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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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Crime & Punishment





Today threatened to be yet another day of the same. Neiya lounged on her new throne atop the colossal arena that now dominated her realm, and sat idle as a throng of Furies presented their warlike dancing in the midst of the theater. She had had no way of discerning what each of them were good for, and for some infernal reason she had thought to challenge them and reward each with a task fitting to their talents. She had quickly noted that they seemed to try and copy other successful candidates rather than develop their own ideas, and so Neiya had begun to organize challenges taken from the wild imagination of mortals on Galbar, stolen as she pried their minds during prayer. She had chosen to look at and influence mortals beyond her realm as little as possible until she had figured all this out, for once she was taking her existence truly seriously.

She wanted to be better, but had no idea how or what that even meant for her. She had thought back to Cadien admonishing her for letting her worshippers run rampant, but how was she to even know? Why was it her duty to keep tabs on and educate those who rightfully worshipped her? Was that what it meant to be good? Wouldn't that just choke their own direction on Galbar? It would be Neiya play-acting with living dolls, not a life lived. Such a life would never spark anything but a shadow of what it meant to love. A weak facsimile. If that is what Oraelia also meant by being good and being better then she wasn't sure she could ever make either of them pleased. She wanted to ask someone, someone the mortals viewed as good. She wanted to ask Oraelia, but the thought wrung her gut and burned her cheeks. What if she was disappointed with Neiya not knowing? Turned her away? Neiya gripped her throne tighter and bit her lip, staring down at the arena.

There were other gods that the mortals called virtuous and good. It was difficult to find a consistent image, but the twin of the sun was among them. Again, merely thinking about it made Neiya writhe in her seat. Gibbou… she would sooner tell Neiya to die than give her advice. There were others too, but Neiya had never met them or had already given them a tainted image of who she was. No. There was no one. If she wanted help, she would have to ask the only good deity she knew might answer, no matter how much it made her muscles restless and sent cold chills down her spine.

She had just about resolved to plan a visit after the thousandth challenge for her Furies when she sensed a stream of emotion cast her way. It began as a trickle of sadness, then rapidly rose to unbridled anger, rage and bitter despair. Neiya gasped, her eyes turning black as the stream of negative emotions blacked out her mind and awareness of what went out around her. It took shape in her realm, and all activity in the arena ceased when the vortex of energy began to reshape in the sky. Mortals ran for cover and others threw themselves on the ground to beg Neiya's forgiveness. Neiya herself sat frozen, drawn into the pain of loss and endless hate that assaulted her from beyond. There was an unmistakable taste of essence, the same heat that had flown free in her realm before. Oraelia. But this was all wrong. Pain. Anguish. Fury.

Oraelia? Is that you? What's happening?

She cast a lone thought against the stream of negative emotion, but no answer came. She wasn't sure it even got through. The raw physicality of it seemed to bleed through the basic link and began to hurt in Neiya's joints and throat. It burned and wore on her until she could take the torment no more. Oraelia was in pain.

Without a thought towards what waited beyond her own realm, the goddess lifted from her throne and hovered towards the portal to antiquity. The emotions did not subside, and for each moment they remained they mingled with a building panic. A sense of dread that the worst was happening. Neiya couldn't even imagine what that would be - but she knew that simply receiving this stream of pain meant that she was now involved. She had to act.

With her destination set for Oraelia's realm, Neiya vanished through her own portal.




Neiya had never been to Oraelia's realm but she had imagined it to have been molded in the Life Goddess' image. Full of green trees, long grasses, wild flowers and crystal clear lakes as far as the eye could see and whatever else Oraelia fancied. She had seen the vast beauty and majesty of the mortal world and imagined Oraelia was responsible for much, if not all, of it. What awaited her was anything but that. A vast sun dominated the sky, overshadowing the land. Most alarmingly was that this sun was fully eclipsed to illuminate Oraelia's realm in an otherworldly glow of red and black. Like a hateful eye, always watching. Oppressive in its gaze.

"...Oraelia?" she called, beginning to regret her decision to come here. This was not what she had expected, and the thought of what she would find gnawed at the back of her mind.

Much of what Neiya had imagined was there but it was wrong. The landscape was drained of color. The trees were grey and seemed to sag. The grasses and flowers were tinged with solar burns and like embers they glowed faintly across the landscape, while any water source reflected the eclipse. Animals cowered, finding safety under trees and in groups. Though Neiya could feel their fear, they seemed to be unhurt.

It did not take long for Neiya to find the true source behind that fear, for it came to her, dropping down from the shadow of the sun like a raindrop. Oraelia's voice cut into her as she approached, raw with emotion. "I should have known you'd come." she spat with venom. "What better opportunity to finish what you started so long ago? Oh Neiya, you should have just killed me then. After you defiled my Aiviri, after you lied to me, after you hurt me…" her voice broke as she arrived before Neiya. She wore her newest form but like her realm, it was wrong. Her golden eyes had been replaced by the eclipse and her tattoos were burning with solar fury, the color of red. The tips of her curly hair radiated a simmering glow and her black dress was burned and tattered. Oraelia fists clenched at her sides as she looked at Neiya with disgust.

"But you… You exist to cause me suffering, don't you? You loveless, heartless thing." Her eyes narrowed.

"Oraelia, wh--" Neiya began in shocked defense, but the sun goddess did not care, and simply talked over her.

"Why kill me when you could sow the seeds of trust with a smile, knowing I would try to make amends? And then when the time came, when you grew bored of pretending to care, you could deal me another grievous blow." Oraelia raised her voice, fists shaking. "You delight in it because you know nothing else. You are a slave to your own being because you are weak. You can't change and you never will. I see that now. It only took the death of my second child but I now know that you are nothing more than a snake." she outstretched her arms. "So come then, Neiya, Goddess of Betrayal, of suffering and vipers. Finish what you started but know I will not go down without a fight."

Neiya withdrew both her hands to her chest, guardedly watching Oraelia and trying to make sense of her words. "I-... I don't understand, Oraelia. What… Why do you speak such bitter thoughts about me?" Neiya asked with a voice that wavered more than she had planned. The apparent loathing on Oraelia's face, a cold and calculated fury, made her feel a deep stone roll in her gut, while all the same her subconscious self-admiration told her no one should ever speak to her that way. She tried to steel herself, reclaim who she was. Though her arm swept through the air with determination there was no such composure in her voice. "I am no s-snake! I have done nothing but temper myself. I spoke true then and you, you insult me by insinuating otherwise."

Oraelia gave Neiya a wicked smile, as the Sun Goddess began to drift around her, arms behind her back. ”Insult you? Oh, I’m so sorry your majesty. How could I insinuate such things? That’s what you’d like to hear, isn’t it? And here I thought the snake had a backbone, but perhaps I was wrong about that too?” she said in a mocking tone. ”Even your words, your very voice, betray you. How fitting.” Neiya could hear Oraelia’s voice in her right ear, soft but striking like a dagger. ”You have always lied. Every word that comes from those poisonous lips of yours, is a falsity. You have even convinced yourself that this is not true, that you don’t live in such constant denial. Which is why you only listen to that which gives assurances to those lies. It gives you some warped sense of purpose. That you live for them, but in fact, you live for yourself in your own reality. Far apart from the truth.” Oraelia came to a halt before her again, eyeing her down with such calm anger. She pointed at Neiya. ”Look no further then this very moment. Do not deny what you have DONE!” she shouted, balling her fists. ”YOU KILLED MY SON! DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” her whole realm shook with thunder.

Neiya recoiled with a fright that overpowered her usually arrogant sensibilities. Only when Oraelia bridled with such fury that she seemed to grow taller and dominant and her surroundings seemed to grow darker did Neiya begin to reflect on the position she was in. How she had been able to swing the sun goddess around in her own realm. The thought of Oraelia doing the same in retaliation now sent shivers down her divine spine. "Or-Oraelia, I don't know what you're saying," she pleaded, even as some of what the goddess had leveled at her began to slip through the cracks and gnawed at her thoughts, even as her wilder accusations kept her focused and on the defensive. Almost as if on command, Neiya's skin took on the metallic sheen of her war form, subconsciously protecting herself against whatever was to come. "I… I have been in my realm, t-teaching my children! Whatever you think I've done, it's-... it's not true! I-... what happened?"

Oraelia took in a deep breath, the goddess was visibly shaking in her anger. She shut her eyes briefly, but this did little to settle her it seemed, for when they opened again, Oraelia drew in closer. "Changing your skin tone, Neiya? To remind me of that form that scarred me so? You have so much wisdom." she scoffed, twirling her own hair with a finger. "I cannot believe you still don't have a clue." she stopped twirling her hair. "You… Who killed a part of my soul. Shall I show you?" she asked but before Neiya could even reply, Oraelia grabbed her by the forearms and subjected her to a pain unimaginable. Like a giant knife of wreathed flame, had cut her open and stolen something vital, leaving behind a writhing mess of anger and rage. A profound loss of oneself. The feeling abruptly came to a halt as Oraelia let go, floating away as she grabbed the fabric around her chest, letting out a whimper as she hung her head.

Neiya fell to the ground, gasping out a coarse breath. Her throat burned and her ears rung. Only now did she realize the screaming she had heard had been her own. The sensation forced upon her rocked her to her core, and remained there like an ugly stain on her soul, leaving her nauseous and in pain. She had experienced endless loss before, for some mortal cultures, worshipping Neiya and experiencing loss was closely tied together. Still, nothing had prepared her for this. A physical, raw sensation like something was torn and ripped. Her only true comparison was being hit with mortality's negative emotions, so long ago. Was this what Oraelia suffered from? "Oraelia…" she begged through heavy breaths, hands planted in the dirt. "I would never... never do that to you… This feeling-... I do not wish it on any of my kin.." True to her title, she felt her eyes well up from shared emotion, and she looked up to Oraelia with no true attempt to defend herself anymore. "No one deserves such pain."

Oraelia looked upon Neiya and her eyes began to flicker to her golden hue so familiar. There was a pained expression on her face, as if she was being torn asunder. "You…" she began to say in a soft voice before pausing. And in that moment of brief silence, Oraelia's deamnor changed again, as her eyes ceased their flickering and became wrathful once more. The pained look on her face was still there but now it was focused on Neiya. "Your wrong, Neiya. You deserve such pain. Because that is all you are! A creature that inflicts suffering!" she shouted, balling her fists as she leaned forward. "And you are a liar! Your words mean nothing to me! For a snake cannot be trusted and I refuse to give you anymore chances. It's over. For this is all you will ever be." Oraelia gritted her teeth and stepped closer to Neiya. "That version of you I thought could be, died the day you came screaming to life. No, in fact, she never even existed! For if a sliver of her had, she would not have caused this pain onto me. She would not have had her avatar murder mine." she said in a harsh voice, looming over Neiya.

The horned goddess dared not look the furious Oraelia in the eyes, her eyes downcast as fingers gripped at the ground as though that would lend some safety. Her avatar had-... Aveira. It had to be. The shifter did not act out of free will, whereas Aveira had always been eager to interpret instructions in creative and violent ways. In almost an instant, Neiya put the not-so subtle clues together and came to a conclusion. A stone that she had set into motion decades ago and forgotten about had come full circle to come tumbling downhill. A war she no longer cared about, that she and Oraelia had done their best to mend, had been continued. Deep within that realization lay a simple truth, about Neiya and her unwillingness to take responsibility. About how even when she had finally begun to set things right, she had done so with her lax disregard for others. How she would let Aveira languish in silence for a decade at a time, and only check in to alter her orders. So many opportunities to tell her about what had changed. All wasted. Fortunately for Neiya, all these dreadful realizations were easy to ignore in favour of dipping her head lower and focusing on the symptom that had now festered. "Oraelia-... I-.. I did not command this!...” she pleaded once more, her voice buckling under her own nauseous guilt. "I wouldn’t do that to you, I-.. honest! It was never meant to go this far-... It must be Aveira.. She’s done it on her own! She still thinks-... she’s still fighting the same fight as back then-...”

Oraelia gave a mocking laugh once more. "You sound like a child. Pitiful. Was this who I was afraid of for all these years?" the Sun Goddess crouched down. "And To think it was all a game to you, that you could not conceive it going that far. And when it did, you still blame others. It no longer matters if you did not mean it, nor if you didn't command it. You did this Neiya. Whether you wanted too or not. And now… Your judgment is at hand." the words reverberated in the air.

The words burrowed deep into Neiya’s core and sent an unpleasant tingle over her neck. Beneath the guilt, the shared pain and sorrow, the essence of the horned goddess bubbled ever more, unwilling to accept even a basic accusation of guilt - outraged at being belittled so. Even if she was responsible, somehow, this was no way to treat someone admitting their faults. Who prostrated themselves and opened their hearts to another’s pain. Even now she was taunting her, accusing her. All she ever wanted was respect. Adoration. How did she end up here, in the dirt? "Now look-...” she began, and her form lifted from the ground slowly as the love goddess did her best to reclaim some stature. "We can work thi-.. Let me help you... Enough with this…”

Before she truly was able to get to her feet, chains of light erupted from the ground at Neiya's feet, shackling her arms, legs and neck before forcing her to her knees before Oraelia. The Sun Goddess stood tall before her, an inverted halo appearing over her head. "I told you, Neiya. There will be no more trusting you. No more lies to hear. You will be silenced forever and when I am well and done with you, I will move onto your creations and correct them. You will be erased from this world before you can do it anymore harm. Then I will protect life, the life that you and the others have stolen from me and I will make this world as I intended it to be before you all came along and defiled it. This s my right as the first born. It always has been."

Something began to grow brighter above them, a strand of light- No… A lance. Oraelia backed up and away slowly. "I wonder if Aveira will share my pain when you die, or maybe she will cease to exist? Either way…" she finished in a whisper.

A cold rush ran through Neiya, a sense of finality that felt inescapable and overwhelming. Was this what Oraelia had felt when she had been trapped in Neiya's realm? How deep did the wounds she caused that day run? Did she deserve this? Death? A part of her wished she had never existed, the morose and demure woman beaten down by the pain of sorrow and loss. Somewhere along the way she forgot what it was to suffer. It was too easy to test the limits, to offload all issues and doubts on others. On Cadien, who she made to realize the flaws in his creations. On Gibbou, whose suffering she heightened to forget her own pain. On Oraelia, whose ideals she corrupted and being she harmed. She raised her hand meekly as best she could. "Oraelia, please…" she mustered, her voice tinged with shame and fear. "This… this isn't you… You wouldn't-... wouldn't harm anyone…"

The light above them grew brighter and Oraelia brought a hand to her chin as she looked at Neiya with indifference. ”That Oraelia became broken the day you let your children spill their own blood. Then she died without ever having really lived. It was you who broke her. Denied her years of life by the memories that haunted her. And, it was you who killed her, of course. Your death is simply a kindness for the world as a whole. I would ask for your forgiveness but in the end, it would be meaningless.”

Neiya stared into Oraelia's eyes, that dull void where she had only ever seen bright spheres burning with the warmth of life. Not even when she had been on the verge of consciousness, pale and drained of hope was she this void of emotion. It was replaced now by a sullen, cold hate. The pain of her loss still stung in Neiya’s own body from the shared experience forced upon her. Even if Neiya wasn’t directly at fault, she understood. On some level it was her fault. Aveira was hers, and as far as back as Aveira’s birth she had implanted her with a scheming malice for betrayal. She had been brought into existence to deceive Oraelia and fight her creations from the start; it was foolish to assume she would just stop given the chance. Her promise to be better… How easy would it have been to give Aveira new orders? To cease the machinations she’d started years ago? The answer was shameful. "I’m… sorry,” she pressed out between thin lips, eyes averting from Oraelia’s. Restless fingers relaxed and she placed a hand on her own belly, finding an unpleasant clarity in that same shame. She had made a promise to be better, and instead of improving, she had worried about the optics of such a task, and how to accomplish it while remaining the same. She was responsible. For Oraelia. For Gibbou. For so many mortal lives. A pain that she had pushed deep down, and thoughts she had not reflected upon for millenia began to stream to the surface as she heaved a sharp breath. "I cannot fix this, Oraelia. I did this to you, so long ago… and I could have stopped it.”

"N-Now you say sorry?" Emotion flooded the Life Goddesses voice and she came before Neiya in an instant. She snapped her fingers and the collar around Neiya's throat pulled upward, forcing the sorrowful goddess to look upon that which she scorned.

Once again, Oraelia's face was twisted into rage but this time, there were golden tears streaming down her cheeks. Angry tears. "Of course you say sorry now, upon the eve of your death! As an act to dissuade me, to save yourself!" she let out a frustrated sigh, and moved a strand of hair from her eyes. "You would say such things, I should have seen this. Only when the predator is cornered by its prey does it mewl, saying what it can to save itself. It says it will change, that it can fix the problems that led them there, that it can make amends. And the foolish prey lets it go, only for the predator to not even TRY, in its freedom, to change. To be better. So the cycle continues until the prey loses everything and then, and only then, does real change occur." she said with a drop of malice in her voice. "No more…" she whispered, touching Neiya's cheek with her hand. "No more shall you make me suffer."

Neiya's deep blue eyes tracked each motion of the wayward sun goddess with a forlorn stare. Unallowed to look away, she instead delved inwards to confront the reality of her situation. Between the sting of Oraelia's loss, the searing shame of her accusations laying themselves into a neat puzzle in her mind, and perhaps the inescapable fear of death, she felt her gut sink and her thoughts settle with a clarity that washed panic away. She wanted to beg for her safety. To reassure Oraelia that she would change. That everything would be alright. Blame her avatar, or turn it on the sun goddess for letting her guard down. But Oraelia was right. Those were excuses. Neiya herself had preached about the inescapable conclusion; when only sorrow remained. Why be surprised when it came to pass? Gibbou had been right back then. Neiya had the power to temper her sadness, but instead she had flooded her with her own pain. She had broken promises. Lied. Trampled trust at every opportunity.

Because even when she tried to help, she did so with herself in mind. Tried to win. Offload on others. Make their problems about her. The same kind of behaviour that she gave mortals ironic 'gifts' and curses for. What made her better, when she wasted her life? When was the last time she did what she was supposed to? What was her purpose?

Her mind drew back to that fateful time mere moments after her creation. When she opened her heart, and took in the pain of the world. She stared at Oraelia, and lifted her own hand slowly towards Oraelia's chest, straining against the chains until her skin burnt and scraped. The sun Goddess looked on at her with indifference but did not move. Neiya planted her palm on Oraelia, eyes filled with raw emotion. "...No more." she repeated with as much determination as she could in her precarious position, and then opened herself in that same manner as she had so long ago. Like a beacon, calling in and drawing out sorrow and despair to stem the tide of pain in the once bright Oraelia. To take her pain, as she had shouldered the sorrow of mortals once before.

”What are you…” Oraelia began, eyes going wide. She swatted Neiya’s hand away but this did little but reveal a trail of throbbing light going into Neiya’s fingertips from her chest. Oraelia began to panic and pawed at herself in vain, trying to stop what was happening. Her body began to flicker from bright to dark as her sorrow was stifled by Neiya’s lingering touch. Oraelia’s breathing quickened and she fell to her knees facing Neiya. Her eyes were shut tight as she gripped her head and began to weep.

The horned goddess remained in her shackles, arm outstretched and pointing towards the shocked Oraelia as energies flowed from one goddess to the other. "I cannot fix all that I have done, Oraelia, and I see now-... the extent of my choices, and the pain they've brought," she mustered weakly, tearful eyes closing slowly as she focused on her attempt to soothe another. In her mind she envisioned the ocean, and the horizon bobbing peacefully in the distance. Even as her thoughts became hard to focus on, replacing themselves with an unstable pain she had been trying to avoid for millennia. That she had channeled into a raw maelstrom of suffering and used to victimize herself. To languish in doubt and escape responsibility. The two goddesses were caught in a whirlpool of leaves and dust forming around them, as Neiya welcomed Oraelia's pain. It was the least she could do. It was what she should do. Even as her breath grew troubled and the pain of loss and sorrow begun to needle at her limbs and heart like tiny, angry parasites trying to burrow deep and corrupt her very being. Neiya stood steadfast. She had already succumbed to the dread and agony once before, she did not fear it the same this time. For this goddess, who had believed in her when she hadn't deserved it, she would face the pain. Bear the burden of another again. Tears ran from her eyes and crystallized on her cheeks, and her skin grew pale from exertion. "Oraelia-..." she breathed, struggling to keep her mind from anything but the pain, the angry void left behind after the loss of a child, after betrayal, after the theft of her very being. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry… So Sorry. Always sorry!" Oraelia cried out aloud. She keeled over, hand planted into the grass as she clutched at her chest. "Why is it always me!" she began in a yell that turned quiet. "Solus I'm sorry… I'm sorry." her voice broke. The hostile realm began to steady itself and the bright lance above was replaced with a rekindling sun.

Oraelia's own bright color began to return more and more with each flickering. Her cries became less and less as her pain was shared. The Goddess sat up after a time, no longer clutching her chest in agony. When she opened her eyes again and looked to Neiya, they were golden, turning blue as her form slipped into light. Features of anger and hate replaced with love and care. It was not but a second later that her face twisted into horror and she rushed to Neiya's side, breaking her chains and catching her before she could fall. She took a ragged breath of her own as she propped Neiya up to look at her face to face. "Neiya… You would share my pain? Why would you do this? Why?" she asked, sniffling. "I-I tried to kill you." her breathing quickened as panic set into her voice and her body began to shake.

Long cracks shone as they spread over her horns, and Neiya watched Oraelia with a mixture of helpless sorrow and sympathy. The horned goddess winced in pain, letting emotion and memory continue to stream unabated from the forlorn sun goddess as it visibly and audibly began to affect her. Just as anger and despair flowed into her, she watched it leave Oraelia as small threads of light. Heavy of breath, she struggled to respond. "Let me… do this for you, Oraelia. This is the only good I've ever done. I welcomed mortals into my heart. Bore their burden. Let me bear yours. I don't want to hurt anymore. I don't want you to suffer because of me, because of anyone."

Oraelia focused back on Neiya, concern plastered over her face, her earlier hateful demeanor wholly absent. ”No-no-no!” she cried out, wrapping Neiya in a hug. ”Stop Neiya, stop! You can’t take all of it. You can’t! You’ve done enough! She took a ragged breath. ”I-I-I don’t know what to do.” she squeezed Neiya tighter, not able to let go, or not wanting too. ”I-I-I should have talked to you, should have not assumed that you were behind it. I’m sorry Neiya. I’m sorry! Please don’t do this. You’ve done good! You-you’ve gotten better!” Oraelia began to caress her hair. ”Neiya, oh Neiya. I don’t want us to be like this anymore.” she cried.

