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The Hierarchy Shall Crumble.
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"No one man should have all that power."
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"Well as far as brains go, I've got the lion's share. But when it comes to brute strength, I'm afraid I'm at the shallow end of the gene pool." - Who?


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With the expert help of Pygmy hands, it had not taken long to fill the storage houses of the Dreamer city. Like machines, the dutiful simians had dug clay out of the ground and brought it up to the Industrial Square atop the great turtle beast. In return for their services, as promised, the Dreamers had revealed to the Pygmies the art of claycraft, showing them how to build and work the draft furnaces that had been constructed atop Chuanwang’s shell. The Pygmy apprentices diligently absorbed the knowledge of their Dreamer teachers and began work on similar projects in Tal Eren as soon as the Dreamers had left. It took a number of determined attempts, but after a number of weeks, draft furnaces were filling up the western part of the city, and thick, black smoke oozed out of the tall furnace chimneys. The pottery was scrappy at first, but experiment after experiment yielded better and better ceramics. Soon, the water from Beihe could be trapped in clay pots and stored in houses so that the workers could focus on their tasks for longer periods of time instead of having to run down to the river all the time to drink. More furnaces were built, more effort put into the work. Different types of clay were brought into the projects with varying and differing results. The ceaseless furnaces of Tal Eren burned day and night, sending columns of gray rising over the plains and jungle as if the Fire Giants had returned.

And, one day, it seemed that greater forces had conspired to complete the impression. The tremors of immense footsteps coursed through the soil before even anything more than a large blot had appeared on the southward horizon. They grew stronger as it advanced, gripping the very walls of houses and workshops. Tools rattled on their shelves, water spilled from basins, the swine in the fields sniffed the air restlessly and squealed their welcome to the air.

In mere minutes, the distant blot had become a gigantic shadow like a walking mountain. Little more passed before its outlines became clearer - the masses of enormous jagged iron plates, the titanic limbs, the blank-faced head with four flaming eyes. On the metallic enormity’s shoulder, maybe sprawled, maybe coiled, was a colossal, outlandish monstrosity. Its contours stayed blurry even as those of its master were clearly in sight, with one limb appearing to be a clawed paw one moment and a writhing tentacle another. The monster reached into gaps in the preternatural armour with what were either tongues or proboscises, draining something out of them.

When Narzhak stopped before the last rows of new, still incomplete furnaces, he loomed over the city in its entirety. His shoulders darkened the Heliopolis, casting a spell of untimely dusk on roofs and fields, only broken by the prying light of his eyes. He clapped his hands, and the crash was that of a hundred thunders striking at once.

The great ape was there, bearing the brunt of the roar without flinching. He bowed, his locks kissing the earth. ”Father, a thousand greetings.”

”Good to see you,” the god nodded, his voice rolling far around. ”Even better, you haven’t been wasting time.” He gestured towards the city’s core. The creature on his shoulder shifted and oozed as the motion pushed it up.

”It would be unbecoming of a godspawn to wallow about, father. I work to bring life the words I uttered in the plains of my birth.”

”And drive them to build the body, I see,” a row of houses were thrown into shadow by a pointing finger far larger than the sum of them, ”Good thought, that. Don’t let a body lie around unused. Is this place of yours any good yet?”

Anu nodded. ”Nearly. It is growing rapidly and with time its full might will be brought to bare, all things go well.”

”Full might? It’s early to talk about that yet.” Narzhak raised an arm to lay an open hand on the beast’s back. ”Tell me this. How wide does your vision go?”

”Beyond the horizons, father.”

”That’s vague, but I couldn’t tell you what’s over half of them myself,” iron fingers tapped together like bells tolling, ”What’s more, width alone won’t do it. You’ll need control. How deep will you go with that?”

”An empire unhindered by landmasses or oceans, a world order, to be specific.” he breathed. ”As for how deep I will go, I will go as deep as is warranted. I empathize towards sentiant-kind and wish to raise them from the mud and I will have nothing less than pristine.”

”Hrm. You’ve got the right idea.” The tolling grew more distant as Narzhak tapped the side of his head. ”Show me how strongly you hold them now.”

A nod and a small hand-gesture called the warriors nearest to him. They assembled immediately, kowtowing before both divines. As one voice, they greeted, “A thousand blessings to the War-Father and His Majesty!” and awaited their commands.

”Rise and take up arms.” he ordered smoothly.

They rose as one, too, spun on their heels and jogged for the palace barracks. Before the two gods truly had time to wait, they returned with wooden spears and stood at attention.

”Turn your blades upon my father, and impale him.” he deadpanned.

The warriors seemed momentarily hesitant, whether from the blasphemy or the logistics of such a task. However, the one in the back swiftly let out a wild, guttural howl and charged forward towards the giant’s boot. The others followed swiftly, insane discipline overtaking their senses.

The great ape intoned above the symphony of ringing iron and warcries. ”If their king commands it, they fight a god.”

Narzhak’s eyes widened curiously as they looked straight down at the swarming figures. A grumbling rose from deep in his throat, soon growing into a low chuckle that made the ground quiver and shook the ranks of his assailants. His finger turned down on the pygmies, and he rumbled ”At ease!” in a voice that was, it seemed, more command than sound.

Amidst a nod, his gaze slid back along the ground to Anu. ”You know how to handle them. My son.” His laugh surged back up, not without pride. ”There is, still, one thing that’s trouble for chains of command like yours. You’re one, and they? Hundreds now, and if you go as far as you say, thousands of times that. Only a handful can hear you at once.”

The pygmies returned to their kings side, shaken yet determined. ”Yes, distance has a habit of making the King feel less like a king. But we intend to set up a chain of command and bureaucracy, they will hear their king.”

”That’ll help, but it won’t be absolute.” Iron fingers grit together again. ”It will be just mortals driving each other, and leave them without safeguards-” the gigantic hand straightened itself and cut a line in the air, ”-there’ll be rough spots on the way. More when you start getting ones without your mark, and you’re going to. You’ll need something else.” Two eyes of the four jumped around the roofs and fields. ”Have them clear us a good place.”

The ape nodded, glancing at his guard. ” Section off some land nearby.”

”At once, your Majesty!” they barked in unison, melting into the city. Little time passed before a single pygmy returned to kotow before the gods again. ”His Majesty, War-Father, a plot just south had been made available.”

”Good. Father?”

”Let’s.” Narzhak stepped southward - or, rather, did a partial about-face, keeping his feet close together to avoid stepping on the fringe buildings. His gaze sought and swept appraisingly over the stretch of bare land the messenger had spoken of, then he lifted a hand in a grasping motion towards the sky.

Mirroring his gesture, the earth at the center of the plot trembled and rose, pushed up by a shape forcing its way to the surface. A sharp ridge of dark grey rock, veined with spiked iron bands, broke the soil, gaining in height and width by the moment. Soon it was the top of an enormous arch, stretching to both sides until it almost filled the entirety of the field’s breadth, before swerving down in lateral pillars that grew and grew.

When the tremors finally stopped, an imposing, not to say menacing structure towered over the southern quarters of the city. A vast archway of stone inlaid with metal, many times as tall as the largest of the simple houses surrounding it and broader yet, cast a long shadow beside Narzhak’s own. Its sides rose in a smooth stretched semicircle and met seamlessly in an even rounded apex. It was as if a single pillar, so thick and sturdy that Anu himself could not have encompassed it in an embrace if even he had been a dozen times his size, had been bent with the flexibility of a fine steel blade and planted with its ends in the ground.

What was most singular about the structure, however, was its inner side. All along the interior of its span, large spines of rock and iron jutted out like centuries-old stalactites. Each of them was perfectly aligned towards the centerpoint of the arch. Together, they gave it an uncanny semblance of a gigantic disembodied mouth full of pointed teeth, a similitude that immediately leapt into one’s eye and was impossible to shake off.

”Something like this.” The god concluded his thought, and pointed at the ground near one of the archway’s feet. ”Take that.” Indeed, lying on the ground near the pillar’s base was a fragment of stone, similar to the tooth-like formations, but only about as large as a spear and ringed with a spiralling design of metal bands. It was uncertain whether it had been there before Narzhak had spoken.

Visibly awed the demigod marched quickly to retrieve the thing, taking it up in his hands to eye it's design with rivers of fire. ”Father, what is this?” he breathed.

”That’s what I was talking about.” Narzhak’s hand hovered over the top of the structure. ”It eats the spirit of disobedience. Some other things come off with it, too, so be careful about going through here.” A hook sprouted from an iron fingertip and slid under the gateway. ”Anything that does will think of nothing but following orders, as long as it breathes. Hold that piece, and you’ll be the one giving them. It can’t follow the borders of your reign anywhere,” he gestured towards the horizon, ”but maybe it’ll be a reminder that this place is the first in it.”

