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There's certainly room for dissenting opinions among the gods, and a crew member pursuing the original directive is an interesting idea. The only concern might be that an openly hostile character could find themselves cut off from the focus of the action at first, but some intrigue should mitigate that.
<Snipped quote by Cyclone>

>Good to know. Although another question I had was do we need to play strictly humans or could we be like an uploaded human/AI? And if that is the case how would we handle the whole old gods have retired type deal since a reasonable amount of consciousness backups could be made and used across specialized hardware through the centuries.


Hello! Taking over from Cyclone for a moment - characters don't have to be strictly of human origin; thus far we have a player working on an AI, though overall we'd rather have this be the exception rather than the rule within the cast proportions. Mental uploads and backups are also entirely feasible, although I imagine they would be limited in their diffusion as much of the original equipment has decayed along with the knowledge of its employ. You could, however, absolutely have a character who makes this kind of technology their domain, like a Daedalus creating automata in his image or something similar.
The Tale of Nîrn, son of Khîrn


Listen, good folk of Dukha! Come listen to the sorry tale of Nîrn the wanderer, who drags himself from mountain to mountain until his creaking legs will at last give way. Listen and I will tell you why I have come to you from far north, why I roam so wide though my back is more stooped than an old highland tree. Don’t be awed by my grey and heavy beard or by my wizened eyes: little more than forty winters have passed since I was born! Aye, just so, though you wouldn’t give me less than a hundred. Listen, then, how this came to pass.

It was some three years ago that we set out from Vonde for the last time, me, still young and hardy then, Ibar my brother, not much older, and Andró the stenzhik, who had carried the packs of Khîrn my father before me. For the last time, I say, because of us three who left, only I ever came back. Aye, this mourning-bead you see on my beard is for my brother, earth be light for him. What about the other one, you ask? Listen, and I will tell you about it.

We set out, then, to do as we had always done - to find rare and precious things to trade. We would go down into the valleys and up the steepest mountain-paths, Ibar and I, to find the glittering vein-stone, the caves where the drowsy ore hides like a coiled snake and the snowflake-flower that chases away fever. Sometimes we would find the cold carcass of a foolish orzmiy, and then it was a day of celebration for us, because you know how many want a piece of those! I see you shake your heads and snicker. ‘To go far and wide, ready to give up your skin for a gain?’ you say, ‘This must be the last of the Chtviertne!’ Well, that was how we lived, and how our father had lived before us. Some have their caves and tunnels, others have the winds and the valleys like sun-lakes. That’s how it is.

Before, we had oft gone west, where the orzmiy breach the most and where their scales sometimes lie on the earth like snow. But that time we went north, for we would hunt the crescent-horned mountain goats that were said to live there, and bring back their rare pelts and skulls. We crossed many a gulch and mountain, and for many a day we searched every slope, but though we were in the roaming-grounds there was not a single goat to be seen. Just when we had lost hope and were about to turn back, though, we did find something else.

As we hunted and tracked the goats, we had pushed further north than we or any of our kin had ever roamed before. On the last day we were to chance the land, we rounded the foot of the Five-Finger Mountain, and then, as true as I'm standing here, we saw two suns in the sky! Aye, so it was. No, we didn’t have cave-brew in our waterskins, and we weren’t just dazzled after coming out of the shade. There was the sun up in the sky, and beyond the mountain, over the next crest of ridges, there was a little light shining. Little, I say, but for us to see it from so far away, it must have been brighter than a wildfire. Yet most wondrous was that, when night came down, it did not fade as the sun did, but stayed burning with its own white flame like a star fallen from above.

What would you have done, had you been with us then? We broke camp, and the next day we began to climb the further ridges, to see what it was behind them that shone so. Ibar thought that it would be a vein of strange ore, open to the sky, richer and more potent than anything anyone had ever seen before. Me, you may laugh, but I was certain it was a gemstone. Why I thought it would’ve been bare open, I couldn’t tell you, but had you seen its light you, too, would’ve doubted than anything less clear than adamant could cast it.

The ridges were tall and steep, but our feet were light with impatience, and so in a few days we had crossed them. But what we saw then! By Orjarz, may the earth swallow me if I lie, because you won’t believe me otherwise!

We saw a mountain, taller than any around, indeed taller perhaps than any I’ve ever seen before or since. We would have spotted it from much further away had it not been for the light, which sat right on its summit. It could have been a glacier, you say, but nay, no glacier shines on its own at night.

There was something in that mountain that almost made us abandon our curiosity and turn away, had we been wise enough. It did not stand, as mountains do, shoulder to shoulder with its sisters, but alone in their circle, as if it had grown from seed rather than stone. And it was all black, glinting and glossy like the smoked rock that the orzmiy sometimes bring from under the earth. There was not a single tree on its slopes, not a spot of snow. Not even birds approached it, though we gave it no mind then. It chilled our hearts a little when we looked at it, but the light called to us, and it had to be thousands of the clearest gems, waiting at the top of that strange mountain! It could only be a gift from the gods to the bold, and we would turn to stone before we proved unworthy of it!

In three more days, we were at the foot of the black mountain. As true as I stand, half of it must have been smoked stone! It grew out of the live rock in a way I had never seen. Had there been more of it, we could not have tried the ascent, smooth and slippery as it was. But among it there was also much basalt and dark granite, lying in coarse slopes and ledges that struck out like wood-fungi from a tree, and strange though it was to see them close like that, we were glad to have a footing in them. So on the fourth day we gathered all the moss and herbs we could find, we filled our waterskins, for we were not certain we would find open streams, and set to climbing.

It was a strange thing, I will tell you, to climb that mountain. From below it looked tall and forbidding, so much that your legs would start to ache as they just imagined the pains of scrambling up its side. But once you started, it went so easily! From ledge to ledge, you could go climbing seven, eight hundred spans in a day, whistling all the while, as if you were walking downhill. Then, when the sun began to set, all the weariness would hit you in one punch, and you’d be left there, panting, your legs buckling under you. Every day that moment came a little earlier, and only later I found out why that was. And why? Listen, and I will tell you.

We had been climbing another three days, and were already quite a bit above two thousand spans, when I became annoyed with my beard. Now you see that it is long and flowing, white and grey like the winter, but then it was thick and brown, and I kept it cut to my chest, so it would not hamper me in our travels. But it was always very fine and smooth, as that of all goodly folk should be, and so it surprised me that it should be tugging and itching so. I looked down, and it was terribly tangled, as if I’d been wandering the woods for a week. I called to Ibar, who walked ahead, and asked him, ‘Hoi, what’s the trouble with my beard?’

He looked back, and since he was straight against the sun I could not see him well at first. He looked a bit, and I thought it was strange he took that long, because we weren’t very far apart, and then he said, full of surprise, ‘By all the gods, your beard is grey!’

I did not believe him, and came closer so he could see better; but when I did, I saw him too, and what a sight! His face and hands were wrinkly like dried goatskin, his beard was wild, almost to his legs, and streaked grey and white, and his eyes were squinting and watery. He saw the look on my face, and I saw the one on his, which told me that I must have looked little better. Then we both turned back to look at Andró, who trudged behind. He had been walking slower and slower as we climbed, and now that we looked at him attentively, his shell was all worn and full of tiny cracks.

We looked at each other then, and you must’ve already understood what we both thought. It was the mountain, that terrible Lone Mountain! Now we understood all too well why we had seen no living thing on its slopes. It was cursed, or maybe something dwelt on it that stole our strength in the night as we slept; we did not care to know.

We hurried down as fast as our legs would take us, but where the ascent had been light and easy, the way back was a maze of danger. We had lost threescore years in a few days, and rested and eaten little, hoping as we did to reach the beguiling light faster. Slopes that had been a joke to us before now threatened to break our necks if we did not watch our aching feet, and that damnable slippery smoke-stone was everywhere.

Worse still, while we had barely noticed as we grew feebler on the way up, we now felt our forces leave us with every step. We had to bind our beards, because they grew so long that they got tangled in our legs.

There was less than a day left to the ground, and I, who was still stronger and sprier, had gone ahead, when from behind me I head, ‘Nîrn, help me!’

I looked, and there was Ibar, clinging to the edge of a treacherous crack, where he had slipped and perhaps broken a leg. I hurried to him, but I was worn and weak, and before I was even close my brother lost his grip on the smooth rock and fell into the fissure.

Some of you will know what it is to lose a brother. You can imagine how it was then, when I ached all over, when the life had been stolen out of me. I sat there, and I don’t know if I would’ve moved before I was too weak not to starve and be ground down by the wind to a pile of bones.

But I felt stony hands lift me then, and carry me down the slope. Andró was pitiful to look at, all chipped and falling apart, and he had lost both legs below the knee, but I was all skin and bone by then, and even as he was he carried me easily, until the very foot. Then he stumbled on his half-legs, and broke into four pieces as he fell, but from there I was soon on even ground. You see the second mourning-bead, near the one for Ibar? This I wear for him. One does not usually wear a mourning-bead for a stenzhik, but Andró acted like a true brother then, and as a brother I will honour him.

So shun it, good folk, shun that lone black mountain! Don’t go looking for its tempting light! What does it matter what treasures are up there? You will be dead long before you see them. It has swallowed my brothers, and chewed me up and spat me out like this, as you see me now. I see some of you look to each other and whisper, as I have seen others do in every town. They were unlucky, you say, but if we try, maybe we will find a shortcut, a safe way up, and see what is at the top. Don’t gamble your heads on it! That place is unholy, and I, Nîrn, son of Khîrn, have come to warn you.

When you see two suns in the sky, when you see a light among the peaks at night, turn away, and do not look back!

The Second Trial


The peak was more exposed than it could have been expected from a spot nested so low among the surrounding mountains. The gales, not content with its already fractured shape, battered it ferociously, seizing every loosened crumb of stone with triumphant howls and carrying it away like a treasured prize. No snow could hold its footing on the rocky spire’s small flat head, and, besides some tufts of brown grass heroically clinging to a crack in its side, the even little dolomite plaza was perfectly bare.

