of nothingness and dripped down into the jug throughout the night, little beads and droplets rolling down into the bottom like beads of sweat. Were it not so impossibly smooth, some might have clung closer to the top, and the zena’s fingers near the ewer’s lips might have touched it.

Nobody had touched the liquid as it had accumulated down there bit by bit; in truth, Andromeda was a bit afraid to, for not even she knew what pouring this ‘water’ on something might do. But in that moment, a thought inexplicably pushed itself into the forefront of her mind: the fluid could kill. She looked at the smug grin on that sly zena, and for a moment saw only a grimacing skull in place of a face; beads of the fluid ran down the skull and to the neck, cutting through flesh as if it were as ephemeral as fog.

The grisly image made Andromeda recoil with a look of palpable horror in her eyes, but of course the zena wouldn’t understand. She wanted to push away those brushing fingers, to bring it away from the ewer, but then she saw a flash of the future where that zena tugged back and then the jar splashed its contents onto her face and then that face became a grinning skull locked into mirthful laughter as it fell to the ground–

“The Watcher made it, and the Lady made it sound like she’s, uh, a very dangerous goddess. Maybe worse than that Beast Queen, even. So you shouldn’t touch this thing,” she warned. She let a long moment pass, half to let that set in and half to think for herself. “Actually, I think it’s so dangerous that nobody else should, and that I should stay right here in the river and keep it safe. The crowds are too thick by Masol’s blackstone and people would try to grab it. Tell Masol that he has to come over here if he wants to talk.”

A bitter smile spread over the zena's features, poisoning any suggestion of goodwill she had previously tried to imply. Her hands roamed the eldritch artifact, fingertips searching for purchase and her mind for understanding. Andromeda could see her undergo the mental struggle of whether or not to try and take it from her. Her fingers slid to the handles, brushing Andromeda’s own as they clutched the vessel. "Listen, little zena," she began with a venomous, guarded tone. "We tried to be n--"

"Is everything okay here, Blessed Andromeda?" A firm voice cut in, disrupting whatever veiled threat the zena was building towards. To her right side, the well-built Yrate had left his scavenging spot in the river to muscle in on the conversation. He had been a little too eager to please these last few days, working hard to impress her, showering her with compliments, and offering warmth. Like most of the others, he only saw her now that she was a name to know. But here he stood, ready to protect. And he brought a few interested zenii who seemed equally perturbed by the duo's continued presence. "Are these two bothering you?

"...Jem," the quiet zene called Gaher urged with a rise in desperation. "Maybe--"

"No problem here, friend," the zena erupted glancing sideways as Andromeda felt the searching hands escape from any immediate attempt to further grip the ewer. "Just talking between old friends."

“You tried being nice?” the yarener echoed back, Andromeda sparing a moment to give Yrate a grateful glance. “Old friend?” she went on, venom dripping from her once demure words.

The glow from within the white ewer suddenly became brighter, and whimsical thought became overwhelming compulsion. Andromeda lifted the ewer high above her head and overturned it above that zena, and a shower of moonlight cascaded down onto the head and face of ‘Jem’. It didn’t melt her face, though. Instead the watery substance rippled in unnatural ways as it clung to her flesh, forming a hand that solidified around her throat in an icy death grip. She wheezed, fell to the ground, and choked. Her eyes were red and bulging like berries from the wood. When her struggling began to wane, the hand slid up her chin, pried open her mouth, and crawled inside. There was a horrific bloodcurdling shriek, and then a shard of crystallized fluid burst out from Jem’s left eye. Another erupted from her right, striking her blind in a gruesome mess. A third bored through her forehead, right about the bridge of her nose, and yet she was still down there writhing and shrieking.

Then Andromeda blinked, and that nasty zena was still there. Still standing, still simmering, still only backing away thanks to Yrate. It had all been a reverie, but it felt somehow realer than some mere dream.

She gazed down into the ewer and shrieked, “What do you want me to do?!”

Her words echoed back from within the hollow vessel, oddly distorted, and she Saw a ghostly image of the jug emptied… no, of the jug being overturned, of that water pouring freely. But not on another person!

As if stricken by madness, the yarener-turned-prodigy suddenly flailed her arms wildly. Liquid splashed out from the ewer, and where it fell upon an empty patch of the ground green grass was incinerated and reshaped into scintillating diamonds within the blink of an eye. She gasped, prodding one of these strange jewels with her toe. When turned the other way the prismatic gem was suddenly aglow with a different color, but it was also wickedly sharp and she felt its serrated edge just barely cut into her skin. Jem had skipped backwards in fright, stunned by the display and speechless for once.

“I’m sure that the Watcher wanted me to dump this on your head and kill you,” she warned the nasty zena, clutching at the calming smoothness of her robe. Even frayed, the threads were soft and smooth, but where that smooth ewer was cold these were warm and reminded her of the jubilant and dauntless Lady. “The Watcher showed me what I could have done, but… I, I didn’t want…”

The words weren’t coming to Andromeda, but anger overcame her stammering and she finally burst out to the shocked zena, “Go! You aren’t safe here, and you’ve angered a goddess.”

Jem came out of her initial shock with a furious scowl, working up her arm as her gaze shifted from the crystalline jewels to Andromeda. Had she even heard her, or was she contained in her own prideful fury? Fortunately, her companion, overcome with some measure of panic and respect, had finally seen enough, and moved forwards to grip her with both arms. Yrate and his friends did not seem particularly eager to move forwards after the display of divine power, but remained cautiously ready to cut in if their movements were any indication. Gaher murmured something into Jem’s ear, and pulled her away from any foolish and careless followup. Reluctantly, the two zenii receded from the scene, skittering away as quickly and without fanfare as they had arrived. Jem never stopped staring at Andromeda. A few nearby zenii were staring as well, the commotion enough to garner more interest from the river. No doubt this new wrathful deity would soon be the talk of many blackstones.

The Sacred Law

From the dark gloom of the forests underbrush, Tala watched the campsite of her kin as they made merry into the night. They danced and laughed and sang, leaping like pouncing wolves around flickering flames in the centre of the tribal camp. As if anything had changed. As if a single decision could unmake a travesty, suck rot out of a wound. When word of the initial split had reached her tribe, women had abandoned men. Firekeeper Lansa was well-known, even if none Tala knew could claim to ever have done more than glance her from afar. It was a tragedy, and there was justified anger and sadness at the loss. Still, to split away from all men for the crimes of a few - this made no sense to Tala.

Work was now harder, new tasks that men of the small tribe had handled were now due to be relearned. What could and could not be eaten, how best to avoid attention from predators, how to secure shelter. This knowledge had been in the possession of men, men who were now banished for the crimes of others. Still, the other women celebrated. Loud enough to attract every animal, spirit and childan in the area. Burning the fire hot enough to be visible for miles. No concern for safety. Tala knew more than well that just because you could not see it did not mean there was no one watching. She imagined half the forest sat outside the range of their flame's luminant might, watching them with caution and hunger, just as Tala did. She frowned to herself and turned her attention back to the work she did in the dark. A sharp rock, ground many times into a thin edge enough to carve wood and fibre into better shapes. Her newest project was a set of sticks, different lengths, all sturdy enough to bend and swing, and sharpened to a fine point. Something to fend off the predators, be they beast or man.

They'd grow tired eventually. The worship of their colorful fire spirit would dim, their bellies would be empty, and their bodies would call for companionship. There was no reason to celebrate, nor did she imagine any of them cared particularly for Lansa beyond the growing legend of the horrific crime. Now she was being exalted like some kind of martyr, who in her heroism illuminated the vices of men. Tala scoffed to herself. The story being spun alone proved women were as full of dung as almost any man. That wasn't counting the hard words, the constant infighting, the scheming to secure a good and popular man. Before all this anyway. She doubted that would change. Until such a time she was proven right, all she could do was distance herself, live with the caution she knew in her heart was necessary. Maybe if someone had done so before, all this would be different now.

”You sit away from the fire, why?” Came a deep voice beside her.

The voice shocked her to her core, a deep chill rattling it's way through her spine and extremities as her senses battled pure panic and survival instinct. Her eyes shifted wildly to lay eyes on the source of the voice, scrambling backwards to assumed safety. How had she not heard anything before the voice spoke to her?

It was a tall Childan man with piercing blue eyes looking down at her. He wore nothing but a loin cloth, his white hair long and braided. Which in itself was odd. He raised both hands, showing no weapons upon his person but hands were dangerous enough. He bent his knees and settled down beside where she had once sat. He motioned to her to sit back down.

Tala breathed uncertainly, but eventually managed to press out a basic reply as she kept her eyes on this new arrival. "Light. Noise. It draws attention and makes it impossible to see beyond the camp. It dulls the thoughts of all, giving cause to celebrate when there is none. It's heat is a lie - brief comfort for a world of trouble. And it is dangerous."

"Ah. I see." he said after a moment of inscrutable thought. He took up a discarded rock and a piece of wood, beginning to chip away at it. "Fire is dangerous, always will be. There is no shame in being afraid of it." He said next. "No shame at all." He grinned at her.

Tala watched the man pensively for a long time, letting her eyes settle away from the light to study this new arrival further. The flow of his muscles, the braid, the way his hands worked the wood. Eventually she deemed it safe enough to sit back up properly. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she warned with a small frown. “The others won’t take kindly to a man stalking about.”

A few moments passed before Tala realized her own safety could be in jeopardy. A chill ran down her spine, alerting her senses to this primal realization. It went against all that she herself had concluded and reasoned earlier, yet she could not discount that niggling worry. What happened to Lansa could happen to her. Hurriedly she added a threat. “And don’t think about trying nothing either. I’m confident in my skill of driving this up your jaw.” Tala showcased the sharpened wood she herself had been carving on as if that would prove the point. Her eyes flitted to the camp, where women danced and laughed in the firelight still. It’d be a day at least before anyone asked for her. Would they care? Or would they abandon her to the wild as Lansa’s friends had done in plain sight?

He kept on whittling and gave a small shrug. ”Push fear from your heart, I will do you no harm.” He said after a time. ”Though I have no doubt of your aim, I would question your resolve.” icy eyes bore into her. ”Could you kill another? A brother Childan?”

That questions burrowed deep into her core. It was an attack on many fronts -- on her confidence, on her beliefs, on her skills. His assertion that he was harmless felt like vicious mockery. Was it a threat? Tala found her fingers gripping the sharp stick tighter as she watched the bright-eyed man. "...If… If it came to that. Someone has to think of the safety of the pack. To- to make sure it never happens again." She cleared her throat and straightened her back, trying to appear unbothered even though her heart pounced with accusatory cowardice. "Might as well be me."

His gaze was unmoving, like a frozen lake. Then he smirked and his gaze wavered, falling back upon his whittling. "You think of safety. To make sure it never happens again..." An icy eye glanced at her, "Yet here you sit. All alone. Your pack sit over there, do they not? It seems to me you are only looking out for yourself. For your own safety. You would run in the face of a threat." he stated with coldness in his voice.

Tala pondered this with a frown, but soon shook her head in defiance of his words. "I am sitting here because beside the fire one cannot see the danger stalking in the trees. If I must be alone to ensure their safety, then so be it." She nodded to herself, still gripping her stick. Perhaps some part of her would run, she thought, against a truly horrific threat. But someone had to think of safety.

The old man nodded his head. "Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps not. It would not be the first time. It would not be the last. Now," he ceased his whittling and then blew upon the wood. A cloud of shavings and dust, far more than even she had realized was capable from that stick, blew up into the air. It obscured her vision for a split second but when it settled, held out to her was a strange tool. About as long as her forearm and no longer made entirely of wood. It's intricate handle was made of the dark limb, yes, but at the top there shone an icy blue sheen of something sharp. A flat, almost triangular disc. It was angled with a narrow flat end, all of which sat atop the stick. Like a cover of sorts. It looked like a bulging claw.

He said but two words, "Prove yourself." and then from the fire, there came panicked screams.

Tala spun her head back to her people. Silhouetted against the backdrop of the flames was a large bat that was descending with flaps of its leathery torn wings. The beast snarled, thick bloody saliva dripping from its chin. What had looked like some sort of growth upon its underside, dropped onto the ground away from the flames. They looked like bulbous creatures and there were several of them. Next they began to skitter towards her people, pouncing with thick mandibles.