For a moment the ape was silent, glued to the superstructure that now dominated his city. The ramifications of his father's words where quicker to take hold. ”Father, a thousand blessings. To receive such a gift, I'm unable to fathom the amount of thanks.”

”You don’t have to.” The god’s massive head swayed sideways. The creature on his shoulder pushed what looked vaguely like a molluscoid eye on a stalk and dangled it towards the ground. ”All you need to do to show them is use it, well and often. Feed it timely, or it will hunger and speak too loud for our good.”

”Yes, Father.” the ape huffed, laying a hand on the cold metal structure. ”This one will wield it effectively.”

”That’s all it will need.” Narzhak turned an eye sidewards, gazing towards the buckling eastern horizon. ”You won’t be lacking heads on which to try it. Someone left things a throw that way some years ago, elaborate, but they know how to kill. You will find them, sooner or later.”

The ape followed his father's gaze but only found the city dominating his field of vision, nevertheless the titian’s words remained with him. ”An enemy to the east.” he murmured. ”If they attack Talemon they will know no mercy.”

”No use for that, but there’s more to such things." Iron fingertips tapped against each other with the sound of hills collapsing onto enormous gongs. ”A conflict is always an opportunity, more than anything else. Don’t waste this one."

”Word of wisdom this one will not forget.”


High in the sky’s sapphire vaults, hunting birds hung almost motionless in the distance, held aloft by the strengthening westerly wind as their sharp eyes scanned the branches far below for an unwary prey seeking to satisfy a long winter’s hunger on the new green of the Kalgrunic timberland. Their wings were silent on the spring breeze as they effortlessly rode the thermals rising more strongly now, with Heliopolis nearing its perihelion.

Easily seen, but ignored by the high-flying raptors was a herd of plains deer grazing hungrily on the new grass of the south. They too gladly filled their bellies with the tender and supple blades of new grass that pushed its way out of the hard ground and winter debris to gather in the sunlight. They had enough gnawing the bark of northern trees to fill hungry bellies during the deepest of winter’s cold embrace. They swiftly ate, knowing that this brief respite, this window of peace would soon close, as it often did in nature.

The herd’s lead buck, a broad-shouldered male with spring velvet still covering his new season rack, gave a start when a low snapping sound echoed over the plain. With vigilance meaning survival to the deer, any unusual sound found its way quickly to their attention. As had this sound; head up and ears pricked forward, big brown eyes swept first in one direction, then another, searching out the low, almost inaudible sound’s source.

Ears tuned to subtleties of sound that would escape creatures not so dependent on caution, the stag felt his body tense as he finally recognized the sound, now grown loud enough to be felt through the thick stuff of their hooves. It was the sound of Men, of hunters, come to reap a deadly harvest from the flesh of the stag’s charges.  

The stag didn’t hesitate from that point; swinging his magnificent head around, he bounded for the trees northward, his herd hard in his shadow. 

With his back to the south, the stag’s sharp eyes didn’t see the dark shadows flitting through a large grove nearby. Even if he had though, even his vision would’ve been hard-pressed to make out the forms behind the shadows. But it would hear the shrill whistle it made, piercing the air as sharply as any arrow could as the herd dissolved into the forest.

Ever graceful the Stag and it’s herd struck out deep into the timberland, not bothering to consider the warble and its possible implications. All knew to swiftly seek shelter when Men were about. Especially in these days of turmoil amongst nature and the two-legged dwellers. 

After what seemed like an eternity the Stag finally slowed to a crawl, the city of bark parting into a natural glade. With dangers of Men far behind the herd, the buck resigned himself to the comforts of the clearing, lowering its massive rack to graze upon the bounty of green and sweetgrass afforded them. To bask in nature’s blessed windows of peace and escape the greed of Men was their existence.

The little peace afforded to the buck and his herd blunted their ever-sharp senses as they missed the shadows filtering silently within the forest's border. Then the nearest passed through a column of sunshine that had managed to penetrate the new growth forming the grove’s canopy and, for the briefest of moments, it was revealed.

It was a man, bent low over the back of a bush. His face was hardened and chiseled by long months exposed to the elements and by days of trial and travail spent striving against nature. Even harder still were his eyes; chips of stone as they stared ahead, fixed on a distant goal, his battle-hardened body draped about with furs and a tunic of dull and plain colors: browns, grays, and blacks. That clothing showed the signs of heavy wear and travel, his fur cloak still damp from the last snow the man had traveled through.

In an eyeblink, the man was joined by a score of others; silent as ghosts, dangerous as a pack of wolves. Bent low, the dark company pressed for the edge of the grove, marked by a splash of sunlight in front of them.

Then, with an explosion of sound and motion, they burst out of the grove to pound recklessly across the ground, clods of sod flying in their wake. Revealed in the light, the company numbered twenty souls and the smell of death lay close to them, both man and animal.  
Panic set in, the Stag was quick to attempt a retreat, but a second company burst from the rear.


Then the hard-eyed man set upon him, stone-tipped spear effortlessly striking like a scorpion’s stinger until it sawed through flesh like butter.

The pain came like a sudden squall out at sea, a searing fiery burst pulsating at the jugular, intensifying with each dragging turn, jarring and brutal. A spear shaft jutted out the Stag’s neck. With each staggering step the pain amplified, the bloody muscle quivering and his consciousness ebbing. 

All around the buck, his cadre were put to the blade, slaughtered with brutal efficiency. Not one escaped. Finally, legs gave out, bring the massive buck to the ground. Black mists swirled at the edges of his mind as his murderer approached, affording him a final glimpse of the man’s visage. 

Handsome in the way only Vallamir were, the slender hunter was pale and intense, with a face chiseled by an artisan's hand from stone and eyes of brilliant sapphire. Locks of golden hair tinged with streaks of white-capped his skull in a topknot, to keep them from blurring his view of the world and hindering the sensitivity of his pointed ears.

With grim determination and the slightest hint of satisfaction dancing across the man’s face, the Stag was drawn into sweet oblivion as it’s wooden companion piece was dislodged from its neck with a sickening 'crunch'. 

The wiry man knelt before the majestic creature, planting his weapon hard in the dirt between then. ”Rest in the flames, wee’ king. For’ from the cycle you came and to the cycle you return.”

Oath still hot on his lips, the blonde Valla drew a stone dagger from the folds of his furs and deftly set about dressing the kill. All about the glade Valla were abuzz with activity, a number went about cutting into their kills as well, expertly opening up the carcass and removing entrails, careful not to puncture certain organs and risk tainting the meat, while others materialized from the forest shadows, producing flat sleds made of Kalgrunic wood and twine with logs of stark white wood stacked atop them. 

A team of two Valla dragged one of the pallets over to the blonde man. One of them, a wiry Vallamir with his cobalt blue hair in a neatly trimmed topknot and eyes a bright green, flashed him a wicked smile, sharp canines on full display.

“Steady now, Lugo, you vibrate wit tha song of tha wild!”

The one referred to as Lugo swung electric blue eyes the Valla’s way, wiping clean his blade on the hollow belly of the buck. 

”Come naw Arth, ta have been part o' something so magnificent, how could’a man not?” His normally strong and assured cavalier throaty with his wonder.

The second Vallamir, easily as tall as the blonde hunter, was powerfully built for one of her kind. Her loose huntsman's garb doing nothing to hide muscular arms and legs, a deep chest and jutting breasts. Yet, despite her size and obvious power, the brown-haired valla woman moved with the grace of a hunting cat, her brown eyes still darting this way and that, even though the prey lay dead all around them.  

“Aye aye, both o’ya burnin daylight. Permafrost ain’t wait for any ol’valla. Help me wit tha blessed thing.”

A smile dancing on his face, Lugo stepped back to allow Arth and Udele through. Quickly they hoisted the stag up and onto the sled with a heavy thump. Then with leafy twine they strapped the carcass down and took the white logs they had brought with and stuffed it full with the timber. Cut from the arms of the Brumal Tree so common in their homeland, the logs were naturally cold to the touch, imbued with the deep and intense chill of the Permafrost.

“Frost me solid, ol’bastard weights bout’a father ice bear. Master Hunter blesses tha tribe.” Udele breathed heavily, stretching to pop the knots in her back.

”Aye, tha lowlands bounty is plentiful.”

Arth tied the heart and the liver in a bundle of brumal before looking up. “Lowlands ain’ our place. Should be hunt’n Kalmar’s bounty in our own lands.”

Lugo felt his jaw clench in response at the slight yet said nothing, choosing instead to clean the blood off his spear tip and set off into the forest.

