Bit of what I've got so far to show that I'm getting something done. If I can stop going overboard with every section I should be done by the end of the week.
Harmonic Conflux of the Innumerate Suns
the Conflux, the Innumerate Suns, skirol, “maggots”
The Conflux is ostensibly a liberal and prosperous, if somewhat bellicose and reclusive union of culturally young species growing and developing under the benevolent oversight of the powerful skirol. What the galaxy knows about it and its true nature are, however, entirely different things. Behind its bright and vibrant facade of disinformation, the Conflux is a predatory hegemony where the skirol rule over hordes of mutated grunts and prisoners of monstrous abattoir worlds, and barter with the flesh of sapients degraded to cattle.
The history of the Conflux is, belying the truth about its structure, mostly that of the skirol. Once one of many parasitic species plaguing the megafauna of their homeworld, they outcompeted their evolutionary rivals not through symbiosis with their hosts, as many others had tried, but by growing increasingly malignant, large and ferocious. By the time they crawled their way to sentience, they had become the apex of the food chain; and, by the time their disparate civilisations had mastered space travel, the once fertile planet had been mostly scoured of life, not so much by rampant exploitation as by the unfortunately specialised alimentary needs of its inhabitants. Curiously, the skirol never formed a unified planetary government. A generally accepted explanation is that the need for one was obviated by the rarity of armed conflicts and international regulations being disfavoured relatively to case-by-case diplomatic agreements, though many historians believe this to be an oversimplification.
The foundations of the Conflux proper were only laid when the skirol discovered that they were not alone in the galaxy. A prospecting interstellar expedition by the Accord of Theniax, then a relatively minor nation, encountered a pre-spacefaring species in a newly discovered system. The skirol had a difficult time coming to grips with the idea that anything else could be intelligent in the same way as them, something many are still not fully convinced of to this day. It did not help matters that most of the Accord subscribed to the aggressive faith of the Wurm Raslir, whose cosmology left little room for friendly contact. Though inferior in numbers to an entire planet’s people, Theniax had vastly superior technology and the advantage of orbital control. The newly met species, its original name stricken and forgotten, was pillaged, enslaved and processed to be fit for consumption by the skirol. Willing collaborators were “rewarded” by being subjected to experimental augmentation procedures and, if they survived, accepted by a society that thought little of their betrayal. Almost overnight, the Accord became a major player on the market and political scene, which contributed to the spread of the religion of the Wurm until it surpassed many of the previously dominant confessions.
The Reaping of Irret-Thenn, as it became known, gave an explosive new motivation for interstellar colonisation and set a precedent for future contact. The skirol had discovered a taste for intelligent meat, and wherever they happened over the miracle of life, which they were lucky enough to do a few times more in the following centuries, their sleek, spiny ships descended like a hungry swarm, subjugating, harvesting, and uplifting defectors to bolster their forces.
Although their intentions never changed, and indeed have not to this day, the skirol’s first clashes with other spacefaring powers made them rethink their strategy. Faced with prey they could not overwhelm through brute force and fearing that they would face war on all fronts if their practices came to light, their governments, in an unprecedented display of joint effort, assembled to build an enormous masquerade that spanned the entirety of skirol-held space. The Harmonious Conflux of the Hundred Suns, as it was known at the time, was formed as an international organ with sweeping authority to curtail and oversee external communication, projecting an aseptically neutral and rather enigmatic public image. The burgeoning population descended from the various uplifted inductees, now largely mutated and modified beyond recognition, was rebranded as a number of minor protectorates, and the existence of the conquered harvest worlds became a dark secret hidden in the depths of Conflux space.
Nevertheless, the skirol’s hunger for new tastes only grew, and with subterfuge instead of force they had only traded one weapon for another. Where mere expansionism was judged unacceptable, finding more civil pretexts to skirmish with their neighbours, and not only, became a favourite sport. From border disputes over some drifting asteroid to false flags set up by uplift mercenaries, Conflux forces made a habit of sweeping into their targets’ backwater colonial holdings on the flimsiest casus belli, abducting the population and concealing the strange disappearances with massive collateral damage. The conflict was then smothered in protracted negotiations, and usually ended with the offer of token reparations, though this was of little comfort to the captives, en route to becoming the latest flavour on the market. Of course, when the skirol were confident enough of their superiority, formalities were forgone altogether, and small colonies just inexplicably vanished before anyone could tell what hit them. An entire industry sprang up around this sort of raiding, from specialist harvester companies to teams of treaty loophole-seekers, and in time it grew to become one of the main pillars supporting the economy of the Conflux, by then already comprising Innumerate Suns and having spread into a catch-all term for skirol holdings and activities.
Needless to say, the advent of the Ashtar hit it badly. While at first they flatly disregarded the imposition of peace and gleefully carried on with their hit-and-runs, they quickly found that not even their raiding fleets, whose speed and stealth were the pride of skirol engineering, could outrun retribution. Growing furious and desperate as this once hugely profitable niche was choked, threatening their entire market, they struck at the Ashtar directly, sending droves of warships against their response parties, but only succeeded in wearing themselves down.
The worst, however, was yet to come. With as little warning as they did anything, the Ashtar struck at the Conflux’s harvest worlds, bypassing their outermost defensive perimeters altogether. The skirol guards were scattered, their stranglehold over the planets shattered, and centuries of conditioning and forced obedience were undone in a matter of hours, former captives shaking off the constraints of a lifetime. It was a miracle that the skirol's cover held at all, mostly owing to everyone else having better things to keep them busy and what information got out being later dismissed as provocations spread by rebellious subjects. Cornered and heavily wounded where it had never expected a blow, the Conflux gathered the largest warfleet in its history and prepared to attack the Ashtar head-on, regardless of the disparity of forces. Or, at least, it tried. Individual battlegroups were intercepted, gathering points were blockaded, and the final assembled force, mere scraps of its projected magnitude, was faced with the imposing mass of Prevailing Tranquility. Threatened with complete annihilation, the skirol had no choice but to resign themselves to a heavily downsized diet and market, though their resentment grew and festered.
By the time the Ashtar disappeared, the Conflux was starved for fresh meat and on the brink of economic collapse, having been deprived both of its old conquests and the lucrative raids. It is thus little wonder that it was at the forefront when the Great War erupted, looking to make up for lost time by gobbling up as many people as it could, appearances be damned. However, it soon became clear that all its rage had little of a punch behind it; built for rapid and precise tactical operations, its military had never been prepared for sustained conflict. Attrition took its toll, even as its forces were spread thin by the simultaneous effort of retaking the liberated harvest worlds, and when the Madrigasa talks came about the Conflux dragged itself to the table beaten and broken, with few real gains to show for it.
Yet those few scrapings proved vital, giving a brief reprieve for the Innumerate Suns to sustain themselves as they turned their attention inward to sharply reorganise their workings. The Detente saw heavy work on the harvest worlds, which were rebuilt and reshaped into streamlined breeding grounds. In a bold move that many feared would threaten the Conflux’s facade, but was ultimately recognised as necessary, the market was opened to external trade, (supposed) slaves in particular becoming a valued commodity both as imports and exports. Along with offering a much-needed influx of foreign wealth, many saw this as an opportunity to smooth over the skirol’s reputation in at least some corners of the international stage after a litigious and belligerent past.
This period of revolutions had, however, some adverse effects as well. The seeds of radical ideological movements had been sown during the hardships of the past recession, and a changing society brought them to the fore. Rogue underground factions gained alarming power, and their sometimes unsubtle machinations more than once strained both Detente and masquerade to their limits.
Incidentally, those same rogue factions gave the Conflux a convenient excuse when the Message pointed the way to Agdemnar, and officially the skirol force that has dug in on the planet is controlled by any number of extremist groups. Still, the roots of conspiracy have had decades to sink deep into its reconstructed society, and sometimes the brains at high command themselves wonder just how much of that is merely a cover story.
Vesereth: The homeworld of the skirol, once shared along millennia-old repartitions by their elder nations, has gradually been overtaken by the Conflux’s administration as the organisation’s significance grew, and now serves as the de facto capital of the Innumerate Suns. While most of the old polities maintain a token presence in culturally and historically important places, most of the planet is considered neutral ground. This makes it a favoured meeting ground for settling diplomatic disputes, as well as being the neural center of the Conflux’s activities of communications, transit, market and to an extent military oversight. The planet’s heavily urbanised surface is an amalgamation of architectural styles as diverse as many are ancient, with remains of its peculiar megafauna ecosystem surviving only in sparse reservations.
Giaxil: The Lisrak Covenant has, for most of skirol history, been the largest and most powerful sovereign state to stretch its holdings beyond Vesereth, and in some aspects this still holds true. Though temporary outpaced when Theniax struck it rich with the Reaping, the old money of the Conflux more than recouped its losses with the rise of the raiding industry, and for a long time dominated the niche with its unequaled military might. The post-bellum need for remodernisation only served to cement its position as the strongest pillar of Conflux’s military-industrial complex. The seat of the Lisrak government embodies this role, being a bustling hive of factories, laboratories, military compouds and marketplaces of all calibers. Life on Giaxil is busy to the point of being frantic, but also famously well-paid.
Ur’Theniax: In many ways the polar opposite of Lisrak, the Accord of Theniax never shifted its attention away from its resounding success in the Reaping, instead choosing to capitalise on the practice of world harvesting and its various products. Besides swelling to obscene wealth through careful exploitation of the flesh trade, biotechnological research sponsored by it made leaps and bounds thanks to the abundance of high-quality subjects that were ethically and legally free game, its society was always the most progressive in its acceptance of uplifted Acolytes, and its patronage of the church of the Wurm let it reap the rewards of its cultural primacy. In contrast with Giaxil, its capital of Ur’Theniax is a clean, quiet and photogenic paradise, decorated with ample stretches of unspoiled nature. It is ideal estate for research facilities, elite trading hubs (usually dealing more with stocks than the actual deal), religious centers and luxury estates for wealthy skirol or successful Acolytes.
The Silent Maw: Located at the fringes of Conflux space and the one of the few places in it freely accessible to outsiders, the Silent Maw is one of the most concrete signs of the social restructuring that has pervaded the Innumerate Suns. This vast, well-fortified habitat station, strategically placed at a convergence of several local transit routes, is the greatest slave trading hub in skirol territory, and certainly one of, if not the largest in the galaxy altogether. While maintained by the Conflux itself, the nature of the business that takes place on it such that some concessions need to be made for more legally dubious clientele, and thus, despite standard surveillance and the application of tax rates, transactions can easily be held in complete anonymity.
Kardatt: During the Detente-era industry reforms, the reconquered harvest worlds, the Conflux’s closest-held secret, underwent radical renovations to become the backbone of the now once more insular flesh trade. Kardatt, one of the last inhabited planets to be conquered in the first period of skirol expansion, and thus comparatively less ruinated by rampant exploitation, was the prototype of the chillingly efficient new model, and remains a symbol of the undertaking’s success. Heavily defended and camouflaged, the planet is a hell of assembly lines, breeding pens, cloning chambers and worse, regularly churning out herds of debased beings to sate the skirol’s hunger.
Skirol - 78% officially; 56% effectively
Acolytes - 22% officially; 16% effectively
Others - none officially; 28% effectively
Skirol: A species of malignant parasites who grew to exceed the size, strength and intelligence usually held by such organisms, but never lost their voracity and primitive non-dimorphic, worm-like appearance. Their prehensile branching tongues supply to the needs of fine manipulation, though nowadays most prefer to use mechanical prosthetic aid. In ideal conditions, they can live for a surprisingly long time, exceeding several centuries even unaugmented; however, this is generally only achieved by the wealthiest among them. Strictly carnivorous, skirol, in an atavistic throwback, prefer consuming their prey alive, slowly draining it of fluids and externally digested organs before finishing the desiccated body in a few bites of their bone-breakingly powerful jaws. Psintegrat aptitude among them is unusually rare, though those that do show potential can develop tremendous powers.
