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Kalmar




The Jotnar were a new species, but they adapted well to life. Much better than the Vallamir did. The Frigid Forest was a special place, and the Jotnar had essentially been made for it, so it was only natural that they would thrive. Their height was perfect for plucking icefruit, while their strength and durability allowed them to go toe to toe with even the fiercest of predators. They required more sustenance than the standard Vallamir, it was true, but they were also fewer in number, and thus there was still enough food to be found.

As he had with the Vallamir, Kalmar traveled amongst the Jotnar, telling them stories of the other gods and bestowing teachings that might aid in their survival. They listened to his tales with interest, and took note of the values he tried to encourage.

Then, he received word that Ashalla was exploring the eastern coast of his continent, and so he had traveled south to greet her.

Now that he was returning, it was time to continue his interaction with the Jotnar species. As he soared through the chilly air, he began to consider his next step. The Vallamir of the south had already been taught to wield various tools and weapons, yet those took time to craft. It could take hours if not days to carve a stone or whittle a piece of wood to a point where it could be usable for its intended purpose. And even then, there was only so much the resulting tools could do before they had worn themselves down and needed to be repaired or replaced.

An idea had taken form. He set his sight on a large mountain. The Jorag Mountain, he would call it. Why not? It was the perfect place to implement his new plan, and so, he changed course toward it. In the meantime, he sent out a message.



A number of Jotnar had already made their homes in the hills and highlands surrounding the mountains. He passed over their camps as he flew. He frequently saw fighting, but when he stopped to investigate more closely, he realized it was for sparring purposes only. And strangely enough, everyone - even the fighters themselves - seemed to take joy in it, cheering and smiling as the fight carried on. Other tests of strength were common as well - two Jotnar engaged in an arm wrestling match on a flat rock. Two other Jotnar were competing to see who could lift more objects before they fell over, laughing in the snow.

A bit unusual, but it maintained their fitness and their skills, so it was hardly impractical.

He flew to the northern side of the mountain, where he came across a section of raised, flat, rocky land, nestled between the mountain and the coast. It was where he had his meal with Kirron, actually.

Kalmar landed, and he waited.



The next day, as the sun was setting, a massive blue dragon appeared over the northern horizon. It was Vendral. The heads fixated on Kalmar, and the great winged beast landed, peering down at him.

"It's been some time," Kalmar stated. Vendral had been left to remain on the Twilight Isle, to observe Azura and her work.

Vendral nodded one of its heads. "It has," he said non-committedly.

"Anything to report?" Kalmar questioned.

"No," Vendral answered. "No major changes have been made. None that I know of."

Kalmar frowned. "I see," he said, clearly disappointed. "And what about you? I know there's not much up there."

"I can manage," Vendral answered. "There isn't much, but the cold is comfortable, and there are still some things available to eat."

"Well, you might not need to stay there much longer," Kalmar suggested. "A few more years, maybe, and there will be someone to perform the task in your place."

Vendral appeared somewhat relieved. "Did you call me down here just to tell me this?" the blue dragon asked.

"No, there's something else I had in mind," Kalmar revealed, and then launched into an explanation. And Vendral listened.



The dark mountainside was suddenly illuminated by bright blue flame. There, as instructed, the five heads of Vendral concentrated their coldfire on one specific point. Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped.

Then Kalmar stepped forward. Before the freezing flames could dissipate, the God of Cold outstretched his hands, and then clapped them together. The coldfire was suddenly condensed into a single frigid ball of light, which hovered toward him and into one hand. He raised his other hand, and a great slab of stone rose from the ground. With his mind he shaped, hollowing it out, creating a grating which things could be put on, a door with slots to see through. Had Kalmar known what an oven was, he would have observed that this very much looked like one.

Then, he tossed the blue light inside, and shut the door.

At once the light expanded, back into its coldfire form. It crashed against the walls of its new container, fighting to get out, with streams of it erupting through the slots. Then, Kalmar focused his will, and it began to settle. It continued to roar and flicker, but the coldfire no longer fought to escape or spread, and it would stay that way.

He lifted something from the ground next to him. It was a simple stick, made entirely out of ice. As a weapon, it was worthless, and would surely shatter before it did any real damage. He opened the forge, and stuck it inside. A minute passed, and he pulled it out. Now, the ice glowed. He reared it back and, with force that would be impressive by mortal standards but disappointing by divine standards, swung it against the wall of his new construct.

Neither the ice nor the stone broke.

The Hunter smiled. Yes, this might work as intended.



Weeks later, the Jotnar Tribes began to arrive. There were four tribes in total, the smallest numbering twenty and the largest numbering forty. As they ascended the slope leading up to mountain shelf, and gazed up at it in the afternoon light, they were amazed.

The first thing they saw was a colossal tower, twelve stories high, and made of what appeared to be ice. They followed it downward, only for the tower's base to be obscured by a wall. The wall itself was impressive: forty-feet in height, and divided into sections by nine smaller towers - one of which was, oddly enough, made entirely out of stone rather than ice.

When the tribes had ascended up to the shelf itself, they saw that one of the sections of wall had an opening. They assembled in front of it, talking and whispering amongst themselves. Kalmar had called them here. He said nothing of this structure. What was it. What was it for? Where did it come from?

Four individuals - three men, and one women - stepped forward. Each one was the leader of their own tribe, and it was a position they had achieved through charisma, courage, intelligence, or strength. Either way, they had all been chosen for leadership, and what sort of leader would tell their people to enter a location without first ensuring it was safe?

So, the four chieftans stepped through, their people following behind them. The wall was as thick as they were tall. They stepped into the courtyard. The colossal tower was in the center, and there were three more icy buildings built around it, against the rock of the mountain.

Kalmar stood in front of the entrance to the great tower, waiting.

Some had seen him before. Others had not, but knew him from description. All did the customary show of respect: a dipped head, and a clenched fist across the chest.

Kalmar's eyes swept across the crowd, his gaze settling on the four chieftans. Ingrid, Ralof, Wulfgar, and Asvald, their names were. "The four of you. Come with me," he commanded, before turning and walking around the tower, toward one of the buildings behind it.



"This," Kalmar said, as they stood within the vast icy room that was empty, save for a pile of odd stone slabs with strange shapes called into carved into them, and a stone monument which contained glowing blue fire, "is the Coldforge."

The four looked upon it with wonder. Kalmar lifted one of the slabs. The shape had been filled in with snow and ice, and appeared to be some sort of weapon or tool, shaped like a cross. One end of the cross was about as long as the width of two Jotnar hands, and had was made entirely out of compacted snow, while the other was half as long as a Jotnar was tall, end was made out of ice. "This is a sword," Kalmar explained, as he opened the Coldforge and slid the slab in, before shutting it.

The blue fire seemed to come to life, enveloping the stone and the 'sword'. Kalmar allowed this process to continue for several long moments. Then, he opened the door, and the coldfire died down. He pulled the slab out, and removed the 'sword' from it, which seemed oversized in his hands. It was mostly unchanged... only the snow now had the texture and smoothness of stone, while the ice glowed a soft blue. "The handle is as strong as stone, and the blade as strong as metal," Kalmar informed them. "Though you don't know what metal is."

He wrapped the hilt in fur, and then held it out. The blue-haired Ingrid stepped forward and accepted it, inspecting the blade with interest. She pressed a finger to its edge, only to wince as a drop of blue blood was drawn. Asvald with his bushy blond beard walked up next to her, took one glance at the sword, and then looked back at his God. He opened his mouth to speak, but the grey-haired Wulfgar spoke first. "This is what you wanted to show us?" he asked, in a gruff voice similar to Kalmar's. Blond Ralof winced slightly.

Kalmar nodded. "It is," he confirmed. "Consider it a gift. Not just for you, but for all the Jotnar. With the Coldforge, you can create tools and weapons which will make your tasks easier. If you wish, you and your tribes are free to live here." Four pairs of eyebrows shot up. Ingrid smiled, Asvald and Ralof were shocked, while Wulfgar seemed skeptical.

"However," Kalmar continued. "There will be conditions. In choosing to live here, you must take up the task of guarding the Coldforge against those who might abuse it. You also take up the task of distributing its weapons and tools to your fellow Jotnar. You may request food or supplies in exchange for this, but only based on necessity. You will not give these tools to those you know will abuse them, and you will not abuse them yourselves, or raise them against your fellow Jotnar unless provoked. Do you agree?"

"We do!" Asvald said at once with a nod.

But Kalmar did not seem convinced. "Long ago, on another continent, with a different people, there was once a leader who was given a gift. Weapons, which he could have used to aid his hunters or defend his people. Instead he chose to strike at his neighbors. Countless lives were ended on both sides, nothing but bloodshed was accomplished, and in the end, he lost everything. His army was trapped and destroyed - not by the hand of any god, but by the mortals he tried to dominate. He died, and all who remembered him hated him." His tone was harsh, and grim. "I do not want to see this story repeat itself. If it does, you will share the same fate."

Three of the four seemed taken aback by the dire warning. Wulfgar, however, stepped forward. "It's a fair offer," he declared, giving another respectful salute. "I accept."

"I accepted as well." Ingrid saluted.

"And me."

"I as well."

Kalmar nodded. "Good. Tell your people of these terms. All who do not accept are free to leave. The rest will stay here, and make as many weapons and tools as they can. I will spread the word, and when I do, people will seek you out. Be ready. Remember my conditions, and know that you can be replaced if you disregard them."

And with that dire warning, the Hunter exited the room.

"This is a blessed day," Ingrid smiled.

"A lot of pressure, though," Ralof pointed out.

"So?" Wulfgar arched an eyebrow. "We've been given a task. It's time to rise to it." He looked to Asvald. "You have anything to say?"

Asvald shook his head. "All that needs to be said has already been said."

"Then let's get to it," Ingrid declared, her smile returning.







Karamir


This post is a WIP.




Kalmar, Arae, Roog, and Li’Kalla created you. You are the Vallamir.

Karamir jolted awake. Within a second, he was on his feet, and within another second, the Weapon was out and had taken the form of a sword. He swivelled in place, scanning his surroundings, yet there were no threats to be seen.

Strange. He could have sworn someone had just spoken, and he wasn’t quite sure what it was supposed to mean. Kalmar was the only name Karamir recognized - as far as he knew, ‘Arae’, ‘Roog’, and ‘Li’Kalla’ had nothing to do with him. And the name Vallamir… he had never heard that before in his life.

He glanced up at the Lustrous Garden. It was well into the night; day would soon follow. Yawning, he took the time to wipe his eyes… and then paused as a strand of hair appeared at the top of his vision. It was white.

Something had happened, after all. But what? Another glance around. No sign of anything, or anyone. He took flight, and circled the area surrounding the Stone Book. Again, he found nothing. ”How strange…” he muttered to himself. Talking to himself had become something of a habit, now. Not since his time on Kalgrun had he gone this long without somebody to converse with.

He did not go back to sleep. With weapon in hand he awaited the morning, continuing to practice his magic in the meantime.

When the sun finally rose, he took flight and found the nearest clear body of water. A quick glance of his reflection revealed that his hair had in fact changed colour… but only a small portion. The front was now white, but the rest remained the same light brown. ”What happened?” he wondered aloud.

Could it have been an effect of what Abanoc did to him? Doubtful. The encounter had been over a year ago, so why would such a change only come about now? Was it a result of his proximity to the Stone Book, or some belated side-effect of one of the many things that had been done to him in the past? It was impossible to be sure.

The most likely possibility was that Kalmar had finally gotten around to creating a species modelled after him: Vallamir was the name of the species, while the gods Li’Kalla, Roog, and Arae all helped create it.

”Karamir… first of the Vallamir…” he spoke aloud, testing it out.

He rose to his feet. If there truly were others like him, then it was time to get moving. He still needed to seek out the other mortal species, and the other gods. And once he had learned from them, he could share that knowledge with other people - including his own. He had remained near the Stone Book to continue practicing mana, but there was no real reason he couldn’t practice as he travelled. Being able to use mana while flying would be a useful skill anyway.

And so, on that note, he took flight and began a journey west, practicing his manipulation of the winds as he flew.




Eventually he reached the coast, of course, and he did not fancy another journey over the open ocean just yet. So instead he turned southwest. In the meantime, while he wasn’t attempting to summon gusts of wind mid-flight, he had contacted Kalmar, who confirmed much of what he had theorized. Though apparently a few changes had been made to the species, one of which led to the partially white hair that Karamir now had.

At some point he flew over a rather eerie looking forest, and a dense fog gradually enveloped him. He was no stranger to fog, but this felt rather sudden. Still, he couldn’t rightly call it unnatural, since he had never been to this area before. And after what he had seen in the Palace, Tendlepog, the Infinite Maze, and the Observatory, a bit of fog was hardly the strangest thing he could encounter.

He lowered himself to the ground, passing through the forest canopy until he landed on the ground before. It was rather eerie; like something out of one of Diana’s nightmares.

He drew his dagger, and willed it to become a staff. It wasn’t the most deadly weapon, but it felt comfortable to carry. He began to walk through the forest on foot, stopping occasionally to inspect plants or insects, every now and then glancing up at the forest canopy.

Unable to see the sun, he once again found himself in the concerning position of not knowing the passage of time. He wasn’t sure how much had passed, but after quite a bit of wandering and inspecting, he eventually came across a rough trail. No animal could have made this - or at least, no animal he had seen before.

”Are there mortals nearby?” he wondered. No, Abanoc’s book had not informed him of any within this region. ”The work of a god?” Or was it yet another oddity that had no clear explanation.

Anyway, he decided to follow the trail. ”Surely it leads somewhere...”

Time continued to pass, but it was not long before he came across another oddity - this one much larger than the insects he had grown accustomed to. A large tentacled slug, almost the size of a direwolf. It did not seem to possess any eyes; could it see him? Karamir circled around it, yet it did not react. He prodded it with the butt of his staff, and it lazily flicked a tentacle to ward off his pestering.

It didn’t seem to be hostile, and he didn’t even know if it was edible, so there was little point in disturbing it. He briefly wondered what its purpose was, but it wasn’t like he could ask. Instead he carried on, leaving the beast to drag itself along the trail.

On and on he walked. His cloak was spoiling him, he realized; he had almost grown unused to trekking vast distances on foot. He would have to take walks more frequently, instead of simply relying on the cloak to get anywhere. There may be come a time when he might find himself without it. ”Seems like the perfect place to get used to long walks…” he muttered to himself.

Eventually, the trail lead him to a clearing, and while that would not have been unusual, what was inside it was. A table, mostly stocked with plates of food, and one of the slug beasts from before was there, hungrily shoving food into its mouth with its tentacles.

Karamir was quite hungry himself, come to think of it. He walked around the side of the table opposite the creature, and noted that the foods the creature was eating included meat. It didn’t seem to notice him, but it could see the food in front of well enough. How did it perceive the world, he wondered?

Karamir closed his eyes and focused. It had been a long time since he had needed to call upon the Hunter’s Sight granted to him by Kalmar, but the power had not left him. He slipped into the creature’s perspective, and found that it could in fact see… everything except for him. Because as Karamir gazed through the creature’s eyes, he was looking at the very spot where his actual body should be standing… and there was nothing there.

He slipped back into his own perspective to confirm that he had not moved or been transported in any way. If the creatures could not see him… that was a remarkably easy weakness to exploit. He glanced back down at the table. His better judgement told him not to touch it, that this food had been left out here for a reason… and then his stomach growled. It had been too long since his last meal.

So, he grabbed a rather large loaf of bread from one of the plates, turned, and continued onward. The oversized slug didn’t even notice. He took bites as he walked, until eventually he had eaten it all.

At some point he decided it was time to take a break. He fell back into practicing his mana; using the loose yet controlled movements required to manipulate the air around him. He then looked down at his robe, which had grown increasingly worn and frayed.

Thankfully he had taught himself another spell for this.

Concentrating deeply, he drew upon the raw mana in the air around him. Raw mana was dangerous, and volatile, yet the result of this particular spell would hardly be catastrophic if it somehow went out of control. Slowly, the small tears, holes, and loose strands in his robe began to repair themselves, threads reattaching back together. He was sweating by the time he was done, but the clothes had been repaired in the end. ”Still dirty, though…” but there was little he could do about that until he found water.

He sat against a nearby tree, and breathed in the foggy air. He was not concerned; he could leave at any time he wanted. All he had to do was fly above the forest canopy, pick a random direction, and commit to it until he made it out. As far as he knew, he was still on Galbar, and so this forest must have an end. Even if he had somehow ended up in another sphere… even the Infinite Maze came to an end at some point, despite its name. As far as he could tell, he was in no danger. He was here by his own choice and his own curiosity.

He rested there for some time, until he saw an odd light in the corner of his eye, steadily coming closer. Warily, he rose to his feet and readied his weapon, only to see a rather strange sight emerge from the smoke: A lantern walking on a four-legged pedestal.

It came near to him, close enough that he could feel its warmth, and then suddenly it retreated, only to stop and then inch closer. Karamir took a step forward, and again the lantern began to fall back… only to start shaking itself in what appeared to be frustration, as Karamir had not moved beyond that single step.

”You want me to follow?” Karamir questioned with a raised eyebrow.

The lantern tilted itself slightly, in what Karamir assumed was meant to be a nod.

”Why not…” Karamir shrugged. If this was some sort of trap, he could easily get away. If it wasn’t, then it likely led to something interesting. So, he followed it. Time continued to pass, and Karamir continued to walk.

Eventually, however, his eyes began to droop, and it was getting darker. He needed to sleep. So, he stepped off the path, laid down near a tree, and allowed himself to drift off to sleep.




Karamir awoke to something wrapping around his leg.

Just as it began to drag him, however, his cloak slipped out from underneath him and suddenly began to drag him in the opposite direction, as he floated an inch off the ground. He craned his head to look at his mysterious attacker, but saw nothing save a faint, blurry outline. He kicked at it, but it did not relent. All the while, the unknown assailant and his cloak continued to play a tug-of-war over his body.

His hand closed around the Multi-Weapon which lay next to him, and it morphed into a glaive. He swung wildly, severing an unseen appendage, and then he was free. His cloak dragged him over the dirt for several feet until he willed it to stop, and rose to his feet.

He could see the blurry outline of the creature, but it was practically invisible, and it was heading toward him. Despite its obscurity, he realized its size and shape was comparable to the beasts he had seen earlier. Quickly, he used his hunter’s sight to slip into the creature’s perspective, and realized that this time, they could see him.

It wasn’t particularly fast, however, so it was a simple enough matter to hold out his staff. A nearly-invisible tentacle wrapped around it, and then suddenly the glaive became a sword, and Karamir pulled it back, cutting through the creature’s flesh with ease. It recoiled in pain, and then the sword was a spear, and Karamir plunged it through where he assumed the monster’s brain would be. It collapsed.

He prodded the transparent corpse with the butt of his spear (transforming it back into a staff as he did so) and drew in a deep breath. Did these things become transparent at night? Or had eating the food affected him in some way? Either way, it seemed unwise to stay here.

A quick look around, and he saw a light in the distance. The lantern from before. Or at least, he assumed it was. It began to rapidly shake, as if urging him to follow, and so he did.




For three days Karamir followed the lantern. It led him off the trail, onto new trails, and even to food shrines. He realized that the creatures remained invisible even during the day, so therefore it had to have been the food that resulted in this change… somehow. Or maybe it was simply the result of being in this forest for a certain amount of time. ”If only I had some way to record all these thoughts…” he wondered aloud.

A quick experiment revealed that the food was indeed the cause. He ate some of the food in front of the creatures, and soon enough it went blurry and transparent to almost completely invisible.

It might have been a good idea to stop, but… he needed to eat something. The creatures were already invisible, the food was available, and it wasn’t like they were completely undetectable anyway - he could see faint imprints in the dirt and grass, marking where they stood, and he had his Hunter’s Sight ability anyway. In the night he flew up into the trees, used his cloak to tie himself to a branch, and allowed himself to drift off.

He marked trees to ensure that the lantern was not leading him in circles, but that didn’t address the concern that it might not be leading him anywhere at all. ”One more day of this,” he decided as he went to sleep that night. One more day with no results, and he would simply leave this place.

But around noon of the fourth day, he finally reached the pagoda.

