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AERON

&
ZIMA the ZIMMER

in
An EXPLICATION of the BEGINNING of SORROW

followed by

A PRELUDE to ALL SUFFERING



The chirping of songbirds, a warm sun, and the roar of a high river across the northern bounds of the world could signify one thing only: Spring was coming North. As the sun’s conquering rays marched ever more northward and subdued plain after plain and forest after forest and lake after lake, the days had started growing longer. The sun-kissed air was blowing a good and pleasant breeze, and greenery was beginning to emerge from the melting snow - which was now in full and open rout. True, the nights were still chilly and often froze any still water, but a change was coming; the land and animals could feel it and so did those that walked on two legs.

Soon the Voirans would be moving off to new lands as the Council of the Nine decreed. Winter had taken its toll on many and with that came restless feet and legs in need of long rambles across the earth. It was the Voiran way, after all. So there was indeed a growing murmur amongst those nomadic people, who waited each day with patience and anticipation. Many of the things they murmured were trivial. Would Haana bear twins? Could enough furs be found to replace old clothing? Would they be heading south or south-east when the time came?

That naturally gave rise more generally to the matter of moving on, lamenting those who had not made it through the winter, and talk of the celestial debris and strange moonfalls - as those were called. Many of them had witnessed the way the moon had shed itself and sent great clouds of dust and rock in every which way. The Council of Nine had deliberated on the strange happenings but ultimately declared that all things were as the gods decreed and that the world would go on whether the moon exploded or did not, and life too and all things.

“But what about us?” Juirga asked, holding her latest child on her shoulder (her fifth, and one of three who yet lived).
“Yes, Juirga,” councillor Rhinan said, “life and all things will go on even if we don’t.”
“Not very comforting,” the mother winced.
“That’s how it is,” Rhinan shrugged, and everyone had dispersed.

Along with all that, many also wondered if Aeron would ever get to work and stop playing with his nasnook. Others wondered, more seriously, when his more diligent sister would return. Though she had not stayed with the Voirans for very long, Mair had become immediately popular with her people and something of an authority. She was renowned for better reasons than her brother, who was more infamous than famous, and was praised for her hard work, respect for their Maker’s wishes and was, above all else, idolised for being a true Voiran explorer. Oh the tales she might bring when she returned! The words from Voi she would bring! Not like Aeron, who sat lazing about all day… Oh but none could deny his tricks with Voia were a delight, and he did make everyone laugh, so he was tolerated. And, of course, he was an eye of the Maker, just like his superior sister, so they had to tolerate him regardless of his usefulness.

Mair did not return with the coming of Spring and did not return on that day. Instead, a pair of siblings - gone out for a walk earlier in the day - came trudging home. Night had already approached and their worried parents had gone to the Council for aid. It had not been needed, ultimately, for little Von guided the now sickly Vare into camp, much to the relief of their parents and kin. Yet, even as she was fussed over and helped to a bed, Vare seemed different. It was not her hand or their furs or the story she told of an evil spirit that had attacked them. No- it was her eyes. Lifeless eyes. The sort that marked something truly terrible. And so, as gossip spread like wildfire through the camp, many remarked how the chill had turned colder. The promise of spring seemed to fade away as quickly as it had come and there was an inexplicable feeling that something had gone terribly wrong.

Aeron felt it too, and Voia curled on his head and covered herself in his long white hair as he sat by a fire with some six others to ward off the sudden cold. “You seen lil Vare’s eyes, Ron?” Petors asked him.
“Oh, she back?” The performer asked. “I told her not to go off all on her own. Feisty that one.”
“Wait, you knew where she was all along?” Petors frowned.
“Uh…” Aeron glanced at the bigger voiran, then at the others who looked equally unamused, “sort… of? I mean, well, in theory. Uh. Allegedly.” He kissed his lips. “So it is said… I have heard that claim made of late. Uh. I can neither confirm nor den-”
“You’re a real twat sometimes, you know that? She’s not in a good way at all. What did she even go off for?” Another, Poilina, asked.
“Well, I’ve heard it through the tree-vine tha-” Aeron began, but swiftly ducked away from a slap Petors sent his way. He righted himself after that and grinned. “My, so violent, these big fellas. Typical brainless sort, y’know?”
“Where were they?” Poilina asked, ignoring his antics.
“Well, like I was saying before I was set upon by this giant mammoth spawn thing, I heard it through the tree-vine that she and good little Von were rather impressed by the many heroic - and entirely truthful - exploits of a certain fella and his nasnook-”
“Oh for crying out-” Poilina got up and trudged off, “you should watch those stories of yours, Aeron!” She shouted, turning around. “Watch them or you’ll have more than Petors’ slaps to worry about!”
Aeron watched her go off and then glanced awkwardly at the others, then frowned indignantly. “Look now, my stories are important. How are these kids going to grow up into the fine brave sort without good stories, eh? How will they know what goodness looks like if they don’t have any proper models of goodness? Don’t blame my stories if Vare is in a bad way. Going off and exploring is our way - what she did was good, heroic, courageous. What? Would you have us coddle them? You have only one of me today, but if you start coddling them you might as well kiss your ways of bravery and hunting and exploration goodbye.” He stood up and flashed them an affronted look. “That’s how it is.” They were all silent.
“Well, no one’s blaming your stories, Ron, sit down.” Petors muttered.
“Vare is a good kid,” Aeron insisted, not sitting, “in fact, Vare is the best kid. She’s helpful, she hunts better than anyone, she’s not afraid of the dark, she’s protected her brother from more things than I care to count. If my stories made her like that, then I’m proud of it. You all go off hunting and doing your stuff, but my stories are creating our future - my stories made Vare what she is.” No one said anything. “What, am I wrong?” He asked.
“No no, you’re right.” Setven declared. “Just sit man.”
Aeron complied at last and sat down. “If I grew up listening to the stories I tell - if the Maker hadn’t just, I don’t know, snapped his fingers and made us as we are - I would have been the bravest, the most dashing, the noblest, the cleverest (in fact, I’m still the cleverest, Mair has nothing on me) voiran in existence. But hey, things just didn’t work out that way, and so I tell stories to make sure no one turns out like me. Is it so bad of me? I don’t think so. You don’t think so, Petors, I know you don’t you big oafish mammoth thing.”
“Well, Vare’s been talking about some evil spirit.” Setven said, returning the conversation to more important matters. “Apparently attacked them or something, I don’t know. I’ve never heard of a spirit that attacks people.” The others murmured in agreement and frowns spread around the fire.
Aeron scratched his head and shrugged. “Maybe she, uh… was exaggerating a little? Exaggerations always makes a heroic tale better. I’m all for exaggeration. In the name of good stories and morals, of course.”
Petors gave him an icy stare before saying, “Vare doesn’t lie, because she’s a good kid.” Aeron shrugged and nodded in agreement. “Still, I’ve a bad feeling. Everyone has a bad feeling. It’s weird.”
“There’s this heaviness in the air, I’ve never known anything like it.” Setvens added, and the others whispered words of agreement. That was the sentiment everyone echoed for days afterwards.

When Vare was well enough, Aeron decided to take Voia and cheer her up a little, since everyone who saw her noted that she looked especially sad. He found her parents, Baella and Mirtan, sat sullenly by their tent with young Von lying lethargically at their feet. “Well aren’t you a cheerful lot.” Aeron grinned, getting only a long sigh from Mirtan in response.
“What d’you want Aer? Haven’t you someone else to wind up?” Baella managed after a few moments of silence.
“Thought you’d be happier to see me, little man,” Aeron said to Von, ignoring the miserable grown-ups.
“I’m booored.” The boy said, rolling over, “Vare just sits inside and won’t go exploring again with me.” Both Baella and Mirtan perked up at this, and stared daggers at Aeron, who smiled awkwardly.
“Exploring… can be done anytime.” The entertainer enunciated. “You, uh, have better things to do. Like cheering your mum up. Look at her face, I could make a speartip just from the point in her eyes!” Baella’s gaze softened and she looked down at Von after that. “Anyway, I’m going in to see Vare.” He walked past them.
“None of those ridiculous stories, Aer,” Mirtan said warningly.
“Me? Ridiculous? Rats would sooner talk, Mirty!” Aeron laughed, then ducked into the homely tent.

It was dimly lit inside, with the only light sources coming from under the entrance flap and faint traces underneath the furs covering the tent’s structure along the ground. The structure was as small as could be, just enough to house Baella and Mirtan’s family. Vare sat at the back of the tent, where only the faintest of light touched. In fact the only thing that could really be seen, and so marked her presence, was her pale skin. It seemed far paler than it ought to have been, and her expression was one fixed in the muck of depression. Her silver eyes fared no better as they bore into his soul.

“Hello… Aer.” The girl said slowly, if not perhaps deliberately. Her voice was of loss, nothing at all like she had sounded before. “What brings you…” She began to ask but her words faded as her eyes snapped up, past his face, to look at the nasnook sitting on his head and blanketed in his long white hair. Voia had been moving around tensely the moment Aeron entered the tent, but he had not seemed to notice until Vare’s eyes grew fixated on the nasnook.

The spirit, having taken on the earthy form of a polecat, leapt down and approached Vare with tail raised in alarm, hissing and baring its icy fangs. “There now Voia, there’s no need for that.” Aeron said, bending down and scooping the nasnook up. She twisted easily out of his grasp and leapt up, shedding her physical form and sending the furs and tent flying as she screeched and unleashed a small blizzard within herself. Raising a hand and backing away with a frown, Aeron shouted for the nasnook to be calm, but it was to no avail.

Vare shrieked, eyes never leaving Voia as the wind whipped at her air. “Don't let that Nisshi hurt me, Aer!” She cried out, backing away on her hands and legs, and even in the face of the wind Aeron cocked his head in confusion at her words.

“Nisshi?” He muttered bemusedly, running around Voia and looking at Vare. “What the hell’s a nisshi?” He looked from Vare to Voia a few times, and then something seemed to click in his mind. His eyes began to glow a faint blue as he looked at Vare, and he saw beyond the veil of life and death, spirit and flesh, what is known and what is unknown. In seeing what he saw, he understood. “Voia! Calm yourself Voia!” He hurled himself between the nasnook and the girl, then brought Vare to him roughly, his brows furrowed. “Hey, look at me.” He pinched her chin and turned her face side to side as if trying to understand what he was seeing. “Who are you? How did you get in here? Is that even possible? What do you want?”

Vare’s demeanor morphed into something else. Where once there had been a scared girl, there was now something else, something darker. She stood straighter, arms dangling lifelessly at her side as she forced her chin out of Aeron’s grasp. Her lips curled into a frown as she looked up at him, eyes beginning to flicker from silver to crimson. “How stupid of me.” She said in a quiet voice full of spite as the wind whipped at her hair. “Of course you wouldn't call them Nisshiniek. A pity.” She spoke to herself even though she looked at Aeron still, veins of black spreading from her eyes. “The girl did that trick before with her eyes but what did you see in the space between spaces?” She asked, unwavering in her gaze as her eyes became engulfed in red.

Aeron did not answer, but backed away. Their breath became visible as a chill air descended, spreading an unnatural darkness that began to creep into the corner of Aeron’s eyes and his surroundings. With the tent now fully blown away by Voia’s blizzard, Vare’s family stared at them with a mix of confusion and horror. Others stopped to look at the spectacle, curious to see what was going on. Baella called her daughter’s name, but she did not answer. Aeron made to speak, but paused and frowned. Voia raged behind him for a few seconds more, and then was at his shoulder, beneath his chin, and distance simply grew between Aeron and Vare as Voia expanded there and engulfed the girl utterly. Baella screamed out behind Aeron, but everything seemed oddly silent and slow, and Aeron watched as though he was merely a passing bird - mostly because the entire affair was so bizarre that he could not really comprehend it.

Vare was flung at him from inside the maelstrom that was Voia, and he just about managed to catch her, but the nasnook never turned her attention to the girl and kept fighting something else. Vare gasped and groaned and when she opened her eyes, they were silver and full of fear. Her lips quivered as she held tight to Aeron. “R-Run…” She said in the weakest voice he had ever heard uttered, before her eyes spasmed and closed.

“Voi’s head, Vare,” he muttered, and in front of him the maelstrom of blue and white became tainted with darkness. How quickly it spread to subsume Voia entirely as the two forces whipped up a mighty and terrible wind. They collided with nearby tents and people screamed as they were thrown about or hit with flying debris. Then the forces halted as the darkness took over completely and hovered before them for a split second… and then Voia was flung out. She was now naught but a tiny, wispy thing that fell before Aeron. A shade began to form from the coalesced mist, revealing a woman wreathed in a gray flame that ate at the light, and her face seemed centred around two horrible, crimson eyes that bored down into him. All grew breathtakingly quiet as the woman raised a hand into the air.

Ignoring the crimson-eyed demon, Baella was immediately above Aeron, dragging her daughter up out of his arms and rushing off. Mirtan grabbed Von and followed her, and all about the camp the people grabbed what little things they held precious and got to putting as much distance between them and the demon. Aeron sat where he was, Voia rolling about by him. Grabbing her, he shot to his feet and stared right into the demon’s eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, paused, glanced around at the chaos all around, then chuckled awkwardly. “You- uh- you’ve got a great look going. Except for maybe those eyes, I think your pretty face would frame them just right if you toned down the whole red look.” He grinned with as much confidence as he could muster. “And I would be happy to offer my services if you so desi-” halting abruptly mid-sentence, he leapt to his left and bounded off as fast as he could. “What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck-” he mumbled to himself as he put every ounce of strength into his legs.

The demon watched him go. An inverted flame grew in her outstretched hand, calling to itself in a deathly song. Flame’s extinguished, then the land buckled- crumpled like a dry leaf. Its life force yielded itself to the unflame, the nonlight, like streams of smoke. Yet it was not smoke that was ripped from the earth and the trees, and plants and the animals; it was their souls. And as they lost their souls, their very being, they withered and died. It was worse for the Voirans, especially those closest to catastrophe, for their souls were cut so clean from the vessel that the body imploded from the pressure, bathing the ground in red. And when the unlight of the demon grew to twice her height, she threw it at the earth beneath her feet.

Thus did day become night; sorrow become suffering.

The explosion of deathly forces tore apart any that lingered, those that ran were flung or outright eaten, turned to but an after-image of what they once had been. Most faces were of agony, others only fear, all showed the final desperate moments of a confused people. Those further out were hit with the shockwave of the blast, cut to pieces or torn apart by debris. Only the lucky would escape that bloody and blackened field of sorrow. Only so few would they be.

Something strange happened, however, in the aftermath of the terrible death she unleashed on those nomadic voirans. Driven to insanity by her dark powers, or to grief-driven fury and madness by the sudden death of so many loved ones, the voirans rallied en masse and returned in small groups wielding spears and stone axes and daggers - and more lethal still, wielding blue murder in their eyes. The first such group was led by an enormous man hefting a great wooden club, and he came charging ahead of the others towards the demon while roaring murder and death and fury.

She sat unmoving, eyes shut in the center of that broken ground. Even when he swung his club down upon the demon, she was unmoving. The club struck the earth where she sat, cracking apart as her decay took root in it. It went through her, as did the next swing and the next until there was no more club and the others arrived to see the same. But their anger was great and so too were their fists. It was only then did they learn that the demon could not be harmed, but they could. Her red eyes opened and her hand tore through the enormous man, leaving him hollow with blackened eyes as he fell over dead.

