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Plans Gone Wrong

It had been weeks of travel through the jungle but the unlikely pair were nearly before the great city of Zuanwa and their future. This was evident as more and more people passed them and the worn road widened. The thought sent a shiver of excitement down Kia’s spine and the beating of her heart with anticipation was ever evident in her step and smile. Kia had learned much on the journey from Oruna and expanded skills she had already known to greater heights with the woman’s help. She had learned how to derive paints from the jungle, which plants were poisonous and which were edible, or which animals were safe to eat. There was a lot that could kill a person out here if they didn’t know what to look for. She even got to hunt a bit but they never took anything that couldn’t be eaten in a day. All the while she felt… Happy. A rare feeling to the girl, foriegn as this place was to her. But Oruna… Oruna was a great help and she often found herself listening intently to what she had to say. She admired the woman and thought her smart. Smarter then herself, anyways. Her plan was perfect, if they could execute it right.

Oruna was unstoppable in her bright mood. She was convinced that the plan would work perfectly, that it would work itself out. She hailed passing people with a benign boisterousness that made them look kindly not just on her, but on Kia as well. It was as though being part of her little retinue with the markings - even though Oruna had guaranteed in private she would never force Kia to be anything she didn't want to be, nor saw her as anything but an equal - brought whatever good things came her way to Kia as well. Was this what having a real family was like? Oruna was happy to delay their journey to teach Kia anything she wanted along the way, to point out the differences in coloured snakes and what those colors meant to the spirits of the earth; red and mottled snakes were poisonous, as they were the guardians of the earthen vaults where the dead went, and the earth didn't want it's guardians hurt. The speckled green snake however, had large fangs as a test for the hunter, but was a very delicious prize for the brave.

Tidbits like these had come thick during their travel. Questions were met with good-natured lessons, tips and tricks of survival, and general half-games as Oruna challenged her to complete various tasks. Nothing was ever really wasted out in the jungle, but despite the dangerous world around them, safety had never truly been a concern. Now that the city loomed in the distance, the consistent presence of other travelers rapidly returned the feeling of being part of something greater, and the end result of getting to meet Uraka, Daughter of the Water; the only goddess in Zuanwa according to Oruna.

"Come on, Keeah. You are not tired already?" the older huntress mocked with jovial tone from further down the path, and skipped a few steps sideways to pull away the leaves of a large frond. Beyond Kia could sight a massive sandstone ziggurat raising far above any structure she had seen before in her life. It shot up out of the ground to point towards the sky, and around it were smaller stone and clay houses in many styles, like little toys next to the massive behemoth. "We are here. The jewel by the water, Zuanwa."

Her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped in wonder. It was taller then the trees, how could it be taller than trees! There were so many people as well! Ten villages, maybe even more could be here! She shot up to Oruna and grabbed the woman’s arm without thinking, as she looked over the scene. “Oruna! Oruna! How is it so tall? And big? How many people are here?” Her questions came without a breath in between, so excited as she was.

Oruna chuckled before tutting quietly, and clicking her tongue to behold the city herself. "More people than live anywhere else I have ever seen. It lifts into the sky because that is where the Daughter of the Water lives. It is said the building grew taller than it had been for her father when she first looked at the sun." Oruna slung her own arm closer to Kia's to trap her in the hold and then took a few steps towards the city proper to lead them both to civilization.

Rows of houses unlike any Kia had seen littered the ground, and long stone rivers ran from further away like snakes through the ground, carrying water that eventually pooled in a man-made lake next to the coast. Hundreds of men and women milled about like they had never been busier, and though Oruna was ornately painted, each of these peoples were painted like the chieftess in the village they had left. They had more paint than clothes, with elaborate and luxurious patterns and strings of jewelry hanging from their necks, hips, arms and hair. Others yet were working, carting stone, goods or carrying things for another person. They too were briefly painted, and Kia recognized a few patterns that she herself had been painted with. Despite that - these alleged owned servants looked as lavishly painted as Oruna. Zuanwa was a busy land of luxury, that much was clear.

It made her feel small. Everything about this place, Kia felt out of sorts. She was pale, she was tall and these people looked important. She clung a little tighter to Oruna as her nerves began to get the best of her. “Where will we go now Oruna?” She asked, her voice still full of awe, but tempered by her own expectations.

"We must see Rakat the Many in the marketplace. He will arrange for us to take our words and your gifts to his Za'wal friends. Through them, we are only a single step from the Daughter of the Water." She murmured back as she pressed forward, dragging Kia with her as they stepped onto the path leading into the open city proper. Though the ziggurat lay on the far end of Zuanwa, it grew ever larger, until it was so tall it nearly touched the sky when they stepped in among the busy people. "Remember not to speak to anyone unless spoken to. The dangers here are as plentiful as the snakes, but camouflaged."

“Yes Oruna, I will try.” Kia nodded as she took in the sights up close. She was still amazed at how these people could walk around wearing barely nothing, protected by only paints. Her eyes fell upon both men and women, as it was hard not to stare and be stared at. She felt her face flush at a particularly attractive couple and she stared at the ground, letting Oruna guide her as her thoughts buzzed with embarrassment and many other things.

The huntress was undeterred by such trivial matters as decency and embarrassment, and led Kia through a dizzying buzz of roads paved with houses and stalls and tents and huts. A veritable army of people brushed past them, not all of them so keen on keeping to themselves. Here it quickly became clear that people had no time for the pleasantries of the jungle and roads. Shouting, laughing, crying, arguing. Every single sound blended like a great mass that played in the back of the head. A few bypassers bumped into Kia when the crowds grew to their thickest, and they simply put their hands on her body to move her aside with no thought to her feelings or reaction. Even Oruna seemed to have issues getting respect unless she verbally told people she was a huntress. That seemed to hold a lot of power among these city folk. Eventually Oruna declared they had reached the market, but to Kia it looked much the same as the other places in the city. Perhaps with more tents and goods, but not by much.

She scanned the area and then whispered to Oruna, "What does he look like?"

Oruna leaned in to respond, but did not have time to speak before a fit man with a hawkish smile stepped out in front of both of them.

"Oruna, my eastern jungle huntress! Is it truly you? The wick of my heart burned bright this morning, I should have known." He exclaimed with a confident tone. His body was toned and weathered by the elements, but was clearly the lesser of the jungle tribes when it came to physical prowess. He made up for that with jewelry and paint, his entire chest painted in hues of yellow and red. Above his skin dangled countless jingling trinkets, catching attention each time he moved.

"Hello, Rakat. I promised I would return, didn't I?" Oruna returned with a stoic smile, straightening herself out.

The man nodded several times and smiled warmly, then stroked his chin and his geometrically trimmed beard. His gaze fell on the tall Kia, and his eyes lit up with wonder. She could feel his gaze removing the paint in his mind to imagine everything. "And who is this? You have a beautiful woman with you to humble your own radiance? Hello, you crystalline jewel, you spellbind me with your coral-brushed skin. And.. and so tall. I want to nestle myself against you as you feed me roasted takka." He produced with a dramatic breath, and reached, grabbing Kia's hand with both of his.

Kia froze at the touch and shifted uncomfortably as she stammered. “I-I-I!” Oruna’s words about showing some confidence reflected in her mind and she took a shallow breath. “T-Thank you.” Was all she managed to say, averting her gaze again. Baby steps right?

Her hesitation appeared to go unnoticed by Rakat, who lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it firmly with painted lips, leaving a yellow stain on the back of her hand. Kia felt her heartbeat quicken and her face flushed again. "So well-mannered too!" He exclaimed before finally releasing her hand before turning back to Oruna. "Tell me you have come to marry me and share your beautiful woman between us, you'll be richer than the jungle could ever provide."

Oruna snickered simply and put a hand on his chest, giving him a brief feel before pushing him away. "You want to marry a huntress, you must do more than compliment my unpainted to impress me. Besides, no amount of riches will settle my spirit, Rakat. You know why I am here."

He chuckled at first, but her last words made him frown instead. Again he stroked his chin. "It's time, then? I hoped it would not come to this but nothing will slake your thirst for vengeance, Oruna."

"Vengeance or no, it's time for a change in leadership. I need Zuanwan support." Oruna affirmed. Rakat stepped to the side and parted the small curtain into the nearby clay and mud hovel. It was decorated with all kinds of trinkets and cheap jewelry, broadcasting a sort of basic extravagance. Without word, Oruna stepped inside, leaving Kia stood briefly alone in the street, eyes of Rakat on her.

She quickly blinked and followed after Oruna, unable to glance at Rakat. She had been well versed on the plan but Oruna had failed to mention it might be because of a personal vendetta. She didn’t just see her as a weapon right? A way to power? Kia stepped into the hovel, and Rakat closed the curtain behind her.

Rakat the Many turned out to be a generous host. When night fell on the Zuanwan coast, he threw a feast in Oruna's honor. This was considerably more informal than the feasts and small festival celebrations from her village growing up, but also on another scale of opulence. Five women with painted symbols not unlike those on Kia herself carried platters of fruits, steamed vegetables, meats and fish. A young handsome man with identical paint as the women sat in the corner and added a soothing ambience by smattering his fingers against a small drum and humming a soothing melody.

Kia was a guest as much as Oruna, that much was clear, but she was still mostly invisible. Oruna herself eagerly engaged and listened to what she wanted to ask or say, but Rakat seemed only to speak with her if directly talked to first. The other six people did not speak unless spoken to, beyond adding a few laughs to Rakat's raunchiest jokes. Because of that, as Oruna appeared to get more intoxicated and rowdy alongside her old friend, Kia's chances at interaction began to wane. Despite that, whenever she managed to catch the huntress eyes, she got a warm, content smile in return.

For all her time in Oruna's village, Kia could now easily intuit more about the jungle ways. Rakat had taken her hand without a thought outside earlier, and seemed to be very grabby with the five women who populated the feast as quiet attendants, but never tried to touch Oruna. In fact, the one time he brushed her by accident, he apologized. Oruna on the other hand, did not seem to have a problem touching Rakat as she spoke animatedly, nor did she fear touching the women or swiping them out of the way. There was some taboo or hierarchy at play. The two of them talked quite a lot, and Oruna happily retold the story of how she met Kia, though excluded the fact that two others found her in favour of making herself more of a hero.

If nothing else, the food was quite good. In fact, she thought it was quite delicious. All sorts of things she had never once thought to ever taste or known to be edible. Her belly grew full but she stuck with a softer drink that tasted tangy, another new sensation. It was quite sweet in fact and she found herself going back to it a lot. If this was the life Oruna wanted for the two of them, then Kia could definitely get behind it. Anything was better than being a slave or being hated and here, she finally began to feel that she could fit in. She smiled to herself, it would be nice.

And indeed the party continued into the night with a pleasant plethora of food and drink. Rakat tried his hand at romantic and powerful singing. It was awful, but his confidence and willingness to make a fool of himself kept it an engaging show. In a brief lull, Oruna told him the same plan as she had to Kia, and Rakat seemed forlorn but ultimately accepting of what had to be done. He promised to arrange a meeting with Za'wal Kurul first thing in the morning. Through him, they would have a good chance of getting an audience with Uraka herself, and support from Zuanwa to return, and establish a life of leisure.

The feast winded down late in the night. Rakat made a very formal invitation for Oruna to continue the party behind another curtain, and she simply scoffed at him in response. The man took it in stride, but pushed himself up all the same. "Well, my future beloved, and her honored guest, I shall take myself to my chambers. I must rise with the sun to speak to the Za'wal, and I'd like a few delights before I do. Please enjoy yourselves at my cost. Baran," he gestured to the man in the corner briefly, before running his hands to touch the shoulder of one of the five women. "... and Eresa will serve any needs you require." He made a flourishing bow before swiping the jug of strong juice off of the assembled platters and mosying in behind the curtain leading to what was likely one of few other rooms in the home. Four of the women followed with quick step, each bowing their head politely to Kia and Oruna both. The man and woman Rakat had pointed out remained, and the music gently resumed with his exit.

Kia, by this point, felt strange. Her senses felt dull and she was sluggish but full of joy? How could that be? She gave a big yawn and looked to Oruna. "I'm… Tired O-runa." Her words were slurred. "Why is my… voice… funny?" She asked, slightly panicked. She began to get to her feet but felt light headed and sat back down. In the smallest voice she could muster she said, "Help."

Oruna however seemed positively delighted, almost mocking in that worldly way she had treated Kia before as well. Her grin was deep, and she celebrated Kia's panic with another hearty swig of her own drink. "Have you never felt the touch of fire before, Keeah? The spirits are wishing you well, heating up your body. The berry drinks will make you find the spirits quickly."

Oruna pushed from her seat, grabbing the servant woman - Eresa - by the wrist when she moved to fill her mug again. She smiled over towards Kia instead. "We should also rest. We must be alert and presentable for the Za'wal tomorrow. The fire in your belly will be a good bed mate." She said, acting as if she wasn't slurring a few words of her own. She muttered something to the Unpainted woman and Eresa gestured to a colorful arrangement of throws and furs in the corner.

Kia stared at Oruna for a bit with a frown before getting up with a grunt, using the table as support. She steadied herself, then very slowly made her way over to the throw pillow corner and settled in. As she got comfortable, she watched Oruna, eyes beginning to blink as she tried to keep them open. Was she that tired? When had she gotten that… Tired…? Oruna downed the last of her own drink and rubbed at her nose, glancing between Kia, Eresa and Baran with a warm blush on her face deepened by the few candles still lit. "You have the right idea, Keeah. But you shouldn't spread out so much, it's rude, no?"

She moved towards the bedding herself and lifted her arms. Baran, the fit and painted young man was quick to stop the music, and moved forward to remove Oruna's tooth and claw jewelry and prepare her for laying down, leaving nary more than paint to mask her body. "Which one do you want to warm your body like your spirit?"

It took a minute for Kia to realize what Oruna meant and when it clicked she became alert. Her cheeks flushed the deepest red yet and her eyes grew wide. "W-W-What?" She breathed. "I-I've n-never… I…" her breathing quickened and she placed her hands over her eyes out of embarrassment. "I'mjustgoingtosleep." She let out, turning over to avoid Oruna.

There was a brief silence in the room before Oruna broke out into a deep and conniving snicker full of mirth and laced with a lascivious intent her initial question hadn't had. "You'll be cold. And it is rude to reject a gift. Eresa, was it?" She offered calmly, the last words catching the attention of the other woman.

"Yes, Ta'zesh." A soft voice replied. The first time the Unpainted had allowed herself to speak all night. Kia heard Oruna click with her tongue that same way she did when disapproving of something or thinking. There was a brief silence beyond a shuffle of movement, before the Unpainted girl replied to something Kia had not seen. "My body is hers, Ta'zesh."

There was an idle shuffle of movement across the room, before a shape stepped in front of Kia and slowly laid down beside her in her field of vision. She watched Kia with soft eyes, though dared not look at her eyes. Before Kia had much time to react, a second body bumped her back briskly and rubbed painted skin on skin. "You are too tall, Keeah, you take up too much space." Oruna quipped from right behind her and brushed up closer yet. "Not much fur left for me."

She grumbled under her breath and looked at Eresa's soft features. Had she thought differently? Had her mind wandered to a place where it should not have gone? Was it acceptable? She could ask Oruna but… No, she would make fun of her in that state. Knowing that Eresa wouldn't do anything she wasn't told, Kia shuffled closer to her to give Oruna more space. Skin touched skin and her heart beat quickly. In an innocent whisper Kia spoke to her, "I get… Cold easily. Thank you, for your warmth." She felt ashamed.

Behind her, Oruna brushed up against her greedily again as more weight fell towards Kia and a man's voice offered a quiet but amused apology, followed by Oruna's snickering. Eresa was a beautiful young woman - it wasn't difficult to imagine Rakat's reasoning behind keeping her in his household. She smiled with tender lips painted with black and red lines at Kia's words, and nodded with averted eyes. She interpreted her words in her own way, clearly reverent of her embarrassment but fully unwilling to leave her alone. The painted woman slowly turned her body over, and then shuffled herself up against Kia with methodical care to line her body's heat up against her, much to the alarm of Kia. No one had ever been so close to her before and her heartbeat wouldn't slow.

Eventually Oruna bumped her back again with a tired giggle, and Kia found herself sandwiched on the furs between painted bodies. She let out a soft sigh, thankful she was at least warm and before long, nestled in that warmth, she fell asleep with a smile on her face.

The table had been reset with new goodies for the mid day's feast. As Oruna's 'servant' Kia wasn't expected to do anything, giving her ample time after breakfast to watch Rakat's five Unpainted household women mill about to set everything in order. Oruna spent the entire morning asleep on luxurious bedding and most of the early day grouchily eating breakfast like a thundercloud rested in her head, but even she was caught up in it now, reapplying her paints with Rakat's supply. Rakat had vanished early in the morning to go plead with the Za'wal and invite him to his home, something Kia learned would cost him almost a full year of his proceeds in goods - or Unpainted. Sitting there with not much to do but watch the hive work and munching on a few tasty dishes, Kia caught the eye of Eresa during her preparation more than once; each time the dark-skinned beauty gave her a soft and welcoming smile.

For some reason, it made her heart flutter and she didn’t know why. Was this what love was? What her mother felt for Rorik? What made Rorik… So angry? She shuddered at the thought of love turning one so bitter all the time. She didn’t want that. She hardly even knew the feeling. Perhaps she was just being friendly? Regardless, Kia had offered small smiles in return, the best she could. She felt restless as they continued to wait but stuck to herself as Oruna was still grouchy and when she was grouchy, Kia knew to leave her be.

Eventually Oruna joined her at the table, and the unpainted servants brought out food in preparation for the event. Rakat returned soon after. He wore a bright, confident smile and brought good news; the Za’wal had accepted his plea and was on his way at that very moment with his retinue to hear them out. All at once, the air in the home became tense and hectic - servants now milled like ants trying to set everything in order, and Rakat had a thousand things to complain about as he visibly worried the arriving guests would not appreciate his home. Oruna had briefly explained the position of a Za'wal, but it mostly went over her head. The only important thing was that this man had direct access to the ruler of Zuanwa, and that made him very powerful.

Soon the craze of preparation came to an end, and the three of them sat by the table to humbly await a man that may take hours to arrive. Oruna was tense, tapping fingers on the table and quietly repeating different parts of her pitch and plan to herself. Rakat sat silent, briefly glancing at both Kia and Oruna ever so often before trying to center himself and relax. The one time he caught Kia looking at him, he provided a quick but charming smile.

She offered a small smile and nod in return then went back to looking at the table in front of her. Her nerves were getting the best of her and she felt sick as they waited. Many questions began to bubble in her mind. What if it didn’t work? What if the Za’wal didn’t like them? What if Uraka didn’t want to see nobodies? She began to fidget with herself, trying to remain calm and focused on that task at hand.