Something primal gripped her heart, a deep and wholly natural fear gripped her as she watched these foreign beings descend on her kin. She did not think. Spurred by his mocking words and the offering, she felt almost prepared. This was what she had bragged her purpose was. Her fingers coiled around the straight-handled, sharp tool. Before she could produce a rational thought, a debate of safety and risk, she was on her feet, running through the thicket to intercept the monstrous but smaller creatures. Their chattering and clicking mandibles produced no real sounds, only unnatural shrieks and rattles that clamped down somewhere deep inside of Tala. Beady eyes, bulbous, almost pulsating bodies of some kind of flesh sacs and bloody chitin - everything about these creatures promised a lifetime of nightmares.

Tala's long legs carried her to the fire and panicking people swifter than she had imagined - without thinking she put herself between one of the chittering bulbs and one of her campmates that had fallen on the ground and limply crawled towards the fire. Dyani deserved many things, but being bitten by one of these things was not one of them. Tala swung her gifted tool clumsily towards the creature, but it saw her coming and easily skittered aside, mandibles clicking and moving in a terrifying mess of darkness and blood. Screams were all around her. This was how she died, her mind said, crippled with fear. Her body wasn't listening - not quite so ready to surrender. The bulbous beast made a lunge for her, and Tala found herself backing over Dyani and toppling to the ground, hair warming up fiercely to the roaring fire behind her. The beast lunged again, and Tala swung her sharp weapon to ward it away. The cold edge dug weakly into one of its many legs, leaving a solid hack, and the creature withdrew with a screech. It was all the time Tala needed. Her free hand rustled beside her to grab a branch from the fire, and ripped it free as she fought to clamber back on her feet. When the creature bared it's black mouth once more, Tala responded with a desperate ursine roar, and drove the burning branch straight into the beast's maw. The creature shriek and shook, terrified and in untold agony. Tala lunged again, swinging her shining weapon from above, smashing and hacking into the bulbous growth that made up a large part of the creature. The fleshy sac gave way under the sharp pressure and exploded with a sudden shower of dark liquids. The monster shrieked and lunged at her, and Tala's panicked, furious hack struck it in what she imagined was it's face. It fell quiet after that, dribbling black and red liquid splayed out on the soil.

Overcome with frustration, fury and desperation, Tala turned to find her next quarry. With all the bulbous creatures dead or dying due to the campsites' makeshift resistance, the giant bat shrieked as it attacked another, Kalani, who held out a burning branch to ward it away from the women with child. It was across the fire from her and moving in close. There was no time. Dripping jaws snapped and shrieked as Kalani did her best to fend off the creature - to no avail. It had set its sights on both her and the others, and their fates were sealed. No amount of flame could keep it from it’s bloodlust. Tala felt powerless, a strange sensation of itching fingers and gut-wrenching frustration building deep in her core. Running to meet it was a fool’s errand, if it could even be intercepted from the ground.

Something snapped in her then, the last rope that bound her fury and frustration. The sharp weapon made itself known in her hand, an instrument of death beckoning her to complete her journey. She did not know if it was desperation, panic, or anger. With a furious roar she threw her arm forward, letting the sharp hacking tool fly free from her hand, slipping from her fingers into the warmed air to sail through the licking flames of the firepit. It careened like a missile, spinning like a furious avalanche towards the unaware beast. It looked like it would miss, that her aim had not been so true. Yet it looked as if her eyes played a trick on her and the beast so subtly was blown into the path. A wet thud, barely audible. A bone-chilling shriek of agony and rage echoed a moment later. Then death as the tool had found its mark- the heart, and it dropped like a rock. It stained the ground with dark blood that looked black in the flamelight.

She had done it. Her tribeswomen were saved. Before they had anytime to even collect themselves, the man appeared. Their were audible gasps and frightened shouts as he stood upon the edge of the clearing. Only the flickering light of the flame could he be seen. He smiled and his form changed. It grew taller and his eyes glowed icy blue.

It was the Spirit Father.

That revelation was too much for Tala. Her muscles expelled the last remnants of her vigor, and her knees buckled under the sudden weight of her exhausted form. She fell to her knees, staring at the smiling Father, an expression of disbelief, relief and pained emotions all at once. It was hard to think - to process what had just happened. What those creatures were, who was hurt - questions she'd ask when the world made sense again. When sanity rushed back in her mind. For now she was content to replace the fear of death with reverence for the Spirit Father.

He held up a hand, and the fire seemed to dim. A cool and gentle breeze rushed over them all and relief came to those that needed it. He strode forth and spoke as her tribe all fell to their knees. ”Rise my daughters, rise. Show reverence to me in other ways, do not kneel. For kneeling is oppression.” he continued his walk before coming to a stop before Tala. He extended his hand to her. ”You have done well, Tala.”

Tala looked up at him in disbelief and awe. She extended her hand to his, taking it firmly after brief hesitation and pulling herself from the ground with the aid of his implacable grip. Doubt and shame struck as her heightened mood reminded her how unfriendly she had been to the Spirit Father. His praise seemed hollow next to the expectant fear that he could admonish her yet and be fully in the right. She could not dare to presume what transpired in such a great being's mind. "Thank you, Father," she eventually squeaked out, managing to disappoint herself with the lack of respect in her tone owing to fatigue and the rush of life all at once. "I-... I did not know…" She hastened to explain.

"Move fear from your heart. Not all is as it seems in this world, never assume what's before your eyes is truth." he said to her in a fatherly tone. He then turned to all of them. "Now I come with a most sacred law. As Tala and Kalani have demonstrated; You must always protect your fellow women. Lansa's death could have been avoided if a voice had stood up for her." at the mention of the firecharmer, many heads looked down in shame. "You must never allow it to happen again. Be kind to another, be strong. You are not alone, you are together. For with this law, it brings a reckoning. You will become stronger than any man but if my law is broken, then you will become weak and frail. Do you understand?" his icy gaze fell back to Tala, as if she was the one who could answer for them all.

Tala felt a fire in her heart grow from smoldering embers of exhaustion to a confident blaze. The words of the Spirit Father were affirmation of her own thoughts, a higher standard with which to face the world. She had been judged and found worthy. That sensation brought elation, and she swore internally never to break away from that divine praise of her convictions. “Always,” she responded with a firm tone, finding her mind steeled against the doubt she had felt at first. “If I do not do my part, I do not deserve the kinship of my peers. I will defend and avenge my people.”

All around her, the tribeswomen began to swear it so. That no women would fall under their gaze, that none would be abandoned in their time of need. Tala was the catalyst of a great change and because of that, her name would become legend. The Spirit Father pressed a thumb into her forehead and from it an icy chill ran through her being, infusing her with power. "Your task is this, find those responsible for the Firecharmer's death. When you have found them, your heart will know what to do." his finger fell away from her. "I tell this to the rest of you, spread this sacred law to the rest of your kind. Already it is infused within you, but they must know why. Now go. Go and be well." A wind gusted between them all and the spirit Father was swept up within it, lost in the night as the fire roared back to life.

Tala exhaled slowly, eyes lifting to scan for the Spirit Father, but eventually coming to examine the gentle cloud of heat expelled from her mouth as it vanished in the once more building heat of the camp. She closed her eyes as others started chattering, debating his words, discussing the attack, examining the beasts. Tala did not listen. She heard only the command levied upon her. A purpose. Lansa could not be returned, but she could be avenged. Was that what he meant? She would know when it mattered, he had said. With that simple guarantee, she pushed the matter aside for now. She did not respond to Kalani, who inquired about her state. Instead she pushed to her feet, and walked over to the felled winged beast. The sharp tool had struck it cleanly, and it now seemed lodged in it's body - a sheet of ice having spread over the wound. She gripped the shaft and ripped it loose with a loud crack, ice crystals and frozen hide coming loose in chunks. The sight and sickening sound sent a shiver through her spine. There could no longer be any doubt what manner of tool this was. She turned to the others, a few following her movements with cautious interest.

"I'm going to need to go on a journey."

Valley of Kings and Queens

Things had been uneasy for a few days for Synn. She had given them the names of two zenii, Wiktym and Slouwe, that had shared the notion of the Beast Queen with her and given her inspiration enough to build her own tale around it. Her meeting with the renowned Masol had been a hurried and confusing affair - the muscular zene had barely looked at her, and cordially welcomed her to the larger group before going back to armwrestling another zene she did not know.

Serrat, the zene who dragged her in front of Masol, had taken Gaher and the zena who tailed him and left the camp again. Synn had originally thought that was it, but the large crowd around the three blackstones whispered and stared wherever she went. Despite this, there was always at least one other zenii keeping an eye on her, urging her to join various social activities or tale-tellings. She was courted several times by both sexes to sample each others bodies, once in a group. The only thing that she wasn't allowed to do was leave. The one time she tried to walk straight out of the camp towards the river, two burly zene grabbed her shoulders and politely but brusquely turned her around and said Masol would love it if she stayed. Their tone implied it was not optional. With that very living wall hiding in the sidelines, waiting to guide her back to camp, Synn settled for a quiet existence, taking in the people and the sights during her stay.

There were yareners, who used sharpened sticks and scavenged bone and stone to mend discarded or torn yarene into new clothing. They stripped the dead or willing of their garments and added the scavenged cloth to other clothes, sewed in bits of bark or other ornamentation, and caked them with different rudimentary dyes to color them in experimental colors. There were mudders, who gathered wet mud and clay and shaped it into pots of all sizes to be used by everyone else to gather, store and collect. There were groupers, who taught the zenii way to forest scraps and hair and grass, making them stick together in lightweight baskets, flat boards and large shelters from the rain using nothing but their hands. There were fishers, who stood in the shallower parts of the river to capture fish with hand and basket. And there were foresters, who had until recently ventured into the forest to learn about the world, animals, the woods, and pick berries. Now they were part of the people just sitting around, refusing to go back out into the woods. Synn found herself drawn to this crew, partly out of curiosity, but also a niggling shame that was proof of the power of her words.

It didn't take many questions to find them, but there mere act of asking others where to find a forester earned a scoff of distaste. Tempers ran high, even if no one made an open fuss. Eventually Synn found herself at the edge of a group of frolicking zenii, seven zena and five zene, bundled up and talking about different animals while toying with each other's hair. They looked rougher than most others, their clothes torn and their garments stained with grass and wood. Synn had barely shimmied up to their little gathering before a gawking zena raised her voice at her. "Before you ask, yes, we are foresters, no we aren't going out. No, we don't want to just sit around."

Synn cleared her throat, stopping in her tracks as all eyes turned to her. She tucked lock of hair behind her right ear, shuffling awkwardly. "My name is Synn.. I'm a tale-teller. May I sit?" She said a little more demure than she had intended.

There was a brief silence before one of the zene raised his arm to her. "I'm Whyte." Synn sat down beside him, and his arm crooked around her shoulder to pull her into his warm embrace. She shifted to relax against him. It was all the group needed to relax themselves, going back to idle murmurs among themselves.

"You said you don't wish to sit around," Synn began in an attempt to formulate her thoughts. She welcomed the warmth of another, even though she expected him to push her away soon. "Is it the Beast Queen that keeps you in the camp?"

Silence followed once more. Brief tension in Whyte, but he did not move. Someone snickered, and the group soon howled like mocking wolves with laughter. Whyte raised his hand to ruffle her hair and flick at her ear in teasing. The gawking zena that had first 'welcomed' her took tone to explain with condescending trills in her voice. "Yes, we fear the great and mighty queen of the woods. She who bucks her snout in the ground and grinds her horns against the bark. She whose droppings smell particularly foul."

"You are making a joke of me," Synn reasoned with a tight-lipped frown. Her declaration gave her a soft hum of sympathy from another zena, who abandoned her heat partner - much to his dismay - to shuffle across the group and drape herself against Synn in comfortable assurance. She wrapped her arms around her as the man played with her hair. Given the last few days, being accepted so handily was intoxicating.

"You must forgive Koulde," Whyte offered and gestured to the speaking zena. "There is nothing she enjoys more than making others miserable." The zena responded with a gesture of her hands that Synn hadn't seen before, but given the amusement of the group, she could guess it wasn't polite.

“Forgiven and forgotten,” Synn professed quickly, earning a few snickers and a challenging glare from the zena known as Koulde, who did not seem to particularly enjoy being forgiven. “So-... if you’re not scared of the Beast Queen, wh-”

“Why do we do nothing?” Koulde interjected, apparently having been waiting for a moment to cut in with her consistently down putting tone. “What reason could there be?”

Synn thought on this for longer than she cared to, the heat of bodies and the stares making it hard to focus, and the pressure of saying the right thing making her anxious. “Uhm… Masol..?” A look around at the grim and displeased faces rolling their eyes collectively convinced her she got it right.

