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Attempt two of Cucaniensis

Trying to have something down to be a bit more concrete than my ramblings of thoughts:

The concept is interesting, but I am not sure if I would fit into the RP so I will lurk a bit. Character-wise, I am thinking of a corrupter/deal-maker type character. He will give you whatever you want, you just have to be slowly mentally and physically corrupted as you do increasingly sinister acts to keep it.

The augur Nil set about his work, in a hovel abandoned long before the war on the outskirts of the settlement. He did his best to ward the house with symbols and other trinkets, though even he wasn’t sure if this was invoking magic or wives tales.

It was the middle of the night, but his blind-fold was tightly folded around his eyes and he had a scented mask to drown out any senses. He needed complete focus, and was afraid of what he might see or smell when he began his examination.

He laid on the floor, and began to focus. He forced himself to look at the door that he has now noticed was always just on the fringes of his extraordinary sense. It hurt, but he pushed through and was just about to notice something when the door slammed close. He refused to allow the answers slip from his grasp and held tightly, attempting to see past it.

As Nil pushed to try to gain some means of insight, holding on so tightly to a door that refused to give, all sense of it suddenly broke away. Instead replaced with a vision gazing so intently back, a Massive Eye emplaced in a spiked disk looking back at him, into him with an intensity that was rare in any mortal endeavor, connecting directly to his mind.

There was a kind of void demanding to be filled, barging on his mind as the pressure from the vision he now felt grew slightly stronger in each moment.

Nil steadied himself. He felt his instincts flare, compelling him to run. But even as he felt that he was facing mortal danger, he stood his ground. He attempted to speak with the eye, “Are you some figment of my mind, or are you something else?”

A voice came back, made of the chittering of rodents, the calls of birds and the distant laughter of something not quite human. Each melded till it became a single voice flowing into his mind. "Something else. Explain your intrusion."

The pressure on his mind had stopped growing, yet the eye still gazed back into him as he refused to flee.

He replied, “My eyes wander in service of the Rest.” but his voice was split, another intention spilled through, “I will do what I must for my brother.”

The voice replied, "For what reason do you seek to see beyond life? The Rest is focused on other matters is it not? The concerns of the Westfold are many. You seek aid for your brother, and yet you still stand here, what to you is aid?"

Nil was silent, he was attempting to logically think of a response and while he did, words slipped from his subconscious that formed the story of him travelling to his abandoned home town due to reports of a monster, and finding the remnants of his brother and him gazing at the door and seeing that his brother crossed over it.

"Your brother died Nil. Many you knew and loved did so, this is the fate of life. The best you can do is join them in Paradise. All crossover and are granted such, join them Nil, you won't find a good end by trying, the cycle only continues. War will reach the Westford once more, whether tomorrow or a century hence. It cannot be stopped, what happened to you and your brother will happen again countless times to many through generations. It happens even now. Your best hope is to reach Paradise, enjoy and rest with all that you love, all of those who love you and you love. It is beyond life, even if you do not contemplate it you know how to go, letting go of all that this world holds."

For a moment, Nil considered the words and thought about how easy it would be to simply let everything fade around him. But then he remembered his brother, his second voice shouted, “My brother is not in paradise.” His eyes adjusted, and in front of him was no longer a giant eye but a tall gaardskarl man in bronze armor carrying a spear with a skull impaled through it, the figure that haunted his nightmares, what he thought Sigeran to appear as. He just mouthed, “You”

The Gaardskarl looked himself over in his mind's vision, "Me. A name you'd know well enough here in the Westfold."

The voice changed to match that of the vision now so shown, whispering voices of a thousand Dûnans formed into one as he spoke, "You are correct, he is not. He could not rest in Paradise, he was too attached to the world below. So he went back, his will is strong and he holds on ever so tightly now. I hope that he truly could grow out from it, and return in time. True enough he will return in time and be granted rest."

"So what do you wish for now Nil? What information do you need? What path do you seek to take? You are renewed so you might as well set your purpose now."

He paused for a moment. The door and the eye had an intangible, mystical and grand fear emanating from it. A torrent of energy that could be overcome with sheer will, but now he was facing something wholly different. A reminder of the devastating that he personally experienced, the trauma that led him to become an augur in the first place. His primary voice was quiet, while his second shouted, “I will murder you.”