“Oi oi.” Arth called in vain, quick to fall in step with him. “Come now you know I’m not wrong. Help me here Udele.” 

A ghost at their backs, Udele had quietly taken to dragging the kill through the forest, as had the rest of the company. Like wraiths they moved through the forest towards the icy chill of the Permafrost. 

“I’m not one fer beatin’a dead doe, but Arth has a point. We all do.” she affirmed, her powerful brows furrowing with concern.

Lugo sniffed. He had been the one to lead the Exodus north, his natural charisma making him an obvious leader of Men. With Arth by his side, they fought their way to and settled in frigid frontier they called the Yataul–a name taken from the first of the dead on their journey–picking up dozens of brethren along the way. With time the Yataul gained a second name as the permanent sting of the white barked forest and icy plains set itself deep in the bones of its denizens: the Permafrost. 

”What tha people say is war, Udele.”

“Be that such a’bad thing?” Arth countered. “Ain’t it tha Frostfire actin’ outta turn? Instead of unitin’, chasing us and tha other outta tha hunting grounds. Game gettin’ scarce.”

Udele spoke up. “Tha other tribes have called tha Iceni to convine on matters, Lugo. Tha people is expecting’ you to go. Wi’oot to do something bout this and quickly. ‘Fore our children face they pyers.”

”So wi’set our brothers and sister to burn?!” he counterd as sharply as a spearhead. ”I’m no bricka’ice Udele, I know what’s on tha line here. I just fear what Drephin and tha Frostfire willin’ to do to keep they selfish grasp on the Yataul. What they doin’ this for?”

“Frost what tha motive is!” Arth bit back. “Who knows with that ol’bastard Drephin?”

“Wi do what we need to do to survive, you’oot to know that better then anyone.” Udele breathed. Lugo set his lips in a hardline, a painful memory resurfacing like bile rushing up the throat. 

A quiet settled between the trio, and with time the soft patter of crushed grass became the hard crunch of angry ice, the Kalgrunic timberland melting into the brumalwood of the Yataul. Here frozen fruit grew on the trees and everything exuded a bone-chilling cold, and here did the most daring and hardened of the Vallamir settle, seeking safety from the lowland predators. Yet they found only an enemy within themselves. A greedy Valla leading an even greedier cadre of kinslayer. 

Soon the soft firelight of the Iceni longhouse pryers came into view, beacons signaling the end of their hours' long journey. As they reached the edge of the village the company split, those dragged sleds veered towards the storehouse while the bulk made for the main house. 

Arth placed a knowing hand of Lugo’s shoulder. “Aye, and tenday away be the summit, make sacrifice and send prayers to Kalmar, we trust you not lead us toward oblivion.”

With that he left for the heat of the mainhouse, the jovial sounds of lore Valla singing the tales of the Exodus and the feats of the Iceborn, the warrior men and women who sacrificed themselves to protect the newborn travelers.

Lugo stood alone, the last vestiges of warmth leaving the place where Arth placed his hand, exposing it to the endless cold of the Permafrost. 

E N G I N E S & D E M O N S

With a low growl, a portal tore into being high above Sheol proper, space visibly bending around the man-high torrid that marked the portal’s outer boundary with reality while a line of glyphs ceaselessly congealed and deliquesced at its border. In the silent chaos, a figure swiftly stepped across the threshold, not bothering to look over its shoulder and watch the tear sow itself shut almost as quickly as it appeared.

With the brilliant light of the gateway no longer back-lighting its silhouetted figure, it faded to normality, swiftly resolving into a familiar form.

”-Dilatory.-” rasped a foul voice belonging to the master of the foul sea of unholy miasma, it’s ever writhing form and disgusting eye solely focused on the intruder for but a moment.

Ummum, seemingly unperturbed bowed before his sovereign.

” several aberrations drew my attention away, Maker.”

”-Unsatisfactory.-” THE ABHORRENT hummed, it’s massive tentacles now moving to interact with the massive moon only second next to it in size.

Divine cords of energy sawed at the surface of the sphere, the thing seemingly screaming as its skin was rent into pieces, rending black-chiton apart to reveal seas of soft liquid flesh glowing brighter than its counterpart gnawing at Galbar.

From above Ummum silently looked on, his mind working to grasp the complexities of his Maker’s work. Not unlike the landmasses of Galbar which rose above its blue seas, so did the masses of obsidian-chiton stand stalwart against the oceans of purple anti-matter.

So Maker intends for the child-bed of the infestation to serve as its habitat, quaint. the program mused quietly.

”-Status, Objective J01.-”

”near completion, Maker. an acceptable position was set upon the greatest of Galbarian landmass’, upon northernmost coast, experimentation can begin when ready.”

The blur of tentacles slowed to a crawl and then ceasing altogether. ”-Satisfactory. Render FIRST WEAPONS blueprints.”

”affirmative, rendering.” the program buzzed. Without much effort a rough three-dimensional rendering of various life-forms and accompanying glyphs in lime-green displayed in the palm of its hand, eyes synthesized from godflesh naturally quick to analyze the data presented.

”manifestation equation results within set reality parameters. construction based on previous manifestation primary models with additional updates are set. The FIRST WEAPONS ready for production. Instructions are as-is:“

להפעיל סינתיסייזרים חלבונים להפעיל את תהליך ההמרה בניית ביומסה
יציאת כוח שד אמיתית
העלה מלא נסיכים בשר בשר
אלוהים מקוון

As the program spoke in the foul language of old there was a shift, and then a torrent of motion as Anzillu aggregated the entirety of its mass at a single point above an especially luminescent body of ARCHON. Negative energy rent reality too and fro as the great eye of the bastard dilated and glyphs burned into existence around it. With a scream a singularity of divine machination congealed at the DEMON’s end; a black orb of miasma so dense it threatened to drive the very program who shared its makeup to madness.

-“לזרוע“- THE ABHORRENT chanted with a finality that threatened to finally rip reality asunder as the black orb dropped from its grasp and pulled existence down into the depths of the fleshy factory.

Project SHEOL> 95% complete_ARCHON TRINITY reaction initialized.
>command instance ARCHON 003_catylizer instance ARCHON 002_biomass instance ARCHON 001.
>FIRST WEAPONS Program loading

5% 10% 25% 35% 65% 89% … complete

Flesh writhed beneath the waves of liquid ARCHON, sinew amassing and synthesizing according to the FIRST SEED’s blueprints. The divine miasma produced cast a wretched shadow across Ummum’s senses, yet if it was affected, it showed no sign. No, it only watched in silence as SHEOL screamed in distress, the birth pangs of the factory shaking the very foundations of Galber until finally, the abyss produced its offspring.

One by one the bastard progeny of godflesh rose out the tumult of undoing, six perfect spheres of white repugnant tissue that thrummed with the energy of the DEMON.

Then they bore themselves naked.

Like a child taking its first steps the brood slowly took on different shapes, flesh folding and expanding, bones snapping and crunching sickeningly, and muscle tissue and raw energy exploding and reforming until twisted perfection they achieved. Their wails chilled Ummum to the bone and their visage only served to vomit mortal reaction upon him, THE ABHORRENT was utterly still.

-”Flesh of my flesh. Blood of my blood. לכבוש.”- the bastard hummed, a glyph appearing at words end, thus manifesting a halo of pure blue energy upon the tops of each child, crowning each kings and queens with their unholy existence and snapping them out of their pain fueled delirium and into silence.

THE ABHORRENT shifted towards Ummum. -”carry out Primary Objective. First Weapons at Ummum Progam’s disposal, SECOND SEED under manifestation. Infestation to occur within one cycle.”

”understood, Maker.” the program paused. ”same as the last.”

It glanced at the DEMON but the space it occupied was empty, in its place an enormous obsidian eye resided, without motion but still ever watching an orbiting, like a moon above a planet.

The program rubbed the thin flesh on his chin--a developing habit--and turned its attention to the First Weapons. Their visages varied, from multi-tentacled and multi-winged to humanoid, utterly featureless or multi-eyed and even beyond comprehension.

A sneer formed on the program’s lips, the First Weapons, heralds of the infestation and masters of the DEMON’s Lesser. Even now the Lesser were vomited from the seas of Sheol and onto its black beaches, craven of various forms, from giant to ant.

They disgusted the program.

And THE HANDLER left the newborns to damnation.

The jungle fronds in the distance swayed in the midday breeze. Heliopolis baked against the fur of the sweaty pygmies as their buoyant gait carried them across the yellow savannah of the Knucklelands. They were only ten at the moment, yet even that was roughly ten percent of their whole population. They were armed with sharpened sticks roughly as long as they were tall, and carried them in one hand as they jogged through swathes of golden grass, occasionally mixing up their two-legged jog with a four-limbed gait, though this made it difficult to hold the spear properly.