Acolytes: A blanket term for beings descended from the minorities of conquered populations that willingly joined the skirol. Generations of bio-augmentic tinkering and simply living among their masters have long made every Acolyte unrecognisable as the species their ancestors had once been, their bodies warped beyond nature and their minds overtaken by an alien culture. Having abandoned every vestige of their old lifestyles out of scorn, desire to integrate into the dominant society, or simple convenience, they mostly reproduce through cloning or artificial parthenogenesis. While they can be divided into a number of mostly stable breeds, every Acolyte is a biologically unique entity, shaped by a free choice of augmentations and distinguishing marks of their occupation.
Others: The ones you won’t find in any census or galactic atlas. Despite forming a sizable percentage of the Conflux’s overall population, the inhabitants of subjugated planets are not recognised as sapient members of it. Bred in gigantic factories that were once their homeworlds, they are treated, sold and devoured like cattle by the skirol, and centuries of debasement have indeed left most of them mentally little better than animals. Those that do reach the public eye do so as exotic slaves from allegedly primitive worlds. In late pre-Ashtar times, this category has been expanded to include the victims of abduction raids, who are likewise subjected to the same treatment.
Traditionally, the structure of skirol society has rested on the notion of the trezklin. This word, loosely translatable as “swarm” (though much of its meaning is lost), denotes a large, but tightly bound family unit living and working in close vicinity. Spanning various levels of more or less extended kinship, trezklin are extremely diverse in size; the smallest might count around a dozen members, while the largest number in the hundreds, and in some cases even the low thousands. Those numbers are, naturally, in constant fluctuation as some leave the family web to join another or found their own nucleus, and others are conversely taken in as they come to join a new mate or several. Single skirol living outside a trezklin are not quite uncommon, and are growing progressively less so in modern times, but are still regarded as eccentrics.
The reason for this is that, now as thousands of years ago, by and large it is the trezklin, and not the individual, that is considered the minimal formant unit of society. Jobs have historically been, rather than positions to be filled by fungible appropriately skilled workers, dynastic traditions upheld by the members of the same trezklin over the generations. The staff of a facility, the crew of a ship, an entire military unit; each of these was, and in many places still is, far more often than not a family in addition to everything else. Young skirol were quite literally born into their roles, and raised accordingly. This did not, however, negate social mobility; those dissatisfied with their position could seek membership of a different trezklin, if they were accepted and proved they possessed the necessary aptitudes, and units judged to be underperforming by those higher in the hierarchy (itself a rather complex notion; more details in the government description) could be downgraded to a lower position and replaced.
While this system has held from the birth of skirol civilisation, ever since the species began to expand into interplanetary space its inflexibility and difficulty in adapting to the needs of spacefaring nations became apparent. Assigning jobs to individuals was a completely alien idea which all but the most radical visionaries struggled to even process, but a compromise was found in the shape of what came to be known as anrak-trezklin, or “surrogate” trezklin. Those are typically groups of skirol who join together in order to receive a temporary position, and only remain thus until the term of the job has expired. Although those anrak-trezklin can occasionally develop into actual families, in most cases the relationships holding them together are purely businesslike, with each member still considered part of their trezklin of origin and expecting to return there. A gradual shift has made this model of employment the dominant one on the modern market, though, depending on the place and field, old dynastic trezklin occupations are still common enough, and the progressive integration of Acolytes has made individual work a more widely accepted, if still curious reality.
Despite the enduring rigidity of its structures and the perpetual control of communications by Conflux authorities to ensure the truth about the harvest worlds is not leaked out, skirol society is surprisingly liberal. With no clear division of class beyond disparity of income, the goods and privileges available to any citizen depend exclusively on their wealth, and extreme poverty is, if not completely nonexistent, becoming increasingly rare. Basic commodities are generally affordable to any social stratum, not in the least because, though the skirol enjoy luxury, they can easily subsist on very few minimal necessities, albeit how comfortable that subsistence is can be debated. Nevertheless, a permissive social order and a widespread striving for profit contribute to a rather competitive environment, which results in further entrenchment and insularity of the trezklin - the reason why solitary lifestyles are still discouraged at a distance of centuries.
The position of Acolytes in all this is an ambiguous one. Nominally accepted, they are neither skirol, nor do they have an innate drive to form trezklin. Because of the integrational difficulties caused by this, Acolytes have long remained on the fringes of Conflux society, trying to build their own cultures and communities with varying degrees of success and interacting with the wider macrocosm of the Innumerate Suns in the capacity of mercenaries and hirelings most of the time. Theniax has always been a notable exception, showing itself more willing to accommodate the needs of its recruits by creating professional niches available for individuals. Besides easing the access of Acolytes into society, this has had the added effect of lessening the stigma around solitary living, as this has become a viable choice for skirol as well. Due to this, most of the Conflux’s members have long been reluctant to follow Theniax’s example, though more and more concessions are being made in this direction in recent times given the beneficial results of this policy.
In a society that is, at its core, market-driven, the importance of religion has long been on the decline. Nevertheless, the inherently conservative nature of the trezklin has so far considerably slowed the withdrawal of spirituality from the Conflux, in a personal if not a political way. Among the many ancestral devotions and latter-day cults of the skirol, a majority of which tend to adopt some form of skewed animism, the most popular remains the worship of the Wurm Raslir, which is likewise overwhelmingly dominant among the Acolytes. According to its doctrine, the Wurm, commonly interpreted to be symbolic of the skirol species, is a vast metaphysical entity that parasitises the cosmos itself, taking what it needs and giving nothing in return but the wisdom of its example. If one considers the immense historical impact of its teachings after it was brought to relevance, it is really little wonder that the Conflux should have become what it is today.
Until the Detente, the Conflux’s policy of isolationistic aggression caused its economy to develop in a self-contained form, with the only, albeit not insignificant, influx from outside coming in the guise of abduction victims. Consequently, while a lack of external stimulation might have prevented it from growing to its fullest potential, the proportionally greater importance placed on self-sufficiency contributed to the formation of a powerful and diverse production base and an active internal market. Where this impetus would have proven insufficient for a lesser nation, the Innumerate Suns’ colossal reserves of territory and xeno-power, as well as the skirol’s physiological needs allowing for problems in sectors like agriculture to be solved in uniquely economical ways, proved a sturdy foundation for an industry of titanic power. An adequate example of this strength needs be sought no further than its performance during the Great War, where the Conflux’s fleets, despite their defeat by the Ashtar and subpar performance in prolonged combat, blazed through most of the conflict almost exclusively through force of numbers. While the industrial complex has not yet fully recovered from that strain, its reconstruction has thus far been steady, partially owing to the market reforms.
Arguably the most important of the latter has been the decision to make the Conflux’s economic scene more accessible for outside trade. Although its stringent information control regulations prevent it from entertaining foreign presences outside the Silent Maw and a few other approved trade hubs, its own merchants are seen abroad much more often, and remote transactions, however laconic, are gaining in popularity. Most notably, the Conflux has spent the best part of the decades of peace making a name for itself on the international slave and bio-construct markets, whether legal or less so - a distinction it finds wholly irrelevant, beyond how it might negatively impact its public image. Beyond having grown to a major actor in these fields, the Innumerate Suns have adopted a more open stance vis-a-vis the exchange of heavy industry products, importing machinery and ship components from relatively cheap corporate sources and selling their own. Traces of the skirol’s notorious insularity remain as entertainment and consumer goods are concerned, however, with most foreign produce being considered confusing and uninteresting for the former, and simply incompatible or superfluous for the latter.
Despite the sprawling size of their territories, or perhaps because of it, the skirol have steadfastly maintained their tradition of not centralising their government into a single organism, instead preserving their political status as several quasi-independent polities. The emergence of the Conflux and particularly its growing importance during the Great War and afterwards might be early signs that, despite all odds, such a centralisation could after all be possible and even necessary at length, but, in the current conditions, it will likely be decades at the least before this ambiguity finds a resolution in either direction.
In terms of geopolitics, the Innumerate Suns are divided into five main blocs of unequal size and influence. The most powerful, monolithic and recognisable by far are the Lisrak Covenant and the Accord of Theniax, nations that have endured since the earliest space-faring days of the species and either never stopped growing or capitalised on individual events of major importance. Despite the occasional (and not very firm) resurfacing of the sentiment that all members of the Conflux are at least nominally equal, it is no secret to anyone that Lisrak and Theniax hold the greatest sway in all matters of common concern, and indeed dictate the course of events outright more often than not. The only meaningful opposition they could encounter, barring an unprecedented coalition of the other three parties, is each other; however, while their ideological disagreements, large or small, are myriad and often incomprehensible to outsiders, their lines for questions of international importance are most of the time compatible enough for overt clashes to be rare.
The third and fourth factions, while a far cry from the two giants in prominence, likewise share a major structurally defining trait, though instead of unity theirs is diversity. The Halypt Conglomerate is a rather tight-knit ensemble of venerable skirol governments native to Vesereth, who, however, never were as successful as their more famous compatriots, and lobbies representing the interests of major corporate bodies, who saw a safer path in entering a formal agreement with state partners, at the risk of incurring charges of commercial favouritism, rather than trying to challenge the two titans on their own. As a result, the Conglomerate’s sizable market presence is disproportionate to its actual political influence, which, while respectable, is still comparatively meager. Some speculate that it could plausibly rival the Conflux’s superpowers were it not for the many conflicts of interest that regularly arise to plague it, condemning it to remain largely fractured and lacking much of a unified ideological direction.
On the other hand, a more harmonious state of internal affairs is in itself not a guarantee for success, as demonstrated by the Conglomerate’s rough counterpart. The Pale Coil, as it is known, is a loose association of younger colonial nations, formally assembled to defend their concerns on the wider stage of the Conflux. Though not comparable to the Conglomerate in terms of wealth, controlling a scant few harvest worlds overall, the Pale Coil is far stronger in terms of individual voices, and, collectively, its heavy industry is a close contender for the second place after Lisrak among the Innumerate Suns. However, any advantages these factors might grant are hamstrung by a very limited engagement in international politics; between its disjointed nature and sparse development in most fields, members of the Coil largely prefer to focus on inward growth, and only really undertake any sort of unified action when they believe their interests to be threatened.
Even more disorganised and invisible than the Coil, to the point of being often disregarded altogether, is the final pillar of the Conflux’s superstructure. The various minor Acolyte societies that exist outside established skirol nations are as a rule too small, scattered and politically inactive to have any true standing. The very archetypal idea of the small Acolyte commune living at the edges of civilisation is steadily becoming a vestige of past times, as more of these groups become integrated into wider bodies. As such, the very existence of a “fifth power” in the Conflux is only recognised in a purely formal capacity, and it is widely expected that even this aspect will disappear before the turn of the century.
Despite their impressive number, the practices of internal governance of those powers are relatively easily described. Skirol governments have a curious tendency towards a sort of convergent development; any society beyond a certain size will be virtually guaranteed to coalesce into certain broad structural patterns. The underlying form of any regime almost invariably tends towards taking the shape of a plutocratic oligarchy, with wealth and income being the main indicators of a trezklin’s chances for upward social movement and the influence it wields in local society. In an environment of stable employment and regularised wages, this system would quickly create a vicious circle of stagnation. However, in the overwhelming majority of skirol economies income is under minimal regulation and tied to a variety of factors, a good number of which are usually outside the control of the employed trezklin’s superiors (for instance, market fluctuations, authorised secondary sources etc.). These factors contribute to the rather paradoxical conditions in which a sluggish institution like the trezklin exists in a social environment with the potential for constant flux, though the immediate effects of this are most of the time less dramatic than this description might suggest.
At the upper echelons of any nation, however, these regularities break down. While in theory there would be nothing stopping a single vastly influential trezklin from instaurating itself as an absolute power at the top of the social pyramid, history has shown more than once that such drastic actions provoke equally drastic reactions, and a family that gathers too much power for itself will be the target of heavy reprisals from rivals, occasionally culminating in outright civil conflict. Thus, the usual solution to such power struggles is the creation of a governing body from anrak-trezklin made up of delegates from the most outstanding lineages. Should any of the latter be supplanted, their members in the government are likewise replaced by their successors, a process that has been bureaucratically refined over the ages to be far less grey and vague than it might sound. At the rarefied tips of the hierarchy, success is impiteously and inflexibly measured in hard quotas. The specific rules and conformations of these coalitions vary between nations, including how the branches of authority are divvied up, but a generally observed basic law is that no participant trezklin may hold an overwhelming majority presence in any organ, no matter the circumstances. If this law should be broken, the other formant families unfailingly take it upon themselves to restore balance, often by drastic means.