Many fought on. Many fled in panic, but it did not matter. The demon caught them all and ate upon their souls. Only one escaped her, a woman who she had nearly killed but whose face now held her mark. It was not luck or strength that saved her, but an act of love. For a man threw himself into the demon and as he withered away the demon let go of the woman to focus on her lover. Thus she was saved and the shrill crying of the baby she held faded into the distance as more voirans came, fewer now. Most tried to run at that point, their rage broken as they looked upon the hollowed out eyes of their kin around the demon’s feet.

In the heavens above, a single white raven - grasping a wispy creature in its talons - circled and bore witness to it all. Its eyes shimmered with blue light and what dripped from them was neither blood nor rain - and could not be tears, for ravens did not cry. It watched until everything below had died - the greenery that had thought spring was come, the trees, the soil, the air; all things - and yes, the voirans too.

The last thing the raven saw was the demon, kneeling amidst a field of white and black, with her hands covering her face.

Mish-Cheechel the Avenger




Deep in the loins of the earth, where no bjork had ever ventured alive, lay Mish-Cheechel. The earth pressed heavily on his form and had he need for breath he would have choked; but he had learned how to live without breathing. He had struggled at first, thrashed against the darkness smothering him from all directions. He bit into earth, attacked it with his great buckteeth, but found that only brought the dirt to the lips his teeth shielded. He shook his great shoulders - such blows he landed on the earth as would have shattered the jaws of gods. The earth took it all, however, silent and unmoved.

It was a long struggle before he lay back at last and was still. His thoughts returned to Zima - in his savaging of the earth that bound him she was all he had thought of; what had that Voi done to her? Had she managed to escape? Was she safe? He had to find her. But now as he lay there with no way out, his thoughts turned to the eagle god - or rather, returned to the eagle god, for it was always there; it was a great shadow that pervaded his every thought and memory and was in all that he saw or heard or felt. He grit his teeth as rage boiled within him and he pounded with his great broad head at the earth above. Had he been of those who could know sleep he would have lost consciousness, but he was not of those and so he simply lay there staring liquid fury into the nothingness. He closed his eyes then and tried to find some calm, and before he knew it he found himself whispering words that had been carved into his being.


Mish-Cheechel finished the recitation and lay in silence for a few seconds. Then he started again from the beginning. He recited it repeatedly in the darkness of his grave and all thought of Zima left him. Only the eagle god remained, only the Green Murder. He continued reciting it even as he raised a hand - serenely - to the pounded earth above him and power pulsed through his form. It was a great and familiar heat - bereft of rage or anger. There was only purpose there now. He was still, feeling the heat building up in his palm, still whispering the Warpath. He did not release it, but held it there like a child and was filled with a small amount of wonder at how such a thing could exist.

He looked up - almost lazily - into the darkness, and released the heat. Warmth spread through his form and permeated the small grave, and above him the world rocked gently and all pressure disappeared. When the heat had dissipated, he found that not far above him was light. The charred earth was perfectly smooth, but here and there remnants of rocks jutted out and he was able to climb his way out of the hole.

Spring was in the air and the world was silent where his blast had rocked it. His body was bare - no spear or saddle; they were all likely buried deep in the earth where no one could ever find them again. It was no matter, however. He looked skyward, his eyes as liquid steel. "I'm coming for ye, Green Murder."



The GREAT BEARER of LANDS | EARTHHEART| CHAMPION of the MONARCH

&


ROSALIND

RAGING ROSA | THE DANCE-DEMON | FEVERFOOT | LEAPING LINDA

&

Arvum



Voligan searched for Rosalind’s essence across Galbar, speeding quickly across the landmasses of Orsus and Termina. He reasoned that it would not be hard to find her. As far as he knew, she had not created anything of her own beyond those fish and the bangles the Monarch had given her. Unlike himself and several of their siblings she had not spread her essence through various things. That made it easy to find her, for once he found a trace of her essence it would be simple enough to follow it to the source.

He passed by more than a few things of note on his search; there wa an island that radiated the healing light of the god of Cultivation; there was a wall that his sister Homura had built, presumably to defend her remaining humans; there were the hivelands of the parasite god, spreading inexorably; there were humans wandering the devastated lands where Ashevelen had died; there were Rosalind’s dancing islands, which had fostered civilizations, and the north had filled with life without his knowing. He would have to visit these places, but for now he needed to find Rosalind.

He soon found the trace he was looking for and was quickly following it when he abruptly pulled himself to a stop. He was on a beach, sand composing of his form. He paused, looking around for the source of his sudden stop. There was another stench, overpowering her essence. Consuming it. Voligan did not recognize this starving, desperate essence personally, but as soon as he stumbled upon it he knew who it came from. The god of Parasites had been here. Voligan moved faster, through the beach and then through trees as he followed the path the Feverfoot had taken. His form changed smoothly from sand to dirt as he raced along, hurried by worry. He found the path their chase had taken, passing through the Rivulet that shone with power and reeked of Rosalind’s essence.

Finally, moving through a bog of blood, he reached what may have once been a grove but was now a lake of golden-red ichor. In the centre was an odd barkish structure - almost human in form - and Rosalind was reclined against a tree at the grove’s far end. His normally stoic exterior cracked, a great sorrow filling him at the sight of Rosalind alongside empathy for her pain. He did not bother questioning why he suddenly felt as such, letting out a cry that shook the ground.

Voligan was at her side in an instant, arms lifting her still body (save for her dancing feet, a relieving sign that she yet lived). “Rosa. Little Feverfoot. I am here. I know where you can be fixed. Hold on, little Dancer. You will be healed soon. I swear it.” Water from the River of Blood and Flowers ran down his face like tears, shining with her blood. She shifted ever so slightly in his great arms, sighed something inaudible, but remained unconscious.

Voligan raced across Galbar, Rosa in his arms, heading straight for the island he had passed. He did not care if the god of Cultivation was planning on restricting its access. He would make his kin share the healing power that had been created if necessary. He was the Champion, and he acted with the Monarch’s will.

As they reached the island, Voligan did not even give the courtesy of following set paths. He simply willed the earth to move as he raced past the superficial healing meant for mortals. Hot springs and medicinal herbs would not help Rosalind. Only the source of power he felt at the bottom would, and he could not waste any time. The dirt and rock of the cave parted as he made a direct line towards the lake. He knelt and held her in the strange liquid that seemed to be the source of the power of the island. Moments passed, then minutes. Voligan finally broke the silence as he held Rosalind in the fluid.

“It should be working. Why isn’t it working.”

The goddess’ gold-red ichor oozed through the sacred wellspring and her black hair drifted in every which way, its dark tendrils spreading endlessly. But neither her wounded neck, where the Exile had bitten her so long ago, closed up nor did the flesh - or arm that Yesaris had cleaved from her form - return.

A voice emanated through the cave, “Greetings.”

Voligan whipped around, looking for the source of the voice. The earth around them shuddered, responding to his increasing frustration and desperation. “Who is there? We do not have time for games, show yourself.”

Arvum walked forward from the caves above, his pace faster than any mortal could manage, “I merely wished to welcome you to my sanctuary, the Eternal Bastion.”

Voligan paused, looking at Arvum. Another god, this one he had not met. But he could still sense the divine power and identify its source. “Hmm. God of Cultivation. I apologize for my directness through your sanctuary, but our sister is dying. The God of Parasites attacked her, and I sensed the healing nature of this place. It is not working, however, and she does not have much time. Why is your Bastion not working as it should? Did I miss a process, a step?”

Arvum approached the lake and carefully observed the biological matter composing it as it joined together and broke apart, as well as the entity submerged within it. “The lake is functioning as intended, however it is sad that divine wounds are not easily mended.” His gaze shifted to the tunnel that Voligan had bored, “I have not had the opportunity or strength to sanctify this region such that it could easily restore a god to proper health. And I have been warned that had I done so, I would have drawn the attention of a shard-bearer that would seek to oppose it.”

“Do you have the strength now? If so, do it. Fear is no good reason to let our sister die when you have the power to save her. As Champion of the Monarch, I will ensure that it is protected from any of our siblings who seek to do it harm. I will protect you as well, if you so desire it. But you must save her.”

Arvum’s true attention did not turn itself to Voligan, “I do not know.” His attention hyper-focused on the pool’s resident.

“Either you have the strength, and can do it, or you do not have the strength, and I will have to help you. Whichever it is, you can’t just sit here staring at her. Something has to be done, and quickly.” Voligan rose, the ground beneath Rosalind’s unconscious body rising to keep her held. “Which is it? Can you do this on your own, or do I need to help you?”

Arvum’s intention pulsed forward, “Leave.” . He composed himself, “I will tend to her.”

“No.” Voligan's voice was forceful and uncompromising as he took a step towards Arvum, his form shifting to iron. “Either you help her with me here, or you help her with my aid. I am not leaving her alone. If you refuse, I will do what you either cannot or will not.” He glanced over at Rosalind, making sure that she was still breathing, before facing Arvum once more. “Make your choice, we have no time for your games.”

“The subtlety of my words seems to escape the others. Excuse me for being brutally clear. If you were capable of what you claimed, then you would not be here. You either remain and she will remain as she is, or you return to the surface and I might yet restore that which should have festered and withered away.” Arvum said, his attention still focused on the pool.

Voligan's form shifted back to dirt, and he returned to Rosalind.

“No. If you were truly offering help you would not hide it from sight. I will heal her myself, one way or another.” He lifted her up and began to leave through the tunnel he had made. “I bid you goodbye, God of Cowards. May you receive the same aid you gave today.”

Intention echoed through the caverns, “My help is genuine, and the offer remains.” There was a deliberate pause, as Voligan kept walking, “I do not wish to see another shardbearer to be lesser. If you must, I shall permit you to watch my healing should you swear upon your truest nature that you shall not infringe upon my most sacred places.”

Voligan stopped and slowly returned to the healing pool, laying Rosalind in it once more. “You have my word that I shall not infringe upon your sacred places, so long as you heal her.”

“As I said, I do not know if it is something I am capable of. But I will try.” Arvum retrieved the Asclepius Orb from his cloak and placed it upon its pedestal. The lake of life responded, but it still struggled to mend the wounds of the divine. He focused and imbued the trinket with his power. When it was saturated with divine will, Arvum lifted his hands from the orb and began to rhythmically sway them. The greenish liquid began to ripple and sway following his motions.

Still motioning with his arms, Arvum took three steps back and then three steps forward. His pace was slow, however he kept repeating those same steps each time slightly faster than the last. With each step, the healing lake’s movement hastened and became more complex.

Spiral waves swirled around the surface of the green, now mixing and joining with the reddish divine ichor. The god’s steps escaped their simple pattern and started to emulate the dance of the lake, for while Arvum was no natural dancer the lake was. As his motions became more and more fluid and his movement took on a flow utterly foreign to the god of cultivation, the goddess in the divine pool disappeared beneath the surface.

The water rippled and its flow became a whirl. Here and there the liquids moved, now up and now down and now side to side - movements foreign to any natural liquid body. As Arvum moved, the liquid sent out flowing tendrils which arched across the cavern and twisted now about the dancing Arvum and now about the tense Voligan. The waters whirled and rose, flowing in every which direction - and at their centre, surrounded by sprawling onyx hair that twisted with the water and danced - but never touched it - was the unconscious Rosalind.

The scar on his neck closed up before their eyes - not perfectly or prettily, for it left a great mass of twisting scar tissue - and the flesh Yesaris had taken out of her upper body slowly regrew. It was again not perfect, there would forever be a marked lack of meat on her left shoulder and the writhing scar even greater than that on her neck, but it was healed. Her arm seemed to regrow for seconds, but then the flesh jolted and closed up on itself, leaving a short stump just off her shoulder.

Her hair retreated as Arvum continued to flow with the water, and she descended to the ground before him and crumpled in a small pile there. Almost immediately, the dancing fluid fell and splashed everywhere - on Voligan, on Arvum, across the cavern and back into the lake. Then everything was stillness once more.

By Arvum’s will, the escaped fluid returned to its basin. He removed the orb from his pedestal and returned it to whatever nebulous space upon his person he had retrieved it from. His voice addressed Voligan, “Function has been restored to the god-form.”

Voligan knelt and gently touched Rosalind’s shoulder and shook her. “Little Dancer, are you awake? It is Voligan. Are you okay Rosa?” She did not respond, but her feet kicked. A short silence followed before a moan escaped her lips and the stump of her right arm moved.

“Goodby…” she muttered, “Earohana… Voi.” Her head fell to the side and she pressed her eyes together (and stifled a yawn) before she opened them. She took Voligan in, who was staring down at her, and then Arvum. “Uh. Earthheart?” She asked in confusion.

“Hmm. Yes, the Earthheart. I am very glad to see you awake, Little Dancer.” Voligan rumbled, pleased. “I found you after the attack by the God of Parasites, and took you to the God of Cultivation’s healing pool.” Voligan gestured to Arvum. “He helped bring you back from your coma.” She looked at Arvum bemusedly.

“I… that feels… like a very long time ago.” She took a short breath, “I was in a coma?” She asked as she attempted to get to her feet. Forgetting that she had no right arm, however, she leaned to the right and inadvertently planted her face in the ground. She flailed like a child until she could right herself and tap the dirt away. “Thank you, Earthheart, I would probably still be in that forest if you had not found me. And thank you, Arvum. I don’t think I would have been able to come back if my body was not healed.”

“He was not able to fully heal your body, unfortunately.” He raised a hand, pulling the moonstone he had given her to him. “I can help with that, however.” He reached his other hand out for her stump, and pressed the moonstone against it. The stone began to glow with divine power. The stone melted and began to flow like water over her stump until a new moonstone bicep, elbow, forearm and hand molded into place and cooled. “There. That should be just like new.”

The goddess brought her new hand to her eyes and looked with no small degree of wonder at the strange colours - now blue, now green, now black - that shimmered through the pale stone. “It’s…” she smiled up at Voligan as she flexed her new fingers, “incredible.” She could not stop looking at it as she got to her feet and ran a finger across her new forearm once she was stood up. “I bet no one will be trying to eat this one anytime soon.” She chuckled at last, then moved towards Voligan and embraced him. “Thank you.”

“I very much doubt that anything will try to eat that.” Voligan chuckled, returning the hug. “I am glad that you are okay Little Dancer. Now that you are, I must go and find the God of Parasites. He must answer for his attempted murder and cannibalism.”

Voligan stood and nodded towards Arvum. “I thank you again. I may call upon you as a witness for the Parasite's trial".” Rosalind looked from one to the other in confusion, and opened her mouth to speak.

Arvum was focused elsewhere and replied before she could, “You are welcome, Voligan and Rosa. I must ask that you mend my island. It would be inconvenient for myself and the denizens of the island if the hole were to remain.”

“I will fix it as I leave. Worry not.” Voligan looked over to Rosa. “Do you wish to come with me, or shall you find your own way out of this island?”

The goddess looked at him with a small frown. “I’ll uh- I…” she paused. “What did you mean about a trial for Yesaris? You’re… you’re not going to hurt him, are you?” She grasped Voligan’s shoulder. “You mustn’t. He didn’t mean what he did. He’s in pain, that’s why he did it. He’s got a terrible illness and there’s nothing he can do about it but… but eat.”

Voligan was unmoved. “That will be taken into consideration. Pain or no pain, he cannot attempt to eat his kin without consequences. He will not be killed. We didn't kill Yudaiel or Iqelis for murdering their kin, we will not kill Yesaris.” Rosalind’s frown deepened.