Neiya placed her hand with motherly care on the back of Oraelia’s head in turn, closing her eyes to focus on the blinding impulses of pain and regret, not all of which were ones taken on from Oraelia’s wrathful despair. No, Neiya felt the surge of emotion swell and brought clarity to so many moments. To what Firinn and Aicheil had spoken of, both long ago and recently, and her many deceitful actions leading up to this day. For the first time in centuries, she listened to the beat of her own heart as an attempt to center her thoughts. Back then it had been a pale attempt to shut out the mortal maelstrom - now it was to think clearly even as she felt her essence draining. She had lost her way, so long ago. Let herself be distracted - no, corrupted - by the unexpected burden of her first act upon Galbar. Everything after that... The first humans she met. Sanya. Gibbou. All of it. It had all been tinged with that same bitter sadness. It warped her and when she finally could walk free again, it was all she knew. She’d forgotten. Forgotten what happiness actually felt like, like an addict chasing a feeling they could never reach again. But she understood now. Remembered her act. Remembered what she could be, and who she was. Maybe she was right, or Oraelia was right, in that she could never be that deity again, tainted by bitterness and selfish guilt as she was. But she could be better. Be the deity she had been, before she let herself be ruled by cynicism, spite and selfish desires. She could be like that again. All she had to do was accept her burden. To carry the pain of others.

"...Don't worry, my sweet Oraelia. I should never… have been so indignant… indolent… ignorant.. in the first place," Neiya murmured with a calmness that fought to prevail over her distorted breath and wincing. "I am awake now. Let me help you."

As her extraction continued, the process and the internal struggle of the goddess continued to physically affect her. In her mind she saw the image of herself that Oraelia had shown her, who she had been before her 'fall'. It burrowed itself into her mind now, like an unmovable principle. The guiding light for how to act.

A whirlwind of energy whipped up around them both. Neiya's physical form continued to grow fraught, as the horns on her body shook and writhed as the cracks spread, until they finally disintegrated into a coarse black dust that fell to the ground. Only two remained, golden and luminous, more akin to the antlers of a regal hind. Her hair invigorated with a gentle, appeasing gold tone. Her skin took on the warmth of mortal life, and the markings under her cheeks faded as her body turned to resemble the loving, affectionate woman the humans had given form to on that fateful day, the greatest reminder of her old form being colorful crystal tears lingering on her features. Neiya gripped Oraelia tighter and sighed, and the shackle around her throat split in two with a violent creak. She was free. And with that freedom, Neiya released a long, tired breath before her body started going limp, and her weight fell on Oraelia.

----

A mass of whispers, emotions, and sensations rocked Neiya awake from a fitful slumber she did not remember fully submitting to. The dull ache of tired limbs rippled through her body, and her head felt like she’d gone too hard on Cadien’s table of luxurious spirits. A grave agony still roiled within her, a painful memory of her crimes against Oraelia, though it had now settled in to mingle with the Maelstrom, and become manageable, no longer overpowering her thoughts. She resolved to no longer languish over what had been, and slowly opened her eyes to orient herself through remaining fatigue.

She came face to face with large blue eyes looking down at her, glistening with fresh tears. Oraelia’s face was a mix of relief and shame. It was then Neiya realized that she was laying upon Oraelia’s thighs, the Sun Goddess and her in the shade of a lone tree. Strands of Oraelia’s hair blew gently in a warm breeze that brought with it the smell of blooming flowers and fresh grass. Birds sang somewhere in the distance and the sun was shining bright, as if her realm had been reborn. Oraelia brought a hand to Neiya’s face and moved a strand of her hair away from her eyes. ”How are you feeling?” she asked, in a quiet whisper.

Neiya drew a long breath, pressing her lips into a thoughtful but serene expression. Seeing Oraelia returned to normalcy made the pain worth it. Watching her eyes flit over her own features warmed her again. ”I feel as if I’ve awoken from a long, fitful nightmare,” she managed eventually, breaking from her thoughts. Neiya extended a hand up to touch Oraelia´s cheek in turn, and shifted her head on her legs to hold the sun goddess’ gaze.

Oraelia leaned into the touch and gave a quiet sigh. She shut her eyes for a moment before looking at Neiya again, shame coming to the forefront of her features. ”You look better, Neiya. Not that I didn’t think you looked fine before. I mean, you looked terrible. But only because you were helping me!” The sun goddess grew sheepish. ”This is what I saw so long ago, isn’t it? This version of you… The dream. I am glad.” she smiled with a warmth that radiated. Then her smile grew distant. ”I am sorry.” she began, ”My anger consumed me. My senses became warped with hate and dark thoughts. That was… a version of me that should never be. And,” Her thumb moved to rub under Neiya’s eye. ”You saved me, Neiya. You helped me brave the maelstrom and regain myself, at the cost of yourself. So thank you.” Oraelia tilted her head down, looking away from Neiya again. ”I carry shame in my heart for the things I said to you but it is not because they shouldn’t have been said but in the manner of how they were addressed. I was needlessly cruel and I apologize for that. I was not myself but that is also not an excuse. I will not ask for your forgiveness for that would be unfair of me. However, what I said was true, before you slipped from consciousness. I don’t want us to be… As we were towards each other. If you want…” Oraelia said in another whisper.

Neiya exhaled slowly, watching the demure sun goddess with silent fascination. She hummed softly in agreement after a few moments of deliberation. "I want to heal this rift, Oraelia. To make amends." she eventually managed, fingers coursing through Oraelia's hair.

Oraelia shivered at the touch and turned her head back to meet Neiya. There was a longing in her eyes. "Okay." she breathed. "You've taken the first step, Neiya and proved me wrong. I'm proud of you and of who you will no doubt become. I," her cheeks began to glow red as Neiya kept playing with her hair. "I, um… The next steps will… Be… You might need help." Oraelia blushed and straightened her back. "I'd be happy to help you. With anything. To make up for trying to kill you." she said with a little cough.

Neiya exhaled sharply, a slight, serene twist of her expression all she gave to hint at her own thoughts. Her gaze tracked over Oraelia's features with renewed interest, before the love goddess lifted her head as much as she could without moving. "You're right, Oraelia.." she murmured quietly and pulled Oraelia down towards her with a gentle hand. "We've only just started."

Before the sun goddess could speak in return, Neiya lifted her head to meet her, and gingerly pushed her lips to Oraelia's.

She did not object.




“I told you it would come to this Vicri!” Magara yelled as she held off two Neiyari betrayers who had ambushed them in the sky a ten minute flight north of the lake, forcing her band to divert to the ground. Vicri grunted as he blocked the sword of a Neiyari man with black hair and grey wings. Magara held her spear sideways as Turi Turi shoved his own attacker to the ground and rushed to help her. Magara frowned. They thought - she thought - they had won the war, that the enemy had at last been broken without a cause. They had been wrong. Neiyari forces had been ramping up their attacks over the last few months, leaving the future uncertain. Now more than ever, was a time of calm before the storm, the older Oraeliari could feel it. Something was coming. The war would begin anew for it was eternal, and it felt as if the rain had finally come.

With Turi Turi briefly by her side, the youthful Oraeliari broke from her, taking one of her attackers with him. This let Magara go on the offensive and she let out a series of fearsome blows with her spear. The THWACK of wood upon a sun forged blade was deafening, consuming. The thrill of the battle could be intoxicating, the thrill of living on the edge, each moment could be a last. But it would not be today, as Magara caught the Neiyari, a girl with short cropped hair the color of light soil, in the stomach with the blunt end of the spear.

The girl keeled over. She gasped for breath and dropped her sword. Magara vividly remembered the first time she fought a Neiyari and how he had invoked such fear into her being but as she looked down at her, she did not feel fear. For once in her life, she felt nothing but contempt. A feeling un-Oraeliari. For those who loved life it was unthinkable but the enemy had taken too much and now it was a time for ends. Yet she had her doubts.

But still, Magara raised her spear.

The Neiyari girl looked up and Magara froze. There were tears in her eyes and for once, the one who brought fear, looked afraid. Truly afraid. She did not speak, yet seemed to accept her fate with a trembling frame. She bowed her head, Magara hesitated and then the Aurora exploded in intensity.

Magara looked up. They all did. Friend and foe alike, and they watched as every tree, plant, grass, flower- the entire Luminant began to pulse to a rhythm that escaped them. It was beautiful. Otherworldly. She dropped her spear, removed her bronze cap and took it all in. A pleasant breeze began to blow and wrapped around her, lingering like a lover’s sweet embrace. Like Hulri’s embrace. She shut her eyes and sighed, as a wash of old memories swept her up and away to fond places. Though her once-mate had died years ago, and that pain still lingered yet did not control, she was reminded of his laugh.

And that was everything.

When she opened her eyes again, Magara wept for the beauty of the Luminant and the memories she would always adore, with a smile on her face, even if they had come and gone. She gasped however, when her eyes found the spot where the Neiyari girl had been. She was gone and in her place, someone new stood. This girl hugged herself with eyes shut as she looked to the sky. Her hair was dark, curly red and her skin was lighter with freckles across her button nose. But what really caught Magara’s attention were her wings- stark white. The same as an Oraeliari but she had no golden hair… What was… Magara looked to the others, finding that Viciri was on his knees, the other Neiyari stood in contemplation and Turi Turi! His hair had become the color of honey and his wings were speckled with light brown feathers!

What was going on?

Light descended and intermingled with each of them, and though not all present had physically changed, it appeared to touch them deeply. Magara felt a bitter rush as memories of the past came rushing back in ever greater numbers, followed by a soft numbness as that same sensation faded back into the back of her mind.

The changed Neiyari girl spread her wings and beheld Magara with new eyes. Confusion, sorrow and sympathy were obvious in her gaze, and without a word she dropped the weapon still clutched in her hand. The others seemed to follow suit, lowering their guard - the malicious intent to ambush and kill washed away with these new emotions and wings. Magara was uncertain if they could even be called Neiyari anymore, between physical and apparent mental changes. Had she changed like this as well?

Magara touched at her hair and looked at her wings.

Her hair felt just as much the same but upon a closer look at her wings, the tip feathers were streaked with silver. It sent shivers down her spine. She felt as if she had unified into one being. Neither Oraeliari or Neiyari but perhaps… Just an Aviri?

Before she could think about much else one of the Neiyari attackers fell to their knees and let out a sorrowful cry. Before their very eyes, her hair turned from black to auburn and her wings were a light brown. She looked incredibly distraught.

"Where is Tevuri?" She called out, looking to each of the Oraeliari, or those who had been Oraeliari. Turi Turi eyed Viciri who stilled looked to the ground with downcast eyes and then to Magara. The woman followed his gaze and then stumbled to her feet and came before her. Magara blinked as the woman took her hand and pleaded. "Where is Tevuri? Do you know?" She cried.

"Cardinal… Tevuri?" Magara said the name with hesitation in her voice.

The woman nodded frantically. "Where can I find him?" She quickly followed.

Magara's face winced, something the woman noted. "Please, where is he?" She asked again in a softer voice.

"Cardinal Tevuri answered the call of Soluri months ago. He and a band of Oraelia ventured forth into a portal to a land called the Highlands. A place very far away from the Luminant, so I'm told. I am sorry, he is not here." Magara said.

The woman seemed to grow more distressed by the second and her facebteiated into that of grief. Magara fell to her own knees and comforted the creature with a hug. The woman sobbed into her for a time and Magara thought that hugging a Neiyari to be foolish. Unachievable. Yet here she was.

Eventually the woman spoke again. "I am glad for this feeling. This pain. I thought the War Mother had dulled these feelings for a purpose but now I see it was only to bury the pain. My pain. I hate it but I love it, as I love Tevuri. As I had loved Tevuri…"

"You loved Tevuri…?" Magara said aloud, and it all began to click.

"I am… I was… His once-mate."

Magara gasped and pulled away, taking the woman by her shoulders to look at her again. "It cannot be… Cardinal Pera…?"




Rhiona crossed her arms and huffed as she watched the two Love Goddesses from afar. They were intertwined with another, essences mingling, causing untold changes in the mortal world below. She should have been happy for her Lady, ecstatic even but Rhiona didn't like it.

Not one bit.

The avatar took one last look at the 'happy' couple and departed. She could not trust Neiya after what her avatar did and even her new figure could just as simply be a lie. Used to lull her lady into a trap and ensure her further. It made her angry to see her lady hurt so, to be used like she had and upon the moment of her revenge, she was saved. Or was she?

Rhiona did not know for sure. Even she felt the emptiness inside where the part of Solus should have been. The pain she could endure for she was her own being after all. But Oraelia worried her.

Her lady was a fragile flower in a sea of thorns. She lacked the foresight to acknowledge this and that was how it should be. Oraelia was special in that way. She saw the best in people despite how bad they were. It was why she was so naive.

But no more.

Rhiona would protect her lady no matter the cost. She could not let her hurt like she had again. She would make sure of it.

Rhiona descended upon the clearing that held the Lumins. After witnessing the grand design of the creature of death, she had her own ideas to implement and it was time to get started.





Desert Ice





The chamber was lit dim, like the jungle canopies she used to know. Here the birds did not sing, nor did the animals talk, nor was their laughter. There were only the sounds of distant footsteps on cool stone, hushed whispers in the dark and she could swear she heard something following her but when she looked around, there was nothing to be seen but empty hallways. She dumped water on the lit torch, putting it out with a sizzle and plume of smoke. Her balcony overlook was then set in darkness, her only source of light now the moons, the big white one providing the most.

Keeah shivered, the dark had settled in quickly. She took one last look out the balcony, seeing the heavens reflected upon the earth. Fires lit windows and outdoor foyers as far as her eyes could see. She turned back into her large room. Much too large for two people in fact and it sat high up. She remembered wanting to see such sights in Zuanwa but now… Now it just reminded her of pain. She shook her head and tried not to think about it, instead turning her attention to the room lit by moonlight and the figure sleeping on the grand bed. It was nestled against the wall with a canopy of red that could come down all around it. It was layered with sheets and blankets the like she had never seen.

Eresa slept peacefully beneath those same blankets. The girl, only a few years younger than her, had been cleaned of her paints after they arrived. They both had. Eresa had not known why but also did not object after Keeah had told her it would be alright. A part of her could not help but feel that washing them away was like losing a part of herself. But Eresa listened to her, as a servant did because that was all she knew. Maybe in time she would shed those chains.

Now, Keeah could see her face and she was beautiful. There was no mistake in Rakat's choosing of her as a servant. She seemed to be taking it all in well though, much better than herself, at least. It was remarkable really. Eresa had wanted to stay up with her but Keeah sent her to bed, wanting to keep her thoughts alone for the night. Now though, it was time for rest.

She was drawn to the warmth that awaited her within those blankets and next to someone familiar. A reminder and comfort of where she had come from. And so, she began to carefully remove the sheets on one side and slipped in. She settled in quick, leaning back against the pillows as she scooted closer to Eresa. She paused before she fully committed to that decision however and watched her breath, then feeling foolish she looked out across the room and sighed.

The room was adorned with a rich table and things that were called shelves that had ornaments and other trinkets on them. It was made out of some sort of wood, somehow. On the far wall, built out from it and tall, there was a basin where she was told servants would come and fill it with warm water for washing. Steps led up to it, built into the stone. It confused her.

Many things confused her, anymore.

She was still reeling from the last few days, not really knowing how to process what had happened… What she had done…

Oruna…

She knew in her heart what she truly was… A person that brought only pain and tragedy. Who lost control and murdered with cold clarity that was beyond her.

She was a monster… One that parents told their children to fear. She deserved that fear and that hate. She deserved to di-

"Za'watem?" Eresa's voice was sleepy and and soft as Keeah turned to look at her. Eresa's gaze percieved Keeah with those deep brown eyes of hers, full of concern. "What's wrong? What do you need, Za'watem?" She said, sitting up. Keeah blinked and felt tears fall down her cheeks.

How long had she been crying? She rubbed at her face with her sheets and looked at Eresa again. "It's nothing. I'm fine. Go back to sleep Eresa." She said a little too fast settling back further into the pillows and warmth that surrounded her. Why did she feel so cold still? She felt restless but tired all the same. Did she dare even sleep less the nightmares come to haunt her?

Her thoughts were broken by Eresa as she scooted closer to Keeah under the blankets. After a moment, she pressed against Keeah, facing her this time. The tall girl did not object as Eresa settled in without a word. She felt her slender fingers caress her shoulder, where she had been wounded not long ago. It was pleasant… Kia then looked at her once before nestling her head down. It was a small gesture but it made her feel warmer.

A knock outside her curtained door made them both jump and sit up. Eresa pressed further into her, as if to hide. Before Keeah had time to answer though… She walked through.
Za'watem Nalla. The Queen.

She wore her fiery hair down well past her shoulders, she could see the thick curls caught in the moonlight, reflecting like crimson, as well as her face. Small, dainty and hungry… It sent a shiver down her spine. Yet, Keeah was surprised to see that the only thing she wore was a loose nightgown of black covering her pale skin, but leaving nothing to the imagination. Her crown was gone, so was that necklace and her royal attire. She almost looked normal, and young. Had she always looked so young? But Keeah knew differently. Here was a queen, as they called her here. One of power and secrets. What did she want with her then?

“Hello Keeah, Eresa.” She said in that voice of hers. It lacked the authority it had carried when they first met and that somehow sent another shiver down her spine. “May I come in?” She asked.

She was asking? Keeah blinked and then in a quiet voice she said, “Sure.” Who was she to deny the queen, right?

Nalla smiled at them and walked in. She held her head high, with confidence and pride. Even the way she walked seemed to ooze with charm, practiced a thousand times to be just perfect. She held her eyes shut for a moment, trying to banish such foolish thoughts and she only opened them when she felt a weight at the end of the bed.

Nalla sat there, facing the balcony, slender hands propping her up. “Do you like your accommodations? Are you warm? It does often get chilly at night but never as cold as a winter in the north.”

Keeah raised an eyebrow, the questions gone from her mind as she asked her own. “You’ve been to the north?”

Nalla turned to her, eyes downcast. “Of course, ever heard of the Highlands?”

The girl quickly shook her head. This didn’t seem to bother Nalla in the slightest. Eresa kept her gaze low. She couldn't speak the language of the land and had to have Keeah translate. But right now, she would have to explain later.

“Well, I lived there. Nallan started there, small and full of ambition. Ah but it was not to last, I should have known really. The sun came and ruined everything... But even endings are just disguises for new beginnings, right?” the queen mused.

Keeah looked away from Nalla, her eyes narrowing as she thought about that. Was this a new beginning? Or was it just a stop, another place for tragedy to strike? Could she tell this woman her fears? How dangerous she actually was? She felt a hand grab hers underneath the covers, perhaps noticing her hesitation. Keeah took a deep breath.

She then squeezed Eresa's hand, for she was a blessing that let her focus. For now, she would keep it simple for the Queen. She glanced back at her with an eye and murmured, “The sun? Was it Rhiona?”

Nalla met her eye and gave a thoughtful nod, “I think so, how do you know her name?”

“She was… She is… The one who sent me to where I was. She said I could start over there. She lied.” Keeah whispered, the anger in her voice surprised her.

“Avatars are tricky.” Nalla began. “They can walk upon the earth, be feared and respected. They can do anything they want and the only oversight they have? That would be their God. Or other Gods. I’ve only met two and both times had opposite outcomes. The important thing now is that you are here, brought by the only Goddess who cares and away from pesky avatars.”

“I have to ask, why did Rhiona send you from the north?” Keeah cocked her head to the side, curious.

Nalla in turn looked out towards the balcony. “I wanted more land, more power and I had the means to get it.” Her words made Keeah blink. That was very forthcoming.

“The problem was my naivety. I put my trust in a witch, a Sorceress by the name of Aurielle. I saw in her great potential and I wanted her to lead my armies in conquest. What I failed to realize, was that my trust was misplaced. She did accomplish my goal, that I cannot deny but the cost was more than some could bear. I was blamed, rightfully, of course. A druid came to Nallan and prayed to the Sun and here we were sent as punishment. An unjust punishment of course. I did not tell Aurielle to burn cities in my name. I did not tell her to set examples. Did I expect bloodshed? Of course, who wouldn’t… But she was bloodthirsty and the rest is history. It feels so long ago now, I guess that’s what the heat does to you.” She sighed.

Keeah became conflicted at her sentiment. She was horrified of course, of what Nalla spoke of but a part of her knew what it meant to be bloodthirsty. How could she judge that when she herself was just as equally guilty for lives lost?

“It hasn’t been so bad.” Nalla said, looking to Keeah again, her eyes bright orbs. Somehow soft but strong. “Neiya is a benevolent Goddess. She helped us when the others would not. And we are thriving because of it. Sometimes I have regrets but I know the future holds many promises to come.”

“Do you… Do you miss the past? Of your time in these, Highlands?” Keeah asked in a small, childlike voice.

Nalla smiled and gave a nod. “Sometimes. But if we dwell on the past, we become consumed by it. I prefer to look to the future and what it has in store for us. Sure, the past is a part of us, without it who would we be? But this does not mean it should shackle us.” she paused as if in thought then continued a moment later, “I want you to know that you are safe here and will be well cared for. The both of you. I love my goddess and she sent you here, placing her faith in me. I shall not disappoint her by treating you poorly. Anything you want, anything you need, I offer all that I can to you. You are special Keeah, in what ways I cannot say right now but I hope I might be able to, one day.”

Keeah's face flushed. She was barely able to hold the gaze of the queen. It was so intense. "T-Thank you, Nalla. I mean Queen Nalla." She corrected herself but it came out wrong. She grew embarrassed further.

"There there, you are new here to our customs. When alone you may call me Nalla. In the presence of others, your majesty, my queen and I'm sure you'll pick up others. Think nothing of it for now." Nalla said. At that, Keeah looked up at her.

For a brief moment Keeah thought Nalla's charming smile hid something deeper behind her eyes, the same hunger and it unnerved her but a moment later it was gone. Had she imagined it?

"I can do that, Nalla." She said, breaking the silence. The queen nodded approvingly.

"Good. One can learn much here and if you are to stay I ask that you do. I shall assign some servants to the both of you and they will take care of your needs until you grow accustomed. Starting tomorrow the two of you will be shown a new world. I hope you can enjoy it like I do. For now, I shall let you sleep. You seem to be in good company." She winked, got up from the bed and made her way to the door. "Goodnight Keeah, Eresa." She said, leaving them alone.

"She's so… Intense." Keeah finally breathed, laying back into the bed.

Eresa laid back beside her without words and the two stared up at the canopy. She had a great deal to think about. Could she trust Nalla? Could Nalla trust her? She turned to look at Eresa and sighed. "What do we do, Eresa? She doesn't seem like she'd harm us or get rid of us. Do we just… Stay? Where would we go if we even wanted to leave?"

"I have no answers, Za'watem." Eresa spoke.

Keeah frowned and let out a small sigh. She was about to close her eyes but Eresa spoke again. "I think… We should stay, if we have nowhere else to go, Za'watem."

Keeah blinked and then smiled. Progress!

"Okay. We shall stay for as long as Za'watem Nalla will have us." She said, mind made. She began to shut her eyes again but stopped. There was something else that needed to be said. "Eresa… Thank you for being here, with me."

"The privilege is mine, Za'watem Keeah." She gave with a nod, looking at her again.
It wasn't exactly the response she had been looking for, but it was in the right direction.

"Goodnight, Eresa." Keeah said, nestling back into the bed beside her. She then remembered where her hand was still and let go with a flush of red to her face.

"Goodnight, my Za'watem." Eresa yawned, pressing herself into Keeah's side. The two then drifted off into sleep.