A sigh, "You can't, try something else with what you do with your life if you intend to keep it. Help your brother back to Paradise, or lead others as far away from it as possible. I'm not going to dictate to you what you should choose, if you choose well I may tell you how to help. Poorly and you throw away such opportunities. It is of little consequence."

Nil muttered, “What paradise do you need to escape from.” while his second voice just keep repeating a single word, “Why”

"You do not escape from Paradise, you reject it. When a soul is so terribly distraught by what happened on Galbar that they cannot rest, they cannot enjoy Paradise. I would not suppress the feelings and desires so much upon a soul that it would deny something held so close to its own being and essence. I let them go back, give them an amount of power so that they might find what so mattered to them and let it fade either with time or by their own effort. Only those of the greatest of wills can do this, to be so distraught in their life and all the suffering endured that they cannot make use of their own death. That is what your brother is caught in, he cannot enjoy Paradise because he is too caught up in what happened in your village, what happened then haunts him more than any means or measure a spirit could do to the living world of Galbar."

"If you wish to help your brother, help any who come back with what remains of your life, help them find peace. Death is eternal, life is not, one will make a bigger difference seeking to make good than whatever few joys one can take in life."

The augur’s two voices began to overlap, as he angrily shouted, “You speak of what I must do, none of this would have happened if not for you, if you had just allowed time to wash us away into your oblivion.”

"When the druids of Ha-Dûna gave me the name that you know, when they spoke and asked of me what I wanted from them, I told them what they would have as reason to do what they wished. I did not tell the Dûnans' to fake a cause for war, I did not tell them to march all the way to Grimholt, subjugating and killing as they did. I gave them cause to do as they already wished, in doing so they sent more to Paradise. Perhaps your life would not have been so wrecked as it were if I had not replied to them so, but do not so callously think that there is not the capacity for such evils within you and all else that lives. I may have said that it is what should be done, yet others still jumped to the task."

"Blame me if you must, but do not think that the suffering of all that lives is my fault alone. I only came forth when the first things that lived died in agonizing pain, I brought their souls to rest, I created Paradise for the dead. I did not create life. Blame me for your village as it did happen. Do not think though that no evils would have not come to pass did I not step in. There is no oblivion in Death, it is eternal, it lasts and lasts even with each scar I have to heal and each wound to be treated from the brief sprint of Life. I do not ask for your praise, only that you act morally as you are best able in an immoral world."

The two voices spoke the same words, but started to become out of synch with each other, “Stop. Just stop. You can’t be trusted. You.” he started to reach out with his auguric power, the new power he barely understood, exorcism and directed it at the god form even though he still felt as though there was something lacking behind it.

Another sigh, "Take what you will from my words, you are not the first to ignore my meanings nor will you be the last. I will fulfill your request, I truly do hope you find aid, perhaps another is better suited to handle you."

With those words the presence, the vision in his mind and all its pressure was gone.

His eyes open, he was in a cold sweat on the floor. His mind was still sore, attempting to reassembly itself in a coherent system. He felt the new power wrapped around him, finally completed before fading back into him. He could still sense the door, but he could not fully direct his senses towards it anymore, nor could he ever let it fade from his sense entirely.

His mind, still fogged by the experience, lurched up and he found himself in front of the ghost, his brother. His power flared as the ambient mana responded to his will, his still burning rage, as it surrounded the spectre and began to hold it in place.

He saw his brother suffering, suffering due to that monster. It was struggling, in more pain than it had before. It took him a few moments to realize that it was because of him. The mana was reacting to his hatred, and was harming his brother.

He began to take deep, heavy breaths and attempt to calm. In tears, he spoke to his brother, “I am sorry. I have allowed that monster to hurt you in life and in death. I will not allow him to hurt you any further.”

For perhaps the first time, the ghost noticed his brother and his surroundings. It did not say any words, but Nil could feel his brother’s sorrow and regret. It's thought drifting into the augur’s mind, “It isn’t your fault, brother.”

The augur collapsed to his knees, as in his mind, the village was back as it was and he was telling his still breathing brother about a nightmare he had, the events of his death and all of what happened afterwards.

His brother looked at him with a pained expression, “I am sorry for all the grief I have caused. Maybe I should not have died but we can not change that now.”

