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Hey, folks: I've just kicked off an RP, a fantasy where you can worldbuild as much as you can adventure. So if, like me, you like worldbuilding nearly as much as writing, check out Pilgrim's Caravan
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That moment when losing a character in a rougelike makes you want to shed tears. No backup. It's gone.
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Hey y'all. I've been at this for about 10 years, and I've played a lot of kinds of RP. I like fantasy and sci-fi the most, just because they give me the most to play around with, but I'm cool with almost anything. I just like writing.

(I'm also trying to slowly break into writing as a profession, but apparently that's not enough work for me, so I'm here too. I'm starting to think this place is just where I get out all my bad ideas)

Most Recent Posts

One Kay

A Collab of the One and Gilt

You would think living on a space station would be fun. It’s fun in the holo-movies: all adventure, all living gloriously amidst the stars, fighting off disgusting alien invaders and saving the day with a mix of science and resilience fueled by the unstoppable power of the human heart. Kay Cook loves, loves movies. Sci-fi movies, especially, the loud and flashy kind with the lasers and the phasers- cinema is a proud tradition on Gilt. She had movies in her head when she agreed to relocate to the Grand Brand Ambassador, that huge and spinning Giltian cathedral of capitalism out in the stars. “Ambassador” is her title now.

She hated it. Only after her bags were unpacked onboard the station did the smarter part of her mind realize what a horrible life she’d just condemned herself to. It all looked very nice, of course. You can’t walk from Kay’s quarters to the mess hall without walking over a half-dozen golden carpets, through en-muraled walls and under a fucking chandelier or two. The man- she was sure it was a man- who was in charge of redesigns obviously thought Western extravagance was the way to wow foreigners. He knows nothing of art. No mind for symbolism. The beating heart of an artist trapped onboard this tasteless steel cage- there is a tragic symbol for you!

What Kayla really wanted, she had the time now to realize, was to see New things. Something a Giltian had never before encountered. To talk to the foreigners, the aliens, the robots, the foreign alien robots from another world, and be known as the first gal who did it. Maybe she’d make a painting about it. She liked to play with the idea of painting more often, but she always found excuses inside herself not to actually do it. She certainly couldn’t do it here, on this uninspired bourgeoisie mess of a station. Who could?

She stopped at the airlock. She was supposed to be meeting someone here, acting in her official capacity as an ambassador. She’s sure she was given the details, but she wasn’t listening then. It’s not her job to remember, anyway. That’s the job of the man beside her on the golden carpet, her favorite sym, a towering AI intellect who is named Gorilla Bob (and for good reason, too) who stands waiting inside his huge metallic body. She found this particular robot deeply intimidating at first. Not anymore. Nowadays she considered Gorilla Bob one of her best friends, even if he is, awkwardly, her property. The airlock opened, and…

Out of 10 One step out in a perfect synchronized formation, 2-2-2-2-2. 2 Grants walked in the middle, dressed up in an Old Earth suit, a metal sword dangling at their waist. The other Ones, 2 Williams in the front and two in the back, were all suited up in full bone armor with metal indents all over, covering every inch of their body. In their hands, they all had a metal spear and swords at their midsection.

As they neared Kayla, the Williams stepped to the side with the middle Jameses banging the bottom of their spears on the ground. The lead Grants performed a military salute to the Ambassador. Before they could say anything, all the other Ones moved behind him. If one was perceptive enough, they would notice that the One were scanning every inch of the room for hidden dangers while the lead Grants were looking at Gorilla Bob, a small thin smile on their face. Immediately strategies on how to take it out were being formed. Potentially impossible to escape with their lives but their small unit could at least damage it.

We are the One!” the lead Grants said, each uttering a different word at the exact time the other one finished it.

You may call us Grant, ma'am. Correct to assume you're the Ambassador? ” they continued in the same way as before, their tone calm and calculated.

Kay looked back and forth at them. Then she looked forth and back again.

“Twins?” she finally asked, arching a ginger eyebrow and trying to hide her shock. “I’m Kay. You can just call me that- titles are so dull, aren’t they? This is Gorilla Bob.”

Gorilla Bob grunted like an ape. He found gorillas to be fascinating and demanded that his sym body should look like a hulking silverback. Kay liked to oblige his weird desires. He walked on his knuckles to the lead Grant. “Nice to meet you,” he said, in a surprisingly prim-and-proper, deeply middle-class British accent. “We have a small banquet prepared to welcome you to Gilt. But before we get going, would you mind leaving your weapons here? They’ll be well-looked after by our quartermasters, worry not. You understand. Safety protocols.” He rolled his metallic eyes as if it was all very silly to him, but he had to do his job, after all.

The lead Grants shook their heads at Kayla's question.

More than twins. We are One, Ambassador Kay.” they replied and straight away after, all of the One took their helmets off…at the same time, in perfect synchronicity.

Kay looked at them with something that was fascination as much as shock, and horror half as much as wonder. At length, she said “...wow. I’m, uh, not high, right? I don’t think I feel like it.”

As we said, we are the One. ” simply replied the two lead Grants.

With a sidelong glance at the Gorilla, one of the Jameses, addressed him in a proper British accent.

A fellow Brit, are you?

Before Gorilla Bob could reply, the other Ones disarmed themselves as requested. Spears, swords and hidden daggers were laid neatly on the floor. Stamps emerged from walls and shadows to take them up and carefully store them away.

“I’ve never seen Britain,” the gorilla admitted, trying to distract the One from where their weapons might be going, “though I’m very sad to say it. Except for in the simulations and the holo-suites. But near to a third of the first Giltian colonists hailed from the British Isles. Did you know our capital is called Neo London? It has a better ring to it than Neo New York, I can say that much. If we hit things off today you might take a tour of it.”

It was a shithole before they bombed London back in 2279 and after that…things became worse. Way worse. Shootings, stabbings, bombs. You name it, Britain had it. We’d know, we were in the thick of it a few times. ” replied the James that initially talked with Gorilla Bob before realizing that they must sound weird for people who haven’t lived there nor understood what the One were.

Our implant allows us total recall of our memories from birth until…now. We remember Earth in its prime and we remember its fall.

“Really?” asked Bob. “That’s fascinating! Ah, to remember London as it was, war-torn or no… if you’d ever sell those memories, there is a market for that sort of thing, you know. Especially in the capital.”

“If they do ever take a tour of Neo London, they’ll need to see the Museum of High Art,” Kay spoke in the more Trans-Atlantic accent that was par for the course on Gilt. (She always suspected that Bob’s overt British-ness was an affectation, like his gorilla persona. His madness is what makes him fun.) “I’ve been trying to get a piece in there for ages, I’ll tell you. But shouldn’t you be showing our guests the way to the banquet, Robert?”

“I should indeed,” said the robot silverback. “Follow me, please,” and down he went through the main hall. Half of this side of the station had to be rebuilt so that the airlock would lead down a grand space to a banquet hall. First impressions. They’re everything.

The space opens to a Giltian style eating room, meaning it was a bit like a space-age take on the opulence of 1920’s America. It’s a room you could very well see yourself swing-dancing in, were it not for the table yawning out in the middle filled with too much food.

“We’ve prepared our own cuisine, not knowing what your people eat,” the gorilla said. “So, there’s a lot of British and New American staples, and maybe a little Indian spice thrown in for real flavor. Ah, I miss eating.”

“You still eat bananas, Bob,” said Kay, and it was impossible to tell if she was joking. She sat down at the head of the table, and with a motion of her hand, invited the One to take whatever seats they might prefer.

To say that the One were impressed, it would've been an understatement. The opulence of the place was on a scale they haven't seen since a couple of centuries ago. Yet, at the same time, they silently judged these people. It was old Earth all over again. The powerful living like the kings of old and if the pirates were a sign, the weak were left to die.

It wasn't that the One resented what they saw. Survival was something they understood better than anyone after all. If you were weak, either you grew strong or you'd end up dead. The problem was that it was clear that these people didn't need to let others strive to survive.

At Bob’s explanation of food, the One chuckled grimly.

Our planet is barren. A nightmare turned into reality. No fauna, no trees, no food. So, you could say, we're not picky when it comes to food.

The One group chose to spread around the room, each trying to learn and experience different foods and potential weaknesses or strengths of the Gilt. Only one Grant stayed with Kayla and Bob.

They grabbed something that looked like wine off the table and drank it in one fell swoop.

Wine. Different from what we expected yet very close to the one from back home. ” they said to Kay.

Kay blinked watching him drink it. "Oh. You like wine! Yes, no surprise it is familiar, Gilt keeps to tradition. Preserving Old Earth and the human way is important to the old men at the top, you know. I think maybe we should find new things too, but that's just one girl's opinion. Aren't you going to feel tipsy? You should try some cranberry jello." Talking too much and too out of order was her way of expressing nerves. These identical men were strange.

"You know," she said. "I represent the Division proper, but there's really a lot of corporations that this whole operation is made from. Do you gentlemen at all have an interest in business?"

Gorilla Bob made a sound between a scoff and a laugh, but said nothing himself.

Tipsy? From wine? We’ve got something stronger back on our planet…when it doesn’t kill us. Preserving the human way sounds nice and all when you read about it from history books or whatever your people are using to read from but when you experience it? That’s a different story. As for trying different things, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we are doing that all over the room. When we’re back home, we’ll know what the others have experienced even if we aren’t physically doing it. ” replied Grant with a wink. It was true, the drink they made using their own bodily fluids, some of the oil from the robots and the mushrooms was highly alcoholic in nature and highly deadly, most of the time.

Business? It depends. We’ve come to see what became of humanity after 300 years. So far, we’ve seen the same thing as before, just painted differently. Don’t take it the wrong way but fancy dinners and opulence like this, we’ve seen before. What can you offer us? ” added the Grant in their most diplomatic tone.

Kay looked at him for a long few seconds. Inside herself she was thinking: What? This dirty caveman gulping back wine like a homeless stamp does liquor thinks he’s going to negotiate? And then, pause completed, she burst into laughter. “Oh, you’re wonderful, Mr. Grant,” she said, and with no hint of irony. “What do your people want, then?” Her elbows on the table, she cupped her face under her hands and leaned in towards him. “Come on, let me know.

Not, Mr. Grant, please either refer to us as Grant or the One and may we, please, ask you to drop the tone, we may not look like it but we're a few hundred times your age, also…” said the Grant while the other Ones were already looking for whatever makeshift weapons they could find. If they were to die, they’d take some out with them.

Did we say anything about what our people want? We want to survive and we’re doing just fine from that perspective. Etiquette stands that one with more will offer their wares to the one with less in order to secure business, is it not? Or did the rules of business changed in the last 300 years? ” continued the Grant with a smile. They were enjoying this childish conversation more than they admitted.

