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TNES VI - The Mythopoeia

Discussion in 'Never Ending Stories' started by Thlayli, Aug 31, 2018.

  1. thomas.berubeg

    thomas.berubeg Wandering the World

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2006
    Messages:
    8,973
    Location:
    Ft. Lauderdale
    The Ballad of the Killer

    Breath. In. Breath. Out
    One.
    Breath. In.
    One. Two.
    and the shadowed flame
    Breath. Out.
    One. Two. Three. Four.
    made it's dark claim
    Breath. In. Breath. Out.


    Cursed be thy name
    Cursed by thy name
    CURSED BE THY NAME!

    I took the knife
    held it in my hand
    Held it in my hand
    A pool of blood
    till she could not stand
    She could not stand
    Liar be thy tongue
    Liar be thy tongue
    LIAR BE THY TONGUE

    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else​


    Noose ‘round my neck
    I said my part
    I said my part
    She’d struck at me
    a stab to the heart
    A stab to the heart


    She should be mine!
    She should be mine!
    She WOULD be MINE!



    They set me loose
    I walked far and high
    I walked far and high!
    a cold and driving wind
    where world meets sky
    Where world meets sky!


    I am survivor
    I am survivor
    I AM SURVIVOR



    A thorny wood
    look for me you murder child
    Look for me you murder child
    Whisper in the wind
    and let your curse be wild
    And let your curse be wild



    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else​


    Take hold my mark
    my stain upon your soul
    My stain upon your soul
    you bite the hand that feeds
    and now be whole
    And now be whole

    Cursed by thy name
    Cursed be thy name
    CURSED BE THY NAME



    Devil’s in the city
    Robes upon my frame
    Robes upon my frame
    Bodies in my wake
    To the temple I came
    To the temple I came


    I raise the knife
    They meet their fate
    They meet their fate
    Blood upon my feet
    and we celebrate
    And I celebrate


    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else
    I hunger for something else​


    Breath. In. Breath. Out
    Four.
    Breath. In.
    Four. Three. Two.
    and the shadowed flame
    Breath. Out.
    Four. Three. Two. One.
    made it's dark claim
    Breath. In. Breath. Out.



    Cursed be thy name
    Cursed by thy name
    CURSED BE THY NAME!
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2018
    ork75 likes this.
  2. inthesomeday

    inthesomeday Immortan

    Joined:
    Dec 12, 2015
    Messages:
    2,798
    Care and Consequence: Eight Years in the Forest​

    Do not weep for your goat, afem. Only by its blood are we fed.

    Golmorod brushed Kyna with a comb carved from the bone of one of her siblings. She was a mahogany-colored mare, sleek and very clearly strong, with a lean side and a high cheekbone. She was prized to his family; while Oshkum people follow many customs to differentiate men from women, Oshkum horses are a race that is perhaps more egalitarian even than some human republics, and mares such as Kyna were valued as much as their male counterparts, provided of course that they could ride. Kyna, of course, could ride.

    He remembered learning to be one with her on the plains when he could barely talk, and the pride the pair had inspired in his father, looking on from atop his own steed. Kyna was named after the first sound Golmorod made, as was custom for foals that grew up alongside human children. That she had survived so many years, even in the forest, was a miracle, and of course Golmorod thanked Tangutar nightly for such providence. Since the Oshkum first entered those cursed trees eight years ago, the mortality of their companions had increased tenfold, and it was all the breeders could do to keep their numbers at least equal to the population they had entered the forest with. Of course, as the Oshkum population stagnated only briefly, at the very beginning of their journey, this presented a unique demographic problem that Virageg was the first Oshkum leader to face: a shortage of horses.

    And now, there was the bargain.

    Golmorod understood his father’s decision, likely much more than the majority of their people. Although they had been faithful in following the river, each new camp took a little bit longer to pack, and each new child born in the forest inspired just a touch more lag in the family that bore it. Early in their journey, though there were indeed vast problems with organizing the population that had since been solved or at least mitigated, there had still been a spark in their step, a fear that motivated them to travel quickly, and lightly. This spark had faded with time, and since it seemed that the only major sign of what they were running from had shrunk from the ever-present threat of perishing in flame to the trickling loss of manpower to Shadur, there was a growing sentiment that perhaps they should stop moving on at all. People were comfortable, families were built, and there was an entire generation of rapidly maturing young men and women who had never known life outside of the forest. It seemed that, despite Virageg’s steadfast and iron-willed leadership, a contentedness had set over his people once again, like it had under the long rule of the king that came before.

    Golmorod set aside his comb and sighed. Everything was different now, now that this wild-looking deserter from so many years ago had returned into the Oshkum fold bearing such ominous tidings. There was fear again, and doubt, and while his father might prefer such motivation to the stagnation he perceived in calm, Golmorod was not so sure. He liked it here, in the forest. In fact, there were things… and people… that he was not so sure he would be ready to leave behind if his people truly did find the path promised by the horn-god.

    And too many Oshkum felt the same. When Everach (horn-bringer, as the people had taken to calling the deserter who returned) emerged from the woods and approached Virageg with the offer, their camp was immediately set ablaze with division, and apprehension. The king himself almost smiled at the news, before sitting back contemplatively in his wooden throne (a new addition to the camp brought as a gift by a Naami trader), but around him there was a furious debate on all sides. As it is nearly impossible to suppress information from a population so well-knit and physically close together as the Oshkum river community had become, this debate soon spread up and down the riverbank, engulfing camp after camp until even the most ignorant of Oshkum was stubbornly certain what would be the best thing for their people. By the time Virageg announced the situation to his public, most everyone already knew it, and once he announced his decision, there was a silence so rich with the potential to turn into ugly noise that nobody felt confident to break it. Of course, he decided to accept, and would send riders to collect the peoples’ horses at dusk.

    The silence was not broken until that very dusk, when Virageg began to order his band of horse-collectors to assemble. The very first man he drafted dissented; it didn’t exactly make matters better that this man was Unasht, Virageg’s closest confidante and the grandfather to his grandchildren.

    “I will not go,” stated Unasht simply, and in an instant he could feel the eyes of his camp, and the symbolic eyes of his people, trained on his face.

    The silence, though broken, decided to linger for a bit, making each slow response by each of the men ever more agonizing.

    “Unasht—“ Virageg began, his voice as even as his counterpart’s, though much more silent, and somehow all the much more terrifying.

    “No, I will not go. I will not take from these people the last thing they hold dearly, the last thing that connects them—that connects us, Virageg—to our way of life.”

    “You will,” Virageg growled. Each man’s voice rose to meet the others, and already it was impossible to remember when this process began.

    “Already you have demanded so much from us on this journey. We followed you because we were loyal, Virageg, not because we were afraid. The fire behind us only strengthened our loyalty. But now—this has gone on too long. There are no more fires. There are families, and children born here who know nothing else. This is wrong. Your son’s prophecy cannot command us forever.”

    There was much being said that had been waiting on pursed lips for years, and now those lips had opened there was no stopping what escaped them.

    “Life is comfortable here! Everything about the way we live has changed! We no longer need to move so often—the greenery here does not wax and wane as it did in the plains. There is abundant game, and our goats have enough to eat no matter where we go, thanks to the methods of gardening our Naami allies have shown us. Everything has changed but our most fundamental partnership, and now you wish to rip that from us for nothing but the chance to return to the hardships we have escaped?! I will not follow you in this, Virageg. I have followed you too far already.”

    With that, Virageg rose from his throne, and the camp held its breath. All except Unasht, who looked up boldly at his liege, knee unbent even before the hulking size the King imposed. But then, the King spoke, and all were reminded of his regality, and its origins outside of only his physical size. He was kingly, and part of that meant authority too powerful to resist.

    “You will obey me, or you will challenge me and perish. I will not see my people divided.”

    Unasht, it seemed, was conflicted, as he did not respond for some time, but he betrayed nothing in speech or in body language. After the tensest moments the camp had ever seen, he turned, silently, and walked back to his tent. Virageg watched him all the way, and once Unasht had entered, Virageg turned to his son.

    “Golmorod,” he said, “you will lead the band that will collect the horses.” Then he sat back down, rubbing his temple, and that was that.

    It took quite some time, as people were resistant to the decree, but none were so bold as Unasht to oppose Virageg, and by the next morning, each and every horse of the Oshkum had been counted, and collected, and brought into one of a few clearings Naami scouts had shown the Oshkum were in the area. Then Golmorod departed from the band of no-longer-riders, followed by the twenty best horses in tow, and returned to his father’s camp. As it happened, four of those twenty belonged to their family, so Golmorod stopped briefly along the way to brush those, among them his own personal favorite, Kyna, before stepping back towards his father, and his King.

    Unasht’s tent was gone, but Golmorod dared not question his father; Virageg’s face bore less welcome than it ever had before, and one might have better luck hugging the obelisk of Shadur and licking it than attempting to question Virageg’s emotions. That night, a young man that Golmorod knew to be named Setgel was tasked with tying six of those twenty to a tree near their camp. He realized he had seen this boy about their camp quite often lately, performing courtly duties and clearly being groomed for a higher position, closer to the King. Though he could not have been much older than 15 or 16, he was shrewd, a watchful and sly figure who rarely spoke but seemed always to listen. Golmorod wondered if perhaps this boy was to replace Unasht, whose boisterous nature was so unlike the boy’s. If perhaps this altercation was a long time coming.

    Once the horses were tied, the fourteen that remained— fourteen only, out of a thousand times that— were returned to their families. Kyna alone out of Virageg’s stock was kept by their family. The Oshkum people laid down for the night, all among them but one, their king, resting uneasily; tomorrow would mark the beginning of a new kind of journey.

    Golmorod expected that he would dream that night. It seemed that his dreams came fullest when there was suffering around him. He too rested uneasily, falling asleep slowly, twitching until at last a dream came over him. Terror. Terror was the first thing the dream brought. A familiar but forgotten terror, washed over by years of full bellies. Then came light, and then Golmorod saw the source of the light: fire. He was standing on the riverbed, watching the tents of the Oshkum burn: there were women, children, screaming, though he could not see them in the blaze. Suddenly, he heard a terrible scream behind him, quite unlike those in the fire. He whipped around, and found himself face to face with a figure, great and terrible, dressed in furs. Its face was obscured by a mask mouthless mask of wood— or perhaps this was its face. It shrieked, remorseful or enraged, and lifted an arm. Golmorod flinched, but the creature did not strike him. Instead it reached up towards its mask, to remove it perhaps, or to scratch it off. One last shriek—

    Golmorod awoke in a pool of sweat. Another shriek— feminine, and quite closer to him than those in his dream felt. The babes were crying, and Unastoma— Unastoma was nowhere to be found. He jerked up, swept out of his tent. His heart nearly beat out of its chest, a combination of the residual terror from his dream and the current terror of reality. No, he didn’t love her, but sometimes he needed her. Another shriek.

    Virageg was already out of his tent by the time Golmorod was able to identify the direction of the screams. Both men ran into the forest, where the sounds were coming from. Once they cleared the tree-line, they were greeted by a horrifying sight. Unastoma, Golmorod’s wife, was held aloft against a tree. The man holding her was slim, muscular. With one hand he struggled to cover her mouth, allowing her to fall down from the tree. He reached out to her, began to run to her, he saw what was in the man’s other hands— a jagged shard of bone, which he jammed into Unastoma’s side.

    Her cries, now muffled by the man’s hand, faded as he slid his tool up her side, around the front of her neck. Golmorod’s scream of terror stopped him, as the former fell to his knees; the man turned, and spotted the two men looking on. Golmorod recognized him. It was Setgel, his father’s new favorite apprentice, with eyes as wild as the dying girl’s, full of adrenaline, malice, and perhaps something else. And just as soon as he turned, he crumpled to the ground beside his victim, an arrow protruding from his forehead.

    Golmorod hadn’t seen his father draw the bow, or string it, but when he turned to his father he saw his bow in hand. Accuracy and speed to be expected from the Great King of the Oshkum. “Taken by Shadur,” Virageg muttered.

    By now, more from their camp, and some from nearby camps, had come to see the ruckus. Among them, straggling a bit behind the rest, was a sleepy-headed Unasht, Unastoma’s father. He too held a bow, a community man to the last. Before he saw the scene by the tree, he briefly locked eyes with Virageg. They exchanged a look, one Golmorod would not understand for a very long time. Then Unasht looked past Virageg. His scream would haunt every different kind of Golmorod’s dreams for years to come.

    ***

    The Oshkum remained one united tribe as they followed the path the horn-god revealed. It was terribly morbid; every so often, once the trail seemed uncertain, Everach caught and skinned an animal of the forest, burned its pelt, and rubbed its blood on his eyes, and then he would know the way. But it worked, and gradually the animals’ sacrifice led the Oshkum into sparser and sparser trees. To Golmorod, the most unsettling change was the change to their prayer. Once a moon, when it shrunk to a sliver of size that Everach recognized, the priests of Tangutar donned strange wooden masks and oiled them for a dance.
     
  3. Lord_Iggy

    Lord_Iggy Tsesk'ihe

    Joined:
    Jun 7, 2005
    Messages:
    24,544
    Location:
    Yukon
    1 point of magic to the unwitting sacrifice of the beloved unborn, and the genesis of the forest children, the aaruanef.

    1 point of magic to using the Wheel of Leaves' wisdom to help Haadulf and his followers to gather and prepare as many potions, salves, extracts and poisons as can be made to waylay the invaders and aid the defenders.

    1 point of magic to preparing a terrible somnolent agent, extracted from the five-pointed flower, to be deployed by air against the invaders.

    1 point of civilization to preparing the forest's defense against the flamefolk of the south, gathering allies and preparing arms and armies..

    1 point of civilization to bringing culture, language and knowledge to the forest children, the aaruanef.
     
  4. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    But you misbegotten addicts are not all alike. A lucky few of you simply enjoy creation. Doing it alone is fine, but with others, there are more interesting flowers to grow. These are the gardeners. Most of you need each other. On some level you crave the rush of acclamation as they honor your edifice with their joy or fear or respect. These are the architects. But for a particularly tortured lot, collaboration only empowers their disease: The face they see in the mirror. They will never be satisfied, always miserable, picking themselves apart like a plague of gnats crawls beneath the skin. These wastrels are called artists.

    Tell me, which one are you?

    Update 2: The Bonfire of Spring

    “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” -Richard Feynman

    695 – 705, Southern Calendar
    28 – 30, First Circle
    1 – 7, Second Circle / Hexic Calendar

    Of the East (particularly, its sorrows):

    From the outset they had subtly dismembered the garden-city. Small boats at a pier, smuggled with seeds and children huddled under flour sacks, water slopping against their hulls in the dead of night as udyn lookouts scramble up the mast-poles and squint suspiciously upriver, as if the delta itself was their enemy. Rumors flew from sod-roofed house to house of Anis-Natar spies, as if an Empire with flying fire-spirits whose minds could pierce and break the miles would invest in something as mundane as spies. (They did.) People visited cousins and cross-cousins in outlying towns and hamlets, then disappeared. Others gathered in the green spaces of Gahad to pray that the Wheel of Leaves would save them from the foreigners. The city was no less beautiful, its water no less fresh, its flowers no less bright. But the pall of doom hung over it, now.