He vanished, he once again saw the city as the ruins that it was and the spectre was gone. He sat there and cried.


The divine avatar, Ceres, draped in ragged clothes to hide her unusual starry form though she could do nothing to hide her towering stature, walked down the road, followed by a small child similarly covered.

As they walked, Ceres stopped and examined a pile of rocks. They were familiar. She could almost sense Sirius’ presence cast over them, and heard him whisper, “Nirjurti”

Her head did not move, and she realized she had allowed herself to become distracted and now heard a person quickly walking towards them. She turned and looked at the girl she was travelling with who had taken and gently placed a small rock unto the pile and was praying.

“Good evening to you, friends,” the approaching old man called out to them. He was bald and long of beard, his skin dark and wrinkled - the lines of laughter mixing with those of age. He held a staff in one hand and was dressed in nothing but an old white loincloth. As he approached his black eyes shifted from Ceres to the little girl. “Ah, a roadside shrine. May the lord Nirjurti bless you my child, and guide your footsteps to wisdom and righteousness.” He picked up the same rock the girl had placed and sat by the shrine, which approached head height when he was seated. He reached into the back of his loincloth and emerged with a small sharp rock and got to chipping away at the stone until a small face was apparent in the rock. It was not the most beautiful or well-made, but it was a small contribution. The old man placed it back on the pile and, getting to his knees and placing the front of his fists together, spoke a prayer.

“O great lord, o Nirjurti! Let the protective sheath of your guidance be ever present with us on our travels. Let our chants go on constant and unceasing, every step a call on you, every breath a prayer. Bless the road, master of roads, and show us the wisdoms and glories that we may know the world for what it is. Let our life-journey cast us free of suffering and pain, let it free us of the shackles of fleeting joys and illusionary happinesses.” He bowed his head and was quiet for a time, and then sat back and looked at Ceres and the girl.

Ceres was cautious of the man, he didn’t seem to be particularly dangerous but mortals are fickle beings. The girl was also nervous around the man, though at this point she would be startled by a falling leaf. Part of the avatar wanted to simply leave, however she thought it might set a bad example for her new charge. She was also still interested in this shrine, noting the carving that the elderly man made, she ended up speaking but thinking, “And what is this carving of?”

The old man looked her up and down, curiosity dancing in his eyes. “Ah, new to these roads are you? Come from far away perhaps?” He tapped the carved rock. “It is a small and poor carving in honour of lord Nirjurti, who made the stars and roads, whom the augurs and astrologers all turn to.” He rooted around in the back of his loincloth, where there seemed to be a large pocket, and emerged with a small blue stone that glinted in the dying embers of the sunlight as though it had stars within. “See, I keep it always. Great Nirjuri has cast stars into certain stones, and this is just one of them.” The girl was staring at it intently, and the old man smiled, “but you can have it if you like, I doubt if I will be needing it for long now.” He laughed slightly and brushed his bald head. “I’ve as many years left as hairs.”

Ceres listened to the man, “I have travelled far from my home. You have told me much, so allow me to tell you a story. There was a king, greater than any other before or since, who wished to live forever through his work. And so he would construct tower after tower, reaching ever higher and higher, and yet never was he satisfied with the work and abandoned it. Eventually, he created a castle, so large and grand that it finally sated him and he settled down and had kids. Each of these children went off and created their own wonders and each have their own story, but among them there was one who did not create something for himself but instead marvelled at his father’s work, the towers, incomplete and in disrepair. He toiled no less than any of his other siblings repairing them, and installing a great lantern into each of them so that anyone travelling the king’s land could always find their way through the night.”

The old man looked to Ceres with knotted brows, stroking his beard as he tried to make out her features beneath the hood. “That is a glorious and dutiful son. Tell me, strange traveller, what is this land that you call home? And how did this prince create lanterns so great as to light up the night?”

“The entire epic of the king and his children can be sung for days and nights, but as for the lanterns, he did not achieve the feat alone as he obtained a gift from his eldest sibling, and their project,” Ceres replied, gracefully dodging the question about her home.

“And can this gift be replicated? I am certain the great lord Nirjurti would be pleased if we could create road shrines as wondrous as those of that dutiful prince.” The old ascetic spoke, clearly choosing not to pursue the dodged question.