It was five storeys tall, now, and disappeared far into the foggy sky. The giant wooden treadmill-crane standing on scorched ground beside it was the only sign that, somewhere far above, construction was ongoing. What was finished was already painted, plastered, and paved, and dozens of huge circular kites flew from its windows on long strings. They turned to look at him as he emerged from the jungle, displaying vivid irises.

At the edge of the forest, a curious being with a heavy green parrot on his shoulder turned to him. It had a peaked copper lantern for a head, and wore a heavy robe, a slender cane emerging from its sleeve to tap at the moist earth between them. Saith the parrot, “By the feathers of my beard: A stranger? A danger? A deep-forest ranger, seeking for yon places weird.”

”I am Karamir, of Kalgrun,” Karamir declared to the stranger. ”Who are you?”

A delicate pair of pliers emerged from the creature’s other sleeve, and tapped its chest, where a simple glyph was woven into the fabric, gold on black. It made a harsh whirring noise, the light in its lantern flashing unevenly as it did so, as if a shower of metal sparks had burst inside it. Then it bowed.

“Better luck, o traveller,
Cannot be found speaking with her.
The lantern heads don’t speak, or blink.
This one’s X4B, I think.”


Lanternhead X4B shook gently, tapping the earth with its cane. She was laughing. After a moment she raised her head and motioned towards Karamir with the plier-hand.

A look of befuddlement briefly flashed across his face. ”What is this place?” he asked, taking a step forward.
Lanternhead X4B paused momentarily, then walked- or maybe glided- back to the edge of the forest, where she had left a small basket filled with leaves. This she retrieved, hanging it on a wrist hidden under her sleeve, and with the plier-hand cracked off two slender twigs of even length. These she handed to Karamir before turning and ambulating back towards the great temple. The parrot looked back at him from her shoulder.

“Hmm, well, err, um.
It’s called the ABACADARIUM.
And while we’re out for names to give,
For the record, mine is Liv.


”I see,” Karamir said, studying the twigs in his hand and having absolutely no clue what to do with them. ”Is there anyone else here?”

“You’ll just have to come and see,” said Liv, her voice barely audible as X4B crossed a bridge over a tile-bound stream running through the foundations of the temple. “For certain, not just you and me.”

Someone high up on Abacadarium’s youngest floors split the air with a yell, blasting apart the sound-eating fog to reveal a swarm of bright lights spiralling around the worksite. The greyness soon crept back in.

Karamir glanced up at the sudden yell, and grasped his weapon, but with no sign of immediate danger he let go. He did a quick scan of his foggy surroundings, and then followed X4B in silence.

The pagoda was about as big on the inside as it was on the outside, which, while not a supernatural feat by any means, was still a feat. Part of the stream had been channeled into shallow grooves around the edges of the enormous ground floor, and the rest was all pillars and mats and stairways and vast open space, floor after floor after floor. Lanternheads stood here and there, often in circles or rows, flying kites from the windows, tallying things in bundles or under lenses or trickling through hourglasses. Some of them seemed to be fighting, in a slow, turn-taking kind of way. They lit up the floor of each successive storey, and chirruping clusters of flying paper-lanterns lit up its ceiling, twirling their streamers and fluttering around Karamir, who resisted the urge to swat them away.

They emerged onto the ceiling of the fifth storey, the floor of the unfinished sixth. There a goddess sat crosslegged with her back to the newcomers amidst a pile of scorched butterfly nets of enormous size, sulking.

She seemed important. He needed to think of something to say. Something that wasn’t too vague, but also wasn’t too bloated with explanation. But where to begin? So instead, all he offered was a rather lame ”Hello?”

“Ah fuck what now,” said Chopstick Eyes, waving her hand in the air without looking back.

His eyebrows raised. That was not the response he expected. Certainly different from the parrot’s rhymes, or X4B who didn’t speak at all. ”I am Karamir, from Kalgrun,” he answered. ”I was exploring this forest, when one of the walking lights led me to this place.”

Chopstick turned her stitched-up head and focused her sticks on Karamir for the first time, and her eyebrows untangled. “Oh, hey, dude, that’s a dope cloak,” she said. “Hold up, hold it right there.” She scrabbled to her feet and closed the gap between them in two fast steps, pressing her body into the Cloak of Red Feathers and smelling it deeply, then sniffing her way up to his face. He winced slightly as the chopsticks jabbed him through the cloak. “Damn, you smell like… Ten gods.”

Karamir allowed this only because he knew who she was. The eyes gave it away. ”I have met a lot of gods,” he confirmed. ”The first was Kalmar, my creator. Then Phystene. Then K’nell’s Avatar. Then K’nell himself. Then Kalmar’s Avatar. Then Abanoc. And now you. I think your name is… Chopstick Eyes?”

“Well, I do have them,” said the god who had chopstick eyes. She looked up. “K’nell. The dreamboat. Is he an asshole?”

Karamir frowned. ”He was friendly enough, at first, when I visited his sphere. But it seemed like I didn’t fit there, so I left, and then he decided to send me out of his lands as well. His avatar, on the other hand, is a living nightmare who takes fun in tormenting people - myself included. That’s my experience with him.”

“HRRRMMMMM. Hmm.” Chopstick took another deep breath of Karamir and detached herself. “Hmm hm hm. Here. Take this net. You’re Kalmar’s boy, so I figure he’s taught you at least something about catching things.” X4B made a grinding noise, which Chopstick ignored, scrabbling around for a net for herself. “He has, hasn’t he? I hope he has. Make yourself useful. You too, sparky.” Lanternhead X4B stooped laboriously to the floor and picked up the closest, smallest, most beaten-up butterfly net within reach, and held it limp-wristedly, turning her head briefly towards Karamir.

Karamir accepted the net, and looked at it with a quizzical expression. ”What am I supposed to catch?” he asked.

“The, fuckin’. The flying… You’ll see,” said Chopstick. “You can catch things, r-”

Strange lights flashed in on a misty wind and Chopstick screamed. Karamir drew his dagger, which suddenly became a sword.

There were some three dozen of them and each one was everything the Lanternheads were not: organic and random and wildly nimble, tumbling and turning and kicking and leaping. Their shapes were fantastic, their colours lurid, blazoned on wings and flaps and tails and jets stitched together with curious textiles and wire, like hot air balloons that had studied the fish and the squid. Their fireball hearts blazed free and airy under their skin, blasting them along through tubular vents.

Oh. So this was what he was supposed to catch. He glanced down at the small, battered net, and scowled. Some use that would be. Then he looked at his sword, and he had an idea. He cast the battered net aside, and suddenly the blade of his sword began to shift. Instead of a sword, it became a net itself - only with metal where there had previously been rope, and the rim being wider and larger.

Then, in a blur of red, he shot forward and upward, flying himself into their midst. With his metallic net he swung rapidly, catching as many as could fit, before darting back down just as quickly as he went up. ”Where should I put these?” he asked Choppy, as he willed the opening of the net to seal itself.

Chopstick watched her fire-spirit scorch its way out from under her net in a flurry of sparks and spiral off whistling into the fog before standing and turning to check. After a moment of absorbing the scene, her sticks rolled widely and she snapped her net over her knee. “Aw GUT ME. Why didn’t you think of that, huh? Huh, sparky?” Lanternhead X4B tossed her unused net aside without moving much. Chopstick sighed and strode over to Karamir’s catch, which was snickering like a mechanical horse. “A metal fucking net...”

There were two of the strange creatures in the Weapon, though one was curiously bifurcated. They weren’t much larger than pigeons, and substantially lighter. “Sparky, what are they saying?”

Lanternhead X4B whirred and scraped.

“Olivia, what’s she saying?”

“She wasn’t talking to you,” said the melancholy parrot. Chopstick smiled broadly and touched the sides of her head as if they were about to explode. “Do they understand her?”

“No.”

Chopstick turned to Karamir with sticks splintering audibly before her face and said, through gritted grinning teeth, “I’m gonna fucking lose it. Who sold you that net?”

”Kalmar gave it to me,” Karamir replied, taking a cautious step back. ”Why?”

Chopstick stared at him with no smile for a moment. Then she deflated. She combed her hair with her fingers. “...I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve this,” she said, looking out into one of the eye kites. “I don’t even know why you’re here. Let’s go inside. Sparky, bring me a coat. I’ll explain everything.” X4B stamped her cane on the ground once in affirmation.

They disappeared back down into the pagoda, closing a trapdoor behind them, and at Chopstick’s request released the spirits into one of the storeys once all exits had been sealed. They bumbled around merrily with the flying-lanterns, teasing them. Chopstick spoke as they worked. “I’m the god with the chopstick eyes. The Market Lord. This was meant to be my office, and it’s gonna be. These people are my staff. I made them to keep track of my things. And things generally. Hey, gourdface, hey, hatboy.” Two Lanternheads, one a pumpkin, the other with a wide-brimmed hexagonal lid, greeted them, already illustrating the fire kites on broad easels.

“I tried to make them last for a long time, but that didn’t work. They’ll wear out in a few decades. So I’ll have to make more. But concentrating enough soul ash for these guys was a… slog. So, I went back to the magic lanterns I made them from, took a few of those, made them halfway into lantern heads so that their souls would fit, then mixed them together with wild kites… You might not know what that is. It’s what it sounds like. The kites can make babies, anyway, so I’ll never run out of new fires. And then I amped up their souls a whole lot.” She watched as one of the spirits alighted on ‘hatboy’s hook-hand, her scarred lips tight. “Lanternheads are nice- and they work hard- but they’re very… Patient. I was hoping that if I did all that with the new batch of souls, they’d be kind of less passive. Well… turns out they’re still kind of passive, but at ten times the speed. I call them Spitfires.” She sighed.

“Guess I’ll have to take the least ditzy of them to make new Lanternheads. Anyway. That’s where I’ve been at. I wanted to have this building finished ages ago, but these guys took so long to make that I couldn’t, and I don’t even really know how they work. ...Sorry if I snapped at you.”

Karamir had to admit: this was all somewhat fascinating, but there was a troubling concern nagging him from the back of his mind. ”Just to clarify…” he said, glancing back and forth across the room. ”We’re still on Galbar, right?”

Chopstick shrugged with several spare shoulders. “I mean I’d hope so,” she said.

Karamir breathed a mild sigh of relief. ”Sorry, it’s just that I’ve only ever seen things this… strange… when I was in a god’s sphere. This is all very interesting though: how long do you think it will take to be completed?”

“‘Nother few years.” Chopstick dug around in the pockets of the big wool coat X4B had brought her and pulled out some wire and fabric, which she deftly worked together into a kite. “I… get you, though. This is kind of a special place. It’s a very me type of place, and I’ve been cooped up here a long time. You probably feel like you’re snooping in someone else’s messy bedroom.” She threw the little glider into the room, where one of the spitfires pounced on it, feasting on it midair in a flurry of sparks and smoke. “You’re welcome to stay, though. Did you come looking for something? I can totally set you up.”

Karamir glanced up at the ceiling. Ideas were beginning to take shape inside his head. ”I’m not looking for anything specific,” he admitted, ”...but since I’m here, is there anything I can do to help you build this place?”

“Probably not. If you could tell me how that net of yours works, though, that’d be super cool. Or your cloak. You can fly with that, right? And besides, I owe you one for helping out.”

He nodded, and held up the net. ”It’s not really a net,” he said, and with that it morphed back into a dagger. ”It can be whatever weapon I imagine, with some limitations… but apparently tools count, so that’s how I did that. As for the cloak… yes, it lets me fly.” He returned the dagger to its sheathe before Chopstick got a chance to reveal her own blade and compare sizes. ”If I can’t help, I’d still like to stay, for a time. It’d be useful to have a place where I can practice mana without worrying about the weather, and it will be good to see how a place like this can be built.” He shrugged. ”I like to learn things.”

“Well, in that case, maybe you could start with these!” Chopstick flipped the top of a nearby box, almost tipping it over, and pulled out two books, one bright and one plain. The bright one was titled ‘You Are A Moron: Pictographic Calculus for the Completely Illiterate’. The other was written in a braille, its cover embossed with ‘Advanced Watercolour Painting for the Blind’.

“I don’t know what they’re about, but I gave them to the lanternheads and apparently they learned a lot,” said Chopstick Eyes, grinning ear to ear. “They’re real good at this whole counting and painting thing. They even use paintbrushes.”

Karamir glanced at the titles and squinted. ”Pictograph… Calculus? Watercolours? What do those even mean?”

“Is that what they say?” Chopstick smiled blankly, flicking through the mathematics textbook. “I know watercolour is paint with water as a fluid medium for the pigment, instead of like, oil, or acrylic. That’s not what Hatboy and Gourdface are using right now, but I know the others are keen on it.” She tossed the book over her shoulder, where ‘sparky’ caught it without looking, then looked at it curiously for a moment and returned it to the box. “I can show you that pretty easily. The rest, you’ll probably have to get the lampnoggins. Ask around! They’re pretty helpful, just not when you need them to talk.”

”I see…” he said slowly. ”I’ll have to get on that. Another question: you don’t mind if I practice mana here, do you?”

“Don’t know what that is. Is it explosive?”

”Uh… it can be,” Karamir answered reluctantly. ”Abanoc told me about it. It’s this energy that can be found all around the world. Mortals can use it to do things they can’t normally do.” he held out a hand and a small flame flickered from his finger, before sputtering out.

“Oh, so that’s what this stuff is,” said Chopstick, rummaging in her coat pockets until she found a crisp dollar bill. She folded it neatly into a paper man and tapped it, whereupon it morphed into a crude clay figurine, wriggling weakly. “Leverage.”

Karamir raised his eyebrows, but he was unsure if she actually used mana, or if she simply used her divine powers. Best not to question it, he decided. ”Yes… but I was told it’s called mana. Can any of your ‘lampnoggins’ use it?”

“Nah, they’re paid in art supplies,” said Chopstick, squashing the figure.

”Well then…” Karamir said. ”If there’s nothing else, I’ll be going back outside. Let me know if you need help catching any more of those… things.”

“Figure I can manage, now that I’ve got these to practice on. Hmm.” She stretched. “You pay the air to fly, right? Something like that.”

”Uh… no,” answered Karamir, who had already been in the process of turning to leave, and now had to look back. ”The cloak allows me to fly at no cost to myself. I don’t know if mana could be used to fly without it. I haven’t tried.”

“Give it a shot if you’re practicing on my grounds,” saith the Lord. “I can push you out of a high window if you want. Or if you’d rather do some, I dunno, botanical illustration, you’re free to stay and mess around with the candlemugs as long as you’re keen. I’ll leave it up to you!”

”I... will keep that in mind.”




Time passed.

Bricks were made and baked and raised, and there came a moment when, all of a sudden, the Abacadarium stood complete. Clouds streamed over it and off its edges, like water, and kites floated from it like the distant leaves of a branchless tree. Chopstick kicked apart the gargantuan treadmill-crane with great mirth, and set it on fire thereafter. When the ash was cleared and the grounds were paved and gardened, they soon sprouted into a maze of finished charcoals and watercolours, hung to dry or to display, depicting things the Lanternheads had seen or been brought. Some of them depicted Karamir.

Chopstick pranced daydreamy through the paper and canvas, a shoal of Spitfires whining at her, tugging her silk shirt this way and that, each begging to lead her away and show her some trinket or other. She played with a bundle of steel wool from a steel sheep, tossing fragments of nutritious wire for the spirits to swarm over.

“I guess you’re not staying much longer, huh?”

Karamir was seated in an empty space of grass that was clear of flowers or drawings. A fire had been built, and somewhere he had found a grate which he used to construct a makeshift grill. His multi-weapon had been converted into a spatula, which he used to flip a sizzling fish. He leaned forward to inspect it more closely, sniffed, and then looked up at Chopstick.

”Probably not. It was interesting to see this place built, but there’s more out there for me to see,” he admitted. He wasn’t sure how much use what he had witnessed could be - for example, how could he possibly replicate something like that crane? He had, however, made ample use of his time, by honing his understanding of mana. In addition to advancing his skill over winds, he had also begun to practice the manipulation of water, finding that it required a similar move and mindset. There was a stream that flowed through the pagoda, at which he had practiced at almost every day. ”Thanks for letting me stay,” he nodded.

“No problem. You’re a cool kid,” said Chopstick, sticking a marshmallow on a stiff wire and setting it on fire under the grill. “Tell Kalmar I said hi, if you catch him again. Or anyone else, really.”

”I will,” Karamir nodded, as the spatula became a fork and he speared the fish.








Kalmar

&


57 years after the soul heist.


The mighty elk's hooves scratched into the fine snow beneath its head. With a guttural grunt, it dipped its hairy lips into the snow to pluck out a few blades of grass and the flesh of a fruit too tough for most tree-dwellers. The crunching of the fruit between its teeth broke into the quiet whine of cold wind that brushed the dusty white across the land. It was accompanied in the black-barked and white-carpeted forest by a doe and a squirrel.

The squirrel was twitchy enough to scurry off before the smell and sound of a pelted stone punched into the great buck's neck.

The buck slumped onto its side with the force of a gale. The doe bolted. The rock rolled down from the dented neck and crunched gently into the snow.

"Gotcha, you tricky little scamp..." A hulking red god kicked his way through a snow drift to reach the dead elk. Clacking quietly against his back was the wooden sound of several sets of elk and moose antlers tied to a long white rope clutched over his shoulder. He mumbled incredulities to himself as he stooped down to the beast's head.

"You'd think with all the snow you lot wouldn't be hear me as far off as you did, but here you are-" SNAP went an antler, broken fresh off the skull. "-squealing away like you got all the ladies starin' at your tail..."

A sudden chill could be felt in the air, and a divine presence revealed itself. ”Kirron,” a voice stated rather flatly.

The red god turned his head up and peered over his shoulder.

Kalmar stood not too far behind the Blood God, the white cloak of a polar bear draped over his shoulders, as he glanced upon Kirron’s antics with a vague look of disapproval.

"Well met!" Kirron stood up and turned around, dragging the carcass by the remaining antler. His other fist, carrying the broken counterpart rested on the belt around his waist. "It's been a while, Kalmar," he said with half a smile and a raised brow. "I wasn't talking about you, by the way. I meant this fellow." He side-eyed the still surprised face of the dead elk. "Or what's left of him. Anyway, what's new? A nice land you made. Suits you."

Kalmar nodded at the compliment, before looking back down at Kirron’s elk. ”A clean enough kill, good work on that,” he observed. ”But I have to wonder why you’re collecting all those antlers.”

As if wondering himself for a moment, Kirron lifted the broken antler to look at it curiously. "Uh, I'm making something for some friends of mine down south. No idea whether it'll work, but I was thinking these things could make for a great framework." The lack of the framework's stated purpose was conspicuously absent. "These antlers have an energy to them. You know?"

Kalmar raised an eyebrow. ”And what about the rest of the animal?” he questioned.

Kirron's other hand lifted up the carcass awkwardly up to its hindquarters and gave it an up-and-down glance. He poked out his lower lip and looked to Kalmar. "Don't really need him."

Kalmar frowned. ”If you’re going to kill something, the least you could do is ensure that most of it gets used. Either by you, or something else.”

Kirron hummed and shrugged into his answer. "Something's gotta be using it. It rots after a few days, don't it?"

”Preferably it should be used before it rots,” Kalmar argued. ”Otherwise there was no point in killing it. It might as well have been allowed to die from disease, or old age.”

For a while, Kirron stood silent with his brow low and his mouth stupidly agape, deep in the most erudite and rigorous philosophical grinding of wheels in his mind. He looked to a tree, to the sky, and itched the side of his head with the antler.

He lifted a finger in realisation. No, he mouthed, bowing his head. He slowly closed his eyes, slowly opened them, and then a grin formed across his face. He peered to Kalmar and waggled a finger. "Aaah, I see," he boasted. "I get it now. Yes, I see like a hawk. You want to share this elk with me, don't you?" He suddenly hefted the carcass over his shoulder and beckoned with the broken antler. "Well come right along, brother! No need to be shy about it! We'll find a place to roast this big fellow up and catch up over some fresh meat!"

”Might as well,” Kalmar said with a shrug. The chilly air seemed to die down. ”In the future, though, if you kill something it would be best to eat it yourself, or find another creature to feed it to, instead of just leaving it. Now, I think I know a spot nearby…”

Kirron waved off the comment. "Yeah, yeah, I got terrible manners sometimes, brother. I'll be more considerate."



