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Anshumat

Behold The Sovereign! They wear a chain of Their own forging! They can be bound by none but Their own Hand!





"Aaaaaaiiuuumaaaaaah…Aaaaaiiuuumaaaaaah kiphal la Kirwooooon..."

The old selka healer repeated her sympathetic chant beside Yimbo's wounds as if comforting a child. The gathered tribe gave her all the space she needed to surround the beast with a ring of dried reeds, all smeared with the blood spilled from the great beast's punctures and slashes.

"Aaaaaaiiuuumaaaaaah…Aaaaaiiuuumaaaaaah..."

Yimbo whimpered as Rema stuck a wad of crushed leaves into one of the openings. The leaves themselves were meant to ward off the pain, but for a beast of such size, there was no telling whether it worked.

Humat the smiling one was not the most patient of k'nights present. He could not sit still for long before he leaned to one side to his friend. "Psst, Takos, what are those words she speaks?"

"Some upriver dialect," Takos explained. "Stories say you can talk to unseen spirits with it. Don't know much about it."

"You're supposed to know everything, though! You're the Clever-"

"Shhh!" Takos pressed a finger to his snout. "It's not men's lore in these parts, Humat! I am not allowed to know."

Humat huffed and rolled his eyes. "Men's lore, women's lore...No one agrees on that stuff."

"Aaaaaiiuuumaaaaaah kiphal la Kirwooooon...Kiphal la Delphina, goh ha embral."

The old healer Rema stood up and put her hand and ear up against Yimbo's side. Everyone stood quiet to let her listen.

A wave gently broke nearby.

Rema opened her eyes and walked with her elderly demeanour to the Rephaemle the Fair and Chief Grumla. "I have done all I can, with all I have. There are no more herbs or chants to use. All we can give now is time."

Reph glanced to Anshumat and back to Rema. "How long does he have?"

"Don't know," Rema admitted, sadly. "Yimbo's old, but strong. Never healed anything big as him before. Maybe...a guess would be a couple of weeks."

Chief Grumla nodded solemnly. "It is all we can ask for. Thank you, Rema."

Rema bowed, before taking her walking stick and wandering back to the village off the beach.

Reph closed his eyes and sighed.

Anshumat looked at Yimbo silently, slowly turning their head to look at Reph. They said, quietly, “We’ve done what we can. We can only hope the healing tribe is found now. There are more tasks to be done and too little time to linger.”

They turned to look inland, continuing, “Reph, the rest of you will need to set off as well. The healing tribe is not the only one we will have to gather if we are to survive what is coming.”

"Right," Reph lifted his chin and rallied. "Gather the k'nights! We will group off and make plans, and those not staying will leave at first light!"

"Mister Rephaemle," Anboor added. "I'll get together some supplies for your journeys. Expect 'em before you go."

"Thank you...what was your name again? You look familiar."



Rephaemle was surprised to hear that the first candidate in the village to fail the k'nights' trial had changed so drastically, but it was a pleasant surprise. They were able to focus on planning, and the plan was made in earnest. The k'nights split into four groups of three: Yim, Phialu, and Phorea would strike out on their mission to find Yimbo's saviours. Rephaemle, Karagetak, and Phassam would travel at speed to the downbeach Sharkskin tribe to negotiate an end to the bad blood and tensions with the River Mouth tribe. Humat, Kyko, and Hiphaeleon would travel south-west to the inland nomads to win them over with charm and prophecy. Finally, Anshumat, Takos, and Antoph would stay to protect the River Mouth tribe and prepare for the fight with the Ihokhurs -- with the help of Kreekh and the tribesfolk.

Each travelling group found a package waiting for them in the morning, courtesy of Anboor's promise. Each had food, some helpful small tools, and a lit torch to make their journey faster.

The k'nights renewed their commitments, sang a song together, and then parted ways for their respective missions. As they left, none noticed the discrete energies of blessings following in their wake.

Work began immediately after breakfast. Anboor was able to gather some of the meatier men of the tribe to help carry the lumber, and with the help of the mighty Antoph the Strong One -- the third k'night of their group -- they gathered the wood Anshumat picked out to a clear area skirting the village.

The log rolled off their shoulders after a united count and thudded onto the dirt.

Anboor, Toraph, Anshumat, and Takos stood in a row, watching the labour. Takos put his fists on his hips and nodded approvingly.

Anboor scratched his head. "You, uh...said you'd make a lever out of that thing?" he asked the others.

Anshumat inspected the logs, saying, “It would use less wood if we were to first cut and treat the wood, but teaching the village how to do that in the span of time we have would not work. We will have to make do with the logs, as it stands.”

They then pointed to a set of thicker logs. “We will need to make lengths of rope to lash those together for a base -- hemp fibres will do. Gather hemp fibres and tie them together successively until you have a length of cord as thick as your hand.”

All of them save for Anshumat looked down at their hands. Anboor breathed through his teeth, overwhelmed, but Takos was less discouraged. Takos turned his head around. "Hey, Kreekh!"

The huge humanoid pile of stones single-handedly lowered another log onto a third pile of lumber. He then looked up at Takos with his one blue eye-hole.

"Got another job for you!"

They were lucky hemp leaves were easy to draw on the ground.



Takos wiped his nose. Antoph twitched and cleared his throat. Anboor tied two full stems of hemp together end to end and held up the result with a grin.

"Did you tie it strong enough this time?" Antoph murmured. His strong build belied his surprisingly high pitched voice.

Anboor confidently closed his eyes, held his chin forward, and tugged the stem from both ends.

-Tick-

Takos put his face in his hand and Anboor groaned. Anboor opened his eyes to find his latest attempt in two pieces again.

A little frustrated, he picked up two more stems from the broad and deep pile of freshly harvested wild hemp they all sat upon.

Toraph sat with them, too, paying little attention beyond his idly pulling one stem apart, thread by thread. Something about it was soothing.

"Hold on a moment…" Takos took notice of Toraph's growing bundle of tiny threads. He leaned towards the young selka. Toraph looked back unsurely. Takos took a small bundle of the threads.

Antoph furrowed his brow. "Those are useless pieces, Takos. Look how small and thin they are. We cannot tie them together and expect anything helpful."

Takos the Clever One paid the mighty Antoph no heed. He stared closely at two threads as he twisted them together into a helix between his thumbs and fingers.

He tugged at both ends of the tiny length, and they held together. He gasped. "Antoph, turn your back to me."

Antoph began to shift. "What are you doing?"

"Just stay still! You've got the biggest back here." Takos took more of the threads and rolled them against Antoph's back to bundle them together. "I think this will make a fine 'rope' if we can get enough hemp like this!"

Toraph piped up. "The flax grass splits like that, too. Should we try that?"

"Not now, young one! We have enough plants, but not enough hands! Anboor! Gather the most dextrous of the tribe! We need all these plants made into threads."



Once the rope had been twisted and a nearby boulder half-rolled-half-pulled with the new ropes into the clearing, the work could begin in earnest. Anshumat and the rest created a base of four logs, lashing them together with lengths of twisted rope. Once the frame had been properly anchored to the ground, they then worked on the rest of the device.

Four logs were rested on each other, lashed at the top to each other and the bottom along the frame. The fifth log was placed atop the set of four, it too lashed to the device. A shorter log was similarly lashed to the bottom, connected to and flush with the bottom frame itself. Once the entire frame was created, one log was taken from the pile. Holes were drilled into both ends and a quarter length down one side.

In one end went a large wooden cup, made of crude half-logs and attached by rope and pegs to the drilled log. The log, then, was lifted up onto the frame and lifted against the top log. Lashed to it with ropes through the quarter-length hole, the arm was secured to the frame itself, though could still move about upon it.

Finally, the mechanism itself came. A rope was tied at medium tension to the middle of the frame, connected to the free end of the arm -- the side without the cup. Two more holes were drilled through the bottom frame, and rope connected to the cup fed through them at low tension.

The device itself was done -- the arm held up in the sky by the rope in the front, with lengths of rope in the back that could be pulled upon to lever back the arm. Now, after many hard days of work, it was now time for a test launch.

"I've built huts that were easier than this," Antoph said, panting the heat from his body.

"No hut will do what this will, I tell you that honestly," Takos added.

Toraph tugged at his silken hood nervously. "Are you sure it'll work? Those rocks are pretty heavy."

The demigod simply said, “The only way to know for sure is to try it.”

Anshumat called for six men to pull the two ropes in the back, in unison, to draw back the arm. The ropes creaked with a sound that stood everyone's neck fur on end. Another four loaded the boulder into the cup, and then, on Anshumat’s command, the rope was released entirely.

The arm flew upwards violently. The whole frame jerked forward at its zenith and the boulder arced far into the sky. It drifted quickly but lazily through the air for a moment, before coming back down perhaps a few hundred yards downfield. There was a violent crack and the rustle and crash of falling trees in the distance as the boulder landed.

A flock of panicked birds fluttered up from the landing site.

Antoph's eyes grew three sizes. "Kirron's heart…" he said.

Takos suddenly threw his fists into the air and laughed at the top of his lungs. He shouted across to the others. "Did you see that!?!"

The tribesfolk present involved in the project all gave cheers, whoops, and whistles.

Toraph pulled up his hood and looked closely into the distance where the rock landed. Whatever he saw, it put him in just as high spirits as those around him. "We can't call that a lever. It's not amazing enough of a word."

Anshumat silently watched, their face as hard to ascertain its expression as ever, though they stood noticeably taller. They simply breathed, “You’re right. It’s not a lever. It’s a machine of war.”

"It's a…Mang Konna Ell…" Toraph said.

Antoph turned his broad-necked head to him. "What in the depths is that meant to mean?"

Takos explained for him. "Mang Konna Ell is a warrior from a story of the River Mouth. A fighter said to hurl stones over the horizon. Challenged Kirron to a competition and lost, but they earnt fun from it, so-"

"Mankonel," Antoph crossed his arms and sniffed loudly. "Easier to remember."

Toraph grinned. "We'll call it Mankonel, then."

Anshumat walked over to the Mankonel, running their hand along the frame. They then looked back to the group, saying, “We’ll need at least a dozen of these and the boulders to fling with them -- that is why I wish to gather the tribes. We can’t man a dozen mankonels with one tribe, let alone build them.”

"Another challenge for another while," Takos said with one hand up. "First, let's put in another rock and see if we can't hit something."

Anshumat nodded, saying, “I think we can modify how far it flings the rock. Once we load the rock, if the rope is slowly allowed to pull back, we can put less energy into the throw, and hit much closer targets.”

"Hey Kreekh!" Takos called out.

Kreekh shrank a little. Please, Kreekh is not hit! the rock man said with the few words he had learnt so far.

Takos snorted. "Don't get your whiskers in a twist, we just need you to move something big out there and come back so we have something to fling rocks at!"

Oh! Kreekh can helps!

The Ihokhetlani lumbered forth.



The chief of the Sharkskin tribe tore off another mouthful of tuna. The skin audibly ripped as he pulled it back from his scowling mouth and glowered at the three k'nights sitting on the mat opposite him and his two best underlings -- his wife and his brother. Rows upon rows of dried yellow shark teeth clicked in waves from the assertiveness of his chewing, tied like so many scales as they were into a coif that drew all the way up his head and along the top of his snout.

Reph returned the look with a straight back and a stony gaze. The Sharkskins ahead of him, garbed in their long tailed capes of the same material, had been much more welcoming the first time he and the K'nights of Red Horizon passed through. The chief did not have to mention why. The Sharkskins and the River Mouth had been enemies for well over eight winters.

The Chief slowly swallowed the tuna, reveling in forcing the K’nights to wait. He roughly dropped the fish down onto the shell that held the rest of his food, growling, “Five deaths this summer alone. None of yours bled to recuperate the cost. Why should I even bother listening to a word you say?”