Soon enough the bustle of the outside street seemed to pierce the curtain a little louder, and Rakat shot up from his cushioned seat and gestured for his unpainted to move to the entrance of his small estate. Eresa swayed over with shifting hips, and slowly drew the curtain aside to welcome whomever was outside. What followed was a full retinue of other men and women entering Rakat's home, painted in many varieties and some wearing clubs and knives. Kia saw two women wearing long knives, painted over their chest with the same general markings as Oruna - a set of patterns Kia now knew meant they were Ta'zesh; warriors and hunters. Others were wearing almost nothing but paint and jewelry, a parade of attractive men and women carrying jugs of drink and platters of food. Behind them all followed an older man with a thick but well-oiled beard, split in two at the end and tied together with metal rings. His paint seemed to be permanent, a mixture of decorative patterns and dark markings that looked like they were part of his skin. He wore golden rings on his arms and a full set of necklaces and ear rings, his mildly rotund belly hinting at a good life as it hung out on full display, given he wore only a velvety set of purple cloth whipping around his legs. Even in a room full of paint and luxury, he stood out as a cut above. It was easy to pin him as the guest of honor.

Kia looked at the man, he was very short and all of his servants were fairly tall. She was a bit overwhelmed by all of the new people but kept to herself for the most part. Her job, as always, was to speak when spoken too and to be polite. “Be confident’ as Oruna always reminded her. Still, it was hard to feel confident with so many people. Her eyes scanned them until she found the familiar face of Eresa, who was busy working. She watched her and her problems didn’t seem so bad if she just focused on one thing.

"Welcome to my humble hovel, my esteemed radiance. The magnificence of your crystalline knowledge and spirit-speaking illuminates our paltry lives." Rakat said with a welcoming tone, seeming a changed man from the previously tense and fussy merchant. He bowed his head deeply, and when he gestured towards Oruna, she did the same. "You have traveled far, I will not presume to waste your time. This is Ta'zesh Oruna, and her Unpainted gift for the Daughter of the Water." Kia realized eyes were drawn to her in turn, their gazes the same as those in the village - her pale skin made her a curiosity; her height a fascination. As such there were several moments of silence as countless gazes rested on Kia - and Oruna - before the bearded Za'wal grunted gruffly and moved to sit by the table. A fit and attractive man rushed forward to lay down beneath him, cushioning his place while elevating him ever so slightly.

"Your gift to me was barely adequate. I came to see this gift of yours. I see now you plan to be much kinder to our divine ruler than to me." The bearded man professed with an irritable and raspy voice, and his big brown eyes settled and roamed over Kia unabashedly. Try as she might to stay calm, it was no use. Coupled with all the stares, Kia used her hands to rub her thighs as she avoided the old man's eyes. Her own face turned red.

Rakat released a tense but charitable chuckle, exchanging brief glances with Oruna across the table. After a few moments of hesitation, he extended his arm to grab one of his passing servants. Eresa, caught in the midst of carrying a bowl of fruits, stilled herself as she was grabbed and bowed her head. "I am afraid the rarity meant for the Daughter of the Water cannot be matched, but please, if you will allow me to mend my insolence; I offer you one of my own. An obedient and dutiful servant. Eresa of the Village of a Hundred Lakes. She will love and serve with loyalty." Rakat mused politely.

Eyes fell on Eresa instead, and the Unpainted servant bowed her head deeply, as accepting of this fate as any other. Kia, who had seen her smile up close, noted that there was no warmth in her expression. Just quiet acceptance. Silence reigned for a time, before the bearded man nodded firmly and rubbed his chest thoughtfully. He lifted a hand to beckon Eresa over, and made her sit on her knees next to him demurely as his hand examined her hair, chin and face. He grunted and murmured, then glanced at Rakat and Oruna. "Very well. As thanks for your gracious gifts and invitation, I have brought real food and drink from Uraka's court. Revel in true luxury, as we shall from now on." He eventually boomed out loud, and gestured for his other servants, who quickly set down the gifts of food and drink they had been carrying. It seemed to be more of the same, only with a lot more meats - and spice-scented drinks.

She hardly knew Eresa but seeing her given away so carelessly tugged at her heart. It didn't seem right, but Kia knew it was not her place to say anything. Such was how things went on here. As others began to nest Kia turned her attention back to the table and tentatively picked at the food, not feeling at all hungry but not wanting to seem rude either. She forced herself to eat and drink, finding that she did not enjoy all the spices and seasonings. It overpowered the food. Rakat answered the Za'wal's questions, as did Oruna who spoke her turn between bouts of feasting on the spicy and opulent food. It was all rather lost on Kia, and she found herself focusing on Eresa more and more. The servant girl fidgeted where she sat, fixed in place next to the rich Za'wal and daring not to speak or really move. Even so, even sat still and silent, she was captivating.

But eventually something did catch Kia's attention. A servant brought forth a small platter for the Za'wal. It carried two small cups and he drank it without a word before the other was given to Rakat. The Za'wal's armed servants seemed to step forward or was that a trick of her eyes? Why were things looking so fuzzy? The Za'wal's raspy voice cut through the air, "Did you know that the sap of the Cossa plant is known as an antidote for many poisons?" All eyes fell upon the Za'wal and the air grew tense as all sound in the room seemed to halt. It only took a moment for realization to spring across Oruna's face. She tried to stand but her legs gave out as a look of rage etched itself onto her face.

"You… You…" her speech became slurred and she tried to lunge at Rakat who was across from her but ended up planting her face into the table. Rakat stood up, his face no longer quite cheerful.

"I am truly sorry, Oruna, light of my life. It was either this or I lose everything." He said in a sullen tone and touching at his chest. At first a heartfelt gesture, he simply adjusted one of his many necklaces.

"Oruna…" Kia slurred. She felt her body begin to slump as she lost control of her limbs. The Za'wal snapped his fingers and two servants grabbed Oruna and dragged her to her knees before him. She was barely conscious even before the big man slapped her. It made Kia angry but even her anger felt dull. She was helpless and could only watch and listen as her eyes faded. The last thing she saw was Rakat stepping closer to them but halting as the Za'wal gazed upon him.

Kia then listened, wrestling herself from sleep. "I have no love for Uraka." The Za'wal said in a cold voice. "She is no Goddess. She is a false idol who inherited all she is. But if there is one thing I hate more, it's an upstart. A person like this paltry Ta'zesh, who dreams of a destiny she has no right to. Strip her of her paints and sully her I say. Let it be a lesson." He commanded and though Kia could no longer see, she could hear Oruna being dragged away.

"That was not the deal!" Rakat shouted. "She was to be mine to deal with!"

She heard a grunt and someone landing on the ground. Rakat's breath gave off the same nasal whimpering as when he bragged.

"Do not be so insolent, merchant. What would you do with her from which she could not escape and take revenge? You are a fool and should be thankful I do not take your life as well for being a conspirator." The old man grumbled.

"Yes… Your esteemed excellency. But what will you do with her?" Rakat murmured.

"The pale skinned? Truth be told I would like her for my own but her blood would run hot with revenge as well. Sell her as a slave, far, far from here."

Her heart began to sink and their voices began to fade as Rakat discussed Eresa. She heard a mocking laugh and then nothing.

Kia did not dream. Instead she awoke in pitch blackness and for a second she thought herself blind or still asleep but as her eyes adjusted she could make small flickering lights. Fires? They were small, how far away was she? Kia tried to get up but hit her head on something. She then used her hands to feel the wood above her and then panic set in as she felt wooden bars, encasing her in a box. There was quiet murmuring somewhere and hushed voices.

Tears streamed down her face and she hugged herself. Her memories of the day began to flood back to her. Rakat had betrayed them, Oruna was taken by that foul man and she was to be sold into slavery. Oruna! She had to go find Oruna! The mere thought of what that man said made her blood boil. An old familiarity returning, begging to be let unleashed. Should she?

The pain of the day made her so, so angry.

It was just too much to bear.

As three men rounded a corner with torches, illuminating the tall rows of people in cages, Kia lost herself in her rage.

They began to make their way to her when one elbowed the other, pointing in her direction. Their paints were not familiar to her but it coated their bodies in a mud yellow.

It did not matter in the end what they looked like or what their tattoos reflected about their status, for they died swiftly as Kia exploded with a scream of ice. Her power splintered the wood, and sent spikes outward, piercing any unfortunate enough to be in the radiance. One man screamed as his two companions were impaled in the abdomen and throat. He was struck in the shoulder and fell over. Kia loomed over him, her face twisted into a mask of pain and rage. He outstretched his arms to defend himself and that was the depiction of his statue as he became entombed in ice.

Noticing the commotion, shouts of alarm were being called out and torches were struck alight through the rows of cowering slaves. She had given those that died or dying, a mercy. The only thing she felt was a cold rage, there was no time for guilt or lesser emotions. The slaves themselves cowered in fear or prayed but most screamed for help.

Arrows whizzed past her, prompting Kia to take a defensive stance, eyes on the corridor ahead. Those brave men that carried spears came running to meet their death.

She raised a hand and shot a barrage of spikes at her would be attackers. Most died before they hit the floor but a few screamed out in pain and fear as they tried to escape. Kia began to move closer but felt a flash of pain in her shoulder. She looked to see an arrow protruding with her blood trickling out and then scanned the area before making a wall of ice appear in front of her for protection. In the dark she could not see the archer.

She knew what a huntress was capable of. She had to be careful or… she would become the prey. But first, she broke the arrow in half and then touched the wound, icing it over. It wouldn't last long but perhaps it would stop the bleeding. Hopefully it wasn't poisoned either. She could hear more shouting now and they were coming from behind her as well. She made another wall of ice in that direction to buy herself time.

She dipped her head as she thought up a plan and was surprised to see that the floor was made of wood and through the gaps she could see the flow of water. Was she on water? Floating? It was a thought for another time when an idea came to mind.

Ice was simply water in another state. She touched her hands to the floor and then turned the water to ice. It happened quickly, freezing the wood in place as it spread out. Then the ice began to crack and moan as Kia used it to unleash giant spikes that pierced the floating wood with explosive force. She heard screaming, the sound of rushing water and the cracking of wood. Next, Kia thought inward and realized she would be exposed in the dark, preyed upon by those that knew how to use it to their advantage. She could not afford to be riddled with arrows or worse. Thus, ice began to encase her but unlike all previous times she had used such a death sentence, this would be a barrier and not a tomb.

It formed over her with delicate precision and then added layers upon layers, growing spikes and horns until Kia was armored and fearsome to behold. There was a narrow slit so she could see and three vertical lines across the mouth that allowed her to draw breath. Though she was cold, it was awfully comforting.

Kia then shattered the barriers that kept her protected and scanned the broken surroundings. The raft was a ruin with icy spikes protruding everywhere, having impaled several unlucky victims. Only those lucky enough to survive crawled about trying to get to safety. She looked for the shore, wanting off that which would sink in the warm waters. She saw that the raft she was in wasn'tmuch of a raft but a large platform that was in line with several others, all tied off to a long stone bridge that reached from the shore to where she was, at the very end. Fires were lit, a horn had sounded somewhere in the distance and the stone walkway was going to be quickly populated.

But there was another way. Kia took a step forward, feeling the bulk of her ice make the wood creak. At the platform's edge, she stepped off into the water, freezing it at an angle so she could slide down, using her momentum to carry her towards the unguarded shore. She froze the water as she went, sliding across the ice. As she approached she could see that men and women who were running towards the stone walk, had stopped instead to meet her. Aiming arrows, hefting spears and carrying nets.

It was a small force, and one that was unprepared…

When she neared the sandy shores, she bid the ice to rise and then explode, raining down upon her foes. Many fell from the initial onslaught, and those who were smart found cover before it was too late. When Kia touched down upon the shore, the barrage subsided and she began at a brisk jog, as fast as the armor would let her go. When they came from their hiding places, bearing howls of rage and anger, Kia froze them in place. Leaving them to suffocate in their final positions.

The very air began to turn colder, though she could not see them, she felt clouds arriving. Bringing with them the first flakes of snow that part of the world had ever seen. The wind began to come from the north as Kia made her way further into Zuanwa, bringing death and destruction with her as the jungle turned frigid.

She carved a swathe of destruction as she searched for the market that they had found Rakat. He would be the key that she needed to find the Za’wal, but she was having little luck. She could only vaguely remember seeing a river up on the hill that overlooked Zuanwa and then it felt like Oruna had led them through a maze. Yet, there was another landmark, one that loomed above her at all times. The temple of the false Goddess, Uraka. She paused as the world around her dipped in temperature, as people screamed and soldiers died. She knew where to go.

The market was empty, save for those who sought to defeat her. She, who was all powerful and strong. She slew them with little care for the surroundings and at last, when she was truly alone, she let her arrow riddled, broken armor fall to the wayside and she entered Rakat’s abode. She held her head high, eyes ever forward and arms slightly outstretched. She found the one warm space, touched with an emptiness. The pleasant smells washed away. Rakat had wasted no time in cleaning the place up and doing away with all that he had sullied his hands with. Kia walked over to his room and pulled back the flap to find the man cowering behind his servants, who trembled with wide eyes, as they held knives and daggers pointed at her.

“Leave us.” She commanded, stepping in and to the side.

The servants gave each other looks before they scrambled out, leaving Rakat grasping in the air, yelling at them as they went.

“No, don't leave me!” he screamed, hefting his own sword towards her, his hair disheveled and his knees wobbling. “Stay back demon! You cannot harm me! I-I-I am protected!” He stood his ground at least.

Within a blink of an eye, a spike of clear ice shot up from the ground and severed his hand from his arm, letting the blade drop with a thud. There was a spray of blood that coated Kia in warmth as Rakat fell backwards screaming again as he clutched his hand. Kia loomed over him and then crouched.
“You will bleed out soon. Tell me where Oruna is and I might help you.” Her voice cut through the air.

“Ah-ha, s-so you wish to know where the Za’wal lives? It is easy…” He scooted back with his good arm, pain shooting across his face. “Help me help you.” He breathed a plea. “I could die and say nothing and you will be at a loss.”

“I don’t think you understand.” Kia said, as ice began to encase Rakat’s legs and torso. The man began to fidget and squirm. “Your death will be long and slow. I will make sure of it. You have no room to negotiate. There will be no trades. You will tell me where they are, or you will die and this city will die.”

As the ice began to creep up his neck and chest, Rakat’s breathing quickened. A mad look came in his eye. “The Za’wal, h-his h-home…” He grunted, “H-he lives on the outskirts of Zuanwa in the east… Past the… The temple… It’s w-where all the wealthy l-live. H-His paint… T-The symbol… Where his house will be. Please! I told you, don’t let me die! I’m sorry Keeah! I’m sorry!”

Kia stood. “Oruna trusted you and you betrayed her for your own skin. Where I come from, that would be exile into the wastes but here… No… I will make it quick.”

Rakat screamed again, begging and pleading for his life. Kia tilted her head and watched as a razor thin wall of ice cut off Rakat’s head. There was the sickly smell of something metallic and the haunting expression of the man who thought he could get away with what he had done.

Kia left his house without a word and slipped off into the raging storm that had enveloped Zuanwa.

She found his symbol at the start of dawn. The sun’s light filtering through the clouds and snow, painting the jungle paradise bleak but beautiful. Kia had had to go go upon the outskirts of the city, as she did not want to get close to the Temple, where she feared there would be a higher presence of guards. She was getting weary and tired, her arrow wound taking its toll. But she still had enough fight left in her to see her revenge through, even if it killed her.

The Za’wal’s home was more of a compound of lavish design that contrasted the other homes and even the jungle itself. That man lived in so much excess, what did he even do with it all? From where she stood, underneath a tall tree next to a canal, she could see many guards. It seemed news of her coming did not go unheard, even here.

It was of little consequence, in the end.

Kia donned her armor once more, this time it was nimbler but less protective. It would stop a few blows but not much else. She then made a mad dash towards the gates. Guards shouted, arrows were fired, spears were thrown, rocks were chucked- All being frozen by the walls of ice that she summoned to meet them. And when Kia was close enough, she sent out ice spikes that blitzed the tops of the walls, sending stone and guards flying. She then arrived at the gate and ripped it apart with her ice, blowing it backwards. More guards awaited her and by that time, her patience had grown thin.

In a feat that surprised even her, she let out a scream and a wave of ice shot out from her feet and froze anything it touched from head to toe, before colliding with the walls of the compound proper.

Her helmet broke apart and Kia caught her breath as she eyed the area to make sure no one moved, and not a soul did. Holding her head ever high, she walked to the doors and shattered them with another touch. The interior of the home was even more lavish and decorative. Fine cloth hung about, painted with symbols and stories. Jewels adorned every cup and plate that were displayed upon pillars of exquisite detail. Yet there was no one to greet her. No more guards or servants.

She walked further in and found room after room empty. Had they fled? She neared the back of the house, or was it the middle? She did not know and she found a large room. A great feasting chamber, with long empty tables and a great chair that sat at its head. Behind that there was another room and there she saw…

Her heart dropped.

On the far side of that room, arms nailed to a wooden post, naked skin red and chafed by excessive rubbing and caked with dried blood from multiple cuts- was the unmistakable body of Oruna. Her head was dipped forward, hair obscuring her face. Kia could only stare as she entered the room.

She was nearly blind sighted by the Za’wal who tried to beat her with a metal rod. Her arm was grazed but she managed to fall backwards out of the way. With a mad look in his eye he came at her again but that was his mistake. Kia froze him, but not completely. She left his neck and head exposed and the old man struggled. She stood up as he raged incoherently at her. Kia punched him in the face and he fell silent.

She then rushed over to Oruna and cut her down with ice, catching her as she fell.

“Oruna! Wake up!” She shook her, moving the air away from her bruised face but she did not stir. “Oruna? ORUNA!” Kia began to cry into her chest. She was too late! Oruna was gone. Just like Rorik! Just like her village! Just like her mom! Why? Why did she have to suffer so? Why was fate so cruel? A cold numbness began to spread from her chest and into her limbs as her armor broke apart. She did not want to exist anymore. Not like this. Not alone.
“Keeah?” the voice made her jump. She looked up to see Eresa, shivering with cold breath. She had been bound but her rope was cut. Hesitantly she reached out to Kia, who quite literally froze. “Keeah… Za’watem…Keeah…” She breathed, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. She fell to her knees as she looked to Oruna. “I am so sorry.” She said, before wrapping her in a hug. Suddenly, the world didn’t seem so bad anymore.

However, the moment was interrupted by a cruel laugh.

Behind her, the rotund Za'wal wriggled as best he could in his icy restraints. "A brilliant display! So much effort for nothing. A willing and eager pet desperately searching for its master. Such an owner, such a servant, I suppose," he crowed with a deep and malicious delight. "She didn't even beg for her life, or swear herself into a life of service. I might have spared her as a trophy for my personal enjoyment. But no. She just kept calling for her lost pet. Spitting in my face with no mind to her betters." He scoffed sharply and writhed in his cold shackles.

"You should thank me for freeing you from such a weak owner. Duplicitous and with a head full of crazy dreams. You will be much more at home at my side. Not even the wretched bitch Uraka will fight me with such a cold beauty in my collection." The Za'wal continued with a hearty croon, his robust frame managing to rock the ice enough that his prison began to crumble.

Something snapped in Kia and she sprang up with a fearsome roar. The girl would make him suffer. Make him scream for what he had done! She ran over and began to viciously beat him, the force of the blows rocking him free from his entrapment. As he fell to the ground, Kia's fists became hardened with ice. She fell upon him like a tree falls upon the earth, without regard or care for who it trampled. And so she beat him, over and over and over again until her body was caked in his blood and then she beat him again. It was only when her strength failed and Eresa came to shake her out of it, did she finally realize the horror of her actions. She could hardly look upon the mess that she made.