”So how did that dispute with the Grottu get resolved?”

They sat in a flat, rocky, barren section of land at the base of a mountain, with a view of the northern bay. There, a fire made in the snow crackled between them, and Kalmar now held a stick over the fire with a chunk of meat at the end, nearby a wooden spit suspending the skinned upper leg of the elk. Naturally, they continued to converse of a great many experiences between them. The God of the Hunt had decided to make inquiries regarding the Selka.

"That's the clever part," Kirron explained, staring into the flames. "The Hyummin got together and trapped their fighters in with some fire. Had 'em packed in so tight their metal spears weren't right to kill with. They got beaten like cornered snakes." He licked his upper teeth idly. "The Grottu left got conquered. Life goes on for 'em. Honest, I didn't know it'd end that fast, but I gotta hand it to those selka, they're teaching me all sorts of new tricks." His smile faded. "Or maybe they're just making me remember things," he quietly added.

”And who would you say gave them those spears?” Kalmar asked, turning the stick over.

Kirron vulgarly blew through his lips. "Beats me. Could've been any number of gods or other things. Chopstick Eyes, Narzhak, Sartravius, Shengshi...could've been someone I don't even know about yet." He turned his small eyes up to Kalmar. "Think hard enough and anyone could have a reason to chuck some pointy sticks into the hands of a bunch'a mortal folk."

”Narzhak or Sartravius,” Kalmar assumed. ”Narzhak has toyed with some of my own creations and turned them against each other in the past. And Sartravius had already raised armies elsewhere. Do you know what the Grottu were trying to accomplish? Or did they just want more land?”

Kirron took his time reaching over the spit and tearing off a strip of roasted leg with his bare hands. He sat back down with a satisfied breath before ripping into a mouthful with the left side of his triangular teeth. "They were scared, Kalmar," Kirron said through his chewing. "Mortal life, it ain't got much calm to it. Those Grottu folks, they wanted to pretend it wasn't gonna eat them alive by thinking I made them invincible." He swallowed. "They just wanted to keep lying to themselves is what."

”Sounds cowardly,” Kalmar observed. ”That isn’t much of a reason. They could have used those spears for hunting, or fishing, or even defending themselves against others who could have attacked them first. Instead they started cutting down their own kind.”

"Maybe if they said it out loud like you did just now," Kirron said with a small point of his finger. "...They might not be dead." He returned to his meal. "Like I said before, I don't think I needed to step in any more than I did." Another noisy squelch preceded Kirron taking another bite. "I reckon you'll have some tales to tell soon enough, with all your Vallimoos scampering about now. Don't judge 'em too harsh for cowardice before they know what the word means, eh?"

”How many Vallamir have you encountered?” Kalmar asked, now that the topic of his own creations had come up. He pulled the roasted meat away from the fire, inspected it briefly, and took a bite.

"None yet. Just the way you talk about 'em. Sounds like you've got expectations." He slurped up a shredded tendon sticking out between his teeth.

”I made them to be quick and intelligent,” Kalmar answered. ”Yes, there has been some conflict - between individuals, or small groups - but they’re getting better at handling that, and I’d say they’re smart enough not to start any larger scale wars.”

Kirron broke into a broad chuckle, holding the side of his fist near his mouth in case he sputtered. "Never took you for the optimistic type." Kirron took in a deep breath through his nose. "Speaking of the future, what's next for you?"

Kalmar shrugged. ”The Vallamir will grow and spread. Karamir, the first of their kind, is out looking for new discoveries that he can come back and show them. In the meantime, I’ll have to continue showing them new things, give them new ways to protect themselves.” He took another bite of meat. ”Of course, I don’t think they should be the only intelligent life on this land. As I said, they’re smart and quick, but some diversity would be good. Maybe another species, built around strength and resilience, better off in the cold northern climates instead of the warm southern ones.”

"Hm." Kirron turned towards the snowiest portion of their viewpoint. "'Spose it'd be awful quiet up in the cold, huh?" he voiced. "It would be better with some noise. Some voice. What did you have in mind, if this new species is coming?"

”The interesting thing about intelligent mortals, is that you can’t always tell which direction they’ll go,” Kalmar answered. ”I have a few ideas in mind; teachings and abilities they can use to their advantage, but for the most part I don’t intend to lead them directly. What they do is up to them, and I’ll only step in if they start killing each other or destroying the forests they need to survive.”

Kirron paid only as much attention as he needed to. "...You get fun out of the method, don't you, brother?" He remarked. "Making mortals in enough numbers not to die quick, though. Takes a toll. Especially with all your plans."

The red god stuck the remainder of his meat onto the spit. It glistened, raw and undercooked, and likely more than a little tough. No match for the jaws of the god of strength, but there was taste to account for as well.

"I'll be plain with you, brother," Kirron said, hands woven together leaning forward. "You keep exerting yourself on this strip of land, on these people you nurse around, you put yourself in danger of some of our other siblings pushing you around. I ain't gonna protect you, but if it's important for you to get these mortals made in the north, I can offer some help if you want."

”I can handle myself, and I’m not without friends or allies,” Kalmar pointed out. ”What would you want in return for this help?”

Kirron paused. He glanced at the fire and leaned slowly back, the hides around his waist and upper legs creaking against the ground and one another. "Nothin'" he decided.

Kalmar swallowed another mouthful of food. ”You have my thanks, then. We can get started as soon as we’re finished here.”



The work took five long and arduous days and nights. The effort of two gods aligned with bodily might could have performed any great effort to meet their goals, but their task upon themselves was a hunt. A terrifying hunt in its unending scale. The antlers of the creatures of Kalgrun had a strength to them, Kirron had explained. Upon Kalmar's insistence, they took up the rest of the body and found it contained strength as well.

Each night, the pair would compete to see how many hulking woodland creatures they could drag up to the northern wastelands. Kalmar had more kills, though Kirron had an easier time bringing greater piles of the dead over his shoulders. Kirron, though outperformed, was having too much fun to show any weariness. Kalmar, for his part, maintained his grim demeanor, but he could not hide that there was some level of satisfaction in this work.

Each day, the pair butchered, piled the various pieces, and built mixes of iced gore, bone, antler and snow. Each grisly snow sculpture hardened in the freezing winds, taking the shapes of powerful humanoid physiques.

Those five nights, the mightiest creatures of northern Kalgrun felt a new fear of the gods.

By the sunset of the sixth day, Kirron jumped down from the last standing snow sculpture, having packed the last details of snow around the broken moose skull that shaped its head. Kirron stood covered in scraps of flesh and darkened spatters of old beast blood. He shooed away a curious winter spirit like a bug, before turning on his heel to witness the rest.

In a haphazard formation stood countless snowy pink and red pillars of snow. Maroon kidneys, livers, and spleens poked out of the snow like plaguey bubos, seeping frozen lines of black blood. The cold blew tiny frost off each, giving the illusion of ghostly hair waving from their heads.

There was a flash of metal as a knife appeared in Kalmar’s hand, as the Hunter stepped forward. ”When I made the Vallamir, I used some of my own blood. Roog offered his own too, and Li’Kalla gave a hair. Seems fitting that we’d do something similar here, too.”

Kirron eyed the knife and nodded upwards. "That oughta wake them up, yeah." He half-smiled at Kalmar. "Give yourself a little cut, I can hit 'em all at once. It'll be a sight to see."

With a nod of his own, Kalmar drew the knife across his palm, creating a perfect cut through the scar from the Vallamir’s creation. He then offered the knife up to Kirron, only to see the blood god with his teeth wrapped around a portion of his forearm.

The heat of Kirron's blood steamed in the frigid air, but as he drew his arm away, leaving a dashed line of punctures from which bright red ichor flowed, not a single drop touched the snow. Neither from Kirron or Kalmar. Each drop clung to the next, growing into a viscous blob that steamed more furiously as it accumulated. Kirron drew his hand up, and the blood sizzled as if on the coals of a fire.

A stream of tiny droplets rose like fumes into the air from Kalmar's hand and Kirron's arm, twisting together as they rose up. The sky above dimmed in the shadow of the suspended liquid, and it spread, forming low, pink clouds. The power in the air baked against the skin of the gods. Every heartbeat carried potential out across the fields of gory standing statues.

Kirron instructed, looking intently up into the red mist. "Chill the air, watch them awaken."

But before he had even finished speaking, Kalmar had already begun. The air began to freeze, so much so that even the creatures used to this climate began to shiver. The clouds turned blue, and then began to rain droplets of icey blood upon the statues.

When the droplets found their mark, they wasted no time in seeping deep into the snow. The blood rain continued, and once the clouds were drained and dispersed, each snowy statue had clearly defined blue veins. The veins began to glow, and then the bodies began to change. The hardened snow took on the smoothness of flesh and muscle. The cracked bones and torn vitals within began to reform themselves, creating a proper skeleton and functioning organs. Eyes appeared, and began to blink. Mouths opened, to reveal teeth. Fingers grew nails, and fists began to open and close. The strongest or most confident even began to flex, showing off powerful, well-defined muscles and astounding physiques. Others had instead focused on forming sounds with their new mouths, and from there began to attempt their first words.

”Looks like it worked,” Kalmar observed.

Kirron was showing every one of his pearly sharp teeth. "Ah, they're worth every second!" he bellowed, spreading his arms. "WELCOME TO LIFE!" He laughed an echoing, triumphant laugh that called the giant men and women to attention.

The laugh turned heads, most of whom were as tall as Kirron himself. As they looked upon their creators, they displayed a wide range of emotions.

”You are the Jotnar, and the land you stand on is called Kalgrun,” Kalmar declared, stepping forward. ”My name is Kalmar, and this is Kirron. You were created not to serve, but to live life as you see fit, taking guidance as needed. All I ask is that you respect the land and each other.”

Kirron planted his fists to his hips. He beamed like a forge. "And all I ask is that you respect yourselves."

At first, there was a mix of reactions. Some of the Jotnar began to look to each other. Others looked to the sky or the ground. A few who had quickly grasped the basics of speech began to speak amongst themselves. Many simply continued to stare at their creators, as if sizing them up.

And then, the vast majority of them began to nod, or issue some form of confirmation. Those three things, they could manage.









Squall Whisperers

Collaboratively written by BBeast and Not Fishing


With a spear on his back and a conch at his belt, Pallamino had taken to a life of travel… and found it surprisingly anti-climatic.

Sure, every now and then he found some people, impressed them with his music, told them a few stories, and heard a few stories in return, but that only amounted to a small portion of his time. The rest was spent trudging through forests and swimming through streams. Sometimes the tribes he visited would pay him in food, but otherwise he had to fish or forage for his own meals.

Funny. He had taken to a life of travel in order to avoid hard, backbreaking labour. Turns out it brought even more of it.

Still, he couldn’t deny that there was a certain joy to it. People liked to listen to him play or sing, his skill was improving by the day, and he was beginning to develop something of a reputation. It was for these reasons that he did not turn back from his course… that, and the fact that it would be embarrassing to so quickly abandon a decision he committed himself to.

Another village came within sight, and the Selka musician smirked. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to fish for his own food tonight.

As Pallamino approached, he could hear the sounds of music coming from the village. First he heard the low beat of a drum, its sound carrying the greatest distance. As he got closer he could resolve a clicking of sticks and the shake of a rattle. The sound of a man’s voice singing was the next thing Pallamino heard. This was followed by the distant whistle of a flute, then the voice of a female singer and the plucked strings of a lyre.

Pallamino could see a crowd gathered near the beach, and the music seemed to be coming from within. As the distance narrowed, Pallamino could make out the words which were being sung. A young lady sung with a voice as sweet as a spring breeze,

“‘Never shall I leave you,
Always I shall embrace you,
No matter how far off,
By this you will know my love.’”

A man’s voice took up the next verse, his baritone voice rich and smooth like fish oil.

“‘Show me how you’ll do this,
Reach from across the abyss.
Delphina, show me how,
Far from land you’ll keep this vow.’”

The musical accompaniment ascended towards a climax as the woman sung again.

“‘I will open the deep,
From which much water will weep,
This is how I’ll love you,
I made the seas to hug you.’”

The man and the woman sung in unison in the final verse.

“From where Delphina sings,
Her love to us the waves brings.
Her love won’t leave Kirron,
Forever it will carry on.”

Then the music ended, and the crowd applauded. Pallamino got close enough to see a band of four selka surrounding by the crowd, holding musical instruments and bowing.

Their presence disappointed him somewhat. Pallamino was hardly the only Selka with musical talent, but he considered himself one of the best. And whenever he encountered someone who might be better, or was perceived to be better, then that usually entailed some sort of competition - people usually ended up preferring one musician over another. And with four already here… it was doubtful that the people of this tribe would care so much for a fifth.

Still, no harm in trying. As the applause died down, Pallamino pulled out his conch flute and began to play a soft, soothing tune - one that was intended to slowly turn heads instead of immediately grab everyone’s intention. There had to be build-up, after all.

One by one, the selka in the crowd noticed the new melody playing behind them, and turned around to look at the newcomer. The four musicians also noticed Pallamino, a look of confusion passing over their faces before they huddled together for a whispered conversation.

After a few moments, the quartet broke from their huddle. The percussionist picked up his drum and beat it which his sticks, the rhythm falling into time with Pallamino’s tune. A young girl raised her bone flute to her lips. She glanced over to the woman who had sung before, who gave the girl an encouraging nod. Then the girl blew into the flute and produced her own melody. Her tune harmonised with Pallamino’s notes, then she pushed forwards with the beat of the drum and brought her music to the fore.

Pallamino raised his eyebrows but remained undaunted. He slowly increased the tempo and force of the song, locking eyes with the four bards one by one. The drummer watched Pallamino closely, adapting his tempo to Pallamino’s. The young flautist’s tune faltered briefly at the changing music, but when Pallamino took a breath she dove into the gap. Her melody soared ahead as a lively dance, with the flautist stepping into a light jig in time with her tune.

Still, Pallamino did not relent. He continued to play, pouring more and more energy into his performance, sending a wink toward the audience. The audience’s attention was split between the two performers. The two singers, who were watching, gave each other a knowing look and an impressed nod.

Meanwhile, the flautist’s eyes betrayed some frustration. She picked up the energy of her dance, and she skipped around the crowd until she was on the same side of the crowd as Pallamino. She danced circles around Pallamino with all the intensity of her flute’s melody.

Again, Pallamino’s eyebrows rose. And then, he moved. Instead of allowing her to dance circles around him they were now circling each other. His music suffered, but only for an instant, before it returned to the same speed and force as his opponent.

As the two flautists danced around each other, the crowd began to clap in time with their music, instigated by the female singer. The steps of the dance fell into time with the clapping and were driven by it. The young girl looked into Pallamino’s eyes, and her dance increased in intricacy. Her movements were well rehearsed and flowed with the grace of the sea’s waves.

Pallamino, for his part, wasn’t as good a dancer, but still managed to put up a decent display. It was time to wrap this up, he decided. He launched into an energetic finish, concluding with one long note. Noticing the conclusion, the girl also held a long note with Pallamino, and cut off when he did. They then both turned to the crowd and bowed.

The crowd applauded and cheered. The other three musicians pushed their way through the crowd and approached Pallamino. The female singer with the lyre stepped forwards and spoke. “We haven’t heard a musician that talented since we left Hyummin. Let us introduce ourselves. I’m Hujaya,” she greeted, pointing to herself.

“I’m Pyouroff,” said the older percussionist.

“I’m Kaleo,” said the male singer.

“And I’m Sulingu,” said the young flautist. “It was fun playing with you,” she added with a bow.

“I’m Pallamino. The third,” he said, bowing in return. “Do the four of you travel together?”

“Yes,” Hujaya answered. “We are Stormbards, tasked by Delphina to do, well,” she gestured around herself, “this, and more.”

“More?” Pallamino questioned. “What else do you do?”

“We sing. We teach. And sometimes, we use some of our more…” Hujaya smiled as she tried to pick the right words, “unique talents to help people with tougher tasks.”

Pallamino could recognize an evasive answer when he saw it, but he was not here to pry into the business of strangers. “Well, I met Asha- Delphina, myself,” he said, his tone almost casual. “It was she who gave me this flute, actually.”

The eyes of the Stormbards widened in surprise. “You did?” asked Kaleo.

A short laugh came from Hujaya. “No wonder you’re such a good musician!”

Sulingu leant in closer and eyed the conch. She reached out a hand. “May I look?”

A brief glint of suspicion appeared in Pallamino’s eye, momentarily disturbing his air of nonchalance, but it was quickly gone. Instead he nodded, and reluctantly handed over the flute. Sulingu held it carefully and closely inspected it. “I thought it sounded different. I’ve never seen such a masterfully crafted instrument. It-” she looked at Pallamino and hesitated. “May I try it?” she asked sheepishly.

“Go ahead,” he nodded.

Sulingu lifted the conch to her lips and blew. It produced such a beautifully resonant note that she almost recoiled in surprise. Then she played a few more notes, covering up different patterns of holes. She then lowered the instrument and looked at it in awe. “The right sound comes so naturally from it.”

“I’d expect nothing less from an instrument made by Delphina,” Hujaya said.

Sulingu handed the conch flute back to Pallamino. “Thank you,” she said.

Pallamino took back the conch. He recalled his earlier decision not to pry, and promptly decided to metaphorically kick it into the sea. “What are these unique talents you mentioned?” he asked.

Hujaya glanced sideways at the other Stormbards with a grin on her face, then looked back to Pallamino. “I think we can show you. How about we catch you some lunch?”

“A free lunch isn’t something I can turn down,” Pallamino said with a smirk. “Were you taught by Arryn too?”

Hujaya’s brow furrowed. “Arryn?”

Pyouroff chimed in. “Oh, I’ve heard of him. Hunting god from down-beach.” He gestured southwards.

Hujaya shook her head. “No, Arryn didn’t teach this. It’s, well, you’ll see,” she said with a smile. She looked back at the other Stormbards. Kaleo had his hand shading his eyes from the sun as he scanned the sky. Sulingu and Pyouroff had picked up their instruments. Kaleo seemed to spot something. He tapped Hujaya on the shoulder and pointed up coast. Hujaya squinted in the direction of his finger, then nodded. She adjusted the strap of her lyre and gestured to Pallamino. “Come on.”

The group set out north along the beach, walking along the sand.

“Looks like a storm might be coming,” Pallamino observed, glancing out toward the sea, where the clouds grew heavier and the waves had become stronger.

Hujaya gave a knowing nod to the other Stormbards. “Indeed,” she said.

“Well, I hope it doesn’t interfere with whatever you’re about to do,” Pallamino said as he kept walking.

Hujaya and the others struggled to hide the grins which broke out on their faces, but they kept walking. After they had walked for some time, Pyouroff pointed to a rocky outcropping which rose behind the beach. “That should do.”

Hujaya nodded, and the Stormbards approached the rock. Sulingu went first, her light and nimble frame easily able to climb the rockface. The others followed behind, with Pallamino in the rear. When Pallamino pulled himself to the top, Pyouroff had already laid out his percussion and the others stood poised and ready to perform. They were inspecting the sky and horizon one more time.

Pallamino, meanwhile, only stood by awkwardly. If they were trying to find food, why were they looking at the sky, instead of the forest or the ocean? Perhaps the answer might be revealed in time. “So…” he began, but quickly trailed off.

Pyouroff seemed to come to a conclusion. “It looks promising to me. Shall we do the usual?”

Hujaya nodded. “Yes. Beat us in, Pyouroff.”

Pyouroff took a few moments to feel an internal pulse. Then he brought his stick down on his drum, a deep bass note sounding out. He struck then struck twice, followed by another double tap, then he hit the drum and slapped his sticks together with a click. At this cue Sulingu started playing her flute and Hujaya strummed her lyre as she started to sing, Pyouroff’s drum beat repeating.

“Come to me, squalls, come to me,
Then happy I will be.
Come to me, squalls, come to me,
To one who loves the sea.

“I have been looking for long,
So now I sing this song.
Come to me, squalls, come to me,
Then happy I will be.”

Hujaya repeated her words, with Kaleo joining in and forming a splendid harmony. What link music had to finding food, Pallamino did not have the faintest idea. At least the music was nice enough. He listened in silence and began to tap his foot to it.

