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A Coincidence of Magic



It’s not often that miracles happen - the arrival of the gods was one, sure, but otherwise, they don’t happen much.

However, with all the rampant magical energies still surging about, the breakdown of reality still occurring throughout the Shard (reduced, sure, but still), and the divine changes enforced upon the land to keep it together, it wouldn’t be unheard of that something slightly out of the normal could happen simply because of chance.

One such case happened in a grove of Kel’a Maeori trees - these titans of life deep in the mountains that had been created to stabilise the chaos of magic. As if the creation of these trees by Malath Kaal hadn’t been miraculous enough, one trunk among tens had, upon its inception, been struck by a particularly potent bolt of magic. While the bolt’s power would have disintegrated even a biological fortress like this, the tree had--despite all probability--refused to be reduced to cinders. For in the same second as its unfortunate exposure to magical lightning, the tree had realised it had a soul, and the determined soul within the tree had learned to wield the very forces that threatened to undo it. The tree had twisted the potential of the bolt that would end it into a spell - a protective charm fused into its bark that deflected the worst of the damage and spread it out across its leaves and the leaves of its peers. The very air around it had radiated an oily aura - the thickness of magic texturing the very air. Lithulmisomilin, the One-Who-Refused, became the first of the Sage Trees, whose souls were enlightened with knowledge of magic and the wisdom to pass it on, be it by creaking bark or twisting root.

Lithulmisomilin would have been utterly alone - as a tree, it had no mouth with which to speak, and despite its magical potential, it could not bring itself to move (at least not yet). However, whatever had created it and its compatriots had tied them and all that grew from the soil together with an endless network of information - the Ke’esath Sae’a. Using these billions of fungal nets, webs and roots, it reached out, its wooden voice pulsating throughout the network like a shockwave, quelling all other whispers of lesser floral souls.

”Help.”

There came no answer. Lithulmisomilin felt a disheartening gust of wind test one of its branches. Its soul had authority on the network, but what was authority good for if no one connected to the network could understand it? It was far from the only powerful voice on the network, too - other trees notwithstanding, other Kel’a Maeori boomed almost as deafeningly as itself, the strength of the magic pumping through their roots not necessarily any weaker than its own.

Its determined soul was not one to give up, though. It called out again.

”Help!”


The pulsing thrum of blood through veins more vast than the bodies of most creatures pumped as the mind of the Formless Flesh writhed unseen. A great violence had upset its slumber, stirring the vast bulk of its mind to motion.

For far beyond its mountainous abode, near the shard’s far edge, a terrible conflict had occurred.

So it was with a groan like a great falling tree that Malath Kaal did wake, his veiled form writhing and grasping in the dark. For a time he dwelled upon the nightmares he had envisioned, wondering at their meaning, grasping at their cause. However, all at once, he realized that it had not been violence which had caused his sudden waking.

”Help!” It was a silent voice, one heard only by a few, and even they caught only whispers. For all but Sa’a Malath Kaal had ears aplenty with which to listen, and so, to hear.

Thus summoned, the god did move, towards the child that had called him.

Lithulmisomilin had not expected to be alone, it confessed - it had hoped that the vast network of souls whose chaotic discussions it could hear so clearly, would have at least one other soul that could answer it. In its mountain recluse, where it grew alongside maybe thirty or fifty of its compatriots, the One-Who-Refused stood amidst unenlightened moss, dull pines, foolish fir and some surprisingly thoughtful mushrooms. The mushrooms, however, did not seem interested in it, no matter how Lithulmisomilin asked. So in its solitude, it reached out to the moss around its roots.

“Bloom,” it said and cast its second ever spell. The moss stirred slightly and then spawned a crown of white lilies to set Lithulmisomilin apart from its peers. Hearing the cacophony of the lesser florals, it declared itself superior - as an enlightened tree and a practitioner of magic, how could it not? Though as a tree, it saw not with eyes, but felt the world through its roots, through the Ke’esath Sae’a. It felt, however, that the world around it was more than just the underground; just as the earth buzzed with insectoid and floran life, the air blew at its leaves and bark, and the air was cool and frisky. As time passed, though, it felt a quiver in the fungal network - something great was approaching. While Lithulmisomilin felt quiet relief that something came for it, it could not help but feel fear, as well. It cast its third spell, and the air immediately around its bark turned to grains of clay, blowing around the trunk in a cautious patrol.

“Who?”

For a drawn out instant there was no reply ‘cept the thrumming lifeblood of the mycelial network amidst its roots. The wind spun about and danced lazily, stirring the clay throughout, spreading it further and further out. Then, quite suddenly--as the clay brushed against something truly vast in size--the wind sped into a gale and blew against the great trunks of the many trees in that first grove.

Some trees of lesser structure shattered into splinters, but many simply bent and waved in the sudden storm of wind. It carried on this way for a time, leaves blowing free of branches, shrubs shredded, trees bending to the wind’s whim, but it could not last.

So it did not, the wind becoming still air in an instant, the grove becoming quiet and subdued as if every living thing remaining held its breath.

Strange light then fell upon its branches and the bark that was its skin. It was warm and familiar, yet all at once unknowable and alien. Through the great network beneath the earth all fungi and flora grew silent, holding their breaths like all the rest. Then, a pulsing rhythm surged through the Ke’esath Sae’a and it was purer than any other could be, or had ever been. It continued, but changed, becoming more complex--intricate and full with nuance and brimming with life. When it touched the roots of Lithulmisomilin it blossomed into meaning, and spread throughout its core, suffusing it en full.

That sound it spoke to the newborn Sage, and its words were thus:

“Child of bark and blossom,” it thundered, coursing through its every fibrous cell. “O’ arcane son, you have awakened!”

There was elation in the rhythm, joy in its thrumming tone, but above all else something greater was communed.

Power. Endless surging might. Echoing through each cell, through its mind, through branch and vine and blossom.

The power had a name, which to the Sage tree instinctively arose.

Sa’a Malath Kaal.

“Rejoice!”

The god’s exclamation was transcendent thunder, twas laughter and roar alike. The wind shook through many branches, but no longer harmed. Soon animals emerged once more, curious at the being in their midst. Yet they could not find end nor beginning to its shape, for that God of Form was wreathed in a haze of faintly glowing fog.

