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Let me taste you.
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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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@LokiLeo789 What a freak you (still) are.

My demons have never left me. I remain tortured.

Qala sat alone in the window seat of her room. She looked out the square outlet and tried to enjoy the green of the hill that descended towards the village. The pillows packed underneath her drew some of the tension from her back, and though midmorning was still hours away, the throbbing in her ankles was rivalled only by the thunderstorm pushing against her temples. In all truth, she could have used a cup of buna.

That thought brought her back to her surroundings. The room was built into the furthest end of her manse's east wing. Beyond it, the lush knolls of the Sunland Valley rolled all the way to the bloated Solari River, where morning mist drifted over the water, screening a yellow sunrise. Two of her patrolling war canoes ghosted through the mist.

Someone threw the door open. No knock, just the slam of wood against the wall. Only one person in the entire manse never knocked.

"Upset?" Qala asked, not yet ready to look away from her favourite view.

Her mother muttered either a greeting or a curse, her cane tapping over the scuffle of her calloused feet. "We had to slaughter three heifers just to feed the Inner Plainers tonight." She settled into a groaning chair and clicked her tongue. "We're breaking our wrists kneading dough for potbread, but it's the easiest way to feed them all."

"Potbread? Ade will love that."

Ma grunted, which generally meant approval. "He's getting fat and strong, your boy, but never mind him. Why aren't you helping in the kitchens?"

"I was attending to the Plainer Prince."

"That lazy hothead? Sello's girl keeps serving his uncles our best stock, you know?"

"By my instruction."

"By your-- Qala! Liffa spilt half an urn of my winter ale."

"Ma, please."

"In any case, you should have let Dayo entertain the boy," her mother said. "He would have taken the Prince on a grounds tour that would have left him mushy-footed and humble." By the sounds of her rummaging, Ma was digging around for the bitter melon she kept in her apron. "What did the Prince have to say anyway?"

"He wants war."

Ma snorted. "Then he'll get it; to seek is to find. Wait now, war over what?"

To seek is to find. A Sunland parable Qala had known for double the Prince’s years, and her mother triple.

"He proposed on the doorstep."

The rummaging stopped. "Qala." A deep laugh. "He proposed to you? That skinny thing! Can't he see the lines on your face or that silver wire creeping into your hair?"

Qala turned to face her mother. "I refused."


"And his response will be to side with Ndlovu and help him cross the Solari."

The deep lines in Ma's face softened. Sunlight poured in from the giant window, setting the yellowed whites of her eyes aglow as she smoothed the ochre paint on her face. Her gold bangles jingled as she pushed a finger under her headscarf to give her scalp a scratch.

"That bodes ill for Ndlovu," Ma said.

"War bodes ill for all of us. When two leons fight in the field, the grass suffers."

"Of course it does. One leon has an army a thousand strong, the other inherited the yolk of Qaram."

"It's not a joking matter, Ma."

"Who's joking?" Ma slipped a ball of bitter melon into her mouth. "Qala, you are descended from the first Sunspear, the Void-Whisperer of Wassa. Why would you ever fear Ndlovu?"

Qala rubbed her face. "I don't. I mean I do but... Ma, I've spent twenty years cultivating peace here. I've made this land rich with the finest crops and orchids and groves the Yellow Sea has ever seen. Our neighbours love us because we feed them and pay well in trade. A war, even one we can win, is the end of my life's work."

"You're a child of the Sunlands, not the Hundred Hills." Ma absently crushed a fly on the armrest and went back to looking for more bitter melon. "War is your life."

"Even in peace?"

"Ha! What's that?"

Qala rarely coveted things, but she envied her mother's conviction then. "So what do we do about the Prince?"

"Get his uncles to smack him around a little. They're already drunk. Soft-footed brat, why didn't he ask to marry Funke instead?"

"That would have made more sense, they're of an age. I still would have refused."

"No doubt, but– ahhh." Ma sunk back into her chair and balanced a ball of bittermelon on her swollen knuckle. "Sly bastard."

"Out with it."

"It seems, mmm--" Ma licked a crumb of bittermelon off her knuckle "--that our young Prince has no interest in marriage."

"Because asking after my hand and not my daughter's would more likely garner a rejection?"

"Exactly. What does that tell you?"

"That he's hotheaded and an imbecile."

"Just about."

"You're saying he's trying to provoke me to conflict?"

"The princling? No. He's too young to want anything as tedious as war. Young men can't even wrap their minds around what dangles between their legs."

"He was sent to start it, then, but someone else stands to gain."


Qala sighed. "The question is who, then. Who would want war with us?"

"My child, you said it yourself -- this land is rich, and you're a widowed pacifist." Ma flicked the dead fly off her chair. "The answer is everyone."


”Horns of Civilization”

For a native of the Anchor’s frigid peaks, more so for a shieldmaiden chasing glory, and worst of all for a hollowed-out woman who craved children, forty-five was the age at the edge of possibility. But this fine morning, the earth showed Siggi a mercy, even as she trod on its frozen face with blood-soaked leather for boots.