Reph twisted his head to Karagetak the Skilled. Their plan started here, whether it would survive first contact or not. He addressed the chief in front of him, straightforward and confident. "I've been told in detail about your feud with the River Mouth. Any good chief would be furious and saddened by the murder of their tribespeople. We do not come here to mock their deaths. We come here with the hope of preventing more. In fullness, we come with a warning, an offer, and wish to discuss the future." He turned his head down and looked up at the chief earnestly. "But the warning is not a threat from us, it is a new threat cutting down each and every selka up the river, and it'll keep cutting down the coast, into the land...straight through all of you and all of us."

The Chief narrowed his eyes, saying accusingly, “As far as I see it, your tribe is my greatest enemy. Nothing worries me of some threat conveniently out of reach that could destroy me and my tribe.”

"If you would not take it from the River Mouth tribe," Reph responded with some remorse. "Then take it from us K'nights of Red Horizon. We have lost two of our number to the Ihokhurs while exploring upriver. We wish for unity to drive them back. That is our honest goal here, if you would hear our case for it. It has our spilled blood on it, much like yours has your own spilled blood."

He still did not look particularly convinced, saying, “Then surely I would have recognized them from the last time they came through. Who of yours was killed?”

Reph sighed from his nose and downcast his eyes. "One was a new recruit. Wassamuttu the Quick One." He took a pause that his voice would not falter. "The other, you knew as Gralph the Mighty One. Our previous leader."

The tone in the hut suddenly shifted, as the chief stared in disbelief at Reph. “You are telling me Gralph is dead? What could kill that beast of a Selka?”

Slowly blinking, Reph clenched his jaw and fists. He then looked into the chief's eyes. "The Ihokhurs. Clawed people of walking black stone. Wicked and evil. They stand beyond twice the height of a selka and kill for pleasure." He relaxed his fingers. "Gralph fell covering our retreat when we found them."

The chief studied Reph for a minute, before conceding, “If I were to bring my tribe, yours will be responsible for feeding us. And if these Ihokhurs do not show up, we have punishments for liars. Is that acceptable to you?”

Reph curled his lips and nodded. "The River Mouth will feed you. But there was the third matter I mentioned to discuss. If the River Mouth and the Sharkskins are to fight together, we would see them fighting together in an accord resolving the cause for your feud. This will foster good will in this alliance."

The Sharkskin chief responded, “I’ll talk to your chief about it. I will speak no further on this matter.”

Reph bowed his head, reached for a small flint knife on his belt, and pressed a small cut on his palm. He held his fingers out, letting small droplets of blood fall before the chief. "Thank you, chief of Sharkskin," he said, and then curled his hand back.

And thus the gesture of deference was respected, and the first negotiation complete.






Anshumat

The beast had left them with wounds, and some were not shallow.




The forest was noisy this early in the morning.

Not a pleasant or relaxing kind of noise, such as waves breaking on the beach. It was a needling, distracting kind of noisy. Birds chirping and screaming. Little buzzing of flies and bees. Even the little noises of creatures in the river made the k'nights turn their heads in a jolt.

The Eaters -- those phantom grey beast things -- had attacked twice more over the last five days. They could come out of nowhere, with no warning except an unnatural rustling or twig-breaking in the middle distance. The k'nights had taken to marching in a column by the water of the river as closely as possible these days. The formations helped but they were risky. They all fought best while swimming -- a trait the Eaters thankfully did not share most of the time -- but at least one flank always remained wide.

Anshumat, for their part, was a fairly capable swimmer, permitting them to keep up with the other k’nights despite their frame not being quite as aquatic. Under the river, the selka had an uncanny instinct in their fluid formations and movements that the demigod could not easily discern themself.

After several days of travel, there was some unexplained relief, even just a trace, when the k'nights rounded the next meander of the river. They saw the water broaden out to a sparkling field of rippling green before them. The bright expanse was quiet and calm, with a line of trees on the other side wrapping around the whole feature.

Some of the k'nights, those who never ventured this far inland, audibly sounded their wonder.

"What is this place?" Wass asked.

Takos the clever one raised a finger. "I have heard stories about places like this. Orphans of the ocean, full of fish and fresh water. The upriver folks call them lakes."

"Lakes," Phialu echoed airily, stepping ahead. She breathed in with a big smile. "It's so peaceful. Do you think people live here?"

Gralph walked on with his club over one shoulder. "There used to be," he said.

Phialu blinked and jogged to catch up. "What happened to them?"

"Don't know," Gralph responded out of the corner of his mouth. "But if they were still here, they would'a said hello by now." His eyes shifted left and right warily. "Spread out a bit! Look around…"

The natural beauty of the scene was replaced by a new kind of unease. The k'nights loosened their walking order and slowed to poke around the shore of the lake.

Anshumat took their spear and detached from the group. Their sightless eyes caught to a particularly well-growing patch of plantlife. Kneeling over to investigate it, the demigod spotted the remnants of essence scattered across the dirt. Many things had bled here once. Perhaps a meat rack used to stand there.

Anshumat then stood up, looking about the clearing and thinking. They caught sight of a series of stones placed out in a seemingly deliberate manner. They walked the breadth of the stones, tracing out a circular shape in the grass. There were several of these stone circles around, and some of them still held down heavily rotten cloths and hides.

There was once a large village here, Anshumat could tell. They called out to the rest of the group, “I’ve found something!”

Several pairs of feet ran to them at a semi-urgent pace. Wass was the first to slide to a stop, remaining ever the quickest. He stooped down and picked up the cloth. Dirt and moss sloughed off and noiselessly tore away half of it, weathered and wet as it was.

"What is this?" He held it up between his fingers in both hands. "It's like that hide you're wearing, Eyebiter."

"Not hide...Woven plants." A somber looking Yim shouldered his bow as he stared at the sheet. He rarely spoke at all. "Cloth. There were people here."

The rest of the k'nights had gathered. A few started to see the shapes of gutted shelters, fallen monuments, and little scraps upon the ground.

Phialu knelt down and rummaged through the dirt with one hand. "No bones," she remarked. Where is everyone? Where did they go?"

Phassam, the tough one with his arms still scarred by the first Eater encounter, loomed behind them. "They're slaves to someone now."

"K'nights!" Gralph's voice brought an automatic attention to all of them. The great warrior selka held out his rough-notched whale bone club out over the lake. His arm did not so much as quiver at the weight he held forth. "We search in there," He said, before wading into the green waters. "Yim! Humat! You stay and keep watch up here."

Wass and Phialu exchanged a worried glance. The k'nights brought themselves to the lake at various paces and dove under the surface.

They were not under for longer than one breath of their selka lungs. Gralph went to a spot in the middle as if he knew what to find. He swam down to the lake floor and dug aside the slimy silt around a large boulder. Three shoveling motions of his large hands revealed a sudden and bright blue light from the stone.

It lit up in everyone's senses, even Anshumat's.

It was a life. A soul in the stone. Something impossible.

Gralph continued shovelling the way the silt, kicking up a great murky cloud. He poked his head out of it for just a second to beckon the onlooking k'nights to help.

Anshumat came down into the silt with Gralph quickly, scooping through the sediment of the lakebed to locate more of the stones. Through opportune glimpses caught through the thickening silt, the demigod shot questioning looks at Gralph. Gralph only glanced back, urging them on by pointing his nose.

It was a large bundle of stones they were revealing. One of them shifted in a way Anshumat at first thought was other k'nights, but there were none around with the leverage.

The stones made a harsh grinding noise under the murk, sliding free in directions gravity should not have taken them.

Gralph clicked his tongue in the water to get everyone's attention. He brought his cupped hands up to gesture lifting.

The k'nights were incredulous. Still, Gralph braced himself against the silt with his feet and wrapped his hands around the stone with the glowing light all the same.

Anshumat plunged their pointed feet into the lakebed, lodging them firmly into the mud and silt. Reaching down with their hands, they then lifted hard against the stones.

Their combined might tugged at the stones and, with slow little inches at a time, they gave way. The maw that was the ground hung onto their prize like the jaws of a bear, but after a second of relief, they heaved again.

Thoooom…

The lakebed shook and a wake brushed over them from below. Anshumat diverted their attention and saw a row of boulders reach like an snake and plant against the silt with another deep thooom.

Anshumat found the boulder they clutched rising under its own power, lifting them up with it.

They kept one hand on the stone as the other let go to permit a freer range of motion. They twisted their body to look around, taking in the silty sights of the lakebed, trying to figure out what was happening. All the k'nights had swam a short distance away with looks of astonishment.

The stones ground together again near Anshumat's arm. The highest stone turned around and revealed the shining blue eye-like hole turning level to the demigod. The same light Gralph had initially revealed.

"Little things!"

A voice sounded suddenly in the water, a little too clearly.

"Little kind little things come to help poor trapped Kreekh?"

Almost gently, two limbs of stones wrapped around Anshumat's midsection and embrace the demigod. This set of stones had a strangely large soul.

"My gratitude could not be matched by a god of thank-yous! Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Anshumat’s outer shell protected the demigod from the worst of the pressure. They looked at the soul creature that had emerged from the dirt, and then back at the K’nights, somewhat bewildered at what was happening.

Looking especially unsure back at Anshumat, Phorea the Keen curled her fingers and thumb into a circle and pat it against her chest. The gesture was a sign one picked up on quickly diving with the selka. Are you okay?

Anshumat nodded quickly to them; the creature didn’t seem hostile and they were not in pain.

Nevertheless, opening their mouth underwater wasn’t a good idea for an air-breathing creature, regardless of Anshumat’s status as a divine being, and so they kept their mouth shut.

Phorea looked across to Gralph and ran a nervous hand over her head.

Gralph looked at the creature and tapped his fingernails firmly against his club to get its attention.

"Hmm? Big little thing." The blue 'eye' of the stone creature turned to Gralph.

Gralph pointed to the shore, looked at the others, and directed them as well. The k'nights swam behind him towards the shore.

"Wait for me, little things!" Anshumat was finally released. The rock creature spread its arms to keep balance as it lumbered across the lakebed behind the selka.

The k'nights were gathered up and still dripping near the ruined village by the time Anshumat broke the surface of the water and caught up to them. They all had their eyes on the lake as the rock with the blue eye quietly displaced water as it rose from the surface, eventually turning into a water-darkened walking humanoid slate boulder clutch, dirtied from the waist down with brown silt. One arm was bigger than the other to the point where it stood with an awkward left-lean.

Its small right arm excitedly gave them all a wave.

"Little things! Do not run so soon, please! I was so lonely under there and for so long I thought I could not count to a number any higher! I began inventing numbers just to keep going."

Everyone was thoroughly confused except for Gralph, who simply stood with his arms crossed and his brow low.

"Er...everyone else is hearing its voice, right?" Kyko the Smiling One asked.

The others slowly nodded.

"Ooooh, you speak a coastal dialect," the rock figure 'said'. "I never did get to learn that language. The Ihokhurs always cut the tongues out of the little things they caught. Even then, I was not allowed to make friends easily as a slave."

Anshumat quickly remembered that the mortal k'nights did not have the gift of understanding all languages as divines like themself did.

The demigod stepped out in between the group and the creature, saying to the gathered selka, “He didn’t harm me. It was more of a hug. I think he was stuck down there and we freed him.”

They then looked over to the rock figure, taking their spear, and using the tip to clear out a patch of dirt from plants, began to draw in it. They drew a comically overweight rendition of Gralph pointing to the lake. An arrow pointed from that scene to the next, a rendition of all the Selka digging out the stones, with another arrow leading to all of them looking confused as the creature emerged.

The k'nights craned their heads to look, but kept their distance from the rock figure, who leaned over the little pictures.