She dry heaved as the weight of her actions plummeted like a stone in her stomach. She had killed so many people, she had destroyed so much. She was a monster. She was a demon! Oruna was dead and she had lost a other home and and… A mother…

"Keeah." Eresa said as she cradled the shivering girl. "We cannot stay here. They will come to… Kill you."

"We…? Eresa, you can't stay with me. I'm dangerous. You'll die." Kia whimpered.

"You are Za'watem. I go where you go, Keeah. You… You need someone." She murmered. Kia could tell there would be no persuading her, not that she wanted too.

"But where do we go… Who would help us?" She asked.

"I do not know, my Za'watem." Eresa stroked her hair.

Kia thought long and hard and realized the last time she was in such a situation she received help from the goddess… Though she was reluctant to ask her for she had put her in this situation to begin with, it was her only choice.

"Please… Someone…. Goddess. Help us." She said with sorrow in her heart.

After an uneasy dread in which Kia felt like her words went unanswered, the pressure in her head began to increase. The experience was intensified as the inside of the dead man's home seemed to pick up a wind, an uneven howl that Eresa also seemed to pick up on. A soft sigh broke the tension, as though someone breathed in Kia's ear. "Such a troubled soul, with nary a glimmer left to grant you happiness. Worry not, my sweet, you are not alone." a voice unlike the old goddess spoke, comforting and warm. Eresa did not seem to hear it, for her attention was still firmly on Kia, unchanged.

"W-Who are you?" Kia asked.

"Za'watem…?" Eresa said confused.

[color=8493cae]"I am the goddess of love and loss. I understand your pain, my love. You have been abandoned and cast aside. Life was stolen from you. Now here you are, a stranger to all and lost, all over. A truly bitter experience, but it need not be the end,"[/color] the voice crooned. "You called for me, and I came for you, my beloved. Let me help you, let me ease your trial."

Though hesitation was in her heart, Kia did not object. "Help us, please." She said.

There came a strange sensation in the room. Like fabric ripping and across from them, a portal. She was familiar with them. From the portal she could smell food and feel hot air as well as the hushed whispers of people. "Where will it take us?" She asked the goddess.

The goddess was quiet for a moment, letting the ambience from the portal naturally spill over into the room. When she spoke, it drowned out all other sensations, sapping the worst shock of what had transpired, a gentle and soothing mental embrace. "To the mortal who carries me closest in her heart. You will be safe there, and cared for until your heart has mended."

"We will be safe...?" She asked to no one in particular. She straightened herself out and made eye contact with Eresa. "Come, Eresa. Let us be free from this place." She said, and though Eresa looked hesitant and bewildered, she nodded her head.

As for Oruna, Kia bent down and kissed her brow. Not wanting to leave her like that, she quickly straightened her out, and then encased her in ice that would last for eternity. It was the least she could do. Kia then took Eresa's hand and they walked over to the portal. She sent Eresa in first and took one last look before pouring the last bit of her strength into the floor. Giant ice spikes erupted from the ground. Kia stepped into the portal, confident they would leave the resting place of Oruna alone, as it collapsed under ice.

The portal shut behind them with a woosh. It took Kia moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room and when they did she found herself the center of attention. Eresa's hands grabbed her left arm, holding tight and Kia put her own hand over hers to give some comfort.

At the center of the room, they were surrounded by men and women who wore linen clothes with goblets in their hands. Their faces reminded her of her own people from back home. Holding platters of food and drinks with Silver collars around their necks were dark skinned, painted beings who looked like the jungle folk except their eyes were far too large and they had a bridge of feathers on their foreheads.

And then Kia found her, sitting a top a throne with a formidable crown and a necklace that had such a large ruby… She found herself wanting to get closer to the woman, who wore a dark red dress that left little to the imagination of her pale skin and unblemished features.

She stood all at once and called her hands. This startled the two of them but they were surprised to see the room begin to empty of people. Until all that remained was the red headed woman and… How had she not noticed the black clothed guards whose faces she could not see?

"Neiya, Our Goddess of Love has guaranteed your safety here. By my own hand I will see nothing less then your absolute satisfaction. For she is my Goddess and I, her devoted." The woman spoke, her voice rich and carrying with it a commanding tone. "I am Nalla, Queen of Nallan and all the red seas. Welcome to my home. Do you speak my tongue? What is your names?" She asked, stepping forward.

"Our names…" she said softly. "I speak your tongue, Nalla. This is Eresa, she does not. I am…" she thought a moment about her name. What she had been called so many times. What Oruna had called her. "My name is Keeah and we come from a long way." She said in a tired voice. She felt her legacy began to give out, as exhaustion took hold.

"Za'watem!' Eresa cried out, cradling her as she fell.

The last thing Keeah saw was Nalla stepping before her and tilting her head. "Oh you poor things… We shall fix you right up…"

Then the world faded to black.

First Contact

The swell of the sea and steady winds battering them from the side was enough to send a spray of water onto the deck of their vessel. The black sail was rolled up and wound tight, lest the current would catch it and risk stealing away both balance and direction. At the fore of the ship, nestled in under the dragon-head arch sat old Hýlva, droning a loud throat-borne song and beating her weathered reindeer-skin drum. Her voice and music mingled with the wind, reverberating through each wave that hit the ship. Ronja felt the world's turmoil around them abate and ebb away as the deep song lifted the worries of the nature spirits just enough for the sea not to claim their craft. The cold waters beneath washed and sprayed against the dark wood with uneasy tension, but nevertheless carried them forward without quarrel, each heave of oars catapulting them forward on the rocking waves.

In the darkness of night, they could just barely make out the contours of the nearest ship, and had to trust that the others had sight of the last. When day broke, they'd hopefully find they'd never left each other's side. Ronja didn't know if Hýlva's song extended the same protection to the others, if the sea would take offense at their bold walk across the water and swallow another ship. Both of them full of villagers. Her friends. Perhaps this journey was a mistake after all. She gripped the mast tighter and stared at the distant contour of the other ship. She wondered how Hakon was doing. If either of them fell overboard, her last words to him would be to shut up. She frowned to herself, leaning against the post. No, she resolved. They were chosen. Neither wind nor sea would keep them. Aveira had entrusted the future of not just Reginsvik, but the entire merelli race to them - even if she didn't fully understand yet how such a thing could be achieved. Only one thing was certain. Darkness and swelling water would be the least of their worries. Her gaze fell down to the ram-horned dark metal helmet in her hand, and then the many spiral horned helmets among her rowing comrades. For a fleeting moment she worried, but the embrace of her overcoat burned with a gentle heat that filled her body and swelled her spirits, and she pulled it tighter around her to protect against the mild rains. Slowly Ronja's expression shifted to a smirk, and she viewed her rowing friends with pride. They were pioneers of a new era. Just like her.

"Take heart," she voiced with renewed fervor, letting go of the mast to walk among her rowing friends. "Wind, water and darkness cannot stop us. We are the promised people!"

A few of them chimed in to acknowledge her words, and Ronja took to a louder tone. "What are we?!"

"Chosen!" The crowd shouted back, and Ronja tightened her grip on her helmet.

"What belongs to us?!" She followed up.


She repeated the chant until they all joined in and expected it, drowning the howl of the wind with exultant cries. As she cried herself hoarse, she could hear voices in the dark; people on the other ships calling out to respond as well.

They barely noticed how their loud ways disrupted old Hýlva's careful song, and how the waves grew in protest.

"Careful with those, or you'll feed the dog before us." Eàmon remarked with a big grin almost as bright as his golden hair, eliciting a tired grunt from Mionn, who could only heft the net higher to try and get it free of the small wooden stumps on the side of their short jetty. Each pull threatened to both rip the net and unleash the handful of fish still violently wriggling within, eager to escape.

"You could just help me untangle it," she groaned and cast him a bothered glance from under her unkempt red locks. Her best attempt at tugging the net free only served to tangle and bunch it up further.

"No, no. You pointedly said you didn't want my hands nowhere near you. I got to oblige that, it's my honor at stake." He lectured with great amusement, waving a hand before placing it on his chest.

Another grunt from Mionn set him straight, and Eàmon finally moved to help. "I saw you making eyes at that new white-coat. You can't very well go touching me up if you're dreaming about sowing seeds in some big town hussy. Pappy will beat me and kill you." She admonished with consternation, though accepted his help in untangling the net with clear relief.

Eàmon gave her a good-natured glance as he leant down to pull the net free. "You think so poorly of me, Mionn. I'm just curious. Ain't often we get visitors, right? Don't you ever dream about the bigger world?"

That elicited a sigh from Mionn, who reflexively tugged her net upwards as soon as it was free, and made her way down the jetty as she spoke. "The dûnans are all talk, putting their problems on other people and dragging kind-hearted folk into their weird cult. Like Dugh, remember?"

"Not this ag--"

"Not a word for near three years, then he comes in all wild-eyed raving about his new god. Sigeran this, Sigeran that. Not a care for his family. Even his Pa didn't want him around no more." Mionn concluded with a firm and lecturing tone, bunching up the net of wriggling fish to stow in a large clay bowl.

"Dugh always was that kinda way. He'll come around. Shepherding will do him good." Eàmon replied with a shrug, moving over to help untangle the net and dump out their prize.

Mionn sighed and glanced up at him, "He's my cousin, Eàmon, but I don't feel like I recogni-..." she began, pausing as her gaze fixed on the ocean. Her brows furrowed slowly, and that was enough for Eàmon to stop his work and follow her gaze.

On the horizon, the silhouettes of three large ships bobbed closer over the water. Black sails and dark wood was enough to make them foreign, but the design was nothing like either of them had seen. Eàmon narrowed his eyes and watched the approaching ships with deep thought and scrutiny. For a brief slice of silence, both of them just stood there, watching the silhouettes until it was clear the ships were coming straight for them.

"Go and get my pappy, Mionn. He knows all the boats what come through here." Eàmon murmured.

Within minutes, the entire village was abuzz with the gnawing sensation that something was wrong.

"No movement, far as I can see." Arvid mumbled from the fore of the ship, turning back to face the crouching mass of warriors holding their equipment. Only a few were rowing now, slowing the advance of the ship to a crawl. On each side was another ship, filled to the brim with eager youth looking ahead or staring over to Ronja's ship for the go ahead.

"Why would it be abandoned?" Ronja mused idly, stroking a lock of white hair away from her face. In truth, she doubted it was, but Aveira had always said to consider every possibility.

"I saw someone, I swear it." The younger Jari piped up, only to be shushed by Arvid, and quickly looking back down at the deck at the behest of his elder.

"The promised land was supposed to be unsettled," Arvid argued in turn, rubbing at his face before facing the faraway shore again. "Did we sail off course?"

"Hýlva says the spirits carried us straight. The stars have said the same. This is where the gutakvínn wished us to go." Soini spoke up from among the waiting warriors, wearing a grim look in his face. He exchanged a brief glance with Ronja, and she couldn't help but reflect over how different he looked. In the ramhorn helmet and black wear, even the baker's son looked imposing. Grown up. Like a real warrior. She nodded to him, and he gave a firm nod in return.

"This isn't the promised land?" One of the younger men spoke up amidst the crowd. A few mutterings spread among the youthful warriors, followed by short debates and calls to shut up.

Ronja frowned deeply, and gripped the axe handle in her hand firmly. It was now or never. "We are the chosen! These people have tried to steal what is rightfully ours! Soini, Arvid. Lead our people on the ground. Let us show these trespassers what the rightful settlers are worth." The two boys nodded in turn, and gestured firmly to the assembled warriors. The rowing commenced in full force, and soon the other two ships followed suit. On Hakon's ship, someone banged a drum in rhythmic tension. Jari followed suit, and soon the final ship joined in as well. Among the soldiers, Soini led the initiative to hammer his axe handle into the deck, in rhythm with the drums. A loud, imposing melody followed them ashore. Ronja stared ahead, feeling a strange grip on her gut.

Destiny was in reach.

After she'd gotten the village's attention, everything had gone so fast. Mionn pressed herself together underneath the sheepskin pelt, huddled in the corner of her family's little hovel. Her mother wasn't far away, pulling young Calidigh into a comforting embrace and shushing his questions. None of the men wanted to answer what it meant, but Mionn knew what the looks on their faces had meant - she'd seen the same look each time refugees, preachers or warriors came from the west, taking the Dûnan war with them each time.

Outside she could hear her father's gravelly voice - muffled as it was through the walls. A few moments later the leather drapes blocking the door swept open, and another shape stepped into the musty old house. Long light brown hair and the white apparel gave it away instantly; the dûnan woman. She looked at the three of them sheepishly before clearing her throat. "Murtàgh said to come in here…"

Mionn's mother nodded and gestured at the free space left. Before long, the white-coat sidled over to slide down awkwardly next to Mionn, and almost immediately started fiddling with her hands. Mionn looked at her for longer than she'd allowed herself to in the past - she couldn't be much older than Mionn herself. Nineteen, maybe. The woman caught her looking and sent her a sheepish, faint smile. "...Mionn, right? I'm Teagan."

Mionn exhaled and looked away. "You dûnans always bring trouble," she muttered, earning her an instant reprimand from her mother. Mionn shot her a sour glance and pulled her legs up against her body.

"Y-... You mean the ships? That has nothing to do with me," Teagan eventually cut in, glancing between all assembled. "I'm sure it's nothing. This is a pious place, the gods won't allo-"

"Just be quiet," Mionn bit back sharply and pre-empted her mother's next admonishment with another sour glance. Teagan looked crestfallen, but followed her new instructions and simply looked down.

The next few minutes were carried out in silence, with only the occasional muffled sound of talking from outside. Calidigh seemed not to understand why they were just sitting there, and tried to break the tension by moving away. Mother quickly set him right and shushed him once more.

It didn't last long. The muffled voices were replaced by stamping feet, shouting, and the clatter of broken pottery. Something inside her froze up, and Mionn felt her entire back go stiff as the world outside took a new turn. Voices she'd never heard before shouted and hollered from outside; she couldn't make out what they were saying - it didn't even sound like anything she'd heard before. Deep and angry voices echoing and jeering from all sides of their little hovel.

Mionn felt her breath catch in her throat and heard her heart pounding in her ears. Fear began to grip the four of them as they listened to the growing shouting outside, and the crash and clatter of broken pottery and wood.

The flimsy door to their little hiding place swung open with enough force to rip from its top hinge, and two tall figures with giant horned helmets rushed inside. Mionn heard her mother scream in fear and surprise, and felt her whole body freeze. Her eyes locked on the axes in their hands. They barked at them in some awful language, and moved to pull them from their hiding spot one by one. Teagan panicked beside her and threw herself up at the invader, begging for mercy. Mionn heard the crack of skin against skin as they struck her, and saw her tumble to the ground with a whimper. She tried to move from her crouch but her legs wouldn't listen, even as her mother screamed for her, escorted out of the hovel with a crying Calidigh in her arms, under threat of axe.

Someone shouted at her, a long dark coat and a weapon dangled in front of her threateningly. Mionn didn't have time to do anything - before she could truly react she felt a painful and firm grip of her hair, and the invader pulled hard to drag her out towards the exit. The pain was intense, shooting through her head until her eyes were welling up with tears and her breath was gone. It felt like he was pulling her skull from her body, and each scrape and cut along the ground only made it worse.

The cold breeze from the sea washed over her face and bare arms as she was dragged outside. The horror from inside was replaced by foreign chatter and the cries of others captured in the same way. A last burning pain rocked through Mionn's hairline as the invader pulled harder to throw her, and the dirt and gravel below scraped angrily against her skin and flax tunic. Her arm and knee burned with fresh scrapes, and even as the figure finally let go of her, her scalp felt like it had been permanently set ablaze with pain. Mionn pushed tear-welled eyes open and saw the carnage for herself.

Several dozen… maybe almost a hundred... black-clad pale invaders littered every nook and cranny of their little village, and more scurried around three large dragon headed ships at the stony beach. Most were wearing dark helmets with thick rounded horns, but a few wore no such headgear. She could see men and women alike, youthful and imposing with a fragile and fascinating beauty that made them both a wonder to behold, and a fright, as the strange fixation taking root in her mind contrasted starkly to their hard, angry faces and the weapons. Black and grey horns poked between the hair of those few without helmets - Mionn had seen merelli before, but never like this. They were never more than a few in a single place, never so angry.

Around her was almost everyone else in the village, assembled and dragged out into little communal area where their houses intersected. A cry of pain and protest came from behind, and Mionn looked over her shoulder in time to see the whitecloak Teagan get dragged and shoved her way as well. There wasn't enough time, and the young druid crashed into Mionn - just another bout of pain in the frenzied panic going on.

One of the dark clad invaders removed his helmet to reveal a young and statuesque face, it too adorned by short black horns. He barked at them angrily, pointing at the house to his right. There were no words that Mionn could even begin to make out. Even if she had tried, the freezing dread in her body refused to let her head work as it should. The invader paced in front of them, gesturing wildly at both them and their houses as he shouted. Teagan crawled up off the ground and earned a pull on her braid for her insolence, dragging her back to what Mionn was only now realizing was a lineup. Were their fates sealed already?

Eàmon seemed to think so, the young man burst from his anxious seat in the line to stand up beside the pacing invader. His hands nestled in the black coat, and an incoherent stream of pleading and demands left the boy's mouth. It was too fast for Mionn to catch, but it included sparing the women. He stared down at the invader as he kept him in place and for a moment Mionn watched him with renewed hope in the midst of her fears. The invader grabbed both sides of Eàmon's tunic and swept a firm leg to kick the human boy's legs out from under him. Eàmon fell hard to the ground, aided by a half-throw as the invader shoved his hands free of him. A dark boot came down on him, and within moments two more merelli burst forwards to assist in beating him down with firm, quick stomps all over his body to the tune of panicked and angry screaming from his captive family. Mionn was quiet, staring at the battery with a cold grip freezing her spine all the way through her form.

Eventually the beating stopped, and Eàmon wheezed out a weak sign of life through pain and bruising. The horned man did not care. He began shouting again, pointing down at Eàmon before sweeping his hand in a gesture towards all of them. Each motion of his hand made Mionn cringe with fright, and by the chorus of cries it elicited the same in others. A tap on the invader's shoulder made him pause. Another merelli - a youthful pale woman with almost shimmering white hair and black horns murmured something to him in their foreign tongue, and he seemed to calm down. She gestured at Eàmon, and the violent invader and a comrade moved forwards to drag him back into line. When they moved aside, the woman stepped forward. Her coat was longer and stiffer, black as night. It almost looked like armour. She scanned the line briefly before settling her gaze beside Mionn. She flicked her hand in a gesture, and her mother - still carrying Calidigh - was pulled to a stand. She sobbed quietly but dared not speak. Instead the merelli woman spoke. "Er ther sjalfraett ta ganga fri."

She repeated the words slowly, and gestured towards the grazing fields beyond the village. Mionn murmured for her mother, and others looked confused. Eventually the woman grabbed her mother by the arm and dragged her two feet while pointing at the fields. The other invaders moved out of their way. Confused and sobbing, Mionn's mother carried Calidigh away from the village. Mionn called for her, feeling her fear build selfishly inside her. A boot came down on her back, silencing her and pushing her into the dirt firmly. She watched helplessly from the ground as her mother and little brother were made to abandon them, and wander out of the village.

