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Water flowed from the gaps in his armour like rivers over a mountainside, pooling in lakes as he trudged out of the shallows and strode further inland. Most drained into the desert sands within moments, leaving glistening salt patches in their wake. Bitter puddles remained scattered in the shade of the largest iron monoliths. Something large and white, barely a speck at the titan’s feet, bolted out of the ground-shaking steps’ path.

Crackling with renewed strength after a spell spent simmering down below the ocean’s surface, Narzhak’s eyes scanned the horizon. Sartravius’ lonely fire-hill was smoking again. Had he actually gotten something done in the time of a walk around the world? He squinted into the distance - sure enough, there was something that vaguely resembled the rearguard of a horde trudging over to where lay the riverlands, with what seemed to be smaller molds of the Phoenix hovering, rather disorderly, further north. The god found himself shaking his head in disapproval. That was Sartr's idea of an army? And, worst of all, it was going west?

”Hrghm.” The first thing he thought of was punishing such a parade of blunders with a surprise assault. The things down there were not only disorganised and unarmed, but facing the wrong way; carrying up enough kostral to make it quick, brutal and thorough would have been a moment's errand. But that, Narzhak thought, picking out a clam from a chink in his skin, would have been unsportsmanlike. For all he knew, those were just the worst training manoeuvres Galbar had ever seen, rather than the attack he was expecting. No, the best thing was to send a warning, a light sting of humiliation to punish this kind of carelessness. The giant's eyes lit up at the thought. He had just the thing for that.

The Scar was three steps away, and the Pit one more below that. The Iron God paused to inhale the familiar smokes and ash of his home. He found himself more reluctant to leave again every time he dropped in, and the great alcove overlooking the passageway looked more and more inviting. Maybe it was the emptiness, he thought, idly extending a small hook from a finger to pry open the clam. Wherever he had gone, there had been little to excite a real thirst for a battle worthy of the name. Nothing measured up to him, nothing looked like worthwhile scrap material, and places to search were growing scarce. He shook the thought away. Once he was done with this, there would be time to go find something to busy him in person. Perhaps see if Ashalla had kept in shape since that time in the palace, and ask her what this tiny black sphere inside the clam was, and why it was there-

Right, when he was done here. Narzhak snapped a claw, sending the rattle of iron ringing over the charred wastes. He did not have to wait long for a reply. Clouds of dust and ash rose from all sides and converged towards him, heralded by a thunder of hooves striking the ground. Thousands of black snouts, steely tusks, bloodshot eyes looked up, ears twitching in perplexity at the abrupt summons. The god’s four eyes found the one they sought immediately - his iron-grey back bristled a good few palms above the rest.

”You’ve been busy,” he rumbled with some surprise, ”And you were the only one down here.”

“I do what I do,” the first boar answered with an impatient huff.

”That’s good and all, but we’ll need more than this now,” Narzhak mused, one finger toying with the black pearl. He breathed out bloodlust, and the massive herd edged apart as its leader’s body began to grow and swell. His fur became like many razors locked together in a cuirass, his tusks like battering-rams, his hooves great enough to raze forests in a step. He snorted, and the air from his nostrils raised whirlwinds of black dust.

“Now what?” he seemed to ask with the look of his still disproportionately small, beady eyes.

”Take a good pack and get up there,” the god pointed, rather vaguely, to the direction where the surface supposedly lay, ”If you see a winged thing that looks like me, bring it to the place. I’ve got things for you to do. The rest of you, get back to, ghrm, doing what you do.” The bulk of the beasts seemed all too glad to obey.

With the ash from the boar patriarch’s hooves still settling on the black stone of the rift, the god turned to the cave mouth closest to his eyes. The kostral peering from it fell on the ground in prostration. He motioned with a finger, and they scurried off, soon returning with half-picked bones, mangled carcasses, scraps of iron and other refuse. As they piled up their trove, he idly flicked the pearl at his head. It sank into the metal of his face as though it were fluid, and dropped below. Bitter, he thought, crunching on it, but with a nice aftertaste if you pay attention. It could be worth the while to look for more.

Later, he reminded himself, glancing at the now sizable amorphous heap of leftovers. The kostral had already wisely retreated into the tunnels. Narzhak breathed in hatred, letting it gather up in his lungs before releasing it into the waiting body-

And choked as a cloud of terrible bitterness rose up to clog his throat. He tried to blow it out of the way, but it clung to him like something alive, scraping at the walls of his gullet as it crawled up, dangerously up-

”Aaghck!” the god coughed, shards of iron and globs of black spittle hammering the rock around the cave, ”Ghkhaaph! The spit they - phagh! - made something this - khaack! - rotten for - bhahgh!”

“I get wanting to chew something,” an unfamiliar voice like the scraping of rusted metal said from the cliffside, “But really, you don't check your stuff first?”

Perched where the mass of the refuse had been was a hunkered figure of grime-spattered iron. Its body was a patchwork of near-disjointed plates, their jagged edges interlocking like the pieces of a battered jigsaw. Sharp ridges ran along the exterior of its long arms, from spiked shoulders to four-digit hands. Miraculously, the scratched mark of the Bloodied Fist on the corner of its chestplate was not only recognisable as such, but mostly upright.

A finger flicked up the creature's grilled visor, revealing the only visible part of its body. Encased between the dome-shaped studded helmet and the high gorget ridges was a patch of rough grey skin with no features beyond a large mouth in the center. It bared an alarming number of knifelike yellow teeth in a lopsided grin and licked its lipless edges with a dripping rope of black flesh.

”Because you would have,” Narzhak growled. The creature shrugged, sneering. ”And who’re you supposed to be?”

“I’m, uh...” the ghastly being picked between his teeth with a finger. His grotesquely long tongue darted out to smell the puddle of filth remaining at his feet. “What’d your slaves call it? Vrog? Not like anyone else’ll know.”

”If you say so. All I know-” the god raised a finger, poising it for a flick, ”-is I could use less vrog in my house. Out with you!”

With a single snap of the gigantic fingertip, Vrog and the ledge he was crouching on were sent flying towards the plateau that led to the surface.

The Iron God heavily shifted his head from side to side. He could start over again and have someone better done in time, but impatience mounted where the bitter taste had finally dissipated. Be done with this, and then… Besides, he had not been expecting much from this to begin with. All it did was confirm his suspicion: a pile of vrog would stay a pile of vrog no matter what.




The gathering that met around the Scar’s central fissure soon afterwards was as complete a war council as had ever met on Galbar to that day, which was not to the credit of war councils. The boar patriarch sharpened its tusks on a floating piece of rock in as much tedium as his snout could express, his herd sprawled and rolling on their sides nearby. The Omen, perched over a large pitfall, looked as sinister as it was unhelpful for any sort of contribution to an assembly; the few stray ghouls on its back were little better. The finishing blow to the council’s credibility was perhaps that Vrog, still sneering and apparently not much the worse for his recent flight, was the closest it seemed to have to a competent member.

Mercifully, its leader was determined to keep the hearing brief.

”You,” the shadow of Narzhak’s pointing arm fell over the boar pack, claw outstretched towards the west, ”take the footsoldiers. Run them down all you like, take down the leader if you’re feeling like it. Just leave a few standing. You,” he motioned to Vrog and the Omen, ”find a way to get those things out of the sky. With how visible they are, we might not need it now, but I want something ready the next time they come up. I’ll take the east.” The last part was remarkably unspecific. ”Get to it.”

The earth shook a few times before the god disappeared beyond the horizon. The boars were soon gone in the opposite direction, clouds of black dust covering their rear.

Vrog tasted the air with a few lashes of the tongue and nodded to his newfound subordinates. “Lucky we’re not stuck doing the lifting this time. Or I’m not,” he added, climbing atop the winged monstrosity in a froglike bound. “First things first, there’s one step a war can’t go without, and it’s...”




“...not this.” A chewed seed sac was spat onto the bloodied ground, going to join a considerable pile of plants, insects and small rodents marked with the cuts of pointed teeth. Vrog scraped the remains of the blossom out of his mouth and picked up another grey-reddish pod. He probed it from all sides, coiling his tongue around it, then tossed it into his maw and began to munch. A few moments later, the mangled pod landed on top of the other discarded attempts. “Not this either.” It seemed the whole Steppes did not have a single thing to keep his jaws busy. Maybe this next thick-stalked weed would do better, but by this point he was beginning to think he might need to start searching elsewhere.

He twirled the uprooted plant between thick iron fingers. The pods on this one were too large to be chewed whole. He plucked a steely-coloured seed out from a cluster and bit into it. The thickness was good, and the taste- The taste was about right. He might just have been tired of sampling, but this one would just do for now.

Vrog spat out the husk with a satisfying whistle. Chewing felt good, of course, but the part that came after was just as important. In fact, he could make it hurt.

A seed was tossed into the air, and his tongue caught it with a sharp lash mid-flight. It burst open like an overripe fruit, scattering into a cloud of dust that drifted away over his head, into the depth of the steppe, past the staring ghouls on the Omen’s back. Some grains settled on the dead plant on his hand, and he clicked with pleasure as the kernels still hanging from it grew pointed and sharp. He snapped one off, bit it open and spat the husk with force. It flew like an arrow, sticking into the ground where it hit. That was sure to be painful.

The weed slipped comfortably into a gap on his side. Vrog didn't know much about plants, but what he had down there should have been good enough for it to take root. He wasn't going to haul himself back here whenever he was done with one stalk.

Speaking of which.

“Second step,” he said aloud, hoisting a large metallic flask, “off to the Cauldron.”



Dawn of Blood: part 4


That morning the Grottu tribe lost two more members in the night. The great hunter Panganeem had disappeared, his hut empty and along with him was his faithful and first friend of the hunting party, Juttyu the Giant. With those two charismatic leaders gone, the tribe found itself mulling a little, having experienced a lot of loss in the last year. As if by magic, though, Thumfatem pulled the tribe from depression by showcasing a new wisdom from the Gods themselves, cementing his position as prophet once and for all; that wisdom being a fever-healing-fish marked with an eye, nicknamed ‘butterfly fish’.

It was in this crossroad of anguish and new hope that the tribe found itself in. Their chieftain Hoshaf had changed drastically in the coming days, becoming more direct, and aggressive. The people had begun to see him in a new light, a budding warrior of sorts from the frail man he had been. Once again, the tribe gave credit to Thumfatem, the advisor of the chief himself. The memory of a time before Hoshaf and the time of Viyoh began to fade in all but the most forlorn. The fact that the name should be uttered in any way other than as a reminder of Hoshaf’s legitimacy troubled the chieftain.

He found himself combing the now sacred beach of the Grottu, a holy site that is off limits to all but himself and the prophet. By a pile of rocks the corpse of Viyoh laid, picked clean and bleached but otherwise undisturbed. Hoshaf pushed a rocked with his foot, he had avoided this crime scene since he became chieftain, and despite his new found confidence, he couldn’t help but feel Viyoh’s ghost.

“I can erase you, you know,” Hoshaf snarled to the sea, “Make it like you never existed. I cannot kill someone who never existed.”

And the sea answered.

It began far in the distance. Out among the waves there was a shape, like an island or a great rock, which he did not recall ever seeing before. It glowed and flickered in the daylight, and, even though the heliopolis was but rising, it had the colour of the evening.

The shape was moving. It grew higher and broader, and it was clear even from far away that it was much larger than even Yimbo. In another moment, a gleaming wall covered the horizon before his eyes, the strange island perched atop it like a colossal head. No – it was a head, and those were arms, each longer than the greatest wave Hoshaf had ever seen was tall. He could feel the beach faintly shaking beneath him, despite the behemoth's steps falling far below the water.

It stood, darkening the earth and sea around itself, and spoke in the voice of a storm.

”You cannot, and you should not. If you won't know that you have killed, what will you have left to be certain of?”

Hoshaf was frozen in terror at the very sight, let alone the voice of such a construct before him. Waves crashed against the beach with every twitch of the mighty metal titan. Eventually the chieftain regained enough of him faculties to answer, “What?”

”What I said.” The hard-leaved reeds that sprouted among the dunes bowed under the rumbling words. The being's eyes shone like the inferno of a pyrgerak hunt. ”You have killed, and that's your accomplishment. That is what you are. Murderer. Victor. Destroy that, and you will be nothing.”

“I am the victor,” Hoshaf agreed hungrily, “My word is law.”