    The Prophet himself was sent East on a small ship, under strictest secrecy. And the Circle of Gahad tried to prepare. They assembled warbands of archers and spear-throwers, buried seeds Haadulf had shown them along the routes of approach they thought a foreign enemy might take. Green-priests stocked healing salves and poisoned their allies’ weapons. But the peoples of the Circle, the Gahadi, Mohabef, Girahid, Manahize, and many others besides, had never formed anything like a formal army. They knew little of formation fighting and battles that were not ritual. At best they could assemble large, mobile warbands of skirmishers hoping to use the terrain to their advantage. They sent a scattering of scouts into the western plains, to warn the Circle of an enemy advance. And, of course, their ruse.

    The blonde man they had sent South was a green-priest who met Haadulf’s description, who could even replicate many of his tricks with plants. Their little caravan of deception finally met a lion-priest on the plains, carried in a jeweled palanquin by two glowing marids, meant to bear them back to the Empire. He bade ‘Haadulf’ sit across from him on a red blanket the marids laid out in the grass, speaking his language with great courtesy, old orange eyes ringed with laugh-lines. He had him grow a small plant from a pile of soil, which he did to the priest’s satisfaction. He had him quote from the recorded writings of the Wheel of Leaves, which of course he knew. He asked about his family and their condition, and if they might follow him South. As soon as he could send them a message he was safe, he replied.

    Standing on either side of the lion-priest, the marids’ eyes flicked towards him simultaneously like the clicking of two locks. The priest paused, briefly, and asked if he might like some hot soup, since it was a crisp morning on the plains. Haadulf’s impersonator replied that he would. The lion-priest stood and turned, sighing with disappointment as he walked out of range. A brief squawk from the green-priest before a deep thump of displaced earth as a flame-lash ripped into the ground. Further whooshes of ignition as the Gahadi escorts were killed. “Gather it in the blanket,” he ordered the marids mentally. “They will wish to question the ghosts.”

    It was a sunset like many others when the people of Gahad saw the angels of death in their sky, seventeen sunsets to echo their own. What I tell you, we know because both sides recorded it, and many others besides. The Seventeen encircled the city-island, molten bodies hanging in the sky, their backs to Gahad, all the marids of the Empire. Many jumped into the canals at this portent, swimming for the far banks, and of those, a few lived, mostly those who had the foresight to trade for udyn-charms. A few ships put out immediately or were moored farther out. These survived too. Those that waited, to find their loved ones, or their friends, or their children; those ships that tarried to get one last thing or person – no.

    They did not sing. They chanted in an inexorable whisper, one syllable after the next like the ticking of a clock. And the air slowly began to shimmer. It began in the sky and touched down slowly, gathering force like a hurricane, solidifying as it swirled. A great twisting babel-pillar of red, rising to the heavens in the night sky, growing to the size of the island of Gahad itself. In the udyn islands, across the sea, and even to some far-sighted in the Carns, the pillar of fire was seen. It was the mark of a new age. Actually, that isn’t true. It was the mark of an old age that refuses to be forgotten.

    A group of herdsmen beyond the island running from the conflagration started up short to see a boulder before them rumble and crack, and a black being of smoke billow out of the hole in the Land. It smiled, and they died. Afrakt Ghul (who unlike his children, is bound to the Land and cannot fly) then walked through the river itself, steam rising and the water bubbling as his unquenchable flame passed through the Delta to rise in the pyre. He smiled, a blue rent in the inferno, as he stalked the cracking, glowing stone of the buildings of once-Gahad, seeking hidden fastnesses. Here, and there, a root-ball that would not burn, only char, concealing someone within – smote. An udyn hiding with a water-blade in an evaporating canal – the last thing she sees, the visage of Ghul, rictus mask of glee burning underwater as the smoke-blade rends her own.

    “I AM THE OLDEST THING THAT WILL EVER BE, KTSE!” he roared in the garden of holocausts. “THIS WORLD WAS BORN, AND DIES, IN FIRE.” For all his power, at the peak of his children’s destruction, it carried all the sadness and rage of a grieving father.

    Afrakt, enough, says the Amethyst.

    “What.” he growls at his god.

    The boy is not even here. You are done. Now leave it to the children.

    Afrakt Ghul grunts, turning, and stalks from once-Gahad, cape of smoke billowing behind him.

    The pyre burned on the delta for seventeen days and nights, long after all life on the island had been extinguished. When it finally faded, and the diminished fire-spirits returned to the South to sleep for several years, there was nothing left – no plants, buildings, not even dirt. The entirety of the island was scorched down to the bare rock, transmuted into flows of tiger’s eye and carnelian, all covered in piles of drifting ash, here and there glowing with remnant witch-fires for years to come. In that zone of desolation, no plants would, or could, grow to this very day.

    So ends Great Gahad, slain in her youth. Perhaps it is better this way. Now it exists only as remembered scripture. It had no time to become the nexus of an imperial legacy, bow-backed by the endless weight of difficult choices. No time to become the sovereign mother of many humble, obeisant children, and to diminish in spirit what it might have gained in glory. It is better this way, trust me. Now, you will always have the memory of Gahad.

    But the Circle was more than its de-facto capital, and the Holocaust of Gahad aside, Anis-Natar contemplated that this region could be the solution to its problems. It would be costly…very costly, the priest-administrators calculated, pouring over new maps, to secure the riverlands, let alone the entirety of the East. But there was a political consensus: Crush the cult of Spring and enslave the heretics to solve the Crisis of Sustenance. Two birds, one stone. So, the machineries of conquest, long-rusted, gradually uncoiled into motion like a great python finally awakening from winter’s digestion.

    Reserves were called up to form a seventh orange-eyed legion, and teams of architects and lion-priests worked to meticulously burn a smoothed stone road north from the border, through the plains to the river. Lanterns with jarred-fire were hung at mile-posts, wells dug, and post-houses built for the cartmen and builders and soldiers. They began to build forts with stone carted north, to serve as the nexus of small trade-towns. Small shrines in each, to the Fire and the Land. Clusters of eyohoi watch unseen from a distance, eyes glowing in reflected watchfires, but these prey are too many, too hot.

    As the progress of civilization was painstakingly pushed into the plains, the orange-eyed armies marched ahead of this, entering the Circle tribelands. Both before and after the destruction of Gahad, many thousands had fled by water or land in any direction they thought would bring safety. (We will speak of these later). But there were many who refused to abandon their ancestral lands, or who thought that Gahad had been punished enough (if Haadulf had cared for us he would have surrendered, they grumbled) and that would be the end of it. But it was far from the end. Lion-priests came bearing dictates, and orange-eyed formations marched through the green villages and townships. For their defiance, the punishment was slavery.

    There was resistance, of course. The holocaust of Gahad had crushed the spirit of many people to resist the Empire, and much of its nascent military, but individual guerilla units still harassed marching columns with poison arrows, and even some fields turned against the invaders, making hundreds fall asleep or hallucinate before they could be burned to ash. The reprisals against this were harsh. Orange-eyed legions fanned out, led by lion-priests, systematically burning the forests and smoking out rebels. Simultaneously, they took hostages, and burned a set number of children and pregnant women publicly, each day, until the resistance came to an end. So of course, it did.

    The tribes were reorganized, relocated by the thousands, and resettled into regimented towns with walls of stone. Ordered triangular fields and streets were laid out, policed by freshly-summoned stone walls and orange-eyed guards. A few local collaborators, given amethysts and a measure of freedom, relayed the words of the masters to their new slaves. And in every settlement, a mountain-shrine to worship the Land, a fire-dome to venerate Fire, and the strict prohibition of the green faith. The voices and thoughts of the riverlanders are policed, as dockside ghettos of imported gill-caste sprout to service the new trade route, the bargemen draggers to tow slave-harvested food upriver to the frontier posts, and from thence down the black road to the Dakh, and the Empire. Even in the fields, the river-landers are never far from the watchtowers and their ever-burning flames.

    It is a difficult, unhappy life in the Slave-Cities.

    But the Crisis of Sustenance has been solved. Glory to Anis-Natar. A jubilee the likes of which has never been seen is celebrated in the South, to celebrate the twin triumphs of victory over the heretics and the seven hundredth anniversary of the Empire's founding.

    And yet, the priesthoods ruminate, they have only secured their secondary objective. For the Prophet of Spring has escaped beyond the Past. And many, many others besides. Peoples from the Circle flee north, up and down the coast and across the Past, setting up exiled garden-towns, each a mix of families and moieties jumbled in sudden expulsion into strange new lands. And on the periphery of the riverlands, the forests continue to deepen. The Empire begins to take note of these sacred glades, filled with mighty trees and majestic spirits. And, furthermore, they note the green-eyed beings that dwell within them.

    The Empire is, despite all its vast power, still trying to solidify its expansion into the plains and the delta, so they are not initially prepared to conquer all of the glades at once. The ones in the immediate riverlands are dealt with, young as they are, saplings snapped in the cradle before they have a chance to grow as tall as their immediate neighbors. A major expedition of 2 orange-eyed legions is sent southeast along the coast, burning as it goes and capturing a particularly unlucky exile-town, but even so it takes years to reduce the interior forests, a systematic burning, chopping and ravaging of countless square miles, and the hunting and killing of anything that flees. Resistance both natural and magical inflicts significant casualties upon the soldiers. Nonetheless, by the end of the decade they have mostly reduced that pocket.

    By far, the largest, however, lies to the north of the delta, a practical wall of trees which can be seen from the northernmost outposts of the Slave Cities. This great glade further protects a coterie of exiled Circle-towns beyond it as they struggle to get their footing and coordinate. Anis-Natar now understands that Spring has at least two faces, and that this Elaadi spirit seems to be in league with the green prophet. Orders come from the South: Wait and consolidate. Continue to pacify the river until it is fully controlled. Do not reach too far, too fast. Anis-Natar has not survived seven centuries without a measure of patience. The lion-priests burn a line of ash to mark the new northern borders of the Empire. And they prepare for the next season’s campaign.

    ---

    But what of those growing glades? What of Haadulf, and his travels? The poor man is wracked with sorrow, leaving his father and his kin across the sea. And his sorrows multiply, as a second child is still-born among the strange forests beyond the sea. But this gives word to what would be recorded in scripture, recited by generations of green-priests to come after: “His first he gave to our world, his second to the other.” The wheel grows even as it whithers. And something new is born. A deep power takes hold of the green-blooded stillborn, and from it, a new race is seeded. The details of this transmutation are oft-debated in thaumatognomic circles, but I will spare you the tedious academic debates. Too many have died.

    The Prophet of Spring named them aaruanef, from which all dialects derive. Airenos, they call them in Terres, where tales of them are only vague legend, and errins they are named in Carn. The name that they have for themselves cannot be pronounced by our language, as it is not simply spoken, but told with a warm wind and a smell I cannot describe. But the aerenath is as close as one might get. It is agreed that they first emerged with Haadulf’s passage into the far East, however they emerged in disparate glades on both sides of the sea, in varying numbers. Anis-Natari records account for them as well in their southeastern expedition, although most of these aerenath were slaughtered quickly, perhaps before they even had a chance to understand what they might be. (So sad, so too, like Spring.)

    Haadulf, for a time, forgot the war, as he disappeared with his companions into the deep forests to teach this strange being, and the others who steadily appeared after it. He spent several years at this task. Aerenath in the four great groves that remained after the Empire's strike developed somewhat divergent characteristics, both due to the differences of native plant-life (tending towards the tropical in their furthest southern region, more deciduous in the center, decidedly more maples and pines in the one near the Carns) and also due to the fact that Haadulf was only present to teach in one particular forest, causing those to become the most ‘advanced’ early on. However, space is different for the aerenath, and many of his teachings disseminated along lines of communication that passed between the forests regardless of how far apart they might stand in the physical world.

    Haadulf’s teachings, however, were disturbed by a sudden arrival, that of two strangers who, unlike most humans, knew how to see, speak to, and call the spirits. They were following the trail of a naioune whose corruption of the forest had caused the death of Alai’s foster father, which was the first Haadulf, sequestered in the deepest forest reaches for both his own safety and his work, had heard of such a thing. Haadulf’s brows surely furrowed in consternation to learn that their world was now sandwiched by two powerful, malevolent forces, one in the South and one in the North. The names of these two wanderers were Alai and Jemmi, and they were umaki, the traditional spirit-callers of this region. And in fact, these three had much to teach other.

    Haadulf at first accepted the two as students, teaching them much plantlore, as well as the nascent culture of the aerenath, the green horned beings who were, although similar to the spirits Alai had long appeased, also completely different, anchored to the physical world yet innately connected to the magical. But Alai, by this point, had increasingly come to realize that he had special powers as well, beyond even the taming of spirits. His dreams…were becoming real. He found himself with the ability to cast shades upon the world and to understand the hidden depths within people. As he experimented, Jemmi assisting him, he came to realize that he could control these dreams, and the dreams of others, even what they saw in the waking world.

    And then, Alai peered into Haadulf’s dreams. And his mind exploded.

    The three had many adventures, collaborating together to find and defeat the roving naiounes plaguing the land, and to avenge Alai’s father. But I would prefer not to steal the words from their mouths, because the two of them are quite legendary storytellers. If you are ever wandering the far East, I encourage you, find an umaki, for learning and telling these tales are their stock and trade. They will tell it to you exactly the way Alai told it to the one who told it to the one who told it to them, with only a few flourishes. Or find a green-priest. The language may be slightly more formal, but the vocabulary will be rich and cultivated, and there will certainly be fewer exaggerations. Or perhaps you will be lucky enough to come upon one of the two heroes yourself. If that is the case, please, give them my regards.

    But eventually, the time came to part. Haadulf would ultimately have to leave the forest, for news of Gahad’s destruction and his people’s slavery and exile had finally reached him in his forest isolation, including the Empire’s imprisonment of much of his surviving extended family, as a bargaining chip. And of course, he had to wrestle with the grief of losing his father, consumed in the immolation. He had to decide what his next role in the great war would be, as leader, peacemaker, or perhaps refugee, fleeing yet further afar.

    For his part, Alai…is not the same. Meeting Haadulf made him realize that, not unlike the gardener, he is a conduit for greater forces, connected to something…sleeping. Not the sleeper he felt Haadulf unconsciously feeding, stirring as the smoke of burning glades rises to the sky. Nor the ring, constantly swirling, teaching, unceasingly growing, dying, growing. Not even the yet-more-distant throb of oppressive, deathly silence. But a line, an axis of dream. An axis connecting him to Shadur, and something that lies beyond and below him. And also, at last, the awakened dreamers have found him. Twenty-eight, a man experienced, he is ready. He must go to Iphu, before it falls.

    The gardener and the dreamer part ways, and both, truly, are grateful for what they have given each other. I hope they will see each other again, but I fear I cannot promise it.

    Of the North:

    The Yztrau know what has always been known. There are only four things in this world that matter. The Mountains. The Forest. The Water. And the Darkness. Sacrifice to the four great gods and their children, and perhaps you may live. Attract their displeasure, and you will either be dead, or it would be better off if you were.