Just as the sky above it was obstinately silent, save for the wordless whistling of the wind.

“Here I am!”

Ea Nebel raised her face towards Heaven, her feet planted in the center of the summit, hands a-fist at her sides. Her scarf whipped out behind her, a perfect straight line tracing the force of the wind, marking a tiny black figure exposed on all sides to the crown of peaks that encircled her. Her shout, like her scarf, was cast away and lost to the gale. The silence continued.

Until, at last, the wind brought something.

Black smoke tumbled and rolled through the air, twisting and flouncing like entrails tossed to the ground, but never unravelling. One cloud, then two, three.

Seven.

They began to circle her as they approached, winding a quickly tightening spiral. Red eyes. Flashes of grey flame.

“Breathe,” one of them said in the voice of a dying pyre.

“...Hello, sisters.” Ea Nebel flicked white hair off her face with her gloved knuckles and let her eyes relax from the ruinous spirits, closing them for only a moment. She filled her lungs.

A fiery chuckle answered.

“Sisters,” one spectre repeated, and five others laughed again. Only the one who hung further back, the one with the three melancholy pupils, did not join them.

“If we are so much to you,” a one-eyed Eschatli began again, “Give us your breath.”

“All of it.”

“All your body.”

“All your life. Then you will truly be one of us. Just breathe us in.”

The demigod, cold-hardened, gave the spirits the air she held in her body, and nothing more. Nothing but a quarter of a smile. “You are more than nothing to me,” she murmured, knowing they could hear her over the wind, just as she could hear them. “But not that much. Talk to me, Eschatli. I would listen to your voice.”

The Six hummed, and they gathered closer.

“Do you know,” one of them said, “What it is to live without breath?”

“Without it, we cannot feed our flame,” another rejoindered, “We burn, but we are forever cold.”

“We never had land to call our home, for we cannot tread it.”

“No rest for lidless eyes.”

“No warmth for the heartless.”

“Come, sing for our sister,” one turned to the Other, who had quietly approached, “Sing of the Seven.”

And she sang.

“What I am, I must not show,
What I am, you could not know.
Something between heaven and hell,
Something that neither stood nor fell.

Far less happy, for we have
Help nor hope beyond the grave.
And this is all that I can show,
And this is all that you may know.

Neither substance quite, nor shadow,
Haunting lonely moor and meadow,
Dancing by the haunted spring
And riding on the whirlwind's wing.

A year there is a lifetime
And a second but a day,
And an older world will meet you
Each morn you come away.

The thunder’s noise is our delight
And lightning makes us day by night,
And in the air we dance on high
To the loud music of the sky.”


The howl of wind and song swept over Ea Nebel. She squinted against it, bracing herself against a force in the Outsider’s words that not even the gale could match. She drove her quartered gaze up into the grey flame that was Seventh of the Seven, hunting for colour in that thrice-pupilled eye, daring the spirit to bare more, to sing on with the loud music of the sky.

But the Other had no more to say, and she looked silently back as tendrils of smoke crept closer to the demigoddess’ face.

“Such is our lot, but in your breath we will find a new one,” said the Six as they reached for her nose and mouth with searing fingers, “If you will not give it to us, we will take it.”

And not another word was spoken as they surged in a wave of light and pain.

White teeth flashed. Soot-black fingers pulled open Ea Nebel’s black lips and revealed the clenched snarl hiding behind them. She threw her head forward as the fire entered her mouth and bit, ripping away an Eschatli’s gaseous limb above the wrist, claiming fingers from her sisters, snuffing them between her jaws. When she lunged, it was with a wet, grinding animal growl, and her neck stretched on inhuman bones as she seized her sister’s fire in tooth and hand and tore her apart.

No sooner were the Seven restored to number than Ea Nebel drew her blades. Twin smallswords, thin as needles, their guards of fresh ivory; they leached light, spilling tattered flowing sheets of shining white mana onto the mountain altar. Glyphs sparked from her ring in a constant shower and scattered out from behind the guard of that hand.

And, trailed by plumes of smoke peacock-like in that bath of shimmers, the Seventh began to dance. It was at first the slow oscillation of the waves lapping the shore at dawn, but then it quickened, unfolded, and truly became the dance of the flame. She careened one way with a weight that was gone the next moment, and then leapt up to the sky in fifty tongues before falling again in a pool of blades and teeth.

Without looking, the Six followed her, at first in a few tremulous steps between one life and the next, then more and more confident, more and more joyous. She was their corypheus, and they her silent choir, and she guided them among woven wonders to which they were blind. Where the Nebel-blades struck, they were no more. Where the rune-sparks left an opening, they lashed and burned.

Every white nova that flared when their enemy pierced them only delivered Ea Nebel an instant of respite as the Eschatli divided and the gap in the dance was filled by fission. She worked those moments without mercy. No longer could the shape of the woman on the mountain be mistaken for the goddess beneath the skin. Her spine twisted without grace, her wrists snapped back and forth independently, faster than fleshen nerves could command or bone could withstand. She was sleek chaos, she ate rhythm. Silk became steel on her skin and the Eschatli’s perfect step was broken time and again on her solidity.

Always there was another space in the dance for the Seven to hide in. The song of joy had been Seen before it was composed, and it was composed for her.

“ENOUGH!”

The cry did not come from her throat, only somewhere behind the soulless mask she wore atop her segmented armour. The night air thickened like water, and the dark fires floating within it were caught in the light of the sphere around her.

“Stand Still!”

And still they stood. Ea Nebel sucked the mask back inwards, revealing her sweat-soaked face under her helm. “You don’t… Tire like I do.”

Yet, tireless as they were, the Seven flames grew lower and dimmer in that moment. A shadow cast by no solid body had fallen over them, and with it came a weight that was more than just fatigue.

“To know the virtue of authority is to know the standing of oneself and all things in creation,” came at long last the voice from the sky, “It is to know that the obedience of Galbar-born is the birthright of divinity, as the obedience of lessers is the birthright of the supreme. Where even the subaltern may be preeminent in might or wile, they must ever heed the command of the paramount. This is a virtue of the divine.”

Then the veil of shadow was lifted, and the Eschatli were carried away into the distance upon its trail, like driftwood on the current.

Ea Nebel breathed, heavily but unmolested, her mail melting away into silk and wool. Her hands still gripped the swords. Only the mountains looked at her now, and under their gaze, she was all alone.

“One day we will dance together!” she shouted, her voice small against the wind, into the back of the distant circle of spirits. Once again her eyes chased down the last one, the grey flame. “One day I will swallow you.”

"There will be dancing, there will be ringing,
There will be shadow-people singing ~"


The fading gales brought back tatters of song, before those too were swallowed by the horizon.

Far below the godling’s feet, a small cavity about halfway up the tomb-peak’s side, until then as dark as its neighbours, lit up with the subdued radiance of luminous silvery fog streaming from its mouth.

“The third trial awaits there.”

Ea Nebel inclined her gaze once more towards Heaven. The wind was not so strong now. It carried faint drops of sleet. She threw her swords out onto the steep slopes to the left and right of her, and let the magnesium light of magic claim them. Then it was her turn to leap from the peak.

A faint voice carried between the mountains.

Daylight, in bad dreams
Of a cool world, full of cruel things
Hang tight, all you
Nothing like a big, bad, bridge
To go, go
Burning through





Stone and crystal scraped sharply as Iqelis tore himself from the ledge once more. As he stepped away, the grooves left by his talons were bared to mark where, until briefly before, every one of his fingers had been clenched while the struggle raged. Again he cast his inquiring gaze to the two goddesses without a word spoken.

“I wish I could find any enjoyment in the irony of these trials, but I cannot. I digress, I am satisfied with the results once more.” Homura said.

“Then you draw as much enjoyment as there is kindling for it,” the god rattled drily back. He spoke even fainter now, in the clatter of ancient bones rolling in a deep crypt.

Ruina observed the test with some amount of interest, as the trials of sisterly conflict were something that she was quite intimate with. The brutal way that Ea Nebel chose to push back against their assault was something that she personally approved of. She resolved to tell her that later. To do anything now would go against the spirit of the tests. As Iqelis sought her critique Ruina gave a reply that was actually simple for once. ”I approve.”

And so it was.



Blessed Blood of the North


The rill flowed and sang, crystalline and melodious. Over its surface, the nisshinek twirled, dipping and rising in a dance that mirrored its ebb and flow. When the stream leapt up on a great slimy stone or a piece of driftwood lodged in the damp soil, the sprite swooped down in a powdery cascade and brushed its surface with a thin edge. When it sank in a groove in the riverbed or fell through a gap between stones, the child of frost soared among the fronds of young trees above, leaving a glittering veneer on the giant leaves and knocking down the odd cone or acorn. Its laughter echoed the splash of water on mossy banks in a tinkling of minute icicles.

It was that laughter, as it rolled among the venerable living pillars of the roofless temple that was the wood, that called the shadow. The music of the stream was broken when a branch crashed into it, and the nisshi recoiled in horror when the clear water was polluted by the stringy dust of decayed wood. There was little time for it to recoup, however. Something came fast on its heels, dark and enormous and choking like the edge of a wildfire. A wehniek, it thought. Then it glanced back and met the shadow’s pulsing red eye, and knew that it was something far worse.

The nisshi leapt away from the tainted rill and into the wood, searching for a hiding place behind the mossy trunks or in the tangle of serpentine roots. Everywhere it darted, the shadow hounded it. Ancient wood was of no protection; as soon as the thing inside the black cloud touched it, it fell apart into worm-ridden splinters and sludge. Birds fled with alarmed cries as trees toppled, gnawed by invisible teeth, and slammed into each other in a mutilation of leaves and boughs. The sprite slipped into the tall undergrowth, but grass and bushes withered away under the shadow’s breath. It jumped, twirled, cried out in wordless terror. There was nowhere to go.