The song stretched on long enough to start to become boring when there seemed to be a shift in the clouds. Two cloudy wisps broke from the coming storm and approached the musicians, the wind picking up around them. The Stormbards shared a look. Sulingu slipped her flute into her rope belt and quickly climbed down the rock while the others continued to play. Pallamino stopped tapping his foot, and his hand closed around the spear in its loop across his back, but he did not pull it free just yet.

Pyouroff spared Pallamino a glance. “That won’t work on these,” he said without skipping a beat of his drum. “You’d best be climbing down too.”

With a frown, Pallamino released his grip and then began to descend the rock, following Sulingu. The young girl stood on the ground, flute in her hand, looking nervously at the sky. “What is happening here, anyway?” he asked her.

“We’re calling squalls,” she answered, not taking her eyes off the sky.

“And what are those?”

“They’re…” she gestured vaguely, “You ever had weather that seemed a bit more nasty than normal?”

“I have,” Pallamino nodded.

“They’re that.”

Pallamino blinked. “Wait… your music can cause storms?” he asked in disbelief. “That’s impossible.”

“It’s… a power Delphina has granted us.” There was a change in the music coming from on top of the rock. “Oh, that’s my cue!” She lifted her flute and played, a look of concentration on her face.

Hujaya walked over to the edge of the rock, strumming her lyre and vocalising open notes. Around her twisted cloud, wind and rain. She nodded to Sulingu, and Hujaya’s music grew softer as Sulingu’s tune took the lead. Sulingu danced forwards a few steps and did a pirouette. The twists of weather seemed to notice her and descended from the rock to circle around the dancing flautist. Once she was sure she had their attention Sulingu eased her performance back to a gentler and more sustainable pace.

The music from on top of the rock stopped and the remaining Stormbards climbed down. In this time when only Sulingu was playing, Pallamino felt the wind of the squalls blow past him. A sprinkle of rain splashed upon him. Sulingu gave the squall a stern look and she took a couple hops away from Pallamino, the squall following as if being pulled.

Soon the Stormbards had regrouped. Pyouroff shook a rattle rhythmically, Hujaya strummed some notes on her lyre and Sulingu was able to relax somewhat, although she kept playing her flute. Pallamino looked upon the small floating clouds with wonder. “How are you doing this?” he asked.

Kaleo answered, “We know how to talk to them. That’s the unique skill given us by Delphina.”

“Is it possible to learn this power?” he asked his second question.

“Yes. Hujaya was the first, and she passed it on to us.”

“How?” came the third question.

Kaleo looked to the other Stormbards, who were concentrating on the squalls. “We can discuss that after we catch some lunch.”

They approached the treeline with a lilting gait, the two squalls ebbing and flowing around them. Kaleo searched the trees as the other three Stormbards mainly focussed on their music. “Try to find some prey,” Kaleo said to Pallamino.

Pallamino offered a shrug in response. While Kaleo was peering at the trees, Pallamino set his gaze to the ground. He walked a fair distance away from the group, and then his eyes caught something. He waved to call them over. Kaleo walked over, and the others with the squalls slowly approached. “See something?” Kaleo asked.

“Tracks,” he nodded. “They could be recent, but I’m no expert.”

Kaleo squinted at the ground, then shrugged. “Worth a try. Lead the way.”

Pallamino offered another shrug. He had never been much of a hunter, but it was worth a shot… hopefully the music wouldn’t scare away the prey.

He followed the tracks into the woods, and they walked for some time. Already Pallamino was beginning to second-guess himself. Then, suddenly, there was a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. He turned and pointed, just in time to see a rabbit dart out of a bush, take one look at them, and attempt to dash away as quickly as it could. It was not the animal he had been tracking, but it would do.

What happened next was a blur of sound and motion. Sulingu’s flute rose in volume. Hujaya strummed her lyre, then while singing a rising note she stretched out her arm towards one of the squalls and gracefully pivoted towards where the rabbit had run off to. The squall followed the motion. Pyouroff slammed a stick down hard on his drum, and with that beat the squall surged with a ferocious gust of wind. Branches, dirt and leaves were thrown into the air with almost explosive force, and the rabbit was also hurled by the gust. It rolled across the ground and lay motionless.

Pallamino, for his part, could only stare on in bewilderment. An intelligent, independent cloud, controlled by nothing more than music, had just effortly ended a creature’s life before his very eyes. Kaleo tapped Pallamino on the arm and nodded towards the rabbit. “Well go on.” Meanwhile the agitated squalls circled around them. Hujaya, Sulingu and Pyouroff were slowly easing the music back to its original lilt and calming the squalls down.

Reluctantly, Pallamino stepped forward to examine the rabbit more closely. Although it was silent and unmoving, its chest still rose and fell, which told Pallamino it was not yet dead. Arryn would certainly disapprove if it was left like that, he realized. With a frown he brought his spear up and then drove it down, the creature letting out one final squeak as its life was extinguished.

Pyouroff spared a look towards Pallamino. “It’s not a big meal for five. I’d look for dinner too before releasing them.”

Hujaya also glanced briefly towards Pallamino as she strummed her lyre. “Only if he’s up to it. This must be a bit of a shock for him.”

Pallamino glanced up from the rabbit, at the floating cloud of energy and moisture, and then at the Stormbards. He took a breath. “Alright,” he said. “We’ll find another.”

The Stormbards nodded, and once they were satisfied that the squalls had returned to their previous demeanour they continued to walk. It was Sulingu who saw, a little while later, a couple of magpies perched in a tree. With a dip in her tune and a few dancing steps sideways she sent the squalls rustling through the undergrowth and past the tree. The magpies sensed something amiss and took flight.

As they did, Pyouroff beat on his drum and Kaleo sang out. “Fly, squalls, fly, and take to the sky! Get that bird, my words you have heard!” The squalls rushed up through the canopy, overtook the birds and threw them to the ground with a violent downdraft. With a shrill phrase from Sulingu’s flute the squalls swept over the birds again before they could get back up, battering them some more. Kaleo stepped forwards, grabbed one of the magpies with his hand, then with a grimace he wrung the bird’s neck with his other hand. Pallamino followed his example and did the same.

The Stormbards took their time to calm the squalls as before. Once the squalls were no longer rustling the nearby trees with their gusts Hujaya said, “Is that enough food for you, Pyouroff?”

Pyouroff gave a slight huff and a tiny smirk. “Yes, I think that might just be enough to fill my belly.”

“Then let’s send them off.”

Hujaya’s lyre shifted its notes to produce a melancholic key, underscored by Sulingu’s flute. Hujaya then sung softly and sweetly.

“Sadly my song must now come to a close.
I must now send my squalls to their repose.
I end my song with a sweet lullaby,
And I say to the storm spirits: goodbye.”

As the last note hung in the air, the wind stilled, and the squalls were gone. The Stormbards exhaled in relief, and they shook out their arms. “Let’s eat,” Hujaya said.

Pallamino frowned. “It might be best to cook it first,” he suggested. “Maybe there’s a fire back in the village?”

“Ah, yes, I think I did see a fire back there,” Hujaya answered, “Well, let’s go.”



The five musicians sat around the village’s communal fire, a beast captured and tamed from the wilds like Ippino had done for the Hyummin. The rabbit and two plucked magpies were skewered on sticks and roasting over the flames.

Hujaya turned her head to Pallamino. “So tell us a bit more about yourself. Where do you come from? And tell us about your meeting with Delphina.”

“I come from the Ubbo Tribe,” Pallamino answered. “I was resting on a beach, humming to myself, when she appeared. She gave me this instrument, and taught the rest of my tribe how to make instruments as well. Then we performed for her, and she was impressed.” He shrugged. “I decided to start travelling and share my music with the rest of the Selka.”

Hujaya and the other Stormbards nodded. “We come from the Hyummin tribes, up-beach. That was the home of Ippino, the Man Who Loved the Sea, who taught us about Delphina. One day she came and taught us about musical instruments and we performed for her, like your tribe did it seems.” A smile formed on Hujaya’s lips as she recalled the memory. “Several winters later, I was singing on Ippino’s beach when I was visited by Delphina. She was also impressed, gave me the talent with squalls, and dubbed me the first Stormbard. These three lived nearby. They were good musicians and willing, so I made them Stormbards too.”

“And how does one become a stormbard?” Pallamino asked.

Pyouroff pulled back the rabbit, poked at its skin, then put it back above the fire. “If she decides you’re worthy, you get to take an oath and then she teaches you.”

We’ll teach him,” Hujaya corrected, “You’re all experienced enough to be able to teach.”

Pallamino raised his eyebrows. “So will you teach me, then?”

Hujaya threw up her hands. “Well, let’s not get carried away. We’ve known you for less than a day. As you’ve seen, this is not a skill to be shared lightly.” Hujaya turned over one of the magpies to cook its other side. “But you’re a very good musician. And you have Delphina’s favour.” She prodded at the fire with a stick, a thoughtful look on her face. “Tell you what, you can travel and perform with us, then some days later when we know each other better we can decide whether to make you a Stormbard.” She looked at the others and added, “If that’s okay with everyone.”

The gathered Stormbards nodded and spoke their assent. Hujaya looked back to Pallamino. “What do you say?”

Pallamino considered the offer, and then, after a moment, he nodded. “Sounds fair.”



Kalmar's Chosen





The 'Chosen' were already settling into their new home.

In truth, Valys wasn't particularly fond of the name. Yet the majority seemed content with it, and so it stood. Anyway, work was proceeding quickly under her leadership. The local area was scouted, so that they knew where water and forage could be found. Hunting parties were dispatched regularly, and so far had good fortune. There was no shortage of resources just yet.

The troubling part was the disputes.

Now that they were no longer constantly moving, the Vallamir could now get used to their surroundings, and therefore found more to complain about. And these complaints frequently resulted in the pettiest of quarrels. Someone was accused of eating more than their fair share of food. Two hunters felled the same animal at roughly the same time. A few complained about being given too much work. One Valla was having relations with another's lover. Nobody wanted to dig a latrine pit, and so there was usually resistance whenever she tried to assign someone.

And most turned to Valys to resolve these issues. She was expected to make compromises or take sides. But as trusted as Valys was, she was not Kalmar: they were loyal to her, but their loyalty was not unconditional, so even after she made her judgement, some still objected. It was frustrating. By all rights, the conflicting parties should have been able to resolve it amidst themselves. Yet when she had tried that, no resolutions came, and conflict only continued to fester. They had been given a common cause - to guard a holy site built by the god that created them - and yet they were still so divided. This would not do.

So instead of a completely hands-off or hands-on approach, she opted for a middle ground. Minor problems were dismissed, while severe problems fell to her to resolve. No, not just her. Taking sole responsibility for every decision was maddening. And so she found people who showed an aptitude for leadership or fair judgement, and delegated. There was a black-haired and bronze-eyed man by the name of Karlyn, who became her second-in-command. A blonde-haired woman by the name of Myla was tasked with overseeing security - watching the gate, patrolling the surrounding woods, and intervening should any disputes escalate into open conflict. A redheaded man by the name of Ewen was tasked with leading hunting and scouting parties, and it was he the hunters answered to when they went beyond the walls. And a brown-haired woman named Lena helped Valys decide upon and keep track of assignments.

And all of these leaders began to propose ideas of their own. Myla regularly trained her dedicated security force, ensuring that they possessed an aptitude for both the sling and the spear. Ewen drew crude dirt maps on the ground, planning out routes in advance, and sending out his hunters in shifts. Karlyn suggested they build crude shelters from sticks, branches, and leaves, so that they wouldn't all have to crowd in the temple - the courtyard had plenty of space, he argued, and their population would only grow over time, so why not prepare? And it was Lena who helped Valys decide which workers could be diverted to that task.

As the weeks went on, they began to feel less like a disorganized tribe, and more like a cohesive and efficient force. Everyone in the Order knew that they had Valys to thank for it, and the leaders she appointed.







Kalmar





"Do you see that wolf, Valys?" Kalmar whispered.

Valys, who wore the cloak Kalmar had given her, over some loose garb made of more fur, nodded. They stood crouched in some bushes, watching as a wolf feasted on a recently slain deer.

"Tell me... why does the wolf deserve to live more than the deer?"

She thought about the moment. The wolf had killed the deer, proving it was stronger, and thus giving it the right to feed off the kill. Was that what her creator wanted to hear? But that made little sense. If the deer had somehow killed the wolf, would the deer eat the wolf? Likely not - Kalmar had told her that deers only ate plants. Furthermore, why was something more deserving of life just because in one specific encounter it happened to be stronger, or more clever? "It doesn't," she replied, after some thought, expecting to see either a frown or a furrowed brow.

To her surprise, Kalmar nodded instead. "You're right. It doesn't," he shifted his gaze back to the wolf. "Most creatures do not deserve death. Most also do not deserve to live. But things die and are born nonetheless. The wolf killed the deer because it needed to eat. Had the deer escaped, the wolf would have killed something else, or starved and died. If there were no wolves to keep the deer population low, their numbers would swell, and they would consume more and more - competing for food with other plant-eating creatures, which would result in more death and hunger." He looked back to her. "You see, Valys, when something dies in the wild, it is not a question of deserve. It is simply the way it is."

His words, though depressing, were sensible, and she found herself nodding in response. It was grim, but this was the world as it had been created, and it seemed some level of death and conflict was required in order to maintain it. Still, one thing did not sit well with her. "My people..."

"Your people have become part of this cycle and this balance like all others," Kalmar responded almost gently. "You do not exist above it or outside of it. Whether or not you will find yourself at the top or at the bottom depends entirely on how your actions. But I assure you, you do have the potential to rise to the top, and I will help you achieve it." he handed her his bow, along with an arrow. "Take the shot."

She accepted the bow, reluctantly. Kalmar had already showed her how to use it, and she did her best to imitate what he had demonstrated. She nocked the arrow, pointed it at the wolf, drew the string back, and loosed.

The arrow flew forward with supernatural force, but it had not been aimed well-enough. It hit the wolf's leg with bone-shattering force, and the wolf fell as it let out a sudden pained yelp. It rose to its feet and began to painfully limp away, making a desperate and futile attempt at escape. Valys winced, while Kalmar adopted a sympathetic look - whether it was for her or for the wolf, none could say.

The Hunter rose to his feet, and pulled forth a new tool from his belt. A pouch attached to a long length of string. He slipped a stone into the pouch, reared the string back, and then swung forward, allowing the stone to fly. It struck the wolf directly in the head, piercing its skull, embedding in its brain, and killing it instantly. "You will need to improve your aim," he said to her. "Try holding your breath when you take a shot, and do not be nervous. If you are to kill something, you owe it that creature to ensure the kill is as quick and painless as possible."

They skinned the wolf, and brought it back to where a dozen Vallamir were gathered. A fire was prepared, and as the meat was cooked, Kalmar took the time to address the group. "This," he said, taking the weapon from Valys, "is a bow. It can kill targets at great distances, if wielded by an accurate shooter. The problem, as my avatar discovered when he introduced it to the Selka, is that it is difficult to make, and requires a great deal of skill to learn. So I made an alternative."

He handed the weapon back to Valys, and then pulled the strange, strung pouch from his belt. "I call this a sling," he declared. "It is far easier to make, and can deal great damage if used correctly, but is far more difficult to master. But I know you are capable, so I will show you how to make and use them."

And show them he did. It wasn't difficult - it just required a bit of leather, and some sort of cord - which could be made either from more leather, a vine, or some hair. He would show more, and they would pass it on to others.




The next day, Kalmar and Valys set out, leaving that group behind. "Where are we going?" Valys had asked him.

"West," he answered in an almost dismissive tone.

But Valys stopped and frowned. "I'm new to this world," she told him, "but even I know that shouldn't be an adequate answer."

Kalmar stopped as well, looking at her with an expression which ranged between annoyance and amusement. "To the mainland. Where we will find more Vallamir," he said, and with those words he continued walking.

They reached the island's coast not too long after. Valys was about to ask how they were to proceed, but Kalmar raised his hands. The lake parted, and a great stone bridge emerged, spanning the several dozen kilometers between them and the other shore. It was supported by pillars but possessed no railings of any kind. The top was smooth and flat, while the underside was rounded.

Valys was astonished. Kalmar had told her of his power, how he had raised a continent and created entire species, but to witness a demonstration of that power was another thing entirely. And an act such as this was only a fraction of the achievements he listed...

She was snapped out of her awe when she saw that Kalmar was already striding forward, and hastily moved to follow him.




For years, Valys accompanied Kalmar. They encountered other bands of Vallamir, and shared knowledge with them. They taught them how to survive in the lands of Kalgrun, and gave advice on how to deal with the various creatures. Kalmar told them of the other gods; gods who had not created him, but still had a key role to play nonetheless. Those who stood out to Kalmar, who managed to impress him through either word or action, were invited to come with them. A sizeable group had formed, and though he gave them no name, many had begun to whisper that they were his 'Chosen.'

To be singled out by a god while thousands of others were not brought a certain sense of pride, though Kalmar was quick to warn them about letting it go to their heads. Sometimes, Kalmar would look at one of them, and inexplicably cast them out, as if they had suddenly stopped being worthy. And it seemed they had, for Kalmar always followed such an occurrence up with another warning about not becoming too proud or entitled.

Although the teachings of Kalmar, Roog, and Arae had managed to keep the vast majority alive, thousands had perished in the first winter. One of whom Valys had even grown close to. It had been a tragedy, and a heartbreak, and she nearly grew disillusioned with Kalmar and those who followed him. But then she recalled his teachings, and slowly began to regain her faith.

Many of the Vallamir had come to look upon her as a leader. She was, after all, one of the first of their species - second only to Karamir, of whom they only knew tales of - and the first to become one of 'Kalmar's Chosen.' Additionally, it was clear to all that Kalmar respected her and placed some value to her thoughts. Remembering Kalmar's warnings, she resolved that whatever authority she now possessed, she would take seriously.

Kalmar himself began to change over the years. It seemed as if the longer they travelled, the more talkative he became. As the years went on, he began to frown less and smile more. The most noteworthy change, however, was his appearance. He had been clean shaven when Valys first met him, but had since allowed his facial hair to grow out into a short beard. He once wore furs, much like they wore now, but had since changed to a new and finer attire: a long-sleeved green shirt and pants, as well as brown leather vest, gloves, and boots, and lastly a bright red cape. It was certainly well beyond their means to craft.

When she asked why he wore it, he explained it was to distinguish himself. After all, what stopped a common mortal from claiming to be Kalmar? Valys pointed out that they could simply demand he demonstrate his power, to which Kalmar replied: "And do you think most would so readily make demands of a god?" That made sense, Valys had to admit.

On the tenth year of their travels, Kalmar led them back to the Hunter's Eye.




They were at the center of the island, in woods which were almost sacred to most of them (given the island's remoteness and difficulty to reach), when Arryn came upon them.

"Master. It is complete."

Kalmar nodded. "Well done. Lead us there."

The bird nodded, and began to fly from branch to branch, Kalmar and the Vallamir following behind. Many of the Vallamir were already whispering to themselves. What was complete? What did Kalmar have to show them? Was this why they came back to the island in the first place? It was the children among them - those who had been born over the course of the journey - who spoke the most excitedly, and had to be hushed by their parents.

Eventually they came across a stone wall, perhaps fifteen-feet high. An opening, twenty-feet wide, led into a a courtyard, and in the center was a stone building - everything else was an empty field of grass.

The Vallamir marveled at it. Aside from the bridge, they had never seen anything so advanced. Yet even as they stopped to gape, Kalmar continued to walk forward, and Valys followed him. They entered the building, passing by the rounded columns before the entrance, and stepped into a dimly lit room. The room itself was almost empty - an expanse of cold stone, twice as long as it was wide, lit only by the sunlight which poured through the window slits.

At the far end was a stone totem of a bird, perhaps ten feet high, with a single eye and outstretched wings.

"What is this place?" Valys asked, as the Vallamir filed in behind them.

"I'll call it the Oracle," Kalmar said, as he continued on toward it. Some followed, a few remained at the entrance, while others began to spread out across the room in order to better take it in. There was enough space to make them all feel tiny and insignificant by comparison.

Kalmar pressed a hand against the Oracle's stone, which had been shaped to resemble the feathered hide of a bird. "Tell me about griffins," he commanded.