Daylight was just beginning to yield to night, and yet the stars were already clearly visible in the sky, “That is just a story, but if you wish to guide people through the night, then the lanterns are already in place. You simply must teach people how to follow them.”

His eyes narrowed in thought, and then they widened in realisation as his gaze fell upon the stars. “Oh… great Nirjurti.” He breathed, then looked at Ceres with heightened curiosity, rising to his feet. “M- may I see your face as I learn this from you, wise stranger?”

Ceres paused, “There are some things that are better imagined than seen. You asked about my home. When your journey reaches its end, you shall be closer to it than I will have the chance,” she said, the stars vanishing back into the colorful sunset for a few more hours, as Ceres began to walk away, followed closely behind by the girl carefully clutching the starlit stone.

Nestled into a northern corner of Sunstrider territory, southeast of Brightshield, was the settlement of Moon Sleep.

It was a quiet farming village before it was raided by the Sigerians and the survivors were forced southward to the safety of the Rest.

Having secured the northmost border at Brightshield, there was a strong push to resettle and fortify the surrounding settlements.

However, while attempting to rebuild Moon Sleep, they encountered something alien.

Nil, a midnight watcher, was among those called upon by the queen to investigate the matter.

When he first arrived, he could see the town as it was, as he had remembered it from his childhood before the war. He was not sure if it was his power or something else, but it soon gave way to the ugly present.

He encountered the entity which stalked the town, described by others as an ethereal monster or a malicious miasma, he could see beyond that and see his brother, the brother who had died along with the town. He could see him calling out in pain. He also saw something out of the corner of his eye, a large black door. It was as though it was always there, but he finally shifted his head far enough to see it. He turned his focus to it, and every instinct that he screamed at him to run, that if he stared too long, it would take him. The other watchers saw it too, but it appeared to them in different forms, but each could feel the dreadful predatory aura.

After a few days, the teaching whisper, the collective name for the visions which taught them augury, told them about a new power which could defeat the menace, however it also spoke about how they were not ready to receive it. It seemed to display resistance to telling them what they needed to do, it was the first time any of the present watchers had experienced hesitancy from a vision.

Nil had meditated on the subject, each day feeling the suffering of his brother prolonged, and each day he grew more desperate to seek the answer to the power to end it.

In his frantic search for an answer, he examined the black door for far longer than any of his peers. The door refused to relinquish any of its secrets, except for one, he caught a glimpse of something extraordinarily powerful on the other side.

The sensation caused him to double over in pain, and nearly caused the vision to fade but he stubbornly clinged to it for any scrap of knowledge it could provide and as door began to become further and further away before his senses returned to normal, he caught one of whisper, an echo of his brother climbing out of the door.

Whatever rested on the side, it must surely have an answer to free his brother from his torment, though he did not think that it would grant it willingly. He did not expect to survive his foolhardy, but he could not do nothing, nor could he bring himself to endanger anyone else.

He told himself it was his cowardice that lead to his brother's death, and likely his current suffering. He could not let this stand, regardless of the imaginable risk.

As he prepared for what came next, he told himself that he would not die with regrets.

Three young men gathered around behind a shed, each one carrying a semblance of the clubs wielding by the Stone Mauls. They each had at least a grandparent who belonged to the clan, but their blood was far more mixed than they would like to admit. Blood purity is not a large aspect of Stone Maul culture, but living in occupied lands, people cling to what they can.

They spoke in harsh whispers about the rumors of dissidents being taken from their homes in nearby cities to be slaves for the Dûnan priestly elites, and how the negotiations with the leader of the town had broken down and the Kirinians were leaving soon.

More conspiratorial thinking crept into the conversation, someone mentioning that they heard someone say that the Kirinians were leaving because the leader had already decided to join the greater Ha-Dûna hegemony. Another that he had heard a rumor from that the defeat of the Sigerans was merely a trick and that so-called thralls would be sacrificed to the dark god. And various other unfounded claims keep slipping into the conversation, while none were taken at face-value, they keep feeding the fear and anger towards the Dûnans.

A druid found the three boys whispering, telling them that they couldn’t discuss this here. They were angry at first, until they realized he was wearing Stonemaul druid garb and what he was actually saying. He led them to a gathering of people who support Kirin’s Rest.