Of course, none of the aforementioned structures and factions would be as notable as it is without the intervention of one factor. The Conflux is at one time a coordinating mind, a restraining web and the arena on which they vie for superiority. Originally founded as a focus for projecting an irreproachable image of the skirol to foreign powers via information control, the growing evidence of the impossibility of such a task in the age of mass multimedia information (for a long time now, it has been relying chiefly on the good sense of its citizens to keep quiet and the threat of public denouncement), combined with the increasing number of challenges that had to be faced jointly by the skirol nations, caused it to develop beyond its intended purpose. Nowadays, the Conflux is effectively a supra-national organism with sweeping, rather vaguely-defined authority; its true limits and capabilities are a subject approached as cautiously as a hornet nest, and usually not at all. Its composition is likewise baffling, as while it was once formed exclusively by delegate anrak-trezklin, age has contributed to the birth of more than a few true trezklin among its halls and corridors, firmly tied together in ways confusing for the authorities of the member states. Beneath its crust of assorted paperwork, it functions as a nexus of diplomacy both internal and foreign, in which it crudely resembles a simplistic parliament with all associated structures, and the head of joint military efforts when necessary. If nothing else, the skirol are mostly capable of coming to a mutual understanding in these basic expressions of war and peace.
That said, every system has its deviants, and the Conflux is no exception. Rogue factions are nothing new, with many criminal groups having come and gone since the earliest days of the exploitation of harvest worlds, but the damage caused by the Ashtar and then the Great War has exasperated the existing currents of extremist thought. The number of militant groups owing no allegiance to the Conflux, now resting on mostly ideological bases, has increased, and two in particular have swollen to dangerous size. It is suspected that they can rival established nations, partly thanks to rumoured connections to major official entities. The Omniphage in particular are often associated with the church of the Wurm, despite not conforming to commonly accepted doctrines. This sect believes that it is the divine right of the skirol to not merely prey on other sentients, but hunt and devour them to extinction, that they might be the only masters of the galaxy, and the fanatism of its members is well-supported by strangely abundant reserves of weaponry. Less spiritual, and arguably more dangerous, the Genome Harvesters are usually believed to have ties with the military-industrial complex, and the advanced technology they have proven to possess gives this theory some ground to stand on. Their organisation and goals are more obscure, but speculation has it that they seek the collective genetic records of all species for some nefarious purpose - and that they might really have a hand in the officially renegade expedition to Agdemnar to further their schemes.
The Conflux’s technological development is on par with that of most galactic powers, if occasionally taking different detours to reach similar results. While the diversity of the skirol nations and minimal to no regulation have prevented any overall standard from forming, some principles are universally in use throughout the Innumerate Suns, either harkening back to an age of more densely concentrated populations or having spread by virtue of their sheer superiority over any alternative.
Traction-Core Generator: Conceived in its earliest forms in the early days of space travel, the vacuum-core principle has been a fundamental of Conflux energy production for centuries, supplanting even nuclear sources as the more widespread system of choice. Its main application consists in the generators, large apparati from which obstruents are removed in order to create a partial vacuum. At the center of these structures, usually shaped like cylindrical vats, although spherical variants exist, there is placed a compressed cluster of superheavy matter, typically of the heftier metals, which is then made to spin and generate centripetal traction. The latter is collected by a system of pistons in the form of kinetic energy, which is then converted, through secondary additions to the generators, into the required forms. While the production of traction-core generators is significant, they are physically large and bulky, and were thus traditionally only used in industrial complexes, urban energy plants and aboard large ships. However, recent breakthroughs in miniaturisation have finally made the production of reliable smaller models possible, to the point that even small ships and some atmospheric vehicles can be outfitted with them.
Vacuum Shields: One of the main disadvantages of traction-core generators is that, due to the relative complexity of the intermediary systems, regulating their output is a difficult matter, especially in the cramped confines of a spaceship. As such, typical default production settings tend to be rather high in the event that a sudden performance spike might be needed at an unexpected moment. Naturally, this leaves a sizeable excess margin in normal conditions, a circumstance that has heavily influenced the design philosophies of skirol shipbuilders and is most clearly reflected in the energy shielding systems mounted on their vessels. Rather than projecting a static field, vacuum shields, so named after the source, channel the power fuelling them into a constant outward flux, dissipating and renewing their outward layers many times a second to provide a stable vent for the excess output they receive. Redundant systems ensure that the transitions do not leave the perimeter exposed. Due to their functioning, vacuum shields provide a very effective defense against protracted pressure at relatively low intensity, such as from directed energy weapons; conversely, they are more vulnerable to high-density impacts like those of projectile armaments. The use of vacuum shields is likewise the main reason why Conflux ships only mount energy weapons for short-range point defense purposes.
Vortex Cannons: While the vacuum-core principle is certainly not central to all aspects of skirol naval technology, elements of it have been incorporated far and wide in the field. Ship-mounted weapons are no exception, and vortex armaments have for centuries been the mainstay of spaceborne combat. These devices are effectively railguns that use a non-linear motor, having a propulsion system shaped as a magnetic coil with a central repulsor element. Vortex cannons employ centrifuge force as an additional accelerating factor, increasing shot velocity at the expense of some projectile mass. As such, a vortex cannon will be larger and more ponderous than a conventional mass driver using slugs of a comparable size, but perceptibly more powerful.
Describe general doctrine, history, whatever floats your space boats.
Your space boats. Include pics or don’t, I’m not your supervisor. You’ll probably want to have one or two of most of the classes, but it doesn’t really matter too much. I’m also including some flavour options here that you might want to consider. In short, the history of the galaxy has divied up ship designs into three waves: Great War (ships built before and during the Great War), Detente (ships built during the Detente, some wonky designs in the larger classes due to treaty limitations), and Modern (ships built in the year since the message)
DO NOT put your hyperdread here, it gets its own section.
Dreadnoughts: Only a few were built before the end of the Great War, the destructive potential of these vessels was a major contributor to ending the conflict. Those old ones are pretty obsolete, and any new ones are only just coming into service (mostly in secret) due to the Treaty of Detente banning their construction.
Battleships: The grand old ladies that did all the fighting of the Great War. The Treaty of Detente imposed limitations on their sizes and destructive potential, so if you want to get intricate there’s 3 waves of battleships: Great War, Detente, and Modern. Great War is self explanatory, old sluggers and antiques. Detente battleships were awkward creations involving all kinds of elaborate ways to get around the Treaty without actually violating it. Lots of glass cannon designs here, or iron fortresses that couldn’t scratch eachother’s paint, or half baked experimental weapon systems, or novel propulsion methods that only work if nobody on board sneezes. Modern battleships are just coming into service, and are quite deadly.
Battlecruisers: The treaty of Detent also limited battlecruisers, in an effort to avoid just slightly reducing the size of ship involved in any potential arms race. Similar design iterations to Battleships; Great War, Detente, and Modern. Detente battlecruisers were often cripplingly overspecialized: dedicated point defence ships, artillery vessels, mass shielding vessels, etc. Battlecruiser designs from the Detente period were often put together as a way to shore up the weaknesses of their contemporaneous Battleship partners.
Cruisers: Nothing special here.
Destroyers: Still nothing special.
Corvettes: Corvettes can be thought of in several iterations just kidding I don’t care what you do with these things. Unless you try to just upscale what I’m trying to avoid with strike craft.
Strike craft: K I’m actually gonna sort of limit these things, or rather, the things that carry them around. Strike craft have long been an important part of space combat, so most nations have them and defences against them. Historically, they’ve been used as close in support; no one’s yet figured out how to strap useful FTL drives on the things. All this means that long range strikes aren’t practical. What I’m trying to get at is Carrier’s aren’t really a thing, or at least dedicated carriers aren’t. Plenty of room for Battlestar type things (fighty-boats with a solid complement of strike craft), but no dropping off a carrier squadron on one side of the system then expecting your strikecraft to win the fight on the other side.
A notable exception is your Hyperdread. Do whatever you want with your super special awesome boat.
Outline some doctrine, highlight some major units. I’m not great at doing ground forces so not much guidance here.
It was dusk when Split’s eyes flicked open, first on the sides, then ahead. Long as she might have spent under them - too long to keep count, if she had ever cared for that - the cycles of the sky sometimes still felt out of place. Dark should have been warm, but here again, like every time before, it got a little cooler. Still, the tiny difference was well worth not having to squint all the time in the open, and at least it looked a bit more like that so sorely missed blackness of the tunnels.
So, get up at dusk she did. When she slept at all, at least.
She stretched her four upper arms, flexed them in the elbows and half-jumped, half-slid out of the tree she had taken as her bed for the day. Luckily, her axe did not catch anything stronger than twigs on the way down. That was something even years of practice could not help. It all came down to the tree. A light tap was enough to straighten the weapon in its rough reptile-skin strap; check the chipped stone knife at her side as the hand came down, and off she went, pattering on all sixes over the tall, dry grass.
Patter, patter. Sometimes she listened to the sound, sometimes she did not. What mattered was not doing either for too long. When either her steps or the chirping and buzzing around got too monotonous, the silence underneath started to drown them out, and that was something she knew to avoid. It took just a week or so to understand, and from then on it was clear. If she let the silence get to her, she would start hearing things, and after that seeing things was not far off.
It worked, well enough that the worst she ever got was a suspicion of a whisper somewhere over her shoulder, or a blur in the corner of a side eye. Even when a strange-looking bird had appeared one day and started talking, which made her fear that despite her efforts she had lost it after all, it had turned out to be really there. Hearing a voice had been like a cool draft at first, and even better when it brought up freedom, though her attention had faded when it had started jammering about death and souls. She was not sure that stuff helped anyone, and either way thinking about it was the sort of thing to make her start dreaming awake. The one time it had happened in her sleep had already been bad enough. If those were dreams, she had not been missing anything, and she sure did not want any more.
And she had gone back to pattering, on and off. Patter, patter-
Something moved in the far distance.
Creak… Creak… Creak…
Split stopped, following the sounds with the sharp ear of a cave-dweller. A cracked, dried tree could creak like that, but so often without a breath of wind? There were no trees over there close enough to hear, either. Hands reaching for the haft over her shoulder, she stood up on her hind arms, smelling and looking ahead. So much for not having to squint.
There in the distance marched -- if it could be called a march, dense with strange, stiff shambling movements -- a handful of strange creatures, all clearly fashioned out of wood. Out of all the figurines, the one at the head stood out the most, as while his design was simple, even minimalistic when counting his shortage of appendages (just four), a strange sword floated above its head, point down, and threatening to drop on the bizarre mannequin at any point.
The kostral raised another hand to scratch her teeth, and found herself nibbling at the finger. It was not that she had never seen anything as unfitting with the rest of the world around at this - floating talkative rings beat it square by a good margin. But it was one thing to have seen something as strange as that, and another to look at the weirdness itself. Whatever else she had been over, wood moving around on its own, without even an oversized rabbit head or twitching eye sockets behind it, was not any less unusual for that.
But, wood or not, it was the closest to something like herself she had seen in a long, long while. Much longer, and she would stop believing there were beings that could walk upright anywhere else in the world at all.
As bad as it might go, she had not tried her blade on living bark yet. The axe felt a little heavier on her back. She chewed the thought to the back of her head, but kept a hand over her shoulder as she trotted closer to the jittering procession, making no effort to hide herself.
The squadron of uncanny, if not almost comical, walks didn’t seem to pay her any mind, until she was half a stone’s throw away. The lead swung a leg around, coming to a stiff halt. Its shoulders were square, and even without a face, Split was certain it was regarding her presence. Just like that the fields fell silent, with even the creatures of the ground and sky scurrying away from the showdown. Slowly, very slowly, there was a harsh creaking sound as the mannequin began to turn away, clearly done with its assessment. With an awkward stride, it began its march again, the others clamoring behind.
