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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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He flew for a long time, the burden of his decision to keep Rowan in the dark, weighed his heart down. Where he had sought to find answers and advice from a friend, he had found only more questions. Li'Kalla was gone, he could not find her and thus he feared the worst had befallen his sister. He had once found Silver's own advice to be invaluable and he had sought Li'Kalla out for the same and he had failed. For that, he blamed himself. He should have gone with her to help unite them, it was the least he owed her. There was no sign of the Beast or any fragments, it was if she simply disappeared.

Instead, he had found Eurysthenes, the God of Illusions. His siblings predicament was an unusual one and he did not know whether the god was being truthful or not. Yet from everything he could tell, his loss was genuine. Orvus knew not how to help him and that realization was hard to grasp. Hopefully Abanoc would know better, if he still existed as well.

And so Orvus had left Li'Kalla's island home and traveled in the direction of the Eye. He knew not what awaited him at his home, only that he would have to face his own decisions and the consequences that came from them. It was strange to even grasp, that a being so powerful and limitless as he, still struggled with himself. Perhaps he was more mortal than he had ever realized. But he was not mortal, he was a God and could fix any problem, but could he fix this? Fertility was not his strong suit, that was more of a Phystene thing. Could he bless his family with it? Could he give them what they really wanted. Or what his wife really wanted? Familiarity of home and a new chance for life. The more he thought about it, the more he began to think it could be done.

He would give his daughters and wife what they lacked but… Who would they… He thought more on this. Rowan and he were together but there was no one for Ava and Lily. Even Arya and Laurien. There was no species that they could have children with. That would need to be rectified as well. That was what his family lacked. More. Just like the Selka, and Ihokhetlani, so too would he create his own species, molded after himself and his girls. They would be called, Nebulites. After the form he adopted as his own.

He had another thought, one spurred by his families human form in the dream. Why not have the best of both worlds? He would make them have two appearances. One of the Celestial and one of the Cthonic. They would also have to be capable of flight, would have longevity, greater height, and be capable of reproducing with any species. That offspring, outside of their own kind, would be like the people from his dream. Yes, this would have to do. Perhaps then Rowan would not be so angry with him. Still, he could go further and give himself a human form, one from the dream. Yes, he knew that would work.

Yet he was hesitant. Did he have the power for such a feat? The Nebulites would be no mundane species, not like others that inhabited the world. So lost in thought he was that Orvus completely flew past the Eye and off into the direction of the Dragon's Foot. It was then that something caught his eye, and brought his attention into focus. In the distance, something floated in the sky.

It was fairly large and rather solid looking, not a combination often seen in terms of things floating in the sky. It appeared to be made of stones of various sorts, a central cylindrical structure, at the bottom a domed shape capped off that end. At the top however arose out a central tower, or more appropriately a keep, as walls reached up from the base apart from the keep inside. The walls were carved intricately, each having a very specific pattern evocative of different beings, some familiar and others not.

This and more came to Orvus in that instant, but also was another some detail, on the ramparts of the wall, raised from the central block and set apart from the keep, sat a crab. And he was waving. His voice reached out the inter-spanning distance with the ease of communication between the two gods.

“Hello! Orvus I do believe it was if my memory from the Architect’s Palace serves rightly?”

He thought it a strange sight but he knew the voice behind those words even if he had never heard it before. He began to make his way closer to the keep.

"And you are Ohannakeloi, God of Stone. Hello sibling of mine." he said, having flown over to the keep in a blink of an eye. Now floating before Ohannakeloi.

“It is most wonderful to see you, I have talked to only a few of our fellows since that time of our last meeting. Tell me do you know much of these islands before us, I had thought to visit them before heading north to Kalgrun as I believe it is called.” Ohannakeloi clicked one claw then the other as he spoke. “I plan to take a survey of much of Galbar before returning with what may be of use to Atokhekwoi, to enrich it you see. Enough of my ponderings, I can only imagine what great works you have wrought since I last saw you. What of you fair Orvus, what brings you here?”

Orvus relaxed visibly and cocked his head at the crab. "I see. It's good to see you as well. As for these islands, and as for why I am here, they are known as the Eye of Desolation. They are also my home and where my family lives. As for great works… Well I would have to say my daughters. They have far surpassed me as a being. But tell me, I never expected that you would want to fly up so high. Where have you come from and why have you built this Keep?" he asked softly.

“I must admit the answers to your two questions are but a singular one, Shengshi’s Jiangzhou. I have just stayed as a guest of his and I am most thoroughly impressed by his manner of living and his creation. So I have built a great structure of my own to occupy, as you can see it is not quite completely barren, I have yet to decide upon appropriate servants or furnishings for this place.” Ohannakeloi patted the rampart with his right claw, “And I contest that this is so high, it is at most a mountain’s distance which can be raised up in stone easily enough to be connected to Galbar once more. Oh but what am I saying speaking of keeps and mountains, you have family Great Orvus! You simply must tell me of them, to surpass you, you must be proud.”

The term of servants peaked Orvus’ interest, and he flew closer to his brother. ”I’ve been aboard the Jiangzhou, only once, and I must admit that Shengshi and I are not on the best of terms. It is good to know that you and he get along. But yes,” he mused, ”Arya and Laurien, Ava and Lily too, with my dear wife Rowan. An odd story of how we all came to be together, one that I will save for another time. If you had known my in the earlier days of Galbar, you would have thought me a monster. Yet, I was shown a better way, a way I never knew I wanted. Thus, Arya came first. To my regret, she and I have a rocky start, but now things are better. To put simply, they are better than me because they are kind, pure hearted souls who strive to better the world. I am very proud.” he said with a relaxed expression.

”I must say however, you seem to be in a predicament, so am I. How badly do you require servants? I have been thinking of an idea. A race of potential, but I do not know if I am capable of creating them alone. Perhaps it was fate that we met, right here, right now?” Orvus said, crossing his arms.

“Fate I wouldn’t know about, but I can say it does seem most fortunate. Tell me of this race, I am most interested in your proposal.”

”To truly understand what I am proposing, please, let us depart to my home. Along the way, I shall tell you.” Orvus said.

“Lead the way.”

”Now imagine this, a race of beings called Nebulites…” Orvus started before leading the way.

And so Orvus spoke as the two drifted closer to his home. He told Ohannakeloi of the Nebulites, what he envisioned and how they might interact with the world. He spoke with passion and what he imagined their future could be in the world. He also told his brother why he had thought of such an idea, and his problems at home. Ohannakeloi was most powerfully drawn in, he had not held much reservation before but to see his fellow god so impassioned weighted heavily to favor the proposed creation.

Ohannakeloi interrupted the other god, “I have heard enough good Orvus, I will help you bring forth these Nebulites.”

Orvus paused in his talk and looked at Ohannakeloi with thanks in his eye. ”Thank you, Ohannakeloi. This lifts a great burden off my shoulders. And of course, you may take as many as you like for your needs. Now come, we are almost there.” Orvus said, pointing to an island with large patches of cleared land.

As they drew closer, the island proper came into view. Fields and fields of beets, potatoes, rice, and yams could be seen sprouting. Wooden homes could also be seen, and from it, two figures fast approaching. One donned armor of white, wielding a sword of the same color. The other was black, cloaked and had a large sword at hand. As they came nearer, their swords were put away when they say Orvus beckoning to them. Orvus then turned to Ohannakeloi, ”Brother, I would like to introduce to you, Arya and Laurien.” he said gesturing to them. ”Girls, this is Ohannakeloi, God of Stone and he has come to help.”

As they neared, their demeanor changed to pure awe. Tears welled up in Arya’s eyes, and Laurien was slack jawed. Arya then blurted out, ”You’re so beautiful, your Holiness.” she said with a shaky voice. Laurien simply nodded her head slowly, as if words were lost to her.

“Why thank you, good Lady Arya.” Ohannakeloi turned to Orvus, shifting his weight on the wall. “Quite well mannered and kind I must say. And this now, armor and a weapon? Most well made I can tell, seemingly of your own essence, to protect them I would presume of you fair Orvus?”

Orvus gave his daughters a strange look but turned to Ohannakeloi and said, ”Yes, another project of mine. Something I learned from a very dear friend. The world needs protectors, God’s can’t be everywhere at once. Thus, Knights will be born into this world, and the Nebulites will be the first members, led by these two. The first of their kind, without even knowing it.” Orvus said.

Arya turned to give Laurien a look, but her sister did not exchange it. Her focus was still on Ohannakeloi. Thus Arya looked back, her eyes welling up again at the radiance of the crab god. ”What ever are you talking about, father? Nebulites? First of our kin- Oh...Oh!” and the sudden realization crossed her face. ”You can’t be serious!”

”But of course we are, my daughter. Ohannakeloi has agreed to help me create a race of beings in our images. With them, I can fix my mistakes upon bringing Rowan, Ava and Lily here.” Orvus said proudly.

Arya opened her mouth to say something, but instead nodded her head. Laurien, still looked up Ohannakeloi with awe in her eyes.

”Come! Let us touch earth and begin. I have words with Rowan and two surprises.” Orvus said.

So the party did just that. Orvus, Arya and Laurien led the way and touched down upon the soil, greeted by three more figures. Rowan, held onto Ava and Lily as the two squirmed in her grasp. They watched as the floating keep landed. Ohannakeloi had set down the Ihomakwoi a fair distance away, catching up relatively quickly as divine beings were wont to do. The keep had first made an impression into the earth with the bottom dome, and as that dome near complete submersion is suddenly steadied, the earth below being turned to stone to support the god’s residence.

When Ohannakeloi arrived next to Orvus, the three fell silent. Rowan looked up Ohannakeloi just as Laurien did, and with tears in her eyes. Ava and Lily, looked upon the crab with wide eyes full of excited wonder. They were giddy as any could be in the presence of such awe inspiring sight.

”Allow me to introduce my wife, Rowan and twins, Ava and Lily. Girls, this Ohannakeloi, God of Stone. He is here to help us.” Orvus said humbly.

The twins began to ask a plethora of questions at the crab, ranging from; ‘Why are you so shiny’, to ‘You’re the biggest crab I’ve seen!’ Meanwhile, Rowan began to cry white tears as she looked upon the crab and then back to Orvus with a look of confusion. ”Girls, girls, remember your manners. Is that any way to treat a guest?”

Ohannakeloi made a noise that could have been a laugh, “Its fine by far, brother.” Ohannakeloi tried to answer their questions or talk to them as fast as they could bring them up, “You know there are bigger crabs then I, I made them, they never stop growing as long as they live in fact.”

Orvus gave a very faint smile and walked over to his wife. He took her hands, releasing the girls who ran over to Ohannakeloi and began to prod him with even more questions. Arya and Laurien were speaking to each other as they watched their smaller sisters play. Orvus then looked Rowan in the eyes and said, ”I am sorry for what I did. I should have told you, or found a way to make it work.” he said, his voice full of sadness.

”Orvus… There’s a lot I don’t know about this world, or even about you, but the fact of the matter is this; I was upset, I still am, but not as I was. I forgive you husband. I understand why you did it, just please, never again. You have to tell me about these sort of things. Okay?” she said softly with a weak smile.

Orvus shook his head, ”You have my word, never again. Now, I have some gifts. One for you and the girls, one for all of you, and one for me. With the help of Ohannakeloi, I’m going to bring into this world a part of the old, and a part of the new.” He then turned to Ava and Lily. ”Girls! Come over here please.” With annoyed sighs they came over and stood next to Rowan. Orvus then smiled, and said, ”This gift is not so much a gift, but a birthright. One that you will not care for until you are older and capable.” Orvus then waved his hand over the trio and Rowan visibly gasped. The girls looked at their mother with concern but did not react like she did. Rowan then looked at Orvus with knowing eyes and a wide smile.

Orvus then backed away from them and turned to face Ohannakeloi. ”Are you ready, brother?” he asked.

Ohannakeloi snapped his left claw, “I am.”

Orvus then walked over to Ohannakeloi and placed a hand upon his carapace. Before them, an empty sky stretching on and on with potential. Both gods rose a free limb up into the sky and willed forth into reality, a people. The sky darkened and up above, Veradax hung dimly as always. It seemed to look down at them, unyielding as ever. Slowly, ever so slowly, the air began to shimmer, with dazzling lights, Pulsing, growing, beating- living. This shimmer took form, humanoid, shapely, with the colors of the stars. These forms condensed into black, reds, purples, blues, oranges and even yellows. White starlights appeared like a splattering of paint upon a canvas. Some had many, some had few, and some had none at all. Patterns and swirls of color formed, as lustrous hair took shape in all forms, some reflecting the same colors of the body and others completely different. Finer details then emerged, as the two genders became obvious, coming in all different heights and shapes but maintaining the same lithe form in some regard.

As the pulse beat even louder, they became known to the world as the rest of the shimmer took form in mundane clothing that covered sensitive parts. And then there was a loud bang, and the world returned with its light. Orvus let his hand fall from Ohannakeloi, feeling briefly drained, but he still looked upon his newest creations. There were thousands of them, and they hovered in the air, oblivious to the world as they slept. Before waking them, Orvus turned around to see the shocked faces of his family, and with a snap, he linked Rowan, Ava and Lily to the Nebulite race. Almost immediately Rowan began to float. Her eyes bugged out as she flailed. Orvus could not help but chuckle as Arya and Laurien helped her, and Ava and Lily complained.

Orvus then turned to Ohannakeloi and said, ”Shall we wake them, brother?”

“It does not do much good if we don’t.”

As the two gods willed, the many thousands began to wake. Ohannakeloi spoke, echoing and emphasizing the knowledge they had implanted in their joint creations. “You are Nebulites! The creations of Orvus and Ohannakeloi, born from the mind of Orvus but jointly formed by our two divine selves.”

Ohannakeloi continued to speak, his sense of presence and his aura helping to forestall any chaos that may occur from sudden existence. “You are made in the image of others and are a people on Galbar, you have within you some knowledge of yourselves, this world and the divinities. Among you are a few who shall travel with me, and the majority shall stay with Orvus and the first of your people. Those who wish to travel with me can go to my keep, Ihomakwoi, over there.”

All Nebulites held eyes upon their makers, with quiet gasps of excitement and joy. Many looked touched their faces and bodies and marveled at the sensations. When Ohannakeloi willed, so too did the Nebulites go who were chosen. They flew to his keep, a perfect sizing, half and half of both sexes to go wherever Ohannakeloi went. The rest that remained looked upon them with curious eyes.

Orvus then spoke, ”Know this, you that remain, this is the beginning of your lives. And I shall teach you many things. Enjoy this day, for it is yours. Tomorrow, the real work begins.” he said before turning to Ohannakeloi. ”Thank you, for helping me, Ohannakeloi. If you ever have a need, do not hesitate to ask. I shall help you if I am able.” Some of the nebulites began to land, while others still hovered above. There was a great amount of curiosity within them, as they learned about each other.

“I did only what any of our fellows should have done in such a position. I am not above taking your offer however, if a time should come I should be glad to count upon you.” Orvus nodded in return.

It was then that Arya and Laurien walked by, with tears streaming down both their faces. They bowed before Ohannakeloi. Arya then lifted her head to say, ”I never thought… Thank you. The both of you. We have a people now.” Laurien then lifted her head and said, ”Thank you, this is… Beautifully wonderful.” They then slowly rose and wandered off into the crowds, to be welcomed with open arms. Rowan, Ava and Lily then arrived before the two gods. Rowan carried with her a look of awe, same as the twins.

”That was… Simply incredible. I-I hardly have words… It was just so… so… so." she stammered. Orvus placed his hand upon her cheek and caressed it gently. ”There’s more. I know how important our old look was, so-” and a flash of light enveloped Orvus, only to fade a moment later. Before them stood a man, bearded, slightly aged, and with a warm smile upon his lips. It was a form Rowan knew all too well. ”What do you think?” Once again, Rowan was speechless, but Ava and Lily wasted no time in tackling him.

“Dad! You look like you again!” Lily exclaimed happily.

“Yeah!” Ava followed, “And you have lips again!”

Orvus chuckled loudly, and embraced both of them, and when he did they too changed. Their starry forms molded away to bring forth pink flesh and green eyes with chestnut hair. Lily’s face was coated with freckles, while Ava’s was not. That was their only identifying mark, for they looked the same. They both looked at each other and pointed, shouting, “You look like you again!”

Orvus then turned to Rowan who had tears streaming down her cheeks, with a small smile on her lips. Orvus then hugged his wife, and so too did her form change as well. Her mahogany hair bloomed, as she pulled away to look at her husband with her amber colored eyes. She then kissed him, long and deep. When they pulled away from each other, Rowan said, ”I’ve been waiting to do that since I woke up.” she giggled. Orvus couldn’t help but smile and said, ”There’ll be plenty more where that came from.” he then gave her another quick peck before turning to Ohannakeloi.

”How do I look?” he asked.

“Good I suppose, you look like Aelius, K’nell, Chopstick Eyes and all the rest that keep that strange bipedal form. I mean bipedalism is quite useful I admit but I hardly see what all this uniformity has to do with it.”

Orvus chuckled, ”It will do. Now come, let us mingle with our creations.” he said, looping his arm with Rowan’s. He then took Ava’s hand and Rowan took Lily’s as they wandered off into the crowd with Ohannakeloi.

The Windweavers

Some time had passed since Rignol’s resurrection, though quite how long was difficult to judge up in the everblue sky. The machine which had given him new life had not stood idle and now the first undead was joined in the sky bastion by five others.

There was Ossian Bem, a humanoid void soul who had managed to form both a Slouch hat and a long over coat on her stone body. Unlike Rignol she had been a lot more forthcoming about her past, claiming to be an experienced soldier who had served as a revolutionary general in several wars of independence, though Rignol noted that she never mentioned if any of the causes she had fought for had succeeded.

Kabarna the fire giant. Her body had deliberate cracks torn into it, causing thin wisps of red verse to spill out and evoke the flames that had burned there in life. Crude depictions of what exactly she would do the squall that had killed her where carved into the stone of her body like tattoos.

Sun Jian who’s kind where apparently only know as Servants. He and the fire giant had been at odds initially, supposedly their creators had been at war for decades now. Neither species had actually fought the other and had instead both had been killed by monstrous creations of the opposing side, but the enmity had been there nonetheless. Azura’s insistence that their new life could be a “fresh start” had eventually cooled their grudge, but not before they all got to see how dangerous their new bodies where, as the small craters littering one of the rooms near the resurrection engine could attest to.

Auk-Ra-Shatara was a bird like creature whose body was clearly avian rather than simply evoking the theme of a bird. He had been stabbed in the back after complaining that his kind’s tendency of stabbing each other in the back was impeding their ability to escape a place called the infinite maze. They had self appointed themselves as the group’s mediator despite their unusual speech pattern making them ill suited for any task involving talking a lot.

Sha’Harim was a gorilla. They had not been one in life, but they had decided to take the form of one as a statement against their creator. What that statement was they had never said. The massive stone silverback did not appreciate being asked either.

The six of them had been raised in quick succession and then run through a series of tests to ensure that everything was working as Azura had intended. Physical exertion and endurance had been tested, revealing that the Armonia bodies where both faster and stronger than the flesh equivalent by a small margin and considerably more durable. They were quite a bit lighter than they appeared and could reduce their weight even further to allow for some rather remarkable feats of mobility, in particular while jumping.

Mental challenges seemed to be just as easy as they had been in life, though the need to stop and remember and reflect semi frequently was both a hindrance and boon. It was also discovered that most of the Galbarian undead had apparently never been exposed to things like mathematics or puzzles. Azura explained to the two void souls that the world they had been brought to was currently witnessing the dawn of mortal life and so the lives of all who were not living in the company of gods were still rather primitive, which was apparently something Azura wished to rectify.
Along with improving the lot of mortals Azura wished for their aid in protecting the soul vault they had come from and help with brainstorming exactly what the replacement for the incendiary death system of Katharsos would look like. Also what to name their new order. Also ideas as to what to do with her divine power in general and, possibly, help with acquiring more power to aid in implementing the replacement afterlife.

At the moment however she was content with teaching them so that they could teach the others once the resurrection of soul crystals really got going at a larger scale. The main skill she handed down to them was the verse, language, music and divine miracles, all woven together. Their bodies, powered by the verse itself, made using it easier and even the most tone deaf among them was able to wield Azura’s magic. Armonia could be raised, wind wielded, Tonnikala summoned and Alma communed with using it, the power to do so drawn from their own souls energy absorbing and storing abilities.

Then at long last, they day finally came. It was time to enter the Vault.

Rignol stood before the massive entrance to the place where he had been housed, yet it was just that. A place. It served a simple function, the housing of crystal souls, which he was one. But he was a cut above the rest, wasn’t he? After learning all he could from Azura, he realized his new place in the world and it was low. Once he would have scoffed at the mere thought of being lowly, but now, it was all he had. Save his thoughts of gaining a respectable place in this new world, no matter the cost. But for now, he would be the dutiful servant of Azura, and in time, grow to be more.

He turned around to face the others and said, “We have a simple task, dictated by Azura herself. Make sure the Vault is functioning properly, and to the highest of standards. Our siblings sleep within after all. Let us not disappoint them, nor Azura. Let us descend.” he said before humming an unknown tune as he turned around. A melody from the past, yet holding new purpose.

“You’re kind of overselling the goddess's instruction there.” said Ossian, the other void soul in the party. “Though at least it’s far more concise.” she added as she locked step with him.

“There is no overselling a divine decree” insisted Sun Jian behind them. The Servant was carrying one of their primary light sources, a single massive red feather that suffused the area around them with the light of the Blue. Auk-Shatara walked, or stalked, next to the servant, keeping themselves in between him and Kabarna the hulking fire giant. The even larger Sha’Harim knuckle walked along behind them all.

Ossian rolled their neck in place of rolling their non existent eyes. “Half the reason we’re down here is because you were curious about it Sunny. Her layering on reasons as to why it’s a good idea for us to check after the fact, does not change that fact.”

“Must you two bicker.” Rignol said from the front. “It matters not if Sun Jian was curious. Azura’s word is final. She gave us a chance at life again, this is the least we can do for her. Do not fool yourself, Ossian. I believe we all feel the same. Curious, just to different degrees.”

“Well yes, I am curious." Ossian admitted “Who wouldn’t be? But that wasn’t my point. My point is that this army/order we are going to be a part of will be one built out of volunteers. I’ve led enough of those to know that your rhetoric is going to cause issues down the line with how it clashes with the recruitment pitch.”

“I will not kneel.” came a rumble from the hulking form of Sha’Harim behind them. Ossian indicated back to the seldom spoken former pigmy, with both arms in order to express see, like that

“Friend-Allies!” interjected the avian Auk-Ra “Please let us cease-pause this arguing like Rignol said. There will be time later once task-mission is complete.” he was ignored.

“No one said you needed to kneel, Sha’Harim.” Rignol hummed. “Nor will my ‘rhetoric’ be detrimental to the recruitment process, Ossian. I am simply thankful to be… Alive again. Do you not feel the same way, perhaps?” he mused aloud, folding his hands behind his back as he walked on. “Hmm, It does not matter now, regardless. But rest assured, Ossian, when offered a chance at a new beginning, seldom do mortals refuse. Do not worry about it.”

“If I had waited I’d have been alive again eventually anyway, and in a far more pleasant manner. That seems to be Azura’s goal anyway. It’s that cause that I see value in following, not her divinity or her string-wrapped generosity.” Ossian replied.

“How can you say that when we owe our very lives to her!” Sun Jian exclaimed

“We owe our lives to other gods as well, who used us as servants and soldiers until we fell.” Kabarna said, the fire giant finally joining the discussion going on around her “Azura may not present herself like ours, but that doesn't mean she’s any different behind that mortal mask she’s wearing.”

“Shengshi and the Flame Demon or nothing alike you cretin” Sun Jian retorted, jabbing a finger past an exasperated Auk-Ra “Take that insult back right this second or else!”

“Stop-cease!” Auk-Ra’s taloned hand grabbed the offending limb thrust across his path and pushed it back to Sun Jian’s side. Their other hand pressed against Kabarna’s stomach in a vain attempt to prevent her from coming closer to the servant and responding to the threat “Do not fight-beat one another again. Vault-Place has enough dead in it already.”

Rignol scoffed. “Please, by all means, throw yourselves to the Gods who used you as servants, and soldiers. You were little more than play things to them. Do you really think they valued you? That they cared for your wellbeing? You died, remember. And who was the one that brought you back from death? Was it Shengshi? Was it Sartravius? No, my dearest companions. It was Azura.” Rignol said, landing at the end of the stairs. He then turned around to face them. “You can owe yourself to any God or Goddess, just know that at the end of the day, the only one that cared, waits above.”

“Now that we’ve arrived, we work in teams of two. Auk-Ra, you’re with Kabarna. Sun Jian, with Sha’Harim and that leaves Ossian with me. You know your assignments.” Rignol hummed again, before turning to Ossian. “Our descent is further yet.” before beginning to move off in the direction of the stairs. The dead general followed him a few moments later after trading a few unheard parting words with the other two groups.

The vault had grown even larger since last anyone had ended it, as the initiation of its true perose had mandated a massive expansion. To Rignol’s left the central chamber now descended ever deeper into galbar’s crust, a faint light emanating from its depths along with a constant wind. Small dots of faint light could also be seen all throughout the vault in a myriad of colors other than red, denoting the location of Armonia guards endlessly patrolling its halls.