The days went by quickly as Keeah found herself learning about a new world. Again. Unlike her time spent with Oruna in the jungles, here in Nallan a great deal was different. It was hot, but not muggy or humid. No, this heat was bone dry and her body struggled with the temperature changes. Cold at night, hot during the day. And now, it was just raining. They called it the Relief. Dark clouds that stretched on forever, releasing a constant drizzle of water. Just enough to make her miserable, Eresa too. But everyone else, those she passed on her daily journeys, seemed to be smiling and in good humor. She supposed it was a much needed reprieve from the heat.

Then there was the fact everyone wore clothes from head to toe. The less skin one shown, the more wealthy one was seen, as clothes were still hard to come by. The custom had something to do with how Nalla dressed, at least when seen by her people. This was beginning to be reflected down throughout Nallan. Keeah was forced to wear clothing that covered her up, as she was very pale and the sun burned her skin easily. It was strange, going from warm furs, to nothing and then back to being clothed. She felt even worse for Eresa, as her entire identity had been from wearing paints and now she had been wearing clothes as well. Though, they had been able to finally track down a local who made paints and with a little trading, they were able to find the ones they had used back in Zuanwa. Though Eresa did not show it, Keeah could tell she was thrilled.

But now that the Relief had come, many chose to forgo their clothing in favor of feeling the rain upon their skin, it was strange how one second it was taboo to show skin and then suddenly it wasn’t. This perhaps also had to do with how the queen showed herself now, wearing very revealing clothing as she was carried around in a palanquin when she went out into the city. She herself wore clothing similar to that, a long black dress, that more or less acted as a skirt, that was cut down the middle and indeed in a v. It was very revealing but Keeah did not mind all that much anymore. Until people stared at her and she questioned why she had thrown it on in the first place. Eresa simply wore a loin cloth and fabric that covered her chest as they walked.

So it wasn’t all bad.

They learned about Nallan’s customs and history from her servants, Velie and Yeso. Then Keeah translated for Eresa, so she could learn as well. Their servants, though Eresa never asked them for anything, were prim and proper young girls who liked to talk. A lot. And about all sorts of things but Keeah didn’t mind too much. She learned a lot from them and they helped to make their stay more pleasant. They were both younger than Eresa, and about the same height as the dark skinned girl. Velie was a brunette with a thin build, a dianty face with freckles and hazel eyes. Yeso was a blonde, same build as Velie but with a creamy skin tone and blue eyes. If one hadn’t known they weren’t related, they probably would have guessed that they were sisters.

Now the four of them were on their way back to the palace after they had secured the paints. Keeah had seen many strange things those last few weeks but none as strange as the Alma, as they were called. Slaves with large eyes, crested brows of feathers and such strange skin tones with glowing swirls. They were beautiful but… She pitied them. She had almost been a slave and knew how it felt. They reminded her of Eresa the most, how their identities were slowly becoming that of servants, bound to do as they were told. But she was also relieved that their fate was not her own. How could she feel such ways? It was a question that made her think about her place and where she wanted to go. Could she let people suffer, like she had suffered? Or would she just end up doing something foolish?

As her servants chatted amongst themselves and Eresa walked by her side, they passed the gate guards, armed heavily, and their way into the palace. Nalla liked it quiet in her home and not much went on besides servants and the occasional plant folk walking about. That was another oddity she was perplexed by. A living plant? How did they even work? She had not been able to meet one yet, as Nalla kept them as personal pets. She had learned that interesting tidbit from Yeso. Perhaps one day she would be able too?

Velie and Yeso took the two of them back to their room and then left to fetch warm water and food. Eresa began to take out her paints and place them on a shelf as Keeah stripped off her wet clothes and changed quickly into something warm as she awaited the water.

She didn’t mind having servants that did what she asked, it… Felt good and she appreciated them. Oruna would have liked having servants of her own… She felt guilty for living the promised life they had wanted together. She walked over to the empty basin and put her hands on the stone as guilt struck her. Then that guilt turned to anger as her thoughts went back to that day and her knuckles turned white as that man’s face came to the forefront... He had ruined everything!

“Za’watem! Za’watem Keeah!” Eresa called for her and Keeah blinked, spinning around to see what was wrong.

Instead she saw Eresa, now naked, applying paint to her body. Keeah’s heart jumped into her throat and she felt her face begin to blush. She tried to maintain eye contact but her eyes wandered, the odd fluttering in heart building. “Y-Yes, Eresa?” she managed to say.

“Would you like to be painted after your bath, my Za’watem?” she asked with a curt smile.

“I don’t think…” She gulped as Eresa painted her neck, “I… I’m going to go for a walk and clear my head.” She said in a rush, headed for the door. Eresa began to speak but her words were lost to Keeah’s ears as she hurried down the hallway.

She wandered through the halls, cheeks red and heart beating fast. Why did Eresa make her feel as she did? She had seen her body before it wasn’t like… It wasn’t like it was any different. But it was, wasn’t it?

So lost in thought and flustered Keeah was, she thought she almost ran into someone as she rounded a corner. There was a blur in her vision and she blinked to see that there was no one in front of her. Was she seeing things now?

“Keeah.”

She spun around and came face to face with Nalla, wearing her hair up in a bun with that crown of hers and that necklace of ruby red as she wore a black dress. When did she…? Keeah quickly straightened herself up. “Queen Nalla!” she said, giving her an unnecessary bow.

Nalla looked her over. “Good heavens dear, your face is all red. Are you well?”

"I-I-I am fine your majesty. Was just uh… I was just uh…" Keeah began but her mind blanked out on an excuse. It was far too embarrassing to tell the truth.

Nalla smirked. "You know, Keeah. I've seen this before. The look in your eyes is a dead giveaway." She walked around Keeah and then placed a hand on her shoulder, sending a small breath on her left ear that sent a shiver down her spine as the queen leaned in close. Was she standing on her tiptoes? Nalla then whispered, "Why do you deny your desire? If you want something, then take it Keeah. Make it be yours, love it, cherish it, we never know how long we have in this life." She grew silent and Keeah waited for her to continue but she never did. She spun around and found that Nalla was gone but her heart still beat fast.

Keeah brought her hand to her cheek. Maybe she was right… Maybe she… The more she thought on Nalla's words, the more she began to agree with them. Like a seed taking root in her heart. She knew what she wanted.

Keeah raced back to her room and opened the curtain to see that Eresa was wiping her paints off with a downcast look in her eye. When she saw Keeah, she stood a little straighter. Keeah approached her and Eresa began to speak, avoiding eye contact.

"I did not mean to upset you, my Za'watem. I just thought you would wan-" She silenced Eresa's words with a gentle pull of her face to meet her own. The two looked at another for several blissful moments of silence. Then Keeah pressed in closer, her cheeks bright red and her heart felt like it was going to sprout wings and fly off. Eresa's eyes relaxed and she seemed to know what was about to happen with a knowing smile.

Keeah breathed, "P-Paint me." Before pressing her lips to Eresa's.




Almost a year later

Keeah stumbled into the room, numb to sensation and feeling as if she was in a dream as her body felt the euphoric aftershocks of Nalla's words. She hugged herself as she leaned on a table to keep herself from falling over and let out a long but pleasant sigh.

"Enjoy yourself, Keeah?" Eresa's voice came to her ears and Keeah slowly tilted her head to view the Zuanwan woman with a slow smile forming on her lips. Eresa looked so good. The way the moonlight touched her left little to the imagination, especially with her painted features and that silken robe. Keeah was mesmerized. Had her hair always been that long?

Eresa folded her arms. Uh oh. "Za'watem." She said in a stern voice. Keeah stopped smiling and began to pout. When Eresa used that word, it meant she wasn't happy with her. Something that was becoming increasingly apparent.

The tall girl gripped the chair closest to her and said, in a soft voice that was slightly slurred, "Yes, Eresa?"

"Did you enjoy yourself?" Eresa said with an icy coolness as she walked over to the opposite end of the table and gripped her own chair. "How many times this week? Five? Six? Dare I say eight?" Keeah gave no answer but she averted her gaze from Eresa's scrutiny. "I don't like this, Keeah. You go out and out and do things that… That I have a hard time understanding. Why? Why do you do these things? Look how you dress! Look at the ribbon around your neck! Do you not see how addicted you've become to her powers?" Another moment of silence, she did not know what to say. "Keeah. Look at me, please."

She did with some reluctance and saw that Eresa's normally stoic face was full of emotion, her eyes brimmed with tears. She almost wanted to look away again, out of shame. But she didn't. "Eresa…" she whispered.

The jungle girl wiped her eyes. "You know I don't care what you do with others. It was acceptable in Zuanwa, it should be here. You treat me well, you always have and for that I am yours forever." She took a deep breath. "But I worry for you, Keeah."

It took her by surprise, Eresa's words. She had never been so forthcoming with her thoughts. Once she had just been a soft spoken lover but now… Now she was her own person and it hurt Keeah inside. Had she been so blind? "You… Worry for me? Why?" She asked, burying the aftershocks as her mind became clearer.

Eresa nodded. "You were not always like this. But I fear I awoke something in you and she empowered it, turning a kind woman into someone who only enjoys her next dose of pleasure, far too much. Keeah, I've seen the depths one will fall too as they become a slave to their own vices and I worry for who you are becoming."

She felt like she had been slapped, who was she to say such things?. "What are you… That's not true! I am kind, I'm kind to you, I treat you well. I always have! And and and I'm not addicted Eresa!” She slammed her hands on the table in front of them, making Eresa jump. Keeah winced and then in a softer voice said, “Don't blame yourself for who I'm becoming, Eresa. I like feeling powerful and strong. For once, in control of myself. So what if it’s through… Means that make me feel good? Besides, Nalla helps me."

Eresa pursed her lips, she opened her mouth to speak and then shut it. Silence permeated the area as Keeah watched Eresa collect her thoughts. She then spoke in a quiet voice, "You do treat me well, my Za’watem. Better than I have ever been treated, in fact. But what of the other servants? Do you think if they could they would ask for you to stop when you are too rough? Do you care about them or their wellbeing? You used too, Keeah. Now when I look into your eyes I see a hunger. Like hers..."

She felt her blood begin to grow hot, only for it to simmer as she looked at Eresa. "That’s not…” She began but fell silent. As much as she wanted to deny it, to yell and say she was wrong, that she was lying… A part of her knew the truth. Why she did such things. Her own eyes began to water. “Eresa… I-I-I do it for us. Don’t you see?” She took a deep breath, trying to calm the emotions within. “You see the servants… I see them… The lords and ladies of the court. Misham, Corrowin, Helhin, Jaelia, Yiowne… They want you. They want me.” Eresa blinked, her face turning to shock. “Nalla… She likes uniqueness and so do they and who is more unique then you or I? They would have us as their own servants, their own playthings. So I… I have to become one of them, get on their level so I can keep you safe.” Her hands found the chair and she gripped it tight as she looked to the floor and blinked tears away. “I want to be like them.” She uttered, her silent truth revealed.

More silence followed but she dared not look up at Eresa. Before long however, she felt a familiar warmth next to her, with a tender hand guiding her face to look at Eresa. She looked conflicted. “Keeah…" she said, and the tall woman felt the ribbon around her neck become loose and slip down. She shivered as Eresa touched the two bite marks with her fingers, still fresh from Nalla.

She gave a shivering breath as Eresa's hand began to wander. "I don't mean to mistreat the servants. I just get… Carried away. I lose myself in the throws of such passion Eresa… I will… Try to work on myself."

"I suppose there is no changing your mind Keeah?" Eresa murmered, pressing herself into Keeah. She gingerly wrapped her in a hug. "Have you thought it through? Will you forsake the sunlight for such power? Can you stomach blood?" She asked.

"You know I've never been fond of the sun. I think I will be fine without it, the others manage. Nalla says it will help focus my powers, keep me collected and allow me to react quicker. Plus, once I become one of them I get my own house, with my own servants and we will be able to live anyway we want. Nalla promised that we would be well taken care off and more if I help her out from time to time. It's the life Oruna wanted and I will make her proud." She said, sounding confident again.

Eresa said nothing for a time and did not let go from her either. "As long as you don't lose yourself to this power, my Keeah. Okay?" She said in her softest voice yet. Keeah squeezed her a bit harder and looked off and out into the city.

"Okay."




Around Four years later

"Lady Keeah!" Came a voice that jostled her awake with a quiet groan. "Lady Keeah! Please wake." Her eyes focused in the dimly lit chamber and she found herself looking at large eyes. One of her Alma servants, Teiw, stood at attention next to her bed.

"What is it?" She murmured, rubbing her eyes. It had to be daylight out still.

"Urgent message from the Queen, my Lady. She requests your presence, now." The girl spoke with a slight bow.

Keeah began to sit up but felt herself pressed down. She looked at her large bed to see a pile of her fledglings strewn about in various states of wear. While Eresa was the one who was passed out on her legs, the silly woman. Gently she reached out and pushed her aside. Eresa grumbled something about vintage blood and quieted.

Keeah then sat on the edge of the bed as Tiew began to help her as she got up and walked off her sleepiness.

"Did she say what about?" Keeah asked, putting on a loose shirt. If the queen wanted her now, there would be no time to dress up.

Tiew brought over trousers and a large cloak. "No my lady, only that it was important."

She put those on two and fixed her hair. Tiew held out her white mask, bowing again. Keeah instead grabbed her by the waist and Tiew instinctively tilted her head to show her neck. "Hungry, my lady?"

Keeah's reply came in the form of biting her neck. She drank two mouthfuls of her blood and then released Tiew, taking the mask as she licked her lips. "Thank you Tiew, you may take the rest of the night off."

The servant nodded with a smile as she placed a cloth to her neck. Keeah then went on her way, placing the mask across her face. It was a simple one, with only two eye holes and curvature that fit her face. It was meant for traveling in the day, as her cloak blocked the light. It was really only for precautions, as Nalla had used and dug out the extensive tunnel systems for travel between her palace and elsewhere. That was the route Keeah took.

It did not take her long at a brisk run and she was let into the dungeons of Nalla's palace. Long flights of stairs later and she was directed to the throne room where she arrived to see a very peculiar sight.

Nalla was sitting on the throne of course but she had a little girl on her lap with blond hair. And they were alone, talking to each other. Keeah took off her mask as she approached and Nalla smiled at her.

"There you are Keeah, I was wondering when you would show up. I have someone very special I'd like you to meet. Someone with magic as strong as yours." The small girl looked at her with inquisitive eyes. Nalla continued on, "I believe her to be a witch and I think you two will get along very well. Keeah, I'd like you to meet Anastasya."

The girl smiled at her and Keeah smiled back.






A Song Journey





It was not long before the lady-in-waiting had selected a group of fifteen songs, placing Saluna at their head. While Shae had always annoyed her and gone out of her way to frustrate her, they were of one ink. “Look after your comrades - and know that even if the Lord Cadien has sent an escort it is your duty to ensure their safe return just as it is their duty to protect you on your way. Pursue all clues of Shaeylila’s whereabouts, speak to all gods you cross and to their creations. And be brave.”

Nodding, the clothier of the sirens took up her mask and brought her brocaded mantle of gold and crimson about her and led the solemn procession of similarly clad sirens and songmen, and their armed and armoured escort, towards the gate of Melioriem.

The guards, for their part, were silent. A mixture of men and women selected by Dakari, They were led by Jakri, Dakari’s old ally from ages past. Jakri may have initially been tied to Dakari out of coercion all those decades ago, but had since proven himself to be reliable and trustworthy. Of course, the songs knew nothing of this, other than that Jakri was the one deemed suitable to command their escort.

Other songs followed them, strumming lutes and playing flutes and an assortment of other instruments to lift their morale and prepare them for the journey ahead of them. Through the portal they went, those stalwart, dauntless thirty.

They stepped into ink up to their knees and were for a few moments surprised - had they walked through the wrong portal? But a quick lookaround confirmed that this was not the realm of their Lady at all. From a near portal an inkfall flowed, filling the entire space with ink. Here and there little inky butterflies or faeries fluttered and at the centre of the great space was a signpost that stood enduring the rising ink tide. Saluna gestured for the others to follow, keeping her eyes surveying the space.

“What does it say?” Herraiya asked. Saluna glanced at the other song and then looked at the signpost.

“It’s a noticeboard. Let’s see now… ‘What if I told you there was a way to interact more closely with the world? All you need to do is bind a small piece of your soul to another form, and send that form to Galbar. It will be able to pass through without interference from the Lifeblood, walk the world, and perform divine actions on your behalf. You can thank Gibbou for this trick. Oh, and if you haven’t set foot outside your realm’s portal yet, please do; it’s perfectly safe! That will be all!’” Saluna read. The others looked at each other with deep frowns. “Uh. Lifeblood? I don’t think that’s intended for us. But this name ‘Gibbou’ sounds familiar.” The leader thought out loud.

“Moon Goddess,” Jakri grunted, as if that answered everything. Saluna’s brows rose in realisation and she nodded gratefully to the leader of the guards before moving onto to the other things. “Hmm, ah yes, zodiacs. This addition here has been vandalised - a drawing of some sort. I wonder who would do that…” she paused in thought, “do you think maybe Shae passed by and did it? It’s something she would do.” The others only shrugged in response. “Okay, we’ll take it as evidence.” She ripped the vandalised piece off and inspected it more closely. It looked to be half of a smiling face of some kind.

“Oh! Saluna! This looks useful. I think it’s a list of all the g-” but before Herraiya could finish, there was a great disturbance as one of the far portals expanded rapidly and a creature from the land of nightmares emerged. The songs stood frozen in shock, eyes wide, but their Neiyari guards were swift to put themselves between the songs and the danger.

At first, it didn't seem to even notice them, which seemed lucky enough. It was truly massive. Its entire body, excluding the large wings like that of a bat that sprung from the back of its quadrupedal form, was covered in shimmering black scales. Along its head it had impressive horns, they curled back in on themselves like that of a ram's horns. A long tail swung out as it finally stepped fully free of the portal and it returned to its normal size.

The massive creature looked around, soft it spoke even as its voice echoed through the barren land, "So this is the land beyond the portal..."

The creature's voice drifted off until its eye crossed the path of the group, it turned, bringing its gargantuan head low to the ground, bringing its eyes near the level of the group. It spun around its body, no easy feat given it's size and difficulty moving among the portals. Speaking even as it did so, "Oh I didn't see all you there. What might you be?"

The tone was of obvious joy and was only so very nearly not one of singing. The guards did not relax, however, and seemed set on striking out if the creature got any nearer, but Saluna stepped forth and calmed them. “There now Jakri, give me a moment.” She looked at the fearsome beast for a few seconds, her inky form rippling with the slightest fear, and then she clenched her fist and stepped forward. “I greet you, mighty being. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs. These here are my comrades, all servants and wards of Lord Cadien of Melioriem, the Beauteous and Perfect. Who may you be?” She spoke melodiously and without hesitation, her euphonious words flowing in harmony with the lake of ink all around them and the great spaces above.

"Oh my, I do most love your voice. I am Iom'dryrar, she who was allowed to explore the divine realms by the Great Eye, the supreme Lord of Death, Thaa. In truth, I had not expected to see such wonders as yourselves so quickly! I am very glad to meet you Saluna, among my people each has a name, are you solely in possession of one as a 'Clothier of the Songs'?" Iom'dryrar had begun to settle down on her haunches as she spoke, taking a very relaxed position, apparently in disregard of the guards. After a tense few seconds, they eased up somewhat but were still visibly wary.

“Some of us have taken up roles to benefit our community, and from those roles titles arose. But no, we are all in possession of names. These here are my song siblings - here is Herraiya,” the song in question waded forth, the ink parting about her, and bowed respectfully as she removed her mask.

“I’ve no grand titles, mighty Iom’dryrar, but my voice is one Lord Cadien loves and that is honour enough for me.” Herraiya spoke daintily, admiring the great being’s terrible form. Others stepped forth after her, introducing themselves in turn and relaying their roles if they had taken up any. There was the slender Linuha, her inky hair flowing long and green and her clothes boasting flowers of red and green and gold. Then came Simta, who was soft spoken and paler than all the others, seemingly unable to meet Iom’dryrar’s eyes. Though she lowered her mask, it remained over the lower part of her face as she spoke. After her was Filaisa, her voice as silk and features the most constant of the songs, then the songman Mihdara, strumming his lute and bowing with a great flourish, sending forth a few verses of praise for the glorious dragon’s mighty frame and goodness of nature. Next was wild and tempestuous Laiyuna, who spoke quickly and stared intently and asked questions without waiting on answers, and after her was Sabunta who, trembling and fearful, stepped forward with shaking knees and declared his bravery and courage to the chuckles of the others. Migara was next, whose every aspect was peace and whose aura followed her like a great cloud of calm, followed by Sirpal - tall, dashing, wild-haired and quick to laugh and smile -, then Hidashar - sombre, melancholic, and whose words came like sighs -, then Eshren, Saluna’s consort and whose words came velvety and considered. The final three were Jinaha, who seemed to float, Lajia who twirled and loosed the melodies of her flute to the hums and singing of the others, and Ghizla - black of eye, black of hair, black of aspect; unchanging Ghizla, deep-voiced and tallest, broad of chest, wielding charisma as easily as the Neiyari guards hefted and swung their weapons.

“And these here are our Neiyari friends and guards,” Saluna continued once that was done. “They come from the terrene sphere of Galbar, the Toraanian continent there, and now live to serve Lord Cadien.” She paused and glanced at the guardsmen, but they seemed to have little interest in introducing themselves or being friendly with the dragon, and so she moved on. “He’s the quiet sort - probably just shy, aren’t you Jakri? But I guess you should know him at the least, our very own, dashing [TITLE PLACEHOLDER] Jakri.” She looked at the Neiyari for a few seconds, but introductions did not seem to make him anymore talkative. “Ah well. We had not expected to meet something as wondrous as you, magnificent Iom’dryrar - truth be told I thought you a god at first! You said you are exploring the divine spheres. Are you searching for something, like us?”

Iom'dryrar met each with interest and happy gaze, smiles with teeth kept firmly behind her lips as she enjoyed each introduction. With the final question of purpose she responded, "I am far from a god for one must be sure, I am but one of many of my people, first however to move among the divine realms if second to leave that of our creation. I am not searching for anything in particular, instead I seek to explore realms near and far for interest and hopefully most joyous findings. Already I am succeeding to have met such wonderful company."

"You are searching for something you have said, and I have no set schedule, if you would have it, I'd gladly assist you in any means that I could."

Saluna sighed and nodded at the question, though she seemed pleased at the prospect of having the Iom’dryrar join their fellowship. “Yes, we are searching for some of our fellow songs who have disappeared. We fear that something has befallen them. You come from the realm of death - I don’t know much about death, but do the dead… go to the great Lord Thaa? Have you perchance seen beings like us wander into the world of death of late?”

The dragon nodded solemnly as Saluna spoke, replying, "I do know some from knowledge of the realm and the words of the Great Eye. Almost every dead soul goes to Thaa, he ensures quite stable control over it in his own powers I believe. I have not seen such beings as your kind ever before I must admit, but I would not fear they are lost there. Inside there are guards which watch the entrance, most often the Echoes, they typically alert the Great Eye to any visitors. He is very particular about such I am led to believe. If they had wandered in I am sure the Echoes would have forced them to leave once more as long as they lived still."