Leading the warriors was Qiang Quan, himself armed with his own wooden spear, and the great ape Anu, his knuckles thundering against the dry top soil. In the tall grass, a wild boar escaped the pack with several wary snorts. Qiang shot it a glance.

“Your Majesty,” he opened, “it would seem these lands are richer in game than the central Knucklelands - it may be preferable to hunt here from now on.”

Golden disks spared the surrounding plains a cursory glance. He could smell the difference in population here. ”Good observation, see it so and mark out this territory as hunting-grounds.” he breathed. How long will it remain so before we must travel farther yet?

Qiang ordered a pygmy to stab his spear into the soil by his foot, and ripped off a ribbon of white from his admittedly worn gi. He tied it to the top of the spear and watched it dance in the wind for a second before turning to scout the fields some more. “That was the second boar this servant has seen today - it reckons there may be a small number around, though how many is difficult to estimate. I will return with the warband later to survey further, Your Majesty.”

”A small number? Pyres burn me, we cannot sustain this hunter-gatherer lifestyle for much longer, not with our numbers.” the ape growled, his thoughts flowing freely.

“A sound statement, Your Majesty - His Lordship’s aid has accelerated the glorious transformation into a society built on the farm; however, a consistent source of meats and fats will still be necessary. While the boar is perfect for this, hunting it to extinction will help no one.” He hummed. “Let us hope the wise master Zhu Rongyuan has furthered his fishing project research.”

Anu let out a puff of hot air though his nose. ”Indeed, in the meantime though, the boar mustn’t die out. They can’t be that far off from mortals in a way, give them food, shelter and a mate, and they multiply. Surely we can cultivate and harvest them just like crops.” he mused

The warrior rubbed his face in thought. “Perhaps - they may not be quite accustomed to a cage at first, though. Unlike mortals which can be told, lowly beasts are not intelligent enough to understand orders… However, in time, these servants’ research will likely encompass this feat as well, Your Majesty.”

”The things will learn, adapt, or die, they’ll understand that well enough. Make it so.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” the servant said with a bow. Ahead of them the Knucklelands came to an abrupt, verdant end as the Nanhese jungle filled the horizon. Qiang Quan sucked in a breath through his nose, spun about and stopped facing the pygmy warband, which also abruptly came to a somewhat disorganised halt. The warrior surveyed the recruits; these had been selected among all of the King’s subjects for their bulk, endurance, ferocity and obedience - they were His Majesty’s finest.

Or, well, they were about to verify whether that was true.

“Warriors, hear me - we have arrived at the training grounds. Before we go inside, the ten of you will make yourselves familiar with your companions - know their names, know their strengths, know their weaknesses. Familiarise yourselves with where you can aid them, and where you can surpass them. Form units of two and two and commence two rounds of wrestling per unit. Begin.”

The pygmies did as requested - they lined up into two rows of five, each pair facing each other. They put down their spears, assumed starting positions and then begun to wrestle each other to the ground. Qiang Quan kept a keen eye on every spar, hawken orbs looking for flourishing talent among the warriors.

“Any thoughts, Your Majesty?”

Slits of gold scrutinized each and every pygmy pair in action, picking out both flaw and strength. [color=MistyRose]”A fine selection of candidates, Qiang. They seem capable.”[color]

Qiang Quan nodded in agreement and stepped over to one pair in particular. The winning pygmy, a large, bulky adult, had its opponent, a lesser youngster, pinned down with both his arms locked in a grip on his back. To finalise the fight, the adult simulated a powerful strike to the back of the head before releasing the youngster, who squirmed free with a frustrated groan. Qiang Quan hummed in approval and turned to the adult. “You, victor - what is your name?”

The pygmy scrambled to his feet, picking up his spear on the way up. He knocked his heels together, straightened his back and lifted his chin, eyes locked in a forward-facing gaze. “This one is named Okonkwo, warleader.”

Qiang Quan inspected the pygmy’s pose, noting that his arms could be a little more firmly pointed to the ground. Still, it was a minor flaw in an overall solid salute. His eyes flickered to the youngster, who rubbed his sore joints self-pityingly. “You did well, Okonkwo - few times have I seen one win so overwhelmingly in such a short span of time.” He clapped the stalwart pygmy on the shoulder. “See to it that the youngster is taught how to wrestle as you do.”

An affirmative snort escaped the pygmy’s nostrils as he nodded. “It shall be done, warleader.” Okonkwo then turned around to school the youngster about his techniques and methods. Qiang Quan smiled proudly and went back to Anu. There, he thundered, “Attention,” and all the pygmies broke out of their stances to stand up. The servant eyed the ten, of which some were bruised and some were bloody. He nodded approvingly. “It is good that you are not soft on one another - combat is anything but soft.” He pointed to the woods. “Today, you will be hunting frog monkeys. For this exercise, you will be divided into two teams of five, forming a marun. In a marun, three spearmen will respectively take the frontline and the side flanks, supported by two spear-throwers in the back who can also protect the hind flank. This formation is essential when fighting in dense woods, for the ability to cover every flank is crucial in environments where the enemy can ambush you out of nowhere. All clear so far?”

The pygmies nodded with varying degrees of enthusiasm and understanding. Qiang Quan turned to Anu. “Has His Majesty got anything to add?”

For a moment the ape was quiet, scrutinizing the cadre with eyes as bright as Heliopolis itself. “My cherished warriors,” Anu said finally. The power in his voice rang out like the drawing of a blade. He paused, as if giving us a moment to test ourselves against its keen edge. “On this day we all test whether or not Talemon will prevail. Know this, that the strength of this nation is in it’s people and their principles. Vision, Might, and Guile. Hold these true, and prove Talemon worthy of subjecting this wild world.”

The warriors gulped and collapsed into kowtows from the sheer awesomeness radiating off the Ivory King. Qiang Quan picked one of the closest up by the arm. "An understandable reaction, warriors," he said, "but forces in the field cannot afford to be shaken to their knees. The appropriate answer to His Majesty will be to pound the butt of your spears into the ground as you bellow a resounding 'AYE!', is that clear?" He looked towards the horizon - heliopolis had passed its zenith. "We will practice it after the training. Now, divide into your maruns and hunt a trophy for your King."

The ten quickly parted into two groups, vanguarded by three with two tight grips about their spears for thrusting and blocking, supported from behind by two with loose underhand grips for throwing. The throwers picked up an additional stick or rock from the ground as the groups entered the forest.

Qiang Quan nodded approvingly, though hummed in thought at the additional sticks and stones. He turned to Anu and said, "This servant will devise a harness of some kind for the throwers to store spears and stones in."

If there ever was such a thing as impenetrable dense, the Nanhe's jungles would nearly qualify. A lack of fauna and an oversaturation of flora left the woods almost completely impassable for the warriors, millennia of unbroken branches and vines clogging up nearly every potential path. The maruns found themselves utterly lost for a brief minute, a feeling that sparked fright among the younger guard at the fate of warriors who couldn't even find their way in a forest.

Echoes of rustling branches quaked through the air and ground. A thunderous growl rumbled as some of the pygmies spotted a massive beast, its size and bulk nearly rivalling their King's. It had grey, moss-grown skin, a collection of odd, tentacle-like growths sprouting from its lower back, and a gape large enough to swallow a Pygmy whole. It broke through a vine wall, its brutish, gigantuan form frightening the soldiers into their stances. However, as the beast passed them, it paid them no mind. It merely stomped lethargically past them over to a tall shoot of bamboo, grabbed it by the trunk and snapped it off as if the bamboo was a biscuit. It then sat down and began to gnaw on the leaves, eyeing nothing in particular.

The warriors shrugged at one another - a path was open now, at least, and so they passed deeper into the primordial forest.

The air was thick and greasy, nearly to the point where every breath felt like it had to be chewed before drawn. Here, however, behind the outer wall of trees and brambles, the jungle opened up into a vast, endless hall roofed by mammoth trees and floored by thick, brown swathes of detritus and soil. The ground felt to many of the pygmies like it was moving - twisting. The insect life developed here over the millennia was far from rich, but it, like most other things in the jungle, was quite densely packed.

A number of ooks from no particular direction stopped the groups' advance. In the distance foliage, quivering beams of light revealed animalistic activities in the branches. The groups proceeded hunched over, using the cover of nearly shrubberies and massive wood ear mushrooms to approach their targets.

However, as they came closer, the ooking stopped. The warriors sucked in collective breaths. The branches above quivered softly, deafening out the faint, suspicious ooks sounded from its agitators. A young warrior adjusted his pose and stepped on a small twig.