Then the woman squatted down in front of Mionn, and the pressure of the boot lessened to allow her to look up at her. "Ef er gett aet hvert naste manna-vist ydr, er ther sjalfraett ta ganga fri." The woman spoke - gibberish to Mionn beyond that strange pull the words seemed to have on her. They felt surreal and otherworldly. The pale woman repeated the same words and gestured out towards the fields.

Mionn stared at her in panic. What did she want? Was she taunting her? Was she gonna kill her? She didn't want to die. She'd do whatever, beg and plead - yet her lips refused to move? Words came in a murmur from her father no more than two feet away. "I think she wants us to give up more villages…"

"Maybe we'll get to go free if we comply…." Teagan whispered from her other side. Mionn sent her an incredulous stare. This woman was barely her senior, yet so willing to doom others. Even now, the distaste she had for dunans seemed to bubble and overtake her fear.

Mionn parted her lips to push out sound at last. "Ha-... Ha-Dûna…" she managed quietly, and saw the captive whitecloak beside her widen her eyes in realization and sudden panic. The white haired woman leaned in closer to Mionn, forcing forwards a thin, polite smile as she listened. "To the west… there is a rich place called Ha-Dûna. It will have an-..."

Teagan shot up beside her to a stand, surprising both invaders and captives. Her arm flailed to point east as a man stepped forward to wrestle her down. Panicked and spiteful the druid screamed to overpower Mionn's voice. "Scawick! It's right beyond the hills! Not more than three days! They have food and wealth and all you could ever want! You should go east! Scawick is ripe for your conquest, mighty peo-... Hnngh.."

Teagan was silenced as she was struck from behind, and then forcibly sat down again. "You bitch, we have family by Scawick!" Edragr the Woodsman roared from down the line, earning himself a swift bash on the head.

The merelli woman looked at Teagan, and then back to Mionn, who felt tears welling up in her eyes. She was tired, scared, and she'd wasted her words wishing misfortune on someone else. The pale woman tapped a finger to her lips in thought, before murmuring to herself. "Skaevik," before standing up and raising her voice to address the other invaders. "Wi ganga fra at Skaevik!" She gestured quickly at the line, and several invaders rushed forwards to grab everyone. Mionn felt hands grab her arms and lift her painfully from the ground. She saw the woman staring at her as she was dragged past, and she met her gaze exhausted by pain and fear.

Behind her, crying and shouting resumed. Chief among them Teagan the Whitecloak demanded to be released, but judging by her screaming protests, no one listened. One by one they were dragged to the beach, and the dark dragon-head ships.

Within the hour, the village was quiet. Empty of people, goods, and small livestock. Only two people - one of which was barely three - had witnessed the vanishing of a village.

Okay this is going to take me awhile, be throwing a CS down soon. That is if I'm allowed to of course.

Hello! Feel free to do just that. We are still happy to have folks join. If you want, you can drop into our discord: - a lot of the magic happens here, and we have people around the clock happy to answer any questions you may have.


A pleasant visit.

It had been a somewhat short amount of time since Celestine had modified her realm and things had generally settled down into a general routine and normalized once again. Celestine was once more sitting upon the throne that overlooked The Longhall to keep an eye on the general attitude of any souls that may have been passing through. Since she had the downtime to reflect upon recent meetings she had been in, Celestine took the time to think a bit further back in her time that she had been independent from The Lifeblood. A thought that came to mind was that she hadn’t kept in touch with Cadien. Her first meeting with another god was a pleasant one, and perhaps now would be a good time to catch up now that she had been a bit more active?

Rising from her throne and heading to her visitation chamber Celestine stepped out from her realm and into Antiquity. Extending her divine senses outward she looked around for the portal that would lead to Cadien’s realm. Finding it almost immediately Celestine proceeded to step inside. Once the realm coalesced around her, she took a moment to examine her surroundings before announcing the intent of her visit to Cadien as she had done with Thaa. ”Greetings, Cadien! It has been some time, but I have come to visit with you once more. If you are not occupied with something, would you care to catch up?”

Once her greeting was given, Celestine merely waited to see if Cadien would respond. Hopefully she had been loud enough in her announcement that his divine senses would pick up on it. She didn’t move too far from the portal that would lead back to Antiquity in the event that she would possibly not be a welcome visitor or the possibility that Cadien was out of his realm and doing something else, and she figured that it might be rude of her to go and merely wander into another god’s realm as if it was her own.

As she waited she would take a few moments to examine her surroundings to see if Cadien had made any significant changes to his realm like she had just recently done with hers. While she did this she would rest her right hand upon the pommel of her sword and taking a more relaxed stance than her usual approach. Compared to the naive and freshly born goddess that had wandered into his realm by mistake Celestine seemed to be almost an entirely different person by now.

A number of changes had indeed been made. Where once there had been three islands, there were now dozens, expanding as far as the eye could see. All were inhabited by a plethora of different species, many dressed as warriors, though the armour they wore was as varied as their species.

Celestine? Cadien asked. Ah! Come on in. I am in my castle, as usual.

Celestine gave a nod to Cadien’s voice and walked briskly up towards his castle. As she approached the main gate she took a moment to admire the craftsmanship that went into the castle. Her own freshly renovated castle was a sight to behold, but there were fine details that only the god of perfection would think to implement. Pulling her attention away from the stonework Celestine would return her attention to the original goal that she had come to the realm for.

Entering into the throne room, Celestine would approach Cadien with a gentle smile upon her face before taking a moment to curtsey out of politeness. When she stood up she would rest her right hand upon the pommel of her sword again before speaking. “Greetings Lord Cadien. How have you been? I took notice of many new islands floating about your realm. Are you in the middle of a project or is that simply the natural expansion of things?”

When she finished speaking Celestine would take a moment to glance about the throne room and see if there were any new additions to the interior as well as the exterior, though her gaze didn’t wander far from Cadien himself as she didn’t want to be too impolite by paying more attention to the surrounding area than the conversation at hand.

The throne room was unchanged. Cadien himself was seated on his marble throne, a dark-haired Neiyari standing by his side. “If you’ll recall our past conversation,” Cadien said, “I mentioned reaching out to the God of Death. I have done so, and he has agreed to give me the souls of fallen warriors who share my ideals. I have expanded my realm in order to house them. Now, what about you? How have you been?”

Celestine gave a few nods at what Cadien had said before replying in kind. ”Ah. I do remember. I’ve reached out to them myself a bit, and have the same kind of bargain myself. I expanded my realm just recently to accommodate a project that I’m working on. Overall I’ve been well, thank you for asking. How have you been doing? Are your projects going well? Do you have something that you think you need assistance with or input on? I’ve learned the value of having an alternative viewpoint to something recently and can offer my thoughts if they’re needed.”

“You made a bargain with him as well?” Cadien asked, raising an eyebrow. “I was never informed of this. What were the terms?”

Celestine gave a nod at Cadien’s observation before elaborating upon the conversation that took place some time ago. ”Yes. They said that the terms should be roughly equal to the terms that you have also laid out in the bargain that you made. At the time of my visit they did not mention you by name but did mention that another deal had been made. So the souls that we have bargained over have three destinations to choose from. Though I have had another clause added to my bargain. Those who I dub with the title of ‘Ser’ will be guided to my realm exclusively when the time comes for them to pass onto the afterlife. Does this amount of information satisfy you, Cadien?”

“Is it only those who bear that title that get taken?” Cadien asked.

Celestine would shake her head briefly. “Not exclusively. As I was informed when the souls pass onto the afterlife they are given a choice of which realm to go to and so some come to mine out of choice rather than direct guidance. The title of ‘Ser’ serves as a sort of beacon for them to come to mine, as I understand it. It is possible for them to be taken, but as part of the bargain I have been charged with rectifying such a theft personally and not bothering Thaa over such a thing.”

“Hm. It is still rather rude that I was not informed of this sooner…” Cadien said. “But, I digress. It seems our realms now fulfill a similar purpose. Not necessarily a bad thing. Hm…” the God stroked his chin thoughtfully. “What sort of afterlife awaits those who are taken to your realm?”

Celestine gave an apologetic nod. Perhaps it had been her duty to inform him of such a bargain being made, and if it had been she had seemingly neglected it. An unfortunate circumstance but one that could not be corrected by now. Speaking once again, Celestine addressed that thought before too much time passed. ”It may have been possible that it was my duty to inform you of such a bargain being made. I had presumed that Thaa would be the one to update others involved in such a bargain when new parties made a similar contract. Thus, if that is the case, you have my apologies for neglecting such a duty until now.”

Taking a moment to pause, Celestine would continue and answer the other question that Cadien had posed. ”What awaits in my realm is a grand feast that never ceases, and then tournaments for those who wish to battle even until the hereafter. I also permit sparring and training as visitors wish, and so generally speaking my realm is a place to enjoy martial prowess to its fullest.”

“Hm. I intend much the same, myself,” Cadien said. “In fact I have already implemented such features. Which makes it seem odd, that mortals must choose between the two when the primary difference lies only in which god owns the realm. Two friends could fall on the same battlefield. One could go to your realm, while the other could go to mine. It might be somewhat disheartening, when they realize they are apart from one another. Hm.” He inclined his head slightly. “How would you feel about a connection that allows travel between our realms?”

Celestine gave a nod to this suggestion before speaking. ”I would not mind it, since the concern that you raise is valid. I could create a passage here and you could create a passage in my realm? Then the construction of each passage will provide a fair indicator of which realm it will lead a soul to?”

“Perhaps,” Cadien nodded. “Mayhaps it could also lead to some interesting competition. If the warriors of my realm were to compete with the warriors of your realm. We could stage tournaments, duels, perhaps even battles. I’ve had few opportunities to test my own wits and skills against another diety, and even fewer on friendly terms. What say you?”

Celestine would bring a finger to her chin for a few moments before nodding. ”I would not be opposed to such an idea. A competition of friends and allies would certainly be interesting. Perhaps we could both create our own battlefields and alternate between them for each tournament?”

“Yes,” Cadien nodded. “That would be interesting. I suppose we could even create rewards or incentives for those who distinguish themselves, too.”

Celestine would nod a few more times before speaking. ”This would likely be a good incentive, but what rewards would you argue to give? Recognition for performance would likely only go so far.”

“It is a challenging dilemma,” Cadien agreed. “What rewards can appeal to those who are already dead, who already live in a paradise, and will continue to do so in perpetuity? Hm. Places of honour at feasts, perhaps? Ranks or titles? It’s hard to say.”

Celestine would bring a finger to her chin once more as she briefly bowed her head in thought. A risky idea came to mind, but it would serve as something that was a worthwhile cause to offer to a soul with nothing else to gain. ”It would likely require us to speak with Thaa for a bit, but perhaps it would be a worthwhile idea to promise the greatest victor the chance at reincarnation? Tis the only thing that I could think of that would be tempting to a soul with naught else to want for.”

Cadien did not get the chance to immediately reply. An uncharacteristic rumble echoed through the back and side of his throne room, seemingly emanating from one of the many decorated doors in his luxurious manse. Without further warning, it flew open to reveal the slender warm red arm that had forced it open. Into his realm strode a red-skinned horned woman, dressed in luxurious clothes that seemed to be distinctly crafted to accentuate her silhouette. The blood red glow where her eyes should be twisted with her head to settle on Cadien upon his throne, and briefly; Celestine.

Behind her followed two likewise horned and tailed women who appeared vaguely identical, though their skin were pale and blue respectively. Their eyes glowed with gold and white, and they lifted grand copper horns as they came to a standstill behind their comrade. Blowing the horns, they played a simple but bombastic tune as the red-skinned creature dipped into a deep and extravagant bow. With grand words, she spoke. “Alas, too short was our past visitation. Now our Queen languishes for the embrace of her one and only. A tale as old as time itself, a lover seeks her match to have and hold in trial and tribulation.”

The horned woman fell silent, and slowly righted herself. Silence followed.

When the group of newcomers arrived, Celestine’s resting hand gripped the pommel of her sword briefly before relaxing. Thankfully she didn’t otherwise display too many signs of her surprise at their sudden appearance. Turning herself slightly to face a sort of middle ground between the trio of newcomers and Cadien Celestine returned the bow out of pure instinct and deeply rooted courtly manners. Listening to the announcement that the seeming leader of the group made she couldn’t help but wonder who it might be. It was then that the thought struck that these were likely handmaidens of Neiya. When that revelation was made, the rest fell into place easily: When they had first met and Cadien was giving her an overview of the others, he had expressed on at least one occasion that he loved Neiya dearly, so it was only natural that Neiya would be present within his realm on at least a semi-regular basis.

Giving a nod at the announcement to acknowledge it, Celestine refrained from speaking in order to not disturb the arrival of Neiya. Though she did note that Neiya seemed to be delaying her arrival a bit and had possibly left her handmaidens in a slightly awkward situation as they announced her arrival long before she would actually arrive. Perhaps something spontaneous had come up and needed addressing? Or was it possible that Neiya simply enjoyed building suspense before revealing herself?

Celestine resigned herself to not ask such a dangerous question.

Only moments later, Celestine’s theory received it’s answer, as a fourth shape emerged from the open archway. Just above the ground hovered a pale young woman with hair the color of platinum and icy blue eyes, and long blue markings running beneath her eyes. Black horns sprouted from her head and shoulders in an almost crown-like and regal manner, a distinct contrast to the shackle clasped around her throat. Naked feet dangled precariously only inches from the opulent flooring in Meliorem, and the horned lady drifted forwards as the trio of heralds skirted out of the way and closed the door behind her. Her eyes found Cadien first, and moments later the icy gaze found Celestine instead. Her brows furrowed, and a thin frown formed on her features. She appeared as though she was going to speak, when her red-skinned herald returned with a poorly-timed skip forward, gesturing lavishly towards the goddess. “Behold! Our glorious Queen, Neiya!”

Cadien rose to his feet, while the Neiyari who had stood silent and impassive all this time dropped to one knee. The God of Perfection approached the Goddess of Love. “Neiya,” he smiled warmly. “It is good to see you.” He gestured to Celestine. “This is Celestine, a new goddess who only came into being recently.” Then he looked back to Neiya. “How are you? Is everything alright?”

The horned goddess' gaze slowly drew away from Celestine at Cadien's attempt to draw her attention to other matters. When she finally focused on him, it was with a brief and theatrically hurt look, and she sighed with a familiar, forlorn bitterness. "I had a mind to visit with my beloved, though I know no longer if I'm wanted. Celestine?" She questioned with another exhalation, though extended an arm to drape onto his shoulder affectionately. Her horned herald clutched at her own heart and sighed in an attempt to match the forlorn state, but earned a shove of an elbow from one of her pale companions to snap out of it. "What manner of goddess are you, pray tell?"

Celestine’s vision nearly moved downward to examine the entirety of Neiya’s form before quickly locking itself to Neiya’s face after she realized how little the goddess wore. The clearly out of place interjection of one of the handmaidens was slightly awkward and moderately amusing but Celestine knew better than to comment on it lest she risk provoking the wrath of the people present. The other things that Cadien had mentioned about Neiya made themselves relevant in Celestine’s mind as Cadien seemed to quickly move to defuse a situation that might be brewing when Neiya furrowed her brows and began to frown.

Once their brief exchange was over Celestine grasped at the edges of her cloak like one would a skirt and curtsied to Neiya. Once she stood she would begin to answer the question posed to her. ”Greetings, Queen Neiya. I am Celestine, Goddess of Soldiers. My particular focus is on Knights. I have heard many glowing things from Cadien about you, and it is a pleasure to finally make the acquaintance.”

Celestine would then give Neiya a slight smile, though internally she hoped that her choice to focus on the good things that Cadien had said about her would do to diffuse the seemingly upset attitude that Neiya had briefly begun to gather when she found the goddess present. Having another idea come to mind, she presented an option to resolve the situation before things got too out of hand. ”If my presence disturbs anyone involved, I can certainly take my leave until later? I do not wish to intrude upon the plans of others by being present where I am not wanted.”

Neiya seemed to ignore that final comment from Celestine, and instead let her morose gaze roam the soldier goddess. Her fingertips brushed up against Cadien's cheek briefly in a show of affection, before the goddess hovered forwards towards Celestine instead. That same hand extended towards the new goddess, the back of her hand pointed flat towards the ceiling. Her chin raised to further enforce her regal affectation. "What glowing words resonated with you, Goddess of Soldiers? What did my beloved sing of me?"

Celestine kept her vision locked upon Neiya’s face as she approached. The extended hand proved to be a point of confusion for Celestine. Did Neiya want her to take it? Or perhaps it was merely kept there out of habit? Was she going to repeat the same gesture that she had done with Cadien just now? What would be the lesser offense, to take the hand or to leave it? Choosing what she hoped would be the lesser of the two offenses, Celestine opted to not take the hand and instead began to share what Cadien had said when they first met. ”When he first mentioned your name, he immediately followed it up by saying how dear you were to him. Then he also made the clarification that he found you to be beautiful, witty, and calming.”

Celestine knew that she was lying via omission, but her desire for peace and respect for Cadien led her to set aside one of the aspects of her chivalric code. As she did so, she pondered on how rigid her interpretation of such a code was. Perhaps allowing for some flexibility would be of greater benefit than sticking to so rigid of an interpretation that it caused more harm than good?

In this situation, it certainly seemed to be a wise decision.

Neiya retracted her hand with practiced grace, her eyes following Celestine's lips
as she spoke. Soon enough, she touched her own cheek and seemed to light up with a polite, faint hint of a smile. "Oh, my. What a lucky goddess I am, to have such a charming love," she breathed with a considerably less standoffish tone, before drifting backwards in the air to approach Cadien again. She gave him a brief but intense look, bumping into him gently before wrapping an arm over his shoulder. "I hope I'm not intruding on anything formal. I wouldn't want to disrupt anything."

“It is no issue,” Cadien smiled, feeling some level of relief as he wrapped an arm around Neiya in return. “Celestine and I were simply discussing a joint product. The fate of the souls of the warriors who perish on Galbar. It seems we have similar ideas, so it only seemed sensible to discuss the matter further.”

Celestine would nod at the mention of the discussion that she and Cadien had been having before the arrival of Neiya. Thinking back a few moments to recall the idea that she had put forward Celestine would take the time to reiterate what she had said. ”Indeed. As for where we left off, I would make the proposition that perhaps for the supreme victor of the overall tournament have the opportunity for reincarnation. What more could be offered to a soul that wants for nothing than the chance to live again?”

Shifting her stance slightly Celestine would finish her thought after a few moments of silence. ”We would likely have to speak with Thaa about it, since he is the overall manager of souls in the afterlife and may not be so keen to have a soul return to Galbar.”

Neiya seemed indifferent at best, Cadien's explanation quickly glazing her eyes over. By the time Celestine was elaborating, she had already decided to inspect her nails instead. "How perfectly droll, to waste so much effort for so little," she interjected with a simple sigh, still caught up with her own preening. "If I held such, I'd simply offer to fulfill their desire and be done with it. Besides, the Lord of Death is terribly long-winded. Only Yamat talks more than he."

Cadien furrowed his brow. “You speak with Yamat?”

