Stories

Departed

Reng could only hope that the distant shape before him was an island. It was dark, and he had been swimming for hours. Although the waters had calmed once the storm passed, his strength waned, and he could not swim for much longer. He was exhausted. All he could do was hope for that distant shape to be steady ground and keep on swimming.

The storm had caught him by surprise. It appeared out of nowhere and swept him from his vessel, his boat quickly disappearing into the inky black of night. The distant shape grew larger and larger. Maybe it was just a trick of Reng’s mind, but hope doesn’t necessarily operate on objective fact. With a final heave, he washed up on the island’s shore, for it was indeed an island. The hard rock underneath his body was uncomfortable, but he didn’t care. Too exhausted to lift his head, let alone stand, he passed out where he lay.

The shipwrecked man dreamt of water carrying him back home to his daughter and wife in Seahome. He’d give anything to hold them again.

The last of the sun’s rays woke him up. He had slept through an entire night and day, right up to dusk. He was weak, battered and bruised, but he knew he had to get up. Dreams alone wouldn’t bring him home.

Something glimmered in the distance among the rocks. To his amazement, he found three coins lying on a large stone. Reng picked them up and studied them with an astounded face. The coins looked identical to the ones his daughter had given him in his dream. He didn’t understand how this could be. His mind raced, awakening a strong fighting spirit to make it back home. He had to find a way to get off the island. He had the skills to do it, he just needed the materials.

As far as he could see from the rocky shore, though the island may as well have been completely barren. What little vegetation that was indeed present wouldn’t be good for much more than matchwood. 

Undeterred, Reng went inland, hoping for greater fortunes there. Hope felt ever bleaker with every fruitless step, but after an hour or so, a welcome discovery—tree stumps. These trees hadn’t been broken by a storm, they’d been felled. 

Even though he was still feeling incredibly sore, he pressed on until he came across a simple, humble shed. Despite the pain, he broke into an almost involuntary sprint, eager to speak with whoever lived there, and perhaps borrow their tools.

However, as he got closer to the shed, he felt his skin crawl. His sprint slowed to a jog, and that ended at the makeshift door. Reng’s gut feeling screamed at him to stay away from the ramshackle hut, but he couldn’t understand why. There was no way he could pass up this chance. 

He swallowed his fears and knocked on the door. “Hello?” No answer. He knocked again. “Anyone home? I mean no harm, I’m in need of aid.”

Still, no reply. 

Slowly, he pulled the door open, only to stagger away at that same moment. Laying on the floor, were the remains of a dead man. After a fairly long while and many deep, calming breaths, he forced himself to search the shed. Perhaps he’d find an axe or something.

The bones hinted at how many years the body had been there; the flesh was gone, and most of the clothes had withered away, too. His heart sank as his eyes found little of value until something caught his attention. A book, with a small stone atop it. Reng recognised the significance of the stone, carved and polished as it was. It was a guiding stone, meant to help lost loved ones find their way home.

Then there was the book. Prying in the belongings of the dead and abandoned felt wrong, but it may offer insight that could help him find his own way home. 

Reng slowly lifted the book and blew the dust off its cover, still holding on to the stone.  As he flipped through the pages, the rough sailor’s handwriting revealed a terrible and tragic story. The man’s name was Ytreg. He’d been sailing with his son and twenty young men to find fame and fortune. A terrible storm had wrecked their ship, and Ytreg had seen them all torn away from the ship, one by one, until finally, the waves took his son too. Ytreg washed ashore on the island with nothing but the logbook in his pocket, wracked by grief and guilt. 

Ytreg had refused to believe that his son was dead. Instead, the logbook told how he’d fashioned simple stone tools, how he’d built the shed and waited for his son to be washed ashore, and how he, in line with Waveborne tradition, had carved a rock for his son’s guiding stone. As the pages went on, it became clear that Ytreg fell ill, the final page simply read, “I am too weak to fish now. I can hardly move. I am starving. All I can hope for is that my son is safe, wherever the sea may have taken him.”

Reng finished reading and stood holding the book, without closing it. Suddenly, he was not sure what to do. Tearing down the shed seemed like the only way to get home, but to him, it’d feel like tearing down a memorial. A memorial to a parent’s love, no less. He, a father, couldn’t do that to another father. At least not for as long as another option may exist, and those tools had to be around here somewhere…

He was torn from his thoughts by an eerie, cold glow, slowly growing brighter. He could only watch, mouth agape in abject horror as a stitched-up face wreathed in sickly flame with green, baleful eyes wailed at Reng with a voice colder than the grave. He screamed and threw the logbook across the room before bolting out the door. He had no idea where he was running to, but he knew what he was running from, and that he wanted to be anywhere except for here. 

Reng ran blindly until dense, thorny brambles blocked his path, and there seemed like no way around them. He glanced back in the direction of the shed, but it did not seem like the vengeful spirit followed him. It was only then that he realised the guiding stone was still in his hand.

The bushes behind him shook. Reng flinched. He turned slowly, then listened. He thought he saw something. It was the shadow of a creature. It walked upright but was too small to be a human. And it reeked. Reng saw a decaying hand pushing through the thorns, followed by a low, terrible groan. Tangled in the bushes was the creature, no, the corpse. Rotting, stinking, moving. 

Reng was just about to flee when he noticed something. The undead gazed up at Reng, slowly opening its jaw to release a strange, meek sound as if it were pleading. It wasn’t until then that Reng realised that it was stuck, caught in the brambles. It could move ever so slightly, but it couldn’t free itself. With its one, free hand, it was reaching for the guiding stone. 

Reng tried to calm himself down and knelt in front of the trapped monster. He began to put the pieces of the story together. He realised he wasn’t looking at a vile beast, he was looking at Ytreg’s long-lost son. 

“I will help you.” 

He had no idea if the dead boy could understand him, but Reng started untangling the brambles all the same. It was hard, painful work that left his arms riddled with cuts. 

“Follow me. I’m not your father, but I know where he is. He made this stone for you.”

The corpse looked at him with its dead eyes, silent. It made no effort to harm him, and when Reng moved, it followed. Questioning his sanity, he turned back toward the shed. Sanity or not, somehow, this felt like the right thing to do.

The looming structure appeared in front of them, casting long shadows across the stones in the dim moonlight. He led the distressing monster inside the shed, where the ghostly glow still wailed. Reng swallowed his fear and held up the guiding stone.

“Ytreg!”, he called. “I return, with the guiding stone, and your son.”

The dead boy waddled into the room. It plodded itself down next to Ytreg’s bones and made a new sound, which Reng determined to be sobbing. The blazing soul stared, seemingly bewildered. Fighting against every reflex urging him to vomit, Reng forced himself to walk up to the weeping dead and place the guiding stone in its hand.

“Ytreg, you never gave up on your son. Nor did he ever give up on you. Even in death, you sought to be reunited, and now, at last, you are.”

Silence. 

Slowly, the burning one approached the rotten, and the latter stood to embrace the ghostly flame. Feeling as though he was intruding, Reng quietly slipped out of the shed. He walked a short distance, found a surprisingly comfortable rock out of sight of the shed, and fell asleep. 

When the sun rose, Reng returned to the hut, not knowing what he’d find. What he didn’t find, however, was the dead boy, the spirit, or the skeleton that he’d found the first time around. Searching the shed, he found the tools Ytreg had made years ago, they were still good. 

Having decided not to tear the shed down, he harvested lengths of the tough brambles, cut away the thorns and wove the smooth stems into a humble raft. While he was at it, he made some simple containers that he filled with water from a small stream. In the end, he took only two things from the shed—Ytreg’s fishing rod, and the logbook. It may bring solace to any who knew the two if they ever got to read it.

When he finally set off, he couldn’t believe his luck. The seas were serene, nearly mirror-smooth. Within hours of setting sail, he had found himself riding upon the World’s Pulse Current. A few days later, he was spotted by and brought aboard another vessel. Unkempt and very hungry, but alive.

When he finally returned home, Reng embraced his wife and daughter, who cried with relief at the sight of him. That night, after having had dinner with his family, he stood on one of Seahome’s many docks, thumbing the three coins in the palm of his hand.

“For Ytreg.” He tossed the first coin into the sea, and it sank beneath the waves.

“For his lost son, now found.” The second coin followed the first, and Reng paused for a moment. 

“For the bonds that bring us home.” With that, he cast the final coin into the sea, and it vanished into the blackened depths below.

Sacrifice

Gael lived at the border of a tranquil forest and azure ocean. This young man was a grounded Wingfolk, despite being in the prime of his life, he never regretted his decision to set down his glider. Sweat glistened across his weathered arms, and his focused eyes carried the weight of his responsibility. Gael's life was a simple tapestry woven from threads of resilience and sacrifice, a story that will soon be unravelled, beginning with the gentle fall of leaves from his every strike of the axe.

It was a sunlit morning and the air was crisp,laden with the scent of pine. Gael found himself amidst a crew of seasoned lumberjacks who had hired him as temporary help, though months on, it didn’t seem quite so temporary anymore. They cautioned Gael about the dangers when taking from the woods, though he assured them he would be fine alone. 

Gael approached a gigantic tree, dark wood stealing the morning light, an oak that even experts would hesitate to battle. He took a deep breath and swung his axe with youthful vigour. The blade bit into the trunk, and as the first chips of wood fell, Gael's confidence swelled. But, after an entire day's work, the tree barely trembled. Clearly, nature would not be so easily subdued.

However, Gael was determined, and his axe was sharp. As the blade bit and tore, the massive oak teetered. He smirked to himself, but realisation hit him as the tree began to fall—it was falling towards him, despite his well-placed cut, as if it had a will of its own. Stunned by the tree’s callous disregard for the laws of reality, he found himself lingering for too long. But, just before the tree could fell him in kind, fortunately, something pulled him out of harm’s way moments before the tree fell. Two stubby arms, adorned with three clasping fingers each, snatched Gael from the impending disaster. Before him, hovering with purpose—was a Hazerd, his saviour in copper clad.

Gael's inner thoughts raced like a torrent, fear and gratitude mingling in a turbulent whirlpool of emotions. He stared at the Hazerd, it stared back, and, after an awkward silence, he snapped out of his thoughts. “Thanks for saving my life.” he managed, his voice still somewhat shaken. It hummed in response.

After another awkward silence, Gael had an idea and gestured for the Hazerd to follow him. It beeped happily and tagged along. The two ventured toward the edge of the forest overlooking Woodriver Village below. It was here, at the edge of the forest overlooking the sea, that Gael built his home after leaving the Wingfolk band. He had done what few of his kin would ever be willing to do, having left the life of roaming the skies behind. Then again, the ocean breeze and the gentle scent of forest pine weren’t a bad deal. 

The house wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t need to be. While it was a tad draughty and a little crooked even, Gael cherished every hand-cut board, every nail, and every scar he’d acquired during construction. More importantly, he cherished the person he’d built it for. His mother, Zephanie, always loved the sea, though he was perpetually worried that the humidity may be bad for her. Still, this is the place where she wanted to settle, so this is where they were now.

When they entered the house, Gael noticed his mother sitting by a window looking out at the village and the ocean beyond, Zephanie’s frail form appearing tiny as she sat in her chair. The Hazerd came forward to appraise the situation, and Gael eyed it thoughtfully. Would the mechanoform that saved him help her as well?

The Hazerd politely adjusted the blanket on her lap, and then set about tearing at the wall. 

Gael rushed forward, grabbing the Hazerd as he tried to pull it away from the wall as best he could. “Stop! What are you doing!? For the love of the sky, just stop!”

He breathed a sigh of relief when it stopped. That relief promptly disappeared as it turned its attention to the ceiling, squarely at a load-bearing beam. To Gael’s horror, it set about dismantling the roof that rested on it, disregarding his every protest and attempt to stop it.

He was powerless to stop the metallic beast as it coldly took apart the entire roof, placing the pieces in a neat pile before taking the now no longer load-bearing beam, and flying off. Gael and his mother were left between four walls under an open sky. Gael mustered his composure and turned to Zephanie.

“I can’t mend that in an afternoon, I’ll have to go ask the neighbours if you can stay with them for a few days. I’ll be back soon.”

She nodded absent-mindedly and gave him her warm smile. She hadn’t been fully there, as it were, for many years now. Still, she knew his face and his name, and he sure as rain wasn’t going to let her sleep in a house with no roof. 