Nooses of smoke curled around it, and despite its struggling – how weak it felt in that caliginous grip! - the nisshinek felt itself pulled to the cloud’s heart. It felt the writhing of a flame somewhere nearby, but no heat, only the bitterness of ash. Then the fire swallowed it, and its crystals cracked in a final scream, for it burned!

In the jaws of the cold blaze, the nisshi melted, and the contented thrum of the unhuman drowned out its cries.




”We meet again under the sixfold-cursed moon; what have you seen?”

“I have savoured this land’s carefree souls; they are worthless, but delectable.”

“I have sampled of its hungry shades; they are useful, but their taste is foul.”

“I have found those whom we seek. Quiet now! They are close, be ready.”





The forest by night was not something one ever fully became used to. Nights were made to be slept through, eyes and ears shut to their strange shadows, or at most whiled away by the fire, where the warm crackling light kept away the darkness and its illusions. Out in the woods, with nothing to relieve the sight besides the moon sometimes timidly peeking through the branches, there was simply too much for a fevered imagination to latch on to. That lichen-coated boulder by the dead tree might have been a bear spying anything that moved through squinted black eyes; that bush might have been hiding something that crouched, formless and terrible, waiting to pounce; that tangle of dry wood in the fallen leaves could have been a dead body that would now stand up, with a gaping mouth full of broken teeth and empty, hungry eyes…

Kinte shook her head and vigorously rubbed her eyes, chasing away the terrors born of a fanciful mind inflamed by a lack of sleep. There was nothing out here but trees and owls! She had walked through that thicket more times than she knew to count, and not once had she seen a bear or a hungry spirit. She did not even know what the latter really looked like. Like a dead thing that walked, said those her did; but then, thank the spirits, she had never seen a dead childan, and there was nothing frightening about an animal’s body. So, it followed that there was nothing to be afraid of here, either!

All these things made perfect sense in the light of day, but when everything around was black and she could not tell if that mound a few paces away was a stone or a plant, they sounded a mite less convincing even in her head. If a bear or a spirit had really been there, would it have cared for Kinte’s reasoning about how they should not? No, it would just have jumped on her and ripped her apart. It was impossible, it was unlikely, she could tell herself that all she wanted; it was not going to convince the world around her if things were otherwise.

Enough of these waking excuses for nightmares! She angrily smacked the nearest tree with the flat of her hand, and blinked in surprise when it answered with a mournful groan of wounded wood. Then she felt like laughing. She was a woman of the tribe! What did she have to fear? That strange strength, the gift of the Spirit Father, coursed in her limbs. It was the bears and ghosts* that should be afraid of her, and if she met one now, she would…

“Hey.”

Something warm touched her shoulder, and before she knew it she had spun around, by some miracle having held back her fist before it struck Hattek’s wide-eyed face.

“Seeing things again?” He smiled, and she let him lower her hand with a chortle.

“You know I can’t help it.” There was a sound of something heavy trudging through the bushes, and she was ready to jump again. But it was only Laach, looking bemusedly at her expression as he hauled half a great elk’s jaw over his shoulder, heavy and toothed. After all, a bear could have been there even if she did not see it. Kinte nodded at him. “Did you bring any more surprises?”

Hattek shook his head, smirking. “None. I hope you didn’t either.”

“Issi is watching today. The way she sits staring at the fire, she won’t even notice I’m gone if I get back before the moon starts to set.”

Something flashed between the trees in the corner of her eye. She did not hear any sound. It was nothing, just the darkness again. Nothing. Hattek had not seen it either.

Instead, he laid a hand on her belly, listening through the skin. “And how long until they all notice this?”

She covered his ahnd with hers. “Many moons still. Nobody’s even thinking about me now,” she chuckled, “There’s some others who are past hiding it already. Does your tribe know anything about that?”

“I can guess a few,” he grinned. Who it was, however, was to remain unsaid, for at that moment Laach shuffled closer to them, fidgeting uneasily with his elkbone maul.

“There’s something around here,” he muttered in his low grumbling voice, “Maybe nobody’s followed Kinte, but-”

A splash of something dark and heavy struck the side of his face from the treeline, and a cold, colourless light blinked through the air. Laach dropped the elk-jaw and clutched his mouth as more pale sparks erupted around him.

Kinte barely had time to jump before something searingly cold brushed against her ankles, and her legs gave way under her. She grasped at the air as she toppled on her back, and felt a dusty stirring like a waft of smoke run between her fingers, then that same icy burn. The moon was red as she stared up with clenched teeth. No, not the moon. A round, red eye was looking down at her, and in it she thought she saw detached curiosity together with a tired disgust, like someone examining a strange new insect.

Someone collapsed with a thud and a grunt beside her – Hattek? Laach? - but she could not turn her head to look. Her feet, her wrists, her shoulders, everywhere that cold breath had touched, refused to answer her.

Flies buzzed nearby, ahead of her. Flies at night. The red eye moved aside, and she could see the trees again, with the moon, still white, still without a pupil, up in the sky.

A piece of the forest stepped forward, and the moon glanced down. A light in the hollow eye of a skull. Branches and trunks were bones blackened by the flame, tatters of rotting skin and flesh hanging from them like the last leaves of a southern tree before the winter. A hundred arms. Sharpened fingers. The dead lived, as tall as the sky.

“This is a land of spirits,” the night spoke with the voice of a wood where every tree bent and fell with hoary age, “Only now will it know the touch of the One God. You will be the first to bear the Blessed Blood.”

The hundred arms stretched down to the earth, and waves of pain rolled through Kinte as something was torn from her hands and feet. The fifth finger, she understood before the urge to scream the pain away drowned out everything else. But now her mouth, too, was locked as if by frostbite, and only agonising moans forced their way out of her disobedient lips. The sounds around her head told her that she was not the only one.

Darkness gathered before her eyes. A half-flayed, half-fleshless blackened face as tall as her whole body bent over her. She could see huge corpse-worms wriggling in the ruins of its right eye, and the glazed, foggy, faintly glowing barren orb of its left one.

“Your child will be born under my sign.”

Then a lance of agony burrowed into her head, and she saw no more.




Kinte opened her eye and rolled it around, taking in the smells of the night as her glance ran and hopped about. Dark sky, sinking moon. Bodies among the trees, pale and – huge? No, they were just like her. Blood pulsing, healthy, powerful. Loose red hair tangled in the undergrowth, four-fingered hands splayed on the ground. Everyone was still asleep.

She rose to her feet, marvelling at how much less imposing the woods were than she had thought before. That bush, had she really ever thought it was a bear? She could have squashed it under one foot now. Her eye fell on a trunk that stood before her, where a faintly glowing sign, as starkly white as her skin had been carved into the bark. Despite the size of the hand that had scratched it, it was only about as large as something she could have made.



As memory stirred, she raised a hand to her belly. Her child. What would there have been for it before? Shame, resentment, envy? Those same things that made it so that it should be born a pariah among its people, just because she had done what every living thing did?

Now, it was blessed. Now, it had a destiny.

Grass and leaves rustled behind her, and she turned around without fear. Hattek and Laach were groggily standing up, running their tongues on their lips, winking and smirking as she greeted them with a grin. Behind them were all the others, every bit as tall and strong. Five women, ten men. Brothers and sisters of the Blessed Blood, their Blood. There were groans among them, and some scratched their empty stomachs.

“The moon is setting,” said Kinte, “Issi will come looking soon.”

She smiled wide, and a forest of sharp white teeth answered.



Ruin fulfils her purpose





Tucked away in one of the many rooms of the divine palace sat Ruina. Hoping to catch up upon what she had missed during her time straying away from the grand stage of Galbar, she made extensive use of the artifact that she had been given. The events that she had missed would forever be lost to her, but now with an unflinching eye she could gaze across the surface of Galbar unimpeded. Though she could not hear words she could at least witness events as they transpired. Of particular interest right now was the events transpiring around Iqelis. She recalled their previous encounter with disdain and thus decided to focus her vision upon him and his companion in order to keep an eye on what they might be doing.

Witnessing their discussion with Homura, Ruina pondered the reason why Iqelis chose to shift into the form of a giant insect. More intimidation games? Some things never change. As the group began to depart westward Ruina rose to her feet. Departing the room, she spent a few moments walking and found herself before the great bridge descending to Galbar. But she did not descend yet. Focusing into her artifact once more, Ruina sought out the group once more to continue watching. If Iqelis was indeed attempting to intimidate other gods again, Ruina had plans to confront him. With the enhancements made to her suit she felt confident in her ability to take the upper hand in a confrontation.

Interestingly, she’d be going there for a very different reason…

Indeed, the looming black figure was nowhere to be found in the vicinity of the rest of the trio. There was a clink nearby, not of a blow upon the luminous bridge, which would not have made a sound under the heaviest of treads, but of crystalline talons striking together as they alighted. There, the divine she had observed not long ago stood upon his two feet, arms folding together after having carried him through the tide of moments.

“The Elder One has need of your aptitude again,” he crackled, somewhere between amusement and irritation, “This time, His will has spoken with His own mouth.”

Ruina could sense him the moment he began to materialize. Opening her eyes and turning her focus out of her artifact for a moment, Ruina turned to face Iqelis and affixed upon him a guarded gaze. When he finished, Ruina pondered. Why she had not heard of this from Him directly? Still, if the words spoken were true, Ruina did not wish to disobey.

Blinking to show some form of motion, Ruina nodded. It was clear that she remained guarded from their previous encounter, and even if Iqelis said that the charge came from Him directly, Ruina wasn’t sure if this was some complicated ploy to entrap her somehow. Speaking at last, Ruina addressed the charge she was given. ”Very well. What is the duty that He had charged me with?”