“What are you humming anyway” Ossian asked eventually as they descended.

“Oh?” Rignol said absentmindedly. “Just a tune from the echoes of time, I suppose. It’s nothing special. In fact, I’d even say it was quite common from where I came from. Now it only holds meaning to me. Much like this place, a secret.” he said cryptically.

“And where was that exactly?” Ossian replied.

“A place, far, far away.” he said. “One not so different from this world, but different all the same.”

“It’s always none answers with you isn’t it.” Ossian let out an exasperated sigh which was an impressive feat for someone without lungs. “Do you have something to hide or were you just some cryptic fae out of a fairy tale before you died?”

“Now isn’t that a funny word, Fae. I hardly thought I’d ever hear the word again. Why, you know… I heard so many stories growing up, so many fairy tales of perfection and glory, and when I finally set out into the world, did you know what I found? More fairy tales, but these ones were different. They were of evil things that went bump in the night, that stole children, that corrupted them to do foul deeds. None of the stories I ever heard at home, made mention of such monsters. And do you know why, Ossian? Because my people, the Fae, were the monsters.” he said grimly. “Forgive me, if I care not to speak of the past. For like me, it is dead.”

There was only a stunned silence from Ossian. “I… Christ, I am never going to get used to this place.” she finally said, before raising an arm up and scratching behind her head awkwardly “I’m sorry Rignol. I should have recognised it as something you didn’t want to have brought up instead of being paranoid.”

“Don’t be. Paranoia has its uses. You were curious, and wanted to know what I am, where I’m from and more. It’s perfectly reasonable. I’d be far more concerned about whether or not any of it was true.” he said slyly. “Come now, we are almost there.” he said again.

He left the woman behind cursing quietly to herself on the staircase. Rignol then arrived upon another level, this one deep within the earth, hidden between walls and walls of stone. It was a special place, where the other void souls resided. He knew not how many were left, nor if any had come from his own world, but he knew they existed. Without waiting for Ossian, he entered turned into a corridor and halted in his tracks. Inside the room was very dark, save for a few crystals of deep crimson. Which was unlike what they should have been. Cautiously he moved closer to inspect and picked up the crystal.

It felt no different than any other crystal, but something invoked a primal sense of dread within him. It was wrong, and faulty. As he went to put it back, something jumped from the backside of the crystal and onto his leg. He looked down to see a small, arrow shaped creature rapidly ascending his stone body. Alarmed, he panicked and slapped the creature away where it fell to the ground. It did not move for a second, then bolted for him again. Rignol waited for it to get close, then in one swift movement, he stomped on the creature. There was a sound of something shattering, and when he moved his foot all that remained was bit of crystal.

Rignol set the crystal down, and swiftly moved out of the chamber and looked into the others, finding much the same.

“Rignol what the everloving fuck are you doing.” Ossan shouted, having finally caught up with him. She looked about ready to murdur him, but gave pause when she spotted the red crystals he had found. “Explain. Now. No bullshit I swear to god!”

He walked over to Ossian and said, “I’m afraid this time I have no answers. The crystals seem to be… changed, somehow. Worse, I found some sort of creature on a crystal. I don’t know what it was doing, but I can guess it’s the cause. We need to find the others and inform Azura immediately. Now come on, the creature attacked me. There’s no telling what they might be capable of.” He said calmly, before beginning to run.

He left her further accusations in the dust. They were quickly silenced by Sun Jian screaming bloody murdur in his native tongue a few moments later anyway. Ossian caught up with him a few moments after that, a red crystal carved in one hand. She was jumping rather than running, using the Armonia’s gravity defying Luft stone structure to leap up a dozen stairs at a time. “Evidence.” she explained.

The shengshian yelling continued unabated, leading them directly to the source. It seemed that he’d been lucky with only finding one. The servant and gorilla were being swarmed by a dozen of the vicious creatures. Sha’Harim had the worst of it, the large ape unused to his own shape could to little more than violently shake the bugs off of himself as they tried to bore into his body and corrupt his soul. Sun Jian was doing better as the screaming turned out to be less out of fear and closer to some kind of war chant, or possibly just gratuitous swearing, which he cried out while striking at the bugs with the palms of his hands.

Rushing into action, Rignol began to help Sha'Harim deal with his bugs. One by one, he shattered them with his hands as he avoided the mad stomping of the gorilla. All was going well until he got hit in the side, sending him flying into a pillar. Mildly disoriented, he began to rise to his feet and said, "Sha'Harim you must use your verse!"

“No singing!” the gorilla roared as the crashed against one of the shelves, crushing a few and scattering souls all across the corridor. “Pull yourself together man!... ape? Whatever, just quit rampaging so we can help you!” Ossian shouted as she stomped on one of the bugs.

Rignol sighed in annoyance at the Gorilla’s stubbornness, but knew that shouting at him would not help. A part of him wanted to see what the creatures were capable of, and that part of him almost stayed his hand from further helping. But the consequences of such an action would be dire and he thought against it. Instead, he began to hum. The same tune he had been humming all day, but instead of being silent, the hum began to grow louder, more potent and noticeable. No longer soft and sweet, the verse changed to that of power and hidden anger. He moved forward, slowing raising his hands as a wind began to fill the room. He could feel the currents, pulling and tugging, growing all around. Then he pushed with his hand, and all at once the wind was commanded, and a mighty gust slammed into Sha’Harim’s body, relieving him of the creatures, and then he pulled upon the wind with his hands and then guided the current to Sun Jian, washing him clean of the creatures.

Rignol then dropped his hands as his humming died down and with it, the wind. He had not used that gift before, but perhaps he needed to put more time into it. The rush of power was exhilarating, but there was no time to bask in it.

“Run. Up to the upper levels, now!” he said to the others.

The other three glanced at him, then each other and then finally obayed

“That was most impressive Rignol. ” Sun Jian complimented as they raced up the next flight of stairs. “I had not realized you had gained such master of Azura’s holy gifts.”

“Dangerous and reckless.” Sha'Harim said. Whether it was the Ringol himself that was the danger or simply the unprecedented use of power in combat, the former pigmy did not elaborate.

“Less talk, more regrouping.” Ossian snapped at them before asking “Do you know where Auk-Ra and Kabarna went?”

“Naturally.” Sun Jian said before moving to the front of the group and leading the way.

The servant had clearly watched the final groups movements after they separated, for the route they took was not an obvious one. His knowledge lead them to arriving just in time to see a bug forcing its way through one of the self-inflicted cracks in Kabarna’s body. Of her avian companion, there was no trace. Shattered remains of many attackers’ littered the area but what had brought her to the brink of ruin was a wholly new threat. A wind elemental floated a few feet away from her, a beam of glowing electrical energy lashed out from its outstretched hand, striking the undead giant. The power passed though her form, to grip her very soul, and the elemental was using its wind gusts to pin her face against one of the shelves. Its crystal heart was twisted by the corruptors causing its winds to whip about erratically and its solid parts to shudder as it wielded Azura’s power of soul crystals in the name of desolation.

Sun Jian, leading the way, did not hesitate, instead launching himself at the fire giant and gripping the barely protruding legs of the horrid creature attempting to destroy her. Feet braced against her back he pulled with all his might. Yet even as he did so the corrupted elemental raised its hand to grasp his soul too.

Rignol took an offensive stance and began to hum again, but quickly shouted at Ossian and Sha'Harim, "Do something useful!" Before renewing his humming. This time it was more of aggravation and annoyance but still conveyed a musicians touch.

He outstretched his hand at the wind elemental and with it came a torrent of air, knocking into it and throwing its balance off. Rignol did not let up his assault as the creature began to focus its undivided attention on him. Grasping the opportunity Sha'Harim charged, knuckles pounding against the stone floor. The Gust meanwhile fought back, one hand blasting wind in opposition to him while the other shot the soul grasping lightning at the charging ape.

In response Sha'Harim leapt up, hand grasping a shelf to swing him up and forwards. The beam of energy chased him up and caught his soul right at the end of his accent. His spirit was caught, but his body was far larger than it was meant to be and so gravity and momentum overcame the Gust’s power. Sha'Harim came crashing down just beside the Gust. it turned to face him, but Rignol‘s wind buffeted the construct and allowed his ally just the amount of time he needed to headbutt it. Hardened stone met it’s corrupted skin and found it wanting, the skull of the gorilla smashing through the free floating fragments that made up the wind elmental’s own head. It wavered, but did not die. Instead its remaining form buckled in on itself, limbs and chest consolidating in a sphere around its core that burst forth a torrent of wind which forced even the mighty Sha'Harim back.

Then came the faint sound of a whistle, bary audible against the gale that blasted the undead team, and then a loud rapid flute solo that ended with a high pitched tone which pierced the heart of the gust.

The Gust exploded, letting out one final burst of wind that knocked several of them of their feet. It also was the last wrench that Sun Jian pulled the corruptor bug out of Kabarna’s body. Freed from the jaws of double death she came up swinging only to realize they were no longer under attack. She glanced around and was the first to spot the source of the whistling.

Down at the entrance to the corridor they had come in stood the absentee Auk-Ra and Ossian. Behind them stood a green Armonia, twice their height. Its limbs where long and spindly, as was most of its body save for its chest and neck where verse spilled from its stone body, granting it an impressive set of sudo-lungs. In its hands it bore a massive flute, long as Ossian was tall, which it had used to destroy their foe.

“You spineless coward! You left me to die!” Kabarna accused the bird, jabbing an accusatory finger at him.

“No-no, you misunderstand friend-comrade. I knew you could handle yourself as I could not, so I went and got help-support” the bird said, before whistling a tune (it sounded like bird song) causing the Armonia to give her a thumbs up with its free hand.

“One of those things nearly killed me! If someone hadn't pulled it out!” she said, fear touching her anger. She glanced around until she spotted the bug squirming in Sun Jian’s hand “You?”

“Ah. yes. I suppose I did do that.” the servant said as he inspected one of the things that had tried to kill them.

“Thank you.” the giant finally begrudgingly said after a long silence.

“Oh... you’re welcome.” Sun Jian said, who seemed a little surprised that he had been thanked at all.

Ossian coughed before the exchange could go on any longer. “So. They can corrupt the constructs too. That’s probably bad.”

“Indeed, Ossian.” Rignol said, walking over to them, head held high. “Sun Jian, hand that here, and Ossian, the crystal. If you would.” he said, hands outstretched. “I shall go to Azura and give her this dire news. In the meantime, regroup at the surface, get as many Armonia as you can, and then purge the Vault of all corrupted. Is this understood?” he said expectantly.

“You realise there’s only one way in and out right? Might as well stick together till then?” Ossian said even as she tossed him the crystal. Sun Jian handed over the bug far more carefully.

“Of course, my mind was getting ahead of things.” Rignol said, as he grasped the crystal in one hand, and then pinched the creature above it’s head and chest, pinning it in place as it squirmed. “Let us go then, and keep on the lookout for more of those… Things.” he said, beginning to walk to the stairs.

They followed him, back up towards the light. It was a long arduous climb as their descent had kicked the hornets nest. Orvas’ infesters swarmed out of their hiding places and turned curators and Gusts to the task of preventing their escape. Despite this they climbed, amassing an army of their own, the Armonia guards for the vault roused from mindless patrols and forged into a true fighting force. Through song and stone they plowed through the corrupted workers till they reached the entrance of the vault.

They made it just before the desolate forces could cut them off. The flying forces soared up the long stairway leading to the surface. “Armonia. Form Ranks!” Ossian commanded, when it became clear they would be run down if they did not hold their ground.

“Go Rignol” she told him as the song woven constructs formed a shield wall backed by musical firepower in the face of the incoming storm. “We break them here or they break us.”

“Good luck.” Rignol stated, watching them with curiosity before leaving them behind.

A short summoning later, Rignol arrived at the Sky bastion a top a shark. He gave it a curtly goodbye as he made his way inside. His thoughts hung upon the battle, of the power wielded and of Ossian’s many questions. He had her exactly where he wanted her, but he shoved that from his mind as he neared the room of his new conception.

He opened the door, saying, “Azur-” before stopping in his tracks. She was not alone.

”It’s not your fault, Michallis. There was nothing you could do. It was just... fate.” Minerva said coldly, her voice betraying her words. She rested a hand upon a figure covered in a long cloth. Even though the sun shone brightly down upon them in that clearing, she felt no warmth. Only a biting numbness that ate at her heart like some sickness. Michallis fared no better.

The man, who at one time stood so high, with a twinkle in his eyes at all times, was cast lower than she had ever seen him before. He sat a ways away, as if afraid to get any closer. His posture was slumped, and he was coated in dry blood from fresh scars upon his chest, arms, and legs. His clothes were in tatters, but he wore them all the same. He looked vaguely ahead of her, his eyes glazed over, ringed with red. He looked awful. So much so, that she could barely hold her own gaze upon him.

She looked down at the small silhouette underneath the cloth. Gently she pulled back the cloth, to reveal a small pale face of ten years, with little pointy ears and small stubby horns. His hair was black, as were his tiny scales. But his eyes were shut, and they would never open again. Tears ran down her cheeks as she squeezed her eyes shut, but the image had been implanted into her mind forevermore. Death had never been so cruel. She lifted the cloth back up and over Kellin’s head, before opening her eyes again.

”But it is my fault, Minerva.” came Michallis’ hoarse voice. She snapped her gaze to him, beginning to shake her head. ”No it isn’t.” she retorted. Michallis then leaned forward, fresh tears streaming down his face as he balled his fists. ”If I hadn’t wanted to take him hunting, this wouldn’t have happened! We should have stayed home, like you said, but did I listen? No, I didn’t… And… And now he’s gone. Because of me...”

Minerva blinked and then snarled as she stood up, her own left fist balled up as well as she pointed a finger at her partner with her right, ”You don’t get to take the full blame! Stop trying to burden yourself with both of our guilt. You know I’m just as much to blame as you are. I could have went with you, I could have kept him home and and… Just held him in my arms just like when he was a baby. But I can’t do that now, because I wasn’t there to protect him, to protect the both of you. And that, Michallis, is my fault.” she said, before bursting into tears again. Slowly she fell onto her knees, placed her head atop her son’s chest and wept again, gripping him tight. Michallis bowed his head further, and said nothing else, even if he had words to say, she would not listen. Much like himself, she was just as stubborn.

And the entire world grew silent as it listened to the lamentations of a grieving mother.

It was later did they at last bury their child underneath a lonely tree. In time, it’s roots would cradle their child like they had, but now for eternity. They did not speak to each other, even when Minerva tended to Michallis’ wounds, down at the stream. Neither of them ate that night, in their expanded tree house, nor did they share in warmth as they slept. Minerva tried at first, but sleep would not find its way to her eyes as she stared up at the ceiling. Only when the moon hung dimly in the sky overhead did she get up. Taking a single blanket, she walked softly to her Kellin’s room. And in the dark did she lay herself upon his bed and took comfort in his scent. It wasn’t her baby, but it would do. It had to.

Michallis found himself in the nightmare again. It haunted him ever since that fateful day. Over and over again, he was powerless as he watched Kellin die. He tried, in vain, to prevent his son from dying but no matter how hard he tried, nothing ever changed. Then he woke up, alone with the sun barely rising. Things just weren’t the same.

It had been two weeks since that fateful encounter in the woods and he was slowly recovering. He was still sore, but the bruises were starting to fade. Slowly he sat up and quietly got out of bed. He walked to Kellin’s room, like he always did in the mornings, to see Minerva’s sleeping form. She barely left the room anymore, causing him great alarm, nor had she said anything to him since. Every time he tried to initiate a conversation, he was never given any sort of acknowledgement. It hurt him, but he understood.

He moved past the door, and into the food stores. Everything was running low, for he had been too injured to do much of anything. Perhaps it was time to change that. He grabbed a slice of dried meat, and scarfed it down. Then he moved over to a rocky bowl, nestled next to an assortment of clothing. It had been a lucky find one day, out exploring. Michallis then bent over the bowl and used his hands to splash water on his face. When the water settled, he was shocked at his appearance. He was gaunt, his beard unkempt and overgrown. A droplet of water then rolled into his eyes, causing Michallis to shut them tightly as he fumbled around for a towel. When his hands finally found something dry, he used it to wipe his face of any excess water. When he opened his eyes, he found himself looking at a small leather shirt. Kellin’s shirt. His brow furrowed as the weight of emotions came crashing down around him again. He shook his head quickly, suddenly aware of just how many things in their home were of their son’s.

He began to breath quickly and muttered, ”No. Not today. Not today.” as he placed the shirt back down. He needed to get out of there, and since they needed food, he used that as an excuse. He grabbed Minvera’s spear, for his was gone and made his way down the tree. Everything was a reminder of his son, but perhaps he’d lose himself in the forest. For a time.

”Minerva.” came a strange voice. ”You need to wake up.” And she thought for a moment, half asleep, hardly registering. But as her mind broke away from dream weavers, she realized that it was not the voice of Michallis.

With a start, she bolted upright in the bed, covering herself with her blanket as her eyes groggily focused upon a tall figure of black and stars, standing over her. Instinctively she shouted, ”Michallis!” but there came no thundering reply and she was afraid.

”He is not here, Minerva. But do not worry, I mean you no harm. I am Orvus, father of Laurien.” the god said.

At the mentioning of Laurien’s name, Minerva relaxed slightly. She had not seen the woman for a very long time, she had almost forgotten what she looked like. But the appearance of Orvus jolted her memory. She lowered her blanket slightly, and narrowed her brow at the god. A god. It was crazy to think about, to even wrap her head around. She had no idea what to even do. ”Why…” she said meekly before clearing her throat, ”Why are you here?”

”I apologize for the intrusion into your home. I have only come to see if you still occupied this area, for Laurien’s sake. I owe my daughter many things, and she desired to know what became of the ‘Dragonborn’ as she called you. So here I am.” he said.

”I see.” she said quietly, ”And where is Laurien?”

”She resides in the Eye of Desolation. A place, far from here. She wished to come herself, but out of the two of us, I travel much faster.” Orvus said again.

”Well, um, here we are. Doing great.” she said with a fake smile.

The gods eyes narrowed slightly, before turning to a mix of concern and sadness. There was no doubt in her mind then, that he knew. There was no lying to a god, was there?

”Your heart weighs heavily with loss.” he said, bowing his head slightly. ”This place, now only a reminder of what was and what could have been. I know this grief, this pain and no one should have to fight it alone, else we be consumed by it entirely.”

She blinked back tears at his words and nodded slowly. ”Then how… How do I make it go away?”

”Time. And loved ones.” he said.

And Minerva’s thoughts turned to Michallis, wrapped up in his burly arms, safe and secure. She closed her eyes and took a deep, ragged breath. She knew not what to do, but nod in agreement again. She knew a part of her wanted nothing more than to blame Michallis, and another part of her wanted to hate him for the loss of their son, but she knew she couldn’t. It was irrational for her to think she could ever blame him for the accident, or ever hate him for what he couldn’t have done. Her grief was shared with him, after all.

”You know.” Orvus began, ”Perhaps it best if you come with me. The both of you.” he finished, rubbing his chin.

Minerva cocked her head to the side as she looked up at the god. ”Go with you? To this… Eye of Desolation?” she said thoughtfully. ”But… This is our home.”

”A home is a people, not a place. And Michallis is your ‘people’. Despite its name, the Eye is a good place, and you won’t have to be so alone anymore, out here in the middle of nowhere.” he said softly.

It was true, she could not imagine herself anywhere else without Michallis and as much as she enjoyed this tree of theirs… It would never be the same again. ”I… I need to speak with Michallis first. I can’t make a decision without him.” she said.

Orvus nodded in agreement. ”Of course. Speak to your husband. He arrives now.”

Husband? Was that he was to her…? She shook her head and got up. Before leaving the room, she looked back at Orvus, who said nothing, before making her way down the tree. Michallis’ voice was not far behind. ”M-Minerva! What are you doing!” he shouted, dropping the carcass of a deer to his feet.

She smirked, before saying, ”I’m coming down to see you, of course.” and when her feet touched the ground, she turned around to see Michallis standing before her. He still looked awful, but not nearly as he had been. She probably looked no better. There was silence between the two as they looked over one another again, and took in each other’s scents.

Then they both began to speak, before going quiet. Michallis gulped and said, ”You first.” Minerva was about to tell him to go first, but thought better of it. The dragon girl scratched her head before saying, ”I’m… I’m sorry for ignoring you, Michallis. I just… Needed to be alone.” she said, looking to the ground.

”There’s no need to say sorry. I… Understood.” the man said as he shifted awkwardly.
Minerva looked back up at him, ”There is though. You’re hurting just as much as I am, and what did I do? I shut you out, Michallis. I can’t imagine how I would feel if you did the same to me. It’s selfish, and I’m sorry.”

Michallis opened his mouth to say something, but instead gave a small nod. That wasn’t like him, but she found it strangely warming.

”There’s more. You are my love, Michallis. And I am yours. The only way we can…” she paused trying to come up with the right words. ”Make the pain and sadness and grief subside... Is by going through it, together.” she said, a tear falling down her cheek.

”Minerva.” Michallis gasped softly, before moving towards her. He then embraced her, in a tight hug and Minerva did the same. They stood like that for a long time, before Michallis pulled away, still holding onto her and said, ”I’m so sorry.”

”Michallis.” Minerva said, putting a hand on his face. ”It was an accident. If you can’t accept that, then we will never get anywhere, my love.” she whispered. Michallis leaned in to her hand, and shut his eyes. He took a deep breath, and then said, ”I’ll try.” before opening his eyes once more.

”There’s one more thing, Michallis.” Minerva lulled, half closing her eyes. ”Do you want to move?.”

Michallis furrowed his brow. ”Move? But where would we go… Kellin is… buried here.”

”I know. But we always promised him we’d go on an adventure. As a family.” she said misty eyed.

Michallis’ brow relaxed and he nodded. ”Okay. Yeah. Just… Where would we go?”

”The Eye of Desolation.” she said with a soft smile. And as Michallis kissed her brow, she knew everything would be alright, in time.

Awakening II

She stood upon the beach, watching the waves crash into the shore. The smell of sea salt was strong here, and the noise of the sea was oddly comforting. There was a slight breeze caressing her face, and blowing her hair back as she looked out into the far distance. Dark clouds were on the horizon, which meant a storm was brewing, but Rowan knew one had already landed. In her heart, and mind it raged on.

Not three days had passed since she and Orvus had spoken at length about everything. It came as a surprise when she found out the truth, the real truth behind it all. Her appearance, her emotions, her confusion, her children, Arya, Laurien and her husband, Orvus. He was a god, he… He created Arya and Laurien from but a thought and brought herself, Ava and Lily to life from a dream. A dream. She could hardly wrap her mind around it.

Galbar, the place she found herself in, was the material plane and her world was another reality entirely. She grew up there, she had friends and family there, and she met Orvus there. It felt real, and Orvus had assured her it was. Yet Rowan could not shake the feeling that something was missing. A part of herself, perhaps?

She was simply glad that Ava and Lily did not have to be burdened with such knowledge, not yet anyway. They lived in ignorant bliss, what more could a mother ask for her children? They were happy, and that was all that mattered. Arya and Laurien were no different. She was very fond of the both of them, and perhaps one day they would call her mother, but she knew that title belonged to two others. Regardless of that fact, Ava and Lily and began calling them sisters, and that warmed her heart when things felt so wrong.

Then there was this new appearance. Orvus had told her why the change had to take place, and that he was sorry he did not ask for permission. She wished he had. She did not have a problem with how she looked, she simply missed her old self, and her hair. And she missed her husband’s face. She found it fascinating that one could speak and be heard, without lips. But then again, he was a god after all, whatever that meant. That was the thing she could hardly believe most of all, that the man who was simply a farmer, had the power to create with a mere thought. She smirked, wondering what Hank would have to say about that.

But she found that coming to terms with what was truly real and only half real, was personally struggling. Maybe she was still in shock from such revelations, or maybe she did not know what to do with her new found life. But slowly, like the lapping of waves over and over again, she began to understand that it wasn’t so different. Like her world, the ocean still crashed into the sand. There were similarities. She could still be a mother, a wife and a friend. There was no changing that, it was her duty to look after her children, to protect them and watch them grow and learn. She could be a wife to her husband, and all that entitled, and she could be a friend to Arya and Laurien, for they were already practically family. It would take her awhile to really fit in, but she was confident she could.

”There you are.” Came Orvus’ voice. Rowan turned around to see her husband walking towards her, coming in the direction of the large house. He wore nothing still, much to her chastising. Even though he had no… Parts to show, one couldn’t help but try and not be modest to the world.

She gave a fake smile, ”Here I am.” she said enthusiastically.

Orvus tipped his head slightly, and hunched his shoulders as he walked to stand next to her. They both turned to face the approaching storm. ”You don’t have to pretend to smile, Rowan.” he said, turning to look at her. ”We both know you were never good at it. I can tell something upsets you, what is it?” he asked gently.

She sighed, and looked over at him, ”Pretending is all I can really do right now, after everything you’ve told me. I hardly know what to think, Orvus.” she said, leaning her head into his shoulder. Orvus then put a comforting hand around her waist. ”Something still feels like it’s missing. Like a part of me is out there somewhere. Are you sure you brought me over whole?” she mused, only to be met with a long silence from her husband.