”Yes,” the immense head nodded, ”You rule, and he is dead. You'd be a fool to fear him now. Laugh at him! Show him you're a better chief than he could ever be!”

“I don’t fear him!” Hoshaf said perhaps too quickly, “I don’t fear anything. I am the chieftain, I am the strongest, I am Kirron-chosen!” The Selka kicked a lump of sand at the bleached bones, “He’s nothing, nothing!”

”Right.” An iron hand gestured to the west, casting night over the sea-cliffs yonder. ”I will tell you, there is a trick,” though still as oppressive as thunder, the voice grew low and conspiratorial, ”to make him vanish as he deserves without losing what you took from him. I will teach you, if you swear to use it.”

Hoshaf looked at the conspiring metal mountain, and pinched his chin, “Though I don’t know you, I can’t say no. Teach me these ways.”

”Who I am doesn't matter,” the giant waved his claw dismissively, ”Know only that I am blood-kin of your god. Now listen well. There are many of your kind that don't live like you do. They don't build the same mounds, don't praise Kirron the right way, don't obey your laws. Go find them,” the eyes burned with the joy of a pleasant daydream, ”and make them. They won't listen, and you will build a dune with bones like these. Then you will be the greatest of Kirron's own, and he only one of many.”

“Yes,” Hoshaf thought to himself, “And when it is all done, I will be the strongest.” He looked at Narzhak, “but how?”

”With these.” The hand passed over Hoshaf’s head, and a rain of heavy thumps struck the sand at his side. Iron maces with tapering grips, suited for thick selka hands, and heads circled with pointed studs lay mingled with short, smooth-tipped spears and hooked, harpoon-like piercing pikes. ”Give them to your people. Learn to wield them. This is my blessing.”

“All the tribes will know of Kirron's chosen,” Hoshaf grinned madly. “Even Antorophu will respect my strength after this,” He all but muttered, “I'll be stronger than he ever was.”

Quiet as his last words had been, the ear of a god was sharp. One of the colossus’ four eyes flickered in a playful wink. ”Ah, Antorophu?” There was a laugh in his voice, mirthful yet heavy with dark omens. ”You already won that battle, remember? She's yours, Hoshaf. Go and take what you earned. The day is young.”

Hoshaf grinned at the thought, “You are right, Blood-kin. Thumfatem has suggested the same, perhaps it is time to exercise my strength and victory.”

”High time. Enough mumbling over a heap of bones!” With slow, invisible steps, the god began to recede into the ocean. The tide steadily rose as he submerged, but not a droplet reached the pile of weapons. ”The world's full of wonderful things waiting for a firm hand to take them. Don't let anyone beat you to it.” Once more, the vast body became a wall, then a reef, then an island, then a rock. A blink, and it was gone among the waves.

Hoshaf stared down at the weapons, a wicked grin stretching over his face.




The tribe was whipped into a frenzy. Their very own God-chosen chieftain had returned from the holy grounds with bundles and bundles of strange metallic weapons and orders from Kirron’s Blood-kin itself. The zealots of the Grottu cheered and hailed their chieftain, while their prophet sulked.

“Don’t you think that’s a little too far,” Thumfatem advised in the chieftain’s private hut. Hoshaf blinked, his finger running to the tip of an iron spear.

“I thought this is what you wanted.”

“We already have what I- ,” Thumfatem stumbled, “--WE wanted. We are leaders, and we should be progressing our tribe forward, not sending them to kill fellow selka.”

“Not fellows,” Hoshaf gripped the prophet’s shoulder, “heathens, heretics, those stragglers who don’t recognize our strength.”

“Were you not on the beach?” Thumfatem growled, “Did you not see what bloodshed did to our children? Did you not hear Panganeem’s wails?”

Hoshaf’s face straightened, “This sort of talk is unlike you.”

“The first bloodbath,” Thumfatem nodded, “Was necessary, it weeded out the weak but it was supposed to be the only one. The second came, and proved we are still weak-”

“And now we are given the chance to show how strong we are, weed out the weak of the other tribes, grow our own,” Hoshaf made a fist, “It’s time we take what is ours, we are the strongest.”

Thumfatem recoiled slightly, “This isn’t what I wanted, you know.”

“A shame you aren’t the chieftain, then,” Hoshaf grinned.

“Don’t forget who made you,” Thumfatem hissed.

“Don’t forget what you’ve made,” Hoshaf narrowed his eyes, causing Thumfatem to silently gasp. Hoshaf jabbed a finger into the fat seal’s belly, “You can’t stop now, we’ve come this far.”

Thumfatem fell silent and Hoshaf continued, “in better news, I’ve decided to take a bride, as you suggested.”

The prophet looked up and Hoshaf smiled wide, pulling at a whisker, “Antorophu.”

“At last?” Thumfatem didn’t seem too surprised.

“But,” Hoshaf turned the spear in his free hand, “I hear she has children, two sons. Do you know who by?”

Thumfatem felt a pang in his chest and a clump in his throat, “No.”

“Who?” Hoshaf stared daggers.

“Hoshaf, you’ve changed,” Thumfatem dodged.

“Who?” Hoshaf pressed, his teeth clenched.

“Viyoh,” Thumfatem flinched, awaiting Hoshaf’s anger, but it never came. A sick cackle sounded from the chieftain. Thumfatem looked up, “What is it?”

“This world is a comedy,” Hoshaf growled through his laugh, “No matter what I do, I cannot seem to rid myself of my-- Viyoh’s mistakes.” He paused and his eyes widened with a disgusting idea, “I’ll have them killed. Enemies of Kirron, enemies of our tribe.”

“You can’t!”

“Can’t I!?” Hoshaf clenched his jaw, “You said it yourself, I am the leader, I do what I want. You heard their cheers for me, their cheers for my weapons and my blessings. I can do whatever I want because I am the strongest, I am the chieftain.”

“I won’t let you,” Thumfatem pushed past Hoshaf, heading for the door. There was a sudden pain and warm trickle, agony shooting up Thumfatem’s spine and a cold numbness engulfing his legs. He collapsed to the ground, his lungs too empty to scream. Hoshaf’s spear poked out of his chest, the shaft rammed through his spine. Hoshaf kneeled down next to Thumfatem, bringing his whiskered face close to the gasping seal.

“I’m sorry,” Hoshaf hissed at the dying man, “It’s Kirron’s will.”





The Learner

&

Split-Tooth





The unlikely duo, now riding atop a giant bunny, had skirted the edge of the vast Sandravii for days, going north through sparse shrubland towards the shadows of the Qiangshan mountains. Behind them was the Giant's Bath and with it, the Nanhe river. Yet they pressed on, letting Penelope lead the way. Arya, far too delighted with her giant friend, didn’t even question where the Jackalope was taking them. She simply told Split that they should trust in their noble stead and have faith in her ability to take them to the market, wherever it might be. The kostral was satisfied with nodding and plucking another fruit.

That was many days ago, and now Arya looked at herself within the newest small stream they had found themselves next to. The stream had no name, but it’s waters were clear and undiluted. Arya thought Shengshi would like that. Meanwhile, Penelope was busy munching on plants downstream, and Arya did not know where Split had wandered off too. Instead of looking for her, she instead had donned the dress- her dress, that K’nell had given her. It was as comfortable as it was in the dream, and furthermore, looked amazing when she twirled about.

Arya shut her eyes, K’nell’s advice coming to mind. She needed to practice in the real world, and what better time to do it before they moved on again? Her eyes snapped open and she began to step. Though there was no music, that could change. She let the memory of the Palace’s rhythm take over and the ghostly symphony resonated in her mind. She even began humming to the phantom melody. It was bliss, and also a wonderful way to get rid of stress. And so the girl danced.

She didn’t know how long she danced, but her peace was interrupted by a distant explosion, mid twirl, causing her to almost fall, but she held her balance. Arya then spun around, trying to locate the source until her eyes fell upon the mountain of fire to the south east. It was but a blimp on the horizon, yet it burned with such renewed intensity. Even she could tell that it had erupted. The land that way was darkened by clouds of ash, and a certain terror filled her heart at the thought of the danger it possessed. Her mind spun with possibilities. Was it nature taking its course? Or an intentional act, brought about by a god? She did not know, but in the world they lived in, anything was possible.

The small girl blinked, and turned to Penelope, who was sitting upright scanning the horizon. Her deep hazel eyes were impossible large as she sniffed the air. Arya quickly floated over to the Jackalope and began to give the animal comforting scratches on her cheek. She had found that Penelope responded best to a gentle touch, and she did love her scratches.

Worried as Arya was, she didn’t want Penelope to be stressed, so the girl spoke softly to her, ”It’s okay. It’s okay girl. I’m here.” as she stroked the soft fur of the bunny. Penelope then slowly went back to eating, tearing into a nice leafy bush. With a sigh of relief, Arya then landed a top the jackalope’s back and scanned the area for Split. She looked upstream, then downstream, pausing briefly on the glow of the mountain on the horizon. Arya then turned around. There was thick, closely packed vegetation due to the stream, but further out the land was sparse, containing an abundance of splotchy shrubs here and there. Seeing as Penelope was enormous in her own right, she had a good vantage of the land. But this view only further worried Arya, for she did not see her tall, Kostral friend. So, she shouted, ”Split? Split! Where are you!”

For some moments, nothing. Then the undergrowth nearby rustled and shook, and Split’s grey, rugged body crawled out of it on all sixes.

“Sometimes you get me worried.” With a heave of her forearms, she propelled herself to standing on two legs and dusted off a few twigs and leaves clinging to the ridges in her skin. “I said I’d go look around a bit. Were you asleep again?” She disapprovingly narrowed an eye at Arya’s dress. “Told you, that thing’s dangerous. Keep putting it on, and one day that-” a gnarled claw gestured at the fiery plume on the horizon, “won’t be enough to wake you up.”

Her expression changed as her gaze followed the finger, folds of lip-skin curling up to bare pointed teeth in an uneasy snarl. “Better talk about that later. Whatever’s happening there’s not good.” In a couple of deft pulls, she was on Penelope’s back, and prodding the enormous rabbit to start moving again. “Last time I knew something like that happened, we got that desert. First thing we do is get away fast.”

A silent sigh of relief rushed over Arya as she both heard, and saw Split. The Kostral’s words did not seem to affect Arya in the slightest, if anything, she was just glad to see her Kostral friend. Her eyes squinted into smiles as the Kostral climbed up Penelope. As they began to move, Arya settled down amidst the silken sheet, and looked at the fire mountain in the distance.

Her voice suddenly took on a serious tone as she said, ”Yeah, that’s probably a good idea, if what you say is true.” she then turned around to face forward and said in melodic fashion, ”Come on Penelope! Give us a good pace, girl.” and the Jackalope responded by beginning to speed up. Arya had figured out that whoever held the bell, was able to command Penelope a bit better than those without. The jackalope was far more responsive with her. The small star bell had soon found a home around her neck, fashioned with the strands of hair from Penelope. Arya mindlessly caressed it, as she hoped they would find the market sooner than later.

“We’d better find the hole that goes down or what Choppy’s got for it quick.” Despite the jackalope picking up pace, the kostral’s subdued alarm did not diminish. She shifted restlessly on the blanket, keeping one eye fixed on the pillar of smoke rising in the distance. Her teeth rhythmically grit together, a scratching sound Arya had not heard before. It was laden with apprehension.

“There’s a god that lives in that mountain,” she said after a while, breaking the uncomfortable back-and-forth of the scraping, “or something like one. Don’t care to find out what. Nothing wrong about that, but it’s got a deal with the Fell One.” Her voice dropped into a guttural growl, and she paused, glancing around. Shrubs, bushes, grass not nearly tall enough. No real hiding places. “Don’t know what they agreed about, but if something big’s happening there, maybe it’s time. He” she all but spat the word, “might be coming up.” The eye facing Arya winced nervously. “We’re far, but that doesn’t mean a spit. You think you can hide well if you need to?”

Arya could see that Split was on edge, and that alarmed the small girl. Split was a giant, six-armed weapon of flesh and bone, if something was making her nervous, that terrified Arya. But she couldn’t be afraid, else her fear would control her. Just as Kalmar had once said. Arya took a deep breath, before saying, ”I… I could if I needed to, but I’m not going to abandon you and Penelope. I couldn’t do that.” She then walked over to Penelope’s head and grabbed onto both horns. She turned her head to look back at Split, saying, ”We have a quest to finish, now don’t we?” Arya then turned looked back at the fire mountain, and had to blink as she saw a tiny black dot coming from the mountain. It hadn’t been there before.