“Down there,” a dark hand pointed at the end of the bridge, where it disappeared into the many-coloured canvas of the Galbar’s surface, “Wait two deathless lives, one I have taken and one I have given. In exchange for the first, I am made to put the second to the test, that He may know it is worthy of His dominion. You, whose art is to forge crucibles, must ensure that mine is not too lax.”

As Iqelis explained, Ruina listened. As she listened, her guarded stance became more justified. Iqelis had taken the life of a god? Then she was right to avoid trusting him. Blinking one more as her gaze shifted from the spot where Iqelis pointed back to him, Ruina spoke once more. ”Very well. Go. I will follow.”

The outstretched arm was joined by another score, and a wave of oily haste pointed the way down the sun-bridge’s golden span.




The Bones were green, mostly, with tough little wisps of grass that peeked out between rocks and whipped in the gusty in-and-out breath of stone-channelled wind. Then they were white, laden with year-round blankets of clean fresh clouds and the snow they left behind, trickling meltwater that fed the valleys and tasted of youth and rock. In between, they were brown. The peaks of Aletheseus’ grave were fertile, but they were also very cold.

Ea Nebel sat on that gravel-studded slope now, between the drab alpine meadow and the lifeless, peaceful summit above. The flank of the dozy Iron Boar sheltered her from the wind, but her knees were still tucked to her chest and her arms around them, a hood thrown over her head. Nothing changed until she yelled. 

“Why me? Why am I forbidden?”

Her shout was answered with silence from the Goddess of Honor who listened from afar. The red deity had kept a distance, merely observing Ea Nebel, but never speaking to her. Homura did not hide her presence, as she stood atop a large ledge that protruded near the mountain’s peak. She still held Daybringer, the golden spear shining brightly like the light of the sun as it rose above the horizon.

Only the wind saw fit to speak, and didn’t have much to say.

Ea Nebel abruptly stood, tall and steady. She whirled her finger once, and a black sling tied itself around it, and a stone. She whipped it around and released with a crack of leather at the easy target.

The projectile shot through the cold air and struck Homura, the rock biting deep into the flesh of her stomach. The goddess stumbled back, before the stone fell from her bleeding wound, and she returned to her previous stance, ignoring her injury while she continued to watch Ea Nebel. Their gaze met again, Nebel covering her mouth with her fingertips, eyes wide. Her mouth formed some mumbled word that the wind blew away.

She sat down as quickly as she’d stood. Her arms tightened around her knees, and no more words were spoken.




A rain of loosened pebbles rolled down the slope as the parting outburst of the Flow, whose misty blackness mingled with the waning light of the already distant bridge, eroded the ground under them. In the retreating halo of gold and black, a new silhouette was left standing in the stirring stones.

“The second judge will be here soon,” Iqelis announced flatly, “We can-”

His words broke away into silence as his sweeping eye clambered up the mountain and stopped on the oozing blemish on Homura’s person. It shone in a blinding white flare, and the very next moment he was scrambling up to the edge of the cliff with unnatural vigour, many-limbed like some horrible spider. Dozens of hands gropingly reached up to the wound, and the raucous churning of a buried whirlpool rose from somewhere deep in the god’s frame. A blink, and already his claws were gripping the ledge, the hungry glow of his gaze not far behind.

Ruina did not immediately follow. Instead she turned her focus once more into the artifact she had. Sending her gaze doward to the spot that had been indicated, the first thing she saw was a lightly wounded Homura, and Iqelis racing towards her. To say that her suspicions felt reassured was an understatement. Ruina’s eyes snapped open, and she lunged down the bridge at top speed.

Were it not for the divine material that the palace was hewn from, Ruina would’ve left scrapes and footprints in her wake. Upon Galbar a streaking form rocketed down from the sky to land in front of Homura, and from the cloud of dust rose Ruina. Raising her left arm Ruina seemed to grip at nothing, but the moment before her hand would have closed to a fist, a large blade of bone erupted from her arm.

Unlike what one would imagine, Ruina didn’t flinch at this development. Instead she held it aloft seemingly effortlessly, pointing the tip of the long blade straight at Iqelis’ chest. Her tail joined in this weaponizing, with a large stinger growing from the tip as it raised above her head, much like a true scorpion’s tail. With a firm voice, Ruina issued a stout command. ”Cease your bloodlust!” The god let himself drop back to the lower slope with a discontented growl, his frenzied light fading.

With her command issued, Ruina’s attention turned slightly, to Homura. A soft whisper found its way to Homura’s ear. ”Are you well? What has happened? Is this a trap to slay us?”

Ruina’s gaze remained fixed upon Iqelis’ form, waiting to see what madness would come.

“That is distracting,” the One-Eye remonstrated from below, with an irritated jab of a finger in the red goddess' direction.

Homura had remained still the entire time, her crimson eyes colder than the frigid air around them, but she spoke calmly in a monotonous voice. “I am well, but our brother seems mentally ill. I doubt this is a trap, for it would be a poorly designed one, nor have I detected any attempt to deceive me from either of them. I am Homura, and you have my gratitude for your intervention, sister. Let us allow them to provide a proper explanation now that we are all gathered here.”

With the explanation given, Ruina nodded slightly. The whispered voice returned briefly to Homura’s ear. ”Very well. I will hear them out. I am Ruina, sister.” What would now be notable, with things having grown slightly calmer, is that the weapons that Ruina’s suit had grown were flush with destructive energy. It wouldn’t take much of an examination to realise that they were exceptionally capable of bringing harm to even divine forms. Why would Ruina have such a thing? A curious question to be sure, but interestingly the primary answer to that question had a blade levelled down at him for the moment.

A gentle grey hand alighted on Ruina’s wrist. She looked and saw Ea Nebel, standing with them at last, her eyes exploring every corner of her, down the edge of the blade and up the twisted surface of her armour, around the lethal loop of her tail and resting, finally, on her face. Fragments of thought broke off from the jade rune-ring on her hand and crawled up Ruina’s arm as glyphs. The only sign that she had been swept up in the wave of tension was the doom-claw, resting loosely in her hand, hanging from her index finger with its ring of ivory.

“You’re wearing a corpse.” She did not introduce herself further.

As she felt the hand of Ea Nebel touch her wrist, Ruina’s head and tail snapped instantly to glare at the surprise arrival, but instead of launching an attack Ruina merely blinked as she considered the statement provided. By all accounts the observation was correct, but there was more nuance to it than just being a corpse.

As the thought-glyphs began to crawl up her arm Ruina pulled it free from Ea Nebel’s grip. Releasing the handle of bone that protruded from the blade caused it to retract back into Ruina’s form nearly instantly. As it did, the raw destructive energy that was wafting from it vanished promptly. The stinger in Ruina’s tail followed shortly afterwards, and her tail would fall into being merely a balancing tool once more. Now, at last, she would address the observation. ”It is more than that.”

Folding her arms, Ruina would look back to Iqelis before speaking once more. ”Explain yourself. Why is it that Homura is wounded, with you so eager to finish what was started?”

“That’s-” Ea Nebel interrupted, caught herself, frowned, and continued anyway. “That’s not important right now. Divine Ruina,” she began instead, flicking her wrist to shake off the leaking glyphs, matching gaze briefly with Homura. “I am Ea Nebel, a god for the grave. The one to be put to test. You,” she repeated, slowly, impassively, “you are a grave. Her bones are your blades now. A monument to her hunger. There’s nothing like you in this world.” 

Four gunmetal eyes searched Ruina’s own pale jade gaze, tracing the crooked lines of her scars, her bleached white hair, flicking in the same breeze as Ea Nebel’s own. They settled again on Ruina’s narrow pupils, searching for nothing in particular.

Ruina’s eyes narrowed slightly. Not important? A wounded divine being about to be eaten alive by a divine that had previously gone and murdered another wasn’t important? Ruina disagreed quite severely. ”I am told that these trials are happening because a god has died at Iqelis’ hand, and I myself have some unfavourable history with Iqelis. A wounded god with Iqelis charging at them is something that I do consider quite important, given the context.”

“...”

Taking a moment to brush away the errant thoughts herself, Ruina’s eyes hardened to a glare as Ea Nebel began to compare her to a grave and call her unique. Blinking away the glare, Ruina would fold her arms firmly once more before speaking. ”My sister was a murderer from birth. It was by the whimsy of luck that she did not succeed. I took back what was rightfully mine… And it was not a pleasant happening. On this I will say no more.”

“I know,” whispered the gravekeeper. “You don’t need to. Ruina.”

Now Ruina affixed her gaze upon Iqelis, waiting for a proper answer. The whispers coming from Ea Nebel were noted, but for right now Ruina had higher priorities to tend to, so they would need to wait.

“Unlike some, who while away the cycle in keeps and palaces,” the acidic crack of ice shattering over a toxic waste-pit answered her stare from the head of the slope, “I feel the pull of my duty keenly through every drop of the Flow. The spilled blood of an immortal calls to me, compels me to sever the frayed thread, which brings me joy immeasurable. If the Lance-Flame cannot cross a mountain without gashing herself open, she should travel underhill.”

Ruina’s eyes narrowed once more as Iqelis explained himself. The explanation sounded more akin to an excuse, and the barb tossed alongside it made it seem as if Iqelis was doing his best to lessen the blow to himself. Ruina, naturally, wouldn’t tolerate that in the slightest. ”So your given excuse is that you admit you have no control over yourself? Forget not that I am destruction incarnate, and yet show an immense amount of restraint when it comes to my actions. Perhaps you would be wise to begin emulating my choices rather than disparaging them. Regardless, bickering with you is not why I was brought here. Return to the proper course of things, or I shall see to it that your efforts are marked as failures before they even begin.”

At this point Ruina began to tap her claws against her arm, producing three quick tapping sounds followed by a slightly delayed fourth sound as the sharp claws harmlessly impacted on the firm shell of Ruina’s suit. Ea Nebel continued to weigh her with impenetrable eyes.