Thankfully, finding a helpful neighbour didn’t take long. Having explained the bizarre situation, the first declined only because a few family members were ill, and they didn’t wish for Zephanie to catch that same illness. The second house was eager to help and had already started preparing space for the two of them by the time he headed back. It was only a short walk away, and he pondered the best way of bringing Zephanie there. Wrapped up in these thoughts, he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings until he saw a flying log.

He stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the magical flying log. Dumbstruck, he watched as it slowly floated in a smooth, gentle manner towards the house, rotated and adjusted, and then just as slowly lowered itself into place. Only now that the angle was less extreme, could he see the Hazerd.

Without missing a beat, it turned to the neatly sorted pile of roofing material it had disassembled earlier and began reconstructing the roof. By now, Gael had re-entered the home, standing next to his mother as the house was slowly made whole again. 

Having completed the roof, it once again turned its attention to the imperfect walls. This time, Gael didn’t interfere, painful though it was to swallow one’s pride. He watched as it made adjustments, supporting the wall with its own strength when necessary. As the Hazerd worked, he could feel their home become less draughty. The Hazerd remained while Gael got a fire going and sure enough, slowly, a dry, gentle warmth set in.

He looked at the creature once again, bowing his head. “I owe you not only thanks this time, but an apology. I thank you for your kindness, and I apologise for my distrust.”

It hummed again, seeming pleased, and then departed. Gael, for his part, returned to his neighbours and apologised profusely for having wasted their time, but they didn’t mind. Figuring that he couldn’t have had time to make dinner with all the chaos, they gave him some of the grilled fish they’d made for supper, both for him and to share with Zephanie, or “Zeph”, as they called her.

Finally returning home for the last time that day, he shut the door behind him, pulled up a chair next to his mother, and shared with her the food that they’d been given. They sat there, talking about years past as an amber sun set over a brilliant, golden ocean.

Shield Resplendent

Many decades ago, before the advent of duels, when the four tribes fought with sword and stone across the lands of Nova Thera, a song of hope was written. In this age of turmoil, known as The Great Folly, a lone Wingfolk glided above it all.

The wind's gentle caress against Sorla's face provided no solace to her heavy heart. How can one not see the madness of this all? Beneath the tranquil sky lay a burnt swath of once bountiful farmland. The Wingfolk’s nomadic ways kept them out of The Great Folly’s path, for the most part at least, but they weren’t blind to the wounds it was inflicting. Eyes stinging from the rising smoke, she peered below, where the embers of destruction still flickered across the desolate landscape of a world she so fervently wished would see reason.

The wings of Sorla's glider turned gracefully above the scorched earth. This was her first time flying above the lands of the Triumvirate. Below her, soldiers from the mighty guilds clashed with the unrelenting raiders of the Waveborne. Sorla had to be extra careful whenever she landed for she had never held a sword or let loose an arrow. Sorla was a pacifist by nature yet she was undeterred when it came to venturing into the fray. She was a truly rare individual during these tough times. Enacting her duty is her drive, the same reason she now dives into the plumes of smoke.

A lorekeeper’s duty is to record history as it was, no matter how bleak, grim or disturbing, so that the mistakes of the present could be lessons for the future. Naturally their role often required the recording of more cheerful things, like songs and tales, though that felt extremely rare these days. Each time her glider descended to desolate soil, she sought to observe, understand, and provide solace. Sorla's lorekeeping wasn’t an act of simple collection, but one of preserving what was left and salving what pain she may come across. Everyone desires peace, and we all experience sorrow; when more realise this, the fighting can end. This became her belief, her mission. In an age of destruction, she chose to build.

Landing among the smouldering ruins of the village, Sorla's presence was met by the seething distrust of its remaining inhabitants. Pain was etched into every line of every face, such that even the young looked aged and cynical.

Unshaken by the resentful suspicion of their gaze, Sorla opened her arms with her palms facing the sky. Her posture calm and a voice like a balm, Sorla inquired if she could help their injured. While some met the offer with open disdain, none yet raised a hand against her.

A bereaved mother bridged the gap between the lorekeeper and the fearful villagers. The woman scolded those circling their visitor, questioning why they not only rejected a hand offered in aid but, at the same time, were seemingly content to spend their time staring instead of lending their own hands themselves. Faced with the kindness of Sorla and shamed by the mother, at last the wall of distrust was breached, if not yet fully torn down. 

By filling her days with the struggle of foraging medicinal plants, tending wounds, mending clothes and rebuilding homes, Sorla’s actions and warmth melted away the lingering apprehension of the villagers, who eventually opened up to share their tales. She would listen, record, and, when asked to share stories in turn, recount what other villages had told her from across Nova Thera. The more that was shared, the more obvious the fact that, in every tribe, at least some wished to see an end to the ceaseless conflict. 

Her stories proved popular, and it wasn’t long before she found herself tailed by children, always begging for just one more story of some faraway place. The harrowed lines in their faces that Sorla had seen at her arrival were no longer visible, though she silently mourned the fact that the unseen scars may never heal. Seeking to impart the importance of not simply knowing tales but sharing them, Sorla asked the children for stories in return. 

They told her of the Guardian of the Pass, a gilded sentinel amidst the treacherous mountains, said to keep some ancient evil trapped in place below the peaks. When the children were around, the adults would insist on the story being a truthful one, though in private, they confided in Sorla that they’d been told the same story, yet not once seen a hint of this guardian nor the evil it was supposed to thwart. 

Compelled by the desire to find any kernel of truth that may or may not lie at the heart of these stories, Sorla set out one day to scour the mountains for any evidence. She made camp there among the foothills, yet days came and went without success. On occasion, a few of the older children would shepherd the younger ones to her camp for a story or two and to see if she needed anything, before leaving the next day. 

One day, a voice insisted on joining her, followed by another, then another. Try though she might, she couldn’t convince them to head home, and so, they followed. Games were played among rocks and crags, laughter ringing against the mountainsides. Then, a shrill voice cried out in excitement —one of the children found a cave entrance, largely obscured behind a pile of rocks. Thanks to a flurry of hands and good teamwork, the path was cleared. Sorla led the way, and the children followed.

Within the cave, resting on its golden bulwark, slumbered an ancient Grailshield. It didn’t take long for Sorla to realise that it, or someone else, must’ve barred the path behind the gilded giant, though she couldn’t fathom why. She had no way of telling how long it had rested there, hidden in the gloom of the forgotten cave. Inevitably, a kid prodded what had to be the fabled Guardian, though a somewhat wiser kid swiftly batted the poking hand away. As she inspected the Grailshield, she came to realise that it must either be dead from all the visible injuries it bore or resting in some strange manner.

After a few hours of carefully studying the giant, Sorla led the children back to her camp. This time, she wouldn’t stop insisting that at least one of the kids had to head home and tell their parents about their stay. After much protesting, bargaining and begging, finally, straws were drawn and two of the elder children were chosen to head back to Anvilclang the following day.

Dawn broke and the unlucky chosen departed for the village, grumbling and displeased, but depart they did. Meanwhile, Sorla and the rest of the children broke camp, packed up the tent, bedrolls and supplies, all in order to move the camp closer to the cave. 

As they were making their way back to the cave, a pebble rolled by, unnoticed. Then, a rock. “Who threw that?”someone asked, but no one spoke up. Another rock, another question, still no answer. Then, just as they were about to reach the entrance, a low, dreadful rumble erupted from above. Sorla and the children looked up towards the noise. Far above them stood a red figure, wreathed in flame, cackling with a cruel, inhuman voice. She didn’t pay it much attention, for her focus was directed at the source of its laughter, the rockslide it had sent their way. 

Time was of the essence, and the cave was far enough away that while she could almost certainly make it, the children didn’t have a chance. As such, she shouted for them all to hit the ground, curl up and cover their heads. They huddled together and she laid down between them and the oncoming rocks, facing them as she spoke reassurances. In her heart, she knew there was nothing she could do but hope. Only fate could decide which, if any, of them would be returning home. 

As the rockslide thundered closer, another sound approached faster still. Rhythmic clangs, like a hammer striking an anvil, outpaced the rumble that followed. She could hear the last clang right next to her head just before it stopped, and in that same instant, the ear-splitting sound of sundering stone as she was showered in shards of rock and coughing dust. 

Then, the rockslide reached them. She and the children lay there trembling, expecting to be broken apart and snuffed out, and yet, they were not. Impact after impact was heard, but not felt other than through the trembling of the ground, as a brief span of time that somehow felt like an eternity crept by. By the time the rockslide ceased, their ears were ringing and they were coughing up dust, but they were alive, unbroken. Unable to understand how they were still alive, it took the group some time to move, almost as if their survival was all a dream that motion might dispel.

But it was no illusion, no desperate hallucination spurred by denial. No, they were alive, plain and simple. Sorla finally stood up, her first action being to ensure that they were all indeed alive and accounted for. For a moment, she was gripped with horror, counting and recounting, before it finally hit her that the two that were missing were the same ones who’d left for Anvilclang that morning. She breathed the greatest sigh of relief of her life, before finally turning to investigate how they’d survived.

It didn’t require a particularly thorough examination.

Before her stood the Guardian, battered, beaten and aged by untold years, having slammed its shield to the rock hard enough to embed it. It had braced against the rockslide, withstood the horrendous punishment that entailed and remained standing. Standing, but unmoving. Overcoming her surprise, she quickly noted that it seemed to have fallen into the same slumber they’d found it in. Whatever strength it had left, it must’ve spent it all in order to save their lives. How? Why? Did it still live? These questions burned in her ever-curious mind, yet she knew she might never have the answer to any of them. 

With their saviour still and silent as a statue, all she and the children could do was offer their thanks and hope that, somehow, the Guardian could hear them. Having lost some of their camping equipment and provisions to the rockslide, they returned to Anvilclang, dusty and worse for wear, but alive and unharmed, bar a scuff or scrape here or there. The story was shared, a story which grew into legend and song, a song sung far and wide to this very day—the song of the Shield Resplendent.

Ashfall

Sometimes, a great disaster can be the catalyst of the greatest change. Time and time again the Earth of the past was reshaped by calamity, until one day, the Earth as it was was supplanted.

Human civilisation was once enjoying the peak of its scientific achievements. Its populace was thriving, its cities were sprawling, companies of industry and research alike reaping the rewards of development however they could, wherever they could.

One such company, its name long lost and forgotten, specialised in robotics, material science and military equipment based off of that research. Built on proprietary technologies, it had established itself with such wealth and influence that it could match nations, even having a military arm all of its own that it would lease to the highest bidder. Hoarding their secrets, they profited off of creating a dependency on their products and monopolising the delivery and maintenance thereof.

Its most recent venture however, prospecting for new minerals to utilise in the shadow of a great volcano, had been met with frustration. But one day, a worker noted what they thought was a sapphire. Bringing it in, it turned out that the blue gemstone was something far more interesting. Preliminary tests revealed multiple promising uses.

Simply being near the crystal seemed to invigorate the scientists researching it, and that itself was soon determined to be a direct result of the crystal rather than simple scientific curiosity. The company ravenously started searching for more, eager to monopolise this new material. Their first attempt to find more brought them to bore into a nearby mountain, but after countless man-hours invested in excavating tunnels, it seemed that this lone crystal must’ve been one of a kind.

This was when someone suggested that the gem may have come from the nearby volcano itself, perhaps expelled in an ancient eruption. The company wasted no time diverting its efforts to this new approach and soon, they found a whole seam of this crystal, enticing them to dig deeper. Many of the company’s own scientists and experts advised against this, but the desire to find more and more material to research and ultimately exploit for profit, won out.

That moment, the first eruption happened. From the mine where the gemstone was harvested, a giant creature tore through the stone and forth from the volcano, attacking the mining city. Mere moments later four more emerged, seemingly chasing the first. The five like no animals known to science, no, they were beasts of legend - dragons.

The attacker was driven away and the four pursued, disappearing high into the sky. Then, the true end of the old Earth and its civilisation came.

This is when the Ashfall began.

As a consequence of the company’s greedy excavation and the disruption caused to the volcano by the first dragon’s awakening, the mountain roared to life in the most powerful single eruption in geologic history. The pyroclastic flow and the ashes, blue in colour due to the crystal, carried this fine blue dust across the entire planet.

Little by little, the true scope of the disaster began to sink in. While being near the gemstone and the prototype products developed by the company had proven beneficial, it turned out that breathing the pulverised mineral was incredibly harmful. People were embroiled in a desperate scramble to find air filtration and other devices to protect themselves from inhaling the ever-present blue dust, but as always, the supply was never enough and once industry began to collapse, it would only ever decrease.