Whyte was the first to verbally confirm it. “Mmh. Who else? He and his closest will not let us risk going out there until they have found the source of the tale. Says we cannot lose more zenii - must make the Lady proud and look after each other.”

“But why not simply leave? Does everyone fear the word of Masol here?”

Koulde scoffed softly. “Fear? He is not a scary zene. Strong? Yes. Good with words? Yes. But he is too gentle, too busy making zenii like him. He is d-..”

“Koulde,” another zene interjected, growling from his seat. “I have told you not to diminish his name before. If you do not like him, go challenge him or lay with his favorite zenii, or something. He is doing this for us.” There was a soft sigh among a few of the group, and Koulde moved her strict gaze from Synn to glare daggers at the zene instead.

“Masol is just a zene,” Whyte declared idly by Synn’s side, a little lower. “What he wants is what the blackstones want. The zenii are scared of the forest, so Masol declares it is not safe. Did he decide first, or did he listen first? Does it matter? Zenii trust him, and he has many close friends with strength, skill and thought. When the matter is resolved, a decision will be made.”

“What if you can never go back to the forest?” Synn followed up, her own mind spinning little intrigues out of what little she knew. It was a big enough question to draw the attention of the group back to her and Whyte.

“He won’t say that. He and his friends are many things but they are not dumb.” He answered sharply, looking towards Koulde who smoldered with indignant frustration. “We will need the forest, for food and for materials. Even if he stops it now, he will allow it when our stores run low.”

Synn pondered this in silence, simply humming a soft confirmation after a time. She had been searching for a reason she was blamed, why she was kept here, but it became ever more difficult to find one.

“Did you say you were a tale-teller?” Koulde eventually shot in, eager to change the topic. Synn nodded politely.

“Ohh, tell us a tale!” the zena sidled up against her cooed happily, reaching up to weave her hand around the belly-portion of Synn’s yarene, holding her close.

Synn offered a soft smile to the group, pushing aside her selfish thoughts for the evening. The Blackbird would be a decent opener, she thought. “Of course. Let me tell you one of my favorites.”


Blackbird!' clamored I, 'Yes blackbird!'
And so you came gently mocking
Carrion crow - carrion crow - carrion crow!
What could there be more purely low?

Deep into that darkness sing
Reciting and reciting with my cry
Teary carrion crow - teary carrion crow
The singer brought such sorrow

I have dreamed of the songbirds
And the crows never descanting
A bird ever grieving - a bird ever grieving
All my heart within me disbelieving

On that day my soul grew peregrine
That carrion, carrion roving
Blackbird - blackbird - blackbird
My heart shall wander backward

Slouwe was dead. Synn hadn’t heard much more of Serrat, Gaher and Jem’s findings over the last few days other than the rumours washing through Masol’s blackstones like a wave crashing over the riverbank. A zena had killed him - a slaying despite the Lady’s words - with some freakish and cruel attack that had squeezed the life from his bones. When Serrat himself came a day later to fish her from the forester crew - who now were quite reluctant to see her go - he did so by grabbing her arm and telling her to follow.

“Wiktym also named Slouwe as her source,” he mumbled in haste as he pulled her along. “Masol wants to see you.” That was all he gave her. She asked for more, but he remained tight-lipped, busying himself with greeting all the zenii they passed on the way as they walked through the sizeable camp consisting of more than the three blackstones it had when she first arrived. Old yarenes modified by skilled yareners had been tied to each blackstone pledging some manner of community with Masol. There were more than she could count poking up over the heads of zenii. Most of the valley had declared themselves to follow the wisdom of the zene first named by the Lady. Synn reminded herself of when she had first met Whyte, and his words on scarcity guiding the hands of leadership. How many zenii were simply hoping to offload their problems on another?

They found Masol engaged in a wrestling brawl with another zene. Their yarenes were off, their bodies caked in slick mud, arms locked as they tried to push the other down with brute strength. Judging by the number of mud-covered zenii of both sexes crowding the test of martial ability, this tradition was becoming quite the popular social event. It certainly gave the thoughtful Synn time to study zene and zena alike. The contest barely lasted a moment longer than Synn’s arrival - Masol shifted his biceps and that pressure was too much for the other zene who was on the ground in the dirt in mere seconds. Masol squatted forcefully down on his chest and battered his torso with knocking pounds of his fists as a bullying declaration of victory - to the cheers and jeers of all present - before helping his competitor off the ground and giving him a reconciliatory hug. He was about to take on another challenger when he caught sight of Serrat. His breezy expression of carefree happiness vanished in an instant, and he shared a laugh with the crowd before excusing himself to head her way. Synn could not help but look down over his body.

"Synn was it?" He questioned as he drew close, gesturing to a nearby footpath. "I need to wash by the river. Will you join me?" His hand extended to her, and she found herself putting her hand in before she had dared speak. The words got stuck in her throat and her heart beat hard in her ears. Shameful thoughts bid themselves awakened at his innocent offer, but any such matters were quickly put to rest when she realized Serrat followed them. The journey to the river should have been swift, but the muscular zene stopped at every little grouping along the way, grabbing arms and hugging and chuckling, ingratiating himself with each zenii he met with a boisterous laugh - even while caked in mud and not wearing his yarene. Synn began to feel embarrassed, for following him, like she was on display. Even though she said nothing and tried to hang back as much as she could, she could not deny eyes fell on her quite a bit for being Masol’s chosen walking partner.

When they had finally made it to the river, where but a handful of other zenii were relaxing a distance away, Masol let go of her arm one last time and wandered into the shallowest part of the river, covering no more than the lowest parts of his thighs. “So. Forgive me for putting the matter off for so long. Some talks are best had in private.” He turned and said with a firm smile. Privacy was a strange concept for any zenii, no doubt the other bathers could hear every word spoken in this conversation, and one could barely whisper in a group without alerting everyone to the full contents of what was said. Still, this was as private as it could be without walking out into the forest or standing amidst the graves. Serrat made himself comfortable at the edge of the water while Masol continued. “Since you came freely, I hope you have not been mistreated. I know Serrat has a way with zenii that doesn’t suit everyone.”

Serrat grunted a little huff of amusement, ripping a small reed from the ground to idly fold and bend. “No, I felt like I could not leave at first, but I’ve found some good camaraderie with the foresters.” Synn remarked back to them both as Masol began to wash himself in the water. As before, she found simple pleasure in watching his body work. “They do not fear the Beast Queen as the rumour goes, they take a lot of spite for everyone else’s sake.”

“Easier that way,” Serrat cut in between dragging his reed between his lips. “Stops others from coming up with wild theories about what’s out there if they have someone to blame.”

“But now we have a real name, don’t we?” Masol asked as he rubbed his arm free of mud and clay, a long slow process that required many dips of water.

“Mmh. Slouwe was part of a blackstone led by a zene named Lonam,” Serrat continued, and Synn realized this may yet be a long conversation - though not why she was part of it. She slid down to sit beside Serrat, and pushed her feet into the cool water. “The zena who did him in is the one who started the rumours, according to his people. Nimueh. She was part of his blackstone, came out of the forest one day babbling about the Beast Queen. They tried to bring her to us - that’s when she slew him. Just like that, they said. Like it was nothing. She called on the woods themselves to crush him dead.”

Synn considered death, and the depravity it must take to kill another so willfully. Someone from the same blackstone. Nimueh must be a truly bleak-hearted kinslayer. She imagined her on a throne of branches, cackling like the blackbird over the death of her kin. There was a story in there. Her thoughts were jumbled when Masol continued. “Very concerning. If she can command the woods then there might be legitimacy to this Queen after all. What if she has given her life to some wretched spirit, like the Lady spoke of? Perhaps this Beast Queen is our first challenge - an evil like none the Lady has come upon before?”

“The Lady did say she meant for us to battle evil.” Serrat murmured noncommittally.

“Do you intend to keep the foresters tied down forever?” Synn interjected, earning a glance from both of the men and quickly regretting interrupting their discussion. After a few moments of awkward silence, Serrat took it upon himself to reply.

“No,” he answered. “We have swept away the clouds around the rumour. Keeping them cooped up much longer will hurt our food reserves. Not to mention a few of them are quite good trackers. Perhaps this Nimueh will keep close, and in that case, we’ll track her down.”

“Mmh, yes.” Masol agreed, slowly sinking himself deeper into the water. “No, what we need is to make it clear that this zena - Nimueh, was it? - spread fear out of malicious thought. She tried to slay our minds with, and when this failed she slew her friend and fled into the unknown.”

“Didn’t you just say there might be something to this Queen?” Synn argued with a frown, leaning back to plant both hands in the summer-warm grass.

“I trust my foresters,” Masol countered with brusque confidence. “We will tell them the truth and they will use their senses. If there is a dangerous ruler of the woods then sitting and learning nothing of it will not help us. We must verify our safety so that we do not bother the Lady with the fantasies of a single kinslayer. For those that need not venture into the forest, it should do enough to know there is a crazy zena out there lurking in the trees. It will make this threat understandable, but it will also keep them away from danger.”

Synn frowned to herself, fishing a lock of white hair from her face and tucking it behind her long ear. The reasoning made sense, she supposed. Between stolen glances of Masol, she glanced over towards the woods, deathly dark in the evening light. What mysteries lurked out there, she wondered. A slayer and a queen.

“That is why I wished to speak with you, Synn. People who know of you say your skill in crafting a tale is without equal.” Masol continued.

“Oh-..” she remarked with a quick reddening of her cheeks. “I don’t know about that… I just enjoy the possibilities… The thoughts of what may be and what has been.”

“Beautifully said,” Masol returned with a warm smile from the river. It was enough to send shivers through her body. “I want you to stay with us, Synn. Help us craft this truth of Nimueh and her beloved beast into a tale worthy both of purpose and of action.”

“It will seem more convincing, coming from you. You have only been with us a few days.” Serrat cut in with a more pragmatic argument. It wasn’t necessary. Synn had her eyes on Masol, and unbeknownst to the two men she had already begun crafting a tale in her head as she’d listened. She couldn’t help it. The tales came easy to her.

“I don’t know,” she lied. She felt anxiety bubble at the back of her neck as she tried to downplay her decisionmaking. “I don’t think anyone would listen to me. It would take very long to spread such a tale.”

“That is where you are wrong, Synn.” Masol stood up and turned towards her. Almost clean now. His hands extended in open invitation, and after a brief hesitation she stood up to walk out into the river with him. His firm hands settled on her arms, tugging her closer slowly. “I will give you whatever audience you desire,” he offered. Her own arms lifted to touch at his chest, her eyes roaming over his well-toned body. She heard Serrat shuffle to his feet and walk away, but did not have it in her to look away. It was difficult to breathe in this handsome zene’s presence. “If this zena’s beast is a ruler of the woods, then I am the ruler of the valley. And I need you.”

Synn pushed her lips to his, a need borne of constant touching and cuddling in the forester’s group, a naked body, a handsome smile, and a feeling of being wanted. Life could be good here, her heart told her. In the arms of the First King.

Valley of Whispers

A flash of pain shot through Gahers jaw as firm, bloodlashed knuckles rippled a stream of agony through his lower row of teeth. His legs wobbled beneath him, and in that moment his body betrayed him and he fell to the grass-flecked dirt below. Above him loomed two figures, threatening to continue his punishment. Serrat, by now a name feared across the valley, with a shoddy crooked nose and small scars and bruises from a short but intense life of physicality at Masol's side. Beside him, the lanky frame of Jem, picking at her teeth with a sharpened bit of bark. He'd never met them before, but everyone in the eastern half of the valley knew their names. When they'd introduced themselves, he felt honored. When they dragged him off towards the river, that honor had turned to panic. His friends had not dared do more than shout objections. None of them had ever fought anyone, let alone Masol's inner circle.

Masol and his crew were inviting zenii from all over after the Lady's decree of peace. The stories of their proactive and sometimes violent ways spread like wildfire among the sedate groups happy to subsist on the Lady's gifts. Gaher wondered if he would be the next tall tale being told around the blackstones, but could no longer resist pleading for his life when Serrat cracked his knuckles.

"Pl-... please! The Lady decreed… I- I haven't done anything wrong! Please stop!"

There came a short snort from the woman towering over him, but his view of her was blocked when the bruised Serrat squatted down to his level. "You think we're gonna slay you? Nothing like that. I'll ask again since you weren't listening." Serrat rumbled, his lips forming a predatory smile. "How did you come upon the Beast Queen story?"