She followed it with her eyes, cocking her head sideways, then turned to follow, trying to fall into step with the crowd of shuffling things. Had she been expecting a piece of wood to greet her somehow and start talking? That would have been a huge relief, absurd or not, but not something she had been stupid enough to gamble on. No, it was already something that the creatures had not turned on her straight away. Always keep an eye open, but company was company, and by then she was ready to take almost any the wilds threw her way.
Keeping pace with the oddly moving figures was no easy feat. Just when she thought she had found a balance, a twitching step would go arcing much too long or much too short, leaving her plodding or scampering not to fall to the wayside. It became easier, if still not effortless, when she stopped looking for a rhythm and just kept an eye trained on the closest shape, speeding up when it loped and slowing down when it shambled. After a little time, it became almost a reflex. Walk, speed up, slow. Slow down, speed up, walk. It left her mind a bit clearer, enough to think of how this was like her time in the tunnels, when she walked with the others. There, too, nobody spoke, except for a gruff snarl from an overseer now and then. They just went where they had to go, together, keeping step in the line. It seemed like a good, simple time now, and for a while she did not think of why any of them had to go anywhere in the first place.
Eventually, however, that thought reared up again like it always did, bigger and bitterer for every passing year. Split grit her teeth with a little exhaustion and looked outward again. Her eye, used to the dark, took in the contours of her closest marching companion with any attention for the first time.
This one was different from the first, with big lumbering limbs as if hewn right from the log. It was a lot taller, and in all ways bulkier. Next to that one was something quite short in comparison, yet still stout. It waddled more than the others, its legs a bit shorter and wider, with remnants of what could have been the start of a snout on its featureless face. The others were a similar medley of tall and bulky, and short and stout -- all but the leader, who was the most plain of all. Curious too was their joints, the wood so tight next to each other and held together by pegs, it seemed almost impossible for them to move at all, let alone so wildly without falling apart.
One of the smaller figurines turned its head to Split, as if just noticing her. It was silent and blank, just like the first time.
Her eye narrowed, now a little apprehensive. It had not yet occurred to her to think where the things could have come from. They did not look, even vaguely, like anything she had seen before, but the similarities among their two kinds must have meant something. It was not clear how old they were, either. Some were so worn and cracked that they must have been walking around at least as long as her, but others looked smooth and new. The leader, she could not tell.
Whatever had made them could not be far, and this was not good. Something she had missed in all this time did not sound believable. Which way had they even come from, now that she thought of it?
The shape that eyelessly faced her was not a sight she liked, either. She could take it that wood could walk, fine. But wood looking at her, or close enough, was something else. That even really wood? It did not feel dangerous, none of the jittery things did, but it sure felt wrong. Not for her. Just wrong all about it.
Tentatively, she raised a hand and gave the figure a wary sign of greeting.
The faceless head seemed to follow her hand, all the while maintaining its march as if it never looked away from its fore. It held the stare for a little longer, and just about when a normal person may have said something, or at least waved back--
The head swiveled on a wooden joint, once again facing forward.
Split bit down, heavier than before. Worse than wrong. Ugly. Maybe she had started dreaming again.
With a quick, cautious movement, she stretched out an arm to lightly tap the creature’s side, ready to retract it in a blink. It was cold, like wood -- because it was wood. The figurine, if it could feel her, was doing a great job at ignoring her as it continued to walk, but then there was an itch.
Sure enough, the leader's head swiveled with complete 180 and was now staring at her -- or what could have been a stare if its face wasn't empty. She trotted up to its side, its featureless head following her, and silently pointed at the convoy behind them, eye widening in a wordless question.
There was a pause, the march never slowing, but a pause nonetheless. It could have been her imagination or perhaps a subconscious wish but she could have swore she felt a sense of reluctance coming from the wooden mannequin. Did she assign it emotion, perhaps, but against all odds and after a time far too long past the question, there was another creak, a new kind.
"Crea... Go." The word was hollow, as if pounded into existence by old wooden rods, "...a-way."
“Rhgh.” Split’s voice was little more than a dry, rasping creak after years of mutely battling the silence. For some long, quiet moments there was no follow-up to her opening sound outside of some whistling gargles as she stretched the dust away from her throat. Some of it was surprise that the thing could speak. “No,” she finally managed, in a withered husk of the words that had called out through unlit tunnels so long ago. “Not yet.”
She hadn't noticed when it happened, but all the other blank faces seemed to be staring at her as the leader fell silent again, save for its creaking joints. Slowly the rattling creaks that could only be its voice groaned once again, "O-K."
It slowly creaked as its head spun right back round, the others slowly peeling their own attention from Split.
Slowing her steps, she fell in with the thick of the group again. It was already a lot that it had spoken. Expecting it to speak any more than that too was, now that she thought of it, absurd. Then again, she did not have much more than absurdity left to count on. She could try again later, when her own voice got better. At least she would hear herself talk again, and a thinking thing, wooden or not, was always a safer partner than thin air.
Later. For now, she could just enjoy having someone to walk along with, and no iron hand pointing where to go. If she did not think too hard, it would be good and calm.
Wrong and ugly, sure. But it was a step ahead.
Stranded in the wilds of Ehomakwoi, Split has been enjoying her copy of One Hundred Fifty Years of Solitude and trying not to go crazy in the process. By the time we rejoin her, she’s already stretched so thin that when one night she meets Damocles and his procession of punitive puppets she’s less spooked than happy to have finally found some company. As she unwinds a little, though, it gradually hits her how strange the whole thing is. When questioned, the mannequins aren’t very eager to explain anything. Damocles himself points her to the figurative door, but doesn’t protest when she chooses to tag along for a bit instead.
Vast burning eyes flickered open, sending the tiny shapes crawling around their sockets scurrying away from the sudden blaze of heat. Iron claws quietly rasped into motion, crushing rock outcroppings the size of ancient trees to dust. The earth rumbled as the colossal weight within it shifted forward, slowly straightening up.
With a smooth though audible rasping, Narzhak turned his head to one side, then to the other, careful not to dislodge the thick, pulsating tubes that snaked past his armour and into his throat. The continuous flow of bitter fungal spirits through them might not have helped clear his mind, but he suspected that, if he stopped too suddenly, he would get a headache. His fingers gently pressed together over one of the gargantuan root-like growths, pinching it closed before lightly tearing it away. He left the leech-like suction mouth at the tip leaning against the edge of a plate, detached three more tubes to join it and finally looked around.
The once crude chamber he had carved for himself at the end of the Pit was, in truth, still crude, but had sprouted new furnishings, like strange cave-swamp growths, over the last decades. Rather than a near-shapeless, worn mountainous outcropping, his bulk now rested over a rough simulacrum of a gigantic seat, hewn out hastily, though not entirely carelessly. Nested in the corners above and below, immense metallic vats, steaming intoxicating vapours and tended to by hundreds of kostral, gathered the other ends of the living tubes in webs of titanic vines around their bases, with others yet extending out from them towards hidden sources. All across the vault, handholds had been cut into the rock to ease the hurrying of hordes of attendants. They swarmed across the god and his surroundings alike, scraping rust from his armour and sharpening its edges, pouting the contents of rudimentary iron vases into the vats and periodically refilling the monumental trough the quiescent monstrosity at his foot sipped from. Upon his stirring, they hastily streamed down from the throne’s sides, putting as wide a space as they could between themselves and his sweeping motions.
Narzhak leaned forward, eyes narrowing as he tried to find the source of the disturbance. It was not anything in the drinks, nor in the air. A quake, perhaps? No, he would have felt whatever had caused it.
Then it struck him. It was the sounds. Groaning, bellowing, howling rose from all sides, surrounded by confused snarls and snapping of teeth. Sounds the Pit had never heard. Sounds of fear.
A furious roar rose to drown all other voices from one end of the measureless cavern to another. Boulders fell from the unseen ceiling and new fissures split the ground open as the earth quaked under the sheer wrath pouring from the Iron God. Struck by his voice as by a maul, myriads of kostral dropped from wall and sky and collapsed in prostration. The sleepers jolted awake from their unquiet dreams, only to fall to the ground again.
”S I L E N C E”
The command was unneeded, as all sounds, even the rasping of beasts and crackling of flames, had fallen still for a few moments after being smothered in the tide of rage, but Narzhak felt that, without even a word of release his anger, he would have torn down the entire chamber around himself. The kostral, his kostral, had been forged with naught but blood-hunger and subservience to fill their minds, perfect instruments for the shaping of such vast designs as could direct a world down the path of growth. They had known no fear, could know no fear. And now someone had jarred that flawless mechanism, maybe out of nothing but carelessness. Who was the insolent heap of scum that dared? Azura again? If it was her, he would tear out every feather on her body, then the skin under them, then-
He scraped his fingers together in the likeness of a snap. In the time of a few blinks, two skestral descended from above, holding one of their wingless kin between themselves. As soon as it was released onto the iron desert of the god’s expectant palm, the kostral crawled into a grovel, only to shiver and curl its middle arms under itself as the searing gaze of the four eyes burned past its flesh and bone to stab into its thoughts like an incandescent blade. Mercifully, a divine eye was fast to spot what it needed, and before it knew it the hapless servitor had been deposited, shaken but unharmed, onto the ground amid the bowed ranks of its fellows.
”K’nell,” the god clenched his claw into a fist. Though his voice was more subdued than they had ever heard it, the kostral shrank under the menace even their dim minds could discern in it. ”Think you’re clever? That you’re safe to throw out whatever filth you like while you hide in your castle of air?” His fingers dug gouges into the ageless stone of his seat.
”Now you will learn to fear the shadows you cower in.”
Bloody paste squelched under the worn makeshift pestle, spraying deep-red drops on Vrog’s hand, the rocks around it and the ground. The crouching brute reflexively licked the spatters from his fingers, grimacing as he blew off the dust they withered to dust as his tongue withdrew, and tossed the crudely sectioned remains of a farmer ape’s limb into his imposing if rudimentary mortar. The pestle went up and down, again and again, as he threw in new pieces of assorted wildlife, interspersing them with splashes from one of the flasks that always happened to find themselves in his hand just at the right moment. Now and then he paused to spit a burst of acrid sludge into the concoction, prompting bursts of caustic hissing and puffs of smoke to rise from its midst.
He still could not get a mouthful of any kind, no. As much as he had tried to find a measure that worked, from large enough to need some chewing for once to finely shredded, he had only succeeded in thinning the numbers of marauding dragons and desolating swathes of woodland after emptying them of animal life. So long as it was getting eaten in some way, it went no further than the first row of teeth. Orvus might have been a terrible vrog-talker, but this was by all accounts a job well done. Picking every last crumb of that absurd sword - who brought swords to a battle, anyway? - from his body would have taken much longer than he had patience for, and even then he was not sure it would work at all.
So, he had looked for other ways.
Drinking worked, to a degree. It still dried up fast enough, but it he knotted together his tongues outside his mouth and held it there, he could feel the taste for a few moments. If the stuff was strong enough, he could even pretend he was sending down the actual thing. With a bit of dulling of his insides, dust did not feel entirely different from a regular sip, except for the part of coughing it up later. But, for someone who had really drunk, pretending was not good enough.
And he had come up with something better.
He wiped the pestle from the dense bloody mixture, set it aside and blew into the contents of the mortar. What life remained in the gruesome slime shrivelled up and fled on the wind, leaving behind a heavy, cloying mass that reeked of slaughter. Vrog gathered a wad on a hooked finger, slapped it in the middle of a long, wide dry leaf and wrapped the whole tightly. His tongue curled around the manufact in a spiral, holding it well outside his mouth. A snap of his fingers sent a spark into the tip of the macabre construct, lighting it into a sharp crackling burst of noxious black smoke. On his exposed tongue, it tasted vaguely like nearly every being that had gone into the making of the core, mangled, mashed and roasted into a near-indistinguishable, but all the more delectable mess of carnage. The thought alone made him slaver, and he had to snap down with a few hastily grown lateral mouths to avoid biting his tongue off.
But, of course, it would have been many times better if he could actually gnaw and gorge something like that. The mouths gritted in frustration. This thought never failed to show up when he lit a stack, and sucked out the best part of the enjoyment from it.