They were rallied by a gaardskarl of all people, a seasoned warrior and pious man, known by the name Enki. Many of those gathered were hesitant by his presence, especially as he made no attempt to hide his heritage, but their apprehension faded as he spoke. His voice had a deep anger to it, but it spoke to their anger. He told stories his family would tell him about Ketrafa, drawing stark parallels to it and Ha-Dûna. He told his story about how he was rejected and pushed away from the Dûnan military after the battle of Grimholt as he did not trust Sigeran from the beginning. And he said that tomorrow there would be a new story that they will tell their children about why they would never have to suffer from Ha-Dûnan tyranny.

The next day, the assembled force claimed Ha-Gaard. There was hardly any fighting. The Kirin loyalists were about equal to Ha-Dûna loyalists, and both combined were outnumbered by those who were neutral, but the Kirin Loyalists were the one to attack first, they were armed and surrounded by allies. A few of the more brash Dûnan supporters attempted to fight back, but they were suppressed quickly.

Enki claimed the town and pronounced his fealty to the queen of Kirin’s Rest, and that henceforth, it would be renamed Bright-Shield.

A messenger was sent to inform the nearby Kirinian outposts that they no longer needed to leave, they were not surprised by this turn of events. They never started making preparations to leave. One female light-wing, whose butterfly pendant was painted with bright purple and greens seemed particularly pleased at her work, while Sid seemed a bit more apprehensive at how this was achieved though still relieved that it was.

The Dûnan loyalists were to either confess loyalty to the Kirin Queen in the name of the druidic gods or were forced to gather their possessions and were expelled to the north. While the fortification remained, the road between the city and Ha-Duna was reopened, however there was already talk of potential taxes placed upon Dûnan traders. Only three families and a few extra odd people left the city, and very little actually changed within it, though little was done to quell the tension between the two nations the city now bordered.

The Quasar, a realm of harsh light and sheer darkness, began to shift. It was still defined by the contrast, but the zones of consisting of these extremes began to grow smaller and smaller, divided by a thin sliver of twilight. Forming into orbs of brightness and shadow which shifted around at variable speed and directions.

Nemea sat on one of the few perches within the realm, watching the occurrence with some interest, the space they resided in did not seem immediately impacted by the changes. However, what was happening was difficult to perceive without divine senses. One by one, the orbs began to manifest anomalies. One was hot as lava in one second, and let was cold as ice in the next. A piece of debris flew into another and was then wildly launched out. Sparks danced at the edge of another, and let never crossed the threshold. Each of the events were confined into their own spaces, except for one. It escaped its sphere and moved freely through the void.

Sirius was contemplating his conversation with patron of mana when he felt the freely moving force pass over him. It felt nice, he recognized it was of Galbar but he had never had a chance to experience it for himself. It awoke him from his stupor, and he noticed the chaos that his residence has been cast into.

The wind began to rage as Sirius self-reflected, the harsh lights and shadows of his plane vanished and were replaced by the expanding twilight. The god recognized that his realm needed to change. That he needed to change.

Ethereal pathways of tangible soft purple light formed starting from the door of his realm and expanded outwards in a labyrinthine manner across its entirety, zigzagging up and down forming many layers of walkways. Bolts of lightning would generate behind and beside the pathways and seemingly follow them to unknown destinations. The temperature of his realm would quickly shift at random, but if a creature was within it, it would always be tolerable for them so long as they remained in the good graces of its master. In fact, the entire realm became far more habitable for any potential visitors, as most beings would be able to see fine within the dim light that now subsumed it, though some absolute light and darkness remained as pillars extending vertically, no pathway passed through them. The lightning that traversed the realm would be harmlessly pass through anyone whom Sirius did not wish harm upon. Despite the size and complexity of the pathways, guests would never get lost wandering them and would have to try to jump off the platform they were standing on in order to fall down. If they did choose to fall a measure below the lowest platform, an unseen force would catch them and gently return them to the walkway. As for someone who was outside of Sirius' good graces, it is unwise to offend a god within their domain.

In addition, a gentle breeze would almost always be blowing, typically in the direction of Sirius when he was present. And when he was present, his door remained open in contrast to the few decades since it was first built. He created a new stone perch for Nemea so that was closer to the entrance so that she could watch over it.