The population was ravaged by death and mutation as countless unfortunate people were killed by the dust, and those lucky, or unlucky, enough to survive were forever changed. By the time that this eruption had finally ceased and the volcano returned to its slumber, the human civilisation of the time had completely collapsed. Even then, conditions worsened as disease ran rampant, taking an ever more terrible toll.

While this was an end, it was not the end. Humans, if anything, are stubborn creatures. The survivors slowly coalesced into groups, and over the centuries spent clinging on at the very brink of extinction, they slowly began to recover. The world would recover too in time, but it would never be the same.

Eventually, the shattered survivors began to be drawn to four main places, rumours being shared by weary travellers and in exchange for food and drink. There were places where humanity could still survive, and maybe one day thrive.

A forest whose trees shielded its inhabitants. A mountaintop where the winds kept the ash at bay. A dormant volcano, sleeping among the ice in a remote corner of the world. A floating city that could whisk anyone lucky enough to find it to safety.

Clutching to this hope, the peoples gathered in these places and there they transformed, each building its own culture and customs. Each was shaped by the new land and the new animals that called it home alongside them, new animals unlike anything that the old world had ever seen before. These tribal societies were the Lifetenders of Everwood, the Wingfolk of Eight Winds’ Peak, the Triumvirate of the Rings of Cinder, and the Waveborne of Seahome.

As each tribe established itself and grew, they sought to claim more for themselves, inevitably bringing them all to conflict. The ends justified the means as savage raids and reprisals followed one another, sometimes even outright, bloody warfare. However, such conflict could only be sustained for so long.

A great conference was held, where differences were put aside, peace was brokered and goals for the mutual prosperity of all were set. This feat of diplomacy proved successful, and while occasional skirmishes would happen from time to time and some disputes came close to unravelling it all, ultimately war and blood were replaced with trade and tournament. Each tribe competing for glory and prestige and settling their differences by pitting their finest Pixelmon tamers against one another in sparring matches.

So it was that the old gave way to the new, its own identity rising from the crumbling remains of decaying ruins and forgotten technology. The Ashfall may be a distant memory spoken of in hushed whispers, and the four dragons who fought off the fifth regarded with reverence distorted by time and myth, but the changes that this great disaster put in motion were far-reaching and fundamental. Life itself, even the very continents and oceans have taken on new forms, new meaning. A new beginning in a new world - Nova Thera.

Through bonds shared they tell a story, side by side they seek honour and glory.

Roots

Long ago, so long ago that those who witnessed the Ashfall still walked the world, the tattered and weary group drifted through the barren wastelands. Driven from their shelter by supplies running low, these survivors of a now lost civilisation marched forward aimlessly. Each day a desperate search for food, water and, most importantly, an escape from the hardship.  A place to call home. 

On and on they walked, many of their number falling victim to thirst, illness, hunger and exhaustion. The frail had to be left behind. It seemed as if with every step, hope faded and despair grew. Their numbers dwindled. Though it was never said out loud, everyone knew that they didn’t have much time left. Every day, the same desolate, rocky landscape greeted them, and every day, they’d cross it in shoes so worn that their feet were riddled with cuts and blisters. 

But then, one day, those at the head of the column burst into such excitement that many thought they’d lost their minds, their faces lit up with ear-to-ear smiles as they screamed and shouted. To those behind them, just a handful of distinct words could be heard among incoherent noises:

“Green! Water! Trees!”

Everyone shuffled forward to see, this last spark of hope spurring them on. And sure enough, as they went around the ridge that obscured their view, there it was - a green, lush forest, and by its edge, clear water sparkling in the sunlight. At the heart of this forest stood a tree, taller than all the others. 

They had found their home. Their future. The Everwood. 

Even with their goal in sight, they had one final leg of their journey to cross. But now, this last push would be different. Here, none were left behind. Those with a shred of strength left in them lent theirs to those who needed it. Carrying the frail on their backs if need be. Together, they made sure that everyone who made it this far would reach the veritable paradise before them. Over the next few days and weeks, some would prove to be beyond saving, but most pulled through thanks to the clean water and the forest’s bounty.

Uncounted years have passed since then, these first ancestors known by the legend rather than their names. The forest took them in, nourishing the gaunt, shambling figures that barely clung on to life until one day, they became the Lifetenders of Nova Thera.

Blood of the Mountain

The cool morning air filled Yharl’s lungs while he and his foreman hiked up Mount Kaia. This was his first big task for the Delvers’ Guild, and he was very excited. Hewman, his mentor, grumbled something incomprehensible about the early morning light and the enthusiastic young Triumvian took the chance to strike up a conversation.

“Beautiful morning, no?”

The grizzled foreman scratched his beard before stifling a long yawn. “Your belt isn’t tight enough and your hat’s barely on your head. Are you planning to split your skull open?”

The elderly man continued to chastise the smiling boy while Yharl corrected his belts and straps. “And why in Nova Thera’s Name did you bring the entire tool shed? A good pick ought to be all we need.”

“I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”, Yharl replied.

“Aye, wise words but your lower back ain’t gonna like it when you get older. Come on, the tap’s running dry so we’ve gotta open a new one to maintain the flow.”

“And stay focused, Yharl.” Hawman continued, “We’ve gotta make sure the lavaduct is clear all the way up. If our new vein were to overflow it could leave an entire block without heat or water. We’re not going to fail them.”

Yharl beamed another unyielding smile in affirmation and the stubborn foreman returned to grumbling incomprehensible words again. The two Delvers then spot it, a red creature watching from a distance. A Borg. Hewman’s grumbles shifted into a curse. 

“Talk about rotten luck. The little devils are out to play. Don’t look at it. Don’t give it any ideas, none of ‘em are ever any good.”

Yharl struggled to tear his eyes away from the creature. It was his first time seeing one and it was much smaller than he expected. He couldn’t understand why Borgs were supposed to be bad luck. The little thing placed its claws over its mouth, as if to stifle a laugh, and quickly ran away.

They arrived at the tunnel and headed deep into the mountain. The air became humid and warm. The two walked in silence as they finally reached the wall they were meant to tap into. It was hot to the touch. Yharl took out his equipment and began to examine the stone, he carefully knocked pins into place and listened to the sound. Hewman watched, scrutinising the boy’s work for any mistakes and giving him a few gruff words of wisdom to correct them.

With each pin, the sound of the rock face begins to change. To Yharl, the low grumble of the lava on the other side seemed everywhere but Hewman insisted there was music to the stone. He knocked the final pin with a determined thud and the whole cave reverberated with the sound.

“Aye, we have about ten minutes before this place is flooded wi-” Hewman’s words were cut off as a strange new sound echoed from behind them. The chewing noises grew louder as the two Delvers made a run for the entrance.

The Borg was busy sinking its teeth into the tunnel support structure. The mischievous devil seemed overjoyed to see them. Grinning as it delivered another bite and, with a powerful twist, ripping the supports apart. The ceiling began to collapse, blocking off the exit. The Borg gleefully waved to the two Delvers as the last rocks blocked their view.

“But why?” a confused Yharl called out, but Hewman’s bellow snapped the boy out of his daze. 

“We need to move these, now! Don’t stand there!”

The two of them desperately tried to move the stones but progress was slow and painful. Any minute now and the lava would start to flood the tunnel. At that moment, Yharl’s mind flashed back to the morning's lecture about their task.

“Hewman, take this!” Yharl quickly unstrapped his best pick and threw it to the stronger and more experienced man. For the first time that day, the old man smiled, or rather, grinned. 

“Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.” he muttered over and over again as the tool made short work of the boulders. Yharl simply watched in amazement, his mentor’s stoneworking skill was on full display. The pick would pierce the stone and send chunks flying every which way, but what made this truly incredible was how Hewman simply knew exactly where to strike for best effect. To him, carving through stone seemed about as bothersome as stirring the morning tea, even though Yharl knew it must be exhausting.

A distinct crack and pop rumbled from deep inside the cave, signalling that the lava tap was successful. The shadows began to move as the flow became visible from across the tunnel. Hewman was now drenched with sweat but the signs of light from the other side were breaking through. Time was running out but with a final blow, Hewman cleared the path.

The terrified Borg raised its arms in the air and fled with a panicked screech. The two men now rolled out of the cave, coughing, but also breathing in the sweet cool air. Hewman dropped the pick and simply collapsed from exhaustion but Yharl snatched it up and started fervently working on the remains.

“Boy, you can stop. We’re out!” The old man shouted in his confusion, but Yharl simply cried back.

“But we’re not going to fail them, remember?” punctuating his final words with a swing from the pick. 

Many more strikes rang out, followed shortly by the amber glow of hot lava. It ran through the freshly cut groove and poured straight into the waiting duct below.

It was Yharl’s turn to now collapse. He landed with a thud right next to Hewman, who could only slap his back with pride.


“My goodness, what am I going to do with you?”

Short Fuse

The sound of conversation and the aroma of a feast filled the dining area. Almei sat silently inside the little wooden house perched atop a branch of The Tree while her family celebrated her reaching adulthood. Almei's thoughts were filled with dread for the conversation she knew was coming as food was served around and the younger siblings bickered.

She clung onto the newly gifted scarf. Her knuckles turned white as she anticipated the inevitable question.

“Honey, are you going to join your brother and father as a Watcher?” her mother casually inquired.

There it is. Almei thought to herself, her gut churning at the idea.

She mumbled one word in response, “No.” 

"What did you say? For generations, our family has proudly served the common good as Watchers of the tree. Your brother has even been promoted to a Strider."

The words were soft, well-intentioned yet they felt like nails in Almei’s ears. The irritation lent strength to Almei’s voice, “No! I don’t want to join the Watchers or Striders, not even the Guardians could sway me! I want to be an adventurer, I know it’s what I’m supposed to be.”

Despite this proclamation, her mother continued.

“But honey, it’s so dangerous out there. You haven’t even tamed a Goloid yet. What if you get hurt?”

Her mother’s condescending tone pointedly concluded the conversation. This would normally be sufficient, but not today. Because Almei's future was at stake, the young woman's smouldering ember sparked into flame.

“I want to live, mom! I want to see the world even if I get scars! There cannot be anything worse than standing around all day, wearing a uniform, and making sure no one falls off this stupid tree!”

Everyone at the table, from the little ones to the elderly, fell silent. Almei felt the lurching feeling of regret swelling inside. She knew it was one of the most disrespectful things a Lifetender could say, but she was just so angry at how unfair it all was!

With tears starting to form in her eyes, Almei stormed out of the room. Despite her mother's cries, her father spoke up for the first time that evening.

“Let her be.”

Almei careened down the stairs of the great tree with reckless abandon. As the girl sped past them, several traders heading up from Roothome looked at her with shocked expressions. She didn’t care. Her only wish was to escape. She eventually made it to the foot of The Tree, slipped out of Roothome, and disappeared into the thick forest. 

Her lungs were burning, but she was unable to stop crying. Almei continued to run until her legs became fatigued, at which point she fell to the ground alongside a river. She lay there, gratefully gulping down handfuls of ice-cold water, trembling. When the crying finally stopped, her exhaustion carried her off to sleep.

Almei awoke the following morning with several insect bites and a growling stomach. While it hadn’t protected her from the bugs, at least her scarf had kept her warm through the night. Almei stretched, her thoughts filled with determination. She came here without a plan, but it was immediately obvious what she needed to accomplish. Almei would prove to everyone where her path led by bringing home something spectacular. A treasure, or, well, something. She was sure she’d know it when she found it.

She picked some fruits for a sizable breakfast and then set about traversing the forest. To her, everything was unfamiliar, which made it ideal. But after a few dull minutes, Almei made the decision to ascend a hill for a better vantage point. The earth groaned beneath her feet as she reached the top. Before she could think much about the strange noises, her footing vanished as the ground she stood on gave way.

She fell, caught onto something, lost her grip, and fell again before landing with a thud. She was dizzy and her thoughts were racing. The bewilderment started to fade, but the hissing noise lingered. A straw-like bundle had cushioned her landing, but a lengthy cut ran across the back of her hand. Though it didn't appear to be very deep, it would leave an impressive looking scar. That’s when she noticed the dozen enormous cherries surrounding her, and her initial relief turned to terror.

Almei found herself in the centre of a massive nest of Cherrybombs, creatures with a notoriously explosive disposition if their nests are disrupted. Thankfully, they all appeared to still be asleep, except for one.

At the edge of the tunnel, pushed up against the muddy wall, was a tiny Cherrybomb. The runt of the litter. Even its iconic spark fizzled with weak energy. It watched Almei with indifference.