Vrog took an angry pull, stopping the smoke just short of his jaws. Another couple decades like this with nothing but animals to slice up, and he would turn into a raving beast himself. Since that Laurien, he had not found a single thing that could properly appreciate the pain and fear he would deal - and without that, where was the fun?
Speaking of pain, this one wrap must have come out bad somewhere along the way. None of the others had made him feel a burning deep in the now unneeded stomach, certainly not one that spread like an actual fire through his limbs, into his head-
His mouth gaped open, tongue darting in with its load of what was now dust, and he clutched the center of his thorax. The metal skin twisted under his grip, a force that was certainly not his own violently pushing out from beneath it. The hand was forced aside as the metal rose up like a wave of molten fluid, rapidly cooling into the shape of a ribbed spine writhing and bending as a skeletal worm. It coiled upwards, its still flat-plated extremity hovering before his mockery of a face. In the last throes of its fluid transformation, the plate’s edges became even more ragged and irregular, much like something he had nearly forgotten.
Four points of flame lit up amid the simulacrum of Narzhak’s visor.
Rivulets of dust streaming to the ground between his teeth, Vrog spluttered out the remains of his wrap. “D’you really have to do it this way?”
The answer sounded halfway out loud, halfway inside his mind. ”You know a faster one?”
He had to admit he did not. “What’s the deal now?”
”I’d ask about what you’ve done about our first one,” even as a shrunken talking head, the Iron God managed to sound threatening enough to someone who could catch the allusions behind his tones, ”but you’re lucky there’s worse things to think of. New orders. Find K’nell and bring me to him.”
“K’nell? That the dream one?” He parted the skin curtain at one corner of his mouth, exposing pensively clenched teeth. “How the gut am I supposed to do that?”
”You’re asking me?” The mask oscillated on its spine like a snake poised to strike. ”You’re the one out there. You talked to one of his puppets earlier? That’s your start.”
Vrog raised a finger in protest. “More like I talked at someone who said she was dreams. Wasn’t very convincing about it, either. What’s that do to spitting help, anyway?”
”You do the thinking on that one.” The fiery eyes flared up in a blaze that consumed the daylight around them, and Vrog grated all six sets of teeth and then some as a fist of molten iron clenched around his thoughts. ”I won’t take excuses for failure.”
The spine with Narzhak at its tip uncoiled and began to sink back into his chest with a feeling unpleasantly similar to being impaled on Orvus’ sword, if much worse. Before its last vertebrae had fully retracted, the visor turned upwards one last time. ”Stop us at that place of Chopstick’s on the way. I haven’t seen her in a while.” With those final words, the mask merged back into the breastplate, as though it had never been there.
Curling his skin-lips and straightening his various mouths, Vrog massaged his still painfully thrumming head and spat a seed from his throatless pair of chewing jaws. Things just kept getting better, didn’t they.
The woods around the easternmost mountains were much as he had left them. Same nondescript smells of sap and leaves, same roots that snapped underfoot with almost every step. The only difference was that those wretched morsel-things he had been fed that one time had spread - and quite a difference it was. With nothing much to eat them, the filthy things were everywhere, from the braches to the soil, and every lick in between. Squashing them like overripe fruit as he walked was satisfying in more ways than he cared to count. He chuckled when a few leapt into his mouth and crumbled before he could feel their hatefully bland taste. At a distance of years, he had to admit that had not been a bad joke, though of course it would have been much better if it had been done to anyone else.
Even now, however, the parasites had a way of making themselves a nuisance. The trace he was searching for, if it was to be found at all, was easily drowned out by their similar irksome smell. There was no telling if his quarry was still anywhere near there, and, even if so, if he would feel it at all without a lucky gust of wind, no matter how many of the vermin he stomped on. And, if not, even wind might not have been enough.
Similar, not the same. There it was. Not new by any stretch, but unmistakable amid the background noise. Vrog clicked his tongue. He did not need to make excuses; he simply did not fail.
From there, following the track was as easy as it had been the first time. He grimaced at the thought of how the bitter foretaste had given him pangs of hunger then. Now, after having had enough to burst, it did anything but that, casting a mildly disgusted apathy over his innards. All things considered, that was probably for the best given his ability to put anything into them. Two wrongs did add up to a right after all.
And, just when he thought he had it, it vanished. Not by breaking off, but abruptly going skyward. That complicated things. Whatever had happened there, he doubted he could jump up as easily. His tongue darted up, then around, seeking any kind of grip on the disappearing path. It found something. Not far.
Disappointingly, it was just a bauble of some kind. He picked it up between two fingers, trying it to the tongue, then to the tooth. Close as the taste was now, and though it made his teeth itch with anticipation, his stomach was still perfectly indifferent. Vrog rolled the small sphere in his hand, considering. It was unlikely to help the search in any way, but, if it was anything of value, better times were to be had by keeping it. At the same time, he did not have room to spare for any litter he found. What if, though…
For all he was likely to get out of it, he might as well just have the last laugh in the eating matter. With a flick, he tossed the orb into his mouth.
It did not become dust. In fact, it did not become anything - it simply was not there. No, there was something after all. Not something he could feel, but he could see it. See it?
Chomping, gnashing, grunting, squealing, cutting, snapping, chopping, scrapping, skinning, ripping, smashing, slamming, swiping, crawling, loping, growing, fattening, gorging, gutting, mauling, bashing, biting, stomping, snorting, scrouging, plundering, pummeling, beating, brawling, tearing, bleeding, smelling, stabbing, snatching, little arms in the mouth, little bones in the pouch, bloating, swelling, spreading, scourging…
Funny little things that those were.
So engrossed was he with watching the scenes of tangling pests rolling inside himself, one followed by a still better other, that he caught himself with a foot almost off a cliff, an alarming heat rising from below. Shaking himself from the curious sights - was that what dreams were like? - Vrog probed the air around himself. The trail was still a line above his head, and just a step forward was the boiling sea someone had had the brilliant idea of putting along one of the coasts.
He lit a wrap, contemplating the way ahead with a few side-tongues. On the better hand, the party was actually close enough on the way, which meant no more annoying detours than strictly needed. On the other, he still had to get across that oversized pot, and who knew where the Omen had gone off to.
It seemed, however, that someone had conveniently enough dropped something into the water. Not just one something, but another, equally big one, and another further left, and... Though the spectacle of the great marine lamps was lost on Vrog’s lack of anything to see them with, their usefulness to someone in his situation was fairly clear.
Were there enough to get to the other side? Maybe. Worth a try, either way.
He took a pull from the wrap, spat a seed and jumped.
Having finally managed to more or less adequately make alcohol out of unspecified underground mushrooms, Narzhak has set up a handy drinking system in his corner of the Pit. However, he’s stirred from his etilic slumber by unrest among sleeping kostral due to the recent dream events. He is more than a little annoyed that people keep trespassing on his turf, and divines that K’nell is behind this.
Meanwhile, on the surface, Vrog has been trying to poke loopholes in his curse, but the best he’s managed so far is smoking handmade fresh petrol. He gets a chestburster-call from Narzhak, who tells him to go find K’nell and Choppy so he can talk to them by, for once, using an avatar for its original purpose (which seems to transcend the current MK altogether). Vrog is less than thrilled at the idea, but is given little choice.
Lacking better leads to follow, he tries to pick up Diana’s trail again. While poking around, he finds the piggut dream orb she dropped, eats it and sees visions of the creatures within. He’s so amused by them that he almost falls into the Saluran Mendidh. Briefly stumped on how to cross it to both follow the trail and reach the tea party, he notices the newly-sprouted giant lava lamps. Though unable to appreciate the visuals, he thinks they might be good for hop-frogging his way across the strait, and rather recklessly sets off to prove his theory.
Starting: 8 MP, 8 FP
1 FP spent on teaching the kostral to brew and distil alcohol (as well as conditions allow).
Sobering up after a bout of drinking, however monumental, had never been much trouble. Narzhak’s immense girth alone made getting noticeably drunken a gargantuan task in its own right; adding to this the fact that no sort of impurity, no matter whether it had been anywhere else before, seemed able to remain inside his body for long without seeping out in some way or another, one could have sworn that his constitution had been designed especially for that sort of pastime. Thus, it was after no more than a brief walk to the nameless river of murk and blood that ran through the Steppes that his head was back to being as impervious to loud noises, apelike or otherwise, as it had ever been, hundreds (if not more) of drained wine barrels notwithstanding.
The god shook off the last of the needling fumes from his iron skull and tore his gaze away from the soothing if macabre patterns of the ichor-tainted flow. Flaming eyes swept over the plains, between the cliffs walling them off at either side and over wide flatlands, empty beyond the occasional rooting beast. Shengshi did have a point - even setting aside a space like dozens of mountain ridges, there would be room for more than one good harvest here. Worth keeping in mind. Amusing as it was when inferior beings ate each other, leaving them nothing else to subsist on was not going to help anyone given a couple of centuries.
A more pressing thought for now, however, was seeing whether he remembered the distilling part right, despite the wine and unexpected birth that had followed the explanation. The journey from the river to the Scar was spent trying to reconstruct the steps into something at least distantly resembling their proper sequence. Boil, seal, ferment... no, that could not be right; it went seal, ferment, then boil? He was sure he was missing something again, a suspicion which did not leave him even as he climbed into the fissure and let go of its edge, stepping onto the warm rock below. What he saw there, however, made him immediately forget the succession he had just so carefully assembled.
The kostral were not at work as he had left them. This alone was enough for his four eyes to dart each in a different direction, prying into every visible opening for signs of disorder. The situation was really not as dire as it looked at first glance, with only a comparatively small part lobbing stones out of their cavern mouths, but it was bad enough that something had disrupted the order of things at all. Even worse was that this something was brazen enough not to stop when he had walked in. Why were there birds in the Pit? They usually knew well enough to avoid the Scar altogether. Yet here they were, offensively glimmering, somehow weaving between the fiery clouds and grasping tentacles of the sky-dwellers and eluding the improvised projectiles that rained on them from the walls. And- speaking?
Narzhak rumbled and clapped his hands together with the force of thousands of enormous gongs struck all at once. In a blink, stones stopped flying as the kostral scrambled back to their usual haunts. The birds, wise enough not to follow them into narrow, cramped spaces, remained hovering about the openings. Some converged around the god, and their speech, now evidently repeated time and again, keenly reminded him of what it was like to have a still-hazy head. Did Azura really sound like that? For the little he knew of her, he had never considered her much of an annoyance, but she seemed determined to make him rethink that view.
The irate squint of his eyes only grew thinner as the opening words of the address played out. Souls, death, what did any of this have to do with him? What happened to things once they had served their purpose in the world had never been any of his business, and why she would say these things to mortals was simply beyond him.
The further the speech went, however, the wider he stared, until at the end he could no longer hold back a thunderous, ground-shaking laugh. ”Consent? Autonomy? She’s begging?! Damn to the void, she’s serious about this!” He slapped himself over his ironclad stomach, the rock under him buckling and cracking under the quakes of his mirth. The cackles did not stop even when a colossal hand shot out and closed around a few alma, reducing them to a smear of invisible dust, nor when great metallic spikes shot out like darts to crush and splinter the rest. His finger still quivered as he brought the last, most elusive one before the barren waste that was his visage, locked in place with hooked and pincered chains.
”Listen up,” he growled, suppressing the last traces of laughter. His eyes blazed up for a moment, and the creature’s crystalline parts were enkindled with a lurid glow to mirror them, ”I don’t know what score you’ve got with Katharsos, and I don’t care how you settle it -” his speech had by then firmly become a menacing snarl, ”- as long as you don’t stick your beak into my work. Come into my home uncalled to distract my servants, and crying over some burning soul’s going to be the least of your worries. Keep your squabbles over death out of here. You won’t find any will to freedom, only-”
The metal of his visor became a hungry mire, and the minuscule construct was dragged beneath it as the dark pearl had been before. Faint praise though it might have been, the taste was nowhere near as atrocious this time. ”I hope I’ve made myself clear.” It was uncertain that what remained of the alma could still relay his words, but Narzhak hated leaving something unfinished.