Sirius appreciated his new found power. He was sure that he would make good use of it.

The warriors of the Rest gathered in an encampment some distance away from the village of Ha-Gaard, an old Dûnan settlement that became independent during the civil war. A panicked Sid looked over the regional map carved into a wooden table, the colorful butterfly insignia affixed to his shoulder.

He heard a loud voice calling his name before turning around and seeing a large woman in her early thirties, still able to carry her war maul with ease. Sid was relieved, respectfully bowing, “Hail Lara. I thought you were handling an issue in the farmlands south of the capital?”

Lara smirked, walking up to the table and examining it closely, “I was making the journey home as you were off to go fight the kins-eater. There were a few trolls that my warband dispatched. Tell me, how has the expansion been faring?”

Sid nodded, “Tak is reconsolidating the former sunstrider territories. The queen and Rik have returned to the capital. Before I left, I had heard that Hera was attempting to make peace and recruit the true sons. The Constellars have been attempting to map the region and improve the roads.”

Lara raised an eyebrow at the mention of the true sons, “They are strange people, but I can’t not say that they aren’t skilled warriors. And I have been informed of Tak’s plan, and it seems reasonable enough. How have the negotiations with Ha-gaard been going?”

Sighing, Sid replied, “It has been my responsibility to have such talks, and they insist they must remain neutral. I have seen their settlement, and they follow the Dunans example far closer than our own, I fear that they will side with them if there were ever a war.”

Lara looked at the map again, “That is concerning. If the Dunans were to take Ha-Gaard, they would be in striking distance of Sungrace.” she paused and thought for a moment, “Right now, it is not a pressing matter to claim Ha-Gaard, but we can not allow the Dunans to have a foothold into our lands. We should reposition here.” she said, pointing to a spot on the map that was closer to the settlement, “And fortify it, and create another position here.” she pointed to a point off the map that was adjacent to the path between Ha-Dûna and Ha-Gaard.

Sid seemed a bit concerned, “Do you think that might just provoke the Dunans?”

Lara looked down at the map one last time, “It could, but if we were to provoke them, we must do it now. If we delay, we only give them a chance to regroup and prepare their assault against us. Send word to Tak and the queen that ”

Some time later, Lara looked out over the path.The encampment was built into the ground and soldiers were busy felling trees and sharpening them into spikes to be buried into the ground and point outwards to any would be attackers. They have been keeping lookout for any travelers and sending them back in the direction that they came.
Lara thought about how the negotiations with Ha-Gaard have become more strained, and the pressure she had placed upon the city, but she also thought to herself how they were reclaiming lands that were already theirs and Kirin’s Rest have been compensating in food and essentials more so than what they lost in trade with the north. She could hardly be moved that they were cut off from their supply of pipe-smoke, the mind-rotting junk that it is.

Then, one day not too long after the erection of the camps, down the path between the crags leading north, there came a highland elk, topped with a white-cloaked individual. The rider was flanked on each side by ten warriors, all of whom wore their clan plaids thick to ward off the cold. Two carried spears from which tops banners danced in the wind - the green Hir, the emblem of Ha-Dûna.

A horn was sounded in response, the warriors stopping any construction they were doing to cautiously grab their weapons and stand near what fortifications have already been made.

Lara approached with two other guards, striding up to them and stating matter of factly, “The path is closed.”

The rider on the elk looked around and nodded slowly. “So it seems, so it seems. That will certainly be an issue for me and my men, that.” She pulled off her hood to reveal a wrinkly, smile missing several teeth, attached to a round head with graying hair. “I suppose we will have to talk to you to pass through, then?”

Looking annoyed, Lara grunted, “You would, and the answer is no. The path will be reopened whenever we come to a settlement with Ha-Gaard. Until then, you can leave.”

The old lady pursed her lips. “Oh, there are negotiations ongoing, is that it? Forgive us, forgive us.” She cleared her throat. “I am Kaer Oyen of the Sanndatr Boudicca’s new court of Ha-Dûna. A few days ago, we received a most distressing message from our dear friends in this here town about a most unfortunate event - it seemed that they had been surrounded by folk with quite malicious intent, indeed.” She raised a brow. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen them anywhere, would you?”