"Hmmm...Oh! Oh, of course, you are from the coast! You must have never met any Ihokhetlani!" The rocky creature curled its too-long left arm up and three stones extended like a thumb to point at the top of its head. "Kreeeeeekh," it said slowly, before extending its hand towards Anshumat. "What is your name, thin little thing?"

Anshumat pointed to their own head, enunciating slowly and clearly, “Anshumat.” They then turned pointing to each Selka in turn, in the expectation that they would say their name as well.

"Rephaemle?"
"Takos."
"Antoph."
"Phorea. Nice to meet you?""
"...Yim."
"Wassamuttu."
"Phialu."
"Karagetak's the name, wha?"
"Humat."
"Kyko!"
"Hiphaeleon~"
"Phassam!
"Gralph."

"Ah! You must be the biggest little one, right here!" Kreekh tapped the fat drawing on the dirt.

Gralph smirked. "Anshumat has a knack for making me look thinner."

No one laughed, and it was not because of the joke.

"Hey Gralph," Reph piped up, pointing a thumb at Kreekh. "You understand this thing?"

Gralph snorted. "No. But what's the bet he recognised me from that drawing there, eh?"

"Oh, right."

"You are a fascinating little group!" Kreekh said. "But if I am to repay you in any way, I should start by warning you that this place is not safe for little things such as yourselves. The Ihokhurs are not far from here, and they have greater might and numbers than all of you. They are like me, but cruel, spikey, angry, and...stronger."

Anshumat looked back at Gralph, as if to question him over what to do about the warning.

Gralph kept looking at the blue 'eye' of Kreekh and tilted his head to one side. "Anshu, can you figure a way to ask how he got buried stuck on the bottom of the lake?"

Anshumat turned back to the rock creature, scuffing the dirt clean of pictures before drawing a rendition of the rock being, with an arrow pointing to another rendition of them under the lakebed. The second rendition was accompanied with several confused expressions, disembodied from any Selka, as if to ask a question.

Kreekh fidgeted in place, holding his small arm in his big hand. "The Ihokhurs...knew I was afraid of fish, so they picked me up and buried me under the lake." He tried to rally. "I put up a fight! I panicked, as it happens, and they had a hard time moving all our big bodies under the water, but there were too many for dear old Kreekh."

"We still don't understand your words," Kyko the Smiling One helpfully called out.

Kreekh virtually jolted and looked around. "Er...right...well...hm, how should I…" The Ihokhetlani took a few paces back and began a charade of growls and eeks and other vocalisations helping his rough mime of some angry and cruel version of him pushing him into the lake. It was hardly very helpful to anyone, though the k'nights could make guesses.

Phorea the Keen went first. "He was put there by someone else?"

"Maybe a few of them," Takos the Clever added, stroking his chin. "We should be careful in case there are more nearby…"

"Must've been some effort," Gralph said, looking pointedly at Anshumat. "Hey Eyebiter, how well do you think these things move in the water? That'd be important to know."

Gralph was not the most subtle of selkas, but the other k'nights hardly had the context to realise what he was emphasising.

"But anyway," Gralph continued. "If this one's friendly, then we should get more answers and then get moving."

The game of pictures, mimes, and body language went on for as long as Gralph was patient to do so. Anshumat and Gralph had no trouble understanding the raw words, though the k'nights were left with incomplete information.

There were selka in the ruined village before. They were taken by the cruel people Kreekh referred to. What that entailed, they could only guess. What they could know, once they got it into Kreekh's mind, was the way to the settlement of the cruel folk. Kreekh began to lead them there. They were likely the upriver folk in trouble they were told of.



"The Ihokhurs camped just around this river bend," Kreekh said and pointed a stony finger. "We should be very quiet from now on or they'll catch us." He pressed his fingers to the surface just below his blue 'eye'. The k'night's hushed one another.

"Keep your clubs out," Gralph murmured. He gestured with his head up to a rise thick with trees. "We'll go up this way."

Making no noise but unavoidable rustling of leaves, the k'nights slinked in the shadow of the tree canopy. A clearing was up ahead by the river bank, and on Gralph's command, they all laid prone against the ground, crawling the rest of the way to the bushes at the summit of the rise.

"Wait!" Kreekh said in a hush. "I miscounted! They should be around several more bends than this! I can tell by the shadows and the souls. Heh, I forgot some of my made up numbers don't make sense above water."

Kreekh was waved off by Reph, told to stay a short distance behind due to his size.

"Oh, are they here after all? Odd. Nevermind." He slumped into a seated position against a tree. "Maybe they moved for once…"

The clearing itself was an expanse of trees beaten and shredded to splinters, whether out of practicality or plain fury was unclear. The k'nights stared at the inhabitants of the clearing with nervous eyes and shallow breath.

Striding and milling around like black ticks grown to gigantic sizes were an overwhelming number of Ihokhurs, sized similarly to Kreekh, but just as he had described in his soundless words. They were bristling with dark and jagged rocky edges, pushing one another around in sport and in anger. What the k'nights laid eyes on could level any village in a stampede.

"There must be hundreds of them," Wass breathed between Anshumat and Phialu.

Phialu bared her teeth tensely. "...These are what took the lake selka?" She narrowed her eyes. "But where are they? Phorea, Anshu, do you see anyone?"

"Mm-m." Phorea shook her head.

Anshumat peeked out at the clearing, their blind eyes gazing over the length and breadth of it. They scanned once, twice, and then solemnly shook their head.

"We were meant to find them…" Gralph said solemnly. His eyes were fixed upon the dark creatures with a silent, growing rage. "They were meant to be saved…" His large webbed hands audibly curled around the soil beneath his palms.

Anshumat silently and subtly turned their head, watching Gralph from the corner of their eyes. They remained silent, still gripping their spear as they slowly brought the undergrowth back up, fully concealing themself from the clearing.

Gralph's mouth opened to a snarl, but it was interrupted by something catching his attention from above. Up in the sky.



Reph looked up and saw nothing but the tree branches. "What is it, Gralph?"

And then, disregarding his stealth, Gralph slowly stood up, still looking at the sky through the leaves. His chest rose and fell with emotion. "Is that what it is now, huh?!" He spread his arms up. "Throw some rocks around to waste all the potential!?!"

"Gralph! Keep it down!" Reph hissed. "Get back to cover!"

"Could you not have got over yourself in time, coward!?!" Gralph roared loud enough to make all the fur on the back of the k'nights' necks stand on end.

In the clearing, quite a number of Ihokhurs stopped in place and turned their sinister red 'eyes' towards Gralph.

Reph was about to speak up again, only to find the tip of Gralph's club pointing at him. "Reph! Take the k'nights, take Kreekh, swim back down river as fast as you can." He hefted his club over his shoulder, revealing raw fury in his selka face. "These things killed the missing selka and they'll come to kill the rest. You all need to hold them by the ocean."

The Ihokhurs threw aside what they were doing and began to close in.

"Us all?" Reph cried. "What about you!?"

Gralph turned back towards the Ihokhurs and strode forward. "Just do as I say, Reph!" He spat over his shoulder.

"Gralph, wait!" Reph stood up out of his cover, breathing frantically. "There are too many! Come back!"

A foreign but familiar roar screamed out from the sky behind the k'nights. Swooping a shadow over them and landing to a stop beside Gralph was none other than Stixis, the crimson dragon blinded by Anshumat's spear. He held his head low to take in the scents and the sounds ahead.

Another, lower and more bestial roar sounded from further down on the river bed, as splashing violently out of the water was the huge grey shape of Yimbo, the guardian seal.

With Gralph between them, the two monsters advanced to meet the Ihokhurs' stride.

Anshumat was briefly stunned, turning their full attention to Gralph, bewildered, as he suddenly jumped into action. They turned to look at the rest when Gralph ordered them to retreat, and they slowly began to back off from the angered Selka and his creatures.

Then, the demigod called out to the rest. “Stick together! This is no longer our fight! We need to get back!”

With a wave of their spear into the air to garner attention, the demigod began to retreat.

The k'nights were waved out of their own bewildered states one-by-one with Anshumat's order, Reph being the last to turn away with tears brimming his eyes. They fell in and began their jog through the trees.

They were panting with mixed fear and shock by the time they got to Kreekh, who moved his head quickly to keep track of them.

Hiphaeleon the beautiful gracefully pat the Ihokhetlani's arm on his way past. "Get to the river, rock man!"

Kreekh stood his cumbersome body up, but Wass skidded to a halt.

"Wait!" Wass shouted. He looked all around him. "Where's Phialu!?"

Some k'nights slowed.

"Keep going to the river!" Reph shouted.

Wass breathed in and bellowed, "WHERE'S PHIALU!?!" With no answer, he ducked into a sprint back towards the clearing.

"Shit." Reph bared his teeth. "Wassamuttu!"

“No! Stop!” Anshumat screamed hoarsely at Wass as he took off, skidding into a tumble as they desperately redirected their weight to try and switch directions. “Don’t! There’s too many for one Selka!” Their tumble was halted with a violent impact with a tree, and they were back up in a flash, panting as they immediately picked up pace once again, this time back the way they came.

Wass disappeared into the foliage.

The demigod gave the rest one brief glance, yelling, “Keep going! Don’t look back!”

Reph panted through his teeth, hesitating, before pointing his club at Anshumat. "See you at the river!" He said before running to follow the remaining k'nights.

Anshumat’s muscles bulged out of the holes in their shell for finger joints, as they gripped their spear as tightly as possible. The ground skidded wildly by under them as they ran, roots and holes narrowly missed. “Wass! Come back!” Anshumat desperately screamed, their head wildly swinging about as they searched. Little flickers of Wass' essence peeked through the woods. Following the traces brought Anshumat to the edge of the clearing again.

Nearest to him, in the clearing and to the right, Stixis brought all his draconic might down upon Ihokhurs all around him. His tail, claws, and teeth ripped the stone people from their footing and sent them flying. The Ihokhurs were given no quarter by his blindness. To the left, near the river, Yimbo took Ihokhurs into its mouth one or two at a time and either ground the stone to pieces between its teeth or took them back into the water, only to be thrashed about with such uncanny force as to be scattered to pieces like a clumps of flying dirt. In the centre was Gralph, now glowing with outward godly power in Anshumat's senses. The Ihokhurs gave the disguised god a wide berth, as every one that hazarded a swipe at the comparatively small overgrown selka was met by his speeding club and was shattered with unnatural strength.

All three held something of a line. All three were gaining wounds slashed into their flesh by bladelike stone fingers and arms. But they were not Anshumat's objective.

Along the edge of the clearing, the tiny red light of Wass' essence ran after an even more distant red essence; Phialu, trying to sneak around the commotion.

A desperate breath welled in Anshumat’s throat, as they watched Wass plunge across the edge of the clearing. Such an obvious act was bound to gain the attention of the Ihokhurs, and the demigod felt terrified of such a thing. If any one of them took notice now, Wass would be too far away for Anshumat to catch up in time. Regardless, they broke back into their run.

"Phialu!" Wass shouted foolishly.

Phialu stopped and spun around, bow in hand. She saw Wass and her face twisted in dread. Go back! Run! She mouthed under the commotion.

Wass kept closing the distance, just as Anshumat was closing the gap between him and them. They might catch him in time.

But to their left, a group of at least twelve Ihokhurs thundered forward -- towards Phialu.

Phialu froze for a crucial second before sprinting into the woods away from them.

"NO!" Wass reached out. And Anshumat was on him.

Anshumat began to skid again as they tried to grab hold of Wass’ clothes, to pull him back. Wass resisted. They screamed, “RUN! WASS, RUN!” With a wild jerk, they threw their spear at the lead Ihokhurs.

The spear flew in an arc. It struck an Ihokhur on its head swiftly enough to cause the creature to flinch back, even if it pinged ineffectually off the stone. The movement brought the group to a halt.