The rustling above stopped. It was as if the jungle had frozen it time - not a single sound could be heard.

"EEEEEEE!" came a sudden squeal from the tree tops, backed up by several more like it and a deafening, menacing beat of fists against trunk. The warriors huddled closer together and pointed their spears in all five directions, frantically looking up above. A squeal grew particularly loud and the youngster who had lost to Okonkwo before suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a long, hard, slimey foot. The youngster was immediately beaten to the ground and above him stood a furiously territorial frog monkey, its huge mouth agape with warcries. Okonkwo, who was in the vanguard, veered around and sent several thrusts at the frog monkey to scare it off, but while it did retreat some paces, it seemed rabidly aggressive. The rest of the marun gathered up behind Okonkwo and attempted to surround the slowly recovering youngster with a four-way phalanx.

The other marun didn't fare much better. Three frog monkeys had collapsed onto the vanguard and were keeping them busy. Meanwhile, the spear throwers were holding off a single, but particularly ferocious one from behind.

In an attempt to better their odds a particularly lean warrior awkwardly took the offensive. Narrow slits studied the wildly jumping forms of the monkey’s threatening their weak defense, mind working to find some semblance of an opening. Hastily he thrust his spear at an agile beast only to rend the space it previously occupied, it deftly weaving left out of harm's way.

His spear steadied as his body filled with quicksilver fire and the words of his king; might, vision, and guile. On the ground the monkey’s were to quick to catch, but maybe in the air they could turn the tide. With determination renewed the warrior feinted a blow at one of the beasts feet, forcing it up and into the air where in one smooth motion he stepped forward and thrust his spear into its exposed abdomen, running it though.

Blood exploded upon the pygmy but the other marun had not been blind, they too saw the technique of the warrior and sought to replicate it themselves with the same deft and ruthlessness. Using feints and quick strikes, they swiftly began to confuse and rout the monkeys, several of them falling before the flurries of spears. The youngster had recovered, and the marun was at full strength once more, aligning their attack pattern after their peer.

Okonkwo took the lead, constantly stabbing forth in a gatling rhythm with his flank warriors. The frog monkey up front couldn’t seem to keep up, and the second it turned to flee, it was impaled upon Okonkwo’s spear. The pygmy bellowed a triumphant call, cheered on by his marun.

Bodies began to pile up as the meticulous slaughter went on. The lean pygmy put monkey to his spear with a cold precision that only came with practice and aptitude. His brethren could do no more than follow his lead, his warcry a rally as their formation acted as a spearhead cutting into the ranks of the monkeys.

The frog monkeys, fearing the potential wipe-out of their whole pack at this rate, let out frightened squeals and ran for the trees. The spear throwers took the opportunities to pick off a pair with some well-aimed javelins.

Then, as the final frog monkey crashed into the soil beneath the tree, the jungle once more fell silent. Okonkwo grinned at the rest of his marun, who all grinned back and lifted their spears into the air. “GLORY TO THE KING!” they boomed as one. Okonkwo eyed the various winds to make certain there were no more threats, then went over to the lean warrior of the other marun and bowed deep.

“You fight with the might of our King and the skill of our warleader. What is your name, warrior?”

“Lang’engatshoni is this ones name, but many call me Lang. What is yours warbrother?”

"This one is called Okonkwo. Truly, it is an honour to hunt alongside one of your calibre. It would honour this one more to offer you a share of his ration once we return to our King and warleader." The bulky Pygmy bowed his head once again.

Lang returned the gesture, smiling wide enough to reveal white fangs. “Who would I be to refuse your generosity. We return with victory as our spoils.”

Okonkwo pointed his spear at the monkey carcasses. “We return in victory with spoils to prove it, this one says! Come, each will carry what they can. The warleader will was us to present the monkeys to the King.” He himself picked up one of the frog monkeys by a leg and hoisted it onto his back, soon aided a little by the young lad from his marun.

Belabored slightly by fatigue, Lang hoisted himself up a carcass and slung it across his back, the cold feeling of blood dripping down his hair garnering no reaction. “To our King.”

Alas, many more years passed and Anu’s empire, Talemon, grew from a simple camp that lived in the shadow of Xishan into a settlement to challenge its width. While the living conditions were a poor excuse for scraping by, tents and shacks close to those of a slum, none dared desert the great capital for fear of the King's warbands hunting them down. The Beihe river, however, was fruitful and generous, even to the point where simple foraging could feed the settlement’s growing population. It was enough for now, but even the most ignorant of pygmies could see that this way of life simply could not sustain the growing jewel of the Knucklelands.

And so it was that a day dawned much in the same way as those before it, but yet carried a tinge of change in the air. The tinge came from the river and made its way towards the great central tent like an energizing perfume. In the tent, as usual, the councilors were pouring over years of plans and projects and presenting them to their king - all but one councilor, that is.

“... And that is why this servant believe there must be sent another expedition to gather clay from the river, Your Majesty,” Yong Cai proposed. Zhu Rongyuan shook his bearded head.

“This servant objects. The clay that was gathered last time proved useless by the time it was brought back. It is clear the correct types usable for construction have either yet to be found or simply do not exist close-by as previously estimated. This servant instead proposes that a workforce be sent to the rivers to attempt reseeding rice as was done last year.”

Fu Lai’an rolled her eyes. “The output was severely lower than input. It took nearly one hundred pygmies to plant the rice, but nothing happened to half of it. The plant is evidently tied to the river and cannot be removed from it as we previously thought. No, instead, this servant proposes focus towards the populace. Disease and starvation fill His Majesty’s camp, and many pygmies struggle to even complete menial tasks. The quality of life must take center stage.”

“Which is why we should plant rice!” Zhu Rongyuan added in frustration.

“And improve housing!” Yong Cai added as well.

Anu had been silent for the better part of the conversation. His glittering capital had been reduced in its former atmosphere - a sort of disease both literal and figurative permeating the sorry community. It was a nauseating shell of its intended glory.

”Enough.” the ape rumbled, his voice like distant thunder.

The councilors quieted down and bowed. Zhu Rongyuan held forth his hands, left hand covering his right. "Great King, forgive these servants bickering. It is a great crime against the harmony of this council. Does His Majesty wish any of these servants to elaborate on their suggestions, or does He wish to propose his own, perhaps?"

” Cherished Fu, what is the current state of my people?”

Fu Lai'an shook her head. "The latest desertion is the most sizeable one yet, nearly twenty individuals. The force sent to get them back would have been outnumbered had it not been for Qiang Quan. His Majesty's people have not seen a boar for months and harvesting season is still far off. Legumes are the only foodstuffs available. This servant fears the empire's population may already have outgrown its niche."

A low, yet bone-chilling growl seems to emanate from the ape’s belly, his anger was almost palpable. ” I ought to have them executed for their weakness, yet how can they develop strength in this decrepitude?”

He turned to Zhu. ” And you propose we cultivate rice, despite last years failed attempt? Were any forays made into refining the process?”

Zhu nodded. "According to His Lordship's writings, rice is a most nutritious and abundant crop - perfect for growing empires. However…" He furrowed his brow. "His Lordship's writings are unfortunately quite… Vague regarding the very cultivation of the crop. In a most glorious, yet somewhat inconvenient holy feat, His Lordship may have… Skipped a number of steps when producing his own rice." He shook his head. "Rest assured, Your Majesty, Your farmers are making great strides towards unlocking the plant's secret, but…" He cleared his throat. "... A little more time is needed."

” We don’t exactly have the luxury, Zhu.” the demigod sighed. ” Would father have the knowledge we need?”

Fu Lai'an nodded. "Most assuredly. His Lordship built Jiangzhou and Qiangshan - He shaped the rivers of this continent and filled them with clay and nourishment. If anyone can offer aid, it will be His Lordship."

The ape rose and strode to the edge of his tent, parting the fabric and gazing out across the plains. ” Then we call for him.” he breathed almost heavily.

It did not take long for the great ship to arrive on the southern riverbank, right by the outer edges of the capitol where failed lines in dry and wet dirt had been filled with rice and bare sprouts. Crowds of famished pygmies lined the fields behind Anu and his councilors, all of whom stood ready at the bank to accept the arrival of the King's father. The river rose and flowed, encircling the ship and rising upwards on the southern end to form a staircase, down which Shengshi descended along with an escort of one thousand servants. The servants each carried a straw basket under each arm, sealed tightly with covers and thread. They lined up behind the snake, their numbers dwarfing the pygmy population. The snake surveyed the crowd before him and folded his hands behind his back.

