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Ilshar Ard’sabekh


‘Sprinting away’ was easier said than done, as it turned out. The ‘mech might not have had a bead on Ilshar’s position, but as it had already so clearly proved, it did not need one to keep him pinned. Its parting cannon-blast sent the tarrhaidim on a crouching swerve to the side from behind the tree he was using as cover, while the falling missile, as if possessed by a malign will, extended the swathe of ruination almost directly across the path he had been ready to take in his evasive motion. The indiscriminate inferno had still failed to reach him, but that was a small blessing indeed.

As he laboriously picked his way through the charred hell, trying not to gouge his leg open on a protruding piece of shrapnel while he put some distance between himself and where the League pilot thought he was, Ilshar had at least a moment to review the scan data shared by Rasch. This must have been a frontline beast, if that energy shield meant anything - built to stand up to logistically efficient beam guns, less good against an enemy with the local industrial base to supply solid ammunition. In this case, this meant less protection against his gun too, which was a thing to be thankful for.

“Cameras should take priority,” he spoke into the intercom, several eyes split between his HUD, the ground ahead and the menacing evolutions of the walker, now almost to his side, “It's got more teeth than just the cannon. Blind the beast and it's as good as dead.”

Just then, the ‘mech proceeded to prove how much he'd underestimated those teeth. Nexus’ spiral maw, whoever was driving that wasn't above putting the whole damnably expensive mountain of metal on the line!

A narrow instant's consideration told Ilshar it was not all so bad. From where he stood, the walker’s forward-leaning folded form gave him clear sight of both the jutting back antenna and the camera pod on its retracted shoulder. In the moment he had before the massive machine hurtled past him on its way to collision with Echo, he fired a wide burst at its upper side, sweeping from its shoulder to the back, before hurriedly striding on towards the edge of the burned undergrowth and the refuge of still living trees.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh


Almost as suddenly as that, the forest around Ilshar turned into an inferno. What little vengeful fire from the surviving - momentarily - ZRF troops had been directed his way, or at least against those Envenomed other than Echo, went well wide, but the barrage that heralded the arrival of the League walker was another matter entirely. He halted in his tracks as the mechanical giant neatly cut off the squad’s retreat path, crouching low to the ground as thumping autocannon fire shook the earth uncomfortably close by. Extraction seemed out of the question right now, since even without the jamming playing hell with their comms boarding a dropship with this thing loose would have been suicidal, so the walker getting in their way was not so much of a problem. More urgent was finding any way to evade something that clearly and badly outmassed and outgunned them.

Blazing heat washed over him, cannonfire shredding patches of woodland into ashen waste a mere breath away. The Nexus’ spore-breath must have veiled the walker’s lifeless eyes, or else Ilshar’s spirit would already have been on its way to Its many-toothed maw. A miracle was all it could be; few times had he avoided sudden death so narrowly; but miracles would only come to those who fended for themselves. He would not survive if that gun kept on for much longer, Ilshar thought as he tried to steady his aim through the quivering brush, despite the alarming sensations slithering through his inner augmentic web as his battered body fought to dissipate the thermal shock, and the lesser but more concrete annoyance of charred debris pelting over him. That cannon could easily pulp him through a tree trunk, and it was only a matter of fire saturation before a shell caught him. Both exposing himself by trying to rush for better cover and staying put and praying would lead to the same grim end.

Fortunately, the rest of the squad still on their feet were mostly doing better than him.

“Ready to move, if it goes that well. Careful, this thing must have more than just optical.” The Chasm only knew where Rasch was from, but Ilshar couldn’t help but feel a little grateful for the voidhanger’s being able to keep a steady head. “Echo’s right, we can’t hope for better than crippling it. We should make a break for it soon as we can knock out its sensors.”

And that might be too late if he didn’t do his part. A simple look, as far as he dared peek from behind the tree he had taken as cover, confirmed his thoughts. The walker’s only cameras might have been on its shoulder pod, but what passed for the vehicle’s head must have served some purpose, and he was certain enough he had seen at least one antenna protruding from it. The tarrhaidim leaned out a second time, now further and bolder, and fired a burst at the walker’s head before hurriedly stepping backward from the tree. He could not hope to hit an antenna at this range, but if it was part of the ‘mech’s audio-sensor suite or something similar, distracting it with the feedback from some close shots was the best he could currently do while the rest of the Envenomed struck at its vulnerable points.
Nei Monggol




With a roar of straining, grinding engines and a wail of grasping wheels, the fleet clambered up the crescent dune, kicking up a plume of brown dust into the hazy sky. Despite their light frames, the dirtbikes had the hardest time of it, sinking into the grit like an overeager flenser’s knife into meat and laboriously hauling themselves out again in a relentless cycle of bumps. The migou’s buggies, though vastly more massive and burdened by the weight of their hulking occupants, were built to cruise the sands, and rolled over their surface with stupefying ease. Radim would have found the paradox of it amusing, had he not been one of the many being brutally jolted on the saddles of the bikes. As it was, the irritation wormed around his skull like a needle, now and then incautiously prodding the pall of darkness in the back of his mind.

“Devil’s dust, this.” On the bike to his left, Kuzma spat a mouthful of dry dirt, some of it snagging on his wild rust-red beard. “Pass the samogon, some got in my throat.”

“Where’s yours?” Radim did not take his eyes off the crest of the dune ahead of him, leaning forward to avoid being rattled by the next series of bumps. It did little to help. “Your drunk face already gargled it all?”

“Gave it to the lads. If you didn’t hear, these fat lunks-” Kuzma flashed a fig to the closest migou vehicle; one of the brutes on board answered with some unclear but doubtless vulgar sign of theirs, “-have been going around the camp at night, squeezing the goods from our people if they catch ‘em alone. It’d take a barrel to get one the things drunk, so they swiped everything they could from our band.”

“Should’ve stuck close to the volkhv, or us. These apes wouldn’t dare come near.”

“It’s not just the migou who’re afraid of us, you know. People get uneasy. Even samogon doesn’t help that much.”

“Maybe.” The truth was that Radim had seen it, too. Seasoned warriors hesitated a step too far when they approached him. Fresh meat did not even dare look him in the eye. This spread even to those who had never seen him in battle; the village streets he rode through were always eerily empty. The faint vibration of the metal - if metal it was - on his back, always warm through its wraps and his clothes even in the ash winter, had been his only company for a long time, along with the other three and the volkhv. He did not mind.