When Almei saw the tiny being, her heart fell. There wasn't enough room here for so many Cherrybombs. This one got the short end of the stick and was pushed to the coldest, darkest corner of the nest. Her thoughts drifted back to how her family always welcomed her home, gave her food, and kept her warm.

She muttered to herself as she gently slipped past the sleeping Cherrybombs, "So much for my first day as an adult."

Almei moved through the muddy tunnel until she reached the exit. The familiar river was just still in sight. A sudden tug at her scarf caught her attention. The little Cherrybomb held onto her birthday gift with an almost pleading motion. She stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do. 

“Do you want to join me on my adventures?”, she finally asked in a gentle voice, adding “I could use a friend.” 

The Cherrybomb seemingly understood her words and leapt at her. Almei held the creature, pondering what she’d name her new companion. She wrapped it in her scarf, before walking off away from The Tree and into the great, wide world beyond.

Kindred of the Sea

Oskvigg let out a mighty yawn, bored out of his mind. The weather was beautiful, sunny yet not too hot, with clear skies and calm seas. Though those seas were calm due to there being no wind. This presented a problem for Oskvigg and, in particular, his sailboat.

The slack sails elicit a frustrated groan from the sailor. All his life he’d dreamt of adventure at sea, crossing uncharted waters, and seeing the world beyond Seahome. But now, he is  stuck in open water, listless without so much as a breeze to nudge him along. Oskvigg’s thoughts drift back to his father’s warnings to stay within sight of land. He could practically hear the “I told you so” that would greet him when he returned. If he returned.

He slumped over the railing, looking about as defeated as his boat, and let his hand dangle into the cool waters below. If nothing else, the deep, clear blue that extended in every direction, sparkling in the afternoon sun, made for quite the view. After  resting like that for a while, he soon drifted off to sleep. 

Suddenly, something bumped his hand and he awoke with a start. Recoiling away from whatever it was that woke him, he fell backward into his boat with a yelp and a dull thud. He took a moment to inspect his hand, and noting that he hadn’t been bitten or stung, he calmed down. Likely just a curious fish bumping into him. The sun now hung low in the sky, though it wasn’t quite dusk yet. Still no wind.

Wait, was the boat… rocking? Oh right, it must’ve started doing that when he threw himself backwards.

Without warning, the entire boat shifted upwards slightly, as if it had rolled over a wave, yet there were no waves to be seen. Slowly, Oskvigg inched his way back toward the railing. He leaned over cautiously to peer into the darkening waters below.

There was something there. A shape, larger than his boat. It was driven through the water by great, wing-like fins of a vibrant orange hue.

A Leviathan.

Oskvigg’s breath caught in his throat. A mixture of awe and trepidation gripped his heart as the reality of the situation sunk in. He watched as the vast form of the dragon slowly passed underneath him, once again bumping his boat. He finally snapped out of his reverie, shaking his head vigorously as if rousing himself from a dream. He rushed to his provisions and grabbed what remained of his supply of salted fish, then threw  it overboard as an offering to the great beast. 

He leaned over the railing with baited breath, staring at the pieces of fish as they slowly sank through the waters. The Leviathan eyed them for a moment, as if judging whether or not the offering was satisfactory. As the pieces sank out of sight, the dragon dove after them, disappearing into the dark below. Oskvigg finally allowed himself to breathe again, and once more slumped against the railing, staring at his slack sails.

Then, there was a bump followed by a gentle, yet ever-growing surge of motion. He was moving, but how? Once more, he looked over into the water, and there was the Leviathan, pushing his boat along through the water. 

All Oskvigg could do now was to trust and hope.

Unusual Tidings

Krolla took a deep breath. The salty ocean air was a pleasant change from the crowded streets in the Rings of Cinder. The middle-aged Triumvian’s mood brightened as the Waveborne village came into view. Trawlers’ Bay appeared surprisingly quiet but Krolla decided not to overthink it.

She had leapt at the request from the Carvers’ Guild. A few weeks out on the road was exactly the change of pace she needed from her busy office and students. Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of two men approaching.

One looked to be in the prime of his life and clearly has experience sailing, the other far older with tanned skin as rough as leather. The village elder smiled and got straight to business.

“Are you the rune expert the Carvers’ Guild sent?”

“There isn’t a rune carver alive who would consider themselves an expert. We’re eternal students. Always learning.” she smiled.

The musclebound youth quickly spoke up before the elder could take offence.

“Forgive the misunderstanding but there isn’t much time for small talk. Ever since the stone appeared, our nets have come up empty. Not a single fish. Even boats from other towns are refusing to dock. Word on the wind is that we’ve been cursed.”

Krolla’s smile dropped. The situation was far worse than she’d been led to believe. Who knows how long their supplies will keep everyone fed? She handed her travel pack to the sailor and began to check the tools of her trade on her belt.

“I’m heading out immediately.”

The elder raised a shaky hand, “Follow the coast to the rocky maze. You’ll find the source of the curse if you climb over and enter the flower pools. Don’t linger or else you won’t return.”

Krolla marched out towards the beaches. She really wanted to rest her feet after walking all day but, given the situation, it would be impossible to do so in good conscience. She harnessed her resolve and focused on the task at hand.

Curses didn’t exist, at least as far as Krolla knew, but what else could it be? It could hardly be any natural stone. She pushed the unanswerable questions to the back of her mind… who did this and why?

It was rare for Krolla to feel uncomfortable. Normally, when faced with the unknown she’d be elated by her curiosity, but not here. The sense of unease only grew as the rocky maze formation came into view. It was not just fish, but all the wildlife was absent, not a bird or even an insect in sight. By the time Krolla had climbed over the walls and landed into the flower pools, she felt nauseous and could taste bile at the back of her throat.

The experienced Carver cracked a smile as her confidence returned. This sickening feeling was directly connected to the source of the trouble and had nothing to do with her nerves.

“Someone has either done something very wrong or very right,” she mused to herself, now filled with determination to ruin the work of whoever was responsible.

The eerie quiet was suddenly disrupted by a nearby splash. Krolla’s eyes locked onto the movement while swiftly drawing a knife. A Shelker raised its mechanical claws to playfully imitate her action. She sheathed the blade. Shelkers are mostly harmless if left alone. As expected, it quickly lost interest and resumed filtering the knee-deep water. Krolla now gazed at the giant stone slab in the middle of the pools.

The cuts on the rectangular block were perfectly smooth, the runes clearly visible in the red stone. A pattern of semi-completed circles confirmed her earlier suspicions. This was intentional. A migraine began to take hold as her vision blurred. 

Incomplete runes shouldn’t cause any effects. That was the assumption she’d always held. But looking at this now it might be possible to cause a reaction with enough of them. No one in the guild had attempted to carve with this style. 

Then it hit her, maybe these weren’t incomplete at all, but a brand-new form? She marvelled at the potential. 

Krolla cracked her knuckles and was shocked at how weak she had already become. There was no more time to think. She pulled out her beloved hammer and chisel and got to work. If incomplete circles are the cause, then finishing the job should resolve it. Krolla persisted despite her churning stomach and shaking hands. The unnatural tension in the air finally began to subside as she completed each circular rune.

As the final rune was carved her ears popped. Krolla took a breath of relief and lay in the cool waters. A few minutes passed as the headache and nausea slowly faded away into an unpleasant memory. Her vision was still a blur so she decided to wait it out.

Krolla ignored the splashing sounds. It was probably just more Shelkers. She continued to rest until a strange nibbling disturbed her ear. Krolla sat up with a fright only to see the once curious fish race away in a blur of shimmering scales. 

She smiled with the knowledge that her mission was complete. Trawlers’ Bay would be alright.

Little Bird, Stretch Your Wings

Mattyn clung to his father's back with all his strength. The petrified ten-year-old buried his face into the comforting leather jacket. Despite this, he could still hear the rushing winds around him. A sudden lurch in his stomach made him want to cry every time the glider performed another swoop through the air.

Finally, it ended. Mattyn's trembling legs wouldn't calm down. He lay on the ground while his father unhooked the travelling bag from their glider. The sound of windchimes sang across the air as the rest of the Skyrunner band finished preparing their tents. His father let out a sigh laced with disappointment.

"Matt. You've already seen ten summers, yet you still hold onto me as if this is your first. You've got to learn to fly."

The embarrassed child forced himself to stand, legs still weak, and softly replied, "I know, but-"

"We're Wingfolk," his father interrupted, "it's time you used yours. My glider won't be able to support us both for much longer."

He gestured to the rest of the band. Most of the camp was already settling in. A group of excited children, carrying their gliders, ran past them and out of sight. A pang of guilt struck Mattyn as he knew they were younger than him.

Mattyn quietly started to unpack their travelling bag and went about setting up their tent. 

His father's voice took on a gentler tone. "You've always been good with puzzles. I know you can figure this out." He then jumped off the cliff, taking to the sky and on the hunt for their dinner. 

Even with his vision blurred by tears, Mattyn swiftly worked the tangled wires and folds of the compact tent. Their home was ready for his father's return, but that would still be for several hours. The young boy began to unpack his secret project.

In front of him were the puzzle pieces he'd collected from their journey across Nova Thera: a thin rope, sailcloth, hollow metal rods, and two perfectly shaped wooden handles.

The rope and sailcloth cost all his savings at the docks of Seahome. He scavenged the metal rods from a junk pile in the Rings of Cinder; they could collapse into themselves like a telescope. Lastly, the wooden handles were grown for him as a gift by a Lifetender girl his age when they visited The Tree.

Mattyn began to construct his first glider. The previous designs had all failed, not that he'd ever jumped, but today he was going to make his idea work. It had to work.

By the time he had finished, the clouds were already casting long shadows in the late afternoon sun. Mattyn shuffled toward the cliff his father had leapt off. He knew that the best time to jump is when the wind hits the cliff and causes an updraft.

But every time the draft came, Mattyn’s body would freeze, causing him to miss the opportunity. As the ninth gust faded, a loud thud landed behind him. Mattyn spun around to see that his father had returned. Panic set in. “He’s already back? But I’m not rea-” he stepped back without thinking, and suddenly felt weightless.

Something in his mind clicked. His body moved smoothly, despite knowing he had slipped off the cliff without an updraft. Mattyn imitated his father's actions: feet sliding into the footrests while his hands gripped the wooden handles. The metal struts erupted to his side, spreading the sailcloth in a wide arc across his back. Mattyn tipped forward into a dive to gain more speed. When he felt his stomach lurch, he pulled upwards to race towards the clouds. His momentum eventually lessened, and he aligned himself with the horizon as he drifted slowly across the skies.

Mattyn looked down to see his father cheering him on while trying to reach his altitude. He beamed a wide smile in return while basking in the success of his glider. His design was lighter than any other in the band. That’s why his previous gliders had failed and failed. But, they would fail no more, he’d no longer be dead weight. Mattyn had his own wings now.

Boo-who?

Devlin Ridman dropped to the ground, resting on his back among the grass. Despite panting from exhaustion, he shouted to the sky.

“Come on! Where is it?!”

The soft rustling of the tree leaves was the only reply he received. The young adult Triumvian threw his hands up before resting the back of his head on his palms.

“I give up. I’m lost.” Devlin chuckled to himself. 

It had taken years to save up for the equipment needed for this journey, and yet, only a few days in, he already had no idea where he was. He thought to himself “I should have bought that map instead of all these snacks.”

The carefree man, now remembering his food, opened the travel bag. He grinned at the thought of chowing down on another rock berry bar, his third one today. Devlin's smile vanished as he stared into the empty sack.

“Huh?” he blurted with an expressionless look on his face. The man turned his bag inside out in disbelief, but everything was gone. Delvin jumped to his feet and looked around. He then noticed a trail of his gear leading to a nearby tree.

The Triumvian drew his sword and carefully approached the tree and supposed snack thief.

“Give my food ba-”

His words trailed off when he realised no one was hiding behind the tree. Instead, he found a neat little tower made from all of his snacks stacked atop one another, much like how a child might play with wooden blocks.

“BOOOOOOOOO!”

The sudden voice behind him caused Delvin to jump straight into the air. His sword dropped to the ground with a thud, an undignified, high-pitched yelp escaping the man. That's when he saw who the snack thief was. The ghostly figure was floating in place, waiting to see his reaction — a Boo.

“Booo hue hue hue~” it vibrated with a laugh. The entity carried a smug look on its face. Delvin relaxed and began to laugh in return. Boo was surprised by this human's reaction and quietly began picking up Delvin's gear before neatly packing it into his bag. No harm no foul.