"Hm? Oh," the goddess began, pausing to glance up to Cadien with deep blue eyes. "It's a long time ago now. He accosted me in the… square area. He gave me some advice on how to be tougher. Looking back, I… well, I'm trying to be better now." Apparently finding her own explanation satisfactory, she resumed looking at her nails.

“You could have told me about it, my love,” Cadien said. “I’ve told you before, but Yamat is not to be trusted.” He ran a hand through her hair.

Celestine had begun to move to thank Neiya for her input before Cadien stepped in to address Neiya apparently speaking with Yamat. She remembered that Cadien had held a distinct dislike of Yamat when she had visited previously and so waited to see where the discussion would lead. After it appeared to finish Celestine took a moment to speak again. ”Thank you for your input, Neiya. That is something that I had considered offering, though if the mortal requests reincarnation we would likely have to speak with Thaa about it regardless. I would not want to violate the agreement that had been laid down to attain the souls in the first place by releasing them back to Galbar without Thaa’s permission should he have an unspoken rule about such a thing.”

Celestine quietly hoped that there was no such unspoken rule, as she considered such a thing disgraceful since it often led to someone breaking the rule and incurring an unfair punishment. Thankfully, given her interactions with Thaa in the past and his overall lack of deceitful speech she gave him the benefit of the doubt in this case.

The discussion was interrupted by a light thud against one of Meliorem’s doors, followed by an even lighter thud as whatever struck it fell to the soft carpeted floor. With a puzzled expression, Cadien walked toward the door from which the sound came, and opened it.

On the floor was a rather peculiar and dazed looking bird, that Neiya would recognize as one of her own creations.

“Hm. How ever did that get in there?” Cadien asked confusedly, snapping his fingers. Just like that the bird was restored to health. It chirped happily then took flight, landing on Cadien’s shoulder and chirping again into his ear, before flying once more toward Neiya, who it began to circle excitedly.

Neiya sighed softly, extending her finger slowly to coax the little critter to land on her hand. ”Poor thing, it must have tried to get to us for so long.” Neiya brought the bird closer to her, and watched it with indifferent eyes. ”Do you like birds, Celestine? I imagine my beloved has tortured you only with facts and thoughts since your meeting.”

Celestine would look quickly to the door as a thud emanated from it. The motion caused her hair and cape to flick slightly, but they settled down shortly thereafter. As Cadien inspected the situation to find that it was just a bird that had impacted upon the door Celestine relaxed again and returned to her original orientation as the bird flew over to Neiya.

When the bird landed upon Neiya’s finger Celestine could only assume that it was a creation of hers, though she wasn’t exactly sure as it could simply be the creation of another god that was sent to interact with her. As she was asked for her opinions on birds, Celestine gave a nod and began to speak. ”Birds are pleasant beings, I have a preference for either hawks or eagles personally as they’re dependable for hunting and scouting. But birds are all overall pleasant to be around. Do you have a preferred kind of bird, Neiya? What of you, Cadien?”

“I made a species of birds long, long ago,” Cadien mused. “Well, not me. The essence that eventually became me.” He snapped his fingers again, and one such bird appeared on the table: it was bright and colourful, with its very feathers seeming to sparkle and glow. It squawked and looked about in confusion. “They’re quite common, at least on the Toraan continent. Most mortals call them glowbirds, glimmerbirds, glitterbirds, or some variation of that.”

He beckoned with his hand, and the bird swooped forward to perch on his arm. He looked to Neiya. “Perhaps I could send some to your realm, in return for what you sent to mine.”

"Of course, my love. As many as you want," Neiya cooed in response, busy with gently petting her own bird with a finger. She glanced to Celestine again. "I too enjoy hawks. I do enjoy most predators, though. They know to take their place in the world, wouldn't you agree?"

Celestine would spend a moment thinking before nodding in agreement and speaking to Neiya. ”I would have to say that I agree. They are born with a distinct purpose in life, and are designed to serve that purpose well. I suppose that in a sense they could theoretically be considered perfect since very little is wasted when it comes to their form. They need to fly? They have wings. They need to see? They have good eyes. They need to hear? They have good hearing. They need to hunt? They have talons and a beak. And so on. Everything about them has a purpose and very little is there needlessly.”

Cadien shook his head. “And yet they’re very fragile. If caught on the ground, or by a larger bird, they will not win. They have a role, and they fulfill it well, but they cannot be considered perfect while such a weakness remains. I don’t think there is a single species on Galbar that can be considered perfect, to tell the truth.”

Celestine gave a few nods to what Cadien pointed out before speaking once more. ”Of course. I was thinking too narrowly in my assessment. Thank you for your wisdom. How could they be made perfect, then? I would be interested in hearing how you achieve total perfection in a design.”

“It is both simple yet frustratingly complicated, Cadien said. “You must remove all flaws, while achieving the maximum potential of all possible strengths. Yet one must tread carefully, because new strengths may create new weaknesses, and removing one weakness may expose another." he explained, while Neiya leant in to whisper to the translucent little bird resting in her hand. It fluttered away to hide in the ceiling somewhere.

The love goddess appeared to have lost patience, hovering nearby Cadien as he kept explaining. "A truly perfect perfect species would theoretically be undefeatable, and capable of doing anything. Of course, the world would be a dull and stagnant place if all species were like that, and such a thing would be unattainable without divine aid anyhow. I’m not averse to giving mortals aid from time to time, but I find it’s better to give mortals the tools or encouragement they need to improve themselves on their own.”

Celestine raised a finger to her chin as Cadien explained the difficulties of perfection and gave a few nods of understanding. She took notice that Neiya had begun to float behind Cadien’s shoulder, and thought that perhaps she might desire to say something? Figuring that the best way to give her a chance to speak would be to ask her opinion, Celestine did just that. ”Thank you for your wisdom once again Cadien. Did you have something you wished to add, Neiya?”

Neiya raised her gaze to scrutinize Celestine, vulnerable eyes glittering in the light enough that they seemed to shift to a golden hue for just a moment. She sighed dramatically and drifted forwards, slinging both arms over Cadiens broad shoulders to embrace him from behind and look over his shoulder. "Oh, no. I couldn't. Unlike my beloved, I don't have a head for all this talk of altering mortal limitations, and perfection. I am trying to change for the better, though," she explained with a tut, and leaned her head against Cadiens. "You were a recent creation, no? Have you offered her a taste of mortal delights, my love?" Neiya continued, rapidly changing both topic and focus. Her eyes shone with intent, though kept their raw and emotional look.

Cadien frowned in puzzlement. “We have had maybe two interactions thus far, in both of which we have discussed purely practical matters. Why?”

"Why, we have a duty to educate our kin, don't you think?" the horned goddess mused as naturally as she could, but still managed to sound conspiratorial. She turned to the neiyari guard, who up until now had managed to escape her notice. "You. My child. What is your favorite food?"

That guard was none other than Dakari himself, who seemed put on the spot by the question. “Berries, your holiness,” he said, keeping his head bowed low.

The horned goddess watched him for a few moments, allowing silence to overtake the halls. When she turned her head, her expression was formal and friendly, even though she did not smile. ”That is what we shall have, then. A grand platter of all the worlds’ sweetest and most delightful berries. Oh. What about those bells you made, my love? A sweet wine would be grand, don’t you think?”

Cadien was a bit perturbed by the turn in conversation, but eventually shrugged. “Does that sound agreeable to you?” he asked Celestine. “It would be no trouble for me to summon forth food and drink.”

Celestine raised a finger to her chin momentarily. While she did enjoy the company of other gods, she also had things to manage within her realm… But at the same time this could serve as something that would serve to build bridges of alliance which would undoubtedly be good to have later. Her projects could be put on hold for a bit. Nodding, Celestine vocalized her decision. ”I will happily at least try these things. Though I must say that I cannot test such things too thoroughly as I have projects within my realm that I aim to see finished sooner rather than later given the current affairs upon Galbar.”

Lowering her hand to the pommel of her sword once again, Celestine would wait and see what Cadien and Neiya had in mind.

Cadien snapped his fingers, and an assortment of small bowls with berries and nuts from all across Galbar appeared on Meliorem’s table, along with bottles of ale and wine. “That should suffice, if you only wish for a taste.” He walked toward a bowl of red berries, and picked one up. “These are evening bells. Whoever eats them will be infused with a burst of fiery emotion. They affect everyone differently, and us gods will need to eat at least a few before we notice any difference. If you do eat them, try not to over-indulge.” He popped the berry into his mouth. “Same with the drinks, too, though we gods have a strong resistance to that as well.”

Celestine raised an eyebrow at the assortment of berries and nuts that appeared. Pacing around the table for a few short moments she gave a few nods before listening to Cadien’s explanation for the evening bells. A burst of fiery emotion? Perhaps not ever, then. Celestine did enjoy having all of her emotions thoroughly contained and accounted for. Taking a few more glances at the assortment of nuts she gently plucked one from a bowl. Holding it aloft and studying it for a moment Celestine would extend her hand towards Cadien and ask a simple question. ”Do we have a name for these? They are moderately intriguing due to their shape.”

Little did Celestine know that she was simply holding an almond.

“That’s an almond,” Cadien said. He took the bowl of evening bells in one hand and held it out to her. “You really should try a few. They’re quite delicious, and the effect shouldn’t be too extreme. Unless you were to eat the entire bowl.”

Celestine took a moment to consume the almond she had already picked up. The taste was mundane and earthy. Simple and yet appealing. She might have to see about gathering a stock of them for her Virtus Elves later. As Cadien held aloft the bowl of evening bells and encouraged her to try them Celestine relented. If they were as harmless in small amounts as Cadien insisted they were then perhaps just one wouldn’t be too terrible. Even if it was she could use the negative experience to warn her Virtus of them for when they were sent down to Galbar.

Reaching forward, Celestien took one from the bowl gingerly. Taking a moment to study it she made a few mental notes on their appearance so that she could better identify them on Galbar if needed. Then she finally placed it within her mouth and bit down. The taste of them was quickly forgotten as Celestine’s mind quickly composed an image. She saw thousands of soldiers, each of them wearing armor polished to a gleaming shine. Surrounding them stood hundreds of Death Dragons of various hues and appearances. All of them were looking up towards her, waiting to see what orders she would give.

As quickly as the image came, it went. All that was left of it was a sweet aftertaste within her mouth. Celestine’s eyes narrowed slightly as she considered the danger that such a fruit presented. It would be a long time before she would eat another. Giving a few nods towards Cadien and Neiya, Celestine commented upon her experience. ”Sweet and appealing in taste, and their effect is quite interesting. Though I will say that I find myself reluctant to indulge in them. They feel… Somewhat risky to consume while I am in the middle of seeing a plan to fruition. I would not want my designs to become more than they should be by virtue of being inflated by dreams of glory.”

After that Celestine fell silent once more to continue contemplating upon what she had experienced.

“Hm. How odd. Perhaps you have an unusually low tolerance,” Cadien mused. “But fair enough.” He extended the bowl toward Neiya. “Would you care for one as well, my love?”

Neiya, who had up until this point simply hovered in place to watch, drifted forwards to dip her hand in the bowl and scoop up a good handful. She gingerly pushed one past her lips and gazed fervently at Cadien as she popped it between her teeth. Another bell followed, and she glanced to Celestine instead. "Sometimes a little risk in a safe place can be all you need."

Celestine pondered what Neiya had said. Perhaps taking a slight risk would be a worthwhile experience? But then what if she became dependent upon them for her plans? Or, what if she became a goddess of uncontrolled passion that orchestrated plans so grand and complex that they took far too long to see to completion? Giving her head a shake, Celestine gave her a more firm answer. ”I’m afraid I must once again decline. Perhaps when I want for ideas or am at a loss for where I should direct my efforts I will indulge in them, but I do not have a mind to do so now. I do apologize if this isn’t quite what you wanted to hear, but I do not wish to see that which is nearly completed brought low by my own hubris.”

When she was finished, Celestine pondered for a moment over the way Neiya had looked at her after eating the second evening bell. What plans could she be making? Celestine could only guess, but she buried those thoughts quickly. It would not do to create an imaginary enemy out of someone that was merely curious or contemplative.

The horned goddess exhaled sharply, offering a brief display of muted amusement. "I wasn't offering, Celestine. Just a-... piece of advice. Although…" she offered softly, pressing another evening bell between her lips. "You're welcome to visit me if you ever are, at a loss, as you say. We all need a break, eventually. Except my beloved, of course-" she said, and drifted backwards to place a hand on Cadien's cheek. "He's always keeping an eye on his mortals. More than on me, I fear."

“Are we not having a break right now?” Cadien asked her, turning around to face her. “If you wish for me to visit more often, you need only to say so.” Neiya produced something that could vaguely be called a chuckle, and leaned in to kiss his cheek as her hand slipped away.

Celestine would give a nod to Neiya’s advice, and when she made an interesting offer Celestine took it under consideration. It would be interesting to see how Neiya’s realm looked in comparison to the two realms that she had seen thus far, not counting her own. Watching with only a slight amount of interest as Neiya and Cadien began to seemingly dote upon one another a bit more, Celestine took it as an invitation to perhaps see herself out so that Neiya and Cadien could more thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. Clearing her throat slightly, Celestine would bid her farewells. ”I will likely make good on that offer in time Neiya. Thank you for the invitation. I believe it would be best if I returned to my realm to tend to my plans and ensure that things are integrating smoothly. If I’m not needed then I will bid you both a good day.”

With that Celestine would grip her cape like a skirt and curtsey. When she finished the maneuver she would wait a few moments to see if anything more was to be said before seeing herself out.

Neiya blinked, drawing her gaze away from Cadien to look back to the dutiful armoured goddess. "Oh? As industrious as Cadien, I see. You certainly know how to pick your friends, my love. Perhaps I too must plan a… what was it? Competition? Hm. Do take the almonds at least, Celestine."

Celestine would give a nod at Neiya’s statement before responding with one of her own. ”I have a desire to see this finished before things progress too far upon Galbar. If I fail then I will have failed one of my chosen knights… I do not wish to see that come to pass. If you wish to join us in our plan of making tournaments then please, by all means. If we could get all of the various gods to contribute something then it could be a grand achievement indeed.”

As Neiya mentioned taking the almonds, Celestine would contemplate this for a moment before looking to Cadien and asking. ”Would you mind if I did? They are quite pleasant.”

Cadien ate a second evening bell. “By all means, go ahead,” he nodded, before consuming a third.

Celestine gave another nod before scooping up the bowl of almonds with one swift motion. Bowing her head in thanks she would speak a final time before turning on her heel and heading for her realm. ”You have my thanks. I’ll see the both of you again in time. For now, farewell.”

With that, Celestine departed. Cadien dismissed Dakari as well, and then turned to Neiya. He smirked. “So, whatever shall we do now that it’s just the two of us?” Then he recalled the presence of the Furies. “Or five of us, I suppose.”

Neiya glanced after Celestine, and then turned to gaze at her three handmaiden furies. A moment of thought seemed to have her in perfect stillness, before she broke the silence by pushing another bell into her mouth.

"You girls want to try evening bells? Don't be shy."


Nails rapped in a slow, rhythmic melody against the armrest of her throne. Neiya lounged backwards, stewing in her thoughts as a countless host of furies milled about with goods, foodstuff and weaving tools. The reconstruction of her realm had taken a lot more planning than she had thought, and the bliss of spending time with Cadien had only lasted halfway through the project. In truth, she didn't really remember what her realm had looked like. It had never mattered before.

It had taken her much too long to realize that it didn't matter now either. The furies had never seen it in it's old state, nor did she have any connection or nostalgia for anything but her trees ever in their blooming and wilting cycle. Those were returned in greater numbers, and she had ended up creating an almost endless forest of pink trees, dusting the ground with their flowers. The long and wide river returned as well, snaking across plains, hills and mountains with no real rhyme or reason beyond what was aesthetically pleasing. She made sure it would always flow gently and calmly, despite heading uphill several times, and breaking into what would have been river rapids in other places as it came back down. Finally, she created a grand palace for herself and the now sentient furies. In truth it was more like a domed coliseum, a massive recreation of her pavilion - and some borrowed ideas from Antiquity. In the middle was something akin to an open arena, and the sides were a combination of viewing balconies and domiciles - or as close an approximation as she could gather from having seen the decoration of Meliorem.

She wasn't sure what mortals truly required to live, so she'd come up with a clever ploy. While she'd been with Cadien, her three heralds had dutifully examined as much as possible of his estate. Now their observations and wants became the blueprint for all the materials necessary. Furthermore, she'd done her best to create raw materials, challenging her Furies to manage on their own. After she'd observed a few of them covering themselves with the available cloth, she gave everyone luxurious silks much like her heralds. Now, they were all running about, like a nest of ants frantically trying to get everything into order. Neiya stared quietly down into the arena, watching them as she pondered her next move. It wouldn't last long.

"My Queen! Waves of shame swell and wash over me for this offense - to disrupt the Great Lady in her peace." A voice piped up from her right, giving Neiya pause in her thoughts long enough to watch the speaker. It was her herald - the red skinned 'Our Journey is Everlasting', indolent but refreshingly simple. Neiya didn't need to ask, Journey took a simple turn to gesture to her kin, and soon enough a whole procession sidled in. Five more furies walked into her balcony, and between them they forced forward almost a dozen deep blue elves, shielding their eyes and ears to the best of their ability. "These kin appeared from across the way, ill-fated and thin. They tell a grand tale of roaring mountains and burning skies. Of a home long lost."

Neiya watched the elves and immediately recognized them as the mortals she'd taken into her realm before. She'd forgotten all about them until now. A wave of shame shot through her, watching these thin husks of the muscular elves she'd coaxed into her realm once. It took a single wave of her hand to rejuvenate them, and watch their health return. The men were confused, some praised her, but most were decidedly suspicious no matter her obvious divinity. Now all that remained was what to do with them. Why did she have them come here in the first place? Because she was curious? Neiya drew a quiet breath and focused on the distant Galbar. With a lift of her hand, the center of her arena began to ripple and twist, until the ground tore open to reveal the same lumber yard they had once left on the other side.

"You may stay, children of the night. If you wish to leave, your challenge awaits. The way home closes soon." she offered with a crisp voice that seemed to echo across the entire structure. The elves looked at each other briefly, and then more than half of them started running. Two braved the heights of the balconies, trying to cut across the structure and risking injury to climb down. A few others found the way they came, and the stairs towards the center. A wild rush followed, which briefly stalled the chaos of redecorating furies, who stopped to watch. One particularly sneaky furie went so far as to step through the portal. It was over in minutes. The elves who had chosen to leave all ran through the portal, with the last one only barely making it in.

Remaining were four men, squinting down at the arena as the procession resumed. "You have endured a great trial to stay alive, and made a grand choice to remain." Neiya pressed out calmly to address the remaining group. "You will want for nothing, now. Give them a room."

'Journey' - who had busied herself squeezing the bicep of the nearest elf perked up quickly. "My domicile will hold a grand host! Please, this way." With that, the elves vanished with her herald, and the other Furies returned to the chaos below.

The entire ordeal made Neiya feel strange. Guilty. It felt good to fix it, sure, but it mainly reminded her of all the times someone had admonished her. How stubbornly she'd done whatever she wanted. She knew what she had done. These elves weren't the only victims. The list was long. The horned goddess sighed sharply and slumped back in her seat, running a hand to adjust the shackle around her throat. Why did she care? She'd pushed it away for so long. So many ruined lives.