The eye began to glow, and suddenly a griffin appeared within the center of the room. While children hid behind their parents, every adult either simultaneously drew their weapons or made their way to the exit. One had already loosed a stone at the beast... only for it to pass straight through and shatter on the floor. "It's just an image," he said.

Tentatively, Valys approached the 'griffin' and reached out to touch it... only for her hand to pass straight through it. Nearby, an illusion of a Vallamir had also been conjured, to give the projection a sense of scale.

"Griffins are a birdlike species that resides in western Kalgrun. They have the upper half of an eagle, and the lower half of a feline. They make their nests in mountains, and have a lifespan of roughly twenty years. When hunting them, it is advised to use either long piercing weapons, or ranged weapons..."

The explanation went on. Kalmar turned to face his followers. "If you are hunting a specific type of creature, this will tell you where to find it, how to track it, and how to kill it. I have invested a great deal of my power into it. But a location like this is sacred; some may seek to destroy it, or to abuse it. I need people to maintain and guard it. Are you up to the task?"

Valys was the first to step forward. She crossed her fist against her chest and dipped her head. "We are!" she declared. Dozens of others soon followed. "We are!" they echoed. None refused.

Kalmar smiled. "Good. This is your purpose now. You will guard this location and the island it sits upon from threats, and in return you may call this temple your home. Valys, I would have you lead them. Does anyone object?"

None did. Kalmar was, after all, their creator. Not their only creator, but the chief one. It was he who raised the land that they now stood on, and it was he who created their progenitor.

A slight grin flickered across Kalmar's features. "Good. Arryn will be responsible for ensuring that the information stored within the Oracle remains up to date. As for the rest of you: I leave you to it. It is time for you to act without my constant guidance."

Some appeared saddened by this news, and one or two even looked frightened, but for the most part, Kalmar's Chosen nodded resolutely. They had been given a sacred duty by the one who created them, and they would perform it to the best of their ability. Valys, for her part, felt a certain sense of unease: she had been placed in charge, and responsibility ultimately fell on her shoulders. Would she prove herself worthy? Or would she fail?




"An entire continent? Gone?" Kalmar asked with a furrowed brow.

He stood atop the courtyard wall, Arryn perched on his shoulder. The bird nodded in confirmation.

"Might be why K'nell sent Karamir away, then," Kalmar noted, before looking up at the new star, glowing brightly in the night sky. "And you say that appeared not too long after?"

Again, the bird nodded.

"It's no coincidence," Kalmar decided. "Although we still don't know what happened. I like to think K'nell would have better sense than to erase his creations like that, but I never met him, and I don't know enough about him to say that with confidence." He stroked his chin. "It would be good to know where they went, though."

"What do you intend to do?" Arryn questioned.

"Right now?" Kalmar asked with a raised brow. "Nothing. But I will be taking a closer look at that star at some point. If it's not there by accident, then it'll be good to know what it does."

The two fell into a long silence. "A shame, though," Kalmar eventually continued, looking away so that Arryn could not see his face. "I never did get to see her again after that first meeting. Would have been..." his voice trailed off, and his gaze did not leave the star.











Li’Kalla Lithókóllēs

Goddess of Rain
MP 18 FP 8

&

Kalmar


&

Arae


&

Roog




As the crystal neared the surface of Galbar, Li’Kalla noticed something. There was a lot of land! And she could see most of it was covered in vegetation, and from way up there, she could feel life growing and developing.

She frowned and pressed her lips together. There didn’t seem to be any… Order, to things. Where were the big civilizations? The naval trade routes, where were the colonies and the palaces? The world was lacking. She knew now what she had to do.

There was a specific landmass though that she felt a connection to. It was a rather undeveloped island, with no sapients at all and a boiling lake. It was specifically because she felt connected to it that she nearly gagged when she laid her eyes upon it. Blurred memories flashed before her eyes before she gained her composure enough to look away.

Her destination wasn’t that island, thankfully, but the very sight of it had revolted her to a point that she now felt put off from continuing her journey. If it meant she had to fly over that wretched piece of land, then…

”Wait,” Li’Kalla ordered the crystal, and it stopped in the air. It looked as if it was hanging there from an unseen thread. Unnatural and unnerving. She was merely a few kilometers above the surface of Galbar now, and from there she could see a large continent near the island, and in that continent was a geographical feature interesting enough to warrant her time. ”Take me there, to the island in the center of the strange lake.” And so the crystal did.




The crystal landed softly on the shores of the strangely perfect island and Li’Kalla jumped off it. Without a second’s wait, the crystal took off and left her there. She spared it a single gaze and a scoff and turned toward the water. It was still enough, and she could see her reflection.

”Ah,” Li’Kalla gasped, bringing her hands up to gently caress her own face and tuck a few stray locks of hair away, ”Pure...” And even though her skin was slightly marred with the near invisible cracks, she teared up and felt her heart beat faster. After a moment, she took in a deep breath and wiped away the small tears, ”How pure… And my gown-”

She hastily patted her gown for imperfections and inspected its appearance. It was a simple thing, to her. The main color was white and it was made in a heavenly soft fabric, with smaller sections around the hips highlighted with black and gold, and a cutoff in the shape of a diamond around her navel.

The gown reached down to her ankles and did a great job at concealing her form in a way that actually highlighted her attractiveness.

”... Perfect as well. Except for being barefoot.”

Li’Kalla sighed and shrugged, then turned around and began walking into the forest.

”Hello?” She called out, hearing the sound of large, rapid footsteps from the beach she had just left.

Turning around, Li’Kalla saw a massive grey wolf come into view, dwarfing any creature she had seen thus far. It sniffed the air, and turned its head toward the treeline, revealing that one eye was missing - and had long since scarred over. The remaining eye scanned the woods, eventually settling on Li’Kalla herself.

She stared at it for a moment and chuckled, ”How do you feed yourself? I can’t imagine there being enough prey in this island for you.”

The colossal wolf blinked, then shook its head, before turning and pointing one massive paw out toward the distant coast of the mainland.

”Oh, so that’s where you hunt. Any cubs? Where’s your pack?”

Once again, the wolf shook its head.

”Aw,” Li’Kalla cooed softly, walking close to the huge wolf, ”Did they cast you out after losing your eye?”

The beast looked at her with a sudden expression of confusion, and then shook its head vehemently.

”In that case you must be the only one of your kind. That’s sad, I’m sorry.” Li’Kalla’s gray eyes became a bright silver as she looked at the wolf with pity, gently putting her hands on one of its forelegs.

The beast inclined its head as it stared down at her, but this time it betrayed no emotion.

”Depends on how you define ‘his kind’, really.” a gruff voice spoke up behind her.

Li’Kalla turned to look at the man behind her, the bright light in her eyes dulled. He wearing furs and leathers. ”Kalmar, God of the Hunt. A pleasure to meet you for sure. By ‘his kind’ I refer to huge wolves capable of eating an entire farm in one bite.” Li’Kalla said with a soft, pleasant giggle.

”Then yes, he is the only one of his kind.” Kalmar said with a nod, before furrowing his brow. ”I heard about what Vakk did to you. How did that get resolved?”

Li’Kalla raised an eyebrow and shook her head, ”I don’t know who this ‘Vakk’ is; more importantly, what’s the name of this place?”

The furrow between Kalmar’s brows deepened. ”The continent is called Kalgrun. This island and the surrounding lake is called the Hunter’s Eye. I named it that because it looks like an eye, but by coincidence, Fenris here later lost an actual eye near this very spot.” The wolf, Fenris, nodded regretfully.

Li’Kalla tilted her head, ”How did that happen? To a wolf his size?”

”A creature made by Vakk was sent here to search for something. Fenris confronted it, and the two fought. Fenris lost an eye, but Vakk’s intruder took far heavier injuries, and in the end was driven off.” Then Kalmar frowned. ”How is it that you don’t know of Vakk? Did something happen to your memory?”

”I remember a few things. The last thing I can clearly remember however is waking up in front of the Architect covered in different bodily fluids. Not his, of course.”

”I see. So the Architect decided to intervene,” Kalmar observed. ”I had my avatar looking for you, but he never found anything. It’s good to know you recovered.”

”I try not to think too much of the past, considering I’ve only been alive for a few hours at most. Were you and I close?”

Kalmar raised an eyebrow, then lowered it just as quickly. ”No, I don’t think we were,” he said. ”We only had one conversation. It was the first conversation I ever had in my existence, and you were a bit shaken up about something, so it went about as well as you could expect.”

”Ah, a shame.” She said and diverted her gaze. Then she began gracefully walking into the forest, motioning for Kalmar to follow. ”What does a God of Hunting do to pass the time? I have a feeling he does not hunt that often.”

Kalmar followed beside her, leaving Fenris behind on the beach. ”Oh I don’t just hunt. I fish, I forage, I make wood carvings. I try to maintain good relations with other gods, and prevent unnecessary destruction.” Then his expression twisted into a slight smirk. ”Oh, and every now and then some stranger finds their way here, and it turns out they’ve either lost their memory or been thrust on this world without explanation. Usually, I help them.”

Li’Kalla returned the smirk, ”What if they don’t want help?”

”Then I don’t help them,” Kalmar answered with a shrug. ”Though none of them have ever turned my help away before.”

Li’Kalla shrugged as well, ”Why is your wolf the only one of his kind? Don’t you want to further develop his bloodline?”

Kalmar shook his head. ”It took a great amount of power just to create one. To make two would have required more. To make them able to breed…” he shook his head. ”We can do much, but our power is not infinite, and giving him a mate as well as the capability to breed would have come at the expense of my creations elsewhere.”

Li’Kalla turned slightly to look at the towering wolf out of the side of her eye, pitying him once more. ”Poor pup.” She muttered, before looking forward again. ”I don’t know about you Kalmar, but I feel rather powerful at the moment. As if I could raise ten islands out of the sea.”

”I raised this entire continent out of the sea, you know,” Kalmar said as they walked. ”Let’s see… it’s been several decades since Vakk attacked you, and if you haven’t used any power since then it makes sense that you’d have a lot of it stored up. What do you intend to do with it?”

”Decades, huh? I want to create a civilization, a worthy one at that. I find this world to be too empty and wild. There must be a balance, don’t you think?”

”Balance tends to be good, yes,” Kalmar noted. ”I was thinking this land could use some intelligent life, and I intend to get started on it soon. Are you interested in helping with that?”

Li’Kalla furrowed her brow in thought, stopping in her tracks to stare at Kalmar. After a while, she slowly raised an eyebrow and spoke, ”... Humanoids? Like us?”

Kalmar nodded. ”Yes, I made one as an experiment, long ago. His name was Karamir, and I think it’s time I make others like him.” Then he closed his eyes; the tips of his ears lengthened and sharpened, while his moustache seemed to fall away - somehow making his features appear smoother and more refined. ”He looks a lot like this.” (go)

Li’Kalla inspected his features closely, at one point bring her hand up to Kalmar’s jaw and feeling for hair, ”Ah, the males of this race have no facial hair?”

Kalmar shrugged. ”Karamir had some facial hair. Whether or not the rest of the species does depends on whether or not we make them that way. It would be helpful during winters. What do you think?”

Li’Kalla retracted her hand and nodded, ”I will help you create them, if you agree to me taking ownership of a few thousand.”

Kalmar frowned. ”I don’t see life as something that you can own,” he said. ”But I intend to make more than a few thousand, and since you’re assisting in their creation it won’t be hard to convince many of them to follow you of their own free will.”

She chuckled and shrugged, ”We should make a superior caste, with white hair and silver eyes like me, all beautifully pure. That way the species is sure to survive for eons.”

”I don’t see why we can’t just create them all equally,” Kalmar said, stroking his chin. ”But if you want to make some of them special, it’s your right to do so.”

”We shall see once we create them, so is it just you and me?”

Kalmar shook his head. ”No. There are others who might lend their aid if I ask.”

Li’Kalla rolled her eyes, ”Why the crypticness? Others such as...?”

”Well, I don’t intend to be cryptic. There’s Arae, the Goddess of Family, and Roog, a demi-god of my own creation. I worked with them recently,” Kalmar answered.

[color=turquioise]”I see,”[/color] Li’Kalla stepped back and after a moment, clasped her hands, [color=turquioise]”Well, it doesn’t seem like you’ve recruited them to our project yet, and there’s one thing I have to do. So, while you find them and speak to them, I will take care of my business. Let me know when it’s time, Kalmar.”[/color]

Kalmar merely nodded in response.

Li’Kalla stared at Kalmar, squinting her eyes, ”Say, ‘Okay’. Either that or ‘Understood’ is fine. You respond to words with words, we’re not animals here.” She said as she crossed her arms and floated slightly to look down on Kalmar.

Surprisingly, Kalmar offered a slight chuckle in response. ”Now you sound like Shengshi,” he observed. ”Alright, okay. My apologies.”

Li’Kalla cracked a smirk and touched back down, ”Those are just basic manners. I don’t expect you to bow before me, heh. And to be fair, you spend so much time around animals and inanimate wood carvings that I’m surprised you know how to form complex sentences, congratulations!” She giggled, “That said, before I go, don’t keep me waiting too long for our next meeting, will you?” The goddess said with a wink and began to walk off.

”You’ll find that actions carry more weight than words,” Kalmar warned, crossing his arms.




Kalmar wandered the Central plains of Kalgrun. Arae, Roog, Li’Kalla… all had been contacted, and now it was just a matter of waiting for them to return.

As he waited, however, he grew somewhat restless. He needed something to do, and it had been far too long since he created actual life. Perhaps creating a small species, before moving on to the mortals, would help get him back into the swing of things.

And so, he extended his hands and focused. A small lizard, perhaps two feet in height - almost like a miniature version of Pyrdon - appeared before him. He walked the fields, creating even more of them - dozens, then hundreds. Individually they posed little physical threat, but they were smart, and in packs they could be quite formidable. It would hardly compare to the mortals he eventually did intend to create, but it helped dust off his somewhat rusty skills.

Then, when he returned to the island, he sensed a divine presence…

Arae dove down from the sky, her figure a blur from the speed. Upon hitting the ground, there was a flash of light as her body disappeared into it, and she reappeared in her humanoid form. A soft smile on her face, she began to greet her brother, “Hello again, Kalmar. I see you’ve been a little busy here.” Gesturing towards the multitude of lizards, she asked, “What are these creatures?

”Something new I made,” Kalmar answered with a slight shrug. ”Should give the land some more diversity; make it things more lively.”

I see,” Arae said. She looked thoughtfully at the creatures, then moved on, “So what are you planning this time, exactly? Your message didn’t really tell me much.

After his return to Kalgrun Roog had kept himself busy; his thoughts and actions had been intertwined in a dance of hurricane force that had him travelling to the many corners of Kalgrun and back again at breakneck paces. Whatever madness had taken hold of Roog, however, was quickly expunged with the arrival and invitation of his creator to partake in an act of creation; it seemed exactly what Roog had in mind. Needless to say he was quick to travel to location discussed and soon he came upon Roog and Arae in the midst of discussion.

”He seeks to create an animal to equal the gods,” came Roog’s response, his voice pouring from his partially opened jaws and dancing across the wind, ”At least, in their minds. My creator intends to create intelligent life; a worthy cause fraught with risk.”

Kalmar nodded. ”Yes. Intelligent mortals, I mean. Like Hermes or Arya, but more widespread. I made one myself - his name is Karamir, and it is he who this new species will be based on. As you can see, I modified my appearance to look like him somewhat,” he gestured to his own features.

”There is still one more who needs to join us,” he said, before looking to Arae. ”Li’Kalla has recovered, if you don’t already know.”

”Li’Kalla,” Roog declared, as if tasting the name is his mouth just by saying the word aloud, ”Another first-born. And what sort of First-Born is she, creator? A moral one, I hope.”

”The Goddess of Rain. She fell to the god Vakk, and had to be restored by the Architect,” Kalmar said. ”She remembers little, apart from being brought back. She is willing to work with us, and has given me no reason to distrust her.”

I wish I had been there for her when she needed aid,” Arae said regretfully. “But the past is the past. All any of us can do now is look towards the future.

”When God’s Clash,” mumbled Roog in response to Kalmar’s explanation, thoughts drifting from the present in that moment, ”Then it shall be us four who act in unison; fitting for such life to be born in such a manner.”

Kalmar nodded. ”She will be here soon.”

BOOM

The sound of thunder washed over the land, Fenris’s barking could be heard in the distance, and Li’Kalla had arrived. Flying over them with her pair of pure, angelic white wings. ”Hello everyone! Arae, Kalmar, Roog, apologies for the delay.” Quickly she landed and nodded at everyone, her eyes settling on Arae, ”This is the first time we meet, is that right Arae?”

O-oh, yes,” Arae stammered out after a moment of stunned silence. Quickly recovering, she added, “It’s good to finally meet you, sister.

”It truly is, why don’t we have a leisurely chat over at my up-and-coming home after all the business is done? The food and drink is on me. Think of it as a sleepover for elites.” Li’Kalla chuckled and covered her mouth.

That sounds lovely,” Arae smiled warmly. “Of course I’ll go.

”Great! Do you like pastries, or perhaps they’re a bit too sugary for you? I am planning on getting us a decent selection of sweet goods, as well as some different teas and, of course, more than enough servants. I can’t wait!” Li’Kalla said with stars in her eyes.

”I think it’s time we get on with it,” Kalmar interjected. Karamir’s strand of hair as well as the crystalized sample of blood floated in his palm. ”Li’Kalla, do you still want a portion of them to have white hair and gray eyes?”

”Of course, let’s make it so the stronger and healthier their bodies, the higher the chance of white hair and gray eyes. Purity at its peak, you know.” Li’Kalla smiled in self-satisfaction, nodding.

”Alright, then it would help if you gave me one of your hairs,” Kalmar told her.

”Ah, of course,” Li’Kalla shrugged and plucked one of her perfect hairs with a wince, looking at it with a sad expression before handing it to Kalmar. After the deed was done, she turned to look at Arae with a worried expression, ”I feel like I shouldn’t have given one of my hairs to a man I just met, am I the only one that feels this way?”

Kalmar said nothing. Allowing the two hairs and the blood to remain suspended in the air, he drew the Knife of Friendship and ran the blade across his palm. Just as quickly, he returned it to its sheathe, before bringing both hands up and clapping them together over the floating mass. Light shone between his fingers, and he spread his hands apart, revealing a glowing ball of white and red swirling energy.

”All three of you - add your power to this. Quickly,” Kalmar instructed, with Li’Kalla being the first to react. She added her share of power quickly and efficiently, without breaking a sweat. Arae extended a palm to it as well, channeling her own energy towards it. Roog, for his part, bit deep into his tongue and let the fiery, black blood waterfall through the air towards its intended target.

As the four divines channeled their power together, the glowing sphere began to expand in size, until finally, Kalmar stepped back from the group and launched it up into the sky.

The ball shot upward at a tremendous speed, continuing to grow and grow. Then, finally, after several thousand metres of air, it exploded outward with a sky-shattering boom, emitting a shockwave that spread throughout the sky. Arae watched in wonder, noting how the energy was spread. Li’Kalla, instead, watched on with a slightly bored expression. Roog, now in a sitting position, turned his head to watch the orb before looking back to other portions of the sky with avid interest in the movement of soul ash churning in the air.

Just then, small white spores began to drift down from the sky, almost as if it was snowing. These flakes continued to fall - not quite randomly, for there was specific ground the sought out. It wouldn’t be until several minutes later that the first of them finally reached the ground, not too far from where the four divines still stood. The second it landed, soul ash began to coalesce around it, while the spore itself began to expand and resize itself.

It assumed a vaguely feminine humanoid form, and then her features started to become more specific. Hair, eyes, a nose, a mouth, a chin, cheeks, shoulders, muscles… all took shape within the span of a few seconds. And once that was done, the glow stopped entirely, revealing beige skin, silver eyes, white hair, as well as an impressive and attractive physique.

She blinked in confusion. “Wh-what?” she uttered. Elsewhere, throughout Kalgrun, the remainder of the species was already beginning to land and shape itself.

So this is what we’ve created…” Arae said, walking over to their newly created being and looking them up and down. Arae then smiled and said to her, “Welcome to Galbar, young one.

The woman stared back, but seemed to relax somewhat - Arae’s smile helping to put her at ease. Kalmar stepped forward, removed his cloak, and wrapped it around her. ”Who am I?” he asked her.