“Yudaiel did… what?” She glanced at Arvum in disbelief. At the mention of Yudaiel, Arvum turned his attention elsewhere. He walked over to the pool and focused on it instead. Rosalind looked after him in confusion, then back at Voligan. “When? And… why?” She raised her moonstone hand to her head and looked rather unsteady on her feet. “Yudaiel wouldn’t…” she managed, descending to her knees rather than suffer the embarrassment of falling. Realising that Voligan was looking at her, she raised her hands in embarrassment. “Oh- I- uh. I’ve caused you enough trouble, Earthheart. I- I’ll be okay from here. Don’t trouble yourself with me.”

“Some time ago. From what I was able to ascertain she killed the Goddess of Luck with a mountain. I do not know why.” Voligan looked at Rosalind for a few moments longer. “If you say so, Little Dancer. Remember you can always call upon me if you are in need of help.” He nodded once again to Arvum. “Goodbye, and I will call upon you later.” Voligan began to leave, closing the hole behind him as he did so..

“Are you certain you do not require assistance, the path to the surface is long and dangerous and your god-form has not been completely restored.” he said, his head still facing toward the pool. Rosalind considered him for a few seconds, then walked beside him and looked into the pool also.

“There’s something you’re not saying. Are you alright? It’s… it’s about Yudaiel, isn’t it? You know something.” The goddess’ black eyes were on him and she brought a hand to his shoulder. “Tell me.”

“I have noticed a portion of your essence has remained within the pool.” he said, attempting to change the subject. Rosalind cocked her head and pursed her lips, then looked back at the pool.

“Is that bad? I would fix it, but I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Arvum paused to study the changes to the pool. He seemed to relax slightly, “No. I believe it shall be a boon to those who are also restored within it.”

“Oh,” Rosalind murmured, a small smile spreading on her lips, “well, that’s good. I’m glad I could do something to help, for once, even if by accident.” She considered the pool. “You made this to help people, then? Why did you put it here? You said the route to it is long and treacherous - surely those in need of it would never be able to reach it, no?”

Arvum paused to consider his words, “The island above provides many mundane sources of healing. The liquid partially retains its healing properties when removed from the bastion, but even that should not be taken lightly. Much less the kind of healing you received.”

“So people aren’t actually meant to come down here?” Rosalind asked.

“I would not punish anyone for doing so should they treat the bastion with care.” he replied. Rosalind nodded and was quiet for a few moments.

“You’re the god of cultivation, then? You must be greatly loved.” She bent down and placed one finger into the still pool, and twirled it. The motion spread throughout and when she withdrew it did not stop but continued moving with a life all its own.

“It is irrelevant whether I am loved or hated.” he said, staring out into the waves. Rosalind looked up at him thoughtfully.

“I don’t think that’s true.” She said slowly. “You try to help, and people love those who help. If you are hated perhaps it’s a sign that you wronged people in some way. Love and hate don’t come out of nothing.” She paused for a few seconds and returned her gaze to the lake. “The normal response when somebody looks at something like this is to be grateful that it exists, grateful to the one who made it exist. And gratefulness is just a kind of love, really. Or at least that’s what I think.” She kissed her lips and stood back up. “So, why did you make this then?”

Arvum turned his attention to the god-form, “Mortals and gods are fickle creatures. There will be those who curse my name during the plant season, when they toil against the earth under the oppressive heat of day. There will be those who praise my name during the harvest season, when they feast upon the rewards of their labor. We all have our obligations. I know what mine are.” he paused and gestured forward, “This is a sacred tool for my divine duties.”

Rosalind considered him for a few moments then sighed. “Duties…” she murmured. “What is your duty, Arvum?” Realising that she sounded almost stand-offish, she hurriedly continued, “I mean - I don’t know mine- I’m sure I have one… but I haven’t worked it out. So maybe if I, uh, knew yours then it’d help me know mine.” She smiled sheepishly at him.

“To learn. To grow. To craft. To mend. They are all expressions of the same grand concept; to improve. I believe this is the obligation of all, but we all have our own means to do so.” Arvum answered. Rosalind scratched her head.

“That’s a lot of duties. Our father tasked you with all that? It seems very… unspecific.” She glanced at the lake. “I guess this… relates to mending?” She looked at Arvum uncertainly.

“Perhaps you do not understand at the moment, but I believe that one day you will. There are some things which must be experienced.” he said. “Have you had a chance to walk among mortals as if you were one? I believe that would aid your understanding.”

“As if I… was one?” She furrowed her brows, then chuckled. “I’d rather work out how to be a god first, in truth. It hasn’t come very naturally to me. I don’t know how to make things like… like this,” she gestured to the pool, “or tunnel through the earth like Voligan. Or fly about or any of that.” She sighed. “You know, when I was dead there was this one shade who took one glance at me and… well, he said I wasn’t a god. I told him it wasn’t true but… I couldn’t prove it. I couldn’t do anything.” She exhaled. “To know my duties I should be mortal. To do my duties I should be divine.” She cocked her head at Arvum and chuckled. “It sounds very wise, doesn’t it?”

Arvum considered her words, “We all have our obligations and labors. You are wise in understanding that they are not always simple.”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it that.” She chortled. “Have you met any of our other siblings? Who of them is best at doing their duties?”

“I have met several other shardbearers, but I must admit that I have not had time to worry about their work as well as my own.” Arvum answered.

“Shardbearer?” Rosalind asked with a raised eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“Someone who possesses a shard of the Monarch of All.” he explained, “A reminder of our common origin.”

She smiled at the mention of their father. “I didn’t know that. Shards, huh?” She looked upward, but there was only the cavern. “We’re literally part of him.” She looked back at Arvum. “I’ve not seen him in a very long time. I wonder how he is.” Her eyes became thoughtful. “Not that he would need anyone to worry about him though, right?” She chuckled and scratched her cheek.

Arvum noted her reaction to the mention of the Monarch, “I believe you are correct.”

She stared at him for a few seconds, as though expecting him to continue, but when he did not she cleared her throat. “Uh. Thanks… I think.” She looked around and the silence - she had not noticed it before - seemed to press down on both of them. “Well- that rock- uh,” she started speaking if only to fill the sudden vacuum. “It’s a… pretty rock.” She finished lamely. “You… design it yourself?” She grimaced as she finished and avoided looking at the other god.

Arvum paused, “I had not thought about it, but this is a part of the original earth of the Galbar. I would presume that rock would have been created by the Monarch himself.”

Her eyes lit up with pleasant surprise as she considered the rock. “My goodness,” she breathed, “that’s a bit… mindblowing. So everything that you and our other siblings didn’t make was made by our father? Isn’t that a lot of things?” She approached the rock she had gestured to and inspected it with newfound fascination. “What’s the rock made out of?” She glanced up at Arvum. “I mean, like, I know it’s made of earth. But… what’s that made of?” She rushed across to the pool. “And the liquid there, what’s that made of? You made the pool, but what’s it made of? Did you make that too?”

“I presume Voligan would know more about the composition of rock than I. As for the pool, I had created its contents. It is composed of the materials which compose life, but imbued with divine intention so that is constantly shifting and rearranging. If we were to define existence as smaller and smaller composite parts, there would reach a point where I could not express what I understand with words.” Arvum answered.

Rosalind looked at him curiously. “But… when we get there - to those smallest things that you can’t express with words… did you make those too? Is everything made of them? If they’re the smallest thing then surely…” she scratched her head and turned back to the rock, “then surely… even this… even,” she glanced at her two hands, “even this…” she threw Arvum a confused glance, “no?”

“I do not know if there is one universal smallest component or not. I do not know if I am converting divine energy into these small components or conjuring them from elsewhere. It is unimportant. What is important is the meaning imparted into that substance, the possibility for it to be improved.” Arvum replied.

“Oh,” Rosalind murmured, looking back at her hands, “you seem so adept at making things- I thought you’d surely know. It’s like… if you want to make a boat- like Yudaiel once made me a boat - you need to know about wood. I guess to shape wood that way you’d need to understand it - where it comes from, how to get it. From trees, I know that much. But then when you want to make a tree - and I have no idea how to make a tree - I imagine you need to know everything about how a tree works. You probably know about this stuff. You’d have to know every little thing if it is to work - because if even one thing is out of place then surely the tree just wouldn’t work. And then those littler things in the tree - things I don’t even know about - you’d have to understand how they function and what makes them tick so that the greater whole works. I’d think you’d need to know everything about it until you get to the thing that has nothing littler. If you don’t understand how the littlest thing works and where it comes from and how even it is made, then how can you create anything? I mean, I don’t know about any of that and I can’t make anything. That’s probably why I can’t, actually.” She scratched her head and turned to Arvum. “This is hurting my head. Why don’t you walk with me?” She extended her stone hand to him and took half a step towards the route out. “We can walk and talk.”

Arvum reached his hand out towards her - finding the stone surprisingly warm - and they walked together out of the Eternal Bastion.





LORD of the DEATH-ROAD | WATCHER | DEATHDART | SHEPHERD of SOULS | MASTER of the SCALES of JUSTICE
SOVEREIGN of the AFTERWORLD | LORD of SOULS


&


ROSALIND

RAGING ROSA | THE DANCE-DEMON | FEVERFOOT | LEAPING LINDA


That is how hell was on Rosalind. While some may be immediately put off by its ghastliness and consider it an altogether unpleasant thing, or perhaps drive themselves into the doldrums thinking how terrible it is that such a place should exist, that is all by the by. It remains one of the least studied and explored places, and is naturally of great interest to the avid cosmologer. While the ethical and moral virtues of its existence are to some suspect and to others self-evident, it is not an area of enquiry into which I would now like to delve. No matter the position one seeks to take regarding it, there can be no other position regarding its existence except acceptance of the truth of it.

Now Rosalind, as mentioned, got to sobbing her eyes out right where Kohshello had left her, by the entrance to the Grey. This inbetween-place, a waiting station that is neither hell nor paradise, is interesting only insofar as its introspective qualities go. It does not appear to have any special features as such, but appears to its denizens as a plain - I would not say shabby - place. It inspires neither joy nor sorrow, but only introspective reflection. All who leave are made more aware than they have ever been of their great failure when it comes to the ultimate purpose of life.

Consider Rosalind, who eventually was ushered in by the strict and matronly Simsillia, the vahura charged with wardenship of the Grey. Rosalind’s sobbing came to a halt almost as soon as she stepped through the grey door - all feelings of sorrow, suffering, fear, terror and whatever remained in her of hell, simply vacated her mind and chest, and a blankness overtook her and her eyes dried.

The Matron sat her on a bench, dressed her in a plain white robe, and left her staring blankly across a field of black grass - not grass, when Rosalind looked closely, but twilight hair. She did not question it, did not consider it ugly or beautiful. It simply was. There were no hills and there was no horizon. The plain simply stretched on eternally, and she saw eternally. And here is the thing about eternity: in eternity we see how the material becomes the conceptual. Now mortal minds cannot comprehend this, but as Rosalind looked on across that eternal plain, she found that somehow, though she did not know where, that plain stopped being material and became conceptual, and she was suddenly staring not across the plain but across infinity; she was staring across and into a concept. I don’t want to ramble on, I understand that many may not quite comprehend this, and it is not an important point really. Just know that Rosalind looked into this incomprehensible conceptual thing.

I have mentioned that the Grey inspires only introspection, and this is exactly how it does it. When you are staring into an incomprehensible concept, your mind immediately wanders off to the only thing in all that stuff that it can comprehend: itself. So yes, Rosalind found herself staring into herself. Her life played out again and again before her. That’s all that happened. She saw her birth, saw Iqelis laughing at her, saw herself whirling off into space, saw herself collide with Yudaiel, saw the terrible dance that resulted and the merging of their beings, saw the coming of her father and his words of reprimand, how he gifted her the bangles, saw how her unconscious body wandered off, saw how she collided with the moon and how Yudaiel forgave her, saw the boat she was gifted and her descend to Galbar in it. She saw it all, again and again. A thousand times perhaps, ten thousand - as many times as is required for true knowledge. She became, to use our own terms, an expert on matters Rosalind, something of a rosalindologist.

That kind of introspection is difficult. She lay herself bare before herself and saw herself for all her beauty and ugliness, for all her vices and virtues, stripped of all the illusions of the world. That’s how. That is the sort of stuff that drives people insane if done in the material world, but the Grey is not the material world and so such things are possible there. A mortal can go their entire life and never cast an inward glance, never know who they are at all; in the Grey all things are laid bare and there is no escape from oneself. Now I don’t know what others think, but I don’t know if what we saw of hell is worse, or this. If we consider that Kohshello attested that hell existed inside Rosalind long before she entered hell, then what is the Grey but a venture into the truest hell of all?

Anyhow, it is a very odd place the Grey, and all we can say of it with certainty is what I have said here. Rosalind’s memories are so garbled and unreadable beyond this; make of it what you please.

She did not stay in there eternally, of course - the Grey is but a stopping station before mortal reincarnation - so in time the Matron Simsillia returned and took her by the shoulders. Rosalind moved in a daze at the vahura’s bidding, and eventually found herself standing in line before a cloaked figure. He was not so dissimilar to the shades she had seen before - hooded and dark. But he differed in grandeur, and had two pinpricks of blue beneath his hood of darkness. He inspected the lined souls one by one, and sent them out through a white gate with his blessings, until he came to Rosalind and looked down at her.

He paused and his blue eyes narrowed. Rosalind stumbled towards the door, but his hand descended gently on her shoulder and he walked her from the door. “You have been to hell, have you not?” He asked her as they crossed the eternal plain of black grass-hair.
“Y-yes.” She said simply, as he walked her even across the sky she had not known existed in that odd grey plain.
“And on entering it, what were the joys of life to you?” He asked.
“Joys?” She asked in confusion. “What joys? Hell taught me that I never tasted joys.” He did not respond, and they finally arrived at a vast lake of iridescent splendour. Rosalind looked at it and thought she saw people inside it, thought she saw fields, thought she saw bliss. She glanced up at the shade. “What is this place?” She asked.
“That there is paradise, Rosalind.” He said.
“Paradise?” She repeatedly dumbly, not understanding. “Why are we here?” The shade glanced at her and gestured for her to come to him. She obeyed. He placed his hand on her head and she found herself suddenly in his grasp - her body had shrunk and he held her between his gloved thumb and forefinger. Without a word, he dipped her into the lake for the shortest second, then brought her out. She sat in his palm and was still.
“Have you ever known sorrow, Rosalind? Have you ever known misfortune or pain? Have you known any of that?” The shade asked. The twilight-haired woman looked up with a contagious bright smile.
“I’ve only ever known bliss,” she laughed, “in my whole life I never knew suffering or woe!”
The shade nodded. “Yes. That’s how it is. That’s how it is.”