She crossed her fore-legs and continued, "If you wish to pray to the Great Eye to confirm whether they have reached him you might do so, but I would doubt he would reply, in truth." Saluna raised her hand and shook her head.

“No no, it is quite alright. If you had not noticed any upsets then Shae was definitely not around. She’s irreverent, wild, crazy - and maybe it’s actually for the best that she’s disappeared, only that she’s probably giving songkind a bad name wherever she’s off to and so we must reluctantly find here. And then there is poor Wilarda and Meralusa, they certainly don’t deserve whatever has befallen them - no doubt due to that Shaeylila.” Saluna caught herself mid-tirade and couged. “But ah, anyway. No need for all that. Now, if I remember right Lord Cadien did recommend we visit the goddess of sun and daybreak first.” She looked around at the portals. “Is there any way of knowing which leads there?”

“We can almost certainly discount that one, that one, and that one.” Filaisa said coolly, pointing to the portal Iom’dryrar had emerged from, the one they had emerged from, and the one that was gushing liquid ink.

“As good a start as any.” Saluna agreed. “Does anything on the board give any clues, Herraiya?” The song had gone back to inspecting the list of the gods.

“No, there’s nothing here Sal-” she glanced up at the leader and froze, her eyes drifting above them. Saluna looked up and likewise gasped, and one by one the other songs all beheld it. The great alabaster wall of Antiquity rose like gold-veined cliffs all about them, and there where a ceiling should have been was a whole other world. The great sphere of Galbar hung above them like a great jewel in the sky, clouds and winds layering its atmosphere and covering up the great landmasses of Toraan, the Mydias, Khesyr, and the Kubrajzar. Seeing was not like hearsay and tales, and the songs took it in for the longest time.

Filaisa was the first to break out of the reverie, and her voice broke her ink-kin back. “That one there. It is alight and rays of day are leaking out of it everywhere. I am certain of it.” Saluna nodded and looked to Jakri and then Iom’dryrar.

“Well, if things go badly at least we have you, eh?” She smiled and was still for a few moments, and then rushed forth gracefully, the ink parting before her, and leapt headfirst through the portal. The other songs formed around each other and, like a great cascade of ink and melody, followed after her.

With a sigh, Jakri followed. “Next time you pass through a strange gateway,” he said as he passed through the portal, “let your guards go through first.” He looked around. “Where are we?” he asked, as the hussars behind him began passing through in pairs.

Finally, the last of those to transit, Iom'dryrar followed with some trepidation but mostly excitement. Another realm of the divine beyond the one she had been born into, the one that she had known all her life of mists and dimness, the entire atmosphere of death. And now one so unbelievably full of light, what wonders awaited her. She came up to it, setting her fore legs at ends of the portal and tried to move it, it seemed to oblige more of intent of will rather than any matter of her strength. So the dragon followed as best she was able after those that came before.

She emerged into a realm of bright colors, painted upon every bit of creation. Lazy clouds drifted upon a light blue sky, joined by creatures small and large that seemed to drift without care upon the cool breeze. With a gentleness, the wind wrapped around them, ruffling hair and bringing many pleasant floral aromas to the senses. The air here was crisp and refreshing, as told by the many song birds that flew past. Though, on sight of the dragon, those birds darted away in fright or surprise.

Before her and the others, there was a well worn dirt path. It was very wide and somehow well kept, leading off into the rolling landscape. There were fields and fields of flowers and tall grasses, ranging in all sorts of colors, sizes, and shapes. From small bushy clumps of yellows and blues to tall reds and violets with flowing petals. It seemed endless, but along the path in the far distance, the landscape changed to trees. Like a wall of mighty green they waited. Not many animals were about, for many had fled at the sight of the dragon and those that remained were naught but quiet insects. In the distance however, more could be seen going about their lives, in peace and harmony. None rivalled the dragon in size, but a few were impressive in stature nonetheless.

The songs stood aghast, their inky forms expanding, shifting, dilating with the world around them. They breathed in the novel smells of flowers, grasses, earth - a breeze carried the whispers of the distant trees. The clouds in the sky had them staring, and Herraiya giggled at one point. “That one looks like you, Iom’dryrar.” Iom'dryrar looked skyward to catch the look of the apparent look-alike cloud, her head softly turned in examination. By her, quiet Simita gasped as an odd, long-eared creature leapt too close.

“H- Herra.” She whispered in panic, and the lively song bent down and stroked the strange animal between the ears before taking it easily in her hands and lifting it. It seemed at perfect peace in her hands.

“By our Lady, Simta, it’s so cute!” She held it up to the other song, who recoiled and retreated behind the towering Ghizla. Perhaps the greatest indicator of who’s realm they had arrived in, however, was the sun and it’s light. It was pleasantly warm there and the rays felt divine - and the songs had never seen its like. Who knew the sun could be so refreshing? Who knew its rays could dance on the surface of an inky form and warm one’s very core?

“Are we… back in the Luminant?” one of the Neiyari asked. A few of the songs looked over and raised their eyebrows, a few chuckling.

Jakri frowned. “No. It’s not bright enough.”

“Have you forgotten your home already?” another Neiyari heckled.

For her part, Iom'dryrar stared in fascination, at all the multitudes of life, she seemed stunned at the vibrancy of it all, only softly looking close at this or that piece of vegetation. The fascination was akin to that of a child seeing out into the world for the first time. “Hey, Io - can I call you Io? - look at this! Isn’t it just the loveliest thing?” Herraiya rushed over and held up the befuddled long-eared thing. “I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it! And it feels so soft and warm.”

"That you may," Iom'dryrar, or Io, replied with much excitement, "It is so small!" She bent her head down, examining it with one eye. She kept her lips as far down over her teeth as she could manage, and moved gently, trying not to spook the creature. Perhaps the creatures here did not understand the concept of predation or death, for the little thing stared indolently back at her, only moving its nose about as it sniffed at the air.

“I think I’ll keep him.” Herraiya declared as Saluna moved past her and looked at the path. After considering it for a few moments, she stepped off it and walked through the tall grass and flowers.

“Let’s go this way.” She called, and the songs all followed after her - except Filaisa who exhaled, sending forth a spurt of ink and song that fluttered off in the form of moths and butterflies. She looked at the road for a few minutes, then reluctantly followed after the others, giving Jakri an annoyed glance as she passed.

Before they had even taken a few steps off the road, a blinding flash of light erupted all around them. When the glow subsided, a tall ethereal woman of light floated before them in the air. She did not look happy.

"Halt." she commanded and rays of light descended all around them in a square prison. She then pointed at Iom'dryrar. "This one is of death. Who speaks for this party? Why would you bring such a creature here and those…" she pointed at the Neiyari hussars, voice taking on a sour note. "This is a realm of life and peace. We do not want death and war here. Furthermore, you are not Furies." She pointed to the songs. "Who might you be to keep such company as this?" she folded her arms and looked to them expectantly.

The Neiyari visibly tensed. One looked as if she was about to go for her weapon, but a sharp look from Jakri stopped her.

Saluna stepped forward, removing her mask and bowing low. “I salute you, great being. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs, and these here are my ink-kin, songs and songmen all. We have come from the realm of Lord Cadien of Melioriem, the Beauteous and Perfect. This here is Jakri of the Black Hussars, he and his men have joined us - on Lord Cadien’s insistence - to ensure our safety on our journey. And this here is Iom’dryrar, who seeks after joy and adventure. We beg your forgiveness if we have done wrong.” Her voice came soft and melodious, and all around little life forms seemed drawn towards them, sparrows and other small birds alighting on her shoulder or nestling in her great flowing hair of ink. The other songs similarly bowed, Herraiya clutching the little animal to her chest.

The Great Dragon set her head low on the ground, speaking clearly even so, "Oh Luminous One, I mean no harm or malintent, Saluna speaks true. Should my presence be ever too odious, please, treat any such punishment upon me and not my friends I have met so soon and become so dear."

“We stand under Cadien’s protection,” Jakri said, cutting straight to the point. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Neiyari did not bow. “We are searching for a woman named Shae, who recently went missing from Cadien’s realm.”

The woman narrowed her gaze at the Neiyari. "These ones speak and are polite but what is one to expect from Neiyari?" she scoffed, floating closer. "So it is Cadien that your protection falls under, is it not? One should not assume that we would ever harm such esteemed guests." she said sarcastically, eyes never leaving the Neiyari. "Oh how I'd like to make you feel.To turn you to the light. It would be easy here. So easy." but then she shrugged and looked back to Saluna.

"Songs and Songmen. Curious names. You remind me of… Hmm." She smiled suddenly, the barriers of light retreating from whence they came. "Do not fret, no wrongs have been committed. You must realize that we simply did not expect to have Neiyari and a death entity come into our realm on good tidings. One can never be too careful nowadays. So, I take it this missing person is one of yours? I am afraid to say no one of your like has wandered in unless their presence was masked. But perhaps you might find answers by speaking to my lady? She does wish to speak to the death entity in person. Just follow the road and it will lead you to her. But do keep careful watch on your friends." she began floating away. "Oh and welcome to The Garden Under the Sun. Lady Oraelia's realm." and before anyone could speak, she was gone in a flash.

“That wasn’t Oraelia?” one of the Neiyari questioned with a furrowed brow.

“Doesn’t matter. We must tread carefully nonetheless,” Jakri said.

“She nearly destroyed our people!” the same Neiyari interjected.

“And she can destroy us,” Jakri said, glaring at him. “We’re not here to fight, and even if we were, we can’t win. Focus on the mission.”

“Yes.. sir…” the dissident Neiyari spoke through grit teeth.

Jakri turned to Saluna. “It’ll be best if you take the lead here. We don’t seem to be in any danger, yet.” Saluna nodded, but behind her Filaisa pursed her lips and huffed. Saluna glanced back at her with raised eyebrows.

“Are you okay, Filaisa?” She asked.

“Yes. I guess that being has wisely advised us to follow the road, hasn’t she?” There was a certain barb in her voice.

“Uh, well. Yes, I suppose she did.”

“Good. We need to stay focused, Sal. Running off into fields is not what we’re here for.” She glanced at Jakri. “And I would have expected you to say as much. Sal may be in charge, but she has no experience in leadership. Jumping through portals, rushing off the road. They are all foolish and inadvisable, and you should be more outspoken about them. That’s why Lord Cadien sent you with us, isn’t it?”

“Fila, there now. I got a bit carried away,” Saluna said, placing an appeasing hand on the other song’s shoulder. “No need to get angry.”

“I’m not angry,” she responded coolly, “I just know what we’re out here to do. Find Shae, find Wilarda, find Meralusa. Not to,” she glanced at Herraiya and the animal in her arms, “collect wildlife and prance through fields.”

“Well, I’m going to prance as I please,” Herraiya huffed, “and I won’t let a boring tuneless bitch like you stop me.” The others gasped audibly, and Saluna cast Herraiya a glare.

“Okay, that’s quite enough Herra. Fila is right and we need to be a bit more focused. There’s no need for all of…” she waved her hands about at them, then exhaled in annoyance, “this.” She turned on her heel and stormed off down the road. “Let’s just go.” Filaisa glowered at Herraiya for a few seconds, who grinned mockingly and danced off after Saluna. Filaisa’s hair reddened momentarily, licking at the air around her like flames, and then settled back to its natural cold blue and she followed after them. The timid Simta had wrapped her arms about Ghizla’s arm, and the great songman picked her up, settled her on his shoulder - how she managed to hang on was anybody’s guess - and moved on, followed by all the others.

Jakri let out a tired sigh, and ordered the black hussars to form a perimeter around the songs, with two standing behind and six on either side. Jakri himself stepped up beside Saluna. “Don’t lag behind, and don’t wander off,” he instructed the songs behind him, before facing forward and once again wondering what he had done to make Dakari inflict this job upon him.

Iom’dryrar followed silently, as much as she could at least with steps as hers, behind, happily taking in the surrounding life. The drama of songs didn’t phase her too badly, plenty of dragons had hard contestations over much smaller things, once one got an idea set it was hard enough to stop the pursuit of it. In part she was thankful to be away from all that as each step resounded behind the group, following at a slow pace. She stopped to examine the flora every now and again when something caught her interest in particular, she was in no threat of losing either sight nor ability to catch up with the group. It did mean that her pace and the bounding beats of her claws on the ground was somewhat erratic with each stop and start.

The road went over sprawling hills, through the tall forest that had once been on the horizon, by small cool ponds and crystal clear lakes that threatened a pleasant time within, before opening up into a vast expanse of grassland once more. As the party crested the final hill they overlooked a large white palace of many levels in the distance, sat upon its own hill. Balconies and gardens and tall pillars. “Oh my,” Herraiya murmured, emerging last of all - for she had not hesitated to veer off their route to prance about near the lakes or the trees, which were quite unlike anything she had ever seen.

The palace was not so grand in design as their own home but it had a distinct feeling of warmth to it. As they approached the structure and ascended the steps, it became clear that the stones were engraved with all manner of artworks and statues. Of proud leons and burning stags and the light.

But perhaps the strangest thing of all was how empty it was. With such a grand place of living, where were all the people? As the final step loomed and a great entrance was seen before them, an answer was had. For a woman stood waiting. For the Neiyari amidst the new arrivals, she was an uncanny equal to visions of the War Mother, like an artist's rendition with several liberties taken. Likewise for the songs, her horns and rose-colored skin lent memories of Cadien's alleged consort. Her horns arced gently backwards, and they had been decorated with beads and pearls nestling into brown hair. Glowing red eyes settled on the crowd, shifting among the arrivals quickly - though it was difficult to track her gaze. Draped in a long white toga, the form of the tall creature was mostly hidden from view, save a tail bobbing like a fisherman's line.

"Hail, travellers!" She greeted in a language that touched deep in their mind - the words were not known to them, yet they understood. "A travelling troupe to visit on such an auspicious day; fortune casts us in gleaming light." She dipped her head in a gentle and relaxed bow. "My chosen name is Endless Field of Flowers - The Lady bequeathed to me a personal quest; escort those unknown to me to the… rest." Her jovial, relaxed tone was quickly reinforced with a calm smile. The songs took in her words and then a few giggled, clearly amused by the rhyme - Mihdara strummed his lute for effect and Laiyuna twirled on the spot and fell into his arms.

Ignoring their nonsense, Jakri looked upon her with puzzlement. “You share a similar likeness with the War Mother, and yet you are in the realm of Oraeliara. Why is that?”

'Endless Field of Flowers' turned towards Jakri and nodded dramatically. "All of my kin share a common heritage, cast by Neiya from the specks of her pain. 'tis a tale of fury and woe, how the Sun quelled the rage of the Lover, and joined hands to uplift those of us who languished in the dark. We journeyed as you do now, to seek the court of brightness. Countless kin remain with the creator, joining her chorus of sorrow."

The songs collectively crooned, filling the air around them with sorrowful sounds and melodies. “That sounds like an epic waiting to be written, a performance waiting on a playwright. You must tell us all.” Laiyuna intoned, approaching the fury and looking at her with tearful inky eyes. She took ‘Endless Field of Flowers’ by the hand and brought it up to her chest, holding it close. “It sounds as tragic as it is joyous,” she closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall to the side for a few moments.

“The night was deep with agony
The light was still with pain
When from the wounds in Neiya’s eye
We hurtled down like rain…”


Behind her Lajia’s flute sounded, matching the slow melancholy of her dirge, and euphonious humming accompanied it until she stopped at the fourth verse and opened her eyes again. “Yes, maybe that could work.”

“A bit overwrought,” Herraiya chirruped, “it’s the story of their coming into the world, you don’t want them wishing to leave it before the prologue is over.” Laiyuna threw herself back, butterfly sighs fluttering out of her mouth as she fell into Herraiya’s arms dramatically.

“Ah, I am undone. Your tongue is of black ink, a dart lodged into the apple of my heart.” Filaisa rolled her eyes as the two continued their antics and looked to Saluna, who cleared her throat and curtsied to ‘Endless Field of Flowers’.

“We thank you dearly for your welcome and will be happy to follow you to your kin. Your tale sounds like one in need of telling, and we too have a tale of our own that your Lady could perhaps assist us with.”

The bright red glow of the horned woman's eyes turned and shifted as her gaze followed each speaking song. When attention fell back on herself, she presented a calm and polite smile before matching the curtsey with a gentle dip of her head. "Your quest is over afore it has truly begun; such is the kindness of the Lady. All tales can be told when the hour is late; for now, journey with me to the debate." She said with practiced grace and looked very pleased with herself. A brief gesture inside later, and 'Field' turned on her heel to head inside.

Through the doors the party went, taking in the unfamiliar sights of the palace home. Strangely enough as the Dragon walked, the walls grew wider and taller, allowing for her to walk with comfort within. Along the white walls much was bare besides some busts and depictions of landscapes, figures of sunlight and animals. They walked for a long time, witnessing many courtyards and pleasant views through pillars and under overhangs. And even the icey Filaisa allowed her eyes to roam and wander, though unlike the other songs did not wander here or there but continued after the fury. Eventually they reached a set of stairs and Field began to ascend, the songs and their entourage of Neiyari in tow - and Herraiya trailing furthest behind, enamoured with one sight or another.

The staircase was much longer than perhaps any could have thought and they passed many empty hallways and rooms before coming to a stop on a floor that wasn't at the very top but still was a ways up. Here there were distant voices that grew louder as they approached an open doorway. At first, beyond it not much could be seen but the daylight and greenery. As they passed through the arch however, the ceiling lifted to blue skies.

The sound of flowing water was apparent, as small fountains were worked into the walls on the other side of the doorway and further down the hallway. With fountains the songs were familiar, although they had never seen them outside the context of a bathhouse and the idea seemed to appeal to them immediately. There also came the scent of something citrous in the air, with hints of vanilla and herbs. On a closer look at the water features, one could see that they had depictions of unknown figures working as spouts, trickling down into a basin of golden stones and blue waters.

“Oh my,” Linuha breathed, “I can see it - fountains everywhere. And greenery, flowers- a- a-”

“A garden.” Filaisa finished coolly, and Linuha’s eyes widened and a smile spread across her liquid face.

“Yesss,” she hummed and nodded, then moved on.

Iom'dryrar examined each as carefully as she could as they went along, taking time to take a sidelined look from multiple angles of each statue. She was completely overjoyed, all could see that despite a general unfamiliarity of draconic expressions. Curious to the extreme, she was still careful to ensure not to accidentally rest her weight on anything not of the path she was taking.

Large pillars covered in leafy vines stood to the right of them and also went down the length of the hallway. They held up an overhanging ceiling all around an open, small amphitheatre where the blue sky was. Like a full moon in shape that led down to a low area where two of Field's kin were in an exchange of sorts.

Watching from the cushioned seats before and across from them were more of Field's kin. Numbering in the dozens they came in all sorts of skin tones, hair styles, clothing and eye glows with the defining feature of horns. Those that were across from them all stared with curious eyes and in turn this prompted those before them to turn around and stare as well.

There was however one who did not stare, in fact she had no horns to speak of. She sat across from them, surrounded by a small band of the horned women. She was shorter than those around her but she radiated a sense of authority. Her raven black curly hair was shoulder length and she had small features upon her otherwise content face as she watched the two on the floor with intentful golden eyes. The same color of the intricate heart shaped tattoo upon her chest (that was half hidden by a low cut dress) and almost coming to form a star pattern on her arms. The same arms that were sat back on the stone as she leaned back on a large cushion.

Perhaps noticing they had lost their audience the two on the floor joined the others in the staring and all grew quiet. It was then that the black haired women turned her eyes to them as well. She gave a small smile, one that seemed to spark a sense of calm in the newcomers and beckoned them to sit with her hand as she sat up. She then cleared her throat and said, "Closing arguments, if you please." Her voice was one of beauty, soft and sweet. Yet somehow warm and inviting.

The songs - even Filaisa - were immediately at ease and flowed around each other easily as they responded to the woman’s sweet commands and seated themselves all around. Saluna sat nearest of all and curtsied into a seated position by the dark-haired woman, surreptitiously admiring her low-cut address and the tattoos that small to flow like rivulets of sunshine.

“Thank you for hosting us, my lady. I am Saluna, Clothier of the Songs, and these are my companions.” She gestured to the others and introduced each one of them. Though they had done this several times now, the songs did not seem any less excited about the opportunity to make themselves and little quirks known. “And this here is Iom’dryrar, who was not initially with us but has joined us since. Though her aspect calls up terror, her essence is all beauty.”

The golden eyed Goddess lingered upon each of them as they were named, at last coming to Iom’dryrar with a tilt of her head. She then turned back to Saluna and gave a smile. “You are most welcome here, Songs, Iom," Her eyes then fell upon Jakri and the Neiyari. For a brief moment her expression faltered but a smile came to them as well. "Neiyari. I am Oraelia and these are my Furies. I am sure many questions will soon come but first, I must oversee this debate to its conclusion. I do not wish to be rude to such lovely guests, so I hope you can forgive us.” She said, twirling a finger in her hair.

The dragon happily settled down to rest now that they had stopped, smiling with closed lips as she looked around at all the bright and wonderful sights to see.

The two furies at the centre of it all watched with keen interest as the songs, neiyari and dragon all found a place in the grand arena. When Oraelia appeared to fall silent for the last time, the paler of the two furies - almost like snow - raised a hand to slide away a long lock of hair from her face before raising her voice to fill the area with the sound of her confidently spoken, enigmatic language that seemed to transcend all barriers. "My kin. Great Lady of Hearth and Heat. Conveniently arriving guests. Hot has been this debate of the ages. We have heard facts on the matter, testimonials from observers, and my challenger has even conducted a poll among those gathered." She paused to run her golden eyes over the crowd, stopping to eye the dragon. The pause was a little too long as a result. "Through all this, a clear pattern in the weave reveals itself like a lone string of another color. No matter the force nor compulsion that the fallen position may exert on viewers, a raised shape allows for a more practical enactment of practicing safety, communal interaction, and other effects. All for a minor tax on the overall glamour and alluring spell it holds over other mortals."

She took another breath and faced the faintly brown fury facing her in the ring. "It is for this reason that we must consider straight ears to be the superior form of bunny ears." A wave of acknowledging murmurs shot through the crowd of furies, with a few being even more vocally supportive. The pale fury bowed before raising her hands to quiet the arena, before gesturing to her opponent.

The brown fury offered a polite smile, the red glow of her eyes making it difficult to tell her expression otherwise. "A sharp argument, as expected of the esteemed Garden of Ordained Peace. Indeed, as a great seeker, you have trawled the land for facts and secrets contained within this mythical beast of which we debate, yet this focus on the practices of the bunny itself is irrelevant to the case at hand." She argued with a grin, taking a step towards 'Garden' before spinning to face the crowd. "The mind of the populace has spoken - a lop-eared bunny is found to be more desirable to hold and cuddle more than twice as often as its raised-ear kin. This is the core of our issue; we cannot in good faith find anything but the lop-eared bunny superior for this sole reason." Again, a wave of acknowledging murmurs shot through the crowd. The brown fury bowed her head, before moving to offer her arm to the pale one, and they grabbed each others arm in friendly gesture, signaling an end to their arguments.