She was a monster. How could she ever change?

The crunch of dirt and sticks followed the two travellers in their journey through the forest, almost as loudly as the younger of the two was talking. "I'm telling you, we should have marked the trees as we passed. Teperia is supposed to be south. I'm sure we--"

"Hey, Estrid?" The bandit cut in with a tired sigh.

"Uh, yes?"

"Can we just be quiet?"

That made the horned girl grimace, and possibly raise her voice even further. "I'm sorry, Ava, maybe you should have taken a map or something from those soldiers you were so keen on robbing anyway. Maybe next time try not to get blood on everything. If you hadn't noticed I'm still basically wearing nothing but a blanket, here, and you insisted we had to leave before I could even get my shawl. In fact..."

Ava sighed and simply trampled onwards under the new deluge of verbal abuse, keeping her eyes on the wilderness ahead. If nothing else, the constant prattling scared animals away. Still, several hours of constant complaining was enough to make anyone crazy. Finally, Ava stopped to interrupt again.

"Look." She began, whipping forward to grip Estrid by the blanket. The girl let out a cry of fright, instantly shrinking together. "I'm doing my best here. I ain't wanna be here any more than you do. It's not like just 'cause you remind me we're lost, lightning's gonna strike and put us on the right--" In that moment, as clouds above seemed to darken and cover what little light they had, and a strange ripple of energy ran along her spine, Ava knew. She lifted her eyes upwards to defy the skies. "Oh, now you're lis-"

A beam of light shot down, striking both of the women with enough presence to silence the forest as far as it cast its light. When it dissipated, the women were gone.

That same beam shot down on the outskirts of the lands where Nallan had once been, frightening several innocent cattle, and leaving behind two very confused travellers.

It didn't take more than two minutes before Estrid was complaining again.

"She's no daughter of mine!" came the yell from the other room, followed by the crying pleads of her mother for calm and reason. Caitlín counted the moments in her head that they'd had this same argument. This time she'd prepared for his drunken anger by barricading the door from her side. Just as she had anticipated, his heavy fist soon slammed against the flimsy wood. "Caitlín! You'll come out--"

"Skallar, please!" came her mother's brief, pointless defence.

"Be quiet, Gwyn! -- come out here this instant if you know what's good for you!"

Caitlín rubbed at her nose and pulled her knees up against her chest where she sat leaning against the wall. Her side still hurt from his last tirade. “Go back to your sheep, old man! It's all you're good for!" she countered as loudly as she could muster. The catharsis of being spiteful was almost immediately replaced with the gnawing knowledge that she was just making it worse.

"You little hussy, I'll f--" Skallar began, the rest of his swearing unintelligible over the hard pounding of his fists on the makeshift barricade. The wooden barrier rattled under his continued assault, already threatening to give way. Caitlín wished herself far away, like she always did. She knew it didn't matter what she said. She'd been blamed for the vices of her mother since her birth, and her dark hair proved it. The fear she used to feel was replaced by a numb helplessness, even as her barricade broke apart and splintered at her side. All she could do was pull tighter into her self-embrace and hope he got bored of screaming.

His firm fingers wrapped around her arm like a biting wolf, ripping her up off the floor to yell in her face. Just then, a loud sigh rushed over her senses, brushing over her ear and through her hair. It felt as though someone embraced her from behind, a closer embrace than her mother had dared give her in years. A motherly voice crooned, drowning out the noise of the world. "You are never alone, Caitlín, daughter of Gwyn and Eòghan. The blessings I sang to him live on in you. Nothing can stop you." the voice claimed, instilling a sense of calm, even as her father… no, Skallar … screamed in her face and battled the failing attempts of her mother to intervene. Was this Naya, were the stories true? The voice confirmed what everyone knew. That thought was enough to make her smirk. Go to hell, Skallar. "Together we are invincible, my love. I'll sing you through these troubles, if you sing for me in the morning." Caitlín didn't even have to do more than think of a response before the voice sang to her, a calming and gentle melody. Sorrowful but confident. Unearthly and beautiful. Entrancing.

When Skallar's hand connected with her cheek, she didn't even feel it. Naya was singing for her. Just for her and no one else.

Neiya sat silent on her throne, trying to think of other ways to add to the world beyond without acting on her own impulses. Her mind fell back on the Luminant, and her recent encounter with the neiyari in Meliorem. She was rather fond of them, but had left their existence entirely in the hands of Aveira. Perhaps that had been a mistake, given she'd sent Aveira away. A mistake she could rectify now. So her mind centered on the spire, the Saints, and the main host of her children. Her war effort. Based on a broken promise in the realms, and a divide that Oraelia now seemed keen on mending. She'd treated the neiyari like toys, miniature soldiers to pass the time. Only now did she truly begin to reflect on how they were immune to neither sorrow nor loss. How her own need for violence had made the spiral of negative emotions worse. It would never go away, but perhaps she could mend it. With a deep, long sigh that echoed down into the hearts of her angelic children, she wished away the bitter sting of loss, the agony of sorrow, and the despair of fear. After a few moments of thought, she repeated the same for the Oraeliari. It was a momentary effort, but it would take the sting out of the maelstrom, and perhaps soothe a few hearts.

Their emotions stilled and washed away on the wind, and almost instantly she felt a brief tranquility. It was enough to almost make her smile. In that haze of peace, she twisted her fingers, and let tendrils extend from her fingertips. She spun the energies into an almost translucent little bird, no larger than her palm. It reflected the pink flowers of her realms trees and the marble of her arena. Another grew from her left hand, and then another circled around her head. Before long, a countless throng of them flew through the skies of her realm, singing a quiet and happy song.

Neiya hesitated briefly, before she sang instructions to a few of them, and they vanished out through her portal to head for Cadien's realm. And Oraelia's. (And Yamat's).

Sunkissed Miss

Oraelia walked through her portal and let out a triumphant squeal as she threw her arms out as if to hug the sun. Her form reverted to that of a golden haired woman with a large, large smile on her lips. It turned her face into a joyous expression. She had succeeded! She had done what she had once thought impossible! Neiya actually listened to her, she broke through and now… Now the world could heal, she and Gibbou could heal, Neiya could heal and the Aiviri could as well! They still needed to come up with a better solution to stop the fighting but for now it was a time of celebration!

Celebration and relaxation! Oraelia dove into the closest field of flowers and closed her eyes, remembering the experience and power that her judgement had brought her. She would do great things with it, in time, but for now. It was time for some cloud gazing.

Rhiona flew over to her as she lay in that field of flowers, watching the clouds go by. The avatar loomed over her, obscuring her view of the sky but Oraelia didn't mind. Instead, she smiled up at her.

"How did things go, my lady?" she asked with hesitance in her voice.

"Oh Rhiona! Things went much better than I expected! I broke through to her and she listened to me and now I think things are going to get better. It's wonderful and I can't wait to tell Gibbou! I should probably go see her right away actually! She seemed so upset when she left. I hope she's better now." Oraelia said with a quickness in her voice, sitting up as soon as her words left her mouth. Rhiona gave her a funny look.

"I am glad to hear that and to see you in such high spirits but um, my lady? Before you go to see your sister perhaps it might be best to deal with… Them?" she pointed past Oraelia, back over to where the portal was.

Oraelia opened her mouth to say something but then followed Rhiona's finger until she saw… Naked women? She took a closer look and realized who they were. Naked Furies! There were about a dozen of them, wide eyed as a wee babs, looking at the world in a new light. Or several new lights, as their eyes glowed different colors. With delicate fingers they touched flowers and grasses and every now and then looked over to Oraelia as if waiting for something.

"Oh." she said and flew over to them, Rhiona close behind. Most stopped what they were doing as they approached and turned their gaze to her, while a few seemed to be too fascinated with a tall sunflower to pay attention.

"Hello little ones!" Oraelia exclaimed. "Welcome to my realm! Uh, but might I ask why you've come?"

A few curious faces lit up and focused on her, and Oraelia felt the sensation of Neiya's blessing as these simple mortals scrutinized the Life Goddess and saw more than other mortals might, she could feel emotion coaxed to the surface to reveal subtle hints. Oraelia was of course almost entirely immune to such paltry things as mortal perception, but it provided a notable tingle that regular mortal sight did not. A few moments of awkward silence later, a pale horned woman - almost as white as snow, with shining golden eyes - decided to speak up when no one else did. "What path shines brighter than that walked by she who shackled the storm?" She produced in a strange, divine language. It sounded vaguely like the roots of human and merelli speech.

Oraelia was taken a back for a moment. Not from the tingling sensation she felt or because her voice was so relaxing, no for a different reason. They were here because… she clasped her hands together and gushed, "Awww, isn't that adorable! You came because of me? Oh, I love you already!" she flew closer to the pale one and inspected her, touching her face, feeling her horns and then pinching her left cheek playfully. "And what should we call you miss? Do you all have names?" she asked in a bubbly voice.

That seemed to catch the attention of a few more, and Oraelia now had the attention of a good dozen pairs of bright eyes. Hesitation ruled the group, and the pale one felt compelled to answer. "I have failed this demand for tribute. No names were brought. Perhaps allowances will be made for those found lacking to retrieve this quarry afore final judgement is made." A few nods shot through the crowd.

A reddish-brown shorter woman among them piped up. "Perhaps if these names are described a journey may be undertaken to locate them whence we came."

Oraelia put a warm smile on her face. She then gave a small chuckle and said, "Oh we have much to teach you, my darlings. Much indeed." she landed upon the ground and stretched her arms. "A name is what we and others, call ourselves. For example, I am known as Oraelia, Goddess of Sunlight. This," she pointed at Rhiona, "Is my avatar, Rhiona. Your names can come about in many ways. You may pick a name for yourself or allow us to do so. Whatever you want I'd be happy to help you."

"Pick a name for myself?" The pale one questioned, and appeared even more hesitant than before. This appeared to be a daunting task for her, and the others were happy to let her suffer the most attention.

Except the reddish one, who now had returned to gazing out over the landscape with hope and fascination in her eyes. "Oh. Mayhaps a suitable name to choose would be 'Endless Field of Flowers'." She commented as though she had just undergone a major epiphany. A wave of oohs and aahs rippled through the crowd of Furies.

"Cresting the Painted Fields!" Another exclaimed from the ranks of the dozen or so, eliciting the same response.

"Lovers Shared Breath!" A third exclaimed, and the crowd twittered with sly looks between themselves and Oraelia.

Oraelia giggled. "What wonderful names! They convey emotion and thought, which is pleasing to the ears. Come come there is much more to see in this realm of mine. A plethora of names await you." she said, grabbing the hands of the pale one and the reddish brown one and leading them all deeper into the realm. A grand tour of sorts, to inspire and amaze. They all followed her, some more willing than others, though all equally wide-eyed at the prospect of seeing a new world reveal itself to them.

They went through fields of golden grasses as tall they, with every manner of animal and bird. Some bigger then them. Then through glades of honeydew and mint with berry bushes to pluck from until the belly was full and the heart content. They walked by ponds of the freshest of waters teeming with fish and drank from the crystal depths to quench their thirst. Then shade covered them as they journeyed through forests old and new, seeing even more life that Rhiona had populated. All the time Oraelia watched with keen eyes, delighting in their faces as they discovered the world around them. Hours later they arrived at Oraelia's large house having seen only a portion of her eternal realm.

Having let go of the two furies from when they first began, Oraelia rested her hands on her hips and beamed a toothy smile at them "Well my dears, what do you think? Have you found your names?" she asked.

They spoke in hurried unison, eager to tell her their chosen names. All were as extravagant and emotional as the first, yet the pale furies' choice stood out; "Garden of Ordained Peace." She watched Oraelia with hesitant eyes even now, and seemed to have a different attitude to the fascinated and starry-eyed dozen around her. Perhaps she had seen something the others had not prior to coming here. Two furies had engaged each other in a now two-hour long debate on the merits of a name with more prose and description, and how to effectively pronounce long names. Oraelia had certainly started something.

"Garden of Ordained Peace." Oraelia whispered under her breath, looking to the pale one. She reminded her most of Neiya but there was a certain hesitance that was not Neiya. She loved the name, she loved all of their names.

She clapped her hands together to get their attention. "All of your names are perfect and beautiful. Cast aside the discussion on which is best and how to pronounce them, my little scholars. Now is the time for a bit of rest and dinner." she said. "Now watch and be still." she continued, raising her hand to her house. In an instant it, and the immediate surroundings vanished, replaced by a grass field. Then from the ground emerged tall pillars of white stone, they grew tall and wide with ornate designs of leons and stags and of flowers and sun. Followed by that was a large roof, adorned with wavy patterns and the visage of Oraelia cupping a seed in one hand and fiery orb in the other. This building grew as the land rose, creating a white staircase and rows and rows of hedges with flat areas for gardens and lounging. Water fountains erupted from the earth with stone work of the same stags and Leon's but eith more detail.

When the land at last settled and trees sprouted, what was before them stood a very large palace of Marble that began to run with lines of liquid gold between the rocks. There was another rumbling and upon a hill over yonder Oraelia's old house appeared, then with a chunk of the land it rose into the sky and stayed there as the land beneath it healed.

Oraelia grinned. "Welcome home, my Furies." she proclaimed.

The chattering chorus of squealing and amazed muttering was almost overpowering. Though the Furies maintained a general air of pride and restraint in their mannerisms, many were unable to contain their glee and abject fascination with each shift of the landscape. This grand estate seemed unlike anything these nascent sentients had ever seen, and it showed. "A grand gesture, a bastion matched in stature only by its builders heart," one of the bluer Furies - Valley of Freedom - intoned emphatically. "A sanctity that must be kept and honored."

Oraelia snapped her fingers and clothes began to cover the furies one by one. Long slender garments of white. Two small straps held them up at their shoulders and were low cut enough to reveal their more feminine features. Colorful flowers began to sprout from laurels that wrapped around their heads, smelling of warm pleasant aromas and sweet nectars. They stood before her, newly clothed and brimming with excitement. ”There, now you are clothed, and not so bare to the world. Within this palace, you will find many rooms for you to occupy and call your own. This is your home now within my realm, and yes, I do expect you to keep it well. But first, I am quite peckish and I am sure you are all hungry as well?” Oraelia began to pace back and forth, setting a finger on her chin. ”Now what should we do about that? Oh, I know!” She turned to them and waved, a gust of wind washing over them.

”You will find that I have taught you a few things. One being how to cook many delicious foods and how to forage for ingredients in the wild. What’s edible and what isn’t and those sorts of things. Some more gifts remain yet hidden, waiting to be unlocked… Now you will find that my realm is bountiful, but know this, that which is taken must be out of necessity and never excess. If one takes excessively, it must be used and not hoarded.” She gave a soft smile. ”Now a little test. Around here you will find what you need to cook a feast. When you have what you need, meet me in the kitchen. You will also find that the palace is known to you, so that you will never get lost. And remember, work together! Now, are there any questions?”

What ensued was a brief silence, followed by a chattering cacophony of questions. Many worried over the exact details of her challenge, but none stood out as particularly difficult to quickly answer with a shake of the head or a smile. A few Furies caught on quick and wasted no time in trying to both soothe the inquisitive nature of their kin, but also motivate the others to cooperate. Eventually a tenuous consensus was reached, and the confused worry adopted by a few taking the word 'test' too closely to heart was soon discarded in favour of following the gaggle of giggling girls.

Soon it seemed there was a pair of Furies around every corner, scouring every inch of the local area in an effort to analyze and take in all they could. Of course, being divine, Oraelia could hear their faint murmurs from quite a distance away - already they were deep into drawing conclusions about different types of flowers and berries based on their appearance and features. They treated it like a sporting challenge, taking to the task of assembling all manner of ingredients with jovial moods and cheery debates, while still holding a good pace. A few times Oraelia caught sight of one of them reminding others not to take too much - it was perhaps no surprise it was the pale Garden of Ordained Peace who worried about excesses.

Oraelia smiled to herself and before long began to walk up the steps to the Palace. Truth be told, she did create the thing but it was still exciting to see up close. She left the Furies in good hands, knowing they would come to her when they were ready (It wasn't like she couldn't hear them and their chatter anyways). So she wandered through the long empty halls, taller then even trees and she looked out long windows to see a wondrous view of golden fields and she sampled the glistening bathrooms, the empty dining halls, the comfy bedrooms and found herself at last within the main kitchen room. A large interior lit well by windows. It was a modest place full of tools that may have been a bit beyond anything on Galbar that she knew of but still retained a feeling of the times. She walked towards the entrance of the room, hearing feet walking up the corridors.

The first of the Furies barreled through the halls with a load full of fruits. Her happy expression froze when she came upon Oraelia, as her body followed suit and locked in place out of respect, reverence, or fear. The small mountain of citrus fruits burst from her precarious grip, and rolled all over the corridor.

"Ack! A great blemish I have inflicted on this domain. Pray forgive me, O' virtue incarnate." She spoke in half-song as her sky blue skin blushed darker, before rushing to pick up her rolling fugitives. Behind her came a flood of Furies, all but a few repeating the pattern of stopping dead in their tracks when they came upon her, but less clumsy with their bounty.

Oraelia gushed, "Oh no my darling, I scared you. Please forgive me! Here, let me help!" The goddess chimed, helping pick up the fruit. "The rest of you can carry on inside and start. Remember, accidents happen and one should always be willing to help make things right, even if they had nothing to do with it."

The blushing furie said nothing but smiled warmly to herself as she collected all of her lost fruits with Oraelia's help. An errant mutter reached her ears, basic envy among the others for getting to spend time with 'Our Lady', but it didn't seem all that malicious as the others quickly made their way further into the palace chatting away. When Oraelia picked up the last round escapee, the blue-horned girl dared to speak again. "Your home is much nicer than our birthplace…"

Oraelia looked upon her with a thoughtful expression. "Not all things are so nice as where we find ourselves eventually. Your… Creator… Mother?" she shook her head. "Do not think terribly of Neiya. Hers is a complicated history full of pain and sorrow. I hope to one day help her truly realize she can be something else then what she was born to be." She smiled at the fury. "I think you and your kind are proof of that. Now come, we mustn't keep the others waiting for too long."

The horned girl nodded twice and - having learned nothing from her previous behavior - rushed down the hall to join the others with the same speed that had culminated in middling catastrophe just before. Naturally, keeping up would never be a match for a deity, but they were capable of considerable bursts of speed. They were certainly spry, almost imbued with a relentless drive to engage in each activity with their full attention and passion.

Soon enough the chattering turned to a clatter and jovial talks as well as traded tips and conclusions on cooking. The talent appeared to come naturally after Oraelia's initial assistance, and now all but a few of them were avidly figuring things out on the fly, and whipping up possible dishes and techniques with mere taste testing. The few Furies that did not manage the same level quickly adopted a supportive role, unselfishly accepting their lack of skill as cooking masters. The recently raised palace soon carried a strong and inviting fragrance of fresh herbs, ripe fruit, and exotic blends of spice. In record time - and with almost no help - the furies whipped up a truly massive feast of all the bounties the realm had been willing to offer. It was immediately evident - and had been during cooking - that unless Oraelia ate for ten, there was way too much food prepared. An excess indeed.