“Leave some.” Without letting the front wheel swerve, he grabbed the flask from his belt and threw it ahead over the handle, almost casually. It whistled through the air like an arrow catching a spark of Monggol’s white sun, sure to fall until it found itself as if by magic in Kuzma’s hand, stretched just far enough to catch it. The red-bearded warrior opened it with his teeth, drank a single deep swig, and threw it in the same way. Again, Radim did not even look up; the shimmer slipped at the upper edge of his sight just below the lid, and at the last moment his arm shot out, serpentine. He felt the warm metal tap against the palm of his hand as an afterthought. With the same motions, he opened the flask, feeling with some relief that the other warrior had not touched it to his mouth. Kuzma might have been a beggar, but at least he was a honourable one. Hells knew what scum festered in that beard of his, and Radim was not eager to taste its residue.

“You want some too?” He glanced to his right. “Fast, before I finish it all.”

“Got mine,” Kayan laughed, twisting to the side so the sun flashed on the flask at his own belt, likely still untouched. Unlike Radim’s other band-brothers, who came from his same village, the slant-eyed man was an easterner, used to the heat and dust of the steppes even before he had taken the rite of blood. Although Nei Monggol must have been trying even for him, his bravado would not permit him to show it. It surely helped that he did not wear his beard long like an Urshite, but kept it to a small wedge under drooping whiskers in the steppe way. Easier to clean blood out of it, as well, as he boasted every time, but neither Radim nor his compatriots would humiliate themselves by baring their faces like that, even if few appreciated the difference. Some things stayed with a man no matter what became of him.

“What about Gleb back there?”

Kayan turned the other way and shouted something to the last link of their line, which Radim did not hear over the howl of the engines. He did, however, see the distant head of dark hair shake, and could very well picture the grunt that came with that. Never one to speak much, Gleb had barely uttered a dozen words since they had gone through the rite years before.

“He says-” Kayan looked back to him.

“He says kark all,” Radim cut him off with a guffaw. The easterner grinned and sped ahead, dipping over the next dune.

All the better, Radim thought, the more for him. He would need it. The day would still be long.




They pitched camp at nightfall. None among the Urshite horde could tell one dune from another, but Dzhute, the migou warleader, said they were well within striking distance from where the Hymalazian army had encircled Monggol Tertius. Tomorrow, then, they would at last see battle. It was about time. Samogon was all well and good, but only blood could truly wash away this damnable dust.

From the top of the dune where their small brotherhood had raised its tents and lit its fire, Radim could appreciate the immensity of the force that moved to break the southerners’ siege. Though they were united under the long shadow of Kalagann, there was little love between the rider-bands of Ursh and the colossal migou that peopled this desolate land, and so they had set down well apart from each other. The campfires of the Urshites were far more numerous, dotting the plain as far as the undulant dunes would let him see, and this stirred some pride in his chest, though he knew that the Monggol giants were little inferior in sheer weight of flesh.

“You think there’s enough of us?” Kuzma asked between mouthfuls of insipid deathworm-meat. When Radim simply nodded at the multitude of lights, he continued, “They say the king of Hymalazia has a thousand times a hundred thousand warriors.”

“More than that, he sent his champions, the warriors of the storm,” Kayan added in an indifferent tone. Gleb smirked contemptuously.

“Freaks in painted armour. What he doesn’t have is us,” Radim grinned, almost a snarl, and the light of the fire danced on his teeth, “He could fill the desert with more men than there’s grains of dust, and they’d only be chaff to our swords.”

“Right you are, brother!” Kuzma leaned back, laughing, “The four of us will cut through his whole army and topple him from his mountain!”

“That’d be poor thanks for someone who’s given us such a gift,” Kayan would never be left behind in a boast, “The wind at our backs, the enemy’s wails before us, what’s better in life?”

“What do you say, volkhv? Do you see our victory?” Radim looked up at the old man crouched in the shadow of a tent’s mouth. If he had a name, no one knew it; to everyone he had always been the volkhv.

“I see blood, that’s for sure,” the elder’s voice did not match his dry, wrinkled skin and long white beard. It had the rough vigour and turns of speech of a man in the full of his years, something many found as unnerving as the jagged black patterns inked on his face and hands, now contorted by age. He kept his eyes fixed on the bowl in his lap, the circle of the moon bright within it. “Too soon to tell if any will be yours.”

Gleb gave a dismissive grunt. Radim found there was not much to add.




On his way towards Monggol Tertius, Radim had often found himself wondering what a city built in this wasteland could ever be like. Now, he found his silent question answered. Sheer walls of ochre stone rose from the dust plain like the pillars of a storm, angled walls bristling like a line of teeth below dome-capped spires and sinuously aligned bastions. From the distance where he stood, it was hard to discern singular details, much less the fine lines of division between the great stone blocks, and the entire massive appeared to be an impossible monolith carved by a vanished race of titans. Though fanciful, this was not too far from the truth; surely none had the knowledge and means to build something like this any longer.

This echo of bygone glory did nothing to deter the assault that churned at the foot of the enormous walls. The Hymalazian army was like a toxic lake churning restlessly against a cliff, thousands of red-cloaked soldiers and bulky angular vehicles hurling themselves at the enormous city, a myriad metallic mouths vomiting scorching fire and metal against the stubborn millenary stone. Desultory flashes of cannon-fire answered from atop the rampart, but they were clearly outmatched by the besiegers’ numbers. The warriors of the storm were nowhere to be seen, but then it stood to reason that they would be fighting at the very foot of the city, where the battle was most intense.

It would be this that doomed the invaders.

“Here they come,” Kayan pointed. Tearing his focus from the monumental battle and the pitch-like heat of the volkhv’s brew he had drunk that morning, Radim looked to his right. All but inaudible under the cacophony of the siege, the bike-riders’ horde was spilling over the last of the dunes that had kept its approach hidden. They were numerous, like a great stain of glistening oil spreading over the dust. Busy around its tanks and cannons, the Hymalazian rearguard did not notice their approach until they were a third of the way down the slope, and then its ranks came to life in a panicked flurry. Red-garbed warriors levelled their guns at the approaching avalanche of metal, firing some disorderly shots before the horde’s stubber-bikes spoke in a lightning stroke of gunpowder, scything them down to the earth. As they fell silent again, the horde’s vanguard crashed into the besiegers’ scrambling files, screaming riders slashing wildly to all sides from their saddles.