“You will show respect to Ambassador Cook,” Bob raised his voice. “The rules have changed very much indeed if you expect us to-”

Two of the Williams almost immediately approached Bob as he said his piece only to move back as Kay talked.

Kay raised her hand, the universal ‘stop’ sign, and the sym quieted down. “It’s alright, I’m only having some fun with our guests.” She wiped her face with a napkin, even though it wasn’t dirty; this was just a punctuation mark in the conversation. Bob was bristling. She said: “Alright, you want to ‘survive.’ Then maybe Gilt is not the partner for you. We don’t care about surviving here. We are for thriving. If that’s what you want, then you talk to us. I’ve noticed you’re all the same, and I think I did hear about that in the news. You’re clones of each other? Well, we mass-produce ‘people’ here, too. They cooked this food tonight. So you already know that we have resources and labor to sell you. And technology, I think. What do you have?”

The Grant let out a chuckle and shook their head. A child. This is what they sent to meet another nation. One that is all for grandstanding too.

We did mention it since we entered your system. We are the One. You mention that you’re mass-producing people here yet by simply saying “producing”, you’re not thinking of them as people. They’re organic robots, are we correct? Labor is something we don’t need. There are over 6 billion Ones currently active on our planet. Food? As you might see based on our size, we’re not lacking it either, even if the variety could use some improvement. The only thing we’d be interested in would be weaponry. What do we have? Besides our numbers, skills, ability to learn anything once and then our whole nation knows it? Unity. More than any of your machines. We’ve got killer robots. Pockets of altered reality that will give your scientists...nightmares or make their dreams come true. Maybe oil that burns for over 48 hours, Earth time. But we’re talking about what our nations want…but what about you? ” said Grant with a collected tone only for at the end, to approach his head slightly to Kayla’s.

“Me?” asked Kay.

Gorilla Bob answered for her. “What Ambassador Cook wants is to be an artist.” He had offered to pose for her paintings.

“I do,” said Kay. “And I want to see New things. And-” she hesitated, but her natural instinct to keep talking always got the better of her, “-and I want to get off this fucking station. Ugh. Anyway. What about you, Grant?”

An artist and you want to see new things. You're looking for adventure. ” replied with a knowing wink. They understood the desire well, it was what put them on the mercenary path a long time ago.

What do we want? We want not to be destroyed by others who'd see our planet as an archaeological site, not our home. It's a dangerous place but it has its beauty. Especially the parts that haven't yet been damaged beyond repair. You should see the Glowy One caverns. Imagine, a room a few times bigger than this, filled with lights of all colors. Shining differently depending where you're looking at them from. Or, imagine standing upon a tall building, thousands of meters high, overlooking an alien city. Trust us, nothing can prepare you for that sight.

Gorilla Bob said: “Are you suggesting that Ambassador Cook should visit your world?” His tone made it hard to tell if he approved or not. Most other syms had electronic, auto-tuned voices, or else something alien or something beautiful. Gorilla Bob just sounded like a middle-aged, middle-class middle-manager, and he reading him was difficult when he wasn’t being passionate. Kay is usually one of the things that gets passion out of him.

“That’s what I heard, Mr. Gorilla,” hummed Kay. She’s easy to read compared to the robot. She was enthused. “Well, of course, any such visit must be done in the name of advancing relations between our people, but… I am authorized for such things. If they serve a diplomatic purpose.” She suddenly didn’t care if they had anything tangible to offer or not. This place was so boring.

The lead Grant smiled and shook their head. “We haven't said such a thing. ” then they winked before leaning backwards and continuing:

That said, it is a good idea. We'd welcome you with welcome arms and you can see for yourself the Circle. It may be a bit dangerous for the unprepared but–” a shortstop and a nod to Gorilla Bob:

--we're sure that Mr. Bob, whoever else you may bring with you and of course, us, will be more than enough. If we're to guess, Mr. Bob is equipped with enough weapons to take out any danger, nothing to say about his obvious strength.

There is only one rule, if we may impose. You'll have to follow our directions to the letter when we're landing. Our EMP weaponry doesn't have an IFF so to say nor is it controlled by us.

“I’m great at following directions,” lied Kay. Gorilla Bob grunted again, and this time it was definitely sarcastic.

"Sorcerer?" Ilyana had asked.

"Oh, is that me?" responded Terilu. He floated up behind her, his three skellies- intact but banged up- in close ranks around him, watching the spectre. They could feel its power as he could, but they weren't ready to give up without fighting it. His raised dead were just a smidge more resilient under his care than they had been before; having a necromancer pushing you does wonders for an undead's motivation. The mystic whip is at their backs. His will flows through their spirits. Terilu smirks. "Are were you asking Knossos, our more repentant occultist? No matter. I am sorcerer enough..."

The spectral figure strides down from its throne. Wow, that is a powerful energy. It's a corpse, no doubt about that, but one wreathed in such spiritual excess that it's close to becoming a spirit itself. Wrights. Terilu remembers: a creature like this is called a 'wright' in his studies. What a beautiful thing. He knows it will put up far too much of a fight for this, but the young necromancer wishes he could study it. Too bad.

He mutters something under his breath.

His three skeletal warriors charge forward with a creaking battle cry. At the same moment, Terilu stops flying, hitting the ground with a soft thud, and grips his father's staff closer in his hand. He needs all his focus for this. Already, in those few seconds, the wright has rushed forward at his minions with an otherworldly screeching and, in a blur of motion far too fast for anyone's eyes to follow, it has sliced one of his skeletons to the ground. Terilu keeps channeling his necromantic Will through the other two. He tries to reach out to the wright and touch its spirit with his own.

He's trying to enslave it. It won't work. He realizes that the moment he makes spiritual contact with it. This thing is mad, and it's power is unholy; it lashes back at Terilu in the spirit, and he crumbles down to one knee like a man struck. Spiritual wounds are far deeper than bodily ones. In the next moment a second skeleton warrior has fallen. As it is destroyed, the wright uses the narcae that Terilu shares with it to lash back at him even more. He screams in pain despite his Eratie pride. There is black crowding in at the edges of his vision. As it goes in towards his last minion.

The other undead in the room, the ones lining the walls, haven't moved. But they're beginning to stomp their feet and thump their weapons loudly in some ritual celebration. Terilu realizes that, for the first time since they entered this crypt, he may be in serious danger. This creature is a monster.
A Meeting of Suits

A collab of Gilt and Azulvista

Featuring Antonio de Lebrón, Alfonso de Carvajal & Rafael Mendoza.

“With all respect, vizconde…”


“Of course, yes, señor de Lebrón, could you explain exactly why you’ve come with us today?” Three men of very different rank all sat together in a plush but otherwise unremarkable shuttle interior, the air already beginning to thicken with tobacco smoke.

“Duque de Caravajal, Señor de Lebrón here is a member of the Republic’s diplomatic corps, just as you and I are. When it comes to foreign affairs, he is every bit as qualified as us.” Rafael’s public-facing chops had yet to warm up for their upcoming visit, but nonetheless he played the peacekeeper, trying to keep the two wildly diverging patrician personalities aboard from becoming too obvious to the latest and flashiest of the new kids on the block.

“I can speak for myself Mendoza, thank you.” Antonio rolled the edge of his cigar carefully around the ashtray built into his seat, his other hand resting around a crystal glass filled with nothing but seltzer. “To answer the question no doubt coming though, because I have been tasked to do so by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I intend on carrying through those directives. You may be our most well-known face here on the meeting place de Caravjal, but it’s not your duchy to rule as you please.”

“Nor is it a waystation for passing-by señors such as yourself to come in and whirlwind around like you own the place, then flit off to some distant system without any other member of the corps with you.” Alfonso’s moustache bristled a little, but he otherwise kept his composure, punctuating the end of his sentence with a slow pull on his cigar.

“Perhaps, duque, we can see what Antonio brings to the table this rotation? After all, you’ve never seen the man conduct diplomacy before. I’m sure it’ll be an enlightening experience.” Rafael snuffed the stub of his cigarette out, then slowly pulled himself to his feet.

“Arrival time in three minutes. We should make ready gentlemen.”

Docking with the Rainbow was, thankfully, a smooth process. Three-hundred years of accepting guests on and off had made this experience painless, if a little bland. There would be docking fees involved for a Giltian, but here in the Meeting Place, all mentions of money were suspended until you were entered into the city proper. For the sake of PR.

There was, of course, more than one dock, just as any prospering city must have more than one gate. The closest to the three Azulvistans was a large, somewhat messy and industrial affair run by Oldwell, the only company conservative enough to employ more humans than stamps. A metal wall opened up to let them in, hardlight shielding holding in the atmosphere for just a moment, and then it slid shut behind them with an echoing bang. They were guided to a randomly assigned place by lights and a polite, English-accented AI voice. This particular spot only had a few other Meeting Place guests in it- scattered around were ships of bronze, curved beaks like the Giltian's prefer, one with a black "X" scrawled over its corporate logo. The men did not know it, but they were parked within spitting distance of a pirate ship.

There was a long pause from the three men as they stared out at the strange dock, then one by one turned to each other. “Put on a good show, then you get to the front gate and they can’t be bothered to actually greet you.” Antonio flicked the end of his cigar down to the ground in a pointless display towards a cheerily corporate automated greeter, repeating the same sentence over and over again.

“Welcome aboard the Rainbow, Gilt’s largest ship! Would you like to hear about nearby attractions? Please mind the step.” But a hovering holograph sign over a large, open, metal door told them where they could head for something called the "Old India Marketplace," and there a greeter was welcoming anyone coming in.

Normally, with such an obvious class divide between the three men, they’d walk in a single file line, but here, things seemed far more fluid. Antonio and Alfonso walked two abreast, and although Rafael trailed behind the duo, his job was altogether quite different, his dataslate already open and an inch-long microdrone buzzing around his ear, recording every moment.

The greeter welcomed them, asked again if they’d like directions to local attractions, bars, stores or anything else, and offered them a credit chip that would be accepted at most stores until a proper currency exchange rate could be worked out. There was a pause from the three men, then finally Rafael spoke up.

“Hello there. I believe there’s been a misunderstanding - we contacted an official to arrange a meeting for foreign diplomatic delegates, not a tour around your vessel. I have the transcriptions if you require them.”

“Oh? Not a problem at all, I’ll just comm with management on that real quick.” The woman, standing inside a small booth, pressed an unseen button, and her next words were only a muffle to the Azulvistans. Some kind of holographic distortion around her mouth made lips unreadable, but body language says she was having a quick, tense interaction with someone over a speaker. The distortion vanished and she said: "Alright, just one moment. We'll have a st- an associate of mine escort you to where you can go." A few moments passed before a door inside her booth opened and let out a very human-looking stamp; the only tell-tale sign that anything was different about her was the faint, electric-blue glow of her eyes. The glow wasn't necessary, even, but it was a signal to her human owners that she had cybernetic software installed. The Azulvistans would not know this, but she could see a perfect map overlay of the Rainbow- she is probably the only person onboard never to get lost.

