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Love, what is it?

Love is to give yourself up to another person so completely

For hope that they will do the same,

But sometimes what you thought was love

Was nothing more than a lie,

And you are left wondering what you did wrong

When it was your lover that destroyed you,

That broke you,

That left you,

Yet you still blame yourself

Because you don’t know what to do but cry,

And cry you do

Until you will yourself to change or be changed,

Good people are never the same

For they never want to be hurt again,

So the process continues

And love is lost.

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The Learner, The Martial Dancer

&

Qiang Yi and Crew





Her heart was heavy as they walked further and further from her home, to the ship that would ferry her away. Those goodbyes had been the hardest ones she had ever given, but the promise of returning was ever on her mind. She simply hoped it wouldn’t be forever, else she would miss the boys growing up, miss their first steps, their first words. Those thoughts were ever present on her mind, but a part of her knew that she could not dwell on what would happen without her. Her priorities were on helping the servants on their quest, then perhaps… Perhaps she would try to find Split and Penelope. If ever there was a right time to do it, it would be after the task at hand was finished.

She tailed behind the small crew, bringing up the rear. She carried with her only the flute, her bell, and the clothes upon her back. She had decided to leave her dancing dress at home, it would serve no place on the trip and she did not want it ruined again. She wore a blank expression on her face, seemingly oblivious to Tendlepog or where they were headed. It wouldn’t be long now, soon the journey would really begin.

“Are you alright, Lady Arya?” asked Qiang Yi softly. He had moved away from the improvised harbour they were currently loading off of and stood beside Arya with a worried frown.

With a start, Arya blinked, coming to the stark realization that the ocean lay ahead of her, far below the tall cliffs. She turned to Qiang Yi, faking a smile she said, ”Yes! Yes, quite fine captain. Just thinking is all. Are we ready to embark?”

“As soon as we get the remainder of the cargo loaded on board. The moving cliffs are not making it easy, but the Warden’s minions are certainly quite the help,” he said cheerfully. “By the way, we have a fantastically soft bed for you to have onboard. The covers are made of the closest we could find to silk around here, and we hope you will enjoy sleeping in it.”

”That's good to hear, I enjoy a soft bed. It reminds me of Penelope.” Arya said chipperly, before turning her gaze to look at the nightmares moving the cargo. It was strange to see and she had no idea what was in them. She turned back to the captain and said, ”What is the cargo, if you don't mind me knowing?”

Qiang Yi shrugged and shook his head. “That information is classified, even to me. All we know is that it is incredibly important that the cargo arrives at its destination unharmed and unspoiled.”

Arya frowned, looking back to the cargo. She had a bad feeling from them, something she couldn’t quite describe. She shivered then said, ”No matter then. Can I get someone to show me around?”

“Naturally,” said Qiang Yi, “actually, please allow me to do so personally!” Without even waiting for a reply, Qiang Yi went on to descend the ladder-like ‘pier’ that the Zhengwu had anchored to. The girl smiled, then followed the captain up the ladder.

“Welcome to the deck of Zhengwu, Lady Arya,” Qiang Yi proudly said and gestured around the seven metre wide at its widest, thirty-two metre long wooden space that was largely only interrupted in its barren cleanliness by two masts and the elevated stern helmspost. The ship had a convex shape, comparable to a relatively straight banana in that the bow was considerably pointier than the stern, yet still the ship bulged along the middle and thinned towards the ends. In contrast with Jiangzhou, Zhengwu was considerably plainer in its appearance; however, it was still a beautifully carven ship. The three most immediately noticeable areas were the very tip of the bow, where Arya could just spot the upper edge of a fantastically fashioned wooden headfigure; the flat wall holding up the elevated helmspost was interrupted by a doorway in its middle to the deck below; the helmspost itself had a tall, serpentine statue at its very back, its eyes overlooking the deck.

“What would Your Ladyship like to see first? The bow, the stern or below the deck?”

”It’s a very beautiful ship Captain,” Arya said, stroking the fine wood as they walked. ”I do not mind what we start with first, show me in whichever order you deem fit.” came her reply.

“Let us start with the ship’s belly, then,” Qiang Yi said and brought her down the staircase. She gave a small nod and followed as they descended. As they went belowdecks, the small hull gave way to a cramped storage area, filled near to the roof with crates, leaving only a small walkway to pass through to get from the stern to the bow. The crates almost became like walls, the servants having stacked them into hollow squares to create approximations of rooms below deck. One in particular stood out, for it was hidden away behind a makeshift bamboo divider. Qiang Yi pushed it aside and gestured to a white-sheeted bed inside an admittedly terribly cramped little room.

“We deeply apologise for the standard of living, Lady Arya. We pray that it will suffice given the circumstances.”

Arya took in everything she saw, and in silence she realized the crates were everywhere, and now closer, she could feel something was off about them, but she did not know what. Qiang Yi’s voice caught her attention and she looked at the small room. She let out a great smile at the sight, for it meant a lot to her that they would go through so much trouble just to please her. She turned to the Captain and said, ”Please, there is no need to apologise!” She then walked in and placed the flute on the bed, as well as a small bag full of food and tea from home. ”It will do just fine, please tell Li Shan that I am humbled by his work.”

Qiang Yi bowed. “Naturally, you need neither worry about theft nor the loss of privacy. While the walls are not particularly thick, the entire belly of the ship will be yours alone should you wish for it. Now, if you would accompany me upstairs again, please.”

Arya gave another small nod, and began to follow.

As they went through the jungle of crates and up to the deck once more, the last of the creates were being loaded on. In addition to those crates, however, there came black, shadowy figures with almost cloud-like, bipedal silhouettes aboard from the mainland. They stopped and stared at Arya for a moment, not a sound escaping them. Arya returned their stares, briefly touching the tattoo on her hand. Qiang Yi then smiled and bowed to the first of the mist-like creatures.

“Ah, welcome aboard, dear Nightmares. Truly, it is an honour to be graced with Your presences on this humble vessel. We already feel much safer!”

The shadows turned to Qiang Yi wordlessly, but the first made a move that approximated a nod and let out an ear-cutting ‘HWWWK!’ for an answer. Several crew members flinched and ducked, thinking the sound was another attack from seaborne beasts. So too did Arya flinch, tightly shutting her eyes before opening them with a couple blinks. Qiang Yi nodded patiently, though his eyes had teared up ever so slightly at the pain.

“Naturally,” he said in the firm, certain way of someone who has completely failed to understand one’s conversation partner. “Well, the ship is yours. You are free to go wherever you may wish.”

The nightmares remained silent again and slowly began to drift towards the hidden nooks and corners aboard. Qiang Yi turned to Arya and smiled as he drilled a pinkie into his ear.

“Very kind of the Warden to offer us some additional protection.”

She nodded her head slowly, ”Yes, hopefully they won’t be needed! Though I’m sure if they are, they could just scream and scare us all away.” she mused. Though their presence did beg more questions than answers. What cargo was so important that they needed the Nightmares as protection?

She looked to Qiang, with a sly look. ”Where were we again?” she asked.

“Ah, yes,” the captain said and snapped his fingers. “Follow me, please.” Together they climbed up the short staircase to the helmspost at the stern which in itself was rather uneventful - being only a slightly elevated platform overlooking the rest of the deck. However, it had three sights that immediately caught the eyes: The first was the tall, intricately carved statue of Shengshi, shaped with near-lifelike precision, albeit considerably shorter than the eight feet height of the actual god. Its pose was stern, yet benevolent, a furrow-browed stare contrasted with a fatherly, extended hand. A sullen expression crossed Arya's face, and she turned her head to look away from the statue, ashamed. Apart from the statue, Zhen-zhen sat smiling at the two of them by the rudder tiller.

“Showing her around, cap’n?” she said and closed her book. Qiang Yi nodded with a wry smile. Arya's face beamed a childish smile at Zhen-Zhen as she saw the servant.

“Yes, it is only fair for her to get a tour of her home for the next few months,” he said and put his arms behind his back.

“Yeah, that sounds fair. How do you like it so far?” she asked Arya with a smirk.

"I love it! I really do. It's nice and cozy and full of noise." she said excitedly.

Zhen-zhen snickered. “Yeah, the noise is something else - ‘specially now that we got the nightmares onboard.” She shrugged. “Buuut we’ll get used to it, probably.” Qiang Yi furrowed his brow at her remark. “Yes, we pray the noise won’t disturb you too much,” he conceded. “The crew is active around both day and night, so we hope you are a heavy sleeper.”

"Don't you worry, when I'm in the Palace, I only wake up when I want too." she giggled, bringing a hand to cover her face where her mouth should've been.

Qiang Yi nodded smiling. “That is very good to hear. Now, this is the bridge. It is where you will find me and Zhen-zhen most of the time. If you would like, you may spend your time here with us as you wish during the voyage. Oh, and we hope you will join us for the daily prayers to Shengshi up here - we arrange them at the times of flood, as opposed to Ashalla’s prayer around the time of ebb.”

Arya looked confused, ”Prayer? What’s that? Does his Holiness and the Exalted Ashalla show up here or something?” she asked innocently.

Qiang Yi and Zhen-zhen looked at each other with raised eyebrows. “My lady Arya, do you not know what prayers are?”

She shrugged, ”I can’t remember if anyone’s ever told me. It doesn’t ring any bells though.”

“W-well…” Qiang Yi began patiently, “it’s the act of honouring a Holy deity at a distance. Of course, it can also be done directly to Them, but we are not worthy of such. Instead, we made figures and statues to represent Their holy visages.” He gestured up at the Shengshi statue. “So, yes, we meet here, the whole crew, and offer our prayers to His Lordship.”

She nodded, looking up at the figure. ”Does… Does he hear you?” she asked softly.

Zhen-zhen shrugged. “We like to think He does,” she said reassuringly.

Arya stared at the figure now as a mix of emotions overcome her. Her thoughts ran rampant as the weight of such a discovery took hold. Had it been that easy all along? She could have told him a long time ago that she was sorry. That she was ashamed of what she had done. The guilt she cared could have been forgiven… Or would it? Could she be forgiven for what she did? She grew anxious, her face growing flustered as she looked away in an instant and to the floor. She took a deep breath trying to calm herself, then looked to the captain and said, ”Oh I’d love too, when is Flood?” she said with a forced smile.

Qiang Yi looked up at the sky and then at the approximation of a beach at the Tendlepoggan coast. “It is still midday, so it will be some time before the flood rolls in. We will notify you when it does. Now, would you like to see the last part of the tour?”

She visibly relaxed at the sound of his words, she still had time to prepare herself. Arya then beamed a smile and said, ”Of course! Please lead the way.” she motioned to Qiang Yi.

Together they once more descended the stairs and crossed the length of the ship, crew members bowing to Arya all along the way. Qiang Yi folded his arms behind his back and looked over his shoulder. “Does it bother you?” he asked, “All the Shengshese manners?”

As they walked, Arya bowed back to the servants, giving each a kind smile. When she heard Qiang Yi speak, she squinted her eyes, unsure of what to say. On one hand, yes, it did bother her but on the other hand, she did not want to offend the servants. ”Would it bother you, if I said yes?” she asked, cocking her head slightly.

Qiang Yi sighed quietly. “I was afraid so - however, I am sad to say that it is as much a part of us as existing. Our souls were made to serve, and we cannot do anything else. We hope therefore that we do not make you too uncomfortable.” He pushed aside the front sail to reveal the bow tip of the ship, complete with the headfigure of Ashalla hanging off the front.

”Do not worry about me.” Arya said quietly, ”It doesn’t bother me nearly as much as you think it does. Besides, I just need to get back into the swing of things, and it will be like you brought another Servant onboard.” Arya went to the tip of the bow, and looked at the headfigure of Ashalla. She had never met the goddess before, but knew her to be of the Ocean itself. She turned to look at Qiang Yi again, ”Don’t take this in the wrong way, I’m simply curious. But, you really can’t do anything else?” she asked with concern.

Qiang Yi squinted his eyes and let out a single ‘heh’. “Forgive me for asking, My lady, but are you suggesting there are other things to do than to serve the Exalted Creators?”

She simply smiled and turned to look out at the ocean. The journey would be long, she was sure. Full of trials and errors, and adventure. A quest for the ages! She took a deep breath of ocean air, then turned around.

”So where are we going?”





I'm sorry, but, who are you?





The land was bleak, desolate even, and snow covered. Save the mountains that encircled what lay ahead. They were mighty and stout guardians, but the silence was telling. Strange creatures inhabited here, made of rock that floated. At their center was a crystal of a soul. But Orvus saw only an abomination. Turning away from such creatures, what lay ahead was a cavernous entrance, larger than even gods and hoisted in the sky was a building that floated. He had seen such things before, but he already knew who had created such land. The Alma who he interrogated had given him many answers. Orvus learned who was to blame for the crystallization of souls; Azura.

Now he stood at the threshold of the Vault of Souls, having come after leaving the Eye. At first he knew not where to go, his only clue was the Alma who had taken the soul of Tahkio. Soon enough he had found a new Alma, the strange half bird-half construct.

It did not take him long to find what he sought and thus he traveled to the far north. There he found the Vault, where his sister had done the unthinkable. To crystalize the soul, was against the Pyres. How could they be renewed? Why work against Katharsos? Why keep a being trapped for seemingly eternity? What was the point and the purpose? He had to find out what the extent of her meddling had done. Thus he ventured in, wary of defenses or traps as he took his time delving into the earth.

As Orvus walked down he found himself in an expansive room, full of pillars and columns with staircases that connected and weaved throughout, going deeper into the earth. Upon closer inspection, each column held a plaque cataloging a creature and number of present before the entrance of a tunnel. Most had zero, but a soft glow caught his attention and he floated to meet it. Inside the new tunnel he found many crystal souls, each with a plaque of its own detailing aspects of its life before death. It was simple and incredibly basic, but told him that those in that place were but plants.

As he continued in his search he came across mundane animal life, each having died out of needless violence. He picked up a crystal, and opened his thoughts to the soul inside. It was a simple creature, nothing more and nothing less. Such a strange fate to be situated in a place it could never break free from. Thus, he tightened his grip upon the crystal, shattering it. The pieces fell to the floor as he titled his hand, with little tinks. Orvus then left the tunnel, and floated to the middle of the chamber.

He reflected upon what he had seen. Azura was cataloging souls, hoarding them in a vault and stealing them from the purity of the flames. For what end, he did not know, but could only guess. He was not as angry as he thought he would be, but it did not change the fact that Azura was creating a place where souls could endure unabated from time. If these souls were locked in perpetual unending, they would never burn, nor even decay. Thus, he decided that the only course of action, was to show her the consequences of such an action.

And Orvus brought his hand wide apart, then in an instant he gave a mighty clap in the silence of the vault, shaking the very foundations. From this clap his soul decay would spread to some of the crystals, bleeding their colors to be but inky black with streaks of scarlet. Such decayed souls knew no rational thoughts, for they were but mad with insanity and fearful of what they could no longer remember. If they had but any thoughts left, it was simply ‘burn’.

This was but the first step in his plan. Next he took fragment of the crystal he shattered and breathed life into it. It elongated, warped and grew tiny legs. What came to be in his palm was a small creature the size of a small spider. It had six legs, a crystalline arrow shaped body with beady red eyes and sharp biting teeth. It began to hum and as it did, Orvus willed more them.

”I shall name you Soul Fiends. Do your work and multiply.” and he set the creature down, where it and its siblings began to climb upon a new, untouched, gem. It would take them time, but they would begin to decay the soul inside, feeding upon the negative emotions released.

Orvus began to leave then, grim with what he had wrought. Upon his exit of the Vault, he stopped, watching the rock constructs work. Another idea came to mind, and thus he cursed them. They would not be able to detect the damage that he had done, though if anything else ventured in they would see. With a cold stare, he turned round to view the Vault once more, before flying away into the blue sky.





&

Silver


&

Jim





The day was a hot one, as Heliopolis let down it’s unyielding rays. As such, the humidity was sweltering, choking the life towards shade and cool ponds. Only the chorus of insects could really be heard, besides the occasional songbird, whistling a tune. Yet, none of this bothered Orvus in the slightest, for the land was at peace with itself, and so was he. For the first time, in such a long time. The god sat upon his porch, leaning back in the chair with a relaxed expression as he gazed out at the land. The vibrancy of the surrounding jungle had dulled to green as the season changed. They had collected from the fruits of his labor, taking from his field, rice, coffee, maize, yams and sweet potatoes.

Though he had no need for such sustenance, the simple fact that he had achieved what he thought impossible, filled him with a sense of accomplishment. A feeling he had never known to be capable of. And as such, being able to teach Silver such was rewarding in its own right. And now the girl was able to fill her belly with the hard work they had labored on together. But Orvus had not just been watching over Silver, for in the night he traveled long and far, answering the occasional prayer and searching for the Alma that eluded him. Ever since his teaching of the Ihokhetlani, and the death of Tahiok, he wanted nothing more then to find where the Alma would take Azura’s soul crystals. But Orvus knew that he could search Galbar for days with nothing, and he did not want to leave Silver alone.