”Orvus?” she said, moving her head back up to look at him. He did not look back at her, and his eyes expressed pain and her heart sunk. There was something else. ”What is it? Tell me.”

”I cannot. The answer to your question is… It will only bring you pain, Rowan.” he said sadly, finally looking into her eyes.

But she was adamant. ”No, you need to tell me, regardless. I beg you, please. Please. Maybe it can make me feel whole again.” she said, her voice breaking.

Orvus took both her hands in his own and sighed, ”For you to come to this world, to be brought to life. To live forever. I needed to… Make a sacrifice.” he said, his hands began to shake. ”I did not want to, believe me when I tell you this. I wanted everything to be as it was, but that could not be the deal. You… We... Are no longer capable of having any more children.”

Rowan began to rapidly blink, and she averted her gaze. She let go of his hands and held herself tightly. ”Ava and Lily too? They can never have their own children. We can never be grandparents?” she said, hurt.

”Yes. They will grow, but never be able to have children of their own. I am so, so sorry. I wanted to tell you sooner, but I was afraid of what you would think of me.” he said, reaching out to her, but she pulled away. She looked at him with a mix of anger and sadness.

”The fact that you think I would think less of you, make me so angry. How could you even think that? Why wouldn’t you just tell me sooner? Did you really think I would hate you for such a decision? We have children already, I would have understood, but now…” she paused, her mouth slowly opening as she began to shake her head. ”There’s more isn’t there? You would have told me, instead of me asking, if that was all that I was missing. What else are you keeping from me, Orvus?”

”Rowan, please. You don’t want to know.” he said softly.

”You don’t get to make the decision!” she said angrily. ”Do you have any idea what it’s like to feel like a part of yourself isn’t there? Tell me. Tell me right now.” she said sternly, crossing her arms.

”I do understand. I understand better than most.” he said angrily, before sighing. ”I had to take one of your memories away, and replace it, for your own sanity. I did not want to see you in so much grief because of my decision.” He took a deep breath. ”You… You were with child. Our baby, could not be brought over. So I decided that the baby… would be best-”

”Don’t say that word.” Rowan interjected, white tears falling down her face. ”Don’t you dare!” she said crying. ”How could you! How could you be so selfish? Did you think I wouldn’t find out! How dare you!” she said, covering her mouth as her world came crashing down. It all made sense now, the part of her missing, hadn’t been her after all, but their unborn child.

”Rowan I-” Orvus began.

”Go away.” she whispered, removing her hand. ”Leave me alone!” she shouted at him. Her husband blinked a tear, before he shot off into the sky, leaving her alone. She fell to her knees and gripped the sand before her as she wailed in grief.

It was later, on the cusp of the storm arriving did she a teary eyed Rowan hear footsteps coming from behind her. Soft steps, one that walked delicately. Still gripping her knees, she brought her head up to look who it was, hoping it was anyone but Orvus. And to her great surprise, Arya’s concerned, yet gentle face gave her a smile in return. Rowan turned her head back to the sea, her gaze unblinking as she kept thinking about that child of hers, and the life he or she could have had. Arya said nothing, but sat down next to her and watched the sea as well. The two stayed like that for a long time, as lightning flashed in the distance. The rumblings of thunder followed afterwards.

”Do you… Do you ever feel like you don’t belong? Like, your entire life wasn’t what it was supposed to be and yet-” Rowan began to say.

”And yet we live it all the same. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs.” Arya mused lightly, ”I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, for the longest of times. I was always trying to find a home, somewhere I was wanted and loved. It took me a long time, and I met people along the way that I care for dearly, but it wasn’t until I met Xiaoli, and Hermes on Tendlepog did that I felt those things. They are my mothers and I have siblings, and nieces and nephews but I left… A part of me didn’t want to, but another part of me knew that the world was out there, waiting to be seen. A new life, one that I chose.” she paused thoughtfully, as Rowan turned her head to look at Arya. ”I know you didn’t have much of a choice coming here, or how you came here, Rowan. I know dreams better than most do, and even if that life you lived was beautiful, it will pale in comparison to this one. Dreams are just that, dreams. Are hopes and aspirations, what we desire, what we can’t live without. That was why my father dreamt of you, because deep down, he desired the same thing I wanted. He wanted to feel something, anything, he wanted to be loved. And you do that for him. His decision wasn’t easy, and for that, I am truly sorry for your loss Rowan. I’m not a mother, but I know what it’s like to lose those that we care for, that’d we’d do anything for.” she finished with sad eyes.

Rowan felt comforted by her words, they felt good to hear, and even better to know that another knew what she was going through. ”Who did you lose? If you don’t mind me asking.” she asked softly to her.

”My crew. I was on a ship for awhile, doing a quest for K’nell, Lord of sleep and dreams. Suffice to say, our mission failed and I was the only survivor. I miss them.” Arya said, wrapping her arms around her knees. Rowan’s heart grew sad at her tale, and she put an arm around Arya’s waist as she scooted closer. ”I’m sorry for your loss, Arya. I can’t even imagine…” she let her words die in her throat, and looked back out at the ocean.

”Thank you, Rowan.” Arya said, leaning into her shoulder. The small display of affection was welcoming and Rowan began to relax. ”I was angry at father for the longest time. Ages in fact. I thought he truly abandoned me, and that he did not care but as time went on I learned that the world wasn’t always as we saw it. There came a day when he finally told me why he let me go. It wasn’t because he hated me, or that he didn’t care, it was because he didn’t think he was good enough for me. But I forgave him for it, because deep down, he needed me. He’s done terrible things Rowan, most of which was before he had the dream about you, but now, I don’t even think he could willingly hurt anyone. Least not intentionally, he’s still working on it.” she said with a laugh. Rowan could not help but give a small smirk.

”Do I even want to know what he’s done?” she sighed.

”No, I’ll leave that to him… Just be patient. He’s come along way, but with any journey, we start somewhere. Usually as a different person by the time the journey ends. I like who he is now, and I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s had you, Ava and Lily.” Arya said.

”That’s… That’s good to hear, Arya. I just… I don’t even know what to say anymore. My husband is a god. I’m in an entirely different world. I have all my memories save the one I want most of all and I look and feel so different then what I was before. It’s just a lot to take in.” Rowan said after a moment of thought.

Arya pulled away and sat up, then took Rowan’s hands within her own. ”It’s okay. This is new to all of us, I don’t believe something like this has ever happened before. We can get through this, trust me. I will help you, and Laurien will help you, and we will help out with the children. It’s only been four days since you’ve been awake, after all. No one said you’d figure it all out in a day, dear. And you don’t have to. All that matters now, is that you go at your own pace. Okay?”

Rowan nodded, agreeing with Arya. A part of her felt like a young woman again, being giving the same motherly advice from her own mom. She couldn’t help but smile at the thought. ”You’re good at this, you know and with children, but you are right. When… When do you think he’ll be back?”

”Orvus? Oh, I think he's flown off somewhere. He'll be back in time. But for now, let’s hurry up home before the storm comes in.” she said, helping Rowan stand up.

And they did.


She awoke with a yawn, a long stretch following before opening her eyes. The sunlight beamed in through the window, causing her to squint as she adjusted to the light. There came the sounds of birds chirping, and fragment aromas of lilac and honey wafted through the room. Slowly she sat up, opening her eyes wider to see… An unfamiliar room. The walls were too dark, as was the furniture, she tilted her head to look down at the sheets. But upon the furs, she saw something even more perplexing. Her hand was black. Pitch black, with small pinpricks of light, like freckles. She gasped, and looked at her other hand, and it looked much the same. She flung back the covers, and found herself wearing a white dress she did not own, and beneath it, her skin was black with twinkling freckles.

Her breathing quickened, as she moved her inky black legs to the side of the bed. She stood up, far too tall then she knew herself to be and quickly walked over to the tall, standing mirror in the corner. What she saw looking back at her was alien. She recoiled, and fell backwards with a thump as she stared at the glowing white eyes looking back at her. She blinked, rubbing her eyes as she did but nothing changed. Her amber eyes were gone. Gingerly she touched her face, felt her lips, nose and cheeks. Then she ran a hand through her long mane of black hair, streaked with dark reds, and mahogany, and much like her skin, it twinkled with small pinpricks of light… Not unlike the stars.

“O-O-Orvus!” she called out, her voice much the same as it had been, to her relief. With shaky legs, she supported herself with the bed frame and stood up, slowly taking in her form in a new light. She undid her dress and let it fall to the ground as she stared at her twinkling body. She looked like a night sky and she did not know what to think.

Then there came a knock at the door, and it swung open quickly, to reveal a woman that had the same eyes as her. She was very tall, her hair purple hues and dotted with stars. Her lips turned into a smile and it was then Rowan realized how modest she was. She screamed, covering herself with her hands as the other woman recoiled.

"S-Shut the door!" She yelled and the woman did just that, followed by a muffled "Sorry!"

It took her but a quick second to get the dress back on and then she walked over to the door, glancing at the mirror one last time. Hesitantly she let her hand touch the cool knob and turned the handle. The door opened with a creak and she peered through the slightly opened crack to stare up at the woman from before.

"Hello Rowan, glad to see you finally awake!" she said sweetly, clasping her hands together.

Rowan frowned, she was completely bewildered by how she looked, it was just so strange. She was also surprised that it wasn’t freaking her out in anyway. She felt as if she should scream in fear, but that was not the case at all. If anything, it felt like she was dreaming.

“W-Who are you?” she said in a shaky voice, her hands tightly gripping the door.

”Oh, my name is Laurien.” the woman said, bowing slightly.

”Laurien…” she murmured aloud. It was an odd name, for an even stranger person, but Rowan quickly shoved those thoughts away. ”What’s going on? Where am I? Where’s Orvus and Ava and Lily?” she said quickly, her voice full of motherly concern.

Laurien cocked her head to the side, and gave her a soft smile. ”Relax, take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay. You are in a safe place. Orvus had to leave to the… Uh… He had to go somewhere, but he should be back soon. As for Ava and Lily, they are outside, playing with my sister. They are quite safe, and have been dying to see you.” she said gingerly.

Rowan’s frown relaxed at the mention of her family, but she still had lingering questions. Slowly she opened the door more and eyed Laurien up and down. She wore a light dress, yellow in color that went down to her thighs. The woman was… Very developed and quickly did she make eye contact with her. ”I mean no offense when I say this, but why do you… Why do we look like… This? I’m so confused, and I feel as if I should be panicking or afraid, but all I feel is a mild annoyance that I don’t know why I’ve suddenly changed.” she said afraid.

”I think it would be better if Orvus explained it to you. Just know that what your feeling, or the lack of what you are feeling, is natural in this case. You, Ava and Lily are very special. Something like this has never really been done before.” she paused, slightly frowning. ”I’m sorry, It’s hard to explain, but, come on, Let me show you around. I promise, nothing here will hurt you whatsoever. I know this might come as a slight shock, but this is your new home after all.”

Rowan stood silently, thinking about what exactly her husband was going to tell her to make the strangeness go away. She let out a sigh through her nose, and put her hands through her hair before putting on a fake smile for Laurien.

”My new house huh? Sure, sure. I’d love a tour, I guess. Um, first, I’d like to see my kids. Are they… Are they like us too?” she asked, opening the door fully.

Laurien nodded. ”They are. Both have taken to the change very well. Come on I’ll take you to them.” She said, beginning to walk down the hall. Rowan watched her go, then gently put a foot outside the room and began to walk after her. The tall walls were a dark stained wood, and they reminded her of her old hair. The smell was rich, and pleasant and the day was quite warm, humid even. Laurien glanced back at Rowan and smirked. ”It's not the first house he's built here, but I think you’ll find that this one fits.” They then walked down a long, open staircase with bare walls. Rowan’s eyes went wide as she looked out at the spacious room below. It held all the comforts that she was familiar with, and more it seemed, hidden in every nook and corner. The centerpiece of the room was a fire pit along the entire back wall, made of brick and mortar. Suspended above it was a giant, black sword. Once they reached the bottom, Rowan stopped and took it all in on level ground.

”Rowan?” came Laurien’s voice. Rowan blinked and then looked over at the tall woman. She was standing in front of three large windows. ”Come see.” she said, waving a hand over. Rowan answered her summons, and walked to stand in front of the middle window. Outside, there were three figures laying down in the tall grass, watching the clouds roll over. The middle figure, a woman of glowing white wearing a blue dress, as she pointed up at the sky. Next to her on either side, were two smaller figures of deep purple. Mixed with swirls of lighter purples, and pinks. Their hair looked almost identical to their skin, save that it glowed intensely. Her daughter to the right of Arya was dotted with stars, but her daughter to the left, had none. Just like Laurien.

Laurien’s voice then broke her intense stare and she blinked. ”Her name is Arya. Ava and Lily have taken a liking to her. She’s always been good with children, I think she enjoys their curiosity, or they remind her of herself. The funny thing is, she’s older than all of us combined.” Laurien lulled softly.

Rowan looked at Laurien with a raised eyebrow, but she said nothing more. Her attention fell back to the trio. She could hear her daughters giggling and she couldn’t help but smile at the sound. She could tell them apart just by the sound. Lily, who was on the right, always giggled the most and for the longest. Ava, who was on the left, was more reserved with her laughter, but when she did open up, it was always genuine and pure. Rowan quickly swiveled her body, then jogged to the front door. Her long gown rustling in the breeze as she bounded across the patio and down the steps. To the side of the house she went, and when she turned the corner she stopped and shouted happily, ”Ava! Lily!”

In an instant two small heads shot up, followed by Arya’s own. Ava and Lily then squealed with delight, as they rocketed to their feet and in her direction. Rowan barely had time to bend over before they tackled her onto the ground in a heap of hugs and kisses.

“Oh momma! You’re finally awake!” came Lily’s excited voice as she nuzzled her head into Rowan’s right shoulder.

“I was so worried mom! I didn’t think you’d wake up!” Ava said, her voice emotional and on the verge of tears as she hung onto Rowan’s torso with a solid grip.

Rowan couldn't help but smile at the display of affection. It felt good to be hugged and even better that they didn't not seem to care how she looked and neither did Rowan. They were her daughters after all. And as the girls kept talking, beginning to argue over who missed her more she suddenly went, ”Shhhh. Shhh my darlings. I’m here now.” Rowan murmured as she caressed their faces. ”There's no need to argue.” she said with a laugh. She then sat up and held them both in her arms and lap as they sat. Her eyes fell upon Arya, to see her approaching with a beaming smile.

"I'm so glad to see that you've finally woken up, Rowan! I've been dying to meet you, but don't worry, Ava and Lily have kept me plenty company as we've waited. They're such beauties." she said, her voice pleasant and soft.

Rowan nodded at her as she gave her girls a squeeze. ”Thank you, Arya. It’s very nice to meet you too.” she said with a kind smile. Arya opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by the girls.

"Arya says she's going to take us flying mom!" Lily shouted, squirming with joy.

"Yeah! Like the colorful birds." Ava followed, trying to whistle like the parrots did as she twirled her hair with a finger.

”My oh my. Flying?” she said looking at Arya with skepticism. What did she even mean by that? People didn’t fly.

”Soon girls, soon. I just need permission from your parents, especially your mother.” Arya said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Please please please mom!” The twins said at the same time, jumping up from her lap to stand before her, hands folded in want. Their eyes were big, and hard to resist, but how could she even tell them that people didn’t fly? Why had Arya put such a notion in their head. A shadow then briefly fell across the sun, and she looked up to see Laurien floating down. Her jaw fell open at the sight, as her girls began to ‘whoop’ with delight.

”Wha… How?” she said dumbfounded as Laurien landed with a childish smile plastered on her face.

”I’ve always been able to, since the first day of my creation.” she said proudly, crossing her arms. ”Arya can fly as well, and one day, you three will be able to as well.”

Both the twins then began to jump around Laurien, asking how and when, but the tall woman just laughed. She was bewildered to say the least, but Arya extended a hand and she took it. She stood up, slightly taller than Arya, and said, ”Well… Is it safe?”

”Of course! We are both excellent fliers when it comes to passengers. I’ve had my fair share of them.” Arya mused as they watched the girls try to bring down Laurien by grabbing onto her legs. As Laurien feigned falling over, Lily began to shout victoriously and Ava asked Laurien if she was okay. Temporarily forgetting her worries, Rowan began to laugh, covering her mouth as she did.

As she tried to compose herself, She turned back to Arya and said, ”Well, alright. As long as they’re safe.” Arya nodded, then smiling she turned to the girls and began to walk over saying, ”Oh girls…!” Followed by excited shouting and ‘thank-yous’. It was strange, she barely even knew Arya and Laurien, yet she felt completely at home with their presence and not a bad feeling was in sight. She let out a small, happy sigh as she watched them all.

”Rowan?” came a familiar voice, from behind her. She perked up, and turned around to see… She blinked. The voice of her husband came from a figure she had never seen before, standing next to the corner of the house. She brought a hand to her mouth as she gasped. Though his body was much the same as hers, he looked drastically different than the girls. He began to walk forward, his eyes in a smile, for he had no visible lips. But about halfway to her, he stopped, probably noting the look upon her face. He shied his head away, as if embarrassed or ashamed.

From behind her, Lily’s voice broke the awkwardness. “Daddy’s home!” she exclaimed, running past her mother. Orvus looked to Lily, and his eyes sparkled as he bent down with open arms.

Ava quickly followed in her sister’s footsteps saying, “Dad, dad! We’re going flying with Arya and Laurien!” And he embraced their daughters just as he always had, and Rowan lowered her hand, as her heart fluttered.

”Is that so?” he said, patting their heads as he stood up, ”Now, I hope you girls behave for the two of them. And Lily, remember to not squirm. Go on then, I’m sure Arya and Laurien would love to tae you. Now perhaps?” he said, the words conveying a different meaning.

”Of course! Now will work, come on Lily, you’re mine!” she said, jumping into flight. She then quickly snatched up Lily, who began to scream again with delight.

”And that means, Ava is mine.” Laurien said, placing a hand upon Rowan’s shoulder. She gave her a wink, before letting go. In a couple of strides she stood before Ava, who looked nervous.

“W-Will you go slow?” she asked quietly, looking down at the ground as she kicked the dirt.

Laurien bent down onto her knees and with a free hand she lifted Ava’s chin up. ”Of course Chickadee. I’ll go as fast or as slow as you want. Now come on, we can’t have Lily and Arya have all the fun, now can we?” Ava nodded fiercely, and in one motion, Laurien grabbed her around the waist and they began to float up, slowly. Ava began to giggle, and Rowan watched them disappear over the horizon.

Slowly she let her gaze fall upon her husband, who looked at her with sorrowful eyes. She took a deep breath, then began to walk towards him. He blinked and began talking. ”I know this must all be a shock to you and why wouldn’t it? Waking up in a strange home, full of strange faces, none of which you remember.” she was halfway to him now. ”I didn’t know how you would react, to… All of this. Well I hope? I wanted to be here, but I was called away by one of my… Siblings.” she raised an eyebrow, but continued walking. Closer now. ”You probably have so many questions, so much confusion and for that I am sor-” she placed a hand upon his face, and he shivered at her touch, briefly closing his eyes as she sighed. He placed a hand over her own and said, ”Please say something.”

She opened her mouth and gave a small smile. ”What happened to your face?”





”Lai Qin!” Arya shouted, ”Come back here, you know what your mother said about getting too far ahead!” Arya shouted again, jogging after the small dreamer. The girl’s long alabaster hair blew in the wind as she raced down the sandbar away from Arya, who let out a small groan. But a smile could not help itself from forming on her lips as she watched her tiny legs try to escape her. ”Don’t make me get you!” she said playfully, hearing a squeal of laughter from the girl in return as she renewed her efforts to escape. Arya then broke into a sprint before jumping into a flight after the girl. She extended her hands, narrowing in and plucked Lai Qin into the air. The girl screamed briefly, before beginning to laugh maniacally as Arya flew straight up into the sky. Once she leveled out, Arya held her niece below her, who had extended her hands, now flapping like a bird as she whooped and hollered.

This went on for several more minutes, before (much to Lai Qin’s disapproval), the two landed on the outskirts of a lone tree, sweetgrass all around them. Before Lai Qin could run off again, Arya grabbed her orange hand and pulled her close enough for a quick kiss on the cheek. “Auntieee! Let me go, let me go!” Lai Qin said quickly, trying in vain to free herself. ”No, I don’t think so young lady. Running off, again no less, deserves a punishment…” Lai Qin’s black eyes went wide with fright at the word, ”...Of tickling!” Arya beamed, before assaulting the small girl’s sides. She peeled with laughter, trying to squirm out of Arya’s grasp as she fell onto the grass. Arya was relentless however, and did not yield until the small girl had tears of laughter running down her face. Only then did she stop, Lai Qin breathing heavily as she sat up. The girl’s blue dress was covered in grass stains, and her hair was disheveled. Arya visibly frowned at the sight. Laia wouldn’t be very happy with her. ”Come on, let’s fix you up for mama.” Arya told her, taking her hand and leading her underneath the shade of the tree.

Arya hummed softly as she brushed Lai Qin’s hair. Her strands were thick, and they reminded her of Laurien’s mane and her own to a certain extent, which she had cut to the length of her back. She had her hair up into a bun today, with her bangs reaching the top of her eyes. It was an easy style, one she had stumbled upon a long time ago. Lai Qin’s own hair was a tangled mess after the days excitement and play, and now the little girl sat in front of Arya, playing with a strand of grass.

“Oh no,” came a silky smooth voice, following it was a tall and slender man with crimson patterns covering the left half of his face. The man had walked through some underbrush, clearly on his way to the wood and thatch homestead that sat at the entrance to the flatlands, buckets in each hand. Zhongcheng rubbed a clean chin with the back of one of his hands, his brow knitted. He jutted his chin at the dress, “Has Laia seen yet?"

"No not ye-" Arya began before Lai Qin erupted where she sat exclaiming, "Daddy! Daddy! I flew like a birdie again!" Before running at Zhongcheng. "Lai Qin…" Arya said quietly, still holding the brush in her hand. She couldn't help but have a soft smile on her face, seeing her childish enjoyment. It reminded her of herself, once upon a time.

Zhongcheng grinned and patted the top of Lai Qin’s head with a certain approving calm. He pursed his lips and looked around, turning to speak conspiratorial-like to Arya and his daughter, “Well then, follow me back to the homestead-- I’ll draw Laia out, you sneak her in and get her a new dress? It’s Laia’s birthday, third K’nellsday of Lustroustime after all.” He eyed Lai Qin, “Not a peep.”

Lai Qin had a curling smile as she mimicked tying her mouth shut and nodded. He looked up at Arya, “Come on.” Zhongcheng hefted his buckets of berries and set out at a small jog, only slowing to a walk as his boots cuffed on a downtrodden path to the homestead.

It was a quaint little cottage, clearly designed with both the attentiveness of Xiaoli, but the slight laze of Zhongcheng, making it simple yet efficient. Standing only a story high, it had a unique “c” shape to maximize the space within. Zhongcheng approached one of the clay plastered walls and called out, “Laia! Come look, quick!” Zhongcheng waved at Arya and Lai Qin and the pair ducked behind one of the wings of the cottage.

There was a thick silence as Zhongcheng listened intently, his face stern. Only when the rustling footsteps of Laia sounded near the door did his lips curl into a sly grin. The door swung open to reveal Laia, a curious look in her big black eyes, her fingers scratching at the cyan birthmark that trailed down the side of her neck, slipping under the collar of a very fine woolen dress trimmed with furs.

“What is it, dear?” She said in her soft serving tone, although only slightly suspicious, having been trained to accept Zhongcheng’s unusual excitements with skepticism. The man, however, seemed to ignore the inflection as he plopped his buckets down.

“A nestle of chameleon squirrels, little babes,” He nodded quickly, “Too young to blend into much, you have to see.”

“Oh!” Laia seemed to perk up at this, “I love those little fuzz balls. Hold on, let me get my--”

Zhongcheng grabbed his wife by the wrist, “No time! Wenbo was telling me the other day that the mother moves the babies regularly.”

Laia let out a sharp “oh!” as Zhongcheng led her away, glancing over his shoulder discreetly and flitting a tiny wink.

Quickly Arya got to work, finding a suitable dress for Lai Qin, fresh and clean. To the huff and tuff of the girl, Arya worked quickly to clean her up and to be presentable. As she did, Arya began to feel uneasy, like a slight discomfort that would not go away. Or a sense of foreboding dread. It was minor, but steadily growing as she combed Lai Qin's hair. "Lai Qin, do you feel… Strange at all?" she asked the girl softly. Lai Qin shrugged. "No, I'm just hungry." She said as she played with a rag doll. Arya rolled her eyes at the response and tried to bury it, but the feeling remained all the same.

"Your siblings and parents should be back soon." Arya said, satisfied with her work. Lai Qin's hair was straight, and her dress was a light shade of purple. "Oh don't you look precious! Now come on, let's go greet them!" Arya said. "Ooookay!" The girl exclaimed.

“Qin? Lil’ Qin?” a soft feminine voice called. A face peeked around the corner and locked onto Arya and Lai Qin. It was double-striped on the cheeks in an auburn colour, which contrasted a little bit with her charcoal hair. “There’s my little sister! D’aaaw, look at you! Did auntie Arya make that for you?” A short, slender girl turned the corner and walked over to Lai Qin, kneeling down to hug her affectionately. “Oh, forgive me - hello, Arya!”

