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<Snipped quote by Oraculum>

I'm eager to see what sort of character you cook up this time, especially since unnameable horror is off the table.


Oh, I doubt that. The only thing is that they'd be on the receiving end this time.
We're on.
Bit of what I've got so far to show that I'm getting something done. If I can stop going overboard with every section I should be done by the end of the week.

It was dusk when Split’s eyes flicked open, first on the sides, then ahead. Long as she might have spent under them - too long to keep count, if she had ever cared for that - the cycles of the sky sometimes still felt out of place. Dark should have been warm, but here again, like every time before, it got a little cooler. Still, the tiny difference was well worth not having to squint all the time in the open, and at least it looked a bit more like that so sorely missed blackness of the tunnels.

So, get up at dusk she did. When she slept at all, at least.

She stretched her four upper arms, flexed them in the elbows and half-jumped, half-slid out of the tree she had taken as her bed for the day. Luckily, her axe did not catch anything stronger than twigs on the way down. That was something even years of practice could not help. It all came down to the tree. A light tap was enough to straighten the weapon in its rough reptile-skin strap; check the chipped stone knife at her side as the hand came down, and off she went, pattering on all sixes over the tall, dry grass.

Patter, patter. Sometimes she listened to the sound, sometimes she did not. What mattered was not doing either for too long. When either her steps or the chirping and buzzing around got too monotonous, the silence underneath started to drown them out, and that was something she knew to avoid. It took just a week or so to understand, and from then on it was clear. If she let the silence get to her, she would start hearing things, and after that seeing things was not far off.

It worked, well enough that the worst she ever got was a suspicion of a whisper somewhere over her shoulder, or a blur in the corner of a side eye. Even when a strange-looking bird had appeared one day and started talking, which made her fear that despite her efforts she had lost it after all, it had turned out to be really there. Hearing a voice had been like a cool draft at first, and even better when it brought up freedom, though her attention had faded when it had started jammering about death and souls. She was not sure that stuff helped anyone, and either way thinking about it was the sort of thing to make her start dreaming awake. The one time it had happened in her sleep had already been bad enough. If those were dreams, she had not been missing anything, and she sure did not want any more.

And she had gone back to pattering, on and off. Patter, patter-

Creak

Something moved in the far distance.

Creak… Creak… Creak…

Split stopped, following the sounds with the sharp ear of a cave-dweller. A cracked, dried tree could creak like that, but so often without a breath of wind? There were no trees over there close enough to hear, either. Hands reaching for the haft over her shoulder, she stood up on her hind arms, smelling and looking ahead. So much for not having to squint.

There in the distance marched -- if it could be called a march, dense with strange, stiff shambling movements -- a handful of strange creatures, all clearly fashioned out of wood. Out of all the figurines, the one at the head stood out the most, as while his design was simple, even minimalistic when counting his shortage of appendages (just four), a strange sword floated above its head, point down, and threatening to drop on the bizarre mannequin at any point.

The kostral raised another hand to scratch her teeth, and found herself nibbling at the finger. It was not that she had never seen anything as unfitting with the rest of the world around at this - floating talkative rings beat it square by a good margin. But it was one thing to have seen something as strange as that, and another to look at the weirdness itself. Whatever else she had been over, wood moving around on its own, without even an oversized rabbit head or twitching eye sockets behind it, was not any less unusual for that.

But, wood or not, it was the closest to something like herself she had seen in a long, long while. Much longer, and she would stop believing there were beings that could walk upright anywhere else in the world at all.

As bad as it might go, she had not tried her blade on living bark yet. The axe felt a little heavier on her back. She chewed the thought to the back of her head, but kept a hand over her shoulder as she trotted closer to the jittering procession, making no effort to hide herself.

The squadron of uncanny, if not almost comical, walks didn’t seem to pay her any mind, until she was half a stone’s throw away. The lead swung a leg around, coming to a stiff halt. Its shoulders were square, and even without a face, Split was certain it was regarding her presence. Just like that the fields fell silent, with even the creatures of the ground and sky scurrying away from the showdown. Slowly, very slowly, there was a harsh creaking sound as the mannequin began to turn away, clearly done with its assessment. With an awkward stride, it began its march again, the others clamoring behind.

She followed it with her eyes, cocking her head sideways, then turned to follow, trying to fall into step with the crowd of shuffling things. Had she been expecting a piece of wood to greet her somehow and start talking? That would have been a huge relief, absurd or not, but not something she had been stupid enough to gamble on. No, it was already something that the creatures had not turned on her straight away. Always keep an eye open, but company was company, and by then she was ready to take almost any the wilds threw her way.

Keeping pace with the oddly moving figures was no easy feat. Just when she thought she had found a balance, a twitching step would go arcing much too long or much too short, leaving her plodding or scampering not to fall to the wayside. It became easier, if still not effortless, when she stopped looking for a rhythm and just kept an eye trained on the closest shape, speeding up when it loped and slowing down when it shambled. After a little time, it became almost a reflex. Walk, speed up, slow. Slow down, speed up, walk. It left her mind a bit clearer, enough to think of how this was like her time in the tunnels, when she walked with the others. There, too, nobody spoke, except for a gruff snarl from an overseer now and then. They just went where they had to go, together, keeping step in the line. It seemed like a good, simple time now, and for a while she did not think of why any of them had to go anywhere in the first place.

Eventually, however, that thought reared up again like it always did, bigger and bitterer for every passing year. Split grit her teeth with a little exhaustion and looked outward again. Her eye, used to the dark, took in the contours of her closest marching companion with any attention for the first time.

This one was different from the first, with big lumbering limbs as if hewn right from the log. It was a lot taller, and in all ways bulkier. Next to that one was something quite short in comparison, yet still stout. It waddled more than the others, its legs a bit shorter and wider, with remnants of what could have been the start of a snout on its featureless face. The others were a similar medley of tall and bulky, and short and stout -- all but the leader, who was the most plain of all. Curious too was their joints, the wood so tight next to each other and held together by pegs, it seemed almost impossible for them to move at all, let alone so wildly without falling apart.

Creak…

One of the smaller figurines turned its head to Split, as if just noticing her. It was silent and blank, just like the first time.

Her eye narrowed, now a little apprehensive. It had not yet occurred to her to think where the things could have come from. They did not look, even vaguely, like anything she had seen before, but the similarities among their two kinds must have meant something. It was not clear how old they were, either. Some were so worn and cracked that they must have been walking around at least as long as her, but others looked smooth and new. The leader, she could not tell.

Whatever had made them could not be far, and this was not good. Something she had missed in all this time did not sound believable. Which way had they even come from, now that she thought of it?

The shape that eyelessly faced her was not a sight she liked, either. She could take it that wood could walk, fine. But wood looking at her, or close enough, was something else. That even really wood? It did not feel dangerous, none of the jittery things did, but it sure felt wrong. Not for her. Just wrong all about it.

Tentatively, she raised a hand and gave the figure a wary sign of greeting.

The faceless head seemed to follow her hand, all the while maintaining its march as if it never looked away from its fore. It held the stare for a little longer, and just about when a normal person may have said something, or at least waved back--

Creak…

The head swiveled on a wooden joint, once again facing forward.

Split bit down, heavier than before. Worse than wrong. Ugly. Maybe she had started dreaming again.

With a quick, cautious movement, she stretched out an arm to lightly tap the creature’s side, ready to retract it in a blink. It was cold, like wood -- because it was wood. The figurine, if it could feel her, was doing a great job at ignoring her as it continued to walk, but then there was an itch.