"No! Let go!" Wass grabbed Anshumat's hand and twisted them close, desperate and panicked. "Get Phialu! She's looking for survivors! She has to live! Please!"

“You need to run! Now! You need to get out of here!” Anshumat yelled at them, glancing back at the Ihokhurs. They were closing in, but they split between both them and Phialu's retreat. “Just go! You can’t face these odds! I’m not letting you die here!”

"This is my word!" Wass screamed back. "This is my desire! You said that should be enough! If you hold me in any regard you will get her out alive!"

“I will, but you need to get out alive first! Please, go! Run!” Anshumat shook Wass, a moment later feeling the rush of air behind them. Anshumat instinctively sidestepped, letting go of Wass for just enough time to see him turn and look up upon death.

There was a sickening crunch as the rocky fist descended downwards. Blood sprayed.

Anshumat thought they felt themselves screaming, but they couldn’t be sure. Adrenaline hit and everything slowed. A golden fury lit in Anshumat’s veins and the demigod sicced themselves on the Ihokhurs like a rabid, cornered dog.

Their strikes landed with the strength of a hundred Selka, the demigod smitten with the terrible fires of divine rage. Great blasts of force sent shattered rubble flying in exploded gouges from the wildly swiping and lumbering Ihokhurs. With great difficulty, they tried and failed to surround the darting divine or land a single solid blow.

A third Ihokhur crumbled under their strikes.

A fourth fell apart after half its torso was blown to pieces.

Then time slowed down. Anshumat was barely out of the way of Gralph's feet as he flew in from the sky and slammed his club upon the dirt, causing a shockwave that blasted up a cloud of tree splinters and earth. Anshumat and all the Ihokhurs around them were thrown to the ground.

Gralph immediately stomped up and tugged Anshumat up by the lapel of their robe. He was covered in black dust and his eyes burned with the fast-breathing rage of a blood god. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!?" he roared, pale sharp selka teeth shining.

He did not let them answer. Gralph effortlessly threw Anshumat in a great arc. Anshumat flailed as they spiraled, desperately trying to keep eyes on Wass’ body. As it grew distant, the ground swallowed sight of it, and the violent battle around it ensured it wouldn’t be found again. Then the dirt rose up to meet the demigod’s body. With a plume of dust and horrific creaks of bodily strain, Anshumat cratered.

Dazed, they laid low to the ground, no longer sure where they were. A groan escaped them, and they slowly lifted their head. They lay at the edge of the clearing, with no idea where Wass had once been. Their rage slowly bubbled again as they desperately surveyed the clearing for the body, and climbing to their feet, they bellowed at Gralph.

An animalistic scream emerged from their jaw, split wide open, as they charged Gralph, driven by blind rage at the loss of Wass’ body.

The Ihokhurs around Gralph were either dead or retreating, scattered and driven at the heels by Stixis and Yimbo. Gralph himself turned around just gradually enough to face Anshumat that his deep frown and wild eyes were their only warning.

Anshumat was too far lost in their rage to care. In their hand emerged a gleaming lance of divine energy. Anshumat leaped forwards and drove the lance towards Gralph’s head. Then his head was not there.

The world stopped. A crunch of crackling shell leapt from an impact that compressed Anshumat's midsection and sent their head and limbs flicking to a stop before them. Their body went limp, succumbing to a painfully winded paralysis as they hung suspended on Gralph's fist, planted firmly against their stomach.

Gralph had ducked low. He spoke from below Anshumat's shoulder. "That's enough, Anshumat," he said, low and firm.

Gralph then raised Anshumat up, and -- calmly this time -- threw the demigod across the air. Anshumat screamed one last curse at Gralph before all they could perceive was the rush of air. They spun wildly, unable to focus on any one thing, their world a hazy blur of movement.

Then, before they had even seen or realized, the trees greeted the demigod with malice. Anshumat, for their part, smashed three of them before finally coming to a stop, their landing finally complete at the base of an old oak.

Blood leaked from both Anshumat’s midsection and head. Their consciousness fell away.



Muted water ran by their ears.

They were cold, dangling in a current.

They were pulled along. Dragged along.

A female voice struggled.

Rain fell in heavy droplets on leaves. Thunder rolled.

A flash of light lit up in Anshumat's blind eyes. Natural, but sudden. They stirred and clutched a thoroughly bruised torso.

"Don't move too much," the voice said. It was Phialu. "You're hurt pretty bad."

Anshumat hoarsely murmured, “Wass?”

"...He and you ran after me," she said, looking into a campfire between them. Her voice bounced off the walls of the cave around them. "I wasn't noticed until…"

Another flash of lightning filled the cave with white for a split second.

"You idiots just ran in…" She drew her knees up to her chest. "You drew them, you…" She pressed her face to her knees. "That idiot," she sobbed.

Anshumat stirred slightly, the movement causing them to violently hack blood. Collapsing back down, they simply cried out, “Wass!”

Phialu sucked in two sharp breaths. "After the rock men ran away...I couldn't find him."

Anshumat let out a wordless sob.

Above the clouds, thunder rolled without every lightning strike prompting as a blood god shattered more stone.







Anshumat

Behold, the awesome fires of God. Observe how it is used the same way as a sharp rock.




"Are you sure he said it would be there?"

"He said it would be there on time, Takos. Don't be such a cynic."

Takos scoffed. "Well, Gralph, one of us has gotta be the smart one. Two games of knucklebone gambit with you shows that."

The gathered k'nights chuckled amongst themselves, Gralph included.

"Yeah, yeah, at least it's more than one," Gralph dismissed. "One of us has to be the patient one too, hm?"

"He's got you there, Takos. You can't sit still for ten minutes."

"Oh, shoosh." Takos lightly swatted Reph next to him on the upper arm without looking away from the river mouth. "S'far as I see it, if Kirron said when the horizon goes red we'd see our trial home, we should be seeing our trial home now."

It was already past the orange time of the sunset behind them and well into the pink time. The water of the huge river mouth before them distantly clashed with the sea breaking waves against its flow. The water glimmered with foam and light from the last traces of the sun.

The coast turned red in the short time the k'nights and their aspirants spent regarding the coming night time. That was when Gralph tapped his foot against the sand. Only Anshumat, the demigod watching with them, could perceive the effect that small movement evoked.

It started with a silent vibration under the beach. The k'nights and the recruits behind them peered down at their feet and the world around them, looking for its source. No trees had fallen, no rocks were tumbling, and no crashing waves were so big as to make such a quivering under their heels.

"Look there!" Phorea, the k'night with the keenest eyes, pointed her bulky arm out to the sea just beyond the river mouth. "Something's rising!"

At first it was five straight pale stone pillars slowly reaching out of the roiling water like petrified fingers of an emaciated hand. Instead of a palm, a flat paved platform noisily broke the surface of the sea, pulling with it five spiralling flights of stairs from below. Each flight emanated outward and curled in unison towards their lefts.

Not halfway through the first structure's ascent, a great shallow-steepled red roof washed water to either side beyond and east of the platform, revealing its supports to be closely set white colonnades set into a solid smooth foundation. The two features met when a great surface of earth and stone burst out at their bases, immediately springing out a layer of green grass. The image of the gently sloping hill rose like a lush carpet draped lazily over the stump of some colossal felled tree.

The hill did not rise for long before yet more little structures wrought of earthworks and more white stone seeped out of the ocean at irregular places around it. The final great reveal was the entire enterprise conjoined by a near-flat plane of grass woven with orderly seawater canals. The whole small artificial island had arisen, sculpted and ready, covered in all sorts of mystic stone and earth formations in a structured and purposeful manner.

The rumbling earth went silent, and so did the crowd of selka onlookers.

All except for Gralph. "Looks to be within swimming distance. Good." He lumbered around to face the k'nights. "Alright, the Red Horizon revealed our new home. K'nights, you know what to do for the trial. Get to it. I'll send the candidates out once I see the light at the front of the big building on the hill. Got it?!"

"Yep!" The k'nights all said in unison, more out of habit than shaking off the dissonance in their eyes. They took another second for that -- hardly hiding their shaken faces while gathering up a bunch of equipment tied up in cords and hides. They jogged off towards the water to swim to the new island without looking back.

Gralph finally addressed the gathered candidates, including Anshumat and the brothers Wass and Anboor, who both looked shocked enough to each catch a thrown fish in their gaping mouths.

"Tonight, you'll be heading up to that hill one by one," Gralph said, pointing up to the huge pillar with the spiralling stairs and the great column-wrapped building. "You'll need to grab a torch that Reph will light up before you start. Your job is to go on your own, take it to the water-" he held an invisible stick in his hand and mimed dunking one end into the sand "-snuff it out, and swim back here with it."

Gralph grew serious and continued. "Anyone who wants to back out, you can do so any time you want. There'll be no shame in it. Not everyone's up to becoming a k'night. Let alone a k'night that will head with us upriver tomorrow. Any questions?"

Anboor naturally had the first question, having finally closed his mouth to pay attention. "Ain't that easier than it should be? Why are k'nights so big if all they've got to do to join is grab a torch and put it out?"

Crossing his arms across his broad chest, Gralph grunted down at Anboor. "You been on that island before, boy?"

Anboor quickly breathed in and realised he had not. He blinked. "Of course not, it just rose up out of nowhere a moment ago."

"Then you don't know what it's gonna take," Gralph rumbled. He turned his eyes up to the rest. "As I said. There's no shame if this ain't something you can do."

"Uh, Gralph?" Anboor piped up again, more cautiously this time. "What's on that island?"

Gralph raised his brow and looked over his shoulder. He turned back to Anboor and shrugged. "Dunno. It just rose up out of nowhere a moment ago."

Wass snorted.

Anboor's face flushed red.

Gralph was not laughing. He looked over Anboor's head. "Anyone else got questions?"



Darkness had quickly taken over the coast by the time Gralph and the candidate selka spotted the tiny flicker of yellow torchlight. It glimmered from the front of the large colonnaded building, ready to be sought.

"About damn time," Gralph hoisted himself up from his sitting position. "Alright, who wants to go first?"

Between the ominous unknowns of Gralph's challenge and the nighttime uncertainty the dark artificial island radiated, the present members of the river mouth tribe were fidgeting with anxiety. They looked to one another expectantly.

Gralph waited and watched.

After two agitated breaths through his nose, Anboor stood up. "I'll go."

Wass glanced around and took his ankle. "Bro, you don't have to go first," he hissed. "You don't need to save face or nothing, it was just honest questions you had."

Anboor shook off his brother's grasp. "No, I wanna go first. I reckon this is some kinda trick and I'm not gonna be scared."

Gralph flashed a grin. "Good stuff." He jerked his head toward the island. "Go on, then."

Anboor hesitated as if expecting a more formal ready-set-go. He awkwardly broke into a run across the beach and dove gracefully into the waves.

Wass noticed how suddenly difficult it was to see his brother in the waves. The white fire in the sky was casting some light down, but not nearly enough.

Gralph stood and waited.

"Uh," Wass spoke. "Do we all wait for him, or…?"

"We wait." Gralph did not turn around.

Somehow, the wait for Anboor to return felt longer than anything they had waited for previously. All had their eyes pinpoint focussed on the torch in the distance. It did not budge at all.

The village would be settling in to sleep soon. Wass did not feel sleepy.

They waited.

And they waited.

Wass sat down. They waited.

Finally, the sound of legs wading up out of the waves drew away everyone's attention. It was Anboor.

Wass' heart sank at the look on Anboor's face as he walked in broad, rushed paces up the beach. Anboor was breathing shallowly. His arms and knees shuddered and his eyes looked about ready to pop from their sockets.

Wass stood up. "Anboor! Are you alright?"