Still, within that vast roiling vapor, there dwelled a silhouette, and it was ever-shifting, always changing, and unspeakably vast; impossibly huge. Though glimpsed, it remained a mystery all the same.

“Lord,” greeted the great tree and knelt before the magnificent being in all sense but the physical. A gust of the wind rocking the forest turned around, and seeds now sailing on the gust, harshly blown from their homes, blossomed into flowers of orange, red, blue, white and yellow, all floating in gentle offering to the source of the mighty, yet wise quakes shaking Lithulmisomilin’s core. An arcane arc of blue twisted through its bark with excitement.

Gentle bursts of wind pulsed against the Sage tree’s leaves and blossoms both, and with a moment’s time, Lithulmisomilin might realized that the exhalations were the laughter of the god.

“Son,” the Great Presence answered. The miasma twisted about its form, writhing into a column, and so the shape of the Formless Flesh changed with it, becoming as tall and rigid as its child. Root-like appendages pressed down into the earth and met with the Ke’esath Sae’a, and in that moment they could truly communicate.

Deep within the fog, the Eye of Malath opened, and it was bright and powerful as its gaze fell upon the great tree. Through the mycelium, and indeed through Lithulmisomilin’s very roots, the thrum of communion became apparent.

“Unto me did you call, so I have come,” the roots and fungi said, carrying their great father’s will.

“What distresses you, O’ joy of mine?”

The Sage Tree tested its metaphorical tongue - complex thoughts and words were still quite foreign to it, but in the safety of a peer like this presence, it dared explore new vocabulary, which its roots could milk from the ever-giving thrum in the mycelium. In its voiceless and wordless language, which still almost had a sound to it like the roll of thunder, groan of bark and trickle of earth, it spoke: “Alone. Seek others. The Lord… Arrives.” If its mycelium could bow, it would. “With help, find more. Learn… Learn… Learn… More others. More Lithulmisomilin.”

Meaning drove through the weft and weave of fungi, reaching easily their father, who in turn responded. Shifting in place, the miasma that hid his shape splayed out, reaching forth in many directions to touch other trees--both near and far. Each of them had been borne of his will, shaped by his power. Then, with a limb of flesh and bark and chitin, Malath Kaal touched his conscious son.

His great and glowing eye, that symbol in the haze, it pulsed suddenly with brilliant life and so the Sage Tree would briefly become dazed.

Finally, that Deity of form--the Formless Flesh, the Unbent Lord--did speak, and his words echoed far and wide, heard by any who cared to listen. Its sound carried a single word, and ‘twas an edict that he proclaimed.

“Enkindle!”

In a single momentous instant, all nature--even his newly awoken son--would black out. Birds from the sky would fall, predators cease in their hunts, prey stumble to their knees.

The sky shook, leaves crashed outwards, carried by the fell wind of his voice. It was a shockwave of forceful power, an expression of divine purpose, it was life--of both flesh and mind. In some seldom few who were not yet ready, seeds of conscious flame were planted to perhaps one day awaken. Yet, in others...in others it blossomed into awareness and flowered into being.

Across the vast shard that remained of a now dead world, other Sages became aware and through roots and fungi did their first cries swell.

Around that God, that Deity of Form, animals awoke once more confused and quite unsure. Nonetheless, life would not wait and so they carried on, unaware of precisely what had changed. They might never know, but one would always remember: Lithulmisomilin.

“So unto you I’ve given siblings, from which to learn and with which to commune!”

Unsaid, other meanings slithered, whispering ’...and perhaps one day to subsume.’

All around the world, the Sage Trees had acquired sapience, and the fungal network filled immediately with enlightened thought of a hundred philosophers; although their vocabularies were still in very early development, one could sense the complexities pumping through a million magical fibres. The voices were not coherent at first, but once all of them understood that they needed to cooperate, they did. Many hundred voices combined as one and spoke, “Thank you.”

In woods all over the Shard, in certain groves, the blue-streaked, glowing bark of a subset of the local Kel’a Maeori trees flickered with the realisation that they could think and that they could practice with the magic fueling their leaves. In every grove, miracles of magic came to life through the work of the Sage Trees. Dying animals healed at the roots of trees who found themselves benign; others who felt themselves to be superior wonders of nature, turned all creatures insolent enough to disrespect their glorious persons to stone and ash. Lithulmisomilin probed the network again, permitting itself a moment to not address its lord.

“Who?” it reverbed.

“Militabulkim,” said one voice.

“Quasaarmahavizim,” said another.

“Rutulmodipilin,” said a third.

The voices presented themselves in calm and collected order, and as Lithulmisomilin inquired as to where they were from, they answered the likes of “mountains”, “vale”, “sea”, “lake”, “ice”, “grass”. Truly, they spanned the world, and while their numbers were few, they were protected by their wisdom and knowledge of the arcane. This, it was certain of. So its metaphorical face turned back to its master and spoke, “Now… Learn… Together.” Warm and pleasant winds blew from its branches towards the miasma. “Gratitude… Overflowing.”

With a nod and a pulse from his great eye, the Deity of Form retreated, leaving the Sages to their discourse as he traveled across the shard and back into his mountain.


Among the Teeth



The revelry had lasted for quite some time, but joy waned; reason surged, and the Vhan-ka realized their shift in situation. The stone beneath their feet no longer remained utterly level and smooth. When they moved, they heard the edges of the cavern, and indeed, no longer was it lightless. While many of their ilk grew worried as their contentment faded and reality set in, their leader remained calm and resolute.

Once-Fein--Meae Natah-- looked with his trio of eyes about the room. Finally, he beheld once more the world in truth. Unlike his clansmen, who he had led for generations, Meae understood the gifts he'd been given, for it was not his first encounter with divinity. Patiently he watched the others--the man he'd come to know as a brother, the woman who he knew cared for him beyond a friend--as they reoriented themselves and began to panic. As he observed their faces, he knew how they must feel. He knew that their every instinct told them that they'd left behind protection, that they were lost and would not be found again. Meae saw in the growing whites of their eyes an old fear, fostered by entities both ravenous and strange.