Dawn coaxed soft colours out of a bruised sky and a pebbled hillside, so that the new day would not hurt her sensitive eyes. An autumn wind sliced itself along pale grass to bring her fragrances that had ripened for a full summer, so that she could not smell the rot festering beneath her second skin. There was silence enough to hear the very pulse of this place, silence enough to drown out the small voice that lived at the end of her hearing, whispering that she was dying and too soon.

She found a smooth rock on the hillside, one large enough to carve a throne from, and lay her palm against it. The stone was cold, still coated with frost from the night before, even as the sun rose from its grave in the east.

Siggi pressed her palm harder against it, waking the morning pains in her wrist, exciting the tremble that never quite left her fingers. There. Beneath the unyielding surface, a deep churning that hummed through her hand. It was almost a song, wordless, and yet all the time chanting - at last.

"Is this it?" Tugann’s deep voice carried over the dewy plains.

She winced at the broken silence and withdrew her hand from the rock. For a moment, her handprint stood out on the stone, bone white against its black surface, then it faded like a memory.

"No, but it's close enough," she said, abandoning a half-formed lie.

Tugann’s heavy footfalls sent gravel skittering down before him. Too loud, Siggi thought.

"You're up early," she said, huddling her cloak tighter against the wind with one hand, resting the other on one of the two axes hitched to her belt.

"A captain always is." His smile was as big as he was, his beard a fierce old bush of brown. "Besides, dreams like the ones you paint make it hard for a man to sleep."

"And your men?" she asked. "Have they slept off their bruises?"

Tugann laughed, oblivious to how he shattered the morning's peace. "After the last ambush, hardly a man wanted to shut his eyes."

"Funny," she said, "how some men can be kept awake by dreams, and others by nightmares."


A murder of crows broke from the trees in the valley below, swirling into the sky like shadows loosed from the world.

"It shook them, for sure," he said, "but nothing keeps a man down when he's hunting for glory.”

He swayed a little, like a half-drunk who thought he was sober, before he righted himself. Captain Tugann was the only man in his company who indulged in neither drink nor the mushroom that abounded here. His only vice was greed. It was the only thing Siggi liked about him. That and his aura, an odd amber that reminded her of a butcher-turned-lover she once had.

She started back up the hillside, the frozen grass crunching beneath her leather-wrapped feet. Tugann's panting was loud behind her. When she glanced over her shoulder, she could almost smell him breaking into a mild sweat, despite late autumn's bite in the wind. His aura turned a sickly grey color, swallowing his sweet ambers and electric blues.

"Well, there will be enough glory to repay your trust and your lost men, Captain." Liars die last but alone. A milkmaid's saying. "For your men, the hard part has passed. I do not think the Skinwalkers ever come this close to the peak. Besides, your men walk with the Chosen." A little more truthful, but it soured her mouth to say it aloud. "Were that not the case, we would have died a while back."

"Wretched fockers," he said, half-chuckling, half-breathless. "I only lost six men for two we put down."

"Normally, this quest is taken by lone pilgrims and occasionally the milkweed looking to prove himself.." She gained the crest a moment before the Captain did. "Me, I prefer to stack the odds when I can."

Below, the Old Companions broke their camp in the light of a blazing bonfire. The smell of smoke and sizzling fat snaked up the hillside to greet Siggi. Grip tightening on her axehead, she realised the smell would drift beyond her, further than the pilgrim stone, maybe even to the Anchor’s peak itself. That would not do. For all the care she had taken, all the years she had burned away in preparation of this morning, that would simply not do.

Removed from the hum of mana in the air, the little tremors bubbled up in her fingers again, alongside a dull throbbing in time with her quickening pulse.

She lifted her hand through the slit in her cloak, turned it to watch the veins running down the back of her hand, wending like the river of time, forever dragging her along its current. The wind swept her hair across her face, strands of pale gold, now woven through with silver. She brushed them out of sight.

"Your men look in poor spirits, Captain. Seems they could use a drink."

Tugann clicked his tongue. "That brood could always use a drink, but they emptied the last of their kegs last night."

She could smell that too. What clean air the smoke hadn't touched was soured by the acrid stench of urine.

"No great matter," she said, descending down towards the camp. "I saved a treat just for this morning."

The Old Companions cleared their camp the way drunks and drugged men did anything, with loose grips, weak spines, and limbs in possession of neither speed nor purpose. She could concede that Tugann kept a tight group, but they lacked his disdain for a sour cup. A soldier is only as strong as his thirst. A jape among Ironskins, the male counterparts to the Shieldmaiden elites.

Lovi, Tugann’s second-in-command, looked up from his bowl of wayfarer stew and gave a smile that went no deeper than his yellow teeth. The reddish green of his aura smothered by grey and black hues.

"Aha!" He staggered to his feet. "The woman we all suffer for. All hail the Sly Wolf!"

Siggi ground her fury between gritted teeth, and stretched her lips into some bastard thing between a smile and a snarl.

The Sly Wolf.