Oraelia stood and began to clap. The other Furies following suit. When the appraise died down, Oraelia spoke. "Garden, Painted." she looked between the two of them. "A splendid debate, darlings. I am proud of you both. Never before have such gracious tongues talked with such passion here in this court. Each argument has merit but the ultimate winner was decided by the crowd," she lifted a finger and pointed at the darker of the two. "Painted, you are the victor of this debate. But do not let shame eat at you, Garden, for there will be more debates and more victors to come."
Her decision was immediately apparent on the two, as the brown fury fought to contain a cheer as she did her best to bow again. The pale fury offered a fleeting half-smile before looking away.

Oraelia clapped twice and looked out across the gathered Furies. "Upon this day, we find ourselves with guests, so I proclaim a great test. Of your abilities, of your passions. We must feed and house these fine folk for as long as they wish to stay. Food will need to be prepared for a feast. While rooms will need to be cleaned and readied. So let's do our best!" The furies went to action immediately and all of them filtered out of the room, with a couple stragglers looking at the strange guests before being ushered out. Lingering the longest was the pale 'Garden' who remained still and morosely watched the dragon from afar, until a reddish-brown fury skirted into the centre with great haste, and grabbed her arm while giggling and murmuring something. The debater had no choice but to file out with the others after that.

The Goddess then ran her hands through her hair and as she did, the black changed to golden locks, long and true they went down past her lower back. Her frame grew ever so slightly, and she turned to face her guests again, looking like a different Goddess. Her smile was far more infectious and she looked positively brimming with life on that tanned skin of hers. Large blue eyes sat above a button nose and soft lips. It was the same face before but somehow different, in a good way. Before their eyes, even her clothing changed to that of a long blue sundress that fit her comfortably.

"Welcome to my realm, again! Oh you must tell me all about yourselves. Are you tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Oh please just let me know what comforts you want. I would hate to be a rude host!" she said with much mirth and cheer. A stark contrast to her earlier demeanor. She then began to inspect Saluna, touching her face and hair with curious but gentle fingers. The song did not seem to mind, and her liquid form burst with oranges and yellows and seemed to glow wherever the goddess touched. Her liquid hair burst aflame and danced giddily about the others. After the goddess was satisfied and released the song, she jumped up and took a few steps back, euphonious sounds bursting all about her.

Once she had found some space, she paused and slowly began to rise on a mass of golden ink, her golden form darkened until she was black, sunshine bursting here and there in a network of tattoos that flowed like molten rivers across her black form, and her hair seemed but an extension of that. “When all the world was ink, there was only the Lady. Beautiful, perfect; her song was the euphony of the cosmos, her dance the movement of the earth, her form the sculpture her hands the sculptor. She was beauty and her eyes the beholder.” The other songs all rose and flowed about Saluna.

“And she was alone!” Came their chorus. Herraiya then leapt from the flow and zipped around Saluna, her form dark and a grand mask shifting and forming on her face.

“Gloried, wise, knowing, loyal. The lady-in-waiting rose in the loneliness, her Lady’s right hand, her echo, the voice that sang in response to her song, the dance that skipped across the ripples of her dance, the beauty that aspired towards her beauty, the sculpting hand that sculpted a thousand inken forms from the songs of her Lady.” She declared powerfully.

“And so we rose and so we rose and so we rose!” The chorus came, and they all burst forth around Saluna and Herraiya, their forms colourful and their dances quick and loose. The joy of the moment was broken after a few long seconds, and Saluna’s humming came long and morose.

“But the doors to the castle were all of them closed, no friends or companions came through. And though there was joy and though there was song, the sadness in here grew. The silence of sleep calls and invites, in there we have comfort more true more true. In there we have comfort that is better by far than all those forgetful companions all are.”

“All are! All are!” The chorus affirmed.

“And so we sat there with our sleeping Lady, our song was a tear and our dance was a malady. What could we do? Could anything be done? And that was when along came Cay-dee-yan!” Herraiya sang as Saluna descended into a sleeping pile below.

“Cadien! Cadien! Cadien! Cadien!” The chorus sang excitedly, and Mihdara stepped forth with his lute, his body blossoming and his jaw square, his lips veritably kissable, and his movements powerful and dashing.

“I came upon these damsels fair and a shifting, vast, and dangerous lair! Evil! Evil! Who would lock these damsels uuuuuupppp?” He brandished his lute like a sword and tore through the inky mass of songs. “This travesty called on a saviour - I cannot stand unjust behaviour! Songs so sweet and pretty too - yes I say it, isn’t it true? - mustn’t be kept locked up like this. Evil! Evil! That’s what that is... is…” he finished the unfinished sentence with a flourish and a small solo on his lute.

“But the land rose up, that land of ink! It fought brave Cadien to the brin-k! He fought it hard and fought it true and nearly died somewhere or two! But as he fought there sprang a gate and he knew well the will of fate! Such damsels cannot stay in here, and nothing would be stopping him - not inky waves and tendrils, and sir-ten-lee not feeeaaar. Through the gate, through the gate, quickly before it’s too late!” A few of the songs had formed up into a doorway while others thrashed and crashed as though they were waves of ink and violence. Through them Mihdara sprang, and the other songs sprang after him as the gate crashed and closed behind.

From the chaos Saluna emerged, asleep and beautiful. “And she was… aloooooooooooooooooone.”

Oraelia tilted her head and blinked, staring at them all with a curious gaze. A smile then erupted on her lips and she clapped with giddiness. Saying with enthusiasm, “Oh marvelous! What a lovely story! You are all so very talented, as I would expect from Megzhaal’s creations. The ink gave it away. I had wondered what he had been up to, but,” She brought a hand to her chin and looked thoughtful. “Did he tell you about Lucia? You bore her resemblance, Saluna. Lucia never said much about the god of poetry, only that his presence faded with time. She never gave mention of this. How very curious.” The songs wore confused frowns on their faces, and looked to each other in an attempt to understand what the goddess was saying, but before any of them could ask she snapped her fingers and they were all suddenly in a different place.

A large garden outlook on the very top of the palace with another open sky. The area was large enough for Iom to comfortably rest while the smaller mortals could lounge about on the many plush pillows and honey colored chairs. The gardens here had plants that streamed off the sides of the walls, revealing the long drop. The large Dragon sat besotted with the plants streaming off the sides of walls, focusing entirely on them, not seeing near the middle of the room where there was a small pool that Oraelia gravitated too. When she neared it she sat on the ledge and dipped her hands in, looking to the songs again.

“Come, let me show you something.” she spoke. The fifteen songs approached in a slowly moving flow, an uncertainty about them.

“What did you mean about, uh, Meghzaal’s creations, my lady? And what is Lucia? And what did you want to show us?” The ever-curious Laiyuna breathed, her words rolling forth like a ceaseless deluge. “And why were those pretty ones back there arguing over ears? And weren’t they going to make food? Can we go make it with them? And oh, how did you change like that? And what material are these clothes made out of? And why is this place so different from Lord Cadien’s realm? And how is Io able to walk everywhere, even into tiny passageways? That just looks reeeaally weird and hurts my eyes. And-”

“Ahem,” Saluna cleared her throat loudly, and Laiyuna paused.

“Ah, I’m doing it again aren’t I, that thing I always do! Sorry!” She backed off sheepishly and Saluna approached.

“You wanted to show us something, my lady?”

Oraelia giggled, looking to Laiyuna first and winking. She then turned back to the water and touched it with a pointed finger. The clear waters became dark before the image of a woman came… slowly she formed. Of dark skin and golden hair, retaining ever the beauty of youth upon her round face. Large golden eyes seemed to be focused on them but it was only an image. Her body was tattooed in golden ink that shimmered and danced. It was their Lady, yet not.

"That is my daughter, Lucia. When the gods yet walked upon the earth she was born and your creator, Megzhaal, fell in love with her and she, him. But alas their time was cut short when we were banished and she remained alone. Lucia spoke that Meg talked to her in the beginning but as the ages went by his voice became less and less until he grew quiet. Perhaps his songs came to life through his grief and he took the visage of that he loved most before… Whatever happened, happened." The image faded and Oraelia turned to them again with a soft smile.

"I know this might be much to take in. It's alright if you feel overwhelmed or scared or confused. I shall answer any of your questions that come to mind to the best of my ability but before that I shall let you ponder this for a time. The Furies will come bearing food and drink soon and I shall reconvene with you then. I must attend to my other guests." she stood and looked to Field, who had followed them. "What is your estimation, Field?" she asked her.

"No more than a short while, to be sure, my Lady. I believe they planned to begin with the pear, peach and fig platter." She said. 'Endless Field of Flowers' stood with her hands behind her back, head slightly inclined. Oraelia gave her a nod and smiled at the fury in return. "Excellent. Field will attend to you for now, if you would excuse me."




Oraelia made her way over to where Iom was resting. She felt her heart begin to beat fast and thought she might change forms to get a bit of confidence facing death but she shook her head. She couldn't do that! This was an opportunity to understand and learn. She had to at least try.

As she approached she was amazed to see just how large the creature was. It made her feel small. She could also feel death energies coming from it. If it was anywhere else the creature would have killed the plants and foliage where it walked but here her life energies were potent.

She stopped a short distance away, heart pounding and the spoke. In a small voice she said, "H-Hello." she quickly cleared her throat and then followed it with, "You have… Lovely scales Iom."

With the voice Iom'dryrar's great head turned around, her neck bending to down to bring her head near to the Goddess, she replied, "Why thank you! You are very kind, but I think you and all of your realm are far prettier than anything of my own self."

She kept a close lipped smile as she best could when not speaking, her head facing side on bringing a singular eye to focus on Oraelia. Her voice had a hint of song as she spoke and continued, "In full truth I have never seen such a beautiful place, so filled with plants and oh so many things of color and gentleness. It is a wonder."

Oraelia cocked her head. Was she wrong about this? Had she judged this creature before even getting to know her? She felt embarrassed but pressed on. ”Why thank you, Iom but know this, there is beauty in all things. Do not think less of yourself, for true beauty is what is unseen. In our hearts and in our minds. What makes the very soul.” she said softly before giving a smile. ”Now do tell, where are you from? I’ve never met or seen any of your kind before.”

Smiling still the dragoness replied, "That sounds similar to one of the sayings of the Great Eye, it is his realm I am from and where the great host of my people live and have lived since our creation. Our creators were spurred on to make us but we have lasted there as time past, I am the first to come to explore the Divine realms, I hope I shall not be last! Such places as this so full of wonder and beauty, and wisdom as you yourself speak."

"Although I suppose it is easier to speak of the beauty within when one can see it, I know there are such who do, to one extent or another. And yet to so many it is not of their sight, I wonder how things would be should it have been so for all." She softly shook her head as if banishing a thought before continuing onward, "You must know I am greatly pleased to meet you, wise and beautiful that you are, I hope you do not mind if we should talk further?"

Although she stayed resting and a closed lipped smile upon her face, her tail drifted ever so slowly back and forth behind her.

Oraelia reached out to the dragoness and placed her hand upon her scales just beneath her eye. She smiled as she felt the scales. Then she spoke with a joyous melody, ”Of course, there is much time to talk!” She paused then said, ”Truth be told, I have never met your creator, this Great Eye, you speak of. Does he have a name?” Oraelia asked,

Iom flickered one of her eyelids in thought, her head slightly cocking at an angle, then she replied, "Yes I do believe the Servants called him 'Master Thaa', among the Dragons he is known simply as the Great Eye among the other creators. Few have spoken to him directly that I know of, in my race at least. There are rumors of what he speaks of but I do not know much of the truth of them. I know at least he is God of Death and Guardian of the Dead, I know not much beyond that in much certainty. I only know as much from the words of the Servants on other matters."

”Thaa…” Oraelia whispered to herself. ”So that’s your name…” she kept on running her hand across Iom’s scales, lost in thought for a moment. When she talked again, her voice was much quieter. ”I was scared of death, when I first felt it. Not as mortals perceive it but… I am life. I want things to grow, to live and to bloom. I know death is a natural part of the cycle, I do not try to stop it but it always frightens me. You are helping me, your presence, your touch- It makes me realize that my fear is misplaced. Thank you, Iom’dryrar.”

"I know little of cycles and Godly things, but I am happy to have been able to provide any such assistance to you!" Iom gently brushed her head closer to the Goddess in a small display of affection.

"Let me know if there is any further assistance I could provide, although I would like to know more myself, I have such little knowledge of Galbar, of the realm of mortals and other divine places. I wish to see much. Could you tell me of them?"

Oraelia placed both hands on the dragon in turn and smiled brightly. ”Oh I have indulged myself far too much as it is. You have been very helpful, so I suppose I can answer your questions.” she said in a playful tone. ”What first?”

Her tail began to almost wag as she spoke with much excitement, "I'd like to hear of Galbar if you could tell me of it, I hear there are all manners of peoples and with so many different forms and kinds. I heard of great men of stone and fantastical kings of the seas, of all many differing peoples across the surface, is it all true? What are they like?"

Oraelia smiled again. ”Of course. I cannot say if there are great stone men or fantastical kings of the seas, but I can tell you of the tall trolls, the plantfolk that sing of sunlight, the great roads in golden fields and the colorful Luminant were winged ones live. They are each unique and wonderful in their own ways and they are…” Something was wrong. ”They are…” her voice faded and Oraelia paused as Furies burst through the doors bringing platters of food and drink. She looked at their faces, their smiles seemed so soft. So kind and warm. They were all so happy, weren’t they?

Then it hit her.

A tearing pain that ripped into her very soul the likes of which that stole the breath from her lungs. Her face distorted into pain as she clutched her chest and fell to her knees besides the dragon, shivering violently. The world became a blur in that moment. She couldn’t focus on anything else, not as concerned Furies approached, nor as Iom reared her head down in fright. They spoke but she heard nothing. She wanted to scream but her voice failed her. So she shut her eyes tight, trying to make sense of what was happening. What was…

Her mind drifted out, to Galbar and to Solus. She felt his fleeting touch. She saw a confrontation, a piercing blade which brought pain and then a fiery explosion. The last thoughts he imparted upon Oraelia were of failure, regret and… Aveira? Her cold smile, a haunting expression before… She felt his soul become sundered, his very being shattered. She began to shake her head.

No… That wasn't possible. No! It couldn't be. NO NO NO!

Yet the pain did not subside, instead it grew worse, like an empty pit that threatened to consume her within. For Solus was dead! Her son, her first avatar! A part of her soul, a part of her divinity. He was gone… That hole in her own soul was because he was gone. Dead.

Forever?

It was in that crushing moment that Oraelia finally screamed. It was a harrowing noise, of a mother’s loss. She gripped her head, covering her ears as Song and Fury alike backed away. Another of her children were dead and she had done nothing to help again. Her screams grew softer, replaced with the sounds of weeping.

She recollected his memories and went over them again and again and again, trying to piece it together. A fight. A volcano. His death. Aveira had murdered him. Aveira… Avatar of N-Neiya… She said she would change… That she would try…

She… Lied?

It was then her loss turned to anger.




Rhiona gripped her chest, still reeling from the death of Solus. She still had her duty to her Lady and she needed to get to her. With a portal she slipped in and found Oraelia lifting off into the sky, her face was of rage as her form grew dull then bright. Over and over again.

Thinking fast, Rhiona ripped a portal open that showed the portal to Antiquity. She then shouted to the dragon, the songs and the neiyari gathered. "Go! Get out of here! Something happened on Galbar! Something terrible! Oraelia is not herself, now go!"

A wind began to whip up as the blue skies became dark and thunderous. Rhiona turned to Field and the furies. "Get to the lowest level, you will be safe there and I will join you." with a nod Field began to lead the furies to safety as Rhiona watched Oraelia and shared her pain.

Without hesitation Iom unfurled her wings, using them to shield them from the wind and began to try to herd them towards the portal. She roared over the wind to them, ”Best to go quickly, if she is not herself this may not be so hospitable as it remains!”

“Enough dawdling,” Jakri interjected, despite having remained silent for most of the proceedings. “Go!” he grabbed a random songman and shoved him in the direction of the portal. Most of the Black Hussars were already saving themselves, leaving through the portal as quickly as they could, but a few stayed behind with Jakri to ensure the Songs would get out as well. And that they were, with shocked cries and wide eyes the songs ran for the portal and escaped as the wind whipped ever on.

For the Goddess wept.









The war domain is currently held by two gods, with a third interested in it.
Sundown





Grey and ominous colors tracked over the clouds as the winged avatar burst past them and lingered in the sky just above. Aveira's powerful wingbeats forced them to whip and whirl away like fleeing cattle, and the spirits of wind and water gathered and bunched themselves up uneasily, threatening to bundle into a thunderstorm to ward off Aveira's presence. Luckily for them, the avatar was not interested in tormenting the clouds further, but instead rocketed away with another beat of her wings. Before long, she was a tiny dot in the sky, speeding towards the west with breakneck speed.

Aveira was frustrated. Not only had she been made to abandon her project in the north early after decades of silence from the goddess, but now Neiya could not wait a full week before interrupting again to give her new instructions. She had abandoned Mekellos and his Acadian puppets without much more than a simple goodbye, yet she doubted that he would need her assistance to fulfill the cleansing of the forest that that they had begun – indeed, the only thing that truly bothered her was that the goddess had begun to speak, and now did so with neither acknowledgment or concern for their previous plans. Her only solace as she drifted through the clouds on wide colorful wings was that intervention in this new place would directly benefit her own little merelli project – now that Neiya seemed to have forgotten or stopped caring about the task she gave her so long ago.

The horned angel toyed with a few thoughts of playful rebellion. If Neiya no longer cared about the northern merelli, perhaps she would return herself and rule them as she saw fit. She had been much too lenient – decades had gone into shaping their minds, yet she doubted her trained youth were ready to handle the task on their own. The only benefit to this current task was it’s possible boon to the merelli project; Aveira cared about the Westfold about as much as she did Acadia. In another life, perhaps she would return to Acadia and raze it just to show Mekellos what real power looked like. He had let mortals make his mind soft, there was no doubt.

The winged avatar zipped across the sky, whipping up the colorful sky into a frenzy as she passed. Finally, when she could sight the mountains beneath, she came to an abrupt halt with a single beat of her wings. There she hovered, no more suspended by actual flight but rather willing the air to hold her up, as she extended her mind to feel and grasp at all that Galbar could be coerced to feel. Tendrils of black, blue and gold snaked from the ephemeral feathers on her wings, feeling out slowly in the air and sky, and crawling out over the void to root herself in the world. The world around her grew agitated and fearful, the very fabric of the world trembling with a building dread from the terror angels’ budding onslaught. Even from after she could sense those same emotions for which Neiya had once instilled in her a deep love.

This new land, the Westfold, was rife with hatred, pain, and fear. It was almost intoxicating, but it also made for a clear understanding of the goddess' interest in the region. Surely Neiya's words of mercy towards a people could be carried out in a way that bolstered these nascent troubles.
She raised her hands into the sky and closed her eyes, readying herself for the ritual she had in mind. There was nothing quite like making an entrance that would captivate the entire region.




Solus had flown a fair distance upwards towards the sensation that had first caught his mind. There was no mistaking it now, these energies and the unnatural dread warping all of the world around him as he flew through the sky was the same that he had been struck with several decades ago. It was like a beacon, infecting the world with pulsating enmity, growing stronger for each inch he cleared towards the source. It didn’t take a solar giant to figure out that something nebulous was taking place.

He broke through the clouds and found her. Tendrils ran from her wings into the sky, trying to corrupt all the world as she had the aiviri.

The Betrayer, the Fearspawn, the Hatred that Bloomed.

Aveira.

What was she doing? It didn’t matter, as he approached, for whatever it was he needed to stop it.

“AVEIRA!” His voice boomed like thunder, the clouds crackling with solar energy. “MY OLD ENEMY!” His voice, unrestrained now out of fear of mortal ears, shook the heavens. Spears of sunlight formed in his hands, letting her speak would be foolish. For nothing she said could be trusted. He lent back his arm, and threw a spear at her.

The angelic avatar shot her eyes open as Solus voice cracked like thunder across the sky, and that simple threat inherently borne in his words was enough for her to react. Her wings whipped and thrashed, battering the spear aside in protection of her form. It was enough to distract her - the tendrils began to dissipate and the tension carried in the air began to ease. He had interrupted whatever despicable act she was intending for Galbar next, and that fact seemed to make her focus entirely on him.

"I leave one fool behind to find another," she boomed with a palpable hatred, her wings whipping to carry her higher at first, like a hawk preparing to dive for prey. "I have longed to finish what we started!"

Solus’ only reply was to heft his other spear and throw it at her, before he himself started for her in a burst of lightning like speed. He was ready for this and this time, he could not allow her to continue. The fate of all depended upon it. Aveira stabilized in the sky above, drawn out of her impending attack by the second spear. That too was sent careening to the side by a slap of her massive wing, but it was enough to keep her still for just a moment.

It allowed for Solus to collide with her, the giant tackling the smaller avatar with a force that sent shockwaves, blasting apart the cloud cover as they were sent careening down. Solus punched Aveira time and time again and she did the same as they tumbled ever further to the mountainous terrain below. Each blow was as loud as thunder, as fierce as lightning and as dangerous as anything ever could be and neither yet relented. Ephemeral wings beat with a fury to both try and break away, and alternatively swipe angrily at Solus like a set of large blades trying to batter and cut at his glowing body. Aveira seemed to grow more and more bestial as they struggled, her features contorting with a rage and fury that made her fists seethe with darkness and her eyes burn with dread hatred. Each punch of his furious sun-tempered boulder like fists enraged her further, and like a frenzied bird she clawed and beat angrily, caught in the cycle of violence.

They fell towards the mountainside, exchanging violent blows like a falling star at war with itself. They spun and whipped around erratically as Aveira tried to break loose, but eventually they ran out of air to fall. With a deafening crack of stone and a thunderous boom, Solus felt the stone of the mountain crumble and crack around him as they slammed into the mountain range as beyond lethal speeds. Aveira was undeterred by the shockwave, smashing her fist down at him like an angry ant, trying to beat him down into the mountain with each smash, and whipping at him with her wings like a restless gnat - if that gnat wielded a lethal blade.

When her efforts met resistance from Solus, she found a newfound focus, staring down at him with glowing, deep-seated hatred. Her eyes burned with a fire that seemed to evoke the primal reactions deep with the sun, and her body seethed with a heat that echoed and carried across the mountain. In response, the ground began to crack and blister beneath them, as the same burning light in her eyes shone from underneath Solus, casting rays of blood-red light into the sky before a turbulent heat gathered and built beneath him.

Aveira ripped herself free and shot up into the sky as the ground cracked, and hot flame and liquid stone erupted violently from the mountain, rippling up around Solus to drown him in molten fire. Scalding stones and unbearable heat shot into his frame and scattered into the sky as his crash site rapidly turned to a burning inferno of roiling flames and lava.