They left the lakeside and he took her with him until they emerged out of a massive tree, and he placed her down - whereupon she returned to her normal size - and sat before her in the tree’s hollow. She sat by him - for the hollow was wide enough - and looked on the green plain before them. “This isn’t paradise.” Rosalind stated plainly.
“No. This is but a waystation on the way.” The shade said.
“Are you a god?” Rosalind asked, turning her head to him.
“I am. And you are too, Rosalind.” The shade said. Rosalind chuckled incredulously.
“No no, I’m not a god. I thought I was - a very long time ago it feels like - but now I know.” There was no pain or loss in her voice.
“It may be as you say, but it remains the fact that despite all that - perhaps because of all of that - you are a god. You are our sibling. You emerged from the Monarch of All. You are a god, Rosalind.” The shade told her.
“I don’t understand how that can be. I’m not like the gods, I know that now.” Rosalind mused.
“The gods are not alike for you to be like them.” The shade said simply. “You are a god in your own way. And our sister in every way.”
“Then… why am I so weak?” She asked, her brows furrowing. The shade looked at her, his eyes of blue faint and wide - warm, even.
“You are not weak, Rosalind.”
“Why am I so cowardly?” She continued.
“Many cowards pass through my court; you are no coward, Rosalind.” The shade told her.
“But I failed - I failed the trial. I went to hell for it.”
“That was due to an oversight on my part. It is clear to me that hell should not be a consequence of failing the trials - it creates injustice. There must be judgement for all. I will have to rework things. You have made me aware of this, Rosalind, and I thank you for that. Forgive me for all that you suffered.” The shade glanced at her with quiet contrition. Rosalind only smiled.
“It’s okay, all sorrow and suffering seem so small after paradise. I feel dumb even calling it suffering - that’s such a serious word.” She paused. “But you know, don’t you think people should know? I’m sure if everyone knew how wonderful paradise was they’d all want to go. And if they knew how awful hell was they’d want to avoid it.”
The shade cocked his head at her. “You raise a very good point there, sister. I… didn’t really think about it. Perhaps it would be fair to make mortalkind aware of the existence of these places and tell them how they can gain one and avoid the other. But I would hate to leave these my domains to do such a thing.” He cast his blue eyes across the plain.
“Well, you could just send someone instead of you. Like an envoy or a delegate. In fact-” Rosalind got to her feet suddenly, excited, “how about I choose someone. Someone who will be your envoy to all mortalkind, forever!” She looked at the shade, who rose and nodded.
“That’s agreeable to me.”

They watched together, then, as the souls of mortalkind wandered through the underworld on their way to judgement. Sinners and saints passed by, but Rosalind’s eye was not drawn to any, those who had been male and those who had been female, those who had died young and those old, those who had been killed and those who had perished in accidents; all sorts passed. At last, however, a little soul came crawling by - an infant - and Rosalind immediately jumped out and brought it to her chest. It had been a boy in life and when it looked at her there was curiosity and dignity only, and perhaps a smile. “But he’s just a child.” Rosalind said, kissing his ethereal brow.
“Hmm,” the shade mused, “killed, it seems.”
Rosalind looked up at him in shock. “Killed, bu who-”
“Zima…” the shade whispered with a sigh, more to himself than to Rosalind.
“I- I don’t understand, is that a-”
“No matter, it’s no matter. So you think this one is fit to be my eternal delegate?” The shade considered the child, and Rosalind looked down at him too, then smiled.
“Yeah, I like him.” And even as she spoke the child’s white luminescence took on a golden-red hue, and his light became something altogether divine.
“Then he shall be our delegate. He will go to mortalkind, warn them of hell and tell them the good news of paradise, and he will tell them how to avoid the Asheln Plains and gain the Elysian Fields. Is that fair to you, sister?”
Rosalind looked at the shade with a broad smile and nodded. “They’ll love him.” She brought him to her and rained little kisses on his brow, cheeks, lips, and held him tightly to her bosom. The shade looked at her quietly, but if he thought otherwise he did not say anything.
“Give him to me, I will take care of things from here.” The shade said at last, and Rosalind looked at him uncertainly.
“Can’t he stay with me?” She asked.
“If he is to be our envoy to mortalkind, he must go out as one of them; he must gain their trust and live among them, and he must then warn them. They will trust someone who grows among them more than a stranger who comes with wild claims.” The shade explained.
“Oh… that makes sense, I guess. But I’ll get to see him again, right?” She looked at the shade with furrowed brows.
“Of course, there is nothing to prevent that.” He assured. Somewhat contented, Rosalind handed the golden child over to the shade. The child giggled and kissed his cheeks at Rosalind as she passed him on, and the woman could not help the joyous grin that spread across her face. “I will return you to your body now, sister.” The shade said, stepping away from her.
“Oh, okay. But you’ve not told me your name.” She looked at him expectantly as he raised a hand and drew a doorway for her, then cast it open.
“Names are an odd thing.” The shade mused. “But I’m Voi, if you like.”
“Oh,” the woman gasped, “I… knew that.” There was a happy sort of realisation on her face. “But it’s good to hear it from you anyway. Look after my little Earohana.”
“Earohana?” The divine shade asked.
“Yes. My beloved one.” Rosalind affirmed. The shade nodded silently and placed a hand on his chest in farewell.
“Until the threads of time bring us together once more, sister.” Voi said.
Rosalind nodded. “Goodbye, Voi.” Her eyes not leaving the golden Earohana, she disappeared through the doorway.



CyKhollab Productions present

ROSALIND

RAGING ROSA | THE DANCE-DEMON | FEVERFOOT | LEAPING LINDA

in
A First Account of Hell


Now I do not wish to begin this melodramatically, but when Rosalind the Feverfoot died she found that she went the way of most dead things in those days; the gods are not as special as they think. She hovered above her still-bleeding corpse, half-swallowed up by the tree she had died against, and was in all ways dumb and useless. But the attentive reader would know that this was hardly unique to that particular moment of her mediocre existence.

She wandered in a befuddled daze around the Blood Grove of the Empathy Dance - which, I will reiterate, had become a rather revolting lake of divine ichor at this point thanks to her incessant bleeding. She circled that grove perhaps thirty-thousand times, give or take some, until her circumambulating soul was discovered by a passing vahura. The great spirit, with the naked upper form of a bewitchingly beautiful white-haired woman of almost ebony complexion and the lower body of a golden falcon or hawk, did not take its predatory yellow eyes off Rosalind as it circled lazily above. Rosalind watched the spirit and the spirit watched the soul, and then without warning it plummeted and struck right for the dancer, who stumbled back and scrambled away just as the vahura swooped by and ascended again, coming to rest in the branches of a tree and folding its wings.

“Now my girl, I mean you no harm,” the vahura crooned maternally, smiling down at Rosalind from beneath her hawk-like eyes. The twilight-haired spirit of Rosalind cowered by a tree and glanced nervously at the odd bird.

“Who are you? Where did you come from?” Rosalind asked hesitantly, her eyes sweeping across the sky in case there were more like the strange being, but she found only the one siren.

“From above, from the clouds, from the sky,” the bird-woman sang back, “where else? Tell me, little one, have you ever wanted to see what it is like up there? Come along, and I can show you.”

Rosalind could not help but smile then. “Oh, I was born up there. I know what it looks like. I know what heaven looks like unobscured by the lens of an atmosphere. I know what the innards of clouds are like and I’ve rowed across the sky. I know all about that.” She spoke it with the slightest hint of pride and happy abandon. The siren looked startled for a moment before she turned her head like an owl to examine Rosalind more closely. Whatever it was that the siren saw (or didn’t see) in her appeared to calm her, so her poise relaxed as Rosalind babbled on. “So I’m happy to wander down here instead, though thank you for the offer.” She glanced heavenward again to once more check that there were no more of the sirenlike bird-woman up there. “What’s your name? Are you on your own?” Rosalind asked curiously, relaxing somewhat against the tree.

With a haunting smile, the siren leapt to find a perch within the boughs of another tree that was closer still to Rosalind. “You conjure enchanting little tales, child. Melusine is my name, but call me Mother. I’m one of many, just like you, and it is a delight to finally meet you. Eventually I meet all of my children, see. Would you let your mother hold you, Rosalind dear?”

The avian talons loosened their grip on Melusine’s perch as the siren ready herself to hop down at last to the shallow lake of ichor. Only bafflement was written across Rosalind’s face, however. “Mother? What do you mean?” The soul asked. “I…” her brows furrowed at the sudden realisation, “I don’t have a mother.”

Upon hearing trepidation in Rosalind’s voice, Melusine froze - leaning forward on the branch in anticipation of hopping down as she was . Still, she didn’t settle back; she leaned forward and was deathly still - in such a manner that she seemed to almost float in defiance of Galbar’s pull. “Of course you do,” she insisted, “you have me, and I’m right here. A mother bore you into this world, and a mother must likewise bear yo– well, nevermind that, Rosa dearest. I ask again: would you let me hold you?”

The twilight-haired woman stepped forward timidly, walking on the surface of the blood lake as though it were solid ground. She took in Melusine’s form again; her snow-white hair, her ebony skin, the captivating, unearthly beauty of her face, the way powerful muscles rippled beneath a layer of softness, which in turn was enveloped in velvety skin (Rosalind could tell as much even from afar, even without touching it) which gave way at the waist to feathers and the forceful torso and talons of a hawk. As her gaze drifted across Melusine’s form, she was caught quite suddenly by the siren’s piercing yellow eyes and could not look away. “But if you are a mother - my mother, then why do you have such terribly predatory eyes, Melusine?”

“Why, the better to see with,” the siren patiently explained. “There are dark things out in the world, my sweet Rosa. I must always be vigilant and ready to protect you, and all of my children, from their clutches.”

Rosalind nodded slowly. “Well, that makes sense.” Her gaze fell on the vahura’s resting wings; they were great powerful things that seemed to have been cast from pure gold. “But if you are a mother as you say - and my mother at that - why do you have such great powerful wings?” She asked curiously, leaning forward even as she kept one cautious hand on the tree behind her.

“Why, to travel the world and find all my children, to bear them to safety when the dark ones come. Would you like to see, dear Rosa? I could carry you up, up away from all this blood and muck. You could truly see the clouds from up there.”

Rosalind’s eyes seemed alight, then, with a certain child-like wonder at the thought, and she let go of the tree and took a single step forth. Her eyes caught on Melusine’s talons, though, and she stopped. “But,” she said hesitantly, “if you are a mother like you say - and my mother at that - then why do you have such wickedly curved talons on your feet?”

Something in Melusine’s hawkish eyes - not that Rosalind noticed - suggested that the siren’s patience was thinning, and yet Rosalind was so close. Almost close enough. The vahura leaned further forward, and came to rest completely horizontally. Her smiling face stuck out right in Rosalind’s, and its beauty and the feathery bulk of her lower body now completely obscured the sight of those fearsome talons.

“Why, don’t worry about those. They’re not for hurting you dear, I promise. So please… forgive.

Slowly, tenderly, she extended her womanly arms out as if to caress and hold Rosalind. The twilight-haired dancer’s eyes widened in momentary fear - for this had every appearance of her run-ins with Yesaris and the Exile before him. But she was utterly still - why, not even her feet moved. In fact, her feet had neither trembled nor shaken at all since she awoke. The tender fingers of Melusine caught her and Rosalind allowed herself to be embosomed against the diaphanous skin of the vahura. It was warm and safe and protective, and it promised that no harm would touch her ever again.

Rosalind released a pent-up sob and allowed her arms to circle her mother, and she held on tightly and released what little pains and complaints about the world she held in her chest. At last she leaned back and looked up at Melusine. “You said… there are dark things - what dark things? And you said something about forgiving - forgive what? And you were saying something about bearing in but stopped - what were you going to say? Tell me.”

“Why, my dear, you’ll understand it all soon. There, there. Let’s fly away from here. Those dark things come for lost and vulnerable children, and they destroy them. But I promise you child, I won’t let them take you away,” Melusine whispered soothingly, looking deeply into the woman’s eyes of twilight even as her arms continued to envelop Rosalind, curling around the soul’s back. Rosalind could not break the siren’s mesmerizing gaze so long as she spoke, but when the bird-woman finally grew quiet for a moment, she glanced down and realized that the siren had already lifted her up. These were not the lowest hanging branches of the trees behind her now, but rather their highest boughs! And before she could say anything or even realize it, they had crested the crown of the tallest oak and ascended above the point of the greatest pine.

Rosalind held onto Melusine as tightly as she could, and pleaded that she not let her fall. But the vahura had no such intention, and she flew higher and higher into the sky, so high that Rosalind saw - for the second time in her life - the wondrous bow of the horizon and the the luminous line where the light of her father’s palace disappeared over the side of the world. Small inadvertent pearls formed at the edges of her eyes as she beheld the sight, and dripped one by one from her long dark lashes and plummeted like raindrops away and then disappeared. “It’s beautiful,” Rosalind mumbled, and pressed her cheek into her mother’s soft chest and was at peace for a time.

Melusine ascended through the clouds, beating her golden wings and holding Rosalind near, and the great wispy things roiled and parted about her until - like a whale breaching - she surged from the final layer and the white-red ocean of clouds spread endlessly beneath them; and before them - spreading almost from horizon to horizon - was a Gate of Nebel. Melusine set Rosalind down, and the woman found that there rested beneath her what was, to all extents and purposes, solid ground. Darkness swirled before Rosalind and the shadows formed up until a hooded figure made of pure tenebrosity stood by her.

“You have arrived at the Gate of Nebel,” the shade declared. “Only the worthy dead may pass.” Rosalind looked at the shade with undisguised fear, then turned to Melusine.

“I don’t want to go, Melusine,” she mumbled. She glanced upward. “I… I want to go higher. I want to be as high as the sun. Then I will go, I promise.”

“Oh but dear child, here we are at the top of the sky. The sun that you know and speak of is far, far away; a whole life away from us now. Why, do you think my eyes so sharp as to find another sun? Why, do you think my wings so strong as to carry us even above the sky? Why, do you think my talons strong enough to keep hold of you long after these arms give out?”

But her child mewled and stammered and nodded, and so with a weary sigh, Melusine the Mother acquiesced. “Very well, Rosalind dearest,” she finally spoke, “but I will hold you to your promise!”

So while the umbral shade just stared impassively, the siren once more picked Rosalind up. She bore the soul higher, higher, and ever higher. The night sky above looked so much like a sea! The stars were little bubbles and minnows swimming around in its darkened water. The currents of water were cool to Rosalind’s skin as they dove ever deeper into that strange celestial sea, but Melusine’s warmth never left and it kept the shivers away. Here and there Rosalind even thought she spied a laektear!

“Wait,” she breathed once to her mother, but the siren did not seem to hear. In truth she was panting from exertion, fatigued as she was from having to swim so far through the sea with her wings. How a soul can be fatigued, ask not! But eventually the cool currents grew stronger. In Melusine Rosalind felt not panic or fatigue so much as relief – the currents were conveying them where they needed to be, and so the siren’s wings beat slower even though their flight did not slow.

Made drowsy by the long journey - how a soul can be made drowsy, ask not! - Rosalind finally blinked her sleepy eyes and suddenly Saw that they were drawing nearer to a great whirlpool.



In the eye of that vortex was a great maw of light and color – Melusine had done it! Her mother had found another sun. But this one, indeed, was not so much like that mighty fire that blazed across Galbar’s sky. It was not cold, but neither was it terribly warm or welcoming. As they came to land upon the lukewarm surface of this alien sun, Rosalind beheld a great black gateway nearby that looked terribly familiar. And despite this strange sun’s gentle glow, she still cast a shadow; that shadow soon evaporated, though, and from its inky steam there coalesced an altogether familiar figure.

“You have arrived at the Gate of Nebel,” the shade declared. “Only the worthy dead may pass.”

A weary siren at last murmured soothingly to her child once again, “So you see, dearest Rosalind, we have come a long way and found for you a sun, and yet here we are at much the same place. Do you understand now, child? You have died, and yet your journey is not over; through the darkened gate you still have a ways to go, and yet I cannot take you any further. These shades will guide you.”