Sure enough, the leader's head swiveled with complete 180 and was now staring at her -- or what could have been a stare if its face wasn't empty. She trotted up to its side, its featureless head following her, and silently pointed at the convoy behind them, eye widening in a wordless question.

There was a pause, the march never slowing, but a pause nonetheless. It could have been her imagination or perhaps a subconscious wish but she could have swore she felt a sense of reluctance coming from the wooden mannequin. Did she assign it emotion, perhaps, but against all odds and after a time far too long past the question, there was another creak, a new kind.

"Crea... Go." The word was hollow, as if pounded into existence by old wooden rods, "...a-way."

“Rhgh.” Split’s voice was little more than a dry, rasping creak after years of mutely battling the silence. For some long, quiet moments there was no follow-up to her opening sound outside of some whistling gargles as she stretched the dust away from her throat. Some of it was surprise that the thing could speak. “No,” she finally managed, in a withered husk of the words that had called out through unlit tunnels so long ago. “Not yet.”

She hadn't noticed when it happened, but all the other blank faces seemed to be staring at her as the leader fell silent again, save for its creaking joints. Slowly the rattling creaks that could only be its voice groaned once again, "O-K."

It slowly creaked as its head spun right back round, the others slowly peeling their own attention from Split.

Slowing her steps, she fell in with the thick of the group again. It was already a lot that it had spoken. Expecting it to speak any more than that too was, now that she thought of it, absurd. Then again, she did not have much more than absurdity left to count on. She could try again later, when her own voice got better. At least she would hear herself talk again, and a thinking thing, wooden or not, was always a safer partner than thin air.

Later. For now, she could just enjoy having someone to walk along with, and no iron hand pointing where to go. If she did not think too hard, it would be good and calm.

Wrong and ugly, sure. But it was a step ahead.



We're up.


A stirring upon the deep.

Vast burning eyes flickered open, sending the tiny shapes crawling around their sockets scurrying away from the sudden blaze of heat. Iron claws quietly rasped into motion, crushing rock outcroppings the size of ancient trees to dust. The earth rumbled as the colossal weight within it shifted forward, slowly straightening up.

With a smooth though audible rasping, Narzhak turned his head to one side, then to the other, careful not to dislodge the thick, pulsating tubes that snaked past his armour and into his throat. The continuous flow of bitter fungal spirits through them might not have helped clear his mind, but he suspected that, if he stopped too suddenly, he would get a headache. His fingers gently pressed together over one of the gargantuan root-like growths, pinching it closed before lightly tearing it away. He left the leech-like suction mouth at the tip leaning against the edge of a plate, detached three more tubes to join it and finally looked around.

The once crude chamber he had carved for himself at the end of the Pit was, in truth, still crude, but had sprouted new furnishings, like strange cave-swamp growths, over the last decades. Rather than a near-shapeless, worn mountainous outcropping, his bulk now rested over a rough simulacrum of a gigantic seat, hewn out hastily, though not entirely carelessly. Nested in the corners above and below, immense metallic vats, steaming intoxicating vapours and tended to by hundreds of kostral, gathered the other ends of the living tubes in webs of titanic vines around their bases, with others yet extending out from them towards hidden sources. All across the vault, handholds had been cut into the rock to ease the hurrying of hordes of attendants. They swarmed across the god and his surroundings alike, scraping rust from his armour and sharpening its edges, pouting the contents of rudimentary iron vases into the vats and periodically refilling the monumental trough the quiescent monstrosity at his foot sipped from. Upon his stirring, they hastily streamed down from the throne’s sides, putting as wide a space as they could between themselves and his sweeping motions.

Narzhak leaned forward, eyes narrowing as he tried to find the source of the disturbance. It was not anything in the drinks, nor in the air. A quake, perhaps? No, he would have felt whatever had caused it.

Then it struck him. It was the sounds. Groaning, bellowing, howling rose from all sides, surrounded by confused snarls and snapping of teeth. Sounds the Pit had never heard. Sounds of fear.

A furious roar rose to drown all other voices from one end of the measureless cavern to another. Boulders fell from the unseen ceiling and new fissures split the ground open as the earth quaked under the sheer wrath pouring from the Iron God. Struck by his voice as by a maul, myriads of kostral dropped from wall and sky and collapsed in prostration. The sleepers jolted awake from their unquiet dreams, only to fall to the ground again.

”S I L E N C E”


The command was unneeded, as all sounds, even the rasping of beasts and crackling of flames, had fallen still for a few moments after being smothered in the tide of rage, but Narzhak felt that, without even a word of release his anger, he would have torn down the entire chamber around himself. The kostral, his kostral, had been forged with naught but blood-hunger and subservience to fill their minds, perfect instruments for the shaping of such vast designs as could direct a world down the path of growth. They had known no fear, could know no fear. And now someone had jarred that flawless mechanism, maybe out of nothing but carelessness. Who was the insolent heap of scum that dared? Azura again? If it was her, he would tear out every feather on her body, then the skin under them, then-

He scraped his fingers together in the likeness of a snap. In the time of a few blinks, two skestral descended from above, holding one of their wingless kin between themselves. As soon as it was released onto the iron desert of the god’s expectant palm, the kostral crawled into a grovel, only to shiver and curl its middle arms under itself as the searing gaze of the four eyes burned past its flesh and bone to stab into its thoughts like an incandescent blade. Mercifully, a divine eye was fast to spot what it needed, and before it knew it the hapless servitor had been deposited, shaken but unharmed, onto the ground amid the bowed ranks of its fellows.

”K’nell,” the god clenched his claw into a fist. Though his voice was more subdued than they had ever heard it, the kostral shrank under the menace even their dim minds could discern in it. ”Think you’re clever? That you’re safe to throw out whatever filth you like while you hide in your castle of air?” His fingers dug gouges into the ageless stone of his seat.

”Now you will learn to fear the shadows you cower in.”




Bloody paste squelched under the worn makeshift pestle, spraying deep-red drops on Vrog’s hand, the rocks around it and the ground. The crouching brute reflexively licked the spatters from his fingers, grimacing as he blew off the dust they withered to dust as his tongue withdrew, and tossed the crudely sectioned remains of a farmer ape’s limb into his imposing if rudimentary mortar. The pestle went up and down, again and again, as he threw in new pieces of assorted wildlife, interspersing them with splashes from one of the flasks that always happened to find themselves in his hand just at the right moment. Now and then he paused to spit a burst of acrid sludge into the concoction, prompting bursts of caustic hissing and puffs of smoke to rise from its midst.

He still could not get a mouthful of any kind, no. As much as he had tried to find a measure that worked, from large enough to need some chewing for once to finely shredded, he had only succeeded in thinning the numbers of marauding dragons and desolating swathes of woodland after emptying them of animal life. So long as it was getting eaten in some way, it went no further than the first row of teeth. Orvus might have been a terrible vrog-talker, but this was by all accounts a job well done. Picking every last crumb of that absurd sword - who brought swords to a battle, anyway? - from his body would have taken much longer than he had patience for, and even then he was not sure it would work at all.

So, he had looked for other ways.

Drinking worked, to a degree. It still dried up fast enough, but it he knotted together his tongues outside his mouth and held it there, he could feel the taste for a few moments. If the stuff was strong enough, he could even pretend he was sending down the actual thing. With a bit of dulling of his insides, dust did not feel entirely different from a regular sip, except for the part of coughing it up later. But, for someone who had really drunk, pretending was not good enough.

And he had come up with something better.