”I don’t mean to alarm you, but what’s that?” she asked in shaky voice as she shifted her body to point at the speck.

The kostral turned up her head, following her gesture. Her eyes, by now used to the daylight, but still clearly not made for it, winced as they tried to make out the distant blot. “Can’t see any better than you,” her voice sounded almost hollow at that point, “But I know that the god of the mountain flies. If that’s it-” she broke off, blowing out air between her teeth with a whistle. “Nothing’s sure. Could be something else. I’d rather not meet that thing either way, but that’s not the worst.” She shifted to face Arya with a dim, disquieted and ever so indistinctly concerned look. “If you see something big come this way, run. Not just big, something-” she tried to gesture to indicate just how big, but gave up halfway through the motion. “I’ll tell you. Don’t mind me, I’ll be fine. She should be too.” A pair of fingers ran along the jackalope’s hide. “If he’s coming up, I don’t want him to see you. No telling what he’d do.” She produced the coffee flask and held it up. “You’d better take this, don’t want him asking questions. Hope you won’t have to, but-” She whistled again.

She listened to Split speak, Arya’s expression softening as she saw Split wanting to protect her. Tentatively, the girl reached out and took the flask, then said, ”It won’t come to that, Split. Trust me.” she looked away briefly before sighing and looked back, ”But… If worse comes to worse… Okay. Okay.” Arya turned around again and began said, ”Alright Penelope! Lets-” but her voice was cut off as the world suddenly went dark.

The sudden shift from dark to light was bewildering and Arya had to blink, before looking up where Heliopolis shone. What she saw, was a vast cloud of something dark. It blotted out the sun, then it was over.

Arya looked back to Split with wild eyes, and then turned forward once more, shouting ”Penelope, run! Take us to the Market!” and all at once the Jackalope kicked her legs and the she was running. The wind blew through Arya’s hair as she clutched the coffee flask. She was spooked, to say the least. Something was happening on Galbar, and she could tell it wasn’t good.

If the sudden cloud over the sky had startled her, its effect on Split seemed to be much the opposite. Whether it was the familiarity of the shadow or the acrid smell of smoke that began to waft down towards them, she rapidly shook herself from her unease, resolutely snapping her jaws and turning her head to the fore with a click. Four hands grasped at the long white fur, making the kostral look like a statue fastened to the creature’s back with evenly-tied ropes.

“We’d better hope we won’t take another week to get there now.” Her voice had recovered its flat, raspy bite. “Good thing is anyone with an eye’s going to be looking at that first. If your eyes are as high as that-” she glanced upwards and chortled, “Sometimes being big isn’t all that good. Worst thing around for us now will be that other one, and he’s got to be busy doing all that.” She tapped Penelope’s flank with a free palm. “Still no reason to let up.”

”Whatever you say Split!” Arya shouted above the wind. ”I have a really bad feeling about all of this. I just can’t seem to shake it! Hopefully Penelope knows where she’s goi-” And then the Jackalope suddenly stopped, the force almost making Arya fly forward, but her grip was solid. She looked up, hoping to see the market, but was disappointed. All around them was still shrubland, broken by large rock formations here and there.

”Penelope! What are you doing?” Arya said disgruntled. The jackalope then raised her head, sniffing the air. She then cocked an air, as if she was listening for something. After a long, quiet moment, the Jackalope began to forage, much to Arya’s dismay. Grey fingers tapped on its hide with irritated impatience.

“That Choppy looked like she had a loose head,” Split grumbled, “Could’ve warned us about the defective rabbit, though. Defective, that’s the word.” she added, more to herself than to either of her companions.

”Penelope, this is no time for eating! We have to go girl!” Arya said as she gently prodded the bunny. But Penelope did not listen, instead she paused again next to a bush, her giant eye peering down at it with curiosity. After a moment, Arya heard a small ‘peep’ and a bird flew out of the brush. Then all of a sudden, Penelope was running again. Arya lost her balance and fell backwards, landing against Split’s body. Several hands swung up to catch her, the kostral herself miraculously keeping her balance despite releasing most of her grip. Two uneven rows of dripping teeth over her head were superseded by a quizzical pair of eyes.

Arya looked up at Split for a moment and said, ”What is she doing!” before scrambling back up to the top of her head, propped up by two arms from behind. She saw Penelope was chasing a small golden bird, with red plumage, and that it was leading them straight for a large rock formation. Arya’s eyes went wide and she began to panic, ”Oh no! Penelope! Penelope stop! Stop!” she shouted, tugging at the Jackalope’s antlers to no avail. Behind her back, she could hear a dissatisfied rumbling and clicking of teeth. As they got closer, the situation seemed dire. The bunny kept running. Arya looked back at Split and shouted, ”We have to jum-” As if the Jackalope could read her thoughts, with one mighty push, she had jumped in the air. Arya screamed, turning her head just in time, to see a massive hole in the ground, then darkness.








and


Kalmar


A step shook the ground, crushing dozens of trees under a pitiless iron heel. Then another. And another. A long trail of vast patches of trampled vegetation stretched back to the very coastline, now distant beyond even divine sight.

Flaming eyes swept the green expanse that covered the earth from sight to all sides but that one. All things considered, Narzhak thought, forests were little better than the plainlands he had once found so dull back on the Dragon’s Foot. The various sizes and shapes of the trees were slightly more interesting than nothing but grass as far as he could see, yes, but it took a very short time to see what that variety really counted for. A tree was a tree, as much as that. Small differences in how bent the branches on this or that one were did not change anything worthy of his attention about them. As for everything else that grew under those trees, he could barely even notice it down there. Mushrooms were the best there was, and that said it all.

The things that moved, at least until his foot came down on them, were hardly an improvement. There were different kinds of wolves, to say nothing of all the rest, but none of them did anything more than the trees, as far as he cared. They ate, slept, took up space, that was all. Not once had he seen any do anything else. And those were the best things here, no place left for anything above them! He could have sworn that this corner of Galbar had been lazily left by everyone to overgrow with useless life. Lucky that he had found it now.

Narzhak rotated his head, gazing over the horizon from left to right. To one side, he could see nothing but more forests. He had about had enough of those. To the other, the indistinct shapes of mountains towered in the distance. He did not have high hopes for the mountains either - all of them so far had been nothing but barren rock - but they were a change, and that would have to do for now.

A distant animalistic roar could be heard, followed by what Narzhak would perceive as a light ping! ping! sound directly beneath him.

Looking down, he saw a shaggy, grey, apelike creature, furiously pounding away at his foot, undaunted by his vast size.

This was already much, much better.

Leaning down heavily, he pointed a finger at the strangely ferocious being. Large hooks shaped themselves from its tip, followed by dizzyingly long, thick chains. Moving as though animated with snakelike life, they clawed into and coiled around the beast, which continued to bellow and struggle as though there were nothing unusual - for one like itself - about it.

Narzhak lifted his captive to his eyes. Whatever it was, it clearly improved on everything he had gone over so far. Strength, yes, but also this fury, which he thought he could call ambitious, and… He looked closer. The creature was not bleeding where his hooks had bitten into its thick hide. He pulled one out, and stared: the shallow wound closed under his eyes, and in brief it was almost invisible under the matted fur.

”Wherever you come from, there’s a lot in you,” he mused, more to himself than to the beast, which was less than interested in soliloquy. In a few steps, the mountains had grown much closer. His four gazes scattered over them, eyes ranging over craggy stone faces, far from one another. It did not take him long to spot more of the curious beings - here was one, crouching in ambush over a cliff; there another, more interested in what it was eating than the new mountain standing nearby; and another there, and more…

”And I think I’ll bring it out,” he concluded his earlier thought. ”Hold still.” His eyes converged on the being, and for an instant they blazed crimson. As on command, the creature froze, arms raised in flailing and features painted with outrage.

Hundreds more chained hooks sprouted from Narzhak’s hand, and went to work. They moved quickly, in spasming, yet precise jolts, hurrying before the prodigious healing overtook the ways they cut open into the captive’s body. Skin hardened, bones stretched, black ichor dripped into improvised funnels. Draw the nails out some more, pull the mouth wider, the frame taller. More teeth, less fur, it gets in the way. Make sure the blood seeps well into its belly. Like that.

The god drew most of his hooks back into their fingers and admired his handiwork. The thing he held was taller and leaner than before, long arms ending in matchingly long, viciously sharp claws. Its fur was spread in mangy patches over its stony, almost squamous skin, none reaching higher than the shoulders. The head, after all, should be free to dive into carcasses, and this head was made for just that. It was nothing but mouth, large, wide and toadlike, filled with more teeth than the finest sight could hope to count. Strong teeth they were, too. No bone would stop them, nor any shell. Two squat, rapacious eyes, alight with greed and cunning, surmounted the horrid maw, flattened nostrils barely visible below them.

”You’ll make a perfect ghoul, you will,” Narzhak nodded, his voice brimming with self-satisfaction. The monster stirred, blinked, then snapped its many teeth. Ghoul or no ghoul, there seemed to be only one thing it cared about.

However, its maker was not yet finished. Holding the newly-named ghoul chained upright on one finger, he glared at it again with all four eyes, which were suddenly much brighter than the usual. So much brighter that the whole mountainside was bathed in their orange glow, as though a second, hellish Heliopolis had lit up straight before it. The whole of it, that is, except the spot where the creature’s shadow fell. A strangely large shadow, if one looked at it. It should not have covered the whole peak, or the foot below it, and certainly not the entire mountain range.

The shadow washed over every cave and every crag, and in a moment both it and the glow were gone. So was every one of the hairy, brutish creatures on that side of the massive. Instead of them, a horde of long-clawed, wide-mouthed horrors loped over the rocks, hailing each other with gurgling cries. Some set upon one another, biting and grasping large stones and tree branches the better to smash the enemy’s head in. Others hurried down into the forest or over the passes, in search of easier prey, or, what was harder, but tastier, their former kind. Some few, already busy with something’s meat, did not seem to notice the change at all; at least, until their meals were gone much faster than expected, leaving them with a torturous craving for more.

This Narzhak carelessly set down the first ghoul, which minded it less than its sudden appetite, ”is what you call an improvement.”

”No.”

The ghoul, the first of its kind, fell, an arrow punched clean through its eye and out the back of its head.

Kalmar levitated in the air, expression as cold as stone, as he stared down Narzhak. A new arrow was already notched in his bow as he awaited a response.

After his misadventures with Chopstick, he had cleaned himself up, replaced or mended the clothes which had been lost or torn, and then returned to his continent, only to find that some titanic creature had run roughshod over his forests. The destruction had been immense, and for no real reason, and so it had to end. He had followed the trail here. Now, the God of the Hunt floated face to face with the God of Conflict himself.

Heavily, Narzhak swung around to face the much smaller god. ”Hrghm.” His voice had become one of annoyance. Fiery pits large enough to swallow scores of Kalmars many times over blazed with displeasure.

”You’re...” he scraped his jagged chin with a ghastly screeching sound, sifting through what he remembered of his divine family, ”Kalmar, aren’t you? What’s your problem with this? Isn’t it what you’re all about yourself?”

Kalmar glared back. ”My problem is that it is not sustainable. Your ‘improvements’ will be their downfall. At this rate most of the new species will wipe itself out with infighting, but not before killing or driving out all other animals in the area. I don’t just exist to hunt things, I exist to ensure that the hunting can continue. Reverse what you have done,” he demanded.

”Or else what?” Notes of mockery sounded through the giant’s rumbling. ”You’d do better to look closer, and maybe learn from my work. These ghouls” he motioned widely with a finger, sending a whistling breeze towards the mountains, ”don’t have a stable balance, no. That is the point. They’ll find a better one, if they want to last, but that’s far from now. What they have for a start is enough. They’d spread to consume everything, but that same infighting will keep them in check. They’d tear each other to pieces to the last, but there’ll be easier prey to distract them. This way, they’ll keep growing right as much as needed, until they become better.” He glanced sideways with one eye. ”A plan for centuries started in less than a day. Don’t you have any of your own to mind?”