Anboor stopped. He turned his eyes slowly up to Gralph and swallowed hard between breaths. "I couldn't...I can't do it. I-I'm not…" He broke into a sprint back into the village. He pulled his forearm up to cover his eyes, letting out a sob.

"He's not hurt," Gralph said. "Just spooked. Let him go."

"But he's my brother-"

Gralph spun to meet Wass' eyes. "Let him go or you give up here."

Wass paled. He glanced over to the still running Anboor and back to Gralph. He tried to fight off the concern on his face and, reluctantly, sat back down.

"Who's next?" Gralph asked.

Hagaph tried next. He was the oldest and was just there to get out of marrying a girl he didn't like.

He came back weeping.

The complications of the trial were becoming clearer. The twins Timma and Leph stood up and walked away from the challenge before they could start.

Yoia was after him. She had a will of iron and a voice that could shout anyone down.

She came back shrieking semi-coherently about ghosts and monsters.

Another candidate, the quick-minded Phammos, gave up in turn. If there was a trick, it was not worth solving.

The strong wrestler Ronk flexed his muscles as he rose to the challenge, despite his still puny size in comparison to Gralph.

He returned to the beach empty-eyed, lifelessly muttering to Gralph his concession before shuffling off to bed.

That was that. All the remaining candidates walked away, except for three. The demigod Anshumat, Wass, and the quiet young woman, Phialu. Phialu was a part of the one family that worshipped Kelmre in the village. The whole family was a dour lot.

Wass was getting tired and nervous to the point of short breathing. He considered leaving on more than one occasion. Each time, he did not know what kept him there. Or, in reality, he knew but he did not want to admit it.

He would never get this chance again. He had to try, just like Anboor did.

"Well, one of you's gotta succeed tonight," Gralph said with his fists on his hips. "As much as I can compliment you all sticking around, the trial is the trial, not the waiting. Come, who wants to win?"

Wass stood up without looking at Gralph.

Gralph tilted his head.

Wass walked past Gralph, towards the island.

Gralph smiled as Wass broke into a jog and dove into the garden-lit waves.

He had to try.



The swim to the island was colder than usual. The nighttime did not just cool the air and water that Wass traversed, but the pale light from above set the whole world into a blue like an impending rain. Wass focussed to keep his sense of direction. Before long, the solid ground of the island met his hands and knees.

He looked left. He looked right. The island did not move. The eerie scattered stoneworks held their pose.

Wass lifted himself from the water and crept ashore. If there was something to spook everyone before him, he would try to evade its notice.

Sneaking from stone structure to stone structure was a lung-emptying experience. He was in enemy territory. It felt like it. Every shape in the corner of Wass' eyes made his heart jump. Every distant breaking of waves against the island's east made the back of his neck prickle.

But the island was apparently lifeless.

Wass came upon more peculiar structures as he progressed. Four identical structures, each twice as tall as him, stood circling an empty patch of grass big enough to fit at least twenty selka across standing shoulder to shoulder. Each of the four structures had steep steps based in the inner clearing and climbing up to nothing.

Wass climbed up one of the structures to get a better view of his surroundings. He spotted the flickering torch up the hill beyond.

A black flicker caught the corner of his eye -- he ducked for cover as a reflex.

His heart pounded. He held his breath and listened carefully.

Another wave crashed in the distance.

Making no sound, Wass climbed down and pressed on.

The next stone structure was a similar bank of steps, though shorter, longer, and parallel to a long clearing of grass, marked with lines in the grass where bare dirt showed.

"Boolwa…" His ear tensed at a distant, low, gutterally hooted word.

Wass ducked behind the side of the long stone steps.

One of his eyes peeked around. Nothing in the direction of the sound.

"Booooolwa torlac…" Another voice.

Wass spun and saw nothing amongst the structures. That one had come from the other direction.

He immediately ducked into a low run over the long field with the lines to find a better hiding place.

When he hid, he knelt and took a long, silent breath. His heart drummed furiously.

The words were a downbeach dialect. He did not know it well, but he knew the words.

Boolwa torlac… He mouthed. 'Useless meat.'

"Boooolwa…"

Another source of the voice accompanied the sound of grass crumpling under slow feet.

The hidden creatures might have known where he was. They might not. He could not risk it.

He needed to get to the torch, fast.

Wass ducked into a run, trying to keep low to stay obscured behind the stone structures.

Many of them were just more of the steps. Others had strange shapes he could not quickly analyse.

"...Tooooorlac!" Another voice ground out the word like a belch.

Thoughts of phantoms and monsters struck Wass' panicking thoughts. He did not look back now for fear they might meet his eyes in the flesh.

"Tooooorlac!"

Wass was close to the hill now. He was in an outright sprint. He could hear more sprinting behind him.

The words were howled out by one of them.

"BOOOOLWA!"

His legs took him faster than any time in his entire life.

He thundered to the base of the hill and leapt up its slope in broad strides. He heaved in breath after breath.

He was the fastest and most stubborn in the village. He could outrun them. The yellow light of the torch carried a shine onto the grass at the crest of the hill.

Then a shadow cast over the centre of the yellow blades. And with it a grotesque, oily, black, elongated head reached Wass' vision. It was attached to something vaguely selka-shaped, but with arms so long it walked on all fours. It's bony elbows stuck out like barbs, and its legs bent in two places before reaching its feet. A dark, opaque liquid dripped from the creature's chin. It smelled of fresh blood.

Wass halted.

The creature rolled in a breath between a fat tongue and the roof of its mouth like an inward growl. And it howled madly. "TOOOOOOOOOOORLAAAAAAAC!"

Wass shuffled back, his face in a rictus that whimpered on the edge of a scream. He broke into a run across the hill. He glanced down the hill and saw two more of the hideous long-limbed monsters skittering up towards his heels.

He no longer thought straight. He ran and ran, barely keeping his footing on the slope. He did not descend yet, for he had no idea if more were hiding between the stone structures below. He could see better from here. He glanced desperately around for an escape route.

He could not find one before a paved channel of water flowing down the hill obstructed his path.

He was no longer thinking straight. He leaned forward to run up and jumped.

He landed on the other side, barely, before overbalancing. His front struck the grass. He whipped an arm to one side and clutched the hill. Another nudge and he would have entered an uncontrollable roll.

He lifted his head up to see his pursuers.

They did not take long to catch up, but by the time Wass was on his feet again, they all stopped by the channel of rushing water. One stepped a long arm in and suddenly slipped to one shoulder. The others stalked side to side, watching Wass like hungry jaguars.

They snarled out of their disgusting long faces. "Boolwa!" "Boolwa torlac." "Boolwa." One had a long clear gobbet of saliva threading from its mouth, stained with more dark blood. "Boolwa. Boolwa."

Wass looked up at the glowing turf at the hill's crest. Now was his chance. He pushed himself up the hill and beheld the great structures that rose out of the sea.

The stone monuments were enormous this close.

The tower of exposed stairs stood like a mythical tree the size of at least an entire Yimbo if he could stand up. The collonaded building looked so imposing and cavernous that it could have been a cage for a legendary beast. The stonework between them was impossibly heavy. Only the strength of a god could have lifted them.

But Wass did not have time to marvel. The columns and the tower were lit with weak yellow light. Its source, the tiny torch, was his objective.

To his left, the 'Boolwa's resumed in force as all of them ran in an insectile skittering gait to a paved bridge over the flowing channel.

Wass sprinted. He was the quickest, he knew.

He closed the distance up to the torch where it sat, stuck into a stone basket filled with soil at the base of the great colonnades.

He grabbed it.

A sickening sucking sound drew his eyes to another shape emerging from behind the columns. Another black-slicked, elongated monster. It shouted out inselkaly. "We eat your worth! Useless meat, eaten! K'nights in our stomachs!"

"Boolwa torlac!" The pursuing monsters crossed the bridge.

"Boolwa!" Another two crested the hill ahead of Wass, where he had intended to continue running.

"Booooooooolwaaaaa!" Three more emerged from the columns.

Wass turned around and stopped his steps. Two more slathering monsters pulled themselves up the crest he had just climbed up.

"Uuuuuseless meat!" The more understandable one said, taking slow, spidery steps on its four extremities. "Go back to your useless tribe. Die. We eat your worth. We eat your k'nights!"

Wass held up the torch and flinched to threaten the monster back. It was a bluff -- the monsters outnumbered him.

Still, it hesitated. "Put out the light and we eat your worth and your flesh…" The last word bubbled out in the monster's cheeks as it salivated. "Boolwa torlac…"

The monsters circled Wass, slathering and gurgling sounds from their disgusting throats. "Booolwa…"

Wass heard the crash of a distant wave. His terror found clarity for just the right split second.

He turned and sprinted. Not for the crest of the hill. Not for the columns. Not for the bridge. For the waterway.

The monsters skittered after the light he held. The light leapt with Wass into the watery channel and winked out with a hiss. His eyes went dark, previously adjusted to the night but blotted out by the now dead torchlight.

Wass only had water up to his knees, but it was enough. He pushed off the floor of the flowing water and his selka limbs took him shooting off forward with the current. He met the crest of the hill and slid without stopping. Not even scraping the end of the torch against the stone slide slowed him down worth a damn.

The opening of one of the island's straight canals rushed up to his nose.

The world was engulfed in the mute tone of water.

He broke the surface and looked up.

All the monsters ran in sprints down the hill after them, midway through howling incoherently.

But there were new words that chilled Wass' bones. "WRAAAAADAAAA TOOORLAAAC! WRAAAAADAAAA TOOORLAAAC!"

Prey meat.

Wass ducked under the water and swam faster than he ever had in his life. But he was the quickest. He knew.

He heard the howls from the island's shore long after he was back in the relative safety of the sea.



Wass pulled himself up the sandy shore of the mainland so quickly he felt like his legs would fall apart if he so much as slowed down.

To everyone else, he looked ready to cough his heart up through his neck. Phialu gasped when she saw the charred stick in Wass' hand. Wass himself was barely able to stumble his way up to Gralph before he fell flat on his face, his chest swelling and receding feverishly.

Wass shakily rolled himself onto his back, showing a front covered in sand and holding up a snuffed torched to Gralph.

Gralph stooped to take the torch. "You did it, Wass." He said with a smirk. "Congratulations."

Wass slumped back onto the ground, his head back and smiling stupidly. A gallows laughter bubbled up from his chest.

Phialu stepped up to them. "You did it!? W-what did you see, Wass? How did you do it?"

"Ah!" Gralph held up the torch. "Don't spoil it. You've still got your turn to go. See?" He pointed to the island again. Another torch had been lit.

Words caught in Phialu's throat. She glanced between Gralph, Anshumat, and Wass on the ground.

Wass pulled his head up to see it, and a sudden wave of rational confusion took his mind, but he did not speak.

"Come on, we don't have all night," Gralph said.

Phialu looked at Wass one last time, huffed with determination, clenched her fists, and ran for the water.

After about a minute, Wass sat up slowly. He still had not caught his breath. "That was...I never seen anything like it. I thought I was gonna die."

"Good," Gralph said. "That means you were tested."

"But-"

"No spoilers. Wait until after."

Wass fell onto his back again.

He did not know Phialu very well. Why she was here was anyone's guess considering she was not very social. Apparently, she was easy to piss off, but Wass thought she was kind of cute, if from a distance.

He hoped Phialu would win the trial as well. It would be nice to have someone else from the village come with them.

But those monsters were fast and well hidden. A worry niggled the back of his mind. The worry grew into the next few minutes. And then it grew into the next several more minutes.

The night wore on just a little more, and the worry prevented Wass' exhausted body from falling asleep. His eyes grew sharp upon the light in the distance. Now that he knew the trial was possible to complete, he looked on with just as much attention as he did with Anboor's shot earlier that night.

Then the light moved. And it winked out. Wass stood up.