As if ordered to, or maybe due to fatigue, the pygmies collapsed to their knees and hands in unison, uttering with accents of mixed thickness: "All hail His Holiness Shengshi, Lord of the Thousand Streams and father of His Eternal Majesty, Anu!"

The snake nodded and gave Anu a smile. "They have been well educated."

” Of course, father, they learned from the best.” he intoned, bowing low. Behind him, the councilors assumed their kowtow as usual.

"Rise, worthy son," the snake said in a voice as warm and gentle as a summer stream. "From the message given to me by your messenger, I understand your expansion met with some hindrances along the way, specifically regarding food and shelter. Would that be all or were there additional concerns?"

The ape nodded. ” Yes father, food and adequate shelter prove to be our greatest hindrance. We lack proper knowledge of agricultural techniques and our search for affirmable building materials has produced little result.” he paused then pointed to the north. ” We also lack adequate defense for dangers across the river. I’d like to establish up a defensive position within the camp's center. Something impregnable, a jewel and a bastion of the knucklelands.”

The snake nodded as his son spoke, his lips pursing at the various requests. As the final words were said, the snake looked to the North across the river. He let out a quiet hum of thought. "Perhaps the great tigers have migrated around the foot of Qiangshan… I would not be surprised if they have." He snapped his fingers and the thousand servants behind him, as one, stepped forward, put down their baskets and gripped the lids tightly. "My dear son, worthier than any other of that title, I see your people as we speak: the shade 'neath their ribs, the rings around their eyes; the bones where their muscles should be… It stabs me deep in the heart, dear son…"

He snapped his fingers again. The servants ripped the lids off as one and flipped them around. The baskets spewed forth small hills of rice, and as a thousand all spewed simultaneously, a low wall of rice formed before a quietly awestruck Anu and the pygmies. The snake gestured around him. "Generosity is the greatest feat of a king and lord - these requests shall be granted in the only way befitting of my own blood. Come, you starving souls - be free of the pain in your guts and embrace the glory of an early harvest!"

The pygmies cared not that the rice was uncooked - never before had they seen so much food. Manners were not minded as they swarmed the wall like locusts over a field. The snake merely laughed warmly and took a fistful of rice in his hand. The grains sprouted in his hand and he snapped his fingers, the pygmies falling into attention even as they ate. The snake called over some water from the river and shaped a water hole before him, about so shallow that wading pygmies would be walking knee-deep. He held up the sprouts.

"Hark at me, mortal beings - after spending a mortal life grasping the nature of agriculture, I have mastered it. However, this is not knowledge meant only for myself; in fact, it warms me to have the privilege to teach it to mortal kind. Behold--" With a gentle, yet firm splash, the snake planted the rice sprouts into the soil beneath the water, small green strands poking out from underneath the surface. "--the rice paddy! This is how the Beihese rice thrives, see. It grows not on dry soil like the flax of the west, but in small ponds and in river mud. Therefore, you must dig small canals to these pits to properly irrigate this crop. One day, then, you may reap harvests as big as the one I have given you."

The pygmies nodded slowly with understanding and the counselors took notes ecstatically, even Anu quietly observed, kneeling to gently rub the stalk between his fingers before speaking.

” And should winter come our surplus will survive?”

The snake nodded. “Store it somewhere dry and cool, and dry rice can survive for years. Build larders on stilts or poles to keep scavengers and floods away from the harvest, and long it will last. Speaking of, your next request was for the wisdom of construction, was it not?”

The snake slithered over to a nearby tree sapling. He cut it at the stump and at the head, leaving a long, straight stick. He found twenty-two like it and laid them in a pile. He called over Yong Cai and pointed at the pile. “Yong Cai, dear servant, did you create a skeleton of wood to carry the clay for the house walls?”

The builder stood frozen for a moment as if the realization of the mistake that had haunted her and her projects for fifty years was wringing her heart out with a tight fist. She collapsed to her knees, not before Shengshi, but before Anu and groveled in the mud. “Your Majesty - this servant has been a complete and utter failure. To not think of such a base and simple solution, and simply spend a mortal life stacking mud in piles… This servant deserves capital punishment!”

A meaty hand commanded her silence. ” A failure is far from what I would consider it, rather an oversight all of us made. Gather yourself, and regain your honor in sheltering my people.”

With teary eyes, the servant looked up with distressed eyes at first, then reignited vigor. She rose and bowed, saying, “Forgive this servant - once more, it will do its utmost duty to see His Majesty’s people safe and sheltered.”

The snake smiled at the harmonious resolution and gestured once more to the pile. He pulled some ivy and thin vines from the surrounding trees and laid them beside it. “Here lie the basic components of a house’s skeleton, mortals,” he proclaimed. Some servants came over and picked up the materials as the snake slithered towards the camp, parting the small lake of pygmies to bring his sea of servants through. As the host arrived at the fringes of the camp, Shengshi came upon the first tent at the settlement’s very edge, a poor excuse for a moldy boar pelt on a stick with dry, barren land underneath to serve as evidence that someone actually lived there. He pointed at the ‘shelter’ and exclaimed, “Who among you mortals claims this as their home?”

Two shaking hands rose into the air, one - a skinny, boney male, and the other - a starved, weakened female with a bump on her abdomen. The snake nodded slowly and beckoned them over, at which the pygmies reluctantly approached and presented themselves on their knees. The snake pointed back at their home and spoke, “Have you anything within that you hold dear?”

The male kept his face to the ground, but the female raised it slightly, saying, “N-no, nothing in home.”

The snake nodded. “Then my gift unto you two, and your child-to-come will be a true home.” With that, the snake disassembled their tent with a simple swipe of his arm and planted four sticks into the ground, forming a square. The pygmy couple gulped while the onlookers peered on with determined focus. To the tops of the four posts, the snake tied perpendicular saplings to form a true square shape - seen from the air, then raised a pyramid on top of the square again. He cut several bushels of palm fronds from the nearby trees and tied them into long bundles, which he laid into rows across the surface of the pyramid, layering them on top of one another to secure the inside against as much rain as possible. Once more, he turned to the crowd which was largely in awe of the structure. Not even Anu’s palace had such simple, yet so effective a structure. The snake said, “This is the simplest form of the house - a roof upon four posts. If the elements are kind, this is all one will need. It serves well as a source of shade in the worst of summers and can shelter from the rains. For the winds, however, one needs walls.”

And so the snake placed an additional two poles between the outer posts on every face of the structure except the designated entrance, where he placed only two. He then had his servants fetch more saplings, and once they were brought back, the snake clove each sapling in half and weaved them between the posts, much like he was making a basket or a carpet. Once the carpet of wood reached halfway, the snake pointed to the building. “Here is the skeleton of the wall - this to what one will tether the clay to.” With that, he took some clay out of the ground, had his servants bring water from the river in clay pots, and mixed them together. With his divine hands, the snake patted the wet clay all over the wooden wall, mellowing and leveling it out into a flat, beautiful wall. Soon, after a little more weaving and clay-addition, the hut with clay walls and thatch roof stood ready for use, the clay having been dried a little faster due to an impatient trick from the snake himself. He turned to the crowd and spread his hands out to the side. “The knowledge is yours now, mortals. I have shown you what to do and how to do it - build now for yourself the greatest city in this universe!”

The pygmy couple, overcome with gratitude, were completely groveling in the mud at this point, similar to beasts. The snake gave them a slight frown but shrugged. “My son, what was next, you said?”

Anu nodded, his own gratitude hidden behind a wall of hard features. ” A citadel proper, father.” he added, bowing slightly.

“Ah, yes, that was it… Hmm…” He eyed Anu up and down, then slithered over to the King’s tent. He gave it a disapproving look. “You live here?”

” Decrepit, I know. A byproduct of our situation.”

The snake shook his head in deep disapproval. “No, no, no, this will not do at all. No son of mine will spend a minute longer in this approximation of a slum shack.” With a wave of his hand, Shengshi caused the earth to catapult the tent over the horizon. The councilors all cast themselves forward to save what they had kept inside, but it was much too late - all their notes, plans, and projects had been sent flying well beyond Qiangshan.

“Noooooo…” Fu Lai’an sobbed and the snake turned around.

“Did you have any belongings inside?” he asked. Fu Lai’an and the other three fell to their knees.

“For fifty years, these servants’ notes were kept inside His Majesty’s tent… It is-... It is a pain to see them go,” Zhu Rongyuan said while holding back tears. The snake gave them a pitiful look.