“Restraint is a fine word for those who would make of sloth a virtue,” jibed the Fly as he moved to a high rocky pass nearby in long leaps from boulder to boulder, “Nor did your Lord call for an envenomed judge. Hark now! Four trials were demanded, and four there shall be. I will test my child for the essential virtues that are required of true divinity to fulfill its purpose. The first ordeal waits in the vale beyond this gulch. Make yourselves ready.”

The demigoddess looked down, exhaled, held it. When she looked up again, it was to stare down the path of the meadow and into the jagged dark of the valley beyond, leaving the bitter tension behind her like a bowstring strung between eyes. 

“May the Imperial Sun lead not my step astray,” she prayed. “I’ll see you soon, Father.”

She curtsied once each to her judges and leapt down from the ledge, coattails fluttering like windblown fire as she descended. Her silhouette soon grew small and lonely on the meadow. Ea Nebel summoned the Monarch’s talisman back around her neck under her hood. She knew not what lay before her: what terrors of the mind, what agonies of the flesh, what temptations and humiliations of the heart. So she was grateful, if nothing else, for its warmth.

The Iron Boar grunted a sad and knowing farewell, and she stopped, once, to force a smile in its direction. Then she turned around no more, and disappeared into the valley.


Prelude to the Trials


The path by Time's riverside had passed in a blur of grimy iron embankments lapped by obsidian waters, and when it ended they were left on its idyllic autumnal antithesis. Rows of trees clothed in ruddy bark and fresh bright-red leaves pointed the way ahead in uneven rows, as if they had risen with the intent of guiding travellers through the maze of the wilderness. Sanguine grass rustled underfoot, and a few crumpled leaves fell as a splash from the receding Flow touched the closest branches. Above the forest's whispering heads loomed a ring of blind crimson walls.

“Your mother arbitrates in His name now,” Iqelis looked up at the citadel as he strode to the edge of the woods, “I have not seen her since that time.” Ea Nebel flicked away a stray wisp of hair and nodded in silence.

Standing atop the immense wall, the Goddess of Honor watched from afar as they approached, the golden spear she held in her hands shining like a bright beacon in the cold night. She leapt from where she stood, swiftly soaring through the air until she alighted in a clearing close enough to properly greet the two visitors.

Ea Nebel watched the silhouette of her original sculptor resolve itself from Daybringer’s blazing light. Her hands tightened in the pockets of her long coat, and she did not breathe. Some long-tightened heartstring of hope or fear had finally been struck. With the three beings now standing together, any mortal onlooker could have guessed why. Her stick-figure stature could not hide the resemblance, nor her deformity, nor the deeper drop of weird that coloured her flesh and fizzed in her voice.

Homura stared at them with neither contempt or pleasure, an unreadable expression as she spoke. “Iqelis, Ea Nebel. Why have the two of you come here?” She asked, bowing her head slightly as she addressed both of them.

Ea Nebel curtsied low in her boots. “...Divine Homura,” she said, not rising, “you have been named the Solar Monarch’s highest judge. We’ve come to ask you to witness our penance.”

A claw lightly came to rest on her shoulder, and several flies alighted in turn upon its fingers. “The Elder One demanded that I share His vengeance for a wayward shard's slaying with our daughter,” Iqelis impiteously snapped off every word like an icicle.

“You have brought this upon yourself, brother. This is neither vengeance, nor penitence, as you are now being judged for your irrefutable crimes against life and our Lord. How will you seek to atone?” Homura inquired, her tone remaining neutral.

Ea Nebel broke her curtsy without looking up and let her hand fly to grab the doom-god’s wrist, lest he clench his fist in anger.

“We shall do as He bids, for His accursed sun has yet to set,” the fingers on the One-Eye’s many other hands grew crooked, but his gaze remained even and unkindled, “Four trials of her virtues He has decreed, and four He shall have. I trust you are wise enough in such matters to uphold their worth.” A concession, dry and chilly as it was.

“Hmm… then I shall bear witness. Where and when shall these trials take place?” Homura asked.

“To the west, our brother of the earth has built a grave for the one who fell,” an arm rose to point far over the red horizon, “There it will be done, and his remains will be exhumed as the First of Lords wishes. Unless something keeps you, we shall begin today, when I have brought the second arbiter.”

“So be it.” The Goddess of Honor replied, before turning to Ea Nebel. “Are you prepared?” She asked. The demigoddess nodded.

“I have been given all I could ask for,” she said, looking down into Homura’s deep bright eyes, feeling much smaller than she was. “But… there is one thing I will ask you to give, all the same, for strength. A token. If I may,” she glanced away, up to Iqelis, then back, “Mother.”

“Why do you refer to me as such?” Homura tilted her head, a hint of confusion in her voice.

Ea Nebel broke an unwilling smile and looked away, trying to bite it down as she tugged on her coat. “You can’t…? Nevermind.” She adjusted her feet and her words quickened slightly. “You were the first to draw me out of the ground. My body, my skin, my earth and air and fire all start with you… As have many others. I thought you might want to… Give me a name.”

“I cannot. You may call me mother, but your birth was never my intention. You are not my child.” The curiosity of the red goddess vanished, and she stared at Ea Nebel with cold fire burning in her eyes. “You are a sword, sharp and double-edged. I will never wield you, though others will certainly try. I am the Goddess of Honor.” Homura said as she pointed at herself. “He is the God of Doom. We are enemies.” She continued, pointing at Iqelis, before letting her hand languidly drop to her side.

“Your Aspect… Your choice. I will not decide for you.”

The smile was gone now. Ea Nebel nodded, her hands in her coat pockets, and did not raise her head. “...It- doesn’t matter. Thank you.”

“Lastly, Ea Nebel, you are forbidden from entering Keltra.” Homura proclaimed as her impassive mask returned. Her words echoed with power, seeping into the land and sky, as the world all around was witness to her declaration. The demigoddess’s head jerked back as her teeth clamped down on the tongue she’d been biting, and she slapped the back of her hand to her mouth, eyes bulging.

“Then there will be no regrets when it is razed to the ground.”

The words, heavy and venomous, had not come from the godling's side, where Iqelis had stood, but from somewhere behind and above her. The silent echoes of Homura's bidding did not have time to fade before a vast shadow smothered them along with all light in the glade, save for Daybringer's lonely glow.

In the few moments where every eye had been turned away from him, hopeless as such a notion of reckoning was to capture the doings of Him Who Turns the Flow, a fearsome metamorphosis had come over the cyclopic god. At the edge of the glade there now stood an immense tree of black glass, so imposing that the forest around it seemed but a patch of brush. In its trunk was a cavity that burned with a baleful white flame, and every one of its myriad branches ended in a clawed hand.

They turned, and the currents parted.

Time tore and buckled as the two figures before the obsidian terror were swept over by a haze of sluggishness, and all about them trees collapsed into a putrid black mush acrawl with maggots. Every living thing within a great span crumbled in an instant under the blow of centuries, and the earth itself dissolved into rancid muck as thousands of carcasses choked it.

“For her sake, worm, I would have forborn from casting you into the same lot as the fallen and the condemned,” the One God raged in the voice of dying mountains, his eye vomiting storms of cadaverous light onto the crimson goddess, “But now I will have leave to pull you apart bone by bone! There will be no overlord to cry vengeance for you, for I will have torn his tongue out with your own fingernails!”

“You should leave, brother. You have let your anger overwhelm you, and it is unbefitting for any servant of our Lord to act with such disgrace.” Homura replied, and her visage remained calm and steadfast, despite the devastation all around her. Her gaze then turned to Ea Nebel once more. “Your trials await.”

Red eyes met grey, and locked there for a while. Ea Nebel’s pale figure was alone before the gods now, and cast two shadows in their unearthly light: one for Daybringer’s blade, another for the One Eye.

She lowered her hand gingerly from her mouth. A stain of black blood steamed over the back of her wrist and trickled down her chin. The wisp of vapour hung in the oppressive humidity of rot, trailing away with those at the corner of her eyes. You should do your job,” she mumbled. “Let’s go.” Then she was gone. For once, a harsh snap of electricity announced her departure, and the sound of a porcine grunt a second later.

The trunk of the terrible tree bulged, raising the lidless Eye on a wave of molten crystal. As it stretched further, the bulk of the divine growth followed into it, and in a pull of elongating distortion it was transfigured into the looming segmented body of a gargantuan centipede cast in living nephrite. It turned its head, featureless save for the blazing fissure, to glance in the demigoddess' wake, before lowering it to face Homura with its now tauntingly bestial countenance.

“Remember, wretch, that I am no servant. Iqelis' hiss was hollowed, animal. He pointed westward once more with the colossal spear of a leg. “Go, please your master. I will follow.”

The god-beast whipped around its barbed tail, flattening what still protruded from the rotten soil, and the ebb of the umbral Flow carried it away.

“How uncivilised.” Homura muttered to herself as she returned to the keep in preparation for her journey westward.



Blood of the Achtotlaca


On that day, the city bloomed like a fallow field when the tides of molten rock recede, leaving behind a glittering expanse of the most divers and colorful growths. Wreaths of fine crystalline flowers hung from slender copper stalks across the entrances of every cavern-den like so many subterranean rainbows, casting shifting blinks of many hues in the dim glow of the magma flows. In the largest dry-ground plazas, braziers had been lit with the dry and brittle plants of the world above, collected over scores of daring and furtive expeditions and set aflame by the heat of the lower city. The music of horn and scale rhythmically striking against metal rolled through the tunnel streets, solemn yet festive, for today Tecuicicoyoctli celebrated the rite of bloodletting.

The lower causeways, where the city met the flows, were thronged with the expectant peoples, twisting their serpentine bodies in the most fanciful ways so that they might spy what was happening on the lowermost plaza that hung above the slowly coursing vein of the earth. It appeared as if part of the great stone honeycomb had come to life as a great serpent, resplendent in scales both young and fiery and old and greying. Only the wide road that led straight to the upper city was left open, with the stoutest and most belligerent Achtotlaca guarding its length in a martial display.