Clawed fingers pensively rubbed together with a strident creak. There could be no assurance that Azura would listen, or even, now that he thought of it, that she would be the only one to try and bring some useless inanity to his domain. If she had made an attempt of that sort at all, it meant she was expecting to find at least some sympathetic ears, and if they all flew like her and these odd glowing birds, the air over the Pit as it was now, perilous as it might have been to any other intruder, would not do. Nor would the kostral simply throwing whatever was at hand. Even without this, they would have to deal with foes outside their reach sooner or later, and weapons that would supply for that were still a long way beyond their grasp. At best, he could provide to both at once…
A loud rattle from his gauntlet drew thousands of quartets of eyes, with the occasional blind stain of metal, staring out of their tunnels. They died quickly, but more of them sprang up quicker yet, just as designed. Never a moment without a safe surplus for cases like these.
The Iron God snatched a nearby wandering ash-storm into his hand, tightened it into a bundle and spat some of the unrecognisable remains of the swallowed alma into it. As the roiling cloud in his palm began to pulsate and shimmer, he breathed rapacity into it, then snapped his fingers closed with a crack, sending uncountable specks flying in all directions. Each was certain to find its mark.
The watching thousands began to shudder and swell as the ash reached them, piercing their hide and warping their forms. Bones lengthened into serpentine spines and wide, sturdy ribcages, limbs stretching beyond their natural shape and snapping into angles they could never have supported. Skin was torn and rewoven into smooth membranes, even as it was dislodged by the sudden burst of sickly bulbous growths along the entire body. Arms were pushed close together like the legs of insects, and heads grew new sharp, smooth predatory countenances.
”Skestral,” the god spoke, and as one a legion of raucous hissing breaths sounded around him. One after another, the things that had been kostral spread their leathery wings and took flight, borne on tumorous protrusions filled with foul-smelling air. They sped from corner to corner, unhindered by their apparent bulk, as their grounded kin began to peer out in awe. Many did little but pass between cavern and cavern, stretching their new-formed muscles. Some vanished in the perpetual smoke overhead, probing the way for patrols and hunts. A few more yet dove towards the stretch of high ground where lay the path to the world above, and just so they were gone.
Narzhak had an eye for every path, following the flight of each for a few moments with an appreciative look, all while the fourth stayed over his open hand. Some ashen dregs were still restlessly crawling around the palm, the light, but not the motion entirely squeezed from them. This was not enough for another batch, but throwing it away would have been senseless. There must have been something it would be good for. It moved, stirred… What did that speech say about sleep?
It was strange, it occurred to him, that Azura, whose very creatures were so restless even when pulverised, would want to put things to sleep for who knew how long. A somewhat less amusing thought following in that one’s trail was that, if she did have her way, half the world would have been slumbering sooner or later. Absurd, but if it really happened? Things would get much harder for everyone for no good reason. The least he could do now was ensure that, if Galbar became too quiet, he would not be caught unprepared.
A sliver of molten rock from a nearby floating sphere, and the ash began to churn and harden into something solid. He breathed wrath into it, then more, and more still. The quivering mass of orange-veined grey bloated into something that was neither quite worm, nor quite boar, nor quite squid. Its many limbs thrashed and grasped along its elongated body, unable to release the fury that filled them in any meaningful way other than to tear into themselves. It gouged uneven gaps into itself, and teeth grew to make them mouths. As soon as it could, it howled, and Narzhak was barely fast enough to cut it off after its first tones; it was still enough for some kostral to leap upon each other in a murderous frenzy, and a few skestral to tangle with the drifters among the clouds. And still it grew in size and anger, until even the hand underneath it began to feel its weight. The chains around its limbs and edges became thicker, the muzzles around its mouths wider, until both maker and creation were out of breath.
The two contemplated each other as they recouped. The Iron God found himself forced to admit he had gone a little beyond the pale this once. Left unchecked, the thing would not only wake up a world of sleepers, but wreak havoc on anything it came across, the Pit included. At the same time, he doubted that keeping it bound would have been much of a solution. Chains would stop its excesses until needed, but without motion to stoke it, the anger that made it so useful would eventually die out, maybe before even there was a chance to see it at work even once. Besides, with how it still struggled, those chains might not hold long enough, either. Not on the body, at least.
He tapped his fingers together. If not chains on the body, whatever the thing had for a mind could not be much harder to tie together. Chains of the mind, clouds of the mind…
His eye fell on the cauldron still fastened to the edge of a thumb. Of course. If the head took the worst of the drinking, something that did not have one at all would get the blow all over. And a strong one as long as the liquor kept flowing, without need for a single link.
How did it go again? Ferment, boil, seal?
After going for a walk to sober up, Narzhak climbs back into the Pit. There, some alma are riling up the kostral, who, lacking any sort of initiative, react to them as they would to any other intruder, with predictably little success. He restores order with a quick and heavy hand and yells through the bird network to what he thinks is Azura to keep off his lawn. The alma with the dubious honour of serving as transmitter for that message is then chewed up, and its remains are used in turning some kostral into a flight-capable subspecies, the skestral (or gargoyles for simplicity) to prevent more incidents of the sort. Some skestral start spilling over to Galbar’s surface.
Narzhak then suspects that preserving souls might end up plunging much of the world into stasis, and doesn’t like the idea. He thus decides to create a monster he can send out to shake things up if they get too quiet for his liking, but overdoes it and ends up with a huge, nasty, uncontrollable beastie whose voice drives all who hear it into a bloodthirsty rage. At a loss as to how to keep it from indiscriminately wrecking everything while it’s not in the field, he remembers that he was going to try and distill alcohol again after going over it with Shengshi, and concludes that the best course of action is to make the monster his drinking pal.
Starting: 3 MP, 4 FP
2 FP spent on transforming some kostral into skestral, granting them flight.
2 FP, enhanced with War portfolio, spent on the Howling Scourge, a creature of tremendous power.
The first thing Split noticed was that there was light all around.
The second was that the ground she was lying on was not cold stone.
The third was that her axe was still firmly gripped in two of her hands. Thanks for that.
The kostral propped herself up on her forelimbs and looked around. The sky shone over a flat yellow expanse speckled with green, stretching as far as she could see. Sand, she thought. She moved a hand to lift herself better, and felt something scrape against her skin in a way sand did not. A handful of it came off the ground with less ease than she expected, clinging to it like an uprooted bush. It was much like a bush, she realised, or moss, with much longer, thinner straight strands. Smelled much like moss or a bush, too. Tasted- she bit off half a strand, gave it a brief chewing, swallowed. It was the faintest bit similar to the lichens she had once grown so sick of, though not different in a way that made it an appetising alternative. She tossed away the clump of plants and looked around again.
Yellow and green, up to where the ground touched the sky. Nothing broke the flatness of the land, except the mild sloping of some low hills not too far away. Split rose to her hind limbs, towering above the rustling grass, and looked further. Just a small dark spot off in the distance. No sign of Arya - she remembered to look directly above herself, but that did not help - or the ‘lope, nor of the way she could have come here from the tunnels. In her sleep, it struck her. How could that have gone again? She had kept going towards that light for what must have been days without getting any closer, sometimes being led down bends that should have made spotting it in the first place impossible. Nothing to eat except for the occasional patch of mould on the walls and the worms around it, though even the worms were a lucky find, and short naps where she found a side passage or opening in the rock. That was as it had gone last time; she had laid down after another day or two of walking, and then here she was.
The open sky and cool breeze made it hard to smell as she was used to, but by now she was sure Arya was not anywhere nearby. From how those tunnels worked, it was likely she was not anywhere not too far either. Maybe the other end of the world, for all she knew. Troubling as that thought was, Split did not think that staying underground would have made finding her any easier. All there was to do was hope that the girl had picked up enough to handle herself wherever she might have ended up, unless it was in- No, no use thinking that. Lurker or no lurker, it wasn’t likely anyway.
A pang in the stomach threw her sniffing off-course. How long had it been since she had even found mould? No one had kept track, but she was sure enough the answer was “way too long” anyway. She picked at the grass and snorted. That wouldn’t work. Having the jackalope around would have helped, but she was nowhere to be seen either. Hopefully she would not run into something else large and hungry.
Her head twitched as a vaguely familiar smell drifted by her. Earthy, warm scales. Her jaws tightened at the thought. It had to be just there, some way towards the dark blot in the distance. If she was quiet enough in getting closer… Yes, there. A short, slender body, like a large worm, edged its way through the stalks. Its brown-ringed yellow scales made it almost invisible among the grass and its smell was faint at best even close up, but she saw it perfectly, and her axe had no trouble finding it either.
Only after the creature’s bones had been picked clean did Split realise that a small meal would only dig the hole in her stomach deeper rather than filling it. An only slightly dulled pang was quick to confirm it. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and smelled the air again. No more moving things nearby, except some insects. There was, however, a new smell coming from where the spot of blackness winked over a gentle slope. The smell of a bush, though somehow warmer and richer. She was not sure what to make of that, but bushes usually meant things like rats and other small animals, and that would have been welcome. Dropping to four again, she was about to toss away the scaly thing’s emptied skin, but stopped mid-motion, running her eyes over it up close. Flexible, robust. Who knew, it could come in handy sometime. She wrapped and tied it around a wrist.
The black spot was a bit further than it seemed, but five legs went quickly. At a closer look, it was indeed made up of shrubs, or something very much like them. The resemblance would have been even closer if shrubs had been almost nothing but trunk, with branches unfolding high up like mushrooms, but that was close enough. There were actual shrubs, too, short and dry, though their yellow was more widely stained with the upper canopies’ almost bluish green. All of this was, however, forgotten as soon as a furry shape darted between one branch and another, and a black cloud rose from deep in Split’s belly to cover her eyes from the flurry of chopping, snatching and gnawing that followed.
It was not until her axe met something large, dense and snarling that she blinked her predatory instincts away and took a glance at what she was running into. Staring at her from the other end of the haft was an imposing bulk of dark fur, claws and teeth. Judging by its lean though towering body, the beast must have had gone hungry for some time as well, and her crashing through the undergrowth had been as clear a track for it as its smell had been for her. The kostral’s front eyes locked gazes with its animalistic leer. Whatever it might have been, it was clear that only one of them would eat their fill that day.
With surprising speed, the beast was first to act. Split narrowly dodged its swimping arms, diving under their crushing embrace, and jolted out of the way as it dropped its weight onto her. Balancing on three limbs, she grasped at its thick, matted fur for leverage and drove her axe into its flank as it turned about to face her, drawing out a pained roar. The claws came for her again, as the blade was still lodged into the shaggy hide, and she let go her grip of it to strike back against the paw with two hands. She did not expect the resistance to be so easily yielding, and almost fell forward into the slavering jaws, righting herself with a kick to its exposed nose. The creature’s maw still reeling backwards from the blow, Split fell back onto her rear limbs, only to gather up and vault over her opponent’s broad back, tearing her axe out with a tug and landing into a ready pose on its far side. When the beast’s jaws came for her in a frenzy of pain and fury, they were met with a blow that cleaved the skull behind them from side to side. The animal let out a final groan, briefly spasmed in the legs and collapsed.
Split sat for a moment catching her breath before leaning over the massive carcass. The beast might not have eaten well in a while, but it was still a good deal larger than her. Hungry though she was, it would take her a long time to eat it all, longer than it would stay fresh. Besides, she was not going to sit around here until she finished it, not while people back home kept eating lichen and falling down wells in search of metal, and she did not even know where she was. Maybe she could take out the best bits on the spot, then carry some more along somehow- Take out, that sounded right.
A push with three arms was enough to turn the hefty body over. Cutting it from the back would not work, she knew well enough. The belly was the way in. Her axe was not ideal for the job, long and unwieldy as it was, but it would do. She pulled the cut wider open, baring her teeth in what might have been a smirk at the familiar experience of clawing through something’s entrails. What were her last hatchlings up to now? It had been some years already, so they must have been… Her jaws snapped closed and her gaze darkened. At work, digging up stones with little better than other stones or hunting obsidian stalkers in the wastes. Maybe she gnashed her teeth and tightened her hands already dead. With a grim look, she hunched back over the gutted corpse.