Regardless, the Goddess made no mention of this and instead guided them to dish the food and bring it out to the dining room, where she waited at the head of the table. And so the Furies brought their succulent foods out and arranged them on that long table to the brim. When that was done, Oraelia bid them to sit. "What wonderful work my lovely little doves. I think some important lessons were learned today so before we eat, would anyone like to speak?" she asked in a reassuring voice, eyes falling on Garden of Ordained Peace.

The pale woman seemed immediately weighed down by the implicit attention leveled her way, and fidgeted in place. A few other Furies seemed to realize only now how much food there truly was, and Garden herself glanced at the long table conscientiously. "...Do not collect to excess, do not waste…" she began, lifting a hand to her cheek. Her glowing gaze lifted to behold her comrades, who had begun to shift their own eagerness into frowns as they realized their lack of thoughtfulness. Garden of Ordained Peace widened her eyes and looked towards Oraelia, though did not have the confidence to meet her gaze. "Alas, it is not so that the challenge laid upon us has not been met. In our vigor to please Our Lady much food has been made - all the better to invite more guests."

The Goddess' lips slowly turned into a smile. "An excellent idea! I feared, as I wandered this palace, I made it too large for so few. But… Let this be a lesson and not a punishment for excess. There are many solutions to the problems we face. Never be afraid to let your ideas be known. Now, shall I invite more of your kind to my realm?" she asked.

A long string of oohs and agreement ran through the crowd. The pale Garden seemed to smile to herself in a brief moment of joy, and nodded slowly. Of course, it didn't take long for her reddish-brown comrade from earlier to step in with her own thoughts, blind to the subtler side. "A grand feast for as many as wish to come! Perhaps even the Songstress, our maker, will come to participate!"

Oraelia gave a small nod in turn. "Well, I suppose I can ask her to come but I wouldn't get your hopes up my doves. Now, if you'll excuse me for one moment." she said, getting up from her seat and walking back into the kitchen. As soon as she was out of sight of the Furies, Oraelia became visibly panicked. Could she really ask Neiya? Was it too soon? She let out a small breath and then steadied herself. She couldn't let her Furies down. So she sent her thoughts towards the Goddess of Love.

"Neiya… I've a favor to ask…"

Despite having only spoken with Neiya a few times, there was a noticeable delay that was now becoming standard. She could tie it now to the struggling goddesses' thought process, no doubt going through the same wracking doubt no matter the situation. As expected, a brief sensation was returned, followed by the thoughts of the horned love goddess. "...Oraelia? What's the matter?

There was a lot she wanted to say. Things she probably needed to say but Oraelia's confidence faltered as she felt Neiya’s presence. So she said the first thing that came to mind. "I-I need more Furies!" she blurted then winced at herself.

"..O-Oh.” Neiya replied almost immediately, filling the void with an enigmatic breath before silence took over again. The delay was murder. When her words returned, they were steeled with the cold grace of the frowning goddess. "Of course. I’ll let them know they are welcome in your realm.”

"You are too! I mean, we're throwing a feast and they asked if I could invite you! But I want you to come! But only if you want too!" She slapped herself and took a deep breath. "They're really precious and and… Uh… Thank you for making them, Neiya."

"...Thank you, but there’s someone I have to see. Maybe next time, Oraelia.” came the response, filled with promise and sadness alike. ”I’ll send as many Furies as I can. They deserve a good life.”

"O-" Oraelia started.

No more could be said before one of the furies burst into the kitchen, taking a deep breath before trying to compose herself and appear at least a little graceful before a goddess. “Hark! Cresting the Painted Fields is trying to argue it is a matter of course to begin the feast early given our sizable number. Garden of Ordained Peace mounts a valiant defense of mind and logic, but a ruling is required, O’ Brightest.”

She turned to Treads Before the Dawn, and for a moment her face was blank. She blinked then laughed, "Oh my, well, let's go give a ruling then, yeah?" she said, following after the Fury, mind thinking of Neiya for a moment before the smells of food brought her back to task at hand.

Oh and how she loved them.



Mekellos stood tapping his foot in Acadia’s central square. A host of soldiers had been assembled behind him, with King Hugon at their head, all equipped and ready for a long march. The Avatar himself wore simple bronze plate, but his height and his unnatural hair colour were more than enough to distinguish himself from the rest. As he waited, one single question lingered on his mind.

“Where is she?”

Almost as if on cue, the city stirred with surprised murmurs and calls for attention. The reason quickly became clear; above the distant treeline to the northwest came a winged figure, with broad and colorful wings beating to bring the shape closer with worryingly quick speed. It wasn't long before Mekellos got a clean look at the tall, horned woman with blue, black and gold wings. She was dressed in what looked like brass plates and black and grey fabrics, and wearing a simple brass circlet with points that made it look like a crown. A moment or two later, a massive wingspan swept through the air near him, whipping up a gust of air and sand as the woman touched down.

“Aveira, is it?” Mekellos asked as he stepped toward the winged figure, as the King of Acadia and his soldiers knelt. “You’ve joined us at last.”

A stern gaze fell on the avatar of Cadien, Aveira's frowning face a disruption of the otherwise inviting form she'd taken. "I had to see to matters beyond the waters. Can't leave a task half-finished." Her gaze fell out over the assembled soldiers as she spoke, and her expression twisted to bemused delight. "You've brought warriors. How delightful. How many of them have seen combat in the past?"

“There are four hundred,” Mekellos revealed. “Half of them have already participated in raids across the river. The other half are untested, but their training is complete, and when the time comes they will stand.”

The winged avatar scanned the assembled faces with a second moment of scrutiny, lingering briefly on King Hugon. "I look forward to seeing their prowess. I may have to extend a reward to the truly skilled." she offered with no apparent predilection for lingering much longer. "That aside, I'll ask you to take the lead. My Mistress has asked me to assist in whatever plan it is Cadien wills."

Mekellos nodded, and gestured for his men to rise. “We march for the docks!” he declared.

At the docks, forty boats awaited. Most of them could carry at least a dozen men, while the rest were laden with supplies and provisions. The men and women of Acadia wasted no time in boarding the small crafts.

“The Acadians launch raids rather frequently,” Mekellos explained to Aveira, as they watched the process unfold. “It’s meant to prevent the Iskrill from getting too secure a presence along the river bank, so the Iskrill cannot launch raids in return. It has been mostly successful, but the Iskrill have larger settlements deeper inland. They craft their boats there, then carry them to the river bank. It takes longer, but it allows them to make the occasional incursion on Acadian soil.”

“I’ve already scouted the river, and sighted a small iskrill encampment. Our aim is to destroy it, then advance inland and eradicate as many iskrill as we can find. Once that is done, the Acadians will lay the ground for a more permanent outpost, to threaten the abominations more directly.”

Aveira rolled her shoulders expectantly and provided a thin smile. Massive wings shimmering in blue, black and gold spread out on each side, and a single powerful beat lifted her feet up off of the ground. "That's fine by me. We'll push as far as your mortals can handle."

They embarked on the journey soon after, and it passed mostly in silence as the disciplined Acadian oarsmen rowed the vessels across. Said silence was only broken up by Mekellos’s occasional attempt at conversation with Aveira. The winged avatar turned out to be a relatively poor conversational partner, responding in short sentences that gave no clear way to continue. The only thing she responded well to was strategy, it seemed.

Finally, the iskrill camp came within sight. There were no more than a few dozen, and upon sight of the Acadian ships they were already beginning to panic. No doubt they would have vanished into the forest by the time the Acadians were actually in a position to disembark.

Without warning, Mekellos vaulted over the edge of his boat and began sprinting across the water as if it was solid ground. Within moments, he was at the camp, a blade materializing in his hand. Behind him, the sound of wings overpowered the sounds of the sea as Aveira lifted into the sky.

Letting out guttural battlecries, the iskrill met Mekellos’s charge; they had no true idea what they were dealing with. With reflexes and strength that only the Avatar of the God of Physical Perfection could attain, he leapt into the air and delivered a spinning kick that didn’t so much as cave in an iskrill’s head as completely disintegrate it. The moment he landed, he lashed out with his blade, cleaving another iskrill in two, and then became a whirlwind. He didn’t even need to block or evade their strikes, for nothing they had could harm him. Within seconds, most of the group had been eviscerated and the rest were fleeing… only to be trampled by a Hunter that came charging at him with a roar.

The avatar stood his ground, and met the charge with a punch that not only halted the creature in its tracks, but pierced its skull and struck deep into its brain. Mekellos grunted in disgust as he pulled his arm free.

Now the iskrill were fleeing en masse, running off in every direction. A few reached the nearby treeline, seeking safety amidst the underbrush. Safety did not last long however, as a scant few came rushing back out. Behind them expanded massive wings, snapping and bending dense woodland and tilting weak trees as they gave way to a colorful display of wings. The Avatar of Neiya emerged some metres above the ground, speaking with a reverberating voice that would not have carried far enough were it not for Mekellos' hearing. It was a simple demand for them to accept their fate. The voice niggled even in his mind, giving a sensation of divine essence. The result to mortal ears became readily apparent as the fleeing iskrill screamed in abject fear, fell to the ground in bleak search for safety, or straight up fell lifeless from shock. Before bodies had hit the ground, Aveira's massive wingspan had already carried her towards the next group of fleeing creatures. Among them as well, catatonic terror was the best they could hope for, it seemed.

The ‘fight’ - more of a massacre, really - ended soon after. Every single iskrill within the camp had been slain. “Well done,” Mekellos nodded in Aveira’s destruction. “Though, that was hardly a true test of our talents. No matter. There are greater fights ahead, I suppose.”

The winged woman turned to regard Mekellos with an appraising eye, releasing the limp being in her hand from her grip, and letting the iskrill fall several meters to the ground. "Mortals will never test our limitations, Cadienson. But they make for an adequate distraction. Is this where you wish your mortals to establish themselves?"

He nodded, before turning to the river. The warriors of Acadia had finally reached the riverbank, and were already disembarking. Some looked disappointed to have missed out on the fight, but most were in awe. “There will be more fights to come,” Mekellos declared. “Bring me the map.”

One of the soldiers complied, bringing a roll of rough parchment. He handed it to the avatar, bowed, and then stepped away. Mekellos unrolled it, and showed it to Aveira. It was a map of the lands west of the river. “There are three settlements nearby,” he told her. “Once they become aware of our presence, they will no doubt attempt to raid whatever outpost we establish, or inform the rest of their kind. I believe we can wipe them all out at once. King Hugon and his men shall advance alone on the closest one, which leaves the two remainders for us to split up and deal with. Which one do you want?”

The question was more a courtesy than anything else. The two remaining markers were roughly the same distance away, and there was nothing to indicate that one would be particularly easy or difficult compared to the other.

Aveira gestured briskly towards the northernmost of the two remaining encampments on the map. "Any particular wishes on method?"

“No survivors.”

King Hugon and his four hundred men marched through the woods.

Marching through woods, in his experience, was always something easier said than done, and this instance was no different. Maintaining an organized formation was almost impossible, due to the need to step around trees and over roots, and attempting to mask their approach was equally daunting. Twigs snapped all around, creating a sound reminiscent to that of a cooking fire, and armour clanged lightly as the metal shuffled or men bumped into each other.

Thankfully he had scouts ranging ahead, to both kill any iskrill who might sight them, and to warn them of any forces attempting to intercept them. He didn’t think the enemy was aware of their presence just yet, but one could never be careful.

As he marched, the aging King’s thoughts drifted back to home. His sons were all grown men now, and the eldest was ready to replace him, with all the responsibilities such a thing would entail. Not that there were much responsibilities these things. In the thirteen years since Mekellos had arrived, the Avatar had more or less had the final say on everything. The Avatar rarely forced people to adopt his judgement, but most went along with his words anyway simply due to the fact that Mekellos spoke for their city’s patron. Anyone who publicly argued against the Avatar would suffer a loss in standing, if not with Mekellos himself than with the city as a whole.

In some ways, it was refreshing to be deployed like this; away from Mekellos’s sight. The avatar himself had ordered it, but at least he had been given independent command, which meant he could decide how best to approach the camp.

From time to time they passed the body of an iskrill, indicating that his forward-ranging scouts had successfully brought down someone who would have otherwise spotted and attacked them. But then one scout came back to report that an iskrill had sighted them but got away, and Hugon knew the element of surprise would soon be lost.

Another scout came back to him less than an hour later, informing him that they had sighted the camp. The iskrill had still not had time to flee or build additional fortifications. Hugon wondered if they knew just how many Acadians had crossed the river. The iskrill who sighted them wouldn’t have been able to glimpse the entirety of their force, after all.

The village, the scout said, was surrounded by a low wooden pallisade, only slightly higher than a tall man. There were two entrances with no gates; only crude barricades. All gates were heavily guarded, however, and the iskrill had sentries in their own keeping an eye eastward. A few scouts had even been defeated by said sentries, surprisingly enough.

The scouts did not know how many iskrill lived within, but he doubted that the village’s population outnumbered the small army he had brought.

So, Hugon gathered his officers and mages, and together they devised a plan.

“For Cadien and Acadia! Charge!”

Three hundred Acadians thundered out of the forest, their eyes set on the main entrance. The iskrill atop a crude watchtower next to the entrance shouted cries of alarm, and began unleashing slingstones and arrows at the attackers, while iskrill warriors assembled behind the barricade.

But the Acadian mages had joined the charge. With some quick hand gestures, the barricade exploded, send wooden fragments back into the eyes, throats, and stomachs of the defending iskrill.

But the iskrill had surprises of their own. As the warriors of Acadia neared, a bloated abomination pushed his way past his wounded and fallen comrades. Recognizing this particular type of beast for what it was, Hugon hung back, allowing a few of his men to pass him before he resumed his charge. The abomination opened its mouth and spewed forth a vile green substance, striking four men in the face and dissolving their flesh down to skull.

But it was not enough to stem the tide of Acadians. They surged through the opening, cutting down the fat beast, finishing off those who had been wounded by the explosion of wood, only to find themselves face to face with more defenders, who fought them with tooth, claw, and spear.

The crack of wood was heard elsewhere, and Hugon knew his flanking force was about to join the fray. Instead of attacking an entrance, he had sent his one hundred other men to attack a section of the wall, the mages in that detachment using their power to tear it down so they could swarm into an unguarded section of the settlement.

He heard a shout of alarm at the rear of his host, but could not see what was happening. Had the iskrill performed a flanking maneuver on their own? He had no way of knowing, because the man in front of him had just died, pushed aside by another savage iskrill, and Hugon was forced to fight for his life.

The fight went on for only a few more moments before the Iskrill finally broke, fleeing deeper into the village. Hugon allowed his men to pursue, but stayed back once again, and only when all had passed him was he able to turn back and see what had happened in the rear.

What he saw was the bodies of two iskrill hunters. Eight men lay dead around them, another two were greviously wounded, and a dozen or so Acadians were on their feet, either talking amongst themselves or attempting to attend to the wounded. It didn’t take a genius to know what had happened; the hunters had lurked outside the village, somehow evaded the scouts, and struck the Acadians in the rear when they had committed themselves.

He looked back to the village, which was already beginning to burn as the iskrill inside were hunted down and exterminated. He wondered how many would escape. He had been ordered to leave no survivors, but such an order was nothing if not unrealistic. There were always going to be those who survived; those who played dead, hid, were already outside the village when the attack happened, or knew of some escape route the attackers didn’t. They were all common enough occurrences when the Iskrill raided Acadian villages, so he didn’t see why the inverse should be different.

But just to be sure, Hugon had the village burned anyway, and had his men surround it so they could pick off any who tried to flee. And indeed, some did, only to be shot by archers, blasted with magic, or impaled on spears.

The village was still smoking when a sharp light stirred a collection of soldiers, and drew attention to the assembled treetops. Like a beacon, a grand pillar of blue, white and purple rose into the sky, a beam from on high illuminating a distant location. Then as soon as it appeared, it faded. A few moments of confusion spread amongst the ranks, before a loud rumble rolled in with the clouds, like thunder called from on high. It came with its own quakes, the very ground shaking as the roaring sound rolled past. It too faded eventually, leaving a now unsettling silence in its place. It had been too far away to investigate - and none seemed too keen to head in its direction.

It was not long after that large wings spread out over the sky, rapidly approaching from the same direction as the beam of energy. The servant of the Lover approached like a giant hawk swooping down from the sky. Without real patience for those assembled around the smoking village, Aveira slammed down in the middle of the camp mere minutes after the trouble on the horizon, whipping up dust, dirt and blood as she landed.

The Acadian soldiers knelt upon recognizing her, their king included. “The iskrill have been dealt with, my lady,” Hugon reported.

Aveira cast a sharp look at the assembled soldiers and frowned, almost as if his words reminded her of their presence. Her gaze settled on the King, and she sauntered closer with a straight back, bringing the tall avatar closer to the kneeling soldiers. "Casualties? How far will your… hunting party… be able to press?"

“We lost two dozen men,” Hugon reported. “Some Hunters caught us off guard. We can press further. Maybe sack another village before nightfall. But at some point we’ll need to dig in for the night.”

The winged avatar raised her gaze to the sky, staring up at the sun to idly gauge the time left in the day. "I suppose Cadien's dog will have an opinion." she gave with an impassive tone, before focusing back on the King. "The Lady would like me to bestow an honor on those who excel. I trust you to make an adequate selection."

Hugon furrowed his brow at the insult toward Cadien’s avatar, but did not protest. “May I ask what sort of honour you have in mind?”

"Yes. Given your predicament with these savage creatures and the importance of valuable resources, it only makes sense to boost their effectiveness. Neiya decrees success in war as much as love." Aveira replied stiffly, gaze falling on the kneeling troops. "You may stand."

The Acadians rose to their feet. “How many do you wish for me to select?” Hugon asked.

Aveira focused back on the king, and with a single beat of her massive wings closed the distance between them - and sent a wave of force over the ranks in the process. She lifted her hand to place on his shoulder, and set her eyes on his. "Any number, King Hugon. But what makes them worthy, and is it worth risking ire in the face of divinity?"

Hugon’s eyebrows rose at the implied threat. It seemed he could name as many as he wished, provided he had a valid reason, but if he did not it would anger her. But how many was too many, and what did she consider worthy? This was a test. “Every man and woman who stands before you is worthy,” he declared, loud enough for all of them to hear. “Every one of them has come to defend their homeland to and destroy its enemies. They have all put their lives at risk, and will continue to do so in the days to come.” A few smiled, pleased to receive such a compliment from their King.

But Hugon was not finished. “Unlike the Iskrill scourge, we Acadians fight as cohesive units, not as individuals. The Flameweaver did not drive them back alone. Even the greatest warriors, mages, and heroes among us would accomplish little without the comrades who stand beside them. It is for these reasons that I must select them all.”

Aveira straightened out slowly, scrutinizing the king as he faced her down with fresh resolve. Her extended hand lifted into the sky, and around her fingertips tendrils of light touched and spun in the air. The tendrils grew to a vortex, until it exploded out over the entire remnants of the village, showering each and every soldier with a golden sheen. Under the coating of light, wounds and injuries began to heal, with only the most grievous damage left after the healing energy had run its course. Further, the energy seemed to seep into their pores, steeling their resolve and dispelling fickle doubts and fears.

"Soldiers of Acadia! Your king has trusted you with the fate of his city," she called, voice carrying far and wide about the camp. "Know that while you fight for Acadia, Neiya herself stands by your side. Honour your rulers, and honour your gods."