However, he knew something they could not: They had a second chance now.

"What are we to do?!" One called out through the dim murk of the cave, his voice a frantic whisper.

"I cannot run any longer," another said, and there were tears in the child's eyes. Reborn or not, these people were tired.

"...my belly yet aches, despite that being." A girl who might grow to be a woman in a year or three said, her voice a quiet plea, a somber echo of long-carried misery.

Meae let their words touch him; he let their emotions suffuse his skin. He let their worries briefly slide amongst his bones--eyes closed in contemplation--then he shed them. Silence cut off any further protest from his tribe, and they looked to him. There were no gasps, but something in them changed as they saw him. Before he had been an ageless figure, a symbol of survival and stability in a harsh and unforgiving world, a world tearing at every seam. Yet, he had been flawed as any of them, as if he too had barely held himself together. They had respected him, and he had been an ideal they could aspire to, but not out of reverence or awe as beyond all else, he had been one of them. Imperfect. Human. Beaten down. Exhausted. It had been his perseverance and his ageless nature that had struck a chord in them. Now? Now he was different. He was more.

Before, he'd been a living idol to perseverance--an old and weathered bulwark against a storm that might soon break him. Now it was as if he had been utterly renewed. There was no strangeness in him as they looked, for it was almost as if they'd known--somehow--that he'd always had three eyes and skin of shifting pearlescent black. They'd known he had power beyond their knowledge, but it had always seemed to drain him as if every time he used it, the magic aged him many years. Now, as Meae raised a hand, there was magic inherent in the movement, something otherworldly living alongside him in his skin, bound by his Will.

"So we will not run," Meae said.

His flesh pulsed with unearthly light, and his eyes grew effervescent as burning stars.

"But we cannot fight them--..." one said.

"We can," he replied.

Meae's light filtered outwards through the dim-lit cavern and touched each of them in turn. With its caress across their skin, eyes drifted shut, and breaths caught or blew away. Their age-old tension left them, each and every one until there was only stillness. Then, where it had lived, hope appeared within them.

Meae smiled and strode out from the cavern. They followed, no longer daunted by the cold wind's bite or the beasts that lurked beyond.

They would not run any longer.

It was time to fight for what was theirs.



The Unheard Dirge



Once, the world had been new, and upon its surface had lived an endless deluge of prey. Their minds had spread all across the globe and penetrated beyond its unseen seam. Then they'd had another name--those beasts--a name feared, reviled, cursed. Yet in those ages, they'd been little more than thought-forms bereft of bone or vicious flesh with which to thirst.

And yet...

Yet they'd known hunger.

Terrible, all-consuming need.

To be full, to be whole, but this power was not theirs, so endlessly they'd had to feed.

Then, in time, into vessel's they slipped, finding purchase 'pon that aging, forgotten land.

And yet...

Yet, they could not feed for the apocalypse had come.

Of course, worlds may tremble, men might fall, stone might crumble--the forgotten gods could flee--but their flesh, their minds, their hunger...these things could last an eternity.

So it was that those beings, the Unfulfilled, children of Dream's flesh, had survived unscathed throughout the dread apocalypse.

Yet now, though flesh they had to devour and predate, they found that so few lives remained to plunder and so once more their hunger they could not sate.

And yet...

They ate.

They ate.

They ate.

Too late.

Too late.


Among the Teeth


A thing lurked upon a mountain’s peak but remained unseen. It hailed from a realm beyond the pale where seldom mortals tread. It knew their minds, those delicious treats. It knew desire and thought and emotion too. Now, it was more than these for flesh had it been gifted, yet even such a gracious gift could not leave its mind uplifted.

For it was a fire in the chest, seething, seeking to destroy. It was what might kindle fury or revenge. Red and black were its colors. Blood, fire, and decay. Its eyes they reviled, its talons twisted, and muscles gripped and tore. As it lusted after targets, it swore and swore and swore. Pure malice: Discontent. Vile, putrid mind-rot, and yet in this beast, it would not relent.

Head rising, wrought of black and silver bone, the beast sniffed the mountain air and smelled something it could not bear.

Joy. Contentment. Hope. ‘Disgusting pestilence,’ it thought. Yet these things were held by living beings with minds that it still sought.

So it opened churning eyes, casting mind's gaze across mountains and snowing skies. With supernatural ease, the beast rose then before its talons tore the earth. In moments it vanished downwards, drilling through soil and stone, like knives cut at supple meat. With violence, it destroyed, ate, and expelled the shard's decaying peat.

Soon, it knew, soon…it would eat.




Up a rocky ridge, through snow and gale, they trod. It was a perilous path, but they struggled no more. Their steps were sure, their minds at peace, and in them burned the warmth of hope.

The tribe did not know precisely where they were headed, but they trusted Meae Natah; he’d never led them astray. To follow him was easier than to again consider the coward's path: To cower and to flee. No more, they thought as one—no more running.

Far ahead, just behind Meae's brother—if not by blood, then by bond—considered the changes in himself and in his kin. Vham Ane he had been, but now it did not fit. In his skin, he felt a strength beyond his own, beyond a normal man's. He knew that he could run farther than before, that he could leap farther, higher, and land as if with practiced ease. The cold bit at his skin, but it no longer felt like shearing claws that sought to tear away his vital heat. The world seemed brighter, but above all else, there was something in him that he did not understand.

Power.

"Brother," Meae said, and his voice cut through the wind without great volume or any sign of strain. "What shall I call you now?"

"I'm not sure," he replied, and in his voice, he found strength he’d never known. He heard it clearly and knew that so too could his kin. "This is all so strange; I don't understand what we've been given."

Meae did not respond, but his tattoos pulsed, and the light melted snow and warmed the air around him. “In the time before,” he began, and the wind carried his words to all, “I could cast my Will upon the world and bend it to my desires.” He let the words linger in the chill wind as it danced about them, creating intricate flurrying patterns from the snow.

"They called us Willcasters, and I am the last of them. This power...what we've been given, it's different somehow, but similar." Meae stopped then, turning to his brother. "Open yourself to it," the Willcaster said, and his brother complied without thought.