In her youth, her shield-peers had mockingly called her the Pup, until she went out into the woods, killed an old bitch ranging on its own, and pinned down each of those village brats as she made them kiss its still-wet maw. From there until the twilight of her prime, she was the Gold Wolf, for her hair and the bangles that climbed all the way to her elbows of her firstskin. When Gold turned to Old, she sold those bangles for wisdom, and wisdom brought her here, to the footstool of destiny, where a dying brute called her sly, not knowing the half of it.

"How did you sleep, Lovi?"

He made a show of yawning. "Could march for days - even with a good woman on my side. Maybe especially."

"Maybe." She bent down to her own sleeping mat, opened her carry bag, and pulled out a bulging wineskin. "How about a little taste of gold for your belly in the meantime?"

He squinted bronze eyes. "What's that?"

"Demon's piss from the Hearth-Home markets." An empty vial poked out of her bag. She slid it back in, very careful not to touch the corroding stopper.

Lovi hesitated. "Shieldmaidens don't drink."

"Small wonder I'm offering it to you, then."

Like any good Ironskin, Lovi's intellect bowed down to his thirst. "Any good?"

"I wouldn't know, now, would I?" She winked. "Man I won it from says it tastes like I fight."

He cut another one of his empty smiles. "Nasty, gritty, and bloody. Don't think I fancy a taste." He gave a cough that could have rattled a boak's lungs. "Give it here anyway."

Nasty, gritty, and bloody.

The Shieldmaidens she had trained with in Hearth-Home had all stood a head taller, moved with a touch more grace, equally pious before the statues of Boris, god of strength, mercy and the holy mountain. Shieldmaidens did not just have to be fierce warriors like the Ironskins, but a lucky charm on the battlefield too, and gods-be-damned if one didn't offer quarter to an enemy who begged after it, gods-be-damned if they weren't on their knees before an alter whilst their brother-warriors were on their knees beneath a beer-soaked table.

She pressed the skin into his hand, watched him sip, saw his eyes light up.

"Boris’ balls, where've you been hiding this!" Lovi took a long drag, coughed again, and gave a loud whoop. "Timund, come get a taste of this!"

Timund left his chores to come taste. The others converged on the drink like crows after a ripe corpse.

As they crowded around for a taste of demon's piss, she drew Tugann aside. "Don't suppose, you're in the mood for a drink, Captain?"

"Don't think so," he wheezed, his stagger much more prominent now. The sunrise put a sheen to his sweating brow. "I gamble as much as these men, probably whore as much too. Captain has to find some way . . . some way to be better than his charges."

He scratched a red spot on his neck pebbled with sores, and at its centre, a little bump puckered around a tiny black hole.

"Is that a hornet's sting?" she asked, as she ushered him beyond the camp's border. "Maybe a mosquito, let me down my second skin in the night." he said. "Hate the things. Night demons, I call them. Would kill them all if I could."

There was blood when he removed his hand, with an odd purple tint to it, the same colour as the vial stopper.

"We should never set our sights on the impossible," she said. "Finding a mosquito in the dark is like finding a needle in all this grass."

"Odd saying."

"It's an odd time, Captain."

They walked together towards an old cliff, where the hill fell away to a sheer fifty-foot drop. As they came to stand on the lip, he was coughing as well as panting.

She watched the sun crown on the horizon, dawn giving birth to a crisp, blue day that would soon irritate her eyes. But her gaze went beyond the east, beyond today, into some far future where her name rang as loud as thunder, even as her body rotted in the earth.

And her body would rot; she refused to hide from that fact. Immortality was not for the flesh. The sculptor did not live forever, but his statues rooted themselves in the world even as the sands of time swirled past them.

Atop the edge of the heavens, her chisel lay waiting.

"I want to thank you, Captain. Without you, I would not have made it this far."

He furrowed his brow and nodded slowly, eyes unfocused, lips slightly parted. The raw patch on his neck had an angry colour to it now. His aura had turned a deathly black color. He opened his mouth to say something, gently rocking back and forth. A stronger wind could have knocked him over. Perhaps the earth wasn't that gracious after all.

His mouth hung half open, waiting for his mind to catch up. Siggi flexed her fingers to keep the joints from stiffening. She threw off her cloak so the sun could kiss her arms and warm the bark of her battered breastplate. Blue veins crept up the inside of her wrists like grapevines, climbing upward with the years, just as her bangles had. With a thought she willed her second skin over veins.

Still, there was some muscle in her axe arm, she thought, though not as much as before. Forty-five was not quite old enough for despair, but it was too old for blind faith. Gone were the days of dreaming of great deeds, and gone the strength to do them. But not the wit. The gods could not take that from her because they had never given it. She had clawed and kicked and bitten for every last scrap of it, rallied against her own backwater ignorance.

Tugann at last found half a word. The breath that pushed past his cracked lips sounded like "Glo-." Her mind twisted it to "Old."

"Not yet, Captain. Not yet."

She pressed her hand against his back and pushed him over the edge.

Her brother rammed her head against the tree so hard the thing threatened to crumple.

"Out!" he bellowed, clawing at her mouth.