“Thanks, little guy.” Delvin smiled, “Do you happen to know where The Tree is? The giant tree and capital city of the Lifetenders? I’ve always wanted to climb it.”

The Boo cocked its head to the side as it listened before vibrating again in excitement. The ghostly hand tugged on Delvin's wrist as it dragged him forward.

Some time passed, but then he saw it. There stood a mighty tree, which had been hidden from his view by the cliffs surrounding him. Now, it dominated the scenery. Delvin paused to marvel at the sight, but Boo tugged on him insistently. The Triumvian beamed an understanding smile, allowing the ghost to lead him closer.

They reached the base of the tree and began the arduous climb. Delvin slowly worked his way up while the happy spirit effortlessly drifted in circles around him, sometimes right through the tree itself. Delvin couldn’t help but wonder where all the rope ladders he’d heard about were. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen Roothome either. He shrugged it off, thinking he simply must’ve approached The Tree from the wrong side. Besides, he liked the challenge, and he had company now.

After an incredible effort, he finally reached the top of the tree and looked around with eager curiosity. He couldn’t wait to see what the capital of the Lifetenders looked like.

Nothing. Nothing except, that way off in the distance, was a vibrant swathe of forest with the biggest tree he had ever seen presiding over it all. Boo chuckled, practically bouncing through the air as it laughed uncontrollably. 

“Oh.” uttered a rather surprised Delvin, Boo cackling all the while. Then, a few moments later, he joined in, laughing hysterically. It had played him for a fool! 

When he finally recovered, he remarked “You got me good, buddy. Talk about barking up the wrong tree!”

The Boo chuckled.

The Steelyards

Zovie snuck forward with bated breath, tense, and nervous. Many days of travelling had finally brought her here, to see the home of the mechanoforms with her own eyes. Above her towered piles of scrap metal, enormously tall and ancient, stacked into neat columns. Illuminated by the light of a full moon on a clear night, they cast impossibly long shadows. 

It reminded her of the trees near the coast where she lived, and for a split second, a voice in her head suggested that perhaps it’d be best to leave this place and head back. This wasn’t a place for humans, the voice told her. She couldn’t really disagree. But as nervous as she was, Zovie wouldn’t be dissuaded. Resolutely she pushed on, determined to see the secrets of the Steelyards for herself. 

She slowly poked her head around the corner of one of the towers of metal, lured by the rhythmic clang and ear-splitting shrieks of metalwork. There, in the gloom, lay a blue mechanoform, an R7N3, inert and motionless. The characteristic glow of its eyes snuffed out, dead. Like carrion feeders scavenging a corpse, Hubb-Ls floated around, dismantling the body of the metallic creature.

Morbid though it was, she couldn’t help but watch from her hiding place. But then, she noticed something. The Hubb-Ls weren’t just taking pieces from the dead creature, they were adding them to the piles, sorting them. Intrigued, she moved slightly to a better vantage point. She saw how, as they left the broken pieces taken from the R7N3, they were bringing other, larger, intact pieces back. 

After bringing these pieces back, they laid them out, neatly, on the ground. Then, one by one, they began reworking these pieces, giving them new shapes, cutting, filing and changing them. She watched in stunned silence as the Hubb-Ls fabricated a new body for the deceased mechanoform, adjusting and replacing its broken limbs. They weren’t scavenging the dead mechanoform she realised, they were helping it. 

The hours wore on, and yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the process. She felt a sense of suspense. She had to know how this turned out. 

Just before dawn, she did know. In the twilight of not-quite-night-but-not-quite-day, the Hubb-Ls removed the excess parts, stashing them away once again. One of them tapped the R7N3 atop its head before putting the final piece in place, and as it did, the R7N3’s eyes lit up again. It slowly hauled itself to its feet, before soaring into the sky as if it had never been torn apart at all. 

“If the mechanoforms are capable of things such as these, what else might they manage?” she wondered. 

She decided that she’d find that out too.

Clever Girl

The fishing line dipped below the water, a telltale sign of an imminent catch. Kris strengthened his grip on the pole and remained perfectly still while seated. Any moment, the tug of war between life and death would begin.

Kris could feel his heart rate increasing.

Then nothing. The line refused to move a second time. It was only a nibble.

The Waveborne fisherman relaxed once more, leaving the rod back on its prop. He sank deeper into his self-made chair as the sounds of the coastline washed over him. Days like these made it dangerously tempting to drift into a nap. His thoughts turned back to his sister on Seahome, wondering if his younger sibling was taking care of their father.

A month prior, Kris had received word bearing the news of his father’s condition. The man had lost most of his fingers during an accident out on the sea. One’s hands were essential to a sailor, thus an early retirement had been forced upon the proud man. His sister managed a popular food stall and had the means to care for him, yet Kris’ uneasiness refused to leave him.

ZZZZZzzzzp~

The line quickly sank beneath the water and raced away. Kris nearly lost the entire rod in surprise, but he managed to catch hold of it by throwing himself out of the chair. Even if the fish got away, he was not about to lose this rod—a parting gift from his father.

The young man landed on the water's edge, drenched but still determined. Using the taut line to help pull himself to his feet, Kris smiled and followed through with the actions his family drilled into him.

It quickly became apparent that this was to be an endurance match. It was too powerful to simply reel in, his line or rod could snap. Kris dug his feet into the sand and carefully balanced between reeling and loosening.

It felt like an age has passed, but he finally won. The fish that had put up such a desperate fight was now sizzling in a pan. But even now it defied him, refusing to be removed and served. After his second struggle for the day, Kris plated up his prize and sat at the table at his empty home. A meal for one.

The loneliness struck him again. He had left Seahome and his family to begin a new chapter on land. The first year building this house was exciting, but Kris was left feeling unfulfilled now that a routine had set in. Doubts about his choice crept into his mind, and guilt about his comfort surfaced as he pictured his sister surrounded by impatient customers.

Kris' stomach growled a complaint, and he pushed the thoughts aside. Now was the time to eat. But, when he roused from his reverie and looked down, the fillet had vanished. The movement of a shadow revealed the identity of the culprit hiding in the corner of the room. A Foxphin held his dinner in its mouth, lips curled in an almost amused expression.

Kris leapt from his chair to stop it from escaping, and the creature effortlessly dashed around him. Kris grabbed the Foxphin by the tail, but it was surprisingly slippery, and escaped his grasp.

It was, however, just enough to unbalance the thief, who collided with the wall. The shock caused it to drop the fish. Kris readied himself for another confrontation. The Foxphin raised a paw and let out a small whimper. Its eyebrows curled upwards in a submissive gesture of defeat.

A wave of guilt hit Kris, as he didn't intend to hurt the creature. His shoulders relaxed, but then it happened. The moment Kris wavered, the Foxphin snatched up the fish and dashed between the human's legs.

Hungry and humiliated, the gleeful yelps from the uninjured creature stirred up anger in the duped man, who immediately began his pursuit. If the Foxphin reached the water, he would never be able to catch it.

However, the thief made no attempt to dive into the ocean. It ran along the beach, building up speed as the sand was kicked up. Kris soon lost sight of the creature and resorted to following the pawprints, tracking the scoundrel.

Kris was as stubborn as his mother, who wouldn't let something like this slide. If the Foxphin gets away with this once, it will come back to try again. His thoughts were interrupted when he noticed the prints leading to a cave.

The munching sounds of his now-lost dinner echoed around him. Kris stepped inside with determination, not expecting what he found. Curled up, and wolfing down the fried fish, was a different Foxphin. 

This one was extremely aged and clearly near the end of its natural life. The usual blue fur was matted with grey hairs, and the faded eyes indicated partial if not complete blindness. The fact that the elderly one didn't respond to Kris also suggested deafness.

A long low growl drew Kris' attention. The Foxphin thief he had been chasing was also there. Gone was the smirk, replaced by a row of clenched teeth with a genuine will to fight. Ready to protect the other even if it meant death. The loyalty and determination struck a chord in Kris' heart, unearthing the answer to the homesickness he'd been grappling with earlier.

Leaving the nest didn't mean one had to abandon their family. It was so obvious to him now having seen this child who worked so hard to bring a meal to its parent. Kris shrugged in defeat before turning to leave.

"Keep it. There are plenty of fish in the sea. Besides, I have some bags to pack."

The Battle Under the Storm

The large Goloid tore through the earth with ease as Sareen watched her companion plough ahead. The Lifetender tossed a few seeds from the bag under her arm, struggling to keep up with her planting. She called out to him with a smile.

“Hey, Rockford! You can slow down a bit. Take a break, you know?”

The loyal creature raised a stone arm, rumbling an acknowledgement but continued along the line without a hint of slowing down. Sareen chuckled at the futility of her request, determined not to fall behind.

This land was exceptionally fertile, but only she had the confidence to risk farming here. While the other Lifetenders feared the nearby Sheedles, Sareen understood their aggressiveness stemmed from provocation. She had taken the time needed to locate their nest entrances to avoid disturbing their tunnels and inviting trouble.

A passing cloud cast its shade on the fields below, gifting instant relief to the hardworking Lifetender. However, as the sky darkened, an uneasy feeling stirred in her gut. A storm was coming, a bad one. Sareen shuddered at the memory of a night when she hid under a bed as a child and cried as the floor rumbled and the air exploded.

Lightning illuminated the darkened lands, followed by the iconic boom. Then, as if the sky could no longer hold back, a downpour of rain erupted. Sareen called out to Rockford. If they left now, they might return to her cottage before the worst hit. An unexpected movement caught her eye as her companion plodded over to her side.

The Lifetender turn her focus towards the sky. At first, it looked like a flock of birds, but she quickly recognised the telltale shape of human gliders. It was a Wingfolk band, and by their rapid descent, they appeared to be making a hurried landing. Whoever their leader was, they undoubtedly made the right call.

Sareen and Rockford forced themselves out of the mud and back on the trail to her cottage. Her worry about the Wingfolk travellers refused to leave her thoughts. She petted the Goloid while reassuring herself.

“I’m sure they landed safely. And there’s plenty of caves there to keep dry i-”

The Lifetender stopped in her tracks. Realisation slowly dawned. In the sky, it must have looked like a haven from the storm. They couldn’t know that they’d landed right on top of the Sheedles.

“I have to warn them!”, she thought.

She burst into a sprint, heading right towards danger. Rockford lumbered behind with heavy stomps. An average person would struggle with this foliage, but Sareen had spent weeks exploring this area and knew its quickest routes.

“Don’t be too late, don’t be too late!”, echoed in her mind as she raced onward.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the thunder and rain above. Despite the cacophony of noise, not even the storm could drown out the shouts and cries as Sareen approached. Brushing aside the final leaves revealed a battle scene before her.

A massive swarm of Sheedles had surrounded the Wingfolk band. Their sharp claws clicked together rapidly in anger. The screaming children were being held by the elderly in the centre of the circle while the adults stood shoulder to shoulder to protect them.

A man and his mechanoform companion headed up the defence from within the circle, heading to wherever he was needed. Every time a Sheedle moved closer, either the Wingfolk leader slew it with his spear or the R7N3 would use its heavy frame to bash them aside. Their situation was tenuous at best, and the slightest hint of weakness in the line might drive the swarm into an even fiercer frenzy.

Sareen froze again, but Rockford charged forward. Now was not the time for hesitation. She swallowed her fear and dashed after him while calling out to the survivors.

“This way, quickly! The longer you stay, the more Sheedles you’ll attract!”

Her companion crashed into the backs of the nearby Sheedles, sending several flying through the air like leaves before the storm. Rockford’s rocky arms smashed a path through the horde, causing the remaining creatures to back off for a moment to assess this new threat.

The leader locked eyes with Sareen. His expression was a mixture of surprise, gratitude, and determination. He let loose a shout that could be heard loud and clear despite the commotion.

“Follow her lead, now!”

The Wingfolk shuffled forward as their defenders held the Sheedles back, abandoning their belongings, save for their irreplacable texts. Sareen and Rockford moved to cover their retreat as they broke the encirclement. She fought back-to-back with the leader as the storm raged around them.

It took over an hour to escape, but the Sheedles finally relented in their pursuit. Sareen guided the Wingfolk to her farm while the R7N3 carried the wounded leader.

“I’m afraid my home is too small for this many guests, but the barn could work.”

Their leader, who had introduced himself as Collin Hunt, grimaced with a thankful smile.

“You’ve already done more than enough for us, bu-” a brief cough interrupted, “But I’m sure the children would be most grateful to stay under a roof tonight. We accept your kind offer.”