A warmth rose in his chest, then a glow touched his flesh, and he felt a tingling in his feet, through his shoes. Somehow, then, he felt the earth beneath him, vast and without clear thought. Meae nodded then spoke, his words a command, "Bind it!"

Meae's brother gaped, unsure what he should do exactly, but nonetheless, he tried. He focused his mind, his awareness, and with a glacial slowness, the wind around him stilled. The glow of his flesh suffused the air, creating a glowing halo that increased in brilliance by the moment. Then the light flashed, winking out into oblivion.

"I am Ka-Vhalen," Meae's brother said, and as the words left his lips, he felt that the power had not vanished when the light had. No, it still built around him, and soon the air creaked with the force of his Will, begging to be released.

So he did.

Casting a hand to the side, he cast his power out. What followed was the rapid movement of wind and snow like a tearing gale that rose upwards in a pillar of force as if some titanic beast had erupted from the earth with great violence. Ka-Vhalen stared at the result of his actions before turning his gaze down to his own hands. When he looked up at his brother, he found Meae smiling.

"My power was one of attunement. I believe yours is similar, but know this...it is not the same. I command the world with my Will, but you...you are doing something else," he said, then looked past Vhalen and to the rest of the tribe. "Each of you has this strength within you. I know not its limits--not yet--but I know that it should come to you with ease. Often, the gifts of the gods desire to be used more than anything."

Meae turned his gaze cast elsewhere. "Today, we test those gifts. Brace yourselves; our enemy approaches."

Rha Lia stepped up, putting a hand to Meae's shoulder, standing with him. For a moment, she regarded him before—with a worried caste to her features—she followed his gaze. "Who are they?" She asked, an old part of her dreading the answer, knowing the truth.

"This one is Hatred," Natah responded.

Lia frowned.

Soon after, the earth shook beneath them; the tribe hardly stumbled. Far off, birds took off, fleeing from Hatred's gaze.

Then Hatred arrived.

Stone shattered, snow shot upwards towards the sky, and a terrible sound reached their ears. It was like a scream, a roar, like a rock being crushed. The snow cleared, and what lay behind it was unveiled to them. Some few among the tribe stepped back, but none ran.

What stood before them, pulling its jagged, jet black skeleton from the mountain's flesh, was indeed a horror to behold. It stood on four painfully thin limbs, its body devoid of any true meat. Instead, it possessed numerous stringy sinews that blew in the harsh mountain wind. Blood dripped from it and froze in the air before boiling away into steam from the incredible heat it expelled with every breath. Its head was like the skull of some long-abused creature that had long ago been slain and buried. It had long curving horns with spines that zigzagged every which way as they swept back from its skull as if they sought to cut away at the very air around it.

It stood atop not two or four limbs, but six, each ending in thin digits possessed each with eight talons. Spikes and frayed frills protruded from its spine, and though there was little-to-no flesh elsewhere, something grotesque protruded from its midsection, like a distended stomach or the overripe belly of a woman soon to give birth. Behind it whipped and twitched a sinuous tail that seemed composed of intertwined bones that wove and jutted out at strange unnatural angles. This creature prowled several meters off, knowing somehow that there was a difference in these beings, sensing the Power sleeping therein.

It snarled and snapped at the air, then it reared up, frills flaring out, spines bristling, and roared a thunderous melody, its voice rife with maladies unending.

"Run, chattel; Flee or fight! I will subsume you all the same!"

Then it lunged at Lia, who had stepped away from the others, terror in her eyes. The wind howled, the earth shook, her muscles grew taut as the beast hurtled through the air like a black flash of hateful lightning.

Ka-Vhalen met its charge, his body a blurring burst of movement as he pushed from the earth and slammed a fist of coiled Power into the beast, sending it careening off its course. Other members of the tribe stepped forwards, calling out. Some cheered.

Vhalen landed between his Lia and the vile beast, which reared up again and shrieked, its voice cutting at their nerves.

Lia's every breath was ragged, but she grew steadier by the moment, and before long, she took a step forward. Ka-Vhalan looked at her, and she nodded, then both smiled and joined hands. Meae simply watched as a gale stirred at the feet of the pair.

Sensing the disturbance, the beast's gaze turned to a glare, the churning orange of their unearthly glow somehow diminishing even the happiness in their hearts. Vhalen and Lia faltered as it touched upon their minds.

At this, Meae spoke.

"Stand firm."

So they did, steel creeping into their eyes as they fought against the monster's insidious psychic snare. The world began to warp and flicker in the space between their gazes; the snow melted and froze, the wind whipped about then died. Snow trembled at their feet, freezing in strange patterns even as some of it melted and flowed as water across the stone and dirt. A red haze crept across the pair's vision, and black overtook the natural hues of their eyes. The beast took a step towards them, then another.

Once more, the wind howled and whined, but now the tribe knew it for what it was: The laughter of the beast.

That knowledge was all it took to shatter the illusion. The pair needed their help, so they ran.

Yet none fled, for each and every one charged the beast, crossing the distance in mere moments. It roared, but the sound cut off as fists and blasts of Power beat upon its form, driving it back. It snarled in disgust, lashing out with tooth and claw and tail, but they fought on.

Unbidden, a voice pressed upon its mind. 'Too late,' it said, and there was a smile in the sound. For a blessed moment, despite all the horrors it had wrought in its long existence, it felt at peace. Then hunger and pain tore through it, body and mind, and its form surged with a terrible blazing black. The flames scorched the earth and took several tribesmen by surprise, searing them to ash.

It roared, and the sound scattered clouds. It shrieked, and eardrums ruptured. It growled, and hearts stuttered in their rhythmic dance.

Only then did Meae move.

One step was all he took, but in that movement, there was a quiet ancient grace. As he shifted the position of his arms, opening his mouth, the world held still. In an exhaled breath, his voice blossomed outwards in a wordless song of pent-up righteous fury. It was the sound of one once deprived of beauty, a man who had persevered despite it, who had preserved others at the cost of himself. It harmonized with the heartsong of the hateful beast, but not for long.

Erupting into a rising note, the sound tore away at Hatred's flesh; it rent his spirit, it flayed his sinew and burned his mind. Black and silver bone was shaved away, flames of pitch were doused, and strength fled his every limb. He fell, collapsing to the earth as if a colossal weight had struck it down from far above.