”There is logic to your words,” Kalmar grudgingly conceded, ”yet there was never any need to make them this way to begin with. They were already strong, they already competed with each other, they already faced adversity. I had plans for them and you threw those out of balance. There is no sense in infighting, nor cannibalism - those ultimately make them weaker. The threats that keep them in check should be on the outside, not within.”

”That was not enough.” Jarringly, the deep rumbling ended in a sharp snapping click. ”They needed more. A hunger to drive them, a wit to make them adapt. If all change had to come from outside, we’d be running ourselves out around the whole world. I, for one, have better things to do with my time. Instead, I set the path, and anyone who wants to live will follow it. To get the most out of them, you need to push them from everywhere. That way, even the best will always have a challenge. The greatest one, because it’s just like them.” Narzhak expressively lifted a half-clenched claw. ”Infighting kills off the weak in the breed. The strong become stronger by consuming them. They’ll be fewer, maybe, but better. Besides, numbers won’t be a problem for them anytime soon.” He abruptly gestured to the side. ”And that’s just the ones I found. There’s got to be plenty more of your things further in the mountains.”

In many ways, Narzhak’s philosophy echoed Kalmar’s own. The disagreement was on how to implement it. ”There is truth in what you say. Yet they already had that hunger and that wit, you only drove it into excess. Infighting doesn’t just kill the weak, it also kills the strong.” he paused for a few moments. ”I will watch and observe your creatures. If you are correct, there will be no issue. If you are wrong, then I will remove them,” he stated flatly.

One of the upper fiery eyes narrowed. ”That would defeat the point. If they fail” he laid particular weight on the word ‘they’, ”they’ll be condemned either way. If you suddenly decide they’re not good enough, who’s to say you’re right? I can’t play keeper for everything I leave wherever I go.” He swivelled his head back towards the mountains, half of his eyes remaining fixed on Kalmar. ”And I’m not about to lose my work to your whims. The finest I’ll take with me. You can sit here and learn from the rest.”

Narzhak reached for the plates on his chest with both hands, dug his fingers into the gap where two of them met and pulled. The armoured segments came apart with a groaning, squelching sound, spraying torrents of fetid black blood to all sides.

Something stirred in the shadowy depths of the god’s interior. Slowly, almost agonisingly, a shape began to emerge from the cavernous opening. It began with what looked, at best, like a caricature of a skull, mouthless and stretched into a horned triangular shape. Orbs of molten metal burned in its iron sockets, scorching the black gore the misshapen head was coated in to a filthy crust.

The head was followed by a wide, sturdy back, surmounted by a ridge akin to a bony, ribbed spine. Vast leathery wings tipped with grasping claws emerged alongside the shoulders and latched on to the edges of the gap, pulling the rest of the creature through. Malformed taloned stumps came in the stead of the rear legs, and a barbed, blade-edged tail gave the last push against the iron cage.

The Iron God pushed his armour closed as though nothing unusual were the matter and indicated the ghoul-infested mountainsides to the colossal gargoyle. The monstrosity lowered its body to the ground, glared forward and - waited. It did not wait long, as almost immediately a mass of grey shapes vaulted and rolled down cliffs and out of cave mouths. The ghouls moved quickly, but in an oddly orderly way, without even a stray swipe or gnash at a neighbour’s flank. They clambered over the leviathan’s sides, agile hands finding easy purchase in its uneven skeletal iron hide. As soon as its back was covered with a stony sheen, the monster leapt up on its surprisingly strong legs, beat its wings once, twice, and soared off, leaving bent and cracked trees in its wake.

”There,” Narzhak followed it with his other two eyes, until it was a dark spot among the clouds, ”You can fret less about your forests now. Speaking of those forests, has it ever occurred to you to make them more productive?”

”That is what I have been working on,” Kalmar snarled. ”Now begone.”

”You need to work harder, then,” satisfied with his accomplishments, the Iron God’s mood had rapidly lifted, ”I barely noticed a thing on my way here. I’ll leave you to that.” He moved, slowly and deliberately, to face the east, and lifted a foot for an immense, likely destructive stride. ”So long, what were you again - yes, huntsman.” One step, and his rumbling laughter faded into the distance.

Kalmar watched him leave, frowned and turned away, ruminating on the meeting. The titan would likely return, he realized, and he would need to be ready. Preparations would need to be made. Then there was the matter of this new species - something would need to to keep them in check. That wasn’t even beginning to get into what Chopstick had said to Li’Kalla - he would need to look into that as well.

”Master,” Arryn’s voice cut into his thoughts.

”Arryn?”

”I have news to report, master,” the falcon said, and then relayed the story he had heard from one of the peculiar talking magpies.

When the story ended, Kalmar cursed, throwing his fist into a nearby tree. So many threats, so much to do. Why couldn’t things be simple? ”Find out where Li’Kalla is, and tell me her location,” he ordered.








”...And now you heat it and wait for the flow to come out at the other end.”

Two of the kostral obediently lugged the cauldron over a nearby vent in the ground, splashing some of the malodorous liquid from under the badly fastened lid, while the third followed, holding the desiccated stomach of some creature under the pipe’s mouth. The heat of the molten rock below was fast to act, and something began to rumble suspiciously inside the recipient. Steam blasted from under the lid, despite the beings’ best efforts to hold it down, but something still trickled down the pipe and into the makeshift gourd at the end of the apparatus.

Once the cauldron’s contents had escaped it completely by one way or another, the third kostral tentatively held up the stomach, now about halfway filled with a pungently reeking fluid. A gigantic iron hand descended from above, its fingertips stretching into tapering hooked spikes. They deftly snatched up the gourd and disappeared upwards the cline of the glistening, bloodstained mountain that surmounted the scene. For a moment, all was quiet save for the distant crackling of fires.

”Ghrm.”

The mountain was evidently not pleased.

The emptied stomach was tossed back down without much ceremony. Narzhak waved the three kostral away, and they scampered off, dragging the crude distilling apparatus behind.

It was not the first failure, nor would it likely be the last one. He had tried boiling all sorts of things in that contraption - fungi grown in water from the Cauldron, overripe tubers from the wastes below, which tasted more of mold than anything else, even pieces of beasts seasoned with traces of yeast he had scraped from the first copy of Shengshi’s invention. Of those, none approached the power of what he had tasted that time. The flavours were much better, or at least so different from those brewed by the snake-god that there was no proper way of comparing them, but there was not early enough of a punch behind any of them. The kostral had still taken to the liquors like flies to carrion, however, which made the endeavour a success as far as its actual goal went. If anything, he reflected, the weakness was even an improvement - the brews could be given out without danger of them being too much of a distraction.

As for himself, he could always go back to the Cauldron sometime. Distractions were no good to him, either.

But what harm was a swig now and then? A channel down from the Cauldron, that was a thought…

Narzhak shook his head and looked after the retreating group of thralls, who were now trying to drag the distillery up a cliff wall. If the brews were good enough, he would need more of them. Sitting around to oversee the boiling of every one had already bored him out of his head, and was simply beneath one of his might and greatness. The same went for many more things than he would have cared to admit. His would-be drudges could make no better weapons than sharp stones without his eye constantly on them, nor better digging tools than their claws, to say nothing of armour, chains, brands, all things without which a people just would not work. As much as he hated the thought, his creations were not really perfect on the first try.

But they do come close. The endless squatting over the latest experiment had given him more than enough time to think up a solution, and the one he had found was reassuringly simple. What had worked for him would work for them, which meant they were not much worse. And what was only a little worse than him was better that nearly anything else.

He clapped his hands together, sending a sound like the thunder of an immense gong reverberating across the Pit. From hundreds of caverns and tunnels, the snarling heads of kostral looked out, gazing expectantly towards him with dull eyes.

A metallic spire began to rise from Narzhak’s upturned palm, molding itself from its plates. It was still moving when it began to melt and drip, rivulets of fluid iron rivalling mountain streams in size flowing from its sharpened pinnacle, only to become part of it once again, reabsorbed into its stature.

When it stood taller than ten times the greatest tree on Galbar, he breathed disunity into it.

With a crack, the spire burst into a shimmering cloud. No fragment was larger than a grain of dust, and each more fury than a boulder could contain. The iron nimbus swept out like a storm, slithering along the great chamber’s walls. Wherever it met the bestial faces, it seized them as an angry swarm of wasps, sending the creatures stumbling back into their dens.

In the blink of a flaming eye, the storm had cleared, and the faces hesitantly began to appear again. The lurid light of the fires in the sky reflected from them in broken stains. Some had bands of metal welded to them like the remains of broken masks; others had their skin pierced by jagged spikes sprouting from within, still dripping after bursting out in their growth. More than one eye glared blankly from under a resplendent grey sheen.

The giant stretched a hand towards the ground, and iron flowed into its palm out of the rock. Slowly, the many kostral began to lower their claws to the stone of their shelves. Some higher up raised them to the ceilings, others scratched the rock of the walls. Just as slowly, yet surely, new metallic flashes began to appear between their gnarled fingers.

With a few deliberately slow motions, Narzhak molded the shapeless liquefied ore, and held up the resulting heavy, dulled blade. Thousands followed his gestures, stretching out their troves and raising them in response, one after another. At a glance, the god could see they were far from ideal, some barely resembling blades at all.

”Try until you do it well. Don’t show yourselves to me before then.” The heads and blades disappeared.

The Iron God leaned back in his seat. Good things, he had found, were slow to start, but if he added to them little by little the payoff would be a good one. Even better if no one expected it.

The thought made him sit up again. It was not bad, far from it, but as things were he was the one who did not know what to look out for. For all he could be sure, the rest of the world beyond the island he had seen might as well still have been water. That would not do.

He gritted his fingers together, a strident screech that ended in a snapping clang. Within moments, an iron-less kostral popped out of a nearby cunicle.

”You. Do you know one who’s strong?”

The creature prostrated itself in a crawling nod.

”Bring it here.”

***


Stalker flesh was bitter. A good taste after many days of lichen. Stalkers were a nuisance, obviously. But it was good when one came so close to the hatcheries. Those caught in the wastes did not last enough to be brought up there.

The one with the split tooth gnawed down again where it had torn off the beast’s obsidian shell. The blood around its mouth felt warm. Not burning, not choking like the hatchery. This warmth was good. It was unpleasant to leave it. Split-tooth would not have done it, but the itch in the mouth was worse. So it lifted its head, time and again. Just long enough to scratch the stringy meat out of the tooth’s fork. Then down into the blood again.

Scratches down the tunnel. Someone was coming. It did not lift its head, but looked up with two eyes. Another kostral walked into the vault. Strange one. It had iron teeth growing from its back and elbows. Half of its jaw gleamed.

The strange kostral grunted and gestured to the cunicle. Follow. Split-tooth now stood up fully, twisting its neck back. It looked to the hatchery. No. Can’t leave here. The other clicked its iron teeth impatiently. It gestured up and wide with three hands. Great One.

Split-tooth looked at the hatchery vault again, then reluctantly stretched its limbs. The other had already gone into the corridor. With some hesitation, it followed. The Great One called it. Why? What did It know? Would it be punished to frighten the others? What for? It did not know any faults. It had kept ranks, always. Better than the others. No one else had won the birthing fights three times. Not even the overseers.

The strange kostral did not stop to answer. They went past chambers full of others. Many turned to look at them. Some were strange too. Iron faces, iron nails, iron backs. They had gleaming clubs in their hands and changed them, but stopped to watch. Did they know?

They came to an opening, just beyond a wide bend. A sound came from the other side. Something large, very large was breathing. The other one stopped and showed it to go. Split-tooth looked at it, uncertain. Stop here? It gestured again.

The air behind the bend was stifling with the smell of iron. The breathing was like the grinding teeth of a deep lurker. Split-tooth clenched its fingers and slowly, quietly crept to the opening.

The Great One was a wall of iron and blood. Its face was higher than it could see. Only Its eyes burned in the darkness.

”This? What does it do?” It almost crawled back under the immensity of the voice.

Someone answered something from below.

”Three times. That’s the best you have?”

Another answer.

”Ghrm. We use what we can. Keep still.”

Split-tooth did not need the order. It could only crouch and watch.

The shadow of a claw bigger than a tower fell over it. Its tip was not sharp, but it shone like a melting rock. A sign of creases and ridges opened on it like a fifth eye.

There was burning.

”Become my eyes. What you see, I will see.”