Lara looked at the druid directly, “I get enough riddles from the watchers, you can speak plainly or not at all.”

Kaer Oyen sighed quietly, barely audible in the winter breeze. “Now, now, we’re just having a friendly conversation now, aren’t we? We ask for nothing more than passage into the town so we may offer them gifts from the capital and make sure all is well. If, by chance, though, someone -were- to be blockading our vassal from the world, then, well…” She shrugged. “But that’s not what’s happening here, right?” she finished with a grin.

Still unfazed, Lara retorted, “If you want clarification, so be it. They are not your vassal. They are free to leave from the other path. And you are free to leave from this one.”

“If they didn’t consider us close, at least, then we would never have come at all. To take from them their freedom to connect with the capital - to which their culture is quite connected, indeed - is nothing short, dare I say, cruel.” She unpocketed a small leather pouch. “Let us at the very least bring them some pipeweed. They were quite adamant in their words that supplies lately had been rather… Dry.”

“Cruelty, are you sure the gods still permit you that word? If this delivery is truly that important, then you can make the longer journey can you not. We would not stop you from that.” she replied.

“Then so we will,” conceded the druid with a smile. “Just remember that these people are free to live just the way they want - such is the law of the Dlíbók, after all.” And with that, the elk and its escort turned back to begin the arduous journey to circumvent the blockade.

The trek cost them an extra afternoon, needing to journey around a number of impassable crags and highrises, but eventually, they reached the southern gate, where the druid spread her hands invitingly and announced, “People of Ha-Gaard - you need no longer fear! Ha-Dûna does not forget its friends so easily, and we have come with gifts of pipeweed, oat cakes, cheese and stockfish - the fruits of the north! Come, come help yourselves! Let none go unsatiated tonight!” The soldiers, many of whom had been pulling pulks and sleds with them, began unloading the cargo to share it with the approaching villagers. Kaer Oyen herself dismounted and went around offering encouraging blessings to the townsfolk.

“Worry not, my daughter,” she said to a pregnant woman. “You child will be born under the sun in a free world, safe and unmolested by foreign forces.”

She moved on to a group of young men. “Remember, you always have a friend willing to do anything for you to the north. Our people, we look out for each other.” She then patted one of them on the shoulder before moving to a colleague of hers, a local druid who eyes her with anxious neutrality. Kaer Oyen smiled her warmest smile and took his hand.

“Oh, my dear brother, fear not the future. The Eight will surely bring this war-torn land to a most harmonious peace in time.”

The druid looked away. “But is there a place for me in Ha-Dûna, sister? Druid, I may be, but my blood is southern, and my dialect would be foreign to the northerners. I…” Kaer Oyen stopped him by raising her palm. A crowd had gathered around her, though they kept their distance.

“What is your name, brother?”

“It’s Keon.”

“Remember your title, brother - wear it with honour.”

The druid seemed reluctant. “Forgive me… Some of the locals don’t always take too kindly to it. It’s too… Too…”

“Too Dûnan?” smiled the crone. The druid didn’t nod so much as vibrate his head up and down. Kaer Oyen chuckled softly and retrieved a small clay disk from her pouch. Upon it was an inscription, unintelligible to the druid and any of the onlookers. He turned the disk in his hand and raised a brow.

“What is this?”

The crone grabbed his hand and held it aloft, turning to the crowd. “This druid fears to use his title, one he has earned from a man’s age of study and devotion of the gods, all because of strife between our peoples! Let everyone know that no such discrimination will be cast over you in the north. To the north, you have family, friends.” She pointed to the disk in Keon’s hand. “This disk grants you free use of any Dûnan resthouse wherever you go. As always, we welcome our southern kin to join the fold once more. Together, the people of the Dûnlands are strong.” She let Keon’s hand go, and the druid stepped back to join the crowd. Kaer Oyen looked around invitingly. “Has anyone here not gotten their gift?”

“We want no gifts of yours, Dûnan!” came a sharp remark from the crowd, joined by some voices. Kaer Oyen kept her toothless grin and beckoned invitingly.

“And who are you, young man?”