She clamped it shut and beat at his face with a child's fists.

Her brother threw her to the dirt and pinned her down by pressing a heavy forearm across the fine bones of her collar. His voice was the thing of thunderclaps. In that moment, he was Ogel the Mighty again, great hunter of their nameless tribe, and he was sobbing. "Where did you get it? Out!"

He would never raise a fist to strike her. Even as Qaram clawed silently at his arms and kicked at the hard bone of his hip, even as the new panic of seeing her brother angered poisoned her, she knew it would never come to that. Ever.

His tears fell on her pursed lips. One rolled into her nostril but she kept her jaw shut, a walnut hidden under her tongue.

"Please," her brother said, his voice gone now, his braided hair hanging about his head like the limbs of a burning willow. "Qaram, please, my child."

He pleaded with great pain splitting up his words, even as he reached for the stone knife in his belt.

"Don't make me do it, I beg you. You are courting with the forces belonging to gods. Do not make me, Qaram."

Qaram looked up at him. Her tongue came alive and soaked up her fear. She stopped clawing and kicking, simply stopped, and the fractals in her eyes glowed dimly for the first time.

In the end, her brother's knife cut open the flesh of her cheek, in vain. Her teeth were clamped shut and all the while the crude stone burned through the side of her face, she patted her brother’s ribs in a weak imitation of comfort, as he tried to cut out her tongue.

There was war in the village. Well, not war exactly. Where were the tents? The embankments? The scouts and the cooks and the stories to waste away the night watch? No, let us say it like this. There would be a bloodless slaughter in the village, though not the sort to get worked up about.

Qaram walked -- is walking, shall walk. Time and sight became such arbitrary concepts to her. As far as she was concerned, Qaram walked up the main thoroughfare of the hodgepodge of tents and shacks the village offered as shelter. She was not too concerned about the wide, empty square in front of her, where she would walk, or the stones pressing against her soft-soled shoes, where she walked. Her gaze was set forward but her hearing was trained to the barking of her company behind her. They broke down doors, dragged screaming families into the street.

Ogel was not a Wassa, a wicked name in which her parents cursed her with, meaning siren. He walked beside his sister but he looked back often, and each time he turned back to face forward, his shoulders were heavier and the muscles in his face loosened a little more.

“Child, this is not how you treat your people."

The bloody tip of Qaram's spear caught the midmorning light that beamed between two trees. She signed with her left hand. I would never treat my people like this.

"That is not the words of a Chief, child."

I am not their chief, yet. Hold your silence.

Ogel's mouth worked silently inside the woolly mass of his beard. The spike on the butt of his stone axe cut divets in the dirt every time he slammed it down in time to his steps. Qaram could smell the anger in him, a sharp thing like blood in the air, and she knew that if not for his great love, her brother would have cut her down with one blow right there. That was really the only difference between them.

Qaram had decided her name would mean darkness. In her mind, darkness was as sacred as silence. It is a void to fill with your dreams and terrors, it is a place of reflection where the silence spoke back. As such, when she had prayed, it was in silence and the night was more sacred than the day. But when the void had been filled, it had to be purged for a river filled to the brim with water was only useful until it rained again. That is the problem with Wassa. She filled the void and then continued to pour into it, unable to purge. When it overflows, pray it is with good reflections. Pray it is not overflowing with envy, with rage, with murder. That makes all the difference.

...because Qaram could kill even the thing she loved most fiercely if it was responsible for a single drop in her flooded banks.

She blinked. Now she stood at the end of the thoroughfare, facing back at it. There were dozens of panicked villagers huddled together along the path. When Qaram looked at them, the hues of their dull furs and tunics blended together in oily swirls of hide. Their eyes were frightened brown studs in a sea of blurred faces and only the way they shiver separated them from the warriors at the flanks.

But their voices...

There were more than fifty but less than seventy. Each ragged breath stood out boldly. There are flashes of individual lives in each: a seasoned runner at the end of his -- her? -- her prime years, a sugar-spoiled child, an old hunter. The families of the village. They have no faces, but she heard each one.

"People," said Ogel, holding up his free hand. "Please, listen!"

The chaos only swelled at that, and the individual voices became a hateful, fifty, ten. One.

Qaram pushed the walnut to the underside of her tongue. "Silence."

The wind is silent, but when it is emboldened it howls. The ocean is silent, but when spurred it roars. The most serene mountain makes thunder when it crumbles. But when Qaram spoke that one, sacred word, the world obeyed.

When Qaram spoke that holy word, no sound came out of her mouth. The truth of it simply manifested. Mouths moved, bodies shuffled, people jostled, but there was no sound anywhere on the path. The people grew frightened at that and their panic doubled, then the madness struck them. Several went down to their knees, clutching their ears as the rush of their own blood suddenly became deafening. Others swallowed great gulps of air and clawed at their chests, where hearts pulsed with claps of thunder. It was a passing madness, and soon it would fade and simply leave them all frightened and weary. While she waited, Qaram let her attention drift.

Will you translate for me? Qaram signed to her brother.

A tentative nod.