Solus was made from the sun, this heat and anger meant nothing to him and he exploded from the bowels of his confinement, emerging from the lava as an inferno of anger and might. His gaze fell upon Aveira again and he jumped at her, breaking apart the stone at his feet. This caused another fiery explosion as he was propelled towards her, scattering molten stone and heated debris over the mountainside.

The winged avatar met his charge with a wicked fury, her hands collating some manner of dark energies that she was forced to dissipate once more in order to raise her arms and defend herself. Still, despite her height she was a tiny figure beside the charging giant, and dodging away from his assault quickly became a fool's errand.

He threw a fist at her and it collided with her arms, the force of the blow sending a shockwave that blew dust and rocks into the air, with the ground below her exploding. Aveira was flung into the mountain, shattering the side like it was a clay pot. As boulders the size of houses fell down around her, she barely had time to reorient herself before Solus came crashing down once more. Two arms slammed into the rock beside her as Aveira clambered out of the way to save herself from the blow but Solus caught her by her foot as she tried to escape and then threw her through into the mountain. The giant did not relent as he battered her into the rock, each blow like an earthquake.

He punched her hard again and Aveira erupted out the other side, stabilizing herself with quick wing beats as she braced for him to come. Yet he did not. Where had he gone? Her malevolent gaze scanned for the giant from whence she came but only rocks fell. She flew further away for safety's sake, rapid wing beats keeping her in the air but ready to shoot away over the horizon. The volcano was but a small glow now, on the other side, on another mountain. It sent out ash and dust into the air as it shook, the sounds heavy in her ears. She looked up into the sky but the sun was… Brighter? She could feel Solus' presence bu- A spear slammed into her shoulder and Solus came down from the heavens above with a fury in his voice.

Aveira did her best to evade but the giant was too large. His glowing fist smashed into the colorful war angel and his weight pushed her downwards with rocketing haste. Like the last flash of a shooting star, they burned across the sky before smashing deep into the countryside, leaving a crater behind. Solus smashed and beat the horned avatar into the dirt, seizing all opportunity to crush her with overwhelming force while he had the advantage. A divine beatdown that would leave even a deity gasping for air, each strike pounding a new dent into the crater. A strange shimmer made him pause, and that momentary pause gave him enough clarity to watch Aveira in the crater beneath him. Her image rippled and shimmered, and he understood the ruse. The horned avatar's image dissipated in his fingers, and at the same time a flash of prismatic light shone behind him. It struck him in the back with a violent burst, searing and piercing with unnatural force. An invigorated assault like the one in their first battle.

But unlike that first battle, this time within seconds the beam pierced his flesh. He did not scream but instead grunted as he was pushed forward, losing his balance as he fell further into the crater. Her assault did not relent as he struggled to turn over and Solus felt the beam rip apart his divine flesh more and more by the second. Dark energy rippled and raged over his form, the horned avatar descending from her hidden perch in the sky as her assault shredded him piece by piece.

Finally the attack relented, allowing Solus to complete his battered attempt to turn over and face his opponent. Aveira hovered in the sky not ten feet away from him, clearly convinced he no longer posed a threat to her. Her face was locked in a frown of haughty, arrogant fury - the true malice within Aveira carried openly. The giant coughed, something strangely mortal for a being so divine. Ichor and essence poured from his wounds, covering the ground in liquid light.

Aveira raised her hand slowly, and in her palm a metal barb began to form and elongate, like liquid slowly being stretched to take form. It warped and twisted until a long black blade manifested in her grip, and she twisted both hands around it firmly as she turned it down to point towards Solus in the air. "Today, the war is won. Everything else is just a rat hunt. Breathe your last, Son of the Sun; a good death is it's own reward."

“You…” He spoke in a whisper, broken. “You… Will be… Defeated… One day.” He coughed again as Aveira flew in close. Solus tilt his head back, looking to the sky. “Mother… Forgive me…”

Like a falling guillotine the winged avatar let herself fall freely towards the ground, piercing blade lifted with unerring aim towards one of the many wounds on Solus' body. Aveira's weapon impacted his ichor-flowing wound, and the immense weight of the divine creature fell upon the blade to push it deep into the giant's body. Her entire form twisted with a beat of her wings and the large blade twisted with her, turning and carving deep into the divine giant. With another powerful beat of her wings, the pressure on her weapon grew immensely and it sank deeper into Solus, stabbing into his body until her feet stomped down on him. With new ground beneath her, the horned avatar twisted the blade again, roaring with unabated desire to kill.

The giant gripped the sword in vain as his body began to shake violently. Great fissures began to spread out from the wound, like snakes glowing white hot. His luminous color grew blinding, as if the sun had come to Galbar, taking from the world all of its color and vibrancy, while replacing it with white. Then, when the light was all consuming, the avatar of the sun exploded with a flash and then a roar that shook Toraan.

Rock and boulder alike turned bright red for as far as a godly eye could see, then farther still, as heat swept the land. Eventually it became too much and even the stone began to melt into slag. Trees, grasses, flowers, and anything green burst alight with roaring fire and within the time it took to blink, they were but dust strewn about in the hateful wind as it whipped ever on, towards the mountains in the west. Lakes boiled, turning to steam as rivers clogged with sand and debris. That which walked on four legs and two legs and which swam with fins and flew with wings were not spared. There would be no savior, no great hand to block the vicious heat. Nor would any prayer reach the gods in time, save for those farthest away from the blast, at the foot of the mountains and to what lay in the east. There was no time and so they died. Whole villages like tinder for the storm of heat. Turned to sand and dust, their after images forever haunting their places of death and the moment it happened. Their only saving grace was that it was quick and painless.

The blastwave at last struck the mountains, sending debris and dust into the skies, like a blanket reaching for the heavens. The mountains held firm as they took the brunt of the heat and force, but down into the dunalands would come fearsome storms as the cooler air met its match. The land on the other side was changed. Scarred forevermore.

Aveira, bruised and battered by intense pressure, flame and debris, raised the blade where she stood in the center of the chaos, watching her creation. The weapon had been turned to slag and drawn on the pure essences of Solus, creating a new blade that shone with a seething heat and fury, dripping slag and molten metal as she whipped it in the air. Rather than be cooled by the air, it seemed to cook all it came close to, such was its inherent blazing heat. What remained was a weapon of pure death, the remnant essence of her foe lingering eternally. And he raged at her, at least what remained of him did. With furious appetite and dripping with the wrath of an oppressed sun.

All around her, Aveira bore witness to glassy plains and sandswept dunes. There was no sign of life, no sign of anything really. Just an angry storm that struck at the ground with lightning as its thunder boomed. But soon, she was not alone. For from the sands, they came. Thousands of creatures that resembled beetles made of white sands and glassy mandibles. They chittered as they approached, followed by humanoid creatures that resembled Solus. But they were far too small and made of dust and sand that swirled. Their very hands were made of glass and sharp. They sensed her, for what was divinity but not life overwhelming? And they were not afraid, as they began to attack her.

The avatar of the war goddess accepted the challenge with gleeful wrath of her own, a single beat of her wings bringing her into motion to battle these new creatures. Like an angel of death she descended with the molten blade to sweep and swing, bringing death in arcing scythes against these furious and reckless new creatures. She raged for an eternity, meeting the endless fury of the storms with a hunger for battle and violence that could never be sated. So intense was her malice that her divine hatred seeped into the energies and creatures she cut apart, and with each new creature that came at her, it seemed to be more and more enraged until nothing but burning, cold hatred remained.

And Aveira stayed in that blissful malice until the skies turned dark and it rained embers.




In the Heavens above, a Goddess screamed.





A Hunter Hunted





She slogged through the mud, rain pelting her as she did. Her clothes were soaked and the cold chilled her to the bone but Iora did not care. Her eyes were ever present on the path ahead, occasionally glancing around into the dim forests for those that hunted her. She found the view to be mundane, nothing like the colors she grew up in but then again, perhaps the rain made everything muted. Regardless, she couldn’t see much of anything and continued on. It wouldn’t be long now and she wanted to get out of the rain.

A short while later, the road ahead became wider, more developed by time. The glow of lights could be seen in the distance as the night came. The village of Camden was more of a trading hub to the northern villages, bridging the gap between the Luminant and all else in these parts. She had stumbled upon a rumor as she fled from the Luminant, of a humani place where one could be free. Was it for humani? Neiyari? Oraeliari? She hadn’t cared at the time, she simply needed an out. If that foolish Saint had minded her own business, she might have still been alive and Iora could have continued on.

But that wasn’t how it went, now was it?

There wasn’t much to do in the Luminant anyways, ever since the Oraeliari won that battle, nothing had ever really been the same. The first born kept going on and on about retaking the lake but by what means? The Neiyari had been castrated by Oraeliara and each loss reduced their numbers further. That had been two years ago and only recently had she found out the curse had been lifted in the passing conversation of two spice traders. She had been fortunate enough to hear the War Mother’s voice before that, on her trek out of the Luminant.

That had been agony. To hear such a splendid, intoxicating voice. She thought about that voice, fantasized about that voice, wanted to be close to that voice, for many, many weeks. Those thoughts were dull now, for they had been replaced by another humani girl. That one had been fierce but her fight had died when she opened her up. A more recent idea of hers, seeing how things worked. It was her right to know these things and no one would stop her. Let those that hunted her come, for they would fail, just as those Oraeliari had.

She entered the village proper now and made her way through the wide streets with closing vendors. It had been different to see such humani shouting and hollering, wanting to do as they called ‘bartering’. Trading one good for another. Back in the Luminant, the Saints were in control, they decided who got what and how much of it. Here, they bartered for everything. It was well most knew the Neiyari language as well, for that would have made things difficult.

The humani here gave her looks, sour expressions. Neiyari were tolerated, not wanted but they also knew well enough to leave her be. Only a few Neiyari maintained a more permanent presence here, bartering their skills for places to stay. The traitors they were to the War Effort, Iora wasn’t going to complain. They still eyed her with suspicion but it was of little consequence. It was the Oraeliari in the town she needed to be careful of. How the other Neiyari put up with them, she did not know. These were ones who abandoned the notion of the war altogether but that did not make them incapable. She knew how the other Neiyari must have felt, being welcomed by them. They were the enemy and they needed to die. It was the most basic tenet of Neiyari culture and yet, no one lifted a blade or knocked an arrow. Partially because they separated each other to different parts of the town, hardly ever interacting. As much as she would have been fine seeing them dead, Iora needed to lay low.

She had a few Saints after her and of course, all those they commanded. Evidently, she had killed someone who meant a great deal to them. For it was enough to forgo the War Effort for her capture. She had lost them at the border of this land and the Luminant but she did not know if they would follow. There was another rumor, of a mysterious plague in the Luminant that was not sparing any of its sickness. So, if they did, it would not be long before one ventured to Camden and asked if she had been seen. She would have to keep moving but there were rumors here in this small town. Of places far and wide, placed one could go to if they searched for them. Far, far away from searching eyes. But she had a suspicion that the plague would stop their search, at least for now and in time, perhaps they would forget about her.

For now, as she entered the Neiyari section of the town and into the central commons, she was finally out of the rain and that was well enough for her. The large chamber was a mud brick building, maintained constantly. It was large enough for at least a dozen Neiyari to each of their own rooms.

Just like the Luminant, the Neiyari here gave her odd glances and occasional stares but made no moves to interact. She pushed on to a small, dingy room near the back and whipped the curtain open to reveal a bed and a single chair. Not the best accommodations but it would do. She stripped, ringing out her clothes into a bucket and putting them over the chair. The last thing she did was take off her satchel, which had been pressed tight to her body to avoid the rain. She peered in and found that her ‘goods’ were still quite dry. The few she had anyway, she'd have to get more to be able to barter a meal. She placed the satchel next to her bed, sighing to herself.

Her wings were still wet so she began to shake them dry, but ended up slapping her left one into the wall. She knew this room would annoy her to no end. She'd have to try and find a better place, no matter the cost.

Then, bare to the world, Iora went back to the common area and placed her clothes next to the fire to dry. She stood there for a bit, drying off her wings and hair. She held her head high as she did this, not caring for the stares and when she was done, she went back to her room. No one would take her clothes, they were much too small for any Neiyari to wear, anyways.

Iora got under her fur blanket, felt the uneven straw on her back and shut her eyes. Tomorrow would be another boring day. Keeping oneself alive was dull, after all. She fell asleep with a hungry belly not long after and she did not dream.




In the morning, with clothes dried and smelling of smoke, she ventured out into the sunlight forest with satchel in hand. She needed more if those pesky humani were going to trade. Sure she could just steal what she wanted, but she had to keep up appearances. Not make anyone suspicious of her. Luckily she had taught herself how to forage as a child, at least better than what was taught to them as a group. So far in her satchel there were several root tubes, fibers and mushrooms. Far more than she had found in the muck yesterday. There were the usual edible kinds, as well as more… Unsavory, kinds, which she kept for herself. It would be enough to get her some food at least, until she had to do it all over again.

As she grabbed the last of the mushrooms, the familiar sound of blades being unsheathed reached her ears, followed by muffled shouts and screeches. Was it the hunters come to find her? She listened further, no, this was something else. Something different. The white haired Neiyari was unable to contain her curiosity, and so she made her way into the denser parts of the continent-spanning forest.

The farther she went, the clearer the sounds. There were two voices shouting things at each other, one male and another female. One old and the other young. Blades cut through the air and flesh alike, the sound as clear as day.

”Hyaah!”

Now, the young girl’s voice came from so close that she could swear she was standing right where the girl should be, and yet-

”Ah!” A gasp and a hiss of pain rang out, and a clear golden liquid rained down onto Iora from above, hitting her cheek and hair ”You little-” The girl grunted and there was one more hiss, then another, and even more. The canopy of the tree straight above her held numerous shadows, one bigger than the rest and deftly balanced on a thin branch, while the others jumped from branch to branch with long arms.

One of the many shadows lunged at the shadow of the girl and Iora caught the glint of metal coming from her right hand. Next thing she knew, sunlight was crashing down on her through a sudden hole in the canopy. The light, blinding, prevented her from evading the deluge of blood that followed, and a creature cleanly sliced in half fell limp in front of Iora’s feet. It was a tiny monkey-like lizard, with scaly skin, strangely long and feathered arms and a disproportionate head with more jaws and teeth than anything else. That particular thing’s claws were coated in the golden liquid that had rained on Iora before, as well as bits of a green material.

”Huff… What, are all of you suddenly scared? Not so defenseless now, am I?” The girl laughed, her musical voice tainted with pain, and then suddenly all the shadows jumped at her at the same time, ”Oh n-” Was all she managed before the entire bundle of shadows came upon her and she started slashing wildly at them.

Instantly, more blood rained down onto the forest floor, but it wasn’t enough.

CRACK

Just like that, the branch supporting the girl’s weight broke, and down came all the shadows.

The girl landed on her back a few feet away from Iora, kicking up dirt as she fell and emitting a pitiful sound as all her breath was expelled from her lungs.

In her right hand she held a short bronze knife, its handle drenched in the clear golden liquid flowing from a gash in her upper arm. Her face, too, was covered in smaller gashes as were her left arm and legs. Iora recognized her as a Sylpheni almost immediately, her vibrant green skin and leaf hair, as well as her luminous eyes giving it away. And yet, this one was different…

As the girl desperately struggled to recover, Iora noticed the small lizard creatures stand up first and set their sights on the bleeding, stunned Sylpheni girl.

She would have watched further. Would have waited to see what the creatures would do to the Sylpheni, as was in her nature. Yet.. She could already feel it starting. The tingle at the back of her neck, how she stared at those eyes, bewitched. The way her voice had sounded, how made her feel and how she wanted her to keep speaking. How she needed her to keep speaking. Her hand clutched the fabric over her heart, a breath of hot air escaping her lips as they curled into a hungry smile. This one would be one of her more intense episodes and she hadn't had one of those since the Goddess spoke.

Could she let this girl die at the hands of some beasts?

No!

The knife the girl carried lifted into the air as she stared at it, and then in a flash it attacked the creatures, slicing them. Cutting off heads, arms and tails, spilling their blood onto the ground. They squealed, confidence abandoning them and their attack upon the girl as they were assaulted. Many began to flee but the dagger followed and Iora cut them down, embedding the last one into a tree, knife in its head. She marvelled at the carnage then turned back to the Sylpheni.

“Little flower.” She whispered, only to be met with a low groan coming from the girl, who had her eyes closed for a while before slowly sitting up and stretching her neck, then her arms and back. Finally, a minute later, she finally opened her eyes and looked at Iora’s face, who was hanging above her pressed close. The girl’s luminous golden eyes met with Iora’s.

”H-Hey… I don’t know how you managed to get my knife to move like that, but thanks for the help there... I’m pretty sure I was about to be eaten. I’m Genesis, but friends call me Gen. Who-” Genesis coughed a bit and winced, wrapping her mostly uninjured arm around her lower ribs. By now the freely flowing sap coming from her wounds had begun to crystallize, and the flow had slowed enough to not be a cause for worry. ”Who are you? What’s your name? I haven’t seen your kind before… Guess you must be more plentiful the further south one goes?”

Iora stood up straighter and moved to the side of this Genesis. She then tilted her head and the knife flew back over, letting the corpse of the creature fall with a thud which caused Genesis’ leaves to rustle erratically. The knife then became suspended in the air above the girl, unmoving, until she reached up to grab it. “Genesis.” She said, mulling the word. “My name is Iora, a Neiyari from the Luminant, which is south of here, yes. You are a Sylpheni? Curious.” Her voice was that of velvet and pleasing to the ears.

”Iora, Neiyari from the Luminant. South. Thank you.” She wheezed a little after each short sentence, ”Sylpheni is what you call my kind? In Dehrthaa they call us emkura, but we call ourselves Sylphi. Iora, could you look for the body of the Sia’Kinn I killed? I think it must have fallen somewhere around here, cut in half. I need to harvest it.” She requested, looking at Iora with tired eyes.

Iora looked around at all the corpses, thinking of the girl’s words. She frowned, as there were many which had been cut in half. “Many could be harvested. Why that one?” she asked.

”The Hunter says one should only harvest those that one hunts themselves. That’s it, really.” Genesis explained, but did manage to get enough energy to look around at the scene, eyebrows twitching once she saw the sheer mess. ”Uh… I guess finding it without a good sense of scent would be difficult, and mine is not really all there after that fall. The only other thing that could identify it is by finding pieces of my green skin under its claws. It did get me pretty good...”

Iora began to walk amongst the corpses. “Your knife did do this grim work, little Flower. But if you insist… I can do this for you.” She uttered in a neutral tone, followed by a nod from Genesis. Oh the things she did to get her thrill. She backtracked to where the first creature had fallen at her feet but found the area rather full of bodies. Hiding her frown, she sank to her knees and began to comb through them until she found one, cut in half and claws with green. She floated it beside her as she walked back to the girl and set it down at her feet. “As requested.”

”Thank you, Iora. Now I will harvest what I can from it. Maybe it’d be better if you looked away… Mammal types usually find themselves feeling intimidated or uh, worse? By just looking at it, so...” Genesis said, then shrugged and looked down at her knife. She wiped the blood that had drenched it before on her own skin, in whatever spot was clean enough to do the job well. Then, when satisfied with the glint of light on the blade, she held it with her teeth and placed the top half of the Sia’Kinn she had slain on her lap, drenching her legs in a mixture of blood and guts. Iora said nothing but watched intently, giving no sign it made her unwell.

Without missing a beat, Genesis went on to quickly harvest the Sia’Kinn’s organs and bones, first from the torso half and then from the lower half. By the end of the process she was almost entirely covered in blood and fluids, both hers and the Sia’Kinn’s, and had managed to put all sets of organs and bones into neat little piles next to her.

She sighed in relief, wiped the knife as best as she could against the grass and dirt, and then put it back in a leather sheath she had strapped to her thin waist.

The Sylphi girl took a few breaths and massaged her ribs until a small popping sound rang out. ”Ow...” Genesis grunted quietly, then shook her head and grabbed the strangest of the organs, an elongated sheet of smoot, spongy mass that she had harvested from the Sia’Kinn’s head and upper back --Its brain-- and dangled it above her head, making sure to angle her own face so that it was right above her open mouth. The reflection of light coming from her deceptively sharp teeth served to make her look more and more like a predator.

Slowly, she lowered the Sia’Kinn’s brain into her mouth, taking bites out of it and swallowing, not bothering much with chewing at all. It was small enough to be finished in just a few seconds, but that wasn’t it. Iora cocked her head to the side, eyes unwavering as she ate. Darker thoughts came to mind but her face remained neutral.

One by one, Genesis did the same with all the other organs but the intestines, eating them cleanly and without fuss. By the expression on her face she wasn’t particularly enjoying the taste, but she wasn’t recoiling either. When she was done with the organs, she went on to eat most of the flesh she had separated from the bones. It was at that point that Genesis let out a sound like a low hiss as her leaves started to shiver continuously. It was effortless how she devoured the flesh, a primal look of delight and desperation on her face, not unlike that of a half-starved wild dog.

And then, just like that, she was done.

Drenched in blood and with a full belly, Genesis covered her mouth and burped softly and looked at what had been left of her prey. Teeth, vertebrae, ribs, a cracked and therefore useless skull, and a handful of longer bones that she managed not to damage during her feeding frenzy.

Sighing contentedly, she looked around her to find Iora still standing there, watching, and so Genesis smiled awkwardly. ”Muscle flesh is pretty tasty. I can’t help but get really into it, you know?”

Iora nodded slow, her lips curling into a wolfish smile. She stepped closer to the girl and spoke, her rich voice growing softer. “Would you like to know what I can get really into? What I find…” Her hand reached out to wipe the blood from Genesis’ cheek, making the girl frown and her leaves rustle violently, “...Fascinating?”

”What, uhm… What is it?” Genesis asked, averting her gaze.

Iora moved her hand to the girl’s lips and placed it there, moving her head with her burning gaze eye level with the girl, who couldn’t help but look back. Iora did not speak, letting the air become palpable, full of anticipation. Then she patted Genesis’ lips with her finger and smiled, revealing pearly teeth. “My own prey.”

Genesis nearly choked, a hand reaching for her knife. By now, even the tattered and damaged leaves that made up her dress had begun to shake and shiver.

When the tension was so thick that one could taste it, the sound of two light footsteps alerted Iora to the presence of another. She stood straighter, dropping her hand from Genesis’ face and peered behind her. It was a tall Sylpheni. Almost as tall as Iora herself, wearing leathers with various plates of bone and thick ribs sown into the material in vital areas. The exotic armour, while masterfully crafted and professionally maintained, clearly showed signs of age and tear, much like the Sylpheni himself with his rough looking skin and yellowing leaves. He was completely unhurt, the only signs of battle on him being splatterings of blood over his clothes and armour and the blood dripping from his right hand and the ornamental bronze knife he held in it.

There was something… Odd, about the knife. A certain energy to it, coming from the inscriptions and shapes that had been skillfully imprinted into it no doubt decades ago.

Perhaps more impressively was the massive weapon folded away on his back, made of an incredibly big plate of sharpened bone, with a bronze metal handle reinforcing it. It looked at least as heavy as a sun forged greatsword and yet he moved effortlessly, as if it wasn’t even there. The Sylpheni regarded Iora with icy blue eyes, not as luminous as Genesis’ but orders of magnitude more intense and weathered.