A melodious sound rolled down the sloping hewn track, and the sibilant whispers of a hundred hushed conversations subsided as a magnificent procession descended from the rough but imposing palace that crowned the head of Tecuicicoyoctli. At its head came a score of musicians, their heads and spines adorned with crowns of brazen and steely leaves, coloured by a flower or underripe fruit here and there. Some of them held in one of their forelimbs a cymbal made with the shell of a large and ancient crab, which dwelt in multitudes in the pools below the city, and rhythmically struck it with the talons or knuckles of the other. Others carried rattles, oblong sacks cut from the skin of Tecuicicoyoctli’s illustrious dead and filled with the bodies of innumerable fire-beetles that clinked against each other like a river flowing with metal.

The harmonious beating of the cymbals and clattering of the rattles was mesmerizing, but even the most obtuse souls were struck with awe as the musicians passed, for behind them there came the splendor of the city. Teoxiuh, Tlatoani of Tecuicicoyoctli, was glorious to behold even in his waning years. His body was long and puissant, without the unwieldy burliness that often defaced the strongest warriors, but slender and long-tailed, with a gracefully tapered head. Now, however, his features could not be seen, for he wore the ritual mask made from the skull of his forefather Tlatlacatl, a splendid thing hung with beads and etched pieces of crab-shell. The Tlatoani’s attendants followed in a long train, and though they all wore their best ancestral ornaments, none were as magnificent as he.

On its way to the lower city, the procession stopped before the two greatest temples in the city, and each time Teoxiuh gave obeisance to the altar. The first time he prostrated himself to Yoliyachicoztl, the mother of all flame, from whom the Achtotlaca came and to whom they returned, and the second he bowed to Tlanextic, the first Tlatoani, who had saved the city of Chicomoztoc and all the Iyotlaca from the Demon from Below. Then he came at last to the plaza, where two mighty bonfires roared, and his musicians spread out around its edges, save the furthest one, which opened directly onto the magma vein.

Teoxiuh passed between the bonfires, and the beating and rattling reached a fevered pace as he perched and coiled on the open ledge. One of the attendants, the Keeper of the Thorn, handed him a basalt knife, which had tasted of his father and his great-father. The Tlatoani brought its tip to rest against the grey scales on his flank, and he spoke: “Unto you, deep fires of the earth, and unto you, mighty Tlanextic, First among Firsts, do I offer my blood, which runs pure with the line of sage Tlatlacatl. May it deepen the carven seal which entraps the Demon, and may it feed the weeds than bind the Demon, and may it quench the smoking fires of the Demon. Nothing is dearer to me than Tecuicicoyoctli, and I have never spared riches for it when it hungered. So too I will not spare my blood when the sacred ways demand it!”

And he drove the slender knife into the gap between his scales, and did not wince as he withdrew it, letting his scalding blood drip into the river below as all the city gave a hissing cheer. When enough had been spilt, another attendant, the Blood-Drinker, scurried to his side and licked his wound, not letting a single drop of the exalted ichor fall to the ground. Once the flow was stemmed, Teoxiuh whipped around head to tail, in a brief flash of the prowess he had been wont to flaunt in his youth, and solemnly trudged out of the plaza and up the road he had come from, preceded by the exultant musicians and trailed by his attendants. Behind him, the crowds began to flow, for now that the rite was done the celebrations in the upper city could begin.

As the causeways grew more and more deserted, two Achtotlaca remained, coiling and perched at the edge of the plaza. Both were from Teoxiuh’s circle; one of them, Ixpetz, had earned honors as an expert crab-catcher, and though her flanks were streaked with stony grey and she could no longer dive as deep as she once had, she was still reputed to be cunning and observant. The other, Miximachtlani, was far younger, but already known as a brash and fearless diver, who had many times journeyed to the world above in search of fame, of which, it seemed, he could never have too little.

“The Tlatoani never betrays his name,” Ixpetz said casually, looking at the molten river, “This year, too, you saw how much he spilled.”

“More than he had to,” Miximachtlani answered.

“Almost twice as much as he’d have to for his age!” the older Achtotlaca sniffed the air, still heavy with a sanguine tang, “The years haven’t tied his hands.”

“But?” Miximachtlani had sensed the lightly hidden caveat in her tone.

“But they’re drying up his blood. Soon he won’t have as much or as hot to give anymore. His children will have to step up to the Thorn.”

Yacahuitzic.” The diver did not need to say more. Teoxiuh’s consort was from Chicomotzoc. The match had been a great token of friendship between the cities, and none could contest that her lineage ran from great champions of the Iyotlaca, she was not Tecuicicoyoctli. It was not at all clear that their offspring would be pure.

“I said it at the time, that this was going to be trouble eventually, and I got told I was too young to mind these things,” Ixpetz gave an amused huff from her nostrils, “Now everyone else is starting to see it. You do too.”

“Blasted right I do,” Miximachtlani grunted, “It’s not just anything that’ll keep the Demon down there. How do they think they’re going to get pure blood from two who were born two days of swimming apart? We might as well start mating with the crabs.”

“But even if their hatch is found lacking, someone’s going to have to spill it anyway.”

“So?”

“Tlanextic wasn’t Tlatoani when he bled for the first time,” Ixpetz’s eyes were smiling, “All that mattered was that his blood was pure. That’s all that the sacred ways demand.”

“You think anyone could do it? Like us?”

“Why not? My fathers and forefathers were all of Tecuicicoyoctli, and so were yours. Many who are honoured think the same. If you’ll add your voice to ours, we may become famed among all cities for the bounty of our bloodletting…”

Now speaking in hushed tones, the two slid away from the ledge and began to ascend in the tracks of the already distant celebrants. They did not notice the cloud of black smoke that slipped out from a darkened alcove, nor the red eye that followed their steps as their voices faded into the sounds of the city’s festivities.


The Hunting of the Blood-Beast


It had come in the night.

Ostap awoke to the sound of struggle to his right side. Despite the immediate pangs of alarm, it took some moments for his drowsy mind to fully shake off the dust of sleep and find its bearings. The night was warm and clear, the moon’s web in full view. Earlier in the evening, he had decided to lie down to sleep outside, with the smell of fresh grass, while his father had grumbled about the fancies of his moon-struck head.

His father!

The grunts and groaning of torn xo-skin were coming from their tent!

With a shout, Ostap threw off the hide he had covered himself with and grabbed his knife of chipped stone. There were murmurs and calls around him as the rest of the band began to stir, but he paid them no attention as he rushed to the heaving bundle that had been his family’s tent. He heard Taras try to yell in a choking gurgle, saw his fists rise and fall wildly - and there, on top of him, a huge black shape beating him down with its repulsive naked wings.

Ostap shouted again as he fell upon the beast with his knife, whether to drown out his fear or give voice to his rage, he could not say himself. He blindly slashed at a hairy flank, and something shrieked in a way that made his agitated blood run cold. A face rose from the collapsed tent, no, a snout, flat and toothy like a skull crushed by a horse’s kick, and snarled at him. He lunged a second time, but something sharp raked him across the chest with such force that he fell onto his back. The wind knocked out of him, he could only dully stare upwards as a monstrous shadow crossed the sky before his eyes and winged away into the darkness.

Someone helped him to his feet, and he staggered up among figures that he struggled to recognize. He made to stumble towards the ruined tent, but a wrinkly hand held him back, pulling up the hem of his tunic almost to his neck. Ears still ringing with the excitement of fright, he looked down into Yevka the salter’s frowning face. Her mouth moved, but still he could only barely make out a distant mumbling, and he almost did not feel the sting when she rubbed a handful of her tiny white stones over his chest. It was only then he realized that the monster had wounded him. He ran his fingers over his ribcage, and in the moment before Yevka knocked them away with a matronly slap he felt the gouges. They were long, but shallow, luckily. He had gotten off much lighter than-

Taras!

Now firm on his feet, he rushed past his gathered bandmates. They parted before him, but if they said anything, he did not hear them. His eyes, his ears, all his senses were painfully fixed on the chaos of wood and xo-skin ahead.

His father’s body had already been dragged out from the mess. The hearty old man had fought to the last; his clenched fists were clinging with deathly force to tufts of soft grey fur torn from the beast’s hide. But it had taken much more than it had lost: Taras’ throat was almost gone, torn to a ragged hole by vicious fangs. Behind Ostap, someone retched at the sight. It was a fleeting echo to him, and the next moment he had forgotten it.

A dull pain in his hand finally tore his eyes from the scene. He looked down, and saw that he had still not let go of his knife, now stained with foul dark blood. His fingers had slipped over the sharpened side, and the stone bit deeply into his skin.




They gave Taras the death-rites the next morning.

He was laid out on the ground some distance away from the camp, among the white dry-stalk flowers, and Ostap draped three fine hides over him. Old Tovkač circled around the body, muttering the farewell tales that would soften the grief of the dead - and of those they left behind.

"...so Avros passed into the land of the shroud, for as the father of all peoples, he knew he had to lead the way for all his sons. He would be there to meet them when they no longer walked the earth, to show them that there's joy beyond that threshold as well as before." The old wiseman bent down under a coughing fit, a sign that he himself was not long from meeting the forefathers, and righted himself with his walking-staff. "For there they would be with them who they'd long thought lost. Brave Taras sits now with Adan his father, and Donera his father's mother, and everyone strong and wise that came between him and Avros. Don't weep for him! We'll see him again one day, and he'll greet us when we come into the land of the shroud."

"Yes, he'll greet us," Ostap answered absently, as he looked at the mounds beneath the hairy xo-hides. Far from their intent, the storyteller's words had dragged the stark, ugly truth of his situation before his eyes.

His mother, Kasja, had been the first to go. It had happened soon after the birth of his brother Anton. Though the boy had been strong and healthy, Kasja had been struck by a wasting illness some days after delivering him, and little by little it had eaten at her from within until her sun-marks had at last gone out.