So the god shoved it away from his mind, there were other, more important things to keep him occupied. Soon enough they would have to plant again, and he had plans for more buildings. Silver’s ideas were beginning to stick, and if anything, he needed a house for both Arya and Laurien regardless, once they returned. Those two were constantly on his mind, and he was always listening for their voices if they called in prayer, but there had been nothing, not even a whisper. He wanted Laurien to be successful, and he wanted to be better, for Arya. Hopefully Arya would get along with Silver, it seemed Laurien had well enough.

“...vus…”

“-rvus.”

“Orvus!”

Silver stood in front of the God, hands on her hips with sweat covering every inch of her body. It had been a long day.

“Thinking of your children again? You really are like an old man, you know.” Silver chuckled.

Orvus stirred, looking up at Silver with a soft expression. ”I always think of them, anymore. Now, sit down, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” he said gesturing to the other chair.

Silver nodded and plopped down on the chair. She stretched and let out a happy sigh before turning to look at Orvus, one eyebrow raised, “So what’s this about, old man? Want to finally plan out some land expansion?”

Orvus gave a half nod, ”I’ll have to build them a house, yes. But before that, I thought about getting you off this island, show you what else the world has to offer. You must be bored. ” he said humbly.

“Bored?” Silver frowned and closed her eyes. After a minute or two, she shrugged. “I mean, yes, somewhat but, is there really anything to see? The world is young. There can’t be any advanced civilizations yet, can there? And spending time with, um, ‘less developed’ brains doesn’t really call for my attention.”

Orvus expression did not change as he listened. ”Suite yourself then, I don’t care either way. I’ve only ever heard of two races. The Selka, and the Ihokhetlani, neither are very advanced.” he went quiet before asking, ”What is your definition of advanced?”

Silver’s eyes sparkled and she sat straight, on the edge of her seat, “Oh! Yes, advanced civilizations, right? Those are the pinnacle of ethical population centers. Philosophy is one of the central tenets of society in such a civilization, and the worship of the true Gods comes second only to the pursuit of Technomagical advancement. All kinds of things are easier in an advanced civilization! Infantry are equipped with rifles that shoot metal bullets, hospitals can heal even the gravest wound if the patient arrives quickly… Ah, it’s great. Also, running water and in my father’s palace’s case, electricity!”

Orvus listened, trying to picture what Silver was saying. It all sounded like a world far from the one Galbar was, or perhaps ever could be. It seemed Li’Kalla truly did come from a world apart. ”Sounds like fantasy, Silver. Perhaps one day this world will see such things, or not. But for right now, this world will have to do as it is. My siblings will have their work cut out for them, if they know of such possibilities.” he said looking out at the jungle before slowly turning to catch SIlver’s gaze. ”Your mind is truly a wonder. To come from a different place, to be fractured into several fragments and yet retain all of that? I am impressed.” he said.

Silver’s excitement faded slowly, and she slumped back onto her chair, staring out at the sky. “I don’t remember everything. For example, my handmaiden’s name. Or my family name. Not that it matters, all of that must be sand by now. Yeah…”

”All that matters,” Orvus started, ”Is that you are here now, Silver. Living freely and I hope, happily.”

“There is something in the back of my mind, and a weight on my heart. I thought it’d go away, you know. It hasn’t. I still feel like a traitor and a coward, leaving the others to their fates. I’m… Happy, yes, but I worry if the others are. And I wonder if I should go look for them.”

Orvus leaned forward, his expression going to his all familiar blank stare. ”You are neither a traitor, nor a coward Silver. You were given the opportunity to live, and you took it. Do not feel burdened by what happened, for this is the choice you made.” he said with little emotion.

Silver scrunched up her nose a little and with her arm propped against the chair’s armrest, rested her chin on her palm. “Yes, that’s true…”

His gaze turned to sadness as he looked at Silver. ”Yet, you still feel the same as you do. Tell me, if we go and search for the others, what then? What will you do if we find that they have not found the same happiness? What will you do if they have found happiness? What will you do, if they desire to be reunited?” he inquired.

“A good question,” A voice swirled around the pair. Instantly Orvus recognized it. A crow suddenly cawed and landed on a gentlemanly figure who stood by a tree. It clung to his shoulder and a smile stretched across his face.

Orvus’ head snapped in the direction of K'nell’s voice with frightening speed. In an instant he stood on top of the stairs, eyeing his fellow god with anger. ”What are you doing here, K'nell?” his voice came with a hint of spite.

“Allowing your companion to answer the very question you posed,” K'nell reached into his pocket and withdraw a fisted hand. He spread his palm flat to reveal the other shards plus a tiny orb.

Though the God did not display it, Orvus’ heart sank at the sight of the shards and orb, for he knew it could only mean one thing. With an icy cold stare at K’nells smile, he slowly turned to look at Silver. His expression changed to one born out of sadness as he looked at her with knowing eyes.

Silver stared at the shards in K’nell’s hand. Her eyes had narrowed. Sweat dripped more frequently from her brow and chin. Her eyes grew misty. In a split moment, she’d turned around and rushed inside her home. The sound of stumbling and breaking furniture followed her, but quickly things fell into silence.

”Silver!” Orvus called after her, beginning to follow, but thought better of it. He slumped as he heard the commotion inside, only to be followed by silence. It was then he spun around again to look at K’nell. He clenched his fists in anger, as he descended the steps. ”Why? Why does your mere presence ruin everything?” he spat at the god.

K'nell looked at the shards with a slight disappointment before looking at Orvus. He crossed his brow and cleared his throat, “Excuse my skirt of the question, but I feel like two other things are more important to mention: namely that your creation, Arya, is safe and is open to reconciling your relationship with her. Secondly that who or what I am and what my presence does is secondary to comforting your friend, Silver, and allowing her to communicate with the rest of Li'Kalla when she is ready. Anything beyond that is--” He smiled a cheshire grin, “Well beyond me, I suppose.”

Orvus froze in his tracks at the mention of Arya, but before he could interject, K’nell kept talking. He felt relief at the fact she was willing to not just talk, but reconcile as well. But his relief washed away like rain cleansing dust in a thunderstorm. He stared at that Cheshire grin with an emotionless stare, and yet, he despised it all the same. This was not the K’nell he remembered, but the smile was all too real. It brought back such vivid memories, ones he wanted to bury. As much as he wished to wipe it clean off his face, to eviscerate it from reality, he could not bring himself to do it. There was too much going on, and the fate of Silver hung in the air. Arya would have to come later.

”I did not make Silver go into the house, nor should I run after her for comfort. I know her better than you ever could, and when she is ready, she will come and I will be there for her.” he said with little emotion. ”I will not keep her from speaking with the other shards, even if I wish the opposite. She is an independent being, capable of making her own choices. Do not think of her as some child that needs to be coddled. She is so much more than that.”

“But of course,” K'nell offered a confused smile under a knitted brow. He hummed to himself and straightened out. With his free hand he patted his jacket all the way to the top pocket, a muffled tap responding to his fingers, “Would you care for a smoke, my good man?”

Orvus blinked at the question, then said, ”I could care less, K'nell, about a ‘smoke’. I would rather find out why you speak for Arya, as Silver is not yet ready.”

“Then you won't mind if I partake in one,” K'nell flicked his wrist and the shards were deposited into his coat. With his other hands he procured a small silver tin with a tiny embossed swirl. He opened it and plucked a cigarillo from a tiny stack and stubbed it between his lips. Returning the tin, the end of the cigarillo suddenly glew with a red coal. He sucked in a hearty pull and let an opaque cloud of smoke exit his nostrils. The shroud nearly engulfed him before he even started on his second pull, stopping only to speak.

“Why she asked me to, of course,” K'nell answered simply, air hissing in from the cigarillo.

”Of course.” Orvus whispered. ”Then where might Arya be?”

“Well,” another cloud of smoke wrapped around the gentleman, a small glowing dot brightening, “If you move quick enough, I would suppose you could catch her on the red plains of Tendlepog. She is quite the adventurer, you know.”

”It is not I who is searching for her at this time. I will inform her sister of this. You…” he paused, letting the silence grow between them before he said, ”I am grateful for the information.”

“You are welcome to it,” K'nell puffed. His eyes glanced all around him for a moment before he plucked the cigarillo from his mouth, “I see you've built yourself a farm, very rustic.”

Orvus shrugged, ”My dream changed me. Either for better or worse, it remains to be decided.” he said cryptically.

“Then it was a good dream,” K'nell put the cigarillo back in his mouth, “And you should be proud.”

”Good? Hardly. Did you know It crippled me for what felt like a lifetime? I sat in the silence of Veradax while Galbar changed over and over again. I'm only here because… because Kalmar wanted to talk.” he stated flatly.

“In this case,” K’nell sucked the last of his cigarillo, flicking the butt away into a shimmer of stardust, “Who is to say what good is and isn't. The point is, my good man, that you thought about it. That's more than most, and then to bring action to your thought-- doubly so.”

”Make no mistake K'nell, I'm not going to forgive you for what you showed me, nor do I expect you to fully understand what you did to me. Those memories of a life I never even lived, haunt me.” he whispered.

“I have to say,” K'nell folded his elbows square behind his back, “That if you can't forgive a picture for being, then why not also forget to forgive the eyes that saw.” He wiggled his nose, “Because it's a useless exercise of paradoxical failure. Perhaps, then, you felt you weren't given a choice in the matter? An easy remedy, I suppose, would be me giving you the choice right here and right now to bring all those memories to reality or not. Once again, I suppose such a choice is yours.”

His eyes went wide at the suggestion. That life… real? Rowan… Ava? Lily? A simple life, an easy life? But his mind fell upon Arya, Laurien and Silver and if he did such a thing, all of that would be wasted and unfulfilled. He could not have his happiness without them. Not yet anyways. He began to shake his head, ”No, not now. Perhaps not ever. I am not worthy of such a life, not yet at least.”

“Very we--”

There was some rustling, ceramic scraping against ceramic, before Silver with slightly reddened eyes walked out, hands behind her back. Her lips were stretched into a thin line and she took in a deep breath once she saw K’nell and the shards. A grim look of determination washed over her face.

“K’nell-”

“I know that voice!” A voice dripping with mirth intervened, and quickly Sprite materialised a projection sitting on K’nell’s palm, “Hey hey, look who it is! If it isn’t good old ‘We have to do something’ and ‘This isn’t right’ girl!” Sprite smirked and crossed her arms. Silver sighed and rolled her eyes. “Wait, wait wait wait, is that an ACTUAL body?! How?!?! I need one!!”

At that moment, Elegance materialised next to Sprite, sitting gracefully on her shard. “You can have as many bodies as you like when we achieve our current goal, Sprite. Is that right, Laina?”

“That’s right,” said a soft voice, one belonging to Laina whom materialised her own projection standing on K’nells forearm. “But I do wonder, how did you obtain a body? One so faithful to what we actually look like?”

Silver squinted her eyes a little and relaxed, “Orvus gave it to me. He taught me how to sow plants, care for them and harvest them, too… This body will get in the way, won’t it?” Silver asked a little sadly.

Orvus said nothing as he watched the conversation between SIlver and the shards. His expression turned to his emotionless stare.

“Not quite,” K'nell suddenly spoke, “You see, as remnants of a god, your corporeal forms are trivial. If it pleased you, I have no doubt that you could simply leave it by the pull of your fellows, or even if you desired, all could occupy that singular body. Should it be needed, the body can be shed easily as well. It is really all your choice so long as you remember that the body does not occupy you but vice versa.”

Laina perked up, “Huh? That easily?”

“That’s waaaay too easy! Anything related to her,” Sprite pointed at Silver, “has never been easy! So, sorry to say, but it’s not going to be easy.” She huffed and puffed her cheeks, but quickly went back to normal once Elegance began speaking.

“Shall we try?”

Silver revealed what she’d been hiding behind her back, a stone knife, and left it on the floor. Then she walked to K’nell, grabbed the shards and went back to the porch. “We shall try.” She said.

“You feel kinda, a little bit, just gross, Sis!” The young girl said, suddenly materialising and grabbing her pearl and floating just above Silver’s hands. Silver frowned and shrugged.

“Suit yourself, girl.”

“I do have to say, touching our skin gives a rather unpleasant feeling. It’s rather difficult to explain it.” Elegance said, a little pale.

K'nell looked disappointed, “I see.” He paused with a thinking hum, “Very well. With your permission of course, I'm sure one of us can simply force the body away. You may be asleep if you like, so you do not feel any unpleasantness.”

“Hold on, K’nell,” Laina said, floating up to face Silver and looking into her eyes. After a moment, she turned to the other shards, “I think we can do it if we work together. Practice for the real deal, right?” She asked the others hopefully. K'nell gave a curt yet approving nod.

Elegance hummed to herself and spoke, “Rather interesting id-”

”No.” came Orvus’ sad voice and K'nell raised his brow. Orvus began to walk towards them. ”It will not work. The four of you lack the strength to do such a thing. I would have a word with her, before…” his voice dropped to silence as he walked up the steps, looking at SIlver with sad eyes. He had listened to them speak, and he realized the only way to get what the shards wanted, was up to him. K'nell folded one arm behind his back and looked on in silence.

Sprite looked as if the gears inside her head finally fell into place and started running, “H-Hey, now wait a second-” The girl however jumped onto Sprite’s back at that moment and whispered something into her ear, which made Sprite smirk and float away toward K’nell.

“I’m glad she’s so easily distracted, being honest.” Silver said and turned to Orvus, her brow furrowed and face twisted into a strange expression.

He stood in front of her now, placing his right hand upon her cheek. ”Is this… Is this what you want?” he asked softly.

“... It is what I must do. My duty.” Silver said, returning Orvus’ gaze, “I won’t abandon myself this time. I’m sorry.” She muttered quietly.

With a dejected look, Orvus nodded then turned to K'nell. ”Leave us for a moment.” he stated before turning back to the shards, ”I ask the same of you three.” he whispered.

Sprite smirked at Orvus, “Hehe, remember not to p-”

SLAP

Sprite’s projection dissipated immediately after the impressive slap Elegance delivered to the back of her head. The woman nodded at Laina, who caught the freefalling shard in her arms.

K'nell closed his fingers around the dissipating shards, “Very well, but--” He looked between Silver and Orvus and let out a tiny exhale and turned on his heel, “I'll be back soon enough.”

After a few moments, Silver was the one to speak as her eyes took in the landscape around them, built by their own hands.

“I’m going to miss this place. The plants, the sun…”

Orvus followed her gaze and said, ”I know. This place… Will not be the same without you.” he mumbled.

Silver turned to stare at Orvus, her eyes glowing brightly. “It will. It will be even better after I’m gone. You, Laurien and Arya will have this place to yourselves and will turn it into a true family home and, perhaps, into a great settlement in the days to come.” Silver smiled, shifting her gaze away slowly, “And yet, even though I know all this, and even though I know I must do this…” Her smile turned into a desolated, wide eyed expression as she lifted a hand to grasp at the fabric covering her chest, right above her heart. “... I’m scared.”

The god turned to look at her, and ever so gently took her free hand within his own. He gave a light squeeze, then said, ”Being scared is only natural. Even I, a being so far beyond such things, is scared. How strange is that?” he said before letting go of her hand and moving it to hold her cheek. ”Do not be afraid, little Silver. Everything will be okay. You… You lived beautifully, and wonderfully. I... I am… I care for you. I… Always will, little Silver. You… brought me purpose and showed me a different view. For that… I am and always will be, grateful.” Orvus said, a fleeting smile in his eyes.

Silver embraced Orvus and sniffled, “Thank you, Orvus… I’m glad I met you. I’m glad I saw your smile.”

He returned the embrace, and with silent tears he whispered, ”You… Are so welcome, Little Silver.” before giving the redheaded girl fond memories, of the time he taught her how to plant her first seeds, to the day she saw her house, to Laurien and then finally her first breathes as a person. Slowly he stripped her of any pain, as a gentle numbness took over. Orvus closed his eyes as Silver’s mind slipped away in peace.

A soft breath escaped her lips, before the girl went limp in his arms. He pulled away to look at her, stroking the hair away from her silver eyes. With a free hand, he shut them, then brought her close, putting his forehead against hers. He then pulled away as her body turned to dust, blowing away in the gentle breeze. Where his hand had rested beneath her heart, a small fragment fell into his once empty palm. The same fragment he had once seen so long ago. Orvus looked at it with an empty expression, before clutching it tightly. The god then slowly turned, making his way to sit on the porch steps. He then buried his face within his hands as tears made of light fell into a thousand little pieces upon the dark wood.

Plat… Plat… Plat…

His tears fell.

Skiff… Skiff… Skoof.

Boots came to a stop before him. There was only silence as K'nell watched on.

Orvus looked up at the sound, his face streaked with white as his gaze met K’nells. He outstretched his hand and from it the small fragment could be seen.

”Go on. Take it.” he uttered hollowly.

“Just know,” K'nell said as he gingerly took the shard from Orvus, “Though you feel pain, you have lost nothing, and gained everything.” He placed the shard into an outstretched palm, snug next to the others.

Orvus lingered on K’nell for a moment, hearing his words, but giving no reaction to them. He then lowered his gaze. He no longer wanted to talk, he just wanted to be left alone. The message would be abundantly clear.