The vahura shook a bit, droplets of water falling from her rustled feathers. And realisation dawned then on Rosalind. ‘No…’ she thought. Her mother was preparing to leave, to fly back.

“You see, my dear,” Melusine crooned, “a mother bore you into the world of the living, but you knew that I was not that mother. I am a different sort of mother, the kind that must bear her children away from that place, to the next world. So here we are, see. I would so much like to cradle you for longer, to soothe and comfort you, but I cannot, for I have many more children that I must look after, see. That’s how it is.”

Rosalind looked from the silent shade, who gazed at her with unseen eyes, to the gate and then back to Melusine. Sighing, a dissatisfied pout lined her mouth as she looked beyond the strange vortex, which held no Palace and did not feel like home. Her eyes scanned the endless void but saw little sign of the planet she had left behind or even her father’s sun. They had come a long way and the only path left was ahead, through the tenebrous gate. Sadly, but without tears, she held onto Melusine’s hands and bid her a subdued farewell, then turned and followed the shade towards the towering gate. She paused before it, tears now bubbling from her eyes and now a small scowl spreading over her face - tears of frustration, scowls of anger; it was unfair, she thought, that she would not be able to see her father once more before leaving. Then she stepped forth, shimmered briefly in the gate’s dark maw, and wandered in the world of the living no more.


And that was how Rosalind the Feverfoot died. Now I don’t mean for this narrative to grow long and unwieldy - I know well how frustrating it is to read narratives that seem to be going nowhere - but I considered it of some importance to detail these happenings if only for the historical record. Reluctantly walking through that Gate of Nebel, having reached such distances from the Galbar as no divine before her ever had done, Rosalind found herself - once the darkness had dissipated - standing on the white cobblestones of the Death-Road. It is of note that the Death-Road has at times been reported as being of unbroken white marble, at other times as white jade or jasper, even white coal. Some have found it to be tiled, others cobbled, others perfectly unbroken. Whatever the case, in all reports its colour alone is unvaried.

When Rosalind the Feverfoot set foot on the Death-Road, she found it crawling with spirits. Souls streamed in by the hundreds, ambling on in a daze. And yet no matter how many were on the road, at no point did it strike her as being crowded. There was always ample space to step forth, to look around and look ahead. The sky above was of nighttime and the stars, and yet the road was awash with a soft white light - as though the road itself was alight. It was not blinding in any way and washed over all things, until it gave way at last to the darkness that lay beyond the edges of the road. In that stilly darkness there seemed to now and again be movement, the glittering of a single eye, a waving hand, a welcoming smile, a greeting and a call. Ever-curious Rosalind found herself drifting closer and closer to the road’s edge, watching - searching - for those captivating movements and sweet-sounding calls.

A sparrow landed ahead of her, on the cobbled side of the road, and the woman walked slowly up to it. It turned its head to reveal the visage of a viper with fangs bared, and she flinched away in shock. It hissed and and leapt forth warningly, causing Rosalind to scramble away from the edge of the road and the dark shapes and their cooing calls. She continued along the Death-Road, glancing every now and again off into the calling wilderness beyond, and did not wonder why it was so alluring or question why it called and pulled on her so.

At last, a gate rose up ahead and a shade exploded violently into being before her, causing her to stagger away. “You have arrived at the Gate of Rosalind,” it declared, “alone you have walked, though throngs swirled about you, and alone will you be tried.” The soul of the woman took the shade in for a few confused moments.

“The Gate of Rosalind?” She asked. “That’s… that’s me, isn’t it?” She pointed at herself and the shade considered her for a few moments.

“That’s your name, but…” it leaned forward, the darkness beneath its hood swirling, “you are no divine. A shared name, nothing more.” With those words, it leaned back and gestured for her to go on.

“I’m… not divine?” She asked, a frown lining her face. “But… but my papa… and Yudaiel, she’s my sister. And Iqelis. And Voligan. They’re my brothers and they’re gods. So… so surely I am too. You’re wrong, I’m a god.”

The shade’s unseen eyes bored into her and it took a single step and brought the darkness of its face right up to her nose. “If that is so, Rosalind, then save yourself. Call on your powers. Weave the world to your will. Surmount the Death-Road.” The woman was still, her eyes wide and frown deep. “Well, go on.”

“I… I can’t. I… don’t know how. I’m not like the others.” She stammered.

“You are not like the gods, you mean?” The shade asked.

“I… guess I’m different.” She trailed.

“Not a god, perhaps?” The shade spoke slowly.

“I- I am!” The woman insisted with a frown.

“Human… all too human, perhaps?” The shade asked with finality. Rosalind blinked, tears leaping to her eyes.

“I’m… I’m not. I’m a god.” The shade wrapped an ethereal arm around her and tapped her shoulder comfortingly.

“There now, Rosalind. There is no shame in having been human; all souls are alike in the end. Even the gods, when they die, come here. The Death-Road is wide and withstands the ambling of mortalkind and the march of gods alike. Step forth now, it matters not what you are; here your mettle alone is tested and who you chose to be.” Still frowning and eyes yet wet, the slightest pout on her lips, she tramped off with a sigh and melted away into nothingness. The shade watched after her for a few seconds, muttered, “well, how curious,” and with a puff was gone.


I will not bother with suspense here and will say it outright: Rosalind the Feverfoot failed her trial. If one were to summon up one word, one characteristic, with which the entirety of that hapless woman’s personality could be defined - if we, for a moment, put aside some of the virtues she learned vicariously in becoming Mamang - then the word most suited to her would be ‘coward.’ Rosalind the Coward is by far more apt than Rosalind the Feverfoot ever was. It is therefore to be expected, and stands to reason, that such an ill-famed coward would fail any trial of courage. There is little of historical value in the substance of that trial and so I will spare the gentle reader the tiresome details. Suffice to say that she failed most ignobly and so was consigned to the depths of hell.

And here we arrive at something singularly unique as far as the chronicles of history and natural philosophy are concerned: an eyewitness account, or as close as we can get, of hell from mortal eyes. It is one thing for a divine to wade into that plane and observe the suffering of its denizens, quite another for a mortal inhabitant of that unholy plane to give an account. They are quick in forgetting, are mortals, and no sooner is their punishment complete before they are reborn and all their previous memories confined to the fields of forgetfulness. And what is mortalkind but an endless cycle of forgetting? But that is by the by. Here begins an account of how Rosalind arrived in hell and what horrors she witnessed and punishments endured while there.

As the Gate of Rosalind closed before her and the Death-Road melted away, the shade stood above her and the darkness of his face was cold and judging. “You have failed,” it stated, the slightest tinge of disappointment in its otherwise flat and monotonous tone. Countless failed, and countless passed. “You could not demonstrate your courage, and so your journey ends here.”

She did not attempt to defend herself and instead allowed herself to wallow in self-pity. But that timeless shade had no patience for such folly or even for her anymore; her stolid guide had already consigned her to the Ashen Plains and promptly dissipated. The ground underfoot vanished and she was falling. She fell a long, long way through miserable darkness. Flakes of hot soot pressed against her suddenly sweaty face, and the air grew warm, and then stiflingly hot, and then at last torrid. The darkness all around was maddening, and yet it was her shield though she did not know it.

An infernal red glow emanated from somewhere far below to cut away at the umbral gloom that wreathed and shrouded her. Tormented screams and howls echoed up from the depths below, louder and louder, and then before she knew it she had fallen into some horrific pool, or lake, or sea… it made no difference since it was so wide that she could not fathom whether it was bounded or boundless. It was inky black and made of broiling, fetid sludge. She could not swim in it – she would not have been able to even if she knew, for it was too thick – and so she began to sink into that searing ooze which burned her flesh.

In great bubbles it burst up and covered her face in a layer of grime even as it slowly, ever so slowly, pulled her further into those forlorn depths. The putrid vapours forced their way into her nose and mouth and eyes; the nauseating odour and taste were acrid like bile, metallic like blood, rancid like soured milk, in all ways fouler than mere words could hope to describe. She wanted to scream and vomit, but when her mouth gaped open to gag she only swallowed the rancid substance. Bits of hair and bone churned in the mass too, scraping against her skin and forcing their way into her mouth and indiscriminately down her gullet and up her lungs. She should have suffocated and drowned, but she did not. She was already dead, and so now not even death could offer her any escape from this suffering.

It felt like a slow eternity in there. The haze of insanity gnawed at her then retreated, then returned just when she thought herself lucid before retreating again with a laugh, and again and again with any signs of ceasing or mercy. However, before that terrible cycle, and those horrible teeth of madness, could chew and pulverise her mind into gruel, she was freed.

Salvation came in the form of a seeking hook, whose cruel iron barb slid between her ribs. It yanked and it pulled, slowly and yet violently jerking her bit by bit until her head once again crested the top of the fetid water. She gasped and choked, heaving up ooze, what must have been faeces, and then blood. The hook viciously ripped through her innards, and it was a snake in there, writhing like a knife slowly twisting inside a wound.

The hook was on the end of a long chain and she was being winched up and out of that rotting pit of tar. She found herself flopping and choking, dragged onto a shore of skulls. But it was no hero or angel or vahura (that she knew of) that had pulled her out; instead, it was a grinning fish operating that winch. Oh yes, in that inferno it was a fish who was the angler, and the unworthy and the sinners and the cowards was who it caught. Now whether that is ever the case, or whether it was unique to Rosalind is difficult to know. It is awfully suspect that one who spent much of her life prior this at sea should find herself tortured by fish, and so I would advance that hell is rather more personal than uniform narratives about it suggest, though a single account like this can hardly be concrete evidence of such.

“My, my, what a fine catch,” the pleased fisherfish purred. He had the biggest mouth that Rosalind had ever seen, and his grin spread from ear to ear (for it was a strange fish with something like humanoid ears). His smile stretched even around and above those beady little eyes of his, which glowed with an inexplicable hunger. His smile bared six rows of giant yellow teeth that looked more like wicked stalactites and stalagmites in some vast cavern than teeth in a maw.

With a rag as rough as gravel, he scraped off the ooze that clung to her face as well as what little bits of skin and flesh still inexplicably clung to her skull before he tossed the rag aside, down by the great big barrel where all of that day’s catch lay. Naked, gutted bodies filled that terrible vessel, and yet Rosalind had no eyes for it, just for the angler. Even after she had been boiled in the sludge and should have been little more than bits of ooze clinging to a blind and bare skeleton, she was somehow whole again - perhaps just so that she could see and feel as this monster’s claws caressed her cheekbone.

“A pretty one, too!” He cruelly laughed. “Once.” A sharp claw poked into her breast, and when he pulled it back crimson blood dripped free. He licked his finger and gave off a satisfied moan. “Ah, I taste your soul. It’s sweet… so sweet. Better than milk! Almost like… tears, hah! Like tears!”

For a moment, a weeping and wailing Rosalind - she did not know when she had started doing that - saw a beautiful laektear before her, which was then overwhelmed and replaced by that cruel blue-eyed Exile. Her tears spilled out like rushing waterfalls as she sobbed in endless misery and despair. The angler laughed so hard that she failed to so much as hear the snap as his jaw came unhinged and he swallowed her whole, his teeth tearing her into a hundred ribbons and shreds.

He swallowed her, and then she was falling. She fell a long, long way down her tormentor’s gullet. Bits of meat and half-chewed food stuck to her sweating face, and the air grew warm, and then stiflingly hot, and then at last torrid. The darkness all around was maddening, and yet it was her shield even though she did not know it. An infernal red glow emanated from somewhere far below to cut away at the umbral gloom that wreathed and shrouded her. With a splash, she finally fell into a pool of viscous, liquid fire.

She shrieked and howled and burned, until a harpoon skewered her and she was wrenched out. “My, my, what a fine catch,” an exuberant fisherfish crooned. But then he pursed those great big blubbery fish lips of his, and frowned. “Ah, but you’re not so pretty,” he spat with disappointment. “Half chewed already. Whale food, perhaps. Hah! Well, let’s see if you can at least dance!”

Still skewered by the harpoon, Rosalind was helpless as the monstrous fish used it like a great big lever to fling her over his shoulder. The harpoon’s wicked barbs kept hold of half her guts and flesh even as the rest of her was wrenched free by the whipping motion. With an undignified and agonied splat, she landed face-first on a searing rock. She sizzled there and felt every cut and burn, the weeping of her organs and cooking of her meat. Her flesh and body regenerated, but slowly, too slowly for her to flee as that great torturer plodded from his fishing spot to the edge of the burning rock. She cooked and cooked for a while, until the fisherfish impatiently gestured for her to stand up, and she found herself doing so. He started rapping his harpoon against the stony ground to a beat, and she felt herself compelled to dance, but the half-molten rock underfoot burned her worse than the Fever ever had. She could hardly even step on the ground, much less find her feet, and so she tripped and fell over and over until the fisherfish at last called her a worthless bit of chum and left her there.

The dark ocean of burning ooze receded and all around her the smouldering rock grew. Flames erupted all around her and then she was no longer alone, for her cries mingled with the cries of unknown thousands. Flames of blue and purple and darkest black licked at her form, and she burned and wilted away before reforming, then burned and wilted away and reformed, then burned to a smouldering husk before flesh cauterised itself back together and flesh wept its way across her form. The denizens of the hellish plains raised their hands upwards, and Rosalind did so too and saw, as her eyes exploded from the severity of the heat and then regrew, that above them flew a great multitude of black fiery beings. When the gaze of one of them fell on Rosalind it was as though liquid fire was poured into her eyes and across her face, and she screamed out in maddened pain and fear.

“Kohshello!” the people cried, “Kohshello!” The most tremendous of the flying beings descended from above - a thousand glaring eyes of blue, a thousand arms of fire and thousand legs, a thousand wings and a thousand mouths; in all ways as ice and in all ways aflame, in all ways headless and in all ways a face, in all ways impossible and in all ways inevitable. Simply beholding it was more agony than Rosalind had tasted in her hapless existence, and a gaze from one eye piled screams on her screams and tears on her burning tears. Where he turned a blizzard of poison cut across the hells, and where he looked the fires burned brighter and flaming waters poured on hell’s denizens. He did not speak, but opened his thousand mouths as if to do so, and a singular cry rose up from those whose punishment and torture was his purpose. “Don’t speak, Kohshello, don’t speak!” They cried. “But intercede for us with your lord, plead with your lord, let him annihilate us! Let us be destroyed, Kohshello; let this end!”

He said nothing, that Kohshello, but spread his thousand wings of flame so that all the world was poison and pain and ice and flame, and ascended with the cacophonous beating of those ten hundred impossible appendages. The flames flayed them and the creatures of torture - which, Rosalind realised after an eternity had passed, were vahuras, terrible vahuras - descended on them and gave them festering waters of flame to drink. Rosalind drank, and her lips burst and tongue evaporated and throat sizzled into nothingness and stomach opened so the waters ran right through her. They gave her ground and broken glass to eat as her lips and tongue and body reformed, and it was like swallowing a thousand hacking blades, which cleaved her up from mouth to belly. And then she found - to her horror - that her hunger only grew and she could not help but eat more of the cursed glass and drink the fetid flames that destroyed all they touched.