"Ping’an! Stoooop, your squishing me!" Lai Qin squirmed in her sister's grasp. "Ah Ping'an, I looked for you this morning but I must have missed you. Wherever had you run off too?" Arya questioned.

“Oh!” Ping’an brushed some hair behind her ear as she released Lai Qin from her grasp. “I was just out picking mushrooms and berries and now I’ve started make mushroom soup.” She looked around. “Have you seen mom and dad?”

"Oh they should be back soon enough." Arya said with a wide smile as Lai Qin went back to playing with her doll. Arya then felt her sense of dread returning, more intense then before. She frowned, then turned back to Ping'an. "Do you feel strange at all?"

"They must have moved!" Zhongcheng's voice came from outside; it was met with a disappointed 'hmph'.

"Nevermind Ping'an, I'm sure it's nothing." She said, walking over to her bag. She had left it there since morning and luckily no one had disturbed it. She sifted through and grabbed a medium sized wooden box then went over to the girls. "Come one let's go give your mom her gift!" she said with enthusiasm.

As their hands grabbed the box, the door swung open. Ping'an quickly slipped the box behind her back, little Qin tugging behind her. Laia, who stood in the doorway gave them a quizzical look.

"What do you have there?" Laia asked as Zhongcheng slipped behind her, snagging his buckets. He discreetly shook his head as if saying 'not yet'. He pushed between the three.

"Ping'an dear, I left my… well you know… down in the root cellar, could you-"

"I'll get it, Father!" Ping'an announced without the grace of her dad and scooted sideways towards the door, tugging poor Qin along with her. Arya watched with a sy smile as they went.

"What's this all about?" Laia cocked a brow, suspicion in her soft voice. Zhongcheng gave her a smooth chuckle and rolled his eyes.

“Nothing special, dear,” he said with a wink. “Come, let’s eat.” Laia made a sly smile and snickered. “Alright, alright, I’ll come along… Say, what are we eating?” Zhongcheng shrugged and grinned, his yellowing teeth shining with all the joy and glee of his youth’s pearly white. “A wonderful mushroom soup that your daughter made!”

They entered the dining room, and while the fragrance of fresh, earthy mushroom soup permeated the air like a cozy blanket, Laia found her gaze locking onto something else. With a gasp, she saw little Qin holding a bucket of berries, specifically raspberries, and beaming like a small sun. Laia placed a hand over her heart and knelt down next to the little girl. “Qin, my dear, did you pick all those for me? This must have taken hours!”

Lai Qin giggled, put down the bucket and tossed her arms around Laia’s neck. “Happy birthday, mom!” Laia sniffed and squeezed back. “Oh, thank you, dear, thank you! My, I’m getting emotional now…”

“That’s not all, though, mother!” came Ping’an’s voice as she turned the corner and presented the box from earlier. As she removed the lid, the box revealed a snapfruit custard pie, its yellow, mushy vulcano-like top of sweetened cream glistening in the evening heliopolis through the window. Laia sucked in a gasp and chuckled. “Oh, you people… What has a mother done to be this fortunate?”

“Well, you’ve been a mother to us,” Ping’an giggled and kissed her on the cheek. Laia giggled back and embraced her daughter. “Oh, my dearest little Ping’an… Alright, now we have dessert! But no touching it until after dinner, okay?”

“Yes, mom,” Ping’an said smiling, though Qin huffed quietly. Zhongcheng chuckled warmly in the meanwhile.

”Happy Birthday La-” Arya began for abruptly stopping. She froze, before slowly turning towards the doorway. The door began to slowly open up, her eyes going wide at the sight, her heart began to race, the sense of dread eating at her like never before. She saw what awaited on the other side, a figure floating above the ground, wearing a black, tattered cloak, far too long to have any practical use. A hood obscured the figures face, but she could feel eyes bearing down into her. An object slowly came to a stop beside the figure, something glowing white even in the light of heliopolis. It was strangely beautiful, before she realized that the object was a sword.

Then the figure threw back it’s hood, to reveal a face she once thought had just been a bad dream. Inky black smoke, almost like flame. The impassive eyes, burning white. The dots of white, eerily reminiscent of stars. It was her father, he had come at last. After so long. Zhongcheng quickly scooted in front of his family, fingers curled into uneasy fists.

”Arya…?” the figure asked, his voice different then it had been, so long ago. ”Is that you?”

There was a lump in her throat as she opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. She didn’t know what to say, didn’t even really know what to think. She had thought this moment would be different, somehow, but not like this.

“Auntieeee, who’s that? He kinda looks like you.” Came Lai Qin’s voice as she grabbed Arya’s hand. The touch made her blink, and she looked down to Qin with a brief smile. ”Oh… That’s just… Um, that’s my father sweetie.” She then turned to Zhenchong and Laia, her face suddenly becoming very serious. ”I need you two to go find Laurien, Hermes, and Xiaoli. Please, take the children with you, and stay there. I will come for you when… When whatever happens is over.” she said in a commanding voice.

“Well, so much for a celebration,” Zhongcheng muttered. Laia gave him a frown. “Zhongcheng, not if front of a--!” she snapped and cut herself off. Ping’an appeared even smaller than she was as she shot frightened glances at the figure and the long, long knife he seemed to carry with him. She took Qin’s hand on her own, though the child seemed a little reluctant to go. “Come on, sweetie, we’re going to see grandma and grandmother.”

“But why now?” the child protested before she was tugged along a little harder as the family passed out the door past Orvus, making certain to bring along the pie and berries. As their chatter slowly faded, mostly angry rants about the total lack of convenience of Orvus’ arrival, the room fell silent.

Arya followed them outside, watching them go with a quiet sigh of relief. She quickly shut the door behind her and then turned to face her father. He did nothing but look at her, as his long cloak drifted in the steady breeze.

”It's been… A Long time, father.” she said at last, crossing her arms as her brow furrowed slightly. ”Why have you come now? Why wait all these years?”

”Arya… I am…” the god whispered aloud before stopping. ”I have no excuse. I’ve had… A lot of time to think… About everything and my place in this world. Over time, I realized that my greatest failure, was abandoning you to Galbar. I never should have said that you were a mistake. I should have treated you as my daughter. I know, perhaps, that my word means hardly anything to you, and it shouldn’t, but I am sorry, Arya. I do not ask you for your forgiveness, for I am unworthy of such a thing. I-”

”Stop.” Arya said, tears running down her face. ”Just stop. Do you know what you put me through? Do you know how lost and afraid I was? Do you know what it felt like to be ripped away from your home without a choice? Do you have any idea how much I came to resent you? I hurt people because I could not see you! I murdered Servants because I was angry that no one woke me up when you came to ‘visit’ me! I hated myself because of the powers that came from you! I never wanted to see you ever again, I didn’t want to be ‘his’ daughter. Why? Why don’t you love me? What did I do? What did I-” she said breathing heavily, an angry look in her eyes. Orvus stared at her with, his own eyes flooded with sorrow. She felt flustered, not even knowing why she was ranting like a child. But for some reason, it felt good to finally get it off her chest.

”From the moment you came to be, from the second I laid eyes upon you, I loved you Arya.” Orvus said, touching down on the floor as she froze. ”But I could not give you what you wanted then, I just… Couldn’t. I was broken at my core, perhaps I still am and I told myself that I was doing the right thing, to send you away from that place. Veradax would have killed you, Arya. It is not a place one should call home, especially as fragile as you were then. I regretted that decision the moment you left, I should have went with you. Should have taught you the ways of the world. I should have raised you as a father. It was never your fault, do not blame yourself for my inability to be there for you. I will never be able to forgive myself for what I have caused you to feel, Arya. I… I came here to see the both of you and try to reconcile. I know both of you have many reasons to despise me, even hate me, but I wanted to try regardless. But I… I should go…” he said slowly turning around.

Arya said nothing, shocked by the confession she thought would never come. It was a lot to take in, even more to process, but the moment he finished, Arya broke into a sprint, crying ”No! Please don’t leave! Please! Don’t leave me again!” Orvus turned around with frightening speed at the sound of her heartbreaking voice, and Arya flung herself into him. And in that moment, the two embraced. Arya clutched the cloak tightly, sobbing into his chest as Orvus held her tightly. He said nothing as she wept, letting out all her frustration and anger and sadness in a flood of black tears. When she could cry no more, Arya spoke in a small voice, ”I was going to give up on you. But I was told I shouldn’t so easily lose hope and I never did.”

”I am glad you did not, Arya. More than you will ever know. I… I will not leave you. Not again.” Orvus stated firmly, letting her go but he kept his hands upon her shoulders. They stood around the same height now. ”You’ve grown daughter. More ways than one I think. And… You did not have lips or a mouth, how?” the god asked. Arya gave a faint smile, ”Well… I fell asleep for a long time and when I woke up, they had developed. It was strange at first… But it feels natural now. Do you know why?” she asked sheepishly.

”I am unsure, perhaps it is just in the nature of what you are. There was never a defined blueprint for you or your sister.” he said, and Arya nodded.

“This one should be tested, creator.” came a deep voice, that made Arya jump. She looked round but noticed no one else but them.

”She is not…” Orvus paused, turning to the sword. ”Are you sure, Wreanun?” Arya cocked her head, unsure of what was going on and then the sword spoke, it’s voice impossibly deep, “I am.”

Orvus turned back to Arya and said, ”This is Wreanun, the Sword of Ending. He is a weapon, the cultivation of a quest I first set on years ago. When Laurien was attacked by a divine creature, I realized how… frail she truly was and it scared me. So, I came up with a solution. Wreanun is that solution, but he requires someone to wield him. It is not my place to do so, and now, he wishes for you to be tested. Simply grab the hilt and he will judge your worthiness, Arya. But be aware, if he finds any unworthy… There will be consequences.”

Arya looked over the blade with inquisitive look before turning back to Orvus, ”I don’t know… What would I even use him for outside of killing things?” she said dryly.

”I can’t always be everywhere to protect those that I care for Arya, Wreanun has that potential to be a deterrent. I will not lie to you, for it would serve no purpose, the sword is an effective killing tool, but it can be used for so much more. To protect those that need protection, to be a guiding light for those that have fallen, to strike fear into those that would cause senseless destruction… To be a Knight, Arya. For that is what such a blade would bestow upon you.” he paused, before saying, ”Yes, It was born of desolation, Arya, but I have learned… That we can use such tools against their purpose, to forge a better one. By all means, I owe you everything, but you do not have to be tested if you do not want. It is your choice."

”A knight…” she whispered aloud. ”That sounds… I’m sorry but where did you learn of such a thing, father? I’m sorry if this sounds mean but… I never expected such words from you.”

Orvus nodded, ”I am not offended child, it is a sensible question. I learned from a very… Dear person. Her name was Silver and she made me… Better.”

Arya nodded slowly, she had heard the name before, when Laurien told her everything about her mission and duty and her loss. She knew not why her father did such a thing, but she no longer felt that he was such a cold being. Her death… why it had to happen, there was a story there. But Arya’s gaze fell upon the sword again and the sword floated closer to her. All her life, she wanted to protect those that needed it. She wanted nothing more than to help people and she had. But the sword… Could it allow her to help more? Could she become such a ‘Knight’ and be a champion for the downtrodden? Were there even downtrodden? But that was a foolish question, for it was not just people in the world. There was life itself, to the trees and plants, and to the animals. There had been conflict on the Dragon’s Foot, people had died, could she have helped prevent such a thing? Could she have saved those souls?

Slowly Arya reached out and grabbed the hilt. There was a stinging sensation, then a prickling all over her body. She stood firm however as the sword began to glow bright, brighter than anything she had seen before and so she shut her eyes. Then there came a loud clang and the world returned to normalcy. Slowly she opened her eyes and she gasped. In her hand was Wreanun, the sword pulsing to her heartbeat, and she was covered neck to toe in some sort of white clothing. It was hard, not like normal cloth and exquisite beyond anything she had ever seen before. It was comfortable, as if she was always meant to be wearing it and she felt so strong!

“We are bonded.” Wreanun’s voice rang in her head.

”We are.” she gasped, turning to Orvus. ”What is this?” she asked.

”That is armor, your armor. The sword defends its wielder, Arya. You are no bonded with it, and he will always know where you are. Simply call his name and he will come to your aid. Know his however, the sword needs your hand to fight, it cannot do so alone and if you ever must fight, he will guide you. Be strong, and you will have nothing to fear.” he said.

There came familiar voices in the distance, getting steadily closer: “... I don’t know! Laia said Arya needed help, so we’re helping.” It was neither Xiaoli nor Hermes - the voices had a deep, masculine character - but Laurien’s groan could be heard among them. ”For the love of all that is good, stop arguing, it’s probably no-” The tall woman stopped as she rounded the bend, coming face to face with her sister but more importantly, Orvus. Her eyes went wide as she gazed upon Arya’s figure, even more so then Orvus.

”Laurien.” Arya said softly, before turning to her brothers. ”Wenbo! Temüjin! You are not our mothers. Where are they?”

Wenbo and Temüjin both carried long sticks. Wenbo’s one blue-ringed eye squinted as the other raised its brow and he looked up and down Orvus. The two Dreamers bowed and Temüjin scratched his red-striped chin. “Mom and mother were unfortunately nowhere to be found in our hurry, so we had to come instead. Laia’s waiting for them in case they come back, though, so they might come over soon.” Wenbo looked Arya up and down and blinked. “I, uhm, I know we haven’t seen each other in some time, but did you change your wardrobe? It looks… Tough!” Temüjin nodded approvingly.

Arya sighed, letting go of Wreanun for the sword to stay floating. She blinked at that, but then walked towards her siblings. She gave Wenbo and Temüjin a half hug and then hugged Laurien, who felt her new ‘armor’ up and down. ”Very hard. But how?” she said looking at Orvus. Arya then said, ”Thank you for coming Temüjin, Wenbo. My clothing is something called… Armor. And uh, this is… Orvus, our father.” she said, glancing at Laurien.

”Dreamers.” Orvus nodded at the two.

Temüjin pursed his lips and nodded. “Divine parentage, huh. Yeah, you did mention it once or twice, I think. A pleasure-- Uh, I mean, an honour to meet you, great Orvus!” He grinned sheepishly and bowed again. Wenbo knocked two fingers on the armour and hummed. “Armour, huh… Say, would His Holiness want some refreshments while He’s here? I think I know where Laia hides the cakes.”

Temüjin nodded. “Could make some tea, too.”

Orvus shook his head, ”I do not eat, nor do I drink. Your offer is appreciated.” Orvus answered for himself.

Arya then said, ”I appreciate you both coming, but Laurien and I will be fine. We have… Much to discuss. But if Hermes or Xiaoli pop up, just send them to our house, okay?”

Temüjin gave Wenbo a frown and the elder brother furrowed his brow. He leaned his stick into the bend of his arm, covered his right fist with his left hand and bowed. “Yes, of course. Be safe, you two. We will come by later to see if you need anything unless mom and mother get there first.” They both turned to Orvus and repeated the gesture together. “May your dreams be fulfilled, Your Holiness Orvus.”

A short flight later and they arrived at the house of Arya and Laurien. It was a large, two story manor, designed by Xiaoli and crafted with the help of Arya and Laurien. It was Shengese in nature, with elements of the cabin Laurien was fond of and it sat a bit farther away from the other houses. The specifications were much larger than the other houses on Tendlepog, due to the two sister’s heights. Because no one really knew when Arya would stop growing, they built the house with Laurien in mind and everything fit to accommodate her, comfortably. As such, Arya was also comfortable, when she finally stopped growing.

Arya was the first inside, with Laurien following behind. Her face was devoid of any emotion as she walked into her house. Without saying anything she walked over to a cabinet and brought out a tall bottle. Next she uncorked the bottle and took a sip. Arya gave her a scowl but said nothing else as Orvus entered the room, looking around the room.

"Welcom-" Arya began before Laurien cut her off. "Why are you here?" she said, staring at Orvus. The God turned his gaze to Laurien and said, "For many reasons, Laurien. Chief among them, you and Arya."

Bottle still in hand, Laurien crossed her arms and furrowed her brow. "How did you find us?"

"I assumed that you had found Arya, and upon Tendlepog you were. I would have found you regardless even If you hadn't been here." Orvus said as he explored the main room.

"It's been a long time father. Way too long. You never came to look for us sooner. We could have been dead or captured or... or something else entirely!" Laurien said angrily.

Orvus stopped in front of a massive family painting. Laurien and Arya stood behind many children old and young. He could only assume that the ones who looked older were Xiaoli and Hermes. He then turned to Laurien and said, "I would have known if something happened to you. To either of you. Besides, it was you who said you did not want to talk to me. Silver-"

"Don't! Don't say her name! You murdered her, remember? Or did you forget her just like you forgot us?" Laurien said, the bottle breaking in her hand. Purple liquid fell to the floor as the air took on a fragrant smell. Arya's armor dissipated as she went to Lauriens side. Purple liquid stained her hand as she tried to look Laurien's hand over. The tall girl growled and pulled away from Arya, as she stared daggers into Orvus. There was a tense silence in the room as the three waited for the others to react. Laurien then looked down to her hand, before turning her head to see Arya’s hurt face. In an instant, Laurien softened her expression, and outstretched her bleeding hand to Arya, murmuring under her breath, ”Sorry.” Arya took her hand gently and began to look at it.

Suddenly the door jumped, a stuff fist knocking it twice. Without any more ceremony, it creaked open and Hermes took a half step in. Her body was wrapped in her cloak, a small haze of cloudlings around her head and a flickering shadow crow on her shoulder. Her eyes squinted at Orvus as she took another step in. The dreamer was quiet, thinking. She looked between the two sisters then back at Orvus.

"Is everything alright?" Her first question was stiff and suspicious, but laced with care.

Before Arya or Laurien could speak, Orvus stared past Hermes shoulder and at the crow. ”K’nell.” was his greeting word, then he looked upon Hermes for the first time. ”Hermes. You have my thanks for taking Arya under your wing.” before his voice ushered back the silence.

Arya then looked at Hermes, and said, ”Everything is… Well… We’re working on it. And I need a cloth.” she said to herself as she crossed the room to a cabinet. Laurien said nothing, but looked at the floor. Wreanun, not one to be forgotten, floated next to Hermes.

Hermes glanced over at the strange sword and furrowed her brow before looking back at Orvus, "Oh, yeah. Well if you plan on thanking everyone who loves Arya around here, you have quite the list -- but it was my pleasure." She forced a smile through her confusion, "Do you all need some privacy?" She backed towards the door, her haze of cloudlings retreating with her, but the crow maintained its stare.

Arya’s voice came from across the room, ”No, stay. You’ve been our mother for the last… It’s been awhile. I’m sure whatever is going to be said, will benefit you too.” she finished, her voice growing louder as she walked back over to Laurien with a ceramic cup and a cloth. ”Come on, let’s go wash it.” Still Laurien said nothing as she let her smaller sister walk her over to the wash basin. There Arya began to work, humming a tune. In the meantime, Orvus stood looking at the two, before his gaze fell upon Hermes forehead.

”I thought so. Your mark resides upon Arya’s hand, as well. I take it this has some significance?” his eyes moved down to Hermes' own.

She gave him a blink, "Well I did say she was awfully loved," she nodded and looked at Arya, "I don't think it is my place to answer this for you, though."

Without missing a beat, Arya spoke as she worked on Laurien’s hand. ”The mark of K’nell, father. Anyone with the mark is under the Lord of Dreams protection. He made me a Ward, a very long time ago. We have an interesting relationship, he and I.” came her soft spoken voice. She turned briefly to look at Orvus, but like as she remembered, his expression was blank.

She went back to work, wrapping the cloth around Laurien’s hand. Orvus then spoke, turning to look at the shadow crow. ”This… Eases my mind. You have my thanks.” He then looked at Hermes again, but said nothing.

"I'm sure no thanks are necessary," Hermes presented her trademark smile, "But if you'd like, I'm sure we can arrange a meeting if you'd like to talk to him properly -- I." She paused and chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, "I'm going in that direction come dawn, which is something I needed to tell Arya, actually." She looked at her daughter, eye flickering from Laurien's hand, "Well both of my daughters, of course." She was now walking across the room, finding a good spot to lean against near the pair.

”That will not be necessary.” Orvus said, finding a chair and sitting down in it. Arya cocked her head, cleaning her hands on a dry towel as she looked at Hermes. Laurien then looked at Hermes, her eyes narrowing slightly, as if thinking. ”Oh?” Arya began, ”Where are you going?”

"I've been called to Limbo for… something important. I will be gone for a while -- Xiaoli and I will be gone for a while." She folded her arms under her cloak, "I wanted to ask you some things but I have a feeling you already have some new things to process and go over." She gave the table a tiny smile -- one of recognition rather than happiness.

”Limbo… That’s dangerous. You know that, right? Of course you do.” Arya said quickly, then grabbed Hermes hand. ”It’s okay. Go ahead and ask. Processing can come later.” she said with a smile.

"Oh no no," Hermes shook her head, "This is far more important than my silly adventures." She squeezed Arya's hand, "Spend some time with your father, I'll make sure I don't step a foot towards Limbo without saying goodbye. Come by the estate, yeah?"

Arya frowned slightly, but nodded her head. She let go of Hermes’ hand and gave her a quick kiss a top her head. ”Okay, momma. We will.” Arya said, looking up at Laurien, but Laurien’s gaze was on Orvus. She scrunched her nose and let out a small sigh. ”Hmm, perhaps it's best if we three talk alone. Come, let me walk you to the door.” She said, looping her arm in Hermes’.

"O-oh," Hermes looked over Laurien carefully, "Well if any of you need me… you know how to get me." Her face twitched, that motherly glint in her eye, "Oh, do you want me to leave the crow, or the cloudlings for company?" The crow squawked at this.

”If it pleases K’nell.” Said Orvus, before Arya could speak. This time Arya frowned, ”Don’t worry mom, everything will be fine, but if we need you, I’m sure you’ll know before I get the chance to even leave the house.”

"Okay," Hermes gave the girls a reassuring smile as she was ushered out, "I'll be around!" The door clicked closed.

Arya turned around and looked at Laurien. ”What was that about? You didn’t even say anything to her!” But Laurien did not respond, instead, her staring match with Orvus continued on. Arya walked over to the middle of the table, and banged on it, making Laurien flinch. She looked at Arya with an annoyed face. ”Why did you do that?”

”Why did I do that? Maybe because you ignored me! Why didn’t you say anything to mom? She looked worried.” She said, putting her hands on her hips.

Laurien crossed her arms, her expression softening. ”I… Don’t know. My mind is a little preoccupied by him.” she said, nodding her head at Orvus. Arya sighed, bringing a hand to her face and holding it for a moment, as if in thought. She let it fall after a moment and said, ”Sit down. We are going to have a talk. All of us.” Laurien hesitated, but with a dejected stance she pulled a chair out opposite of Orvus and sat down. Arya then sat in the middle and awaited to see who would start.

”Why did you kill her.” came Laurien’s sad voice.

”Child, I told you before. K’nell came with the rest of the Li’Kalla shards. Silver was the final piece in that puzzle.” he said.

”No. Why did you kill her.” she said, her voice brimming with anger.

”I did not want to, she was my friend but I promised her I would help when the time came. She did not feel any pain, Laurien. I made sure of that. She simply fell asleep, and then nothing. I gave her life, and she used it to her fullest extent. It only seemed right that I would be the one to… end that life. I am sorry.” he said sadly.

The silence returned after his confession. Laurien turned away from her father, and off to the side she looked. Tears fell down her face when she finally turned back to Orvus. ”Did she… Have any last words?”

”She said… She said she was grateful for the life she lived and it was going to be okay, Laurien.”

Laurien took a deep breath, wiping the tears from her eyes with a sleeve. ”Okay. I… Still can’t forgive you, not yet… But perhaps one day. I just… I was supposed to go back and see her again. She was waiting for me.” Arya stood up, no longer able to watch her sister’s pain. She walked to her side, and then gave her a tight hug, which Laurien gladly returned, burying her face into Arya’s shoulder as she wept again.

”I understand Laurien, I do.” came Orvus’ voice, ”We are emotional beings, we feel more strongly than others do. Both a curse and a blessing but in the end, it makes us stronger. You will endure, not because you want to, but because you have to. Come now, daughters, I am going to tell you everything. And then you can finally judge me for what I have become.” Arya was the first to turn her head and look at Orvus and when Laurien settled down she too looked upon their father. His eyes were sad as Arya pulled away from Laurien, giving her sister a comforting squeeze upon her shoulder before sitting down.

”It all began in a place beyond places…” he began, starting at the beginning of his existence, and all the newfound pain he had been born into. He gave them visions as he spoke, showing them the great gathering, Seihdhara and the meteor. He told them about Veradax, about the moons explosion, about his first dream, and his battle with Phystene. The image shifted to the Mar Tree’s purpose and the nature of soul decay. Then he showed them his second dream in its entirety. For it was the catalyst for his change. Then Arya came, and Laurien watched as she was cast out of the Moon, and she knew that was one of his greatest mistakes. For she realized that her father wanted what the dream gave him, but was too scared to admit it, and thus he sent her away.