K'nell turned on his heels, stopping only momentarily to poke the empty air. The velvet of reality rippled in such a way that any mortal would likely have been driven mad by the shimmer. An orb appeared floating, wisps of blue mist clouding around it. Giving it little more thought, K'nell walked on, leaving Orvus alone and the orb in its place.




Darkness came and went before Orvus finally moved, a new day heralded by the song of birds focused his mind. He looked up, still at a loss for his grief. This time it was far more real and such a memory would haunt him. K’nell was wrong, he had lost something, and he gained nothing from it. Silver was dead, and if they succeed, it would not be her that became the dominant personality of Li’Kalla. Would the new Li even remember what he did for her?

He stood up, and it was then that the light reflected off the orb, catching his attention. He walked closer to it, wary of what K’nell had left behind. The orb seemed to rotate in place slowly, dressed in a shallow mist that never ventured far. The closer he got, the slower it rotated, until he noticed a tiny stretch of runes illuminate from fractured light. His divine eyes made short work, and its meaning was easily read: “Hello.

He cocked his head, perplexed by the orb’s method of communication. Unsure of what to do, he said, ”Hello?” in response, feeling foolish.

The runes shimmered for a little and then suddenly vanished into the strange translucent orb. Light seemed to get lost and bend inside and then after some time, more runes appeared, “How are you?

”Been better.” he stated after a moment. He’d bite, and find out what the orb was.

Have you?” The runes shifted.

”Yes.” he said softly.

There was another pause as the light swirled around the orb, then finally more runes presented themselves, “Can you tell me about it?

”I’d rather not.” he said.

Again the runes disappeared. The orb rotated gently and light hit it a new way, fracturing into a single short rune, one that sort of looked like a snake that had choked on its own tail, “Why?

”I… Don’t expect an Orb to understand why. Whatever are you? Why did K’nell leave you behind? To torture me? To remind me what I’ve lost?” he said angrily.

The orb seemed to dim for a while, the rune fading. All at once it brightened again, runes flaking across its surface, “What did you lose?

He let out a sigh then said, ”A friend.”

Fracturing new light the orb asked, a single rune akin to a hammer “How?

”I killed her.” came his dejected voice as he looked away from the orb.

Light shifted and the orb dimmed again. This time the pause was much longer, and only after gradually taking back in the light did the bends of fractured color turn back into a long strand of runes, “If you made her stay, would she be just as dead or more?

As the question echoed in his mind, Orvus stood still and silent. After a moment, and in a sad voice, he said, ”More.” before returning his gaze to the orb.

How?” The runes glittered.

”Like a flower, it blooms only for so long but eventually it withers and then dies. She would have withered and died as something much worse.” he replied back at the orb.

The orb seemed to process before illuminating, “So what was lost?

”A flower at the peak of its bloom.” he whispered.

The orb dimmed again, but this time the mist overtook it as it swirled. Time passed but no light managed to fracture it again. Orvus grabbed the orb, the mist seeped through his hands as he gazed upon it. Then, he turned around and walked up the steps into the house. The silence was deafening, and it took him a moment before he could move again. He went over to the table, and set the orb upon the wood.

He looked at it one last time, waiting for a response, but when no swirling of light came he sighed. ”I’ll be back, little orb. One day.” He then turned to leave.

The orb floated above the table but remained dim, rotating and rotating in a sleeve of mist. Finally light fractured and bent into runes, “Where are you going?

He stopped in his tracks and turned around to look at the words. He shrugged, ”The memories of this place are fresh. I need time away to clear my head.”

Growing dim, the orb seemed to accept this answer. It remained floating above the table, cloaking itself back into the mist.

He bowed his head, then left the house, shutting it the front door behind him softly.






Laurien


&



Shengshi





The Nanhe was wide, far wider then she had ever imagined. She couldn't even see the other bank from the shore she stood upon. She let a out a shrill whistle, once again amazed at how the gods worked. For who else other then the River Lord had molded such a thing? It was his domain after all.

Much to her disappointment however, she saw nothing but the flowing of water and occasional bird. There was no ‘boat’ as Orvus had called it. It was a stark realization that she had to keep going, on foot this time to avoid any more unwanted attention. Her body still ached from the fight, and her wound was just beginning to close. It would definitely scar, and upon her black skin it showed white. Odd, but nothing she couldn't live with.

So Laurien walked at a meager pace, occasionally resting when she felt the need. She found her thoughts drifting back to the fight. What she could have done differently, how she could have avoided being wounded, and what her dagger had done. It seemed to break the creatures mind, slowly and perhaps painfully. She felt a twang of regret at that but it was either that, or she would have been killed. Probably devoured too. It was a necessary death in the grand scheme of things. The reptile had put up a good fight, after all and Laurien had learned an important lesson, that she was capable of killing.

As night fell upon Galbar, Laurien floated up into a tree. Now resting on a branch that could hold her, she leaned against the trunk and looked out over the river again. So large, and there was no telling how long it was. It'd be so easy to fly but there was no telling what else might attack her and as much as she hated to admit it, she wasn't in the best condition to go at it again. She let out a soft sigh, before drifting off to sleep.




Laurien woke up at a powerful poke to her ribs. As her eyes flared open, she found herself surrounded by ball-like creatures with frog-legs and arms stretching twice as long as they were tall. The closest let out a curious “ook” and poked her again.

Laurien blinked, a smirk falling on her face as she said, ”You're not Silver.” she then poked the nearest one back and said, ”Ook”

The nearest one let out a scream and threw its hands into the air as it retreated behind its friends. The pack began to snort and growl and bang their hands into the tree in a drumming manner. One of them reached out to slap her on the arm, ooking in a taunting manner.

Laurien had began to laugh as they retreated and growled, finding it funny how easily they were offended. But when the slap came, her demeanor changed to a frown. It didn't hurt in the slightest, but now she could tell that they were no longer playing. She let out a sigh then rolled off the tree and floated to the ground with a soft thump. She turned back up to the creatures and said, ”Fine! Have it your way, I'll leave. No sense in playing with grumpy things.”

The creatures calmed down as she dropped from their tree, returning to their curious ooks. However, swiftly thereafter, they skipped off between the branches, wailing and whooping as they went. In between the foliage, rumbling shadows stomped branches and leaves, creating a ruckus. The sky above the trees filled with screaming birds. A few boars ran past her in a hurry.

“Well, now, what do we have here?” came a voice from the nearby river.

Laurien went tense as the animals began to ran, and squeal. She recognized that something was coming, something that disturbed them, gave them alarm. instinctively she went for her sword and at the sound of the voice she turned.

The snake slithered out of the waters with a curious frown and ran his eyes up and down Laurien’s stature. He took a deep breath through the nose and hummed. “Mortal… With a distinct, familiar smell of…” He sucked in another breath and his eyes fell on the scabbard. “Tell me, what are you doing in my jungle, daughter of Orvus?”

Laurien slowly let her hand fall to her side as she eyed the snake like figure of the River Lord. It was different then what she had seen before, but in the good sort of way. A faint smile pursed her lips as she said, ”Why, looking for you of course, your Holiness.” she finished, bowing her head at him.

The snake pursed his lips and slithered a little closer. “It is no kowtow, but in truth, I did not expect my brother to teach you such refined manners. That can wait, however: Firstly, I would like to know your name, dear.” He gestured for her to speak.

She had no idea what a kowtow was, but at least she hadn't greatly offended the God. Not yet anyways. ”My name is Laurien, your holiness. Second of Orvus, and his Celestial Will.” she said with pride.

“Second to Orvus? Please, no mortal may ever consider themself second to a god,” the snake muttered with a sneer. “Surely you mean second -mortal creation- of Orvus.”

At this Laurien laughed, ”Second to a God? Oh no, no. Of Orvus, your holiness. I simply meant as a child. I've seen what the Gods are capable off, and I can scarcely dream of being second to any of them. I am nothing in the face of you, your holiness.” she finished with a sly smile.

“Oh, -of- Orvus. Oh, do forgive me, dear,” the snake said with a smirk and a bump of the eyebrows. “My arrogance filter has been working overtime of late, so I have an unfortunate tendency to make assumptions. I apologise for painting you as such.” He ran his eyes over her form once more. “Now for the second question: Why have you been seeking me?”

”All is forgiven, your holiness. There is hardly a need to apologize. Now, I've been seeking you out for a simple reason really and her name is Arya. Last thing I was told, was that she was with you, your holiness.” Laurien said softly, with a longing look in her eye.

“I see,” the snake said curtly with a pinch of disappointment in his voice. “Then I must sadly admit that I will be of little service: I have not seen Anxin, or Arya as you call her, since she ran away. I did not see the direction she went in, either, I fear. My apologies.” He joined his hands together behind his back and put on a stern frown.

Laurien frowned, bringing a hand to her chin in thought. Looks like her father had outdated information, which meant her journey would be much, much longer. She briefly thought of Silver before her attention fell back on Shengshi.

”Well, this is puts a damper on things. Why'd she run away to begin with?” she asked.

The snake furrowed his brow and poked his teeth with a claw. “She was bombarded with a few too many truths at the time - a young, mortal mind like hers simply could not bear it. Her heart shattered and fury consumed her. In a fit of rage, she tarnished the deck of my ship and soared off. I carry no ill sentiment - anger fits happen, especially to the uninitiated - however, I cannot say the same for the relatives of the servants that died in the explosion. She likely did not return due to the shame being too great. It was indeed quite a loss of face.” He shook his head. “Such a waste…”

Laurien was taken aback by the news, though she did not show it. She could hardly believe that Arya was capable of doing such a thing, but the only knowledge she had was from Orvus’ memories. His memories painted her as a small, fragile thing that needed guidance and protection but also full of wonder and joy, happiness and contentment. Orvus had no shown her the rage, or the anger it seemed, and she was left with many questions, a few she could guess at.

She let out a soft sigh, then said, ”I was hoping this would be easy, but you have my condolences. The loss of life is no easy thing to witness, and to bare it… She must have regretted it the moment she left. I refuse to believe she would not return, her heart is full of compassion. Something must have happened, and no one looked for her? She is but a child, your holiness. Surely you can do something?” Laurien said.

The snake sighed. “Have you met your sister, dear, or did my brother reveal to you his memories of her?”

”Only memories, your Holiness. Some I fear were kept from me.”

The snake nodded solemnly. “Yes, as I thought… You see, dear, your creator Orvus, as he may have told you, has actually spent a terribly short time with his daughter - so short, in fact, that I doubt he would know her at all. She has a compassionate heart, that is true, but know that there is much more than just a child within that soul of hers. Her emotions are beautiful… And volatile.” He sucked in a breath through his nose. “If it is a fragile, aimless infant you are chasing, that you will find nothing of the sort in this world - Anxin is a powerful entity, brave, honest - a tad naive, perhaps.” He flicked his tongue. “Is that helpful?”

”In more ways than you know, your holiness.” Laurien said happily. ”I need to find her, for both myself and my father. But I have no idea which direction to go now, this world is vast and she could be anywhere. Where do I even start?” she said scrunching her nose in thought.

The snake shrugged. “Again, I fear I cannot help you in that respect. I doubt, however, that she would have returned to Kalmar on Kalgrun, so that leaves out one continent. You likely would have found her on Atokhekwoi, and I have not sensed her presence locally. That leaves Istais and Swahitteh-Tendlepog for you to search.” He gave her a sly smile. “Quite the journey, that. Would you like some provisions for the road, perhaps?”

Laurien nodded, ”I understand, I’ll have to think about it some. Now, if you could spare any provisions, your holiness, I would be indebted. Ever since my fight with firebreather, I’ve been taking it slow, haven’t had much time to find any food besides the occasional fruit.”

The snake nodded. “Any guest in need shall always have a seat at my tables.” He snapped his fingers. After a small pause, a growing speck of gold zoomed down Nanhe’s length, quickly growing from a grain on the horizon to a ship larger than any eye could perceive. The snake climbed up the side and beckoned Laurien up. “Come, for all has been prepared.”

Laurien was dumbfounded at the sudden spectacle. It seemed that the boat, had found her, and it was hard to miss. She was impressed by it, for it was a work of art, and she was lucky enough to bare witness. Without wasting any time, she followed the snake up, preparing herself for whatever awaited.

The deck had been decorated with flowers and paper cut-outs of the characters for “joy”, “wealth” and “fortune”. At the centre of the broad deck stood a long table stacked tall with dishes and plates of near-intoxicatingly fragrant food. The palace gates were flanked by two tall barrels labeled with the character for “wine”. On the far edge towards the dragon’s head stood a tall throne upholstered with red silk - on the opposite edge of the table was a lesser throne, but a throne nonetheless. Shengshi slithered over to the largest one and sat down, gesturing to the other seat.

“Please,” he said with a flick of the tongue.

Much like before, she was amazed at the sight, and her eyes went wide as she saw all the food. It made her stomach rumble as she realized just how hungry she actually was. She began to salivate as she neared the table of food, on her way to the throne. When she stood before it, she cocked her head, looked at Shengshi with a wink and sat down. It was very comfortable.

She let out a happy sigh and said, ”My oh my, you sure know how to treat a girl, your holiness.”

“One of my most refined talents, that,” the snake said absent-mindedly as he inspected his claws for dirt. “The role of the host is not one I take lightly, dear - no guest of mine should expect any less than the most abundant luxury attainable. Naturally, however, this necessitates that the guest plays the part.” He snapped his fingers again and six servants exited the gates carrying an unusually long twilight-blue silk dress. “Please, try it on.”

She let out a small ‘ooo’ before standing back up, and placing her sword and dagger next to the throne. She then stripped off her cloak, her long hair falling down her back, once more free to breathe. Perhaps most notably, (besides the giant naked lady), was the gash along her side. As she put on the dress, the wound became hidden, and she turned to Shengshi with a beaming smile. ”How do I look?”

“Stellar,” the snake said with a sly smile. “Did that foul dragon challenge your abilities to a satisfactory level?” He grasped a pair of chopsticks, pinched a piece of fish and put it in his mouth.

As Laurien sat back down, she grabbed the strange wooden utensil and began to attack a plate of sliced pig with them. ”Dragon, huh? That’s a good name. It was a good fight, a challenge, but I’m here, and it’s not. I’ll never forget him though, he made sure of that.” she said absentmindedly, eventually skewering the meat upon the stick, and plopping it in her mouth. She chewed, savoring every little flavor before gulping it down, and attacking it again. ”Who was the one that created them, your holiness?” she asked before skewering another piece.

“That would be Sartravius--” He licked the bitter taste of the name out of his mouth. “Whom I prefer to call ‘the Flame Demon’, for he is nothing else. Also, you pinch the food with the sticks - pinch it.” He snapped his sticks together to demonstrated. “It is no knife, like some certain barbarians use.”

”Well, I have a knife. Are you calling me a barbarian, your holiness?” she huffed playfully before replicating his demonstration. This time she practiced on a slice of fish. She tentatively took a bite, before eating the entire thing. Much like the pork, the fish was delicious and salty.

“Well, your manners and etiquette are lacking, and your tone is pushing the limits between humility and arrogance, but…” He eyed her up and down again. “... You look the part, at least,” he said and smirked slyly.

”Careful now, your holiness. You might just flatter me and we can’t have a barbarian being flattered. All sorts of bad ideas arise.” she said with a wink. It was then that she brought her cup to her lips and tasted the liquid within. A surprised look came on her face, before she downed it all and said, ”Now that, was delicious. What ever on Galbar might that be?” she asked blinking.

“That would be wine, my dear - an invention of mine from, oh my, a long time ago by now. It is a drink made with fermented fruits or grain through the use of yeasts - small fungi that feast on the sugars in these substances and create the most wonderful compound on this world: alcohol. Try that pitcher. No, no, no, that one.” The snake gestured frantically to a golden pitcher shaped like a curved dragon.

She hurriedly poured herself a cup from the golden pitcher and brought it to her lips. The flavour was round and rich, if not a little dry. It carried a powerful fruity foretaste and mellowed into a gentle, sweet, lasting aftertaste. With every sip, the aftertaste grew lighter and softer, like the tender caress of a dozing lover. The snake nodded in approval.

“Comment?”

Once again Laurien finished off the cup and looked at Shengshi with a devilish grin. ”So good, so good. Who could have believed that fruit could taste soooooo good.” she mused, pouring another cup and downing it in one go. ”It's so easy to drink.” she snickered while pouring another cup.

The snake smiled widely. “Please, have as much as you want. There is enough of that particular vintage to fill the main tub of the bathhouse.” He pinched a steamed dumpling, dipped it in some sauce and lobbed it into his mouth. “Oh, and do not be afraid to request anything else. Whatever you may want, you shall have.”

Her eyes seemed to sparkle at Shengshi, a soft but inviting smile crossed her lips as she said, ”Mhmm. A bath with wine sounds heavenly, your holiness.”

“Your wish shall be granted,” the snake said with a soft smile and closed eyes. He snapped his fingers again and two servants came over to Laurien, placed themselves on her left and right and bowed deeply. One held a towel and the other held a white silk bathrobe.

“If The Exalted Guest would follow these ones,” they said in near-mechanical unison.