He said something in a language Iora couldn’t understand, and Genesis nodded back at him, crawling away from Iora and getting up on her feet with a grunt.

“For you, no prey here. Saving Genesis, I thank. Now you leave her with me.” the Sylphi male explained in a broken Neiyari tongue, sneaking his way into one of the pouches on his thick belt without ever taking his eyes off of Iora and Genesis.

Iora scowled, eyes narrowing to slits. She would not let this one come between her and her prey. Who did he think he was? A low growl escaped her throat and she spoke, her soft voice replaced by cold clarity. “She’s mine.” Her eyes then fell upon Genesis as she retreated out of reach. Well, she had other ways to get what she wanted, didn’t she? She focused and with all her strength, she reached out to Genesis, felt her, and then prevented her moving forward, before lifting her to her feet and trying to pull her back.

And yet, Genesis resisted. Even midair, she seemed to have control of her movements. Iora’s eyes went wide at her resistance and she began to grow frustrated as she tried in vain to pull her back.

With the sudden opening, the Hunter closed the distance between him and Iora with an unnatural speed considering his baggage and pulled out what he had been playing with inside his pouch, a rotting, fragrant herb, and before she could react, slapped it all over her chest and belly, staining her shirt, his leaves rustling as he did so with his momentum letting him slide between Iora’s legs. Then with a graceful movement he jumped up into the canopies of the trees. It was almost like he was weightless, Iora realized, as he disappeared into the thick foliage.

Again, he shouted something in the unknown tongue, and Genesis redoubled her efforts to keep out of Iora’s reach. The hold on her broke as Iora went to rip her shirt off and throw it on the ground, not trusting whatever the foul smelling thing was on it. In the moment her hold was broken, Genesis flew into the canopies and disappeared from sight.

In the distance a loud screech echoed throughout the forest, followed by the sound of numerous pairs of powerful wings lifting off. She looked at the shirt again and then destroyed it with a burst of her balefire. With her own wings, she lifted off into the air, beating them to stay in place, just above the trees. Her eyes frantically scanned them, looking for her quarry. But instead of the girl, what she found were several strange, scaled creatures with webbed wings and feathers on their heads, all flying in the sky, searching and searching.

They searched, of course, until their eyes caught sight of Iora.

One screech turned to many, and soon five of the hut-sized monsters were flying straight for her. But then her attention found itself split once more as in the distance, she saw the trail of rustling leaves that must have been the pair of escaping Sylpheni. She had a choice to make.

It was an easy choice. The thorns on her hands glimmered, growing black, pulsing with pain. A wild look caught in her eye as she let them get close. Then, Iora raised her hands and from them erupted the destructive power of her fire. It caught the first two by surprise, turning one’s head to ash and catching the other in the chest, where a hole was burned through it. Their corpses had only just begun to fall as the others broke from their formation. Iora clipped one’s wings but before she could trail the other two, the pain grew too much to bear and she had to stop. The two surviving creatures shot towards her with speed that rivalled any Neiyari.

She dove down, into the trees and took the knife from her belt. Sunforged and full of fury, she flipped herself and eyed the snarling creature behind her. The knife whipped from her hand and at it. The strategy, try as she might, did not work as she intended. Dodging trees and trying to stab a creature while flying was no easy task, and the knife returned to her.

As one neared her, breaking limbs in its pursuit, it got close enough to bite at her and Iora unleashed another trick. She cast balefire upon its face and the effect was immediate and the oversized lizard crashed against a tree, screaming as it’s face melted. The final creature, shot up into the sky, letting Iora have a moment to catch her breath. Once again she sought the girl and the source of the rustling leaves but was disappointed when she saw nothing.

Then the creature broke through the canopy right in front of her, lunging with it’s mighty jaws. Her own wings pushed her back out of it’s way but only narrowly and she unleashed another beam, turning the creature and the trees behind it to naught but ash, with a furious cry.

Where was she? Where did she go! She gripped her head, breathing going heavy. It wasn’t fair! She couldn’t lose her, not like the others. She was so close. She could- She could- Iora let out an angry scream, pulling at her hair. She would find her! She had to!

She flew back to the clearing and searched for the key. It did not take her long to find the golden blood, dried- wait! She touched her cheek, feeling something dry. She then licked her finger and rubbed it, then sniffed. A floral scent. Then Iora tasted it. It was sweet, the taste was undeniably so. But how could this help her? How?

What way did they go? Could she… Could she follow the scent? No- What was she? Some kind of animal?

No… She would have to be clever, and use all her skills. Tracking them down… She had to.

Her head snapped to the sound of voices. Was it them coming back to her? No… There were too many of them and shouts… Shouts of… Oh no… It was the hunters.

She flew off into the trees where Genesis had disappeared into. Knowing no matter how long it took, she would find her again. Even if her infatuation with her broke. She could not allow this… This humiliation. This disgrace. She was mighty. She was strong and she would kill them.

And she would enjoy it.






A Broken Sort of Love





7 AA, Luminant

She could not see the world but she could feel it. With every body racking contraction, every demand to push, every scream before a deep breath. The soft sheets on the hard bed, nails dug in as she clutched it for dear life with clammy hands. Brown wings pressed flat behind her. Strands of her long black hair were stuck to her sweat covered body and that impassive face of hers, with a ribbon of black covering her eyes, was distorted in pain. She screamed again as the pain in her loins threatened to never end. Her body wanted to push but it hurt so much she held it in with all her might.

"You must push Tulara. The baby will not come if you don't embrace the pain." Came the voice of Giara, a field matron, ones who helped with birth and remedy. Tulara wanted to protest but all that came out of her mouth was a growl.

Someone placed a cool cloth upon her forehead and dabbed at her sweat. "Tsk tsk Tulara. I thought you stronger then this. Will you let a little pain defeat you? You've dealt with worse, after all." Said the silky smooth voice of Fara in her ear. She despised that woman, she was nothing but a nuisance since Tulara had arrived. Always chattering about strength and the wa-

She let out another scream as the worse contraction yet hit her and she almost blacked out as her body pushed. She then felt two things, the pain beginning to taper away and a weight lifted off her shoulders. This relief was cut short when she heard Giara begin to speak.

"Bring me a towel Fara."

Tulara felt the damp cloth still and a wing beat as cool air washed over her. A moment of silence later and Fara cooed, "A girl child for the war effort."

Tulara did not hear the child scream. A dark thought leaped to the forefront of her mind and she began to speak with an anxiousness to her voice. Dreaded hope leaching through. "She does not cry? Is she still stillborn?"

"Oh you've made Giara frown Tulara. Not good, not good." Fara chided, she could almost see the grin on her face.

"She stares, Tulara." Giara began, "With pale yellow eyes, akin to a weathered sunflower. Curious eyes, in the War Mother's visage." She paused. "This one breathes with quiet contemplation, unlike her mother who yearns for what is not, louder then she. You would do well to take note from her silence."

Tulara frowned as her face became one of disappointment. Her hope for a quiet way out dashed before her. She felt no shame with those thoughts of her, much to the ire of Giara. Even without her sight she could feel the woman's scornful gaze.

"Let's see…" Fara said, "Oh my, looking at her now, what a small baby, Tulara. Hmm. Grey wings, an odd color. Almost saint-like. Her skin is very pale, paler then you Tulara and almost sickly in nature. Her hair is stark white but that color might change with age. Her body has no blemishes and… Her grip is weak. And here I thought the children of Aveira's guard would be strong."

"I don't want her." Tulara snapped, lips turning into a scowl as her anger boiled. "She was forced upon me without my choice. I will raise no weakling as my own." She huffed, crossing her arms.

"We've been over this Tulara." Giara's icy voice bit into her. "A child forced upon you is still yours. We have too many orphans as it stands and we are running out of the means to feed them. You are this child's mother and you will raise her as your own. For the war effort and for the War Mother. If she did not want you to have this child, you would not have had her."

Tulara exhaled a breath through her nose, conflicting emotions welling up inside her. A small voice broke the uncomfortable silence with a cry that grew louder as she found her lungs. Her greatest shame, brought to life. The cry grew louder as she was brought close and placed upon her chest. With great hesitance, she wrapped her arms around the bundle and felt soft flesh touch her own. She was so light.

"The child needs a mother." Giara said at last. "Even if you resent her, she will be raised for the war. This is the duty of all mothers."

As something wet began to roll down Tulara's cheeks, she cradled her baby, rocking her to quiet. She could feel the baby relax as she used her free hand to feel her face and paint a picture in her head of what she looked like.

"Here, let me wipe the blood." Fara said in a quiet voice and the exhausted woman did not protest when she dabbed at her cheeks.

"Soon enough your eyes will heal, Tulara and this life of yours will not look so bleak. Perhaps you will even find purpose again. Until then, you will take care of yourself and the child." Giara commanded, as Tulara felt her begin to clean her disgusting body.

"What shall you name the child?" Fara asked.

"Her name will be Iora." Tulara said in a hoarse voice.

"Iora? Doesn't that mean-"

"A name, Fara." Giara cut her off. "Iora she shall be."




15 AA, Luminant

The white haired girl took the hit. She felt pain in her cheek blossom and tasted blood. Around her a crowd of children shouted and egged them on as she steadied herself and stared daggers at her opponent. Magdri, a brute of a boy, smirking with glee. The kind of face only an Oraeliari could love, or so she had heard. He stood two heads taller then her and his reach was fearsome but Iora had everything to prove and nothing to lose.

She charged with a war cry, dodged his fist as it came at her and landed a hit on his chin. Pain shot down her arm and Magdri laughed as he punched her in the gut as a follow up. With the wind knocked out of her, Iora crumpled to the dirt, clutching her stomach as she gasped for breath.

"If that's the best you got, then you really are a weakling." Magdri spat, walking around her. The others had grown quiet. "What a freak. Try something like that again and you’ll be sorry! Come on, let’s get out of here before Syri shows up." She heard a flurry of wing beats and looked up to see them flying off. Iora then stood up, her face relaxing as she watched them disappear through the trees.

She dusted herself off, then went on her way. She got a thrill out of that, the look on Magdri’s face when she had tried to knee him in his groin. If he wasn’t such a troll, she would have pummeled his face in with- Ah there it was. She picked up a yellow cloth. It had been full of stones but now they were scattered about. She would have to lead with that next time.

Iora’s feet brought her back to the small ransack village where her mother’s tent was. The village had no name, for she had been told a name was not needed for a temporary place. That had been a year ago. Much of the Neiyari here were wounded from the war, recovering as they could. Every wound was different, some physical and others like her mother. She avoided the scrutinizing gazes of the adults until she made it home, one of the few remaining tents on the ground level, out of the way really. She opened the flap and went inside the dim interior and musty smell. Like something needed to be washed.

Her mother was there, sleeping as she often did, back turned to the light of the Luminant. Iora made sure to be quiet as she walked to her side of the tent and rummaged through her rucksack for what she was looking for. She retrieved the small bladder of the War Mother’s tears and took a sip. At once, cool relief washed over her body and that which ailed her became less. She touched her bruised face and found it no longer so sensitive. She took another drink and then marveled at the bladder. Taught to them by a Saint, she knew not how it worked only that it held water and came from an animal. An animal which escaped her still.

“Iora.” Came the cold voice of her mother.

She straightened her back and turned to see that her mother was sitting up, running a hand through her disheveled hair as she stared at her with a gaunt face and dark rings around her eyes. With an all too familiar look on her face, disappointment. One she had grown so used to, it no longer bothered her but to play along, Iora shrunk herself in that presence. “Yes, mother?”

“Where is it?” she asked.

Iora tilted her head in confusion. “Where is what, mother?”

“Don’t give me that, girl. You know what I’m talking about.” she said, anger flooding into her voice. She got to her feet and in two bounds was above Iora, strong hands gripping her by her arms and lifting her to her feet. Iora’s eyes went wide as her mother dragged and pressed her against the wooden support beam in the middle of the room. The tent shivered and she snarled. “You bring shame on me again! Always sneaking about, starting fights that you can’t win and now, stealing? Do you think me a fool, Iora!”

The slap came across the same cheek Magdri had punched not so long ago. It stung and her eyes watered. “Now you tell me. Right Now. Where. Is. The. Dagger?”

“I-I-I don’t know!” She yelled. Another slap, this time the other cheek.

“Stop lying Iora! The smiths keep close watch on their forges. They know to who, and what they give for the war effort. Now they say a dagger has gone missing and I was blamed. They said, ‘It must be that daughter of yours’ and ‘Why can’t she act normal? Why is she so weak.’ Do you have any idea how much shame this brings ME!” Her mother’s grip tightened.

Iora began to cry. “I-I d-didn’t s-steal a d-dagger, m-momma p-please.” She pleaded.

“If you didn’t steal it, then who Iora? Who!” She pressed her harder into the pole.

“I-I don’t know!” She cried loudly.

Her mother growled, acting as if she would strike her again but instead she released her. “Go. Get out of my sight.” She said, voice no longer angry but hollow. Like she had just given up. She went back to the bed and sat down. Iora did not wait to see what she would do next, as the girl was up on her feet and out the flap, running away from the village in haste.

When she was far out of sight and into the trees, the girl stopped for a breather, rubbing her cheeks and wiping the tears from her eyes. She frowned, realizing she left the healing water back in her sack. Her frown turned into a look of anger and she stomped off in the direction of the hollow.

She passed through the trees and found herself in the clearing she had found earlier in the year. A large hollow tree sat in the middle of a clearing. Blackened to bits, it was different then all the other trees because it was dead. She went past it and looked for the animal trail she had taken great interest in. It had taken her several days but she had finally learned how to make a snare. Such skills were taught to them in hopes and now Iora knew why.

When it came in sight, her heart began to beat fast. There, struggling to break free was a lossum with banded fur and glowing spots. When it saw her it began to cower, pulling at its caught leg in hope of freedom. A rare smile formed on her lips and she rushed back to the tree.

Within the hollow she retrieved a cloth bundle with her hand and uncovered it to grab the dagger. Its blade glowed softly, before it became brighter as it took in the light. Her mother had been right, she did steal it but there was no way she would tell the truth. She would have gotten beaten and she didn’t like getting beaten.

Iora went back to the lossum. She knew from stories that no animals, maybe except the bigger ones and the humani, attacked. Such creatures were scared of them and only wanted to flee. So, Iora got close, the animal going frantic and she got down onto her knees. With her free hand she grabbed the snare and began to pull the possum towards her. It screeched then fell to its side and stopped moving. Iora had heard of animals playing dead but had never seen it. Not wanting the opportunity to go to waste, she grabbed a rock and smashed it against the lossum’s back legs. The creature shot up and screeched again.

Iora was fascinated. It was the first time she had done something like that and it felt… Good. Watching it struggle, watching it try to get away. Her heart beat fast and a strange sensation overcame her before she moved closer with the knife.

It whimpered and she smiled.




22 AA, Luminant

He stood a few heads taller than her, gripping her arms and pinning them to her body as she was pushed up against a tree. Iora looked up at him with fixated obsession, studying every small detail of his face and those lips that had laughed and caught her attention. His name was Bolvari, just a few years older then she and he had a reputation for getting what he wanted.

In this case, it was her.

Iora had grown into a plain looking teen, much too skinny, much too short for her age, as she was so often reminded. Her hair was still stark white, not helping but add to the oddity she was. Still, it was no wonder why she found herself pinned by Bolvari now.

She had let him, this was not a surprise. She had given him fleeting looks, wanting to be close every moment she could get. The others scorned her, called her names. Even he did, at first, giving into that pressure of the group mentality. He probably still thought her a freak, an outcast, something to be an object of cruelty towards. Yet, here he was, staring at her with such bold desire. Such wanton need. It gave her such a thrill. Men were like that, once she was seen as an easy target, he could not resist. Still, it was telling that they were out in the middle of nowhere, away from scrutinizing eyes.

Oh how the wind ruffled his long brown hair and how he leaned in closer towards her lips. She closed her eyes, letting the object of her fascination reward her at last. Yet when those lips touched hers, she found the thrill dying, replaced with disgust. Such lips and such breath as he tried to pry apart and stick his tongue in. Iora pushed him off, her strength waning.

He looked at her with anger and the burning desire of being in power. She looked and found it did nothing for her anymore. He was boring, like all the others had become. Yet it lingered like a sour aftertaste, this desire she had for him. Well, there was one way to rid herself of it.

“You dare? After tempting me these last few weeks, you dare push me off?” He demanded, wiping his lips.

Iora shrugged. “I found the taste quite repulsive. Do you kiss up to the Saint’s with that mouth of yours?” She narrowed her eyes.

She could see it dawn on him, the intent of her jab. As expected, he did not take it well. In two powerful bounds he was back up to her and backhanded her in the face. The slap made her tingle and her ears ring. She tasted blood and stronger hands gripping her, turning her around. Her head hit the tree and she felt his hands upon her waist. She glanced behind to see his face twisted with ill thoughts. Something flew towards them.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you, freak? Well… I’ll show yo-” His voice cut out, replaced with a gurgle. The pressure keeping her in place relented as his body fell backwards into the ground. Iora turned around fully to see him grabbing his throat, blood spewing from the deep gash as he lashed about in vain. His eyes were full of panic, the kind she derived the thrill from. He looked up at her with hate and fear. An odd look on any Neiyari. A twisted smile formed on her lips, he looked horrified.

She watched as he became still, the life fading from his eyes.

The obsession she felt for him was gone with his final breath.

She found the dagger nearby and with but a thought it lifted into the air and flew to her. She wiped the blood off on his robe and pulled herself away. She outstretched her hand and felt the power within manifest into a green flame at her fingertips. The first time she had summoned the flame had been in a moment of anger but as time went on she had learned to control it.

She flung the ball at his corpse and it lapped at his flesh, like a hungry wolf to a fresh kill. The sweet smell of death began to permeate the air and Iora retreated into the woods. The flame would do its job, leaving nothing but ash behind.

People went missing all the time in these parts, and her mother liked to move around the Luminant now. It provided ample opportunities. She found herself a bit disappointed. She would have liked to savor it a bit more but men were so, straight to the point with their intentions.

Maybe next time, she would fall for a girl.




28 AA, Luminant

She had only seen the Heart Pierce Spire once in her life, when she was a young girl. Now she worked in its shadow, carrying healing water to those wounded Neiyari who were being brought back from the battlefront. A battlefront she did not get to see. Many of the enslaved humani did the same. It was lowly work but such was her fate in life. She couldn’t wield a sword, shoot a bow, heft a spear- It wore her out too quickly. When that had been found out, she wasn’t even trained to use them. In fact, she was belittled for it, much to the chagrin of her mother. The same one who was up fighting on the front line, having finally found herself again after years of denial. Pitiful really.

It didn’t bother her, in the end. For she had learned that true power was not only through physical prowess but by more, subtler means. Or, she supposed, by being able to command flesh eating fire at her fingertips and the ability to move objects with her mind. Better to have them all believe what they wanted to believe about her. It made things… Easier. Besides, they were all beneath her. She was superior, blessed by the War Mother herself.

Iora gave water to a Neiyari man without an arm. He groaned like a weakling and lapped greedily. The water would stop the bleeding but would not bring back his arm, only time would allow that. She found her eyes wandering, trying to get a look at- Ah, there she was.

The humani girl who had caught her attention by yelling at a slave master. She got a whipping at that and now her right eye was covered in a cloth. As well as her arms and a leg. Her dirty blonde hair, so reminiscent of an Oraeliari, was long and unkept. She was almost as tall as Iora, and that wasn’t saying much as Iora was still several heads shorter than most Neiyari. If it wasn’t for her wings and hair, she could have probably passed for a human. She was captivated by the humani girl. She was really the only reason Iora was even handing out water.

It was difficult to try and get a woman’s attention if they had their hearts set on a man but Iora did not let this stop her from trying. To be close was to feel the thrill and the strength. Even if it was for a little bit, just until she grew bored and… Well, no one would miss a humani slave.

After moving to several more wounded Neiyari, Iora was close enough to the girl that she ‘accidently’ bumped into her. The humani girl fell, dropping her water flasks. She growled at first then seemed to realize her position and began to apologize. Iora reached out a hand.

“Oh clumsy me, I’m sorry.” She said in a soft voice, an inviting smile on her lips. It was difficult to fake a genuine reaction because Neiyari barely had the concept, but there was a flicker of recognition in the girls eyes. She did not take Iora’s hand but stood up on her own, retrieved her flasks and walked past her in a hurry.

Iora watched her go. It took time to feed the desire of being wanted. To have a shoulder to cry on. At least, that’s what she thought humani liked anyways. They, along with the Oraeliari, were suckers for that kind of interaction. Besides, she had only ever been infatuated with one other humani but he ran away. She did however learn an important lesson after those weeks of agony. For one day, she woke up and the obsession was gone.

As long as she didn’t let this one escape, she had a real chance to test her skills.

A flash of light, brighter than all of the Luminant caught Iora’s attention, stopping her in her tracks. It lingered in the air where the battle was being waged and she found her curiosity getting the best of her. She dropped the flask and began to fly to the front. Was this what all the rumors were about? The master plan by the saints to boost morale and deal a blow to the enemy? They had said Aveira had returned but Iora was skeptical of that one… Mother had always said she had been a fool, left her to her fate at the hands of Malri. Her father.

Iora didn’t care one way or another, she was indifferent to her mother’s constant bickering.

As she drew closer to the source it abruptly vanished and before long, she found herself in the midst of a retreating Neiyari host. She saw their faces, scared and abysmal but Iora pressed on to the lake. She flew through the last of the trees, to witness the battlefield, now empty save for the last few Neiyari stragglers and… She had never seen the Oraeliari so close. There were many now, wandering dazed and confused, others clutching their hearts upon their knees. Across the water, a great host of Oraeliari flew about, some coming closer. She could almost hear their cheers.

So the day was lost, what a pity.

She turned to leave-

“I-Iora? Is that you?” It was her mother’s voice but not… She turned to see a golden haired woman approach her. She tilted her head. It was her mother’s face, with white wings and such emotion. Tears, pooling in her eyes.

“Why are you here Iora?” She quickly shook her head and smiled as her tears began to stream down her face. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, I was going to find you. My little girl.” She stepped towards her but Iora stepped back. This seemed to jolt her mother and she paused. “Listen, Iora. I-I’m sorry. For everything. For how I treated you, for how I... “ She couldn’t bear to say it, it seemed. “I love you, Iora. I always have. Please, come with me, we can… We can start over.”

“You love me?” Iora said. “How convenient for you, mother. After hitting me, abusing me, belittling me, after I brought you so much shame for all these years… The minute you turn weak you say you love me? That we can start over? I shouldn’t be surprised. What, did you expect me to just forget what you’ve done?”

“I don’t expect you to forget or forgive me, Iora but I would like to try to bridge the gap I created. It is my fault, and I am sorry. The cruelty of the Neiyari is like an infectious disease. It makes you numb to the world and those around you. Please, Iora come with me. Let’s start over, away from the war. From all of this.” She was begging now.