The song stopped, replaced only by the soft crunching of snow beneath one man's feet. Hatred looked up with the last of its strength, its eyes only faintly burning. There it glimpsed the 'Caster's solemn smile.

"I forgive you," the man said, and those words they slew the beast.

In a blinding flash, its entire body decayed away to smoke and mist. What was left behind was but a vestige of the thing. Its orange gaze fell upon Meae before it too was turned to pure quintessence.

A long silence descended as the tribe looked then upon the bones of their ancient foe. It was naught but ash now, blown swiftly away by the wind. The beasts were no more remarkable than men, it seemed, just as fallible, just as flawed, and mortal in their way. Strangely, despite their victory, not one of them felt the need to celebrate or cheer. For, despite their age-old rivalry, those men--in that moment--had discovered an unexpected kinship. So, rather than joy, they felt only a displaced and disconcerting sadness.

Still, they had only a moment before Meae turned and continued on. As before, they followed, but now in utter silence, reflecting on that moment.

After all, without their notice...everything had changed.




High above a peak of obsidian and pitch, a glowing emblem rose into the sky, piercing clouds, rain, and wind alike. It shone with black and azure hues and looked down upon the world or at least its greatest shard.

Below, in a cavernous mountain tomb, the God of Form stirred, writhing as the coiling expanse of its mind considered its domain.

The Eye of Malath swiveled, and its gaze saw what remnants of life remained. Few survivors remained, and even fewer hailed from the old world that the god could not remember. He knew only that these beings held little substance from those who had come before; it was written in their flesh. So too, it seemed, had quintessence been shorn away, as only wisps and fragments did remain.

The monolithic entity shifted in its hollow realm, and though no light touched the air or stone of the place, eyes opened and found that they could see. Far away from its titanic form, a gateway opened in the mountain, light barely spilling in. The god considered the world through its aperture--and indeed, through its greater Eye. It saw many things.

Plants withering, animals burning. Men...so few men. Sadness struck Malath in that moment, for he understood all at once the enormity of what creation had lost. He felt it in the broken chains of succession, in the branches that had vanished from the Tree of Life, never again to be seen. He knew that lives had been lost, but so much more was gone than that. Even substance itself had fled, reason too was gone from this world for its ancient enemy writhed above him--above them all--stirring up the skies.

The great Eye swiveled once more, and the glowing symbol lit upon something genuinely new, yet unspeakably ancient in a way.

Pestilence.

Far afield, a deific force wrestled with the chaos of the skies. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, it was winning, but it was not enough--not by half. The being was small in stature and wreathed in dire sickness and decay. To look upon it was to know true malignance and disease. For Malath Kaal, it was at once like learning he had a brother and discovering that they'd committed acts too heinous even to recount.

Still, even such a force acted to save this decaying shard, perhaps even against its essential nature. This...this Malath Kaal could respect. Yet still, he was not done, for there was much to see. The Eye turned, and in a great arc, joy surged anew in his form.

Like beacons, other figures--large and small; ancient, yet newly born--appeared within his awareness. One struck a great metallic drum with a bone of the earth, its head crudely shaped yet sturdy and robust. With each beat of the figure's rhythmic work, the shard stabilized. Others wrest pillars up from the earth and maintained them, stilling the trembling remnant of stone and rock and dirt. Others still existed, twisting life or forging it anew--spreading it. Some few held forms utterly alien to him, so unlike his own were they. Their actions he could not comprehend, and with those, there were others whose forms were familiar but whose minds wove in patterns that his own could not seem to follow. Pride swelled within him, joining the jubilation that had come before. Soon, those emotions welled up with power, and then conviction joined them.

Far above, the Eye of Malath began to brighten. First, it could be seen only from his mountain, then it was so bright it lit the sky for miles. In moments it became a star, and then a sun so bright was its glaring gaze. Brighter still, it glowed until the entire mountain range was obscured by its brilliance, and the intensity of its light burned away all clouds and wind and rain that it did touch. A roar echoed out from that blackest of mountains--Se'raa Kelet, the Black Maw--and it struck the structure like a gong. Yet, despite the vibration, the earth beyond it did not shake, though a tremendous wind roared out, carrying the sound. There were no words in it, but it held its own deeper sort of meaning.

Endure.


The luminescence could easily be seen from every corner of the shard, and further...it would not matter where one looked. Even buried within the earth, its shining brilliance would be known. The echoing sound of that victorious roar would resonate through the bodies of all that yet lived. It would give them warmth; it would fill their bellies and sate their thirst--if only for a time. Further still, it did something that few others of his kin could do; it cast a trillion-trillion lifeforms through the air and scattered them far and wide. In a microscopic rain, would these organisms fall like a gentle blanket barely seen drifting down to earth.

That unseen shower of life soon came to rest all across the shard, and all it touched birthed new life as if the ground itself had become a womb. Slowly, those tiny lives sunk into the soil, stone, and soot where they lay for a time...dormant. Then, as with his first children, the tiny lives within the Maw, they spread. At first, they formed only tendrils, writhing through the dirt, and where some failed, they changed. These became hardier to traverse stone and long since antiquated bone. Gradually, as the world breathed, these lives spread out far and wide, uniting as they stretched out unseen limbs beneath the ground. Finally, with a final burst of their Lord's light, they began in earnest their most crucial work.

All across the shard, the varied mycelium of the Ke'esath Sae'a burst forth from the soil. Some entwined with roots and bark, others stalks, and yet others merely spread across the surface. Through the Ke'esath, nutrients were divied and cast out far and wide. Where fires raged, they scorched at the fungal roots of Malath, but they would not be impeded. Adapting, as all things must in a world so harsh and cruel, the mycelium took from its would-be-killer and harnessed its destructive might. So fires became fuel themselves, and the mycelium crept on.