He then showed them of the Gate Lord, the Reaper Queens and their spawn. Dark creatures made for a terrible purpose, but he had only made them so people would hate him, for who could love such a being as he? But then the image changed to Orvus, sitting in front of a small field of growing plants. It was a calm, sunny day and he took solace in the fact that such a thing was possible not because he could do it, but because he wanted too. Then Arryn came, and Arya’s heart grew excited at his appearance and knowing that he was fine. And then came Silver, the one who pushed him to change even further. The house he built for her, and the fields they grew together. He showed them of their many conversations, how she made him see the error of his ways, and the great beauty that could be. She had helped him and for that Arya was grateful.

He then showed Laurien’s birth and their meeting with Katharsos. Then Laurien was gone, looking for Arya. He did not show them how Silver died, but they could feel his pain when the time came at last. Then he showed them the orb, and it’s strange questions. Then he showed them the Vault of Souls and its location, and what he had put there as a punishment for Azura. Then he showed them his anger and the birth of a Demigod, known as Ikarus. Who was their brother in a way. Then there was the anger he felt at seeing Laurien attacked by Vrog, and his great sadness that came when she told him to leave. He went back to the orb and it showed him that Rowan and that dream life could be real, but Orvus knew he was not worthy of such a thing. Not until he made things right with his daughters. Then there came a long montage of searching for items, and then the forging of Wreanun and then the moment he saw Arya and then Laurien.

When the images finally stopped, and their eyes came back to reality, the world had grown dark outside. Both of the girls sat silently, reflecting on what they had witnessed, and how they felt knowing their father in such a way. Arya realized that he had changed, just as she had grown and changed as the world moved on. He was different, more caring in a way that at one time, he probably thought impossible. And yet, he had made so many mistakes, just as she had done. She was her father’s daughter.

”I… I don’t know what to think.” Laurien said, her voice on the verge of faltering. ”You’ve done such… horrible things but why… Why did you create us?” she asked, looking to Arya, whose expression was one of confusion, before they both looked to their father with pleading eyes.

”I created the both of you, because I wanted too, whether I knew or not. Each of you, are ten times the person I can ever be. You are the best of me, the best of this world. I have created so many, terrible things, and I have so many mistakes but the both of you are neither of those things. You are not a mistake,” he said looking at Arya, ”You are my daughters, a part of me lives in you, and instead of embracing it, you have done the opposite. You have a life here, a family and you have each other. The both of you are not the monster that I am, you are Arya and Laurien and you will do great things in the time that has not yet come. I know this, because a father’s love is nurturing. Yet, even though I know I have been a horrible father to the both of you. I’ve always wanted you to be better than I, and you are. You are, and that’s all that matters. I know I cannot ask this of you, but what the world needs most, are protectors from the threats I’ve made and beyond. It is a selfish request, that I would ask this of you. But I cannot undo what I have done, not easily. For now it exists and is apart of this world, intricately serving a purpose. But by a mortals hands, change comes.”

Laurien looked at the table before her, the all too familiar silence returning. But she sighed. ”Thank you.” she then whispered before looking up, ”That means… A lot to me. I’m sure I can say the same for Arya. But tell me something, father. What do you expect us to do? You said it yourself, we are only mortal. You saw what Vrog could do, how would we even be able to fight such threats, let alone survive them?”

Orvus said nothing, but turned to look at Arya, who had remained motionless as she sat, hands scrunching her dress with her lap. She was thinking about everything said, everything wanted and she came to the conclusion.

”Knights…” Arya whispered, then looked to Laurien. ”You wanted to be there for Silver, you wanted to return. I almost forgot, but do you remember what you told me she called you? Her knight, returning home to… Well that part doesn't matter, but what does matter, is that you still be a knight, Laurien. We both can. And… We can protect people. We are not the only mortals in the world, there are others, I know it. Just like when we opened our eyes for the first time, they will be lost and need guidance. We can be that guidance.” Arya said with a warm smile.

”Your sister is right. I have already provided one weapon capable of helping, and yours will come soon enough, regardless of the choice you make. I promised myself that my daughters, would never be hurt by another divine and such weapons will promise that. But…” and Orvus paused here, his eyes glancing to the table before looking up again, ”What would you say if I made… If I brought Rowan and Ava and Lily to Galbar? Would you think me even more selfis-”

”Father.” Arya cut in, ”This isn’t selfish, it’s only natural. The day you helped a lost, lonely shard of a person, and gave her a choice and a life… You were worthy. This relationship that you have with the both of us… It hasn’t been easy and it’s been full of bumps along the way, but… This is the father I would love to know more of, and to have in my life. You have a lot to make up for, but don’t deny yourself happiness. It might surprise you.”

”She’s right. You don’t need to be worthy to want your family. You have the power to bring them to life, why not? Personally… I’d like to meet this Rowan.” Laurien said with a smirk.

Orvus bowed his head, ”Very well. Now… Let us talk of knights.”

”The Heavens Weep”

The skies reverberated with mighty booms, like the drumming of Kirron. Lightning flashed, illuminating the world outside of the cramped cave for a few brief moments, showing the torrential downpour. There were hushed whispers, private conversations as the Selka within sat and watched. The tribe was large, and as cramped as the cave was, it was a certain kind of cozy. Pups and children slept besides or on their parents, while a few were reassured the storm would not get them and to sleep. Most adults watched the storm, hoping it would pass. There was a certain fear in the air, for such a storm had been the worst anyone had seen in a generation. They had been forced to flee to the cave, else they be swept away in their homes down by the sea. Delphina would not have them just yet.

“Harwa! Hey Harwa! Come over here!” A tall Selka shouted above the noise. Many parents looked at him with anger, some even ‘shhh’d’ him. Harwa, who was watching the storm at the mouth of the cave, turned back to Menes. The older Selka had a gleeful smile on his face, as he beckoned for Harwa to come over to him. Reluctant at first, the younger Selka walked over the Menes.

“Menes, you seem excited. What is it friend?”

Menes grasped him by the shoulders and said, “I’ve figured it out!”

“Figured what out?” Harwa asked.

“Do you remember when the night terrors started? When the moon hung in the sky large? When the great night light illuminated the ocean?”

“Uh… Yeah. What about it?”

“Ever since then our luck as been down! First the accident at sea! We displeased Delphina, I know it. Then there was the time that little Grottu boy slept walk off the cliff? And now this storm of storms! It’s all connected, Harwa. We’ve angered the gods somehow, we’ve angered Kirron and now he sends these terrors and accidents to punish us, but I know what we have to do!” Menes said enthusiastically.

Harwa began to shake his head, “Menes… When was the last time you slept?”

Menes drifted back, blinking, “Well uh… It doesn’t matter!”

“Menes, the gods are not angry at us. What has any of us done to deserve such punishments? It’s just… life. There doesn’t have to be an explanation for everything.”

The older Selka began to huff and he opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, his gaze wandered to the mouth of the cave as lightning flashed. He rubbed his eyes as darkness took over and looked to Harwa. “I think you might be right. Harwa my boy, I haven’t slept in a couple days. I think I’m starting to see things.”

Harwa, with a skeptical expression, turned around to the entrance. There was nothing but rain and pitch blackness but… He squinted. Was that red?

Lightning flashed, revealing something large and black before the cave, but as quickly as it was seen, the figure molded back into the darkness as the lightning died. Harwa turned back to Menes, with fear in his eyes.

“You saw it too…” The old man said aloud, “We need to te-” before he could finish his sentence, an ear shattering screech pierced the downpour of rain. The sound was something terrible, and unlike anything he had ever heard before. Then it ended, replaced by the rain once more. Inside the cave, hushed whispers silenced as eyes fell upon the outside world. Harwa turned back to the entrance, and as the lightning flashed, he saw more figures. A sense of dread overtook him and his breathing became quick.

Fearing the worst, Harwa spun around, shouting “KIA!” Then Menes screamed, and fell backwards, prompting Harwa to turn again. What he saw shook him to his core, a creature with crimson eyes, its bulk large and screaming danger. The lightning flashed again, to reveal more entering the cave and their skin as black as the night. The first one opened its mouth, and chattered to another on it’s right, then it turned to look at Harwa and his heart froze. The creature, then screamed, turning the cave to chaos as everything erupted around him.

The creatures pounced, Harwa barely had time to duck before razor sharp claws would have taken his head off. He fell backwards, then rolled to the side, right into Menes. The creature brought its tail down, right between his legs, and then brought it back up. Harwa closed his eyes, thinking of Kia as he prepared for the end. Instead, there was a loud, THWAK, and a disturbing hiss, prompting Harwa to open his eyes. A spear lay on the ground, and the creature’s attention had turned away from him. Harwa followed it’s gaze, to see Chuqik with an angry face, before the creature pounced. He did not have the heart to look as his brother was slain, his mind instead turned to Kia and the safety of others. Quickly he grabbed Menes to his feet, and said, “Save as many as you can, then flee!” Menes, simply looked at him dumbfounded. Harwa slapped the old selka, who still did not have a reaction. “Menes! You have to RUN!” he shouted at the selka, and he nodded slowly, turning to the cave entrance.

He then felt a hand on his shoulder, and he spun around to meet Kia’s white face. Tears streamed down her blood coated face. :Oh Harwa! We have to go!” Kia said anxiously. “But what about our famil-” he tried to say before Kia interrupted him. “They’re dead, Harwa. I’m sorry I tried to get to them but they didn’t make it.” The Selka blinked, then quickly grabbed her hand and began to run after Menes. He looked back to the massacre, many were running for their lives, many more lay dying, and the creatures kept coming. Quickly, the two got shoved into a group of fleeing Selka. They managed to flee the cave and enter the wet world, only to be attacked by another creature. One of their group died instantly, their neck cut and another was taken by a large claw and off into the darkness she went. It gave time for the others to flee, and into the woods they went.

The storm was moving off, but the rain still came down. Lightning flashed in the far distance, and the thunder followed. Their small band consisted of Menes, Istha and Banto, plus their two small pups. The group did not stop running until the rain became but sprinkles and the thunder silenced. It was then they stopped to catch their breaths, underneath a rocky overhang.

“K-Kia. Are you alright? Menes?” Harwa began, doubled over from exhaustion.

Kia fell down beside him, the short Selka girl breathing heavily. “I-I’ll make it.” she said, giving him a faint smile. He returned it, before looking over at Menes. The old Selka sat on a rock, his eyes staring blankly before him. He looked away, over to Istha and Banto, who were each holding tight to a pup, snuggling their heads together. He looked over to Kia again, reaching out to hold her hand. Before he could, there was a loud ‘squelch’ and then a scream. Harwa sat up to see a pointed tale had ruptured through Banto and his pup. Istha screamed, before a mouth full of sharp teeth descended a top her head. There was a crack, and a sickening tearing sound before her body dropped headless. The pup began to cry, but was quickly silenced as a large foot stepped on it. Before them stood a demon, which chewed before swallowing. It flicked its tail back, sending Banto’s corpse into the darkness. Four gleaming eyes stared down at them as viscera and blood spewed from it’s mouth.

The creature began to move forward with great speed, before a mighty hand fell upon it. It one quick motion, the creature’s eyes bulged, before many different things broke. The creature, once so fearsome, dropped dead to the ground as all eyes fell upon the rock that began to move. It rose, towering above the trees. The thing then turned to look down upon them with a giant scarlet eye. Though it was unwavering, it seemed to smile all the same.

There came a sound like the grating of rocks. Loud, coarse, and terrifying, eluded with heavy footfalls, like mountains crashing down and then the screaming. The demons in the night, coming into the cave. The blood, coating everything. Always the screaming. And then the eyes, like weeping blood and the hand, coming towards-! Harwa was jostled awake, and he bolted upright, only to see the all too familiar eyes of Menes. He held a finger to his lips, the gesture all too familiar to Harwa. He nodded, breathing slowly. It took him a moment to calm down, and even then he did not relax. Menes’ eyes did not leave him. They were worried eyes, ringed with red and stained with tears.

Menes sat back down, his expression turning to anger in an instant. He picked up a stick and broke it into two, the sound making Harwa jump slightly. Then the silence returned but Harwa put a reassuring hand on Menes shoulder and the older Selka looked at Harwa with dead eyes. He was broken, just like the rest of them. The younger Selka shivered, before looking away and at the others. There was around forty of them all huddled together in a grassy ditch, cold and hungry. Some were sitting up, holding themselves for warmth, others still slept, and some still wept silent tears. They had nothing to eat, and hadn’t for a couple days. Harwa’s belly ached just thinking about food. Soon enough the the other group would come back with whatever they managed to get, at least he hoped so. It was the only thing that kept him going anymore, for that group had his mate, Kia.

But his thoughts were interrupted by the all too familiar sounds of the earth trembling. Everyone began to wake and sit up, cowering in the dirt as a being of jagged and pointed rock walked by. It’s blood eye impassive as always, as it ground to a halt on the rise above them. It raised a claw for a finger, and pointed to the east. It was time to work. They all began to rise, the repetition practiced day after day as malnourished Selka began to crest their ditch. Menes and Harwa brought up the rear, their gazes sorrowful as they walked by those who would never rise again.

What lay before them was a rock field at the base of a mountain. Menes, Harwa and the others started for it. For weeks that had been gathering rocks, and moving them to a central location, wherein a Blood Eye, a few hand selected Selka, and the Blue Eye’s stacked the rocks into formations. The Blue Eye were different then the Blood Eye. They looked different, and were not as aggressive as the Blood Eye, but still, no Selka trusted them. They never seemed to tire, and worked endlessly day and night, stacking rocks. Then there was the Great Blood Eye, who sat atop a throne of crimson stains. Watching, always watching and- there was a scream.
And several, earth shaking footsteps. All eyes fell upon the commotion. A new band of Selka were being brought in, paraded by three Blood Eye. It was a medium sized group, only adults, children never made it. As they neared, Harwa could tell who screamed. It was a younger female, her eyes wide, being half carried by a male as she gazed at them all.

“What is this place!” another male at the front shouted, “Why are we here!” his voice was desperate sounding, but not a word was said in reply. There was an eerie silence permeating the area, before they were marched before the great throne. One by one they were forced to kneel before the Great Blood Eye and only then did he stand, walking down the steps slowly but deliberately, watching the new Selka to see who would try to flee from his presence. It was the young female, and in a burst of speed, a long black arm snatched up her screaming figure. She was pleading to Kirron, pleading to be saved by anyone who would listen. Where was the K’nights she asked. Where were they. And then the Great Blood Eye, opened her mouth with two clawed fingers, and from his eye came a blast of red energy. It struck her mouth and at once he dropped her. She fell to the floor in a heap, opening her mouth to scream, but the only sound that came forth was a sad attempt.

He watched the realization hit her, and Harwa watched as the others struggled as well, but it was no use. Everyone lost their tongue, there was no exception. There was a rumbling sound, and that was his clue to get back to work and he did, listening as the screams became silent.

The Reunion

”...And that’s how I would describe the two of them.” Arya said as they walked underneath the trees of her home. There was excitement in her voice, something not even Laurien had heard before. The two walked side by side, at a very quick pace. They had decided to forgo flying, as to have a certain air of ‘surprise’ as Arya had put it. And now the two walked and talked after having spent a good bit of time traveling since their fateful encounter with the echos.

”Well, they sound lovely, Arya.” Laurien mused aloud. ”Oh! How tall are they?” she asked thoughtfully.

”Oh… Well I was taller than them before I left but now… Mother Xiaoli is really short, but don’t be fooled by that. She’s an avatar of his Holiness after all. And Mama Hermes is a little taller than her. The babies were really short though.” Arya said giving a light giggle.

At the mention of an avatar, Laurien frowned, her battle with Vrog coming to mind. ”Have you noticed Arya, that everyone is so… Short? Everyone I’ve met is just… Super small. I’m even taller then some gods. Can you believe such a thing?” Laurien asked her frown becoming a smile.

”I wouldn’t know, I’ve really only been around Servants and they are pretty short. I always felt like a giant around them.” she said laughing, before falling silent. Laurien then put a hand on her shoulder and Arya turned to look at her. ”It’s okay to be sad.” Laurien said to her softly.

Arya put a hand on her’s and after a moment she sighed, saying, ”I know… I just want to be happy… I’m here about to see my… Other family and I’m just so nervous. What if they forgot about me? What if they don’t recognize me? What if… What if they aren’t there?” her voice came, fringed with fear.

Laurien gently squeezed her sister’s shoulder and said, ”Nonsense. One could never forget you, and come on… You are one of the most unique looking people on Galbar, they will recognize you. And… And they will be there. I know it.” Arya quickly wiped away a tear and gave Laurien a smile.

”You’re right. Yeah… Everything will be okay. Now come on, I can hardly contain my excitement!” she said before beginning to speed walk in the direction of the house. They were close now, very close. Laurien waited a moment before shaking her head and chuckling. She then followed. As they neared the main house, Arya paid tribute to the shrines, and beckoned Laurien to do the same. Arya then stood silently, looking at her home for the first time in such a long time. It elicited such warm feelings, of happiness and joy that she did not move for a moment. Laurien stood silently behind her, taking it all in for the first time. Arya then looked back at Laurien and smiled before approaching the slider doors at the far end of the courtyard.

“Uhm… Excuse me,” came a tiny voice as Arya and Laurien neared the main house.

Both girls stopped dead in their tracks at the sound of another’s voice. Next to them in the grass sat two young girls, one considerably taller than the other, though still a speck compared to the two giantesses. The smaller one chewed on a biscuit and appeared to make great efforts to hide herself behind her older sister, who rose to her feet and bowed.

“W-we don’t often get guests around here. I’m- No, wait… This humble servant of Yours is named--”

“Laiaaaa, y-you’re messhing up your relationshipsh again,” mumbled the younger sister with her mouth full of biscuit and covered her face with her large sleeves.

“W-well, it’s not easy to remember it all, Bayarmaa! Ugh, you’re so--!” She turned back to the two and bowed again, frantically this time. “So, so sorry! She’s really young and, well… Hi, nice to meet you! I’m Laia! Wait, no, messed it up again! Snapfruit!”

There had been a moment in time Arya had wondered if more children would come. But if she could have ever been prepared, it was not now. At the sight of the two girls, Arya gasped and fell to her knees before them, with her eyes so wide. She looked over them both. They were beautiful, so, so beautiful. ”Oh!” she said through happy tears, ”Laia, Bayarmaa. It’s so nice to meet you, little ones. My name is Arya, and that, is Laurien. W-Where are y-your mother's?” Arya said, choked up. Laurien in the meantime, had a very large smile upon her face, but said nothing.

“Oh! Well, they’re--”

"Wow!" A blue-haired girl suddenly butted into the conversation, having snuck up behind Laurien, "You musta drank allllll you're milk growing up, huh?"

At the sound of the new voice, Arya and Laurien snapped their heads at the small child. Arya gasped again, and Laurien looked down with a confused look. ”Milk?” she turned to Arya, ”What’s that?”

"A good time!" Altansarnai giggled, "Momma says to drink it every dinner and then I can be big and strong. I'm already pretty strong too!"

”Why, of course you are!” Laurien said, turning back to the small girl. ”And what’s your name, little one?” she asked.

“Hey, Altan, don’t interrupt - it’s rude, you know!” Laia huffed.

"No, no!" Altansarnai waved her hands in front of Laia's face, "my name is--" she tapped her chin in a familiar way, "Tree-eater… Fiery Tree-eater… Of the flatlands… yes."

As Laurien chuckled out loud, Arya watched the new girl, and a smile crossed her eyes as she realized that she reminded her of Hermes. ”Fiery Tree-Eater, Of the flatlands. It is so nice to meet you. I’m sure you have many stories to tell.” Laurien giggled. Altansarnai nodded eagerly.

Laia put her hands on her hips and huffed a little more. She then looked down at her biscuit-munching little sister, who was busy hiding behind the older sister’s legs. “Bayarmaa, could you go get mother? I think she should be in the family house - well, the big one.”

Bayarmaa looked up and nodded timidly before rushing off past Arya and Laurien as if they were chasing her. Laia bowed again. “Sorry about her - she’s a little afraid of people.”

Arya gushed as the little one ran off, her heart beating a thousand times a minute. She turned to Laia and said, ”That’s okay, I’m sure you don’t see many people out here anyways. It’s only natural.” she said with a warm smile.

“.. Yeah, yeah, weird people in the yard, I get it, Bayarm--” Suddenly Xiaoli stood in the doorway of the family house behind Arya and Laurien, her arms nearly dropping the sleeping Temüjin. The river girl’s eyes went wide as saucers, but soon squinted together again as they filled with tears. “A-Arya?” she whispered.

At the sound of a familiar voice, Arya perked up and turned around. Slowly the girl stood up as a new flood of tears fell down her face. ”M-Mother!” she said, scrambling towards her. Careful not to crush the little one in her hands, Arya gently embraced Xiaoli, sobbing as she did. ”I-I-I’m back.”

Xiaoli wrapped her free arm around Arya’s neck and rubbed her face deeply into her shoulder affectionately. She sniffed and said, “Welcome home, dear."

Altansarnai let out a soft "ooo" as she oogled the reunion from Laurien's side. The blue-haired girl stepped forward, her hands eager fists, "Momma, are they staying for dinner?"

Arya pulled away from Xiaoli and said, ”So many little ones.” with a laugh.

Xiaoli giggled. “Yeah, you know, that’s what happens when one has a lot of time, a lot of room and a lot of--...” She looked around at her children and blushed a bit. “... Well, it happens.” She gave Altansarnai smile. “Why, yes, I was hoping they would.” She looked at the two expectantly, then noticed that there were indeed two. “Oh, pardon! I was a little overcome by the reunion.” She bowed to Laurien. “Forgive me. I’m Xiaoli, wife of Hermes and lady of the house. Who are you, may I ask?”

Laurien bowed to Xiaoli and said, ”There is nothing to forgive, Lady Xiaoli. I am Laurien, sister to Arya.” she said with respect. ”Your children and home, are very lovely.”

“Arya’s sister? My, Arya, you never told us you had a sister! She looks older than you, too.” Xiaoli ran her eyes up and down Laurien’s figure.

Both Laurien and Arya began to talk at once, speaking of who the older siblings was before they paused, and began laughing merrily.

Arya then said, ”Well the thing is, I never knew! Father created her, and sent her out to find me.” Arya said, misty eyed as she turned to Laurien. ”And found me she did. But, I am definitely the older sibling.” she said with a laugh.

”It is true. She has me in age, but… Well… I’m taller.” Laurien said, holding her tongue in front of the children, with a childish grin.

“Taller, indeed,” Xiaoli mumbled. “I do hope you two will fit inside the house. Otherwise, we can just eat outside. Would that be alright with you, hmm?”

”Of course!” Laurien said, ”Whatever is easiest, my Lady.” she beamed a smile at Xiaoli.

“Then it’s settled. Laia, dear, take Bayarmaa and Altansarnai with you and fetch Zhongcheng and Ai. Set out the tables and dishes - I’ll get back to making dinner in a minute. Oh! And tell Ansong to make some tea if you see her.”

Laia nodded. “Yes, mother.” She then turned to Arya and Laurien with a wide smile, bowed and began to shepherd her siblings to the dining house with a big of effort: Bayarmaa on one hand was seemingly quite happy to be anywhere else but here, whereas Altansarnai looked desperately eager to study the guests more. Xiaoli sighed a little and put her hand on her hip. “Just you wait until you one day get some of your own,” she snickered.

Arya laughed. ”Oh, maybe one day, isn’t that a thought?” Arya mused, before looking down at the sleeping child in Xiaoli’s arms. ”And who might this be?” she asked quietly.

“Oh!” Xiaoli went and smiled at the small boy on her arm. “This little troublemaker is Temüjin. Don’t be fooled by his sleepy demeanour - he laid waste to Wenbo’s city models yesterday. He will no doubt be as wild as his mother when he grows up.” Xiaoli offered him to Arya. “Want to hold him?”

”Oh… I…” Arya said while looking at him. ”It’s been so long since I… Okay.” she said taking him from Xiaoli delicately. In her arms now, she watched his peaceful face, and knew he was having a pleasant dream. ”Little Temüjin.” she gasped, ”How many? How many more?” she asked softly to Xiaoli.

“You mean how many we’re planning or how many there are?” Xiaoli snickered.

”Planning? Oh my goodness, I meant how many there are now. How many are you planning!” Arya said enthusiastically.

“His Lordship made his own recommendation, but I don’t think the two of us can go for ten thousand just yet… But I wouldn’t mind a few more. Currently, we have ten.”

”Ten!” she whispered loudly, as Laurien gave a whistle. ”This is wonderful, so, so wonderful. I could never have even imagined. Oh I’m so… So emotional right now.” she said as tears began to well up in her eyes as she handed Temüjin back to Xiaoli. Arya began to wipe more tears away from her eyes.

"Xiaoli, I-" The familiar bold and clear (if not a little raspy) voice of Hermes called out from one of the buildings as the Dreamer exited her cloak covering her save for her stressed looking face. Her black eyes widened and with a sudden boom and a blur she exploded into a streak of speed, suddenly slamming Arya into a massive hug. The impact cleanly took Arya from her feet as Hermes squeezed happily and twirled the girl.

"Arya!" She smiled wide and placed her back on the ground, "You're back!"

"Mama!" Arya squealed with joy as she embraced Hermes back and completely broke down as she did so. Her crying was silent but very apparent as her black tears stained her face in abstract streaks. After a long pleasant hug, Arya murmured, "I'm back. I'm home."

“You are,” Hermes squeezed Arya a bit more before plopping her back onto the ground. Her dark eyes flickered to Laurien, a cheshire grin still buzzing on her lips, “Hello!”