Sareen found herself flustered by the sudden formality of the leader. The depth of his gratitude emanated from the warm tones of his voice. It made her feel giddy.

“S-stay as long as you need to, however long it takes for you to recover.”

“It is often said that actions speak louder than words, and as I cannot find the words to express my gratitude, allow my band and I to do so with action. We wish to add your name and story to the records held in Tale’s Canvas.”

The confused Lifetender paused, unsure of how to respond. Collin chuckled at her puzzled expression and then explained.

“Most Wingfolk have a lorekeeper who protects our most sacred treasure. The story of our journeys, past and present. When we return to the Tale’s Canvas, your story will be honoured alongside those of the heroes of old. Your name will be immortal.”

One of the elders approached them. In her wrinkled hands was a sizeable leatherbound book. The elder opened it and looked up to the Lifetender. Her quill was ready to transcribe. Collin placed a hand on Sareen’s shoulder.

“Please, tell us your story.”

ShelkeRock & Roll

The large Shelker happily dug its crab-like legs into the sand, while the warmth of the beach soaked into its metal frame. It shuddered and whirred in a display of joy.

There is no logical reason that you or I can understand for why this particular Shelker enjoyed this activity. Perhaps years of work warranted a resting pattern, or it could have been a behaviour it picked up from an organic lifeform. Regardless, this  harmless habit did not impede the rest of the colony.

A dozen other Shelkers scurried along the pristine coastline as the clear ocean water shimmered in the midday sun. Our semi-buried mechoform immediately popped up at the sight of its peers, and it raised two front claws in celebration of what was to come.

A migration. The colony still needed to determine which direction to head, and this group had formed what could best be described as a traditional competition. The member who climbed to the top of the tallest rock would get to lead the migration.

Our sand-loving friend had never experienced what it was like to win. Its larger frame made such a contest particularly unfair, but it had always persisted, unfazed, in their previous attempts. Today would be no different. From what it could determine, the nearby stone carvings would be the location for the game.

It was not alone in this deduction. The more spirited competitors had arrived at the tilted pillar and scrambled to find a way up the smooth surface. The temptation of the sand’s warmth lured the big one to lay back down. It decided to wait and watch.

There was plenty of buzzing and clicking as the number of Shelkers grew. Soon their numbers had grown enough to climb on top of one another. The early Shelkers whirred in annoyance and desperately tried to hold down the ones above who were using them as stepping stones.

It took an hour before the large Shelker saw its chance. It unburied itself once more and slowly walked over to the mountain of its peers. Taking one careful step at a time, it climbed higher and higher until it stood unchallenged at the peak of the stone. The mechoform had been watching and waiting for the moment when the rest of the colony would be too exhausted from wrestling.

It was a perfect day - first, basking in the warm sands and then winning the migration contest. The victorious Shelker hopped off the stone with excitement,  committing this moment to memory.

It raised a claw and pointed toward the setting sun, determined to follow the ball that warms. The colony all whirred in acknowledgement and began their long journey up the coast, following their new leader.

Proven

Sheer panic ran through Powell Birks's mind as the mighty hammer shattered into a dozen pieces. It felt like the floor beneath him had opened up and was about to swallow him whole.

For the past several weeks, Powell had grown frustrated with the work his master assigned to him. He wasn’t just any ordinary ten-year-old; he had forged every shape his master had asked for, yet he was still forced to repeat the basic processes daily.

In his impatience, Powell sought out a challenge—something to showcase his talent, something to prove himself. The plan was to replicate his master’s favourite hammer and swap it without her noticing.

At least, that was the plan. The original was far heavier than Powell had expected as he unhooked it from the wall. The boy wobbled and fell off the chair he was balancing on, landing with a thud. The cracking sound filled him with dread.

“But how?” he asked himself in confusion. The hammer had shattered despite being made of metal. The pieces rolling across the workshop floor weren’t too dissimilar to chucks of ore from freshly mined rock.

Powell wracked his mind trying to figure out how such a tool could simply break like that, inspecting the pieces. He found what looked like the remnants of runes. That explained why it was the master’s favourite, and why he’d never been allowed to touch it. Maybe it was cursed, to ward off thieves? He shuddered at the thought.

But, sitting there on the floor in disbelief wasn’t going to fix anything. Powell gathered every single piece and ran for his quarters. At least there, he could think of what to do next.

Powell began matching the pieces back together. The puzzle was strangely enjoyable, but the unease refused to leave his stomach. He knew this was not something he could fix. The realisation struck him like a sledgehammer - he simply wasn’t skilled enough.

Even if he made a perfect replica, as per his original plan, the master would surely notice that it lacked the effects of the runes. He was no Carver; he had no idea how to replicate their magic.

Tears began to form, but he brushed them off his face. There had to be a way to right this wrong. He would find that way, no matter how much time and effort it would take him. 

“Powell! You’re late.”

Powell almost jumped at his master’s voice; her tone was stern but warm. He had completely lost track of time while piecing the hammer back together.

“C-c-coming now, sorry!” Powell called out, before taking a few slow, deep breaths to regain his composure.

“Stuck in bed? Alright, but fire up the forge after you free yourself.”

The boy did as he was told, quickly readying himself for the day and lighting the flames. Powell performed his chores in the workshop with a sense of looming dread. It didn’t take long for his master to notice the missing hammer.

“Have you seen Swiftstrike?”

Powell stood motionless. He wanted to avoid the inevitable moment, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie to the person who had taken him as her apprentice. Without saying a word, he couldn’t find them anyway, he raised his hand and pointed at the dent in the floor.

The master let out a surprised whistle.

“It seems we had a thief visit us in the night. The fool’s lucky that it didn’t explode.”

A bitter wave of relief and guilt washed over the boy. Somehow, he had avoided blame. Powell quickly began his traditional morning routine of asking endless questions about blacksmithing, but her casual remark about the hammer exploding echoed in his head. He simply had to ask.

“What did you mean, when you said explode?”

“Swiftstrike’s runes demand that I must be flawless in my execution. If I should ever err, they will reject my failure and shatter. Dropping it wouldn’t be perfect form, to be sure.” 

She grabbed the fallen chair next to the wall and returned it to its proper place. Another wave of fear shot through Powell. His master looked at him before letting out a sigh. “That’s why I have you do these basics every single day. You need to perfect your strikes before handling tools such as Swiftstrike.”

Powell understood that it was more than just a statement; it was also an instruction. He rolled up his sleeves and began work as usual. Secretly, in the back of his mind, he knew what he had to do.

Several months passed, and his skills grew. Powell remained focused on his studies while secretly restoring the broken hammer in his time off, welding the pieces back together in the forge, one by one, when his master was absent. Only once every single weld was seamless was he satisfied with his work.

The next day, Powell approached his master with determination. He presented her with the restored hammer, bowing his head.

“Master, I have a confession. I was the one who broke Swiftstrike. I couldn’t get the runes right, but this is the best I can do to apologise.”

His mind raced with poisonous thoughts. Was she going to throw him out? Was his work good enough? What if she thinks his work is an insult? He had tried as best he could, but he was no master yet, a painful lesson he had learned well.

The master took the hammer with a focused expression, examining his work more intensely than ever before, scrutinising every detail. She checked the balance and gave three loud strikes on the anvil. Only then did she address him.

“I’ve always known. Did you think I wouldn’t notice the missing materials or your late hours in the forge?”

Powell stared at the ground, the shame on his face as red as the embers in the fire. His voice choked up, “I’m so sorry.”

A proud smile flashed across the master’s face, and she chuckled. “You’ve spent months of effort to right the wrong, Powell. I accept your apology.”

A sizeable gloved hand landed on his head and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Always remember, broken tools can be mended, whereas a broken word cannot.”

Her words lingered in the air, and he nodded.

“Learn these lessons, and let them temper you. Now, let’s take this to the Carvers’ Guild and finish what you started.”

Unwanted Company

The open scroll contained a strange language Ellouise couldn’t decipher. She stared at it with wonder. She couldn’t read its script, but the illustrations seemed to match the landscape around her, and that had to mean something, right? 

The Lifetender looked at her companions, who were busy scouting the area. Ellouise trusted them to alert her of any danger; they’d been through so much together. Still, she was expecting them to return any moment now.

Glint, her Fowler, landed on her shoulder as if he’d read her thoughts and chirped softly. Ellouise gently stroked his colourful feathers. Glint seemed a bit off, nervous perhaps, but not scared. Puzzled, she looked around. Before long, the sound of undergrowth crumpling underfoot reached her, and she turned to face the source. 

A boy came barrelling out of the forest brush, twigs tangled in his hair and wearing strange clothes. He barged through the undergroth with all the grace of a drunken Cactwo. She’d heard him coming, but his expression lit up with surprise. Clearly, he hadn’t expected to run into anyone here. A Purralysis, presumably his, halted tentatively by his side.

Ellouise took a defensive stance and eyed him from head to toe. He appeared to be a fellow teenager, but the only thing she knew about him was that he wasn’t a Lifetender. His clothing and gear were all marked with sharp, angular patterns, and green was conspicuous by its absence, the twigs in his hair notwithstanding.  

“Uh, hey, I’m uh, Dross.” he said in his strange accent before walking over, ready to shake hands, but Ellouise eyed him warily. She found dealing with strangers difficult at the best of times. It was the main reason she preferred being an explorer with her companions. 

“Suit yourself.” he said, shrugging when Ellouise rejected his greeting. The boy sat down on a bundle of roots near the cliff face.

Ellouise didn’t appreciate his presence at all. She let loose a sharp whistle, and the Fowler took to the air again. Her two Buggleberries, Buggle and Berry, emerged from the forest and fell in line behind her. Together they set off, leaving Dross behind. 

She trudged into the forest again, relieved to once again just be with her trusty companions. Her peace didn’t last long however, as the distinct sound of boots stomping through the undergrowth approached again. She whipped around.

“What’s your problem?” she snapped.

"Felt like heading this way as well." he shrugged.

The longer they travelled together, the more frustrated Ellouise became. Dross had an inquisitive temperament that was most annoying. But every time she picked up the pace, he’d keep up. Reluctantly, she accepted the presence of this new, rather irritating, yet seemingly harmless company. 

Together, they navigated the forest, negotiating the terrain and warding off wild animals. Dross, a Triumvian as it turned out, constantly enquired about Ellouise and her motivations for being an adventurer. The instant she mentioned her Lifetender origins, a torrent of questions soon followed.

Ellouise hesitated to respond since she disliked talking about herself. Yet Dross persisted with such earnest curiosity that finally, Ellouise began to speak more openly. The annoyance lessened with time, and at one point, she even found herself telling him a bit about her life, such as how she lost her family at the age of 12. 

She couldn't explain why; maybe it was the attentive expression Dross held every time she reluctantly answered a question. It differed from the usual looks of contempt she received when she had to beg for food as a child. it helped that he answered her own questions every time, telling her of his past. Apparently he was a member of something called a Delver’s Guild. She’d ask more later.

As they travelled, the wildlife became more hostile. Little by little, they began working together. Dross's companion, a Purralysis named Turro, was unbelievably nimble and could easily divert them, creating opportunities Glint made good use of. Buggle and Berry provided moral support.

Later on in their journey, the stumbled into a clearing, and in that clearing, there was a camp. Piles of goods of various origins stacked in piles, along with racks of swords and spears, made it quite clear that these were bandits. Initially caught by as much surprise as Ellouise and Dross, their slack jaws closed, and the gang reached for weapons.

Their leader stood tall, a figure of muscle and sinew, appearing to have enough brawn to bend an iron bar in his bare hands. He was staring at the unexpected visitors with a vile grin.

"Well, well, well. What do we have here?" he mocked, his voice deep and menacing.

Ellouise was scared, as any sensible person would be, but she maintained her composure. She hadn’t gotten this far in life by allowing fear to get the better of her.

Ellouise calmly answered, "This led us here.", indicating the scroll in her hand.

The man snatched it from her without hesitation, eyeing it over. Whether or not he could read the script, he wouldn’t say. 

"Well kids, I appreciate you coming all this way to deliver this to me but, well, I can’t can’t exactly let you live. Business is business, and letting you walk away from here woulb be very bad business. You know how it is."

She shuddered. Gone was his mocking tone, replaced by an icy-cold determination of a killer. She was thinking of a plan, when suddeny, she heard her own whistled signal. Not quite right, but as close as Dross could mimic. He’d taken the opportunity while the bandits’ attention was fixed on her.