Like a gargantuan, amorphous beast, the invaders’ army shuddered and hesitated, frozen for a few moments’ surprise and indecision before it began to ponderously turn about itself to face the unexpected onslaught. Heavy artillery pieces were abandoned as troops rushed with guns in hand, the foremost firing off hasty shots on the run. Some riders fell from their bikes. The others roared their engines, well distinct now that much of the bombardment had abated, and swerved about, withdrawing up the slope now that the momentum of their charge was spent. It spoke to the Hymalazians’ credit that they did not hurl themselves in blind pursuit as Radim’s countrymen might have done; they arrayed their ranks, consolidating under the shouts of their sergeants, and marched up the dune in good order, the forward files raking the backs of the retreating riders with autogun bursts. Behind them, the waves of red began to stretch into a steadily advancing tide, the beast that was the army stretching out a shapeless limb to grasp at the unwary mites that had stung it.

Then, from over the ridge at the flank of this body of men, the second prong of the attack struck. A sky-choking cloud heralded the feral rush of the migou, tumbling down the dune in their rough buggies and all but throwing themselves from the vehicles at the enemy. A hail of ironshod muscle rained onto the reorganizing Hymalazian troops, plunging their counterattack into confusion. The flank of their pursuit crumbled as it was taking form, hulking monsters tearing a swathe into its midst; the vanguard stopped, wavered, and the riders of the horde turned back upon them. The formation ceased to be.

“Our time,” Radim said, reaching for the handle of his still wrapped sword. He saw pennants of crimson and yellow rushing back towards them from the forefront of the siege, the Hymalazian king’s thunderbird upon them. If his champions were finally approaching, he and his brothers would be there to meet them.

He tore the rags away from his blade, feeling the sting of the circular bone amulets the volkhv had driven into his skin with their recurve spikes. The sword was unlike any other he had ever seen, aside from its three fellows. It had the feel and weight of metal, considerable given its size, but its surface looked like smooth black glass. The blade had a deep, angular curve in the middle, like a strange branch or two symbols of lightning welded together. The handle was of beige bone, or very worn wood, but it was affixed to it so smoothly that they truly seemed to be as one piece.

He dragged the edge across the palm of his hand, and it drew blood with ease despite its odd shape.

Кровь…

The darkness stirred from its rest, creeping over his mind from its hiding place, and with it came the voice. The volkhv had said it belonged to the sword, but Radim was not so sure. The weapon, unusual as it was, looked new, indeed never suffering a notch in the time he had wielded it, but the snarling words that shook his marrow when he wielded it sounded ancient in a way he could not name. Perhaps it was the language, some hoary speech the world had long forgotten, but whose meaning he nonetheless understood in a way far more primal. Perhaps it was the contempt he could feel in them, the disdain of an ageless mountain as the unsure steps of youth braved its paths. Whatever the truth, he was never given time to dwell on it.

Жажду крови…

His body insensible, Radim saw the ground beneath his feet grow further. His loose plates of armour groaned and scraped as the muscles below bulged hideously, huge lumps of flesh grown a ruddy violet pushing them apart in their abnormal growth. A smooth sliding as reforming bones broke through the skin on his back and upper right arm, their tips shearing away into spikes. Fingers on hands and feet alike curled, twisting into blackened claws. Jaws were forced apart by a forest of dagger-like teeth. The neck bobbed, adjusting to the weight of the single horn on the left side of the head. The heat that had been within him since the morning grew to an all-encompassing blaze, one which only one libation could quench.

Жажде нет конца…

The thing that had been Radim bellowed its rage to the sky, joined by the chorus of its brothers, and the battle below froze for a moment at the visceral terror of that sound.

Столько крови, столько плоти…

It crashed among the red-garbed warriors in a leap. All thought of discipline was forgotten as shreds of flesh and metal sprayed under its blows. Its sword was black lightning, gouging through the armoured hide of tanks as easily as through human skin. The vermin that dared call themselves men trampled each other to mush as they scrambled to escape its wrath.

Круши, терзай, рви в клочья…

It picked up a struggling body and snapped off its head with a bite. They were walking carcasses before it, helpless offerings to its thirst. It was invincible.

A scream rang out ahead. This one was different, somehow. The thing raised its vitreous yellow eyes, trying to track the sound. That voice did not sound afraid. It was a scream of-

Challenge?

Something slammed into its chest, and it staggered back, dense black blood spattering its armour. The warrior before it was larger than the others, bound in red and yellow metal. A defiant grin cut across his face, and a cannon worthy of a small war vehicle smoked in his hands. More of the bulky figures crowded its sight now, brandishing huge pieces of metal - guns, swords, hammers. Its wandering eye saw some further back routing a pack of migou, the gutless brutes losing heart before an enemy they could not overwhelm by sheer strength.

Они ничто… Убей, ломай их хребты… Больше крови…

The thing snarled, and its brother of the flaming beard answered at its shoulder. They sprang forward. The warrior with the cannon began to squeeze the trigger again, but he was too slow. A stroke of a black sword severed his body and weapon from shoulder to hip. The horned thing plunged among its new foes with cruel abandon, heedless of the blows that fell onto its hide, cutting, mangling, killing.

A shriek to the side. It looked up, and gaped. Its brother had fallen to one knee, a leg broken by a hammer’s blow. As it watched, another warrior in red and yellow swung his greatsword in a wide arc, and the flame-bearded head toppled from its shoulders. The thing howled, its rage turning bitter.

Мсти… Все они умрут…

The slayer barely had time to finish his exultant cheer before being caught upon a horn and tossed into the air. The thing thrashed furiously, uncaring of what it cut so long as something bled.

Something stung its ear, more aberrant yet than a fearless cry. In the face of its anger, someone was daring to laugh. It spun about, coming to face with yet another storm-warrior. His red and grey beard was like flames over ash, and the laughter on his lips seemed to mock the scars that surrounded it. It lashed out with its sword, but the warrior’s axe was fast in his hands, faster than it expected. Black blood spurted from its wrist as the dark blade fell into the gory dust with a damp thud. Roaring, it clawed with its good hand, but a burst of heavy shells to the side staggered it, and the warrior - no, the champion hewed its leg out from under it, sending it sprawling on its back. The heat was draining from its wound together with its blood.

Radim saw the sun shine upon the axe as it descended on his head with a boastful, theatrical flourish, and then darkness claimed him for the final time.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh


Manageable meant manageable. The more severely wounded members of the Envenomed squad were not on the point of shortly bleeding out quite yet, and Ilshar supposed this was well enough. He still found it difficult to gauge how badly off an organism that was capable of bleeding out at all might be, but experience had taught him that if no large chunks were missing, odds were they could make it with someone to carry them to safety.