The Great One’s touch was excruciating. Split-tooth’s shoulder was being flayed, scorched, torn out at once. Its head was no better. Something was pushing outwards, clawing, breaking bones and chains. Its eyes felt like they would bleed out at any moment. It seemed that it was already happening - everything grew dark, except the thrumming in its head and the fire in its shoulder.

”Go into the world, and watch all there is.”

The burning withdrew, only to be followed by the feeling of charred claws digging in. A well of darkness opened inside its head, and it fell into it, with the pain, away from the pain.

The last it heard was the bone-splitting the voice.

”Bring it out. Leave it there.”

***


She woke up to an unfamiliar cold light. It was quiet. Maybe too quiet, but she could not bring herself to care now. Not while her head still- No, it did not. It was light, sharp, almost painfully so. But only almost. The difference was important.

A stirring of the fingers, followed by a motion of the arms, showed her that the shoulder was not fully at rest yet. It still stung, though it was nothing compared to what she had felt before.

What she had felt. What was “she”?

She considered it. “She” was what gave birth. And she had done it, full three times. This was why. Then “she” also meant what won the birthing fights. That she had done too, just as many times again, which meant she was the strongest. “She” meant strength, then, and the one who wins. It made sense, and she liked it. That must have been why the Great One-

The Great One. Where was It? And where was she?

Slowly, wary of the unusual light, she opened her side eyes. It was not stronger than fire, which was a relief. It also shone on rock, which felt reassuringly familiar. Her front eyes followed. Below her was bare, blackened stony ground, sinking in pits and jutting up in spikes around her. Over the crest of a jagged hill, something glowed crimson, like a flaming cloud.

It could have been the Pit, if not for what was above.

The sight overhead was blue and boundless. Not the oppressive darkness of the Pit’s unseen vaulted ceiling. Somehow, she guessed, no, knew that the blue above really had no limits, or if it did they were so far away it did not matter. The sky. It was clear, cool, pleasant like the stalker flesh after days of lichens. There was a fire there, too, she saw now, but if she did not look at it it did not chase her eye. Fires could be quiet, who knew.

Gently, careful not to jolt her still aching shoulder, she began to pull herself up on her arms. One of her hands struck something cold and metallic as it stretched. She began to turn her head to look, and her side eye fell on the burned spot. It was not burned after all. There just was a large, reddish scar on the grey skin, a scar with a shape. A clenched fist inside a circle.

Become my eyes. This was the mark of the Great One.

Forgetting the thing her hand had felt, her thoughts turned back to the Great One. To N- the Great One. It was supreme. But it must have been something else besides. It could not just be- Yes. The Great One was supreme. The greatest. The mightiest. There was nothing more to know. There had to be. There were others like It, she knew now. She knew their names. She knew Its name - It had heard them speak it, and what It saw, she had seen. It was just one of-

The Great One is absolute. Nothing can compare. But something did. Something did, and these were not her thoughts. They had no place inside her. It did not have to think. The Great One thought for it. She thought now. She felt the boundlessness of sky, and how it was good. What had there been before? Waiting for a stalker to crawl up to the hatcheries? It only had to obey. What was there now-

What was there now for the others? The kostral? The ones like her? They obeyed. The Great One thought for them. And much good it did them. They hatched, they ate, died, no better than the stalkers. They could be so much more. They could be like her. They had to obey. Because It had made them like that. Made and shackled them. It needed them. It- no, he. “He” was the one who lost, who was weak. He was weak without them to serve him. The Great One is absolute. Obey.

No. She was strong. The strong did not obey the weak. The Great One is strongest. OBEY. The kostral would be better if they did not serve him. OBEY She thought. She knew. She willed.

O B E Y

NO.


An iron claw rose from the darkness and grasped her mind, crushing, breaking.

For a moment, all was dark again. Then the iron grip shattered.

She blinked her eyes open. The sky was still there, as were the stones. So was the ache in her shoulder, as she felt when she tried to stand. But something was missing. It took her a while to realise that it was the shadow over her thoughts.

Thoughts. They came so much easier now. Really, if everyone could think like this…

“I’ll kill you,” she mused aloud, a rasping growl shaping itself into words with an ease that almost unsettled her, “Sometime, I’ll come back and kill you.”

When she realised she had spoken, she sprang up, heedless of the pain in her shoulder, and glanced around. No, he was not here. A relief.

A glimmer on the ground caught her eye. The metallic thing she had felt earlier. She turned to see it better. Next to her there lay a large, shaped piece of iron - a pole with a long, broad recurve blade. An axe. She gripped the pole with two left hands and tried to lift it. The weapon was strangely light for something so large. Just holding it made her want to cleave something. Of course he’d want his eyes to have teeth, too. In this, she was ready to agree. It would not hurt to have something to bite with.

Remembering something, she snapped her mouth open and ran a finger along the jagged line of her fangs. It was still there, of course. Her split tooth. All she had been, besides a thrall of the Great- Narzhak. That meant it was all she was now.

Split-Tooth. There were worse things to start with.

She slung the axe over her good shoulder and began to crawl with her back to the distant fire in the sky. For now, it was better not to let the Fell One suspect anything. Until a better moment came, she would be two dutiful pairs of eyes, and ears - ?

big sack of angry cats you're trying to pass off as bagpipes

The wind brought sounds up here. New, interestingly so.

Split-Tooth clambered over the closest mound of rocks, with a small leap to cover the gap where they broke away to hover over the ground. She strained to hear the odd voice from afar. It was a bit grating-

"Oh yeah, by the way, if anyone wants to bring my security staff, like, a cup of coffee or something, sometime, that'd be nice, they look kinda parched."

“Security staff”. The exact words were unclear, but she could guess their meaning quite closely. So the Fell One wasn’t the only one who kept battle slaves. It figured, if there were others like him. And they too apparently did not get any better than lichens most of the time.

She thought of the days - many days - she had squatted at the mouth of the hatchery. Even without thoughts, it had been dull, boring work. And hot. The eggs had to be in hot places, but what that meant for those that guarded them? No, the “Great One” did not think of that.

She hopped off the hovering stones and began to walk towards where she guessed the voice must have come from. She could wager these security staff did not think any more than the kostral, but now she could. She would think for them, and do it well.

As soon as she found out what coffee was.





The last clinging grains of sand were scraped away as Narzhak trudged over the jagged surface of the World Scar. He hummed contentedly, a sound more akin to a gathering avalanche. Entertaining as his circle about the continent had been, returning to the first grounds he had marked with his presence brought a sense of satisfaction all of its own. He could almost feel the heat of the Pit seeping up from below the earth, an invigorating warmth that pleasantly contrasted with the irksome flaming breath of Sartr's pet. He could still feel an itch below his iron plates where one of the beams had struck him. Strange that it should linger in that spot and no other.

Even stranger that it should be an itch. Fire did not leave itches.

The god prodded the tip of a finger into the gap closest to the odd sensation, extending a long, slender hook from its tip to reach deeper into the fissure. Sure enough, it latched onto something, and the itch stopped. Narzhak raised the claw to his eyes, and found himself staring into a familiar placid snout. The boar had grown considerably since he had last seen it, being large enough to tower over the rest of its kind. Its once brown fur had turned a steely grey, and through the sharp end of his hook the god could feel it was denser and harder than he had first made it to be.

The cause of this transformation was itself clear enough - the beast’s tusks were stained with black blood and hung with shreds of divine flesh. Dimly meeting its creator’s gaze with its beady, bloodshot eyes, it swallowed what must have been the last mouthful it had bitten out of his body.

”That’s where you were.” In the heat of the clash with the Phoenix, the Iron God had forgotten he had left the progenitor of his dire swine interred in the chinks in his armour with the intent of bearing it back to the Pit. While being embedded underneath the colossal iron plates had allowed it to weather the titanic battle unscathed, it had also exposed the flesh beneath to its appetite. It was not as though Narzhak would miss a few bites, but the thought that this had gone on for a while without him noticing was irksome.

”Off with you, now!” Without much ceremony, he lowered the boar to the ground and prodded it with the hook, making it stumble into one of the larger crevices. Without so much as a trace, the creature was swallowed by the awaiting darkness. There would be time to deal with it later. The life of one who had partaken of godly flesh was unlikely to be short in one way or another, and indeed the greatest danger now was that it might fill the Pit with more of its brood. At worst, wrangling it could be a trial for his thralls down there.

Leaving his domain’s inhabitants to their own devices, Narzhak resumed his walk northwards. A few more strides, and he was past the Scar. Here, the soil was still as barren as it had been when the continent had been dragged up from the ocean floor. The monotony of the rocky landscape was only broken by that flow of blood in the distance - whose blood it was, he had yet not found out. Perhaps if he…

The god approached the unusual river, dipped down a suddenly concave finger and brought its contents up for a draught. No, the taste was not familiar, either. He trudged upstream, absently following the sanguine course without much heed for its surroundings. Not that there was much around it at all, was there? As soon as he thought it, however, a crunching sound underfoot, followed by something scraping at his metallic skin, made him reconsider the notion. Glancing down, he saw a copse of oddly animate trees flailing their branches in an admirably coordinated, if still rather static fashion. More interesting that them, though, was what they surrounded. From what he had seen of rivers, it was not unusual for them to flow out of lakes, but he could not think of anyone large enough to have spilled this one. Could it be that red-skinned one, Kirron? For all Narzhak knew, he might have been able to conjure such quantities of ichor.

Not that it mattered overmuch at the moment. Though vast, the lake was still only a speck amid these unshaped lands. His mandate called for them to be seeded with something interesting, and besides, if he was to make good on his challenge to Sartr, he would need a foothold aboveground from which to wage war in person.

Foothold. Staging ground. Infrastructure? Curious how easily words found a meaning.

The Iron God glanced back at the lake. Small as it might have been compared to the bare terrain, it could still prove useful.

Plunging an immense hand into the sanguine basin, he melded his fingers one to another, forming a single great recipient. The amount of ichor he lifted in it would have been sufficient to fill another, if much smaller, lake on its own. But a single lake of blood, unless it was drawn from someone else, was enough.

The crimson liquid in the giant’s grip began to churn and boil, suffused by an infernal heat that radiated from the iron claw. A thick, cloying mist steamed from its surface, pierced by sputtering gouts and geysers. It roiled to the ground, soaking into the gravel. Red stains spread where it touched down.

Narzhak clenched his fist, and the blood erupted into a carmine storm.

Clouds of divine ichor poured into the sky, new vapours rising from the lake to join them. In a matter of moments, a charnel darkness had fallen where there once was day, the light of Heliopolis blotted out by the grisly exhalations. Far they spread, from one end of the land to the other, stifling and choking the air as they crawled.

”Fall.”

The heavens bled.

Torrents of divine gore washed over the rocks, pouring down from what seemed less of a sky than an open wound. Stone crumbled and melted under its onslaught, collapsing into fine, damp red soil. Pools were hewn into expanses of loose gravel. The mountains were slick like swords after a battle.

The Iron God’s skin cracked open, and waves of noxious black rose in the red’s wake. Rocks struck by it were swollen with horrid shapes and sharpened into bladed edges. Patches of soil grew dark, heavy and hungry for carrion feasts. Puddles of sludge lay reeking of decay like ancient swamps.

The skies had not fully cleared - and, indeed, they never would from that day - when Narzhak set about completing his work. His hands gouged vales into the earth, carving hillsides and digging down to unearth hidden springs. Soon, a thick, murky river flowed through the blood-tainted lands, branching out into sluggish rivulets that cut them across like so many scars.

Wherever he breathed, life sprang up from the soaked ground, from pockets of soil amid the rocks, from stagnant pools and dim waters. It was harsh and savage like the earth that birthed it, barely distinguishable from it to the point that they almost were one. Plants and beasts alike were iron-grey in hue, veined with red and black within and without. Tufts and fields of grass were like the spears of numberless hosts, sharp and hardy; thorny shrubs hunkered down on hillsides as if lying in ambush; the trees were stout and twisted, gnarly branches swaying slightly with unnatural animation. Streams were clogged with sanguine water-weeds, soon to grow rank and stagnant. Voracious packs of vile savage rats roamed like restless waves at sea, preying on heavyset reptilian beasts and hystrices bristling with envenomed quills, and many-tusked dire hogs rolled over loose rocks in search of vermiform prey.