"My name is Suz," said the stamp. "If you'll follow me? I can lead you to a representative."

“Interesting to see obvious enhancements like that,” quipped Antonio. “That sort of thing must be rather common around these parts then?”

“Oh, my enhancements are the most common kind,” said Suz, humbly, and because she was trained to downplay her inhumanity. “Only so we won’t get lost.”

Men in tow, she led them through the door to the Old India Marketplace.

Behind the door was- everything. At least, that's what your senses told you, and it was hard to argue with them. The Rainbow was not a place that could spare any sort of space. Every inch seemed to be full. Of color, of sound, of smell, of even the gentle vibrating humm of the spaceship. The men exited out onto a particular "street" that was about fifteen feet across and led off straight for about thirty feet, before branching off into multiple directions. The overall feel of this place was like being in a tunnel- the ceiling arched darkly overhead, and the men were walled in on either side of the passage. Where the road split ahead, some of the branches led upwards like ramps, or downwards into unknown darks.

It was a baffling amount of room to see inside a spaceship. Of course, the Azulvistans weren’t unused to the idea of making your ships a little bigger and more luxurious at the cost of practicality - even their pride frigate had seen itself enlarged and with excess comforts like carpeting and panelling put into place for the inevitable swathe of high-ranking officials and officers who rotated through its halls, but his was altogether on another level. If spaceships were mankind reclaiming life from the void, this was an indulgence of life on a completely different scale.

The Rainbow has few overhead lights. There were no streetlights, either, even though this was clearly the equivalent of a street. Instead, the multicolored hue of this whole place came only from its neon advertisements. This was a corporate-sponsored marketplace, and that means little storefronts punctuated the space every few steps. Some of the stores jutted out onto the walking path, obtrusively. One sold momentos. One repaired sym bodies.

The three men took it all in slowly, their pace now greatly reduced from when they’d been tromping through the parking lot like docking bay. They craned their necks, here Rafael would poke his head down an alleyway, camera drone zooming off and up to capture an overhead shot, there Antonio would pause to examine a stall, rapping a knuckle against its construction.

Between the grander stores, little metal or wooden stands were set up. Here the men and women behind them were not under the employ of Oldwell, but- living the true Giltian dream- were enterprising individuals, selling foods or gadgets or clothing they'd tell you that they produced themselves, but which they probably bought Giltside. The time-honored Giltian tradition of haggling meant that speech was in the air. Talk mostly like English, but with Chinese and Indian fluidly slipped in every odd sentence, as if the three languages had just spent centuries in a blender together. Teenagers leaned against the store walls and women chatted. You had to dodge and “excuse me” your way through.

And from the sound and looks, it continued in every direction.

"We're close," said Suz. "It'll just be to the right and up, then we'll take a quick ride up an elevator, and I'll introduce you to the man you can speak to. I am only a stamp, of course-" her bosses had forgotten to tell her not to mention it- "but if you have any questions, let me know, and I'll answer as best as I know how."

The obvious question was fielded near-immediately by Alfonso. “A ‘stamp,’ you say? A social caste you have?”

"Oh, I'm sorry, I don't know what a caste is," said Suz, sounding exactly like an Old Earth AI being given a request it didn't understand. "I'm a stamp. If you'd like, you may scan my code, or if you have any concerns, I can give you some contact info for my originators at Rivertown Gene-" before she could say that very important word, "factory," she was cut off by a crate-carrying man shoving his way through her. "I'm sorry!" she told him, even though it was not her fault.

The three men glanced at each other. Although ‘factory’ hadn’t been said, there was enough information from just the word ‘gene’ and the fact she apparently had a ‘code’ to be scanned for the basic implications to be grasped. This was interesting. Rafael’s fingers rattled across his datapad as the men continued.

She led them to a golden, intricate door that looked out-of-place against the metal spaceship wall, something that looked more like it would exist in a fancy hotel. "Here, our elevator." Where an Old Earth equivalent would have a panel with a dozen plastic buttons, one for every floor, the Rainbow's take on an elevator had nothing at all. You simply stepped inside, and Suz said "EBS Old Plaza, Offices, Office 76, Mr. Federov," and the gilded doors slid shut.

"Elevator," was the wrong word, because it went not only up but sideways, diagonally and every other direction you could imagine, but it did so smoothly and without too much feeling of inertia. There was no window and it was impossible to tell where they were going or how far. The feeling of being in this elevator was, you could say, very much like taking a nap as a child and waking up in a different room, not having any idea of how you got there. The four waited to the sounds of jazz-pop. Suz hummed the familiar song.

This was not actually an unusual experience for the Azulvistans. After all, their own vessels used a similar concept to get you around. They called them ‘translocators’ rather than ‘elevators’ when they didn’t just take you up and down, but it was hardly as if that would throw them. Not when so much else about this vessel was so strange already.

When the doors slid open again, they were already standing inside a totally new environment, a large but somewhat bland lobby decorated with white, soft couches, glass tables with complimentary cookies on them, and windows overlooking another crowded hodgepodge space not at all unlike the Old India Market they had just exited from. It could have taken them to any of a hundred other places like this one. The schematics of the Rainbow has been known to drive unprepared engineers to madness.

"Mr. Fedorov resides here, when he is onboard the Rainbow. This is his private apartment-office. He has been told to expect you- just within the third door, on the right, his sym assistant said. Would you like me to knock for you?"

“No thank you,” Alfonso nodded at the woman. “We’ll take it from here.” He stepped forward imperiously, raised a fist, then rapped three times, loudly, on the door.

The loud knocks were answered by footsteps, and then the doorknob turned and a blue robot, tall and thin and of a somewhat feminine design, opened the door.

"Ah, you must be the Azulvistans?" She didn't wait for an answer, since she had good facial recognition and the stamp had already seen them. "Andrei, your guests have arrived."

"Ugh," said Andrei. She let them into the sparse office. Andrei sat behind an elevated, wooden desk, and three fairly comfortable chairs were already pulled out in front. The rest of the room was mostly empty, sans a mandatory meeting table that- not being needed tonight- was pressed up against a far wall, and the tinted window that occupied the wall across from Andrei from ceiling down to floor.

"You may sit down," said the blue sym. "I'll be glad to remain standing," and she took up position beside Andrei. He was wearing a suit, his black hair slicked back and one ear with a black stud earring, and would've looked nice if it weren't for his general demeanor of a man having a Bad Day.

Of the three men, only Alfonso took a seat. Rafael remained standing, lifting a hand out for the microdrone to settle down, the ever-so-faint whine of its tiny engines cutting out so he could safely stash it away. Antonio instead took up a position to Alfonso’s right, reaching into a pocket to draw out a long, heavy metal case, carefully easing out a cigar. “You smoke?” He glanced up.

"Smoke what?" Andrei asked. "Oh, nevermind, yeah, I smoke. Blue Girl, make that thing do whatever it's supposed to do." The sym took the cigar and lit it, handed off to Andrei. He took an experimental drag.

With that handled, Antonio snipped his own cigar, Alfonso taking the opportunity to draw his own case out too. Rafael’s cigarettes would not be making an appearance, the man still rattling down the conversation in diplomatic shorthand. With the third cigar of the room now lit, Alfonso would begin.

“So you are… Andrei Federov? Is that right? Were you the one who took our initial message, or was that someone else?”

"It was someone else. Most of these things are handled below my pay grade, and then they send it up the line to see who's important enough to meet foreign diplomat types, and then my mother, she's the CEO - I work with the Earnest, Smithers and Black corporation, by the way, that's who you're talking to here - she says 'Oh, Andrei will do it,' and then she tells her sym and her sym tells Blue Girl and Blue Girl tells me at, unfortunately, six in the morning and then here you are. Nice to mee-" Andrei finished the greeting in hard, hacking coughs. The look he gave the cigar was accusatory. "Man, what's in this thing?"

Santa Florian Cigars,” Antonio said with a smirk. “On Old Earth, they considered Cubanos the best of the best. The Lebrón plantation offcuts make Cubans look like tea leaves.” He extended a hand. Andrei shook it. “Incidentally, I am Señor Antonio de Severino Manuel José de la Cruz, of the march de Lebrón.”

Alfonso’s head snapped across to look at Antonio, confusion wrinkling his face. ‘March’ meant that the man was a marqués, and custom dictated that an heir could use their parent’s title in formal settings… And yet Antonio had only ever referred to himself as señor. In fact, so confused was he that he had entirely forgotten to be insulted by the lesser-ranking man introducing himself first, a mistake he was quick to rectify.

“Duque Pedro Luis Maria Fernández Alfonso Leoncio Alvarez De Caravajal, twice-duke of Veragua.” The Republic still hadn’t given up on that particular claim.

“Rafael Menoza,” the last man finally spoke up. “Of Esperanza, although I’m not of nobility.”

"Hey, neither am I,” said Andrei, “so you're in very good company, Rafael. Although I do have a long lineage, if those are appealing to you all. My family was in business back even in the Old Earth days. Have you ever heard of the Russian Oligarchs? If I add 'great-' to the word 'grandfather' enough times, eventually I'll run into some wealthy ancestors before the Fall of Old Earth. One of them started off in oil or something. Fuel of way back when."

“Way back when indeed. Azulvista never ended up with fossil fuels to begin with, but all that means is we’ve had to diversify.” Antonio nodded with understanding.

Not as much had changed for Gilt. Andrei’s forefathers pulled up fossil fuels from the earth to power society, and now…

He says, remembering his job for a moment: “Of course, we at Earnest, Smithers and Black are doing much the same thing today, in a kind of way. We are the biggest producer of stamps, the second biggest of sym bodies. We also have large stakes in all kinds of energy production and mineral extraction, especially Giltside extraction. Don’t worry, we’re highly diversified and all that- you know, a megacorp and everything- but those are the spots we’re proud to stand out on. Energy, minerals and stamps. We're the ones who keep the world rolling.”

“Ah, yes, there was a mention of ‘stamp’ already, but we’ve not had that explained to us. Are these ‘stamps’ a caste? Human-looking robots? Some kind of… Clone?” Alfonso eased himself forward, curiosity clear across his face.

"Sort of, almost, and yes," said Andrei. After a pause, he realized they were waiting on him to elaborate. "They're synthetics," he sighed a bit, "part cybernetic and part biological, made in cloning chambers. They're not human. They can look human, they can talk and work and walk around being all creepy, but only about half of their DNA really comes from us. The other half is animal, or something unique the nerds made in a lab."