“Inject her. I doubt any medical point the League might’ve had here survived our attack, or that extraction is at hand yet.” He stepped back, leaving room for Alice and Kleo to clamber onto the helpfully sloped Warform as the eyes looking upward from his shoulders uneasily followed the cannon’s arcing shots. Something whispered to him that the thing was foul in its virulent mechanized channeling, perhaps even blasphemous. By the Nexus’ will it would not be standing much longer if battle broke out again on the hill.

As it seemed it would.

“So we’re doing that.” Ilshar did not address Rasch, or the squad’s handler, as he idly growled over the comms, so much as himself. The suspicion had been with him for some time, and bitterly enough it did not surprise him to see it confirmed. On Enthuur, the Dominion had at least refrained from bombing their presumptive allies, but the Intransigence had no stake in territory, did it? He wasn’t sure of what its interests were, really - keeping a low-intensity conflict going as long as the UCL’s operations were thwarted, he imagined, or something along those lines. He should not have cared much, either; he had only ever fought for his world, and Zanovia was not it. What happened to the ZRF should have been no business of his. And still, the whole thing tasted like poison in his mouth.

No time for recrimination now, however. CivSec and their allies would not be grateful for any incidental aid. His gun in his hands, Ilshar loped back towards the treeline he had used as cover at the very beginning of the assault on the League’s position, placing the dropship’s wreckage between himself and the lower slope. As luck would have it, the ZRF seemed to mostly still be on that side as well, and would perhaps be the first to take the brunt of the approaching new hostile - if they were not too fast to turn their weapons on the Envenomed, that was.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh


Noise and motion died down, but the tension in the air - and the commwaves - went nowhere. Taking a moment to center yourself with a field meditation technique did wonders, but Ilshar supposed one needed to have a spore of the Nexus to properly find that balance. If you lived for nothing beyond the world under your feet, moments like these were a time to be anxious. With a grunt, he splayed and clenched his fingers, severing the etheric wellspring that allowed the two Chasm-born that had not been shredded by gunfire to maintain their material presence. The serpentine bodies dissolved into strangely writhing clouds of fog that lingered in the charged atmosphere.

He squinted, reducing his eye-organs that faced the prize of all this bloodshed. The infernal machine inspired little confidence in him, and he was glad that Rasch was the one relaying their handler’s commands to its targeting systems. Picking up League small arms was all well and good, but this kind of ordnance was sure to have some diabolical etheric mechanism or worse hidden in its bowels, and he did not want to be too close when it fired. Going to watch over the wounded was as good an excuse as any, though he wondered if the voidhanger didn’t have some other motive to keep him distant. It did not take a savant to see that the Intransigence’s plans for the cannon weren’t going to be to the ZRF’s liking. Typical. No such thing as benefactors in the Rim.

Ilshar trudged back through the ravaged camp, leaning slightly to the right, where his arm had begun to feel heavy with clogged capillaries. He walked around Echo, whose bluntness made him question if unztadtlige really weren’t some kind of synthetic. Halting behind the endoform, he gave the guerrillas a knowing shrug.

“Relief forces go at their own pace. Pray you will not need the likes of us on your world again.” For their sake, he hoped there still was a world left after all was said and done. This wasn’t the War, but one never knew.

The two Envenomed who had weathered the worst were easy to find not too far from the gunship’s crash site. He wasn’t sure what to do with them besides stand watch; what basic first aid training he had did not extend to anything other than fellow tarrhaidim, and the supplies to tend to his own wounds were wholly integrated into his body. Not that they would have helped someone with an endoskeleton or lymphatic vessels that wide.

“Everything under control here?” he addressed Alice, who at least seemed lucid, “Shouldn’t be too long until extraction now, unless our handlers have some other surprise for us.”
Ilshar Ard’sabekh


Flashes of light and concussion followed one another in quick order, so much so that Ilshar had to retract some of his sensory nodules to avoid getting distracted from his frontal view by the overload. He stepped wider to keep his footing through the shock of the gunship’s fall - they really should’ve used the egg-peg, this is how it ends with low-precision missiles - and leaned aside as a piece of Echo came barreling through where he had been standing not long ago. He had trouble not thinking of it as a drone detached from the behemoth’s real body, but then this was not the time for that sort of reflection either. The grazing heat from some stray energy fire punctuated that. Thank the Nexus they didn’t have time to aim.

The comm traffic flared up in frantic bursts. Of course a crash like that was going to make trouble. Ilshar was idly surprised it had taken until now for that reckless human to go down for the count for the time being.

“Acknowledged,” Rasch’s remark made him glance in the direction the rebel fighter’s victorious cry had come from, “Better hope they didn’t hear that last part.”

Near him, Echo’s now scarred huge main body was falling back, but what it called its Endoform still looked sturdier than the whole armour on his back. The best course to press their advance was clear enough in his mind.

“Echo, take point,” he shifted to place himself behind the metallic humanoid and held his hands in a broken circle before his chest, “You keep them looking away from our wounded, I’ll help up save bullets going ahead.”

There was an unpleasant sensation of unravelling in his diminished arm as he called on the Chasm which he pushed down. Body strength was renewable, given a few moments out of harm’s way. Pale-blue fumes of processed qillatu seeped out from his wounds as if to contradict him, and his teeth scraped with strain as fog gathered between his fingers and three undulant shapes breached out from it like from a vertical surface of water. The semi-translucent bodies of the lamprey-mouthed ether worms coiled and scattered around the Endoform before loosely reconverging through the air towards the trench the last CivSec troops had taken refuge in, guided by the impulse of bloodlust the tarrhaidim had impressed on their simple sentience.
The Tales of Baboon


How Baboon Stole Corpse’s Wisdom


Corpse was lying in his hut, where he slept with Song and Rage, and chewing on a bit of jibaga-root. He liked the jibaga-root, because chewing it helped him think of clever things. He said, “When you cook antelope meat over the fire, it tastes better because it takes in the smoke. But the fire makes smoke from above, and ash from below. Perhaps we should coat the meat in ash so we don’t lose half its taste.”

Song, who was outside by the firepit, took a bit of cooked meat from a jar and rolled it in the ash, then buried it in the embers so it would take in all their taste. She asked, “Here we have some tubers, which we did not cook. Should I coat them in the ash also?”