He wiped the pestle from the dense bloody mixture, set it aside and blew into the contents of the mortar. What life remained in the gruesome slime shrivelled up and fled on the wind, leaving behind a heavy, cloying mass that reeked of slaughter. Vrog gathered a wad on a hooked finger, slapped it in the middle of a long, wide dry leaf and wrapped the whole tightly. His tongue curled around the manufact in a spiral, holding it well outside his mouth. A snap of his fingers sent a spark into the tip of the macabre construct, lighting it into a sharp crackling burst of noxious black smoke. On his exposed tongue, it tasted vaguely like nearly every being that had gone into the making of the core, mangled, mashed and roasted into a near-indistinguishable, but all the more delectable mess of carnage. The thought alone made him slaver, and he had to snap down with a few hastily grown lateral mouths to avoid biting his tongue off.

But, of course, it would have been many times better if he could actually gnaw and gorge something like that. The mouths gritted in frustration. This thought never failed to show up when he lit a stack, and sucked out the best part of the enjoyment from it.

Vrog took an angry pull, stopping the smoke just short of his jaws. Another couple decades like this with nothing but animals to slice up, and he would turn into a raving beast himself. Since that Laurien, he had not found a single thing that could properly appreciate the pain and fear he would deal - and without that, where was the fun?

Speaking of pain, this one wrap must have come out bad somewhere along the way. None of the others had made him feel a burning deep in the now unneeded stomach, certainly not one that spread like an actual fire through his limbs, into his head-

His mouth gaped open, tongue darting in with its load of what was now dust, and he clutched the center of his thorax. The metal skin twisted under his grip, a force that was certainly not his own violently pushing out from beneath it. The hand was forced aside as the metal rose up like a wave of molten fluid, rapidly cooling into the shape of a ribbed spine writhing and bending as a skeletal worm. It coiled upwards, its still flat-plated extremity hovering before his mockery of a face. In the last throes of its fluid transformation, the plate’s edges became even more ragged and irregular, much like something he had nearly forgotten.

Four points of flame lit up amid the simulacrum of Narzhak’s visor.

Rivulets of dust streaming to the ground between his teeth, Vrog spluttered out the remains of his wrap. “D’you really have to do it this way?”

The answer sounded halfway out loud, halfway inside his mind. ”You know a faster one?”

He had to admit he did not. “What’s the deal now?”

”I’d ask about what you’ve done about our first one,” even as a shrunken talking head, the Iron God managed to sound threatening enough to someone who could catch the allusions behind his tones, ”but you’re lucky there’s worse things to think of. New orders. Find K’nell and bring me to him.”

“K’nell? That the dream one?” He parted the skin curtain at one corner of his mouth, exposing pensively clenched teeth. “How the gut am I supposed to do that?”

”You’re asking me?” The mask oscillated on its spine like a snake poised to strike. ”You’re the one out there. You talked to one of his puppets earlier? That’s your start.”

Vrog raised a finger in protest. “More like I talked at someone who said she was dreams. Wasn’t very convincing about it, either. What’s that do to spitting help, anyway?”

”You do the thinking on that one.” The fiery eyes flared up in a blaze that consumed the daylight around them, and Vrog grated all six sets of teeth and then some as a fist of molten iron clenched around his thoughts. ”I won’t take excuses for failure.”

The spine with Narzhak at its tip uncoiled and began to sink back into his chest with a feeling unpleasantly similar to being impaled on Orvus’ sword, if much worse. Before its last vertebrae had fully retracted, the visor turned upwards one last time. ”Stop us at that place of Chopstick’s on the way. I haven’t seen her in a while.” With those final words, the mask merged back into the breastplate, as though it had never been there.

Curling his skin-lips and straightening his various mouths, Vrog massaged his still painfully thrumming head and spat a seed from his throatless pair of chewing jaws. Things just kept getting better, didn’t they.




The woods around the easternmost mountains were much as he had left them. Same nondescript smells of sap and leaves, same roots that snapped underfoot with almost every step. The only difference was that those wretched morsel-things he had been fed that one time had spread - and quite a difference it was. With nothing much to eat them, the filthy things were everywhere, from the braches to the soil, and every lick in between. Squashing them like overripe fruit as he walked was satisfying in more ways than he cared to count. He chuckled when a few leapt into his mouth and crumbled before he could feel their hatefully bland taste. At a distance of years, he had to admit that had not been a bad joke, though of course it would have been much better if it had been done to anyone else.

Even now, however, the parasites had a way of making themselves a nuisance. The trace he was searching for, if it was to be found at all, was easily drowned out by their similar irksome smell. There was no telling if his quarry was still anywhere near there, and, even if so, if he would feel it at all without a lucky gust of wind, no matter how many of the vermin he stomped on. And, if not, even wind might not have been enough.

Similar, not the same. There it was. Not new by any stretch, but unmistakable amid the background noise. Vrog clicked his tongue. He did not need to make excuses; he simply did not fail.

From there, following the track was as easy as it had been the first time. He grimaced at the thought of how the bitter foretaste had given him pangs of hunger then. Now, after having had enough to burst, it did anything but that, casting a mildly disgusted apathy over his innards. All things considered, that was probably for the best given his ability to put anything into them. Two wrongs did add up to a right after all.

And, just when he thought he had it, it vanished. Not by breaking off, but abruptly going skyward. That complicated things. Whatever had happened there, he doubted he could jump up as easily. His tongue darted up, then around, seeking any kind of grip on the disappearing path. It found something. Not far.

Disappointingly, it was just a bauble of some kind. He picked it up between two fingers, trying it to the tongue, then to the tooth. Close as the taste was now, and though it made his teeth itch with anticipation, his stomach was still perfectly indifferent. Vrog rolled the small sphere in his hand, considering. It was unlikely to help the search in any way, but, if it was anything of value, better times were to be had by keeping it. At the same time, he did not have room to spare for any litter he found. What if, though…

For all he was likely to get out of it, he might as well just have the last laugh in the eating matter. With a flick, he tossed the orb into his mouth.

It did not become dust. In fact, it did not become anything - it simply was not there. No, there was something after all. Not something he could feel, but he could see it. See it?

Chomping, gnashing, grunting, squealing, cutting, snapping, chopping, scrapping, skinning, ripping, smashing, slamming, swiping, crawling, loping, growing, fattening, gorging, gutting, mauling, bashing, biting, stomping, snorting, scrouging, plundering, pummeling, beating, brawling, tearing, bleeding, smelling, stabbing, snatching, little arms in the mouth, little bones in the pouch, bloating, swelling, spreading, scourging…

Funny little things that those were.

So engrossed was he with watching the scenes of tangling pests rolling inside himself, one followed by a still better other, that he caught himself with a foot almost off a cliff, an alarming heat rising from below. Shaking himself from the curious sights - was that what dreams were like? - Vrog probed the air around himself. The trail was still a line above his head, and just a step forward was the boiling sea someone had had the brilliant idea of putting along one of the coasts.

He lit a wrap, contemplating the way ahead with a few side-tongues. On the better hand, the party was actually close enough on the way, which meant no more annoying detours than strictly needed. On the other, he still had to get across that oversized pot, and who knew where the Omen had gone off to.

It seemed, however, that someone had conveniently enough dropped something into the water. Not just one something, but another, equally big one, and another further left, and... Though the spectacle of the great marine lamps was lost on Vrog’s lack of anything to see them with, their usefulness to someone in his situation was fairly clear.

Were there enough to get to the other side? Maybe. Worth a try, either way.

He took a pull from the wrap, spat a seed and jumped.