Phialu had the snuffed torch.

Before long, the shape of Phialu emerged from the beach. She was limping and clutching her arm.

Still, with grit teeth and determined steps, she made her way up to Gralph and handed in her torch.

"You okay?" Gralph asked.

"My arm…" Phialu groaned. She fell to one knee, shuddering with pain.

Wass squat to look more closely.

Her arm was dripping blood. He had a lot of questions before. This only raised more.

"Take her back to the village," Gralph said firmly. "You both need to rest."

Wass helped Phialu to her feet and she shook him off. "I can walk…" She said, before she swayed and fell forward.

What Wass caught was Phialu's unconscious body. He took her under her shoulder and dragged her away. Unsure, Wass spoke over his other shoulder. "Uh...good luck Anshumat…"

A short padding of feet on the sand and they were gone.

Gralph stood before Anshumat with a hand on his hip. A knowing moment crossed between them. "Well, it's finally your turn, kid." He raised an eyebrow. "You ready, Anshu?"

“I suppose I am,” Anshumat responded, standing up from the beach.

"Well, your task's the same," Gralph nodded upwards and turned his head. Another yellow light flickered to life on the island, just the same as the others. He turned back to Anshumat with a dangerous smile. "I'll be waiting right here."

Anshumat wordlessly dived into the surf, propelling themself rapidly towards the island.



The cold water washed across Anshumat as they launched rapidly towards the island, their preternatural senses keeping track of their progress. The demigod had no difficulty with navigation, and soon enough they washed ashore upon the island, water slicking off their silks and their shell. A brief scan of the shore revealed no dangers -- the island was empty other than the plant life and the stones and foundations of structures.

Though Anshumat could not see the torch, they sensed it nonetheless. The lightest sound of flame picked up easily by divine ears and the slightest of temperatures impeccably pointing towards it. Keeping a watch for essences and unusual sounds, Anshumat began to trudge towards the hill.

Anshumat made note of the numerous structures on the island, each definitely serving a purpose. What exact purpose, however, Anshumat could not determine. The island was still, nothing yet sensed. Pushing doubts aside, Anshumat continued to trudge along.

Still, nothing came. The land sloped, and the torch became all the more obvious. The demigod had reached the hill itself. Only a short distance away, the flames flickered. But a detail reached their notice that was not right.

The sound and the flickering heat did not line up. With each wending of the flame, there was the rushing of gas and heat, but a similar sound backed it. A sound with a slow, regular rhythm. It thrummed twice...and twice again...and twice again. A heartbeat.

A pause, as the demigod considered its source. They decided to steel themselves against hesitation, and with a few short strides, Anshumat reached the torch. After one last check of the surroundings, they picked the torch out of the basket.

They froze.

The sound of muscles and keratin churning slowly into action preceded two large eyes opening upon Anshumat where they stood. A huge creature leapt up from behind the columns before the torch, apparently not obstructed by any roof as it flapped a pair of colossal wings to climb higher.

Anshumat’s blurry sight lit up with essence as the beast revealed itself. Anshumat sprung into action immediately. They bore the stance of a warrior and made haste to present a fighting retreat.

A rush of air hit the demigod as the beast dove upon them. Anshumat presented a hand, and with a violent jerk of the arm, swiped leftwards with a chain of divine energy. It lashed across two sets of massive talons and they crashed into the grass at Anshumat's left. The thud carried all the way up the ground to their jaw.

The limbs of the beast were covered in bright red scales all the way up their length. It covered a freakish muscle mass that cast shadows on the surface with its tensions.

Snarling set of dagger-like teeth big enough to bite the demigod in half flew in.

The demigod hunched down and pushed upwards, launching into the air to avoid the beast. Its jaw clapped shut around empty air. With another flick of the divine energy, Anshumat crashed the chain into the beast’s temple, in the hope of stunning it. The chain clacked off hard scale to little effect but to make the creature roar into the sky.

Anshumat's sense of direction blurred. The roar rang supernaturally loud against his sensitive hearing. A huge scaled arm drew up before it could be noticed and slammed Anshumat out of the air. The beast must have leapt. The sky was no sanctuary.

The demigod's body thudded and rolled against the grass, painfully winded.

The beast in the torchlight thundered towards Anshumat on all fours -- a winged reptilian creature, covered in blood red scales and with smoke wafting from its almost horse-like nostrils. This was no wild animal, its essence was too bright. Too fiery.

Climbing to their feet, Anshumat whipped the chain of divine energy once again, violently smashing it into a stone pillar. The energy sliced easily through, collapsing the stones down upon the creature. The creature slid and failed to displace itself from the falling masonry. It was pinned in a cloud of dust. Then, Anshumat slammed the chain directly down upon it, beating back towards the shore as they tried to hold the beast down. But already the stones were shifting.

The time was bought. Every length of ground gained in the time before the creature pulled itself up and snapped the chain with its mighty jaws was pivotal. Anshumat barely flew down the hill to the stone structures before a great beat of wings displaced the air behind him. They could feel the beast gaining, flying up behind them. They could feel the fiery essence building in the creature's mouth. He had seen such essence in selka cooking fires, at barely one one-hundredth the strength of what it was here.

Anshumat acted quickly, crouching down with the torch as they projected their powers outward, a glimmering shield of divine energies separating the beast and the demigod. Anshumat braced. And the air around them roared in bright, burning yellow.

Even through the shield, they could feel the radiant heat sweltering against their exposed shell. The entire world drowned in the sound and the light.

With their free hand, Anshumat formed a lance of blindingly bright energy, the light powering through the flames around it, piercing into the free air. The island lit up, the sky whitening painfully. Then, with a mighty heave, the lance launched outwards, passing through the shield. It slammed effortlessly through the force of the fire.

Directly into the open mouth of the beast.

A deep rumble sounded from the lance, the light pulsating wildly. It cracked apart with unimaginable force, an explosion of divine energy expanding outwards with power that made the flames of the beast quail in comparison.

The creature screeched and recoiled up onto its hind legs. Smoke billowed out between its teeth as it backed away and shook its head from side to side like an animal with a biting insect in its mouth. It beat its taloned hands furiously against the ground, screaming and trying to locate the demigod with its eyes flashed to temporary uselessness in the night.

Taking advantage of the beast’s blindness, Anshumat shot forwards with unnatural speed, powering another divine lance in their hand. This one was not the gleaming beam of the previous one, but it nevertheless held significant power. Flinging themselves up onto the head of the beast, Anshumat began to stab. The lance plunged repeatedly into the beast’s eye. A fortunately placed horn protruding back from the creature's head was sure enough purchase while it thrashed and screamed. Not even the volume of its roars could distract such a simple task, but its disorienting effect punished complacency.

Anshumat found themself -- still atop the beast's head -- rushing towards a flight of pale stone steps. They leapt from the top of the beast’s head before the stone smashed against it. They hung on the side, not done yet. The demigod took the lance, still soaked in the simmering blood of the beast’s eye, and used it to pry open the other eyelid. Then, Anshumat projected an explosive force of divine energy into the eye, not unlike a blast of flame.

The flame burst the creature's remaining eye, as if it could cry any louder. The following attempt to back off met resistance from the clamp of sharp claws around Anshumat's waist, sudden and unyielding. The creature slammed Anshumat to the ground pinning them with only their torch-grasping hand free. The dagger-tooth maw opened again.

Anshumat projected out a loud blast of energy to disorient the now-blinded beast. It lifted its claws just enough for Anshumat to slide out by their silks, all the way up to the end of their foot when the claw clamped down again and two of the beast's front teeth hooked into Anshumat's leg.

They were able to twist free before any danger of being bit fully. Whatever shock of the moment kept the blood flowing out of the punctures from being the source of incredible pain that they should have been.

There was no time for thought. Anshumat placed their distraction. Projecting out orbs of energy, the demigod launched them in all directions. The orbs that struck the ground or stone, or went far enough, exploded harmlessly with nothing more than an ear-splitting bang. The beast's attention was drawn all around in a panicked, noisy flurry.

For good measure, and in the hopes to deafen the beast, Anshumat launched two directly into the creature’s ear canals. They burst and the creature roared in pure anger. Claws and gnashing teeth flew out wildly in Anshumat's direction.

But they found only thin air, dirt, and stone.

Then Anshumat made for the shore.

They could sense the creature following, but slowly this time and along the ground. Probably following the trail of blood Anshumat left behind them. It was no matter when they limped to the water, softly smoking torch still in hand.



Golden ichor flowed freely from Anshumat’s leg wound as they began their swim back to the shore of the mainland. It stained the water unnaturally, a streak of shimmering gold providing evidence of their route. As Anshumat silently progressed through the cold waves, the wound coagulated and the stream of ichor petered out.

Anshumat emerged from the surf, solemnly looking at Gralph as they held out the snuffed torch. The broad selka warrior stood with his arms crossed, looking straight at Anshumat with a frown that was hard to read. His essence was a bright one, and as such it was his silence that allowed Anshumat to hear the whispering voices from the shelter of the trees behind Gralph.

They were all looking at them. Every selka in the tribe and all the guest k'nights -- who, as a note of detail, were covered in dark body paint and carrying large wooden masks and stilts under their arms.

Gralph marched forward in broad strides down the sand, big arms waving forward and back. He stopped where the sand laid flat and wet, and took the torch carefully from Anshumat's grasp.

"Whatever Sheng did to you, kid, you didn't deserve it." Gralph's low voice held no trace of his previous jovial nature. He glanced down at the torn silks and the wound Anshumat was starting to feel. "Are you okay?" Gralph asked.

“It managed to strike me in its flailing, but it did not manage to maintain its grip. It is a scratch in comparison to my previous wounds,” Anshumat said quietly, raking their blind gaze across the treeline as they stretched out their hands to relieve the tension of their muscles.

The water lapped at their feet.

Gralph's nostrils flared with an audible breath in. "Well, you succeeded. Dealt out a lot more than you took as well. Stixis'll take a while to heal, if he ever heals from it." The rest of the breath blew out. "You and the other two kids, you'll get your clubs tomorrow. That's when your training starts. But I'll give you one lesson now to make certain you know what you're in for." He raised a finger, pointing up between Anshumat's eye sockets. "It ain't just gods that can kill you. Remember that, and maybe you won't come back to me leaking like a shot bird."

Gralph slowly lowered his finger, and with it, the trail of faint golden light in the water snaked its way up to the shore as pure ichor. Anshumat did not turn to look. It flowed in a stream dripping upwards and arced into a pool in Gralph's palm. When the last drop was gathered, the shining ichor hardened into a rough stone of dull yellow.

Anshumat's mouth opened slightly and they huffed out a breath. The demigod simply continued to watch the bright, blurry essence of Gralph.

Finally, a smile grew on Gralph's face again. "Do you feel like telling the tribe a story? They're all wondering what happened on that island."

Anshumat once again looked up at the tree line, saying, “What would I tell them? So much of what just happened was entirely against the rules of a natural world. Any tale I could weave would not begin to explain the sights they glimpsed.”

"Then just tell them the truth," Gralph replied, stepping across to let Anshumat through. All the faces in the trees still stared down at them both. "It's not so unreal that they wouldn't believe you. All the other folks who gave the trial a shot experienced something just as crazy."

Anshumat huffed again, beginning to walk past Gralph as they announced to the crowd, “Let me rest. I will tell you later what I faced on that island.”

A few selka vocalised their disappointment, but the general consensus was respectful of Anshumat's request.

Anshumat strode across the beach and into the treeline, as they headed back towards the village. The selka parted for the tall being as they turned around as well. While many gave the demigod curious looks, only two walked abreast with them. A tired looking Wass and an awake looking Toraph, with his silk hood tied around his neck.

"Well done, Anshumat!" Toraph said.