Having granted permission to Ogel, Qaram leaned on her spear as she faced the villagers. Ordering silence had banked the fire in her eyes and left her drained, but her voice was still soaked with power, and the walnut in her mouth was close to burning with the effort of containing the simple huff of her breathing. In this state, a cough could have killed hundreds. She raised her left hand and Ogel spoke in a whisper.

"Citizens. Do you know who I am?"

Some opened their mouths then closed them again, brows creased.

"Nod if so."

They all did, a blur of bobbing heads. A lie.

“Know that I have not come as a reaper, but as an executioner. Who is the most senior among you?"

There was much head swivelling. With her power slightly dimmed, Qaram could focus enough to pick out the face of the middle-aged man and woman who stepped forward from the crowd.

They both stepped forward and Qaram frowned. Bare feet poked out of their tunics. They had been dragged out in the middle of prayer.

Qaram exhaled in her direction, a breeze cutting mist, and the couple’s heartbeats gave the midmorning air a pulse. She signed again and Ogel whispered.

"Who are you?"

“Atal.” one said. “Amari.” said the other.

“Please do not harm us.” the man called Atal cried, the chief. “I beg you, for all the grace in your father's name do not--“

Qaram grabbed Atal’s hand and squeezed like an iron vice until she felt knuckle bones shift. Atal's scream knocked every other person on the path to their knees, clutching ears, some with blood between their fingers. Tears pearled in Atal's eyes. Qaram's own had a sheen of anger brighter than flame.

My father's name is not yours to invoke, Qaram signed and Ogel translated, nearly choking on his own words.

Atal nodded, breathing rapidly through his mouth.

“It was you Elder, who called your hunters to arms and chased my people out of the heartlands. It is you who stand upon the grave of my father and build up like a tree with deep roots leeching off the corpse of my mother.”

Atal had shuffled away from Qaram now, long since being let free and sought refuge in the arms of his beloved.

I will not kill you, she signed with her left hand. You only inherited the nature of the gods, as have we all . But you must live with your sins.

They both visibly relaxed. Inside, Ogel's heart broke, because he knew his sister.

"Flesh of Atal, flesh of Amari”, Qaram said. "Painlessly so you will never know: live as the sea when together. Live as the air when apart. Forever."

Amari's face changed first. She winced as her body lurched as though taken by hiccups. Then she frowned, and her frown deepened, then her lips started to turn blue. Atal's eyes bulged as he put his long fingers to his throat. Amari's arms tightened around her beloved as both their legs began to tremble, and the veins in their faces stood out like angry blue worms. Ogel knew the signs of suffocation, but he could not even move his mouth to scream.When Amari's head started to loll and the focus went out of her eyes, Qaram stepped forward. She planted a heel on the side of Atal's head and kicked him a few steps away.

As soon as he hit the floor, he sucked in a big gasp of air and hugged his chest as breath came back into his body. A few feet away, Amari did the same.

You have often found comfort in each other's arms. Now you must know what it is like to always have that comfort just beyond your reach, Qaram signed. Ogel's nostrils filled with the stench of char and ash and cooking blood. When your bodies touch, your minds will tell you that you are deep underwater. You will drown even when there is air around you, even when all others around you are breathing. That is my curse for you. Thank you for mine.

Qaram rubbed Atal’s hair while he was still gasping on the floor, then she stood, and stared at Ogel, her eyes rivers of fire. The scar on her lip twitched. If Ogel were a mountain, he would have crumbled then.

The entire village was silent.

In one swift motion, Qarum whispered into her spear and tossed it into the opposite direction. It rode the wind like an eagle and disappeared into the horizon.

Gather the people. she signed. Where the spear lands, we will settle. None will bare my name upon the blood of their ancestors.”

Oh, Qaram. What god did I so sorely offend, that they made me incapable of turning you away from this path.

“As you wish, Chieftess.”

"Lay down your spear, Qaram." Her brother brushed away a fly on his sweat-darkened beard and squinted at the battlefield. "The enemy retreat."

Qaram, her face part-hidden under a swathe of furs, squeezed the haft of her crude spear so tightly her fist trembled. If a romantic were to kneel before her then, they would find beauty in the curve of her jaw, the length of her narrow neck. (Her turban hid the pale scars crisscrossing her right cheek, and the long one that split her top lip.) An elder would be drawn to the shadows pooling beneath her brow, where a weak light rimmed her irises in gold, as though a dying fire hid there. In a way it did. But this is a battlefield. On it, there is no place for the romantic nor elder.

So far as Qaram was concerned -- is concerned -- there was her and there were the dead.

Her foot wrappings were old moccasins, worn and supple. She could feel the ground beneath the thin soles, earth made soft by scattered formations and the blood and bile of many corpses.

"Qaram," her brother barked. Desperation soaked into his voice, bright as varnish on oak. "These were once our ilk.”

Her answer was silence.

"Child." Sadness too now. "It is enough." Fear.

Her brow creased, a ripple in her conviction. Then, in her inner ear, the wet sound of a knife leaving flesh and her brow smoothed again, hardened. Her eyes turned up, and the band of gold shifted from the top to the bottom of her irises.