Sobering up after a bout of drinking, however monumental, had never been much trouble. Narzhak’s immense girth alone made getting noticeably drunken a gargantuan task in its own right; adding to this the fact that no sort of impurity, no matter whether it had been anywhere else before, seemed able to remain inside his body for long without seeping out in some way or another, one could have sworn that his constitution had been designed especially for that sort of pastime. Thus, it was after no more than a brief walk to the nameless river of murk and blood that ran through the Steppes that his head was back to being as impervious to loud noises, apelike or otherwise, as it had ever been, hundreds (if not more) of drained wine barrels notwithstanding.

The god shook off the last of the needling fumes from his iron skull and tore his gaze away from the soothing if macabre patterns of the ichor-tainted flow. Flaming eyes swept over the plains, between the cliffs walling them off at either side and over wide flatlands, empty beyond the occasional rooting beast. Shengshi did have a point - even setting aside a space like dozens of mountain ridges, there would be room for more than one good harvest here. Worth keeping in mind. Amusing as it was when inferior beings ate each other, leaving them nothing else to subsist on was not going to help anyone given a couple of centuries.

A more pressing thought for now, however, was seeing whether he remembered the distilling part right, despite the wine and unexpected birth that had followed the explanation. The journey from the river to the Scar was spent trying to reconstruct the steps into something at least distantly resembling their proper sequence. Boil, seal, ferment... no, that could not be right; it went seal, ferment, then boil? He was sure he was missing something again, a suspicion which did not leave him even as he climbed into the fissure and let go of its edge, stepping onto the warm rock below. What he saw there, however, made him immediately forget the succession he had just so carefully assembled.

The kostral were not at work as he had left them. This alone was enough for his four eyes to dart each in a different direction, prying into every visible opening for signs of disorder. The situation was really not as dire as it looked at first glance, with only a comparatively small part lobbing stones out of their cavern mouths, but it was bad enough that something had disrupted the order of things at all. Even worse was that this something was brazen enough not to stop when he had walked in. Why were there birds in the Pit? They usually knew well enough to avoid the Scar altogether. Yet here they were, offensively glimmering, somehow weaving between the fiery clouds and grasping tentacles of the sky-dwellers and eluding the improvised projectiles that rained on them from the walls. And- speaking?

Narzhak rumbled and clapped his hands together with the force of thousands of enormous gongs struck all at once. In a blink, stones stopped flying as the kostral scrambled back to their usual haunts. The birds, wise enough not to follow them into narrow, cramped spaces, remained hovering about the openings. Some converged around the god, and their speech, now evidently repeated time and again, keenly reminded him of what it was like to have a still-hazy head. Did Azura really sound like that? For the little he knew of her, he had never considered her much of an annoyance, but she seemed determined to make him rethink that view.

The irate squint of his eyes only grew thinner as the opening words of the address played out. Souls, death, what did any of this have to do with him? What happened to things once they had served their purpose in the world had never been any of his business, and why she would say these things to mortals was simply beyond him.

The further the speech went, however, the wider he stared, until at the end he could no longer hold back a thunderous, ground-shaking laugh. ”Consent? Autonomy? She’s begging?! Damn to the void, she’s serious about this!” He slapped himself over his ironclad stomach, the rock under him buckling and cracking under the quakes of his mirth. The cackles did not stop even when a colossal hand shot out and closed around a few alma, reducing them to a smear of invisible dust, nor when great metallic spikes shot out like darts to crush and splinter the rest. His finger still quivered as he brought the last, most elusive one before the barren waste that was his visage, locked in place with hooked and pincered chains.

”Listen up,” he growled, suppressing the last traces of laughter. His eyes blazed up for a moment, and the creature’s crystalline parts were enkindled with a lurid glow to mirror them, ”I don’t know what score you’ve got with Katharsos, and I don’t care how you settle it -” his speech had by then firmly become a menacing snarl, ”- as long as you don’t stick your beak into my work. Come into my home uncalled to distract my servants, and crying over some burning soul’s going to be the least of your worries. Keep your squabbles over death out of here. You won’t find any will to freedom, only-”

The metal of his visor became a hungry mire, and the minuscule construct was dragged beneath it as the dark pearl had been before. Faint praise though it might have been, the taste was nowhere near as atrocious this time. ”I hope I’ve made myself clear.” It was uncertain that what remained of the alma could still relay his words, but Narzhak hated leaving something unfinished.

Clawed fingers pensively rubbed together with a strident creak. There could be no assurance that Azura would listen, or even, now that he thought of it, that she would be the only one to try and bring some useless inanity to his domain. If she had made an attempt of that sort at all, it meant she was expecting to find at least some sympathetic ears, and if they all flew like her and these odd glowing birds, the air over the Pit as it was now, perilous as it might have been to any other intruder, would not do. Nor would the kostral simply throwing whatever was at hand. Even without this, they would have to deal with foes outside their reach sooner or later, and weapons that would supply for that were still a long way beyond their grasp. At best, he could provide to both at once…

A loud rattle from his gauntlet drew thousands of quartets of eyes, with the occasional blind stain of metal, staring out of their tunnels. They died quickly, but more of them sprang up quicker yet, just as designed. Never a moment without a safe surplus for cases like these.

The Iron God snatched a nearby wandering ash-storm into his hand, tightened it into a bundle and spat some of the unrecognisable remains of the swallowed alma into it. As the roiling cloud in his palm began to pulsate and shimmer, he breathed rapacity into it, then snapped his fingers closed with a crack, sending uncountable specks flying in all directions. Each was certain to find its mark.

The watching thousands began to shudder and swell as the ash reached them, piercing their hide and warping their forms. Bones lengthened into serpentine spines and wide, sturdy ribcages, limbs stretching beyond their natural shape and snapping into angles they could never have supported. Skin was torn and rewoven into smooth membranes, even as it was dislodged by the sudden burst of sickly bulbous growths along the entire body. Arms were pushed close together like the legs of insects, and heads grew new sharp, smooth predatory countenances.

”Skestral,” the god spoke, and as one a legion of raucous hissing breaths sounded around him. One after another, the things that had been kostral spread their leathery wings and took flight, borne on tumorous protrusions filled with foul-smelling air. They sped from corner to corner, unhindered by their apparent bulk, as their grounded kin began to peer out in awe. Many did little but pass between cavern and cavern, stretching their new-formed muscles. Some vanished in the perpetual smoke overhead, probing the way for patrols and hunts. A few more yet dove towards the stretch of high ground where lay the path to the world above, and just so they were gone.

Narzhak had an eye for every path, following the flight of each for a few moments with an appreciative look, all while the fourth stayed over his open hand. Some ashen dregs were still restlessly crawling around the palm, the light, but not the motion entirely squeezed from them. This was not enough for another batch, but throwing it away would have been senseless. There must have been something it would be good for. It moved, stirred… What did that speech say about sleep?

It was strange, it occurred to him, that Azura, whose very creatures were so restless even when pulverised, would want to put things to sleep for who knew how long. A somewhat less amusing thought following in that one’s trail was that, if she did have her way, half the world would have been slumbering sooner or later. Absurd, but if it really happened? Things would get much harder for everyone for no good reason. The least he could do now was ensure that, if Galbar became too quiet, he would not be caught unprepared.