Still blood-spattered from his efforts, Narzhak gazed over his work. Much like the Pit, it was but a beginning; but a beginning was all he needed now, and this was certainly a mighty fine one. Humming to himself, he ambled back to the Scar, contemplating the grey earth and sanguine skies on his way. A Charnel Steppe, in name and guise.

The ichor was more resilient than the sand, still besmirching him as he clambered into the abyss wrought by his first encounter with Galbar and stepped into his cavernous realm. He did not mind. Without seeing his reflection somewhere, he could not be certain, but he doubted it detracted much from his majesty. Quite the contrary, in fact, if the astounded looks of the Pit-thralls in the tunnel mouths he passed by were any indication. Some even lifted their heads from the half-devoured bodies of their fellows, likely smelling a more pungent blood in the air.

A worthy reverence, I’ll say.

Narzhak paused mid-step, preoccupied with a new thought. He had neglected to bestow a name on his servants. The matter seemed insignificant enough, but would it not have been simpler to issue commands if he knew how to address them? After all, it was a simple enough thing.

He turned his head sideways, eyes converging on the nearest of the beings. It froze, a piece of entrails dangling from its mouth.

”You are -” the god briefly pondered what sounds would have been easier on the tongue, Kostral. Spread the word.”

The newly-named kostral dropped to the floor of its cavern in prostration, then scurried off, leaving behind a good portion of its meal. Little matter - as far as he could tell, it had been bright enough to go for the birth-sacs first, and that was all it needed to spawn. The loss would not go to waste.

Who knew, perhaps that Kalmar had the right idea, however strangely distorted.

There would be time to find that out too, Narzhak mused as he settled on his coarse seat. There was time for everything.





These plains were not so bad, Narzhak had to admit. They were quiet, mostly empty save for a few rock worm stragglers, and, it had to be said, perfectly dull, but that was not the good part. The good part, he thought to himself, was not what they were, but what they could be. That slope there would make an excellent spot to stage a downhill charge, and the shallow vale below it could be reinforced to bog it down into a grueling carnage. That lone hill? A prime place for a sentry. Even better if someone put something taller to stand on there. Not everyone, after all, had as grandiose a countenance as him!

The only preoccupation that came to trouble him time and again as he followed the great river downstream was that those marvellous visions were, for now and the nearest future, just that. There was no assaillant force to bear down the slope, no grim defender to hunker in the valley, nor even any sentry to lay claim to the hill. All that surrounded him were worms and fish, and those would make for poor opponents indeed. He considered bringing up some of his rambunctious scions from the Pit, but, with what wisdom he had, decided against it. Without a proper foe to point them at, they would not think of anything better than to start tearing each other to pieces again.

What then? Now that the fancy of battle had taken him, Narzhak felt the gnawing of impatience. Sitting and waiting for something new to wander by would not do, but nor was he quite sure he could go and conjure something alien to this grassy landscape on the spot.

Unless I… His eye fell on a handful of scattered boulders by the riverbank which had evidently eluded the worms’ appetite. There it was. Making warriors specially for a battlefield took time and effort, but making them out of the field itself? That was sure to be faster.

He picked up one of the rocks and ran the tip of a leviathan finger around it. Where it passed, stone cracked and fell away, as if to reveal something that had always been there. Fury flowed into the boulder, and with it life. Its hard surface melted into a bristly earthen flank, pulsing with ragged breaths and a primal savagery its crumbling prison struggled to keep enclosed. More of it fell to reveal a stamping hoof, then a flaring, tusked snout, then a pair of dim porcine eyes. Soon, nothing remained of the smooth grey block the god had first lifted, and he set the huffing beast down at its feet.

A slight prod was all it took to send it charging. The animal threw itself headfirst against a second boulder, shattering it like a mouldy log. Even as it turned to rush at a third one, the shards and splinters grew prodigiously, sprouting fur and teeth, tails and legs. By the time the exhausted firstborn, having finished the last of its stony nemeses, trotted towards the river to refresh itself, the vast herd of dire boars had scattered out of sight, leaving trails of stamped, uprooted grass and echoes of angry squeals in its wake.

”That’s a start.” Narzhak nodded satisfiedly as his gaze followed his new, destructive gifts to Galbar. The large hog seemed to grunt in agreement and dipped its snout into the water, which quickly turned from clean to torbid and muddy.

Suddenly the clouds to the west parted as a blurry being shot through them. The meteoric figure blasted downward and into the river, but strangely enough there was no splash upon entry, and nigh a sprinkle on exit. The figure stopped instantaneously, the blur turning into a monochromic woman bearing both a wide smile and a fish topped spear.

God and boar turned as one to face the newcomer. ”What’s this?” Narzhak rumbled, raising a finger that dwarfed the nearby hills, ”I’m quite sure I haven’t seen you before. And” one of his eyes narrowed as it glanced at her weapon, ”why is that made with a bone?”

Hermes looked up at Narzhak, half the fish between her teeth. Slowly the woman unclenched the fish from her toothy grasp and looked the God up and down, “I don’t know, but I like it.”

The Iron God shrugged, slightly shaking the ground under his feet. ”If it works, it works. But stabbing fish isn’t all there is to do with something like that.”

Without so much as a warning, the gigantic finger snapped down, raising an abrupt gust of wind that pushed the woman towards the ground. At once, the boar raised its tusks from the river and rushed towards her as an avalanche of hair and foul temper.

”Catch.”

The surprised Hermes suddenly drew an eager face. With a boom the woman suddenly turned into a flash of white, a puff of cloud barely hanging onto her hair as she curved widely around the boar and suddenly slammed into its side. Her arms wrapped around the pig in an embrace, with her fists holding the spear in such a way as to lock the hug, “I caught-”

Her voice was drowned out by the irate hog’s grunting as it thrashed and spun in circles, futilely trying to dislodge the persistent clasp. It finally could think of no better way than dropping to a side, propelling its considerable bulk into a roll and soliciting a yelp from Hermes, the woman quickly letting go. The mortal zipped back to where she had accidentally lost her fish and scooped it up. An anxious Poppler circling her with concerned pops and crackles.

“I don’t think he liked it,” Hermes brushed some dirt off her half eaten fish and began to pick at its shredded pink flesh, clearly doing her best to ignore the purple bruise marks that were starting to appear on her arms.

”On the contrary, he’s not done yet.” Narzhak replied, holding back the angrily huffing boar with a pillar-like fingertip. Odd way to use a spear, he thought, but it did work for a moment. He growled something inarticulate, and the hog stopped pushing, trotting back to the river with an annoyed shake of its head.

”That wasn’t stabbing fish, it’s true, but I think you get it was a bad idea. Chokeholds don’t work with those heavier than you.” The sloppiness of his siblings was almost comical. Who gave someone a decent spear without teaching her to use it? And who was “someone”, anyway?

”Who are you, anyway?” The path between mind and mouth could use a shortcut now and then.

Having worked the fish down to the spine, the nauseated Hermes finally looked up at the Iron God and gave a fishy grin, her cloudling companion resting on top of her head “I’m Hermes.”

”And what’s that?”

Hermes looked up without moving her head, “Poppler?” She pointed at the cloudling, the small puff of cloud popping in response.

Narzhak considered letting the boar loose again, but curiosity won out over irritation. ”No, you. What’s a Hermes?”

“Oh!” Hermes paused in thought, “well it's my name, I'm a Dreamer.”

”Dreamer, ghrm? It shows.” Dreams, sleep… Wasn’t that K’nell? The Iron God did not recall much of him, but if this was a sign of his grasp on the waking world, he was worse off than he had thought. ”If you’re going to stay awake much longer, you’d better learn how to handle that bonestick. When something’s too big to choke, you stab. Go for the eye, or if you’d rather the leg, that works too. The best thing is still to have something heavier to hit with, but lacking that…”

He cast a glance about himself, only to remember that all the heavier things that had been there were now rooting for edible plants some miles away. ”Don’t turn your back on things, either. Most of them will be just waiting for that.”

Hermes furrowed her brow, “but why?”

Narzhak swayed his head, surprised that she even asked such a question. ”That’s how things work. You’re out for yourself, and it’s the same for everyone. You’re fortunate no one had got you yet, probably just because there’s not a lot of us about.” He gestured to the still mostly empty fields. ”It won’t be that way forever, so you’d better learn to be sharp. Hit first when you can, avoid and hit back when you can’t. You’ve got speed and something to strike with, all you need” he tapped one finger against another - ”is the attitude.”

“But,” Hermes seemed confused, “how do I know when to hit?”

”Easy. You always hit.” The god motioned at the boar, who had clearly had enough of the day’s exertions and was lazily sprawled on the grass. ”Like him. That way, you’ll never be wrong.” He paused, then added, ”Unless the other one is plenty bigger than you. Then you wait for an opening.”

“What if they want to be friends?” Hermes pushed, “I’ve only met friends and I don’t want to hit my friends.”

”Friends?” Narzhak scratched his head. She might not have been entirely wrong, but he couldn’t be sure. ”Friends are the ones who hit other people with you. Do your friends and you strike together?”

“I think,” Hermes slowly sat herself down on the ground, waving her hands through the grass, “we have fished together, and we ate food together, and you and I are talking together.”

She paused, “are we friends?”

The scraping stopped for an instant, then resumed. ”Maybe. Eating and talking isn’t enough. Drinking is something else, but the really important part is the hitting one.”

He reached a hand down to the earth, and a glistening metallic stream surged up from the soil. It twisted, ribbonlike, into the colossal palm, which disappeared back up high. When it moved down again, something heavy thumped down before Hermes causing the relatively small human to jump backwards, her hair letting out a stream of concerned pops.

At her feet lay an iron club of simple, though intimidating design. A light haft abruptly widened into a hefty cylindrical head, studded with small, sharp spikes. Unseen by any, but dimly guessed as an unplaceable sense of wrongness, a spirit of joyous slaughter had been forged into it.

”Now we are, or we’ll be when you smash something with this. Then you can be sure of it.”

Hermes finagled a loop in the back of her shirt and slid her spear through safely before leaning down for the club. She hefted it over her shoulder, and despite her stance, her face betrayed nervousness, “Will- uh- will you smash with me?”

The god nodded heavily. ”Anytime.” He shifted a foot, almost imperceptibly to himself, but enough to prod the resting boar’s flank. ”Find us something.”

The hog stood up with almost visible reluctance and trotted off, sniffing the ground. Soon, it had disappeared behind a hill, and not long after that its loud squealing rang out.

With a brief ”Over there” and a single step, Narzhak was over the elevation, where the beast, content with the role it had played, had settled down again. Not far below it, the ground was trembling slightly, betraying a subterranean presence.

The Iron God thrust a finger into the soil, heedless of the clumps of soil sent flying by the considerable impact. For some moments, he seemed to be searching for something with slight movements, only to finally withdraw it with a growl. Stubbornly clinging to its tip by its fearsome jaws was the bulky head of a rock-worm.

“What is that!” Hermes looked on with saucer wide eyes.

”A worm,” Narzhak answered almost nonchalantly, ”Now smash it!”

“I don't think I can eat all of it,” She said while raising her new mace in hesitation.

”What's that about eating?” The god stopped riling the worm for a moment as he glanced at her, ”Leftovers always take care of themselves. What matters is making them stop moving.”

“I guess I did only promise about the fish and if you say it's okay,” She took a few steps forward. Sucking in a breath there was a loud sonic boom as she suddenly turned into a blur, zipping past Narzhak and the worm, a loud ribble of power clapping off the worm as the unseen mace connected.

Tatters of pallid flesh and tubular entrails scattered from the blow like a flock of startled birds, raining onto the grass well beyond the hilltop. A faint, foul smell of burning spread through the air. The creature writhed, its spasms only driving it to clench its teeth further around the iron finger as its underside began to twitch and flail as though animated with a life of its own. As it flailed, shreds of quivering wormflesh breaking loose to expose the gaping wound in its body, what had been its head snapped loose, hideously clinging to the bait as the rest of it spasmed blindly on the ground.

”Good going!” Narzhak rumbled enthusiastically, slamming the still-living worm head into the ground. ”Finish it!”
The blur returned and quickly laid the rest of the worm to rest with a craterous smash. Hermes paused, her shoulders heaving as she sucked in a few breaths, all around her flesh and gravel rained down. She let the mace clutter to the ground before looking up at Narzhak, “does this mean we are friends, now?”