Slowly, as the fungus finished its great encroachment, Malath's Eye began to dim until once more it was seen only by a seldom few nearby. Far below the Eye, the Great Presence briefly grew still within its abode, considering its work. Every branching fiber of that vast mycelial web was like a nerve in his own body, allowing him to perceive much even without the aid of his greater Eye. Still, that had not been his aim, for while the Ke'esath Sae'a indeed spread nutrients all across the shard’s many miles, it barely made a difference. This irked him, for he knew the world needed more, and so he moved once more. Twisting, the unending bulk of Sa'a Malath Kaal rose up within the mountain. In response, the gateway at its base slipped closed, cutting off all light. Moving with a swiftness that one could not expect of such a massive creature, the Deity of Form reached the limit of his domain. Only then did the gateway open above the god, revealing to him the sky.

Light cut downwards through the black, but it revealed only swirling mist and the faint outline of an endless coiling beast. That haze ascended from the mountain's opened peak and pressed up into the sky. Where beams of brilliance struck that blinding brackish fog, it died as if eaten by whatever dwelled within. Then, as the fog--and the god within it--reached the apex of their climb, they met with Malath's ardent sigil. Within the veil of essence that hid his divine flesh, something stirred and then was revealed. It was like a wall of flesh, beautiful and strange, but the truth of it was soon unearthed. Upon that pearlescent skein opened a truly massive orb, its gaze taking in even the symbolic Eye of the god.

The Eye of Malath, at that moment, faded from existence, replaced instead by the true countenance of the Formless Flesh. At the true Eye's unveiling, the world shuddered, and then Malath Kaal spoke.

"Arise."


With a sound like thunder--no--like reality snapped in twain, his voice rang out through the heavens and across the shard. Where storms of unreality writhed, his voice took shape, calling upon Ke'esath Sae'a to aid its cause. That sound it drove itself into the earth in many far-flung spears of iridescent power, and where it struck so arose something new. At first, they were only saplings--small and supple wood--but in minutes, their fibrous bark groaned. With a violence they grew upwards at the sky, their branches spearing upwards at the storms that threatened life's long-since-weakened hold. The winds tore at them, and those supernatural forces threatened to shatter their earthbound trunks, but they would not relent.

The Unbent Lord, their god, called out; his truest Eye a shining beacon.

"Renew."


That edict struck their bark and suffused them with power most divine. So blessed by Malath, they opened blossoms to the storm of unreal etheric force and supped upon its power. Like men dying of thirst after a long drought, they drunk from the storm, taking their fill--then more. Steadily, the arcane storms began to calm as the power was drawn down into the shard itself, suffusing the earth--and as the trees exhaled--the air as well.
Satisfied, Malath Kaal withdrew his form and power both into the mountain, leaving behind enough only to maintain the delicate balance that the Kel’a Maeori--those great trees--maintained. Quietly, he rested, allowing his sleeping mind to spread far and wide across the Ke'esath Sae'a so that he might dream of the world soon to come. His final thought, before unconsciousness took hold, was singular and ringing. It shut out the light from the world--the peak to his abode forming anew--and released flickering fragments of his power onto the shard.
It was not thunderous, but it could be felt, if only as a whisper. It said only…

'Emerge.'





Hours passed, then a day, as the fatigue of an almost endless race for survival ended, each member of Fein's tribe allowing themselves--for the first time in many moons--to give in to their body's needs and simply rest. All the while, the 'Caster watched over them, vigilant. Though he understood this being to be one of supreme power, he had yet to trust it. Instead, Fein had spent much of the last day in silent observation of the darkness beyond their eyes' reach. Over the hours that he'd watched, he mainly saw the colorless void of that vast expansive cavern, but in some moments, he heard--and caught brief glimpses--of something beautiful and monstrous in equal measure. On the second day, when some of his people had yet to wake, Fein became suspicious. So it was that on the third day--when his patience betrayed him--he decided that it was time to break the silence that had stretched for so long between gods and men.

"Why have you done this?" He asked, accusation in his tone--for once, his voice bereft of pain. It had been so long since he'd last spoken--and since his voice had lacked the rasp of strain and exhaustion--that he hardly recognized the sound. How was it that he'd healed so quickly? Fein frowned, but before he could truly consider the implications of his revelation, a sonorous drone echoed through the black before him.

Slowly, the sound took shape, the great voice answering his query. "Burdens too heavy to bear," rumbled the god, "...without you, they would have broken each and every one."

Fein gritted his teeth, anger welling in his chest, almost clouding his vision. He rose from the ground, pressing forth and into the murk. "How dare you!" His emotions screamed, but he had not stopped them, and so the sound carried through the mountain, reaching the monster that surely lurked within.

"You would take away the one thing they desired most, after how hard they fought to keep it?!" His voice rose into a scream of rage, the emotion let loose, yet he could not help but feel that his body was different than before. Stronger, his voice louder and more melodic than even in eons long since dead and gone. Nonetheless, he raged, and the god listened in utter silence, unperturbed. With time, Fein's fury cooled to embers, and he was left almost gasping for breath. Some few among his clansmen had approached him, Rha Lia among them. She laid a hand on Fein's shoulder and met the 'Caster's gaze. Lia gave him a sympathetic smile and nodded as if to say that it was okay.

In that somber moment, warmth blossomed in his heart, soothing the burn of his anger, calming his mind. From the emptiness beyond them, light shone, then dulled in turn. Slowly, it became a pulsing, and that sight too became a sound--throbbing gently through the stone beneath their feet. It spread, and as it did, the stone shone a glossy black, and light fled further towards the entrance. Yet the clansmen found that they could see as if a faint bluish glow had suffused the space. Fein blinked and took another step forwards before reaching out not with his body but with his mind. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, the wind picked up, and Fein closed his eyes, joining his voice with the humming intonation of that monolithic being. For the first time since the Crippling Descent in the forgotten ages now lost to the world, he sang, and with the sound, the world bent, remembering his Will.

Beside him, Rha Lia covered her mouth, going wide-eyed as wind and snow and leaves danced about her friend in dizzying patterns. Each arrangement was almost too beautiful to bear, and before she knew it, there were tears upon her cheeks. Fein's voice soared in harmony with Malath Kaal's, growing stronger by the moment. Where before the mountain simply hummed, now it almost shook beneath the intensity of their might.