    They have learned this from experience.

    The Oshkum wend their way through the true forest deeps. Here, great luminescent fungi attach themselves to the bark of the giant trees, offering a new source of light to a whole second layer of undergrowth. This in turn attracts insects, who sink into the sticky surface of the glow and nourish the lights. One can climb the first layer of trees and still find oneself in darkness, absent the pale, yellow light of the mycelial traps, nothing like the sun. Parents tell children stories of the great sky, and the children disbelieve them. Kotzal, now also-called Shadur, picks off a few, in little canticles of horror. The prophet-prince gains the name of Golmorod, for his dreams lead them to streams, and salvation.

    A few of the northern Naami even join them, aiding them in their pathfinding. After a year of scouting and wandering, they follow the smaller streams to the banks of an immense river. Here, the sky is finally seen, when not swollen with rain or snow-cloud, silent pines and glassy water. They rejoice. They water their horses in the river, and it is good. The Naami warn them not to take from the river, and they do not.

    But then, then, then. The offer comes. A silent messenger of a silent god. A being, a beast, that claims to rule the forested land. A stag without fur, a song without notes, a mask without a face. He demands a sacrifice: Thousands of horses, all but a few breeding pairs. And of course, masked veneration. In return, freedom, prosperity, growth. It is an anguishing choice. But an inevitable one. The herd is culled, as the stag demanded. But at this, their progress is sped, and the surviving horses breed new foals quickly enough.

    Without their horses, traditional methods of hunting decline, and there is a shortage of game as the column picks over stretches of forest already over-hunted. So, some disregard the advice of the Naami.

    They row small hand-made boats and cast nets and spears into the river, drawing up bull-trout and salmon to roast over crackling fires. But they know not the proper rituals to take from these waters. A wave comes in the night, and it pulls hundreds of people into the deep. They mourn for the partings they cannot have, and they move on. Still, they follow the river, since it goes East, but farther inland, now. And if some of their night-guards and outriders hear echoes of a familiar campfire song or the neighing of horses from the direction of the river in the months to come, well, they do not speak of it.

    The passing of the Oshkum creates a ripple in the forest economy. A few curious Naami tribes allied with them, as I said, wandering migrants who help them live off the land. The Oshkum are warlike, but not a cruel people, and these ones are welcomed. But far more flee the rumor of their coming, out of fear. Fear of their cold blue eyes and cold iron points, the rumor of the beasts with their hideous shrieking cries and terrible speed. The rumor of a great blood-slaughter to gain rulership over the forest. But more than that, fear of what they might bring with them, or who they might bring down on them. A few enemies lay traps, poisoned offerings and pitfalls covered by leaves. The Oshkum react with fury, streaming through the trees with torches and horn calls to coordinate, running down fleeing enemies with spears and arrows through the back. These skirmishes only enhance their reputation, and people flee them, and flee the people fleeing them, and the cycle of displacement rolls on like upturned earth before a plough.

    Simultaneously, Carnish raids have picked up in pace in the coastal region, plucking the low-hanging fruit, slaughtering or enslaving the unwary who gather to farm on the gentle forested coasts. The survivors of this flee upland, running into those fleeing downland, and a confused milling takes place near the northern outlet of the great bay. A council of chieftains and hunters from different groups takes place, and the tone nears despair before a hardwood-masked priest steps forward. There is one place where we can be safe from all, he says. He points across the water, across the great bay, to the green-hilled island at its center.

    Their hollowed-out log canoes they stand on their ends by the shore and re-carve into totems. One has antlers, the second scales. The third is roughly chopped like stone, and the fourth is covered with anguished faces. The Yztrau melt into the forest of their new home, safe at last. They will sacrifice to the four forces, and the four forces will leave them in peace.

    A few seasons after the Yztrau decide to abandon the site, the Oshkum finally pass through their old hunting grounds, sped by their bargain. And at last, at last, at last, the Oshkum reach something that they had never even conceived of. It has always been known that there were rivers, but it was assumed these rivers were eternal. It was not ever known that they could possibly end. But the river widens, and slows, and the first scout to see it shudders in shock and incomprehension at the blue THING which stretches beyond the trees. It is decided to approach the thing. Golmorod is among the first to see the fruits of his dreaming. The warrior-prince stands in the bay, looking out at the distant bulk of green islands, but beyond that, through the channel – nothing. Another kind of plain, the plain of rivers’ endings. The Sea.

    Was this, at last, the plain that was promised? Did the prophecy of Golmorod promise not a plain of land, but of water? What cruel folly! Or is there still a plain beyond? Now the Oshkum must choose. Continue, or remain. Follow the Edge of land and sea further, or find a way to live with the inconceivable ocean? We will see. A bright green stag painted on a Carnish sail gleams on the horizon.

    But now, I think it time to discuss the doings of the northern wind. Its harvest has been fruitful, but the crops are bland. Hordes of zemmi to do one’s bidding are all well and good, but Shadur craves something more. More intimate associations. And more powerful servants. A few, twisted, broken souls eventually find their way to Shadur voluntarily. Their reasons are their own; it is best not to contemplate them too deeply lest you too, be taken. Not all of them survive the journey or are found worthy. But many do. And these, it ennobles. It tears them apart, makes them one with the Whispering Wind, gives them something of itself – and then puts them back together. The product of this aberrant witchery, we name naioune.

    The first of them was called Hyric. But now, eighty-nine others have come. There may be more. Inside them are a thousand tiny fragments of what once belonged to zemmi’s souls, little broken bits stolen from the husks and lodged in the flesh of their being. But I am not doing it justice. Speckled with such soulless splinters, they call upon hideous levels of strength and speed. But also, their inner eyes are open to the emotions of others, given leave to twist and direct their fear into action. Their craft, to dominate, glamour, manipulate human, animal, and plant alike, is second only to Shadur itself. And Shadur, itself, blesses them with a measure of most intimate attention, direction, and dare I say, love. Not to say that Shadur does not hurt them, it often hurts them. But unlike the zemmi, to be used and cast aside as needed, these naiounes are occasionally praised, even rewarded.

    Above all, the naiounes carry out special tasks. Some, we shall discuss elsewhere, or not at all. One, we shall discuss here. Hyric the Broken, first among naiounes, leads a great force south. The Naami have refused the call of Shadur, so their charms will be broken, and their spirits as well. More than a thousand zemmi, and four other naiounes besides Hyric, who dons a mask of madness, one end of the mouth curved up in joy, the other down in horror. They cross the great waters at night on black logs of twisted wood; a bound sacrifice is offered, and they are not troubled. Their paths do not cross those of the Oshkum, those few Naami that are with them can be left alone, on the master’s orders.

    But they come at last to the ridged pinelands where the sun may shine, the villages of the Naami in their sacred heartlands, clinging to the crevasses of the mountainside, tendrils of smoke rising above the treeline. The swarm hacks and chops at the trees hung with charms, birds and animals long having fled their terrible, terrible smell. And then, and then, a group of zem go further, cresting around the trees, seeking the villages to bring utmost despair. And there stands the masked stag, contemplating a withered flower bathed in a stream of rare sunlight. The zemmi pause, uncertain. And then a horn-call sounds, one that fills the valley not with the sound of a note, but of silence. The zemmi scream, for they cannot hear Shadur’s whisper, nor the naioune’s. But their voices are not heard. The stag stands over them and removes its mask. The zemmi are not zemmi any longer, but long-dead skeletons, covered in moss, flowers nourished in the ribcages.

    It takes a single step through the forest and appears amidst the milling hordes as they rip and tear at a tree-charm, its bulk as wide as a tree trunk. It scatters people like pebbles, the only sounds of carnage coming from the screams and calls of the zemmi, the stag sucking in silence as it gores two dozen upon suddenly giant horns with a sudden forward thrust of its head, antlers expanding exponentially like a forest of bracken. In the forest, in its home they have defiled, the soundless rage of the stag bends space to its will, the god swelling to the size of a house when it attacks, diminishing to the size of a man when it moves. Hyric steadies the zemmi, whispering encouragement, forcing the swarm inward to hack at the god’s heels, and parting it as the naioune-prince advances on the stag. He leaps and swings a blade of fallen star-iron with inhuman ferocity.

    A single note of clang, swiftly dulled. The slaughtered stag, an arm lifted from beneath its cloak to block Hyric’s blade. But no flesh upon it, only the long, skeletal arm of a man. The other reaches around to rip off one of Hyric’s arms as easily and pitilessly as a cruel child torturing a grasshopper. The naioune screeches and falls. The god plants a hoof upon the naioune’s chest, and points with Hyric’s ripped off arm, held in its own. Pointing North. The message is clear. Flee, and be spared. One mask regards the other, waiting. Broken Hyric, spurting blood, scrambles to his feet, his old arm already passing to ash and bone in the stag’s hands. His voice fails, so instead he whispers in his mind to those zemmi that have lived. Retreat.

    From hidden nests and platforms in the trees, volleys of arrows and javelins harass them as they flee, killing many. And Naami hunters, aided by Nastya the Silent, the chosen champion of the stag-god, further winnow the zemmi bands on their long retreat north. Of those sent south, only Hyric, another naioune, and a scant hundred zemmi return to the obelisk in supreme disgrace. It does not matter that Hyric faced a god; he failed, and for this he will be punished.

    Shadur, of course, contemplates this. Not for the first time, it feels a pang of regret that it is a stationary obelisk of horror and must act upon the world with such…inferior tools. But even this can be a learning experience. It begins to whisper to the trees, assembling roots and trunks into walls, twisting branches into mockeries of human halls. Yes, it will need to build an empire of its own to destroy those who oppose it. But as of yet, its fortress is incomplete, merely the foundations laid. It will become so much more. Work-crews of zemmi are set to speed the task. The dark fortress of Amno digs deep its roots.

    And then, there is another. On moonless nights, her presence is felt, her whispers heard. So much less than a roar, so subtle, almost delicate. Like a bone knife plunged just so between the ribs to kill in a single blow. Shadur admires its efficiency, appreciates the delicacy with which it entraps its prey. Alone, perhaps among all the gods and men, it understands what the doe does to those it catches. Such craftsmanship! The individual existence of the prey does not disappear once it is consumed, but remains in the belly (or the mind) of the doe, trapped in a realm that is a mockery of the forest, ever seeking and never finding escape, each new loss of hope like the lapping of a tongue at a salt lick, except it is the soul itself that is slowly worn away. Such patient torture! There is so much to learn from her. So transfixed is Shadur in watching the doe that he even forgets to punish Hyric some days. Truly, this is love.

    So, it courts her. With sacrifices and offerings, zemmi-charms and naioune dances. At first, the doe is confused. What new ruse is this, to distract it from the hunt? Then, it is perplexed. Why would its rival waste its time with such meaningless occupations? Finally, it is intrigued. It offers tribute, perhaps, seeking an audience. It has been long since any recognized her as anything but a source of fear. She does not mind this, of course, but even so… Perhaps it is worthy of investigation. So, finally, on a moonless night, after years of patient work, Shadur’s whispers become hushed with anticipation, as it feels the approach of the doe.

    First, a tiny, black dormouse, creeping across the leaves. Whiskers twitch, above them eyes of red. A black hawk, silhouetted against the stars, red eyes peering down at the obelisk it slowly circles. A skunk, except no stripe of white, only black upon its tail. A sovereign wolf, dark as midnight, red eyes peering as black paws step forth. An entire coterie of forest animals, great and small, strong and weak, except all the same in darkness, and in lidless STARE. The black animals process out from the vale of Amno, crossing the snowy plain to circle the obelisk, and Shadur vibrates with anticipation, as she comes, following and stepping between her attendants. She approaches the obelisk.

    What transpires that night between the two gods is not something anyone should read. In fact, I think I cannot transcribe it into words, nor should I. It would be a danger to most to even have those thoughts inside their head. So, I will be a responsible writer, and avoid the temptation. However, I deeply regret to inform you of what came after. The doe now stalks her prey with a belly swollen with child. And I fear to tell you that after nine years, that child will come forth.

    What tale of woe that child shall bring upon the world…I would say none had prophesied of such a thing. But Golmorod had.

    Of the East (particularly, its defiance):

    There are other happenings across the Past, you know. A great mage-king neither alive nor dead has accomplished impossible works. None know where he came from, how he gained his powers over memory, life, and death. None know how he lost his arms. None know why he straddles the knife’s edge between brilliance and madness. Except for you, of course. So that this may be true, let me tell you the tale of the Wokiko Emperor. (This is also a tale of the South.) Wokiko is his third name. His first has been lost to time, and has been erased by his servants, of course. His second could be found etched on a tomb, perhaps, but it was a false name made to misdirect, so you could not gain anything from it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

    It would be unfair to call the Jurou a greedy people, but they are certainly a thrifty people, their merchant-captains and warrior-braggarts eager to sweep the board with a quick trade or a quicker coup. Such was life among the shifting alliances of seacoast cities under the sullen weight of summer rains. Before he came. It is still that way now…but it is also different.

    Just over fifty years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Darkhouse of Darail, a Jurou ship sailed for the South from the far isle of the East. It was a dangerous voyage, but worthwhile – A cargo of rice could earn its weight in gems. As long as you observe the Southern customs, speak not of the Past, quietly exchange and go home, entire merchant princedoms can be won in a few years’ time.

    The man who would later call himself Wokiko was nobody special in his first life, probably. When his ship’s lookouts spotted the golden shores of the South, the domes of the distant city, and the blazing pyre of nullity that stood before it stark and erect like a guard dog, their memories were taken. But something went wrong. An apprentice dark-keeper dropped a jar of jarred fire, and the obsidian mirrors were torn out of careful alignment. Instead of retrieving the memories of the Past alone, all of the sailors’ memories were pushed out of their bodies, including that deepest, first memory of how to breathe. The sailors dropped like marionettes, dead. But their memories were not taken to the Darkhouse; instead the memories of more than fifty sailors were pushed into the mind of one man – the one who would be Wokiko.

    He went mad, of course. When the gill-caste finally retrieved the ship, they found them all dead, except for the one, thrashing and sobbing. Out of pity, of course, the sole survivor was taken to a sick-house, where the infirm and inane were often dumped. There they were received into the care of the purple cult, one sect of which is sworn to serve as keepers of the damned in all their varieties: Orphans, prisoners, and the insane. He was something of a curiosity from the outset, speaking in many tongues, usually unknown barbarian ones, but occasionally the language of the South. He had arguments, disagreements, long-running conversations with himself, interspersed with periods of babbling, laughing, and crying. But over the next four years, he gradually became lucid. Never normal, oh no.

    Eventually, one morning, his caretakers found him sitting up in bed, the bandage-wraps they used to keep him from scratching himself all askew. “I am well,” he said, in perfect Southern. (He was not.) Priests of the purple cult interviewed him. He expressed polite gratitude for what they had done to care for him, understanding that it was a simple mistake that had led to his temporary insanity. He expressed a desire to pay them back for everything they had done for him. Inside him were many memories of the great Empire and the great Mountain, and he would be pleased to work as their servant. A higher-ranked priest was brought. They tested him in various ways, all of which he passed. So, he was anointed with unguents of amethyst and recruited into the purple cult as an acolyte.