They wailed, those denizens of the Ashen Plains, they screamed tirelessly and screeched without ceasing, and they tore at what hair they had and clawed at their skin and eyes and bit their tongues and lips in regret. “Woe to me!” they crowed in unison, “woe to me!” And Rosalind wept and screamed it too - “woe to me!” she cried with all who cried, “woe to me!” she wept with all who wept. And the vahuras of black flame, those Wardens of the Ashen Plains, would now and again descend and sweep a group of burning sufferers, and Rosalind would watch as now they ascended a far off cliff and threw the group into smouldering cauldrons of lava, or ascend and hang them on hooks which tore away skin and flesh, or launch them into pits of burning tar.

In time - or rather, after an unknown eternity had passed - the giant Kohshello, that greatest and most terrible of hell’s Wardens, returned; the denizens of hell cried out in increased pain as he looked on them and they beheld him, and their screams came louder and more desperate and they clawed at their eyes that they may not see, tore at their skin that it may not burn, and ripped at their nostrils that they may no breathe in the poisonous gales which circumambulated Kohshello like cackling death.

“The lord has spoken,” Kohshello said, and Rosalind’s form disintegrated and reformed with every word, “and he has decreed that you shall abide,” came his verdict and promise of ceaseless punishment. Then Rosalind wept and was joined by all in weeping.

Something strange happened then. In all the eternity that the Ashen Plains had existed, there had never been something even akin to harmony in it, but that great wave of weeping that Rosalind led was a great symphony, a strange harmony, a sudden peace that if for a moment quietened the pangs of pain and eased the striking of hell on its people. It was not a harmony for too long - just as eternity stretches infinitely, that harmony did not last long enough for an eyelash to tremble.

Great Kohshello’s retributory eyes were on Rosalind at once, and in that moment all the weight of hell - in its eternity of suffering - was upon her; she wilted and she sobbed and she groaned and she could not even begin to claw at herself or wail. Kohshello took her up on a wing, and above her a single blue eye gazed into her and below her a single mouth spoke. “The coward dies a thousand deaths; the valiant dies but once.” The gaze bored into her, and all of hell disappeared so that only Kohshello was - Kohshello and her. “You are not of the valiant, Rosalind.”

She looked into the eye and her lips trembled and eyes flooded. “I…” she sobbed, “I’d like to be.” The gaze of Kohshello seemed to soften on her then, and his fingers prodded her and weaved her back together.

“Cowardice aside, yours are little sins, Rosalind. There is a seed of anger and spite in you, but it is not grown. In all other ways…” his single blue eye considered her. “All that you have tasted here, Rosalind, is but the seed of your cowardice. Hell was inside you long before you were tossed into it. Meditate on this, and perhaps when next you live you will extinguish it in you before you are flung in again.” The terrible vahura placed her down by a small grey door and disappeared without another word. She stood on shaking legs for seconds and then collapsed to her knees and buried her face in her hands and hair, and she stayed like that with no intention of ever being any other way.


AERON



Aeron was not doing his job. In fact, Aeron had never done his job. Voi had no sooner left him and his sister to their devices before the lanky lad declared that he was going to go find the other Voirans. His sister had objected, of course. It was not what they were meant to be doing. "Eh, we'll go exploring later Mair, later." He had told her. Everything could be done later, Aeron knew, and as his sister had pleaded with him (for she was the diligent sort), he had laughed off her pleas and told her, "c'mon Mair, why should we go exploring today when we can do that tomorrow? Relax." She had not relaxed, but had left him there. He still wondered how far she had gotten, sometimes. Sometimes he even thought to go looking for her, but at just such moments he would stretch, rub his nose, and decide to get to that task later.

Aeron was immediately popular with his fellow Voirans. They were the very diligent and careful sort, all of them, and the few thousand of them had rather quickly organised themselves into a strict hierarchy with a rotating 'Council of the Nine' at the helm. It came almost instinctively to them and Aeron had no doubt that their lord and creator had something to do with it. Aeron was different though, and in the humdrum of daily duties - that was how they lived, those poor Voirans, from duty to duty and task to task - Aeron brought something different. He joked with the men, accompanying them on their hunts and fleeing as a raven the moment trouble started "Ah, you're a useless coward Aeron!" They would joke afterwards as they carried off whatever moose or deer or mammoth they had caught.

"A coward, sure, useless now that's a lie." He would protest. They could not deny that. He brought something no one else quite knew how: smiles, laughter, lighthearted joy. The ladies liked it too, loved his swagger and charm and poor attempts at wooing. He had no chance with any of them, of course - they knew it and he knew it too - and perhaps that made it most humorous of all. Everyone called him Laughing Aeron; that was all he was good for.

Now as he was lazing about a near a river one day - the Voirans were a nomadic people, and it so happened that they were camped by one that winter - he was startled by one of those curious snow spirits the Voirans had taken to calling the nasnooka. He shot up on seeing it and dashed for a nearby tree, and the spirit - drawn by the sudden movement perhaps - chased after him. He yelped at this and darted away, but like a cat playing with a mouse the nasnook tailed him until he hid behind a tree. It stood on the other side - he could sense it - and whenever it made to move about he moved just enough to remain hidden. Realising his trickery, the creature expanded its form and circled the tree from both directions so that Aeron had no choice but to dash away. And so the chase continued.

When it became evident that the nasnook had no intention of leaving him be - though Aeron could not fathom why it was so hellbent on chasing him - he morphed into a raven and flew off. The nasnook gave off a cry of disbelief behind him and he quite suddenly felt it explode after him in a blizzard of ice and hail. Giving off a squawk of frustration, he disappeared into the tree canopy and stealthily darted from branch to branch. He would freeze amongst the leaves and branches for a few moments, watch out for the nasnook, then dart elsewhere speedily. Perhaps if he was a black raven he would have been successful, but a white raven could not hope to remain hidden long in greenery.

Leaves and small branches were blown out of the way as the nasnook descended on Voi's chosen eye, and Aeron dashed downwards and zipped from tree to tree as the nasnook followed closely behind. Exploding into his Voiran form at a run, he screeched profanities at the thing. He swept a rock up and turned to it at last. It came to a grinding halt right before him, hovering side to side in what could have been excitement. He threw the rock right at it, and it went flying with it before returning and depositing the thing at his feet. He picked up a nearby branch and flung it its way, and again the nasnook went hurtling after it and brought it back. He clutched dirt - there was nothing else within easy reach - and dashed it. He did not know what exactly that was going to achieve, but he reasoned that it was better than doing nothing. The nasnook spread out in every direction and - rather unlike with the rock and branch - disappeared.

Aeron looked around in surprise. He turned, eyed the ground suspiciously, then the trees above. All was quiet and still. "Well," he grinned, "that worked." And he sauntered off. "Bet Bertha will be impressed by that. Watch out, ladies, here I come." He had no sooner said that, however, before his feet disappeared beneath him and he fell with a resounding thud onto his bottom. "FFFFFFFFFFF-" he managed before his eyes caught on a weird ferret-like thing of soil circling before him. It rose on its haunches and considered him eyelessly - expectantly, even. Aeron pursed his lips and frowned. "You're some fella, you know that?" He told it warily. It leapt up and down in what might have been agreement.

He got up carefully, his eyes on it. "Alright, you got what you wanted - whatever it is you wanted. You humiliated me, proved your power and tenacity. You, my friend, have won. I applaud your stubborn stupidity in pursuing this useless chase. You have earned my abiding respect and I will teach your ways - nay, I will preach your gospel - to the Voiran race. I salute you, ferret thing. And now, fare thee well and all that." And giving it a wide berth, he walked right past it and jaunted off with half an eye behind him. While he did not see it, he could hear it scampering after him. He ignored it and just kept going.

By the time he had gotten to camp it had made itself comfortable on his head. "Aeron!" One of the hunters, Herlow, approached while giving the thing a strange look. "You've got a weird thing on your head!"

"Well, aren't you just the smartest." Aeron snapped crabbily, which only engendered guffaws from the hunter and giggles from some of the women cooking nearby.

"What is it?" Herlow asked. Aeron gave him a wide-eyed, haunted look.

"It is Voi." He said sombrely. Herlow blinked. "His enemies proved too great and have trapped him in this unspeaking, ferrety form." Herlow furrowed his brows and looked at the creature closely.

"Looks like some kind of slug to me." He mused as a crowd gathered around Aeron and stared at the odd creature on his head. It darted now from shoulder to shoulder, scrambled down his back or round to his chest, before darting back up - across his face - to rest on his mop of white hair.

"That's so cute!" Bertha laughed. "Your wily tongue actually worked for once."

He was the butt of jokes all winter after that, though he took to them with his characteristic good humour. Though his wily tongue had little to do with it, the nasnook (who was not believed to be Voi by anyone though the name Voia stuck anyway) seemed to have taken to him so strong that it was clear from early on they were going to get along. For one thing, it was rather the clever sort and took to all sorts of tricks very quickly. Old and young alike would watch in captivation as Aeron displayed the latest clever trick they had mastered, and on occasion the Council of Nine itself would have him perform at certain ceremonies or marriages. But there was no doubt that the children - the little ones, of whom there were already many running about - loved his displays most of all, as well as all the clever little stories he regaled them with about his exploits (all lies, of course, not that his tiny, wide-eyed listeners knew).

In all ways, Aeron was enjoying life. And Voia was too.

gentlemen it will soon be time for me to take my new year's weekend

i trust that no one will make any 'posts' during this period




LORD of the DEATH-ROAD | WATCHER | DEATHDART | SHEPHERD of SOULS | MASTER of the SCALES of JUSTICE
SOVEREIGN of the AFTERWORLD | LORD of SOULS


with

ZIMA the ZIMMER

&
Mish-Cheechel the Avenger






The Warpath of Vengeance on the Field of Champions


She stepped out and found herself behind Mish-Cheechel, a great expanse of brown earth - dotted here and there with grass or little knolls - spreading out in every direction before them. He turned back towards her, his eyes sunken and face haggard. After a brief moment, he chuckled. “Well, at least one of us is looking good. You look like a furless otter or som’ing. By all things bjork, if I could be born anything I’d want to be born an otter. Have I ever told you that before? I think I have.”

Zima looked at Mish-Cheechel with anxious eyes and then down at herself. It seemed she still wore the form modeled after Lansa. She hadn’t even noticed in the last trial. A small sigh escaped her lips but she was apprehensive. “Is it really you? Not another trial?” She asked with a shaky voice.

“Could ask you the same thing.” The manbjork sighed, throwing her a wary glance. Then a certain pensiveness took him and he approached and placed a paw on the top of her head. “I’m sorry kit.” Perhaps if he had been a softer bjork - the bjork he had been before he was Mish-Cheechel - his eyes would have watered or glistened or perhaps he would have elucidated or said more, but he was not and so he looked her in the eye and was in all ways sombre.

Zima said nothing, just looked at him for a time. Her eyes began to glisten with wispy tears and then she hugged the manbjork, grabbing him tight around his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen. I didn’t know…” She sobbed, “I didn’t know that’s how you felt. I’m sorry.” He wrapped his two great arms about her and her sobs disappeared into his expansive furred chest.

“I dragged you in here Zim, the fault is mine. Things get… weird in the moment, y’know? Like…” he paused, trying to enunciate his thoughts, “like the world gravitates around our cause. And…” he looked down at her, “it is our cause, isn’t it Zim? You do want to see this through, don’t you?”

She rubbed her face into his fur and sighed softly. After a few moments she looked up at him and spoke, “I… It feels like I’ve been gone for a very long time. Like every trial was a life-age to endure. I questioned everything, met old friends and new faces and fought through fear with courage. I am changed, for better or worse. Perhaps I lost sight of the path that we ar- were on, but where do we go from here? Mish… your curse means you will return but I… I’m not so sure.”

The manbjork looked down at her intently, his coal-black eyes thoughtful. “I would have returned curse or no curse Zim. I will return as many times as it takes for justice to be done.” He looked across the eternal field that spread out all around them. “Who will do it if not me? If not us.” He unwrapped his arms and stepped back, holding her at arms length and smiling faintly. “If you want to return, if you will be a revenger with me, then I will raise heaven and earth for you Zim. You just say the word.”

Hesitation crossed her face and she asked him a simple question, “What does it mean to be a revenger?” The manbjork cocked his head and furrowed his brows. He appeared on the verge of an answer when the world seemed to shift and swirl about them - as though they were moving at great speed over unknown expanses - until they found themselves stood beneath a single tree of tremendous size with an equally tremendous tree hollow gorged into it. In that hollow sat a hooded and robed figure. But for two blue pinpricks, all beneath the blue-white hood was tenebrous darkness.

What, indeed, does it mean to be a revenger?” The stranger spoke. “Do you, Mish-Cheechel, who are the first of mortalkind to tread the revenger’s warpath, know?”

The manbjork, for his part, placed himself between Zima and the stranger. “Who are you? Another fucking god?”

The once young, now old, spirit looked upon the stranger and his tree with a sense of awe. “Be gentle Mish…” Zima murmured. She placed a hand on his shoulder. The manbjork glanced back at her and pursed his lips behind his prominent buck teeth, but ultimately acquiesced and relaxed.

“We have met before, Mish-Cheechel.” The hooded figure said, crossing his legs and tucking his feet beneath him before leaning back into the hollow. “I told you, then, to beware of regret and to beware of harming your friends. And here you are. Those who blindly walk the warpath are like kits minding a fire; sooner or later they will be burned and will burn others. That’s how it is, Mish-Cheechel. So it is a good question that your friend poses.”

The manbjork frowned and brought his tail between his legs and sat back. “Well, I don’t remember you. But then, you gods are the sneaky sort-” he paused and glanced at Zima, “uh, with all due respect, of course. So I guess you could’ve been any bjork.”

“It is no matter; it suffices that I remember. That’s how it is. Now, again Mish-Cheechel, if I were to ask you, ‘What is the true meaning of the Warpath of Vengeance?’ what would you answer?” The blue pinpricks bored into the manbjork, who flared his nostrils.

“Well-uh.” He scratched his head and gave Zima a sidelong glance. “Feels like another trial, don’t it?”

“It does…” She began, giving his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “But if I remember one thing from that singing apparition… Trials are meant to be alone. So that begs the question: if this is a trial, whose is it? Yours… or mine?” She giggled. “I don’t think this is that though. This feels different.”

The manbjork chuckled and looked across to the god. “Wouldja look at that, we got ourselves a clever one here. She’s using all these big words now - y’know, when I first met ‘er she could barely put two words together! How quick they grow, right? Well go on then, why don’tcha tell our fella what vengeance is all about. And, uh, I’ll think of something smart too.” He clamped his teeth against each other and mumbled something about, “fuckin trials. Who thought that was a good idea anyway?”

“Hmm, there is no need for us to talk right now. I’ve a feeling all our questions, ones we have and ones we know nothing about, will be answered if we let the stranger before us speak. So please, speak and we will listen.” She said, looking at the blue pinpricks of the hooded god. Those blue pinpricks seemed to twinkle and a wave of approval washed over the two.

“That is good.” The hooded being mused. “The essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all. That’s how it is. If you think that you can do something without speaking, do so without saying a single word. But if there is something that cannot be done without speaking, then speak with few words and in a way that accords with reason.” He paused and leaned forward. “Now I will say much to you, but not more than is necessary for you to understand the Warpath of Vengeance. As an act of charity from me, you will remember it all. That’s how it will be.”

“Alright, if you just want us to listen - and if you’re gonna be brief, like you say - then I can spare you some time. But for crying out loud, what’s your name? Who even are you?” Mish-Cheechel grumbled.