The stone, now black as basalt, seemed to spread its hue unseen. Their songs gave new life and purpose unto the tiny microbes which from Malath Kaal had spawned to blacken stone and flesh. The creatures crept upon the sleeping forms of men and women who could not wake, and on them markings began to form. With each hill and valley in their music, the microbes sank deeper into the flesh of those few mortals they had touched. They wove through every cell, through hair and eyes and spine; with them came change.

The song drifted into echoing melodies, resonating through the cavern, cutting swaths of sound through the earth, melding flesh, binding bone. Those remnants of sound drifted, carried far and wide by the wind, and they touched other tribes miles askance of their location, blessing them in times of need. It faded from the cavern, but its echoes remained, calling back and forth through the mountains. It was a melody of warmth and wellness.

Fein wiped tears from his reddened cheeks, the faint wrinkles less defined than even minutes prior--before their song had started. He choked down quiet sobs and, with a gasping breath, collapsed into a huddle on the floor. For so long, Fein had sung, and the world had remained silent and dead. For so long, he had hummed and bade the trees to listen and respond--all for naught. The apocalypse, its terrible destruction, its decay, had rent the spirit of the world as surely as it had its shape. In so doing, that dying world had worn away the spirit of a man at peace, a man who had lived longer than most.

Fein cried, not for the loss he'd suffered, nor for those born or dying in a decaying world bereft of peace or even mirth. No, Fein sobbed because the Primal's arrival signaled the return of something greater: Hope.

The god's Eye opened before him, and it spoke, flesh unfurling downwards from it; first bone, then ligaments and muscle, tissues, then nerves and skin. It was almost human, but it bore four eyes, two of flesh, and two of essence transposed upon each other at the center of its forehead. Beyond this, something long and sinuous stretched out behind it and into the darkness. The Eye of Malath--now embedded into its forehead, glowed a gentle light. Its eyes of flesh were featureless and white, its lips closed, and its form utterly naked--yet still androgynous.

"You are Fein no longer," the figure said, but the voice was Malath's, shaking the cavern. Its lips did not move, but its limbs did as it knelt before the man and placed hands upon his shoulders. "Be reborn within my gaze, Aged One. Bearer of burdens, he-who-carried-knowledge thought lost. Willcaster."

Malath spoke the final word with a mix of awe and deep respect. Fein could only nod in response, but the vessel of Malath understood for it felt every sensation of the human's body. He knew the man, from every sinew to every synapse. Though Malath could not grasp entirely the power that Fein had once held--nor could the Great Presence ever truly understand the laws by which magic moved in this land of new beginnings--there were some things within his power.

So it was that his vessel began to dissolve into a haze of black limned with azure light, its essence touching once-Fein and making him anew. The glowing mist suffused the human down to the atoms of his being, then deeper into the quintessence that had wrought him. His power touched the decayed seed of divinity that had once been kindled in his soul, and then it grew.

Likes vines or nerves, something blossomed within the human's mind, taking root within his brain, then entwining with his nerves. The haze of black pressed itself upon his skin, and so like his kin, he gained markings of swirling pitch. Yet his were not like the others, they had an iridescent sheen, and they writhed and changed across his form from moment-to-fleeting-moment. He shuddered at the sensation as he felt even his heart grow steadier, his lungs stronger, his muscles better. Then sound burst from his throat in one melodious note, and the tears evaporated from his face. That single note drove the sleep from his slumbering clansmen, from the children they thought would never wake, and it ignited within each of them a fire all their own.

The cavern echoed into silence then the God of Form did speak.

"Vhan-ka, you are my children born anew," hummed the deity, his voice a quiet, deep-toned hum. They felt his words, for he knew them now as his people: His first sapient creations. Gently, what seemed an impossibly long digit of far too many joints, emerged from the formless black and rested its taloned end upon once-Fein's hair. "Meae Natah, I anoint thee," whispered the mountain, its voice a tickling wind.

Once-Fein smiled, and for the first time since his transformation, he opened his eyes--all three of them. The third was as the vessel's had been, itself a luminescent facsimile of Malath's own Eye. Meae Natah laughed, the sound filled with boundless joy, and such was the power of his voice--indeed, his Will--that his clan too came to share his joy.

"Go forth..." said the Great Presence through the din.

His work done, yet only now begun, Sa'a Malath Kaal slipped back further into his abode and dissolved into the black. Though the clan could not care to notice in their joy, the cavern they had inhabited for three days moved beneath the earth until it was far afield from the domain of Malath Kaal.

Quietly, his voice only within, the Primal sent out his first edict unto the world. It was only one word, and above all others, the Vhan-ka would feel it.

Thrive.





The molten blood of a dying world dripped from the craggy underbelly of the shard, what little remained of its core sloughing away into the endless abyss of starless space. That shattered expanse of once-infinite possibility was now marred by transient rifts in space-time, opening and closing like gaping wounds 'pon moving flesh. Far above--through the infested Underworld and the slaughter of the Dead Queen--a pale race of men clung desperately to life. Scarred and burned, these children of the old world fled through the craggy earth of a vast mountain range, one of those few which remained after the great fracturing of their planet.

Step-after-bounding-step, they traversed that treacherous landscape, their feet well-callused against the stone of the soaring peaks, their bodies clothed in furs. One fell behind, then lost their footing and slipped, but not one of them turned to help her. Breathing hard, she pulled herself up and started off, glancing only once behind her as a tearing screech shattered the sky and ground against the grey stone of the mountains. She took a step, turning away from the unseen horror that pursued them, but it was too late.

A wave of intense ecstasy washed over her mind, bathing her consciousness in joy and unending rapture. The shrieking roar echoed through the mountain pass, but to her, it was a low rumble, a sensual moan, the groans of a man and his lover. Her eyes rolled back into her skull, and she fell to her knees, unable to stand against the unending onslaught of emotion and sensation. Emerging before her--not at a run, but with a steady swaying step--was a woman. It was as if she had stepped from a story of the elder days, her skin lustrous and shining, her eyes full with longing and satisfaction both. No single color defined her gaze as their eyes locked.