Iora shrugged. “I’d rather not. You are the enemy now, Mother. You always were.”

“Iora! Please!” she cried taking a step forward.

“You always did think me weak, mother. Can I tell you a secret?” She lifted a discarded sword from the ground, one that was behind her mother. “I never was.” The blade pierced her mother from behind and the woman stumbled forward, eyes wide. She fell to her knees and Iora walked closer, lifting another blade at her side. “You see, I was always much stronger than you. You made me keep secrets. Just think, you could have become a Saint if you knew your daughter was so powerful. But you thought me weak. You hated me.” The blade grew closer and began to enter her mother’s chest with slow agony. To her credit, Tulara did not scream. “But don’t worry mother, I forgive you.”

She stood above her now, for once in her life standing taller. Blood began to flow from her mouth and her breathing became ragged but she did not look away from Iora. “I-I’m… So… S-” Her words failed her, as another blade severed her neck from her shoulders. Iora watched her head fall and her body slump, feeling not a thing but an itch to see the humani girl.

Before she could even leave, an arrow thwacked a shield right next to her and she looked up to see four Oraeliari fighters coming at her and one lingering above with a bow. Had they seen her kill… Probably. They landed, looking gruff, swords and shields raised to the offense. She looked past their weapons to view their faces. She had always been told the enemy were weak, frightened creatures that followed a false deity. These ones looked bolstered, strong and anything but weak. She looked to the corpse of her mother, she had been weak.
“Are they sending children now, to fight in their stead?” One asked, not her but the others.

“Quiet, Handari. Don’t jump to conclusions.” Said the one in the middle. “Are you hurt?” He asked her.

She stared, growing annoyed. “Do I look hurt?” she retorted.

“I told you, Olgari, even their children are cruel.” Handari said.

“Fly back up to Imra and that’s an order, Handari. Radinri and I will handle this.” Olgari said in a commanding voice. The man took one last look at her and flew up to the woman. “Did you kill her?” he asked, looking at her mother.

“Yes. She was weak.” She stated matter of factly. “She always had been, but grovelling before me, saying she loved me? Asking for forgiveness? I don’t normally feel disgusted when a bug crawls on me but I did then. Such a strange feeling.” She watched as their faces became unnerved, a slight thrill building in her chest. It was fun to toy with prey.

The larger man sighed and shook his head. “Tevuri will have to fix this one as well, Olgari.”

“Perhaps. Say, would you come with us without a fight?” Olgari asked.

She shook her head. “There is a humani girl, waiting for me at the Spire. She doesn’t know it yet, but I plan to enjoy her presence before I kill her. Slowly. Perhaps I will use a knife.” The larger man’s face grew pointed and he charged her in an instant. Good. This Olgari shouted but before he could do anything, a blade had flung into his chest and he dropped before her feet. The blade still hung in the air, coated with blood. Olgari froze and up above someone screamed.

She felt a pinprick, and then an explosion of pain in her left shoulder. The blade dropped and she looked to see an arrow shaft protruding from her skin. That wasn’t good. A flutter of wing beats jostled her awareness and she flung herself out of the way before a mace landed where she had been. The one known as Handari fell before her to reclaim the mace. Green fire sprang from her fingertips, catching him unaware as he ran at her. As it touched his chest and neck, he screamed a wonderful sound. He dropped to the floor and he summoned more, throwing it on his back and wings.

She smiled, and another arrow whizzed past her. She looked up at the sky and another blade shot off towards this Imra. Like two birds courting, they dogged and weaved in front of each other, the sword turning on a dime each time. So focused on that, she was again caught unaware as something large hit her from behind and she sprawled forward. In a daze she lifted herself to see the one known as Olgari briefly checking on his dying friend before his gaze fell upon her. A sword lifted off the ground to meet him but he batted it aside and another arrow pierced her leg, pinning it to the ground. She grunted, her annoyance turning to anger.

She scowled as the woman landed beside Olgari, arrow knocked and aimed at her. Was she going to die? No wait, she couldn’t die! She had to get back to the humani girl. Her breathing became erratic as her goal seemed to be squashed before her. They would dodge the fire, wouldn’t they? And her swords? Then what! THEN WHAT COULD SHE DO TO GET BACK?

Her answer came in the form of power. She lifted her arm and they ran at her but Iora let them come, noticing the vines growing on her pale arms. Like skin patterns that some Neiyari had begun to adopt. Her hands began to grow green, Imra took to the sky and loosed an arrow as Olgari threw his spear. From her hand came an eruption unlike any she had seen. A beam of pure, destructive flame. The spear and arrow broke apart and she was hit with splinters but the Oraeliari fared much worse. The beam caught Olgari full mass, and it consumed him, eating away at his skin, flesh, to bone and then ash before it clipped Imra’s right side. The left half of her body became skeletal and she dropped dead as the flame consumed the rest.

The beam stopped, having blackened a small area of the forest behind her as pain shot up both her arms. Her hands shook but she admired the tattoos, fighting through the pain. For pain was familiar to her. It had been there when all others had not been. Her oldest friend.

A laugh escaped her lips. It looked like she would get to see the humani girl again.






Sundom


Down in the Gardens, a wind blew warm across the land, bringing with it the tides of change. Oraelia knew the suffering that went on here and thus she created from the land, a large cathedral hewn from the rock. It stood tall, supported by tall trees and flowing gardens. It would be a place of healing and warmth, where those who sought to be comforted from horrors could go to find peace. Oraelia knew that the machinations of her peers were ever moving and thus, she made another change to the design, for in it she wanted mortals to be taught to confront their fears and to control their powers, if the need ever arose. She then erected walls and defences invisible to the eye and put into that place her very heart so that all might be loved in her embrace.

Yet, it remained empty.

She took a deep breath and spread her hands across the good green soil of the Gardens, sowing new seeds that would come to grow within the bodies of hopeful mothers. These children would be destined to heal the people of the land, and inhabit the Cathedral. In time they would grow to know its greatness.

Knowing still that the Cathedral would sit empty for years, she decided to entrust it’s protection and that of the land to the nearest family. There was nothing special about them, nothing that defined their presence but the courage to do what was right. She asked and they did so out of genuine want and thus, Oraelia parted with them with a gift.

They were known as the Omun.




The scouts had returned bringing grave news. The humani were marshalling forces on all sides, making a march for Ha Duna. Not much had been heard from the city, besides a few rumors from the many pilgrims who sought the gift of the statuette. The many fears of the Sun’s Daughter had come to fruition. They had tried to seek peace with the surrounding towns and villages, starting small, hoping to work their way up but they had been too slow. Now the host of the Oraeliari within the Caisteal Na Grèine, were preparing for war. Pilgrims were made to take shelter and those tending the surroundings lands were brought in for protection or sent home.

Spears were forged, blades were made anew, arrows were fletched and bows were strung. With the help from Lucia and Sanya, armor was crafted in the visage of the sun. From their inner forges, they produced that which could protect like never before. Plate that mimicked the gift of the Goddess. It was not as strong but the likes of it had never been seen before. It was an advancement of the ages but one used in the horrors of war. They were no stranger to that beast. They knew of its pain and suffering but they did not shy away from the task at hand.

The cardinals stood tall, beacons of hope in a tide of crushing dark. Even still, Lucia and Sanya stood taller still. Living embodiments of the mother’s will, brought forth to bring about a lasting peace. Even if it had to be forged with a heavy heart. They would set out soon, in an attempt to save that land from it’s own vices, from more needless pain.

Solus watched from where he stood in the courtyard. Silent but resolute. He had returned from the far west, preventing those who sought conquest upon the dunalands. But he had failed to look to the east and now what approached was a deep breath before the plunge.

Lucia and Sanya walked to him and he knelt down. Both held their helmets under the arms, while the darker haired woman carried her spear in the other. With a look of doubt, Lucia bowed before him.

”Mighty Solus. I wish we could have met under better circumstances. It seems the mortals here have a penchant for starting wars over something or another. I wish it were not so. I thought we were going to do better but the conflict that is brewing is testament to that failure. But I digress. How are you doing? Was the trip west uneventful?” She asked in a voice that reminded the avatar of his mother. In fact, no one had ever asked him how he was doing and Solus did not know how to react.

“You…” He began in a deep, but soft voice. “Remind me… Of her… Mother.” The avatar took a pause. “The West… Is secure. Saved from… Warlords and… False gods. Here is… No different… You all will… Save them… From… Themselves. You… Must. I will… Help.”

Lucia nodded, a look of relief washing over her face. ”It does me good to hear that, Solus. I am glad you are well and unharmed from your trip. I can’t imagine dealing with all that but you did and we thank you for it. We plan on leaving for Ha Duna shortly once the final preparations are made. If all goes well, we can prevent anything from happening before it gets out of hand. Let’s hope that there is no trickery afoot from other, less civil, gods. As it stands, anything could happen and we have to keep our eyes open. Having you at our side will put all of us at ease. So, thank you, Solus.” she flashed a smile and jabbed Sanya, who also gave her thanks.

Solus stood and remained silent for a time. “War… Never changes. We will… Do… What we…” A presence came snaking in on the winds and the avatar turned his attention up and behind them. His perception scanning the skies for that which was unseen by mortal eyes. There. He found it… No… He found her… Flying so high above.

His voice was no longer soft. “She… Flies… Up above... My old… Enemy. A viper… A stain… Lucia… Sanya… Aveira… Has come. Protect… I must. Mother… Would… Want that… Thank you… For kind… Words… Aveira must… Be… Destroyed. Goodbye… Daughters… of the… Sun.” He took off into the air as Aveira made her approach.

Behind him, Lucia cried out for him to stop but Solus was resolute in his charge. Aveira could not be allowed to meddle in the affairs here. Another Luminant… Was not needed. It was time for her to face judgement.









A Garden of Doubt


Chapter IV - Loss of Heart





He did not dream. Instead, Zayd woke with a jolt, feeling a mix of betrayal and sadness. He looked around but she was gone. Not even the coals of the fire were smoldering. How long had he been asleep? Zayd got to his feet, moving his arms in a circle and stretching them out. He was amazed that they felt fine, maybe a little sore but by all accounts he should have lost them. Even his chest… Where was his shirt?

After a quick sweep, he found his belongings and… A small pile of berries. He frowned and then his stomach grumbled. He was hungry, and thirsty. Not one to let food go to waste, he took the berries and began to eat them as he looked for the old sword. He found it sitting against the rock wall, still coated with black blood. He touched it, feeling the dry texture and how smooth it was. There was something very strange to it, unnatural as the beasts had been. He looked around for their corpses but could only find two black spots on the ground. Had they burned away to nothing?

He shook his head and made the for exit. A cool breeze was blowing the scent of early spring, that wonderful aroma of budding flowers and growing grasses. The light was near midday, just enough for him to cover his eyes so that they might adjust. Had the light always been so blinding, he wondered, stepping out and making his way up the vines. He would need to get home quickly, as he was sure his family were worried for him and he did not know for how long he had been sleeping.

Once he reached the top he finished off the last of the berries and made a quick stop at a nearby stream to drink some of the water. It was pleasant and he drank his fill, washing his face of grime and dirt before continuing on. He tied the sword to his cloth belt, the weight of it alien against his leg at first but that feeling disappeared as he made his way on.

The trip let his thoughts wander back to the plant girl. That kiss… He didn’t even know her name, which was unfortunate. He would have liked to know, or maybe to have seen that smile again but she was gone and Zayd had a feeling he would not see her again. Perhaps it was for the best, perhaps it wasn’t- he still felt guilty all the same. Like he could have done more for her. Shown her the land, given her another hiding spot, kept her company…

He shook his head. He was getting ahead of himself, fantasizing about what never would be. No, it would just be a story that he could not tell anyone about. Not his family, not his future wife, not his future kids. Not even grandkids. Partly because he couldn’t speak and for the fact he felt as if something like that got out, it could cause trouble. She was being hunted by something. Those demons… They were not natural, they were not of Oraliyah or the gods. What could have even wanted her?

It made him angry to even think about it. He couldn’t do anything to help her. She would just fade from his memory. Like a forgotten dream, wanting to be remembered, so desperately. No! He would not forget her, he could not forget what she did for him. Never.

At least the forest was lively.

Zayd cleared the woods as he tightened his resolve of that smile of hers, the memory of his savior’s kiss. He would remember it and think fondly of her. As he continued on, his eyes caught the open fields of his home and… Smoke on the horizon. A great plume of it, thick and dark. Why were they having a fire that large, at this hour?

Unless… Oh no!

Zayd broke into a sprint, letting the wind whip through his hair. His earlier fears washed away in a torrent of like a raging river, unleashed by this new fear. This ever growing thing that threatened to consume him forever. He had been a fool! If those demons had found him then what’s to say they wouldn’t have found his home!

His lungs felt like they were going to burst, like he was going to pass out. He was pushing himself too much, too soon but what else was there to do? He ran and ran and as he approached, he was welcomed by horrors. The fields were burned out, their livestock was slaughtered or missing and the smell of death was pungent. It made him want to vomit and he almost did but he sucked it down and pushed on, slower now. He was shaking, he couldn’t even call out to see if anyone was there. Not that he could hear anything but the crackling of wood.

As he stepped onto the long, well worn path to the homestead, he found it was littered with dried blood, broken pots, splintered wood, tattered clothes and burned out fires. He spotted several black spots, the same as were in the cave and he felt his spine shiver. He took out his copper sword, trembling within his grasp. This was his home, it shouldn’t- it couldn’t look like this.

As he approached the homestead proper, his heart grew heavy at the amount of destruction. The first few houses, his uncles houses, were completely burned to ash and timbers as he walked up into the center. It was then his eyes caught sight of something closer towards the middle. He didn’t know what he was looking at first but his mind began to put the pieces together as he drew closer, like his mother when she would sow. Slow but always coming toge-

He threw up.

The pungent smell of berries clouding his senses as tears filled his vision.

Before him, suspended by pikes of wood through their throats and stomachs, was his father and uncles. At their feet lay a pile of pale corpses. His boy cousins, around his age and a bit younger, perhaps older. A few of his aunts and girl cousins were there as well. Stripped naked, bodies clawed, some chewed to pieces and others with their throats slit. All with vague eyes, open and cloudy, looks of pain and fear. Of ending.

Zayd couldn’t breath. He felt like he was choking. He wretched again in his panic, then dry heaved until he gasped for air. When he at last caught his breath, he rebounded and ran off, stumbling in the direction of his home.

He found it. The roof was caved in, and the doorway was little more than just a gaping hole. He worked his way inside, shuffling around the debris and moving them when he could. The family room was broken apart, like the wind had come and blown everything to one side. He pushed on, towards the sleeping room and found a great amount of dried blood there. It coated one wall and the floor, staining sheets, pillows, and blankets that dark crimson color of suffering. He fell to his knees, then tossed his sword at a wall. It clanged and hit the dirt floor with a thud. Zayd then gripped his head and shut his eyes, wishing to wake up from the nightmare.




With the last body wrapped, and carefully laid on the pyre with the others, Zayd cast a torch and let his family rest. Nothing was really the same. He barely ate, barely drank- just went on with his motions. Preparing the dead for the fire, keeping the birds away, dealing with the smell, the bloating, the warmer days.

Time didn’t really matter to him, for he felt nothing. And if one did not feel, then why would one care?

He did what any good man would do, what was expected of him. He should have buried them but the stink was attracting too many animals. They would not eat and defile these corpses, no. Thus he burned them and as he watched, fire reflecting in his hazy eyes, Zayd knew not what to do next.

He did not find any others in his family. His mother, brothers, sisters. They were missing and so were most of his younger cousins and his aunts. Who would have taken them? Slavers? No… Even slavers were not that cruel and this land was free, protected by… Where were the soldiers of the Hash’Lahan? Of Artikulah? The curious eyes of the passersby? The Coven of Omun?

Where was his help? Where was any help? Why did no one save them… Why didn’t he save them? Because he ran away… Like a coward unable to accept responsibility. His father was right. He was no soldier. He would be no great warrior. His dream of bringing honor to himself and his family were burning right before him. He remembered her smile and he paused where he stood, looking out over to distant lands. His shoulders slumped and he grimaced. He was not worthy of that smile. For he who could not protect his family from wolves, deserved nothing. For he was nothing. He was worthless, a leech that persisted on despite knowing it should be dead.

With staggered feet, he began to withdraw from the fire, walking back to his home. His gaze could not stomach looking at anything around him. The broken houses bringing forth the memories of better times. Now there was nothing but pain here, that was the only truth he knew. Pain and the memories of better times. A constant reminder. He didn’t want to stay but where would he go? This was all he had known.

There was really only one thing left for a person that had brought shame, dishonor, and failure to his own name. He walked past his home and fell upon his knees in the tall grass. He pulled his father’s dagger from his belt and looked upon it. It was one sided, long as his hand and tarnished. Zayd had found it in the house, unused but well kept.

Now, it would be used.

He looked up at the sky, tears beginning to fall down his face. He hoped his family would forgive him. He hoped they would not suffer at the hands of fate. His hands were calm as he brought the blade to his neck and pressed the bladed side to his throat. He thought of his savior and hoped that she would find her way. He felt something hot trickle down his throat as he closed his eyes, breathing deep and prepared a fitting end for the coward he was.

He thought of a memory, he wanted to think of his savior as the last thing he saw but instead, he remembered a time when his baba was still alive. Down at the river, where he was teaching Zayd how to fish. It had been right after he lost his tongue and his spirits had faltered. Baba told him with kind eyes, “Zayd, you must not let this take your spirit. Remember this always, what we lose, makes us stronger. In ways that might not be seen by the naked eye, or known by the mind but,” He had poked Zayd in the chest, “What is felt by the heart.”

Zayd snapped his eyes open and the blade slipped from his fingers, landing in the grass before him. He heaved, and placed his head on the grass as he cried again. What was he doing? Why was he giving up so easily? He had family out there somewhere, afraid and alone and he was just going to kill himself? He would die trying but he would find them and he would bring justice to this senseless act. He had to. It was the only thing that ushered in a new purpo-

“Are you alright?”

The voice startled Zayd and he shot up. A man stood before him, gripping tight to the reigns of a massive bird. A terrakin! It’s body was sleek, kept up by two powerful legs with great talons. It’s neck rose up above them, leading to a large crushing beak and rows of red and yellow crest feathers. It looked on edge and the man too, looked uneasy. This man, who wore an old brown shirt and tan pants. Black beard, tinged with silver, large and bushy upon a slim face with high cheekbones and inquisitive eyes. He wore a cap of black upon his bald head.
“Are you hurt? What happened here?” He asked, standing still.

Zayd got to his feet, leaving the dagger on the ground. He looked over his shoulder and then back to the man and shook his head. He then pointed to his throat and opened his mouth to show him.

The man gave a thin frown in return. The kind his father had given him when he had been disappointed. It was both comforting and humiliating. “I noticed the smoke a day ago. Then a new fire this morning. Was this place your home?”

Zayd nodded as his face twisted with emotion. Then he placed his hands atop his head and paced back and forth. It had been his home, now it was just broken wood and embers.

The man looked past him, then back to him with a slow nod. “There are strange things happening in this land. Tales of mass death and blood sacrifices.” He shook his head. “Ah, I should not trouble you further. Come on then. By Oraliyah’s light I won’t leave you here by yourself. You look starved boy and these nights, one can never be too careful alone. I have a home half a day’s journey away from here, if we leave now, we might make it before dark.”

Zayd breathed through his nose, and looked back at his home. He steeled himself, this would not be the end. He would return with those he could save, no matter what. For now, the man’s invitation would be enough. He would get his strength back and rest, then his journey would begin.

He turned back and nodded, picking up his dagger and putting it in his belt. That was all he needed.

“Have you ever ridden on a terrakin before?” the man asked as he approached. Zayd eyed the bird and it eyes him back and he shrank, quickly shaking his head. “Not to worry, old Itern is calm. Calmer than most, at least. Let me help you up.”

After a bit of reprehension, Zayd was on the bird, sitting closest to its neck. He didn’t know where to grab so he wrapped his arms around its neck. The bird’s head came down and with a mighty clack, it startled Zayd enough and he almost fell off if not for the man steadying him. He chuckled aloud. “Itern doesn’t like constriction around his neck. Grab on to the larger feathers in front of you and hold on. Terrakin are quick.”

Once Zayd had done that, he peered over his shoulder at the man. “No sense in waiting then. Itern! Home!” At once, the terrakin lurched forward and with mighty leaps, as if it was more flying then running, they were off. Zayd shut his eyes tight, holding on for dear life as the man laughed deep behind him.

“The name’s Nadir, by the way.” he shouted over the wind. “And you are most safe now.”




Humble Beginnings





She was far away in the land of her Lady's realm. So far from the Furies and Oraelia, frolicking with the animals she had come to love so greatly. They were her friends and that which she loved the most in her existence. From the smallest of mice to the largest of sky whales, they lived in the harmony she had created within the Garden Under the Sun. For what was a garden without life that could appreciate it?

The mortals would of course, for they were not able to not appreciate a realm where anything was possible. Where beauty was at every turn. Oh those pesky mortals. Always fighting and arguing. Never knowing that peace was so close to achieve yet so far away. For those who chose to dominate blocked every path.

But right now, Rhiona did not care about mortal woes. Instead she was busy creating something new in a small glade. She had made many animals and plants since she came to be but now she wanted to try something completely new.

Abstract of the mind but beautiful all the same.

She outstretched her hands and then cupped them together, bringing them back up to her face. She breathed into them and a stream of light coalesced forth coming into a lively ball that wobbled back and forth. It tickled her and she giggled, giving it a scratch with a free finger. It pulsed and it's golden color turned pink as it's body changed shapes into symmetrical blobs that glowed with such beauty it took her breath away. Who knew something so small could contain the beauty of stars.

It was small, yes, but held promise. She set it down and watched as it hovered around a blade of tall grass. She could make it even more beautiful still. Rhiona then picked up a large rock and then crushed it within her hands so tight the pieces became hard. She then blew the rock onto the creature and it coated the vibrating light in a million crystals. It seemed to enjoy that as it's color changed to a lively gold again, it's shape becoming that of a disc as it flew around her head.

It reminded her of a shooting star. So she would name it, ”Lumin.” Upon hearing her voice, the lumin danced and in it’s excitement, it flew into her head, letting out a low buzz as it fell to the earthen floor. Rhiona sank to her knees beside it and gently scooped it up with a soft smile on her face. ”You must be careful, little one.”

The lumin buzzed, changing to a deep blue color. Rhiona looked it once over and blew upon it. It fluttered, changing its shape again to a circle. ”There, now if you hurt yourself, you can mend. Mend and give.” The lumin zipped off her hand and took flight around her head again. Rhiona giggled.

She then grew the creature to the size of a royal joyf and multiplied its characteristics to create more of its kind. Around her they flew amongst the grasses and the trees, pairing off. Rhiona then blessed them with enhanced fertility so that they could make more of themselves. She did not know if they would be sent to Galbar eventually, but even creatures such as they could enjoy the company of one another.

Satisfied with her newest creation, she sat down to hold one but felt… A presence that should not be. It was one of death and it had come to their realm. This could not stand!




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