She giggled, ”Oh how adorable, and so tiny.” but began to follow them. Laurien then turned back to Shengshi and said, ”Oh, anything I want? Then will you join me, your holiness?” she said with soft eyes and wink.

The snake smirked, then let out a soft sigh. “Alas, my dear, I do not bathe with mortals. Not all bodies should be so… Intimate with one another.” He winked. “Enjoy your bath. I will have the servants bring you to your room once you feel refreshed.”

If at all she was surprised by Shengshi's words, Laurien expressed nothing but a small smile. She nodded her head and then said, ”More wine for me then.” she finished with a chuckle before turning to follow the servants.

“Laurien, dear,” the snake called after her.

She spun around and cocked her head at Shengshi. ”Yes your holiness?”

“Flirting with a god is an arduous process. Do not let it discourage you.” He gave her a reptilian wink.

She began to laugh high and sweet. ”Oh I know. I know. You're much more receptive than Katharsos though.” she said playfully.

“I certainly do hope I am,” he answered with a playful scoff. “Run along now. Clean yourself after your night in the woods.”




Laurien was brought into the palace, through the halls covered in beautiful paintings of nature and events, into the feast hall with the thousand surfaces of gold and the warming, red glow of the paper lanterns. She admired the artistry with a buyers eye, slow and meticulous. The servants brought the tall lady to the second floor deck, a veranda overlooking the dining floor at the bottom of the ship’s belly, the god table surrounded by the various thrones specialised for each of Shengshi’s peers. Music danced through the air from harps and flutes below, their gentle tunes painting the air a beautiful, yet almost melancholic of blue. The servants brought her past countless mahogany-doored rooms, each labeled with set of characters, likely denoting room number. Occasionally, they would encounter servant cleaners exiting rooms - there would immediately spot Laurien and bow deeply as she passed. Eventually, the three came to a large wooden gate at the stern of the ship. The servants who had escorted her both stepped up to the doors and grabbed one handle each. They pulled them open to unleash a crashing wave of cozy steam that almost drowned Laurien. Inside, as she squinted, she saw six female servants lined up side-by-side, dressed in white, short-sleeved and legged gis with their hair tied up in knots. Behind them was a colossal pool of steaming water, flanked on both sides with damp mirrors and chairs, and decorated with stone sculptures and carvings.

“Welcome to the bathhouse, Exalted Lady Laurien,” they said in mechanical unison and bowed deeply.

”Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed tossing her hair behind her, before ridding herself of the dress altogether. She turned to the six servants, as she entered the warm water, eliciting a pleasurable smile as goosebumps appeared on her body, and then said, ”So, what is it you do here?”

“Well,” one of them said in a voice like velvet and sat down next to the pool. The others followed, some skipping into the water fully clothed, others filling buckets with soap water. “... We offer our Exalted Guests baths, massages and treatments, drinks and refreshments, and, well, whatever the Guest would like to request.” The girl filled her hands with clay from a small jar. “Would our Exalted Guest like us to wash Her hair?”

As she listened to the servant speak, a devious smile crossed her lips. ”Yes, please. While you do so, some wine would be nice and, do tell me about yourselves.” she murmured, sinking down into the water. The only thing that could be seen was her luminous hair, and face.

Three of the servants began to slowly rub the clay into her long mane of hair and around the roots of the strands, while another two brought respectively brought her a tray topped with a single cup and a pitcher. The last one sat down in the water next to Laurien and smiled playfully. “Such an honour to be inquired about by a daughter of the Divines such as Yourself,” she said softly and giggled. “What would our Exalted Guest like to know?”

Laurien closed her eyes as the small hands rubbed her scalp, the feeling was immensely satisfying, but at the smell of something sweet they snapped open, targeting the pitcher. She took the cup, and then a servant graciously filled it. She took a sip and relaxed with a content sigh. She then turned her head to look at the small servant, returning the smile, ”Well, your names for a start. Then, anything that comes to mind. I am very easy to please.” she said softly.

The girl giggled again. “Well, alright, then. This servant is named Ke Ai; the three girls washing your hair are Gu Niang, Xiao Jie and Ai Qing; the ones pouring your wine are Mei Li and Hao Shuang. These servants are all exceptionally happy to be at Your service this fine evening,” she assured her with a wink. “... Now, what is a tall, beautiful woman doing in His Lordship’s jungle, if this one may ask?”

Laurien looked at Ke Ai with hungry eyes, as she took another sip. ”Beautiful names, little ones.” she lulled happily. ”Now, believe it or not, but I am searching for one who you might know. Arya is her name, and she is my sister.” she downed her cup, stretching her arm out for more, eyeing Hao Shuang with an alluring smile as she did. Hao Shuang smiled warmly back with a wink.

“Oh, you are her sister, is that so?” Ke Ai asked softly, though her smile seemed a little forced. “She was quite… Something, that one…” She paused. “Very beautiful, like yourself - though not as…” She giggled. “... Grown.” The other girls all echoed the sweet giggle.

Laurien noticed the forced smile, and took another sip of her now full cup. She licked her lips slowly, then said, ”Small as she may be, she is still my sister. I know what she did aboard this vessel, and for that, you have my condolences.” she then sat up lenig up against the edge of the bath, ”Now, this grown body needs a wash as well, and I know just the perfect little hands to accomplish it.” she mused.

“Of course, My Lady,” Ke Ai said. Gu Niang, Xiao Jie and Ai Qing quickly washed the clays out of her hair and wrapped it in an extra large towel turban. Then they skipped into the water with coarse washcloths in hand. Together with Ke Ai, they each grabbed a limb and began to scrub, perhaps a little intense and harshly, to rid her pure skin of any and all dirt and muck.

”Ladies, ladies.” Laurien said after a moment of scrubbing, ”Rub any harder and you’ll see my bones.” she said with a laugh. ”Gently, but thorough, it will accomplish the same thing, won’t it?” she asked softly.

The girls all giggled. “Is My Lady’s skin a little sensitive still?” Ke Ai smirked. “Sounds to us like our Exalted Guest has not had enough wine.” Hao Shuang and Mei Li came over with the tray and Gu Niang released Laurien’s left arm.

”Mhmm. Very well, more wine it is.” she said, reaching her arm out to grab the pitcher. Before any of the servants could react, she brought it to her lips and began to drink. She finished it with an ‘Ahh’ and placed the empty pitcher back on the tray. She then looked at Hao Shuang and Mei Li warmly. ”If you could, more wine please.” she said, her voice thick with energy. The two bowed deeply.

“As You wish, My Lady,” they said in unison and went to refill the pitcher. Ke Ai grabbed a coarse, flat stone and used it to file the nails on Laurien’s right hand; Gu Niang took the opportunity to file the nails on the opposite hand. Ai Qing and Xiao Jie did the same to her feet.

“So,” Ke Ai opened, “what does a woman like you like to do for fun?”

At this, Laurien’s gaze turned to Ke Ai with an alluring smile. ”I think you can guess, Ke Ai.”

The surrounding girls giggled. Ke Ai smiled warmly and sucked in a slow breath through her nose. “Not many mortals have visited us before, My Lady; however, the trained eye can spot a lover of the finer riches from a mile away - as well as a lover of the most simplistic pleasures.” She gently caressed the now clean, silk-like skin on Laurien’s arm. Her sand-covered fingers left a tingling sensation. The other girls began to do the same on their respective body parts. Laurien shivered softly at the touches, her smile widening.

“Has My Lady been satisfied with her bath?” she asked softly.

The tall woman then leaned forward, growing close to Ke Ai. She then whispered, ”Not quite yet.” before leaning in to place a gentle kiss on her lips, before pulling away. There was a playful smile on her lips, and her eyes beckoned.

Ke Ai blinked, but then put on a saddened smile. “This servant apologises, My Lady, but we unfortunately do not offer… That kind of service.” She continued stroking her arm. “We can provide a deep massage, if it would please.”

Laurien giggled and then settled back down, ”Of course, of course.” she waved her hand, ”I can respect that.” She lulled, ”A massage sounds delightful, darlings. If you would. Oh, and where is that wine?” she said cheerily.




The next morning, Laurien woke up on a down-filled mattress with a pillow softer than a cloud. Covering her long form was a massive twillight-blue silk blanket coloured with beautiful patterns of purple, red and even dots of white to look like the late evening sky. The walls around her room were of mahogany, judging from the rather thin slits one could see of it at the top and the bottom - most of it, though, was covered in chalk white paper painted and calligraphed with lively images and poetry which deft hands had made seem like a painting in itself. The floor was freshly polished and seemed to reflect the light of Heliopolis shining through the windows much like a mirror would. From the roof hung a red paper lantern chandelier that gave off a faint scent of incense. To the bed’s right, up against the wall, was a particularly tall wardrobe, flanked again on its right by a mirror; to the bed’s left was a small table with a gold tray of fruits, biscuits, cakes and small bottles of drink. Directly in front of the bed was a tall, eloquently carved mahogany door.

She thought the room was beautiful but as her eyes fell upon the food, she quickly got up and began to drink the liquid, fruity flavors attacked her palate. She was incredibly thirsty, so much so it felt like her mouth was a desert. As she continued gulping down the drinks, she went over to the tall wardrobe and opened it. There, she was presented with a selection of long dresses, shirts and skirts in various colours, and seemingly as if the winds pulled at the dresses like curtains before a window, they parted magically to reveal her scabbarded, starry orvium sword, her starlight cloak and the wrapped dagger.

Not quite as thirsty as before, Laurien began to try on the clothing, finally deciding on a white shirt with a black skirt. It fit perfectly much to her surprise, accentuating her figure and comfortable to boot. She then wrapped herself up in the cloak, grabbed her things and left the room. Her journey needed to begin in haste, after all. As much as she could indulge herself here, she had her duty to perform.

The veranda outside the door was mostly empty, save for occasional servants hastening to and fro with fresh sheets, buckets of washwater, brooms and many other things. As they passed by Laurien, they stopped, bowed deeply and greeted her, “Good morning, Exalted Laurien,” before moving on. The main hall far below was beginning to light up with activity and music, the faint tunes floating upwards through the belly of the ship. Laurien looked to the left and saw the distant evidence of the main stairs up to the deck. A servant came to her as she noticed, carrying a note. She bowed forward and offered it.

“From His Lordship,” she said. Laurien nodded in thanks, then read the letter.

Dear Laurien,

I trust the snacks left in your room were satisfactory. If you would not mind, I would like a quick word with you in my chambres. They are at the top of the palace tower. I trust you are more capable than your sister at navigating.

Please come at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,
Shengshi.


Laurien let out a small chuckle, folded the note up and placed it inside her cloak. Then she had the servant lead her outside, the sun rising steadily to welcome the new day. Laurien then looked up at the tower and flew up to the top, spotting the veranda, she landed but before entering the room, she knocked on the wood, announcing her presence. The paper slider doors slid apart to reveal a smirking snake.

“Look at you, thinking outside the box - or the palace, rather. Please, come in.”

”It seemed the easiest route,” she mused as she walked inside, ”You wanted to see me, your holiness?” she asked looking around the rather barren room. Simplicity at its finest she thought.

“Yes, I did. Has the stay in my palace been satisfactory?” He poured two cups of tea from a fresh pot.

”Yes, it's been wonderful. All your little people are so nice and helpful.” she said cheerily before graciously taking a cup.

“Please, if you would not mind, refer to them as ‘servants’. While height is not a particularly self-conscious thing for them, ‘little’ in their culture and that context connotes pettiness. I am certain they would not tell you directly, but it would wound their feelings a little.” He sipped his own cup. “I am truly happy that the stay was of proper standard. Mortal guests are always so interesting.” He then gave her a knowing look. “From what I heard, the bathhouse was particularly interesting.”

She gave a shrug, a sly smirk crossed her lips as she took another sip of the tea. ”You have my word, servants it is from now on. As for the bathhouse, well, my curiosity got the best of me. It was greatly needed, the girls did a superb job, might I add. I haven't felt quite so relaxed since I set out from the Eye.”

“It is what they do. They live to please - just not so far as you imagined.” He winked. “So, will you keep searching for your sister now?”

”Yes, more so than ever now. I owe it to her.” she said softly, placing the tea cup down.

The snake nodded. “Indeed. What will you do if-... Sorry, when you find her?”

Her gaze narrowed briefly at the thought but returned to a more relaxed one as she said, ”Get to know her. Ask if she'd like to see home and father. Be a sister. Maybe even come back here for a time.”

The snake smiled. “Well, dear, you are more than welcome to return whenever you wish. The palace is always open to friends of mine.”

She gave a wide smile at that and said, ”Thank you, your Holiness. For everything. I should get going now, there's a world to search after all.”

The snake chuckled and finished his tea in another two sips. “It was nothing, dear. You make for good company. Please do not remain gone for too long. It does get lonely here without visitors.”

She gave a sad smile at that, he was not the first one to ask such a thing.and it wasn't any easier leaving such pleasantness. ”I won't be gone forever, you have my word. And when I return, I shall want a tub full of wine.“ she said with a laugh.

“Two,” the snake winked. “That is my word.”

”Excellent!” she exclaimed before leaving the snake and his servants, as she led the vessel behind. With a hardy laugh, she flew east.


”Of the Heavens”





The news came down from the north, shattering the quiet peace that had been and ushering in new unrest. An Ihokhetlani had been killed, by a beast that the Divine Kirron had created. One of their own, gone from the world. It had never happened before, and many knew not how to process such an event. Emotions that the Ihoketlani had never thought to know, or want had come to rear their ugly heads. There was pain, resentment, loss, confusion but most of all, anger.

One such band of Ihokhetlani, bickered amongst each other under the setting sun. They were far from the places of their birth, and all belonged to the same generation. The newest of the Ihokhetlani, but learning the ways of the world and from the words of the priests. They had trusted the priests with stout souls, but the news of the killing had shook several to their core. Doubt trickled into their souls like a steady stream, wearing down even the toughest of stone. For not one had seen a divine, for Azura had come and gone when they were but feet. Nor had Ohannakeloi, the creator, blessed them with his presence. As such, they only relied on the teachings of the priests and then Kirron had come.

“Raskhet! There is no need for anger, let stone guide you back to peace. I beg you! Ioko, help me.” came the sound of gravel given voice. The Ihokhetlani who spoke was a patchwork of white marble, red granite and chert.

“No, Takhio. Raskhet has every right to be angry, as do I and Haboket. I don’t see how you could even think to be so calm after what’s happened!” came a pointed finger of white marble. Ioko was composed completely of white marble streaked with gold and black, expect for her many adornments of small, river worn pebbles. Ioko had gone on to call herself, ‘her’ after she had learned of he differences, though nothing was truly discernible. She stood a little shorter than the rest of them, and perhaps her eye was a bit smaller as well, but her voice carried weight and Takhio seemed to shrink in figure before turning his eye upon a giant of quartz.

“What about you Embio? Do you feel the same as the others?” Takhio questioned.

Embio, having been gazing up at the setting sun, turned his eye upon Takhio and spoke in a voice like falling stones, “I am saddened at this loss, but angry? There is great confusion in my soul. What is right and what is wrong?”

“I too feel confusion, but we must not grow angry, Embio. It is wr-” Takhio was interrupted by a new voice, this one carrying the sounds of clashing stones.

“It is right! To feel angry at what has been done, is the only course of action.” said Raskhet, a giant of grey chert and red jasper. “There is nothing to be confused about, the divine Kirron stole from the Ihoketlani, then murdered the one who tried to retrieve it! Embio, do not let Takhio and the priests dictate your thoughts! Can you not see how everything changes now? You must leave your sadness and peace behind. Only when we destroy this beast and retrieve what is rightfully ours can we begin to feel such things.”

There was stunned silence on the rocky plains that they inhabited. Takhio turned his head in shame, while Embio looked at Raskhet in a new light. As the sun finally sank below the horizon, allowing the Lustrous Garden to illuminate the world in a soft glow, did they finally speak again.

“I agree with Raskhet, Takhio.” Embio said softly.

“As do I.” said Haboket, a giant of basalt and calcite. He was adorned with sticks and dirt, and an Alma made its home within hole on his right shoulder. The strange soul construct slept peacefully, having grown use to the Ihoketlani. Haboket’s voice resembled the sound of boulders grinding.

“There you have it, Tahkio.” Ioko said, “Will you not join us?” she asked crossing her arms with a scraping sound, before silence returned.

Tahkio shuffled awkwardly, looking at his peers before shaking his head. “I cannot join you. This is not the teachings of Ohannakeloi! We do not go about seeking revenge or making the Divines angry! Peace! We must be at peace! A solution will come, we must not be hasty! Please, I beg you all, rethink this course of action!” the giant pleaded.

All of them turned their heads away from Takhio expect for Raskhet, who walked up to Takhio and said, “Where is Ohannakeloi? Where was the Supreme Divinity when Kirron came? Where was the Holy one when the Ihoketlani, Ulam, was killed?” he spat.

“I… I... Don’t know, Raskhet.” Tahkio whispered.

“Go. If you will not help us, then you have no purpose here. Let us be.” Raskhet then turned around, beckoning the others to follow.

‘W-Wait!” came Takhio’s voice. Raskhet turned his head around to gaze upon Takhio expectantly.

Takhio looked down before saying, “I’ll help.”