Wass pat the demigod hesitantly on the sleeve. "Yeah, well done."

“Thank you,” Anshumat said quietly, continuing to stride towards the village. As the demigod caught sight of the village, they looked at Toraph and Wass in turn, before breaking off to find a secluded spot.

Wass and Toraph took the message to leave them alone. Toraph quickly smiled up to Wass. "I should show you those seeds, bro. One of them sprouted out of the ground today."

Off to the side, Anshumat sat down behind a collection of drying racks, though they did not fall asleep.






Anshumat

They live as though they were a beast, but fights as a God.




A stream of sunlight filtered through the flap of the tent, fastened up as to leave the opening clear. Birds chirped outside, the light din of daily life for the Selka filtering through the thin hide walls. Anshumat had taken off the cast on their arm the day before; their arm stiff but no longer painful. The demigod sat up in the tent, not quite wanting to go out and disturb the Selka.

Their clothes had been repaired, the gashes from Shengshi’s abuse sown out. Anshumat had gone out personally to locate the materials; as soon as they had the strength to do so. All the articles were silken, finely-woven. Anshumat had to see to the weaving themselves, as the Selka did not hold the knowledge of silk weaving.

The sound of footsteps came over the others; approaching the flap in the tent. Anshumat looked up to find Artonu poking his head in. The demigod beckoned him in. He came over, undoing the clothing over Anshumat’s chest and checking the wounds once more. After a short while of thought, Artonu finally came to their conclusion.

“It is the worst scarring I have ever seen, yet, in a mere 7 sundowns, your wounds have entirely healed. Your eyes will never see again; but the rest has healed over. I cannot believe it.”

Anshumat closed up the tunic and robe once more, responding merely with, “I cannot believe it just the same.”

Artonu simply shook his head. “The scars will never go away, but it is a small price to pay for such rapid healing. If only I knew how such a thing would come to be.”

The demigod simply slumped their head. “It is a complicated tale. I do not wish to share it now. What lands are around us? I have not gone far; are there other tribes nearby?”

Artonu answered, “That is your choice; for the lands around us, our tribe has left the lands to the north due to the vast populations; we could not survive the territorial disputes for long. We left for greener pastures down here, to the south.”

Anshumat nodded, hesitating for a short moment before saying, “Then I must go. I do not wish to put you in danger more than I already have. My father may wish to punish you for sheltering me, and he would be more than a match for your entire tribe. I thank you all the same for your help; never lose that charity.”

A confused look came across Artonu’s face, and he questioned, “Who is your father, that he may hold the power to annihilate an entire tribe? Who is he to be so vindictive that he would attempt to kill you and track you down when he fails?”

Anshumat opened their mouth, snorting out a sigh, “It is safer for you if you do not know. I am blessed to have met you, Artonu, but I must go. Continue to heal the sick and wounded, and know that you have my thanks now and always.”

Artonu finally resigned their argument. “If that is your choice, you were never our prisoner. Melao enjoyed your company when she joined you on your outings; if you are to go, all I ask is that you give your goodbyes to her as well.”

Anshumat simply nodded their assent, and slowly rose to their feet, far outstripping the comparatively meagre height of the Selka. Stepping out of the tent into the sunlight, they looked around, their blind eyes scanning over the children playing on the riverbank, across the drying racks of food, and onto Melao, showing another Selka how to knap a spear.

She looked up from the task as Anshumat approached, telling the young Selka student to catch up to her later. After the student had run off to practice on their own, Melao stood up and came over to Anshumat, meeting the demigod in the middle.

“It’s good to see you up again. Did you need anything?” Melao offered as the demigod came to a haltering stop a foot away. Anshumat responded, “I will not lead you on; I will be leaving, and in my path none can follow.”

Melao’s face instantly dropped. She rapidly fired out her concerns, “Why? Is something chasing you? Were we not hospitable enough?” Anshumat shook their head immediately, looking down at the ground for a moment before answering, “It is not your fault nor your tribes; my presence here marks a danger to your tribe I cannot live with inflicting.”

A wave of determination washed across Melao’s expression, as she declared, “Then the tribe will face the danger with you. We are not afraid.”

Anshumat said back, “No, your tribe will not. You would not survive.”

The Selka cried back, “Together, we’ll face whatever danger approaches, and together we’ll all surviv-”

The demigod gained a sudden windfall, a fury previously untapped, as they rose their voice, and firmly spoke, “NO. Your tribe will not survive. You imagine the danger as something you can overcome, but it is not. You are but ants in the conflict that lays before me. I broke with my father in my decision not to include you, who are so outmatched as to be less than nothing in the face of the weapons and strength arrayed. I will not turn my back on that decision. I will leave and never return, in the interest of your safety. You will always have my thanks, but I cannot place you into the danger my presence represents.”

A stunned silence overtook Melao, unfamiliar and unprepared for a sudden outburst from the otherwise relatively soft-spoken demigod silencing any resistance she was prepared to relay towards the decision. She watched as Anshumat huffed in dejected frustration, and she did not intervene when the lanky being trudged out of the camp.

Anshumat, for their part, did not look back at the tribe. Their departure bore heavy upon them, and to look back upon what they were leaving risked to break their resolve. As such, it was safer for Anshumat to not dwell upon it. Soon enough, the camp of the tribe was swallowed into the copse of trees at the demigod’s back, and the din of tribal life was replaced by the babble of wildlife and the gentle flow of the nearby river.

As a divine being, Anshumat had little worry for mortal concerns such as sleep or sustenance, and as such, they trudged unstoppingly northward, following the river from a fair distance. The river was a useful navigation aide, but Anshumat was not comfortable willingly remaining close to it; it was the domain of their erstwhile father, and they wished to remain as separated from it as reasonably possible.

They paid little attention to the sun in the sky, they could spot the essence it projected through their vague divine sights glimpsed through unworking eyes, but ultimately the passage of time mattered little to the demigod. A day turned into two, and two turned into five. Anshumat skimmed by the sides of Selka tribes, seeing no reason to disturb them. Ultimately, they did not know where they were heading, but all the same they walked.

When Anshumat came to the northern coast of the continent, they walked westwards along it until they came across a soft beach, blanketed by finely-ground sand instead of sheer cliffs and boulders. The demigod sat down, blindly looking out upon the tides’ ebb and flow. Hanging their head, they lay still for hours upon the edge of the surf.

Anshumat’s ears suddenly picked up a slithering sound. The reaction was immediate as it was hasty, the demigod spinning around and lashing out violently with a lance of divine energy, needled into a deadly point. It arced through the air unopposed, impacting violently with the body of a mere beastly serpent, one of the natural qualities; nothing like Shengshi. It trashed horribly in pain for a moment before expiring, its body beginning to melt under the pure force projected upon it.

The demigod collapsed backwards into the sand, breathing heavily as they stared lidlessly at the liquidizing body of the snake. They slowly calmed down, and bringing their head into their hands, began to reflect on what they’d done. The divine heart in their chest continued to beat heavily despite Anshumat’s calming, its rhythm still demanding the divine being to run as far away as quickly as possible.

The tide washed over Anshumat and the puddle that was the snake, giving a macabre color to parts of the surf as the gore mixed in with the water. Anshumat paid it no mind, feeling no desire to move. With a glance about the land around to ensure privacy, Anshumat sobbed slightly and quietly.



Anshumat

The terrible fires of will burned so brightly within their brows that each was a Universe on their own, and the Gods could say no more.




Anshumat’s first thoughts were forced, abrupt. An instinctual reaction to blinding light, their eyes slow to adjust to the sun that beat overhead. They stumbled forward, collapsing over terrain they held no knowledge of. The ground was quick to meet them, an embrace of dust and sparse grasses. With a groan, they fell silent, their own racket receding into nothing as the realm of sound was instead overtaken by the babble of wildlife and the flow of a river. A breeze whistled through the air lightly.

Slowly, Anshumat’s eyes adjusted, unfamiliar with the light of the sun. They slowly took in their surroundings from their ignoble sprawl upon the ground. Anshumat was sat near the crook of a river, with trees intermixed in the distance. Above them, blue sky and the harsh sun. To the east, a mar upon the sea of blue; small smoke trails. Too small to be a natural fire, they could immediately tell.

“Child,” came a voice like oil. “Tell me, how does existence feel?”

Anshumat threw their head around, looking for the source of the voice. Eventually, they gave up on that line of thought; opting to instead speak, “It is unfamiliar. I know much about it, yet none of that knowledge is lived.”

“A symptom of recent birth, that,” the voice proposed. “Nobody is born knowing everything - even us gods were quick to realise that what we knew quickly grew outdated as time went on… Even though I sorely wish I had just a little more knowledge on this subject.” There came a blast of hot air, likely a frustrated sigh. “I am unsure whether your mind took the shape I wanted - I would like to do some tests, if you do not mind. This is only my second time, and already the situation is wildly different from the first…”

Though Anshumat continued to look around for a source of the voice, they continued to respond, “What tests do you propose? Where and who are you?”

The adjacent voice hummed disapprovingly. “Disabled eyesight? That will surely be a hindrance… It must be this air. Atokhekwoi is quite different from the Foot.” From the riverside came a gentle brush against sand as the snake rose to his feet, his bright, crimson scale glistening with a blood red sheen in the light of Heliopolis. “... As for my identity, child, I am your creator - I am Shengshi, lord of the Thousand Streams. I rule the rivers and command the crops - all terrestrial life owes much of its existence to me; however, I ask for naught in return but their respect, for prosperity is to be shared with all of creation, and I am prosperity’s champion.” He sucked in a small breath. “Does that answer the question?”

Anshumat locked eyes with Shengshi, an act of both silent acknowledgement and silent refutation. They hinged their jaw, smelling the air before responding, “With grandiosity, yes.” Anshumat paused a moment before continuing, “Why did you make me?”

The snake furrowed his brow. “You have been created with the purpose of aiding me in the war against the evils of the east, as well as in the war against my wicked sister Azura, who threatens to upset the very balance of the universe. That is the purpose for which I made you, and for your efforts, you shall be rewarded and treated as only a son of mine would be. You shall be granted whatever you may wish for and my tables will always be stacked high with food and drink in your honour - whatever blessing you may wish for, you shall have it. Now I ask you, is this not a fair trade? Is this not in key with the loyal bond between father and child, my pride?”

Anshumat stared at Shengshi for a while, taking in the offer presented. They closed their mouth, before slowly opening it again to say, “I am not interested in war; and such a reward for such dishonorable acts brings distaste to my very core. Why would you ask this of me?”

The snake blinked with genuine disbelief and shock. He then cleared his throat and leaned in a little closer. “With all due respect, my child, I believe I may have misheard you. I must be ageing, even in my immortal form. Could you kindly repeat to me that answer of yours?” His voice betrayed spikes of rage towards the end of the sentence.

The demigod did not flinch or look away as Shengshi leaned in closer, an act of purposeful defiance. “If I were willed into existence merely to kill and destroy, I would have rather not been willed in at all. I will not prosecute your war for you.”

The snake pressed his lips together as he sucked in yet another breath through the nose. His face contorted into a snarl momentarily, but quickly resumed a peaceful, yet disappointed frown. “My child, you are still so young… I need not an answer this moment, but please, give it some thought. It is only fair to do right by your father, is it not?”

Anshumat clambered to their feet, standing tall in the face of Shengshi, defiantly responding, “There is no need for thought when the choice is to commit atrocities or to not. I will not do right by my father if my father demands I commit inextricable wrongs against others.”

The snake forced a snicker. “I see now what I did wrong - I provided insufficient context for these wars. Forgive me, child, I shall correct this error posthaste: Now, to start off with, the war on this continent is between life, and the inferno that wants to annihilate it. It is not a war of atrocities, no - it is a war against atrocities. Now, the second war - the war in the Heavens, is against those that would seek to undo the very foundations of the universe. This war is not an inextricable wrongdoing - it is a conflict to end such a mistake. Now, I will ask one final time: In light of this intelligence, will you seek to undo that which no doubt will seek to annihilate you and all that you care for?”