    For a moment, I must give you an aside on the purple cult. There is a strict church-church separation between the two approved cults of Anis-Natar. You have mostly learned of the lion-priests of the orange cult. These have exceptional abilities: eyes that see lies, ember-traps, the ability to call their ancestral fire-spirits. They are the inquisitors and the warrior-priests of the Empire, commanders of the orange-eyed legions. But the purple cult does not descend by blood, as does the orange. The Amethyst’s favor instead falls on random individuals, usually the lost. The priests of the purple cult have many roles: They are Anis-Natar’s architects, as their control of Land allows them to build flat roads, to mix sacred mortar for spectacular towers, domes and arches that would otherwise collapse under their own weight. They are its gardeners, as they alone can fool Azzatar enough into allowing a meagre fertility to spring forth, especially in Arisaras, city of gardens and memories. They are also healers, wardens, judges, and administrators. But above all, they are stonebinders.

    So, the second life of the one who would be Wokiko began in such surroundings. He rose quickly through the ranks, from washing the floors at the sick-house to scribing mundane court proceedings and transaction ledgers, to learning the simple bind-signs used to invoke the khedim. Of course, his foreign ancestry and previous insanity were not forgotten; he was watched both openly and covertly for signs of disloyalty or erratic behavior. But he proved his worth with an exceptional judgment of people, having a preternatural ability to find evidence of corruption and lies within the church that would typically be reserved to a lion-priest. Since the purple cult hates relying on lion-priests, (and there are secret methods to fool their sight,) this made not-Wokiko an important asset. He was assigned to internal discipline, and efficiently, dispassionately passed judgment on other priests regardless of rank. His bindings glowed with the power of one who was a true servant of Azzatar, so his faith was never at issue.

    Eventually, after two decades, not-Wokiko was permitted to enter the Eaves of Mourning, a sacred inner circle only permitted to senior priests. He learned some of the hidden secrets of the Land; that bone is just a rock, and it can be incarnated the same as a khedim. He was later permitted to drink of the wine-spring beneath the temple of Anisaras. But here, he over-reached. The Mountain gazed upon him true, laying him bare on the spirit-plain beneath a throbbing indigo sky, all directions draining to a single peak of Land. She saw past his disguise, the dominant personality he fronted with, lashed into submission by four-dozen motivated voices that hated the Empire and plotted to escape.

    But the Mountain was amused; she had never seen a mortal so tortuously constructed. Yes, he had betrayed her favor. But. Even so, I need some who know the unknowable, said the Land, gesturing to the East. I will spare you, little slave-driver. But you will serve me thus. He awoke in terror, not the expected transcendental ecstasy, and all the old suspicions of him were renewed. His rivals would surely direct the lion-priests to lash his secrets free.

    But before he could be arrested on suspicion of heresy, he died.

    Despite dying under a cloud of suspicion, he was still a senior priest with two decades of effective service. He was buried honorably, in the catacombs beneath a purple temple in his home precinct of Darail. Coated in embalming fluid, wrapped head to toe in purple-stained linen, he was entombed. His second life ended.

    A rattling exhalation filled the darkness of the sarcophagus. Days of frantic, secret self-surgery and healing, gritting his teeth to keep from screaming, peeling away his skin to carve the proper signs of calling and awakening on his bones beneath the flesh, to prevent his spirit from wandering too far, to call it back at the appointed time. But now-Wokiko had gone further. The purple cultists had only advanced their science as far as invoking rattling skeletons, filled with unquiet spirits. But Wokiko had memories of the East, memories of shamanic rituals to bring life, tame animals, and so on. He combined the arts with the creativity of fifty minds, his spell meant to reawaken flesh and brain, make the heart beat anew. Hand trembling as he drank the poison that would kill him, not knowing if it would work.

    And it didn’t. Not fully. It took hold on his torso, his legs, his head. But it failed on his arms. The reborn screamed in frustration. It was fine. It no longer needed them. It took a long time to do what was required with the useless, nerveless things (take note, this is the perseverance that makes an Emperor.) but eventually, it carved a crude calling, and the khedim it woke there with him he whispered orders, making it make others, and make others, and eventually his little army of chipped ceramics and desperation helped him dig his way free of the tomb.

    Once he was free, he wandered into the desert. Eventually, he had his khedim cut off his now-useless arms. But he had what he needed. He had replacements. He could have as many arms as he wanted. Now, he is Wokiko. Wokiko has died twice. But above, beneath, beyond all things, he is still a Jurou. And he has come this far to gain freedom, freedom for himself, not for anyone else. He has come this far to win.

    First, he raised an army of constructs from the earth, beings of stone, and dirt. (This was the easiest). But Wokiko found to his distress that the magic of stonebinding did not call across the Past. So, they had to be raised on distant shores, in isolated places, motivated to walk across the sea floor. But Azzatar’s bind-signs would not suffice for this, touch the sea and they fade. He would need new callings. Faith in Azzatar would not suffice. Hatred for him, however, would. He made them follow him, giving them a will to destroy their god so that they could return to dirt.

    This was the intelligence of a madman. Then he sailed across the sea, having built the enemies he would use to forge an empire. Next, he sought the animals of the great forests. He enticed them with debased umak charms, called them, cranes and monkeys, water buffalo and lynx, and when they approached shyly, forced foreign memories into their uncertain bodies with the obsidian methods of the darkhouse. He did to them what fate did to himself – made them more. They did not like it, but they did not have a choice. They named themselves Khergaa, and Wokiko promised them (lying) that if they served long and faithfully, they might one day return to the forest.

    To the people of his future empire, the Jurou, Wokiko simply came from the forest. He was human, of course, a terrible armless human, and he impersonated the role of a powerful umak, a spirit-calling wanderer. (One of his fifty had been one, in a former life.) With his animal-servants as proof of his power, he told them of the army he had seen, an army of constructs marching across the sea. They would destroy them, he told the skeptical Jurou, but I can save you, without the loss of one soldier. All I need, he said, is your dead.

    The recent-dead were easiest to raise, retaining much of their former selves. But the oldest skeletons, some, retained ancient spirits, ghosts so stubborn and disrespectful of the natural course of events as to refuse to leave their graves even after centuries. Yahoro, they were called, and to the eldest he gave kingship and the power of liberation, a skeletal subject sovereign, and the secrets to raise the others. With the army of the dead now raised, he confronted the army of constructs, and defeated them in a series of pitched battles. A defeat which was staged, of course, for Wokiko himself had wrote their bind-signs, and could easily twist them back into servitude. Their hatred remained, eventually giving shape to a simple collective intelligence: Kouta. They serve, and their hatred fuels them, an effective source of clean energy.

    Having command over the Yahoro, the Khergaa, and now the Kouta, the Jurou, even if they suspected they had been manipulated, had little choice but to play their parts as well. Wokiko Emperor, he was named, wrapped in an immaculate yellow robe with no sleeves, crowned with a crown he could not lift. And Emperor he is, in truth. He rules the four peoples of his empire, an empire of debauched magic cobbled from stolen secrets. He is old, not just in years but in accumulated memories, a rambling milieu of fifty personalities, dissembling, plotting, strategizing. He is dangerous. And he has not forgotten the Mountain’s promise, or order, perhaps. He knows She will come.

    He is neither truly dead, as a Yahoro, nor truly alive as a Jurou. He is something else. He is afraid of himself. Himselves. But he is free. And isn't that what matters?

    ---

    Unfortunate for the people of Sommos, oft-called Terres, their city-state is to go through something later historians will call the First (or less commonly, the Hexic) Crisis. Since the city’s ancestral founding, and the execution of the tyrant-king (whoever he was, I haven’t asked) for the elevation of the elected council, Sommos has refused to endorse any gods. (We can hope the Somnians invent a less boring founding mythos if they become more important, but people often forget such things when they are not.) But where was I? Right, politics. The conservative faction, aided by state propaganda, clad in the armor of nationalism, stubbornly refused to establish or fund a state church. Are not our city and the mighty Somnian people themselves god enough, they proclaimed, for from these comes our lives and our strength? Are not our limited funds better spent on soldiers and public infrastructure? This was the traditional ideology, and it dominated for a while.

    However, the rising prominence of the military, directed to resist both the Carnish and subjugate the northeastern tribes, and the also-rising prominence of the god Enamon within said military, eventually led to a plot to subvert the state. Led by their general, the Laureate Arrupos, their faction of the army attempted a coup, declaring the Laureate sovereign protector of the state and Enamon the supreme god of Sommos. They were initially successful in seizing parts of the city, but the common people, roused by the senatorial class, as well as loyal elements in the army, fought back for the sake of the republic. It was a protracted, messy affair, and blood ran in the streets and the city’s noble halls.

    Ultimately, the rogue Laureate was defeated, but he managed to flee the city with his followers, who ultimately founded a rival town along the coast to the west, the dictatorship of Enaios. Plans were, of course, made for an expedition to conquer Arrupos’ colony and execute the rogue Laureate. However, the next year, as it was still being organized, the Hornéd Fleet swept down from the sea. The city’s defenses and military, weakened by the defection of Arrupos and his men and the need to garrison newly conquered regions in the northeast, were unable to resist the Carnish horde, and the city was sacked again, with prominent members of the ruling class ransomed and many others enslaved. The Carnish could have razed Sommos, but they have already sacked it twice; why ruin a good source of income?

    In spite of these twin disasters, Sommos actually managed to grow throughout the decade, as a number of plains peoples displaced by Anis-Natari expansion, as well as a group of skilled refugees from the Circle, arrived to replace those who were lost. The countryside continued to bring in record surpluses of grain, aided by a fairly efficient taxation system and Gahadi knowledge, and prosperity was boosted by the creation of several new mines whose metals were typically sold to the Carnish, who often then traded back the Somnian currency and goods they had previously robbed. So it goes.

    But the arrival of the refugees, as well as a few orange-eyed wanderers from the South who whispered darkly of what would happen to the city if it failed to properly honor Southern gods, not to mention the extremely public knowledge of the Holocaust of Gahad, and the humiliating defeat against the Carnish, led that ever-unpredictable wheel of democracy to turn. Public protests were held, DEMANDING a state religion with public sacrifices and state priests to properly honor the major gods. Of course, Sommos should not play favorites between the gods, but they must all be honored or the city will be destroyed. A powerful argument, as people tend to like to live. And there were strong constituencies; the farmers wanted to support the Ring of Leaves, the miners wanted to support the Mountain, many of the soldiers still liked the Boundary, and so on.

    New elections brought the pro-religious party into the solid majority, which then formally established the pantheon of the six official cults of the city, organizing based on the Gahadi model a new calendar system of six months, with official religious holidays and state sacrifices in each. The pantheon consists of Enamon the Boundary, Elattos the Sleeping, Sattur the Mad, Gaddos the Grower, Athata the Mountain, and Avra the Destroyer. (Gaddos is now depicted as a stylized Haadulf, with two rings, one flowering and one withering, over each shoulder, or carried in each hand.)

    The reformers also overhauled the executive of the republic in order to bolster popular control over the military and improve the central response to future crises. They designated three Laureates to preside over the state councils and command the army (so that, if one is corrupted, he or she can always be overruled by the other two) and having the selection of the Trifecta candidates proceed from direct election by all those who have earned citizenship.

    So, the Somnian state ultimately emerged from the Crisis in a moderately better place than it started, with its internal struggles mostly resolved, but the distraction it had presented allowed for the Carnish to gain the allegiance of the majority of the border tribes that they had hoped to conquer, somewhat abetted by the heavy-handed Somnian methods of conquest and colonization. And of course, there is the dangerous emergence of a second thorn in their side in the form of the Enaian rivalry, whose inhabitants are loyal only to Enamon and their dictator-for-life, Arrupos.

    At the end of the decade, just as the Somnians were regaining their footing, there was another problem. A problem, indeed, that might lead to a second crisis. This problem came in the form of a message from the South.

    ---

    From: A bored priest-administrator of the Anis-Natari frontier
    To: The Tribe of Terse


    Ah, greetings, you are favored to exist upon the newest frontier of our Empire. You are grain farmers, yes? This is excellent and pleasing. We require the following: Seventy cubits of grain, child-hostages of your chieftains to carry your submission to the Imperial Children, and certain considerations for our magistracy, naturally. We will then name you our clients and give license to expand Their Empire upon those rude seas and mounts yet unfit for our own dignity. You can be assured that this could be a very generous arrangement with the correct response. Very generous indeed.

    ---

    How the new ruling Trifecta will vote on this offer remains to be seen, but given the fate of Gahad, the survival of their fledgling republic may tilt on the outcome.

    Now, what of Carn? The Carnish ships have, unwanted, plied their deathly trade into the stories of many others, but now we come to them in earnest. Perhaps it is best to begin where we left off, on the fabled mountaintop. Morvan the boy secures the thorn of consequence, the boundary of death, the ur-blade. Emmanix himself must favor this. But the world of edges is different from our own, and Morvan now walks along one, leaving his mother, Maelis, behind. She weeps and rages, of course, and all this weeping and raging draws a strange wanderer up to the peaks which he climbs for reasons of his own. He is fair, in a pathetic sort of way, and he names himself Atami. Maelis, she replies, once-Queen of Carns.

    They speak of their peoples, the giant-oracle translating. Maelis tells them that if they go much further, they will enter the land of the Carns, and since they are weak, they will be enslaved. What is slavery, asks Atami. You are bound in chains and forced to live and work somewhere you do not choose for a powerful master, says Maelis. That would be fine, replies Atami. No! shouts Maelis. Have you no warriors, no king? she asks. Well… says Atami. So, Atami then leads Maelis back to the downlands, where these deerskin-clad peoples of the North cower between the mountains and the sea. These are the most pitiful people Maelis has ever encountered. And yet, there are quite a few of them. Perhaps they could be useful.

    Maelis teaches them the concept of farming, and the Atamites very much like the idea of having food you don’t have to chase. She teaches them the concept of runes, and the Atamites like the idea of things that tell you what things are without having to discuss for several hours what they might be, and then be wrong. She teaches them the concept of walls, for protection, and they VERY much like this, enthusiastically building them before learning proper architectural principles. She teaches them the concept of kingship, and they say, then you are our king. No, no, says Maelis, pointing to Atami, HE is your king. What? say the Atamites. Why him? Because he is your leader, says Maelis. No he’s not, say the Atamites. We just follow him. Maelis sighs. I am a queen, not a king. A king must be a bold man who laughs loud and ventures far, whose blood and spirit are noble as a stag. And a queen must be the one who guides that king, whose counsel he trusts above all others.

    Now the Atamites understand. Maelis and Atami marry, of course. Atami is the king, the man who laughs loud (he is still practicing) and ventures far, and Maelis is the queen, the leader who makes the decisions and runs the country. And those who we once called Atamites have now taken a proper name, the Maelish. And Morvan, unbeknownst to him, soon has a young half-brother. (A younger brother that, in early childhood, passes through a door.) For her part, Maelis thinks that their little walled town and crude farms will soon be swept over by the Hornéd Fleet like the onrushing high tide once her brothers-in-law, the tripartite kings, take note of her.

    But they do not take note of her, not before other matters interfere.