With Veradax high over head, the group had settled on what they were going to do. Much to Raskhet’s disapproval, they were going to ask for a Divines help. There were many to choose from, but only a few suited their needs. There was Narzhak the Fell Colossus, Kalmar of the Hunt, Sartravius the Bringer of Flame, Seihdhara of the Red Hair and Orvus, the Desolate. Each had been chosen for what they held dominion over. Kalmar was quickly eliminated, though they knew his teachings might help them, there was no need to hunt the creature down. Sartravius quickly followed, for what could flame do to such a monster? Seihdhara was next, for though combat was wise, the Ihoketlani were unsure how good of students they could be.

It fell down to Narzhak and Orvus. Narzhak was war, and to go to war against the creature was a sound idea. Orvus represented desolation, the darkest of all the gods. They barely had a shrine of him, though they knew his name. But what was more useful, war or destruction? It came down to a vote.

Embio and Haboket cast their lot in with Narzhak, while Raskhet and Ioko voted for Orvus. As all eyes fell upon Tahkio, it was up to him to make the final decision. The god they would pray too, the one who could change their fate.

Tahkio thought long and hard upon the choice before he finally said, “I choose Orvus. If you really want to make the beast pay, war will not help you. I fear only destruction can truly bring the creature down.”

There was solemn nods of agreement before Raskhet said, “Very well. Let us pray to then.”

So they did, and Orvus heard their pleas, and the God came.

He arrived with a great roar as he descended from the sky, yet the god had not spoken. As all of them knelt, even Raskhet reluctantly, he bid them to speak of their problem, and they did. When at last they had finished, the Divine one agreed to help, asking them in return to have open minds and an exchange of names. Relief washed over the band, but Tahkio still held doubts.

Raskhet spoke first, “I am Raskhet, Holy one, the Bringer of Stone.”

“I am Ioko, Keeper of Pebbles.”

“They call me Haboket, Lifter of Boulders. And this,” Haboket pointed to the Alma, “This is Little Wind.”the giant said, pointing to the sleeping Alma. Orvus cocked his head at this, but said nothing.

“Embio.They call me Embio, Holy one. Watcher of Stars.”

“And I am Tahkio, Holy Orvus, Last of the Fall.” Takhio said humbly.

The god seemed to stare into their very souls then, looking over them all with a blank expression. Then he said, ”You know my name, now listen and we shall begin.”




The god worked quickly, bringing them a new material to work with, one he called Orvium. He explained that it was not a rock, but something more. What that was, he did not say, but Orvus taught them how to work it without the Orvium exploding. What frightened them at first was how Orvus brought the material to them. He called it ‘Moon Falls’ but Embio questioned if they were actually stars. Orvus simply said that the Pyres would never fall, but pieces of Veradax would. After several nights of this, the Ihoketlani became unphased, they needed the material. But more curiously, was that the Orvium did not explode. For it was encased within the lunar rock. Pieces of grey, black, and white. Muted of any color but those, it was a mystery to them.

For several days and nights, they honed their new skills, forming feet, arms, hands, and a head out of orvium. Each day, Orvus vanished, only to return at night. He oversaw their work and guided their hands on occasion, but for the most part, the god was silent. As the new Ihokhetlani neared completion, a new day dawned and Orvus vanished like always. He had given them instructions not to awaken the new ihokhetlani unless he was there, but calm minds seldom prevaled. By the time dusk had come, many wee growing impatient.

It was Raskhet who wanted to awaken their ‘brother’ as he called it, with or without Orvus. This prompted another flurry of heated debate. Embio and Tahkio were against the idea, reinforcing the Divine’s words. Ioko and Haboket agreed with Raskhet, bolstering the stone giant.

“Why wait when we can do this now! Surely you don’t trust Orvus? How can we trust any god after Kirron? We don’t know what else he will do!” Raskhet spoke hastily.

Tahkio grew angry as he shouted, “Orvus has done nothing but been trustworthy! He asked for nothing and in return taught us great things! You judge to quickly and without reason. This rage with Kirron has blinded you!”

Raskhet let out a howl, before he charged Tahkio and they collided with a sound like thunder. They fell to the ground and a tremor shook the earth as they grappled and wrestled another for dominance. When Takhio was gaining the upper hand, Rashket shouted, “Do it! Place the final piece Ioko!” before grappling Tahkio by the legs.

Tahkio roared with fury but it was no use. Haboket subdued Embio, as Ioko placed the Orvium head a top of the statue.

Using the bits that were shaven or broken off, they had built the new blackened Ihoketlani, or as Orvus called it, the Desolate Form. It stood the same height as them, smoothed to precision. It’s hands were carved into claws, each foot was broken in two, forming into points at the front. The face was oval, with a slot ready for the soul eye. The new Ihokhetlani was a marvel, and before they knew it, soul ash began to coalesce around it as Tahkio and Raskhet stopped struggling to gaze upon their brother.

It’s souleye then burst into light, glowing a crimson red. Slowly the new Ihoketlani began to move, first the arms, then it’s head, looking at everything wildly.

Then it roared like an explosion, ”What is this?”

It was Ioko who responded, ”This is Galbar, young one, and you are new. We shall teach you the ways of the Ihokhetlani.”

The black giant snapped it’s hateful gaze at Ioko, then with a powerful swing, it struck Ioko across the chest, sending her backwards to the ground. The new giant reared back it’s head and let out another roar before it began to move towards Embio and Haboket. Raskhet quickly pushed off Tahkio, who gave no resistance and went to Ioko’s side as Tahkio got himself up and began to race towards the other two.

Haboket and Embio had began to back away from the approaching menace, whose gaze was unwavering. Before it could swing a clawed fist, Tahkio tackled it from behind, and the two fell to the earth in a heap.

“Get away! Go!” Tahkio shouted to to them as their brother growled. Tahkio’s grip was like a vice, but the black giant below him was stronger. With a mighty bellow the creature broke Tahkio’s grasp and dug into the Tahkio’s right arm. His claws punctured the stone, breaking it to dust and chunks, before completely severing the arm. Tahkio’s soul screamed at the loss but before he could react further, the creature flung him off, then assaulted him with his own arm. Bow after blow came, relentlessly until his arm crumbled. Tahkio’s torso and head were cracked, and then the world went black as the creature punched his head, shattering the stone. There was a strange feeling, then Tahkio felt himself being whisked away.

It was then that the night fell, and the black giant melted with the darkness, the only thing visible was the glowing eye. It faced the others now, who crowded behind a Raskhet who was frozen. It began to advance, but before it could go any further, Orvus returned. He blocked the path to them, and with a single wave of his hand, the creature stilled.

The god then turned to them and shook his head. ”If you had waited, this would not have happened. You went against my word and as such, have lost Tahkio to the Pyr-.” the God paused, looking at Haboket’s empty shoulder, ”Tahkio is gone. This Desolate Form needed my guidance the moment it awoke, but I can now not to trust anxious mortals. This can never happen again, and it won’t. Your punishment, is this.” Raskhet attempted to speak, but before he could, Orvus waved his hand over them. And the four Ihokhetlani began to change. The fragments of lunar rock flew at them, their forms cracked and creaked as spikes of crude stone began to erupt from their shoulders. Their stones began to warp, growing muted in color and flakey with chips. They screamed in pain as the process went on, as their familiar parts washed away in a torrent of pain.

When at last the creaking and groaning stopped, before him on their hands and knees, were abominations of Ihokhetlani. They vaguely resembled what they once were, having grown dark and twisted. Their souleyes glowed red as the turned their postures into kneeling.

”There. It is done. Do what you want now, I no longer care.” he then turned back to the Desolate Form and said, ”I should destroy you, return you back to my sphere. But I won’t. The world is full of choices, after all. What will you choose, Kalani, Of the Heavens?” Orvus then flew off without another word. Leaving the odd group behind.

Kalani followed Orvus as he left, before losing him in the sky. He then turned back to the four… the four Ihokhurs, for they were no longer Ihokhetlani. He snarled at them before saying, ”Get up! We have work to do.”




Laurien





The stretch of ocean was seemingly endless. On every horizon there was but blue and the white of distant clouds. The water was mysterious as it was inviting, full of deep secrets and answers best left alone. But to Laurien, iIt was miserable and boring and the anticipation for land became a driving instinct. The promise of solid ground, and blessed shade were the only things to look forward to as days turned to night and back to day, over and over again. She flew above storms and watched the lightning streak like a viper striking, and she listened to the thunder and for once in her life, she felt small. Then at last, upon a dreary and downcast day, she finally saw it in the distance, an outline of something dark. Like a fever dream, a stretch of land came into view, vibrant and enduring as she grew closer. It was where Laurien made a beeline too, and when she landed upon beige sands, she collapsed in a bout of laughter. Any of who saw her would think the woman mad, but Laurien simply did not care.

She stayed in that place for a long time, recuperating and gaining strength as she made her way across the land, flying occasionally but walking or running mostly. She had arrived upon the northern tip of the continent south of the Eye. She knew not its name, only that it was a blessing, and teeming with life. All of it was new and like a child, she grew giddy with excitement each and every time something caught her attention. From the animals, to the plants, Laurien marveled at it all. What drew her attention most was the the large mountain to the south. It was alone, yet stood above everything with pride. Like a father, watching over its children. Laurien wanted to go explore it, but she knew her duty was elsewhere and so she pressed on, but the prospect never left her mind. As such, she moved with diligence, only stopping for food and rest and at last arrived upon the eastern coast, where the ocean returned to greet her. Uncaring as always.

Laurien frowned at the sight, and rubbed her black pearl, hoping to get an inkling of inspiration from the dark orb. She knew she had to cross the waters again, and she knew it was the only way to Shengshi. Begrudgingly, after a long moment of reflection, she took off, mumbling about having to leave dry land again.

This time, the trip was even more unproductive. There was occasionally clouds and even a storm or two, but the ocean here was much the same as it was everywhere else. Blue, and ongoing. She began to wish her Father had given her faster flight, that way she wouldn’t be left alone with her thoughts. They were but questions upon questions and she never had the answers. What was her sister like? Would she still be with Shengshi? If she wasn’t, would the god even know where she had gone? When would she see land again? These were just a few of the questions she asked herself, none of them getting her anywhere in particular as the days went on. Once she thought she saw something red in the distance, same height as her, but she blinked and then it was gone. It left her wondering if her mind was playing tricks with her eyes. But then she saw the same distant outline of land, as she had so long ago and a faint smile crept on her lips.

When the land became more defined, she could make out white sands as the water became shallower. With crystal clear clarity, she couldn’t take her eyes off the abundance of color and life she saw below. When she landed on the beach, she took a moment to spread her feet in the sand, then she took off her cloak, laid her weapons upon it and basked in the gentle warmth of the sun. As he put her hair into a long ponytail, she slowly crept to the water's edge. Then Laurien placed a foot in to test the warmth, and it felt wonderful. Satisfied, she walked in the calm waves until the water reached her chest, then she kicked off with her feet and began to swim.

In an instant, she entered a new world unlike anything she had seen before. She was taken aback by just how much life she had failed to notice flying. It was everywhere and so colorful. She was greeted by a multitude of fish, ranging in sizes as they swam to meet her, staying an arms length away but she could tell they were as curious as she. Every time she reached to try and grab one, they darted away, only to return within a moment. This elicited a playful smile upon her lips. Then Laurien swam closer to the sea floor, finding that the coral acted as homes for all of the fish as they darted to hide from her presence, only to peek out to look at her from time to time.

As the sun began to set, Laurien swam back to shore, having spent a majority of the afternoon simply enjoying herself. For she was one to indulge in such activities, it was just how she was and flying was just so dull. She undid her ponytail, letting her nebula of hair fall down her back, dripping wet. It probably wouldn’t dry fully until the next day, unless she got a fire going. But Laurien knew that wouldn’t happen, for she was tired and wanted only to sleep. So Laurien laid down next to her belongings, bundling the cloak up as a pillow. She watched the sun set, and slowly, fell asleep upon the soft sands.




When Laurien awoke, the world was just beginning to wake up, and with a long yawn, so too would she continue her journey. She donned her cloak, strapped her sword upon her back, and wrapped her dagger up in her cloak as well. Then she took off at a brisk jog, following the coast. She knew that it would lead her to the mouth of the river, one way or another.

Half a day later and the verdant land started to become sparse with vegetation. Trees became fewer and far in between, growing at odd angles and with dark leaves, almost black in coloration. The once colorful landscape became dull with and muted. There was hardly any grasses here, or flowers, or anything other than large bushes with prickly thorns. Even the sand became corse and biting. She began to float a ways off the ground when the sand became too much, and the land did not improve. She flew higher, hoping to see something familiar, but when she did not, Laurien flew further up still. It was only then did she see the faintest hint of something blue running up the land, but below her, the world was scarred. Only on the outskirts of the blight, and here and there was there any sign of green. Her expression furrowed as she thought what could have caused such a thing. The land here was ugly, and broken, not like anything she had seen before.

Then a glimpse of movement caught her attention, something red that shimmered in the light of the sun. Oddly enough, it looked like it was getting closer and as she squinted to get a better look, Laurien realized it was getting closer. Yet she made no move to flee, she instead wanted to see what the creature was. And as seconds became minutes, she began to discern what was coming.

She began to speak aloud in a cold, calculating way, ”Red and black scales covering a large body. Tough skin? Probably. Looks like its held aloft by wings twice its size, makes sense. Hmm. Spikes along its back, long tail for balance? No, more so for flying and maneuvering. Yeah. Powerful limbs with sharp claws. For gripping prey?” The creature was getting closer by the second now, she could hear its powerful wing beats. Laurien began to go for her sword as she continued speaking, ”Long snout with big teeth, hungry teeth. Oh and those eyes, so fiery! Not goo-” She was cut off as the beast fell upon her, snapping it’s teeth in her direction. Bits of saliva flew in her direction, coating her cloak in a foul smell as Laurien flew backwards in a burst of speed, narrowly avoiding the dangerous maw.

Laurien flew to the side, narrowly avoiding the bite as she brought her blade forward. There was a frown on her lips as she flew backwards still, watching the reptile chase after her. She spoke with an annoyed voice now, ”Was that necessary? Do you really wish to fight me? You have one chance to turn around!” and to respond to her decree, the creature opened its mouth wide. Laurien furrowed her brow as she watched a flame form, then erupt in a mighty torrent, right in her direction. She cursed, the flames briefly lickering her as she began to fall to avoid them.

At the rush of air, she noticed the her cloak was on fire, and she he went to put them out she groaned, ”It can shoot fire as well. Great, just great.” she then sighed, looking back up as the reptile pulled its wings in close for a dive, and it began descending at a frightening speed, ”Guess I got my answer.” Laurien then righted herself, and took off towards land, spouts of fire following after her as the creature gained. The heat was uncomfortable to say the least, and the smell of brimstone followed. Laurien’s heart began to race as adrenaline pumped into her veins. Each second could be her last she knew, but dwelling on that was useless. The creature had made its choice, and it was her turn to strike.

She looked behind to see fiery eyes not ten feet away from her feet. Good. She took a deep breath, with her sword gripped loose, but firm as she held it close. Then the girl dove. She knew the reptile was at home in the sky, as if it was an extension of it’s being. But two could play at that game, and as much as she disliked flying, she was still not to be underestimated. And as she also knew, the dragon would follow and it did. Once again it curled its wings around it’s body and followed. A coy smile fell upon her lips as they both built momentum. There was no turning back now as they both raced to the land below. It was getting closer, neither of them willingly to yield to the other as the land grew into focus. Laurien then ground to a halt, using her momentum to spin around and awaited the jaws of death. The beast began to unfurl its wings and outstretch it’s claws but Laurien was ready. The woman flew to the side, and as the dragon went past her, she plunged her blade into the creatures side, just above its front leg. There was a howl of pain, deep and guttural that emanated from it’s chest but it was not over. Laurien tried to pull the sword out, now falling with the dragon, but before she could, the creature struck at her with it’s back claws, sending her flying as she fumbled the blade.

There was a flash of pain along her left side, and tattered cloth that flew off into the void, now stained with glowing white. Blood, her blood. She gritted her teeth as she corrected herself from crashing into the earth, but just barely. She landed fast, and the momentum sent her legs running before she fell over them and onto the dry earth. Then she heard roaring and a loud crash as the ground shook.

Clutching her side with one hand, her other went for her dagger as she stood up. Not far from her, the reptile began to stir. As it stood to face her, she could see one of its wings was crushed, bone jutting out at odd angles and thick blood covering its scaled. There was a look of pure malice in its eyes, reflected by her own. Her sword was still lodged above it’s leg, and that was how she was going to kill it. With a snarl from Laurien and a roar from her opponent, they charged each other.

She had to get to the sword, and all the dragon had to do was bite her. She couldn’t let that happen. Then the beast stopped running at her, and reared its ugly head up high. She knew what was coming as it let out another torrent of hot flame. She dodged to the right, doing a somersault as she went, continuing on her feet as the fire began to follow her. She got close, the fire stopped and the reptile lunged it’s head at her, snapping at nothing as Laurien slid. She barely got to her feet when she felt a physical blow hit her from behind. It sent her reeling and knocked the wind out of her. She had forgotten about the tail, and it had cost her. She got up, trying to run, but the dragon pinned her down with it’s front left claws. It loomed over her as she squirmed. The grip was crushing, but she was not without hope. With dagger in hand, she stabbed the hand that held her, watching as the ethereal blade entered into a scale with no resistance.