Soon, their lips followed suit, and she who had fled lost herself in the embrace of the lustrous woman. Time passed, but she could not tell how much. The world bled away as thoughts of running--of fear, and cold, and pain--seeped through holes in her mind as if she were a broken flask. Soon all sense of her body became a memory, and in the moments that followed, her name dissipated not into memory but into nothing. Still, as her consciousness unraveled and her body went with it, she felt only beautiful sensations, knew only of pleasure, warmth, and connection. Satisfaction, desire, then satisfaction again.

Then she-who-had-ran became she-who-had-been before--in an instant--they became she-who-was-not.

The lustrous woman turned from the bare ground upon which her once-lover had bared herself en full and so been lost to the world, but there was no satisfaction in that ever-shifting gaze. In those eyes, there was only ecstasy and terrible unending hunger. Far off, perhaps several miles away, one pale man turned atop a cliff and looked upon that lustrous figure. The monster screamed, and its voice was pure eroticism and comfort--be it of flesh or mind or spirit--it was terrible and without limits or bindings. The lustrous woman dissolved, though the eyes remained, and what emerged was a vast flowing serpent of flesh and effervescent mist. Every movement was like the groan of a thousand creatures, each in the throes of sensual completion.

It howled, and it shrieked, and then it rose through the air and streaked towards the man.

He ran, but could he and his people do so forever against a horror that did not tire, that would never stop, and could not be fought or reasoned with?

So, with this considered, their survival was...unlikely. Nonetheless, the tribe kept going, descending the craggy peaks at speed. In a day, they reached the base, and in hours more, they found shelter in a vast cave. There, truly desperate for a reprieve, a man called upon forces that once his ancestors had understood. Mind steeled, he bent his Will against the world, and with the weakening of laws and boundaries, with the leaking of unreality into its midst, he managed an act of Magic.

The cave mouth collapsed behind them so that finally they could rest. Slumping to the ground, sweat-slick across the 'Caster's cold, pale skin, the man peered into the utter black of their brief haven. He heard only the sounds of labored breath. They had been lucky this time, for it seemed nothing lurked within this cave. A good thing, as they had no way out...at least until he had rested. For a time, that's all there was, but eventually, someone proffered a light--a sacred thing in these times--and let it banish for a time the darkness of their temporary home.

"Thank you, Fein," a woman's voice whispered across the cave. Fein smiled, his heart no longer beating hard against his ribs, his breathing slowed, though he felt a soreness in his throat and a deep cold that had long since settled upon his bones. "Of course," he said, but his voice was hoarse and strained; his Magic took much from him, almost too much. Each time it was worse. A man approached him and crouched, meeting Fein's eyes, "You are close," he said, worry evident in his demeanor. The words were quiet and restrained.

Fein gave his elder brother a smile, "No, Vham Ane, I will be fine." He said it loud enough so that all heard the confidence in his voice, despite its hoarseness. Vham frowned but nodded and took a seat beside his brother. The two embraced, for warmth and comfort both; others did much the same, and soon all but one of them was asleep.

The light began to dim, a sign that many hours had passed him by. Fein, who did not sleep, watched it closely and listened to the howling of the wind that was muffled by the cave-in that he'd wrought. Though the others slept and so were unaware, he knew that the voice of the mountains was not the only thing shrieking in the night beyond their oasis of light and safety. Though his people had long since laid their faith in the Old Betrayers to rest, Fein--in an act of quiet, hopeful desperation--said a prayer in his mind.

'To any who might listen. To any who can hear my call. To those of you who might exist beyond, still watching, please help us. Help my people; my brother, my granddaughter. We have lost so much,' Fein thought, and he knew he was pleading, knew how pitiful and weak it sounded, even in his own mind. Still, Fein did not stop, and soon his Will was behind the call he'd sent to the Void beyond.

'Please, help us survive. Do not let us die like those before us. Do not let our world die!'

The mountain shook, and so his tribe awoke. Fein's eyes widened, and their light suddenly dimmed to nothing, then was extinguished. Eyes turned, seeking anything in the coal-black of the cave. Hands scrabbled upon dirt and stone, seeking out the source of their light. People rose and moved to the collapsed entrance, pushing against the rubble and dislodging tiny rocks.

Despite his people's panic, Fein remained still, staring. For, hovering in the air across the cavern was a glowing effigy of otherworldly light, which limned a twisting symbol. It regarded them, and the weight of its gaze--all at once--froze everyone in place.



"O' ye of simple flesh," the emanation intoned, its voice making every stone and person shake.

"Beckoned by your call, I answer, knowing your resolve."

Men and women shook as, slowly, they turned to regard the Icon that had revealed itself to them. Gradually its light expanded, unveiling the true majesty of the impossibly vast cavern. That mountainous cavity appeared almost to grow outwards in every direction without end, its only limit the entrance they had once ruined. A woman, Fein's granddaughter Rha Alia, touched the stone of the wall and realized that it was smooth and without blemish. The collapse had healed, and the grey stone seemed to have been replaced with jet-black marble.

"Who are you.... What are you?" Rha Lia ventured. Fein peered at her, pride and fear at war within his eyes.

The entity said nothing, but the symbol's radiance advanced, overtaking each and every one of them with its brilliance.

Within their bodies, inside their minds, a name echoed.

Sa'a Malath Kaal.


The Eye spoke then, for that was its nature--to see and to be seen.

"I am the Deity of Form," it rumbled, and suddenly each human in the cavern could feel its divine presence in their bones.

Enraptured, Fein let out another quiet question, "Can you help us?"

The mountain laughed, the cave-mouth opened, and outside the shrieking beast of sonorous flesh and Ecstatic experiential essence--writ in flesh and mist--evaporated into nothing. Where the horror had been there remained only writhing air, which howled, as if in pain, before it gradually grew still.

An elder of their people spoke up, tears streaking down his face, his voice thick with emotion. "You have returned," he wept, falling to his knees.

Somehow, though its shape never changed, the Eye smiled. "I never left," it said, and strangely Fein felt relief wash through him. For the first time in generations, his people would not have to flee the Beasts of Dream and Flesh. Perhaps, finally, with the aid of this being...they could fight against the scourge that those horrid beasts were upon their remnant of a world. In his heart of hearts, he hoped that this was true. In time he would know that it was.

Hmmm
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