"Hello," Laurien said chipperly, "I've heard a great deal about you Hermes, about both of you. I'm glad to know that Arya had a place with such lovely people to call home. So, thank you. Both of you." the tall woman said bowing.

Arya then said, "Mama, that's Laurien. She's my sister and she found me when I was lost." Arya said softly.

“Well it’s a pleasure,” Hermes nodded before hooking an arm around Xiaoli’s waist, “Are you two hungry?”

They both said yes in unison, then began to giggle. Hermes nodded vigorously “Good! Because Xiaoli is making…” She contorted her face, “Sweetgrass, what’s for dinner?”

"Grilled duck, dear," Xiaoli said sweetly as she hoisted Temüjin up against her shoulder. "I reckon Laia took over the preparation now. I'm barely needed in a kitchen anymore," she giggled. "Oh, look, there they're coming with the tables…" The river girl let out a happy sigh as three children of various ages came carrying a round, medium-sized dining table. Laia was indeed missing, and little Bayarmaa carried the sitting pillows - well, as many as she could hold.

"Here on the courtyard, please," Xiaoli said and pointed down.

"Ugh, Altan, you're walking too fast," Zhongcheng complained as he appeared to almost trip forward with every step.

"You're walking too slow," Altansarnai stuck her tongue out and Hermes shook her head.

"After you put the table down, go fetch the others," Hermes looked over at Altansarnai, the girl giving her an eager look. Once the table was barely on the ground, the blue-haired girl broke into a sprint, leaving Zhongcheng groaning.

The boy sucked up his groan and pursed his lips. Hermes gave him a sorry smile and rustled his hair, inciting a quiet, "Mom."

In seconds the rest of the children arrived spearheaded by a bouncing Altansarnai. Chagatai and Wenbo hung behind the others, a dark look in their eyes as if awaiting an impending sentence, which they were. Li seemed perky, as if forgetting his traumatic experience earlier. His tiny smile faded when he saw Arya and Laurien, quickly hiding behind a closeby Ai, arms filled with utensils and cups.

Laurien now stood next to Arya as they watched the children with bright eyes. Ten was a big family but it felt like more, with all eyes on the pair of sisters and not even all of them were there! Arya turned to Xiaoli and Hermes saying, "Oh they're so beautiful and big!" she said turning to the twins. In her excitement she failed to realize the strange looks upon their faces but it did not go unnoticed by Laurien.

Xiaoli gave the boys a frown and said, "How about you sit down? Dinner should be ready any minute and- Oh! There's little Ansong!" A sweet little girl came out of the dining house with a tray. On the tray was a teapot, four teacups, another, taller cup and a plate of biscuits. She poured two of the cups half full and held the tray up to Laurien and Arya. "Are you thirsty?"

Both girls graciously took a cup saying thanks to the little Ansong. Arya took a sip and closed her eyes as the flavors washed around and then down. It had been a long time since she tead. Laurien also took a sip, then another and another until her cup was empty. "Delicious." she said cheerfully.

Ansong smiled from ear to ear and darted her eyes at Xiaoli, who winked proudly. "Right," the river girl said, "I'll check on how Laia is doing. How about you three catch up for a bit before food is served, hmm?" She nodded at Hermes, bowed almost instinctively, and headed for the kitchens.

“Alright, well,” Hermes put her hands on her hips, “Let’s all have a seat then, yeah?” As if punctuating her words, the kids clamored to their cushions. Hermes took a big plump one at the head of the table right next to a lone blue pillow that the kids avoided. Wenbo and Chagatai sat close together, as far away from Hermes as possible without ending up on the other end of the table. Little Li on the other hand, sat right next to her around the corner, a goofy smile on his tiny face.

After watching all of the children take a seat, Arya and Laurien both sat down at the far end of the table. Arya sat directly across from Hermes and Laurien sat on her right side. Since she was a bit too big, Laurien simply sat on the ground, pushing the pillow aside. After a moment, Arya fake coughed and said, "So, introductions?" she asked chipperly. Laurien gave a simple nod, as she fidgeted with the smaller silverware.

“Oh!” Hermes smiled, “Right! So this is little Li, that is Ansong, Ai, Zhongcheng, Wenbo, Chagatai, Bayarmaa, Altansarnai, and then Temüjin and Laia are with Xiaoli.” She clasped her hands together, “And everyone, this is your older sister Arya,” She gestured towards Arya, “And her sister Laurien. So in a way, Laurien is your sister too.” Hermes cocked her head, “If that’s alright with you Laurien.”

Laurien suddenly jolted up and looked at Hermes, then to Arya who gave her a wide smile and a nod. Laurien then turned back to Hermes and said, "Oh, I'd be honored!" her voice was full of silky happiness. Arya in the meantime seemed to take her time studying each and everyone of her siblings.

“You’re really tall. I don’t think you’ll fit inside the guest rooms...” Ai claimed with an uncertain frown. Bayarmaa poked her head out from next to Altansarnai to stare wordlessly at Laurien. Laia quickly came running from the kitchens with two steam baskets which she promptly put on the table before rushing back.

Laurien turned to look down at AI with a soft smile. "You are probably right, but that's okay. I'm perfectly happy to sleep outside. I've been doing that for… Awhile now." she said before turning to Bayarmaa and winking.

Bayarmaa once more dove for cover behind her sister. Zhongcheng raised an eyebrow and threw his hands in the air. “You sleep outside?! Why?!”

“Zhongcheng, don’t be rude!” Ai snapped. “Animals sleep outside, too.”

“Is she an animal?” Bayarmaa asked carefully.

Ai blushed with embarrassment. “Wuh-! No! Look at her!”

"I'm an animal!" Altansarnai growled and lunged for the steam basket, only for her hand to get slapped away by her mother.

"Children, please," Hermes commanded, "Laurien is not an animal, she's family."

"Poppler's family," Zhongcheng idly mentioned while inspecting his empty plate.

"Don't be smart," Hermes narrowed her eyes and the boy shrugged and went back to his quiet studying of the plate.

Laurien held a hand over her mouth, stifling her laughter as the children discussed her. In the courtyard gate came Laia once more, this time carrying bowls of carrots and radish chopped into long strips, as well as bowls of fermented cabbage and a jar of a thick, sticky sauce that smelled like cooked meat. She rushed back out to the kitchens promptly thereafter.

“Need some help out there?” Ansong called softly after her, but got no answer. The small girl sighed a bit and poured some more tea for Arya and Laurien. They graciously took more tea and began to sip.

"So tell me about… well everything," Hermes began looking at Laurien and Arya, "I feel like I've missed so much."

"Are you staying forever?" Altansarnai asked.

"I think so, little one." Arya said softly to Altansarnai. There was a smile on her face that quickly faded as she looked to Hermes. "There's much to tell but… Not right now, please. I'd much rather know about here and everything that's happened. I'm sure you have many stories."

“Of course,” Hermes smile turned to one of concern, “Well after, how about we go to my study, like we used to? As for now, life has hit a sort of rhythm.” She tapped her chin, “I admit it’s not my old adventures across Galbar, but it’s an adventure all the same. Every day looks like it’s the same as the rest… at least in name, but in actuality so many little things and experiences keep me saited, especially since it’s with my little ones.” She sighed contently, “Also my studies and various projects help keep my curiosity occupied at least.” She shook her head, “Poor Xiaoli.”

“Did somebody call?” Xiaoli asked warmly as she came into the courtyard carrying a large tray with brown-skinned, crispy duck slices. Next to her walked Laia with a jug of juice in each arm, diligently trying to mimic her mother’s proud, controlled posture with her nose almost pointing straight upwards and her back so straight it almost curved backwards. Temüjin sat tucked inside the folds of Xiaoli’s robe, making bubbles between his lips.

“Oh, we were just admiring your patience, love,” Hermes winked, “Looks good by the way.”

“It was my idea!” Li shouted suddenly, “Duck!”

Xiaoli pursed her lips and shrugged. “My patience, huh. Well, it does take a little extra to survive for so many years with ten tiny dreamers - and a couple more with one beautiful one.” She made a teasing raspberry at Hermes and put the duck on the table. Eager to copy his mother, Temüjin made a much messier raspberry all over the person Xiaoli had to lean over - one young Ai that was growing slightly vexed at all the children noise around her. She felt something wet drip through her alabaster hair and immediately touched it, looked up and huffed.

“Moooom! Temüjin spat in my haaaaiiir!”

Xiaoli sighed. “Ai, you know how we just talked about patience? He’s a toddler - show him some.”

Temüjin made an innocent face, but it hid the sliest of smirks. Ai glared back. “He’s smirking at me, mom. He knows what he did.” Xiaoli merely shook her head and unlidded the steam baskets.

“Alright, everyone! You know how it works - grab a pancake, take some duck and vegetables, add some sauce and wrap it together. Remember to share now, okay? And-- No, Altan, guests first!”

“BUT Momma,” Altansarnai did her best Zhongcheng impression, chin up and everything, “I heard that they are family and not guests.” Zhongcheng rolled his eyes.

"Oh please, let the children eat first! We are family after all and my appetite hasn't changed much. That okay Laurien?"

Laurien nodded. "I had a boar the other night, still hungry mind you, but I don't care if the children go first. They need to eat to get big and strong." she said smirking at Altansarnai.

“Oh come,” Hermes put some of the food on her and Xiaoli’s plate, “Take a bite, enjoy it-- these kids are well fed and can wait two seconds.”

A tiny finger prodded Laurien and Ansong looked up with her deep black eyes, “You have to.” She all but whispered.

At the small prod, Laurien shrugged and began to do as instructed. She very tentatively took a pancake and layered it with a small bit of vegetables and duck. It was apparently that the small thing would really only serve as an appetizer to the giantess but she said nothing as she plopped the thing in her mouth and began to chew. Arya yielded as well and began to eat. Laurien let out a little gasp as she sat back shutting her eyes.

"Delicious! I haven't had food like this since I met his Holiness. It's very good, well done ladies. Arya then gave two thumbs up as she chewed.

Xiaoli giggled. “Laia did almost all the work - it’s her you should thank.” The little girl beamed like the sun and bowed, “This servant is tha-” In her ecstacy, however, she forgot that the table was right in front of her face and dunked her forehead against it with an ‘ow!’ On the opposite side of the table, Zhongcheng, Altansarnai and Ansong all burst out into a loud cackle. Even Ai let a few snickers escape. Temüjin made a raspberry before joining in. The apple-skin red face of Laia looked up, except that it was hidden behind two palms of shame. Bayarmaa nodded understandingly. “M-mommy,” Laia sobbed.

“Alright, that’s enough laughing,” Xiaoli commanded with a hint of a smile on her face as she began to inspect Laia’s forehead.

Both Arya and Laurien flinched as Laia hit her head. They did not laugh or smile at the child, but shared an empathetic look. Arya knew she'd have to do something nice for her later, to make her feel better and as a reward for cooking such delicious food.

”Pop!” A plump cloudling suddenly whizzed out of the carafe of juice, it’s cloudy lobes stained red. It crackled mischievously before zipping into Hermes’ hair. The Dreamer made a face.

“Oh so that’s where you’ve been,” She huffed and a tiny Zzt! answered. Hermes couldn’t help but break into a tiny laugh, “And our eleventh child, everyone.”


Xiaoli shook her head with a roll of the eyes and a smile on the face before blowing one last time on the small bump forming on Laia’s still pink forehead. “No child of mine has a mouth like that, I can assure you.”

Laurien bent down and whispered to Arya, "What was that?" Arya turned and leaned into her sister's ear, "That's Poppler, he's a cloudling. Native to Tendlepog." Laurien then said, "Well what did it say?" Arya then shrugged and said, "Dunno, I don't speak cloudling. I kinda just nodded whenever he popped near me." she said with a sly smile. Laurien looked confused but said no more.

The plate of duck finally reached Wenbo and Chagatai and, with as small movements as he could manage, Wenbo stealthily began to snatch some slices of duck for his brother and himself. Chagatai swallowed a dry gulp of air and slowly ate, using his utensils lethargically, and shrinking under the gaze of Hermes.

Hermes chewed on her duck, Xiaoli sitting down next to her. As the woman swallowed she cleared her throat, “So… boys?” Her eyes were directly on the twins, backed up by the fiery glare of Xiaoli. Arya turned her attention to the twins, for the first time realizing that something looked awry.

Wenbo squeezed his eyes together and grit his teeth. He sucked in a quiet breath, put on the brightest smile he could and went, “Yes, dear mom? Would you like me to pass anything?”

“Have you two done any thinking on what happened?” Hermes’ usual cheery tone was serious.

Chagatai croaked a response, “Yes, mom.”


“It was my fault and I feel terrible about Li. I lead them wrong.” He looked over at Zhongcheng, “But I think I did answer the problem like a leader.”

“Yes, protecting your brother was the right thing to do - and we are both really happy that you both survived…” Xiaoli agreed. “However, the root of the issue is the fact that this happened at all. You may have solved the problem like a leader, Chaggie, but a leader wouldn’t have gotten them into this kind of trouble in the first place.”

“Li wasn’t supposed to be there,” Chagatai prodded Wenbo with his elbow.

“Y-yeah!” Wenbo supported. “He came on his own volition - that wasn’t our fault. If anything, maybe we could give him some praise for his tracking skills?” Wenbo proposed with a smirk.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Xiaoli snapped.

“I know I did wrong,” Chagatai flourished, “And I accept the blame for that-- what else is there?”

“That’s-” Hermes pursed her lips, “Not the point. I’m glad you can see that you did wrong, but the question is… will you two do it again?”

Wenbo shook his head. “No, of course not - once, uhm, twice was more than enough. There is nothing up in this mountains but devils and--”

“Wenbo!” Xiaoli boomed and the boy appeared at least ten years younger for a moment. “Will you do it again or not?”

Wenbo felt his nose burn a little. He sat up again and cleared his throat as tiny droplets formed in the corners of his eyes. “N-no, mother,” he said staring down. Chagatai sat pale next to him, the table in a resounding silence.

Hermes sighed, “But do you know what you shouldn’t do again, hm? Is it clear what exactly you did wrong? Is it?”

“We went to the mountains--”

“No!” Hermes loudly corrected, “You disobeyed us. Exploration, adventure, all these curiosities… I can support. I want you all to be as free as you desire, but you are still our children and you have to trust that we put up these restrictions for a reason. You have to respect us enough to follow our rules, and you didn’t do that and as a result the VERY REASON we say these things happened, how do you think that makes us feel?”

Chagatai was silent, doing his best to hold in tears. Hermes sighed hot air through her nose, “Is that clear?

“Y-yes, mom,” Wenbo mumbled somberly as the tears finally began to roll. “... W-we won’t do it again.” He was silent for a moment. “S-sorry, I’m not feeling so hungry… Can I go to my room?”

“Oh no,” Hermes shook her head, “Not just yet.” She looked over at Xiaoli, who gave her a tiny nod. She sucked in a breath, “I know it is Ai’s week to babysit Temüjin and help in the kitchen, but I’m shifting that to you and Chagatai… for two weeks. Temüjin and cleanup is now your duty.”

“What!?” Chagatai went to throw his hands up but was knocked back into his seat by a glare from Xiaoli. Hermes closed her eyes and sighed.

“I’m not finished.” She pursed her lips for a while, as if figuring out her next words, “Once the two weeks are over… a few times a week I’ll be taking you two with me during my explorations. I hope maybe this way, I can sait that dreamer curiosity of yours.”

Chagatai gave Wenbo a look of both annoyance and glee, split between his punishment and his boon. Wenbo returned similar expressions, a contrasting grimace of a flat mouth and raised eyebrows. He shrugged a little and bowed his head. “Alright - that seems fair,” he said.

“Don’t rely too much on Laia. She will tell me if you don’t do your job in the kitchen, understood?” Xiaoli gave Laia a nod and she returned it with a loyal, determined look.

Hermes coughed, “Also no dessert tonight,” She brought a cut of duck to her lips and gave her twins a look, forcing a groan from Chagatai and Wenbo. Hermes nodded and plopped the duck into her mouth. After swallowing, and as chatter started at the table again, she leaned into Xiaoli’s ear.

“How was that?”

Xiaoli gave her a thumbs-up. “Personally, I would have gone for three weeks, but I feel their morale already has suffered a heavy hit. Nice plan, dear.” She pecked a small kiss on Hermes cheek and sighed. “... I really hope they’ll learn now…”

"Well that was exciting!" Arya said after a moment.

Laurien then cleared her throat and said, "What's for dessert?"

Xiaoli brushed the frown off her face and smiled. “We’re having leftovers from yesterday’s sweetgrass pudding.” Wenbo wrinkled his nose enviously and Chagatai slapped his own face.

“Oh delicious!” Hermes hummed, a crackle sounding form her hair. She patted Xiaoli’s hand, “She knows how to spoil a crowd.” Xiaoli smiled warmly. “Why, there is naturally only one way to welcome home our two daughters, right?”

"You're going to love this Laurien. It's soooo good." Arya said excitedly.

"Sweetgrass? Is that grass… Which is sweet?" Laurien questioned innocently.

“Named it myself,” Hermes smiled wide and pushed her plate away, before she could sit up, Ansong suddenly shot from her seat.

“I can get it!”

Altansarnai also stood up, except her wicked grin contrasted Ansong’s innocent suggestion, “Me too!”

“No, allow me,” Laia said and stood up, seemingly determined to win back her pride.

Xiaoli giggled. “Alright, why don’t you three go get it together, hmm?”

Laia put her hands on her hips. “But mother, the bowl’s small enough for one person to carry.”

Xiaoli shrugged. “All of you seem pretty eager - the energy expense of running to the kitchen should do you some good, anyway - especially Altan.”

Altansarnai looked as if she was about to say something, but then suddenly jolted, her blue hair exploding into a plume as she sprinted towards the kitchen.

“Last one there cleans the table!”

“You know that’s not how that works!” Ansong shouted after her, getting up from her place gingerly and puffing out her already round cheeks. Laia hastened after.

“Don’t worry, baby,” Hermes gave her a soft smile, “Take your time.”

Temüjin suddenly made a burping noise and began to reach for Hermes. Xiaoli snickered quietly and pulled him out of her robes. “Looks like a little someone misses mommy. Here, would you take him for a minute while I clean the tables?”

Hermes took Temujin and sat him on her lap. The toddler giggled happily and clapped his hands. The dreamer patted Xiaoli’s back, “Why don’t you wait until we are done with dessert, love?”

As if on cue, Altansarnai came running from the kitchen, a distraught Ansong and Laia at her heels as she giggled madly, a streak of red on the corner of her mouth. Hermes furrowed her brow but it was Xiaoli who rocketed to her feet, gripped Altansarnai by the arm and gave her a stern frown. “Altan, where’s the pudding?”

“In the bowl!” She chirped in surprise. Peeking into the ceramic bowl, the pudding was indeed there, as was a long finger mark.

Xiaoli sighed. “Next time use a spoon, at least. Put it on the table, please. Everyone! Dessert’s here!” As the children all cheered, Wenbo raised his hand.

“Uhm… Mother, since we’re not getting any, can we leave the table, please?”

Xiaoli frowned at him, looked down at the pudding and blew some hot air out her nose. “I’m tempted to say no, but making you watch your siblings eat pudding is a bit cruel - make sure to clean up after yourselves, okay?”

Wenbo smiled and nodded as he collected his plate, cup and chopsticks. “Chaggie, you wanna come?”

“Yeah,” The small warrior shoved the last of his food he was picking at into his mouth and swallowed hard. He bowed his head to Hermes and Xiaoli before running off with his dishes.

Arya watched as Laurien tried the sweetgrass pudding, her sister taking a spoonful much to small for her and placing it inside her mouth. For a moment there was nothing, and then a wolfish smile erupted across her face. She sighed again and said, ”This is divine, ladies. How did you ever come up with the recipe?”

"Oh you know," Hermes idled, "Xiaoli loves sweets and I love Xiaoli… also a certain book had a good pudding recipe." She chuckled at her own joke.

“And it made life here approach one step closer to Heaven,” Xiaoli mused with a smile of bliss as she put a spoonful of pudding in her mouth. “I’ll teach it to you someday, how about that?”

Laia raised her hand. “Mother, can I try teaching her?” Xiaoli gave her a proud smile and caressed her head.

“Laia, you’re an amazing little cook, but… How to say this, your puddings are still a bit too liquidy. With a bit more training, though, you should be fine.”

“Oh… Okay,” Laia said with a hung head.

"Liquidy or not, I would love to be taught by you, Laia." Laurien said smiling at the small girl.

Laia beamed and gave Xiaoli a pleading look. The river girl rolled her eyes playfully. “Alright, alright - if your sister’s so eager, then I guess there’s no helping it. Just don’t use up all the eggs, please. They’re a bit of a hassle to collect.”

“Yes, mother!” Laia voiced in all haste and sped over to Laurien. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

"Oh! Okay!" Laurien said, getting to her feet. "Lead the way Lady Laia."

“No, no, we just had some - you can make it later. Tomorrow, for example,” Xiaoli suggested. Laia huffed.

“But mother, I wanna show her!”

Xiaoli gave Laurien a look. “Is it alright with you? Sure you haven’t had your filling of pudding yet?”

Laurien winked at Xiaoli then said, "It's fine with me, I'm quite content." she mused.

“Alright,” she sighed, “Go on.”

Laia grabbed Laurien by the hand and began to eagerly pull her towards the kitchens. "My, what a strong grip!" Laurien laughed as Laia led her away. Arya watched as her sister left, a smile on her face.

"So Arya," Hermes finally said, a smile buzzing on her face as she finished off a spoon of her pudding, "Want to set up the plans for your new house with Xiaoli and I tomorrow?"

Arya turned to Hermes, her eyes lighting up. "Oh that'd be wonderful. I'm sure Laurien would appreciate a bed her size, instead of a tree." she giggled.

"She certainly is a tall one," Hermes chuckled, "And here I thought you were the tall one around here."

"Who knows? I've noticed you both are much shorter than I remember, so I must be growing still. But I don't think I'll reach her height." Arya mused.

"Hm," Hermes frowned slightly, "I did notice that. oh well, you'll have to help with the hunt is all-- she's a bit too big. Maybe she will have a better time with the tree-eaters, she just has to take Chaggie or WenWen with her."

Arya nodded. "Ah hunting, that's always fun. Unless you are the one being hunted." she said going silent. She then blinked and said, "They got in some trouble yeah? The twins?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry you had to sit through that," Hermes nodded and pushed an empty bowl away from herself.

"Don't even worry about it. I'm used to seeing discipline. It's good to see it here, your outnumbered after all." she said with a laugh.

"It isn't the first time," Hermes winked and slapped her pant leg, right above the deep scar on her calf. She sighed, "but no, they are all very well behaved considering their parentage." She blinked a few times.

"All right, kids, time to clean the table." She looked over at Xiaoli, "Thank you for dinner, love."

"Boys will be boys." Arya sighed. She turned to Xiaoli and said "That was very good Mom. It hit the spot."

Xiaoli smiled and waved dismissively. "A mother's duty, after all." She stacked a few bowls into a small tower. "So, Arya, what's the plan going forward? Any more adventures?"

"There is no plan, mother." she said happily. "I'm staying home for the time being, I don't have the heart to go anywhere else right now, I've been away long enough." she said standing up, looking at all the children and her mothers. Somewhere Laurien was learning to cook and the twins were being twins.

"Home." she said aloud to no one and then began to help clean up.

Orvus stood upon Veradax, wandering until he at last came upon what he had been hoping for. A soft glimmer in the endless expanse of his sphere. He crouched, his tattered cloak rippling in the wind. A storm was coming, one he could easily get rid of, but his mind was singular in its focus and he had at last found it. With careful fingers, he picked up the shard of light. It had once belonged to a whole, and that whole had a great purpose but then it shattered into a million little pieces, scattering throughout the fledgling universe. A piece of his sister’s sphere, the first Lustrous Garden. It sit sat in the palm of his hand, shaped like a long, drawn out tear. That could be fixed. As the storm began to swallow him in it’s dust, Orvus took off into the sky, towards the gateway to Galbar.

Back in the Eye, Orvus stood before a bench with several random objects scattered about its surface. The bench itself was in the barn, a large structure behind the old cabin. There was nothing really in it, besides the bench and items he had been collecting. Items that had value to those that new the price. Scraps of Orvium, a couple of sticks from the Mar Tree, designs, patterns, multitude of jewels, other ores, and a handful of Garden shards. Those had been tricky to find, but at long last, Orvus was ready.
He took with him a branch, orvium, a crystal of light, and jewels and with these items he went outside and traveled to the beach of orvium. Veradax hung dimly in the night sky, as the Lustrous Garden beamed down. When he set down upon the beach, he placed each item so that it touched one another in a line upon the black sand. Then the god shut his eyes, and held a hand out. With it, he poured his power, strength and the will for it to be. And so it was.

There was a blinding flash of light, enough to blind that of a god, temporarily. Orvus shielded his eyes, and slowly the glow subsided with a hiss. Before him, the ground was scarred white and broken, but in front of him a sword floated. The sword pulsed softly, as Orvus took it the sight in. White upon black, encrusted with diamonds and onyx upon the hilt of orvium, the grip was spiraled and shimmering as it faded into the pommel. Set in the end, the crystal of light had become a shining jewel about the size of a walnut. But the blade itself was even more impressive. As thin as a piece of parchment, but sharper then even the teeth of a Reaper, it was bleached white by the process. White orvium, that glowed the very same color, pulsing as if it breathed.