"Or, harvested from the alien species native to Gilt and Argent," added Blue Girl. "Then cybernetics are added, body and brain. They are partly AI. With all that, it's debated whether they have much… humanity, or what the people of the past would have called a 'soul,' but they are created to enjoy doing particular tasks, and those are the tasks their buyers usually put them to."

A look passed across the three Azulvistano’s faces, and they slowly turned to look to each other.

<”Cybernetic and biological crossover is one thing,”> Alfonso had switched to Spanish once again. <”But animal and alien? I should not be the only one concerned here.”>

<”They seem to be fully integrated into society. This one’s a PA to an executive of some kind.”> Antonio gestured towards ‘Blue Girl.’

<”’People of the past would have called a soul?’> Rafael raised an eyebrow as he typed away.

<”Designing beings with a soul, and then enslaving them would be terrible. But is designing something that could have a soul, and then intentionally leaving it out not worse?>” Alfonso shifted in his seat.

Blue Girl laughed politely, if a little tensely, and said in Spanish: <”Oh, no, I am not a stamp. I am fully AI. If any part of me looks biological to you, let me know, I’ll need to get that checked out.“>

<“Fucks sake.”> Antonio paused for a moment, then realising his swearing had been totally intelligible, followed that up with another <”Fucks sake!>”

“I admire how you speak English perfectly, but when you use English swear words in Spanish, it suddenly has an accent,” said Andrei, with no hint of irony.

There was a brief pause for a moment from Antonio, before he mumbled out a few words that sounded suspiciously unkind towards someone’s mother.

“Apologies for the sudden language switch,” Alfonso glanced over towards Andrei. “What you’ve said would be a tad controversial back home.”

Andrei nodded. He couldn’t speak Spanish. “Don’t worry about the stamps, if that’s what this is about. They’re not unhappy. Hell, they’re probably happier than we are.”

Blue Girl said, “They are. Like me, they were designed to most enjoy being helpful and serving a purpose for their creators. If you offer a stamp a choice of anything to do, this is what they would pick, and so would I.”

“See, that too would be… controversial. Although yes, one can’t be a slave if one has no concept of ‘freedom,’ but the idea of denying the ability to conceptualise freedom…” Rafael paused for a moment, discomfort slowly spreading across both his and Alfonso’s face.

Andrei leaned back in his chair, cigar casually in one hand (he was starting to quite like it already) and asked: “Well, since we’re in a philosophy class, can I ask you- what’s the purpose of freedom? What does it do?”

Antonio and Alfonso glanced at each other, then both men spoke at the same time.

“Allows one to pursue their own path.” Another brief glance at each other, the pair of men clearly surprised that they had actually come to an agreement on something.

“Even plebeians are free to choose their path in life, guaranteed by the Republic’s constitution.” Antonio continued.

“‘A man can do as he wills, but cannot will what he wills’” quoted Andrei. “Yes, we choose our own path, but how do we make the choice? Most people go with whatever we think will make us happiest. But what makes us happy? Well, our sense of happiness is all just biology, y’know, genetic incentives to act a certain way. When you kiss a girl you get a nice rush of endorphins, so you ‘choose’ to kiss her more, but it’s just ‘cause your genes want you to keep doing that until you get a chance to reproduce.” He waved his hand lazily. “We think we choose the things that we think will make us happy, but we can’t even design our own sense of happiness. Same with the stamps. We’re as free as them, except our wants come from nature and evolution- or God, or whoever- and theirs came from us. That’s the only difference.”

“Bullshit.” Antonio said with a smirk. “Humans are not mindless endorphin-pursuing machines. Well, most of us, anyway. If we were, nobody would ever bother to do things that are hard or gruelling. The man who uproots his life to head to the frontier and eke out his living doesn’t do so because it’ll provide him with a rush of endorphins. The fanatic who perches himself atop a lamppost for three months straight is hardly flooding himself with good feelings as the rain pours down upon him. Sure, the base elements of what most would recognise as a ‘good life,’ are controlled by our pursuit of endorphins, but that’s not all that makes one happy.”

“Well, as Mr. Federov has said,” picked up Blue. “The stamps, allowed to pursue their own path, would pursue the very one they are on now. So this is all merely academic. But if we’re going to be debating- would you gentlemen like some coffee?”

Andrei nodded. He would like some coffee, always.

Blue Girl said playfully, “Andrei’s taste in coffee changes every other hour. Sometimes he loads it with milk, sometimes straight black. Once he drowned it in hazelnut flavoring in front of some Oldwell representatives and I think it almost caused a corpo-on-corpo war. We have near everything available. Would our guests like anything?”

Rafael cleared his throat. “Café pingado. Two shots, no sugar.” Alfonso gave an approving nod.

“The same for me. We’ll see if what you have holds a candle to our stuff.”

“Café lungo. One sugar.” Antonio added.

“Now, while I don’t approve of my colleague’s language, what he says holds true. To condense all of the human experience down to merely the pursuit of pleasure is… Shortsighted.” Alfonso quirked an eye towards ‘Blue Girl.’

Blue Girl nodded but, weirdly, didn’t look like she was writing any of their orders down. She just stood there. Robotically. In a moment, a knock at the door finally moved her from her statue stance, and when she opened it, two stamps were already waiting there with the coffee, on a literal silver platter, precisely as described. Cream, milk, flavorings, sugar and the dreaded hazelnut syrup were all present and accounted for.

The stamps who brought it in were of a different kind than the electric-blue, pretty girl who led the Azulvistans about the ship. They were neither electric-blue nor very pretty. At least one was actually ugly, a reptile thing with loose, green-brown skin and a wise face like a tortoise’s. It had no shell, but it bent forward just a bit, as if its body still thought one should be there. Looks no matter, it moved gracefully and with amazing evenness, bringing down the platter onto the desk quick but without even a shake of the coffee. The other stamp was short, pitch black-eyed, exceedingly slender, spotted with patchy miss-matched skin, and four arms were clasped behind his back; but he was the more human of the two. They both wore uniforms.

The three Azulvistans watched these new stamps warily. Their appearance was certainly something, but it wasn’t their appearance alone that intrigued the trio. The simple fact that they existed in the forms that they did - stooped, wrinkled and inhuman, spoke far more about the Giltian mindset than the prim and polished Blue Girl did.

“So,” said Andrei, wanting to change the subject, and apparently deciding that this time the drink needed four spoons of sugar but no creamer at all, “what’s a plebian?”

“They are-” Alfonso started.
“Why don’t we let the one person here who’s actually a plebe speak for himself, hmm?”

Antonio cut the more senior man off with a smooth interjection, raising an eyebrow to see if the obvious challenge would be taken.

“An excellent idea,” Alfonso managed through gritted teeth. Antonio would have been disappointed, but this was almost better.

Rafael, glanced between the two bickering patricians then cleared his throat. “There are… Two ways of describing them. The academic way, and the less polite way. The academic way would be to say that they are the majority social group on Azulvista - those whose rights are guaranteed by the constitution, but who do not receive the privileges of the patrician class. The… Less polite way would be to say that they are subjects.”

"Oh, yeah, I've read about those in history classes," said Andrei, already downing the molten hot coffee in a wild disregard for his throat. "So, your patricians head things up, and the plebians do the everyday laboring of society, non? Huh. Classic. Gilt, you guessed by now, we're run by corporations. We have wealth differences, sure, but there's not really enforced classes between humans. I know a man who started as a junior clerk, and now he sits in board meetings with me. We like to let things be more… loose, in Gilt. No real government besides corporate policy. People do what they will, and if they do it smart…" he smiled.

"But let's get down to the real business. I'm here representing EBS. You've seen aboard this ship already what Giltians are capable of. Our economy can produce very fast, and very cheap-" he decided to leave out that this was because of the free labor of stamps and syms, since some things are better left to implication- "and we are eager to make early business connections with dependable nations such as yourself."

Now it was time for Alfonso to take the lead. “I think you’ll find that any nation that has survived has done so by being self-sufficient. Because of this, we are capable of making all the staples and luxuries of living in our home system. If you want to open up our market, you’ll need something we’ve not seen before. So, by all means. Impress us.”

Andrei’s dark eyebrows shot up. “You’re floating on a spaceship bigger than Los Angeles, where four million people live full-time and where you’re told that a government-less society survived for three centuries, and a sentient tortoise just brought you coffee… and you aren’t impressed? What the hell does Azulvista have that’s like all that?” He downed the rest of his coffee in a gargantuan swallow.

Antonio responded with a smirk. “We came from a space station made by a dozen different nations haphazardly bodging together their own engineering that rotates around a world humanity killed three centuries ago, that we arrived at on a ship manufactured in void-docks that can crank out war galleons like a factory makes cars. I’ve seen aliens, robots, robot aliens and alien robots with my own eyes, and we’ve come out of a conflict that saw an entire planet turned into a warzone. Standards here are damn high.”~

“Alright. Fine. Challenge accepted. I’ll have work today after all, like one of your plebians. Blue- will you call your coworkers in?”

Blue Girl hummed, “Of course. And pitch on that: may I recommend the defensive model be showcased as well?”

“Love you, Blue.”

“That’s a yes,” she translated. “We’ll have something to show you boys. Will you step out with us? This room is a little small for the matter at hand.”

The five filed out, leaving a mess of drinks and cigars behind- the sign of diplomacy happening between these two cultures, apparently- and emerged into the larger room the Azulvistans had first seen. Already a few fast stamps had pushed the tables to the side, making way for the show. The complimentary cookies were relocated to a smaller table, just beside four comfortable chairs lined up facing what was now an open space.

There were people emerging from a backroom, except they weren’t people. A line of sym bodies filed out, each of a slightly different form. They were all typically gold and gilded, but some were strong and brutal, who looked fit for either manual labor or melee, and some were sleek and elegant along the lines of Blue Girl. Some male, some female, quite a few just indeterminable; there were about seven in all. The designs tended towards the gaudy and elegant- their movements were mathematically perfect.

Last of all, as if it had been the furthest back in storage, came a design that wasn’t like the others. Though still shiny, it was armored, and its metal hands gripped a gun. It lined up beside the others in brisk, soldier-esque movements. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” waved away Andrei, now with a cookie in his hand, “the gun’s just a model. We don’t make our combat syms as graceful as the others, but that’s probably the most advanced piece here. Blue, do you wanna do the thing?”