Not long afterwards, her stomach was much better, glutted as it was on the most appetizing bits she had dug up in her summary dismemberment of her prey, and, though the mood was not as easily mended, slicing up the beast had been an oddly calming exercise, far from the euphoria of mating that she remembered. Split finished wrapping a bundle of strips of meat in a piece of hide and fastened it with a sharpened snapped bone. She sniffed and craned her head satisfiedly. To say that her trove was perfectly clean was too much, but she had done a good job in separating those morsels from the innards. Before, she had never stopped to consider if one piece would taste better than another, and she had taken Chops’ cutting up the rabbits as an oddity. But, as it turned out, sorting things helped a lot.
She would have to try this more often.
The kostral glanced up with an eye. The sky still shone brightly through the foliage overhead. No point in sitting around. Lost as she and almost everyone else she knew might have been, the only way to fix that was to go look around harder. She would figure out where she was, maybe find Arya somewhere sooner or later. And, someday, come back home with a way out.
Split slung the axe over her shoulder, gripped the meat bundle with her free forearm, and crept off into the shrubs. The world would not wait for her.
This post takes place before the Alma broadcast, though by how much is up to interpretation.
After a long time spent walking through underground tunnels, Split wakes up in a yellow grassland with no sign of how she got there. Unbeknownst to her, she’s somewhere in central Atokhekwoi. She looks around, discovering grass, trees and snakes, eats one of the latter and makes an armband with its skin.
After some more wandering, she reaches a wood, where, between the influence of her axe and not having eaten properly in the aforementioned long time, she goes on a feeding frenzy at the expense of the local small animals. She’s only stopped by meeting a bear, whom she wrestles, kills and slices up. Since it’s too big to eat in one go, Split cuts out the best pieces. She finds that she enjoys the activity and it makes the result taste a little better, and decides she should do it more often. Having stocked up on bear bits, she sets out to discover where she ended up.
+2 as participant and protagonist of the post.
-2 spent on the title the Butcher. She likes cutting up things, in and out of combat, and is getting good at it too.
Hey palls, not sure if anyone'll still be reading this, but since nothing had been OOCly said for literally half a year I figured i'll break the ice. I'm gonna wrap the RP up. There'll be 2 more posts and then.... I think we'll leave it discontinued.
Is there anyone still here?
Additionally, would it be an idea for me to give at least a summary of the possible endings I envisioned for the story? If the RP is over, spoilers don't matter anymore. Yea, I know, after prolonged periods without progress people quickly lose interest, that's how it always goes.
You know I haven't gone anywhere. I wouldn't mind if we somehow gave this at least some closure, even with just a couple of posts.
Vrog gnawed the splintered bone in his mouth, cracking through it with a sound that would have delighted him at any other time, but now simply brought frustration. The best part, the marrow, was open right there, and just needed to suck in to…
He retched and spat the chewed splinters, held together in a globe of noxious sludge. Useless. The things inside him were as dead as they could get, but somehow they continued to make him feel full. Nothing had helped with that. Not digging around inside himself (trying to tell their remains apart from the rest was useless at this point), not diluting them with drink, not burying them in other tastes. It seemed that the only thing left to do was wait, and he’d be burned if he did not hate waiting.
Growling “Gut that dream” to himself for the thousandth time that day, he kicked aside the tattered remains of the gigantic bird and speared his tongue into the air, turning towards the edge of the mountain cliff. Broad views were of little use to him, but the cleanness of the air up there had one advantage. What few smell trails reached there were easy to pick apart, like - that one. His toothed tongue wove through the breeze, following a curiously familiar scent. Something like the inner rot of those four-eyed creatures. One of them there? It was far from the lair he had found, but that might not have been the only one.
The rot had tasted good, Vrog remembered. Nothing had helped with the nauseating feeling inside him so far, but if anything would at all, it could well be that. Trying would not hurt, at any rate.
Not him, anyway.
Leaving behind the mangled carcass and a nest of wantonly smashed eggs, he began to leap his way down the mountainside. The source of smell was somewhere there ahead, growing stronger by the step. Whatever it was that had exuded it could not escape him now.
At the base of the mountain, Laurien washed herself in a large creek, or rather took a swim, letting the water cool her off. It had been several days since she left the Shengshi’s ship, and oh how she longed to return, but the excitement of the journey was overwhelming. She had traveled further north-east since starting out, feeling that it was the best course of action. She had no idea where to start looking anyways.
Dislodged stones rattled down from above, followed by the screech of metal on rock and the heavy thump of something landing near the shore. A massive shape covered in filthy armour hobbled closer to the water, moving with sharp, decisive gestures despite its unnaturally asymmetrical features. Its visor-covered head sluggishly turned from side to side before fixating on her. The hideously long, slender fingers on its right hand, all the more ghastly in comparison with the thick, stunted left, scraped the ground, then the water, before abruptly withdrawing.
Something flew through the air and landed near Laurien’s head with a plop.
“It’s just you?” the being gurgled from under its helmet, “Gut it. Just thought I’d found something good.”
Laurien had turned her head when the thing landed on the shore near her. Her eyes went wide, trying to discern what exactly the creature was, or what it was supposed to be. It looked sickly, no… right down disgusting and that stench. She tried not to gag. So fixated on the creature, she barely noticed the plop next to her, but after it came, she blinked. Her head began to work overtime as she realized how far away from her weapon she was.
Then it spoke, and it’s voice sent shivers up her spine. Slowly she stood up, the water coming to her chest. She squinted her eyes as she spoke. ”Uh, who are you supposed to be?” she said cautiously.
“If I got a scrap every time some slaghead asked that, I’d be making myself another skin soon,” the thing growled, “I’m Vrog. Bet that doesn’t mean much to you, so I better say I’m-” the long-fingered hand reached up to the visor, “-this.”
The faceguard was torn open, baring a chaos of teeth, jaws, welts and sores floating in an unholy mire of festering scum. Surrounded by bone and filth, a monstrously wide mouth spluttered through its mesh of skin and fangs. “And what’re you?”
For the first time in her life, Laurien was frozen with horror. The kind of which if only felt when having seen something so repulsive, and vile, you couldn’t think of it in your wildest dreams. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sounds came out. She needed to think fast, but the girl could only stare at Vrog’s monstrous visage. Her mind was screaming to do something, anything, but her body wouldn’t budge. She needed her weapons, get the weapons. That was the key, just breath. Breath deeply. You are better than this. she told herself, Say something! Think of your duty.
And Laurien blinked, and a great breath escaped her lips. With a shaky voice, she said, ”I-I’m… Laurien.”
Vrog’s teeth gritted against each other as his jaws edged from side to side with a sickening fluidity. It was as though under what passed for his face there were no solid flesh, but more liquid rot that flowed smoothly with a will of its own. “Guess it’s too much to hope that everything that talks can do it good,” he scratched the recurve tips of two clawed fingers against each other, “but you’re just being spitting stupid. Think ‘I’m Laurien’ tells me a lot?”
His maw opened wide, and, more hideous yet than the parody of Laurien’s voice that had preceded it, a length of black tongue burst out, more similar to a thick tentacle studded with tooth-like spikes than to what it was supposed to be. Darting like that of an overgrown toad, it unfolded into something that could by no means have fit into Vrog’s mouth and swung for her neck, trying to wrap itself into a noose around it.
”Wha-” she began before being cut off by the tongue. In an instant, Vrog’s tongue shot over her head, grazing he top of her hair and cutting a few strands as she fell into the water. In an instant, she was half swimming, half running for her weapons. They leaned against the a nearby tree, and she cursed herself for being unprepared and having them so out of reach. She turned to gaze upon Vrog, weary of another attack. She could feel it in her bones, something was not quite right about this one and he seemed powerful, far too powerful for her. The only chance she had was the dagger, sword, and if he had a soul, she could use her abilities on him. But there was no time to check, not now.
The tongue coiled back upon itself and disappeared into the maw, impossible though that might have appeared. Vrog’s jaws moved as though chewing something, and another whistle pierced the air close to Laurien’s head, followed by a small splash. The entire bulk began to shuffle along the bank, following her movement with little haste.
“Let’s try this again,” again a whistle and a plop in the water, this time close enough for her to feel the shearing of the thing’s flight, “what are you really?”
Once again Laurien froze in her path, having felt whatever the projectile was flying past her. She knew he could hit her, and she knew if he did the damage would would be severe. She turned to face Vrog, but began to walk sideways to the shore. She was nearly there.
”I already told you, I am Laurien. What more is there to know, beast!” she said defiantly.
The collection of fragmented mouths shook and scrunched together in a nauseating display. Though it was difficult to say for certain, it was a fair guess that it might have been a grimace of distaste. “Dumb as slag, are ya?” the mouth’s motions were almost perfunctory, in spite of the tone. Its words rolled out between the rows of teeth without much care for matching the lips’ mimicry. “There’d be a deal more to say anyways, but the part I care for is-” the tip of his tongue flicked out, “why’d you smell almost the same as something I’ve eaten a far spit from here?”
One of her feet touched the sandy shores of the shallower water, as she stared down Vrog, now almost directly across from him. She squinted her eyes as her face flashed with anger at the name calling. At least she thought it was intended as insult, the creatures speech pattern was strange after all. Another step and both her feet found footing on soft grass, as she continued to back up towards the tree. She began to shake her head at his question. ”I have no idea what you’re talking about, I smell fine.” she said sarcastically.
“Figures,” Vrog spat a large split grey seed to his feet. “Bet you wouldn’t even’ve felt it, not with that lump on your face. Doesn’t matter.” With the crack of several somethings snapping at once inside his body, he abruptly jolted upright from his half-crouch. His arms flexed outwards, flicking their fingers in sequence. Their tips, hooked on one, straight and pointed on the other, glistened in the high daylight. “Hope you taste better than you talk. Maybe I’ll be done quicker.” He paused mid-step, ruminating on something, then spat another seed and resumed his shambling advance. “Hah, who am I kidding?”
Her eyes grew fierce as she turned around, and with a burst of speed kicked off to the tree where her sword leaned. Vrog twirled his right hand, and suddenly it was holding a dagger with a short, broad blade. Snarling, he pounced forward with unsuspected agility. Unaware of her divine adversary, Laurien was almost at the tree when something sharp and pointed cut into her right calf like a knife carving butter. She let out muffled scream as she fell forward into the dirt, reaching out for her sword. An iron grip closed around her leg, as the blade rose again and stabbed towards her arm. Before the blade could land, Laurien used her free leg to kick at Vrog, in a desperate attempt to shake her attacker off. It struck coarse, hard metal. The density of the mass she felt behind it betrayed the creature’s immense weight. He grunted, but did not bulge.
Then the blade came down, pinning her arm into the dirt. Laurien screamed in pain, desperately trying to kick Vrog regardless of his weight. With her free hand, she tried to pull the sword out of her arm. The hand holding the weapon released its grip, leaving the blade embedded in her flesh, and reached past the crossguard with its abnormally long fingers, searching for a grip on the arm. At the same time, both claws heaved upwards with tremendous strength, moving to hurl her whole body sideways against the ground. She barely had time to grab the blade before she was lifted and then slammed against the ground, knocking the wind out of her. She tried to breath, but she could only inhale as the shock hit her. Loose fingers grasped the hilt of the cruel dagger still, but her grip was unsteady and she was dazed.
A cold hand reached for her throat, scratching and cutting in its careless slide. The grasp on her leg was released, only for the now free claw to rise over her with yet another almost identical dagger and arc downwards, aimed for her shoulder. As the blade entered her shoulder, she exhaled and screamed out in pain again. She tried to kick Vrog off of her again but it did little, then her grip hardened on the dagger, and with her free hand she went to stab Vrog in his face, or what she thought was his face.
There was an eerie silence as the blade sank smoothly into the putrid sludge, punctuated only by a single surprised grunt. Then, in a spray of rot and fetid spittle, the flesh around the dagger burst open, swallowing the blade in a pulsating fissure that suddenly gaped between two ragged edges. Rows of mismatched teeth tore through their surfaces, and the newly-formed mouth snapped closed around Laurien’s wrist. She let out a blood curdling scream, as she desperately tried to rip her hand free from the creature’s maw. She couldn’t win against this thing, not even her abilities were working, it was if this creature before her would divine in itself. She was going to die and be eaten by the putrid thing. And Laurien began to panic as she struggled, bleeding and in pain.