“Rest assured, worthy servants - your belongings will be returned in time, nay, tenfold. First, however…”

The snake clenched his fists. Mud and stone churned into an unnatural soup where the tent had been, then the boiling pool expanded. The masses withdrew from the approaching bubbling, frothing mixture. The snake spun his hands around in circles before him, a maelstrom forming before him. Into the maelstrom, he tossed wood, stone, and bones from the surrounding camp, and as the maelstrom grew, it swallowed the surrounding tents like a gaping maw. Only when a satisfying diametre of two hundred meters had been achieved did the maw assume a rectangular shape. The brown and blackened mass suddenly took on a chalk-white color, and out of the rectangular pool rose tusk-like towers like the points of bodkin arrows, growing a set of walls between them in the same color, the wall stretching five hundred meters across. From the walls appeared sapling trunks in beautiful patterns to both serve as building support and future scaffolding. However, the scaffolding did not appear below the towers, for no one should be able to climb inside from the outside. The towers sported intricately patterned and carven ivory windows. Inside, the wall continued perpendicularly to the front for eight hundred meters. The stern outside gave way to several flat-roofed buildings of bone and ivory, completed by a tall palace towards the back, this one flat-roofed with teeth like the crown of a king about the roof’s edge. Three buildings made up the citadel: The palace at the far northern back, looking much like a collection of ivory pillars holding up the opulent roof; the barracks at the eastern wall, a windowless building with several doorways in the front functioning as entries and a staircase along the side up to the walls; the food stores on the western wall, elevated on platforms with a web of canals running underneath it - the center was a large, ivory platform. As the walls set and the bone hardened, the snake took a deep breath and slithered over to push open the chalk-white gates. Inside, the great palace awaited its king.

The king, now visibly awe-struck padded through the portal, his golden eyes as great as Heliopolis itself. For a moment he was speechless, truly struggling to find words for the first time in his existence. ” F-father, a thousand times over you’ve made this place.’ he gawked. ” Forgive me, I am at a loss for words. All the world’s praises could not express what boils within me now.”

The snake smirked and squeezed the ape’s shoulder as he gestured to the palace. “Why, of course - I will repeat myself once more: You are my son, Anu, and no son of Shengshi will settle for anything less than quality befit royalty, nay, divinity. Now, the palace has room for you, as well as your advisors, plus a few extra reserved for guests or additional administrators once your state gains momentum.” He pointed to the barracks. “Qiang Quan mentioned that you have begun to dabble in the organization of your forces. I thought you may as well have a proper place to train and develop them.” Finally, he gestured to the food storages. “Finally, since I have given you enough rice for your people to last the winter and then some, you should have a proper place to store it. Make sure to instruct the keepers of this granary to keep the fires in the channels below smoldering at all times - moist air is the enemy of all grain.” He pursed his lips and nodded. “Well, any other requests, my dear son?”

Anu bowed deeply. ” I could ask no more even if I had any to beseech. You’ve saved my people from calamity, I cannot give enough supplication.”

The snake waved dismissively. “Prosperity is the goal of this world. I am merely doing my part as a father and a god.” He gave Anu a warm smile. “Now, Zhu Rongyuan, Fu Lai’an, Yong Cai and Qiang Quan - approach.”

The four councilors did as requested - they walked over to the snake and Anu and kowtowed before the two. Zhu, as the oldest, took the role of their representative: “What does His Lordship request of these servants?”

The snake gestured to the palace. “As magnificent as this palace may be, the fact still remains that my own carelessness cost you four a mortal’s life’s worth of bark, ink, sweat, and blood. Bone can heal; scars can fade; wood, regrow - but nothing can replace history.” He bowed to the four. “I am deeply ashamed of my actions.” The four councilors remained wordless and frozen, uncertain of how to react to their creator’s act. The snake extended his hand forward. “I, therefore, repent for my sin with a gesture I should have made a long time ago.”

Momentarily, it seemed as though the four councilors glowed with a specific color each: Fu was a fiery, yet beautiful velvet; Yong glowed a yellowed, golden brown; Zhu shone with a deep, calm azure; Qiang burned with an energetic white. Then, as fast as they had come, the colors were absorbed by the councilors’ bodies. The snake lifted his hand.

“Rise, Siwen, worthy councilors - Wangdao, advisors of the king; rise and see the world with reforged eyes and reinforced souls.”

The councilors did as commanded and before Anu and Shengshi stood four servants - much like the four that had been groveling before them but a minute ago - and yet so, so much more. The snake nodded at them and turned to Anu. “Well, my dear son, I believe I have left you with the necessary tools to go on a little longer.” He gave Anu a wink and extended his hand. “Please, do not hesitate to visit, however. My tables are always stacked tall for you, worthy child.”

” No father, far beyond than a little longer.” he began, his father’s hand disappearing in his own. ” Much farther.”


January 1st, 8:33 P.M.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, West 34th Street, New York City

”You a bit boojee for an alien.” Jones jabbed for the first time since they arrived. He had been quiet up until now, content to lose himself in his high pending Karen’s request upon their arrival. Such was normal, as princess didn’t need to hold up the line being dawdled on by the entire Chipotle staff.

He set down Karen’s bowl of Barbacoa and sat himself next to her with his own platter of three burrito bowls and a large drink. A light meal for the lean man.

Lazily he set upon the first, watching the steady ebb and flow of evening traffic filter through the restaurant. Despite the nights events, the restaurant was active, something that felt odd regardless of their ignorance to the nights happenings. Although it would only be a matter of time before the Madison incident was trending and whoever was keen enough to notice Karen would go stupid. Which was in particular why Jones had been in silent protest of this trip, but princess seemed adamant on repaying the kids work and convincing her otherwise would prove difficult. Whatever, he could work with this.


January 1st, 7:37 PM
Madison Square Garden, New York City
@DC The Dragon | @Zoey White | @Blackstripe | @MsMorningstar

Jermaine took a long, deliberate drag of his blunt as the arena exploded into chaos. With a shril scream that seemed to almost slice through the bass boosted music, a pale man with legs as thin as stilts and arms like rubber bands bound from the seats to the stage in one fell swoop.

Damn during the twerking part too.. he sighed inwardly as he inhaled slowly, his system finally responding to the smoke. Taking small, slow draws of the swisher, he felt delighted, like he had never felt before, like it was his first time again.

At the same time security forces jumped into action, one successfully grabbing the metahuman before promptly becoming a human roast with a jet of supernatural flame.

Jermaine didn’t wait to see the rest. Karen was quick to make her way towards him and he promptly rushed her back stage, the voices of the security team blaring in his right ear as crowd control protocols where initiated and the saferoom was prepared.

”Don’t you worry ma, cheapo Harry Styles ain’t finna cop himself a feel tonight.” he intoned as he led her down a well-light corridor deep in the bowels of the arena.

Only a few steps later did they finally arrive at their destination, a comfortable room with a contingent of security already waiting.

”Y’all earn y’all pay tonight.” he warned. ”One hair on her head harmed and best believe you’ll see how quick these white Giuseppe‘s turn brown.” he said firmly, there was no edge in his voice but the intensity was palpable. He eyed each and every man in the room, before finally landing on Karen. ”Imma go take care of Harry, don’t do nothing stupid crazy while I’m gone, ya heard?”

With that he was off. Padding back up the way he came. ”What’s the situation upside?” he called to security via radio.

”We got multiple vigilantes engaging the meta, they seem to have it under control. We are providing back up and dealing with the crowd, sir.”

Jermaine stifled a grin. Heros were quick to do his job for him. What in god’s name was he rushing for. Slowing to a crawl he made a right instead of a left towards the green room. What kind of man would he be to fight a meta on an empty stomach? A stupid man that’s what.

With little in the way of consideration for time, Jermaine grabbed a paper plate and took from the buffet what he would. Donuts, chips, a soda, two club sandwiches and the last peace of cheesecake. ”Oh Jermaine, you dirty bastard!” he giggled quietly as he took a deliberate bite out of the cake and hauled his prizes along with a folding chair back to the stage.

An explosion of energy rocked the arena as the meta screamed in agnony and threw a red-headed girl near just arriving Jermaine’s feet. ”Damn ma you go-“ he started but could barely finish as she was back up and at it again, counterattacking the now fire-spewing meta.

”Harry really fucking shit up.” he breathed as he set up his folding chair side-stage, ashed his blunt on his gold watch, and ripped a chunk of his club sandwich with pearly white and shiny diamond teeth.

An arc of lightning caught his eye and he quickly spotted the flying form of one of his own setting another hero girl and throwing bolts within the same moment. ”Oh shit is that nephew?! EY NEPHEW! I AINT KNOW YOU WAS A HARRY STYLES FAN!” he jabbed, voice booming across the stage. He made himself laugh, nearly choking on a piece of bread before quickly regaining his composure.

The kids could handle this shit.