Corpse chewed on the jibaga-root a little, and answered, “Cover them in ash and lay them with the meat, but set some aside, so we might taste both and see which way is better.” Song did so, then she stood up and took a bucket carved from the rough-bark tree, and went to take water from the well she had dug because her throats were parched from her humming.

Now Baboon, who had been hidden behind the hut and listened to what Corpse said, came out and went to the firepit. He thought to himself that if Corpse was right and the food coated in ashes tasted well, he could steal the ash from the Rakshasas’ firepit and coat his own food also, because he did not know how to make fire. So he took out one of the pieces of meat that Song had buried in the pit and tasted it, but it was not to his liking and he spat it out. The tubers he liked much more, and he ate several; but he left some in place, so Song would not miss them and know that they had been stolen.

Then he went to hide behind the hut again, because he knew that Song would be coming back soon. And it was not long before she did, and having drank her fill she sat by the firepit.

Hearing her there, Corpse spoke again, and having chewed on the jibaga-root he said, “The wood of the steppe trees is hard and heavy, and the huts we make with it are hard to build also. But if we take the reeds that Rage found by the stream in the jungle, we can easily build a hut with them, because they are soft and pliant. Then if we cover it with dirt and let the reeds dry, it will still be as hard as a hut made of wood.”

Baboon listened and was envious of the things that Corpse said, because he could not think of anything so clever. He went to the jungle, dug up a jibaga-root and tried to chew it, but it tasted earthy and crunched under his teeth, so that nothing came of it. Then Baboon thought that if he couldn’t be clever like Corpse, he would steal the wisdom from him, and smiled to himself.

In the night, when the Rakshasas were sleeping, Baboon crept quietly between their huts, and with a sharp stone he made a hole in the bottom of Song’s bucket. Then he hid again and waited for the dawn.

The sun rose and smirked in the sky, and Rage stomped out towards the jungle. Then Song came out humming, took up the bucket and went off to the well. Corpse lay in the hut and chewed the jibaga-root.

Song came to the well, which was quite far from the huts, and dipped her bucket inside. Because the hole Baboon had made was not very large, the water did not all come out from it straight away, but dripped out little by little. So it was that Song took her bucket and started on the way back to the huts, and did not see how the water spilled out from the bottom until it was empty. Only then she felt that the bucket had become lighter, and looking in saw that there was no water inside.

Wai! The sun is thirsty today, if it has already drunk all the water!” she said, and went back to the well to fill it again.

Meanwhile Baboon came out from his hiding place and sat by the firepit in a spot where Corpse could not see him from inside the hut. He patted the ground, and hummed like he had heard Song do.

“Are you already back, Song?” Corpse asked, “Why is your voice so rough today?”

“The sun was thirsty and drank much of the water, so my throats are still a little parched,” answered Baboon, and went on humming.

Corpse did not think much more of it, but chewed the jibaga-root, and said, “When we catch something and kill it, we either drink the blood straight away or throw it out if we’re sated. But if we keep the meat under the ash to eat later, we could do it with the blood also. We could gather the fat and mix them, then leave it to dry with herbs.”

“That’s a fine thought,” said Baboon, “What else could we do?”

Corpse chewed some more and said, “If we want a herb of some kind, we have to go and look for it. If we take their seeds and bury them in the ground by your well, they will grow there, and we will always know where to pick them.”

“You think of so many clever things!” exclaimed Baboon, “I sing to myself all day, but I can never come up with something like this.”

“It’s because I chew the jibaga-root,” Corpse answered, “You can try a little of it if your throats are parched from singing.”

“I would like that, but I have so many mouths,” Baboon said, “A little would not be enough for all of them.”

“You can take what you want from the bundle I put under the right-hand corner of my sleeping mat,” said Corpse, “But don’t take it all, it takes so very long to dry it and smoke it over the fire.”

Then Baboon jumped up, and as quick as the wind he ran through the hut and snatched all the jibaga-root from under Corpse’s sleeping mat. He jumped and danced and ran off cackling, and he was so fast that Corpse was still blinking in surprise when Song came back from the well after finding the hole in her bucket.

Since then Baboon has had the jibaga-root, and he keeps it hidden inside a tree. If he is sitting still and chewing, it means he is thinking of something clever and devious.

Ilshar Ard’sabekh


He could not keep this up, Ilshar thought as the mechanical soldier’s fist slammed into his shoulder and sent him staggering, his still restrained arm twisted in a way that would have been painful to someone with a less diffuse nervous system. The automaton’s reeling at his own blow had allowed him to twist and take the swing on the stronger plating of his pauldron, but even so the thing’s entire body was a weapon, and he felt the outer layers of corded fungal tissue in his shoulder liquefy under the impact. If this fight went on any much longer, it’d leave him crippled, if not permanently then enough to get him killed here. The renewed gunfire from outside and comm crackling did not sound encouraging.

It was time to get out of the tent and join in finishing it. The automaton had dropped its rifle, which meant he could safely turn his back to it as long as he put some distance between them. The machine’s hand was holding him high enough that most of its grip was on bare skin rather than armour; this would play to his advantage now. Clenching his teeth, Ilshar sent an impulse through his neural web to the organomechanical implants built into his fungal muscle. Unbreakably firm as it was, the metal hand on his elbow began to slide as the arm under its fingers - or at least the upper layer of its porous skin - slickened and quickly dissolved into a dark putrid sludge, the pungent stench of accelerated decay filling the tent. This reaction was designed as an emergency insulation measure, but it would have to do.

Snarling, Ilshar tore his oozing arm from the automaton’s unstable grasp, taking a long step back in time to avoid its brutal downward swing. Moving as rapidly as his battered body could in the cramped and increasingly chaotic confines of the tent, he shoved his way past some toppling crates and out into the open, the hand of his intact arm reaching for his machine gun. One of his eyes glanced with some regret at the stocky egg-launcher he’d originally dived in to retrieve before that Nexus-damned robot had gotten in the way. If they both survived this firefight intact, it could at least make for a nice trophy.