The reptile recoiled, and went silent before it began to convulse. It let go of her as it tried desperately to remove the dagger, but alas, try as it might it was unable to do so. Laurien half crawled, half ran backwards as she got away from the flailing dragon. She watched as it’s eyes began to glow, it’s moving becoming steadily more erratic as it breathed fire at things that were not there. Her own face was grim at the sight, but that quickly changed when the creature turned on her once more. It came at her with viciousness, clawing the ground with deep ruts. It was now or never, as Laurien got to her feet, and ran at the creature again. It was easier to dodge its claws now, and as it failed to bite her again, Laurien grabbed it’s spike jutting from it’s jaw, and as the creature lifted it’s head high with a snap, Laurien let go. She flew in the air for a ways, before she began to fall, the horned beast raised its eyes to meet her own but before it could breath it’s death upon her, she flew faster. With fire behind her, and a the beast before her, there was no going back. She grabbed her sword again, with both hands, and willed it to unleash itself.

There was a sickening crunch, and the reptile screamed, enough to make even Laurien’s blood curl. As the scales around the impact sight began to darken to ash, the dragon renewed it’s flailing before it fell to the ground for the last time. From the other side of the body, there was a hissing sound, then a beam of energy erupted from its side, having disintegrated all in it’s path. The creature breathed for the last time, then stilled. Laurien shut off the blade, then pulled it out as she fell to the ground in a heap.

Her breathing was heavy and ragged but she was alive, and the girl began to laugh. She had done it, and had proved to herself just how capable she was. Though her pain was great, she smiled through it as she retrieved her dagger. Laurien then pulled away to look at the creature in full. It had put up a great fight, but a part of her still wished it didn’t have to die. She placed a hand upon its snout, gave it a pat and said, ”Rest now, creature of flame and scales. The next journey awaits.”

Laurien then left the body behind, as she made her way ever on. Duty called.



Laurien


&

Silver





Silver felt a comfortable weight lifted from her mind, and her eyelids fluttered open. After a few moments of looking at the ceiling with half-lidded eyes and the occasional yawn stretching her beautiful features, her hearing came back. Footsteps from below, in the kitchen. Heavy, fearless footsteps.

Laurien. The woman thought.

She rubbed the remaining sleep off her eyes and sat up, letting the furs fall off her pure, nude body. A very pleasurable stretch of her arms and back later, she groaned happily and left her comfy bed. She went to her new wardrobe and slipped on her usual heavy duty trousers, leather boots and cotton shirt and vest. She messed with her hair and when satisfied she was presentable, she went down the stairs and turned to enter the kitchen. Sure enough, there was Laurien, back turned and fiddling with something on the counter. Silver moved straight to an empty seat at the dining table, and then stared intently at the back of her head, a placid, tired smile finding its way onto her face as she supported her head on her arms, which were propped on the table.

”Careful now, little chickadee.” Came Laurien’s voice as she gave Silver a side glance, ”A smile like that is all sorts of enticing.” the woman mused before turning her attention in front of her. Silver blushed and looked away. Laurien paused briefly, then turned around to reveal one small wooden bowl, and a larger bowl. She beamed a smile at Silver and went to sit in her chair, one Orvus had crafted to accommodate her size.

”This morning I thought you might enjoy some breakfast in bed, but here you are.” Laurien said, placing the bowl in front of Silver. ”Fresh fruit, just as you like it. Do enjoy.” Laurien then picked up an oversized spoon and dug in, taking a few bites.

Silver smiled gratefully and took her bowl of fruit eagerly. She wasn’t hungry at all. Her skin crawled, there were ladybugs in her stomach, and she wanted to hide under the comfy furs of her bed. Every word that Laurien said made her feel that way. She hated it, and loved it at the same time.

“I actually am not that hu--” She stole a glance at Laurien’s face and immediately looked away again, gingerly taking a slice of apple and nibbling on it. “The fruit you make for me always tastes great.”

Nauseating. Silver’s head was swimming. Was her body not designed to deal with this clash of feelings? Perhaps it was her soul...

Laurien was about to take another bite when her eyes fell upon Silver, the woman cocked her head slightly as she squinted her eyes at her small friend’s posture and face, as if dissecting every part of her.

“H-Heh, don’t look at me like that…! Oh,” Silver gasped and frowned, “Did I forget to fix my hair when I woke up?” Muttered the fire-haired woman, running her hands numerous times through her locks of wavy hair.

Laurien said nothing, but set her spoon on the table beside her bowl. Then the woman stood up, grabbed her chair, and walked over to where Silver sat. Laurien then placed her chair next to Silver, and sat down, placing her elbow on the table as she leaned to look at Silver again, who seemed to physically shrink, hiding her face behind her hair. There was a playful smile on her face as she said, ”Your hair could be messy or not, I wouldn’t mind. Now,” Laurien placed her free hand on the table close to Silver, ”What’s a matter? I can tell something is up.” she said warmly.

Silver grabbed a single grape and looked at it, then set it back down. She gulped and breathed in deeply. She had never felt such a raging mix of emotion. Usually, she had everything under control, but this woman… This Goddess, she couldn’t keep herself composed in her presence.

“Y-You can’t fool me anymore, Laurien!” She said suddenly, some fire to her voice, even though she was still blushing and most of her face was hidden in the shadow of her hair. “You have to be using some kind of magic, some divine manipulation of my feelings! It’s the only answer. I’m a mortal, so it makes sense! T-That when presented with a Goddess I-I’d feel so…” Vulnerable, is what she’d have liked to say, but her pride was too strong. “So weak. I’ve never blushed before, how does someone that came from Orvus have this strange power?!”

Laurien did not move her gaze from Silver as she spoke, but her smile turned softer as Silver went on. When Silver was finished speaking, Laurien used her free hand to gently move the hair obscuring SIlver’s face. She tucked the long red locks behinds the girls ear, then whispered, ”There, much better.” After a moment of inspection from Laurien she spoke again, ”I’m flattered you would call me a goddess, but come now, you were there when I was created. I think you know I have no such powers of manipulation or magic that entices the soul. Nor is this something my Father anticipated. No, I think you know exactly what’s happening.” Laurien finished in a murmur, now gently caressing Silver’s burning cheek. She leaned in closer and said softly, ”You’re not weak, you’re just afraid and you know something? That’s okay,” Laurien moved even closer to Silver, their legs now touching as she bent her head towards Silver’s, the smaller woman turning her face to look directly at Laurien, her eyes wide, heartbeat strong and lips slightly parted. Then from Laurien’s lips escaped a whisper, ”For the heart wants, what the heart wants, chickadee.”

A palpable tension filled the room. All Silver could hear was her own heart thumping angrily at her eardrums, and her breath was shallow. Her whole body trembled. An intense warmth washed over her, and she half-closed her eyes.

In a single, quick movement, the redheaded woman leaned forward and planted a soft, fleeting kiss on Laurien’s lips.

The kiss was exhilarating for Laurien, and made her body feel giddy with excitement. A large smile fell upon her lips as her eyes beckoned to Silver. The tall woman then attacked Silver’s lips with her own. With deep passion and tender care. She wrapped her arms around Silver, her grip strong but comforting as they found their way to the floor. Outside, the birds were chirping.




Heliopolis began to set, soon the world would be enveloped in dark and cold, but in the small cabin, on an island in the vast ocean- Laurien with Silver, wrapped up in furs, welcomed the night. They laid a top Silver’s bed, comfortable in the silence of soft breathing. But such comfort seldom lasts.

It was Laurien who broke the silence. She twirled SIlver’s hair with her fingers as she spoke, ”Mhmm. What a fun day. I had no idea you knew so much.” she mused.

Silver bit her lower lip and shrugged, at least as well as she could while having her arms wrapped around Laurien. “Is that a bad thing, Laurie?” She broke the intimate embrace to stretch, moaning softly into Laurien’s ear. A moment later, she sighed happily and let her arm wrap around Laurien’s.

”No, not at all.” Laurien purred, letting the room flood back to silence. The type that made you sleepy. But Laurien knew she couldn’t sleep that night. She let out a soft sigh before turning her head to look at Silver, ”I’m leaving, Chickadee. I have to go find Arya, bring her home... I wonder what’s she like.” she said thoughtfully.

Silver smiled sadly and nodded. “I understand. Divine quest, huh. Maybe I can play the part of the farm girl that eagerly awaits the return of her brave knight. Maybe I should stay awake until late each night in the hope that I’d see you walk into view. What do you think?” Silver asked with a smirk, squirming and moving under the furs until she smoothly slid onto Laurien’s body, straddling her waist and pressing her nose against hers. “What do you think?” She repeated.

With a free hand, Laurien began to stroke Silver’s back as a grin appeared on her lips. She planted a kick kiss on Silver’s cheek before saying, ”I think that you should do just that. Wait up for me, night after night,” she said dramatically, ”And when you at last see your brave knight come into view-”

“-I will drag them up to the bedroom and ‘coerce’ them into making up for making me wait for so long.”

”Oh will you now, little chickadee?” she giggled, beginning to tickle Silver on her sides, ”I’d like to see this coercion take place.” she said laughing playfully.

Silver let her lips graze against Laurien’s and closed her eyes. Feeling her lover’s breath caress her face made her shudder, “Do you really have to leave? We’re having so much fun…”

Laurien gave Silver a tight hug, and said softly, ”I know, I know. But I have to go.” she placed another kiss on Silver’s lips, then pulled back to look at her eyes. ”Silver, you've been the best part of my short life. Leaving you is like… Leaving all I know behind and I don't even know when I'll be back. I'd like this moment to last forever, but I know I have a duty to perform. So for now, let's have this night and in the morning I'll be gone.” she lulled happily.

Silver looked back into Laurien’s eyes and tilted her head. A duty, huh? She thought, I nearly forgot my own...

Silver smiled sadly and got off of Laurien, plopping back down onto the bed and embracing her lover tightly. “Can we stay like this, then? We’ve already done quite a bit of... ‘Exercise’,” Silver said with a chuckle, before yawning and nuzzling her face against Laurien’s shoulder. “And, I want to find out if you snore as passionately as you do all other things, Laurie.” She said softly, her eyes nearly closed.

”Of course little Chickadee, of course.” Laurien whispered intimately, wrapping her arm around Silver as they laid there. Laurien then began to hum a little tune, one that even escaped her. It was sad but calming and after a short while, then two drifted off to sleep.




When morning at last came, Laurien carefully untangled herself from Silver, and gently placed her in the center of the bed. Next, she covered the small woman’s body underneath the furs, revealing only her head. Gently, and with a sad expression, Laurien leaned in close and placed a kiss a top Silver’s brow.

She lingered, watching the girl sleep peacefully, without a care in the world. Then Laurien spoke, ”Goodbye, Silver. We will meet again.” and with that, she made her way down stairs, taking caution to not make a noise. Laurien then donned her cloak, put her pendant on, and grabbed her weapons. She exited the house, shutting the door quietly behind her.

When she turned around, Orvus was waiting for her. The god sat upon the wooden steps, facing the jungle. Laurien sat down next to him and waited. After a moment of the morning chorus, Orvus spoke. ”So the journey begins.” he said, ”But I have one last gift.” Orvus then took her hand within his own. Immediately her head began to spin as memories became her own. She could briefly see the entire world, then all of the landmasses set in the vast ocean. As quickly as they flooded her mind, it was over but the rush lingered.

”The last time I saw her, she was with Shenghsi, upon the continent that resembles a foot. Be weary of that one, Laurien, he is stout in his beliefs and you would do well to refer to him, as ‘His Holiness’.” Laurien gave him a quizzical look but nodded. ”His home is a massive boat, hard to miss as it sits upon the water. You’ll know when you see it.”

Laurien nodded once more, waiting for anything else to be said, but when nothing did she began to stand, and made her way down upon the earth. She turned back to Orvus and said, ”Farewell Father. Do keep good care of Silver for me?”

Orvus looked at her with a blank expression, before it softened and he said, ”Goodbye Laurien. Do not worry about Silver, she will be waiting for you.”

Laurien then turned around and walked a short ways, before taking off into the sky.





&


God of Death, Prince of Astral Fires

&

Laurien





Night had fallen upon the island, painting the landscape in shades of black, dotted with the faint glows of light here and there. The jungle buzzed with the chorus of the nocturnal, for night was but their domain and they kept an ever vigil watch. In the clearing that stood as a testament to growth, plants were ready for harvest, and flowers like the color of rainbow slept under the Lustrous Garden’s eye. Nothing disturbed that place, not anymore.

Across the clearing, over fallen trees, sat the house that Orvus had built. One small light flickered within, before it too, slept. Not long after, Orvus exited the house, Laurien in tow. Their feet never making a sound upon the mahogany steps. The pair wandered off into the jungle, past a newly filled hole, and disappeared into the undergrowth.




”Do you think Silver has good dreams?” Laurien asked as she followed her father through the undergrowth. She had grown fond of Silver as the days passed, growing closer to the small red-head out of desire and fascination. Silver and her father had taught her a great deal of the world and what to expect, but as she had quickly found out, there was always going to be more to learn. It was never ending.

”Yes,” came Orvus’ voice from up ahead, ”I have no doubt that she has the best of dreams. She deserves nothing less, Laurien.”

”Mhmm,” she hummed, ”That’s good to hear. She sure does sleep a lot doesn’t she? Just wasting away the nights like it’s nothing. That’s no fun.” Laurien mused aloud.

”Different mortals require different amounts of sleep. Silver is no exception to this, like you are.” Orvus stated.

Laurien stretched her arms and said, ”Yeah. I suppose that’s true. I just wish she’d stay up a bit later. Maybe then we could watch the stars together. That’d be nice.”

”Under a night sky, anything is possible.” Orvus said cryptically.

Laurien frowned at his words. She didn’t know what she was expecting from her father, but it wasn’t veiled words. Things went a lot smoother when people were just honest with that they meant, how they acted, and what they felt. And she hardly even knew people.

The tall girl bent down to avoid a tree limb and sighed, ”So, where are we going exactly? You never did tell me, and don’t just say,” she imitated Orvus’ voice, You’ll see. She then grumbled, ”You always say that.”

”We will get there, when we get there.” Came her father’s reply, and Laurien, if she could, rolled her eyes.

Their trek through the dark jungle seemed to go on for hours before the trees began to thin out, and the vegetation grew sparsely as dirt gave way to rock, then sand. Water lapped in the distance as they broke through the final trees, coming face to face with a large stretch of beach. The sand here was unnaturally dark, streaked with white and in the light of the Lustrous Garden, the beach seemed to absorb the light.

Laurien watched as Orvus trekked out onto the sand, before him stood something strange, she couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Orvus then turned back to her and said, ”Come now child, are you afraid of the sand?” he said in jest.

Laurien scowled at him, and began to walk. The feeling was like any other sandy beach, but strangely cold. ”Afraid? Hardly, I’m simply wondering why you’ve brought me here.” Laurien said proudly.

”Look and you shall see.” Orvus said, raising a finger towards the object while still looking at Laurien. Her vision snapped to the objects, and as they became clearer she could begin to make them out. A large garment of some sort was draped over a spire, at the base was a lightsource.

”Gifts for you, Laurien.” Orvus said, placing a hand upon upon the garment, where he then pulled to reveal a a sword of orvium. Her eyes went wide as she took in the gift. Orvus then knelt, and picked up the ‘lightsource’ which happened to be a beautiful dagger, whose blade was ethereal stars, but molded to a sharp point. Orvus held it out to her, and she took it gladly, the metal cold in her hand. Orvus then displayed the garment, it to being dark and shining with stars, as Laurien twirled the dagger in her hand.

”A sword. A dagger. And a cloak.” Orvus said, ”The cloak to wear, providing comfort in night’s embrace. A dagger to wield, the soul it shears. A sword’s twin, great and devastating. But this is not all.” Orvus said, as he helped Laurien into the cloak.

”What more could you possible give me?” Laurien said flabbergasted. The gifts, a god’s gifts, were wonderful to behold. Their beauty could be appreciated by all, and at the same time, they were powerful relics.

”A choice. I have one more power to give, but it is up to you to decide.” Orvus said, moving to stand in front of Laurien as she gripped the sword’s handle within her right hand, finding the fit to be perfect. She then looked at Orvus, their gazes meeting.

”The power to halt Soul Decay. The type of decay that has been brought into the world unnaturally. The withering that I have brought to Galbar.” he said sadly, his voice full of remorse.

Laurien held his gaze, but furrowed her brow. ”Father… What do you mean ‘you brought’?” she asked.

”I shall show you.” he said, outstretching his palm towards her. ”Place your finger within my hand, if you would.” he said softly.

Laurien almost hesitated, but slowly she outstretched her finger, and at the moment of contact, her vision blurred. Before her came images of a giant monstrosity, a leviathan angler. How did she know that name? Next came a tree in a place of twilight, the Mar tree and its fruit of temptation. Then flashed creatures of dark beauty, the Reaper Mothers, Ansara and Azadine. Then a brief image of herself holding the dagger. Then her vision returned, her breathing heavy and her head pounding. But she knew what all of those images had in common, they decayed souls.