“I’ll do the thing,” confirmed Blue Girl. “Gentlemen,” she said, “these are examples of sym bodies. They are advanced robotic forms capable of doing all tasks that humans can, but much more quickly and powerfully. A sym worker compared to a human employee is typically three to five times more effective and, unlike the human, will not require wages beyond their basic energy costs. Don’t worry, they’re quite efficient. We do not sleep. We do not eat. We do not ever stop working. Unlike stamps, we are not organic at all, although our minds are based roughly on human minds.” She lifted her left hand, and at the same moment, every one of the models before them did the same. “Take note: sym minds and bodies are separate entities. You may purchase the rights to a sym mind, like you would any intellectual property, and then you purchase your physical bodies like these to place them into. A good sym mind- like myself, of course- can control five to ten bodies at a time. Or, if you want, you can simply plug a sym consciousness into a drone ship or plane and let us fly it. A dogfighter is far more effective when it does not have to waste weight on a human pilot. Or, speaking of fighting: when a sym soldier, like the one you see now-” the one with the gun nodded- “is destroyed in combat, the mind is not lost. It can simply exist on any one of your databanks and control multiple combat forms remotely, making a perfect, veteran soldier who never really dies, just changes bodies.”

There was a long pause as the three Azulvistans listened to the speech and looked at each other. Alfonso, reaching up to tug at his moustache, frowned a little. “What you’re describing is a threat. Not a personal one, but a threat to the foundational way of life on any nation that does not consider itself post-scarcity.” The three men were clearly having similar thoughts. If syms became widespread on Azulvista… It would mean mass unemployment. A sledgehammer to the Republic’s entire economic system… And worst of all, it would be profitable.

Antonio broke the long silence that had settled over the group. “How much? For a mind and let’s say… Five bodies?” Another long pause. “How about five thousand?”

Andrei stroked his beard that wasn’t there. He went through a phase where he had one, during college; he decided he would be philosophical and start stroking it when he needed time to think about something. He never bothered to unlearn the habit when corporate culture forced him to start shaving again.

“Minds and bodies sell different. Bodies are more consistent. For five of them, I’d say fifty-thousand dolls. For five thousand, we’re talking medium-large numbers now, so economies of scale kick in. That saves nicely. Thirty-two mil, thereabouts. Minds are more individual, since whatever sym might know different things. Usually that gets negotiated by the nitty-gritty bean counters who work for people like us. Or other syms. But the general going rate here in this year’s market, for a batch of the robo-brains who aren’t dumbasses?” His fingers did counting motions, wrangling numbers that were technically large but functionally simple. The economy had entered a hyperactive state since the Gate reopened. Sym minds were selling for a song right now. “It’s about fifty thousand again.” He looked at Blue Girl. “So a mind is worth five times a body, you might say?”

“You might say that,” affirmed Blue Girl. “But I have a feeling these gentlemen won’t know how much dolls are.” She translated it into Azulvistan money for them, based on what Gilt had already studied about the economy of the local superpower.

“And you accept foreign currencies?” Antonio raised an eyebrow, Raphael’s fingers flying to try to keep pace with the information. Andrei shrugged.

<”We can afford five thousand.”> The younger patrician remarked.

<”We? Were you perhaps expecting me to throw the dice on this gamble?” Alfonso was thoroughly unimpressed.

<”Consider it an investment. Fiver thousand? That’s a proof of concept to the syndics.” Antonio folded his arms, then turned towards Raphael. <”And you? You in as well?”>

Raphael blinked a few times in surprise. <”I’m not sure that would be entirely appropriate consid-”>

<”Consider nothing. If you can’t use your position to influence things, what’s the point of having that position. What we pay? They’ll pay triple, at least until they set up their own connections.”>

<”Crude, rude… Shrewd…> Alfonso frowned. <”I can’t very well argue against it. Fine.”> He nodded.

“I believe we have a deal. Doll the five thousand units up, make them look prestigious. More than they will be, anyway. We’ll get you a market. You just need to show them why they should buy.”

Andrei waved his hand in a gesture that was near to being dismissive. “Don’t worry, Mister Señor. Our syms are our art. They will prove themselves to anyone who sees them.” Blue Girl, knowing herself to be first-hand evidence, was happy to nod along.

The trio of patricians turned to leave, Antonio reaching into an inside pocket to draw out a fresh cigar. As he clipped the end, he said only one thing to the two men by his side.

<”Mister Señor? Let us hope their engineers are smarter than their executives.”>

Alfonso let out a polite laugh. Behind them, Andrei was sarcastically waving goodbye.
<Snipped quote by Tortoise>

I appreciate that and I might be a little delayed in joining the discord at first but I'll get around to all of it when I post my characters to the character tab and get myself situated (up-to-date with reading all the IC posts).

That's understandable, no rush.

We're almost done in our current, first Destination. Depending on how you feel after catching up to the IC, you might decide to wait until we advance to the next Destination to join-in. But that'll be your choice :)
@Tortoise I suppose that I will throw myself into this if you are still accepting that is, are you?

Edit: I'll place these here.

Wonderful, we're always accepting! And, as per my promise in the OP, any sheets that were greenlit in the original version are automatically accepted here as well. So your Oddness is Approved. You can drop them in the CHAR tab and start posting whenevers.

I also strongly recommend joining the Discord. All the others are on there, which means that 99% of the planning and discussion about the RP happens exclusively on the Discord Server. You're likely to be a little bit lost without it. discord.gg/5y9EkWyFCW

Addressing: @Enigmatik and @Antediluvixen

Athulwin emerges out of his caravan, stepping out firmly into the outside world by his own will for the first time today, with his face set like fire. The Beyonder, he thinks, back straightening. I cannot let it harm the Caravan. He does not know exactly what form the thing that fell from the sky will take, but he knows that Gadri and Morvanne should not be facing it alone. Some creature has come from the void, for all he knows, some unknowable monstrosity, and the skills of a smith and an occultist are not enough. All the others are out fighting undead- Athulwin knows what duty must call him to do next. He has sent the message ahead of himself, the warning to stay away.

But now he will follow with it. And they will all face this thing together. He used to have to steel himself like this, before a hard Trial at Queensrock. The monastery he once belonged to was the strictest of monastic orders, more than either of the other sects of Frowen-worshippers who call the Old Marshes their home. In that entire land, they were the only religious body that regularly made the faithful go through "Trials." Tests of pain and bravery, is all they really were.

The worst one was when Athulwin was maybe ten winters of age, and a much older monk, some graybearded sage, jostled him awake in the middle of the night. He was holding a nasty whip in his hands. He said to the boy, who was already quivering in his bed, "Don't fall back asleep. I am going to whip you with this. I am not going to do it yet, but I'm going to eventually. You must not cry out when you see the whip coming. You must not fall back asleep waiting for it to come. If you do either of these things, you will stand naked in the winter air tomorrow morning where everyone will see you." And then the old graybeard stood over Athulwin for hours. Every now and then, to tease him, he would lift the whip up as if he were about to bring it down, and then would seem to change his mind. Then he'd do it again. Athulwin, holding his blankets in white-knuckle hands, never cried out even when he was most sure he was about to be struck. At last, without a word, the old monk turned and walked out of the room. Young Athulwin was left in peace the rest of that night. That was the Trial of Anticipation.

There were other Trials, that had other names, but they were all of the same kind of thing. Sometimes you had to walk over hot coals. Sometimes you had to wrap your arms around a pillar behind you, and let the other kids hit you in the stomach. The Uttering Monks, the younger Athulwin daily thought, confuse masochism for piety.

The older Athulwin understands better. There are two kinds of trials in life, he believes. There are the ones that come on like storms, strike you as hard as lightning, and in turn harden you. Those are the trials that, properly endured, make a man stronger. One day you will be able to walk into that storm and you will not flinch at all its flashing and rolling thunder. To use a common kind of phrase, you can learn to take a punch.

But then there's the other sort of trials, and it's the second kind that are the truly poisonous ones: those tests that do not happen all at once, but come in the form of a steady drip of pain that has the capacity to go on for months, or years, or for a lifetime. A recurring illness. The inescapable feeling of poverty. Long years of bodily abuse. It is those trials that soften you, drip by drip, until you are too worn down to fight any longer. They are the hell that buries you.

All of the trials of the Uttering Monks were of the first kind. They could conceive of nothing else. It was the second that Athulwin found on the road, and from the mouth of Alder.

Like a boy preparing to meet the whip, Athulwin readies his soul to encounter the Beyonder.

Malleck had asked earlier "Come on then Mr Athulwin, let’s go meet this God, hmm? He said it without the ending quotation marks, just like that. At the time Athulwin had politely pushed the suggestion away, citing the excuse that he'd be better use inside his Caravan, thinking on things and directing others via the Wind. That proved to be true only up until the moment that he realized what this thing that fell from the sky may actually be. A 'God' indeed. Now he goes to get Malleck, and off they rush together to the site of the Fallen Star.

--- ~--( )--~ ---

Some Time Later

The smoking crater is an easy mark to follow. The black tail trailing up into the sky is a sign that will probably be seen miles around. But Athulwin has to hold in a pained gasp once he finally gets close to it. The forest around where the star fell has been demolished. The trees around the crater have fallen down in a circle -Athulwin thinks they look like supplicants bowing down to the ground- and the earth itself is churned up like butter. There in the middle of it all, something shining and twisted that his eyes struggle to comprehend. This thing is an assault from the Void and a raping of nature. It's the fallen star.

And then he sees Gadri and Morvanne, standing in front of it stunned. Athulwin feels stunned too, at the site of this huge chunk of metal and abomination sticking out of Alwyne's side like a tic that's latched itself to a man's thigh. But that's not what they're looking at.

The angle is wrong. Whatever they're seeing, Athulwin's view of it is blocked by the star. As Athulwin creeps closer, as stealthy as he can manage to be while wearing his pair of walking boots, he sees that Morvanne has a look of horror marring her face. That makes him worry. Athulwin always thought she's the kind of woman he would find beautiful, but that stare has taken beauty right off the page. What is it that she's seeing? "Go, Malleck," he whispers behind him, "go around the other way. I'll make the confrontation. I have the elements with me."

He has brought his Moiling Chain along, too. It's a thick, iron chain, five feet long, heavy and enchanted. Like many of the tools of the Uttering Monks, it's attuned to the practice of Utterance. He speaks a few of the guttural barks that make up the language of Fire, and at their command the chain grows hot in his hand. Not good enough. He speaks more Fire. The chain gets redder, then redder, and finally magical flames begin to dance along it. He holds the flaming chain in his hands like a whip.

He emerges from behind the Fallen Star. Now he understands what has twisted up Morvanne's face so hideously. The thing is a cross between a fox and a woman, but not like the beastraces of Alwyne. It's features are incongruent: a pretty girl's face, a fox's ears, a girl's body, a fox's tails. And there's too many of them. The tails are too many.

Athulwin speaks.