Gaher remained tight-lipped, his expression a mixture of fear and incredulity. A few moments of silence was all that was needed to further draw Serrat's ire, and the scarred zenii grabbed Gaher by the neckline of his tunic, pulling him towards him and up on his feet as the bigger elf stood. It didn't last long; Serrat pulled him close and stole any purchase he'd had on the ground. "You making me repeat myself, waterhead? How did you come up with the Beast Queen?"

"The-... the what?"

"Too late to feign ignorance, zene," Jem cut in from the side, lowering the bit of sharp bark to hound the trapped Gaher with a grin. "Lunasi told us all about how you traded your tale for food and kinship at her blackstone. Five suns ago, or so." Her words were difficult for the man to comprehend -- not because she spoke strangely, but because his attempt to look her way provoked Serrat into roughly shaking and rustling him.

"O-oh… The forest s-story," Gaher murmured uncertainly and immediately got pulled even closer to the stronger zenii. His breath washed over Gahers face, stinking like refuse. "I- I didn't come up with it! It's just something I heard. Just a scary darkday tale…" He promised with a weak voice, and dared to meet the uncompromising eyes of Serrat. Before he knew what was happening, Serrat dropped his grip and pushed on his chest with firm fists. Gaher tumbled to the ground and struggled to keep air in his lungs. He heard a tongue-click signal, and before his head cooperated two hands had gripped his shoulders. The two zenii dragged the meagerly struggling Gaher closer to the river, twisting and throwing him to the riverbank close enough for droplets of cold water to leap up intermittently and coat his skin. He tried to stand but a firm knee bore down on his back, a hand gripping his tousled, dirt flecked hair.

"Last chance before I let the river have you, zene." Serrat rumbled from above.

"There's nothing special about-" Gaher started, and felt the hand in his hair push his face towards the water. "I- I heard it from a zena! It was just a st- story among all the others! She's the one you want!" He shouted instead and the threat of drowning paused.

"Her name?" Serrat growled.

"I don't know h- No! No, please!" Gaher begged as the start of his answer appeared to displease the man above. "Wait, wait! I really do-.. wait! I can-.... I can find her!" Much to his relief, Serrat stopped pushing. Gaher mustered the courage to continue -- anything to escape a watery grave. "I don't know her name but I remember her face. I'll find her for you!"

Silence. He heard the shrug of shoulders and the resigned breath from above. The pain in his back subsided, the grip in his hair loosened. Gaher quickly scrambled away from the water, muddying his tunic further. He crawled into Jem's leg, and she swiftly shoved him in the chest when he dared look up. "Eyes at your own level, worm." She growled, and Gaher dared not do anything but comply.

"You get two days to find her, Gaher," Serrat said from behind him. "Bring her to Masol's blackstone. Personal invitation for the two of you."

"Don't make us come find you again. You get one chance to be useful." Jem cut in, and lashed out with her foot. Gaher took the strike and the threat with silent subservience.

"It's a big valley, I suggest you get started." Serrat concluded matter-of-factly. Jem took a step closer and lifted her foot - it was all Gaher needed to crawl away in panic and then scramble to his feet, running away in mud-painted haste to fulfill his duties.

Jem and Serrat stood silent by the river for a time, watching Gaher stalk the way back to his old group and presumably to try and ask around.

"Thought we weren't gonna kill no one," Jem mumbled after a while, going back to picking at her teeth.

"He don't know that." Serrat answered sharply and stepped away to walk downriver back towards Masol's blackstone. Jem chuckled with equal parts mirth and malice before following suit.

"Synn, was it? Much has been made of your tale-telling." Serrat offered in gentle compliment, his split lip swelling to a handsome if rough smile as he took and felt Synn's arm. Synn smiled back in turn, looking at each of the zenii welcoming her to the chaotic camp that was Masol's blackstone -- technically now encompassing so many zenii that they took up three of the warming blackstones, but Masol himself was in the center. Synn glanced around but found her gaze lingering on the man who brought her, Gaher, who for some reason had been more and more nervous the closer they came. She had assumed it was the chance to meet the popular people, but even now he seemed stiff and almost fearful. She did not get time to consider it further as Serrat gripped her arm and led her further in the camp. Her last sight of the man who brought her was a woman laying her arm over Gahers shoulders and grinning at him.

"You see, Synn, we would be deeply grateful if you would consider joining our little family here, and use that talented mouth for our benefit. I'm particularly taken with the tale of the Beast Queen myself." Serrat offered with a conversational and pleasant tone. Around them, zenii parted to give them space, even as they touched their shoulders or face as they passed. Walking with Serrat gave her the same treatment as he - a friend to all present, a lover and confidant, a trusted name.

"Gaher did say you were very interested in that one. It's not my best tale, though. The sky snake in the clouds, however-" She responded as they walked, but Serrat raised his hand.

"There will be time for you to share all your best tales, don't worry. For now I hope you will humor my curiosity. Did it happen as the tale? The Beast Queen leapt from a branch and challenged you?"

"Yes, a duel of wits. Only the clever can come away from the Beast Queen alive." Synn erupted proudly.

"So it went as I heard it, yes. That has been a problem for us, see. The Beast Queen spreads fear. Now zenii are worried about walking in the woods. We cannot care for all of us if some refuse to help. You understand." Serrat professed, and stopped to meet her gaze. Synn loomed around. There was no privacy here. Everywhere she looked there were three or more sets of eyes, following her expectantly. She was in a sea of faces she did not recall. "But since you have met the Queen, you can teach us how to beat her."

"Oh.. you… it's just a story." Synn smiled uncertainly, wriggling her arm free from Serrats gentle grip.

"No need to be modest. I'll take you to meet Masol, and you can tell him firsthand of your experiences. The Lady herself will be proud of your tutoring."

He tried to grab her again but Synn quickly shook free. "No, uhm, I-.. can't." Eyes everywhere. Chattering. People whooping and clicking. Discussing her hesitancy. "I… I made it up. From something I heard. I've never been in the woods."

There was a considerable reaction in the crowd, and a firm and stony expression on Serrats face. Synn considered leaving, but there was no longer a route out of the crowd. She wasn't sure which way she came from either, there were blackstones in every direction. "So the Beast Queen is fake?" Serrat asked calmly.

"Well… no, that's the name I heard.. but not much more. Just something about the Queen who owns the forest. I… I made up the part about meeting her."

Serrat pressed a firm grip on Synn's shoulder, sending a nervous tingle through her spine. "Thank you for being honest, Synn. I'm going to need your help, figuring out who started the story."

"I've met so many zenii, I'm not… not sure I remember." She offered after a moment of hesitation. The crowd's eyes seemed less inviting each time she glanced away from Serrat.

"You'll remember. To pay what you owe, for spreading fear among the people. Now, let's go meet Masol, hm?"

Synn wanted to refuse, to run, but neither of those were possible. The group owned her choices now, until she had some privacy. She hoped that would come soon.

Sailor Zenia


On an ordinary day, it would be a rare event to see a shooting star. To see a star moving upwards into the sky was no doubt impossible, even to the primitive societies making their home on the Galbar. Yet despite such impossibility, it was just such an impossible movement that could be gleaned in the sky. A golden comet burned bright through the upper limits of the atmosphere, before finally breaking loose of all resistance and no longer being visible to the untrained eye.

It wasn't a comet in the typical sense, of course, but rather a hurrying golden-haired goddess with no sense for the safety of birds nor the ridicule of watchers below as they'd eventually try to convince their friends what they'd seen. Zenia was on a schedule, or so she had convinced herself, and that imagined schedule allowed for no more lazy sight-seeing. She would nip to the moon and back, just to be able to answer honestly about what it was like. Then she could get back to what she was doing, whatever it was that she was doing. In the heat of the moment, she struggled to recall more than how weird it had felt to utter her decree.

Zenia could not focus on that either, as the satellite orbiting the Galbar dominated ever more of her vision and took up her attention. She marveled over its imposing size, and stared at it curiously, even as she felt that it was staring back at her. That big formation looked like an eye, but she wasn't sure it had always been like that. What if the moon itself had been the mysterious speaker she had heard and felt back then? How would she greet the moon?

Her question went unanswered as the distracted goddess crashed headlong into the surface of the moon itself, kicking up dust and gravel like a digging animal. A flattened vague imprint of her dented the middle of a new crater, and Zenia quickly rose to her feet to dust herself off after her arguably successful landing.

This was a cold, airless, and altogether eerie world. Though most were not so easily seen from the Galbar, the moon had too many scars to count; they spotted the surface like little pockmarks. Most of the lesser craters had been gouged by the ejecta of that first colossal impact that had set the moon into its dance, but there also were great chasms and rifts sprawled across the surface thanks to Iqelis’ work.

The afterglow of the many ruinous powers that had shaped the surface muddled with the vast amounts of exotic mana in the crust, as well as with the even more alien and mind-altering magic that had come as a byproduct of Epsilon’s brief presence and subsequent explosive departure. But there was something more, something not so easily seen or accounted for:She who is Ever at the Shoulder.

The Reverberation’s vastness dwarfed even Voligan’s towering body, and even now her nebulous sea of consciousness rolled across the moon. The invisible tides surged towards Zenia at the speed of thought, prepared to welcome a guest or destroy an interloper -- there was no telling, and there was likewise no stopping it. The imperceptible clouds wrapped all about her in a bubble, and it was suddenly as though she stood within the eye of a great cyclonic storm. It was only a single probing tendril that extended out from Yudaiel’s immensity to touch Zenia.

Spring erupted, and where there had been lifeless and blanched stone underfoot now blossomed grass and wildflowers. The soothing hum of bees, the homely scent of nectar, the lazy eddies of wind, and the warm sun bid her welcome.

But then something strange came: a shooting star descended, and where its fiery descent met with the ground came a great smoldering crater. Dirt was flung into the air, cherry trees were incinerated or blasted into splinters, and the grass was burnt black all around this horrific wound to the perfect garden.

The sun darted like a hare across the sky, chased by stampeding masses of clouds that soared faster than any clouds ought to have moved. Time passed rapidly, but the grass did not regrow, for now it was autumn and everything was brown and withering. And then from the sky fell a single ominous portent.

The golden-haired goddess' attention span was rivaled only by that of the speckled bark sparrow, which future zenii bestiaries would conclude never existed. As such, though her initial usually implacable smile shifted to worry for a brief time on partaking in these visions, it was swiftly replaced by a confident and almost sly expression.

"The cold is, you know, nothing to be scared of. There are tons of fun things to be, like, done with the snow and stuff too." Zenia spoke to the presence. To prove her point, she conjured the same miniature ball of ice and snow that she had made to resemble Chailiss, and held it up to show its harmless nature. "Things will always change, but that's, like, no reason to be scared. There will always be time to, like, appreciate life."

This breezy confidence did not manage to last either, as somewhere deep inside the goddess a niggling doubt took root and dared to analyze her experience further. To look beyond the surface of the message and make a basic attempt at interpretation. However her subconscious handled such a task, the Zenia on the surface did not like the result, and her smile faltered again to give room for a thoughtful, distracted frown.

"Are you who I heard?" Zenia asked to distract herself from further analysis. Further suggestion that responsibility and planning was something that became her in the slightest. Still, a dent had been made.

A moon shoved aside a swathe of grey cumulonimbus clouds, but it was definitely not the Galbar’s moon. She had already landed on that moon, after all, and this one was alight with a brazen gaze… vast volcanic eruptions made its surface swirl with ash, even as an infernal glow came from an ocean of magma in the middle of its face. The distant volcanoes erupted with renewed fury, and even through the void of space, their rumble was audible and felt. It was the sound of the land being sundered apart, or mountains being ground to dust and gods suddenly looking like mere flies as they were incinerated by inordinate and incomprehensible forces. That evil moon was the speaker and the source of these strange sights.

Even as Zenia remained still, the land marched underfoot, and now waves of cold snow danced overhead as they fell. The hills and glades stampeded all around as the horizon sprinted ever closer, until suddenly Zenia was somewhere very familiar.

There were all the obelisks that she had left to sustain and care for the Zenii, and yet there was no sign of life. Compelled by something that she didn’t understand, she approached one of the black pillars and stooped down to brush aside a layer of snow. The stuff was soft and fluffy, and it tickled, almost like fuzz… beneath the snow, her hands had brushed against a head of hair matted with hoarfrost. The snow came alive and threw itself off of the frozen body as easily as any other blanket, and then she was met with the grim sight of Masol. His face was anemic yet his extremities, where the blood had pooled, were gross shades of black, blue, and purple.