With short quick breaths Laurien said, ”Why? Did you. Create. All of that?”

Orvus let his hand drop to his side, ”I created them because I should be hated and despised. Not loved, or thought of as a friend, or even a father. I have done evil, terrible things, Laurien. But there are two beings I managed to do alright with. You and Arya.” the god said somber tones. ”I am trying to rectify these mistakes, Laurien, to the best of what I am capable. So I ask, will you take this gift onto yourself and help those that are worthy enough to be saved?”

Laurien blinked, digesting what her father said. It was a lot to take in and even she wasn’t sure of what to do. She pursed her lips, furrowing her brow even more as she contemplated. Her father had done terrible things, yet there he stood, giving her gifts and treating her with respect. Was it a cry for help, in his own way? Or maybe, he was changing for the better. Laurien had never seen what he was like before the moment of her arrival, but if those images were anything to go on, he would have been a challenge.

She let out a soft sigh, before saying, ”Very well, but only for those I say.” she said, closing her eyes. She felt a warm feeling rush into her, that quickly silenced to cold, before abating altogether. She opened her eyes, looking at Orvus.

”It is done, Laurien.” Orvus said, ”Now, I have but one more thing to ask.” he said, ”Will you go and find your sister?”

Laurien began to smile. She had learned much about Arya, or what little Orvus knew of her. She was small, much smaller then she was, but had a heart bigger and brighter than any Orvus knew. She felt a connection already, it was hard to explain, but she needed to see her.

”That sounds exciting!” she said enthusiastically, before frowning, ”That means I’ll leave you and Silver though.”

”There is no easy paths in life, daughter. Finding Arya is no simple task, for I know not where she even is. But for one such as you, I think you able.” Orvus said.

”I’ll do it.” she said, ”But first, I’m going to say goodbye to Silver.”

”Of course, you may leave whenever you like, and when you find Arya, tell her I wish to speak with her, tell her, that even if she never wants to see me again, that I am sorry for what I did. Please.” Orvus said sadly.

Taken slightly aback by the outpouring of emotions, Laurien blinked before saying, ”I… Of course, Father. I’ll let her know.” she said stoutly.

Orvus nodded, ”Thank you, Laurien. I know I do not deserve it. Now, shall we retur-” his voice dropped suddenly as he turned away to look at the horizon.

Laurien followed his gaze, and asked, ”What is it father?”

Orvus did not speak for several moments, then when there was bit the faintest hint of red in the night sky, he said, ”We are not alone.”




Here, a verdant carpet of green that sprawled across the land, over there mountains...a beautiful tapestry of creation was sprawled out across the canvas below him, but the mournful god paid it little heed. It was just a blur as he raced across a night sky, a single nameless and formless companion in tow.

He raced, faster and faster, trying in vain to defy the weight of the burdens that plagued him now. Since leaving Kalmar he had intended to bear witness to the beauty of Galbar, but instead he was trapped in his mind as he ruminated over what he had learned. This was the same prison that he found himself locked in when he gazed into the depths of the pyres above and fell into years, nay, aeons of meditative trances. At least this time there was a change in the scenery of the physical world that was just out of reach, inches beyond the bars of this cage he’d wrought around himself.

There were many things that plagued his mind. The thoughts circled around him and brayed, like a pack of ravenous wolves, and if he ever tried to counter or push back one, it would merely circle around to the recess at the back of his mind whilst another one rushed to the forefront to continue the unyielding assault. There was some regret at the fate that had befallen Melantha, and doubt over whether he should have taught her what she sought, and further doubt over whether he was right to reveal her motivations and intentions to Kalmar. In the moment he had been dubious about violating the privacy of what had been her innermost thoughts and he knew that he should have remained silent, and yet some foolish part of him had wanted to help and reveal all. So he’d taken some worthless and futile half-measure, revealing the truth to Kalmar but in such a way as to make it seem as though it were only speculation…

...and Kalmar had warned him of Asceal’s own feelings and words. Mad, she had called him. It cut at him deeper than any could know. Surely her intentions were not so grim as Kalmar had thought, and her opinions not so extreme, for Kalmar was clearly one with a mind that dwelled in a realm of absolutes…

...yet even Kalmar had winced at the details of the fate of the dead, and pleaded for mercy and for him to do what he could to assuage the suffering of the souls. He was right, of course. That there were now naught but animal souls entering his realm had allowed him to justify leaving, coming down to Galbar now that there were none whose minds were capable of appreciating any kindness or feeling any gratitude that he would be there to escort them to the end. But they could still feel pain, and so by all rights, he should have remained where he was and taken action to resolve that, not ventured down here. Kalmar summoned me to speak in person. But I could have refused him, for the sake of my duty.

And with that, Katharsos almost made the fateful decision to return to his sphere right then and amend what mistakes he could, but then his mind flickered to the next mistake; this one was more substantial than the others, for he carried it quite literally. The soul that he had created by mistake back there, in Kalgrun--what was he to do with it? To destroy and recycle it before it had even had the chance to experience life seemed profoundly wrong, unjustifiably evil. The thought of forcing it into some ill-fitting corpse or other form was so profane that it didn’t even cross the god’s mind, and the idea of abandoning it to a pointless life of wandering and misery was nearly so horrific. He would have to create some sort of body for it, though he knew not how. It was a large and great soul, one with potential, one that could never be contained in something so small and simple as the likes of the soul oysters. And even those creatures had been created almost entirely by Ashalla, for Katharsos knew that his own touch was fire and death and that it was best that...best that life never spring from it. The living were not his concern, creating life not his task, living not even his--

”Katharsos!” came a layered voice that resonated in the very air, yet Katharsos was so deep into that reverie that for a moment he thought that the all too real (albeit unfamiliar) voice to be yet another one of his own, nagging at him and braying its way closer to the forefront. It almost blended in perfectly to the point that he didn’t even register its presence, just accepted it as one might accept the soothing hum of insects at dusk.

But then came an unmistakable body, matching the speed that Katharsos flew, against the backdrop of night. Two white eyes, glowing eyes, peered at the God of Death, as Orvus flew alongside him. This was enough to elicit some surprise and attention. The god spoke again, his voice softer and more composed, ”Katharsos. Might you stop for a moment? I don’t believe we’ve met, after all.”

It took only an instant for the streak of fire lighting the sky to come to a violent stop. Disheveled fire coalesced slowly into the likeness of a bat’s visage, but even as it was only halfway formed the words started to pour forth, ”Greetings, Orvus. Please take no offense in my nearly passing you by, for I was distracted and meant you no slight.” There was something else with Katharsos--that strange little soul he’d been dragging about since his encounter with Kalmar days prior--but with no more than a thought, the deathly god drew that entity in close and tucked it away somewhere behind the glare of his own incandescence.

Orvus said nothing for a moment as the two ground to a halt. Rather, he inspected what he saw before him with emotionless eyes. Katharsos took an odd appearance, unlike the siblings he had met with so far, but his looks were of little concern. Curiously, Orvus did spot a soul quickly tucked away, but said nothing about it. Instead, Orvus said, ”There is no need to apologize.” Before beginning to fly around Katharsos, taking in the full extent of his bending and flickering likeness. ”In fact, I’m hardly offended. Simply curious. I think it odd, how we Celestials seem to be drawn to Galbar. Like insects attracted to lights.” Orvus whispered, before coming to a halt before Katharsos’ burning gaze. ”So, what light attracted you here?”

”I was summoned not by a light, but by a voice,” he answered. His voice was more powerful now that the bat’s odd visage was complete. ”The one called Kalmar requested my presence, so I set aside my sacred charge for a time and came. The curiosity that you spoke of is what has kept me here longer.”

Orvus began to nod, ”It seems Kalmar did not stop at summoning me, then. But our talk was not like your own, I’m sure.” the god paused and squinted his eyes at Katharsos, ”And pray tell, Katharsos. What exactly is your ‘sacred charge’? I know you to be the God of Death, but what does death do when the living die? I have seen the Great Pyres above Veradax and I have witnessed the soul ash in its descent. Is that what became of all those souls who came with us here? Burned to but ash?” he said emotionlessly.

”Naught but ash and memory. Your estimation is true: mine is to preside over the burnings. Just as you must preside over…” Katharsos squinted for a moment then, searching for words, ”another sort of unmaking.”

”Unmaking, how kind of you.” Orvus mused, crossing his arms. ”You can say it, I do not mind. Long have I struggled and struggle I will continue to do with my choice.” he said absentmindedly before focusing on the bat head before him. ”I reside over desolation itself and now, the decaying of the soul. If what you say is true, and I have no doubt that it is, then when the living die they burn to be renewed? Hmm, it seems my promise will have to be broken. Oh well.”

”Is a mountain ‘renewed’ when the wind and waves grind it to dust and scatter the remnants across across the world? There is no renewal for souls, only recycling. There is no choice, either; only an illusion of it. You, like myself and all the rest of us, are a product of circumstance. I would not presume to judge you for anything.”

Orvus bowed his head a little as he thought upon Katharsos’ words. ”I understand.” he said looking up at the head, ”Your task is a grim one, but necessary. I will not judge you for it. But dear Katharsos, I will say this and no more of the subject; I once thought that there was no choice either, perhaps I still do, but even we can learn and grow to make new ones. If the mortals have taught me anything so far, it is that they value choice for themselves and if they have such thoughts, why cannot we? Come, I would like to show you something.” Orvus said, before flying off in the direction of distant land. A river of orange fire reluctantly followed across the sky in his wake.

After but a moment for the two, they arrived upon a blackened beach to a lonely figure wrapped in a flowing cloak. Orvus landed aside the figure and beckoned to Katharsos, ”Katharsos, I would like you to meet one of my daughters, Laurien. Against my own nature, I gave her life and she is… perfect.”

At the mentioning of her name, the tall woman put her hood down and looked up in wonder at Katharsos. After a moment she gave a small bow and said, ”Never did I think I would meet another God, or at least a full god. It is an honor to meet you, Katharsos.” came her strong voice.

”All things have their chance to meet me, eventually.” The meaning of those cryptic words probably evaded her, he realized an instant later, but he made no attempt to explain or bridge the difference. Instead he kept himself at a safe distance, ever mindful of the effect that his proximity caused. But she was not ignored! His fiery eyes searched her up and down, finding the answers to all the hundreds of questions that the god had wondered and yet hadn’t needed to ask.

Laurien held her gaze upon Katharsos as the god seemed to bore into her soul. Orvus in the meantime looked back and forth, wondering what the silent exchange held. Then Laurien spoke with a smirk upon her lips, ”Shall I take me cloak off so that you might have a better look, Katharsos?” she said slyly. Orvus then sighed mentally and waited to see how the god might react to such a question.

The color of Katharsos’ flames didn’t even blush or pulsate. ”It would make no difference. Clothing hides nothing and is intangible before our sight. But I do hope that my gaze was not distressing.”

Now he addressed Orvus, ”So you believe that her existence, or her mannerisms, indicate the presence of choice? Of free will?”

Laurien snickered to herself but said nothing else as she watched the two Gods. Orvus stood a little taller as Katharsos asked his question and then said, ”I do. I did not tell her what to say, or what to ask, she simply did so by reacting to your very own presence. Surely you did not think that we could not create life with higher functioning? I once thought the same way, until Arya came. Now I know better.”

As he was wont to sometimes do, Katharsos fell silent for a long time. Neither Laurien nor Orvus said anything as they waited to hear what he might say. Finally, he spoke again, ”I do not think you understood, but don’t allow my musings to trouble you. It is good that you feel something beyond a simple purpose.”

”What do I not understand?” Orvus replied softly, ”What is it that you allude to?” he asked.

The flames woven into the bat’s face bent and grew just a little bit paler and darker. ”In many cases, knowledge does not bring happiness,” he cautioned.

”That may be true,” Orvus said, ”But I am willing to learn what you think, regardless of the outcome.” Though his face remained pointed at Orvus, his eyes bent in strange ways to peer sideways through their fiery sockets and give Laurien a lingering glance.

’And her?’ they asked.

Orvus followed his odd gaze, and found his way to Laurien, who had an inquisitive look upon her face. ”Laurien? Would you like to stay or leave?” She shifted her feet and looked at Katharsos and said, ”I’ll stay.”

So then Katharsos looked right at her again. ”I hope that you find serendipity and that you live a good life, and that regret and misfortune never plague you. But I do not think that you actually have free will or any choice in the matter. You are a product of your circumstances and will forever be so. Events beyond your control will present themselves, and you will react according to your nature and your past experiences. Were there to be a mirror so grand that its reflections were as real as the likenesses that they copied and mocked, and were that mirror to create another world just like this one, you would act in every way the exact same. I think that freedom is only an illusion.” Then to Orvus, he concluded, ”And the same can be said for you and I. For all things. It is why I do not judge.”

It was not Orvus who spoke first, but Laurien- who shook her head, ”I thank you for your words, but I also find what you say to be… sad. I am sorry you feel that way, truly, I think my father would say the same. If you truly believe that everything we have done, and will do, is predetermined without any free will or choice, then I pity you. You will never be able to live if you are shackled by such weights, but who am I to say such things? I am merely a mortal, talking to a god.” she finished softly.

She didn’t perturb him. ”Live? You know my name, but do you not know who I am?” Somehow the bat betrayed the slightest hint of amusement. ”I never lived in the sense that you imagine it. Not here, and not before. But I must concern myself with death, not life. I never said that your life was meaningless. Find what joys you can, for there will be no more to have afterward.”

Laurien shook her head again, ”Have you even tried to live? Without life there can be no death. You tell me that I should find what joy I can, but what of yourself? If you are so concerned with death then how can you tell me to live? Do you have any idea what life there is in the world? I have been alive for such a short time, and already I am full of wonder and joy at the smallest of lizards, to the largest of trees. You seem so set upon what is, without even knowing what’s out there.” she said, a hint of anger in her voice. By that point, Orvus had set his hand upon her shoulder, and gave her a concerned look before turning back to Katharsos, but he said nothing.

The bat visage warped into that of a smiling dog. ”You have passion and heart, a vibrancy that reminds me of...another. Do not waste it on concern for me. I have my duties to give me purpose, and that is enough. But I too have been looking at the lizards and trees, little one, and I too feel some joy from their existence.”

Laurien smiled at the dog and said, ”I am glad that you have, uncle. I will respect your wishes, but know I will think of you from time to time. Maybe I’ll even pray.” she giggled, before falling silent. The dog’s smile drooped, almost imperceptibly so, at the mention of prayer, but he too remained silent. He was content with only the quiet sounds of the land around them.

It was Orvus who finally broke the silence. ”Well, that was very enlightening Katharsos. Thank you for that.” he mused before continuing with, ”I have been meaning to ask you, when we first met, you had a soul with you. Why?”

Whatever remained of the dog’s ephemeral smile vanished at that question. The god of death was quiet while his flames displayed a range of muddied colors. Somewhere amidst the long silence, Katharsos procured the soul in question and looked at it again. ”It is a mistake, the product of an accident on my part,” he finally confessed. ”Behold a soul formed without a body. It will not be able to find one, it...will not be able to live. And yet to burn it back into ash so soon seems a horrific waste and far too cruel. I do not yet know what to do; I was contemplating that when you first called out to me.”

Orvus squinted at Katharsos in confusion. After a moment of this, Orvus said, ”Nothing is ever an accident, Katharsos. Why do you not simply give it a body? That seems the only logical thing to do, if you wish it not to burn.” Orvus then unfolded his arms, and let them fall to his side as he shifted his feet.

”When new life arises, a soul forms within its body. The reverse is most unnatural.”

Orvus nodded, ”That is correct, but the opposite, no matter how unnatural, can still be done. It is within our power, after all.” he said flatly.

And it had been a long time since Katharsos had been at such a loss, and the chromatic display of fire illustrated his racing thoughts quite readily. He fell quiet for several minutes, but to their disappointment, he shattered the silence by declaring, ”I do not feel it to be my place to commit such an act. I think...I think that perhaps this one should exist outside of life and death, just like myself.”

A soft look crossed Orvus’ face as he spoke, ”Katharsos, it matters not what it becomes. If it breathes, eats, and sleeps or if it does none of those things. All you need to do is give it a purpose. It’s that easy.” he finished softly.

”Is it?”

Ultimately the question seemed an uncharacteristically facetious one. Katharsos didn’t wait long enough to receive an answer, he simply opened the mouth of his fiery head and blew. A wave of heat and ash blasted outward, but this was no mere bellow’s breath. The ash was soul ash, awakened and stirred from its sleep as it drifted dormant. The raw soul ash and the heat struck the soul, wreathed it, became one with it. And soon there was a smaller fiery being not so different from its maker.

Laurien was unmoving upon where she stood, but the woman did grip her sword tighter as she saw the creature come forth. As Orvus watched, he cocked his head but nevertheless, his expression became blank. Soon enough he said, ”Well done.”

”It shares in my dissatisfaction. It has intelligence, but lacks in a name and a purpose.”