He emerged in time to see the remaining League forces scrambling into a counterattack, and Rasch materializing in their midst. Ilshar did not have time to load the Ulvath with something that could damage the walkers, but the humanoid troops with them were no less a danger. Propping his gun’s barrel up with his oozing forearm, the fingers below still momentarily numb from the necrosis impulse, he fired a burst towards the assembled troopers - inaccurate even by auto fire standards, but more than adequate to cover the rest of the squad.
Ilshar Ard’sabekh


Two hundred steps away left, one hundred, fifty. Ilshar only dimly kept track of the staggered blasts coming from behind him, only parsing the comm chatter as deeply as he needed to be sure that nothing was aiming at him. His eyes closed and reformed at a quickened rate on all sides, tracking the fire that streaked down from the sky and the moment it would strike the ground, his foot ready to bear the quakes that followed it without missing its stride. Now that the aircraft’s guns were turned against the squad, even delaying slightly in the open would have been too much. If he knew anything about League vehicles, it was that they had enough sensors to catch an emission-dead commando at night, never mind a clear hostile between a few battered tents.

Arms of the Spiral, he had made it. He let his momentum carry him through the entrance flaps even as he took in the unmistakable shape sitting prominently among its contents. That damnable egg-spitter, may the Abyss devour it. Ilshar knew the likes of it well enough, more even than he would have liked it. He’d seen them time and again in the hands of dead Leaguers and their sponsored militias - easy to learn, easy to use, after all - more often than not after firefights erupted near crash sites. Occasionally he had been among those sifting through the wreckage of an improvised transport to see if any of the crew’s spore-sacs had survived. Grim work. It was eerie to see bodies lose their shape like that. But it had certainly taught him that this was the right weapon for such a moment.

whirr-

His inner eye briefly turned to the past, Ilshar’s rear-facing sensory organs barely caught the movement behind him in time. The machine was at least smart enough not to shoot among a munitions store, though this was of little consolation as he lurched into a crate in a desperate bid to avoid the automaton’s strike. A wet grunt escaped through his teeth as the bludgeon clipped him across the back, staggering him to the side. A little closer, and a piece of him would have been as liquefied as a crash victim.

Snarling, Ilshar turned on his foot, letting the strike’s push carry him along with his own strength, and reached for his own gun. The sharpened edges on his armour’s vambraces were useful weapons in close combat with an organic enemy, but they would do little to an automaton’s plated skin. Something bigger was needed. He brought up the Ulvath’s stock in a sideways swing at the machine’s head; it was sturdy enough to breach doors, and would survive putting a dent into metal. A moment later, he was reflexively following it up with a blow from his armoured forearm. It was unlikely to bring down the automaton for good, but all he needed was to damage its sensors enough to put it out of commission for the moment. The gunship outside remained the greater threat even with this more immediate one now showing itself; he couldn’t afford to get caught in a protracted fight with an untiring opponent right now.
The Feast of the Sun


With Termite and Cyclone


For that weary Rakshasaraja who lay upon a lilypad atop the golden lake, there was to be neither rest nor peace. When next he was disturbed, it was to the sound of one tremendously Big Bang. Never in the short span of creation before that point had there been any sound more offensive and insipid than that horrific tumult, just as it was impossible to imagine that anything in the future ever could be.

The last echoing notes of the Celestial Music were drowned out and shattered and silenced by the hideous racket; its clamor was more anathema to the great black ape-demon-king than that scraping of metal upon stone were to all cultured and noble beings.

It would have been enough to drive anyone mad, but remember, this was a most enlightened soul who fancied himself the Universe’s appointed Ear. That made the offense of the deafening sound all the worse. “SHHHHHHHH!” the Rakshasaraja hissed through his curled lips, and also through his gritted teeth, even as they ground upon one another with a force that could crush down tall mountains.

It was futile, that one first Rakshasa battling the Khodex and the whole of creation, but there was nothing to do but fight. Nothing to do but hush with all the vigor of his chest and lungs, loud enough to make the wretched universe hear and then quieten and redden in shame. So he hushed, furiously and incessantly, “SHHHHHHHHH–!” He made the sound that a waterfall makes, hushing the universe with a vigor that no cataract–no matter how mighty–could ever rival! But that sound was not enough to silence the raging Big Bang, just as the big fat fingers plugging his ears were not enough to spare the noble Rakshasaraja from the Big Bang’s sound and fury. As his mind throbbed and the entirety of his being reverberated, he was wracked with pain. The sound and the pain built up and up, like a great lake swelling from endless deluge until no dam could ever contain it. Finally, his shushing was split by a piercing cry, ”--EEEP!”

The universe itself seemingly wanted to silence him just as he’d sought to silence it, for he suddenly found his mouth filled with a whole flock of SHEEP. It was now impossible for him to make any sound but a garbled gagging! “Galbargalbargalbar,” one might imagine he sounded like, but fortunately he wasn’t so loud or passionate as to create another three Galbar-stones at that time. In any case, the sheeps’ wooly coats smothered his tongue and parched his lips, and their wretched bleating filled the inside of his mouth and head just as the thunderous bang roared on all around. The Rakshasaraja was stricken unconscious once again, thrown to-and-fro upon his lilypad and rolled this way and that by the furor of the Big Bang, until he found some semblance of peace.

Slowly, one ewe managed to wriggle through the Rakshasaraja’s lips in between his snores. A lamb followed, and then a great ram, and then the whole of the flock. They spilled forth and began grazing upon the warm lake of gold.

At that time, the vast gleaming surface stirred slightly, and the five lesser Rakshasas, those wrathfully cast words, rose up from it after having been toppled and submerged in the turmoil of creation. Corpse floated placidly about, no worse off for having drowned. Song spat streaks of light out from her mouths. Perfection and Preserver, the malcontent siblings, churned and wallowed a while before they could right themselves in a way that left them satisfied. Rage struck his way up with a persistent pounding like the drip of water on a sheet of ice.

They looked around, and saw the sheep.

Corpse said “Hum!,” then thought no more of it and went on floating. Song began to hum, but one of the sheep bleated, and she broke off confused. Perfection squinted, took up one of the sheep and stretched it out, then pushed in its legs, and stretched them again; it bleated terribly, and Song’s mouths just hung open.

Preserver threw up his hands as he watched, then sat and began to think.

“These sheep are plentiful,” he said.

“They are,” answered Song, speaking with one mouth while the others hummed, because her song had no words. Rage’s eyes bulged and he shook his fists and stamped in place.

“We can’t do away with all of them,” Preserver spoke, “but we have to. What if they eat the whole lake, and there truly is no more place left for us to stand?”

“We could find a better place than it,” said Perfection, but then she could think of none that she would gladly have gone to. Corpse blinked.

“We could eat the sheep ourselves,” proposed Song.