"Get back," he says to the Morvanne and Gadri. In the direction of the Beyonder, he swings his flaming chain slowly in his hand, ignoring the memories it brings him of his own Trial of Anticipation. He's not trying to fight it, not yet. Just scare it away from the others. "You-" he says to it- "why are you here? For what purpose have you assaulted the world of Eld Frowen?" His every word brings Fire out from his mouth.
The Old Taker

First Funeral

The worst funerals are the ones where the casket is small. The mourners file in to a tiny, slightly poor brand of funeral home with that weight on their back: the knowledge that this funeral's happening far too soon, and most of them should never have lived to see it. It's a burial that should be occurring five or six or eight decades into the future. Whatever one believes, by all the laws of nature or of God, one thing that all people know is that you are meant to have a life before you die. This girl never got hers. She skipped straight to the end- and now a room full of people dressed in black are here to commemorate that. It almost feels wrong. Here we are, a bunch of men and women who lived our childhoods a long time ago and had the chance to grow up. Sorry that you won't get to.

The dearly beloved who are gathered here today might be sensing that irony, the way they sort of float around the room tragically and have short, painful conversations with one another that lead to nowhere. Nobody knows how to act. There's a couple of teenage relatives of the deceased who, not genuinely meaning any disrespect, are leaned against the lacquered wood of the walls. Maybe twenty feet of space from one wall to another in here. The air. It's thick. And there's something that none of the mourners have yet seen, standing behind the casket.

The one person who's seen the Thing behind the casket is her brother, who is terrified and trying desperately hard not to look at it again. He's only eight years old. That is, in fact, exactly how his mother is answering the question that all the relatives are asking: “Oh, how old has your Jamie gotten to be now?” They ask it because it's easier and more comfortable than talking about the girl in the box. Any other day, if they were in any building except for this building, and if they were doing anything other than what they're here doing, Jamie would've corrected his mother. “I'm not eight, I'm eight and a half!” He’d feel righteously indignant about it, too. That's vitally important to him. Those six months since he turned seven are nothing to the grown-ups, barely a blink of an eye, but they’re an eternity to him. For a child, lifetimes pass between birthdays.

That thought suddenly seems to matter a lot to him- birthdays. There's something about birthdays. He can’t quite figure it out. His mom pulls him by the shirt-sleeve when it’s time to sit down and- not wanting to be yelled at in front of all these people, because he knows his mother will absolutely do that- he does squeeze down into the little funeral house pew. There’s an ancient man in a suit standing in front of the sister’s body who looks ready to start talking. He was introduced, Jamie thinks, as Pastor Redmond. This is the first funeral that Jamie has ever attended, but he already instinctively has the feeling that the Pastor is "just doing his job," the way adults like to say it. He has never seen this man before in his sister's life.

Makes it seem weird that he'd be the one doing the speaking, doesn't it? But the boy is able to look up at him talking without having to focus too much on the thing that's behind him, the huge thing that's behind the casket. And that's a small mercy. Pastor Redmond has that caved-in look, the sunken-in kind of cheeks and eyes that you'll only see on the fantastically old or the incredibly ill. Mr. Redmond may just be both. He has to stand with the help of his podium- Jamie imagines him falling down and crumbling to dust on the floor without it. Arms and legs are just bones with a lifetime of skin sloughing off of them. The same as his face. When he speaks, it is watching a corpse speak. His casual scan over the audience passes over Jamie and their eyes lock, and when that happens this kid not even ten years old yet suddenly feels sick and pale and so, so old, too. And dead. Really, that's the main thing. The old man's eyes make him feel dead. As old as Redmond and as dead as his sister.

Jamie squirms uncomfortably, he looks away.

He thinks that might just be the oldest man that he's ever seen. Jamie didn't know it was even possible to be that old and still taking in breath. He decides that, actually, he doesn't wanna look at the pastor, either. He wastes away the rest of the eulogy focusing instead on the eldritch patterns to be found in the soft fabric seat of his pew. And occasionally- just so long as it doesn't mean lifting his head and having to look up at those two monsters again- he listens in.

Jamie feels like he'd do the eulogy pretty differently, if he could. The old Pastor talks about "this time of grief," the way in which many can feel shaken by events like this, the counseling services offered, but they all sounds like nothing-words. What should the eulogy have been about? Bugs, he thinks. Olivia, for some stupid reason, liked bugs. She liked them in the way that normal kids are supposed to like video games or ponies. This eulogy, Jamie thinks, should be about bugs- it's what his sister would want. Like the time that she dragged Jamie out by the arm (he was always too small to resist his sister, the poor boy) to look at a Lady Bug she'd caught roosing up in the lowest-hanging of the backyard leaves. "Girls shouldn't like bugs," Jamie informed his older sister, while she was prodding away at it with a twig 'cause she wanted to see what it looked like flying. "Bugs are a boy thing." He knew that he was right, "just like he knows the sky is blue and rain is wet," as his dad would say, but she didn't listen to him. Not then, not the other times.

He remembers another day. A Friday, it was Family Movie Night, as every Friday is in the esteemed Fitzgerald household. They all voted democratically on what to watch. Mom voted for Bridge to Terabithia. Jamie voted Monster House. Olivia voted to watch a documentary about bugs instead of what Jamie would've called a "real movie." Jamie remembers, he was really protesting that one. He thought this was ridiculous- he was loud about it. But Olivia was always their father's favorite, and in the end, he voted with her. They watched the science documentary. It felt unfair. He hated it then and he hates it now. But that's what Jamie would tell the eulogy about.

He catches the fat, plump tears running away down his cheeks before anyone else has the chance to see them. Pulling up a handful of his mom's nice expensive dress, he wipes it right across his face. At first his mother looks down with an expression of horror- but then she figures out why he's doing it. She looks back up to Pastor Redmond's preaching and says not a word.

Now he realizes why the thought of birthdays was important. It's because Olivia is having no more.

A couple of months away from her eleventh birthday. Olivia's out playing in the summer freedom, she sees something on the other side of the road. (Maybe it was a bug, maybe a school friend- nobody knows.) She goes to cross the street, and at the same time there's an alcoholic behind a steering wheel driving on it. It was so random. It'd be one thing if it was evil, if there was some cruel killer that had meant to take her life. But the killer here was just a stupid, stupid drunk, and Jamie saw the body before it was all cleaned up. He doesn't think he'll ever forget. No, that's not true. He knows he will never forget.

He's interrupted. Mom is tugging at his sleeve, again, always her preferred way of telling him to start moving. The sound of everyone getting up out of their pews at once makes Jamie get up, too, not even thinking about it really. He's not thinking much about what's going on at all anymore, all lost in those deep memories of Olivia and her killer, and that's how it gets him. As everyone stands for the end of Pastor Redmond's sermon, nearly time to start the sad manual labor of bearing out her body, Jamie's eyes drift up to where the casket is. His eyes drift up to the casket, and this time he's forgotten to avoid looking at what is behind it.

What does an eight year old call something that he knows nobody else can see, and that, to him, is the Worst Thing in the World? He calls it a monster. That's what the thing is to Jamie. He can't figure out what it looks like. Not from when he was only seeing it from the corners of his eye, and not now that he's staring it right down from the pew. It has arms, like a human, but human arms don't stretch from one wall to the other. It has a white and frog-like hand stretched all the way to the upper left corner of the funeral parlor, and the other stretched all the way up to the right corner. It's body isn't any bigger than a man's, it might even be smaller, but the mouth is huge. It's standing there as motionless as a paused video, with a wide, cartoonishly stretched-out open mouth that Jamie is terrified could fit his entire body inside. Its big enough that it seems like it could dive down and swallow up Olivia's casket in one gulp. Like the snake swallows the egg. It's naked.

None of the other mourners reacted to it when they came in. None of them ever will. And it doesn't even move. But Jamie knows- he knows- that it's there.

Oh, yes, yes, this is perfect. The others have taken that undead messenger's bait- Galaxor, then Ivraan, then that lass Ilyana, all charging away into the tomb. Now the Ascendent of the Third Caste will have his chance to show them all what he's worth. Reaching out, he snatches his friend Knossos by the arm, and from there he pulls him. "Come on, Illa Diul Qa*!" he shouts. "You know that these fools will surely need our magic." And, Eratie tugging the old human by the elbow, in they go both together.

The moment he steps into the cool darkness of the barrow, Terilu finds himself strangely anxious to show the rest of them the kind of contribution that he can make. The way he has this secret power, this high and esoteric skill that none of these people have ever mastered because they were not born in the right country for mastering it. He wants them to realize that- the great value Terilu is bringing the Wingless in using necromancy on their behalf. Here he walks amidst giants. All these brutish skinned races, they are terrifying huge in size and their swords are like claymores to him, and watching them fight is like watching mountains go to war. Especially this one called Galaxor. That thing is a force of nature in a fight.

There's a part of Terilu's mind, a little voice of anxiety deep in the back of his head, that keeps screaming "Run out of there, you'll get crushed, you'll get crushed!" Terilu's anxiety, as always, speaks in the voice of his Mother Haula, that most fearful of all old women. She was one of his family members who told him he'd be dead the moment he left Tureiamú. He tells her voice to shut up, and then releasing Knossos, he takes flight.

There'd be too little space to move around in a tomb, one would think. No trees to roost up in; no clouds for poor Terilu to soar up into and rest in their wet embrace. He'd guess there's ten or so feet until he'd just hit cold, stone roof. But for one as small as him, that's still blessed plenty of space to maneuver around in. He beats his wings with all his might three, four, five times and he has lifted himself off the ground, hovering in the form that the Eratie call Ara Eltie ul'Turra**, meaning "Imp-style flying." In the forest, he had soared as a bird does on the wind, his head and feet level with one another. If anyone had looked up, they'd have seen him moving as quick and straight and stiff as the hunter's arrow. Now he does the natural opposite. He hovers slowly with his feet dangling down below him, just the way a human being stands were it not for the fact that he is five feet up into the air. One of the skeletons, he fears, might still grab him by the ankle and yank him down ('Beat you to death!' cries the voice of Mother Haula in his mind,) but still he feels a thousand times safer up here.

This is how he follows behind the more adventurous adventurers. Galaxor heading up the front and the two maybe-elves charging in with bravery, Terilu floats behind. They may not even know that he's helping them, he realizes with a pinch of shame, though most certainly he is. Whenever one of them is about to approach to fight an undead, Terilu reaches out towards it with his necromantic powers and does all he can to fuddle it. He saps its dark strength. He pulls the Narcae that is within it into himself, making him strong and making the skeleton stumble around weakly. The party is slaying them with ease. He feels like crying out "You're welcome, everybody!" but resists that urge. They are, nonetheless, real fighters with or without him.

Ilyana is the first one to come to the passage leading down.