No one had blamed Anton for this, but Ostap knew that his brother had quietly shouldered that guilt regardless, and it was that weight that had pushed him, as if in expiation, to always be the best. The most cheerful, always with a joke and a smile ready; the fastest hunter; the sharpest forager; the most thorough skinner. He had even become a friend to their usually surly and taciturn marshal, who had given him one of his horses to ride. And it was that gift that had been his end, when he fell from its back in hot pursuit of a spiral-horn herd and broke his neck.

Only he and Taras had been left. Each of them missed someone that had been his equal, and in that shared loss they had become as much friends and comrades as they were father and son. They had drunk field-brew together, traded jests and playful blows, cursed and laughed as they pulled out the guts from a butchered xo. Now Taras was a cold log of wood under a shroud.

Now, Ostap was the last.

He would have his own children, in time - in time, yes, he thought bitterly as he trudged back to the camp in silence. Who knew when that would be, now that all he had to his name was a broken tent. Seča would not mind, he suspected, but what kind of man would he be to drag her into a life of picking bones? The herd was the marshal's, and he did not trust him anywhere as much as he had Anton. Ostap's line had always been hunters. With two pairs of hands, they could have built up something, but on his own it would be years before he could think of feeding more mouths than his own. The monster had taken it all away together with his father.

Something in the tall grass caught his eye. The sun had dried out the earth out in the plains, and its murky brown graininess had turned to a pale, greyish crust. Everywhere but in one spot among bent yellow stalks, where the soil was instead a dark, dirty red. No, not the soil. Something that had fallen on it and lost its liveliness under the day's warmth.

Blood. The blood of a beast.

Ostap hunched down and parted the grass around the desiccated blotch. Sure enough, there was another close by, and another still. A line.

A trail that led to the east.




“So you’re set on this, eh? No way you’ll clear your head and put that spear down?”

“You know him, Kuben. A moon-struck head never clears on its own.”

Kuben laughed at the joke, but it was a mirthless, forced thing. Ostap was a good friend and a hard worker, and so, when he announced his mad idea, full eight people had come to try and set his thoughts straight. Kuben, Balban and Mezhig the hunters were there, and so was Bovdug, and Dubenia, who had been Anton’s lover, and Glodukha, Demid and Seča. But there might as well have been eighty of them, and still they would have been ramming their heads against a tree for all the good their words did. Ostap had the same hard skull as his old man, and besides he was moon-struck; what could one do when his moods came over him?

“That’s right,” he was wearing his travelling-cloak, and he leaned on the haft of his spear like old Tovkač on his staff. “For everything you take, you give back its worth, that’s the way of the just. That beast’s taken the dearest thing there is, a good life. It’s only right it gives back in kind, even if it’s only got a rotten one itself.”

Balban shook his head. “How do you know you can even kill it with that spear?”

“It’s bled before,” Ostap’s face was carved in stone. “If it bleeds, I can do it.”

There was a moment of silence, then Seča stepped forward, gloomy like the evening with her prematurely dark eyes.

“We’ll go with you, if you want.” She was a woman of few words, but they were weighty. No one dared argue with her now.

“No,” answered Ostap, looking down to the earth, “If I go and don’t come back, I won’t pull you under the shroud with me. There’s no right in that.”

“If we go together, you’ll be more likely to come back, and we too,” Bovdug pointed out.

“The beast looks down from the sky, it’ll spot us easily if there’s many of us.”

Again, no one found any words, until at last Balban spoke up.

“Well, it’s goodbye, then,” he smiled, this time genuinely, “Good hunting.”

“Goodbye.”

Their eyes followed him as he walked out into the grass and crested the nearest hill, becoming a blurred outline in the sun’s glare; then he went down on the other side, and they could see him no more.




The blood trail only lasted Ostap until around noon. The monster must have licked its wound on its way, for after the five hills there were no more dried clots to be found among the grass. He did not let this deter him, and since he knew no better, he went straight ahead. Even if the beast was not there, there must have been someone around the steppe that had seen in, large as it was.

In this, too, he was however disappointed until twilight set in. Only then, weary and dragging his feet in the descending darkness, he saw something on the plain ahead. It was too big to be a spiral-horn, too tall to be a wild xo. Fear shot up as his thoughts ran to the beast, but settled down again when he noticed the shape had not moved. Squinting, he could make out the tip of a pole sticking up from rigid conical flanks. A tent! There was someone out here after all.

As he came closer, he spotted the tent’s owner seated on the ground before the threshold, swaddled in an old, bug-eaten hide cloak. He almost stumbled when he saw her face; she was without a doubt the oldest Eiodolon he had ever seen. Her hoary skin, drooping in wrinkles around her long crooked nose, made old Tovkač look hale and youthful in comparison. It might have just been the evening shade, but her eyes were perfectly grey, as dusty and ashen as her weathered horns and thin hair. He could only imagine what her sun-marks must have been like, if she still had any at all.

“Hum, hum,” the woman croaked when Ostap drew near, the wide conches of her nostrils twitching and widening under her bony beak, “I smell a steppe-man. What are you doing out here with the sun almost gone? Don’t you know that the blood-beasts have been stalking the sky?”

“I’m not afraid of them,” Ostap steadied himself with his spear, swaying on his sore legs, “But you’re out in the steppe all on your own, and the blood-beasts took my father though he wasn’t older than you. Let me be your guest, we’ll be safer the two of us together.”

“Eh! Fine words,” chuckled the crone, “Come in, then, there’s room for us both. I’ve lived here many years, since my band went north,” she kept speaking as she ushered Ostap into the tent, which was wide but almost bare save for a few bundled hides and a weakly smoldering fire-circle in the middle, “But I’ve never seen a blood-beast around before that big one flew by yesterday. That’s the one that came to your band, isn’t it?”

Ostap nodded. “Did you see which way it went?”

“Straight to the sunrise,” the old woman answered as she sat cross-legged on a crumpled spiral-horn hide speckled with ash, “Why, are you hunting it?”

He nodded again, hand on his spear.

“Brave man! I’ve never seen anyone try that and make it, but there’s always a first time. What’s your name, so I will know whose story to tell to the next one who comes here?”

“I’m Ostap, son of Taras. And who are you, so I’ll know who to thank?”

“I’m Yeghna. You wouldn’t know my father or my mother, they died long ago. But let’s leave them to rest! You must be hungry after coming all the way here, and I’m your host.” She went to fish for something under a disorderly heap of furs, but Ostap held up a hand to stop her.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got my own,” he drew out a strip of salted meat from his belt-bag, “It’s already enough I’m taking your tent, I haven’t got anything to give for your food.”

“I said I’m the host, why should you give me anything? It’s up to me to make sure you’re covered and fed,” Yeghna grinned, crooked and toothless, “Are you sure all that salt won’t make you thirsty?”

Ostap opened his mouth to reply, but then he felt his parched mouth with his tongue, and thought to how every drop in his waterskin was precious out on this journey.

“You’re right, a swig wouldn’t hurt,” he assented at last.

“Say no more - you’re my guest!” Yeghna pulled a wooden bowl out of a corner. It was halfway full of some thin, murky liquid that smelled of sour berries and wood-root.

“Thank you.” As she handed it over, Ostap’s hand gave a twitch that could have seemed involuntary, bringing it to brush against the old woman’s wrist. It was an undue precaution, perhaps. What could she have stood to gain if that brew had been poison, if it made him die here, in this lonely tent? Even if, spurred by some madness that had come into her from living alone for so long, she had wanted to kill him and eat him like an animal, he was quite sure that she did not have enough teeth for that. And still, this tent standing alone in the steppe, that strange-smelling bowl instead of a waterskin, there was something in all of this that put him on edge. Even just a touch to sense the shades of her intentions would have been reassuring.

Instead, he felt nothing, though his fingers touched ruvid skin. Instead of Yeghna’s wrist, he had swept them over the hem of her cloak. She did not seem to have noticed, and so, not to appear ungrateful, he took the bowl and drank the sour, but not unpleasant berry-water. It did not give him any pangs in his belly, and he dismissed his caution. The danger was not this frail ancient, but the thing that flapped and skulked out there.

“It’s good for your dreams, chases away the dark ones,” the crone smiled as she took back the bowl and tossed it away to clatter in some unlit corner, “You should lie down now if you want it to be strong. My old head sleeps lightly, I’ll wake you if anything comes.” She picked up a fistful of loose dry soil and tossed it over the embers, plunging the tent into darkness.

Ostap laid down his spear by his side and stretched himself out on the ground, covering himself with his cloak. It was hard, but not unpleasant, and so much had happened on that day that he felt his head grow heavy as soon as it touched the soil. Halfway through an unfinished yawn, he was falling into a deep black well, and heard nothing more.




He awoke to a sharp pain in his chest.

Not just anywhere, he realized, still with a foot in the hazy leaps of thought that happened in dreams. Right where the monster had scratched him the night before.

He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids were heavy like fallen trees, and would not budge. Panic seized him underneath the lancing agony. His hands, his feet, his head would not move. A cold woodenness had seized his limbs, and they did not feel as if they were his - no, he did not feel them at all, but some rotting logs that had been tied to the stumps of his legs and shoulders. He felt cold, then hot, then sick, and wondered if this was what death was like. Tovkač, you lied, you old bastard, there is no happiness in death, only numbness and pain, pain, pain.

With a tremendous effort, Ostap forced his eyes open. He had rolled over on his back in his sleep. Straight ahead, he saw the darkness of the tent’s sloping wall, swelling and wavering in the night breeze. Then he looked down-

There was something on his chest, something huge, grey and horrible. A great bloated, wobbling body, like a sack stuffed full of rotting entrails, pulled up by eight spindly, pointy legs that gouged into his sides with their hooked tips, and on his chest, biting into his wounds with what could only be its jaws, a head out of the worst moon-addled nightmares. He had thought that the blood-beast’s snout was ugly, but now he would rather have seen it a thousand times than facing the thing that gnawed on his ribs. Smooth, eyeless, with sparse bristles like a bald hog, it was little more than a nameless oblong shape ending in two recurve prongs. The head of a spider, or a beetle, or a tick, but stretched out to an impossible size.