“Kal… Kalmar?” she said after a moment, pulling the cloak tighter around herself.

Kalmar nodded. ”Who is she?” he asked, gesturing to Arae.

“Arae?” the woman ventured.

Again, Kalmar nodded. [color=orange]”And what are you?”

The woman stared at him, thinking, and then spoke once more. “Ka… Kalla… Vallamir,” she stuttered, somewhat nervous.

Kalmar nodded one last time. ”They all start with the knowledge of who created them, and what their species is called,” he explained to the rest. He looked back to the woman. ”Choose a name for yourself,” he advised.

“V-val… vally… Valys?” she suggested tentatively.

”Well, Valys, you have beautiful hair.” Li’Kalla said with a warm smile.

”Valys, second of the Vallamir,” Kalmar declared, before turning back to his fellow gods. ”There is more of her kind on this island. The rest is scattered across the plains, along the water and forests, in the tens of thousands. Had I put them in one area, they would have consumed all the local wildlife. It now falls to us to find them and teach them what they need to know,”

Roog watched the self-proclaimed Valys with great interest, his eyes practically devouring her in his bestial curiosity. This was the first living humanoid he’d ever seen beyond the First-Born and to see its first steps were indicators of what his own birth must have been like. The experience was almost out of body for the wolf as he observed and listened to the creature’s stumbling speech. As he did so he vaguely listened to Kalmar, too intent on Valys to provide complete attention but enough to hear his words and understand the majority of his meaning.

Of all the things that caught his attention, however, was the simple act of Kalmar providing a cloak. Roog’s eyes widened with fascination before he finally turned his gaze to the first-born around him. They all wore similar accouterments, drapings that Roog had before paid little heed to, but now considered all the more worthy of his attention. It was clearly a humanoid thing, this desire for objects to be borne upon one’s self, and Valys’ immediate recognition of its use caught Roog by surprise. A worthy piece of information gained, Roog mused, before turning to Valys with his own words full of intent.

”They have been thrown to the four-winds, alone? What of their pack? It will not do to have them wander alone as the bear; they are not strong enough for such a life.”

I have to agree with Roog there,” Arae nodded. “They will need the support of a family to survive.

”And a society to provide technological advancements as well as protection in numbers.” Li’Kalla said while flicking a few stray locks of hair out of her face.

”They are stronger than they look,” Kalmar said. ”And smart enough to understand the value of safety in numbers. They will survive long enough to find them and teach them, and everyone we teach can go on to teach ten more. The most important thing is that we get to them before winter - the ones who survive that should be able to withstand whatever comes after.”

”Great risk for creatures of early lives; not all will be reached and many will die. An unfortunate thing to come to pass.”

Kalmar nodded. ”Unfortunate, yes, but inevitable. Many will die regardless. The ones who manage to survive on their own initiative during the time before we reach them will be better off because of it.”

Roog considered Kalmar’s words for a minute, his gaze turning from Kalmar to that of the mortal sentient now before them. A fate this one was spared by sheer luck of being created here, in their presence. Better for it indeed. ”I understand. Life will be its own reward. I will be swift to find them, then, if only to spare many such a fate.”

Kalmar nodded. ”As we speak, my avatar waits far to the south, already preparing to aid some of them. Shynir and Gorm are also closing in, so that they may protect them against greater threats while they learn.”

Li’Kalla scrunched up her nose and turned toward Valys, ”Valys, It seems your brethren have been spread all throughout the plains with no immediate guidance or aid whatsoever. What do you think of this predicament, what would you have us do?”

Valys was stunned. “I… I don’t want them to die,” she said quietly. “Can you save as many as you can?”

Arae sighed as she shook her head. “This is quite the exercise you are making us do, Kalmar. At the very least, I can teach them how to make fire. That should help them a fair bit.

Kalmar nodded. ”It should. Arryn and I will teach them how to hunt. Roog and Li’Kalla, I’m sure both of you can teach them things as well. We will not have to worry too much: they have good instincts, and as I said, everyone we teach will go on to teach others.”

Roog’s chest rumbled as the black flames that made up his hide flickered with a life of their own. ”Hmm . . . I shall teach them the skills they need to survive; what is safe to eat, where it is best to make a den, and how to defend themselves if need be. I shall endeavor to speak with them on other matters, to know their minds, as well.”

”We will start here on the eye,” Kalmar declared. ”Then we go to the swamp along the lake and the river. After that, we head to the forests along the outer edge of the plains. Those are the areas where they have landed. Valys, you will come with us.”

Valys nodded.

In the distance, two more of the Vallamir were now approaching; both men. One had bronze eyes and black hair, while the other had plain brown eyes and blond hair. Three more quickly appeared within sight as well: a man with brown hair that possessed a streak of silver, a woman with blonde hair, and another man with blue hair. All wore the expressions of either the lost, the confused, or the curious.

”Looks like it’s time to get started.”











Karamir





Weeks had gone by, and when Karamir was not drinking, or eating, or sleeping, he was practicing.

Again and again he tried, on different items or materials, but progress was slow. At first, it had been a struggle to simply produce something on the same level as that same spark. He could levitate a pebble, make plants shake, generate soft breezes of wind, and even create small dust clouds with nothing more than his mind. It was tiring, exhausting work, but with patience and resolve, he persisted, and soon he could reliably call upon the previously mentioned phenomena. Doing anything greater, however, remained rather difficult.

Then an idea occurred to him. Perhaps he was approaching this the wrong way. Maybe he was looking at it too broadly. He was applying himself to every method, many of which seemed to require completely different mindsets. Perhaps, if he focused on one particular spell or skill, he could perfect that, and then move on to something else.

Yes, that seemed far more efficient. At least in theory.

So, he decided to focus his efforts on the air itself. Why not? Air was everywhere; there was hardly a shortage of it. Unless he went underwater, or went too high into the sky... but there was no reason to do that under normal circumstances. So, after realizing the merits the power of wind held, he quickly applied himself to it.

For weeks more he practiced, atop mountains and hills, within the branches of trees, or even while flying in the open air. He used his mana to produce increasingly powerful gusts of wind. At first the attacks were barely distinguishable from a cool breeze, but eventually he was able to send dirt, leaves, or even loose stones flying with a wave of his hands. By then, weeks had become months, and although it felt taxing, he could not deny he was making progress. Still, what he knew now would be useless in any sort of combat situation, and even outside of combat there were few uses for it.

He had to continue, and so he did. In the meantime, he also grew a short goatee, but his facial hair did not seem to want to grow beyond that. It felt strange at first, but he got used to it. Seasons passed, and his skill continued to increase.

One day, one of his sessions was suddenly interrupted.

"Karamir."

It had been decades since he heard that voice, but he recognized it all the same. Standing before him was the god who created him, who bestowed upon him abilities and gifts, who then cast him out into the world to sink or swim, who he hadn't heard from since. "Kalmar..." he said.

"What are you doing?" the God of the Hunt demanded, a familiar frown plastered on his face.

Karamir took a step back. He suspected he would see Kalmar again at some point, yet the arrival caught him off-guard all the same; he never imagined it would happen like this. The aspiring mage took a breath. "I am practicing mana," he said in a calm voice.

Kalmar furrowed his brow. "Mana? What is that?"

"It's an energy all around us," Karamir explained, gesturing with his hands. "Abanoc told me about it. Those who can wield it can perform acts that others can't."

Kalmar stared at him, and then realization seemed to come to the Hunter's face. "I see," he said. "I think I know of what you speak. I never saw much use in it, because there's little it allows me to do that I can't do already, but I suppose that to a mortal it would be invaluable."

Karamir nodded, but Kalmar continued speaking. "Now it's time to address the more pressing issue. Why did you part ways from Arryn?"

"I didn't mean to," Karamir replied, with regret in his voice. "I went ahead, and I was going to wait for him, but I saw a strange structure and decided to investigate. I didn't realize it would take me to some god's sphere, or that Arryn wouldn't have been able to find me there. Do you know where he is now?"

"No longer in the maze," Kalmar answered with a frown. "He believes you abandoned him, after he gave you a gift."

"I didn't mean-"

"That is how he perceived it," Kalmar interrupted. "And he had good reason to. You should have stayed with him. Instead you got separated, and you both went through a great deal of trouble - him significantly more."

"What do you mean?"

"You were in the maze for little more than a week," Kalmar frowned. "Arryn was there for months."

Karamir winced at that. "I... I'm sorry."

"I'm sure you are. Actions have consequences. Remember that," the Hunter said, his gaze unyielding. "Now, tell me about your interactions with K'nell."

"I was wandering Kalgrun. One of Shengshi's rivers dried up. There were a lot of fish, ready to be taken, so I went in to investigate... then the river refilled, and I was swept into the sea. K'nell's avatar, Diana, pulled me out. I wanted to be away from Kalgrun, to see the rest of Galbar, so I stayed with her until we arrived at another continent."

"And stayed with her after that?" Kalmar questioned.

Karamir nodded. "Yes. The land we arrived at was full of dangers, some even more deadly than what lived at Kalgrun. It seemed foolish to try to live there alone."

Kalmar nodded. "Sensible enough; there is safety in numbers. So long as you don't become too dependent on them."

Karamir decided not to delve into the specific nature of his interactions with Diana, so he simply nodded back. "Time passed, and eventually she decided to bring me back to the Palace. She wanted me to stay with her, but I couldn't; I had to leave. Arryn found me, and did something to fortify my body and soul..."

"Yes, as I instructed. What then?" Kalmar asked.

"I wandered Tendlepog for a few days, and encountered the Dreamers. They allowed me to stay, but quickly changed their mind and kicked me out... because of some 'great change' that was happening. Arryn gave me this cloak, and we went west, until I found the Staircase..."

Kalmar nodded. "That matches up with what Arryn told me, and I have to say I don't understand this K'nell." He shook his head. "What next?"

"I went through... 'the Maze'... and it was horrible," Karamir said, a chill running down his spine. "I thought I would die there, until somehow I ended up in Abanoc's sphere. He gave me some food, some water, told me about what I just saw, and shared some information... about his sphere, about Galbar, and about mana."

"It sounds like you owe Abanoc a debt," Kalmar observed. "So this is what you have been doing after that? Practicing 'mana'?"

Karamir nodded, unsure of what was coming next.

"Good," Kalmar said. "Keep doing it. I'd like to see where it leads; what can be done with it."

"I... alright."

"And one more thing," Kalmar added, his voice suddenly reaching a softness Karamir had never quite heard before. He reached forward and put a hand on the now-taller mortal's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

Karamir blinked. "What?"

"The way I brought you into this world, the way I prepared you for it, I made mistakes. I was too harsh, left too many questions unanswered, and some of the questions I did answer were the wrong ones." The Hunter shook his head and sighed. "I made mistakes."

Karamir could scarcely believe any of it. For so long a part of him had resented Kalmar, feeling bitter toward him, for the way he had been treated, and now Kalmar was vocally confirming that part of him was correct. On the other hand, another part of him felt indebted to Kalmar - especially after the suffering Diana introduced him to was infinitely worse, and that part made the apology feel wrong, or undeserved. He wasn't sure if he should be angry, sad, content, vindicated, or even apologetic himself.

His mouth opened and closed. Moisture began to well in his eyes but he fought it back. In the end, Karamir could only offer a weak nod.

"I once told you there was a distinction between a son and a creation," Kalmar continued. "Some would agree with me, others would not. I realize the definition might not be as set in stone as I once believed. If you wish to consider me your father, I will not object."

That only served to make Karamir feel numb. How was he supposed to respond to something like that? He had long since made peace with the fact that Kalmar was not his father, yet suddenly just like that there was a part of him wishing for it. "I... I'll need to think on it..." he spoke quietly.

Kalmar nodded. "Of course. Now, take this." the Hunter pulled a sheathed dagger from his belt, and presented it to Karamir.

"What do I do with this?" Karamir questioned.

"Draw it," Kalmar commanded.

And so he did, drawing a short blade as long as his hand that shone brightly in the sunlight. The hilt was wrapped in thin, yet fine and comfortable leather. It was of an impressive quality... if only it was longer.

And suddenly, it became longer, the blade extending and growing to be as long as his arm, no less shiny or impressive. Astonished, he looked back up at Kalmar. "What kind of weapon is this?"

"It can be any weapon you want," Kalmar answered.

Any weapon?

Karamir imagined it as a spear, and so it morphed into a spear, made of pure metal, the leather extending to wrap around the entire shaft. He imagined it as a bow, and so it became a bow. Yet the bow was useless - it did not come with any arrows, and being metal, it could not bend. He imagined it as a sword again, then turned it back into a dagger, and returned it to his sheathe - which he then fixed to his belt. "This is incredible..."

"And one more thing..." Kalmar reached forward again, and this time touched Karamir's forehead. A sudden chill passed over him, as he felt power flow through his body. "I've granted you a power that is not dependent on mana. I am not just the God of the Hunt, but also the God of Cold. You are now able to shoot beams of frigid cold energy. It should allow you to defend yourself, should your weapon be lost, or your mana unavailable."

"Thank you..." Karamir said.

Kalmar nodded. "Those will suffice to help keep you alive, I think. Now, there is one final matter... it is time for me to create more of you."

"More of me?" Karamir furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"An entire species, capable of reproduction and intelligent thought. You would no longer be the only one of your kind."

Karamir's eyes widened. He would no longer be alone. Well, he had spent most of his life with other people than without, so he hadn't been truly alone in the first place... but there would be more people like him. People who looked like him, talked like him. Who he could lead, or teach. "When... when will you do this?"

"Soon," Kalmar said. "But not here. On Kalgrun. All I require is one of your hairs, and some of your blood. The rest I can do with my own power... hopefully, with aid from my fellow gods."

"Alright, take it!" Karamir said immediately. A hair and some blood were small prices to pay for an entire species. Without hesitation, he extended his hand.

Kalmar then drew the Knife of Friendship, and with it he pricked Karamir's palm. He levitated some droplets into the air, congealed them into a fingertip sized ball, froze it, and slipped it into a pocket. Then he reached forward and sharply plucked a hair from Karamir's head. Neither of these things bothered Karamir too much; minor stings, at worst.

"Now," Kalmar said, slipping the hair into another pocket. "Let's go back to Kalgrun," The Hunter turned around, about to fly away.

"Wait... no." Karamir suddenly objected.

The Hunter spun around and looked at him with confusion. "What do you mean 'no'?"

"I... I don't want to go back to Kalgrun yet."

"You don't want to witness the creation of your own species?" Kalmar asked, his befuddlement deepening.

"No... I mean, I would, but..." Karamir sighed. "Let's say I do watch you create them. What next? What use would I be to you, or them?"

"A great deal," Kalmar answered. "You could patrol Kalgrun, help keep them safe, give them advice..."

"But I don't want to limit myself to Kalgrun, or to my species." Karamir objected. "I want to explore the world, to see all that I can. There are older species out there; if they know more than me, I can learn from them. If they know less than me, I can teach them. This cloak gives me the ability to cross continents, while this weapon gives me the means to defend myself while doing so - as will mana, once I get a stronger grasp over it." Ambition burned in his eyes as he continued speaking. "I am in the perfect position to acquire new knowledge, and then pass that knowledge along to those who need it. I will not be like the Dreamers, who hoard their knowledge to themselves and never try to share it or seek anything new." he shook his head. "Dreamers, Selka, Servants, Jotundar... it doesn't matter. I will try to help them all, once I am able."

For several long moments, the Hunter only stared at him... and then broke out into a thin smile. "Good," he said at last. "You found your purpose. A worthy one, too. I wish you luck. Goodbye for now, Karamir." he extended a hand.

Karamir accepted the handshake, and as he did, he felt something cold press against his palm. As he pulled his hand away, he looked down to see a silver ring. He looked up at Kalmar. "Goodbye... 'father'," he said, the word sounding strange and unfamiliar.

Kalmar merely nodded, turned, and began to fly away.








Kalmar

&
Roog

&

&
Chopstick Eyes

&
Azura





The North Pole’s coastline came within sight, and Vendral swooped down to the icy shore, landing with such power that he threatened to crack the ice beneath him. The great blue dragon looked around, a surprisingly content expression on his many faces.

Kalmar was the first to step off, leaping from Vendral’s back and onto the ice below. Snow crunched under his feet. ”We go on foot from here.” he decided.

“Why?” came Vendral’s immediate response.

”Azura is the Goddess of Wind. For her to knock a creature that flies out of the sky would be trivial. We can resist it, but you can’t. So we continue on foot,” he beckoned for Arae and Roog to follow him down.

Arae slid down from Vendral’s back and proceeded to give each of his heads a pat. “Thank you for carrying us all the way here, Vendral,” Arae said.

Roog, for his part, less slid down off of Vendral’s back and more leaped; for the first time he had ever left his home, flight seemed an ample way to add stress to the voyage. Despite that he had calmed after the first hour of the journey and instead had agreed with himself that he simply could not abide flying unless he absolutely had to do it. Blessed ground was what rushed up to meet his paws and he offered a silent thanks to his creators and theirs for the foresight in creating such a glorious object of solidity.

”The idea of being struck from the sky seems very unappealing.”

”Being unable to fly doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?” Kalmar asked with a raised brow.

“Yeah, it’s really not,” said Chopstick Eyes, walking past in her bomber jacket without looking their way.

Kalmar hastily stepped in her path, raising his other brow. ”Chopstick Eyes,” he greeted her with an awkward nod. ”It’s been a long time. What brings you out here?”

Chopstick stopped, looked up, and shivered. There were icicles growing from the ends of her sticks. Some of them cracked and fell as the wood shuffled to take a peek at Kalmar’s new acquaintances. “I’m looking for Li’Kalla. Have you seen her?”

Kalmar shook his head. ”I have not. Arae, do you know where she might be?”

As all of this went down, Roog looked on with a distinctly visible grimace. His bronze-gold eyes were locked on the visage of the one his creator referred to as Chopstick Eyes, the resemblance to the moniker frankly uncanny. His moonlit teeth glowed as his maw hung slightly open in an uncouth sneer born entirely of a healthy mix of confusion and disgust. It was eminently clear that this was a difficult day for the Great Wolf.

I have no clue myself,” Arae answered. “While I could find her myself, that’ll take time that we currently do not have.” Looking at Chopstick Eyes, Arae snapped her fingers, producing a spark that quickly grew into a small flame. With a flick of her wrist, Arae sent it to Choppy, setting it to slowly rotate around her. “You seem rather cold, sister. This spark of the Hearth should help keep you warm for the time being,” Arae said.

Chopstick reflexively smacked the flame between her palms like a mosquito, realised what she’d done, then shook it off abruptly, shaking out her scalded hands. “Ow! Ow ow ow. Uh… Sorry, I’m flammable.” She scooped up the flame in a small jar and screwed it shut, tapping the glass. “There we go. I’m Butterwort, by the way, the one with the chopstick eyes. I don’t think we’ve spoken!” She bowed to Arae and the wolf-god in turn.

Kalmar held up a hand, and at once the burning sensation in her palms seemed to cool.

Arae returned the bow, and began to introduce herself, “I am Arae. A pleasure to meet you.

”This is Roog,” Kalmar said, pointing to the wolf, having decided to introduce his creations on their behalf. He then pointed toward the massive five-headed dragon just behind them, ”...and that is Vendral.”

“Thicc,” murmured Chopstick Eyes, nodding respectfully at the party’s largest specimen.

Roog looked on dumbstruck, barely able to construct a proper response. To the wolf-deity the order of things had been quite clear, most notably how things should look; it had helped he had resided in Kalgrun for decades and enjoyed a relatively simplistic design architecture when it came to the life of Galbar. Even the most fantastical creature he’d ever laid his eyes on, his own creator Katharsos, had been relatively tame in form by comparison. So instead he simply nodded his head in some form of respectful bow when Chopstick Eyes looked to him, further increasing his dread confusion as she introduced herself as “Butterwort”. Roog was not fond of this adventure one bit.

Kalmar turned back to Chopstick, a reluctant expression on his face. ”There is something we might need your help with…” he confided. ”What do you think of Azura and her scheme?”

Chopstick cocked her head midway towards patting Roog’s, then shrugged. “Dumb. I mean… I dunno. Maybe that’s a little harsh. It’s noble, I guess. I hope it makes her happy.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew a winter-spirit, stained all over by food colouring. The resemblance to an Alma was striking. “These are pretty.”