A sliver of molten rock from a nearby floating sphere, and the ash began to churn and harden into something solid. He breathed wrath into it, then more, and more still. The quivering mass of orange-veined grey bloated into something that was neither quite worm, nor quite boar, nor quite squid. Its many limbs thrashed and grasped along its elongated body, unable to release the fury that filled them in any meaningful way other than to tear into themselves. It gouged uneven gaps into itself, and teeth grew to make them mouths. As soon as it could, it howled, and Narzhak was barely fast enough to cut it off after its first tones; it was still enough for some kostral to leap upon each other in a murderous frenzy, and a few skestral to tangle with the drifters among the clouds. And still it grew in size and anger, until even the hand underneath it began to feel its weight. The chains around its limbs and edges became thicker, the muzzles around its mouths wider, until both maker and creation were out of breath.

The two contemplated each other as they recouped. The Iron God found himself forced to admit he had gone a little beyond the pale this once. Left unchecked, the thing would not only wake up a world of sleepers, but wreak havoc on anything it came across, the Pit included. At the same time, he doubted that keeping it bound would have been much of a solution. Chains would stop its excesses until needed, but without motion to stoke it, the anger that made it so useful would eventually die out, maybe before even there was a chance to see it at work even once. Besides, with how it still struggled, those chains might not hold long enough, either. Not on the body, at least.

He tapped his fingers together. If not chains on the body, whatever the thing had for a mind could not be much harder to tie together. Chains of the mind, clouds of the mind…

His eye fell on the cauldron still fastened to the edge of a thumb. Of course. If the head took the worst of the drinking, something that did not have one at all would get the blow all over. And a strong one as long as the liquor kept flowing, without need for a single link.

How did it go again? Ferment, boil, seal?



The first thing Split noticed was that there was light all around.

The second was that the ground she was lying on was not cold stone.

The third was that her axe was still firmly gripped in two of her hands. Thanks for that.

The kostral propped herself up on her forelimbs and looked around. The sky shone over a flat yellow expanse speckled with green, stretching as far as she could see. Sand, she thought. She moved a hand to lift herself better, and felt something scrape against her skin in a way sand did not. A handful of it came off the ground with less ease than she expected, clinging to it like an uprooted bush. It was much like a bush, she realised, or moss, with much longer, thinner straight strands. Smelled much like moss or a bush, too. Tasted- she bit off half a strand, gave it a brief chewing, swallowed. It was the faintest bit similar to the lichens she had once grown so sick of, though not different in a way that made it an appetising alternative. She tossed away the clump of plants and looked around again.

Yellow and green, up to where the ground touched the sky. Nothing broke the flatness of the land, except the mild sloping of some low hills not too far away. Split rose to her hind limbs, towering above the rustling grass, and looked further. Just a small dark spot off in the distance. No sign of Arya - she remembered to look directly above herself, but that did not help - or the ‘lope, nor of the way she could have come here from the tunnels. In her sleep, it struck her. How could that have gone again? She had kept going towards that light for what must have been days without getting any closer, sometimes being led down bends that should have made spotting it in the first place impossible. Nothing to eat except for the occasional patch of mould on the walls and the worms around it, though even the worms were a lucky find, and short naps where she found a side passage or opening in the rock. That was as it had gone last time; she had laid down after another day or two of walking, and then here she was.

The open sky and cool breeze made it hard to smell as she was used to, but by now she was sure Arya was not anywhere nearby. From how those tunnels worked, it was likely she was not anywhere not too far either. Maybe the other end of the world, for all she knew. Troubling as that thought was, Split did not think that staying underground would have made finding her any easier. All there was to do was hope that the girl had picked up enough to handle herself wherever she might have ended up, unless it was in- No, no use thinking that. Lurker or no lurker, it wasn’t likely anyway.

A pang in the stomach threw her sniffing off-course. How long had it been since she had even found mould? No one had kept track, but she was sure enough the answer was “way too long” anyway. She picked at the grass and snorted. That wouldn’t work. Having the jackalope around would have helped, but she was nowhere to be seen either. Hopefully she would not run into something else large and hungry.

Her head twitched as a vaguely familiar smell drifted by her. Earthy, warm scales. Her jaws tightened at the thought. It had to be just there, some way towards the dark blot in the distance. If she was quiet enough in getting closer… Yes, there. A short, slender body, like a large worm, edged its way through the stalks. Its brown-ringed yellow scales made it almost invisible among the grass and its smell was faint at best even close up, but she saw it perfectly, and her axe had no trouble finding it either.

Only after the creature’s bones had been picked clean did Split realise that a small meal would only dig the hole in her stomach deeper rather than filling it. An only slightly dulled pang was quick to confirm it. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and smelled the air again. No more moving things nearby, except some insects. There was, however, a new smell coming from where the spot of blackness winked over a gentle slope. The smell of a bush, though somehow warmer and richer. She was not sure what to make of that, but bushes usually meant things like rats and other small animals, and that would have been welcome. Dropping to four again, she was about to toss away the scaly thing’s emptied skin, but stopped mid-motion, running her eyes over it up close. Flexible, robust. Who knew, it could come in handy sometime. She wrapped and tied it around a wrist.

The black spot was a bit further than it seemed, but five legs went quickly. At a closer look, it was indeed made up of shrubs, or something very much like them. The resemblance would have been even closer if shrubs had been almost nothing but trunk, with branches unfolding high up like mushrooms, but that was close enough. There were actual shrubs, too, short and dry, though their yellow was more widely stained with the upper canopies’ almost bluish green. All of this was, however, forgotten as soon as a furry shape darted between one branch and another, and a black cloud rose from deep in Split’s belly to cover her eyes from the flurry of chopping, snatching and gnawing that followed.

It was not until her axe met something large, dense and snarling that she blinked her predatory instincts away and took a glance at what she was running into. Staring at her from the other end of the haft was an imposing bulk of dark fur, claws and teeth. Judging by its lean though towering body, the beast must have had gone hungry for some time as well, and her crashing through the undergrowth had been as clear a track for it as its smell had been for her. The kostral’s front eyes locked gazes with its animalistic leer. Whatever it might have been, it was clear that only one of them would eat their fill that day.

With surprising speed, the beast was first to act. Split narrowly dodged its swimping arms, diving under their crushing embrace, and jolted out of the way as it dropped its weight onto her. Balancing on three limbs, she grasped at its thick, matted fur for leverage and drove her axe into its flank as it turned about to face her, drawing out a pained roar. The claws came for her again, as the blade was still lodged into the shaggy hide, and she let go her grip of it to strike back against the paw with two hands. She did not expect the resistance to be so easily yielding, and almost fell forward into the slavering jaws, righting herself with a kick to its exposed nose. The creature’s maw still reeling backwards from the blow, Split fell back onto her rear limbs, only to gather up and vault over her opponent’s broad back, tearing her axe out with a tug and landing into a ready pose on its far side. When the beast’s jaws came for her in a frenzy of pain and fury, they were met with a blow that cleaved the skull behind them from side to side. The animal let out a final groan, briefly spasmed in the legs and collapsed.

Split sat for a moment catching her breath before leaning over the massive carcass. The beast might not have eaten well in a while, but it was still a good deal larger than her. Hungry though she was, it would take her a long time to eat it all, longer than it would stay fresh. Besides, she was not going to sit around here until she finished it, not while people back home kept eating lichen and falling down wells in search of metal, and she did not even know where she was. Maybe she could take out the best bits on the spot, then carry some more along somehow- Take out, that sounded right.