The Acadians let out a cheer, slamming the butts of their spears against the ground in unison. Hugon nodded gratefully.

“Ah, you’re both already here!” Mekellos suddenly spoke, stepping out of the trees. “Very good. Shall we carry on?”

Cold Shoulder

Even though Kia had been mostly laid out resting and recovering, it had been a relentless set of days. It took Oruna almost a full two days before she came back to see her, sending another young girl who dared not even speak to Kia in her own stead to check on her wounds. Attempts at conversing with passing villagers earned her only flustered stares and murmuring. When Oruna returned, she did so with renewed conviction. Now not only did Kia have to maintain her composure around the pungent smells of whatever strange herbal mixes they were smearing on her bruises, but also keep her cool whilst being barraged by questions about her gifts. Oruna had many ideas about the nature of Kia's gifts with ice, and none were particularly close to the truth. Her questions in turn related mainly to what ice was, and where it came from. As an added benefit, the jungle woman now seemed to put more stock in Kia's words whenever she mentioned the goddess of the past - or at least she no longer dismissed it as false.

On the third day of this interrogative care, the village renewed itself with a hubbub unlike any Kia had seen. She was crawling with anticipation and perhaps anxiety. She didn't know what was going on and it showed in her never ending barrage of questions. Oruna, who had seemed to be in a better mood than previous days, laughed off most of her questions with variations of the same response; the hunters had returned. The same afternoon two women caked in dried paint and mud came to see her, and though they seemed to have no interest in properly introducing themselves, Kia could infer from their hectic conversation and Oruna's responses that these were the women who found her in the forest. No questions or comments were levied straight at Kia, it was almost like she didn't exist except to be looked at. They poked and prodded at her, and one of them extended thin fingers to press against her cheeks and grinning demonstratively to try and get Kia to show her teeth.

“You could ask, you know.” Kia muttered, baring her teeth for them to see.

Almost immediately, two rough thumbs shot up against her lip to push it up further, and the athletic woman began a quick investigation, forcefully moving Kia's head to and fro as she inspected her teeth, nose and eyes. Finally she let go and released a verdict to Oruna loud enough for Kia to hear: "Good enough stock. Western, perhaps."

Oruna seemed pleased by this, and her eyes met Kia's conspiratorially, mischief clear in her gaze. Given the previous few days, it wasn't hard to imagine gears were turning in her head, rife with new opportunities. As the two huntresses began to depart, they deigned to bring up another fact - again only available to Kia by way of eavesdropping; the beast she had fought in the jungle was apparently called a Koreet, and few came out of a lone encounter with such a beast with any hopes of survival.

Koreet. Now that was a word that sounded dangerous and she had… Killed one? She shook her head, repressing bad memories. She turned to look at the older woman, "Oruna what do they mean? Western stock? Is that good or bad?" She asked, rubbing her sore gums.

Oruna watched the women round a nearby hut before turning her head to look back to Kia, and offering her another pleased smile through her heavy face paint. "They think you are from the border clans, close to the great wastes. They are prized among wealthy men, very frail. We," she gestured at the two of them greedily. "We know better of course. Perhaps your god has put you here for a good purpose, Keeah."

"I'm not frail." She muttered under her breath.

Her response elicited an amused tut from Oruna, who leaned forward to ruffle her hair. “Not all predators look frightening, Keeah. Now rest. Tomorrow, I take you before Za’watem Etana. Just follow me, I have a plan. Hm?”

Kia blushed as Oruna touched her and looked to the floor, mumbling. "You're not going to tell me the plan, are you?" Oruna just smiled mischievously.

The buzzing of insects diving in past her ears made Kia infinitely more aware of how poor a state of dress she was in. Oruna had given her a basic rough cover to wrap around her body, but had immediately demanded she bare her neck and shoulders. The canopy of trees and basic shelter did little to prevent the sun’s scorching rays, and she felt the sweltering heat drain away her energy little by little. She could feel what little water she had drunk run along her skin in sweat. To make matters worse, a tickling brush of animal hair danced teasingly against her neck and throat, as Oruna applied some kind of foul-smelling mixture from a bowl. It was only slightly darker than the huntress’ own paint, but also looked grainier. At a guess Kia could assume it was cheaper, or at least lower quality.

“Don’t move so much,” Oruna complained absent-mindedly, tickling the brush against her throat, despite the fact that Kia hadn’t moved at all. Or not much, at least.

“I- The brush tickles me.” Kia complained likewise. “What even is this stuff?” She asked, crossing her arms.

“The blessing of the Water and Sun, from my ancestors. Like mine, yes?” Oruna answered matter-of-factly, neglecting to touch on the fact that she was covered in painted symbols, none of which looked remotely like anything like water or the sun. “Like I told you, it is dangerous to wear no symbols. You will become marked, walking in the wrong place. Especially this close to Zuanwa. The Daughter of the Water asks many slaves in tribute each passing of the moon. I do not doubt many die to build her strange structures.”

"Daughter of the Water… Who is that? What are these strange structures?" Kia asked, forgetting about her 'blessings.'

Oruna scoffed quietly, keeping her eyes on Kia's neck. The brush twirled and shifted against skin slowly. "Za'watem Uraka. She rules the great city now that her father has been collected by the Great Hunter. Through her the world speaks, and she rules from a giant stack of stones. Now she is building more of them."

Fantastical thoughts filled Kia's head as she thought about a great city of stone. How did it work? How could such a thing even be made? How many people must live there? She found herself smirking and she asked, "But why Oruna? It all sounds soooo, make believe. Does a village like that actually exist?"

Firm fingers corrected her head and tilted it slightly upwards as Oruna hummed a response before speaking. "It is like twenty villages, with stone that reaches above the trees. Large rivers herded by square stones. Where the paint flows like water. I have only seen it once, but perhaps you will have a chance to see it."

“You think so Oruna? I can hardly imagine it, but to see it with my own two eyes? It would be… Wonderful.” she said in a small voice, cheeks blushing red. What was she saying? How foolish was she?

"And done!" Oruna exclaimed with a sigh of relief, leaning away as she removed the brush from Kia's neck. "Now you are almost perfect." Oruna gave her a cursory peer of scrutiny before rustling up from her seat to walk over to the hut to the right of the shelter - which Kia had come to understand belonged to Oruna. She reappeared in moments, throwing a bundle of leather and fabric at her. It was a single broad strap to pull around her torso, and a thin leather clasp with two red sheets of thin fabric hanging from them. As far as clothes came, this was the least there was.

Kia looked them over in her hands, feeling the fabric. Up until now she had mostly worn blankets and sheets to cover herself. These looked… Very revealing. “Y-You want m-me to w-wear these?” She stammered, feeling her heartbeat quicken.

"Too big?" Oruna replied idly. "I only have what I wear. Maybe you can tighten them. Or, are you worried about skin?"

“I- Um…” Kia seemed to freeze up. It was one thing to wear little in the company of the one who saved her, who also happened to be a woman- but to wear so little outside in the public eye. She turned beat red. “S-Skin… Oruna… I’m not used to… t-this.”

The huntress looked more amused than anything else, watching Kia quietly freak out in front of her. Without another word she headed back into her hut, coming back out with a modest bundle of orange fur speckled with black and brown spots. She dumped it together with the rest of the 'clothes'. "Perhaps for the best. You are so bright, maybe Etana will lose her eyes if you are not covered. Do not cover your neck, yes?"

She gave a quiet sigh of relief and traded the clothes she held for more comforting ones. She gave Oruna a small nod of thanks. “Don’t cover my neck, got it.” She said, donning the furs. These did well to cover almost every part of her besides her neck. She then put her hair up into a messy bun and looked to Oruna for any sign of approval. Another silly thought, by any means. She hardly knew her, really and yet… What was she wanting?

Oruna hemmed and hawed briefly, giving Kia a proper lookover. After a moment of thought she leaned down for the bowl of colorful dye once more, dipping her finger in it before moving up to Kia. With a decisive motion, she pushed her finger against Kia's nose and dragged it down along its shape, coating her skin in more of the dye. She moved swiftly to drag quick lines gently over both her cheeks as well. "There."

“What are those for?” Kia asked.

"Make you less bright, show less skin." Oruna lectured with a sagely tone. "When Etana speaks, do not interrupt. She is an unpleasant woman in many ways, but the spirits have chosen her."

“Okay.” Kia said. “But why is she unpleasant?”

Despite having spent several days in the village, Kia was seeing the rest of the village for the first time. A mishmash of shelters, clay huts, and wooden dens built into the underbrush made up the majority of living space, and a river cut through the jungle on one side. With it came a clear view of other structures in the distance much like this village - other small settlements dotted around the river.

At the centre of this village however was a single building of light-coloured stone, though it's denomination as such was hinged entirely on a thin ceiling of hung cloth, without which it'd be more akin to an altar cornered by pillars of stone. In the middle of this altar, situated atop a small mound of furs and packed clay, sat chieftess Etana.

The chieftess was a frail-looking woman, with shoulders half as broad as Oruna's and a slim shape less athletic than Kia herself. Her dark skin was painted from head to toe in swirling red and yellow patterns that looked like dried blood and mud, save for her face which had long intricate lines of blue. She was more paint than person, save for a simple skirt of leaves and loincloth. Her head turned as her gaze fixed on the recent arrival of Oruna and Kia, alongside the two huntresses that had come to inspect her the day prior. Her eyes were coiled and drawn out like arrowheads, and half her face had been left unpainted despite her station. The reason became obvious as soon as Kia looked closer - her dark skin gave way to pale patches of skin, as pale as Kia’s own, dotted in erratic clusters over her face and neck. The natural skin pattern had been reverently left alone, as if to further draw attention to it. The chieftess craned her neck forward inquisitively as Oruna urged Kia forward, and the both of them came to a halt right before the small altar. A brief silence reigned, as the chieftess stared at them expectantly, her narrow eyes digging into Kia.

“Oh. Chieftess Etana, Wisdom of the Skies, Most Humble of Rulers, please accept our presence,” Oruna began, clearing her throat after a few moments of thought. “You desired to see the girl that battled the jungle - here she is.” Kia felt Oruna’s fingers dig into her hair, guiding her head backwards to lift her chin towards Etana.

The chieftess gazed at Kia with a seething suspicion that somehow felt too personal - too interested in more than her face. When she said nothing, Oruna continued. “It has been a true trial to guide her back from the brink. She is lucky to have been gracefully saved by your magnanimous mercy, Chieftess.”

Silence took over as Etana continued staring, before lifting a single hand. “Come to me.”

With some reluctance and a prodding from Oruna, Kia stepped forward to The chieftess. She was nervous and it showed as she looked to the ground at her feet. Dirt was traded for firm rock as she climbed the small stone ingress, coaxed up to face Etana head on. Brown eyes burrowed deep into her soul, and the chieftess kept her hand outstretched no matter how close she dared step. Kia took one step too many and the frail Etana gripped her wrist and pulled, demanding her closer. "She is already painted? This is your doing, Oruna?" She exclaimed as her gaze fixated on her neck.

Kia heard Oruna behind her - she sounded so distant now. "As gratitude for my care, she has pledged her life to me. It would have been most unkind of me to reject her."

"Truly?" Etana mused with a frown, and lifted her gaze to stare straight at Kia's face. "You cast yourself into the service of Ta'zesh Oruna? You would have a better life with me." The chieftess explained with a certain intensity, all too clear from the continued grip on Kia's wrist.

“I-I wish to be with Oruna.” Kia said in a small voice. The Chieftess’ touch was warm, even a bit clammy and it was a feeling Kia did not like. She said nothing else though, for fear she might say something offensive or wrong. She just wanted to be with Oruna, she had been nice to her and healed her. The thought of being with Etana was… Something she did not want.

Her reply seemed to send the chieftess into a deep frown, and her gaze shifted past Kia again, back to acknowledging Oruna in her stead. “What are you planning, Oruna? Not satisfied with your lot? And you two,” she snapped quickly, turning her attention to the two hunters who had come along. “Why did you come to Oruna and not me with this girl?”

“She was dying, Za’watem. Since Za’wal Renek and his apprentices are out of the village, Oruna was the-...”

“That’s enough. I won’t hear any more of these obstinate lies.” Etana interrupted, and Kia could feel her grip on her wrist intensifying. Heavy and irritated breaths fell loud enough to hear, and her eyes seemed to carry a building fury of her own making.

“There’s no need to worry, Za’watem Etana,” Oruna cut in from the steps of the small altar, behind Kia still.. “As you say I have no true need for a servant. I intend to travel along the river, and trade her in Zuanwa for a life of peace and luxury. As you can see she is good for nothing but blinding men with her skin.”

The Chieftess stared past Kia, and then briefly turned her attention back to her. Suspicion and anger was clear in her scrutinous gaze, but her grip on Kia’s wrist finally relented as the frail woman scoffed. “Fine. As usual, your greed does you no credit, Ta’zesh Oruna, but I will be happy to be rid of you.”

“Your wisdom is legendary, Etana of the Skies.” Oruna produced.

Oruna’s word cut Kia like a knife. Her eyes went wide as she turned to the woman. She caught a brief glimpse of a stoic Oruna meeting her eyes with a sterner gaze than ever before. Was that her plan all along? To sell her as a slave? She could feel her blood begin to boil but a thought ebbed her wound. Oruna had said to follow her, had she not? Was this her plan? Besides, even if it wasn’t, she couldn’t lose herself again. Not to these people. She looked at the floor again and waited.

What followed was an attempt from both sides to deescalate the animosity that had sparked during the conversation, with Etana taking an idle interest in how Kia came to be at the village at all - and thus she turned to the two huntresses idling beside Oruna. Their tale was long, quick-spoken between the two of them, and embellished with a lot of tangents about their own hunt and what appeared to be a rivalry with another group of jungle folk. Most of it went over her head, not least of all because she’d heard much of it before. Despite having been the center of attention before, it was now almost like Kia was invisible while the women spoke. They were talking about carrying her to the village, in a way that made it clear she had no place in the conversation. She languished in the middle of this back-and-forth, stood awkwardly between Etana and Oruna waiting as conversation went on.

Finally Oruna’s voice cut through the chatter, and only then did it become apparent attention was back on her. “Keeah. Tell the Za’watem of how you came here. About Rheeona.”

“I…” She began. What did she even tell them? Everything? No, not everything, but enough. “I came from a land far from here. It is a land of snow and ice. Rhiona, A goddess, found me wandering alone in the wastes after I… Lost sight of my path. She then sent me here within a blink. I became lost in the trees and that… creature attacked me and I barely survived. I owe my thanks to all standing here.” she finished shuffling in place.

"A goddess?" The painted chieftess queried with a frown. Her eyes dug into Kia searchingly.

"A powerful za'wal, to be sure. Perhaps a wicked ritualist." Oruna stepped in to explain with quick speed.

Etana glared at them both, but settled back in her seat slowly and waved her hand flippantly towards Kia. "What is snow?"

Kia was taken aback by the question. It shouldn’t have surprised her, given how much Oruna was fascinated by it. But how did she explain that without showing? “I… Uh… Snow is like, umm… A white blanket that covers the land when it comes down from the sky. Like rain but softer and gentle. It melts into water if it touches skin. That is snow.”

The chieftess looked at the others gathered, some of whom shrugged their shoulders to enforce never having heard of such a thing. "I see," Etana declared. "That is simple. You have mystified my subjects but your embellishments cannot fool me. I have been to the Mistmarshes, what you describe is the descent of clouds." She waved her hand dismissively.

Kia smiled. “Yes, that’s right! We have mist too and when it gets cold enough it will freeze. Other clouds descend, like thousands of small white flakes with beautiful little patterns if you look close enough.”

"I would very much like to see that. Perhaps you will take me to your old home." Etana crooned calmly. Their eyes met, and Kia noted the conspiratorial stare she was subjected to.

Kia shied away from the stare, gripping her upper arm. “Well umm, I don’t actually know where my home is anymore. It might be, far far away now.” She said with a small voice.

"So you are not about to lead Oruna there the moment you step outside this village? Hm?" She pressed with a growing intensity. Etana shifted in her makeshift seat, before rising up to stand. She was considerably shorter than Kia, but even as frail as she was she was broad-shouldered and fierce-looking. The paint made it hard to follow her movements. "If this Rheeona likes you so much to attend you personally, she might reward your return. Where is your home?"

Kia took a slight step back. “I-I told you. I don’t know… I arrived on a beach… I-I don’t want to go back there. P-Please.” She said, her heart growing distressed as the memories of her village came to mind and the dead faces. So many dead faces.

"That's enough." Oruna cut in from behind her. "There's no need to harass the girl, as you can clearly see she is too weak to even understand your words properly, great Etana. She will be useful only to the comfortable and lazy of Zuanwa. Out here she will surely die of drop fever."

Tension rose as silence affixed itself amidst the gathered. Etana stared at Kia and then past her, her eyes narrowing as they found Oruna.

Kia sucked in a deep breath and looked to the ground. She felt clammy and uncomfortable and she just wanted to leave. Yet the weight of the women around her shackled her in place. She couldn't leave until they were let go. She had to stick it out.

"Fine. Go. Throw her at the feet of the Daughter of the Water and pray Uraka and her preening sky-readers care for you more than I." Chieftess Etana finally concluded, and a hand gripped Kia's arm almost immediately after.

In her ear, Oruna murmured a quiet urge to leave before lifting her head to give Etana a brief but formal and curt departure honorific. She had lived through Etana's scrutiny, and was quickly whisked away from the altar by Oruna, who seemed keen to drag her out of sight. "Do you understand now?" She offered with a sigh.

“I-I-I don’t k-know.” Kia murmured, head still to the ground.

"Embolden yourself, Keeah. You are much more formidable than her. But a huntress must obey the jungle." Kia stood a little straighter and let herself be guided by Oruna safely out of sight by any.

It was only when they neared Oruna’s hut did Kia finally break herself free from her grasp. She then stood and looked at the older woman. “You’re not… You’re not really going to sell me, are you?” she asked.

Oruna scoffed at that, turning to glance at Kia with a mischievous smirk that seemed to accentuate the intricate face paint. “Will you let me, Keeah?”

Kia took a step back, as the question caught her off guard. She then narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists, anger welling up in her heart. “N-No… No!” She shouted. “I don’t want to be sold! You can’t! I-I Thought I meant something to you!” The air seemed to grow colder.

The older huntress watched her reaction with no true shift in her expression, though gradually her smirk turned to an impassive, lazy frown. Oruna took a step towards her hut to pull aside the fur hiding the entryway. “Then what do you have to worry about? Only the weak let others dictate their lives,” she turned back to face Kia, raising a brow. “The strong lie in wait until it is their time to strike. Are you weak, Keeah? Or strong?”
The girl took a deep breath, then unclenched her fists. The cold air was swallowed up by the heat and Kia sighed. She walked closer to Oruna and then stood in the doorway, turning to the huntress. With a fierce look in her eye, she said, “I’m strong.” Then walked inside.

“Good,” Oruna murmured as she passed, and she found herself in the small but cozy hut filled with fur, knives, obsidian-tipped arrows, and a few spears. “Now that you have survived Etana, I can tell you the real plan.”

The flap closed behind them, hiding them away from the rest of the village.

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