Called by the signal Glint swept in, viciously attacking the leader by going after his face and eyes with his claws and beak. The bandit shrieked in a tone decidedly more high-pitched than before, swatting at the winged assailant, dropping the scroll. 

In that same instant, she called for Turro, who rushed through the shrubbery, darting between the bandits and immobilising them with its paralytic fur. The two youths sprinted forward, having to pull Glint off of their would-be killer, the avian seemingly intending to rough him up even more. They snatched the scroll and ran off, accompanied by their companions, including Buggle and Berry. 

They ran and ran, until their muscles screamed in protest and their lungs burned. They finally slowed down, taking a rest in the thick, soft grass. They simply rested in silence for a while, catching their breath. The bandits wouldn’t be able to give chase for a day or so, Dross had warned her as much when she had once asked if she could pat Turro.

“Well,” Dross said, “guess we’ll both have quite the tale to tell at the end of this trip.”

She laughed, for the first time since their initial encounter. 

“Well,” she replied in kind, “you’re not wrong.”

Eternal Silver

Broll observed the crowd jubilantly announcing Chicain's victory from the docks of Seahome. He continued swimming towards the finish and climbed onto the podium. 

He couldn't help but feel angry and bitter. He had placed second again, this time to the newcomer Chicain Scally. His reputation as the eternal silver medallist solidified even more.

Broll's head spun with ideas and suspicions as he replayed the Riverrun in his mind. Chicain was a superb swimmer for a seafarer; Broll would give her that. But he had been confident that her lack of experience and his advantages as one of the Shark clade would allow him to take the lead while they searched for a pearl. 

The last time he had seen Chicain was at the starting line. Unfortunately, that was all Broll could recall in his memory since he’d preemptively disregarded her while weighing up this year’s biggest threats. 

It was common knowledge that those from the Seafarer’s clade struggled in the Riverrun. Their unmutated human forms did little to aid in the long-distance swimming and strenuous dives for a pearl. It was likely that the Riverrun event itself was designed to improve a sense of unity when the first Waveborne mutations became prevalent and cruel judgement was commonplace.

In a sense, the Riverrun has become a matter of pride to the other clades. To accept that a Seafarer managed to outswim them while discovering the most incredible pearl in the Riverrun’s history was a doubly hard blow to Broll.

Broll kept his suspicions to himself, despite his misgivings. Without any evidence, he realised that accusing Chicain of cheating would make him appear silly and petty. And so he stood quietly, watching the Waveborne crowd raise Chicain onto their shoulders and cheer her on, resentment bubbling below the calm exterior

The celebrations continued into the night, and Broll experienced an overpowering sensation of disappointment and annoyance. He had committed his entire life to the chase of winning the Riverrun and having his name carved on Seahome, yet every year, he wound up second. This time to a Seafarer, no less! 

Every year, he trained for this marathon. In the end, though, it was all for nothing. Chicain had triumphed, and Broll had yet again placed second. Would the next year be as pointless? What of the years after that? Was he doomed to be forever caught in the wake of someone else winning?

Broll stood on the dock's edge and stared at the water as the celebration moved toward the centre of Seahome. Finally, the crowds dispersed. 

Only now did Broll permit himself to express his emotions. The man threw his bottle toward the night sky. It took several long moments before the inevitable splash.

He was upset, to be sure, but more significantly, he was overcome with remorse and melancholy. Was a lifetime of dedication not enough to achieve one’s dream? The dejection ripped at his heart. Dejection, then something else. No, he would win one day. Not this year, maybe not the next, but resolve burned away the dejection and made way for something better - purpose.

Broll scoffed angrily at his foolishness and rallied his wavering spirit. He knew he couldn't give up. He was a fighter and would only stop once he stood on the podium's first place. Ultimately, even if he never did win, he wouldn’t be remembered as a quitter.

 

He turned and stormed back to his home with a fierce drive blazing within of him, ready to start training for the next Riverrun.

Trial by Combat

Varanne sat in her workshop, humming a verse as she shaped the gemstone in her hand. The cutting wheel whirred away, almost as if it were in tune with her song. The air sparkled with fine gem dust as the morning sun shone through the window. Today would be a good day in her quiet little town. 

Some time later, there was a knock on her door. Varanne raised an eyebrow. She rarely had early morning visitors. She was about to ignore it and go back to her work when the knock rang out again. She sighed, setting down her tools and the gem on her workbench.

“I’m on my way, just a moment!” she called, hauling herself out of her chair and marching over to the door. Upon opening it, she found herself so surprised by what she saw that she simply forgot to greet her visitor. The man before her was dressed in formal government clothes, the dust on them betraying a recent journey. He presented her with a letter, and spoke with the monotone voice one might expect of someone who has had to repeat various official statements for many, many years.

“Varanne of the Carvers’ Guild, you have been summoned to The Rings of Cinder to witness a dispute as an independent third party. The dispute is to be settled through trial by combat. 

Your travelling expenses will be reimbursed upon your arrival at the capital, and you will be provided with accommodation. You will receive compensation for your time regardless of the outcome of the trial. 

You are duty-bound to witness the proceedings to ensure that neither party nor their champions act in any way to jeopardise the integrity of the trial. You are hereby expected to depart for the capital with the utmost haste.”

She stood there, somewhat stunned. Trials like these were rare, and she certainly had never expected to see one, let alone be directly involved with it. She roused herself from her thoughts, took the offered letter, and nodded. 

“I will heed the summons and leave for the capital as soon as I have made my preparations.”

He nodded in turn, adding, “Should you be ready to depart by the afternoon, you may join my caravan for its return journey. You will find us by the northern road leading into the town.” 

He then turned to leave, his own duty now fulfilled. Varanne headed back inside, scrambling to pack and make ready for the journey. After a frantic few hours of activity, she made her way to the messenger’s caravan in time to join them for the trip to The Rings of Cinder. 

The journey was long, if uneventful. Good weather and untroubled roads brought them to the capital on the sixth day of travel. Once there, Varanne ensured that her armour and formal wear were in good order. She was nervous, yet curious. As was customary, she hadn’t been informed what the dispute was about, but she figured she’d know soon enough. She sat down with her letter, practising the various things she may be required to say.

The day of the trial finally came, and she arrived at the arena alongside the two disagreeing parties, a man and a woman, as well as their respective champions, each with a Bruizer. The guards by the entrance ensured that they were all unarmed, and then allowed them entry. 

She went to the spot on the grounds where a raised stone platform indicated where she and the disagreeing parties were supposed to stand, and the champions took up theirs, opposite each other and twenty paces apart. They appeared relaxed, which made sense. This was more or less just another day at work for them.

She cleared her throat and mustered as much authority as she could in her voice.

 

“I, Varanne of the Carvers’ Guild, will hereby oversee the trial by combat to settle the dispute between Tregg and Gunnvyr, both of the Delvers’ Guild. I swear to act with impartiality and to serve my duty in the proceedings. Champions, you may begin.”

As soon as she had given the go-ahead, the two Bruizers commenced their battle with fervour, their heavy limbs delivering thunderous blows and violent strikes, the arena resounding with the din of combat. Their trainers egged them on, guiding and advising their Bruizers through the fight. It was a sight unlike any that Varanne had ever seen before.

Something else managed to catch her attention. Through all the forceful spectacle, two voices grew louder and angrier, and eventually, Varanne couldn’t help but listen in, still watching the battle as she did.

“How could you possibly think I wouldn’t recognise my own handiwork!?” screamed the woman. 

“You can’t be serious! You cannot mean to suggest that you simply own something so fundamental to our profession!?” the man shouted back.

“Oh dear.” Varanne thought, wondering if one had stolen something from the other.

“Don’t you even start!” the woman roared back, grabbing the man by his coat and shaking him around. “I know my own damn sweet roll recipe when I damn well see it!”

That last sentence echoed in Varanne’s head. Surely, she must’ve misheard? Her doubts faded as the woman continued.

“My ancestors created the first sweet rolls, it is a family tradition! Our family tradition, not yours!” she roared, the man’s previously reddened face growing ever paler, anger replaced with concern. Perhaps even fear? “You can’t just show up in town and duplicate them! You are no baker, you are a thief!

Varanne couldn’t even begin to believe what she was hearing. Had she been dragged from her work, across the land, spending over a week travelling and making preparations, just to preside over a case of pastry recipe imitation?

As the two kept arguing, she couldn’t help but stare at them with a mix of confusion, anger, and sheer disdain. How could something like this possibly escalate to the point of having two noble creatures of the earth pummeling each other in order to determine who was right or wrong?

This went on for a long, long time until a particularly loud thud caused her to snap out of her somewhat annoyed reverie and return her gaze to the bout, the arguing pair not having noticed her staring during all that time. Gunnvyr’s champion, or rather his Bruizer, lay defeated on the arena floor.

Varanne quelled her emotions, once again mustering all of her authority, along with her composure.

“Having witnessed the bout, I hereby declare that Tregg’s champion has bested Gunnvyr’s representative, and henceforth, the dispute is settled in Tregg’s favour. The battle is ended, and you may bring your companions to the menders for care.”

Scarcely had she finished speaking before Gunnvyr screamed again, so loudly and furiously that Varanne couldn’t actually understand what she was trying to say. She tried to grab Varanne, but the guards swiftly apprehended her and dragged her away, still shouting all manner of obscenities.

Varanne turned to Tregg, her disgust must’ve been apparent on her face as the man shrank away before her.

“Really?” she asked. 

“Well…” he swallowed nervously, seemingly ashamed. “It seemed righteous at the time…”

“Right.” she sighed, turned, and left. She wanted absolutely nothing more to do with any of this idiocy.

Outside, she was surprised to find the man who had delivered her summons. It seemed that he’d been waiting for her, though this time he wore civilian garb, presumably off duty.

“Varanne, I would like to personally apologise for this whole mess.” his tone was courteous, but there was a hint of smouldering annoyance in the man’s voice. 

She spoke before he could continue. “Apology accepted, but I’m off to have an ale and head home.” She gave him a polite nod and left; it wasn’t his fault after all. Still, she had no interest in spending any more time on any of this nonsense.

Through her irritation, she couldn’t help but think it was all a bit funny. All this pomp and circumstance, protocol, and a battle on the arena floor, all for something so incredibly mundane. She chuckled to herself as she headed for the nearest tavern, pushed open the doors, and ordered herself a well-deserved drink.

A Lorekeeper’s Resolve

Jarlgo loved the sensation of soaring through the sky. While this love was shared among the Wingfolk, for him, it was always a welcome change of pace. As a Lorekeeper, he often spent a bit too much time pouring over scrolls and transcribing them. 

His responsibility to preserve the past and record the stories of the world around him was a great honour. Even from a young age, Jarlgo wished to travel away from the band, to uncover the past and, by finding it, bringing it back to life. His selection as a Lorekeeper granted him this wish as he travelled to nearby settlements to record their stories.

Despite his pleasant mood, there was a terrible feeling he couldn't shake. Jarlgo drifted his glider across the sunny heavens, yet he sensed something wasn't right.

The feeling of being watched, a strange hint of movement in Jarlgo's peripheral vision. But no matter how much he turned his neck, he saw nothing. The sky was his domain. 

That comforting thought was promptly shattered by a shrill, deafening shriek from above.

A Primeon dove at Jarlgo with murderous intent. This was no predator-prey exchange. He understood immediately that he had been mistaken as a threat, and Primeon guarded their territory with great ferocity. 

Jarlgo did the best he could, throwing his glider into a turn far sharper than he ever would to try and avoid the attack, and to his relief, he did. But the Primeon, carried by its strange, supernatural flight, simply performed a long, sweeping turn, preserving much of its momentum as it came barreling back towards him. Again and again it attacked, and each time the margin of his escape grew slimmer and slimmer, his glider slower and lower to the ground.

Jarlgo felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. He couldn’t outmanoeuvre this thing for long. He had no one to back him up. It seemed as though his solitary adventuring had finally caught up with him. His grip tightened on the bag containing his documents. 

“Hopefully, someone will find these and deliver them back to the band.” he thought.

From somewhere deep inside Jarlgo, a voice exploded - an angry, loud voice. He couldn’t just give in and die here; he had to find a way through this situation. Determination flooded his body as he prepared to fight not just for his life, but for the stories and legends he carried. 

The Primeon still had not broken his gaze, but it seemed to falter. Had it noticed his shift from dispirited victim to resolute opponent? At the last moment, it twisted its neck, expecting some kind of attack from the defenceless Lorekeeper, passing within inches of him to his left. Jarlgo instinctively kicked the beast in the side of the head as it passed, causing it to thrash around and scarper. This one wasn’t too interested in pursuing him anymore, it seemed.