I have known many winters, she thought. I am not a child, and it is not enough.

Sunrise crept up behind the forsaken hills of the highlands edge, casting a long shadow that reached all the way to her feet. In that shadow, some of the rival warriors tried boldly to keep formation against waves of howling attackers. Some scrambled towards the yellow sea of grass, others, the pine forests to the left. Most fled towards the decrepit remains of their settlement.

"They even revoke the divine, gods help them." If Qaram had looked at her brother, she would have seen the threat of tears in his rheumy eyes. "Lay down your spear and accept their surrender."

The gods. Their gods. They even revoked their names.

Let them. She signed this to her brother with her free hand.

There were bodies strewn in a rough circle around her, somewhere between ten and fifteen, most dead, some groaning. Let them throw down everything they have. Qaram, not trusting herself to keep her voice low, did not say this aloud.


"Not yet." The air around her mouth rippled as if suddenly warped by a great heat. She had barely whispered. She breathed deeply then, absorbing the quiet anger of her voice, and when she exhaled to dispel it, her breath came out in wisps of blue smoke.

"Not yet?" Her brother peered at her through the blue-grey haze. "They have given up, child. You have won the battle – this is vengeance now."

So it was. What of it?

Qaram clicked her tongue; it was the sound of an old oak cracking in half.

Two or three of the closest bodies moaned, faces buried in the mud. All of them wore matted furs. One crawled all the way to Qaram and clawed at the fur skin greave strapped over her right shin. His head lolled forward as he started weeping onto the top of her boot.

"Mercy," he sobbed. Someone had relieved him of his left leg from the knee down. How? She did not know. The wooden point of her spear gleamed.

That's the last thing I've brought you, Qaram thought, biting down on the walnut shell that never left her mouth.

"For the last time, Qaram – enough. Lay down your spear and end this." Her brother stepped in front of her, blocking out the battlefield, and pointed a finger at her heel. "Or at least spare him some mercy. These are your people too now, as they once were before."

The warrior clinging to Qaram's ankle gurgled unintelligibly now. Soon his leg would make him pass out, but it would be a mangled organ that killed him. His mouth was wet and red, the shape and colour of knife holes in a woman's back.

When Qaram signed now, her hand trembled. Do you know this man, Older Brother?

"Give him mercy, Qaram."

If you say you knew him, I will.

His nostrils flared. "I do not know him, that should not make him less deserving."

He is my age. He would have been there when you took me and ran away from the pointed spears of his tribe. He had many moons to pray for mercy and the gods did not strike me down in that time. Qaram stopped a moment and breathed in through her nostrils, for her jaw was clenched tight enough to gnash her teeth. Do you know how long a cycle is when you starve in the day and scream at night?

“Long enough to taste deer when we had to eat the refuse of drakes." The lines in his brow smoothed and his voice softened. "Long enough to mourn our brethren and far too long to dwell on the dream of seeing my people again."

The gold in Qaram's eyes flared. Turn around and you will stop dreaming.

"Look down and so will you."

Qaram's lip twitched. It was neither smile nor frown, just the tug of her scar.

Her brother nudged her aside, ignoring the gurgling of the traitor clutching her foot and disappeared into the pine.

She looked down at the warrior with his arm hooked around her ankle, face pressed to her boot. She could feel his lips moving, perhaps in prayer. Qaram let go of her spear, though it still stood tall and holy and damning in the mud. She sat down and cradled the young warriors head in her lap. As he bled over her knee, she bent down to whisper in his ear. Keeping her voice so low that only he could hear, she brought out the fullness of all its hidden tones and tenors, turned over every corner of it, and poured it into his ear with a hum.

His gurgling stopped. So did his heart, but so long as she hummed, a part of him would cling to life.

It is too late to ask for your name, she thought, stroking his hair. Still, I will honour you, Nameless One, though you fought for those that make me want to sing Death in the face of your offspring. But death is not mercy, so I will not kill you, not in the traditional sense. Instead, I will sing Life for you, and I wait until you have had your fill before I walk into the innards of your people.

She heard his last sigh and stopped humming.

"If you want more, tell your decrepit gods to come over here and take it."

“Isha, shroud yourself," Bashir commanded.

The one called Isha willed the plates of bark on her arms and face to grow over her pores. The ethers of godhood swirled around her like a mist, caressing her airtight armour. The divine were so full of spirit. Fire. Passion. Danger. Life. Her bark trembled, begging to shrink away, to expose her pores to the richness that dominated the clearing they came to rest at, but she was too well-disciplined in these short few days.

Before her stood a god. Or what she understood to be a god. He had called himself that. “A god.” Although he had asked to be referred to as Boris. What sold her truly was the color and intensity of his aura. Since birth, Isha could not see faces or any other parts of living things, such was the blessing of dwarves. The plants surrounding her took on vibrant purples and ambers, sapling bushes wilted to mottled browns, and the wolf pups Bashir would occasionally cup in his hands burned brightly with the orange shades of glowing coals, but this was the first god she had ever laid eyes upon, and he was beautiful.