”F-Father! Oh gods, please help me!” she began to cry.
Vrog’s free mouth twisted into a dubiously expressive snarl. While it was clear that it betrayed some feeling, what exactly that was remained as opaque as his armour. “What’re you wailing for now? I haven’t even gotten started!” he cackled. “Ya know, maybe the thing with my guts is all in the mood. Eating straight away mayn’t help, but cutting you up first? Could cheer me right up.” He dangled his knife dangerously close to her eyes. “Worth a try anyway.”
Laurien’s eyes grew wide, and her voice died in an instant as a cold realization came over her. She had so much to do, and promises that would never be kept, because she was going to die. Something told her to keep fighting, that this was not the end, but her blood loss was making her weak, and both of her arms were useless. But try she did, because she at least wanted to die fighting. And then, like the sound of thunder, something slammed into the water next to them, sending a great wave washing over the two, scattering her things.
Almost thrown off-balance by the impact, Vrog staggered sideways. Both his mouths momentarily gaped in surprise, releasing Laurien’s deeply gouged hand. Moving with uncanny speed, he vaulted aside, aiming a swift kick at her flank to sweep her away while his right hand flicked down his visor. The left readied its weapon in a rough, but stable battle-stance.
She rolled into a tree with a grunt from Vrog’s kick. Now clutching her gouged hand, her eyes fell upon the creek, or what was left of it. She held her breath, fearing another foe, but her eye grew misty as two eyes that remembled her own peered forth. Her father had come, and he did not look impassive, or blank, but expressed a profound anger as he stared daggers into Vrog.
”You dare attack a child of mine?” came his cruel words as he walked towards Vrog with open hands. There was a whooshing sounds, like a blade being swung and her greatsword flew into his right hand. From his left, another sword materialized, identical to her own.
Vrog’s head leaned sideways as far as his stump of a neck would allow. His frame drew backwards for a moment, but defiantly slumped ahead again. He pointed an accusatory finger at the advancing god. “You’re interrupting, you know,” he growled, “Don’t want to sound like an uneatable scraphead, but that’s spitting rude. Who even the gut are you?”
”I am Orvus, the God of Desolation.” he spat, before in a split second he was before Vrog, raising both blades high before bringing them down upon him. The monster barely had the time to lift his dagger, narrowly catching one of the swords. The weaker iron blade shattered under the blow, leaving a notch in the now useless grip. Meanwhile, the second sword found no other resistance than a hastily swiping vambrace. It grazed the arm and bit into the creature’s shoulder, filth spraying from the dent in the yielding armour.
With an audible snap of his teeth, Vrog leapt backwards in almost froglike fashion, raising his right palm as he went. “God? Hey, alright, wait. Don’t rush into this.” He craned his wounded shoulder aside and tapped a finger on the now clearly visible symbol of a closed fist etched on his armour. “You really don’t want to.”
Orvus did not hesitate as he slapped both blades together and pointed them at Vrog. They began to glow and crackle with scarlet energy. ”But I do.” he said, before unleashing the beams in Vrog’s direction.
The massive body shuddered as the blast struck it, the almost thundering reverb of the impact fading into a loud, fiery fizzle as acrid black smoke billowed up to obscure it entirely. The stench, even from a distance, was eye-watering. Something waved inside the writhing cloud, dispersing it into wisps that, perhaps mercifully obscuring most of Vrog’s form from sight. The half-melted, half-charred parts where the beam had struck that emerged when the fumes briefly cleared around his midsection were worse yet to the eye than the smell was to the nose.
“Don’t get it?” the gnashing sounded more angry than anything, “If that’s your daughter, ‘s clear where she got her spit-brains from. I got higher-ups. I’m useful. You kill me, and you’ll be in for a bad time.”
Orvus slammed both ends of the blades into the ground before him and opened his arms wide. ”Your threats are meaningless, spouted about to save yourself like anyone would care if you died. You are nothing but a blight of flesh and teeth, gnawing at anything weaker than you. At the first sign of a challenge, you cower like some mongrel pup. Unbefitting of an avatar. I do not think Narzhak would think that very highly but who am I to punish another’s pet? But as you wish, since you did not kill Laurien, I shall allow you to leave my presence. But know this, ‘spit-brain’, harm another child of mine and you will not be so lucky next we meet.”
“I got more than flesh and teeth, you know,” Vrog seemed to vibrate in place for a moment, scattering the remaining smoke, before opening his helm-guard. His tongue darted down to feel about his wounds with its tip, clicked and withdrew. Oddly, it did not stop him from speaking as it moved about. “No brain, though, so joke’s on you.” He paused, scratching his head. “I think.”
With a few more leaps, more limping than even his asymmetry would have accounted for, he was back on the slope he had descended from. He struck a hand into the rock, preparing to pull himself upwards, but stopped in his tracks and turned his head back. His lack of eyes made it difficult to say whom he was addressing. “Don’t take it personally, I’d’ve loved a rematch. Just when things’re less, how’d say it, loaded.” He began to clamber up the cliff at an insectile scurrying pace. “I’ll let you know.” And off he went.
But before he could climb any further, a whistle sounded in the air, before the new desolate blade embedded itself into Vrog’s back, pinning him to the cliff face momentarily. Another second went by, and Orvus’ voice could be heard next to him. ”Yes… You did not kill her, but you did maim her...and now, you will have more then teeth and flesh.” and then the blade shattered, releasing Vrog from it’s grip as the pieces turned to dust and began to sink into the avatar.
Orvus was high above him now looming like a vulture. ”Dust for blood.” came his hallowed words. He then began to fly off in the direction of Laurien, but his voice lingered around Vrog, ”Remember, harm another child of mine and your punishment will be far worse.” before vanishing.
Grunting, the brute pulled himself higher still and over the upper ledge, with nary a sign that being impaled, however shortly, had inconvenienced him. Something, however, felt off. He licked the tips of his teeth, scraped his stomach and hummed in bemusement. His tongue reached for the bird carcass he had left behind, scattering the flies that had flocked to it in the interval, and tore a piece from it. He drew it in like an angler would reel a catch, preparing to bite down into the still fresh meat - but his teeth closed on nothing but dust.
He vaulted over to the body and ripped out another chunk. As soon as it touched the interior of his mouth, he was spitting dust again. The next attempt fared no better. Nor the next. Nor the next.
Laurien awoke with the sun rise, groggily and her head pounding. She blinked her eyes, coming to the realization that she was propped up against a tree, still next to water. A great pool had formed where her father had landed. Her Father! She looked about again, seeing that her items lay next to her and she wore the cloak, but no sign of Orvus. She tried to get up but felt exhausted. Both her arms hurt, and her hand… She rose it with a grunt to meet her face. The wound had stopped pleading, in fact it looked like it had been cauterized, then cleaned. It was highly ugly at the moment, but perhaps it would scar into a eery beauty. She began to check her other wounds, finding much the same had happened, cauterized and cleaned and more scars.
”I was wondering when you would wake again, Laurien.” his voice broke through the silence of the woods, and came closer as he floated down from the trees. Orvus looked much the same, if not sad. ”I am glad to see you. You did the right thing, praying to me, child.” he said, touching down in front of her.
She opened her mouth to speak, her throat still felt raw, but speak still she did. ”He was so strong… so vile and I… felt so powerless. What was he?” she asked as Orvus sat down.
”An avatar, a piece of a God left to its own devices. Autonomous, they embody an aspect of ourselves. He came from Narzhak, God of War, but his purpose was something else.” Orvus said softly.
Laurien nodded, ”His name was Vrog. Did… Did you kill him?”
Orvus shook his head, ”No. I would have liked too, more than you know but I stayed my hand.”
Laurien squinted her eyes, in confusion at first but quickly turning to anger. ”What do you mean you stayed your hand? He lives? That means… What if comes back? What if he tries to eat me again.” she shivered, unwelcome memories flashing before her eyes.
”He will not, otherwise I will kill him. I told him to never lay a hand upon any of my children. If he breaks such a thing, simply pray and I will come. Regardless, what happened? Why did he attack you?”
”I don’t know why.” she shrugged, ”He kept spewing about a foul taste and how I reminded him of it, or something. He didn’t have a reason, he simply found me and I was caught unaware and away from my weapons. You know the rest.” she said ashamed.
Orvus said nothing for a moment, looking upon Laurien’s face with a soft expression. ”You would have died even if you had your weapons with you, and ready to fight. His class of enemy is second only to Gods, Laurien. Do not be ashamed in asking for help if it means you get to live.” he let out a sigh. ”I was unaware such threats existed in the world, your normal gear can only help you so much. You need… something more. Sharper and deadly, even to divine flesh. I will think upon this and when I have a solution, you will be the first to know.” he said thoughtfully.
Laurien sighed, defeated by his words. Her shame was lessened somewhat, but she still felt like a failure. ”Okay.” she said bowing her head.
”I… Know where Arya might be found.” he said suddenly.
She snapped her head up at Orvus, her eyes twinkling. ”Where? How did you find out?” she said excitedly.
”She is on Tendlepog, the land created by K’nell. He told me…” his voice abruptly cut off and he stood up, turning away from her. This left Laurien highly confused, and, using the tree as support, she stood up as well.
”K’nell told you? How? When?” she asked. Her father said nothing and did not turn around. She tried to float herself over, but it was no use. ”Father!” she said again.
Orvus turned around slowly, his gaze full of sorrow. ”Silver is dead.” he said. Laurien blinked, the weight of his words crushing her, and throwing her off balance. She couldn’t believe what she just heard, but as she looked at Orvus, she knew it to be true. Tears began to pool in her eyes. ”How could you let that happen?” she said shakely.
”K’nell came with the other Li’Kalla shards. He was going to put her back together, and Silver was willing.” he said emotionlessly.
”So K’nell killed her?” she gritted, her fingers tearing into the bark of the tree as she used it for balance.
But Orvus shook his head. ”Then who did!” Laurien shouted.
”I did.” came his weak reply.
Laurien froze, her body beginning to shake as the gravity of his words took hold. She felt betrayed, and angry and at a loss for words. Her knees buckled and she fell on her knees, crying now. She let out a terrible wail, a loss and pain and when it was done she looked at Orvus with fiery eyes.
”Go away.” she said, ”Go away and don’t come back!” she screamed at him through tears. She couldn’t hardly look at him, she was disgusted, far more than she had been at the sight of Vrog. Somehow, through all her physical injuries, this hurt so much more.
Orvus looked down at her, one small tear falling down his face and shattering before her knees, as he took off in a burst of speed into the sky.
Somewhere in the Qiangshan Mountains, Vrog is annoyed at being unable to get pleasure from eating. He smells something that resembles a reaper and tracks it, but instead finds Laurien taking a swim. She is incredibly afraid of Vrog at first, and they talk back and forth. Slowly but surely she tries to get out of the river and to the tree where her sword is leaning. She almost makes it, but Vrog attacks and a fight ensues - a rather one-sided one, with Laurien wounded in several places and almost getting her hand eaten. Realizing her situation is dire, she screams for her father.
And Orvus answers, as he was in the same general area as them. He lands and starts beating on Vrog until the latter chickens out and pulls the “I got connections, yo” card. Orvus, having killed a shit ton of dragons earlier, decides to let him go because he didn’t kill Laurien. He does threaten him to never touch any of his children ever again and then curses Laurien’s blood inside Vrog. Anything he eats not turns to dust as punishment for his offense.
Pan to Laurien, who wakes up several days later. Orvus and her talk about things, and to make her feel better, Orvus tells her where to find Arya. Oops, cause then she asks how he found out and so Orvus tells her that Silver is dead, and that he did it. She screams at him to leave and so he does.
-1MP to create another Desolate Sword, discounted to 0MP.
-1MP to curse Laurien’s blood inside Vrog. Using the desolate sword as a catalyst, Orvus used the blood inside Vrog to corrupt him. Every time he tries to eat something, it will turn to dust.