“I am Pra, proud son of the Stonemauls, whose lineage has lived here for ages upon ages before your warmongering flock came and destroyed everything!” The crowd parted to reveal a group of eight youths aged anywhere between sixteen and their late twenties. The oldest, Pra, stood at the front, a club in his hand with a large stone tied to it at the end. “Now, you will be given to the count of ten to turn around and leave, or we’ll give you a reason to never return.”

The Dûnan soldiers who were no longer handing out goods quickly made their way over, but Kaer Oyen waved them away. She then turned back to Pra. “What is the source of your anger, my son?”

Pra recoiled somewhat. “Are you daft, old crone?! You and your people - you have taken my clan’s land and still now infringe upon our right to reclaim it!”

“What, -your- right to reclaim it?” came another voice. Pra quieted down and the crowd parted to show yet another group, led by a local shepherd, judging from his staff.

“Dreigen,” greeted Pra out of sheer politeness alone.

“Let the druid speak, you disrespectful troll! She has been kinder to us than your clan has of late!”

“You don’t get a say here, Dreigen,” Pra retorted. “There’s too much of them in you - be quiet for your own good.”

“Well, there’s obviously not enough of them in you now, is there?”

Pra stormed across the empty space in the centre of the crowd. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Ha-Gaard is a freehold, and right now, the Stonemauls are outside our northern gate, forcing our traders to trek the dangerous path around the hills just to journey north to sell their goods. Yet here you shun those who have come to us with gifts in this trying time - given back what little luxuries even the common folk can enjoy: pipeweed, oat cakes--”

Pra spat on the ground. “Your mind’s gone soft from all that smoking, man. Too soft to see what these luxuries have turned you into - a slave of the north!” The argument between the various groups in the crowd grew louder. Kaer Oyen stood waiting patiently, and then one of her guardsmen came over to her and bowed curtly, as was custom.

“All the gifts have been given away, mother.”

“Good, good. I will remain a little longer. Please, go around town and offer your aid to anyone who might need it. We might stay here for a night or so, if we can.”

“Yes, mother.”

As the Dûnans traversed the city, they found a small crowd of people gathering around Sid in traditional stone-maul dress, however he had the colorful butterfly insignia pinned into his shoulder. They could hear the trail-end of his story, “And so the Dunans paid for their hubris, and were permitted to return to their homes. They may reach out to you as brothers for the time being, but when have they done so in the past, and think carefully if they will do so in the future.”

The Dûnans exchanged looks, but it seemed as though they elected to ignore it. Instead, they each found themselves a plank or a large bone and began shovelling the roads free of snow, wordlessly. Others searched out labourers lifting heavy objects to ask to help them. It was clear that they showed disdain for the message, though, for they would cast glares at Sid every now and then between shovels and lifts.

Sid continued his stories, “And remember the most of profane of days, devoted to the most profane of gods. When Reya turned his vision from the city of Ha-Dûna, and Seros sent away his divine messenger from the cursed celebration to the more pious people of the Westfold.”

“Hey!” exclaimed one of the Dûnans. “That was the Sigerans and you bloody well know it!” She was immediately grabbed by the shoulder by her partner and pulled back into shoveling.

“Gione, you be quiet!” said her partner and cast Sid a glare that could melt iron.

Sid continued, “And where did the Sigerans come from? Did they come from the native peoples of the Westfold? Did they appear by divine providence? The privileged Dunans and their first sons were ravaging the land before they started worshipping the profane god. The land of the native peoples and the land of their younger siblings.”

The Dûnans whispered to one another and collectively decided to straighten themselves up and move to a different part of the town. Although “collective” was less of a unanimous decision and more of a forceful migration initiated by the most senior among them. One could tell the youngest were all but ready to draw axes.

In the end, after days of loudening arguments and occasional turns to blows, the Dûnans felt that the tide had begun to turn on them. The druid leading them decided to sound their retreat back to their capital before the brawls could turn into bloodbaths, and while many sympathisers came to bid them farewell at the backgate, larger still was the crowd cursing them and celebrating their exit. With great effort and discipline (and disciplinary action exercised on the youngest among them), the Dûnans hadn’t started a single conflict where words came to blows. In their defeat, as well, they decided to plant a final seed of hope for their cause for any willing to cultivate it.

“Should your new allies turn on you, you will always have friends to the north,” Kaer Oyen had announced as her final words to the Gaardans. Then they had journeyed into the snows once more.

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