Zenia was stirred by something deep and primal, a fearful recognition of oblivion and the stillness of death. Her eyes were wide, as distraught over her obelisk's failure to ward away the chilling frost as she was the horrific sight of her bloated mortal trustee. Her fists clenched, her only security at first, trying to reconcile what she experienced with her view of existence itself. Of course, there was no celebration to be found in such a bleak vision. Only dread, and it took a visible toll on the golden-haired goddess expression as she struggled to contain herself.

"Wh-Why would you show me this?" she accused with shaky conviction. "What good can, can come from… this sort of darkness?"

The air grew palpably hotter, though Zenia might not have noticed.

Zenia did not remain idle after her accusation. Her feet squared and buried themselves in a firm stance on the cold surface where she stood. Her expression now permanently tainted to a worried frown. She bid her eyes closed several times to sort reality from vision. To a deity, was there a difference? That question was beyond her ken.

Yudaiel saw that her threat seemed to have gone entirely over her head; whatever emotion that the ideabstracted projected having done little to guide Zenia’s bubbly, vapid thoughts.

Zenia’s consciousness and perspective were wrenched free of whatever ephemeral body they’d been arbitrarily confined to in that dreamscape. From an omniscient perspective, the goddess saw a beautiful marbly palace as it was shattered and set aflame by some brazen star that fell from the sky. Fury guided her to investigate the damage, but when she came upon the smoking crater that had once been a thousand rooms, she saw herself laughing in the center.

But then she suddenly saw herself standing among the Zenii from that same bird’s eye view. Masol and the others had been restored to life, she noticed, and much needless worry and ache was lifted from her by that. She tried to push aside those momentary horrific visions of them dead in the cold, to consign those memories to oblivion and forget them forever, but the she heard a clamor among the Zenii and looked up: the auspicious moon was ten times larger than it ought to have been, and it was growing larger fast.

It was falling right out of the sky and it was going to crush them all.

Some Zenii fled in terror, taking to the forest and vainly thinking that they might stand a chance at making it some safe distance away. Others sat catatonically, accepting the end of times as readily as they might accept the rain. But far more of them flocked all about her as they begged and pleaded for salvation. But Zenia had her gaze locked upon the moon, and she felt strangely slow, weak, and powerless -- frozen, in a word.

Reflexively she raised her hands up above her head in the last moment as the moon tore through the sky with a hellishly bright glow, and then when the ground and half of Galbar was instantly obliterated, those hands were the only thing that kept the horrible eye of that pupil from pressing itself against her face.

But then the nightmare ended.

Zenia was left standing with her arms raised protectively, something akin to a reflexive fighting stance. The dread that suffused her being now - an incoherent jumble of confusion, worry, fear and frustration - was apparent on her features; how she crouched together to protect zenii that were no longer there, how her typical lazy smile could not find its way back through labyrinthine worry-lines and anguished, deep-set frowns. The experience was visibly making the goddess reevaluate her haphazard approach to meeting others. Despite still being stood in an impact crater of her own making however, it grew increasingly unlikely that she would ever recognize her faults.

Then a miracle occured, borne either out of desperation or frustration, or perhaps due to some measure of both. Zenia squared her shoulders and shouted at the threatening presence - at Yudaiel. "Look," she began like an angry barfly boiling over. "Whatever, like, made you this way, I'm sorry. I just came up here to, like, check on the voice I heard. Out of kindness, you know?"

Despite her lackluster apology, Zenia appeared in no way apologetic. As a matter of fact, her features had warped to an annoyed frown; the antithesis of her typical existence. "I come here to, like, help out, and you're making me feel all kinds of, like, gnarly stuff. Not okay." She lectured, raising an accusatory finger towards nowhere in particular. "You could do with some fun, like, seriously. You need it more than Homura, you know! And that's, like, no small feat."

The wispy tendril that had touched Zenia’s mind withdrew. She remained within a bubble of sorts, a void surrounded by the whirling storm of the moon goddess’ unseen essence. The sphere all about Zenia grew thicker; no longer content to merely reach over from her place in the moon’s socket, Yudaiel brought her entire form to bear. The storm grew wilder, and motes of lunar dust were animated by latent, barely restrained, telekinetic potential.

And the dome of the invisible sphere that enclosed Zenia suddenly turned inside out, and the sensation of a pupil’s fiery gaze boring into her was manifest; no longer merely within the eye of some storm, now she was inside of an eyeball of sorts. And the eye was still angry!

So much heat radiated from the glowering eye that the regolith beneath Zenia’s toes began to soften and melt. The puddle bubbled, and with a spurt, belched up a thousand tiny sparks and droplets. The tiny things began to drift back down slowly in the moon’s gravity, like a strange sort of glowing rain, like falling sparkles. By the time they were reunited with the ground, they had been reforged into tiny diamonds. Most of the jewels were just the size of grains of sand, some were most like motes of dust, or even too small to see.

The poetry of ideabstractions evidently incapable of imparting any real understanding in this one’s mind, Yudaiel was made to stoop down to crude and primitive speech in the way of sound-sending. Just the thought that this one made her debase herself in this manner was enough to incense Yudaiel even more.

A thought was all that it took to telekinetically gather up a powdery cloud of the fine jewels, and then ram it into Zenia’s ear. The diamonds were sharp and they cut and tore, but moreover, they resonated, and from their guided vibrations came the sound of a voice. It was odd and disorientating and uneven, that tiny whisper that came only from one ear,

”I have watched you from afar. Never did I deign to strike, but I C̴̗̮͛̊̿Ǫ̸̰̟̰̒Ǔ̸͈L̷̺̲̲̭̀̂̐̂D̷̡͖̔͜,” the voice mused, the last word made deafening and punctuated with just a hint of telepathy; it evoked the ugly memory of Masol’s frozen corpse.

”I do not need more enemies,” Yudaiel suddenly realized aloud, ”but how am I to react to this RUIN you have wrought upon my moon? To these insults you level? Your idea of ‘fun’ might not be my own.”

Zenia had barely shown she was listening, even though hearing Yudaiel's furious message rumble in her mind was hardly optional. Her ignorance continued instead in a physical act of defiance, more intent on digging her finger into her ear in some skewed attempt to nurse the pain and fish out the intruding motes - an impossible and futile feat. To her meagre credit, Zenia did not appear particularly intimidated by the imposing psychic storm surrounding her, nor did she seem to reconsider at hearing the venom transmitted into her ear. Despite failing to engage with the threatening visions, they had by far rattled her the most.

When the goddess of revelry gave up on spelunking in her own ear with a few bitter hisses of pain, she glanced upwards with a firm, unyielding expression. "How can you know if you don't, like, try?" she challenged with a shout. The firmness in her stance suggested she was aware of the threat even if she didn't acknowledge it. "If you think I, uhm, ruined something, I guess I'll just fix it. No need to, like, be such a clod about it. What sort of things do you like? I'll, you know, make you something nice. Flowers?"

The rattling and churning inside her ear canal ceased and offered a brief respite; the demon who lived on this barren world seemed to be thinking for a moment. Maybe it’d finally gotten where she was, like, coming from..?

”I can See, and so I know,” the voice declared with infuriating certainty muddled with a hint of smug superiority and consternation. ”My forgiveness would come at a price -- just a measly thing, for this SCAR upon my work could be undone. You should surrender gladly what I ask, anyways; you are not fit to guide them.”

And a tendril of consciousness shot forth from the storm to lance Zenia through the temple of her head, and this cryptic ‘price’ was shown as clear as crystal:

The familiar homeland of the zenii was made to recrudesce. It was night that looked cold, and there were some snowdrifts that smelt of dreams. In the gloom the shadows were long and the sky an otherworldly lilac as the moon glowed bright behind a half-cover of clouds.

The zenii appeared, each and every one of them. They did not move and seemed almost ghostly, as though weaved from fog, but the tailor that worked clouds into people seemed to have taken great care to portray them exactly right. Every one of these dreamy zenii had a living equivalent somewhere down on the Galbar, and every living zenii had an immaculate simulacrum in its likeness to represent it there. A select four hundred of the assembled mass were suddenly alight with argent light, while the moon’s harsh rays dispersed the cloudy forms of all the others.

Zenia watched with care, eyes shifting greedily over the scene and wheels turning in her head. The fortitude with which she applied herself now implied she could have done so prior, but it seemed that only now had Yudaiel garnered enough attention to make the golden-haired goddess partake properly of this dreamlike vision. Indeed, much as her previously undaunted self, the demand for four-hundred of her zenii did not particularly seem to bother her, even though her gaze flitted over each of the incorporeal simulacra. If she recognized particular zenii among the chosen she did not show it or remark upon it.

”With a lead-up like that, I thought you were going to, like, demand something way more wicked. They’re yours, of course, I don’t, like, mind.” Zenia concluded matter-of-factly. She assumed a rough approximation of Homura’s voice and tone, straightening herself out in idle mockery. ”I am loathe to gift you these people after such aggression.” she bobbed her head left and right in negation, as if she imagined the goddess of honour would ever do such a thing. ”To seal our deal, you must swear never to harm my children as you threatened. You shall not lay your own hand ‘pon their skin or mind.” Zenia finished with a lecturing shake of her finger, then cleared her throat and glanced up nowhere in particular at the psychic storm.

Telekinetic power tore into the ground before Zenia, hewing out a slab of stone The next pulses of psychic energy came faster than the eye could follow: bits of stone were blasted away or vaporized as a precise will chiseled it into a new shape, polished it perfectly, and finally saw that it was vitrified by a searing heat. The end product was a hollow vessel with a handle on either end, and its pale surface was impossibly smooth and lustrous. The ewer radiated palpable divine power, too. Yudaiel had been silent and swift throughout the work; it hadn’t taken her long, but the pregnant pause was still enough to make Zenia squirm.

”That’s only, like, fair, isn’t it? It would be a total bummer for me, you know, if, like, I gave you my kin and then you, like, hurt the others.” Zenia added with what she thought was impeccable logic. It was clear by the smug expression of her face, which came with the hint of her original smile. She was answered by another wave of vivid imagery.

A familiar one of the zenii stood in a clearing: Curious Medaka she’d first been dubbed by Zenia -- the goddess remembered at least that one, and she also recalled naming her for her festive and thirsty spirit on meeting the goddess. Andromeda was what she had taken to calling herself, though, for reasons Zenia could not fathom.

Andromeda stood before a great assembly of other zenii arranged into a crescent. With her included, they numbered twenty score. She held in her hands the ewer, that thingie that had just been made, and before a gawking crowd she lifted it above her head. A ray of moonlight danced inside the open vessel’s burnished interior. For an instant the silvered mouth of the decanter scintillated and gleamed like a prismatic jewel, but then the moonlight was distilled into a mystical fluid suffused with light and magic.

Before them all, Andromeda overturned the ewer and showered her face and body of anagogic water and moonlight. She and her dress were drenched, but she looked only nobler for it somehow, and did not shiver in the night’s cold. Baptized, she finally spoke, but not to the throngs of zenii assembled. Instead, she turned around to face Zenia. The goddess was invisible, formless, just a disembodied and dreaming viewer, and yet somehow Andromeda Saw her. And when she spoke, Zenia wasn’t sure whose voice she heard.

“The others are safe from the goddess. We are her faithful chosen and enact her will upon this world, for her hands are bound to another, higher plane,” the high priestess, for that was what Andromeda was, spoke in soft, gentle words that nonetheless echoed like thunder. Some discordant power gave weight to each syllable, and the words carried more than sound -- a kaleidoscope of color flashed to the tune of each word; Zenia Saw all of that through the lens of a third eye that she hadn’t ever known she had.

The eerie show captivated Zenia enough to leave her staring dumbly for a time - perhaps finally thinking each experience and expression through properly. She touched her forehead briefly, as if to feel for a change. The smile was gone again, but it was not worry that replaced it, but a thinned and firm concentration. Eyebrows digging deep into an intense, thoughtful frown.

"So be it." Zenia affirmed at last, with no alteration to her voice or added pomp. Again she turned away from the vision in front of her as if Yudaiel was wherever she directed her vision. The vision of gathered zenii did not appear to keep her attention, despite her urge to keep them safe both from the Moon and each other. Perhaps she had already made up her mind. "Now, what's, like, your idea of fun? Since you, you know, said it's not like mine."