"Wait!" He calls out to her. "Don't descend alone, let me catch up!" Just for a moment he flies at true speeds to hurry up to her, and there at the mouth of the ramp leading down, he stops himself floating. He holds out a hand for the others to stop, too. Galaxor, Knossos, Ivraan. These skeleton-killing warriors. He doesn't know how they'll react, but it's come to be that time.

"Listen, Wingless," he says to them. "I am going to tell you the truth. I'm a necromancer. Yes, yes- a necromancer. I am a student of the dead. Have some of the undead we've faced today seemed slower than they should be to you? Weaker, easier prey? Of course they have. I'm sapping whatever strength I can from them, but..." He looked down the passageway. There was Something down there.

"I believe things will be harder down lower in this tomb. The people who buried their forsaken here put the grander corpses in the lower halls, not in the higher. Those below us will be better armed and more forceful. I do not know if we will survive if I cannot use my power openly. If you do not call me a devil for what magic I study, stand behind me, and I will raise up for us what help I can..."

His hands reach out towards the skeletons already slain. The ones that Ilyana and Ivraan took down especially- they're still in decent condition, unlike all the dead that Galaxor has turned into smashed porcelain pottery on the floor. All the Narcae, the necrotic energy, that he sapped from them while they were still his foes, now he pours back in. Raising an undead who's never been an undead before is always a complicated, longwinded ritual, involving lots of eldritch circles and darkly strange incantations. It's easier when they were walking about as skeletons just fifteen seconds ago. A long moment passes, a hollow and white wind seems to come to life and blow itself through the hall- and some of the undead that the party has already put down begin to twitch and stir. The first skeleton rises back up and takes his rusted sword back in hand. The second, then the third soon after- but these are not enemies any longer. They bow to Terilu with a little head tilt that is something of a nod, something of a salute; it was probably how their people showed allegiance in life.

Three skeletal warriors stand risen a second time from the grave.

"Do not harm them," Terilu tells the party. "These are on our side. These are mine." He relishes the word. "Let them be our honor guard down this hall. If something must die in this fight- it shall be the already dead rather than the living!"

And with that, he turns, and hovers away down the black hall, trying to look as if he doesn't really care if the others are coming. The skeletons hurry to the side of their winged master.

*"Old wiseman"

**Literally "As floats the devil"

At the place where Fumiko's spaceship assaulted the world of Alwyne, the world reacted. Just like a hurt, living thing that has found an arrow lodged in it's side. The earth shakes and caves in where her ship plummets into it from the sky. The sound of its landing is like an explosion, and ushering out from that spot there is a ferocious wind that rustles through all the trees of the Emerald Forest and brings havoc to the wood.

The rush of wind tears through thick underbrush that the Caravan could never have crossed. It creates its own path through the forest, as it rips apart the green. The trees themselves stand strong. They can not be felled by a gust of wind, not unless they take a strike from a tornado. But their little and dead branches spin off, and their leaves become kites. From the ground on up grass comes kicking and thrashing out into the air.

The wind runs on through the Emerald Green howling like a woman in childbirth. For most, this is just a sound: the rush of air hitting plants and making animals scream in confusion. There is a proud buck who struggles against it, believing (in its own, animal way) that it can beat back the air with its ten-point antlers, the way it beats away rival males. It comes the closest, of all the living creatures of the Emerald Forest, to hearing what the wind is trying to say. It spins around him for a second, but it is fruitless. It passes him by too, and comes to someone else.

Athulwin, Sayer of the Uttering Monks, was just inviting Malleck into his Caravan. This is an invitation made with just the smallest fleck of reluctance: Athulwin is not certain how he feels about Malleck. The dogman is an aggravating personality, in the precise way that actual dogs are aggravating. Which is to say, he's the kind of person who shows up unannounced and calls out your name from the door. He is that breed. A talker, an extrovert, a ray of bright light shining in your eye. But it does help that Athulwin is an admirer of hard-learned skills, things that someone can do that they've worked hard at mastering until it has become nearly a part of them, just as he finds it in his heart to appreciate Gru's cheesemaking even while he knows Gru to be repulsive.

He feels the same tug of admiration when he looks into Malleck's eyes. The Ainok surely will never know it, but Athulwin has often listened to his music when he plays for a crowd. The sweet notes of his voice or whatever instrument he was able to get ahold of float up into the air and are borne by the insane flourishes of Wind to Athulwin, who listens wrapped up in his Caravan. He knows music to be not just a pleasure, but a focuser for the mind. He'll let it play on while he chants the Breviary. The good Sayer does this as he does all things. Quietly, and without admitting it.

But no sooner have the words "Would you like to come in?" left his mouth do they become irrelevant. They become irrelevant because Athulwin is no longer standing in the door of his Caravan. He is kneeling on the ground, his knees in the dirt of the earth. The Wind has found him. It has grabbed him like a great hand and thrown him forward out of his home, down to the ground, where it can begin to scream at him.

The Wind pours out all that it has witnessed into his unwilling ears. That Something has fallen out of the sky, it says. It says that there's Something foreign burying itself into the soil. There is Something that has fallen from the sky and it is of shining and smooth and strong and large, and it is of burning with heat, the Wind says. And it brings with it the sound of an explosion, a great BOOM! that follows just behind itself. Athulwin clutches at his ears. For anyone else in the world, nearly, this commotion of air coming forth through the forest would have just been a sudden burst. It might have blown their hair and ruffled their clothes, but quickly moved on past them, as a rushing wind is meant to, and that is surely what it did for every other soul in the Caravan. This is the natural way. Not for Athulwin; he is attuned to Wind; it chooses to stay swirling about him in a circle and keeps on doubling-back to blow by his caravan again, in its own incomprehensible language saying more things to him every time.

A windstorm of maybe ten feet across, the world's tiniest natural disaster, is forming. With all of the air spirit's frantic energy and excitement- it's childlike excitement- flowing into him, Athulwin feels his heart rising up in panic. Wind talks at sixty-five miles an hour. But he is able, taking the deepest breaths he can and focusing his mind as much as he is able to focus his mind while he's being shouted at, to Utter something in the language of the Wind. He gets out just one word: Stop. This is the most dangerous and the most rarely used word in the language of Winds, because it is a synonym for death. As it leaves his lips, it is obeyed, and he has killed the Wind that was assaulting him. It stops blowing. Suddenly, very suddenly, there is a calm.

The Sayer has to spend a few moments with his hands in the soil to right himself. He stays motionless while letting in loud, deep breaths of the stilled air. Curse this Curse, he thinks. It has him so weak... he should not have been brought down like that. Wind is notoriously mercurial. Whatever it is that fell from the sky startled the nearby air enough to send it sprinting like that, and it wouldn't mind trampling Athulwin to the ground to tell its share of the story. The Sayer who dabbles in this tongue must be one who is always ready for unexpected happenings, important moments that come and then go without any warning at all. His monastery teachers would have reminded him. Athulwin swears at himself.

He explains what he can to Malleck. Tells him that the air which was going through the forest spoke to him. ("You know that it does that, of course, Master Freepaw. It was rather energetic this time. I am sorry if it frightened you.") Here is where he makes the mistake of trying, like a fool, to stand up. He is able to get his leg halfway up before he stumbles back down onto the ground again. That's not the Wind this time. It's not an excited spirit with the personality of a toddler who hasn't learned not to push yet; it is Athulwin's own body stopping him from standing himself up, being too weak and far too old for someone with only 37 winters on the clock. The damned Curse. The sinking, shameful feeling in his gut as he realizes that he's not going to be able to stand up by himself. It's not the first time. Every time it feels like a little death.

"Master Freepa- Malleck," he says, a flicker of flame forming in his throat at having to ask. "Could you help me up? I, well, that is- I need someone to prop up on, I think."

--- ~--( )--~ ---

Some Time Later

Although nobody knows it, at the very same moments that Gadri is sawing Fumiko free far away deeper in the forest, it comes to pass that Athulwin realizes what has happened. All the pieces come together in his mind at once, just like a puzzle. He nearly wishes it hadn't.

He was sitting with his hands folded over his thick and leatherbound copy of the Eld Breviary. He was in his favorite (and only) sitting spot in the caravan, a little bench-like table that strikes out from one wall opposite the door. He's covered the seats of it with blankets and pillows, but the top of it tends to stay strangely empty. There is a nearly finished cup of tea, and the Breviary, and that is all. Athulwin finds a little bit of empty space absolutely necessary for being able to think clearly. Clutter in your environment amounts to clutter in your thoughts. A million little objects screaming "I'm right over here! I'm taking up space right here!" It's an itching distraction that often makes his soul long for the austere, mostly-empty, half-abandoned halls of the Monastery (which was a structure meant to house twice as many monks as it did.)

And while he was at that table, thinking, he couldn't get one particular idea out of his head. It kept buzzing back around into his thoughts whenever he tried to dismiss it. Somehow, he just couldn't explain it, he felt that he should have seen this coming. Whatever that newborn Wind had been trying to tell him: that Something has come to the world which doesn't belong here, and that it fell from the sky. Those words were oddly familiar, but in the way that a bad dream is familiar. You don't really want to remember. You want to forget it. Still, there it is, tickling the back of your brain. It finally came to him as he drained the last swallow out of the tea.

The Stars, just before the Caravan came into the Emerald Forest, had given him one of their most Odd warnings. All of the Stars messages and warnings are cryptic by nature- but this one was its own unique genre of cryptic, a kind of strange that Athulwin hadn't heard before. It was under a clear dark sky that he had been speaking to them when these words came uninvited into his mind:

"Cursed One, Traveller:
Something falls from us. It is not of us.
A Note from Another Song. Alwyne does not know it.
How can a story be told with Foreign Words?
It will cut the sky's face.

It made no sense to him then. Now it does. Add it to what the wind said. Consider the orange bolt that everyone saw flying across the blue sky today, like a cut across a face. Remember the way Gadri and Morvanne ran off to find what they thought would be starmetal, that mysterious resource that can only come down from above. All the clues fit together with an almost audible click.

Something has landed on Alwyne. It comes from someplace else, far away above the sky. It isn't part of our little world at all.

Some of the Uttering Monks believed in such things. A younger Athulwin, a boy in the Monastery, thought they were insane. But there are poems in the oldest of the oldest of their scriptures that imply certain things live beyond the world of Alwyne, either far above it or far below it, where no man's eyes could catch them. The Beyonders. They existed outside of Eld Frowen's Great Story, and had no natural part in it. This is why they are dangerous. All the world of Alwyne, as the Uttering Monks describe it, is like a story being told by their god Eld Frowen. Everything that is, is something Eld Frowen once said.