    The wealth and slaves brought in from the Carnish conquests fosters growth, and there is a growth of seaside towns and stout hill-keeps among rocky coasts and narrow harbors. (In one, a certain smith hammers, and hammers, and hammers, and the sound of his hammering is somehow relevant. But not yet.) As you know, the Carns were ruled by three kings: Judoc, Argant and Tanguy. And for a time, this was well. There were great victories to be had, especially over the blundering fools in Sommos, tearing themselves apart in petty political strife. We Carnish are above such matters, surely. Surely? Judoc is the key to the partnership, as the peacemaker, the strategist, the diplomat, often forging peace between the other two brothers.

    But things change when the whispers of Shadarix, that motley god of madness, that harlequin of hate, creep onto the Carnish stage, setting other affairs in motion. Judoc was a strong-willed man, but more of a statesman than a soldier, less well-suited to combat than leadership. But combat was what history had in mind. News came of a town broken open like an egg, not by a rival tribe or army, but a single woman, bearing a red trident and the ferocity of a fabled serpent-ram. Vyndra. Judoc leads his men to the hunt, drawing blade and leading his guards through the gates of the shattered palisade. He clashes with Vyndra there on the eave, the single woman holding off a dozen men with unnatural fury. Judoc deals her a wound, and she him one, before retreating. He shouts for them to give chase, but they attend their king. Vyndra escapes, continuing her journey.

    Judoc is taken belowdecks, nursed for the fever from his boiling wound by his daughter, Yann. But then a worse wound takes him. Yann sees the spiral of blood finger-painted on the bedsheets and knows well enough to draw dagger and slam it into her father’s neck. His last, whispering words are those of the maddening god, Shadarix. Yann, of course, swears vengeance, but she can join the club. With Judocix dead, Tanguy and Argant fall to quarrel. The Hornéd Fleet divides, and the conflict is particularly brutal and protracted with ships blessed by the gods to not sink.

    Tanguy is the stronger in the field, Argant being no slouch, but more of a builder, a merchant and a wright. But both of them are mighty kings, and they fight two mighty battles. We could discuss ad nauseum the tactics, the deep oaken thundering of two hulls slammed athwart, the salt spray mixed with blood, the pitch of the deck as blades of stumbling swordsmen find uncertain homes, and other such evocative nautical imagery. But I’m a busy man. In the first engagement, Argant’s son is slain, and with his death much of Argant’s morale. In the final battle, however, as his burning flagship is stormed, Argant climbs the mast and shoots an arrow through the eye of Tanguy’s son, gaining revenge for his own.

    In victory over his brother, yet despair at his son’s loss, Tanguy considers the omen of the loss of two princes. If Tanguy slays Argant, the tally will be imbalanced, and the only natural way to balance it will be the claiming of his own life. So instead, he enacts retribution by blinding Argant, in symbolic mirror of the arrow through the eye of his son. Argantix the Blind now returns, diminished, to his fleet, a mere tributary to Tanguyix, who declares himself High King in glorious acclamation of his supremacy, both over his brother-king, Sommos, and all of the subject peoples of the Carns.

    For his part, Argantix, diminished and blinded, tries to rebuild his forces. He accepts the services of a man named Maithlin, who despite his youth is already a half-head taller than many full grown. There is something about this bold captain, who can say. And over time, in his blindness and increasing infirmity, lacking a proper son of his own, Argantix increasingly begins to consider young Maithlin, youngest among all his captains, as like something of a foster-son. Would that he knew the babe of the mother who he drove out all those long years ago was now his most trusted confidant. Mighty Maithlin has already won great renown for slaying a serpent ram (no, not THAT serpent ram) and partaking in the second sack of Sommos, his size and bladework feared even among the rival fleets. Eventually, as he draws ever-nearer to death, Argantix names Maithlin his heir, to universal acclaim, as he is well-liked.

    But Maithlin's hand will be forced eventually. News has come to Tanguy of Maelis’ petty queendom. He has demanded her submission and received the literary equivalent of a laugh in the face. (Actually, I think Maelis literally wrote, "I laugh in your face, Tanguy.") The Hornéd Fleet, reunited in glory, will surely crush his mother if the disguised Morvan, captain-prince of Carn, does not now act to reclaim his birthright. The Carnish drama now enters its third act. But to claim the Antlered Crown his father wore, he will still need to pry it from High King Tanguy’s hands, who himself carries an immense amount of power and prestige. And further, with the world beyond the Carns in somehow greater turmoil, it remains to be seen what he must do with it.

    ---

    Iphu has become sacred in its solitude, between the mountains and the sea. Every few months, another awakens from those who dreamt, joining the company. Great butterflies with wings of palest lavender alight, and even to the unawakened there is a hallowedness, as if the crane-calls are muted, the valley itself a place of peace and quiet before rest. The great temple-academy is slowly being built, but there is no rush. The glassy surface of the lake that was simply there one day reflects stars, and other things. It draws the minds of the dreamers together.

    Together they dream, and they try to understand. And after years of meditation, they do. It Came. That thing, in the North, that bends and winds both mind and space around itself. It will only get worse, the whispering wind, the whispering curse. They are but an island of peace, but it gathers undying beasts to itself. Eventually, it will not have to whisper. It will be able to shout. It will tear the very fabric of the world until all is a maddening scream of supplication. Only their lost god can stop this. But as servants, they must do everything they can to help their father-dreamer, wherever he is. They must tell him where to go. They must find the hidden fortress of Shadur.

    Kurei, an awakened dreamer, is the oldest of them. “I will go,” he says, gesturing North. He does not fear the death of his body, which will already pass on soon enough. “What I learn, we all learn. My spirit will return to the lake, and to God beyond.” They bless him. The ship they pay, they pay well, to round the northern peninsula and sail to a place where ships should not go. Narwhals blow as they near the rocky coast, and deep mrtygs, elongated beings whose moss-covered limbs extend for miles, peacefully dredge detritus on the seafloor, occasionally lifting a lazy, enormous arm to the surface to warm in the sun, rocking the ship as it does.

    The Jurou mariner is happier than happy to be gone, and Kurei is left alone with the crashing waves, his staff, cloak, and bag his only defense against the North. He walks inland, through trackless pine. He hears the whisper, even at a great distance, for he has learned to hear it. But it does not affect him. After several days, a roving pair of zemmi eventually finds the intruder. A great bear of a man with matted shoulder-length hair and a bushy beard, tribal stick-poke tattoos covering his forearms with swirling black dots. A beautiful young woman with lustrous blonde hair into which human toe-bones are braided, her cheeks painted with ash-gray circles.

    “Lost old man,” says the girl-zem, clutching a bone knife. “We can help you home.”

    “I haven’t been lost in a long time,” says Kurei, and he taps her forehead with his mind.

    The girl flops down onto the leaves. The big man advances hefting a thigh-bone club, and swings it through Kurei, but Kurei is not there. He merely dreamed he was. Kurei is standing on the other side of the glade, offering the girl some water. He looks up at the man, and clucks. And Kurei cuts his strings as well. The man drops his club. “No,” he says. “No, no, my wife. No.”

    Kurei places his water-skin back in his bag. “You should both leave this place,” he says quietly, to the two he has freed from zemmi-hood. The man wanders from the glade without his weapon, saying “No” over and over. The girl stays put on the ground for a long time, perhaps till nightfall, perhaps forever. It’s not my business.

    This, at last, is enough to gain the attention of Shadur. No one has ever…taken from it before like this. It feels a twist of uncertainty that I would not dare call fear. What is this being, that whispers as he does, but…differently. Is this the source of his curse? He bends the trees to consider it, and it vanishes from his sight. NNNRASH. Shadur rages. So, it is subtle. But it is small. He need not fear this pathetic little whisperer. If a god’s vision will not do, he will send other tools. A naioune will serve. Yava, he whispers, in the fortress of twisted trees. A very tall, pale woman with long, loose black hair unfolds herself from repose. Her irises are black pools of emptiness in wide-set eyes. She licks her lips, once, trembling in expectation of Shadur’s voice. You hunt, he commands. She laughs with glee, grabbing an eight-foot shaft of bone carved from some great slain beast, slinging javelins in a basket over her back. She whistles for her dogs, and two dozen zemmi crowd the corridors, the men and women shouldering and shoving each other in their excitement to follow her.

    YAVA, admonishes Shadur, and she clutches her head in pain as the zemmi fall to their knees, moaning. You seek an old man foolish enough to steal from me. He hides well, so do not trust your eyes. “What will I do with him?” she replies, fingering a black earring pierced through the earlobe on a bone needle. Bring him to me. I must break him myself. “I will give him this gift,” says Yava, grinding her teeth that one could defy her master enough to merit his personal attention.

    She does not have far to go; it has somehow crept so close to Shadur itself, which should be impossible. She fans out her zemmi through the trees beyond the terror-plain of the great obelisk. “Tell me, tell me, tell me,” she whispers to the trees, cajolingly, kindly. “Where are you different? What have you seen.” A bird, says one, a moose, says another. I dreamed of being a flower, says yet another. “Go there,” she orders her zemmi, her delegate-whisper temporarily replacing Shadur’s in their minds. She positions them to close in on the site in a slowly-encroaching ring. And then, one of the zemmi in the ring…falls out. Yava feels it go with a disturbing lurch like suddenly falling backwards. She breaks into a sprint, bone-javelins clattering in her basket.

    A zemmi that is no longer a zemmi runs in heedless terror past her shoulder. She pays it no heed; it can be dealt with later. And then she sees something. The flickering of a fire behind a tree. The old man sits before it in a clearing, with two others, a boy and a girl with dark hair. He raises his hand in greeting as she approaches. “Ah, we’ve been expecting you, Yava,” says Kurei from his log-bench. He gestures to the kettle. “Perhaps you’d like some tea?” Yava bends down, as if to adjust her shoe, and then whips a rock sidearm at Kurei’s head. He frowns as it passes through his forehead to bounce off a tree trunk. “That wasn’t very nice.”

    So Yava sighs and takes a seat at the fire. “Fine,” she says. “And who are these little ones?” She gestures to the children, who watch her with big, dark eyes.

    “These are your children, Yava,” says Kurei. “The ones you desired before your mother forced you to be a moon priestess.” “Ah,” says Yava, raggedly. “Before you sacrificed your only love to Shadur, and the offerings of his organs attracted your patron’s attention.” “So, you can read memories,” says Yava. “Shadur only pushes people to their darkest impulse once,” says Kurei. “What keeps them in thrall is pain. They convince themselves they are what he tells them to be.” “Maybe for the zemmi,” says Yava, indulging in the tea she knows is not real. “They’re just tools. We are Shadur’s children.”

    “You may tell yourselves that,” says Kurei. “But your prison is simply more complex.” Yava fingers her earring again, staring down at the smoke rising from her teacup in the cold night air. “If that is true,” she says, slowly, “then there is no escape for me.” “We could help you,” says Kurei, as they stand on the wooden veranda of a building, looking down at a protected valley, a peaceful lake, a sunny bay. A rising temple. “We can heal you, give you a new life.”

    “You have beautiful grandchildren in this Iphu,” whispers the naioune darkly, and in the moment of distraction before he suppresses the fear, Kurei realizes that two tree roots have twisted around his leg in his true hiding spot, just beyond the glade. He closes his eyes, smiling in acceptance of his loss as the fire goes out. “I enjoyed the tea,” says the naioune, standing over him with her long, bone spear. “So I will only do this once.” The tree roots binding Kurei tighten, and the old man cries out in pain as his left ankle breaks. Yava reaches down and picks up Kurei, carrying him in her arms like a child.

    “You have many clever tricks,” she says, carrying him towards the obelisk. “Shadur will want to know all of them.” Kurei does not respond, but lets a single tear fall down to the forest floor. And in the salt of that final tear is the dream of the sea, and it slowly crawls its way thence. Kurei wishes the memory the tear contains well. His mission is accomplished, and he prays they have not made a mistake.

    “You will be blessed with his attention in the days to come,” says Yava later, as they come into view of Shadur itself. Kurei’s eyes widen with terror, as he sees in the distance not simply the black pillar of faces standing stark over the tundra, but something far greater, something only those such as him can see: A hurricane of screaming whispers, unceasing, unending, rising to the very stars.

    Iphu, father. Yava whispers to Shadur, knowing she will be rewarded. Iphu sent this. Iphu is your enemy.

    And indeed, she is greatly rewarded.

    Of the South:

    I am sure you are wondering by this point if this tale can get darker. To which I counsel you, reader, there was not always a sun. And there need not always be one. So be thankful for what light you can find, where you can find it.

    A certain thing transpires. (This is also a tale of the East.) Azzatar, as you saw, knew the failure of Her molten lover to find the heart of Spring. She knows, what She must NOT know, which is that the child of Spring has gone beyond the Past. There is a shore, beyond which lies only darkness and solitude. The place beyond the Land, which She is. The Past, She knows not what it is, besides that it is within Her, as well as beyond Her. For some time, She contemplates this. One could pass the Past, without contemplating the Past itself. We humans call this growth. The gods call it something very other. But yes, She contemplates, She has accounted for this. She found something once, a little broken thing from beyond the Past. And She sent it back to where it came from. A beacon of Her touch, lying over heart and bone. All that is required is a messenger, to follow the beacon, and remind an errant servant of what was promised.

    Kfeji children run and play on a stone ledge, ignoring ancient carvings of leaves there worn down, faces scoured blank by centuries of desert wind. One runs into a cave, hiding from his compatriots. The elders have warned them not to do this, but they are children. Suddenly, there is a sound like the whistling of the wind through the cave, except more rhythmic. Ah-ah-ah-ah. The child turns. The sound is coming from the mummified shaman on his plinth of rock. And his long-dead eye sockets glow with brightest purple. The child screams, and runs the way he came, but his circle of light narrows. The cave opening closes before he can reach it, and the child screams more. Until it doesn’t.

    The great Kfeji caravan eventually notices that something is happening. The valley is slowly…closing. It happens relatively slowly, but they are tens of miles deep in the valley. They mill, they shout, then they start to run. They urge their camels, then they abandon them. Salap leads them. But as the valley narrows to a crevasse, he can see they are not going to make it. He grabs a girl at random, and whispers to a dervish, a sand-dancing spirit to come and lift them up. It rises in a torrent of sand that makes her cry as it blasts her eyes with grit. He soars upwards, from rock to rock, covered in sweat and exertion from desperate hand-holds and the weight of the child. Finally, they reach the top of what is now a plateau. He drops her and looks down, perhaps he can save another, or – and the Land grinds shut. Salap screams in anguish, falling to his knees. The girl stares blankly in shock. A terrible, terrible silence comes after.

    And like that, the Kfeji are erased from history. But why?

    Ah.

    That answer came about four years later.

    The yellow emperor awakes in a cold sweat, in a room filled with glowing, purple motes. There is a Mountain standing outside his window. No, this is a dream. He hasn’t dreamed since…then. No, no, no. Did you think I had forgotten you, little slave-driver? She says. “No,” fifty emperors whisper in unison. Your freedom came at a price. There is one I seek. Find him and return him. “Yes,” they whisper, as dark purple wine pours over the windowsills and soaks his sheets. No, it is not wine, is it? It is godsblood. Good, says Azzatar. I’ve sent you help. And She releases him.