“Names are important, Mish-Cheechel, and they will change as you change. You know this best, do you not? That’s how it is.” The blue pinpricks surveyed him, and the manbjork grunted in agreement. “Then at this moment you are students, and I the Way Teacher. That is my name.”

“Helps when you can put a name to the face y’know?” Mish-Cheechel said with a satisfied smile, then looked into the tenebrous darkness under the hood. “Or, uh, in your case, to the unique lack of face.” The blue pinpricks glowed threateningly and the manbjork grimaced. “Uh, I mean, that’s how it is right?” He chuckled, but there was only silence from the others. “I’ll, uh, keep those essentials of speaking in mind.”

Ignoring him, the Way Teacher then continued. “The person who can provide a prompt answer to the question, ‘What is the true meaning of the Warpath of Vengeance?’ is rare. That’s how it is. This is because it has not already been anchored in one’s mind.” The blue pinpricks hovered on Mish-Cheechel, then shifted to Zima. “From this, one’s disregard for the Warpath of Vengeance can be determined. Such negligence, especially for those who call themselves revengers, is an extreme thing.”

Mish-Cheechel pursed his lips and looked down awkwardly, but restrained himself from saying anything. The Way Teacher continued. “The Warpath of Vengeance is to be found in death. That’s how it is. When you are presented with the choice - either this or that - there is only the quick choice of death. It is that simple. Be determined; advance. When faced with the choice between life and death, it is not necessary to achieve your goal. It is of course a source of great agony to die without achieving your goal, but to be satisfied to live while your goal is unaccomplished is the height of cowardice and shame. This is the entirety of the Warpath of Vengeance; set your heart on it by morn and eve and so live as though you are already dead. Then you will not be at fault in any way and you will succeed.”

Mish-Cheechel brought a finger to his teeth and considered the Way Teacher intently. The words he was speaking were clearly far from what the manbjork had expected, but his coal-black eyes seemed alight with the concise and simple revelations. The Way Teacher did not pause, but continued.

“No matter what, as a revenger you are brought to shame if you do not take revenge. That’s how it is. By waiting to get the agreement of others, a matter like taking revenge will never be brought to a conclusion. One should have the resolution to go alone and even to be cut down. A person who speaks vehemently about taking revenge but does nothing about it is a hypocrite. Cowards, by mouthing off like this, are simply trying to save face. That’s how it is. But a real stalwart is one who will go out secretly - saying nothing - and die. It is not necessary to achieve one’s aim; one is a stalwart in being cut down, for the Warpath of Vengeance lies in simply forcing one’s way towards one’s enemies and being cut down if need be. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must ‘complete the job’ you will run out of time. By considering things like how many enemies there are, time piles up and in the end you will give up. That’s how it is. No matter how powerful or numerous the enemy, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down one by one. When you have made a decision to kill someone, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it is futile to try going at it in a long and roundabout way. One’s heart may slacken or one may miss the chance; there will be no success. That’s how it is. So the Warpath of Vengeance is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong. Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate; a real revenger does not think of victory or defeat but plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. Thus the Warpath of Vengeance is in desperateness; neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. Ten enemies or more cannot kill such a revenger. Common sense will not accomplish vengeance, so simply become insane and desperate. Such a revenger will most likely achieve his purpose. That’s how it is.

“This may appear to others as fanaticism, but it is in fact martial valour. Merit when it comes to martial valour lies more in dying for one’s vengeance than in striking down the enemy. Thus martial valour is a matter of becoming a fanatic. That’s how it is. With such fanatical strength of spirit, even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty, and even if a revenger be sick to death he should be able to bear up for many days. But if your spirit is weak you will fall the moment you head is severed or sickness strikes you. With martial valour, if one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows fanatical determination, though his head is cut off he will not die. That’s how it is.

“No matter what it is, there is nothing that cannot be done. If one manifests fanatical determination, one can move heaven and earth as he pleases. But a pluckless revenger cannot set his mind to his goals. This is why a revenger’s obstinacy should be excessive. A thing done with moderation may later be considered insufficient. When you think you have gone too far, you will not have erred. That’s how it is.

“Now a revenger should still be careful. Why? If one thoughtlessly crosses a river of unknown depths and shallows, he may die in its currents without ever reaching the other side or properly seeing to his purpose. That’s how it is. One should consider first stepping back and getting some understanding of the depths and shallows and then getting to work.

“So a revenger should be careful. Above all, if he is not careful in his choice of words he may say things like, ‘I'm a coward,’ or ‘If that happened I'd probably run,’ or ‘How scary,’ or ‘How painful.’ These are words that should not be said even as a joke or on a whim, and not even when talking in one’s sleep. If anyone with understanding hears these things then he will see to the bottom of the speaker’s heart - this is why the essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all. For a revenger, a simple word is important because by one single word martial valour can be made apparent. That’s how it is. Words show one’s bravery, and by them one’s strength or cowardice can be known. This single word is the flower of one’s heart - it is sculpted by the heart and sculpts it also. It is not something said simply with one’s tongue; even in matters as trifling as this the depths of one’s heart can be seen. That’s how it is.

“Even a poor revenger will go a long way along the Warpath of Vengeance if he is careful, studies by imitating a good model, and puts forth effort. That’s how it is. If there are no models of good revengers, it would be good to make a model and to learn from that. To do this, one should look at many people and choose from each person his best point only. For example, one person for politeness,” the Way Teacher paused and looked at Mish-Cheechel for a few silent seconds, and the manbjork grunted in irritation and looked away. The god continued, “one for bravery, one for the proper way of speaking, one for correct conduct, one for steadiness of mind, and so on. Thus will the model be made. If one carefully observes any person’s good points, one will have a model teacher for anything. That’s how it is.

“I will save you observing a model for cleanliness, as it is one of the basics. Every morning, bathe, put lotion in your hair and fur and in all ways pay attention to your personal appearance and the condition of your equipment - a saddle, a spear, or anything else. Although it seems that taking special care of one’s appearance is nothing but vanity, that is not the case. Even if you are aware that you may be struck down today and are firmly resolved to an inevitable death, if you are slain with an unclean and unseemly appearance you will show your lack of previous resolve and will be despised by your enemy. That’s how it is. For this reason every revenger should take care of his appearance.” The Way Teacher looked at Zima. “Even if you are a spirit, the physical form you inhabit should be kept ever clean and ready for death. In cleanliness, prepare for death as you would prepare for the person most loved and dear to you.

“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a revenger is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to one’s vengeance. And if one is asked what to do beyond this, it would be to fit oneself inwardly with these three virtues: Intelligence, Compassion, Courage. These three virtues may seem unattainable together, but it is in fact easy.

“Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes from this. That’s how it is.

“Compassion is to do for the sake of others. Simply compare yourself to others and put them in the fore. In this way, whatever you do should be done for the sake of your vengeance, kin, the people in general, and for posterity. This is great compassion. When one punishes or strives with the heart of compassion, what he does will be limitless in strength and correctness. Doing something for one’s own sake is shallow and mean and turns into evil. That’s how it is.

“Courage is gritting one’s teeth; it is simply doing that and pushing ahead, paying no attention to the circumstances. While marching on the Warpath of Vengeance, if one wills himself to outstrip revengers of accomplishment, and day and night hopes to strike down a powerful enemy, he will grow indefatigable and fierce of heart and will manifest courage. One should use this principle in daily affairs too. All revengers should discipline themselves rigorously in intention and courage. This will be accomplished if only courage is fixed in one’s heart. If one’s spear is broken, he will strike with his hands. If his hands are cut off, he will press the enemy down with his shoulders. If his shoulders are cut away, he will bite through ten or fifteen enemy necks with his teeth. Courage is such a thing. That’s how it is.

“Anything that seems above these three virtues is not necessary to be known. Alongside this, covetousness, anger and foolishness are three vices to sort out well. When bad things happen in the world - if you look at them carefully - they are not unrelated to these three vices. That’s how it is. Meanwhile, you will find that all good things that happen are linked in some way to intelligence, compassion and courage.

“Now, to give a person one’s opinion and correct his faults is an important thing. It is compassionate and is of great importance amongst those in pursuit of a singular vengeance. But the way of doing it is extremely difficult. To discover the good and bad points of a person is an easy thing, and to give an opinion concerning them is also easy. For the most part, people think that they are being kind by saying the things that others find distasteful or difficult to say. But if it is not received well, they think that there is nothing more to be done. This sort of thinking is worthless. In this way one has only shamed and humiliated the other person and done no good. That’s how it is.

“To give a person an opinion one must first judge well whether that person is of the disposition to receive it or not. One must become close with him and make sure that he continually trusts one’s word. Approaching subjects that are dear to him, seek the best way to speak so that you are well understood. Judge the occasion and manner - a gathering of friends, an official occasion, a private talk; know which is best. Praise his good points and use every device to subtly encourage him to rectify himself, perhaps by talking about your own faults without touching on his, but doing so in such a way that his fault will occur to him. Have him receive this in the way a parched person would drink water, and it will be an opinion that will correct faults. That’s how it is.

“I will not deny that this is difficult. If a person’s fault is an entrenched habit, by and large it won’t be remedied. To be intimate with all one’s comrades, correcting one another’s faults and being of one mind to gain vengeance is the great compassion of a revenger. By bringing shame to a person, how could one expect to make him better? In all this, as one calls to goodness, one must not forget to do good also. If one were to say what it is to do good in a single word, it would be to endure suffering. Not enduring is bad without exception. That’s how it is. But that is by the by.

“For one who treads the Warpath of Vengeance, matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Meanwhile, matters of small concern should be treated seriously. If these matters of great concern are deliberated upon before they arise, they can be understood. For instance, deliberating on how you will act once the enemy is stood before you, or if you should happen upon the enemy asleep, or drunk, or in a crowded area. Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark. However, if the foundation is laid previously, you can consider, ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly,’ as your basis for action. For such a person, it is insufficient when meeting calamities or difficult situations to simply say that one is not at all flustered. When meeting such difficult situations, one should dash forward bravely and with joy.” The Way Teacher, leaning forward throughout, finally leaned back. Calm washed over Zima and Mish-Cheechel, and then the teacher’s words came with finality. “If one has no earnest daily intention regarding his vengeance, does not consider what it is to be a revenger even in his dreams, and lives through the day idly, such a negligent revenger can be said to be worthy of punishment. That’s how it is.”

Mish-Cheechel sat in silent thought once the Way Teacher quietened. Then, like one drawn from a reverie, he glanced at Zima. “Well. I guess we’ve got our answer then.”

“Yes. See, I told you.” She said, “Now maybe you’ll speak less and won’t get yourself into trouble.” The manbjork scratched his head sheepishly and looked away from her and the tree, across the vast fields that spread out into eternity all around. Zima stepped forward and gave the Way Teacher a polite bow. “What now? Where does the path lead on from here?” She asked him.

“You, Zima, are dead. That’s how it is.” The Way Teacher said. “Your path leads undeviatingly to the Chamber of Weighing and Judgement. As for you, Mish-Cheechel, you can go no further for death evades you.”

The manbjork rose at this, a frown on his face. “We came this far together, and we’re leaving together.” He looked at Zima. “Our vengeance is incomplete, Zim, we nee-”

“Zima perished with courage on the warpath. Whether her foe lies dead or not is of no consequence.” The teacher interrupted. His blue gaze shifted to the girl. “You did your duty, Zima. None who speak your name in the vales of the living or the halls of the dead can speak anything but good; that’s how it is. The suffering you endured in the world of the living is at an end, you have blissful eternity before you now.” He rose in the tree hollow and stepped out, revealing a doorway there. “This here is the way now Zima, that’s how it is.” The hooded teacher gestured to the hollow with his gloved hand. “Let nothing hold you back.”

Mish-Cheechel grit his teeth against one another and put himself between the teacher and Zima, then turned to her. He opened his mouth to speak, but his tongue faltered when his coal eyes fell on hers of icy blue. “Zim,” he managed, then shook his head, shot the teacher an irritated glare, and let her go. Without a word, he walked off and gazed across the fields.

“Mish…” Zima called after him, before turning to the Way Teacher again. “I… I cannot deny my heart wishes for a blissful peace. Your trials were heavy on my soul and the land of the living is full of uncertainty.” She tilted her head and smiled, “but a part of me cannot deny that there was so much left to do and now he will be alone without my protection. I promised to always do so, after all. I will not go against the judgment awaiting me, I just thought you should know.” Zima then bowed once more before taking her leave to go after Mish-Cheechel.

She caught up quickly, for her legs were longer now. “Mish…” she said again, “will you be okay?” She asked in a soft voice. He glanced at her impassively, then scratched his nose with a finger.

“That’s a dumb question, Zim. I’ll always be okay. Can’t say that’ll be true for the eagle god though, I can promise you that. Can’t say it’ll hold true for that Keeper fella either. But me? Sure, I’ll be just fine.” He looked away, towards the far horizon. “You heard the Way Teacher; vengeance is death. I died the day I took my oath. What’s it matter if I’m in here or out there, eh? It’s all one to me. And, y’know what, I think I prefer the warpath to an eternity of bliss. But, well, that’s just me - not saying you should too. I’m sure everyone wants to rest after a long journey and all that, but I’m lucky I guess: I don’t need rest.” He turned to her and placed both paws on her shoulders. “If you want to go, then go. Don’t stay if you’re worried about me. But Zim… like I said before: if you want to return, if you will be a revenger with me, then I will raise heaven and earth for you Zim. Nothing will keep you here, not even…” he glanced towards the Way Teacher. “You just say the word.” His coal-black eyes were unsmiling, his seriousness unquestionable.

She met his eyes with a steely gaze of her own before those blue eyes of hers faltered for the briefest of moments. She placed a hand on his cheek and rubbed her thumb under his eye. “Mish… I don’t think there is anything you could do. We are in a place so out of our depth, so unknowable, there is no way to tell if the dead can even return.”

He glanced at her hand and smiled at the odd sensation of the furless appendage against his face. “Sure, we’re out of our depth. But we were always out of our depth, Zim - it didn’t stop us. You speared the chest of a fucking god - all while out of your depth. Hell, we were fanatical before this Way Teacher came thinking to teach us about vengeance, and we were this close,” he brought his hand up, his fingers a hair’s width apart, “to finishing it. If you want to return with me, Zim, not even impossibility will get in our way.” He sighed and squeezed her shoulders with both hands. “Tell me: what do you want?”

She faltered at the question. “I… I… Judgment awaits. The Way Teacher… I told him I would not go against my judgment. Peace awaits me.” Her eyebrows quivered and her eyes went wide. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came. She breathed through her nose and squeezed her eyes tight. Then she sighed and relaxed her features with a breath. She opened her eyes and looked at Mish-Cheechel. “I want to be happy.” She dropped her hand from his cheek.

The manbjork was clearly taken aback by her words, and he leaned back with furrowed brows. “Happy?” He murmured, looking at the ground.

Her hand brought his chin back up to look at her and she smiled. “With you, or without. If you want, we can try to see if there is a way but if not… You have to promise me you’ll really be okay. Understand?”

The manbjork slowly tore his eyes from hers and looked across to the Way Teacher, whose blue pinpricks were upon them. “You would be telling a great lie, Mish-Cheechel, if you said that happiness is your pursuit. The Warpath of Vengeance is not for the happy, that’s how it is. You cannot give yourself happiness let alone give it to another.”

The manbjork grit his teeth and scowled, but held back any contemptuous words. “We are leaving this place, Teacher, together as we came.” He released Zima and turned fully to the god. “We’ve shattered the chest of one god before, and I won’t shy from scarring up your pretty none-face if you stand in our way.”