“I am full,” said Corpse.

“They won’t do,” frowned Perfection.

Rage twirled in his dance like a whirlwind and glared balefully every which way. If he heard something, he could not say it; the others did not seem to.

They looked to the Rakshasaraja, but as he was asleep they did not want to wake him.

“We should fetch someone,” concluded Preserver, “that is hungry enough to eat with us.”

“Good day,” said the sun.

Now the sun was all around them, and very bright. They had not noticed him among them, for his body was all of gold, like the lake was gold. “I have heard here that there are many sheep bleating. Now I am wondering, to whom do all these sheep belong which are grazing on the lake of warm gold? I would like to sit with that person, and be their guest and eat their sheep. For I have not eaten yet, and I am very hungry.”

One of the sheep looked up from its cud, which was brassy-tinted but still golden. “Mre-e-e-e-eh! Do not let the sun sit down with you and eat. His tongue is like fire, and his belly is very big and round. He will eat everything, even the lily pad. Mre-e-eh! He will eat you also, if you let him sit down with you and make him into your guest. He will drink the lake of warm gold and lick it all up.”

Preserver was pensive then, and said, “The sun lives alone inside the lake, and people do not approach him, for he is bright and burns all things. There are many sheep here, but certainly his hunger is very great. Truly he might eat us all if he does sit with us.”

But Song answered, “Still these sheep need to be eaten, and none of us can do it. Corpse has eaten already and is grown fat; my mouths will be full if I eat, and then I could not sing. Perfection will not eat, and Rage would burst if he did so try. Thus you would have to eat the sheep all alone if the sun does not sit with us, and I do not think you could do that.”

Then Preserver was quiet, but he took up and moved further away. Song spoke to the sun: “O sun, these sheep are Grandfather’s, but he is sleeping now; you see he is there. Come sit and help us eat them, for they are very many, and this troubles us.”

So the sun walked up to their gathering where they sat, licking up the sheep as he went. He stretched out his long straight arms from his body, going in every direction about him, and his arms were golden and very hot. When he sat down with the children of the Rakshasaraja they began to sweat with the heat, for his tongue was like fire as he ate. Only Preserver did not sweat, because he had gone further away.

Then the sun smiled, showing all his white teeth. He picked up the bleating sheep in his hands and ate them all up, filling his belly. The little lambs he ate, and the ewes and rams also, eating up their wool, their hooves, and their horns. He ate and ate and ate, and soon the air was all quiet from the bleating, for he had eaten the whole flock which belonged to their grandfather the Rakshasaraja.

Now the sun was round and heavy from all the sheep that he had eaten, and he walked very slowly, so that it would take a whole day and night to walk around the same way he had come. When the sun had stood up and walked a little closer, he ate Corpse, who had also become very slow and fat. But there were bones inside of Corpse, and the sun choked and coughed and grew very thirsty. The sun kneeled down and began to drink the lake of warm gold, gulping it down and becoming hotter and hotter. For though he had eaten and become round, his belly was not full.

Preserver looked on, and he stood up and went behind the Rakshasaraja’s lilypad. He called Perfection to him and said, “O sister, you see that the sun’s hunger is truly very great. He has eaten all the sheep, and Corpse also, and now he will drink the lake of gold. Then all of us will have no place to be but in his belly. Go and measure out the best piece of the lake, which we will hide somewhere until the sun is full.”

Then Perfection stooped over the lake, which was ebbing with the sun’s gulps, and began to trace a circle across it to measure out the best piece. But none seemed quite the best; as soon as she had traced one, she saw that it would be better if one end was cut away, and the other made a little wider, and so she began again. She traced out another piece, which seemed quite good, but as she was admiring it the sun took a great gulp, and the circle was unsettled as the lake of gold ebbed. So she began again, but try as she might she could not find the best piece again, and scowled furiously.

So Preserver wrapped himself in his hands and went to Song. Rage was dancing angrily before her, even though it was very hot because the sun was with them. Corpse was quiet, because he was in the sun’s belly. Preserver said, “O Song, you have called the sun to sit with us, and he has eaten all the sheep, and Corpse also. Now he will drink all the lake of gold, and we will have no place to be. What are we to do?”

Song answered, “I cannot give the sun anything else to eat, for he has devoured all of Grandfather’s sheep. But I will sing to him, because even though a song is not as good as a full belly, it can make you forget that you are hungry.”

So Song began to hum with all her mouths, and the sheep could not bleat as she did, so that it was smooth and warm and heavy like the golden lake. Rage listened and became drowsy, and did not dance and leap as fast as before, and Preserver went further away so he would not hear too much.

Now the sun's belly was very heavy with gold, and he had begun to stoop low. He stopped a little to listen to Song humming. Rage was stumbling as he danced there, and when he tripped for a moment, the sun lifted him up and ate him whole. But the taste of Rage was very bitter, and the sun went red in the face, as red as a dying coal.

Then the sun stopped and listened to Song's melodies, and found them very sweet. Finding them sweet in his ears, he thought, 'they must also be sweet in my belly, which is all upset now that I have swallowed Rage.' So he began to eat all of Song's melodies, licking them up like sweet fruits. But his tongue burned the sounds and they became harsh.

So the sun said to Song, "Sing now inside me, to calm my belly, so that I may hear you better. For I have grown ill with what I have eaten, and will soon die." Then he swallowed Song. And when he had done so the sun grew very drowsy with the sweetness of the music, and began to cool, stooping very low and looking very red and large.

"Now I am finished. I must have one last meal before I die. I will eat that herb that grows on the lake of gold, and I will eat the great ugly one who sleeps upon it, for he is the seasoning." So the Sun ate the lily-pad on which their grandfather the Rakshasaraja was sleeping, and him he also ate. And when he had done this he lay down, so that only the top half of him was showing, and grew very dim.

Then Preserver said, “See, the sun has eaten Grandfather, and Corpse, Song and Rage also. I said that perhaps we should not have him sit with us, and they did not listen; now they are in the sun’s belly. If he dies now, will they die with him? I want to take them out from his belly before then.”

But Perfection answered, “Is the sun not very great and round, and his tongue burning like fire? You cannot find them inside his belly, because all the things that were here are inside him now, and you will be scorched before you can take out Grandfather, or Corpse, or Song, or Rage.”

Preserver went close to the sun, who was no longer bright and hot, and put his hands inside his mouth. But when he touched the sun’s tongue, his hands were scorched, and he tumbled back.