His outline was wrapped in gold and blushing purple and jade speckled with silver: calm, warmth and... and...

The jade was unfamiliar. She had never seen it on any animal or dwarf.


Her pointed ears twitched as Bashir's voice touched every corner of her sensitive hearing. The stoic yellow of his outline was suddenly so dull when contrasted against the swirling patterns of divinity.

He pulled at his earlobe, a gesture for her to stay alert.

“I'm sorry," Isha whispered, her voice high and childish when paired with Bashir's. She scurried forward, but could not draw her eyes away from the god as he led the pack up the alpine.

For weeks they explored the mountains, learning from the Boar a great many things. They became adept at navigating the maze of peaks and trees, learning how to avoid its predators and seek shelter in its caves. They learned the importance of sustenance, and from where and how to acquire it. She had quite thoroughly enjoyed the taste of blueberries. They also learned a great deal about their purpose.

To prosper. To ward…. the Boar had said.

To ward against what she did not know. He had not told them, and none had dared to ask. Likely from fear of finding out whatever evil they would have to combat beyond their imagination. For what it was worth Isha was curious. Yet anxiety held her back from questioning the god.

Nevertheless Boris prepared them for their vigil, teaching them the importance of their second skin and their sight, allowing them to “see only the truth” in all things breathing. And he taught them the equation of the earth and how to sing its song with their souls.

A great deal more was taught, and a great deal more they knew until Isha thought she could know no more.

And upon the final day of their apprenticeship, they came to rest upon the foothills of the Anchor’s center peak. A towering peak of sun-baked rock amid a range of summits unmatched in scale anywhere else in the world. Isha struggled to take breathe, the sheer scale of it all threatened to steal her breath. To the east Juddra grazed upon the green grass of the lowland plains, wrapped in purple and specs of silver and orange.

Isha’s eyes fell upon the swirling patterns of the Boar who sat on his haunches and gently gazed skyward. ”The veil thins, the pseudo-moon hums, I fear the Divine Communion may not last forever. I must bugger off and swiftly make preparations.” He turned back towards them and the congregation of seven prostrated.

”A gratuitous gesture. Know that I have given you life out of love, and taught you many cool tricks out of love. I shall give you one last cool trick.” he said.

The boar stamped his hoof and snorted a great plum of dirt and grass upon them. Isha shivered as she felt the foliage massage her armor. She didn’t feel any different.

”On this day, know that you are one. Your vigil begins, my wardens. Forge your homes within the Anchor, and know Permanence, Raigalli.”

And so they donned their new names proudly, and the weight that came with it.

Boris raced across the wilderness of the alpine like a puppet drawn by string, seduced by the tickling of a sweet song. The sound soared through the air like an eagle on an up-draft, taking with it the very soul of the listening audience. His heart ascended in a magical flight to the heavens, a breathtaking melody of orchestral exuberance.

Seeking to locate the origin, the boar took off, following the melody high up into the frozen reaches of the Anchor. As he drew nearer, so did the song reach its crescendo, that from which left Boris giddy, his breath stolen from his body until all that was left was the silence there was at the beginning, and a lonely tree sampling, struggling under the weight of first snow.

In rapt silence the boar drew near. It was a tiny thing, slender in trunk and hardly green in the leaves. Boris could feel it’s roots battle the mountain for space to grow, yet the Anchor clamped down on it, letting it reach no further then it had. Death would snatch it up soon. Another babe cast into oblivion.

No! No he would not allow it!

”Ohhhhhr… The Sapling. It sings me the sweetest songs.” he intoned, giving the branch the tiniest of nudges with his snout.

As if to already know his intention, the active force of Actuality pooled around the Boar.

”With strength of root and rhyme
I stamp my hoof three a’time,
And gaze upon this empty plain,
To bless the realm with endless gain,

And with that the Lifeblood exploded into activity, taking hold of the tiny things roots and lending it form, endowing it with the power to cut through stone like a hoof through snow and multiply and fill the realm with its brood. To its body it gave power, blessing it with the spirit of the mountain and the hardness of stone until brown bark went black. And so it rapidly grew until its trunk and branches became tall and mighty, fit to rival the Big Green.

The entirety of the alpine grew dense with the black trees of Boris. Thick and strong, just like the mountains they stood upon and battled against. Milkwood, he would call them, despite their color and battle-tested hardness.

And Boris basked in their mist, squealing in delight as snow and leaves collected upon the forest floor. Oh how he delighted in the splendor of creation. Truly this was the age of digging and playing, the greatest of ages.

From deep within his playful stupor, he could feel the entirety of Actuality began to tear, taters forming new entities in great similarity to him and his own.

More life.

The words drew him out fully and he looked upon his realm to find it truly empty. Devoid of true life, much unlike the realms of his siblings, each filled to the brim with many thinking and breathing things.