January 1st, 5:56 PM
Madison Square Garden, New York City

Jermaine responded with a curt nod as they took another turn towards the venue, the sound of the crowd like an auditory volcano. It was all quiet one second and then deafening the next, rising to a crescendo that would refuse to release. Sold out show in the Madison Square Garden and a few million more watching online. He couldn't imagine the kind of pressure Karen was under.

With a small gesture he signaled a contingent of six well-built bodyguards all dressed in black t-shirts and jeans to silently fall in step around them. Jermaine had hand-picked each himself, rigorously screening Karen’s security force until those left could offer no less then exemplary service.

As the doors to the main arena opened a cacophony of cheering, whooping, hollering, clapping and stamping of feet, along with the palpable buzz of excitement in the charged air hardened Jermaine’s face. This was where the real work began.

With some excessive force along the way the the contingent guided Karen to the stage and he took his place back stage, close enough to keep an eye on her and the audience, but far enough to avoid cameras or somehow distract one of the dancers.

Blowing out a puff of smoke he breathed as Karen took command of the show and Blood-Stained Pelt began to blare through the speakers. A classic catering to the sensiblties of the non-humans, highlighting the media’s disregard for their lives and humanity’s blatant callousness in general; something the nine-hundred inhumans and one hundred mages seated in the front row would no doubt be fans of. The soundtrack of a movement.

Yet a creeping apprehension took root in Jermaine’s gut. 1000 non-humans and mages was a recipe for disaster if shit actually went wrong. Despite advice against it Karen was adamant about the decision to have them here, right in front of her. If one so much as dared to attack he was prepared to shatter bone, but the press would have a field day. If Karen meant well by putting them where they where, she may have been unwitting adding fuel to the fire.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t his job to consider the ramifications of a teenagers political statements, he just had to keep the Disney princess safe.


Location: January 1st, 9:37 AM.
Local Restaurant, New York City.

Jo-Vaughn eyed his plate. Before him sat an enormous platter of food; eggs, ham, and piles of fried potatoes. A tureen of fruit sat in ice to keep it chilled. A basket of rolls so full it could keep a family going for a week was set against the edge of the table. And an elegant glass of orange juice completed the ensemble of morning hors d'oeuvres.

"Christ." he marveled, his plate an awe-inspiring work of art to a man as hungry as he was.

"Watch yo damn mouth boy! I didn't take you here to put the lord's name in vain over ma food." his grandma snapped harshly.

Jo-Vaughn smiled sheepishly and returned to admiring his plate. Grandma Livingston was a nonsense kind of woman and unlike any grandma to ever walk the face the earth. While most could imagine their snow-white haired grandparent knitting, over-cooking, and planting wet kisses on their faces, Joey grew up with the image of a vile, jet-black haired disciplinarian who took no shit from anyone or anything; never cooked, sure as hell never knitted, and the only kiss he ever received from her was the painful kiss of a leather belt on his ass.

Yeah, she wasn't the picture of an ideal grandma. But Joey wouldn't have it any other way.

"So nana, Joey began, swallowing a potato chunk before he went on. "You heard back from mom yet?"

Grandma Livingston cut into her eggs with a fork and popped them into her mouth. "She called me this mornings'. Told me she made it Naija safely.

Joey nodded and swallowed another potato. His mother, Nina Livingston, had flown back to their hometown for a little R&R with the rest of the family. That left Jo-Vaughn in charge of the oldest Livingston. Which meant treating her to breakfast and dropping a third of all the cash on him for extra bullshit. That coupled with his mother's demands to do something with his hair before she got back or she would, quote: "cut that shit myself with a knife.", left him dipping into what was left of his endorsement money.

The young Livingston let out a silent sigh and glanced out the window of the cafe. The hustle and bustle of New York never ceased to amaze him, even though his entire life had been spent milling about the maelstrom.

"Awww, shit, that news-conference was this morning." he exasperated as he leaned heavily into the backrest of the booth.

Joey had been planning to go, it was something small in the Brooklyn neighborhood but it would have been a great moment to gather awareness for his youth-league fundraiser. Unfortunately, with the last two days activity, that with his mothers sudden vacation, today's concert and breakfast, the event had totally slipped his mind.

"And why in God's name would you want to do that?" Grandma Livingston asserted, finishing off the last of her eggs.

Joey grunted. "I mean, these kids need some kind of support? Any extra money we can get to get this youth-league running again would be great for em."

"Joey, you know people ain’t so charitable these days, and especially won’t be for a monsta’ inclusive league." she pointed out.

"Nana, everyone deserve a chance. We going right back to the 50’s the way we treating these people. I’m not gonna let kids miss out on an opportunity to grow, get off the streets."

Grandma Livingston chuckled disappointedly. "Baby you got a big heart, that vigilante work got you thinking grand, but people ain’t quick to change, Jo-Vaughn. You done a lot, but you can’t keep funding this for long. Don’t tell ya mama I said this, but stick to playing hero.

With that, she grabbed a napkin, cleaned off her mouth and lifted herself up and out of the booth. "Well, thank you for treatin' me this morning, Tokunbo."

Joey cocked his head to the side, his lip curling slightly at the use of his african name. "Oh, where you goin?"

"Oh, me and the girls gonna get the nails done. Nina can't have all the fun. Go do something." she said, waving him off as she showed herself out.

Joey watched her leave, a frown dancing accoss his face. ...playing hero. Well, here he was again, alone with a whole day ahead of him and with plans that didn’t require his attention till later. After a pause, he simply shrugged and dug back into his meal. Shit would come up.


Location: January 1st, 5:07 AM.
Madison Square Guardian, New York City.

“Are you kidding me?”

Spittle flew from the tomato-faced manager as he fumed into Jermaine’s broad chest. Yet his bleating only earn him an opaque silence that only seemed to feed his into growing tantrum.

“I’m her fucking Tour Manager! Let me through the damn door!”

A thin paper blunt hung from Jermaine’s bottom lip, a small trail of smoke escaping from the corner of his mouth danced its way to the ceiling above him. Slowly he took it from his mouth and blew a puff into the mans’ face for spites sake.

”Does it look like a give a fuck? I’m genuinely wondering, does it look like I give a fuck?” he sighed.

Before he could continue the green-room door opened, revealing the casual form of Karen. “It’s okay, Jones, you can let him through.”

Returning the blunt to his lips Jermaine graciously stepped aside and almost mockingly bowed and gestured him forward. He had no beef with the man, but damn if he didn’t enjoy the entertainment he provided in between the dull moments of this job.

As the door closed behind him he blew another puff and took out his phone, he’d gotten a message earlier. It was from an old friend off the block. A third baby? A baby shower invite?! Jermaine didn’t bother to stifle his sigh as he dialed the number and put the phone to his ear. In moments, the line went through.

“Yoooo, JJ what’s good?!” a gruff voice answered.

”Ey nothing much, Keem. Heard bout the baby, just wanted to congratulate you.”

A chuckle. ”Oh man I appreciate it, you been a real one since day one I just thought I’d let you know we’d be having a baby shower. You know, barbecue, music, dancing, em gifts. I know you out here making that KAREN MONNNNEY!”

This time Jermaine stifled a sigh and smoothly imitated a his laugh. ”Ey you know it’s ight, just a lil something something. I can’t say imma be able to make it, but I’ll see if I can get y’all something small.”

A moment of silence. ”...something small? Fam you is rich come on now. Get the baby, ion know, a crib, maybe a car, something man.”

”The fuck a baby finna do wit a whole ass car?”


”FUCK YOU ME-“ he paused a moment to breathe. ”Bitch you got me mixed up. I feel like if you on yo third baby bitch you don’t deserve a baby shower anyway! I ain’t gon be showering you wit gifts just cause you like to fuck. Shit there’s a lot of people that like to fuck, I ain’t never bought em a gift. Fuck outta here.”

Inside the faint sounds of a budding argument could be heard, but it wasn’t shit to interfere with. There was no hostile intent being thrown around, so he could rest easy. Ol’ tour manager was off the shits anyway, he was probably heated about her being slow to dress or something like that. It really wasn’t any of his business.

“See bruh bruh, money dun changed you.” Keem retorted but Jermaine had long since disconnected, finally having enough of the bullshit, and observing that Karen’s tour manager had finally left in a huff. Karen followed not too long after.

“It looks like it’s showtime.” she intoned, seemingly prepared for her preformance.

Jermaine’s eyes took in her visage beneath his sunglasses, but only for a moment. Tiny denim shorts, shoulderless top and stilettos. She was bad, but fooling around with the client was a sure way to fuck up the money, not to mention she was still Disney Star age despite her build.

”Damn sure looks like it, ma.” he chortled as he took point and led the way. ”You ready?”

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