A push with three arms was enough to turn the hefty body over. Cutting it from the back would not work, she knew well enough. The belly was the way in. Her axe was not ideal for the job, long and unwieldy as it was, but it would do. She pulled the cut wider open, baring her teeth in what might have been a smirk at the familiar experience of clawing through something’s entrails. What were her last hatchlings up to now? It had been some years already, so they must have been… Her jaws snapped closed and her gaze darkened. At work, digging up stones with little better than other stones or hunting obsidian stalkers in the wastes. Maybe she gnashed her teeth and tightened her hands already dead. With a grim look, she hunched back over the gutted corpse.

Not long afterwards, her stomach was much better, glutted as it was on the most appetizing bits she had dug up in her summary dismemberment of her prey, and, though the mood was not as easily mended, slicing up the beast had been an oddly calming exercise, far from the euphoria of mating that she remembered. Split finished wrapping a bundle of strips of meat in a piece of hide and fastened it with a sharpened snapped bone. She sniffed and craned her head satisfiedly. To say that her trove was perfectly clean was too much, but she had done a good job in separating those morsels from the innards. Before, she had never stopped to consider if one piece would taste better than another, and she had taken Chops’ cutting up the rabbits as an oddity. But, as it turned out, sorting things helped a lot.

She would have to try this more often.

The kostral glanced up with an eye. The sky still shone brightly through the foliage overhead. No point in sitting around. Lost as she and almost everyone else she knew might have been, the only way to fix that was to go look around harder. She would figure out where she was, maybe find Arya somewhere sooner or later. And, someday, come back home with a way out.

Split slung the axe over her shoulder, gripped the meat bundle with her free forearm, and crept off into the shrubs. The world would not wait for her.



Hey palls, not sure if anyone'll still be reading this, but since nothing had been OOCly said for literally half a year I figured i'll break the ice. I'm gonna wrap the RP up. There'll be 2 more posts and then.... I think we'll leave it discontinued.

Is there anyone still here?

Additionally, would it be an idea for me to give at least a summary of the possible endings I envisioned for the story? If the RP is over, spoilers don't matter anymore. Yea, I know, after prolonged periods without progress people quickly lose interest, that's how it always goes.


You know I haven't gone anywhere. I wouldn't mind if we somehow gave this at least some closure, even with just a couple of posts.
“Spit.”

Vrog gnawed the splintered bone in his mouth, cracking through it with a sound that would have delighted him at any other time, but now simply brought frustration. The best part, the marrow, was open right there, and just needed to suck in to…

He retched and spat the chewed splinters, held together in a globe of noxious sludge. Useless. The things inside him were as dead as they could get, but somehow they continued to make him feel full. Nothing had helped with that. Not digging around inside himself (trying to tell their remains apart from the rest was useless at this point), not diluting them with drink, not burying them in other tastes. It seemed that the only thing left to do was wait, and he’d be burned if he did not hate waiting.

Growling “Gut that dream” to himself for the thousandth time that day, he kicked aside the tattered remains of the gigantic bird and speared his tongue into the air, turning towards the edge of the mountain cliff. Broad views were of little use to him, but the cleanness of the air up there had one advantage. What few smell trails reached there were easy to pick apart, like - that one. His toothed tongue wove through the breeze, following a curiously familiar scent. Something like the inner rot of those four-eyed creatures. One of them there? It was far from the lair he had found, but that might not have been the only one.

The rot had tasted good, Vrog remembered. Nothing had helped with the nauseating feeling inside him so far, but if anything would at all, it could well be that. Trying would not hurt, at any rate.

Not him, anyway.

Leaving behind the mangled carcass and a nest of wantonly smashed eggs, he began to leap his way down the mountainside. The source of smell was somewhere there ahead, growing stronger by the step. Whatever it was that had exuded it could not escape him now.

At the base of the mountain, Laurien washed herself in a large creek, or rather took a swim, letting the water cool her off. It had been several days since she left the Shengshi’s ship, and oh how she longed to return, but the excitement of the journey was overwhelming. She had traveled further north-east since starting out, feeling that it was the best course of action. She had no idea where to start looking anyways.

Dislodged stones rattled down from above, followed by the screech of metal on rock and the heavy thump of something landing near the shore. A massive shape covered in filthy armour hobbled closer to the water, moving with sharp, decisive gestures despite its unnaturally asymmetrical features. Its visor-covered head sluggishly turned from side to side before fixating on her. The hideously long, slender fingers on its right hand, all the more ghastly in comparison with the thick, stunted left, scraped the ground, then the water, before abruptly withdrawing.

Something flew through the air and landed near Laurien’s head with a plop.

“It’s just you?” the being gurgled from under its helmet, “Gut it. Just thought I’d found something good.”

Laurien had turned her head when the thing landed on the shore near her. Her eyes went wide, trying to discern what exactly the creature was, or what it was supposed to be. It looked sickly, no… right down disgusting and that stench. She tried not to gag. So fixated on the creature, she barely noticed the plop next to her, but after it came, she blinked. Her head began to work overtime as she realized how far away from her weapon she was.

Then it spoke, and it’s voice sent shivers up her spine. Slowly she stood up, the water coming to her chest. She squinted her eyes as she spoke. ”Uh, who are you supposed to be?” she said cautiously.

“If I got a scrap every time some slaghead asked that, I’d be making myself another skin soon,” the thing growled, “I’m Vrog. Bet that doesn’t mean much to you, so I better say I’m-” the long-fingered hand reached up to the visor, “-this.”

The faceguard was torn open, baring a chaos of teeth, jaws, welts and sores floating in an unholy mire of festering scum. Surrounded by bone and filth, a monstrously wide mouth spluttered through its mesh of skin and fangs. “And what’re you?”

For the first time in her life, Laurien was frozen with horror. The kind of which if only felt when having seen something so repulsive, and vile, you couldn’t think of it in your wildest dreams. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sounds came out. She needed to think fast, but the girl could only stare at Vrog’s monstrous visage. Her mind was screaming to do something, anything, but her body wouldn’t budge. She needed her weapons, get the weapons. That was the key, just breath. Breath deeply. You are better than this. she told herself, Say something! Think of your duty.

And Laurien blinked, and a great breath escaped her lips. With a shaky voice, she said, ”I-I’m… Laurien.”

Vrog’s teeth gritted against each other as his jaws edged from side to side with a sickening fluidity. It was as though under what passed for his face there were no solid flesh, but more liquid rot that flowed smoothly with a will of its own. “Guess it’s too much to hope that everything that talks can do it good,” he scratched the recurve tips of two clawed fingers against each other, “but you’re just being spitting stupid. Think ‘I’m Laurien’ tells me a lot?”

His maw opened wide, and, more hideous yet than the parody of Laurien’s voice that had preceded it, a length of black tongue burst out, more similar to a thick tentacle studded with tooth-like spikes than to what it was supposed to be. Darting like that of an overgrown toad, it unfolded into something that could by no means have fit into Vrog’s mouth and swung for her neck, trying to wrap itself into a noose around it.

”Wha-” she began before being cut off by the tongue. In an instant, Vrog’s tongue shot over her head, grazing he top of her hair and cutting a few strands as she fell into the water. In an instant, she was half swimming, half running for her weapons. They leaned against the a nearby tree, and she cursed herself for being unprepared and having them so out of reach. She turned to gaze upon Vrog, weary of another attack. She could feel it in her bones, something was not quite right about this one and he seemed powerful, far too powerful for her. The only chance she had was the dagger, sword, and if he had a soul, she could use her abilities on him. But there was no time to check, not now.

The tongue coiled back upon itself and disappeared into the maw, impossible though that might have appeared. Vrog’s jaws moved as though chewing something, and another whistle pierced the air close to Laurien’s head, followed by a small splash. The entire bulk began to shuffle along the bank, following her movement with little haste.