    Wokiko now awakens in truth, Yahoro servants tilting their skeletal heads as he shrieks with benighted, hate-filled laughter. (This is more common than one would expect.) He hates Her so much. He hates Her so much. But he knows that She knows everything that he knows. His empire perpetually balances on a knife’s edge of rebellion. But balanced, perfectly. He must carry out this bound task, or it will topple. Perhaps then, perhaps then he will be free. No, he will never be free. Not while this thing stands. But patience, Wokiko, patience, patience. He will play his part for now.

    He wriggles off his bed, stumbles to a basin filled with something that is not water, bends over and plunges his head within. “Khergaa cranes, fly South,” he commands into the liquid. “Show me what you see.” The stalk-legged crane-people take flight on their long, elegant wings. They soar over rice-land, mangrove forest, hills of palm and mahogany. The Wokiko Emperor does not breathe, merely watches, armlessly. But then, one of his cranes sees smoke on the Southern horizon. “THERE,” he shouts in their minds, and they struggle to stay aloft with him shouting in their heads as they tack towards it.

    They get closer, and closer, and Wokiko gasps as he realizes what he is seeing. The steam comes from lava, from a vast chain of Land that has pushed itself through the Past. A line of cooling volcanoes, the last of their lava flows hissing into the ocean as they fade to mere hills. “Closer!” he orders, seeing a tiny glinting line where the Land meets the Past. They obey. Across the blasted, smoking slag, marches an army of the dead. A host of skeletons that were once the Kfeji, with shining amethyst spears and amethyst eyes glowing behind their blindfolds so that they do not look upon the unremembered sea, led by T’namar, Foremost of Lions, holding a seemingly endless bronze chain that links them all.

    The great island is an island no longer. The South has come.







    Woe betide you, you can now observe a new clime; the dark gray of devastation.


    Stats:

    Those who dwell in the South

    Gods:

    Azzatar, the Amethyst
    Magic: 9
    Civ: 0
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The Land, The Fire, The Swallowed Past, a horde of amethyst skeletons, a favor from Wokiko

    Empires:

    The Empire of Anis-Natar
    Magic: 4
    Civ: 5
    Heroes: Afrakt Ghul, The Fire (5/2), The Despot Children (3/1)*, T’namar, Foremost of Lions (4/4)
    Holdings: 5 orange-eyed legions, 2 half-strength orange-eyed legions, 17 marids, 151 part-marid lion-priests, the Jeweled Dakh, the Slave Cities
    Cities: Arisaras, Rhut, Darail
    *A prophecy has been made

    The City of Xtri
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Cities: Xtaita
    Holdings: Favor of the sea-dragon, green-scaled armor like the sea, 1 band of dragon-warriors

    Heroes:

    Salap Scarab-Skin (3/1) [A vial of Ktse’s holy blood, a dervish of desert wind, an orphaned girl]


    Those who dwell in the North*

    A prophecy lies upon the North itself, oh woe.

    Gods:

    Shadur
    Magic: 4
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: Hyric, broken prince of Naiounes (2/2), Yava (2/0)
    Holdings: Perhaps 1,500 zemmi, eighty-four naiounes, the whispering curse (on others), a curse of unwanted mercy (on itself), foundations of Amno-to-be, a prisoner

    A red-eyed black doe of the northern valleys
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 0
    Holdings: Moonless nights, a dread pregnancy

    The Fisher-King
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Holdings: 2 companies of silverfinned guards, Voice of the Torrent

    The slaughtered stag
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 1
    Heroes: A certain smith (2/2)*, Nastya the Silent (3/0)
    *A prophecy will be made


    Empires:

    The Tribe of Naami
    Magic: 1
    Civ: 2
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The protection of the forest

    The Tribe of Kurom
    Magic: 1
    Civ: 1
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The gibbering moon-priests

    The Tribe of Yztrau
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Holdings: Forbearance of the four forces

    The Tribes of Oshkum
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: Prophet-Prince Golmorod (2/3)
    Holdings: A few remaining horses, enough to breed*
    *A prophecy has been made

    Heroes: No independent heroes

    Those who dwell in the East

    Gods:

    Elaadi*
    Magic: 4
    Civ: 1
    Holdings: The Four Great Glades, perhaps five-hundred Aerenath
    *A prophecy has been made

    The Ring of Leaves
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 1
    Holdings: 142 green-priests and many faithful

    Enamon, the Boundary
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 3
    Holdings: A shard, lent. A sovereign city-state. Prominence elsewhere.

    Who Wrote This?
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 2
    Holdings: You’re not allowed to be here. Go, shoo!

    Empires:

    The Second Circle
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The memory of Gahad.

    The High Kingdom of the Carns
    Magic: 1
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: Tanguyix, High King of Carns (2/0), “Maithlin” (3/3) [The edge of being]
    Cities:
    Holdings: Regalia of Arthmaelix, The Hornéd Fleet

    The “Kingdom” of the Maelish
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: Maelis Twice-Queen (0/1), “King” Atami (1/0)
    Holdings: It’s getting better, I guess.

    The Republic of Sommos*
    Magic: 1
    Civ: 4
    Heroes:
    Cities: Sommos proper
    Holdings: An army of law-blades, reformed civil administration, the Hexic Pantheon
    *A prophecy has been made

    The City of Enaios
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: Laureate Arrupos (1/0)
    Holdings: An army of law-blades, favor of the Boundary

    Iphu
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 2
    Heroes:
    Holdings: 37 awakened dreamers, the Lake of Stars

    Wokiko’s Empire
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: The Wokiko Emperor (4/1)*
    Holdings: Servitude of the Four Peoples, An army of the living, an army of the dead
    *A prophecy is complete.


    Heroes (independent):

    Hakta Longswimmer (2/2) (udyn)

    Haadulf, Prophet of Spring (3/2) [Teacher of aaruanef, symbol of many]

    Alai (4/1) [The mind of the Dreamer, a curse of unwanted hatred, Jemmi (1/1)]

    Vyndra, the Mad Huntress (1/2) [Nathrom, the Serpent-Ram, (2/0)]


    Those who dwell in the Past

    Ktse, Daughter of Spring
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civilization: 1
    Holdings: Remnant artifacts in the southern desert, ?

    The Doormaker
    Magic: -1
    Civilization: -1
    Holdings: Services in transgression, a little boy

    Ah yes, dragons, we have dismissed this claim
    Magic: 2
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: The praise of Xtaita


    OOC:

    Nice to see you all again, those of you who are still alive. But remember, death is just a change.

    As always, if you feel unfairly maligned or ignored, bring your supplications to me, with the recognition that I am a weary creator. But the guardian genius revives, worry not. It simply needs a short rest.

    I continue to encourage you to suggest names for major features (seas, rivers, ranges, bays, cities) to me. I encourage you against blatantly copying concepts, positions, and names from our world. General concepts (like a king, or a republic) are acceptable. More specific ones, less so. We are of course just translating the words of others, but it's more fun with more flavor.

    The unfolding consequences of your actions appear to be getting ever more severe. As such, we must take more time to pass your sentences. This time, I will assign you nineteen days. The twelfth of October is the date of your hearing. For some of you, autumn will be upon us. But for me, it is spring.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
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  5. ork75

    ork75 Prince

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2012
    Messages:
    528
    It is time. The hope of light departs from the theater, and the audience gasps with anticipation. Performance is a curious thing: it takes the familiar and transcends. So these watchers, from their cushioned seats, hold their rests.

    Song is about to begin.

    +++++++++++++++++++

    Some names:

    The forest mountains between the rivers: the Drevi Range.

    The northern side of the mountains: the Versoi.

    The rivers on either side of the Drevi: the Kuni and the Kuli.

    The river at whose end the Oshkum now hold: the Rinnam Peko.

    The woods north of the river: the Talini.

    The woods south: Starov
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
  6. jackelgull

    jackelgull An aberration of nature

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2013
    Messages:
    3,226
    Location:
    Within the realm of impossibility
    Colcoletzl knows more, because of the humans. He knows of lust and faith and power. And now that he knows lust, he swims the ocean to find a mate. He does not find a mate, but he does have many adventures fighting the beasts of the sea, but the most consequential of these fights is the fight with the kraken. The kraken had once been a part of a god that made Colcoletzl's power seem puny in comparison, but it was long dead and the kraken was left as an echo of that power.

    The kraken was a terrible sight, ten times larger than a warship, with eight arms as long as a week's journey. All over the sea they clashed, with the kraken wrapping its tentacles around the sea dragon and punching the living daylights out of it, while Colcoletztl gave as good as he got, his teeth tearing massive chunks of flesh. For seven days and seven nights they're fight stalled in the bay of Anis Natar, before something both insignificant to the fighters and yet of significance to the world - the fighters crashed through the isthmus connecting Anis Natar to Wokiko's Empire, (although neither creature was aware of this effect. Colcoletzl had yet to learn to see beyond the confines of the sea and the Xtri). Finally, after tearing the isthmus apart, Colcoletzl managed to win and eat the kraken.

    Heart broken from his failed search and wounded, Colcoletzl makes his way home.

    (2 magic points to break the isthmus)
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
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  7. Seon

    Seon Not An Evil Liar

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2009
    Messages:
    7,681
    Location:
    Not Lying through my teeth
    Emanon gathered his retainers, who were hungry for tutelage. “Lord Emanon!” said his sandal bearer, “What is the first step on the path to Royalty?”

    “There are no steps,” replied Emanon, “It is zero-sum with your reality. It is not measured in finger-lengths.”

    “Lord Emanon,” said his bodyguard, “Is the path to Royalty the path of struggle, then?”

    “No,” said Emanon, “One may attain it without any effort at all. It is, in fact, the antithesis of struggle.”

    Emanon’s steward was very discontent with his master’s evasiveness. “Lord,” he said, “Allow us lowly men some small measure of understanding. For sympathy’s sake, and the sake of we good and loyal servants, please tell us in plain language the nature of Royalty.”

    “I will tell you precisely what Royalty is,” said Emanon, “It is a continuous cutting motion.”

    -Murderous Incantations, Book 2


    ............................................................................

    “If it has a pulse,

    Take its skull!

    If it builds a house,

    Smash it flat!

    Strength is my God,

    The God of Shapes and Boundaries,

    If my God should fail me,

    I will kill him too.”

    – The Chant of Swords
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
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  8. Shadowbound

    Shadowbound Scourge of God

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2007
    Messages:
    3,963
    TANCUYIX: Think me a murderer, a kinslayer?
    I have many of these titles and more.
    But, above all, I am called now high king.

    You can only appreciate this title
    once you too have held a shared kingship.
    The sweet taste heightened by that bland flavor.

    I knew this in my destiny because
    I read it in the stars on empty nights.
    I saw the wheel turn, the fire in the sky
    make mockery of the one on the land.

    I know you can shackle a man in iron
    or with words to a role that he chose not.
    But even iron rusts and words are wind.
    Men will strain against their chains, till death,
    whether you call it slavery or law.

    I've heard of those who try to chain the fire,
    it's held only as long as it desires.
    Every sword has two edges, every edge
    every bit as danger to wielder.

    I witnessed the burning of the forests
    arranged by gods and men to their desires.
    I resolved then to build my house with stone
    and salt and sea. For the sea is endless.

    The sea is not spring, it's not a season.
    It does not come and go by ordered clock.
    It is savage, wild, above all untamed.
    I am a Carn, and am their king besides,
    so I don't need the stars to tell me this.

    My veins run with sea salt as much as red blood.
    My many enemies name me savage.
    Good! I am like the sea: indeed, as king,
    of the Carns, am I not king of the sea?

    And woe on she when she tries once again
    to burn the sea, for she may have forgot
    but it did not and remembers it well.

    I saw more too, besides: the future in
    cosmic bosom, the Past in fading light.
    Know: was was will be and what will be was.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
  9. Danwar

    Danwar Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2017
    Messages:
    191
    Gender:
    Male

    The Hexic Crisis has ended, and the glorious republic of Sommos is better for it. Despite the chaos of the previous years, the population of our state continues to grow. However, many old enemies still attempt to destroy this bastion of civilization, and new ones appear by the day. The new, reformed Council and the Trifecta will try to crush these foes and civilize them for the glory of the Gods.

    Firstly, though, there are matters of diplomacy to attend to. The mighty Empire of Anis-Natar has swept away states to the East with ease. Now, they bring an ultimatum to us, and we face little choice but to deal with these foreign imperialists. While it would be ever satisfying to throw them out, we stand no chance against their massive legions of soldiers stronger than men. The Trifecta has come to a conclusion that these demands are the only thing separating the Republic's survival with its complete and utter annihilation. Once Anis-Natar begins to crumble, perhaps we will once more be independent, but the Trifecta knows better to hope for it now. The Trifecta has sent the following letter to the Empire, in the hopes that our city may survive:

    "To the mighty and glorious Empire of Anis-Natar:
    Your offer is indeed very generous, and you have proven yourselves capable with your conquest of Gahad. Your legions have proven themselves strong, and your empire has proven itself mighty. In the interest of peace and survival for our Republic, we will indeed send you the desired resources: Seventy bushels of wheat (although do note this may take some time to gather and send to you), the children of the most influential Chiefs" The Trifecta chuckled when they wrote that, for they technically had no chiefs and so therefore that demand was moot. "and allowances for your magistrates to establish themselves in our city. However, we implore you to allow our sacred Council to maintain its existence in its current form: surely, attempting to replace it with a governor of your own would only lead to more rebellion, and that would make it far more difficult to send you the tribute you desire. So please, allow it to remain in its current form, lest the people rise up and dissolve any government here at all.

    Sincerely,
    The Trifecta of the Loyal Republic of Sommos"
    Indeed, the desired wheat would be gathered over the course of a few years until it was sufficient to send to Anis-Natar.
    Gods help us.

    With that humiliating letter behind them, now remained the task of reunifying the city-state and protecting against the Carnish barbarians. Both of these tasks would require more troops, and so the Trifecta commissioned the raising of another army of Law-Blades. (2 Civ Points) The two combined armies of Sommos would, with the Gods' blessings, smash the rebellious city to the west and reunite the people under the Council. The armies will be ordered to take prisoners and attempt to kill as little of them as possible while still securing their surrender. They would march by land - for the sea was still held by the Carns - and attempt to subjugate any tribes encountered along the way, to civilize on the return trip. Any supporters of the rebellion would be allowed amnesty and pardon should they defect to the rightful government - the Council wishes not to foster tensions with their own people.

    The new High Priesthood of the Pantheon is still a budding institution, and resented by many in society. Therefore, their more mystical or miraculous acts have been largely kept as a secret, and little know their true workings yet. (1 Magic point stored...?)

    Some may note that the resources of the Council are not yet fully spent, but there have been no reports of what these resources are being used for. Some believe that this surplus is being stored for future use, but is it really? (2 Civ points stored...?)
     