He had to be dreaming. This thing could not be real. It should not be real!

“Shh-hum, shh-hum,” the creature hissed, and somewhere in the damp, whispering screech that was its voice, Ostap heard echoes of his host, “Lie still now, steppe-man. I’ll be done soon, and you won’t feel pain ever again, shh-hum, shh-hum!”

Suddenly, the whole tent quaked. Something outside whistled, cutting through the air, and a huge dark bulk forced its way in through the all too narrow entrance, tearing the hides with its clawed wings.

“Well, well,” the blood-beast snarled, its monstrous nostrils twitching, its jagged teeth bared and dripping, “What do you think you’re doing drinking him dry by yourself, old hag? We had a deal, you get half and I get half!”

“Shh-hum, shh-hum,” cackled Yeghna, “There was a deal, and it flew away! He was here for a long time, and my old throat was parched. You can fly far! Go find yourself another.”

“What?!” growled the beast, “I’d rather gnaw you open here and now!”

And it spread out its wings, splaying its claws, and pounced; but the tent was too small for its huge body to lash and lunge so, and it collapsed with a mournful thud, burying the horrors and their victim under foul-smelling xo hides. The blood-beast thrashed and tore loudest of all, until it had scattered the ruins and stood panting and gnashing in a circle of rags.

It peered around with its dull beady eyes, its huge ears twitching as they strained to catch the faintest sound. Yeghna was nowhere to be seen. Not even a rustle of grass gave the vermin-hag away as she crawled off, fat with the fool steppe-man’s vitality, to skulk and spin her tales and find more sots to prey on.

Gritting its fangs in annoyance, the beast shuffled over to the prone Eidolon. He lay still where Yeghna had left him, eyes wide, arms stiff at his sides. Maybe there still was something in him, and the tick’s venom just so nicely held him prisoner in his own body. The blood-beast hunched over him, fanged maw open wide-

And it screeched as Ostap plunged his knife into its exposed throat. It snapped at him, but with the agility of a hunter he drew his hand back and angled it higher. His arm was still numb, but his fingers answered him once more, and he stabbed at the monster’s soulless eye, and pushed deeper, deeper, the warmth of blood flowing over his hand, until the great winged body at last stopped flailing and dropped in a twitching heap.

Then Ostap let his hand drop, and, looking up at the starry sky and the gently glowing moon, he smiled.

Apostate


...gets confused...


&



The gardens that greeted Apostate on his returning detour from his wandering were, true to form, untouched by adversity. Not one stalk of grass had bowed its head, not one flower had yellowed and dipped, not one clump of soil had been blown out of place.

And still, it was very clear that someone had been there, and left traces on the unmoving ground. Streaks of black ash and charcoal dust ran through the green near the edge of the defiant land, at times turning into circles or strange hieroglyphs. Though no worldly flame could have burned that vegetation, acrid refuse had been heaped onto it.

Not even the god's own monument had been spared. Grey cinders had roughly scrawled a grimace on its visor and dusted its height with crumbling stains. Two clouds of inky smoke circled around it, twisting and twirling like things alive.

“Hm.” Apostate stood in the center of the mess. The first thought in his mind was that perhaps he was in the wrong place, but then he figured he was. The second thought was a slight concern about the state of the gardens, most notably that it didn’t quite look like how he described it to Homura, thus jeopardizing his delivery. With that in mind, he hefted his mighty blade and slammed it into the ground.

From the impact, a swirl of sparks erupted into the atmosphere, catching on the hanging air of the gardens and with a powerful blast and ear ringing clap — a fiery explosion engulfed Apostate and his garden. Through the immolation, Apostate nodded with contentment as the immense blast tore the mess away from the land, revealing the yellow flower from before as well as other landmarks he so poetically described to the goddess of honor.

A few more heated seconds passed and with only a plume of smoke remaining, the great fireball that ate his garden had dissipated, leaving it spotless. 

The only foreign traces left after the conflagration were the two drifting smoke clouds, or what was left of them. Their black cloaks had been burned away, revealing hovering pillars of grey flame that writhed and cascaded in the air like columns made of knotted worms. They turned towards Apostate in unison, if indeed they had such things as a back and a fore, and stared at him with the pulsing red orbs that were their single eyes.

"Look at this," one of them spoke in fiery singsong, "Nothing is there we can do that won't be razed by some absurd creature."

"It was aggrieved," the other answered, wholly identical to the first, "We must do this again if it torments someone so."

“A challenger approaches,” Apostate boomed to himself more than anything else, yanking his mighty blade free and leveling it at the flames.

"You?" one of the spirits, impossible to say which, asked almost in disbelief, "You are alone and have a body of heavy earth, while we are two and unmoored flame."

Apostate reached outward with one of his hands, as if grasping the air in front of him. Without a word, he clenched his fist and with a mighty bang, one of the talking flames burst into the same smoke that Apostate named hevel, only to disappear. He pointed his blade at the remaining spectre.

“Your attack is sloppy.”

The flame quivered, spun upon itself, stretched wide and, in a cough of black fumes, tore itself into two halves. Two red eyes looked at the god again, though much diminished.

"Or is yours simply unsporting?" said the first, or perhaps the second wraith, "If we could extinguish you as easily as that, should we call you sloppy also?"

“Yes-” Apostate was interrupted. 

"We could do it to those who crumble so fast under our touch," mused the other. "But who are you, one that burns and extinguishes with a gesture?"

“Apostate,” the smoke replied, “a god.”

"That cannot be," danced the flames, "There is only One God."

“My mistake.” Apostate clenched his hand again, and with a bang one of the flames poofed once again. This time, the remaining one did not split apart, but blew out a shroud of dusty black smoke and disappeared inside it. Only its eye remained visible.

"You should challenge him if you take exception with that," despite everything, its voice seemed unfazed, "We are mere messengers, who carry the words we worship and we hate."

“Then let this be a lesson,” Apostate bellowed. He swung his sword away from the flame and flourished it back into an invisible scabbard. “That a messenger should always speak clearly and openly from the start of the interaction. Speak now, clearly, so that I may...”

The god paused and a deep groan rumbled from within. A puff of smoke shot out from the metal helmet of the god and his voice followed. “Speak quickly.” 

"Keep your lessons to yourself next time," said the spirit, "We are Eschatli. Seven of us there were, seven there must always be. Once we had bodies and warm flames in our hearts, now we only have smoke and cold bale-fire. The One God took away our death and gave us harmony, and so we worship him; he took away our warmth and our eyes and gave us servitude, and so we hate him. We carry his words when he gives them to us, but when we've none we do what pleases us."

“If you hate him,” Apostate reasoned, “then why don’t you simply stop doing what he says and always do what pleases you?”

"Because without him, we would know and fear death, which is the greatest torment of living things," replied the Eschatli as it swelled back to its erstwhile proportions. 

"Hm," Apostate groaned, "what is it that you want?"

"We hate the beauty that we have no eyes to see, and we hate the joy that we have no warmth to feel," said the flame, "These things we want to be undone."

There was a long pause from the god, the smokeborn standing completely still. Eventually, he shifted. "I don't understand. What's the issue? Why have you sought my wisdom? Do you intend to defy your means or not?" 

"We did not seek you," the flame murmured, "We came to deface this garden, which was beautiful and we therefore hated. If you would speak of wisdom, we can call the God, who mayhap might hear such things more gladly than we."

"You are confusing creatures," Apostate admitted, "would you prefer I end your suffering for good?" His voice was sincere, as well as laced with audible misunderstanding. 

"Perhaps we would," the Eschatli said, "But it could not be done unless that authority is wrested from the God, who holds it jealously."

“All worldly things come to an end, know that fact as my wisdom,” Apostate stood up straight (for smoke), “with my power, I can erase you from existence should that be your wish. So I ask again, what is it that you want?”

"We have said it plainly enough," the spirit answered with a crooked chuckle.

Or perhaps not, for it had not been its fiery, melodious voice that laughed, but a hard, cracking one like a shattering gemstone. A tall, angular shadow stretched out behind the cloaked spectre, and though it too had but one eye, it was not red but glaring white.

"They really are strange things, " Iqelis' voice was echoed by the telltale buzzing of flies, who had begun to emerge from who knew where, "I could not tell you myself how much of what this one said was in earnest. Drift along now, little flame."

He clenched a hand through the Eschatli's hazy presence, and without so much as a complaint the spirit unwound into tatters of inky fog.

“Whatever that was,” Apostate grumbled, “it was stupid.”

"As many things are in this world," the One God shook off the last threads of smoke from his hand, "But I have said I would not make these seven too wretched, and they must amuse themselves at times."

Apostate swiveled to meet the new figure that had appeared. He stood in silence for a while, letting the words fall between the two gods until finally he bellowed, “what are you talking about?”

"My Eschatli, of course," the one eye shimmered mockingly, "You are cursed with poor insight even among this sorry divine tribe."

“I mean to say,” Apostate corrected, “why are you talking to me?”

"Then you should have said so clearly," Iqelis crackled, "You have spoken the one truth, and this has pleased me."

“A lesson you should have extended to your measly creations.” Apostate turned fully to the other god. “Return to me when you are worthy of my notice, I will await you then.”

"Wait all you will," the One-Eye swept a hand, "You will come to me in the end, and perhaps you will entertain me again."

He spread his fifty arms wide, and the next moment he was no longer there. Where he had stood, the soil was gouged by his clawed feet.

Apostate swung his blade and planted the tip in the new groove, using it as a convenient holster for his weapon as he leaned against its length. With a puff of smoke, he commented, “stupid.”





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