Dimensionality and the shape of everything became oddly distorted. Mighty pines became specks of dust, and the zenii were in one moment lanky and in the next they were so horizontally compressed and vertically taut that they resembled strings of spidersilk, so narrow as to be nearly invisible. And they were all tangled into one sprawling, discordant web. There were no horizons, for the web was infinitely vast and it sprawled here to infinity and there back to the dark beginning of time, and still a ways further back from there. Great twin looming shadows stood menacingly in the direction of either end; they seemed distant, but also were near impossibly large, such that there was no perceiving just how near or far they were. But an unbreakable will mandated Zenia not examine them too closely, and so she could only see them out of the corner of a corner of her third eye; some parts of the spiderweb were not meant to be seen.

Aside from that foreboding mystery, everything was pretty in a sort of way that made your head hurt.

In some places, the spiderweb was fixed and petrified, all the colors immutable like dried paint. In others, the webs were ephemeral and not even truly there, and somewhere between were all the spiders, some tiny and some incomprehensibly vast. There was one big one skittering about wildly that Zenia suspected to represent herself, but that was a very odd thought. Not because she could not see herself as a spider, but because viewing herself in any capacity brought about a strange sensation niggling in the back of her mind and rushing down her spine. It was enough for her to seek focus elsewhere.

Occasionally the spiders made some particularly hideous configuring of strands, and a helpful moon (it existed somewhere both inside of and above the web; Zenia didn’t know how she hadn’t noticed it at once!) danced into perspective and righted the shape into something more palatable.

Zenia tapped her chin in thought, viewing this vast and nigh endless web, following the correcting moon with due diligence. Her observation this time around indeed suggested that the golden-haired goddess possessed the ability to pay attention when it suited her, for now there was enough movement and dizzying detail for her ever-bored mind to satiate itself with imagery both shallow and deep. She attempted to reach out and probe the illusory web with a finger, out of curiosity more than anything else, but thought better of it before she ever touched anything. Perhaps she did not dare confirm the nagging thought that this was more than a simple representation deep in her mind.

”You-.. Like, look at what goes on and, like, jump in to change things when you need it?” Zenia professed as much to herself as to Yudaiel, as if speaking the words aloud made it real and tangible, and possibly correct. Zenia tilted her head, her previously unknown third eye still following the skittering spiders wherever they went. Except that which might be her own. And the shapes at either end. ”That’s pretty exciting, I guess.” she continued with a barely enthused tone. ”I mean, I can, like, see how it would be kind of exciting to, like, you know, follow events and see what happens and stuff. Seems kind of hectic, though, you know?”

Her own words inspired a rush of excitement in the goddess, and Zenia whipped around with grand reverie as though Yudaiel would be standing directly behind her. “I know! If you ever get tired of this sort of fun, I’ll make sure to, like, mix it up for you! Just let me know and I’ll uhm, rattle some threads! Yep! Make sure it’s all, like, exciting and unpredictable and compelling.” Zenia put her hands to her sides confidently. This was a good idea, she surely thought to herself. A good idea and a generous and kind gesture. Such was apparent in her expression, a smug self-serving smile lacking any and all deeper consideration.

A monstrous gadfly buzzed loudly into the plane. It was bigger than most of the spiders, much bigger; in a perversion of the natural order of things, the fly preyed upon the spiders. It tore through webs as it went, sending wild ripples through the whole web and leaving gaping voids, sowing chaos as it snatched up and consumed tiny spider after spider. Muddled with the fly’s buzzing was the sound of rushing water, of a great black tide surging forth to drown the world. The fly buzzed closer to Zenia, and seemed to grow larger as it did -- she saw curious details like one of its eyes missing. And when it was right in her face, trying to bite -- she could not swat it, for it was too agile -- its mandibles opened and dark, poisoned spittle Flowed out.

Mercifully, the cyclopean fly shrieked as a sudden beam of moonlight impaled it. Its wings were torn off by unseen hands, and then it was slowly, cruelly, crushed into a pulp.

Zenia stood quiet for a time, staring at the remnants of this unpleasant appearance. Like a doe captivated by a distant flame, it wasn't so much that she was frightened or worried as simply stuck in place. Her thought process was almost visible from the outside as she mentally decoded what she experienced.

"Oh, I get it!" Zenia exclaimed excitedly soon after she finally blinked. Whatever revelation she had reached it appeared to please her greatly, judging by the constant that was her reappearing happy expression. "You are, like, devoted to fighting evil, just like me!" This guess seemed to excite her enough to box against the shadows, as if to contribute to destroying the unknown. "To be honest, I had a feeling. Don't worry, I am, like, totally devoted. I made a promise to Homura to, like, fight for good. You know? You can count on me. We've made, like, a big trade and everything. Just call if you need help, and I'll, like, strike down the bad… uhm… flies." Zenia rambled on, apparently deciding that Yudaiel was worthy of sharing with based on her own assumptions.

If leaving meant assent, Yudaiel seemingly agreed. Or perhaps she had grown too exasperated instead. The ideabstractions collapsed to make way for Reality’s return, and the swirling clouds of consciousness that had encased Zenia and animated the lunar stone and dust seemed to be retreating back to that one vast crater from whence they’d come. Zenia was left alone once again on the surface that cold, barren, alien world. The jewel looked pretty from afar, but perhaps less so in person. The Galbar was suspended overhead, a much more welcoming sapphire of deep blues and greens, with a few wispy white clouds and one icecap. At least the diamonds had finally, like, dislodged themselves from her ear canal -- that was sort of, like, a goodbye, right? Oh, and there was a parting gift too! The resplendent Moonstone Ewer remained on the ground just before the goddess where it’d been set, but, like, she couldn’t even keep it for herself or she’d be stealing!

Zenia frowned and scratched at her temple as she made ready to return and give the pretty bauble to that Andromeda girl. She dreaded having to fly around and look for one zenii in the crowd. But a promise was a promise, right? With that thought lingering, the goddess of revelry leapt spacewards and thus left the bleak and alien landscape with the same burst of speed as she had arrived. Fortunately, it did not damage the moon… much.


Zenia was perhaps the smartest being alive. This she was sure of, as she drifted through the sky towards the north. She had told her nascent elves that she was headed towards the moon after picking up the declaration of another from up above. Initially, she had actually meant it, too. But in departing, she had hatched a masterful scheme. Instead of leaving, she had flown to the edge of the forests surrounding her cradle of elfkind, assumed the form of one of the zenii, and simply wandered back into the valley under false pretenses.

This was such a foolproof plan that Zenia had been sure no other deity would think of such a brilliant scheme, maybe ever. In the guise of one of her own creations, she had lounged around different camps, listening and making merry with the others. She spoke as little as possible, letting the stream of social interaction take her on whatever journey the mortals could think of. In the meantime, she had time to observe them in their natural state - thinking she was away, they acted very differently from when they stood expectant and reverent in her presence. Little did they know their Lady had never left! Sure, she had drawn some suspicious or confused glances a few times when she spoke out of turn or caught herself giggling with giddy mischievousness at the thought of her brilliant trickery. One man had told her she looked a lot like the Lady, and Zenia had misdirected him with a cheerful “No, you look like the Lady!” which for some reason had made the group she was in coo and whistle aggressively until the man bowed his head in shame and left.

Under this observation Zenia made sure to sample every activity the elves invited her to. She listened to them compose some kind of high-pitched whistling song, danced with locked arms around the warming obelisks, slept in a huge pile of zenii, just jumped around and laughed and hugged and kissed, played games and watched the others challenge each other to various feats of strength. Still, all was not well in the camp. Even though she had blessed them with natural physicality, or perhaps because of it in some cases, a few of her long-eared mortals ended up taking permanent naps. Violent outbursts elf to elf, dangerous and risky attempts. One died falling from the top of an obelisk - which Zenia had no idea how he climbed - directly into the water, and drowning. That’s what she heard anyway. Some brutal rivalries were beginning, and the food was slowly depleting. She could just make more of course, but she’d hoped that they’d get the hint and fix it on their own. To make matters worse, she’d noticed that the warmth of the obelisk attracted curious beasts at night, some of which eyed the elves with hungry eyes. It would only be a matter of time before they became brave enough to try their luck. Worse, those storm clouds she had remarked upon upon her initial landing so many days ago simply refused to clear. They had started to worry her zenii, and on particularly dark and gusty nights it disrupted all but the most passionate of social gatherings.

With those issues clear in her mind, Zenia had wandered into the forest and flown off for real. She wanted to teach them to make fire, but had no real idea how it worked in practice. She knew Homura was probably off on her journey, and Voligan was Monarch-knows-where. Jiugui was probably setting up for the big party, so she wouldn’t want to disturb him with trivial matters like this. There was one deity she could rely on though, that she knew would be where she left him. With her flashback sorted in her thoughts, and her intent set to reconnect with Chailiss in his frozen north. The Monarch-of-All's words rang in her mind and she knew then she had made a good choice. Sounded like the others were being recognized for their good nature.

She had barely made it over to the northern continent she had helped create when a wave of putrid bile hit her finely tuned sense of smell like a wall of garbage. Worse than the smell of dead zenii. Worse than a steaming heap of animal dung. It crawled up her nostrils, weaved cloying tendrils of pungent air around her divine brain, and threw her off balance like a master archer shooting a bird out of the sky. Zenia fell from above, sailing down across the sky spitting and scratching her tongue, all thought of her destination erased. She hit the wetlands with a sodden thud, splashing water, mud and discarded branches everywhere as she made a permanent impact crater. She lay there paralyzed, staring at a heap of dirt beside her muddy face as she tried to fight the impulse to claw her nose off.

Eventually, the worst of it wore off. Zenia grew more and more tolerant of the pungent scent, and with resigned disgust she pushed it farther back in her mind, accepting that it hadn't been a freak ambush of flying smelly clouds but something that physically released such a smell - and it wasn't going away. Brushing off the worst of the wet mud - a truly hopeless endeavor - the goddess pushed to her feet and took a steadying breath to accept this new reality. A tinge of familiarity washed over her as she grew accustomed to the scent. Jiugui’s breath, maybe? She reminisced happily about the funny man's fickle laughter and good mood, as she busied herself with clambering out of the pit of her own creation.

No sooner had she climbed out of the crater than she found herself eye to eye with her next challenge - a wolf with eyes as big as her fists and teeth like her forearms. Though it did not recognize it's accidental mother, her strange scent and divine guise seemed enough to halt aggressive instincts. Instead, the grand wolf tilted its head and stared at her with docile curiosity. When Zenia tilted her head in turn with a warm smile, the wolf sniffed the air curiously.

"Food?" it yowled with cautious optimism.

"Sorry!" Zenia replied swiftly and with genuine compassion. "I didn't, like, bring anything to eat."

"Food." The wolf insisted with a slow baring of hungry teeth, eyeing Zenia with jealous suspicion.

The goddess chuckled and held out her hands to show they were empty. "I don't have anything." to her surprise, the massive beast lunged forwards, closing its gargantuan jaws around both of her hands and forearms in a greedy assault to rip into her limbs. Zenia giggled happily, squirming under the violent assault. "Nooo! That tickles!"

The wolf gnawed on the goddess arms with as much strength as a hungry beast could muster, to no avail. Jagged, sharp teeth glanced off of her teeny arms like a bendy but firm chewing stick, and the goddess just giggled and squirmed as if it were a game. The wolf could only taste the muck and grime of the earth covering her skin. No matter the effort, there was no blood, no bite marks, nor could it pull her from her feet and devour her whole no matter how hard it tugged and ripped. Eventually the only choice left was to lose interest, and release the giggling goddess. Zenia in turn wiped her arm on her sodden dress before stroking a hand over the wolves muzzle in a friendly return of affection. "No food." The wolf grumbled and Zenia apologized again.

After this had gone on for a time, including an attempted return to eating the inedible goddess and more petting, Zenia decided to move on, waddling merrily through the wetland in a random direction. The wolf followed, not entirely convinced yet that the goddess was not food.

"Do you, like, know what that smell is? It, uhm, it's kind of, you know, really bugging me." Zenia asked of the wolf, and it pondered this as they walked.

"Tiny food. Easy find. Hard catch. Hide in sticks." the wolf remarked with a learned set of growls. "Bad hunt. Tiny food hunt tiny food, leave body for me."

Zenia quirked a brow as they walked, her smile dented by momentary confusion. "They hunt each other?"

The wolf panted in affirmation. "Not to eat. Bite and rip for dominance."