  10. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    From: Lion-Priest Ashrak, Garrison Administrator
    To: The Client State of Sommos


    Your prompt response has been conveyed to Arisaras, as well as your petition for self-government. Your tribute is found acceptable, and as such the Imperial Children, Emperor Anis and Empress Natar, acknowledge your competency to govern your local tribal affairs with the continued leave of our magistrate.
     
  11. ork75

    ork75 Prince

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2012
    Messages:
    528
    I see your KSBD...
     
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  12. Seon

    Seon Not An Evil Liar

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2009
    Messages:
    7,681
    Location:
    Not Lying through my teeth
    To the Republic of Sommos
    From a wandering priest of blades

    Why do you not yet pay tribute to the gods? An insult have been done against them. You must repent your sins and pay your respects to the Gods, or there shall only be further divisions.


    shh
     
  13. Danwar

    Danwar Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2017
    Messages:
    191
    Gender:
    Male
    I thought you heard? We now do indeed pay tribute to the Gods. We have been for... a couple of years now. We, in fact, pay tribute to all of them, including your great Warlord. Pardon us for any inconveniences caused by the previous Councilors.
     
  14. Seon

    Seon Not An Evil Liar

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2009
    Messages:
    7,681
    Location:
    Not Lying through my teeth
    Mere words and attitudes and sacrifice of few goats and sheep are not tribute--mere wind in the air. Merely children making motions that they do not truly believe in.

    And what do you believe in, you race of piteous, average men? A mere decade ago, you were exceptional only in your arrogance that you believed that you could defy the gods and survive. Now you are exceptional only in belief that you can earn forgiveness by prayer and low sacrifice, when only true devotion can save you from His wrath.

    Make solid your devotion. Build a great temple-wall around your city for all the gods. All conquest happens at the edge, be it at the edge of your borders or by the edge of your sword. You seek to conquer, but you have not shown devotion to the eternal liege. His eternal liege shall not abide another conquest by Sommos without a suitable show of devotion.

    This is not a partnership. This is not an equitable arrangement. This is not even a deal. Exceptional man and woman may strike deals with the Gods. Your 'council' is made of old and arrogant fools gambling with lives, who are only exceptional by their chairs. But average men may still yet earn favors, if suitable devotion is shown.
     
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  15. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    Enamon, bearer of the word PLAGIARISM, and god of the six-part pantheon. ;) In all seriousness though, I didn't mind the reference. It's a good comic.
     
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  16. Seon

    Seon Not An Evil Liar

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2009
    Messages:
    7,681
    Location:
    Not Lying through my teeth
    All conquest occurs at the Edge. Those who dwell there is blind, and cannot be wounded. Another is strong, and grows stronger. It is the principle of battle and struggle.

    Like waves crashing endlessly against the cliff and shores.

    Like a horde of riders endlessly skirmishing into the borders of an empire.

    Like the hum of an executioner's blade against the heads of sinners.

    ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

    Emanon is blind, and his body is covered in scars. He has been so many things in his age that he has forgotten what he was before he was the Warlord. Before, he was the Shaper. A sculptor. He carved path for rain to flow. He carved the mountains from earth. He carved oceans from land. He revealed the shape of statues hidden within shapeless rock. He revealed walls where there had been none before.

    And then he began to kill, and found that he could carve life and flesh just as easily as he had carved stone. It is a simple operation for the God of the Shaping Arts. Mere few gestures of the hand, and they fall divided. He has since decided that his works shall be more esoteric. Blood, flesh, and ink on a map is just as good as the shaping of walls and oceans.

    Emanon is deaf. He cannot hear your prayers. He cannot hear curses spoken on the eve of battle. He can no longer hear the bone-deep stories of a thousandmen whispered since antiquity: of blood and its exits. There is only now the heat of the forge and the art of martial movements. Speak aloud his name. Hear the sword hiss through the air in heat and speed. Let the dance of blades be the words carved in his honor.

    Emanon cannot be wounded. He cannot be denied. His retainers are old, and are cunning in ways that only the very old can be.

    He fears Nothing, for there is nothing left to be divided in the void.

    ...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

    The Doormaker is strong, and grows stronger yet. She is young, although old by the standards of warfare. She has transgressed against the Border and Boundaries for years, seeking to make Him her Own. But more she transgress, the further He grows away. She is always at the edge. The more she push, the further it draws back. She transgress, and now she is simply on the other side. She can never make Him Her own.

    She builds doorways into the walls, revealing entrances where there were none. She leads parties of riders through the gaps in the patrols. Thieves whisper her name as they slip through the window. She knows every exit blood may flow from the body, and how to create them. How to close them.

    She is anxious in way that only the young who believe they have a purpose can be. She hears every prayer. She hears every curse. She hears the songs of thousandmen who lay bleeding out in battlefields from new exits for blood.

    She cares not for the forge or the martial movement. Speak aloud her name, and hear a distant click of a door opening. She's there. She's there.

    She is merciful. She pities old wounds and scars. Let her kiss now close them, mend them back into what it once was. Her retainers are young, and savage in ways that only the young can be.

    If she fears anything, she would fear Nothing, for there is nothing left to be taken from the void.
     
  17. Shadowbound

    Shadowbound Scourge of God

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2007
    Messages:
    3,963
    DRAMATIS PERSONAE

    TANGUYIX ap BRIAC - High King of the Carns

    RIOC ap IOCILIN - Councilor of the Carns

    YANN ap Judocix - Princess of the Carns

    MATHILIN - Ship-Captain, disguised Morvan

    HERANNUEN - Ship-Captain, Emissary

    RIOC - Here all in court shall lay tribute before
    yonder king, Tanguyix, and from him hence
    receive judgement and decree in your turn.
    One by one shall you come, first here is Yann,
    noblest lady and royal cousin.

    TANGUYIX - Step forward, and speak with most ease, my dear.
    You are the blood of beloved brother
    and should fear not familiarity.

    YANN - King, I come to petition for vengeance.
    My father, your brother, was undone not by
    wound taken in honorable battle
    but by the plague of madness from the north.

    The dark whisper in deepest nightmare
    that, by decree and custom, all so claimed
    shall be set upon and put to kind sword.
    It was this that was Judocix's fate, not
    the mighty serpent-ram and its rider.

    TANGUYIX - As I love thee I hear your petition
    for as I love thee I have heard before.
    As you love your father so you carried
    out his decree, and your grief matches mine.

    YANN - So send your ships north, to far frozen shore,
    and burn the woods until you find the stone
    that we see in the terror of the night.
    Put an end to evil and claim vengeance.

    TANGUYIX - It is not the duty of the Carn king
    to hunt down the many evils on earth.
    Shall I raise my banner against disease
    and seek to conquer the frozen winter?
    I have lost brother and father to these
    yet I do not pursue blood-claim 'gainst them.

    YANN - This is the third time I have come to you,
    to claim that you do what blood-tie demands.
    There shall not be a fourth, for I waste words.

    TANGUYIX - Aye. Be gone and find elsewhere champion.

    YANN - I shall make a better champion than
    any there among my thousand suitors.
    Or from among my own bloodline, it seems,
    at least I would fight the evil in the north.

    EXEUNT YANN

    RIOC - Next come forth Mathilin, the tall ship-captain,
    who speaks for the king's brother, lately bound.

    MATHILIN - Great King, I bring tidings not from brother
    but gifts from myself, taken not in war
    but in exchange of gold coin and fair trade.

    TANGUYIX - Well, I've always appreciated fine gifts
    but I must question why you would give up
    on your own wealth, no matter how taken.

    MATHILIN - Because I am but poor in material
    while you have vaults filled with plunder and gems
    taken from Sommos in the recent war.
    These goods may have made me much wealthier
    but I can have more wealth if given more.

    TANGUYIX - He with the most wealth is the wealthiest,
    you speak in definitions, do you not?

    MATHILIN - Aye, and so what I propose is simple
    but it requires some small trust to begin.
    I have gone south, to the cities enslaved
    by that dread empire of children and gods
    and there made some great value for myself.
    If trusted with your wealth I can make more
    and in doing so, much enrich myself.

    TANGUYIX - And then what shall I receive, in return
    for my investment into this venture?

    MATHILIN - Your wealth returned, half again if not more.
    So I swear by my father's love and grave.

    TANGUYIX - So I assent, for I know of you by
    dread reputation and forthright honor.
    It is strange that you turn now to commerce
    for by body you could claim equal price.

    MATHILIN - The southron men do not take raids lightly,
    and make much ill trouble from that manner.

    TANGUYIX - Would that all of your age have such wisdom.
    Send forward now the next petitioner,
    for I have waited weeks for the reply
    to the swift dispatch of my emissary.

    RIOC - Step forward Herannuen, a man who
    needs no introduction from me today.

    HERANNUEN - King, I have conveyed your most just demands
    of tribute and submission to Maelis
    once-queen of our people and now, through twist
    of fate and destiny, queen of her own.

    She did not take them with the gravity
    that they deserved, coming from your dread power.
    She laughed then at me and my company
    and bid that I return with that reply.
    I trust I need not so repeat it now.

    TANGUYIX - It is strange to think that, decades later,
    some old enemy emerges once again.
    It is not Maelis I fear, nor her men,
    for they are weak and fearful like rabbits.

    It is her son, with my fearsome brother,
    that so keeps me awake on many night.
    I have long searched the skies for signs of him
    but I have found none, for some magic works
    to keep him hidden from my starry sight.

    I fear him not for my own throne, not now,
    but for what strangeness he may bring to it,
    should he claim it from me as rightful heir.
    He does not know our ways, he has not claimed
    glory in battle alongside our horned ships.

    Mathilin, as you are kept in counsel
    with our brother, go to him and call forth
    his ships for this new campaign 'gainst Maelis.
    As you are held in high esteem he shall
    assent more readily than to our voice.

    As you are held in high esteem by us
    so shall you command this expedition.
    In you I see glimmer of destiny
    I shall test to see if it is fool's gold.

    MATHILIN - I come asking trade and you give conquest,
    a strange day this is, and stranger still yet
    (what strangeness that he does not know in me).

    I shall as commanded and gather ships
    and then lead them thence to this foreign shore.
    There I shall face this foe, Maelis Twice-Queen,
    and when I return I shall lay bare here
    my glorious destiny for all to see.

    EXEUNT MATHILIN
     
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  18. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2008
    Messages:
    204
    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    The Drowning Well

    Thunderous groans echoed through the earth, following them down into the deep. She carried the thief like a child in her arms. The old man was wasted and pale, his skin stretched too-thin over long, angular bones. His hair fell from his head in wispy, grey clumps. He bore cruel marks on his flesh: wheeling cuts and burns, and the bruises from many blows. And yet still he lived.

    Down, down, and further still, past the last patch of lantern lichen, winding through the pitch darkness of fresh scrapen tunnels. Yava needed no light to see, so deeply did the presence of her master pervade this place - in each root and rock, in every speck of dust. She could feel its anticipation in the very air, and a shiver of desire ran through her. A narrow crack in the bedrock, steps cut steeply to lead further beneath. The barest breeze brushed past her, bringing with it the smell of cold, dark waters. “No. Not the well. Not that. Kill me, please,” Kurei rasped, squirming weakly in her arms as he felt the dampness on his skin.

    “Quiet now, dreamer. This is our last time here together, after all,” Yava whispered, sing-song. She caressed him tenderly as he cried in her arms, descending with the grace of portent. The last stair scratched out the barest bit wider from the stone, the narrow passage leading almost straight down into the still waters of the well. Yava sat down carefully, her legs dangling off the edge, a sigh of satisfaction as the chill sank into her bones. She cradled Kurei there in her lap and hummed a tune from her childhood. A sharp piece of quartz in hand, two quick motions and a hushed gasp, and blood poured out from ragged slits in the dreamer’s wrists. The whole hideous weight of Amno above pressed down upon them, and the eyes of SHADUR crawled upon their skin, and the dark waters of the well beckoned. Yava leaned forward, and with the slightest push they slipped silently beneath, long black hair trailing behind.

    ***

    Kurei was hale and strong, and he pushed north through the trackless wood. Shadur was here, he knew. He could hear its whispers, feel its malevolence. The font of nightmare must be revealed, the curse put to end, this his duty bound to Iphu. He stepped into the clearing and saw the girl, long blonde hair framing her delicate face, beauty twisted up by madness. “Lost, old man?” she called, her face breaking into a grin as she stalked toward him, bone blade in hand; elegant, almost a needle.

    “I haven’t been lost in a long time,” Kurei replied, reaching out.

    The girl stabbed him between the ribs and he fell on a bed of leaves, life’s blood leaking out of him. The zem cradled his head in her lap, cooing softly as he struggled to rise.

    “Haven’t we been here before, though?” the girl asked, her face screwing up in confusion as she looked down at him. Her pupils widen, blue irises drowning in a sea of black. Yava. She laughed as he tried to scream, his mouth sewn shut.

    ***

    “Tea, grandfather?” Jorai asked, the boy holding out a steaming rose-hued mug. Kurei smiled and took the mug, tussling the boy’s shock of tawny brown hair.

    “Thank you, Jorai. Don’t forget to serve your mother,” he said, sipping. The boy nodded and smiled as he ran off, calling out with the exuberance of childhood. The tea was hot and delicious; the floral bloom of orchids, the sweetness of honey on his tongue. He sat there on a yellow woven blanket, watching as the sun set over the hills on the other side of the valley. The laughter of his family, a warm evening breeze. Contentment. He watched his grandchildren as they played there in the grass, laughing as they did. He smiled as he watched his daughter kiss her husband. He wept as grey and gritty rain poured down from the sky, as his family vanished from his sight. Yava sat down beside him, a comforting arm on his shoulder.

    “Iphu really was beautiful, wasn’t it, Kurei?” she sighed “You had to protect it, of course.”

    He moaned low in his throat as he looked out on ashen ruins and fields of rot.

    ***

    They stood above it all, looking down. There were motes below. Lights. Each one a life. Some blazing brightly, others dim. Vortexes of illumination swirling where they gathered. But in the distance a creeping tide. Darkness. The lights went out as the tide swallowed them, or kindled again with a sickly swaying brilliance, casting harsh shadows as they cavorted in the gloom. A mountain glowered in the distance.

    “Well, it looks like it’s time to say goodbye,” Yava said, playing with her earring as she watched the lights. Tears ran down his face. “There’s so much fear in you, isn’t there?” she asked, taking his hand in hers. “You’ll get used to it,”

    She kissed him, and he fell towards the darkness below.

    ***

    And she kissed him, and she let him go. He sank like a stone. He could feel the heaviness, the anticipation. It was all around him, trembling. His lungs screamed at him dully, but somehow it didn’t seem important anymore.

    Alone, quiet and cold, Kurei drowned. The well keeps him now.
     
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2018
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  19. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2009
    Messages:
    7,127
    Fire and Ash

    -

    Halogund looked at the wooden cup uncertainly. "What is it?"

    "It is the nectar of the Salua flower. It will open your eyes to the world of spirits and let you walk upon the green road"

    He raised the cup furtively, and twisted it back and forth in his hands. It was clear like water, but something about the consistency of it made him apprehensive. It was thick and sweet and smelt of flowers and somehow also of something else. The Aenaroth across from him had his arms crossed and a teacherly expression upon his face, and Halogund not sure what to make of it inquired.