“Let’s try this again,” again a whistle and a plop in the water, this time close enough for her to feel the shearing of the thing’s flight, “what are you really?”

Once again Laurien froze in her path, having felt whatever the projectile was flying past her. She knew he could hit her, and she knew if he did the damage would would be severe. She turned to face Vrog, but began to walk sideways to the shore. She was nearly there.

”I already told you, I am Laurien. What more is there to know, beast!” she said defiantly.

The collection of fragmented mouths shook and scrunched together in a nauseating display. Though it was difficult to say for certain, it was a fair guess that it might have been a grimace of distaste. “Dumb as slag, are ya?” the mouth’s motions were almost perfunctory, in spite of the tone. Its words rolled out between the rows of teeth without much care for matching the lips’ mimicry. “There’d be a deal more to say anyways, but the part I care for is-” the tip of his tongue flicked out, “why’d you smell almost the same as something I’ve eaten a far spit from here?”

One of her feet touched the sandy shores of the shallower water, as she stared down Vrog, now almost directly across from him. She squinted her eyes as her face flashed with anger at the name calling. At least she thought it was intended as insult, the creatures speech pattern was strange after all. Another step and both her feet found footing on soft grass, as she continued to back up towards the tree. She began to shake her head at his question. ”I have no idea what you’re talking about, I smell fine.” she said sarcastically.

“Figures,” Vrog spat a large split grey seed to his feet. “Bet you wouldn’t even’ve felt it, not with that lump on your face. Doesn’t matter.” With the crack of several somethings snapping at once inside his body, he abruptly jolted upright from his half-crouch. His arms flexed outwards, flicking their fingers in sequence. Their tips, hooked on one, straight and pointed on the other, glistened in the high daylight. “Hope you taste better than you talk. Maybe I’ll be done quicker.” He paused mid-step, ruminating on something, then spat another seed and resumed his shambling advance. “Hah, who am I kidding?”

Her eyes grew fierce as she turned around, and with a burst of speed kicked off to the tree where her sword leaned. Vrog twirled his right hand, and suddenly it was holding a dagger with a short, broad blade. Snarling, he pounced forward with unsuspected agility. Unaware of her divine adversary, Laurien was almost at the tree when something sharp and pointed cut into her right calf like a knife carving butter. She let out muffled scream as she fell forward into the dirt, reaching out for her sword. An iron grip closed around her leg, as the blade rose again and stabbed towards her arm. Before the blade could land, Laurien used her free leg to kick at Vrog, in a desperate attempt to shake her attacker off. It struck coarse, hard metal. The density of the mass she felt behind it betrayed the creature’s immense weight. He grunted, but did not bulge.

Then the blade came down, pinning her arm into the dirt. Laurien screamed in pain, desperately trying to kick Vrog regardless of his weight. With her free hand, she tried to pull the sword out of her arm. The hand holding the weapon released its grip, leaving the blade embedded in her flesh, and reached past the crossguard with its abnormally long fingers, searching for a grip on the arm. At the same time, both claws heaved upwards with tremendous strength, moving to hurl her whole body sideways against the ground. She barely had time to grab the blade before she was lifted and then slammed against the ground, knocking the wind out of her. She tried to breath, but she could only inhale as the shock hit her. Loose fingers grasped the hilt of the cruel dagger still, but her grip was unsteady and she was dazed.

A cold hand reached for her throat, scratching and cutting in its careless slide. The grasp on her leg was released, only for the now free claw to rise over her with yet another almost identical dagger and arc downwards, aimed for her shoulder. As the blade entered her shoulder, she exhaled and screamed out in pain again. She tried to kick Vrog off of her again but it did little, then her grip hardened on the dagger, and with her free hand she went to stab Vrog in his face, or what she thought was his face.

There was an eerie silence as the blade sank smoothly into the putrid sludge, punctuated only by a single surprised grunt. Then, in a spray of rot and fetid spittle, the flesh around the dagger burst open, swallowing the blade in a pulsating fissure that suddenly gaped between two ragged edges. Rows of mismatched teeth tore through their surfaces, and the newly-formed mouth snapped closed around Laurien’s wrist. She let out a blood curdling scream, as she desperately tried to rip her hand free from the creature’s maw. She couldn’t win against this thing, not even her abilities were working, it was if this creature before her would divine in itself. She was going to die and be eaten by the putrid thing. And Laurien began to panic as she struggled, bleeding and in pain.

”F-Father! Oh gods, please help me!” she began to cry.

Vrog’s free mouth twisted into a dubiously expressive snarl. While it was clear that it betrayed some feeling, what exactly that was remained as opaque as his armour. “What’re you wailing for now? I haven’t even gotten started!” he cackled. “Ya know, maybe the thing with my guts is all in the mood. Eating straight away mayn’t help, but cutting you up first? Could cheer me right up.” He dangled his knife dangerously close to her eyes. “Worth a try anyway.”

Laurien’s eyes grew wide, and her voice died in an instant as a cold realization came over her. She had so much to do, and promises that would never be kept, because she was going to die. Something told her to keep fighting, that this was not the end, but her blood loss was making her weak, and both of her arms were useless. But try she did, because she at least wanted to die fighting. And then, like the sound of thunder, something slammed into the water next to them, sending a great wave washing over the two, scattering her things.

Almost thrown off-balance by the impact, Vrog staggered sideways. Both his mouths momentarily gaped in surprise, releasing Laurien’s deeply gouged hand. Moving with uncanny speed, he vaulted aside, aiming a swift kick at her flank to sweep her away while his right hand flicked down his visor. The left readied its weapon in a rough, but stable battle-stance.

She rolled into a tree with a grunt from Vrog’s kick. Now clutching her gouged hand, her eyes fell upon the creek, or what was left of it. She held her breath, fearing another foe, but her eye grew misty as two eyes that remembled her own peered forth. Her father had come, and he did not look impassive, or blank, but expressed a profound anger as he stared daggers into Vrog.

”You dare attack a child of mine?” came his cruel words as he walked towards Vrog with open hands. There was a whooshing sounds, like a blade being swung and her greatsword flew into his right hand. From his left, another sword materialized, identical to her own.

”Foolish.”

Vrog’s head leaned sideways as far as his stump of a neck would allow. His frame drew backwards for a moment, but defiantly slumped ahead again. He pointed an accusatory finger at the advancing god. “You’re interrupting, you know,” he growled, “Don’t want to sound like an uneatable scraphead, but that’s spitting rude. Who even the gut are you?”

”I am Orvus, the God of Desolation.” he spat, before in a split second he was before Vrog, raising both blades high before bringing them down upon him. The monster barely had the time to lift his dagger, narrowly catching one of the swords. The weaker iron blade shattered under the blow, leaving a notch in the now useless grip. Meanwhile, the second sword found no other resistance than a hastily swiping vambrace. It grazed the arm and bit into the creature’s shoulder, filth spraying from the dent in the yielding armour.

With an audible snap of his teeth, Vrog leapt backwards in almost froglike fashion, raising his right palm as he went. “God? Hey, alright, wait. Don’t rush into this.” He craned his wounded shoulder aside and tapped a finger on the now clearly visible symbol of a closed fist etched on his armour. “You really don’t want to.”

Orvus did not hesitate as he slapped both blades together and pointed them at Vrog. They began to glow and crackle with scarlet energy. ”But I do.” he said, before unleashing the beams in Vrog’s direction.