The god sighed. “You speak like a revenger when it counts, Mish-Cheechel. Very well, I won’t stand in your way - but know that the path you tread will lead to more pain than any should be made to bear. I have washed my hands of the blame for it, it is on your shoulders now. That’s how it is, Mish-Cheechel, that’s how it is.”

“You talk a lot for someone who tells others not to.” Mish-Cheechel jibed. The Way Teacher’s blue pinpricks seemed to roll where they shone.

“I’ve said my part.” The Way Teacher breathed. “Remember, though, you must leave together as you came. You have bound yourselves to this, and suffering awaits those who break their oaths. That’s how it is.”

“I’ve yet to break any oaths, and I won’t be starting now.” The manbjork sneered. “Now show us the path out.”

Zima blinked and gave a small gasp as a smile crossed her lips. Not wanting to forget herself however, she bowed to the Way Teacher and said, “I thank you for this opportunity, Way Teacher. Whatever happens is on us.” She then whispered to Mish-Cheechel. “That was too easy.”

The manbjork smiled. “Gotta grab life by the balls - and do it like you mean it. Or something like that. Now where was that sage saying in that vengeance lecture? Sounds pretty important to m-” but the manbjork did not finish his words, for the Way Teacher snapped his fingers and they found that the world shifted about them and sped by beneath. The tree disappeared from view, as did the skies and spreading horizons, and darkness entombed them.




Narrow is the Road back to Life


When the world stopped moving, and their motion ceased also, they found themselves engulfed in darkness. There was barely any space, with rocky walls choking them from both sides. The ceiling was just high enough for them to walk at a crouch. In the distance, however, they could both see a faint light, and so made for it. Mish-Cheechel grumbled all the way. “That guy did this on purpose. Well, the joke’s on him. This just proves he’s a tight-arse. I don’t know what sort of bliss he’s got in store for all the poor souls that make it, but I’m telling you Zim, you dodged a spearpoint by getting away from that weirdo.”

Zima laughed as she crawled. “I don’t know but maybe one day we’ll both find out. Not today of course. Now come on, we got to get to that light before something happens. I don’t like this Mish, it seems too easy.”

The manbjork glanced back at her as he forged on ahead. “Well, you’ve always had a better nose for danger than me, so I’ll trust you on that. Let’s get out of here. Stay close now, don’t let go of my tail.”

She did as instructed and grabbed on, not tight enough to pull but firm enough to not let go. The bjork chuckled at the sensation. “See, what would you do without me? Walk headlong into all sorts of danger again? Oh Mish, I can’t wait to see the sun again and feel its warmth. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Well, that’s quite something from someone who burned themselves to death.” Mish-Cheechel chortled. “You always struck me as the frosty sort, lazing with the falling snowflakes and all that. But y’know what, I’m looking forward to seeing the sun too.”

“Hey, just because fire killed me, doesn’t mean I need to be afraid of the sun. The sun never harmed me.” Zima giggled.

He was quiet after that, scrambling through the tight cave, closer and closer to the light. “Gods, this is like being in a very badly built dam. But worse. At least that’s wood, y’know? You can gnaw your way out if needs be. This rock is horrid.”

Zima huffed. “Does it feel like the walls are getting tighter? Are we getting any closer? I can’t see behind all this fur you know?”

“I don’t know about tighter but,” the manbjork groaned, “I’m feeling heavier. Almost… tired.” He sounded like he was restraining a yawn. “Not far now, it’s close.” He stumbled on, though he was clearly getting slower with each faltering step.

“That’s good.” Zima began, noticing that something was amiss as her own pace slowed. “Uh, Mish? Why are you slowing down?”

“Just…” he grunted, “heavy. I’ll be fine.” He took another step, a rock slipped beneath him, and he fell heavily and was still.

“Mish? What’s going on? Mish? Mish!” Zima scrambled forward, trying in vain to get a better look at her fallen friend. But his tail was too long and his bulk too large for her to be able to get to his side. “Mish! Wake up Mish! I can see the light, we’re so close!” Zima shouted in a panicked voice. Her fears were coming true.

The manbjork did not respond. Instead, his form started disintegrating where he lay. First his tail, where she had held onto him, began to froth and vaporise, and then the rest of him bubbled and sizzled and rose in a strange ethereal haze. “Fuck.” Said the mist with Mish-Cheechel’s voice. Then the ghostly cloud he had become was sucked up out of the tunnel at impossible speed, and disappeared into the light shouting and screaming all sorts of profanities at the Way Teacher.

Zima, eyes wide with horror, looked upon the mist as he went. “Oh no.” Was all she could say before she frantically clawed her way on all fours after him. Then something strange happened. The tunnel began to grow wider and wider. First she could start to shuffle on her legs and hands, then she was able to press her back to the top of the tunnel with haste. Then it grew wide enough that she could sprint full-on, and out in the light she went shouting, “MISH!” But even as she ran she could neither see him in the blinding light nor hear him. The light grew brighter and brighter until she could bear it no more and was forced to raise a hand to her eyes, closed them momentarily, and found herself quite abruptly standing alone by the lake.

She looked around for any sign of him but stopped when something caught her eye. Her hand… its blue glow was fading, the tips of her fingers were turning grey and cold. Like color itself was being drawn from her. She tried to wipe it off in a panic but she only found the same happening to her other hand. A strange sensation washed over her then. Her chest tightened, her breath became frantic, and she was going numb. Her arms’ wispiness, that had been so familiar to her, now gave way to smokey lines. Her skin had become ashen grey, almost see through.

Zima went into shock, crumpling down next to the still lake to see the affliction spread across her clutched chest. Her wispy clothes puffed away into the air as she felt her legs go cold. It crept up her neck and Zima pawed at it further, but it kept going in silent agony. She wanted to scream. She wanted to do anything to make it stop. Then the tips of her silver hair began to turn grey. Her lips faded, followed by her cheeks. Her voice was powerless. “M-Mish…” she cried out like a lost kit. Next went her button nose. She felt a numbness expanding inside. It reached her blue eyes, whose color so reminded her of her father. Now they turned to darkness as her body succumbed to the grey.

Then the whole world faded away.

But she could still feel herself, growing weaker as the grey turned inward. She could feel her soul, her very spirit, fight with the monster that ate at her - but it was too late. Her soul broke, shattered into thousands of pieces that made her gasp in pain. Next came her heart… and as it grew blackened, Zima clutched at it, before a sharp pain came and then…

Nothing.

A red glint caught her eye in the water. Her head began to spin as she felt the creeping darkness infiltrate her mind. But her eyes focused just enough to look upon the source of the only color she could see. It stared back up at her, after all, like some demented reflection.

Two eyes of glowing crimson.

Zima began to shake her head, gripping it as the darkness encroached. “No.” She said, blinking, trying to wake up from the nightmare. “No. No! NO NO NO!” She screamed as the abyss spun around her in a flurry of black smoke. The last thing she held onto was of Mish-Cheechel laughing and her promise, before that endless smoke swallowed her up completely.

And she was alone in that darkness, completely alone. Just as Mish-Cheechel, that avenger, was also alone in the dark depths of the ground, his cries muffled by the earth that pressed down on his newly-awakened form. Yes, that’s how it was.



ZIMA the ZIMMER

&
Mish-Cheechel the Avenger






Death’s Road is Wide


The heavens did not darken and the earth did not tremble when Zima the Zimmer and Mish-Cheechel the Avenger both let up the spirit and died. Sure enough a god descended from the whitened head of Galbar to war with the Green Murder, but such things hardly happen due to the death of any one mortal - mortals die all the time, after all, and gods choose to fight or not as they will and please. Just as the moon did not eclipse for the death or misery of mortalkind, the gods - like eclipses - did not fight or rage for such. Over these things mortals, alone, fought and raged- fought, raged, and died.

The two of them stood in the treetops, dazed and confused. Mish-Cheechel looked at Zima and spoke. “Where are we? What happened? Why are we so high?” He glanced down, trying to see through the thick tree canopy. “Where’s the Green Murder?”

“Over there.” Zima whispered from where she floated. Her form had lost its gleam and mist and had become static and dull. She wore no change to it and all that came from her was a disembodied voice, which wasn’t all that different. So it was quite hard to figure out where ‘over there’ was since she did not point, or have eyes to make it any easier. “I feel… distant. Like, no longer belong. I do not feel the wind or the air. I think… papa?”

Mish-Cheechel glanced at her with furrowed brows, as though remembering something. “Didn’t I tell you to stay put? Didn’t I tell you to go home if I didn’t come back to you?” But Zima wasn’t listening.

A giant orb had descended a long way off, and to a keen eye there was something green too. Zima began to fly. “Papa! It’s me! Zima!” She yelled excitedly. But she had no sooner sprung from her place before a flying squirrel of gigantic proportions landed atop her and gripped her in one of its paws. It turned on the surprised Mish-Cheechel and likewise grabbed him. Before either the manbjork or the nisshi could protest or resist, the great thing launched itself from the tree and went soaring across the sky. It flew higher and higher in no way a flying squirrel should have, and both Zima and Mish-Cheechel beheld the unrolling forest and riverlands beneath them with some awe. Mish-Cheechel, at the least, had never been so high - had never thought it possible a bjork could soar thus.

“Where going? Where papa? Where?” Zima asked, her voice growing more and more frantic. “Papa! PAPA! IT’S ME! YOUR NISSHI!” she screamed to no avail. The squirrel did not seem to care much for her screaming or either of their struggles. Its grip was as rock or the hardest wood and nothing they did could garner them freedom.

When the creature landed and released them at last, they found themselves on the bank of a great lake in the midst of the forestlands. It was not a lake known to Zima or Mish-Cheechel. But known or otherwise, it was immediately noticeable that it was no normal lake. There was a gate of enormous size at its epicentre, simply floating there in the air.

“You have arrived at the Gate of Nebel,” a cloaked figure said, rising from the waters. “Only the worthy dead may pass.”

“W-We died?” Zima said aloud. “No… No no no! I have to go back! Take me back! I need papa!” she cried out, becoming very small. She looked around, trying to find a means of escape but it was fruitless. Instead, she drifted down onto the bank and there she grew still, soft weeping the only sound coming from her. Mish-Cheechel glanced down at her impassively, then approached, bent low, and picked her up. He patted her comfortingly but Zima did not have it. She squirmed out of his arms for the first time in her life and huffed. "No! I have to go back!"

“It’s only death, Zima. We’ve been through worse, haven’t we.” He turned to the cloaked figure. “Well, we’re dead. What’s this about being worthy now? We not good enough as we are, eh?”

“If the soul is to pass,” the hooded figure spoke coldly, “the body must be suitably… disposed of.” Turning away and sinking back into the lake, it spoke a few last words. “The nisshi may pass - but you now, you are not dead. You will be dragged out, so do not pass.”

Ignoring the words of warning, Mish-Cheechel stepped out onto the lake with Zima waiting on the shore and found that he did not sink, but passed along as though the lake was frozen solid.

“He…” Zima muttered, “The curse. You will return Mish! The Keeper said so. And Zima… I'll be alone?” Her last words were full of panic. The manbjork turned around with a raised eyebrow, then chuckled.

“They’ve not been born who’ll part you and me, kit. You’ll never walk alone. Now come, we’ve got places to be, things to do.” He turned back towards the gate towering ahead and continued walking with purpose. “We’ve fought gods, Zim, what’s death?”

Zima looked to the sinking cloaked figure, to the gate, then behind her towards the distant trees. Then the nisshi looked to Mish-Cheechel who walked ahead. She seemed to deflate, if her form could even do that and like a kit she followed after her parent with nothing else to say.

They walked in silence until the gate hung above them, and Mish-Cheechel paused to inspect it as Zima caught up. Beneath the gate was only swirling darkness and the cold whispers of those who had passed before. Even as the two stood there, silent ghosts passed them by and disappeared into the tenebrous blackness of the beyond-world. Mish-Cheechel looked at Zima, his eyes steeled, and extended his hand to her. “Well, are you ready?”

She took a deep breath, and then from her wispy form grew a small kit’s hand that clasped his. “Yes.” She finally squeaked out. The manbjork smiled approvingly.

“Attagirl.” And without taking his eyes off her, he stepped into the swirling darkness. The both of them disappeared into the black miasma and passed on into the echoes of those who had passed and those who with certainty would. It was not a hostile darkness at all. As they walked - their steps echoing amongst the echoing whispers - a strange, deep-seated feeling of homecoming overcame them both, and they did not quite register when the darkness evaporated and wafted away to reveal a great wide path before them. It was so wide that twenty bjorks - nay, fifty bjorks - could walk abreast and still find ample space.

There were many ambling up the path, many drifting past them. Mish-Cheechel glanced around, his hand still around Zima’s, and after a brief moment they set out on the smooth white road. There were calls, strange lights and what seemed like waving and welcoming hands when one let their gaze drift off the road; they were seductive, alluring, and the manbjork was very nearly drawn in. But it was a moment of brief weakness, chased off by the cold frown that set upon his eyes as he turned his gaze to the road and their ultimate destination.

All the while Zima floated quietly alongside him. If at all she was enchanted by what they saw she made no attempts to have a closer look or chatter. Her hold on Mish-Cheechel just tightened and she went on with him.

They walked at a steady pace, neither hurrying nor idling about, and in time another gate rose up before them. As they approached, one of those strange cloaked shades met them. “They who venture through the Gate of Chailiss must walk alone.” It commanded dispassionately.

“Chailiss…” Zima whispered to herself.

“We walk together.” Mish-Cheechel responded.

“Then you shan’t walk at all.” The shade spoke simply. “You are born alone, life presses down on you alone, and you die alone. Alone, too, will you pass the gate or fail.”

“That’s stupid. You’re stupid. And we’re going together.” Mish-Cheechel grunted.

The shade did not respond immediately, but after a few moments it started chanting:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and all will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no one can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one you must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.”*


The shade fell silent, and then turned its lightless, hooded face towards them and enunciated with finality: “Alone.” Mish-Cheechel glanced down at Zima, and then with surprising speed lurched at the shade, his fist tearing its head right off. There was a sigh as the thing dissipated. “Alone, poor fools, alone.”

“What is gate? What waits on other side?” Zima asked in her quietest voice. “It was a pretty song…”

The shade slowly reformed and, ignoring glaring Mish-Cheechel, answered Zima. “It is a doorway along the path to the afterworld. There may be more doorways beyond it; there may be none. To step through to the other side you must pass the trial; you must face it alone. Steel your heart and step forth.”

“What is trial?” She next asked, stepping a bit closer to the apparition.

“It is a test, a challenge,” the shade responded monotonously, “only those who pass the test can walk through the gate.”

Zima said nothing after that but stared at the gate before them. She then looked down at Mish-Cheechel. “We are here now. Alone or not, what is trial to those that fought a god? Zima will be okay.”

The manbjork looked up at her, his eyes thoughtful. Then he smiled and approval lit up his face. “It is like drinking water,” the revenger chuckled. “Be well, Zima. I will be waiting for you on the other side.”

“Promise me.” Zima said, before she stepped through the gate. The manbjork said nothing, but set his eyes on the gate and, after a few moments had passed, stepped in too.



gonna start adding goth outfits to ea nebel's character sheet post lmao all my targeted ads are women's jackets and whale watching tours


I've been getting all sorts of whale articles suggested to me since our collab.
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