”You must be the one to give it such things, Katharsos. Else others do for you. Unless, that is what you wish?” Orvus inquired. ”This task is mine, but to bestow a calling upon it, I must first find a worthy purpose.”

”And what purpose might that be? You have many options, depending upon your view of the creature.” Orvus stated.

”Many options? And what are these charges that you might entrust unto it, were you in my position?”

At this Orvus thought for a moment before saying, ”If I were the God of Death, and had a sphere so vital, I could entrust it with protecting the Pyres. Or I could give it the task of seeing that life, upon death, completes its journey to the Pyres. I could have it safeguard an area of my choosing, or have it wander the world making sure the cycle is undisturbed. These are but a few options I can think of, Katharsos.” he finished. Laurien by this point, had loosened her grip upon the sword entrusted to her, and now instead spun the soul knife in her hand as she watched the two gods debate.

”All far too great a burden to lay upon one soul. But this one needn’t be alone.” A clump of soul ash manifested nearby, and once again Katharsos subjected a mote to his crushing grip and forged it into a great soul. Once more he used his breath to give a soul form, and now there were two fiery spirits beside their maker.

”The last one of those suggestions appealed to me, Orvus--I cannot, and will not, wander across Galbar often or for long. But others can, and they can ensure that all continues as it should.”
He looked at the elder one. ”Balam,” he named it, and the likeness of a snarling jaguar took shape somewhere within the soul’s fiery shape. Then he looked to its brother to declare a second name, ”...and Zotz.” That one manifested with the familiar face of a bat.

Laurien turned to Orvus and gave him a funny look, and Orvus seemed to smirk for an instant, before returning to his blank expression. He then looked to Katharsos and said, ”I am glad to be of some assistance then. They seem to be… fine creatures.” and then an idea came to mind, ”Perhaps I can be of more assistance and help you create more?”

”Yes,” he breathed. ”My gratitude would be immense. It occurs to me that I should have an intermediary, and I think that Balam would be well suited for this. Zotz and...another partner could roam Galbar and ensure that all is well.”

”Then pick which you would rather have. Desolation, or Soul Decay and I shall lend my hand.” Orvus said.

”I would have one that understands souls and is attuned to their decay, better than Zotz or perhaps even myself. Such an affinity would prove very useful.”

”Very well. Let us begin.” Orvus said as he outstretched his hand. Katharsos had neither hands nor limbs nor even flesh with which to match the gesture, so instead he concentrated and conjured another soul just above Orvus’ expectant palm. When he saw the soul, he began to pour into it the intricate process of how the soul decays and from this, it grew. Katharsos’ long breath fell upon the nascent soul, and then there remained only one thing to do.

”Ku,” he named it, and its face was one of jest and mockery. He was a laughing, happy monkey. But his eyes were black voids that hid the true extent of what the spirit knew.

”It is done then.” Orvus said, ”Ku shall serve his purpose well, with all the knowledge I have gathered and more, now at his disposal. Laurien has a similar gift. Now, if at all you ever need more, simply ask and I shall help.” he finished with a nod.

Laurien then said, ”To do what you both just did, and to make it look so easy… I am amazed. To create just like that… it’s a miracle if I’ve ever seen one.” she said dumbfounded.

”You indeed witness a rare thing,” Katharsos told her. ”Slow but sure moves the might of the gods. It is rare, and taxing, to be suddenly stricken by such inspiration.”

The soul ash all around slowly came to life, forming a far larger (yet spraser) cloud than those that had become Zotz and Ku. Grey flecks of ash manifested like snow, but these strange snowflakes didn’t fall. Instead they bled, tiny tiny black motes breaking free from the grey before those flakes of ash vanished and became ethereal once more. All of those wretched impurities drifted to converge at one point, and there Katharsos finally forced them together. They was a flash of white light, and then where the impurities had been floated only an ebony pearl so beautiful and lustrous that its unmarred surface scintillated with the light of the stars as brilliantly as any diamond ever could. A pendant readily formed about the stone, as did a tiny cord of black thread.

His words might have struggled to convey to Laurien the meaning of what she’d seen, but perhaps she would one day know. And he felt tired now, so tired. So he offered it to her plainly and whispered, ”A gift. Look to it when all seems lost, and know that beauty and perfection hide within the muck.”

Laurien’s eyes went wide with awe as she took the pendant within her hand. It was a beautiful gift and one she would treasure always. As she placed it around her neck, feeling the coolness of the pearl upon her skin, her lips formed into a smile. Next she looked up at Katharsos and said, ”Thank you Katharsos, it’s so beautiful. You flatter a girl with such a fine gift, but I will treasure it always.” she said happily.

Orvus gave a nod of approval at Katharsos than said, ”This was enlightening Katharsos, and I think we both got something out of this exchange. Not to be rude, but we should be going now. We have… Someone to check up on, and I do not wish to keep you any longer from your travels. Until next time, Katharsos.” Orvus said before turning to Laurien. The girl then said, ”It was nice meeting you, God of Death. Also not to be rude, but I hope I don’t see you for a long time… If you know what I mean.” she said with a giggle. ”I’d hate to die so soon. But for now, I bid you a very fond farewell.” she said giving a little bow.

”Farewell,” was his simple goodbye. AS they began to take their leave, his eyes wandered to the patient (at least, thus far) forms of the first of what might one day be his many eyes and hands.







&



The Learner, The Martial Dancer





Heliopolis was nothing by a hint in the sky. A reddish purple that dipped below the tree line and out of sight. The evening birds had began to return, their sounds giving way to the chorus of crickets and the gentle swishing sound of flying sphagnum. The wind was silent, leaving Hermes alone with her thoughts.

She sat back against the wall of her private house. She had squatted down to pick something up, but eventually found herself sitting and standing up again to be too much of a hassle for her and her burden. She chewed on her cheek as she flipped a particularly shiny pebble between her fingers. Her eyes were unblinking, but her lids her heavy, a strange throbbing pain coming and going in her back. She sat in quiet contemplation of nothing in particular. Now and again she looked up to the sky and wished she had done more that day. The feeling of laziness had been troubling her lately.

Sighing, she looked over the courtyard. Arya had retired to her room, and Xiaoli had cloistered herself away in the study, busy drawing up ‘hypothetical’ permanent houses for Arya. Hermes held the stone up to her face and squinted at it. Her ideas were far from where she sat, and out of nothing but pure curiosity she secretly poked the stone with the tip of her tongue.

“WHHKK!” A guttural yet scratchy sound sliced her from her thoughts. Hermes tossed the stone in panicked embarrassment and turned her head to the owner of the sound. A hazy figure stood, its outline flickering uncannily with reality. In its long arms it held a crate of wines, “WHHKK!”

Hermes exhaled, “Oh.” She rubbed an eye, ignoring a sudden cramp in her side, “Just put it there. I'll move it later.”

The guardian nightmare placed the crate down and shimmered off. Suddenly a crowd more appeared from where it had disappeared to, each with crates of beverages. Quickly the single crate turned into a neatly stacked wall of alcohol. Hermes watched with wide eyes as they finished their job. After a moment or two, all but one nightmare had left. This one turned to Hermes and inclined what could have been where a head might be, “WHHKK!”

“Thank you,” Hermes gave a weak but scheduled smile. The nightmare turned and wisked off into nothingness. Hermes sucked in a breath and used her hands to push herself to her feet, stumbling once but using the wall to get herself standing. With a long exhale she waddled over to the crates.

Peeking in she slid out a bottle, it's body wrapped with a strip of paper and marked in Shengshese. She smiled, “Must be a gift.”

Xiaoli came out with a stack of papers in her hands, staring intently at the top page. “Hermes, dear, I think if we went for a tower or something similar, we could--” Her eyes fell on the crates and pots and she let out a loud gasp. “W-where did those come from?!”

Hermes turned with the bottle in hand, presenting it for review, “Shengshi!”

Xiaoli blinked in bewilderment and slowly shuffled over to touch one of the large, barrel-like claypots, its throat covered tightly with several layers of cheesecloth. “... So it is… B-but how did it get here? Did His Lordship come by? A-and who’s it for?” She poked the cheesecloth sheepishly and frowned a little.

“WHHKK!” A nightmare appeared next to Xiaoli, “Whhkk whhkk!” Hermes seemed to jump a little at first.

“O-oh. A gift for His Holiness K’nell, you say?” She blinked down at the wine again. “Well, I think we could squeeze it into the larders… Or possibly behind it. The temperature right now may actually be decent for storing wine outside.” She drummed her chin in thought. “Hermes, remind me to make us a cellar some time…” She picked up one of the fifty litre pots as if it was a rock and put her free hand on her hip.

Hermes put a hand on her back, with a tiny wince and nodded, “Sure.”

Xiaoli made a face and sighed. “Are you alright, sweetgrass?”

“My back has been hurting me since this morning,” She suddenly cocked her head and gave a small smile, “Did you just call me sweetgrass?”

Xiaoli blushed. “W-well, you know… You’re sweet and so is sweetgrass, and I love sweetgrass - and you! It’s a nickname! … It’s weird, isn’t it?”

“I like it!-- ah!” Hermes’ hand migrated from her back to her side, “Wanna help me over the step? I'm getting those cramps again.”

“Yeah, of course!” Xiaoli put the pot back down and hurried over to help her partner. “... I’ve got you, dear,” she whispered as she guided Hermes along. “You’ve been huge, lately. How much longer do you think it’ll be?”

“Huge!?” Hermes gasped and then winced, her foot falling back off the step, “Ow! you know what.” She breathed in and held her sides, “Give me a second.”

“N-not in a bad way, dear,” Xiaoli encouraged and gently massaged the dreamer’s shoulders. “The maternal look suits you, I think - the world’s most well-groomed mother.” She gave her a knowing wink. “Feeling better?”

Hermes’ hands squeezed her sides and she shook her head silently, eyes closed hard. She exhaled through gritted teeth, “It's getting worse.”

Xiaoli frowned. “Come here, I’ll take you to bed and make you some tea.” Xiaoli snuck her head under her arm and began to support her into the private house.

Hermes stumbled a little but got over the step. Her breath was a little shaky and she groaned, “I'm getting…” She sucked in a breath, “real tired of these cramps.”

Xiaoli gave her a sympathetic smile. “They’ll be over soon enough, dear.” She pulled aside the slider door to their room, brought Hermes inside and helped her carefully lay down on the bed.

Hermes scooted up against the headboard and closed her eyes in pain, fingers pressing into her sides. Suddenly she jerked as a pang of pain radiated from her abdomen. Her head fell back onto the headboard and she groaned, “Xiaoli?”

Xiaoli turned in the doorway. “Yeah?”

“I don't think it's going to go away,” She hissed through clenched teeth.

Xiaoli blinked and frowned. “What do you mean? Would you like me to get you anything? Would you like me to stay?”

“Come here, come here,” Hermes said quickly between pained squirms, her hand reaching out to Xiaoli. Xiaoli hurried over and quickly took Hermes’ hand in her own. As she felt the distress of her partner course through the dreamer’s body, her eyes widened in realisation. “Oh-... Oh, by Shengshi… Arya! ARYA! Come in here!”

“No!” Hermes squeezed Xiaoli’s hand tight, “I don’t want her to--” Hermes took a deep shaky breath, “See.”

“Okay, okay - let’s just do this, the two of us, then. Remember what the book said about deep, controlled breaths, alright? Keep a steady rhythm and I will--” She furrowed her brow and wiped it dry of moisture. “... We will get through this.” She squeezed Hermes’ hand back and snapped the fingers on her free hand. Out of thin air materialised towels. Bowls and basins came rolling into the room like stray wheels. They stacked on top of each other neatly by the wall and Xiaoli filled one with hot water. She then filled a gourd with cold water, corked it and laid it next to Hermes’ pillow. She quickly finished up the remaining preparations and placed herself at the end of the bed. She gave her partner a look of stress and swallowed.

“Are you ready, my love?”

A pained laugh came from Hermes and she sunk into the bed, “Give me some time, it’s not quite--” She sucked in a breath, “quite time.” She held out an arm, “Come here for now?”

Xiaoli once more flashed a sympathetic smile, skipped over and laid down carefully next to Hermes. She wrapped her arms around Hermes’ right arm and rubbed her ‘sweaty’ face against hers. She hummed softly and then looked up. “Hey, Hermes?”

“Yeah?” Hermes tilted her head to face Xiaoli.

Xiaoli’s skin began to warm up slowly and the river girl reached out with her hands and slowly began to massage what parts she could reach. The heat was soothing, yet not so strong as to be painful - it was even a little weaker than usual to account for the pain Hermes was feeling.

The dreamer seemed to melt into the river-girl, a content smile forming on her face, only to suddenly bungle in pain. She hid her face in the crook of Xiaoli’s neck and stayed there. Time went by, and now and again she’d seize in pain, and only after an hour or two did the painful jolts suddenly increase and increase, until it was one long continuous pain. A few shouts later and quickly the scene turned to chaos.




Arya paced outside the private home, her face worn with surprise at the volume of Hermes’ screaming and Xiaoli’s anxious yelps. Despite her curiosity, she had a good inkling of what was happening, even without the Warden’s ‘help’. The thorn plated man sat atop his horse, the great mare blocking the way into the private home.

After a moment of contemplation on her part, Arya stopped pacing and looked up at the Warden. Why he was even there boggled her mind. She knew of him and had learned about him from Hermes, but even with all the practice, his mere presence unnerved her. Still, she needed to know why.

”So, why are you here, Warden?” came her small voice.

The creature growled, the aroma of wet soil following his voice, “The Dreamer is not to be disturbed.”

She let out a sigh and continued pacing, ”I understand. Every precaution is a good one. Hopefully everything is going to be alright.” she finished in but a whisper.

“It will be; our Lord’s will demands it,” The Warden’s voice was booming, and not at all comforting -- but perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, or maybe it was.

Arya paused to look at the Warden again, arms crossed and tight to her chest. She nodded her approval after a moment and continued to pace, worry creeping into her heart.

There was a scream and the sound of something clattering loudly to the floor, but the Warden didn’t move from his spot. The mare hooved the ground and the Warden’s voice rolled out again, “All shall be well, ward.” There was another loud yell, “All shall be well.”

Arya looked up, but then back down with worry. She paced and paced, and the Warden sat and sat until after what seemed like an eternity, there was a shout of joy by Xiaoli and almost instantly after, the wail of a baby. There was some muffled groans and then suddenly a loud pained yelp. All went silent for a while, and then -- another baby.

Arya’s heart fluttered with joy at the sound of tiny screams, and her pace quickened as she eyed the Warden, waiting for him to move, or do anything for that matter. She could hardly contain her excitement at the thought of little ones, and now they had finally arrived! A wonder to the world, and she was privileged to be one of the first ones to meet them. She wondered what names they would pick, if they would be two girls, two boys or a combination! Oh how she hoped there was a baby girl, not that there's anything wrong with two boys, but who then could she teach to dance her dance? Who’s hair could she braid?

She began to hum a tune, slow stepping a dance as she patiently waited for the Warden to move, or for Xiaoli to usher in. She couldn’t wait any longer, but the Warden seemed stalwart until --

“Our sons are here!” Xiaoli all but screamed in a joyous squeal as the slider door was nearly ripped apart in her excited attempt to open it. The Warden moved out of the way as newcsquealed, “Our Wenbo and Chaghatai are finally born and are healthy and happy!” She paused to beckon Arya inside. “Come in and see!”

Arya couldn't help but erupt with a peel of laughter as she heard the news. She took off in an instant, flying after Xiaoli.

As Arya passed through the inner door, her eyes immediately fell on Hermes and the two bundles she held. Stained alabaster peered out of the speckled towels. Hermes’ looked about ready to pass out, sweat plastered across her face and her hair in a frizz. A blanket covered her lap, and a smile covered her tired face.

“Come see,” she whispered. Xiaoli knelt down by Hermes and held the water gourd to her lips, allowing the water to pour slowly into the dreamer’s mouth, all the while smiling affectionately at her.

Arya's approach slowed as she neared the bed, her feet touching down upon the wood with a soft creak. Her eyes were wide with joy as she sat on the bed upon her knees and leaned in to view the newcomers.

Two alabaster faces peered up at her, eyes closed. Chaghatai had a thin blue stripe following his left cheekbone, while Wenbo had a large orange spot around his left eye, about twice the size of the eye itself.

Arya looked down at them, tears forming in her eyes as she whispered, ”They're beautiful…”

Hermes smiled and held them closer, “They are…”

A cloudling came buzzing into the room, haggard and crackling. Hermes looked up from her babies, “P-Poppler?”

The cloudling zipped on over and rested on Wenbo's forehead, it's pops soft and quiet. The baby grimaced and let out a loud, high-pitched scream as it begun to wriggle around with the limited moves it could make. Hermes pulled the baby against her, shushing it softly. Poppler crackled and zipped away into Hermes’ hair, apparently disappointed.

Xiaoli chuckled softly and gave Hermes a wry smile. “We better keep his cradle a little closer. Something tells me Wenbo is a little wary of others.” She moved her hand over and gently caressed Chaghatai’s tiny face. “Oh, Hermes, they are beyond anything I could have imagined… You have done so well.”

“I couldn't have done it without you,” Hermes answered.










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