The massive body shuddered as the blast struck it, the almost thundering reverb of the impact fading into a loud, fiery fizzle as acrid black smoke billowed up to obscure it entirely. The stench, even from a distance, was eye-watering. Something waved inside the writhing cloud, dispersing it into wisps that, perhaps mercifully obscuring most of Vrog’s form from sight. The half-melted, half-charred parts where the beam had struck that emerged when the fumes briefly cleared around his midsection were worse yet to the eye than the smell was to the nose.

“Don’t get it?” the gnashing sounded more angry than anything, “If that’s your daughter, ‘s clear where she got her spit-brains from. I got higher-ups. I’m useful. You kill me, and you’ll be in for a bad time.”

Orvus slammed both ends of the blades into the ground before him and opened his arms wide. ”Your threats are meaningless, spouted about to save yourself like anyone would care if you died. You are nothing but a blight of flesh and teeth, gnawing at anything weaker than you. At the first sign of a challenge, you cower like some mongrel pup. Unbefitting of an avatar. I do not think Narzhak would think that very highly but who am I to punish another’s pet? But as you wish, since you did not kill Laurien, I shall allow you to leave my presence. But know this, ‘spit-brain’, harm another child of mine and you will not be so lucky next we meet.”

“I got more than flesh and teeth, you know,” Vrog seemed to vibrate in place for a moment, scattering the remaining smoke, before opening his helm-guard. His tongue darted down to feel about his wounds with its tip, clicked and withdrew. Oddly, it did not stop him from speaking as it moved about. “No brain, though, so joke’s on you.” He paused, scratching his head. “I think.”

With a few more leaps, more limping than even his asymmetry would have accounted for, he was back on the slope he had descended from. He struck a hand into the rock, preparing to pull himself upwards, but stopped in his tracks and turned his head back. His lack of eyes made it difficult to say whom he was addressing. “Don’t take it personally, I’d’ve loved a rematch. Just when things’re less, how’d say it, loaded.” He began to clamber up the cliff at an insectile scurrying pace. “I’ll let you know.” And off he went.

But before he could climb any further, a whistle sounded in the air, before the new desolate blade embedded itself into Vrog’s back, pinning him to the cliff face momentarily. Another second went by, and Orvus’ voice could be heard next to him. ”Yes… You did not kill her, but you did maim her...and now, you will have more then teeth and flesh.” and then the blade shattered, releasing Vrog from it’s grip as the pieces turned to dust and began to sink into the avatar.

Orvus was high above him now looming like a vulture. ”Dust for blood.” came his hallowed words. He then began to fly off in the direction of Laurien, but his voice lingered around Vrog, ”Remember, harm another child of mine and your punishment will be far worse.” before vanishing.

Grunting, the brute pulled himself higher still and over the upper ledge, with nary a sign that being impaled, however shortly, had inconvenienced him. Something, however, felt off. He licked the tips of his teeth, scraped his stomach and hummed in bemusement. His tongue reached for the bird carcass he had left behind, scattering the flies that had flocked to it in the interval, and tore a piece from it. He drew it in like an angler would reel a catch, preparing to bite down into the still fresh meat - but his teeth closed on nothing but dust.

He vaulted over to the body and ripped out another chunk. As soon as it touched the interior of his mouth, he was spitting dust again. The next attempt fared no better. Nor the next. Nor the next.

“Well spit.”




Laurien awoke with the sun rise, groggily and her head pounding. She blinked her eyes, coming to the realization that she was propped up against a tree, still next to water. A great pool had formed where her father had landed. Her Father! She looked about again, seeing that her items lay next to her and she wore the cloak, but no sign of Orvus. She tried to get up but felt exhausted. Both her arms hurt, and her hand… She rose it with a grunt to meet her face. The wound had stopped pleading, in fact it looked like it had been cauterized, then cleaned. It was highly ugly at the moment, but perhaps it would scar into a eery beauty. She began to check her other wounds, finding much the same had happened, cauterized and cleaned and more scars.

”I was wondering when you would wake again, Laurien.” his voice broke through the silence of the woods, and came closer as he floated down from the trees. Orvus looked much the same, if not sad. ”I am glad to see you. You did the right thing, praying to me, child.” he said, touching down in front of her.

She opened her mouth to speak, her throat still felt raw, but speak still she did. ”He was so strong… so vile and I… felt so powerless. What was he?” she asked as Orvus sat down.

”An avatar, a piece of a God left to its own devices. Autonomous, they embody an aspect of ourselves. He came from Narzhak, God of War, but his purpose was something else.” Orvus said softly.

Laurien nodded, ”His name was Vrog. Did… Did you kill him?”

Orvus shook his head, ”No. I would have liked too, more than you know but I stayed my hand.”

Laurien squinted her eyes, in confusion at first but quickly turning to anger. ”What do you mean you stayed your hand? He lives? That means… What if comes back? What if he tries to eat me again.” she shivered, unwelcome memories flashing before her eyes.

”He will not, otherwise I will kill him. I told him to never lay a hand upon any of my children. If he breaks such a thing, simply pray and I will come. Regardless, what happened? Why did he attack you?”

”I don’t know why.” she shrugged, ”He kept spewing about a foul taste and how I reminded him of it, or something. He didn’t have a reason, he simply found me and I was caught unaware and away from my weapons. You know the rest.” she said ashamed.

Orvus said nothing for a moment, looking upon Laurien’s face with a soft expression. ”You would have died even if you had your weapons with you, and ready to fight. His class of enemy is second only to Gods, Laurien. Do not be ashamed in asking for help if it means you get to live.” he let out a sigh. ”I was unaware such threats existed in the world, your normal gear can only help you so much. You need… something more. Sharper and deadly, even to divine flesh. I will think upon this and when I have a solution, you will be the first to know.” he said thoughtfully.

Laurien sighed, defeated by his words. Her shame was lessened somewhat, but she still felt like a failure. ”Okay.” she said bowing her head.

”I… Know where Arya might be found.” he said suddenly.

She snapped her head up at Orvus, her eyes twinkling. ”Where? How did you find out?” she said excitedly.

”She is on Tendlepog, the land created by K’nell. He told me…” his voice abruptly cut off and he stood up, turning away from her. This left Laurien highly confused, and, using the tree as support, she stood up as well.

”K’nell told you? How? When?” she asked. Her father said nothing and did not turn around. She tried to float herself over, but it was no use. ”Father!” she said again.

Orvus turned around slowly, his gaze full of sorrow. ”Silver is dead.” he said. Laurien blinked, the weight of his words crushing her, and throwing her off balance. She couldn’t believe what she just heard, but as she looked at Orvus, she knew it to be true. Tears began to pool in her eyes. ”How could you let that happen?” she said shakely.

”K’nell came with the other Li’Kalla shards. He was going to put her back together, and Silver was willing.” he said emotionlessly.

”So K’nell killed her?” she gritted, her fingers tearing into the bark of the tree as she used it for balance.

But Orvus shook his head. ”Then who did!” Laurien shouted.

”I did.” came his weak reply.

Laurien froze, her body beginning to shake as the gravity of his words took hold. She felt betrayed, and angry and at a loss for words. Her knees buckled and she fell on her knees, crying now. She let out a terrible wail, a loss and pain and when it was done she looked at Orvus with fiery eyes.

”Go away.” she said, ”Go away and don’t come back!” she screamed at him through tears. She couldn’t hardly look at him, she was disgusted, far more than she had been at the sight of Vrog. Somehow, through all her physical injuries, this hurt so much more.

Orvus looked down at her, one small tear falling down his face and shattering before her knees, as he took off in a burst of speed into the sky.



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