”It’s making a lot of people unhappy,” Kalmar pointed out. ”We’re going to go find more information, and maybe get her to stop. Will you join us?”

Another shrug. “I’m on my way to thank her for an old favour, anyway.” She swung her jacket out in front of her and started digging in the pockets, soon producing a thermos and a few containers, some lidded rattan baskets and paper bags full of candy. Fresh arms emerged to carry the goods and balance her as she wobbled distractedly on the polar ice. “Can I feed any of you guys? I’ve got hot chocolate, chai lattes, and some pumpkin spice, plus a bunch of steamed tonnikala. Vegetables are from down south, candy from the Bazaar.” She heaved a shoal’s worth of dried herring from an especially capacious paper bag and lobbed it at Vendral, who received it with a snap of his jaws and gulped it down.

”I do not eat,” came the murmured voice of Roog, seemingly ever more disgusted by growth of additional limbs that Chopstick Eyes was now sporting.

Kalmar took one of the bags and peered inside. He reached in, and pulled out a round sugar-coated orange gummy which had been turned hard as rock from the cold. The God of the Hunt tossed it into his mouth, and there was a sharp earth-shattering crack! as his divine teeth knifed through it. His eyes widened slightly. ”This taste is… interesting…” he said after a moment, rolling the bag shut. ”But we need to get moving. We might still have a long way to go.” And with that he proceeded northward.

Arae helped herself to some hot chocolate, taking a sip from a thick mug. The taste was remarkably pleasant, especially in the cold weather. She didn’t have to worry about it cooling down over time either, as she could keep it warm with her ability. “This reminds me of…” Arae began to say before she realized that her mind was leading nowhere on that train of thought. “What was I… never mind. This is a good drink. Thank you, Butterwort,” Arae recovered. She slowly sipped away at her drink as they continued moving. Chopstick shrugged a ‘no problem’, bagged her remaining goods and started gnawing a sizeable block of dark chocolate.

There was another crack, as another candy entered Kalmar’s mouth. ”What happened to the ‘Slippery Soul Serpent?’” he asked Choppy.

“It started singing,” said Chopstick Eyes. “Its voice sounds like its light looks. Fish, squid, whales, you name it, they all started coming to be eaten. My clone told me about it. It’s not a problem, though. There’s plenty of fish in the sea, and my clone sprouted a floating forest above it, so that the sea there would be especially rich. She has chopstick eyes too, by the way.” Still used to Ya-Shuur’s herder-wolves, she couldn’t help but wave a bone in Roog’s general direction, dry meat stuck to it like leather.

”...Clone?” Kalmar questioned with a quirked eyebrow.

Chopstick traced the faint scar running down the center of her body in a perfect vertical line with a fingertip. “Cut myself in half. She’s the other half. We’re twins.”

”I see… that explains quite a lot.” Kalmar commented.

Arae nearly choked on her hot chocolate when she heard Butterwort had cut herself in half, unable to comprehend what would even lead to such a situation. Even if it was a way to exercise godly power, surely there would’ve been a better way to go about it, wouldn’t there? Eventually, she decided to just accept it. What’s done was done, after all, and it seemed like there were no problems with her health, though Arae decided she would need to check up on the Pantheon later.

Roog had at last had enough of the entire situation with Chopstick Eyes’ offer of meat right off the bone particularly galling. This conversation was all well and good, of course, and perhaps if he had been in a more chipper mood he might have not only tolerated but thoroughly enjoyed other intelligent conversation. But, as it were with his first flight and the frankly alien entity fittingly called Chopstick Eyes, this conversation seemed to be going in numerous circles to nowhere that just somehow managed to keep making Chopstick Eyes even more unbearable to his naturalist sensibilities.

”Perhaps we should hasten our journey? The longer we tary, surely, the sooner we will be noticed.




The party continued through the frozen wastes. Kalmar took the lead, while Arae and Roog were immediately behind him. Vendral brought up the rear on foot, his massive size dwarfing them all by far, while a head faced every direction. Chopstick, whose legs were small, had dozed off on Vendral’s back.

Before them a lofty peak had been steadily rising above the horizon which was now joined by a ring of smaller mountains surrounding it. Even at this distance, a divine's sharp eyes missed no details of their destination that were not physically obstructed. Littered across the ring range where hundreds if not thousands of small statues that bore Azura’s essence, while atop the two highest peaks that they could see two greater examples both watching their approach with cold unblinking eyes.

Around the peak of the central mountain sat an immense structure of stone. It was shaped like two wheels, one inside the other, circling the mountain top. The Alma that Kalmar had seen traveling there seemed to be headed in that direction. After they passed over the ring of mountains, soaring up in the air currents generated by the wheels to join others coming to the north from inside the Sphere, that they could sense beyond the gateway surrounding the stone building.

As they got closer one of the Alma traveling north above them broke off from its flight path and descended to the frozen floor some way ahead of them. There it patiently awaited their arrival as it projected the image of a whale from its head mounted soul Gem.

”Hello there.” spoke the whale in a slow steady voice. ”What brings you all to this far north?”

Kalmar stepped forward. ”Where is Azura?” he demanded calmly.

”In the sky bastion.” the whale responded, equally calm as the Alma waved a wing up towards the mountain’s top structure. ”I apologise on Azura’s behalf for her not coming to greet you personally, but she’s had two sets of unexpected guests today already. One bad, one strange. I do so hope you’re arrival will be good news to balance it out.” the whale did not sound confident however.

Kalmar looked at the soul crystal on the Alma’s forehead, which appeared to be powering the image, and he grit his teeth. ”That remains to be seen. Take us to her.”

”I see. Who exactly am I taking there?” the whale asked ”And will you be needing a lift?” the Alma glanced at the mighty dragon as it asked.

”All of us,” Kalmar answered, ”And we are capable of transporting ourselves.”

”I meant names. My apologies for not being clear,” the whale explained patiently.

Apologies to you as well,” Arae said, bowing slightly. Gesturing to each being, she introduced them, “This is Kalmar, Butterwort, Roog, and Vendral. I am Arae.

Chopstick snored.

”Thank you Arae. To repay your courtesy, my own name is Luis.”

Roog had remained silent during the entire experience, his eyes darting back and forth from the sights with intense interest. From his Heavenly Father Roog had inherited a vision most attuned to seeing the qualities borne in a soul and this “alma” carried one worthy of pause. The soul LOOKED different by every stretch of the word and the concept of an altered soul being held in such a way both horrified and inflicted intense curiosity in the Wolf of Demise. When it projected a form for itself, that of the vast creatures Roog occasionally found beached back on Kalgrun, Roog was drawn in even further. As the others said there piece and he was at last introduced to the entity by Arae he spoke up.

”How is it that you have come to be this way, whale-light. I trust your creation is Azura’s doing?”

”I was made by her in ages past, to help capture the storm now held in the maelstrom by blocking out the dark moon’s withering light. I have since grown beyond that singular purpose. If you are wondering how I am speaking with you, this avian, known as an Alma, has the ability to project sound and images seen by its fellows.” Luis explained.

”Powered by souls,” Kalmar voiced with disgust. Arae was unsettled by the thought of it as well, shivering slightly.

”Artificial souls.” Luis clarified. ”Nothing was slain to make the constructs, if that is what you are worrying about.”

”Explain; artificial how?”

”The souls you see on this Alma are known as soul gems. These are similar, structurally, to soul crystals that are made from the souls of dead life, but unlike them, they were never alive to begin with. Azura crafts the soul gems directly from soul ash, while composing rigid instructions into them to create artificial life, which, while lacking anything resembling traditional intelligence, can still perform a limited set of highly complex tasks.”

Roog watched with eyes closed to bronze slits as the Alma explained itself. It was obvious that gears turned in the mind of the Great Wolf as he continued to listen silently to the explanation. At last his maw opened ever so slightly, the pale moonlight of his fangs glowing from behind black fur. From his posture and the rising flames of his jet black fur it was clear something had caught in the depths of Roog’s psyche.

”I see.”

Arae relaxed a little upon hearing that the soul gems were not exactly alive, but was still apprehensive about them. They were still created with soul ash, the very foundation for all life on Galbar. At what point is the line drawn between life? Was it only intelligence, or was it something even more primal? At any rate, she would have to agree to disagree. This was a complicated argument, and would take too much time to unravel at the moment.

”We’ve spent enough time down here. Let’s go see Azura,” Kalmar stated, not appearing satisfied with Luis’s explanation. before leaping backwards onto Vendral’s back. Arae followed suit, hopping up onto Vendral and sat down with both legs dangling down one side.

”Very well then.” Luis said as the Alma took flight. ”If you’d please follow me, I can take you to the Sky Bastion.”

Roog, following the lead of Kalmar and Arae as they ascended the great, five-headed dragon’s hide to find a proper perch on his back. Roog lowered himself close to the ground before leaping up, landing on the beast’s back only to lay down as close to the hide as possible, maw closing on one of the spikes protruding from Vendral’s back.

The small bird led them up and over the mountain range circling the north pole. In between the range and central peak, any indication as to the vault’s true location had been masked by Ashalla’s ice sheet and a cessation of Alma to and from the vault. That flow now instead headed for the double ringed fortress that was their destination.

As they ascended, the darkness that had accompanied them on their trek gradually washed away until they reached the summit, where both Heliopolis and the Luminous Garden could be seen forever dancing away from one another. Visible too, was the Blue, stretching out endlessly around Azura’s home and filled with all manner of Tonnikala, some strange and some familiar, particularly to Kalmar. First among these creatures whas a whale of truly titanic proportions who drifted right next to the sky bastion who matched the image they had been shown below. Near them floated another whale shaped structure, out of the top of which a massive horn of smooth soul crystal grew.

”Welcome to the Sky Bastion.” Luis said without use of his Alma proxy. ”Please make your way inside.”

The lone Alma led them to a large gateway that had been thrown open to grant them entrance. Inside was a massive room that was empty save for four individuals and a large round table with seats set around it for six humanoids and two quadrupeds. A large gap was left facing the exit for Luis, and another inside for the dragon. Three out of the four people waiting for them were made of stone and had a strange red energy. One was a stone cat, another a blank faced man and the final one radiated Azura’s power along with the non Armonia welcomer. This Azura was a humanoid with turquoise scaly flesh and red fins that emerged from her hips, elbows and where her hair should be. She wore a plain blue tunic and a pair of navy pantaloons with gaps cut in the sides to allow her fins to emerge from them.

The four of them had been in conversation with someone via another Alma, but the sounds of that talk along with muffled sounds of battle where cutoff as the Divine visitors approached. The Alma left past them as the four hosts formed a welcoming party and awaited Vendral’s landing.

The floor shook as Vendral swooped down, and Kalmar wasted no time in leaping off. He looked to the metallic creature with Azura’s aura and began walking forward. ”We came here for answers.” he stated firmly.

One of the figures, a tall being that resembled a man in size but held no visible face turned to Azura and asked, “Are all of these gods so ill mannered like this one?”

Arae slid off Vendral and stepped forward, bowing apologetically. “Apologies. We do not mean to be rude, but we do have important matters to talk to with our sister Azura. Azura, please listen to what we have to say.

”Ah Kalmar, your reputation precedes you.” the metallic Azura said merrily before the other addressed the matter at hand.

”Your questions will be answered. But first let me introduce you to Ringol.” the fish woman indicated to the male Armonai who had spoken. ”Watcher.” the stony cat nodded its head in response. ”I shall be impartaily observing this meeting in the name of Ludicium, guardian of the Void.”
”And Cerule.” The avatar bowed theatrically at the mention of her freshly minted name.

”You’ve met Luis all ready, of course. He’s let me know who you all are in advance.” the whale in question had drifted closer to the entrance now that they had entered, though left plenty of the Blue visible rather than boxing the guests in.

”Finally I am, of course, Azura. Please do take a seat and then we can get started.” she finished before inviting them to do just that.

Roog had remained on Vendral’s back for the time being, watching with distrusting eyes; this place emanated an unearthly glow to his soul-sight and everything about it seemed off. It wasn’t natural, at least the natural he had been born into, and much of that played off the voice of that beast chained deep in the back of his mind. As Azura finished her own introduction and bade them sit Roog finally hopped from Vendral’s back without a single sound announcing his descent. It was something, at least, that Azura offered answers to the questions they’d come to ask; perhaps they could even convince her to see the error of her ways and recant.

Kalmar glared at the tall, faceless man - a glare that sent a clear warning. He stepped forward, pulled out a chair, and sat down. ”You’ve been taking souls and putting all of Galbar at risk,” he stated bluntly. ”How do you justify it?”

If at all his stare phased the faceless man, it was impossible to tell. Rignol said nothing further, but did not take a seat.

Arae mentally sighed, then began to clarify, “What Kalmar is trying to say is that we are currently facing… well, a bit of a crisis. Because of all the souls you’ve been collecting and placing in ‘soul crystals’, there will soon be a shortage of soul ash to create new life. I’m sure you’re aware that the only way to obtain soul ash is to, well, recycle souls of the departed through Katharsos’ cycle of rebirth, and you are impeding that cycle. Fortunately, we’re still in the early stages, so there’s no immediate problem. However, if this keeps up, new souls cannot inhabit new bodies, and all life on Galbar and in every one of our siblings’ spheres will eventually end. We would like to ask you, Azura and company, if you have any solutions to our predicament.

There was a brief moment of silence as the words settled in. Chopstick snored a little too loudly, and tumbled off the dragon’s back.

She landed in a floppy heap and cracked awake in time to catch her hat as it fell. Looking around, her sticks splayed in wonder for a moment as she took in first the architecture, then the strangers, then the smells. Sniff, sniff. Sniff…

“Azura!” Chopstick leapt in locust fashion directly onto the fish-woman who smelled of bird, fell short of her neck and grabbed her waist in a hug instead, legs trailing on the ground. “I’m so happy to see you and I just wanted to say I’m really glad you saved me that one time! It meant so much to me! Mwah. Hmm, you’re less feathery than before.” She retracted her eyes enough to kiss fishzura on the chest and turned to the rest of her crew. “Sorry for sleeping through that big negotiation thing you guys were all so excited for. How’d it go?”

”Incomplete,” growled Roog in response, his predatory gaze fixed on Chopstick as the odd-god proved once more the disconnect she felt towards the happenings of reality.

“Dang,” said Choppy.

Azura meanwhile, after a brief moment of surprise, had found a genuine smile upon her lips. One arm wrapped around Choppy while she used her other one to ruffle the little Goddess’s rubbery hair. ”Barely started in fact. Nonetheless, it is good to see you are doing well since we last met. A lifetime ago now, though I still remember it clearly.”

”You might say it was a character forming event.” Cerule said ”So in a way we should be thanking you too, as probably wouldn’t be here without your bout of misfortune.” the second divine of the wind was leaning back in her chair in a relaxed manner even as she kept a careful eye on the guests.

”Which brings us back to the matter at hand.” Azura’s smile left her lips, replaced with a patient line. ”Which is the consequences of soul ash being a finite resource. I should begin with by being upfront about what will likely be the main point of contention of this discussion. I don't currently have a working solution. My power and intellect have been put to task of building a stable, and well protected, foundation for the work that is yet to come.”

Kalmar leaned forward. ”And what if you can’t find a solution? What then?”

”There are many solutions. The problem is picking one and making sure it is seen through.” Azura said carefully ”Worst case scenario, we put the creation of new mortal life on hold for a time. A curse of infertility perhaps, or placing them into stasis till a solution is found.”

Kalmar’s expression darkened, but it was someone else who spoke first. “Should the worst case scenario occur, I cannot abide by this course of action,” Arae said with stern disapproval. “We are managing a world teeming with life. We are not playing with toys, judging the world through the view of statistics. I cannot allow the entire world to be punished when we gods and goddesses are the ones at fault.

Chopstick unhugged herself from fishzura and gave a baffled shrug, sitting crosslegged.

Azura’s brow furrowed ”Is not being consigned to annihilation upon death also the world being punished when the gods are at fault for not making a better system than the one we have? Souls are not lifeless flesh to be returned to the soil, they are still people like you and I. And they deserve better than Katharsos’s pyres.”

”The system of death here is, frankly, cruel and unusual even compared to the pretty crap one that we had back where we came from. You can do better.” Cerule chided the goddess who had spoken down to them.

”It is not a punishment,” Kalmar growled. ”Creatures live and they die. When they die, their time is over, and new creatures take their place. The souls continue on, but those souls will continue to decay until nothing of value remains. None of us created soul decay, so don’t you dare hold us at fault for it. And if you put all life into stasis, or make everyone infertile, then all life on Galbar will end. Now, you claim you have solutions: what are they?” he demanded.

”Ok. Three things. One no. It doesn’t end all life on Galbar. Mortals sit atop ecosystems. Temporarily removing them and only them won’t cause an ecological collapse. Two. Soul decay is no longer a natural problem, as Orvus has created creatures that cause it. Three. Soul decay might not be created, but the existing system simply takes it as given, when it can be avoided.”

Kalmar looked at Azura as if she had just declared the sky to be purple. ”To your first point… mortals, animals, plants… all use souls. If you make them infertile and fail to find your solution before their lifespans run out, then yes, all life will end. To your second point: Soul Decay is still a natural problem regardless of what Orvus creates; he just made it worse. And to your last point: I ask again, how can it be avoided? What are these solutions you keep claiming to possess?”

Roog had watched and waited patiently as the greater gods expressed their qualms and snapped back and forth with their clearly well seated beliefs. This Azura had immediately proven herself to be in opposition to Roog’s initial expectations, but despite her collected demeanor he continued to find her positions at odds with his own. Nevertheless he was determined to hear out her position as best he could while his creator and Arae expressed their own. Unsurprisingly, however, a head was rapidly reached as the debate began to become more poignant.

”Goddess-Azura,” rumbled Roog, his maw dropped open as his eyes locked on her, ”Before you answer my creator, I have a query to pose; my life was born of nature, coalesced from Soul Ash naturally. What you propose would doom myself and creatures like me to nonexistence, regardless of your well intentioned aims. Consider then your solutions; by all rights, your actions will end one or more kinds of life, including my own. What solutions, then, do you have for such a doom? How will you determine which living creatures belong in your new world?”

”See, Roog gets it. Just the mortals would be prevented from multiplying for a time. Void damn it, it was just an example too.”

”You don’t understand,” Kalmar cut in. ”Mortals have lifespans. If you can’t come up with a solution before those lifespans run out, and they can’t make more of themselves, they will go extinct. And if you think that the other gods will stand by and allow you to do that to their creations, think again.”

”Ah! And there is the first threat. I was wondering how long it would take.”

”It’s not a threat,” Kalmar glowered. ”It’s a fact. If you threaten the existence of other gods’ creations, or try to forcibly render them infertile, the other gods will try to stop you. Why wouldn’t they? And if you can’t take this conversation seriously, you have no right to decide the fate of mortal souls.”

Azura ignored what she had decided was a developing feud between Cerule and Kalmar and focused instead on Roog’s question ”To address that distinction first, the line does not purely include mortals, but some creatures of intelligence a touch below them. The line itself is a concession that prevents the entire system from grinding to a halt immediately. Best case scenario, that line does not need to exist.”

”In truth, Lady of Gales, my question probes at the reasoning behind your actions,” Roog had stepped forward as he spoke, moving to the edge of the table where he stood with his head held up and out of a defensive posture, ”I fundamentally disagree with your conclusion. You view the disintegration of souls as a destruction when it is creation. The path we are on is as intended and oblivion for all things, ourselves included, is to be welcomed; oblivion is a beginning, not an end.”

Azura cocked her head to one side ”A beginning to what?” she asked

”Everything.”

“...What the fuck?” Chopstick threw some hands up around her head, unable to sit quietly and watch the conversation flick back and forth over it much longer. “Hello? Hello? Are we still talking money here? If you run a book through a paper shredder, it’s gone. Recycling the paper doesn’t bring back the book. You’d have to write it, again, and… And that’s not likely to happen. With souls. I’m talking about souls.” She took a breath. “I get that you’re all trying to make the soul ash last as long as possible. I get that! But… Like, are we really running that low? Honestly? How long do we have before all the little people stop being able to make more little guys?” She huffed. “How long do we need to keep making new little guys anyway? We’re not gonna be here forever.”