    "Will this make me an Aemak?"

    "Your blood makes you who you are brother" said Aeladan, his green eyes deep and wise yet innocent laughing as the leaves rustled overhead to his voice. "This will only help you see what you have forgotten, something even father does not know."

    Halogund did not want to remember what he had forgotten … he had heard his father whisper about the men of fire, what they had done... But how could he forget what he had not seen? He knew only the trees ancient and wild, and the wild ones he sometimes saw staring from above. He had seen the visitors from afar tying strange knots and making offerings to the grove speaking strange words he did not understand but they did not show him that which was buried in the past, that thing which meant his mother and father were always running, hunted and so terribly afraid. Aeladan though was his friend, the first of the Aaruanef. The Horned King. He trusted him to help..

    Thus raising the cup high he drank.

    It had a sweet taste, though not so sweet as honey, yet soon after that first draught came another taste, bitter and dry like dust, or perhaps like sand pouring down his gullet. There is sorrow also in remembering after all. At last was a taste he had forgotten, something like mothers milk, or perhaps the taste of the rain or the sap of ancient trees, something old and new and primal from the deeps of time. The empty cup slipped from his fingers and fell to the forest floor as the boy shook his head. "I don't feel any different. What happens next?"

    Aeladan smiled and took his hand in his own. "The god will show you what you have forgotten".

    His heart beat like a drum

    again it beat. Badump, Badump, Badump

    The leaves rustled and he heard every chirp and every sound clear as if it was a whisper in his ear.

    "Close your eyes," said Aeladan, as he placed his hands over Halogunds eyes and bid him sit at the foot of a great oak "enter into the dream of the god and tell me what you see."

    Halogund closed his eyes and listened to his heart, the beats slow and languid. For an instant he could hear the chirping of crickets and the rustling of the leaves before of a sudden all became still. Then he was in the forest, but not the forest he knew and which he loved as "home".

    He opened his eyes and was standing atop a hill. Behind him the root of a great oak twisted around the stones like an old mans gnarled arms, crooked and wrinkled with the age of centuries. Before him was a great forest as far as the eye could see, and in it a myriad spirits. Wild ones, deep ones, watchers of ways and lords of the grove alike flitted and sidled through the trees and flew in the air. There were rivers as well, gurgling over the stones toward a distant sea and filled with fish. The hills in the far horizon too were covered with green like a wet blanket and all was well. Aeladan walked beside him smiling, crossing his arms as his eyes twinkled with pride and joy.

    " The green road?" Halogund whispered.

    "Indeed" he said "This is the one and only forest. All the glades and all the forests of the world are but extensions of this place upon the land. This is the road upon which the wheel turns to natures time."

    "Where is it"

    Halogund asked, his brow furrowed. For the only forest he knew was the sacred forest which his friends told him of. The place where god dwelled and where his family had found respite from the enemy. Certainly no one had ever said anything about an eternal forest... and the dread northern reaches where IT dwelt could not be the same as this place.

    "Everywhere and nowhere" Aeladan replied.

    The forest faded at his words and he saw a city, filled with flowers and pools and trees. He saw his grandfather, spear in hand directing a troop of hardy men to its defence fear and anguish on their faces. It was Gahad the dead, where nothing green now grows. Aeladan was not by his side this time as Halogund was beset by a nameless terror. Then from above he saw seventeen suns arise their voices intoning a dread sacrament as a wind of fire fierce and hot circled down from above as the leaves withered away like the summer grass, and from the stones he saw a great fire come forth from the depths of the earth, its rictus face grinning with joy and sorrow before all was taken into a great inferno. He screamed and pulled back, and the fire was gone and he was back in the forest, back in the world of rustling leaves and sodden moss. Aeladan was sitting across from him on a log tilting his head.

    "Tell me what you saw."

    Halogunds throat was very dry, scorched it seemed by the bonfire of Gahad and the burning countenance of what could only be Afrakt Ghul [although Halogund knew that not]. He swallowed in the hope of moistening his throat. "Gahad. I was back in Gahad. I saw my grandfather. He was... he was burnt by a monster. Of shadow and flame."

    "Yes" said Aeladan. "He is gone."

    "I saw him." Halogund cried out. He could remember what he had forgotten, he remembered his smile and his crinkled face. How he had cradled him in his arms and kissed him on his forehead as they embarked upon the little boat that bore them over the sea. He started to cry, tears rolling down his cheeks.

    "You saw what you needed to see." Aeladan intoned in a comforting voice. "A boy must know and understand what is before he can hope to see what will be" he went on. "One can dream a great many things, things that were, things that will be. But unless you open your eyes to the truth you will always be blind. Thus you saw the bonfire of Gahad, the same fire that took many of my brethren as it scoured the land. This is because you need to know the world as it is before you can know where you are going". Here Aeladan looked sad, yet he did not grieve as a man would grieve, like father and mother grieved. But rather he grieved with resignation. Life is fleeting, but life endures such is the way of the forest. The Aerenoth continued.

    "You were looking through the eyes of the god. Time is different for gods, especially sleeping ones. For men, time is a river. You are trapped in its flow hurtling from past to present like a leaf in the stream, always in the same direction before you sink under the waters. But to a god it is always the same, gods are rooted like a tree in one place and the river moves them not. Just as the oak is the acorn, the acorn is also the oak. And our god is older than the trees for he is the forest and not the forest at the same time. In him trees live and die, and through Him you and I may gaze into the unremembered past."

    "But," said Halogund,

    "No buts" said Aeladan sticking out his tongue. "You are our brother but you are not Aerenath, only through Him can you come to understand as we do, and remember what mankind has forgotten". Halogund heard a whisper on the wind, a rustling amongst the leaves.

    "Why?"

    "So that in him we may live."

    Aeladan said mysteriously "Now Again".

    Halogund closed his eyes.

    And then immediately His eyes opened in darkness

    He was lying on smooth black stone that felt cool against his cheek, his eyes blinking in surprise. He pushed himself up from the ground and rubbed his eyes which were thick with the grime of sleep, and looked to the ground. The forest he had seen before was gone, and there was only fused glass and ash, so much ash and bone and dust.

    Slowly, like an old man awaking from a deep sleep, he looked around. He saw motes of ash rushing through the air on a hot wind coming out of the west, obscuring what lay beyond. He knew one thing though. There was no life here and the motes of ash were more than ash. They were souls, burned away in the purgatorial flame that lay hidden beneath the Land.

    The sky cleared of a sudden and he saw vast mountains surrounding him of reaching upward into the starless sky like deep shadows within shadows. Halogund could not understand, his mind could not comprehend it. He knew, somehow, that this place was a battle. A battle greater than any that had been fought before, but also the very same battle which even now reached out its fiery hand into the forest, towards him and to his friends.

    He was afraid.

    So he ran

    He frantically looked around as his legs raised puffs of ash into the air, and called out to Aeladan and to his father as tears rolled from his eyes. But there was no escape, and no friend or fatherly direction to guide his way. The forgotten waste of the past and future went on forever in every direction. But it did have a centre. A heart in the midst of emptiness lit by a star that of a sudden appeared in heaven, its light falling like a sunbeam in the forest unto the earth. There he stopped and stooped down to a little pile of dust and ash, he cleared it away with his hand and saw a thing he did not expect. A single sprout.

    "What is this?"

    A voice spoke, old and terrible rang out coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once as if in answer. Intoning like a furnace the edict of the age.

    "Our ancient enemy spring returns, we must yoke the season or slay it or the green shall devour us"

    The sapling quivered.

    And of a sudden the sun rose above the eastern horizon and by its light did more saplings appear emerging from the ash. He saw from the east water rising up from beneath the earth. The rivers rushing in from hidden wells and watering the trees that grew of a sudden into a great forest as the ash turned to leaves and the hot wind grew cool and sweet and wet with new fallen rain. . .

    Of a sudden he was wrenched back to the eternal now. And saw his friend smiling in front of him, sitting crosslegged like a green priest in contemplation one hand resting on his cheek as his smiling yet sorrowing eyes stared at him.

    He heard at last Aeladan speak

    "Behold what was, and what is, and what is to come. Once you understand our gift you shall understand the song of trees and live unfettered by the eternal now in which the lives of men are chained, suspended between the mists of time and the sea of memory that is all we know of days to come. You shall see the past, and so you shall see the future and in seeing so shall it become."

    "I don't understand".

    "What was will be again. From the ashes life shall rise again, just as it rose again before"

    "Again" he directed.
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2018
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  20. Seon

    Seon Not An Evil Liar

    Joined:
    Jan 20, 2009
    Messages:
    7,681
    Location:
    Not Lying through my teeth
    An hour since the palace closed around them, and with the murderous invocations killing them hour by desperate hour, the Laureate decides that he shall speak to the angel at least once.

    He steps around the blood splattered rooms and corridors, where words carve gashes against flesh and stone alike. He comes before the chamber where the angel resides.

    His retainers beg him to reconsider. "I am not afraid of death," the Laureate replies. "You do not understand," they say. "But you will. There is something wrong with it."

    Everyone who's seen the angel have walked away afraid.

    A soldier guarding the entrance way into the throne room peers in, curiosity getting the better of him. He jerks back as if burned by a brand. He spits out curses as he trembles, trying to expiate something. To purge his eyes.

    The Laureate enters the room, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hand grasped around his blade. It is an addiction. He loves to be about-to-fight.

    The angel, frozen in a shard of metal.

    Most of its body is made of jagged metal and clay and stone. An armor covering the torso, with pieces of stone and iron portruding from cracks. Two arms and two legs like a human being, but they are spindly and slim. Where it should have a neck or a head, it flowers into an emptiness surrounded by a crown of blades.

    "Are you okay, sir?" one of the retainers calls out, just out of sight. "Please, come back to us!"

    The Laureate steps forward. He is struck by a jolt of awe, not fear, like he has just hit the peak of a great song, or the climax of a play where everything feels ready for a rebirth or death. He steps forward, ignoring the retainers' calls.

    He lays a hand on the metal imprisoning the angel. Hello, everyone's afraid of you.

    The metal splits open beneath his fingertips. Divides open in jagged, fractal steps.

    "Hey!" the Laureate cries out. "Hey!" he backpedals. He hits something, a brazier or a lamp or something, and falls on his ass yelling as the angel towers over him. From the doorway, a curse cut short. A silent command from the angel and jerk of its crown slams the doorway shut.
    .......................................................................................................................................................................

    The Laureate gets up in a cautious crouch. The angel silently hangs in the air before him. The Laureate is afraid, exhilarated, and alive with a totality of feelings that he has not felt in years. "You understand me," he says.

    "You are these people's leader," the angel replies. "You will make a decision."

    "Very well," the Laureate replies. "What kind of deci-"

    "You will set yourself ablaze, along with your most loyal troops," the angel responds. "Or I shall kill you all one by one with my words of division."

    Oh.

    He knows he should be thinking: Who invades a city from a forgotten realm and takes control of its palace, just to set a few people ablaze? What kind of psychology meets new people and demands: Do what we want, or we will kill the lot of you? But the Laureate is not an average man. He understands the angel fully, and ****ed if he was going to listen to this ************ playing these games. It is the same questions that he asked countless times in the field where the mules brayed and the children wept. It is the same questions that the statesmen of Sommos asked over and over again as they demanded more and more. He has not dreamed about these things for years just to give the same response.

    "I refuse," he replies.

    The angel's crown tilts, as if there really was a head in the nothingness above its torso, and it had just done the universal sign of incomprehension. "But... you are the leader! You are marked!" the angel cries out. "You must understand!"

    ....................................................................................................................................................

    They say that the fire is the winter that warms and a spring that consumes. He did not understand the words when he first heard them, and he still does not understand them now.

    The angel draws back in confusion. The Laureate stands to his full height. "Why do you need me dead?" he demands. "Why do you desire the flames?"

    The angel's crown spins around the void where its head should be. They flare out as if incensed. "I came out of the boundary because I believed I could speak with you. You were not average man. You were marked by His favor."

    The angel leers over. "But you offer me this weakness. You demand without leverage. Why should I tell you anything?"

    The Laureate rolls his eyes, fighting the urge to step back. "And if I set myself ablaze, along with my best men, you shall let the rest of the city live?"

    The angel chuckles. "Yes, you understand," it replies. "Pick out the sacrifices. The rest of you shall live."

    "Or maybe we'll kill you," the Laureate replies, slipping back into his old tongue of blood. "We'll kill you, and then we shall find the way to stop your invocation and curses. And we will all live, except for you."

    The angel's body cracks around, its crown rising up and down as if shrugging. The crown of blades drip with beads of black ichor.

    "Why do you really need the fla--"

    "For you!" the angel sneers, striking the Laureate with a swing of its fist. He is flung backwards--crashes into a pillar. "For you! May the eternal liege help me. For you!"

    .....................................................................................................................................................................
    In all the worlds, smiths whispered the same words to iron and flames. Murderers have spoken the same words too. These are the words spoken to sanctify an unmerciful change delivered through excision and blows.

    The Laureate gets to his feet, weak at his knees. "For me?" Laureate whispers. "I don't understand--" but he has begun to suspect.

    "You are the only one from your entire accursed culture," the angel spits.

    "The only one who's not afraid of you?" the Laureate questions.

    "Nobody else miss the brand," the angel growls. A filigree of metals line its arm-spikes. "I've seen fear in the eyes of warriors, nihilists, and behemoths. I have seen it in the other men. They all smell the brand, except for you.

    The Laureate is neither a statesman nor a philosopher. He goes with his guts: "Because I'm an evil man," he ventures.

    "Evil. Monstrous," the angel nods. There is conviction in its voice. Evil, like the stories told to scare children. An externality. "Our eternal liege has use for men like you. You and your best men shall be saved, in the flames. I will gather what remains of you and take you to serve his Eternal Liege. The rest shall die along with the city, when the cancerous horde from the south and east arrives."

    "You won't let them. Your liege won't let them."

    The angel laughs. "Do you think he cares? What bargain can you offer for his favor?"

    The Laureate leans against the pillar, mind ablaze. "Myself," he whispers. "For an eternity longer, on this sculpted world."

    "And do you believe yourself so arrogant, mortal," the angel glowers, stretching to its full and terrible dimensions. "That you judge yourself worthy of His Favor for an eternity and beyond? In exchange merely for your service on these wretched earth?"

    "Yes," the Laureate replies. "And I shall murder anyone who speaks otherwise." The angel draws back.

    "Ah," it says. "Perhaps there is something to you after all."

    .........................................................................................................................................................................

    When we watch a fire, what do we see? What are we watching for? When we find it, perhaps we shall speak the same mantra as the Laureate whispered as he laid himself in the furnace, the angel watching over him with a hammer. Words that sanctify the change that occurs when skin peels from the heat.

    For a little while, he shall dwell in the high rooms of the Borderlands, where the blind and deaf king of the edge dwells. And then he shall return. His bruised and beaten body shall stir in the ash. He shall be hairless and imperishable as stone. He shall carry within him a fire of the furnace. His senses will be as knives.

    He will not grow old. Perhaps he shall one day, rebel. Perhaps, one day, he shall rise even higher.
     
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