Zenia pondered this with an uncharacteristically deep frown. So deep was her worry that she did not notice time and distance passing, and the wolf followed her for what may as well be several miles. It was only when the wolf tensed by her side and stopped that she did too, and lifted her gaze to find herself looking straight at a small and wet assembly of hills made out of sticks, built to prop up a stream and create more wetlands. Small ridges dotted the landscape, and between them several brown shapes scurried down into holes. Only the closest three remained in sight, standing frozen in the middle of the makeshift village. Staring at Zenia and the wolf just as they did in turn. Bucktoothed and covered in slick fur. By all accounts, they were animals. But they stood upright, held sharpened sticks and huddled around a flickering flame. Zenia blinked in staunch confusion, refocusing her effort to scrutinize the small mammals. Fire! They knew how to make fire! They were definitely intelligent, despite being small and ugly and smelling like wet dead dog. The goddess grinned happily, and lifted her arm to wave at the staring creatures.

Zenia had only taken a few steps when the three creatures scattered in panic, vanishing deep into safe havens between ground and sticks that the goddess could barely make out. Perhaps they hadn't seen her wave. In the end, she ended up standing there, observing the fire up close and sighing to herself. Maybe it'd be enough to bring this to her zenii and let them study it? Learning by trial and error? Was that a thing? Zenia had no idea. She turned quizzically to the wolf, who had stopped a good distance away from the fire for safety.

"You said they, you know, like, hunt each other?" she asked with a frown, reaching down to scoop up the fire. It rested comfortably on her arm, greedily popping and snapping as it turned bark and small branches into smolders.

"Yes." The wolf insisted. "With sticks and stones. Free food for wolves."

Zenia froze then, despite the roaring fire trying to snack on her arm. What if the wolf would say the same about her zenii? She had seen firsthand that they could hurt each other, duel, scrap and fight. What if they started making a habit of it? This was a disaster waiting to happen. She turned to her wolf companion with a grim expression. "I need to, like, go back. My people need me."

The wolf only panted an idle appreciation at first, then released a rumbling last goodbye. "Hungry. Will see if small food comes back out. Dig into sticks."

Zenia nodded firmly and tried her best to put on a brave face. A churning dread built in her gut as she considered what she'd seen during her stay with her zenii. Some actions came into new, grim context. The reality of hardships and struggle dented the implacable wall of happy festivity just a little bit. Then, she lifted into the sky and zoomed off back towards the south.

The journey was swift, with storm clouds washing her clean and killing her gathered fire. She zoomed through the sky as fast as she could. She had witnessed death. If she considered it closer, she was sure they had already fought and slain each other. What kind of goddess of good would she be if she let that continue? She could already hear Homura’s voice lecturing her about keeping the mortals safe.

She dove into the valley as she returned south, hovering in the sky like a looming threat over her gathered elves. More and more stood in place, pointing up at the sky and crying out in reverence and joy when they caught sight of her. Zenia stretched out her arms and declared with a booming voice that carried much farther than the valley itself.

"Never again shall zenii slay zenii."

She lingered there in the sky for a time, watching her zenii react and watch in awe. Chatter amongst themselves or falling on their knees in acceptance. Or prayer. Zenia was about to slide down among her herd and relax at last, pleased with the outcome of this little venture after all. That's when she realized, they'd ask what the moon was like! They'd realized she'd done a fib! Changing her mind at the last minute, when zenii could almost reach for her feet, Zenia blasted off towards the moon in the sky, this time for real.

Valley of the Shadow of Death

"I don't understand. If the Lady and the Laughing Man had such deep kinship as you say, why did they part?" A solitary voice broke into the respectful silence of the encampment. It belonged to a snub-nosed woman with gaunt features, sitting at the edge of the gathering. The woman next to her raised her hand to flick the snub-nose's ear in punishment for interrupting, something that had already begun to spread among the elvenfolk as a gesture of admonishment.

Masol, the muscular elf who had first dared to try his hand at using words and speaking to the Lady, halted the punishment with a raised hand. The motion rustled one of the women who laid draped along his side, who sighed with irritation. "It's a valid question," Masol offered, giving the snub-nosed elf a direct look that burrowed deep and set her cheeks alight. He straightened his back ever so slightly and pressed himself back against the smooth and warm obsidian monument around which they'd gathered. Only after his right-side companion had settled back to resting against his bicep did he deign to continue. "Not all of us were present when the Lady told her tales, after all, and what she gave us on waking are more like feelings. There is of course a simple explanation for your concern."

"Is there?" Another man broke in quickly, challenging Masol's hegemony of the conversation readily. His lip was already split from a similar altercation with another group a few days ago, and the man known as Serrat was already known as a troublemaker. That did not hamper his apparent popularity with both men and women. "I was in the second row for this tale and I cannot recall the Lady ever speaking of any such explanation."

The group of almost two dozen shifted their eyes between Serrat and Masol, some more tense and expectant than others. Even though there were less than five thousand of them in total, there had been plenty of fighting the last few days, especially after the Lady had departed. Masol however remained unbothered, clawing a strand of long grass from the ground nearby to rest between his lips. "Of course. The Lady trusts us to be clever enough to hear the words and the emotion, and understand what is not said."

"And what is that?" Another man cut in from the crowd, from his sedate resting place in the lap of a woman who played with his hair.

Masol presented a confident smirk. "Why, their kinship is so deep that being together would tear the land asunder! They parted because of their devotion to the world below." His bold claim coaxed out a wave of excited breaths from the crowd, a handful of them eagerly drinking in his words with big eyes.

Others seemed less convinced by the boastful elf, chief among them Serrat who looked outright irritated. Not wanting to be outdone, he interrupted the idle chatter that followed the claim with a sharp clearing of his throat. "Ah. You mean like that. Yes, of course, everyone could see that. What is more impressive is what the Lady truly meant in her tale of the man on top of the world."

His comment earned him the attention of the crowd and the burning gaze of Masol, who watched him with a set jaw. Serrat gave him a confident smirk before continuing, eyes flitting over the crowd as he spoke. "She referred to him as the most perfectly round shape. How his gentle spirit cradled all he created. It is obvious that even now, he watches over us." Serrat concluded with firm concentration, and gestured up above to the bright light of the moon sailing across the night sky. This entirely erroneous conclusion created a smattering of awed gasps in the crowd and lively but hushed chatter as the matter of theology kept the elves intrigued. Serrat smiled with smug ferocity at his chosen opponent, and Masol did his best to remain stone-faced in this onslaught.

"Wait," a woman burst out from the crowd, hushing nearby chatter and drawing the attention of the competing men. It was the snub-nosed elf again, bursting with questions as ever. "If the Father of the North is… the moon, as the Lady called it, and the Lady left to go visit the moon…"

There was a long silence in the crowd. Serrat looked taken aback, apparently not having considered this contradiction. He glanced around the crowd and found Masol smirking at him. Despite having a clear shot at defeating his opponent, Masol instead took the chance to stand up and gesture towards the moon, stealing the moment for himself. "Indeed, the Lady has gone to court the Father of the North himself. Or should I speak his true name; Father Moon!"

As the crowd gasped and cheered at this false revelation, the muscular elf met the gaze of the troublemaker. In that moment an alliance was forged, not of reason or respect, but of mutual benefit. The deal was sealed when Serrat pushed himself from his seat in the soil to join Masol standing above the others. "Indeed! Despite her eternal kinship with the Laughing Man, Father Moon has sung to her heart with his kindness and generosity. The tales are an intricate bush, with many hidden berries for those who know to look."

Masol nodded to Serrat firmly. Together they continued to spin a story for the captivated crowd that only existed in their unspoken bond, letting the moon quietly settle over the horizon unbothered by their outrageous interpretation.

Leaves rustled aggressively as two lithe shapes forced themselves through the underbrush at the far side of the valley, stepping further into the forest that divided one of the open meadows from the valley itself. The two white-haired stalkers cracked branches underfoot and disturbed every bird, even though they did their best at being careful. They stepped into a small clearing, where the first of them abruptly stopped to pinch her nose. "Urk. This smells worse than the last one. Over here, Wyte." She pushed out with maximal pitch in her voice to elevate her disgust, squatting down to examine the source of the stink; a massive pile of relatively fresh dung. Her companion came to squat down beside her, and without shifting his expression began to poke at the feces with a handy stick he'd brought with him. The mere action made her gag and she turned her head away before pushing back up to a stand and crossing her arms. "I still don't get what your obsession with animal excrement is."

The man sighed to accompany some internal thought, and furrowed his white brows as he focused on studying dung with his little stick. Eventually, he deigned to respond. "Remember Leephe from Faukons group?"

The woman narrowed her gaze in thought. "The one who died? Sad, I suppose. I heard he was trying to touch all the women under their yarene." She muttered with no shift in her disgusted expression, subtly moving her hands to adjust her sole piece of fabric and pull down the very short hem ending at her thighs.

"I-... yes, I heard that too. But that's not why he died. I asked around, and the last thing he did was eat flowers and berries." The elf called Wyte explained, continuing his restless attempt to analyze the pile of dung. Eventually he released a disappointed sigh and motioned onwards. The two of them trampled onwards soon after. "So I thought," he continued after a time of silence. "If we can see what the animals eat, that would give us an idea of what we can eat safely."

"That's why you dragged me out here? We have food already, remember? The Lady gave us more than we need." The woman concluded with a disappointed pitch shift, pulling hair from her eyes as she battled branches and saw blade-like leaves walking beside her companion.

"Ah, but that's where you're wrong, Koulde. How many of us are there?"

"I'm not going to guess if you're going to be a waterhead about it."

"Alright- well, there are many black pillars, right? And around each of those is at least ten of us. The celestial food will last us at least seven more passes of the sun. But we had to pick it up. There's no guarantee others have as much as us. They'll come asking, or demanding. Soon, if they haven't started already on the other side of the valley."

Koulde sniffed quietly, refusing to acknowledge his words until she'd considered it properly. As such, the pair crunched through the dense forest in awkward silence for a time, until she had thought of an adequate comeback. "You worry too much, Wyte. The Lady will give us more if it runs out." It was a reasonable assumption, at least according to Koulde, who had quickly reasserted her condescending frown.

"And where is the Lady now?" Wyte rapidly replied, raising a hand to stop their loud procession in another small clearing. He had found his next piece of dung, this time firmer and less deadly to the nose.

"She went to the orb in the sky, they say. But she'll be back to give us what we need."

"You're sure of that?" Wyte continued to press just as he pressed his stick into dung in the dirt. Koulde pinched the bridge of her nose in irritation. She dared not argue the point, and refused to give him the satisfaction of further discussion. When it became clear she was resolute in her silence, Wyte spoke again. "Maybe the Lady will have returned when we leave this forest. You could be right. But if she doesn't, I'm not going to go hungry."

"Waterhead," she admonished quietly in return, but squatted down beside him to pay just a little more attention to his work in the dung.

A bony knuckle rattled along Faukon’s cheekbone with a streak of pain that shot through his eye straight up into his brain. It blurred his vision and jellified his legs. Within seconds, the once-proud elf felt the soil of the earth rub into the back of his scalp as the world spun around him. He felt the warm liquid of saliva strike him in the face as his opponent spat on him where he lay. Stunned, he had no mind to do anything but raise his hands to try and shield his face.

"By my name as the Lady's most trusted, Masol, I declare you, Surain, the worst of the worst. Word of your despicable ways have reached all across the valley. Forcing your kin to wayward acts in return for a simple meal. Forcing yourself upon your fellow zenii. You have spread such anguish that it goes against all that the Lady imparted on us." the voice of his enemy boomed above. Pain spread from his cheek and formed itself into a deep fog at the front of his head, making it hard to distinguish words, or react properly. Maybe if he just laid there, it would be okay.

A firm foot struck him in the stomach, and crippling pain bloomed out from his abdomen like a gust of rolling wind. The foot came down again. And again. “Nothing to say to defend yourself, scum? How could you use the Lady’s advice in such a disgusting way?” Another voice demanded with enough venom to foretell of Faukon’s imminent death. A crushing foot struck him in the chest, stealing the air from his body and what little power he had to defend himself. No words would come out, no movement could be done beyond protecting his face. His body was frozen in rigid pain.

“That’s enough, Serrat,” Masol commanded and the beating let up before death came. “Disgusting as you may be, Faukon, it is not up to me or my comrade.” A wave of relief ran through Faukon, but it quickly turned to dread when he realized what that meant.

“W-Wait-..” he managed with a rattling breath. It was no use.