And then a voice spoke, as deep as the abyss and as cold as the moon, “I am Wreanun. You are Orvus, Creator and God. What would you do with me?”

Orvus was taken aback by the Wreanun’s voice and the fact that the sword could talk at all. But as Orvus thought more about it, he realized that such a thing could be possible and in fact, needed. The artifact was powerful, and it had drained him considerably, he would not be able to make another one so soon as he would have liked, but Wraenun had been worth it.

”I would do nothing with you, but others will. You are intended to be wielded by those who are worthy, that have the willpower to use you effectively. You are a deterrent, a weapon and a shield against all threats. You are to perform to your utmost capacity, Wraenun. You are the Sword of Ending.” Orvus said with clarity in his voice.

“So be it, but those who are not worthy, will only suffer.” Wraenun said coldly, “Who shall be first tested?”

”My daughter, Laurien.” Orvus responded.

“And if she is not worthy? Are you willing to live with the consequences, Creator?”

Orvus narrowed his eyes and said, ”She is worthy, I know it.”

“Only I can judge her worthiness.” Came the swords retort.

And the sword’s word was final, for Orvus knew it to be true. If Laurien was not worthy, then… He would simply have to fix her if it came to it. But it would not come to it, for she had fought many dangerous things, proving her worth each and every time. If Wraenun did not bond with her, then it was his loss.

”Very well, Wraenun. Now let us go. Let us go and see.” Orvus said, lifting off.

“Lead the way then.”

The Learner, The Martial Dancer, The Compassionate, The Wanderer


Qiang Yi and Zhengwu Crew

She awoke refreshed, having taken a small catnap after the events of the night and morning. She looked up at the ceiling, letting the waves rock her back and forth. It would be a rough one today. She groaned, remembering what she promised to the servants. Though she was excited, she had her own doubts about being a teacher. How could she ever fill Hermes shoes? Both her mothers were excellent teachers, and Arya was only ever good at learning. But, she would try, if not for them, then for herself.

She sat up in bed, remembering the conversation with Shengshi yesterday put a smile on her face. It felt good to relieve herself of such a burden but that was not the only person she needed to talk to, now was it? There was Kalmar, and she let out another sigh before falling backwards on the bed. Her hair grazed the wall, and she thought about what to say. After a long minute of back and forth with herself, Arya sat up again and shut her eyes.

”Hello, Kalmar. I know you can hear me, so before you you speak I want to say this- I am sorry for running away, for letting my anger get the best of me, and for murdering those servants. I don’t know how you feel about me now, but I just wanted to let you know that I regret what I did and can only ask for your forgiveness.” she whispered aloud to herself.

For a time there was silence, and it seemed almost as if there would be no response. But then the Hunter’s voice could be heard inside her head. What is there to forgive? he asked her. The attack was against Shengshi, not I. If you learned from it, and don’t let it happen again, then I see no reason to hold it against you.

”Oh Kalmar.” Arya sighed in relief, with happy tears beginning to well up in her eyes. ”I missed your voice, Kalmar. I really did.” she said happily, holding her hands together. She took a deep breath to calm herself and said, ”I’ve learned a lot since I left. Many lessons, good and bad. My anger has been under control ever since, I swore it to myself that I would never let it happen again.”

Good, the voice answered. Now what has happened to you since I last saw you?

”A lot.” she said, ”Well were to begin? After I left you both I traveled through a desert, got attacked by a sandstorm and then met a Kostral! Her name is Split-Tooth and she is my friend. We decided to answer Choppy’s quest and went on it, traveling far and wide until we called for a delivery and she came, giving us a coffee and,” she paused to take a breath, ”A giant bunny! With horns that produce food and I named her Penelope! I had to trade my ring for her though, but it was worth it. Then we traveled to Choppy’s sphere and delivered the coffee but, uh, then we all got seperated and I got wounded by a Lurker.” she said softly.

”But Kalmar, then I found myself on Tendlepog, and Hermes found me, or I guess Poppler did but they took me in and I call them moms now. Oh Kalmar they have two beautiful boys named Chagatai and Wenbo and such a lovely home. Um then the servants came and asked for help on a quest, so I’m on a boat right now traveling to a small island to deliver…” her voice went silent as she thought about telling him the truth, but she shook her head. It was best not to worry him, ”To deliver a cargo. We left a while ago, but the trip shouldn’t be too long and I can get back to Tendlepog. That’s about it really… oh, um, I might also be a Ward of K’nell now, too.” she said cringing.

K’nell? I never met him. Kalmar said. And what of Orvus? he asked her.

A silent phew escaped her. ”He’s a good one Kalmar, he’s taught me many things within his Palace of dreams. But you will never guess what Kalmar, my father...he…” her voice went silent.

What? Kalmar asked, with a mixture of concern and impatience.

”He created another child! I have a sister, Kalmar!” Arya’s voice was full of bubbly excitement as she giggled aloud and in her head.

He did? Now Kalmar was surprised. Go on.

”Uh huh! Shengshi told me that she was looking for me, so I haven’t actually met her yet, but I really want to meet her, Kalmar. I want to know her, what she looks like, how tall she is, how her voice sings, her stories of adventure… everything. You know…” she paused, ”I was confused at first, even a little jealous, but I can’t blame her for being born, now can I? I don’t care that she knows my father better than I do, all that matters is that I get to know her too.” she said smiling.

Hmm… I’d help you find her, but I have other things to focus on right now. Kalmar said. You should know that I made life of my own. Their names are Makab, Roog, and Karamir. Some might consider them my children, though I don’t know if Makab or Karamir would consider me their father - it seems as if everyone has a different definition of what family means. Anyway, it isn’t likely, but you might encounter them in your travels.

”That’s alright, Kalmar. She’ll find me, I know it. Now, those all sound like boy names. Except Roog, that sounds… well it doesn’t matter what it sounds like. I know boys can be difficult, but why wouldn’t they consider you their father?” she asked innocently, thinking of Chagatai and Wenbo.

Kalmar sighed. In nature, there is normally a process which leads to children being born by their parents. Roog, Makab, and Karamir were not created through that process, and neither were you. I used to put a distinction between fathers and creators - all fathers were creators, but not all creators were fathers. Yet you consider Orvus to be your father, and he considers you to be his daughter. Meanwhile, other gods name be ‘brother’ even though I share no parentage with them. It is confusing.

There was silence from Arya as she digested the god’s words. Slowly she began to realize that It was such a Kalmar thing to say, and she disagreed. ”Kalmar, do you remember when you found me? I was cast out, alone and afraid. But you took me in, you and Arryn… Did you know that I consider you one of my father figures? Shengshi and K’nell being the others. Orvus is my father, for he created me with his own power and I am of him. He did not mean to create me, but he did and here I am. It doesn’t matter if you share parentage or blood, I think? All that matters is that they look up to you, and you do their best for them, through the good and bad times. Now please tell me, that you did not cast them aside like my father did to me. Please.” she said on the verge of tears.

Cast them aside? No. Makab is with me right now, and before that he has always been under Asceal’s care. Karamir? I did send him off on his own, but I made sure he had everything he needed, and he can contact me at any time. Roog? I left him under the guidance of Katharsos, his other creator, who has chosen to accept him as a ‘son.’ The Hunter then paused, as if in thought. As for what you think defines a father… that interpretation is valid, I suppose. It is something I must think on.

She sighed in relief at this words and was actually surprised that she had gotten through to him. She had not been expecting that in the slightest. She wiped away her tears and with renewed vigor said, ”Oh Kalmar you have no idea how much that warms my heart. I am glad, but please Kalmar, do not wait for them to reach out to you if they seek to talk. Find them and learn of them and from them, do not be like my own father.” she said with come confidence.

I did mean to check back on them at some point, Kalmar told her. Whether I consider them my children or not, they are still my creations, and I am still obligated to them. As for you? The Hunter almost seemed to take a breath within her mind. I did not create you, but at the time, I suppose I did come to think of you almost as a daughter.

”That means a lot to me Kalmar, I am glad.” she said with a very large smile in here eyes. ”Now I told you about me, what about you? What’s new?” she asked excitedly.

Kalgrun has changed. I, and a few others, have made changes to it. There’s far more life there, but it’s also far more dangerous. If you ever return, be careful, he warned. Also, I assume you are thinking about Arryn. He has been doing well for himself. He has been giving guidance to a tribe of mortals, and I intend for him to move on to the rest of the species.

Her heart grew warm at the mention of Arryn, but more surprisingly was the mention of another mortal race. ”Another race? Who is Arryn teaching?” she asked.

Creatures who call themselves the Selka. The group he was teaching calls themselves the Ubbo Tribe. They live on the coasts, along the southeastern corner of the largest continent.

”Selka? Ubbo? What funny names!” she said laughing. After a moment of his, she pulled herself together but only barely and said, ”Well, I am glad Arryn is okay. Do you think he still hates me?”

Hate you? I don’t know if he ever hated you. He was angry, of course, but I wouldn’t call it hate. And by now that anger has faded. I think he would be glad to see you again.

She nodded to no one, feeling a bit better at how things went down between the two of them so long ago. ”I would like that too, one day.” she said softly. ”Oh! I almost forgot, my sister’s name is Laurien if you ever meet her.”

I will keep that in mind. Now, I have a war to get back to. Kalmar said, his voice grim.

She squinted her eyes at the sound of of the word. ”War?” she asked seriously. ”Where at? What happened? Is everyone okay?” came a flurry of questions.

Dragon’s Foot. The Gods Ekon and Sartravius raised armies to attack Shengshi. I came to help him. But even with two enemies preparing to destroy everything he made, he chose to end our alliance and reawaken our feud over perceived insults. He sighed. It does not matter. Those armies need to be stopped. Regardless of Shengshi’s pride.

”W-What?” she asked, dumbfounded at the idea of them feuding again. She could hardly believe such a thing, and there was supposedly a war going on. ”Kalmar, what do you mean you are feuding again? I thought you settled it. I thought you both agreed to stop!” she said with a rush of emotions in her voice.

I thought so too, Kalmar remarked bitterly. But then he didn’t like my ‘manners’, and suddenly he was threatening the lives of my creations and I wasn’t going to stand for that. Not after I came all this way to help him. And in a way I am still helping him despite all that.

”Ugh.” was all Arya said before falling back onto the bed. ”Why is it that the Gods always bicker so much?” she asked, crossing her arm across her eyes.

Kalmar ruminated on that question for some time, and then he answered. Conflict is part of nature, he said at last. We bicker and fight, but so do common animals, and even mortals. We all had different intentions for this world when we shaped it. Some were good, some were bad, and not all of those intentions can peacefully coexist. And though my ‘feud’ with Shengshi is pointless, I am not the one who chose to issue threats or break the alliance.

”That makes sense, I guess. I just wish things could be peaceful.” she said thoughtfully. ”I… Won’t know what to think until I hear both sides of this disagreement. Until then, I’m just going to pretend it never happened.” she said sitting up. ”I have to get going now, Kalmar… It was good to talk to you.” she said sadly.

It was good to talk to you as well. Just know this: I don’t expect you to take sides. It would be best if you kept yourself out of this. Now… goodbye. And with that Arya stood up, putting some clothes on and took a deep breath. It was time for her day to begin.

Bright eyes gazed upon the ceiling, going over every fine grain, every dent, and every scratch. They found nothing new, for it was all the same as it had been on the first day she had been moved in. Yet, still she searched, trying to find something new, something that brought back excitement. There was no longer disappointment in her eyes however, for she had grown use to never finding anything new. She stretched, careful not to hit the wall with her long arms, before settling back down. She didn’t really want to get out of bed today, but she knew she had to. Not for herself, but for the others, of course. Of course.

At a snail's pace she got herself ready, putting her long, curly hair into a loose ponytail. The length went to the small of her back, meaning it would need to be cut soon. Soon, anyways. She put on some of her old clothes, they were a bit small on her and full of holes, but Arya was not one to complain about such small things when they had bigger problems to worry about out. She stood up and made her way to the door, bending down slightly to clear the frame and let it shut behind her. As she walked past the cargo, she ran a finger across one of the boxes, and her imprint streaked across it like a jagged line. The cargo would need to be dusted soon, but it was hard for her to imagine anyone wanting to do it. It was why they were out here in the first place, it didn't deserve to be dusted. She smirked, such a thought was strange, but that was her line of thinking as of late and she continued on. The ship was silent, almost like the moon, but the steady lapping of waves against the hull and her own steps reminded her they were still on Galbar. As she walked up the steps, the sunlight beamed down, prompting her to cover her face as she ascended.

When her feet reached the deck her eyes focused and fell upon a servant tied to the central mast, screaming and hollering nonsensical gibberish - on repeated occasions warning the crew about ‘the great worm’. Around him were tired and surly crewmates, some scrubbing the deck for the fourth time this morning, already, for a lack of better things to do. As Arya turned the corner to ascend to the helmsman’s post, a pair of guards gagged the man with a cloth. She looked blankly at the post as she walked by, feeling nothing for the servant. Her compassion had ran dry a long time ago, the time that one of the 'maddened' killed- She shook her head, it was a memory she didn't want to relive.

Atop the helmsman’s post, she found, as usual, Qiang Yi flanked by Zhen-zhen and Zeng En, all three pouring over their maps which, on the bright side, had become quite detailed over the past decade. As usual, they were arguing over the correct course of action, with Qiang Yi insisting that he had found the right route and Zeng En shutting him down with the report on the remaining freshwater stores. Zhen-zhen had run out of books to read ages ago, and had resorted to studying the maps with an almost fanatical interest. Zeng En noticed Arya and silenced himself, Qiang Yi also quieting down at her approach. Even though it had indeed been twelve years, they bowed to her all the same.

“Lady Arya, good morning,” Qiang Yi greeted. Zeng En nodded with a snort and Zhen-zhen either didn’t pay attention or didn’t care to.

Arya strolled over to the map and slammed her hands down on the table, sending Zhen-zhen’s head flying back in surprise. She shot her a sour scowl and kept staring at the old pages regardless.

"They'd be twelve this year, you know. Chagatai and Wenbo. Not like anyone cares." she said with little emotion. "Twelve years and we still are at sea. The water supplies are low and once again we'll have to go back to land with nothing to show for it. The others are growing restless, or growing mad and I… Don't even feel like waking up some days. So no, it is not a good morning, Captain."

Qiang Yi cocked his head to the side and sighed. “You’re repeating yourself, My Lady. You said the exact same thing, word for word, yesterday - and the day before.” He shook his head. “Maintain faith and the Exalted Creators will reward us with our destination,” he said enthusiastically and raised his fist. Zeng En frowned a little, but repeated the words and raised his fist. Zhen-zhen simply tighten her hand into a ball and went ‘ooo’ with an almost draining level of ennui. “But yes,” the captain continued, “it looks like we will have to turn again; HOWEVER! this time, I have cracked it, I am certain!”

"Yes. The Exalted Creators." she said sarcastically. "Look at you three. Do you even believe the words you say anymore or has it just become natural?" she sighed, frowning and turned to Qiang Yi. "Go on then, Captain, what new scheme of yours will claim more lives?" she said bitterly.

The captain sucked in a deep breath through the nose, the brush in his hand nearly snapping in half. Zeng En and Zhen-zhen both glared at Arya. “Lady Arya, with all due respect, we are doing our best to complete our god-given mission. All aboard this ship know what such a mission may cost them; however, assuming the mission -will- be the end of us is -not- appreciated.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed some sea salt out of the corners of his eyes. His once silky black hair had become unkempt and wild with time. “Now, the plan…”

Arya exhaled a deep breath, saying, "I am… sorry, that was uncalled for." she said sheepishly.

“Yeah, it was,” snapped Zhen-zhen. Zeng En whacked the back of her head and she once more fell back to her maps. Arya glared at Zeng En. The quartermaster did not, however, seem very content either with the apology. Meanwhile, the captain dug through the tall pile of maps until he found a very detailed portrayal of the southern coast of the Dragon’s Foot. He snatched a piece of charcoal and drew a series of almost desperately quick lines from the Nanhese delta to an empty point in the middle of the eastern ocean. When done, he tapped the point ecstatically with the charcoal and circled it again.

“Here! Instead of setting off south from the Henshan, we go straight east - just east all the way. See, w-we know that the island is somewhere in the eastern sea. We know it’s -not- south of the Foot, and heading east from the Kick gets us nowhere but to that colourful place with all the shells… What did we call that again?”

“Yanhai, I think,” said Zeng En with a rub of the chin.

“Yeah, that was it… Anyway! THEREFORE! it must be--” He drew a straight line east from Mt. Eldahverr, marked on the map as Henshan, and straight south from the Great Soul Reef, marked on the map as Yanhai. Once more, he knocked on the map with the charcoal, breaking off the tip. “Here! It must be here!”

Arya looked at the map with an intent gaze, following Qiang Yi's lines as he drew. As much as she was skeptical about the plan it was really their only option. "Hmm. Okay… okay. Good a plan as any." she said.

Qiang Yi beamed at her approval and squeezed Zhen-zhen’s shoulder. She barely reacted. “Then it’s settled! We will return to Nanhe to refill the water tank and then find the island!” He laughed a little maniacally to himself as he skipped over to the stairs and went towards the bow. Zeng En followed the captain’s movements with a saddened expression and looked down at Zhen-zhen.

“Sorry I hit ya,” he mumbled. Zhen-zhen sighed and shook her head. “No, it’s alright. I was being dumb…”

"The fault is mine." Arya said to the both of them, her expression softening. "Look. I know we don't see eye to eye anymore, but you don't have to hit her, Zeng En. I can take the criticism, I'm not a child anymore. And no, you were not being dumb, Zhen-Zhen. You were merely sticking up for the Captain. I… Should be going now." Arya said sadly, beginning to leave the same direction Qiang Yi had.

“Good day, Lady Arya,” Zeng En mumbled. Zhen-zhen said nothing.

She walked down to the bow and went to the edge of the ship. Wherein she leaned up against the railings and looked put at the endless sea. Somewhere out there was their destination. She just wondered if they would ever find it.

Roughly a month later, the tired ship sailed into the sweet embrace of Nanhe once more. The remaining crew screamed their lungs out in joy as they mindlessly hopped over the edge and into the waters, bathing and swimming to their heart’s content. Qiang Yi saw to it that the ship was at the very least anchored to the river bank before he, too, dove into the river with a gleeful cry. The servants all dropped their salt-stained skins and splashed each other with wave after wave of fresh water, laughing all the while. Meanwhile, still tied to the main mast, the maddened crewmate kicked and howled, wanting desperately to swim as well. Zhen-zhen, the last remaining crew member aboard the ship, sat staring at the animalistic servant with tired, scowling eyes.

"Zhen-Zhen?" came Arya's soft spoken voice from behind the smaller woman.

She didn’t really answer, merely hummed to whatever was listening as she stared at the wild man in front of her. She wagged lethargically from side to side where she sat and the tune in her voice was quite similar to one Arya had heard a thousand times aboard - only it was terribly flat.

Arya said nothing more as gentle hands wrapped around Zhen-Zhen's arms, guiding her away from the man. Arya bowed her head, and then said, "Come on, let's get you to the water. Wouldn't you like that?" she asked quietly.

Zhen-zhen looked up at Arya with round, empty eyes. For a moment, she said nothing, even as she was picked up and guided along. Then, at the edge of the deck overlooking the river, she nodded her head as droplets began to roll down her cheeks. “Yeah… That’d be nice…” Then she skipped off the edge and into the river below. She stayed underwater for a long time, but the girl that broke through the surface a few minutes later was not the same that had jumped. Zhen-zhen grinned from ear to ear and swam over to Qiang Yi, casting herself over his head and pushing him under the surface playfully.

With a sigh of relief at the sight, Arya viewed her companions in a new light. It was good to see them like their old selves and a small smile crept up in her eyes. She then stretched her own limbs and cast herself into the sky. It had been a long time since she had flown.

While Arya soared about, Qiang Yi stepped onto the green banks of the river and stuck his hand in the clean, pure sand. His skinless body soon recovered its layer of sand, this one much cleaner than it had been for many months. He had drunk deep in rich waters and for the first time in longer than he could remember, his eyes had the beautiful algae green and water blue colour of the river. More and more of his crew crawled onto the banks, their eyes all the same, though some opted for a muddy layer of skin instead of sand. Qiang Yi counted the heads. Thirteen years, it had been, since the crew left the Dragon’s Foot for the first time. Now, all that remained of the once proud forty sailors were eighteen exhausted souls. Li Shan had swam ahead many years ago during a terrible storm… Yong Mei had been murdered in cold blood by a maddened crew mate, whom Qiang Yi had had executed promptly thereafter. A part of the captain was certain that all this would change as soon as the mission was over, yet a thought itched in his head, telling him that all of it was, in the end, pointless - no rewards would be waiting for them in the end. Then again, it wasn’t about the reward - although one would be nice. They had suffered quite a bit, after all - perhaps just a small favour from-- NO! He could not allow himself to think such heretical thoughts and--

“Captain?” asked Zhen-zhen with an uncharacteristically concerned look. Qiang Yi jumped and found that everyone was staring at him. He felt his breathing speed up and looked back at Zhen-zhen with wide eyes. “You were talking to yourself,” she continued.

“T-talking to myself? What, is the captain not allowed a few mumbles every now and then?” he said and let out a sheepish chuckle. The people around him furrowed their brows and looked at one another. Zhen-zhen took his hand in hers and sighed.

“Look, cap, you’re under a lot of stress, we know. Just-... Know we don’t hold it against you.” Her following smile ignited a flame within him, though it did not manifest the way he wanted it to. Qiang Yi pulled his hand to himself and scowled.

“What is this nonsense you’re saying, first mate?” he said and stood up. Zhen-zhen and the others frowned and sighed. Qiang Yi rubbed his hand a little and sucked in a breath through his nose. “Right. Refill the tank and prepare to sail out again.”

Calls of protest and widened eyes spread throughout the crew. Zhen-zhen rose to her feet. “Cap! We -just- came back! Let us at least have a day or two--!”

“No!” Qiang Yi retorted. Zhen-zhen and the others went quiet. “The sooner we finish the mission, the sooner we can return home and rest. Now obey!”

Reluctantly, the crew swam out to the ship and climbed aboard. Zhen-zhen remained staring at Qiang Yi, who regarded her with a raised brow. “What’s the matter?” he asked. Zhen-zhen merely shook her head and swam back to the ship. Qiang Yi remained on a beach a little longer, staring out across the river.

“You are unworthy,” came a voice and the captain tossed himself around.

There was nobody there.

The flow of the air through her hair was refreshing as it could ever be, and for the first time in such a long time, Arya giggled. She whipped in the air, carelessly and relished in the moment to let herself escape from the confines of the ship. She did not fly over the open water, one too many times she had almost lost her way. She shivered just thinking about. It was one thing to be lost as sea with a crew, but another entirely all by yourself. She traveled well away from the ship, and from prying eyes, touching down on a soft beach, the water crystal clear and inviting. She stripped her clothes off and waded in, letting the cool waters flow over her. She let herself float, and just once, she relaxed.

Her relaxation was interrupted by a bird. A colorful creature that landed on the shore, talking about images and warnings of something. She swam closer, perplexed by it. She had never known a bird to speak before and then, the images of Asceal and Azura came forth, and a small squeal of surprise came from Arya. Her eyes went wide as she realized they stood upon a massive whale, somewhere in the dark and a great inferno was behind them. She had not been expecting that. And then Holy Azura spoke;

“Good people of Galbar…” and Arya listened, her face devoid of any emotion. She watched the griffon die, and heard the wails of the dead, and listened to Azura speak of the soul crystals and salvation and freedom and sleep but the only things she could dwell on was that death meant burning and the only alternative was to be trapped inside a crystal for eternity. Then the projection faded, but the images of the griffon did not leave her vision and her expression became one of horror. It was all too much.

She quickly scrambled out of the water, and landed on her knees upon the sand. The alma flew to a nearby tree, as Arya began to hyperventilate. She couldn’t believe it, none of it. She had never thought of death, but now that she knew what awaited her, she was consumed by fear. She exhaled in a wail, beating the sand with her fists as the black tears came.

”It’s not fair… It’s not fair!” she said, yelling at the Alma. ”How could they do that? How could they…!” she said crying and she cried for a long time. The toil of the journey, now coupled with this, all came crashing down upon her in an instant. It all felt pointless to her. To burn, or to sleep without dreaming. To her, both were as equally horrifying to behold. How could anyone choose? Why even make an alternative place to go, when it did little to comfort those that were dead? What was the point behind it all? Upon her hands and knees she looked down at the sand, then up at the Alma, who stared at her as if waiting for her answer.

”Go away.” she whispered to it, ”Go away!” she said, standing up, but it did not move. ”GO AWAY!” she screamed at it, and after a moment the thing flew away. She fell to her knees again, holding her face as she sobbed.

”Arya…?” came a rich voice from behind her. Arya removed her hands, wiping away her tears and said, ”I’m fine! I’ll be at the ship in a minute.” she said shakely.