He sat and blew on his hands, which were burning hot. Perfection said to him, “Did I not tell you that the sun’s tongue burns like fire? You cannot take them out from his belly through his mouth, because the sun is round and large, and they are lost inside him; but if his belly is flat, then it can be done.”

So she went close to the sun, and she stretched and squeezed his belly, so that it would be wide and flat and not rise so high. But the sun’s belly was full of many things, and so it rose up again when she did not hold it, as if it were hanging down to the ground. So Perfection stretched and squeezed it harder and harder, and still could not make it flat.

Now the sun groaned and rolled about as Perfection squeezed his belly, but he was too round and heavy to move. And he was very ill and weak and dim. When Perfection pressed down on him with all her strength, he burst like a blister, and died.

Out came the sheep which the sun had eaten, the ewes and rams alike.

Out came the warm gold he had drunk which filled up the lake on which the sheep had been grazing.

Out came Corpse, who was dead, like him.

Out came Rage, kicking and screaming.

Out came Song, and melodies came out of her.

Out came their grandfather the Rakshasaraja, still laying atop his lily-pad, of which he was the seasoning.

The sun burst open and all these things came out of his mouth. So quickly did he spit them out that they flew far over the air. They came down a very long way away, more than ten days walk. They landed in a puddle of warm gold that had soaked the sand, and made it into a land rich and hot. And it was night-time there, because the sun was dead.

Then there was nowhere left for Perfection and Preserver to be, because the lake of gold had been drunk up, and the sun was dead. So they went to live in another place, which was called the Indias.




Throughout all of that, the Rakshasaraja slept fitfully, for he’d dreamt of a defiled and most unclean world indeed. All was of night-black and ash-gray and haunting yellow, as though the whole of creation was some jaundiced hide stained here and there with black ink. The skies were naught but crumbling black ichor, the wind carried the aroma of necrosis, and the only sound was that of a discordant wailing; the world itself lamented its desolation, for the Sublime had all been reduced to ruin and its Ear had been powerless to spare it from the fury of its defilers.

The Ear could hardly even remember the purity of its true and original form!

The Rakshasaraja raged against this phantasmagorical hellscape, trying to rearrange the flakes of ash fallen from the sky into something beautiful. He tried to make a gargantuan mandala upon the ground, an icon whose concentric circles depicted a grander and far purer scene, but as he toiled in that artifice the ashes rain down, and he had not gone far before the black-snow had already undone all of his progress behind.

When all the world was ash and motes of dust, there was no way of transfiguring the ruin back into anything resembling wood, let alone an unblemished forest.

So the Rakshasaraja despaired and wept. Though his two lower eyes had their vision blurred by tears, the third eye upon his brow still saw clearly, and it beheld one marvelous sight upon the far horizon that he had somehow overlooked until now. It was a single white shaft, a Pillar that was Purity.

Perhaps, he had conjured that miraculous redoubt, that one tiny bastion of beauty, through sheer force of will. Or perhaps he had simply chanced to see it for a split moment before the blackened sky rained down upon it and smothered its grace forevermore. But that did not matter, for in that same moment, the Rakshasaraja awoke, and so exuberant were his thoughts, so tangible his awe, that in his dream he had brought a man to form. He had not even spoken this creature into existence, and yet here before him was a man and a son, beautifully and perfectly formed.

As he was not word-formed, this man had not been innately named upon his birth. Yet he did have a name, or perhaps would come to know it later, and that name was Stambh.

Though Stambh was a man of sorts, and certainly one by appearance, Stambh was also different. Though far too humble to ever proclaim himself greater than any other mortal, he was certainly of a different spirit; having been fully-formed even in the very moment of his nascence, poetry was the first thing to leave his lips rather than some shrill cry.

This being the case, it was only natural that he went on to become known as a great sage.




When Nawal came to the land of mountains, it was empty save for the howl of the wind between the slumbering bulks of the stone giants and the creaking of snow underfoot. It still bore the traces of the bloody rain that had swept as far as the eye could see, and the peaks were mantled with dirty red like so many fields of strange flowers. This was no more than the trick of a hopeful mind - few things seemed to truly grow there, some patches of dark trees on the lower slopes, hard and grey spiny bushes clinging to the rocks, pale flowers of strange shapes dangling from sparse and steely stalks. Odd, hairy butterflies flitted between the blossoms in places where the twisting rock gave respite from the elements.

Behind him, the mountain pass loomed, steep and forbidding. The journey to reach it had been long and arduous, full of strange turns and shadowed passages, and the last stretch of climbing it had made his bare feet sore. He sat down to rest where he was, cross-legged on the rocky ground, and breathed deeply of the crisp air. Now that he was at leisure to contemplate its every detail, the view ahead was more curious even than it had seemed at first, unlike any of the ranges he had crossed in his travels.

Most of the mountains were not sloped, as it was wont to be, in the shape of sand dunes. They stood, straight and slender, like a wide forest of trees petrified by time. Their feet climbed gently up in a way that reminded Nawal of anthills, before abruptly breaking into sheer walls of stone that surged arrogantly towards the sky. Some of them were bare and impervious, forbidding to any but the most foolhardy climber. Most, however, were not as inaccessible as he had thought at first glance. There were sloping ridges on their sides where the red snow had gathered, some wide enough for a few trees to precariously cling on, winding their way upward at inconstant angles. With the trained eyes of the pilgrim, he thought he could spot the mouths of some natural caves over one of them. Enough determination, he considered, could see one to the very top of such strange peaks.

His ears caught a light rushing sound somewhere nearby. Rising to his feet, he looked to the side, where a cleft opened in the mountainside whose break he had crested. A clear stream of water rushed out from the gap, thin but gleaming with the purity that could only be born of the very ground. Nawal approached and stooped over the source. Further down, the rill was tinged with crimson where it dove into a drift of bloody snow, but here at the fount it was as clean as any water he had ever seen. Hands cupped, he drank of it, and the shivering cold that spread through him banished the last of his weariness.

The dust of the journey washed from his throat, he looked to the mountains again. The tall, straight pillars spoke to him of isolation, narrow as they were, their summits like so many tiny islands up in the boundless sea of the heavens. Up there, he thought, the air was clear and the eye unperturbed. All things would be open to one who dwelt there and had the patience to delve into the emptiness for the fruits of wisdom that grew in its depths. If one were just stubborn enough to reach so high a place.

Nawal wiped his beard, shook the cold water from his fingers, and walked on.

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