The Iron God flicked the remains of the worm away from his finger. ”Yes.” If there was a mouth behind his helmet, it broke into a savage grin. ”It’s nice, isn’t it?”

Hermes nodded, a slight grin on her face, “I think I like it.”

“Just-” She started, “-what if that worm wanted to be my friend?”

A dismissive wave from an immense hand made the grass quiver under a sudden breeze. ”You didn’t know that, but you did know I wanted to. Always mind which way is the safest.”

“I think I get it,” Hermes nodded before zipping up to Narzhak’s enormous helmeted head. She looked at his cheek -- if it could be so called -- sternly before pressing a finger on the surprisingly warm metal, “and now we are friends.”

The metallic surface quivered, as though it were abruptly melting, and a thin, dull spike drew up and extended from it. It prodded Hermes’ cheek in turn before fusing back into the blank plate.

”We are. Don’t forget the mace.”

Poppler zipped off from a pool that had collected in a crevice in the ground and straight into Hermes’ hair as she hefted the mace back over her shoulder. She gave a wide cheshire smile to her new friend, and Poppler gave a low pop crackle, and then all at once they were gone into a blur.





The river lord, a mere ant compared to the king of strife and steel, made his most courteous bow in the direction of the colossus.

”It could be worse.” Narzhak had finally stopped perfunctorily scratching his head, and gazed over the newly verdant landscape surrounding them. ”There’s these pebbles that keep falling on my head, but that blast was worth it.” He broke into a fit of cackling, recouping himself somewhat faster than the previous time. ”Pity I was not up there to see what’s the matter. There was also that river full of someone’s blood that sprang up on my doorstep. That wouldn’t happen to be one of yours?” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder, inasmuch as could be seen, as he spoke.

The snake let out a sigh. “No, I believe myself to be above creating such appalling excuses for rivers,” he said sourly. Remembering to check his attitude, he made an attempt to remove the bitterness in his voice. “Say, what brings you down to this part of the country? My word, had I known there more of my siblings would come, i would have brought more wine!” He chuckled cordially.

A wave from a gigantic hand raised a sudden gust of wind. ”Don’t mind that, I’m just surveying the grounds. I feel there will be all the time in the world to sit in a cavern, and it’s best to take stock of things while they’re still in motion. A good moment to do my part, too.” Narzhak’s eyes glinted asked as he lowered his head to one side. ”What’s this wine you speak of?” he added as a perceivable afterthought.

“Oh, ‘tis but a mere hobby of mine, if you will. A drink of most exquisite flavour - a drink with the power to even influence the mind’s control of the form, even our divine minds.” He tapped his chin pensively. “I actually have yet to test the drink on a mortal subject. I suppose I ought to do that someday… But yes, wine!” He lowered himself down and rummaged through his picnic basket, which thankfully had not been swept away by the natural forces awoken by Narzhak’s approach. He pulled out a small bottle, which he handed to Narzhak. It was likely the size of a speck to him - a miniature of a tiny candy.

Two fingers that could have well passed for hilltops descended from above to grasp the container with careful, almost mechanical accuracy, before disappearing in the blue yonder along with it. What transpired up there was indistinguishable from the ground, but a satisfied rumbling betrayed that the liquor had reached its destination. ”Not bad,” the Iron God remarked as the tip of his hand was lowered once again, this time holding a fully emptied bottle whose mouth was stained with some sort of thick black grime, ”But it’d be even better if it was stronger. I could do something about that. You have a spare one?

The snake shook his head apologetically. “I fear that was all I brought. Again, had I known that we would have been graced with your company, I would naturally have brought more.” Shengshi shot the newly sprouted sugarcane a look. “Although…” He slithered over and picked a few reeds.

“Humour me for a moment, please. I may have an idea.”

A conspicuous twisting of the shadows on the ground reflected Narzhak’s nod. ”Go ahead.”

The snake proceeded to carve a hole for brewing. He filled it with water and the crushed up reeds, followed finally by a handful of Sleeper’s Sand yeast from a sack. He stirred the waters to let the yeast breathe deep in the surrounding air as it ate its fill of sugars and protein. This process had become nearly second nature to him - a ritual of sorts. The brewing process, spurred on by divine influence, was almost instant, producing a liquid that gave off the familiar stabbing scent. He filled the bottle Narzhak had given him and filled a cup for himself. He handed the bottle to Narzhak and raised his own cup.

“This should be much stronger, dearest brother.”

Once again, the bottle rose beyond sight, and grumbling followed. This time, however, its tone was almost flat. ”Grhm. Doesn’t taste that different to me.” The hand holding the empty flask began to move downwards, but stopped midway. ”I think I’ve got something. Hold this.” The giant deposited the speck of glass on the ground before moving some long steps along the river’s course. Then his fist darted up with tremendous speed, and shot in a groundward arc with a tremendous roar.

The blow rang out like a fragment of Orvus’ moon striking the surface, waters rising in impossibly high waves as grass, bushes, fish and other river-dwellers were sent flying for miles around. Clumps of soil were still raining down as Narzhak clambered around the gulch he had dug himself into, smoothing its walls and edges with his hands. Slowly at first, but steadily growing faster and broader, glinting grey stains spread over the earthy cliffs as iron seeped out from them and spread from the behemoth’s claws, layering itself in a smooth, polished coating.

Once the pit was fully covered in metal, Narzhak hauled himself out of it, and lightly stomped down near its mouth. Narrow, deceptively deep cracks spread around its edges, running wide in an almost perfectly circular web, and the glare of welling molten rock soon seeped out from them. The air began to ripple as the gulch’s plated walls heated up.

Retracing his steps to the river, the god stabbed a single finger into the ground and dragged it back, gouging a trench between it and his handiwork. Water poured down the improvised channel, steaming and bubbling as it filled the incandescent basin.

Narzhak took a step back with a satisfied grunt. ”Heat. That always improves things. Try it here.”

Shengshi found himself completely dumbstruck by the spectacle that had just played out before his eyes. It took perhaps a moment too long for him to realise the blast had uprooted the first two hundred metres of forest and shrublands that Phystene and he had just spent half a day making. Furthermore, he realised that the blastwave had sent half the fish in his rivers, along with at least several dozen earthworths, flying into the sea. As such, the god struggled desperately to keep a calm demeanour.

“I assure you, deeeeeaaarest brother of mine. I am -TRULY- grateful for the effort, but there was absolutely. No. Need. To go all this way. A kettle and a fire would have been more than fine.” His voice so bitter that it could have been mistaken for poison. The snake jumped into the river and swam with godlike speed over to the hole.

“So, may I ask, how do you propose we use this?” he said sourly.

If even Narzhak did notice his sibling’s less than pleased tone, its import clearly sailed past his thickly-armoured head. ”When you did your wine-making thing in cold water, it wasn’t strong enough. Now, if you do it in hot ones…” he dipped a fingertip into the rapidly filling rift, and watched amusedly as water drops sizzled on it as it withdrew, ”...I have a feeling it’s going to be much better. If it works, there’ll be enough of the thing not just for us, but the rest of the family, and mortals too. Remind me, I’ll need to do something like this down in the Pit.” he added pensively.

Another dipped finger, and the iron skin was left sizzling with incandescence. ”Should be about ready.”

Shengshi gave the pit a skeptical look. “I think this cauldron is, well, a little big, but we’ll see…” He gave a compliant sigh as he waved the water flowing into the pit to the side, infused it with sugarcane and alcohol and let it brew for a few minutes. Once the boat-sized batch was ready, he sent it over the edge into the depths. A moment of silence broken only by the occasional metallic bubbling from below followed. Then there was a violent rocking in the earth below that was promptly followed by a pillar of steam that came rushing upwards through the shaft. Shengshi sighed.

“See? I told you it was too-!”

He suddenly felt indescribably dizzy - so much so, in fact, that he fell backwards and struggled to get back on his tail again. This was a familiar influence.

”No, hear that? That means it’s work-”

The growling voice stopped, followed by a whistling of air being drawn in through uneven fissures. ”Hmmm.” More whistling, and Narzhak’s bulk leaned dangerously forward as he took in the vapour’s novel smell. ”Now this…” His head swayed lightly in contentment. This is good.”

The snake called some freshwater to himself and used it to quickly purge his body of the alcohol. He shortly thereafter got back to his tail and looked down into the pit, both very frightened and very intrigued.

“Alright, I will admit…” He took a deep breath. “I had my doubts, but in the end, your method proved to yield results. I respect that, dearest brother.” He nodded at the tipsy colossus.
“However, one problem remains - what should we do after the vapours disappear?”

Narzhak righted himself and shook away the fumes from his head, quaking the soil in the process as well. ”Simple. We don’t let them disappear.” He lifted a hand before his eyes, as though measuring some invisible shape. ”If we put something over it to collect them…”

“A smaller size this time, thank you!” Shengshi added curtly. “I’d rather not make a tenth of the continent into a wine factory. At least, not right away...” Shengshi drew up some dimensions in the iron sand left over from the blast earlier.

“Would you be a dear and grab me a handful of molten iron from the bottom of the pit, please?”

An amused snort came in reply. ”Aren’t you the one who likes to dive? Watch and learn.”

With a step, the titan floundered into the bubbling waters, making them churn even further. The jagged crown of his head was the only part of him that remained visible as the shuffled through waves and intoxicating steam, conspicuously sinking from time to time, and after a time decidedly longer than it ought to have taken a vast claw emerged from the small tempest. Cupped in it was a small lake of dense, heavy fluid that breathed with sweltering heat.

Shengshi once again let out a sigh. Just be grateful, he thought to himself. He proceeded to bend some of the molten metal into a cauldron, another bit of it into a lid with a hole on the top, and a pipe that extended upwards and then downwards diagonally. He put the three parts together until they resembled a strange, big-bottomed vase with a severely broken neck.

“Now to light a fire and add the wine…” He quickly realised it might be better to swap the firewood for hot metal and just used some from the molten lake. Even better, he thought, was to trap the heat inside this metal, so that this contraption would never need firewood! Thus, he cast an enchantment upon the contraption - one that let him adjust the temperature with his will, and with no need for fuel. He then added the wine into the cauldron and put a flask underneath the end of the diagonal pipe. Sure enough, the vapours condensed along the pipe’s surface and poured down into the flask. After the flask had been filled to the brim, Shengshi took it, sniffed it and nearly retched.

“My word, what have we created?” He took a small sip and nearly cringed to the point of keeling over. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment or two, and exhaled slowly.
“We may have created a monster, dear brother.” He offered Narzhak the bottle.
For the third time that day, the flask was drained in the unseen heights. And surely, the reaction that followed it was the strongest yet, with a ”Grhum!” that sent a reek of spirits into the breeze.

”I can’t say anything more about the strength, for sure.” The titan’s eyes seemed to flare in a strange way as he lowered the bottle to the ground. ”This is going to kill anyone who’s not us on the spot. Besides, it still tastes…” He paused, slowed in his search for words either by the alcohol or his own lack of eloquence. ”Bland. It’s got a blow, but nothing else. Think you can better that?”

Shengshi, still recovering from the gruesome excuse for a flavour, plucked pensively at his beard with a shaky hand. “I… I could try storing it to see if the flavours develop.” He scratched his head to appear even more pensive. “Though that will take some time, most likely. What I can do for the time being is likely limited to perfecting the mash before the process. That will likely enhance the flavour somewhat.”

Shengshi proceeded to make several batches of the sugarcane wine. He proceeded to distill ten of the batches: Each sample was tasted by the two - the five best were stored on quickly conjured wooden barrels, each crafted from a specific wood type. The five worst were analysed further to find what exactly made them different from the ones stored in barrels.

“I think… I think I may have an idea as to how to improve the wine…” Shengshi proposed. He proceeded to take a few of the samples and blend them. He sipped the final product and found himself caught by surprise.

“Narzhak, my brother… Taste this!” Almost forcefully, the snake thrust a cup of the stuff in the colossus’ direction.

Up it went, and when it returned, it was accompanied by a contented metallic grinding.

”We’ve got it!” The joyous voice, comparable to the sound of an avalanche, and the smell it carried made the sparse surviving stalks of grass nearby droop to the earth in defeat. ”A backbone and a taste! And what if we put more different things in it? A host of flavours, it’d be.”