“I turn to you now, those of you who trusted Faukon to keep you safe and fed.” Masol’s voice boomed above him, drowning out his meagre plea. ”If you have been wronged by this man, then follow Serrat’s example and judge him the only way he will understand. If you are scared he will punish you, or that you will be judged by others, do not be. Our group is large and you may live with us. None shall be forced to live in a way that demeans us. This I swear upon the Lady herself.”

A shuffle of feet inexorably followed, though there was a certain caution pervasive in the air. Faukon awaited his doom, and when it did not immediately come, his chest filled with panic, hope and cloudy thoughts. Someone would speak on his behalf. Protect him from these blinded men shouting about virtue. He wanted to defend himself, clarify the truth. It wasn't just him. It was Ila's idea, Leephe who started it - though he choked on his own idiocy five nights ago - Uglee and Treytoar who found weak-willed zenii. Even Jem was in on it because she thought it was funny. The weak people they'd brought in had accepted their fate. Done whatever was asked of them or forced on them. It wasn't his fault they were without self-worth.

When none of his companions spoke up, Faukon hoped for salvation from the crowd. One of these worthle-... misguided kin would speak. Not in his favor, maybe. It would be enough to implicate someone else. If they pushed the blame on someone else, it'd be enough to spare him from further pain. To give him time to clear his head, to breathe without suffering. But no one spoke. The quiet shuffle continued. Masol and Serrat held a hushed exchange that he could barely make out. Faukon parted his lips in a daze, if no one would speak he would command the group to attack the two fools.

Then the pain returned. Someone kicked him firmly in the side with a vengeful foot, stealing the air out of his body once more with a splitting groan. Another hit him in the right shin. His leg felt like it would fall off. Then came three more. Countless blows from countless feet, stomping and kicking and shoving. The pain made it impossible to think. He begged them to stop but his words never came. "T-Thank you… We didn't dare challenge him…" he heard a woman's voice - Jem's voice - ingratiate herself, and Masol's following assurance that she was safe now. This was wrong. This was all wrong. He wanted to shout, to beat them, to scream them into subservience. But he couldn't feel his body, and his head roared in pain.

Someone stomped on his cheek, and his blurry vision went black. Little lights danced in front of him. He felt his body shift and tumble under a battery of feet, but did not feel the pain anymore. Or had he forgotten what it felt like to feel anything but pain?

He floated in that dreamlike realm, until he felt nothing and thought nothing more.


The planet was in pain. Deities and mortals alike suffered death and misery, the ground cracked, the oceans heaved. A buzzing nest in the north drew ever more attention and others caused cataclysmic change in the west. All about the Monarch-of-All's jail, chaos and strife saw a rejuvenation. It was impossible not to notice. To feel the wave of destruction or hear the calls of pain or warnings.

That is, unless your name was Zenia. The golden-haired goddess slid over the sea at what she would consider a sedate pace, taking in the scenery from afar with a dull smile on her face while carrying the load of dormant humans she'd received from Homura. She took her time, investigating each little dot in the landscape with the same eager curiosity as a newborn kit viewing the planet's secrets for the first time. Either unwittingly or by intentional focus, the goddess ignored the cries and alarm of strife to go on her own investigative journey.

That journey led her far east, until she spied a wild land of deep forests and untouched wilderness. She sped towards it like a golden bolt of light, precariously carrying her quarry all about her. Soon after she slammed into the ground in what she considered a good distance from the shoreline, leaving a small impact crater under her feet. Content with her own landing, she proceeded to gently set her dormant humans down on the untouched landscape. Only now that her journey was done did she look up towards the dark clouds in the sky, spurred to cover ever more by ash, battle and eruptions.

"Hm," the goddess mustered, summoning all of her available internal foresight. Her grin faltered momentarily. "A little cloudy today." Her statement carried the same serious matter-of-factly tone as Homura had when lecturing her on the nature of good and evil, in Zenia’s apparent attempt at imitation. Then the goddess shrugged and her smile reappeared as though nothing could faze her. Such distractions were short lived indeed, as Zenia immediately set to work preparing a mental list of all the things that her dormant mortals would need. After studying the wildlife she and Chailiss had created - and then the cute triplets Homura showcased during their meeting - she reasoned these new mortals would need water, flora and or fauna for food, and some kind of artificial covering to protect from the elements. She glanced down at herself speculatively and considered the white rags that remained of the original copy of Jiugui’s white robes. She had torn most of it off for better mobility, and the rest was in tatters due to her adventurous explorations (and crashing into things). The goddess hummed in idle appreciation, dreaming up improvements to her makeshift tunic as she tapped her chin, working her mind hard to consider all the possible designs and how the mortals would like them, based almost entirely on how Courage, Fear and Kindness had acted during their meeting. So deep was her thought that day turned to night and back to day again without the goddess noticing, before she finally broke out of her daze with a confident hum and a fist of determination clapping into her hand. She had - in her opinion - solved the equation of neolithic fashion. First however, she had to attend to the other matters surrounding the mortal awakening.

The golden-haired goddess skipped away from her collection of dormant humans to find herself a good high point in the land. Squaring her feet firmly in the soil and surveying the landscape of nascent greenery, she lifted her hands towards the sky and beckoned the hills and valleys to come alive with the same force she had called upon in the north. ”I know you’re, like, eager to shift and grow! It’s time to get going!” she coaxed the land smugly, and stomped her foot. The land beneath her groaned and shook as her divine might suffused itself in the dirt, and around her small buds and lean stalks of grass grew mighty and tall, warping to respectable trees and underbrush. The hills groaned and rocked, lifting the landscape to create new hills and mountains. Zenia impatiently stomped her foot again, and the ground beneath her splintered and cracked, giving way to a flood of water that rushed down from her perch to fill new valleys and flee outwards towards the faraway coast. Zenia pointed at random points in the landscape with an accusatory finger that silently suggested ‘shooting’ the place in question, and wherever she pointed, the ground cracked and erupted to give way for large lakes to form and rest.  

Content with the shifting landscape doing its own work after her cursory intervention, Zenia once more departed to leap far south. Rather than create animals out of thin air, she reasoned, she could just borrow some and let them adapt. So that’s what she did. She took scaly many-toothed reptiles as big as herself, furry things that looked super cute, long and thin wriggling ropes that bit her arms when she grabbed them, some birds that looked very pretty, and some kind of tiny rodent that somehow seemed the most powerful of them all. This journey of grand theft fauna was erratic and hasty, carried out with all the powerful genius of someone who makes things up as they go - which was exactly how Zenia operated. It took many trips of jumping back and forth, landing in different places each time, but eventually she was content she had displaced a sufficiently large amount of animals for them to adapt and survive - probably.

With her main goals mostly accomplished, Zenia finally returned to her dormant humans where she’d left them, now safely nestled in a gentle valley with a stream of water running through it, and cradled by a safe barrier of woodland and mountains. She clicked her fingers together, and shimmering cloth covered each of the sculpted mortals in their sleeping state, a perfected variant of her own homemade tunic that was made of a glittering warm fabric. Each got their own pattern in lieu of names, made up on the spot by Zenia from a mix of all the flowers she’d seen and could imagine on the fly. With that done, the golden-haired goddess took centre stage among the dormant mortals, raising her hands to feel the field of souls surrounding her, and taking it upon herself to awaken them. She’d make only light edits to Homura’s original design, she told herself, as she let her divine energy flow into the nearly four-thousand sleeping humans. The animals she’d permanently borrowed communicated in high-pitched frequencies and trills, so Zenia naturally concluded it would be very beneficial for these mortals to be able to hear such otherwise difficult-for-average-dull-minded-mortals to pick up. She altered their ears both for directionality, high-frequency reception, and physical shape to accommodate this new biological quirk. Further, due to her declaration of teaching them to fight for good, Zenia reckoned these mortals would need both the capability to perform great feats and the fortitude to remain able to perform the tasks required of them. Thus she imparted upon their form a natural aptitude for athleticism and the love for physicality that was deep-seated in herself. To give them fortitude she imbued them with a tinge of divine energy that would keep them youthful and hardy even beyond what would normally be their typical expiration date. Finally, she turned their hair white because it was pretty and it went well with her designed clothes.

With all her changes implemented, Zenia exhaled slowly, breathing life into the reshaped mortals. The first elves began to rise from their slumber, confused and wary. A grand awakening commenced, scores of waking mortals rising from the ground to examine their surroundings, themselves, and their compatriots. The goddess swelled with pride as her army of good began to take shape, the first step of fulfilling her promise. Opening her arms wide, she uttered a decree that could be heard for many miles. ”Arise, guardians of all that is good and valuable. Children of Homura, awaken now to, like, begin your fated purpose - to defend against evil and, uhm, you know, other bad things that are no good. Erh… So! Rise! Meet the dawn with pride, for under your lady’s care you shall know all-... things and learn to celebrate… uh, life!” Zenia pressed both hands against her hips, standing proud amidst her freshly awakened elves. She expected an uproarious cry of celebration, a clear ambition to face the world and begin the party of a lifetime - an appreciation of the act of being brought into the world. Instead there was mostly silence. Someone coughed, which started an epidemic of muffled coughs and sniffs. There was some awkward shuffling, with big eyes beholding the valley around them and Zenia in particular. Too impatient to wait, the goddess pointed at a particularly muscular zenit who had been peering at her, causing him to shuffle his white hair out of his face and tuck it behind his ears. ”Yes? Don’t be, like, afraid! I can see you have questions.” she coaxed, and the zenit cleared his throat and tugged at his slightly too small tunic. The simple act of being pointed at made other elves around him clear the space around him, big eyes watching the goddess and the man.

The man rubbed his ear and frowned, sizing up the goddess and his kin with some wariness, before finally making an attempt to talk. “...You are our lady.” He concluded crisply, and Zenia nodded eagerly. “Homura…?” 

”Oh! No,” Zenia immediately shot in to clarify. ”I am Zenia, the goddess of revelry! Homura is, uhm, the mother of mankind? And she, like, made you. And then I, you know, like, changed you and gave you a home - this valley and, like, everything around it, and a purpose.” Even though they were freshly awakened, newly shaped, the word goddess had been imparted with some small shard of Zenia’s power, and many of the gathered gasped in reverence. Some bowed their heads. Others knelt, or just sat down. The elven man nodded slowly.

“Zenia. Lady of the Valley. Do I have a name?” He questioned soon after. A few oohs and aahs came from those crowding around them.

"Oh. Well, like, Homura’s mortals had names like, courage, and kindness. You know, like, how you are as a person. So your name could be, uhm, Muscle?" Zenia pondered out loud.

"..You honor me, Lady of the Valley, but I'm not su-"

"Come on, Muscle! Stop hogging the goddess! Do me next!"

"No, me!"

"Can my name also be Muscle?!"

A hundred voices flooded over the conversation as more and more elves found their voice, and their confidence. Zenia laughed heartily, and answered each in turn by striding among her new people and touching each of them, giving them each a unique name almost as swiftly as word and basic language convention spread beyond what knowledge she had imparted upon sharing her essence. She begun with distinguishing features, but began to struggle with unique ones after twenty. At eight hundred and ninety she had exhausted body parts and color combinations and flowers and instead begun to craft elaborate combinations like Red Rose, Tall Nose, and Stinky Toes. When all the elves were named, there was only a single common denominator; all of them were dumb and crudely cobbled together by Zenia as she delved the depths of her imagination to mete out proper names. Fortunately, due to the massive crowding and Zenia's hasty and shoddy work, nearly noone heard their proper name, nor fully understood the context of the words, and instead interpreted their names in elven variants like Reyrose, Talnos, and Stientose. Those that heard their name, like the much maligned Muscle, simply lied and came up with something better as day turned to evening, or subtly twist it to fit the crowd. Before Zenia had returned to her starting point, Muscle had convinced the kin closest that what she actually said was Masol.

When nightfall came calling, Zenia taught the elven men and women to make fire, or at least she tried before she realized she also did not know how to make fire without divine power. Instead she relied on her divine essence and raised countless black obelisks for them to huddle around. These tall obsidian monuments shed enough heat to keep the valley comfortably warm in a sizeable radius around each of them, and Zenia diligently encouraged huddling together and cuddling as methods of socializing. She created food for each of them out of divine energy - she'd teach them to hunt later probably.

It took time, but the newly awoken mortals took to her ideas, and soon the elves were giddily discussing their own existence and the wild events of the day, most of which for them amounted to standing around or wandering off and almost drowning in the river. 

Zenia had founded a people. The reality of such a burden had yet to hit her, as she lay back in the grass and grinned lazily.

Jiugui would be super impressed. 

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