Roog looked over his shoulder at Chopstick, throwing her an unsurprised yet disappointed glance. This creature revealed much of its ideology and the very core of what Chopstick expressed as fact actively flew in the face of the wolf’s own deeply held beliefs.

”I do not understand your analogy; you deny the potential for new life. Life blossoms even after death; the world takes back what it has lost. Souls are as flames; even when extinguished their embers spark new blazes, all born of that first fire. Soul Ash is the same; though the original soul is caught in deflagration, many new souls will be born from the ashes. You see the cycle too narrowly.”

“Cycle schmycle. I’ve used soul ash, I know what it does,” said the one with the chopstick eyes. “The fact that new shit gets made doesn’t mean we’re not torching old shit that could still be good.”

”By the very nature of this act will the current path be destroyed; such a decision should not be made by one person alone.”

“Lock up your souls, then. Just spray your dudes with Alma repellent, or whatever,” Chopsticks waved. “Just… Geez, figure something out.”

”We are here to figure something out,” Kalmar interjected, voice filled with impatience. He shifted his gaze to Azura. ”You continue to evade my question. For the third time: what are your solutions?”

Azura waved off attempts by Cerule to continue bickering with the god of the hunt and actually got down to the business of laying out her current theoretical solutions. ”There are a number of avenues of research when seeking solutions. The most obvious is creating more soul ash. Initial experiments have led me to find that it is entirely possible to produce it like we would any other material, though my current method is woefully inefficient. We could brute force this solution of course, but it would be a massive power draw, one that would only increase as mortal populations do so. In my opinion this path is a last resort or a long term project.”

”The second avenue is to replace the need for souls entirely to produce a replacement metaphysical receptacle for the mind that is based on something easier to produce than soul ash. This could either reliance souls entirely or be a receptacle to place the minds of the dead within while their souls are returned to the cycle as their bodies are.”

”The third is to remove death entirely, at least for mortals. The Ihokhetlani are proof that this is entirely within our means to achieve. In ending death we stave off the soul crisis almost indefinitely and improve the lives of mortal charges greatly in the process.

”Finally we have reincarnation were the souls of the dead are reborn into new bodies wholly intact instead of as ash, creating an actual cycle of rebirth. I’ve managed to do this in a controlled environment with krill, so I know it is possible. Rather simple in fact. It would be quite the infrastructure project to spread and automate this system across all of Galbar however.”

”So. Your thoughts?” she asked finally.

Kalmar considered her words for a moment. ”Your first and fourth ideas have the most promise, I think.” he said at last. ”The problem with the first way is, as you said, the power. The problem with the fourth way would be that we would need to find a way to reverse or halt soul decay on a massive scale.”

Perhaps Orvus may have a solution for this particular problem,” Arae remarked. “If he truly has claimed Soul Decay as part of his abilities, then perhaps it is not too much of a stretch for him to create a system that can deal with soul decay. Of course, that would depend on his cooperation as well.

Before we move on with that, though, I would also like to point out the issue with memories,” Arae added. “Every soul is going to retain their memories after their bodies have perished, and simply placing them into new bodies will create new problems we’d have to fix.

”We make them forget, then.” Kalmar suggested. ”When they are reincarnated they start out fresh. A young mind is a fragile thing anyway, unable to retain much knowledge. Katharsos has experience with removing memories, and Abanoc is the God of Recording. Maybe we could ask Abanoc to find a way to store these memories, and restore them to their owners after death, which they can reflect on as they await their rebirth?” he wondered.

”I do not agree with these conclusions.”

Roog had listened once more, simply sitting back and allowing the gods to speak their mind on the subject. Azura’s proposals, of course, had proven interesting but reeked of a perspective antithetical to Roog’s own. As the Great Wolf listened he became considerably more aware of his separation from the gods by their own expressions with one after the other making it all the more evident. A displeased sigh escaped as a hiss between his teeth as Kalmar responded with his own take, proving once and for all what Roog had feared.

”The solutions you propose are flawed. They require artificial action and change to a system that is not the danger. You view the destruction and recreation of a soul as opposed to reincarnation when it is one in the same. Your perspective endangers those creatures under your care. Mortality is natural and an end to one life and the beginning of a new one is intended in the system from which all creatures are born; all but you First-Born, at least.”

Kalmar rose to his feet. ”Roog, come. I need to speak to you alone.” And with those words he began walking to the exit. ”Vendral, you will come as well.”

Roog watched for a moment before rising onto all fours and following behind his creator.

Rignol, having stood silently for the entirety of the meeting so far, spoke at last as he watched the three leave. “Perhaps it best for a recession?”




Vendral flew them onto the peak of one of the smaller, adjacent mountains. Kalmar climbed down and waited for Roog to do the same.

Roog had been silent on the short ride, lost in thoughts borne on the web of words spun in the room amongst the First-Born gods. As Vendral landed and Kalmar climbed free of the beast’s back, Roog leapt down to join him. There was a look clearly marring Roog’s visage, showing displeasure for any who had the vaguest hint of how a wolf emotes. Despite the clear need to voice his concerns Roog remained quiet, waiting for his creator to initiate.

Let me make this clear, Kalmar’s voice spoke inside Roog’s head. To any observer, the only sound would be the wind. I do not see any flaws in Katharsos’s system, and any alternative that Azura offers will be unnecessary, and perhaps even inefficient. However, it is clear that she will not listen to reason, which means the only other way to make her stop will be to use force, and do you know what happens when gods clash?

Inefficient, alternatives, avenues of research, the thoughts boomed from Roog’s mind with thunder like efficacy. There was clear power and emotion behind those thoughts, proof that Roog had been shaken to the core. His life, though short and more similar to that of a mortal beast, had been spent under the assumption that the Gods were as Katharsos and Kalmar. They had been sensible when he first was born into the world and had seemed to fit their monikers as the young wolf had expected. Each new God he met had changed this fundamental view of the world like nails in a coffin and the argument unfolding before him only exacerbated that realization.

These words sicken me, to hear them spoken of so callously in regards to life. It pains me to hear them. The Chopstick Eyed One, she speaks of wealth, while Azura speaks of Research and alternatives. Even you, creator, use their words; inefficient. A poisonous term. My interest is not in these things, creator, but in life and nature and the creatures that crawl and walk and fly.

Roog groaned with displeasure, his head held low and the fires of his tail flecking and spitting black sparks and embers towards the ground. He looked back up towards his creator with indignation burning in his bronze gaze.

I do not know what happens when the First-Born clash, Creator, but I will not slink quietly into the night so that they might find success without resistance.

Surprisingly, Kalmar nodded. Azura and Chopstick speak far too lightly on this matter, I agree. I count Chopstick Eyes as a friend, but I know she is strange and unreasonable. As for Azura… I fear Arae was right - she speaks of mortals almost as if they are toys, and does not truly value them; not as much as she thinks she does. As for me, despite the words I use I share your concern; the priority should be the preservation of nature.

[color=orange]And yet… the God of the Hunt was not finished. ...I have seen what happens when gods clash. Orvus, God of Desolation, once tried to kill Phystene, the Goddess of Nature; their battle scarred a continent, and created abominations which roam the sea to this day. Vakk, God of Speech, once tried to attack K’nell, and was nearly killed for it. Sartravius, God of Heat, and Ekon, God of Fear, both raised armies to attack Shengshi, the God of Rivers. While neither Sartravius nor Ekon were on the field personally, their armies still caused and suffered great destruction; thousands were needlessly killed, and entire forests were reduced to ash.

Kalmar allowed only a moment for that news to sink in. This is why we must work with her. The only alternative is to stop her with force, which could destroy the things we all seek to protect. But if we compromise, perhaps we can find a solution that appeases all while still maintaining a working natural order. There are already gods who seek to undo existence in its entirety; we cannot divide ourselves further.

Of his thoughts Roog suddenly became well guarded, his face becoming a mask of low emotions that appeared no different from a wolf in the wild. His maw opened gently and his voice echoed forth, sounding tinny and controlled.

”I understand. I will not forget this lesson, creator.”




The two returned to the meeting, expressions guarded, with Vendral following closely behind.

Kalmar approached the table, but he did not sit.

”Here are my conditions,” he said, speaking directly to Azura. ”So long as the creation and progress of life is not halted, we will help you find an alternate solution to Katharsos’s pyres. We will require full access to this location as well as the Soul Crystal storage. At some point we will need to reach out to Katharsos himself. He has more experience with souls than anyone, and he is not unreasonable; perhaps we can convince him to compromise and prevent open conflict. Additionally: I repeat that the progress and creation of new life cannot be halted; if a new solution is not devised before we run out of soul ash, then that may mean returning some of the crystals to the pyres so that the cycle may continue.”

”If you accept these terms, I offer you my aid in defending this place and looking into a solution. Do you agree?”

“Ooooh, contract law!” said Chopstick, clapping eagerly over the wok in which she was currently flash-frying some bright yellow noodles.

"You should not so quickly agree to this proposal, Azura." Rignol spoke at last. He then pointed at Kalmar and said, "This one speaks of his own conditions, and assumes the others will follow. A pretentious display." He said letting his hand drop."I also find this meeting lacking key viewpoints from Katharsos, God of Death and your Architect. Deciding on the future of this universe without key players would be unwise and arrogant. You can debate back and forth until the end of time about which is right and what is wrong but without those two agreeing to anything, then it is pointless. Unless you plan on overthrowing the both of them less they disagree?"

Kalmar met Ringol’s words with a glare. ”I speak only for myself, and I am suggesting that we contact Katharsos to see if he will agree. If he doesn’t then things will change. The deal I offered was for things as they currently stand. Nobody needs to be overthrown. Next time, consider your own words before you accuse others of pretentiousness.”

"Who is 'we' then? Do you speak for the others? It would make sense for a being such as yourself to assume that others would follow you. Oh what was the saying where I come from… The Alpha of a pack? Mhmm, it matters not I believe. The others will surely follow you regardless of your conditions. Forgive me if I sound pretentious, God of Hunting. I speak only so that Azura may listen. I would hate for her to be taken advantage of, given the current circumstances." Rignol said, his voice like a golden serpent. Or, as the case may be, a sizzling golden noodle.

Finally Azura addressed her guests once more ”You have, when it comes down to it, given me little reason to trust you. We are strangers to one another. To give you access to the soul crystals at such an early stage would be baring my throat and gambling with countless souls that have entrusted us with their protection in the process. If we want this to work, we will need to start with terms smaller in scope than your initial offer.”

Contract law, contract law, mouthed the one with chopstick eyes, dishing up the noodles.

Kalmar crossed his arms. ”I could say the same to you. I have an obligation toward my creations and to my worshipers. There is a chance that some of them might end up in this vault. Why should I not have access to them? Why should I trust you and you alone to safeguard them?” He leaned forward. ”Nobody in existence can truthfully claim I do not keep my word. I watch over an entire continent that I will continue to fill with life. And I have many friends and allies among the rest of the gods.” His gaze swept across the table, settling on one individual. ”Chopstick Eyes. We made a deal in the past, yes?”

“That’s certainly true!” said Chopstick Eyes, offering a bowl of curry.

Kalmar accepted the bowl with a nod. ”And I held true to my end of the deal, yes?”

“You did! He beat up an overfed fish for me, by the way,” she nodded to the rest of the assembled divinities. “I know what that sounds like, but it was really important.”

Kalmar nodded reluctantly, but that reluctance lasted only a moment, and then resolve returned to his voice. ”It was. And that was not the only deal I have ever made, or the only assistance I have offered,” he declared, in his usual blunt and serious tone.

”When Orvus attacked Phystene, I was the first to come to her aid. It was my idea to form a pact against those who would senselessly destroy Galbar. I stood against Orvus alone, to make sense of his motives and convince him to change course. I aided Asceal in the creation of one of her children, without needing to be asked or offered anything. I met another god when they were at their most vulnerable and I helped them recover at no benefit to myself. When Shengshi was attacked, even though we had our disagreements, I did not hesitate to come to his aid.” The Hunter paused briefly, slurping up a noodle, before continuing on. “If you think I’ll put a knife in your back, you are mistaken.”

Azura leaned back in her chair, chin leaning on the base of her hand and fingers curled up before her mouth as she considered this response before glancing at her past self. Despite Azura having been the one to raise the objection, out of the two it was Cerule who remained the most sceptical.

”We’re not going to believe that self professed series of accolades are we? A third of it was threats veiled as boasting about his power and influence.”

”Asceal called him a friend, and we met this child of theirs however briefly.” Azura responded

”She also called him too unreliable to be brought into this. Case and point: Orvus. All he seems to have done is made him more subtle about being a destructive prick.” the other replied, referencing the battle currently ongoing against the soul decaying infestation.

Unreliable? Kalmar’s eyebrows arched in frustration. It seemed as though Asceal had taken to slandering other gods as a hobby.

”At least unlike him these people came to talk to us.” Azura responded.

”Talk to us about destroying those we have saved. By the way, the last minute ‘I have a responsibility to my people’ kinda jars with that whole position, mate. We are not agreeing to that no matter what. ” Cerule’s fist pounded the table to punctuate the declaration of the uncrossable line.

Chopstick shuffled in her seat.

”No. We aren't. However I believe we can accept some of the rest of the parts of the offer which we can actually agree on and are immediately relevant.”

She turned back to Kalmar ”I can agree to you having supervised access to this location and the vault of souls for the purpose of reaching an alternative. I also agree with the proposed future meeting with Katharsos. When it comes to reactions to the soul crisis I believe there is a fundamental disconnect between what we find valuable about life, the system itself versus the individuals it produces, that we could argue about till the end of time. Instead of doing so, I suggest we table the matter entirely and focus on ensuring that the discussion never needs to occur. Is that acceptable?

Azura glanced over at Cerule who sighed and nodded.

”I’ll add another condition to that deal,” Kalmar said. ”The Alma who pass through my lands are not allowed to be armed, or possess any offensive abilities. My avatar watched one of them shoot a fleeing mortal in the back, right in front of that mortal’s family, so I’ll not trust them to roam unchecked among my own creations. And if we ever reach a point where our deal needs to be broken, I will expect complete and total honesty because I am prepared to offer the same; I will not tolerate betrayal or deception.”

A brief look of surprise and dismay crossed Azura’s features before she frowned. ”They aren't supposed to do that.” she said, as an alma fluttered over to her and landed on her arm. She began humming as verse spilled from the bird’s soul gems and line dup for inspection before her.

”I can guarantee” Cerule said as her younger self inspected the Alma’s instructions ”That if this pact becomes untenable we won’t be quiet about the fact.” Outside there were a few flashes of light and accompanying ‘pew pew’ sounds as Azura remotely test fired an Alma’s light breams.

”As for disarming them, that is not easy. It’d be like trying to disarm a dragon. We’d have to rip out the bundles of power in them without killing them and then try and instruct them in how to comprehend something as abstract as borders. Could do it, but it’d be expensive.” Cerule explained.

The verse retracted back into the Alma as Azura completed her adjustment. ”A tragic result of Asceal’s blessing that I severely underestimated the power of. I’ve adjusted their behavior so that they are much, much more careful and added some settings for lower intensity fire as well. The incident you described should not happen again.” she said as the bird flew away.

”As for disarmament, it might be easier to create an unarmed crystalizer from scratch if you are willing to aid in its creation?” she added.

”That would be easier,” Kalmar agreed. ”But I would expect it to prioritize my commands above all else.”

”Just you? Not you and your friends here?” Cerule asked as Azura was busy making blueprints in her mind. ”Also are any of you in on this? The more the merrier.”

I do not desire any responsibility over them, and I would not know what to do with them if I did,” Arae said, shaking her head as she held a palm up in refusal.

“I could do it,” said Chopstick Eyes, pulling a business card from her pocket and pushing it to the middle of the table. “We only provide the highest-quality diplomatically neutral mortal soul vessels here at Stickchop Industries™. I can even think of a price that wouldn’t inconvenience any of you one bit.”

Roog watched with steely gaze at the precession of diplomacy that unfolded before his eyes, his emotions now guarded beneath that most feral of visages. Bronze eyes regarded those about them as they spoke but it seemed he was loathe to respond, quiet as he was despite plans and deals being bandied and bartered about. The very edges of his midnight hide flickered and bit at the air around him, crackling noiselessly. As he was addressed alongside Kalmar towards his intentions he at last spoke, his voice coming out sounding of a whisper but at the volume of a normal speaking tone.

”I will not assist; you have not compromised on your ends, only the means by which you achieve them. I will not see such creatures fly over Kalgrun by my own actions.”

Roog, Kalmar’s voice could be heard within Roog’s thoughts. Think about it. The creatures will answer to me, which means that whether or not souls can leave Kalgrun will also be decided by me. We do not need to compromise with Azura; if her solution is one that ultimately displeases us then we create our own, or put a stop to crystallization in Kalgrun altogether.

”I will not resort to tricks or betrayals,” Roog said as he stared defiantly at Azura, showing no sign that Kalmar had shared thoughts with him, ”So I will not enter into a pact that I cannot know I will always support. Unless you offer a compromise that addresses my own position, I will not assist.”

”It is somewhat difficult to compromise on a matter that has yet to be decided upon.” Azura said while spinning plans for the unarmed Alma out of verse ”Is it not better to be part of the discussion, or at least stay informed as to how it is going, than reject the topic entirely?”

As she was talking Cerule leaned over and poked a finger into the half formed blueprint. Azura responded with a flat look before shooing her off and continuing her craft.

”This is not a discussion,” Roog pointed out, his bronze eyes leaping over to match Azura’s gaze, ”The compromise is producing another form of life that maintains and propagates your goals. If you would provide some sort of compromise towards our own goals, that being the continuation of the cycle, I would be far more amenable to assist.

”Okay but this one is worse because it can't shoot lasers. And have meddling from the huntsman over here. If that’s not up to snuff then what is?” Cerule asked.

”Restrict all soul crystallization to sapient organisms while leaving all other organisms within the cycle for the time being. This is what I would need to be assured that both sides of the compromise are being forwarded. Then I would assist.”

We won’t be doing that. spoke the great whale in response. Luis been primarily orchestrating the reconquest of the vault as the meeting took place but on this topic he could not remain silent.

Azura nodded ”That line has already been drawn in a place I’ve made peace with. To deny salvation after it has been offered would be to breach promises already made. Being made a liar seems like a poor way to start this collaboration.”

”Nothing personal Roogi boy, Luis’s friendship is just worth more to her than your divine power.” Cerule added bluntly.

”Disappointing,” Rppg replied, giving particular attention to Luis, ”One day I hope you see the folly of your terror; you would have lived happier for it. If you will not provide me compromise, I shall take it into my own hands. I shall assist and the creatures over Kalgrun will be EQUALLY mine as they are my creator’s.”

”Do you agree to this, Azura?” Kalmar asked.

”Can you agree to not to instantly enforce your tightened limits upon gaining that power? Let the ‘beasts’ of the continent decide for themselves.” she asked Roog

”Let them all decide for themselves.” she said more generally to the assembled guests.

”I have no intention of violating any creature’s free will,” Kalmar told her. He turned to Arae. ”What do you think of this?” he asked her.

If the cycle of life and death is maintained, and mortals are not in danger of extinction, then it will have to do,” Arae said after a moment of thinking. “Finer details may have to be worked out as time passes, especially when Katharsos is added to this discussion, but for now I approve.

Kalmar nodded. ”Then let’s get to work.”

Chopstick finished her curry.

”Agreed.” Azura said, pushing the glowing blueprint to the center of the table, where it formed the rough outline of an avian woven with Verse and suspended in a translucent sphere of power. A mold into which power could be poured. The goddesses of wind both stretched out a hand to touch the orb which thrummed with energy at the contact.

Kalmar reached out to press his palm against the orb as well, with Arae following suit.

Roog watched as the pair performed their portions of the ritual, eyes flashing with considerable interest. Unable to stretch out a hand as they had Roog closed the distance with the orb and pressed his nose to the silvery sphere instead.

”Let this work mark the beginning of our pact, wrote in contract, sealed with divine power.” Azura said symbolically as the creation formed at their touch.

”And witnessed by the void. May it bless this peace and curse those who break it.” spoke the stone cat, forgotten by all, with words that had a weight all their own.







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