The snake licked his lips with a forked tongue. “All the things one could mix this with… My dear brother, we may have stumbled upon a goldmine of opportunities here!” Shengshi had another cup of the stuff and savoured the flavours.

“This reminds me of a poem of mine - one that I wrote a long time ago.” He cleared his throat.

”Parted by mountains;
The two rivers meet again;
United, they are strong.”


He bowed to the invisible audience. “Like the rivers unite stronger, so the flavours of different batches cooperate to pleasure the tongue!” He filled yet another cup and handed it to Narzhak. “This warrants another toast!”

”Done. We drink!” With this jarringly prosaic exclamation, the cup was borne away and emptied. The shrill scratching that indicated the Iron God was pondering something followed. ”You said this affects the mind and body. I’m not me if I don’t feel that, but I think there’s more to be done with that than we know now.”

Narzhak gathered up some of the slag he had still been nonchalantly holding in his other hand, and with an agility marvellous given the size of his fingers and the quantity he had drunken he fashioned a small simulacrum of Shengshi’s crucible. ”I’ll have to remember how this is done. There’s people back down home who’ll need to try it. And more.”

Shengshi, now under a considerable influence, waved his hand dismissively. “Of course, of course! Be my guest! Oh, by the way, could you be a… A dear ‘n put this on my ship, just over there?” He pointed first at the distillery, then at his ship, which from his position actually was not visible. To Narzhak, however, he saw clearly a small, golden dot floating in the middle of the Giant’s Bath like a shiny miniature duckling.

”That way? It will be easier if we just…” the colossal god shook the molten iron away from his hand, lifted the original contraption in it and trudged directly into the river. ”...followed the flow.”

For anyone else, wading a flow of water such as that would have been a more than daunting task, but Narzhak seemed undeterred as he made his way upstream, more or less large parts of him alternately disappearing under the waves. Before long, an immense arm stretched out to deposit the distillery onto Shenghi’s vessel, which rocked perilously but held its balance by some miracle.

The snake, who at this point was miles away, snapped out of his daze and hopped into the closest river. After a quick swim to get the alcohol out of his system, he arrived at the Giant’s Bath and boarded his ship. There, he found the distillery on the middle of the deck, somewhat bend after thinking its metallic body could somehow outmatch god-infused mahogany planks. Shengshi looked up at the titan, or made an attempt, anyway.

“Thank you so much! Truly lovely to have so many strong siblings around. Say, what are your plans now, then?”

”This place still looks flat. Dull. There’s plenty of room for improvement, and that’s what we’re here for.” Narzhak made a sweeping gesture towards the horizon, although all that could be seen from their position was water. ”And I need to find out what’s it with these falling stones. They’ll be a nuisance if this carries on, if a funny one.” He stopped to think for a moment, then added, ”And those things I made to manage the Pit. I’ll wager they still can’t even talk. There’s no time to idle for us now, I’ll say.”

The snake nodded weakly, finding himself unable to relate to most of what the giant said. He still kept a smile on his lips, however, and waved his hands enthusiastically.

“Well, I wish you the best of luck in those endeavours. Until we meet again! Oh, and Narzhak…” The snake paused. “Please do not make an attempt to break the continent in half the next time you make something, alright?”

A rumbling laugh bubbled up from below the waters. ”Don’t fret. When I want to break something in half, I don’t just attempt it. Hrah!” And, still gurgling to himself in congratulation for what he found to be an extremely funny joke, Narzhak turned about and began to wade back towards the shore, raising dizzying waves as he went.

The snake shook his head with a smiling sigh and went up to his chambres. He had to rest.

Also in reply to @Oraculum thinking my brilliant summaries are too short:


Longer! Make them longer!




Not fast enough. The crystal had climbed up into the vacuous expanse between the palace and the world below - or above? - swiftly enough, but its flight had slowed dramatically shortly thereafter as it spun, gradually adjusting its trajectory in spite of the considerable mass standing on it. Narzhak watched in annoyance as the far smaller vessels that bore his siblings overtook him. He leaned upon the platform's edge in an attempt to hasten the process, but rapidly drew back when the entirety of it almost flipped over as a result. The oscillation delayed the process some further, and it was only owing to his erstwhile good humour that he was not fuming when he finally began to drift towards the distant watery orb at a more agreeable pace.

Light flared up behind him as he went, but it was soon overshadowed by a form that even he discerned to be large. The great rock sailed silently past him, through the skies and down into the world. Narzhak, however, did not see it strike, for a thought had struck him instead.

Now that is a fine way to travel. I should...

He stomped down upon his airborne perch, shaking it perilously. A sanguine light flared up within the crystal's form, and all of a sudden it was flying faster. Far faster. Faster even than the large rock; had it not already shattered against the waves, he would have overtaken it. Sparks flew around his feet, then flames engulfed the platform's nether side, trailing behind its edges every bit as bright as a comet's tail. The ground came ever closer, yet the godly meteor showed no sign of slowing. The motion was force in its purest form; if he but wished, he could shatter the entire globe in one blow-

The ground?

Narzhak peered down through the fiery curtain his vehicle was leaving behind itself. Indeed, where he could have sworn a few moments before had been nothing but boundless waters now lay a harsh, rocky land. His eyes widened in surprise, before shrinking again in savage resolve. There was no better solution for unexpected complications than overwhelming force.

"MAKE WAY!" With a howling bellow whose tail was lost in the roaring of fire and air, the second great projectile to mark Galbar's surface streaked down in a veritable pillar of light and crashed into the soil. The impact reverberated through the landmass, toppling rocks before engulfing them in a tide of dust ad debris, and leapt out into the ocean, raising immense, unnaturally spreading waves that churned and spluttered in monstrous whirlpools for miles beyond the coastlines. Vast cracks and fissures that could have swallowed a mountain radiated from the blow, splitting the ground into tatters that met only in unknown deeps.

Amidst the havoc he had wrought, Narzhak did not stop. Planted firmly upon the crystal, whose supernal matter had weathered the collision, he pressed ever downward, digging viciously into the groaning earth. Teeth of stone rose and crumbled around him, displaced by the implacable force. For an instant, all seemed still as the world and the god matched their wills and brawn against each other. Then the world gave way, and Narzhak plummeted down again, slicing through the ground as though it had been thin air. And perhaps it truly was; he could not be certain if he was indeed burrowing through yielding earth or some impalpable darkness that closed upon him from all sides. As long as he moved still, it did not matter.

Yet, even that movement came to an end, as all things must. He was now certain this was earth around him, for he could only move with great effort, feeling his limbs struggling against nigh-immovable weights.

It could only mean he was deep enough.

"Shatter." The bloody light flared up again, and in an eruption so deafening that it might well have been silent the crystal burst open. All was stillness, light and shadow; then Narzhak found himself standing in a chamber that stretched beyond even his divine sight. Somewhere far away, he could feel it but dimly, the fragments of his vehicle were digging through the immense cavern's walls, riddling it with innumerable passageways, great and small. Where they would reach was a mystery to him. But then, there were more pressing matters to attend to.

Narzhak splayed his fingers, cracking their stiffness after the long flight, stretched his arms, and, carving treads in the stone with his steps as he descended from the plateau he had alighted upon, set to work.

The ground was plain and easy to tread, and that did not please him. He dug his claws into the stone, opening pits, crevices and treacherous maws. He smote it with his fist, and basins awned open; and he marvelled as molten rock surged up from somewhere far beneath to fill them. He wrought tall hills and forbidding cliffs, and mountains like blades. Under his hand, pillars rose up as grim sentinels of his realm. Loose stones were gathered into towers and strongholds that no siege could breach; some he left unfinished, others he cracked open with the flick of a finger. His domain was that of ruin; a Pit of Trials that none but the mightiest could surpass.

The air was clear and easy to breathe, and that did not please him. He raised his hands, and the final sparks of the crystal’s eruption blazed up again in scorching flames that drifted overhead like birds of prey. Magma spouted from its lakes, rising in writhing orbs that hovered like unborn gods. He stomped down, and tremors coursed through the earth, never to fully fade again.

The land was barren, with nothing to beset a wary traveller, and this did not please him. His eyes flared, and through the iron he breathed out clouds of living anger. They settled down upon the soil, the mountains, the hovering orbs, and wherever they touched cruel life sprang up, deadly and invisible to the eye. Tunnels and caverns blossomed with dry, sooty growths that sickened the body. Dungeons were coated in deceptive lichens that corroded any who touched them. Worms with heads of iron gnawed their way through the rock, ready to burst to the surface and sink their daggerlike fangs into unsuspecting prey. Beasts with hides of hardy onyx stalked the wastes on spindly limbs, their frames little more than great mouths ringed with teeth. Strange drifting things hid among the clouds of fire and magma, uncaring of the heat, reaching down with hooked tendrils to snatch up those blinded by the infernal spectacle.

Narzhak saw his handiwork, and he was pleased. But one thing was still missing. It was to be the culmination of all his efforts, without which all would have been for naught.

He brought up his hands to the very spot whence he had shorn away a scrap of his armour, drove his fingers into the opening between two plates, and slowly, agonizingly pried them open. The flesh beneath barely looked like flesh at all - a murky grey mass, heaving and spluttering like a disturbed swamp. He reached in and tore out a chunk, oozing with dense black fluid and reeking of battlefields and manifold graves. With nary a wince, he snapped his iron skin back into shape. His hands danced around their prize as he gave it form.

Iron bone, torn flesh, hungry blood. The amorphous hulk hardened, grew lean, sinewy. An elongated, powerful body. Six strong limbs that bent and twisted every way, so that nothing could escape them. Fingers that were fine tools to craft, jagged claws to tear and tireless feet to walk, all together. A blunt, robust head with eyes no darkness could blind, a mouth to devour all things that lived, a neck that could follow any sight in all its angles. And within its plates of hardened grey skin, vitals so entrenched and fortified that no single blow could break them.

Narzhak lifted the fearsome, though yet lifeless form to his eyes, and breathed undying fury into it. It sprang up almost immediately, clawing and gnashing at the hand that held it. Its frenzy did not last long, for anon it was sailing through the air, flung away with a single smooth, careful motion. The thing writhed still as it struck the ground, spewing black blood to all sides. Far more blood than it should have contained. The dark flood grew, as a pond, a lake, a sea. Something stirred below its surface, sending ripples through the oily tide. A hand with jagged talons rose from it, then another, another, another. Hundreds, thousands of clutches grasped for air, followed by arms, then heads, then the horrors’ entire bodies. Each of them was its progenitor’s likeness. Some larger, others smaller; some walked on two legs, others on four, others on all six; and all of them were just as savage. The earth had scarcely dried up under the last one’s feet as they set upon each other, ripping, biting and striking, and ichor once again flowed in rivers.

The Iron God’s gaze shifted from a satisfied one, to surprised, to irritated. His offspring were a force for sure, but a force without cohesion was worthless.

"F O R M R A N K S !"


The disorderly horde froze as one at the shattering peals of the voice from above. In silence, they hastily disentangled themselves from each other and crept in place to assume their positions in an unspoken order, barely daring lick their wounds with their long, tentacular black tongues.

"O B E Y"


The beasts shrank back, as if under the blow of an invisible lash.

”C O M M A N D"


Blank eyes turned to each other in uncertainty. The creatures glanced at their fellows, then at themselves; some began to point at those near them. Gradually, circles gathered around the largest of their number, who gestured vaguely at their newfound subordinates.

Not ideal, but this would have to do for now. Though Narzhak was loath to admit it, these exertions had left him feeling rather drained. He motioned dismissively at his host, and the beings scurried off to the nearest wall, crawling their way up to the cavern mouths with the agility of spiders.

The giant retraced his steps to the elevation he had first found himself standing on. With some effort, he climbed its side. One foot was on the edge, then another-

Narzhak clambered out of the crater his fall had left in the nameless land. The earth around him still bore the scars of his arrival, and it probably would forever. A scar on the world. Why not? Spiderwebs of fathomless rifts spread to all sides, interspersed with mounds of rubble. Some of the debris had never reached the ground again, and remained suspended in midair in a startlingly unnatural sight. Here and there, boulders glowed with residual sanguine light. Not bad for a beginning.

As he rose to his feet, something clattered upon his head. He looked up, but could not see anything out of place - the sunlight was still there, as was the blue of the sky.

With a monumental shrug, Narzhak trudged off to see what had become of the world, every step shaking the ground a little.

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