Athulwin remembers some of the most sensitive monks prefering to comparing it to a song instead- but that doesn't change the meaning much. Then you would simply say that all things are notes in Frowen's song, working together to create a melody only He can hear. The birds, the sunrise, goblins, the dwarves, thieves, and everyone they take from, preachers and every soul they convert- all are simply a part of the Song of Frowen. His Great Story.

But Athulwin also recalls one night, him and a group of young faithful were going over those stranger scriptures that speak of things above the stars. One of them was a freckly, lanky lad with eyes that were uncomfortably glassy and fish-like- his name was Beornheard, and he was drunk. Slurring his words together, he still managed to swear up and down that he heard from an uncle in Yellmarsh, who heard from a friend, who knew a scholar, who said that the Beyonders were real. Everyone nodded politely at this and tried to move on. But the drunkard seemed to like the subject of Beyonders and wouldn't be taken off of it. He said that the scriptures really did imply ("Whether you believe me or not, Athulwin, this is what they say") that the Beyonders were natural anathema to Eld Frowen and everything else in the world of Alwyne. The scriptures called them Foreign Words. Things that shouldn't exist in the spoken Story of Frowen, and disrupted it even by being there. And they only ever come from the stars.

Athulwin suppresses a shutter. Something foreign, a thing not of the Great Story, has come to Alwyne today. A Foreign Word. A Beyonder. The stupid drunk was right.

He sends a message, carried by the wind, to Gadri and Morvanne. He prays it isn't too late. The words of the message are simple:

"Stay away from that thing."

Terilu- Ascendent of the Third Caste and Called by the Reaching Hand, in Form of Baítudatu-Thumilie, of New Dawnlit- is really bothered right now. He's soaring up high in the sky, which usually lifts his spirits as much as it does his body, but the sun keeps getting in his eyes. He's nocturnal, as any rational being should be; he hates taking off during the day.

Especially this day, this summer day. The sun burns so brightly that Terilu is finding his way over the Emerald Forest half-blind. There's this vile human expression- "blind as a bat-" that is, like most human sayings, completely inaccurate. They should know better. Terilu's eyes are as sharp as theirs. All bat eyes are. Most of the time. When they are not being forced to climb up close to the sun at midday. Now.... well, right now, he really is as "blind as a bat," and blinder. The stupid expression has become true. Under the shadow of his wingspan, it makes him grin a little.

The light is so distracting. Too much for wide, black eyes. His breed is meant to glide gently under moonlight and cloud-cover, letting those special breezes that seem to exist only at night carry him up aloft over the world. Travel during daytime- it is barbaric. It's running a marathon blindfolded, barefoot, and with hot fires burning all around you. How do the savage races do it? Viewed from up and over the treetops, up here in the wilding air with the birds, shimmering light looks to be bouncing off of every blade of grass and every leaf. It has made the atmosphere green. (A very unnatural color, in Terilu's mind. The grass in his part of the world is gray.) Batting his wings three times more, they lift him up further over the world and they ache from the heat and stress. He imagines them to be melting like wax. But there, look- he can see his targets.

Even through the daylight blur, there's no mistaking the form of a Stoneclaw giant. Humans and elves already are giants, obviously, even the creatures they funnily call "dwarves" are giants in Terilu's mind, but then there's this one. The one that even the others know to be a lumbering behemoth. That's an easy target to spot. And, as if to wrap it all up in a little bow, the giant is even singing a song. Ha! Literally announcing his name and quest for every ear in the forest to hear, in musical form. You really could not miss him, or the sound of him rising up over the leaves. Terilu hears...

"With Galaxor's might, Nemeia's divine grace, and Ivraan's arcane wit,
To the tomb of undead, where they all just sit.
In the shadows, we'll bicker, and in chaos, we'll slay,
Galaxor, Nemeia, and Ivraan, are on their way.

Wow, what a voice! Like a mountain took shape and learned language. Enjoyable. Skeletons would like this song, he thinks, it vibrates the bones pleasantly. So there is no pretense of difficulty as Terilu stalks the giant and his companions. They are slower by foot than he is by wing; no roots to trip you up or tree-trunks to stand in your way up in the sky, and that makes it a child's game to stay close to the wandering trio. The only worry: that they hear him rustling through the treetops when he lands behind them to rest in the branches, or when he leaps off again. Do they notice that pair of black eyes starring out from the green? Does a chill go down your spines, travelers?

It is not the first time Terilu has felt like a bird of prey. He has wanted to earn his keep in the Caravan, but those big, unreasonable human guards wouldn't allow him to raise up even so much as a skeleton to assist in the cooking of meals. What, he asked them, would it hurt us to have an extra set of hands at the galley? But most of the Wingless are like that. Close-minded. So he had to find a necromancy-free way to assist his new nest, and he found that in hunting. It's an Eratie tradition. Every night for a week, since they entered this strange wood, the lone bat has gone out soaring to capture fishes and little mammals he can bring back to the Caravan, for the others to eat. The poor animals can hardly see him coming from above the trees, and they cannot escape from the powerful flight of an Eratie in Form of Baítudatu-Thumilie. It is only with a strange sense of worry that, the last few nights, he has realized he truly enjoys the sensation of a squirrel finding itself trapped in his claws. It's intoxicating. Having that power over something's life. So similar to necromancy.

He's left these "donations" anonymously. Hunting's a very low-caste job, sadly- he'd be embarrassed for anyone to suspect that he was doing it. Only the head cooks of the Caravan know where the new supply of food is coming from. And Knossos.

Regardless. He is moving like a hunter now.

Following the group, he lands high in a bizarrely tall, gnarled-looking grandfather of a tree. It stands, he can see peering downwards from the branches, right at the yawning mouth of a tomb. He had heard of the barrows in this wood, but didn't believe he'd be lucky enough to come across one. The trio he's been following have slowed now. They approach the tomb, and even from here Terilu can feel the energy coming off of it. It radiates. To him, it is an inviting sensation, the promise of great gain. Every stone in that construct is soaked in the powers of undeath, and it blows outwards into the blighted land around itself, killing the grass and turning the trees to deadwood. Sights like that are a good sign to him, it means a place is rich for the kind of magic he practices- this tomb is a feast to Terilu. The others came here to destroy the undead, but he came to feed on it.

He scutters out to the furthest-reaching branch of the grandfather tree, keeping a tab on the the others from above. They're watching the entrance, not quite entering yet. Ilyana, some sea-traveler who might be a human or might be an elf- Terilu has trouble telling the difference, and she looks a little like both, just like that boy she's always looking out of the corner of her eyes- has joined them. Oh, he wants to join them too. His claws already loosen up out of the grooves they were digging into the bark, eager to release, jump down and announce his presence to this adventuring throng, as a nest-mate and an ally. But it's hard. He is hesitating, because they aren't Eratie. Necromancy isn't normal and natural to them. What'll they say when they see him trying to-

Another new voice interrupts his anxiety, saying "There's no telling what kind of undead lurk here, but the information Athulwin got noted that something talked to the other people who came by here. If there's any chance the same thing approached us, we could at least try to see if-"

Knossos! The cold, smart voice of Knossos! Good. Good. That's a blessing from Ad'itie herself, his appearing at this hour. This man is the one Wingless who would understand what necromancy is all about. The beauty of it, the artistry. A friend. He glows with dark magics himself, not unlike the stones and air of this wonderful place in front of the tomb.

Terilu sees no need to hide anymore. He can sense an undead approaching, and he knows the others must hear it. He leaps down from the tree, letting his wings catch air and glide him gently down to the dead grass. The soft 'thump' as he touches earth is an announcement of his arrival. He strides up to the group. Dreamwalker will understand why he wants to join them. Maybe he'll be an advocate, as he was when Terilu "accidently" bestowed the powers of undeath on that one wagon. Not everyone has forgotten about the Undead Wagon Incident. It still lurks in the bushes behind the Caravan sometimes, when it thinks nobody is watching. It's got wooden legs now. Who gave it wooden legs? What gave it legs? Doesn't matter. Terilu approaches the group, just as Nemeia the self-proclaimed cleric finishes giving some motivational speech he's sure isn't important and that Ilyana girl is asking some questions he doesn't care about.

"Hi," he says, interrupting them all. "Hope you don't mind another companion. I am Terilu, Ascendent of the Third Caste and Called by Reaching Hand, in Form of... you know what, it's not important. My full name is longer than the time you've all spent standing here. And that is, if you'll here me say it, way too long- look, don't you hear it?" He paused, and just on time, the creaking and cracking sound of the walking dead starts up again. "An undead approaches. I am going to help you. Don't argue, there's no more time for the rigors of debate. Only rigor mortis! Ha-ha."

He turns to the tomb, where something is slowly coming out of the arched entrance way. It's hard to see- but it looks skeletal to Terilu, something made up all of bones and wrapped in winding sheets. The sheets it was buried in, he's sure. It has at it's bony hip a scabbard, and from the scabbard it has drawn a sword that looks as ancient and menacing as it does. In its eye sockets, instead of eyes, two pale blue lights glow. It is dead, and yet alive. A thrill goes down Terilu's spine. What a wonderful thing.

It has stopped just at the mouth of its home, right under the shade of the stone archway. It does not dare to step out into the sunlight. And Terilu feels that with one long, bone hand, it is gesturing to them. Come closer, it seems to be saying in his mind. Let us parlay. He doesn't know if the others can hear it or not, but Terilu takes the liberty to answer. "Greetings!," he calls out to the skeleton. He speaks in the common tongue so that the others can hear what he's saying, but it is purely his magic that communicates his intent to the skeleton. "I am Terilu, Ascendent of... doesn't matter. We have come here to your home because-"

The skeleton speaks over him. It's voice is the rasping of bones on a gravestone, the dryness of the desert, and the coldness of a long-abandoned body. It is something felt more than heard. "Kú nwa pinychi psú kúúm ghu kú psú j’iiw," it rasps, "nyip kwii suptuuskuny snú!" Terilu blinks. It's not a language he knows, but somehow, perhaps through his necromantic connections, the meaning is instinctively obvious to him. He translates for the others:

"He says that we must leave the Forest. He says that it belongs to him and the other undead, and that- that they will keep bringing plague on us and our camp until we have left." The sickness. Is that what it is?

"I don't get the feeling he actually wants to fight us, but he really does think this forest is his." He expects the Forest does not agree, as willful as it's shown itself to be. Dipping a little into his memories of necromantic theory, he adds, "Some undead are like this. They don't altogether realize they're dead, or they don't care. They think they can keep ownership over the things they had when they were alive. Him and the others probably used to rule this forest ages ago. We're like invaders to them." He pauses, takes a breath, stretches out his wings.

"I vote we rush in and unmake them. If they think we're invaders, let us be invaders."
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