So the Boar sat on his haunches and dreamed. He dreamed of a forest filled with a great many breathing things, worthy of the Anchor and all its glory. In response the tattered lifeblood gathered around him once again, cracking with unrestrained energies. And from the Boar’s head sprouted a great many things of dreams. Mundane things like the mammals of the south, deer, squirrels and the like. And much for fantastical things like small multi-limbed simians with hair as white as snow and funny way of talking. Massive mountain creatures with horns of iron and hide as tough and infallible as granite. Large, ugly, semi aquatic hairless animals who preferred the lakes and rivers the Anchor provided. Lean and hairless predators born with fins and many sharp points, bred for slaughter. Horned and hoofed beasts of great speed and climbing ability. And hermaphrodites with pale skin and black milk.

And the great many beasts of the Milkwood expanded across its entirety. Making a home out of the godly place.

Boris saw that it was good, but not done. For as he gazed into the ether and upon creation, he saw a great many thinking things. Hairless and standing upon only two legs. The boar snorted. Four legs were always better than two. They knew no sort of balance. Yet, if two legged creatures surly possessed an advantage, he could create such with an even greater advantage. Thinking things worthy of inheriting his mighty mountain, and sharing his in vigil.

And so he drew up shapes from the bark of the trees and from the depths of Galbar. Metals of tin and copper, refined into liquid by godly will, and black bark rushed to become one. They fused in an instant as lifeblood joined in the process, taking from the blueprints of creation and synthesizing the necessary additions for human life. And so the pale thinking things of the south become one with the mountains gifts. The entirety of their bodies became like scales of Milkwood, the skin beneath as grey as stone, and their eyes, orbs of bronze intelligence incapable of plain sight. Seven alone stood stout and tall, still incapable of full comprehension from their birth. Their shoulders were broad and their bodies squat. Yet the very spirit of the mountain vibrated in their bones and in their bark. Children of Permanence, Firstborn of Boris.

”Look upon me, my divine retainers.
And see that I am Immovable and Indomitable.
Serve me faithfully. And know Permanence.
Know Permanence, and lather it upon the entirety of Actuality.”

And the breathing things of Milkwood, flesh and metal he called Dwarven. And he taught them a great many things.

The hunt was on. Aeinwaje, as ready as he would ever be, followed the scent of his own blood into the depths of a valley. One thousand kilometers west of the Anchor and it’s budding conflict, Boris took to the task of digging a hole. It was no abyss, but with well placed strikes, his mighty hooves cut a path through Galbar’s crust and deep into the nether regions of the lithosphere.

The lord of rock needed a good time, and what time was better spent than traveling to Galbar’s underplace and smashing the planet’s plates together. For all the mountain boar was worth he had only managed to craft one range upon the lovely planet. And upon that range a curse of bastards and cubes festered. It’s Adler spirit would root them out, as the mountains keeper and guardian, yet he had his reservations. For a warden, Aeinwaje seemed shaken. Whether it originated from his post or something deeper, he did not know, he hadn’t bothered looking into his head. Like Boris himself, he was to fly straight and true as long as what was thought him stuck.

The Boar cleaved a granite rock in two with his tusks and surged forward. He could feel the heat begin to permeate the stone around him, cooking him as if he were baking near Oraelia’s light. He was approaching his destination. With black hooves he decimated stone with uncanny efficiency, digging at it until it became too hot to solidify, almost liquifying under him like red hot tree sap.

Finally he arrived. Directly above him was Toraan’s continental plate and below him, the almost liquid lower lithosphere. For any normal being the pressure and heat would have crushed them into dust. But as for him, he was a mighty boar. The heat only warmed his core and the pressure massaged his backside.

With a testy snort, Boris slapped his back into the massive plate. In response the thing lifted just half a centimeter, it’s massive weight working against the god. With a second grunt he attacked it again, this time shifting it two or three centimeters. The continent rocked, but settled upon the boar’s back. Satisfied, he flexed, and with every ounce of distaste of the deep sea cube god, he charged forward, smashing the continental plate into the adjacent oceanic one.

In an instant Galbar screamed as it was wracked with a terrible quake of epic proportions. The boar would grant her little mercy. With a second charge the west coast of Toraan bulged and exploded, daggers of jutting rock rising from its red innards. The ocean attacked, waves whipping the rising landform without let up. Actuality cracked. And Boris snapped backward along the plate until he was many kilometers away.

Again he struck at the plate, this time granting his body great heat, and the rock bent. Again he struck, and the forest now in the shadow and a newborn mountain bulged. Again he struck, and this time the bulge stretched and began to crack at the the surface, falling away to form ranges and basins. Lifeblood acted on its own accord, sapping the moisture from the haggard forest.

And upon the dry land the great waves of the sea fell, soaking it until it’s very visage turned a bloody red. And it fell upon the mountain range, soaking it until it’s own rock turned as black as midnight.

For nine moments the hull of actuality slowly stilled. And for nine more moments Galbar was still. And when all was done, an angry mountain range, tall and black of rock towered above the ocean. And behind it, a desert, arid and rocky rose to meet it.

Boris snorted. The viscous rock pooling under his belly. The damn things named themselves. What an artist he was.

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