Anshumat responded viciously, “Even with honeyed words, my answer is the same.” They turned their back on Shengshi, beginning to walk away from the god.

The snake closed his eyes. “You… Insolent ingrate.” A tentacle of water sprouted from the river and dove for Anshumat to seize him.

The demigod did not expect to be seized, and did not make any move to prevent it, until it was too late. They twisted their head to stare at Shengshi, in an expression of both defiance and shock. Saying nothing, Anshumat struggled against the water.

“I have spent thirty years on your creation - half a mortal life’s worth of work, research, failure… Only for you, this honourless, dutiless insect, to be the result… Are you without a heart, little cretin? Feel you not the filial piety within your soul, child? Know you no loyalty to your creator?” The snake brought the tentacle closer to his face and scowled sternly at him. “Well?”

Anshumat spat at Shengshi, “To wage war on a divine scale is the act of one without a heart. I will maintain my honor by having no part of it. I do not owe loyalty to those who would see merit in such a scale of war.”

The snake wiped the spittle off his face and glared at it. “I must have made a fatal misstep in the creation process… How, oh Architect, how could I have made such a useless, ungrateful brat? I even went so far as to shield his existence from the enemy by bringing him to this primal land! How could my holy essence be coursing through the veins of this disrespectful, heartless excuse for divinity?” The snake tightened his fists and the tentacle squeezed around Anshumat with bone-crushing strength. “... Yet, I am a creature of patience - I will allow you one final chance to be accepted as my child. Speak your apology, or seal your fate.”

Anshumat, their frame crushed as it was, did not speak. Instead, they slammed their head forward, their scarab-like shell flinging towards Shengshi’s face in an attempt to mar it with a brutal headbutt. The snake recoiled with a snarl as the demigod smacked his forehead into his and shot a glare back.

“Sealed fate, it is.” With a snap of his fingers, three more tentacles rose from the nearby river, turning into colossal snakes. One by one, the snakes bore down on Ashumat like fanged hammer-heads, crushing their bones and puncturing their skin. With every jab of watery jaws, spikes of sand and stone were left behind in the wound like sadistic corks to hinder bleeding, just so the demigod would not pass out from blood loss. The snake looked on with stern disappointment as the punishment continued for hours. As the final strike dug its teeth into the thoroughly wounded Anshumat, the snake dismissed the snakes and collected his hands behind his back.

“If that killed you, then you are no child one mine. I am a merciful father, know this - should you return to me and seek safety, then I shall give it to you. However, come to me with this insolent attitude again, and not even your soul will remain after I am finished with you.”

The snake turned away from the beaten body and dove into the river.

Anshumat fell to their knees as soon as they were freed, wheezing and gurgling as they struggled to stay conscious. They tried to stand up, collapsing downwards onto their front. Bleary eyes looked skywards, towards the smoke trails, and desperately, Anshumat began to crawl towards them. Every movement brought agony to their pockmarked frame.

It was nearing sunset, several hours later, when Anshumat finally saw the edge of the treeline that separated them from the smoke trails. They dragged themselves along with one arm, their other arm having long since gone limp. Anshumat wheezed, spats of divine ichor leaking from their mouth.

When they broke from the treeline, Anshumat saw a small tribe of Selka, poised next to the river as they cooked fish and small bits of whatever they could find on land. They spotted Anshumat quickly, and reacted with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Anshumat reached out desperately towards them, before everything went black.




The first thing Anshumat noticed was that they hurt less. It was of little relief, given the searing agonies still involved, but it was noticeable. They tried opening their eyes, finding one to be blocked by something. They were in a sloped tent, made of animal furs. Open at the top, smoke from a fire in the center of the tent lazily drifted out. Anshumat attempted to reach out to unblock their eye, but they found their right arm to be stuck in place.

A glance downwards confirmed why that was; a wrap of furs had been slung about it, holding it in place against Anshumat’s chest. Their left arm was barely better, partially casted with river clay and highly inflexible. They reached up with their one good arm to touch their blocked eye, finding it also blocked with crude bandages made of furs and leaves.

One small mercy was that it was easier to breath; every bit of air was still agony to take in, but Anshumat did not have to wheeze as hard to force the air in. Their entire body was wrapped in the same crude bandages, and near the entrance to the tent, a bucket of bloodied debris, presumably pulled from Anshumat’s body.

Anshumat next attempted to stand up, but found they were unable to do so. They had gotten to their knees when the dizziness hit, and they collapsed back down into a sprawl upon the ground. Anshumat wheezed from the effort, trying to regain their lost breath. Something stirred outside the tent, provoked by the sound of Anshumat’s collapse.

The flap to the tent opened as what was definitely a Selka entered, moving over to Anshumat’s side. Anshumat stared up at them, and after a brief moment of checking the bandages, the Selka spoke. “Do not try to move. You are still too weak.”

Anshumat wheezed out in response, “Who are you?”, and the Selka responded immediately, “I should ask the same of you. Nobody should have survived such wounds, let alone crawl an hour’s walk from where they were wounded.”

The demigod let their head list back into the ground, wheezing to catch their breath before continuing, “The pain makes me wish that I did not.”

The Selka kneeled down next to Anshumat, saying, “There is no way for me to alleviate that beyond what I already have. Your wounds should have been mortal, I would not believe you lived if you were not in front of me now. Many in my tribe assumed you would not last the night.”

Anshumat violently coughed, painfully expelling one of their hard-earned breaths. “I did not assume I would either. I am Anshumat; who are you?”

The Selka produced a rough-hewn rag of twine, wetting it in a nearby bucket of water and dabbing it on Anshumat’s head. “I am Artonu: but names alone do not provide answers to all my questions. You are clearly not Selka, nor anything my tribe has ever seen before.”

The demigod looked up at the top of the tent thoughtfully, before saying, “I am not quite sure now what I am, either. I defied my father and he saw fit to do such horrors to me that I would rather renounce my position as his progeny and all that comes with it than continue on this path.”

A look of sympathy crossed Artonu’s face, and the Selka sorrowfully spoke back, “To have such wounds visited upon you by your own father is a crime I hope I never see again. To bring your own child so close to their death is against all good in the world.”

Anshumat simply nodded, too exhausted to speak further. Their chest hurt as wooziness came over them, too much air used too quickly for their injured body to keep up. Artonu looked over the demigod, and seemed to notice it as well.

The Selka dabbed their head once more, before placing the rag on the bucket. He advised, “You must rest now. I will return later to see to your health.” Before Anshumat could get the chance to respond and use up more of their precious oxygen, Artonu had left the tent and closed up the flap again.

Anshumat wheezed out a sigh, looking towards the fire as they tried to relax to lessen the pain.



Tiamat



The portion of warehouses in the middle of the Industrial district were all almost universally abandoned or condemned -- their previous owners abandoning them for more favorable positions offering easier access to other districts and areas along the edges of the industrial district. This was a veritable wet dream for Tiamat, as few people traversed the streets. The area was too trashed and polluted for the homeless to wish to take up residence, and more well-off residents plain had no reason to go there. She knew, however, that it would be the first place a search party would check.

And it seemed she was not incorrect in that assessment. She had climbed into a large stack to get a superior view of the area, and she had almost immediately spotted the small squad of men going from warehouse to warehouse. When she had zoomed her vision in on them, she counted a total of five men, one clad in the armor of a REAPER mercenary. Looking over the others, they all appeared to be local thugs, presumably well-paid to get them to follow along. They were clad in whatever they could put together, local civilian-grade guns.

Tiamat didn’t judge them too hefty a threat: the main issue would be the mercenary. They were carrying a particularly distinctive weapon, some form of anti-tank rifle, perhaps. It looked like a new model, and Tiamat figured it had been designed specifically with her in mind. If that was the case, she could not afford to let the mercenary get a shot off. She needed to take out all of them quickly and cleanly, then get them out of sight.

If she failed to keep their presence and their death hidden, REAPER would have a lock on her location. She waited until the squad entered into another empty warehouse, before climbing down the stack with an extreme rapidity. She jumped across the densely-packed rooftops, getting a much closer position on the opposite side of the street from the warehouse they were searching.

She took cover, and peeked out a small mirror on a stick. She had made it earlier, as seeing an area without being seen from that area was always useful.

“You heard that too, right?”

“Of course I did. How could I miss it?”

There was a pregnant pause as the two thugs taking point, one armed with a shotgun and the other with a poorly maintained AR styled civilian rifle continued bantering with one another.

Nerves. the agent thought to herself. Paying little mind to the conversation between the rather disposable people in front of her. A nudge from her side drew her out of her thoughts when the man to the left of her began to try to get her attention.

“You never told us what we’re tracking.”

He had been quiet this whole time, not asking many questions and keeping mostly to himself. He was eying her firearm cautiously and the thumping sounds from earlier had likely set him off. The thug behind him piped up before she could answer.

“Something big, obviously. You don't carry a gun like that for a driveby.”

She opened her mouth to quiet the lot of them, as talking was both unnecessary and problematic. But stopped when she saw the glint of a mirror in an odd place above them. The agent whistled, getting the attention of the rifleman in front of her. She pointed up at the oddly placed mirror and the rifleman, having put two and two together raise his gun and fired two shots, soundly smashing the mirror and then knocking it away from its resting place further than it already had been from the first shot.

Tiamat moved into action, knowing she’d been spotted. With a roll, she slammed out of the cover, going into the open on the rooftop as she grabbed hold of her pistol. The agent barked out to the thugs, “Keep it down! Don’t let it get any shots off!” She proceeded to emphasise this by lifting her rifle and taking a shot at the robot. It whizzed by Tiamat, and the agent began to cycle the bolt.

Tiamat, by this time, had left her roll, and had her pistol out. Her first priority was to line up a shot on the agent, and she did so with eagerness. A massive crack filled the air as a slug was propelled from her pistol, and in less than a second, the slug landed home.

The slug slammed into the faceplate of the agent, and, ionizing the metal, travelled into the agent’s head proper. Her brain also ionizing, the massive influx of heat created a gruesome result -- her head exploded violently into gore intermixed with rapidly cooling plasma.

Several more shots rang out from what remained of the search party, two of them hitting Tiamat in her torso. One thug scrambled for the firearm that the agent had been carrying, diving to her body in an attempt to use her weapon- thinking it might save them. A second shot from Tiamat’s pistol ended his hopes, and Tiamat then holstered the pistol.

She unsheathed the polearm that rested on her back, and flicked a switch on the panel centered on the handle. She jumped off the roof as the blade began to violently glow, and she charged into the last three thugs. They shot wildly, many of the bullets going wide from the unexpected charge.

The blade met the first thug, and it swiped through him like a hot knife through butter. His clothes caught fire, and before he fell Tiamat was to the next thug. She executed the same maneuver. The last thug began to run, firing behind him.

Tiamat turned to him, and picked up the AR that had been dropped by her previous victim. She fired the rest of the mag with one hand into the last thug, a synthetic scream of anger coming from her mouthpiece.

The area fell silent. Tiamat stood in place for a moment, turning off and sheathing the polearm, as she relaxed slightly. She looked around, thinking, I made too much of a mess. Too loud. Fuck!

Now she had to get them back into the warehouse. She continued to give glances all about her, deathly afraid that somebody would come running to see what the noise was about. She grabbed the first two bodies she saw, the agent and the thug she had cut in half. The thug’s intestines sloughed out and dragged across the ground, leaving a streak in their wake.

She looked at it and suppressed panic. She had to get it clean, one way or the other, and fast. She’d deal with the streak later.


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