”Sister.” said the voice, and Arya’s eyes went wide, realizing that she had never heard that voice before. Fearing some sort of trick, she slowly turned around to see white, glowing eyes staring at her. The woman was tall, much taller than any she had seen yet, wearing a tattered cloak riddled with stars and upon her back a hilt of a sword could be seen. Her hair was long, colored like a nebula and she was beautiful.

”L-Laurien?” she whispered, and the woman nodded. Arya got to her feet, and both stared at each other for several moments. She looked so familiar, yet so different then she, but it was unmistakable. She was of her father’s work.

”Sis-” she choked, beginning to cry as Laurien bounded over, embracing the small girl in a bear hug, as they fell to their knees. ”I found you.” came Laurien’s broken voice. ”I found you.” she murmured again, holding Arya tight to her chest. The girl knew not what to think, but she felt small, like a child once again and somehow, it felt right. It had been so long since she had gotten hugged, and it felt wonderful, especially by someone who she knew to be her kin. Laurien began to stroke Arya’s long hair, and let go of her hug so that they looked at eachother. Both could hardly contain their smiles, and Arya began to giggle as happiness welled up inside of her.

”I can’t believe it,” Laurien started, ”I finally found you, after so many years and all because I heard someone yelling. And it was you, Arya. It was you, and… I’m so relieved and happy and we have so much to talk about out.” Laurien said happily.

Words momentarily escaped Arya as she nodded in return, using her hand to feel Laurien’s lips and nose. It was odd to see, but at the same time, it felt right on her. She began to giggle again and said, ”You’re so big.” and at that, Laurien beamed a smile before chuckling out loud. Her laugh was sweet, Arya noticed and quite infectious. Between her chuckling she said, ”Oh Arya, I’ve waited a lifetime to hear your voice, and the first thing you say is, ‘You’re so big.’” and at that, they both began to laugh until tears rolled down their cheeks. Arya hugged Laurien again, and the tall woman gently patted her back.

”I...I never thought you would find me.” Arya said suddenly, looking up at Laurien, ”His-his holiness told me about you so long ago and… for some reason I began to think you didn’t exist, like you were some made up thing but here you are. When I needed someone the most.” she said with a mix of sadness and joy.

Laurien pulled Arya tight to her and murmured, ”Here I am, and I’m not going anywhere, Arya.” And the small girl believed her.

Later the two walked down the beach, talking about their lives, how they ended up where they did. Laurien's story was impressive, her sister had always been one step behind her but she never gave up. Even when she arrived on Tendlepog, only to hear from the Warden that she was gone. She had continued on, year after year trying to find Arya and only by a stroke of luck had it finally happened. And Arya told her about her life on Tendlepog, of her mother's Hermes and Xiaoli and of the boys. Then she told Laurien about her time on the ship and the many challenges they had to overcome and they still had nothing to show for it. Then at last, when the conversation turned quiet, Laurien asked her why she had been yelling.

This a light sigh, Arya told her of the Alma and the fate that awaited them all. As she opened up about her deep fear, Laurien was silent and patiently listening. At last when Arya finished, Laurien began. "It's okay to be afraid. The Alma visited me as well, but I already knew what awaited us. I learned from our father, who learned from Katharsos himself. He's not so bad, at least not the tyrant they make him out to be. He gave me this, after all." and Laurien showed Arya the black soul pearl around her neck. It a was surprised to say the least, and a pretty one at that. She wished she had brought her own necklace from the ship, finding the similarity amusing.

"Do not be afraid of the end, Arya. I know it is not what any of us really thought would happen, but it is what is. We die, and we burn so that our souls can be recycled and more life can be born. Without that, if all of the souls are stolen by Azura and Asceal, then there will be no more life. Babies will be stillborn, life will stagnate and the world will die in the end. Their only solution is to hoard the souls until they can find a better one. That doesn't sound like a good idea, now does it?" Laurien said thoughtfully. And coming from her sister, Arya did not feel so afraid anymore. Her words were comforting, but the problem still persisted.

"But it looked so painful when that griffon burned." Arya said sadly. "Yong Mei and the others… they all burned too. Oh gods." she said crying.

Laurien did not say anything for a moment and then sighed. "Yes, I can only imagine why the Griffin screamed. Perhaps it was not ready to go? Perhaps it did not know what sacrifice it was making? There is no telling if your friends burned in the same manner. Maybe they did, maybe they accepted their fate and maybe still Azura captured them to live alone in the dark. In the end dear one, we can only find out when the time comes. And when that day comes, it will be okay." Laurien said. Arya stopped in her tracks and began to shake lightly as she looked to Laurien, who turned to look at her with concern.

"I… Don't want to die." Arya said.

"Oh honey." Laurien said before embracing her sister once more. "Nobody ever wants to die, Arya. But you shouldn't live your life with death constantly on your mind. I fear death as well you know. But I've realized I can never be happy if I live in constant fear. If it happens, then I will go out with a smile because I know I lived my life well. And as unfair as it is, I know that when I burn, I do so as necessity for more life to flourish." she said softly, stroking Arya's hair.

After a moment, Arya pulled away from her sister, looking up at her with a soft smile. "I… Thank you, Laurien. Thank you."

"You are so welcome." Laurien replied with a smirk. "Now… I can only imagine what impact this has had on your crewmates. We should get back to them."

"Oh no… Come on!" Arya said taking flight with Laurien following behind her. "They're fragile as it is, and on edge. I can't imagine this is improving anything!"


Arya’s prediction could not be more correct. Where there had been joy and celebration mere hours earlier, there was now chaos and confusion. Aboard the deck, some crew members knelt screaming before the Alma while the rest, including the officers, flocked to the statue of Shengshi with folded hands and desperate prayers.

“Does this mean Li Shan burns endlessly in the sky despite a lifetime of faithful service, Lord?!” Zeng En demanded of the statue. “Does it?! Will we also face infinity in the flames?!”

Qiang Yi tried to calm the racket, but it was evident that he, too, had completely lost his mind, reciting zealously passages from the Classic of Wisdom regarding the eternal reward for service to Shengshi: “Loyalty to our Lord; dedication to our skills; master these and stretch for more; death’s reward turns greater still!

Zhen-zhen sat in a corner, clutching her head as she howled in horror. Meanwhile, the man tied to the main mast kept screaming, “The end is at hand! We will all BURN!”

Arya landed first amidst the confusion and horror of the servants. Next came Laurien with a stoic look upon her face. Arya began to say something but her words were drowned out by the praying and shouting. Then there was a loud humming sound and then an eruption from behind her that shook her very bones. She turned around to see Laurien one handing her massive sword into the air, shooting a beam of scarlet energy. She nodded at Arya, as if beckoning her to speak.

Arya turned back to the servants and shouted, "Everyone stop!"

The beam shook the whole crew to silence and they cowered before the two titans. Qiang Yi blinked a few times and pointed a shaking finger at Laurien. “L-lady Arya, who…” His stammering voice managed little more before he was forced to silence by another scream from the madman on the mast.

“It’s come! Our end has come! BEWARE THE CLOAK OF STARS--!” The mad stopped screaming suddenly, for he was suddenly untied and tossed over the side into the river by three very vexed people. Qiang Yi blinked over at the affair and turned back to Laurien, much calmer now. “Pardon that… Who is this, i-if this one may ask?”

"This is Laurien, my sister!" Arya beamed happily. "And she has come to help!" and as if on cue, Laurien put away her sword and bowed to them all, an enormous smile crossing her face as she did so.

When she stood up Laurien spoke, "Long have I searched for my sister and to find her in one piece, by servants of his Holiness no less, I am honored. Thank you." Laurien bowed again.

The servants looked confused at her, but Qiang Yi nodded slowly. “Y-yes, of course! Any friend of His Lordship is a master to these servants. As Your blessed s-self addresses Him correctly, this servant can assume that You have met His Lordship, yes?” Slowly, the others began to crowd around the two girls, the anxiety in their eyes fading no time soon.

"Yes indeed! His Holiness welcomed me aboard with open arms. So long ago now, it seems. The bathhouses were so lovely, but that's beside the point. I am here now, to offer my assistance with your quest. If you'll have me." she said.

The servants gave each other the first comforting smiles in hours. Zhen-zhen stood up, her eyes ringed with red. “Whatever makes this quest finish faster,” she muttered, much to the agreement of the surrounding crew members. Qiang Yi shot her a vile glare, but quickly turned back to Laurien and Arya with a maniacal grin. “Yes! Yes, Your Ladyship is -most- welcome aboard! Please, follow me so we can find you a suitable bunk to sleep in.”

It was Arya who spoke next, "Wait a moment! We need to discuss what we all just heard." Arya said, her voice full of sadness. She took a deep breath before exhaling. "I know it is a lot to take in. I was the same as all of you after Holy Azura spoke. I am of the firm belief that we did not need to know such things, and the fate of the dead. It… does us no good to dwell on what happens to us when we are dead. We are alive now, and we should continue to live to our fullest. When our souls are burned, we are making the ultimate sacrifice. We become soul ash, so that life can flourish after we are gone. The soul Crystal's offer no such thing. We would be stuck in a rock prison, unable to do anything even sleep and for who knows how long. But I will also say this, I'm not telling you what to chose, I only offer advice I heard from Laurien. That is all." Arya said, looking to Laurien with a smile. Her sister returned the smile and nodded.

"What Arya said is true and I stand by her words." the tall woman said, placing a hand upon Arya's shoulder.

The servants frowned at one another, but slowly nodded. “Yeah… Yeah, that’s reasonable,” went Zeng En. “But… Li Shan still…” He swallowed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. Qiang Yi, on the other hand, beamed at Arya.

“Yes! Yes! -Just- as I was saying! No need to panic, no sir, no need! We give ourselves for life to prosper - just as His Lordship would have wanted!” He stood alone celebrating for a moment while the others stared at him in deep concern. Zhen-zhen walked over to him and squeezed his hand. “C-captain, are you alright?”

Qiang Yi froze and looked down at her. “Why, yes! Never been better, ever! Now come on! We have a quest to complete!” He turned around and took one step before rubber-necking back. “Who said that?!” he snapped. The crew members’ eyes went wide and Zhen-zhen felt a burn in her nose as tears pooled in the corner of her eyes.

“Qiang Yi, n-... Nobody said anything.”

“O-oh,” said the captain. “Is that right… W-well, get to it, then! Hoist the sails and take us to the island!”

Reluctantly, the crew members got to work. Arya and Laurien shared a concerned look, Arya most of all. She had seen such things before. The paranoia, the thought of whispers around every corner. Quickly Arya caught the sleeve of Zhen-zhen, sharing a wordless look of knowing. Zhen-zhen blinked at her, then looked away.

“He’s tired,” she said. “Years and years of harbouring guilt, making mistakes, taking the blame… It’s broken him down. It’s never been this bad, though. He’s been on edge for a while, yeah, but… Now he’s hearing things and-...” She choked down a sob. “... Oh, Lord, what do I do…”

"Zhen-Zhen… You aren't alone in this." Arya said before embracing her in a hug.

She held the hug for a moment, sobbing into Arya’s shoulder. Then eventually, she began to wriggle her way out, shaking her head. “S-sorry, it’s just… We’re not really supposed to… Hug,” she muttered. “But thanks.”

Reluctantly, Arya let her go saying,"I know, but sometimes, you really just need one. Just keep watch on him for the time being, and we'll figure something out." she whispered to her then smiled, looking up at Laurien.

"Come on, I'll show you around." she said to her.

The ship was soon back at sea and the crew with the fate of fire added to the already prominent fear of the ocean, were more on edge than ever, despite Arya’s heartwarming speech. Qiang Yi poured over the maps day in and day out, his eyes trembling with energy whenever he observed landmarks and stars than matched his predictions. Zhen-zhen and Zeng En tried their best to cheer him on to avoid any outbursts, but with every passing day, they grew more and more anxious at the captain’s deteriorating mental state. The ship kept a steady course, however, and soon enough they had set out into open sea, the kick-off from Mt. Eldahverr luckily passing without incident. From that day, the captain barely rested, his eyes constantly comparing the stars to his charts. The course had to be steady - it had to. The distance was too long to allow for even the slightest error.

In the black of night, as only the Garden lit up the sky, Zhen-zhen found Qiang Yi by the statue of Shengshi in prayer. She hesitated to approach, knowing full and well that interruption would lead nowhere. So she sat herself on the stairs, waiting for the whispers to quiet down. However, after a time, she heard sobbing. Her head slowly turned and her misty eyes fell upon the once-proud and mighty captain Qiang Yi, groveling and hammering at the floor, whispering loudly about his failure and how he wished he had died years ago. She could not sit and watch.

In a burst of speed, Zhen-zhen stormed over to Qiang Yi and grabbed tightly both his shoulders, glaring teary daggers into his shocked orbs. “Listen to me, Yi,” she snapped through the sobs, “You are -not- a failure, you hear me?!” Qiang Yi opened his mouth to retort, but Zhen-zhen was faster. “No! You are -not- a failure! You are our captain, and the finest captain to ever exist at that! I-...” The sobs overtook her voice for a moment. “... I will not sit here and listen to you wishing for your life to end--” There came another sob. Qiang Yi’s tense form relaxed a little. “... I cannot,” she continued, “I cannot bear to hear it… Not you, Yi… Not you...”

Qiang Yi pinched his lips together and sniffed as he brought a hand to his face. He blinked to the side and looked up at the statue of his master and creator, its ceaseless, stern glare fixed on him. A voice echoed through his mind, “She’s lying… She holds you responsible for their deaths… You see them? You see their faces? Yes… Imagine that, huh - twenty-two blessed souls, all dead…”

“... Because of you.”

In a burst of strength, Qiang Yi pushed her away and crawled backwards while screaming “GET AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!” Zhen-zhen pushed herself up and covered her mouth with her palm.

“Y-Yi?” she sobbed, but the captain scrambled to his feet. He hurried over to the table with the maps and rummaged through them until he found an inkwell. He clutched it tightly in his hands and turned to Zhen-zhen whose eyes widened with terror.

“Wh-what are you--”

“You hate me,” he said. “You all hate me.” Slowly, he approached.

Zhen-zhen pushed herself backwards, but the railing on the edge of the deck halted her movement. “N-no, Qiang Yi, we lo--!”

“Love me?! What foul nonsense. I have done nothing but bring shame and disappointment to our crew and quest - I have had the dagger in my hand with every loss. How can you love someone, no, some-THING like me?!” He charged at her. Seeing it as her only option, Zhen-zhen tumbled down the stairs to the main deck. As she collected herself and tried to stand, a hand grabbed the collar of her rugged dress. There stood the captain with the inkwell in his hand, its black content afoul with soiling particles. She tried to pull herself loose, but his grip was iron.

“Y-Yi,” she sobbed. “Please…”

The captain’s quivering eyes did not part with hers as he slowly shook his head. “You despise me… I-... I will not be made a fool of again… I am… I am worthy. His Lordship said I was worthy!” He uncorked the inkwell with a flick of the thumb.

“No… No, Yi, PLEA-!”

Like the point of a knife, the opening of the well stabbed into Zhen-zhen’s chest, filling it with the dark liquid. Like a poison, it spread through her, its dirty nature crippling the spirit maintaining Zhen-zhen’s form. She gasped and looked down as the sand on her body took on a darker shade. With a trembling hand, she grabbed the captain’s fist and shook her head, her mouth agape.

“P-... Luh-... Ease…”

The spirit within was conquered and water and sand fell to the deck with a splash and a dunk. Qiang Yi stood there, still clutching the dress of his first mate in his left hand and the inkwell in his right. Then he collapsed to his knees, letting out a screaming howl of despair.

The thunders of footsteps rushed up the stairwell behind him, lead by Zeng En, Arya and Laurien.

“Captain, what ha--” Zeng En began, and spotted the clothes, the inkwell and the black water underneath the clothes. The calm, collected warrior, so long a loyal friend of Qiang Yi, saw nothing but red.

“You… Murdered her…”

Qiang Yi looked down at the inkwell in his hand and the cloth in his other, then at Zeng En.

“YOU MURDERED HER!” Zeng En screamed again and charged at him.

"Zeng En, wait!" Arya shouted, grabbing the man by his arm, then sweeping his legs out from under him, the warrior crashing into the deck and squirming under Arya’s hold. Laurien in the meantime calmly walked up to Qiang Yi and outstretched her hand. The broken captain did not react - he merely gazed at the hand with a misty, lost look, and it was hard to tell whether he actually saw anything at all.

Laurien took the inkwell and cloth in one hand and in the other she gripped the captains shoulder like a vice. "Arya. Should I kill him?" she said coldly. At this Arya grew sad and let Zeng En go. "The punishment for murder is death, but we need him still. What's left of him, to guide us to the island. He… tie him to a post." she said.

“No!” Zeng En boomed as he stood up, the remaining crew flanking him on either side. “He dies now. A soul for a soul. To Henshan with this quest! We turn home and tell His Lordship we-... We failed!” Many among the crew grew anxious at the suggestion. Zeng En grit his teeth as he looked around. “This mission has taken too much from us. It is cursed - the cargo is cursed - the island is cursed!”

“Zeng En,” the captain muttered. The quartermaster shot him a hateful, yet pitiful glare. “Don’t speak such foul heresy,” he continued, “this… This is a god-given mission, and we are--!”

“To Henshan with the gods,” Zeng En spat. Qiang Yi and the crew froze, and Zeng En looked around at what had become a flock of enemies.

“You take that back,” one of the crew members snapped and shoved him into another who shoved him back.

“You spineless coward,” came a second comment along with a punch.

“Heretic!” came a third, backed up by a kick that brought the warrior to his knees.

Arya stood and began deflecting their blows as she stood above Zeng En. "Stop! All of you stop! You're acting like children!" she shouted.

The crew members backed off, but they glared daggers at Zeng En all the same. There came a laugh, this time from Qiang Yi. The crew looked upon him with disgust as the captain stood up and gently pushed Laurien’s hand off him. “Look at us, people… A moment ago, you stood loyally by our quartermaster, demanding my head - now, it’s his on the block, all because of a simple sentence.” He stared up at the sky and stretched out his arms slowly. “So much death - some at the hands of nature, some at our own - all to serve the Exalted Creators…” He snickered. “... Maybe this mission indeed is cursed.” He looked past Laurien a little and gave a weak smile. “We have arrived.”

The others turned to the front and began to scream. “BY SHENGSHI, MOVE!” Zeng En bellowed as he tossed himself to the side. Laurien dove for Arya and Arya barely knew what was going on before they both were in the air.

The ship collided with the stony shore, sending splinters of wood and planks flying in every direction. Unprepared servants were catapulted forward, many crashing into the masts and splitting apart into sand and water. Zeng En and Qiang Yi, as well as a few others, were fortunate enough to dodge all the dangers aboard, crashing instead onto the sandy and rocky beach.

Laurien held tight to Arya as they floated above the crashed ship. It hurt to see it in such a state after so many years and now it was just as broken as all of them. As if sensing the urgency in the air, the two landed and began helping the servants.

Qiang Yi lifted his head weakly out of the sand and stared up at the rocky cliff with the cave entrance to Sanvādam and began to giggle. “We… We made it.” The giggle became a maniacal cackle. “WE MADE IT!” He rolled over on his back and raised an arm into the air. “You see us, blessed K’nell? We made it… In Your honour, and in His Lordship’s honour, we made it…” A shadow blotted out the heliopolis over Qiang Yi’s head and the captain froze.

“With the blood of your people, you fiend!” Zeng En roared and brought down a huge boulder. Qiang Yi rolled out of the way with newfound reflexes and got to his feet, just in time to dodge a second strike from the warrior. He kept losing ground as Zeng En forced him further and further back. Eventually, Qiang Yi’s back slammed against a stone wall. To the right was the sea; to the left was more stone - he was trapped. Zeng En closed in.

“You were a good man, Qiang Yi,” he muttered through rage-fueled sobs. “Pure of heart and soul! Yet you became… This…” He hefted up the rock; Qiang Yi shrunk before the giant. “I hope the pyres burn extra hot for you, YOU MONSTER!”

Zeng En never lowered the stone; instead, it fell at his own feet. The captain looked on in terror as a black, legless humanoid slowly slithered its way through Zeng En’s torso, two chalk-white eyes scowling hungrily. Zeng En’s body twitched and wriggled, but the giant managed one final, hateful glare at the captain before the spirit exited him and his soul was consumed. With an empty ‘fuff’, Zeng En’s gi fell to the ground along with several litres of water and sand. Qiang Yi crawled further up against the wall, his breath like his heartbeat. The echo’s eyes blinked at him with ravenous intent and started floating closer.

Then, in a burst of black smoke, it exploded, the blade of another black shadow outheld where the echo had been. The nightmare, which had been in stasis for the last five years for a lack of better things to do, had no eyes, yet Qiang Yi could feel its hateful stare. That was when the captain noticed the multitudes of similar black spirits floating around, slaughtering his crew - then, a little further down the beach, he saw Arya and Laurien defending a small group. They were, however, outnumbered. The captain looked up at the nightmare, but it had already left to fight. He then looked down at the empty clothes of Zeng En.

“... I’m sorry, old friend,” he whispered as his eyes began to water. “I’m sorry for all of this…” He remained sitting for a while, his mind floating back to all the memories… Li Shan and his builders making those beautiful statues to the gods; Zeng En sparring against Yong Mei on the deck; Zhen-zhen and her smug smile…

Another sob. He clutched his face with one hand and suppressed a scream. It had all been because of him, but only because he had made it so. In his fear of the others’ hatred for him, he had caused so much suffering. In trying to prove wrong the demon in his head, it had possessed him - he had possessed himself. He once more looked at Laurien and Arya, both of them losing ground. The servants they had been defending had long since been killed. The captain was the sole servant left on the beach. Even the nightmares were struggling.

He clenched his fist and rose to his feet. There was only way thing to do now.

"Get behi-" Arya tried to say before being set upon by an Echo. And she watched them, one by one, die before her own eyes. The servants, her friends and her family. She spun wildly, 9n then defense and lashing out only when she could, while Laurien cut down anything that got too close. She needed the flute, Xiaoli’s gift to her. She had almost forgotten about it, hidden within her room.

"I need my flute!" she screamed at Laurien as echo and nightmare fought for dominance. Laurien cut another echo in half as she gave Arya a look of confusion. "A flute?! What are you going to do, sing them to death?" the woman shouted, narrowly dodging an oncoming echo. "It's-" Arya said, vaporizing an echo with a blast of desolation. "It's something like that and my mother gave it to me!" she shouted. "Well go get it then, I'll cover you!" Laurien replied back.

With a nod of approval, Arya flung herself between the chaotic brawl and down into the ship she went.

As Arya dove into the cargo hold, she encountered Qiang Yi holding the flute in his hand right hand and a burning torch in his left. He blinked in surprise at first, then smiled wryly and offered it to her. “Here, take it and fly to safety,” he said softly.

"H-How did you know where I hid it?" she asked him, taking it within her hand.

“Yong Mei once gave me a list of all the items onboard, counted down to the last grain of sand… You’re not as good at hiding things as you may think,” he said and gave her a wink.

"Bless her heart…" Arya whispered, clutching the flute within her hand before looking at Qiang Yi again, "I'm so sorry, for all of this. We never should have left Tendlepog."

“No, no… This is all my fault,” he said somberly, though he kept the smile all the same. “I succumbed to the demons within, and my friends - my family - all paid the price.” He nodded at her. “But you, you still have a future, lady Arya - a life to live alongside your sister.” Echoes slowly floated through the ceiling behind them, and Arya saw Qiang Yi stood next to a tall wicker basket. The captain shot an anxious stare at the echoes and then looked back to Arya. “Now go! Fly! Live!”

With tears in her eyes, Arya nodded sadly and brought the flute up to her face, her mouth parted and she pressed the flute to her makeshift lips and began to play a sad tune as she flew away, leaving Qiang Yi alone.

As the echoes around Laurien and Arya fell asleep, the remaining ones closed in around the only prey left in the area. Qiang Yi sucked in a breath and ceremoniously lifted the lid off the wicker basket to reveal the glistening orvium gift meant for his master. As the echoes came ever closer, he found himself thinking of a poem - something of a final set of words before his inevitable demise. As he held the torch above the sand, he thought of the right words:

“Far away from home;
Death envelops my cold heart;
Here, I meet my end.”

The echoes pounced and Qiang Yi dropped his torch. The orvium flashed momentarily, and then left nothing on the beach but a desolated waste.

Both Arya and Laurien hung their heads, far above and away, watching the fire upon the beach. Neither had said a word to each other since the explosion, but the air was palpable between them. Then, Arya turned around and looked to the horizon. Laurien floated next to her, and placed a hand upon her shoulder. ”I’m so sorry, Arya… They didn’t deserve that. I… I wish I could have saved them.” came her said voice. Arya turned to look at her, her face forlorn. ”I do too. It was… All for nothing, wasn’t it? In the end, I lost them all, I failed to protect any of them and worst of all, I told his holiness I would protect them.”

Laurien bowed her head. ”Only time will tell if it was worth it Arya. I believe it was. You learned, you grew and you made memories to honor them by. They would have wanted you to live, to go on and tell their story. His Holiness will understand that, Arya and if he does not, then I will make him.” Laurien said playfully. Arya gave a small smirk and sighed, ”We should get going, it’s a long way to Tendlepog and I don’t know how to get there.” At this Laurien’s face lit up an she floated to stand in front of Arya. ”Leave it to me, sister. I know the way.”

”Okay.” Arya smiled.

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