It also seemed to have broken his glider’s wing with its pass.

Suddenly, he was weightless. Jarlgo did not fall for long, having lost much of his momentum and altitude in his attempts to avoid the Primeon’s attacks. There was a loud splash as his body collided with the lake below.

The impact nearly knocked Jarlgo unconscious, but he managed to stay alert. The glider began to pull him under, its broad profile caught in a current. He took a last gasp before sinking below the surface, frantically trying to free himself from the straps securing him to the glider. He felt himself panicking and, despite his situation, forced himself to calm down. Slowly and methodically, he undid the clasps and latches, separated from the glider, and swam for the surface, his vision darkening even as he was so close to success.

But he did succeed. When he emerged, he took the deepest breath of his life, his lungs burning between desperate gasps as he slowly and haphazardly swam for the shore, empty-handed. 

The Primeon circled above, screeching in both pain and anger. Jarlgo may have gotten out of the waters, but his bag must have been dragged down to the depths along with his glider. 

Jarlgo had lost everything: his glider, his supplies, and his priceless papers. But he still held onto that powerful will to live. Though the physical stories were lost, they still existed within his mind. Now he had to survive, so that the tales would live on.

The Primeon suddenly dived, but he wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Jarlgo darted into the forest, the cover of the trees protecting him from the vengeful creature. He crawled under a fallen tree and covered himself with soil and leaves, knowing he’d have to bide his time until his attacker lost interest and returned to its territory.

Despite the lengthy and terrifying wait, Jarlgo remained in place. Luckily, patience was one of his virtues. 

After what felt like an eternity, the Primeon finally took off. Jarlgo emerged from his hiding place, worn out but still alive. To avoid being seen by any other predators hiding in the forest, Jarlgo got going while maintaining his dirty camouflage. He kept moving despite the exhaustion and pain, realising that he must have been hurt more badly than he’d first thought. Still, he pushed himself onward.

Days passed, and after subsisting on little food and water with little to no sleep, he finally caught sight of rising smoke - his band’s campfire. His heart raced with relief and anticipation, and his pace increased at the thought of the comfort of his people.

He was welcomed into the camp with cheers and embraces. They were relieved to see him still alive. Many had feared the worst, and they listened intently as Jarlgo related his tale to them.

A mighty group hug ensued, the close-knit group taking the time to quietly celebrate the return of one of their own. However, Jarlgo could feel his patience tested by the scent of the stew pot over the fire, and his stomach growled with annoyance. A chuckle and a moment later, and the man was wolfing down stew, worthy of a legend of his own.

A Rotten Smile

Melissa Dandelion took her first steps off the great Tree with pride. Although she was almost twenty-two summers old, this would be her first visit to the lower world. 

The bustling post of Roothome was just as she had imagined it from the stories her siblings had read to her as a child. Merchants were bartering their wares amidst the noise of the crowds, and visitors from every nation mingled at this gateway to the sanctuary above. It was almost overwhelming.

Melissa had come to Roothome on an important mission. Vushk, one of the families her father had entrusted, had sent too many reports where the number of goods, and therefore the tariffs gained from them, didn’t seem to match what was being sold. Although they had agreements with lower families to handle the direct labour and management of Roothome, customs and trade were the Dandelions’ responsibility. Melissa was nervous, but determined to make her father proud.

As Melissa made her way to Vushk’s building, she couldn't help but notice the attention she received from those around her. Perhaps it was her clothes or how she held herself, but the workers were clearly unaccustomed to visits from upper family members. Despite the pressure of their gazes, Melissa remained undeterred.

She arrived at the office of Vushk's overseer, a short man named Fel. He greeted her with a polite smile and offered her a seat. His long, bony fingers curled against the chair's headrest.

They each took their seats and faced one another.

"What a pleasant day for a Dandelion to visit! Would you like a cup of tea?" Fel asked, his voice as sweet as honey. He seemed genuinely happy to have the company.

"I'm here to discuss your monthly reports. We see that imports and tariffs are down, yet there’s seemingly no shortage in supply." Melissa replied, her tone courteous but direct. “Would you happen to know anything about that?”

Fel's smile gave way to professional focus. He took a moment before responding.

"You see, we get merchants from all over Nova Thera, and we get similar goods in all manner of different crates. As such, we have to-"

"I believe us Dandelions solved this dilemma two decades before the Vushk ever entered this building. Is there a reason why the guidelines were abandoned?" Melissa asked.

Fel Vushk cleared his throat. He politely patted his chest and smiled.

"Ah yes, the old guidelines. Some issues came up so we revised them, and we documented the changes we made. I thought we’d sent copies to you? Let me fetch the papers along with the shipping manifests and I’m sure we’ll come to an understanding. Please excuse me for a moment." Fel said, rising from his seat.

After he left the room, Melissa took a moment to survey her surroundings. The small office was sparsely furnished, with only a desk and a few chairs. A large cabinet held countless of neatly sorted papers.

She slowly stood up as an uneasy tension welled up inside her. Her hand instinctively moved to the dagger under her dress as she tried to rationalise the cause. Why would Fel leave his office to get documents that should be here already? Had he moved them to an archive?

Suddenly, the door was kicked open with a crash. A large man stormed into the room, axe raised and ready to strike. His eyes fixed on Melissa.

The thug let out a roar and swung down at the girl. She deftly sidestepped the attack and, without hesitation, struck back using her dagger. Melissa had always taken well to her mother’s lessons, but this was the first time Melissa had had to use them to save her life. 

The thug fell, striking the floor with a dull thud. Melissa could feel her heart beating in her ears, but she quickly regained her composure. The Dandelion daughter knew she had to get out fast.

The sound of running footsteps echoed from outside, and Melissa quickly ducked out of sight beside the cabinet, dagger at the ready. Fel’s voice erupted when he saw the man’s corpse on his office floor.


“Oh you utter- I told you to leave her alone, you big oaf!” 

Fel kicked the dead body, muttering “I have no idea what my sister ever saw in you.” before leaving, slamming the door behind him. 

Melissa waited a few moments before sneaking out. As she was making her escape, she was spotted by the warehouse workers.

She panicked and broke into a sprint, running for her life. Strangers started to call out as she ran past them but finally, she burst out onto the safety of the open streets.

Meanwhile, the Vushk family gathered in the warehouse, bickering over how to split the spoils before getting out of town. Fel clapped his hands once. The group was silenced immediately, except for the occasional sobs from his sister. He stared at her coldly and asked, “Do you know who our guest was?”


His sister mumbled something unintelligible, and Fel growled, “We are incredibly lucky that she got away. My bribes can encourage the Wardens to overlook some lost product, but not the death of an upper family member! The daughter of a family head, no less!”

Fel knew the game was up was over the moment Melissa was attacked. He looked up at the blank faces of his useless family members and promptly spat on the ground.

“My friends in the Wardens won’t chase us far. They’ll pin the blame on the dead moron upstairs. Now, pack everything. We’re leaving.” he ordered.

Some time later, Melissa found herself back home, now acutely aware of her unpreparedness for this darker side of the world. Expecting to be chastised, she was instead greeted by the genuine concern of her siblings, held in her parent’s embrace as she recounted the day’s events.

Her father looked Melissa in the eyes. His calm expression washed away all her fears. He smiled at her, “Well done today. I couldn't be more proud of you.”

Catch and Release

The horizon was perfectly flat except for two distinct objects: the nearby island and a small boat carrying two fishermen.

Saurell and Jones were a Waveborn duo who had always remained good friends despite their contrasting differences when it comes to almost everything. Everything, but their love for the sea. 

Jones, from Manta Clade, couldn't help himself from talking eagerly about today's excursion. There was nothing else to do while they waited for the first catch. 

"I have a good feeling about today, Saurell! The largest fish ever seen will be caught by us." He began swaying to a silent tune playing in his mind, tugging his line every so often along with the imagined beat.

In contrast, Saurell, from the Chitin Clade, stayed composed and nodded in quiet agreement. He knew there were no assurances when it came to fishing. Still, he knew better than to try to anchor Jones’ positivity in reality.

Their two lines stretched out from opposite sides of the boat as they remained back-to-back, waiting. The steady cadence of the waves was comforting as the sun loomed overhead. Jones became restless and fidgety. He was impatient and eager for the first catch of the day, whereas Saurell enjoyed the serenity and calm of the sea.

Suddenly, there was an abrupt, forceful tug on Saurell's line. His muscles were strained as he immediately pulled the rod back to sink the hook before reeling in the catch. The line became taut, then slack. The hook had slipped.

Jones laughed, "Almost!" but Saurell knew that whatever nibbled at his line was no ordinary fish, though he was uncertain what it may be.

The water around the boat started to swirl and bubble. Jones gave his own line another wiggle, causing the creature below to snap onto the bait. The thin man yelped with surprise when he himself was nearly yanked overboard, but Saurell was quick to let go of his own gear just in time to catch his fellow fisherman, keeping him out of the water.

The two worked together to reel in the monstrous catch, but it wouldn’t relent.  It pulled them back and forth for hours, towing the boat across the waves as the men aboard worked to capture it, just as determined. Hours went by without much progress being made, line being gained and then lost by either side, over and over again.

Much later, with the sun hanging low in the sky, something parted the water's surface, its thrashing and twisting revealing a pair of scaly wings. A Serdra. It attempted to take to the sky, but the fishing line held strong. A spray of water drenched the two men as the serpent dragged them with it.

Jones' mouth opened in awe and he looked up. "A Serdra! Saurell, are you seeing this!?"

“Of course I’m seeing this!” Saurell responded, his thoughts racing as he sought to decide what to do. They could become famous and wealthy from this catch, but only if they survived. After all, money and fame are of little value to the dead.

The frustrated serpent dove back into the water, resuming the battle with renewed vigour, once again dragging the boat across the waves. Saurell could feel his heart racing, his excitement tempered by reasonable concern while Jones was yelling at the top of his lungs with fervour. Then, the creature attempted its next manoeuvre, diving into the depths of the sea.

Saurell noticed the water rising to meet the railing, "Jones, we need to let it go! It'll take us down with it!"

Jones, though, was too preoccupied to pay attention. "We have to get it, Saurell! This is our first and last chance!"

Turns out, Saurell didn’t need to worry about the boat being pulled down into the watery abyss. They heard a loud snap below their feet and the boat abruptly broke in two, splinters flying everywhere. Letting go of the rod, Saurell and Jones found themselves bobbing along with the wreckage.

Saurell glanced at Jones with a mix of rage and sheer disbelief at the other’s recklessness. He sharply remarked, "I told you!"

Jones' face lit up as he shook his head and grinned. "But Saurell, we almost got a Serdra! Can you believe it?"

Despite the life-threatening situation, Jones' optimism was contagious, and Saurell relented. 

“True. Suppose we’ve landed a good story if nothing else.” 

The two discussed their next steps as they swam for the shore, working out a plan for making their way back. It was hardly the first time they’d wound up stranded someplace.

Osvond & the Vulcanos

A horde of children gathered at the market square of a little village hidden among the many hills of the Triumvirate nation. An entertainer had arrived, and they were eager to hear his tales. The sight of a few dozen innocent eyes eagerly awaiting his show clued him in that his kind was rare in these parts. 

“Tell me, who wants to hear the tale of Osvond the Brave?” he asked the eager crowd with a beaming smile. 

The kids erupted into cheers. The entertainer held his pose, and they quickly hushed one another. That’s when he began in earnest.

“As you all so clearly know, Osvond the Brave, the Kind, was a legend of a man who never fell to the whims of greed, envy, or fear.”

He took a moment to allow for a dramatic pause before continuing.

“Osvond never judged others for their appearance and never flaunted his own. No, his face was always masked by the helm he wore. No bribe could sway him, and no amount of flattery could get to his head. No, he was devoid of such narcissism. A strong man, his true strength lay within his heart.”

With the crowd well and truly hooked, he began recounting the legend’s most well-known adventure—Osvond and the Vulcanos.

“Osvond had set out, as he always would, to bring aid to anyone who might need it. One day, he came upon a group of fearful travellers, their clothes ragged and worn. They begged the warrior to join and protect them. They told him that they’d been beset by the beasts of the wild, rocky plains, suffering injury and loss.”

The entertainer mimicked the pleading motions of the travellers and spoke with a weak, frail tone: “Please, brave sir knight, help us!” He then took up his previous stance and continued in his ordinary voice.

“Our hero halted for a second, glancing cautiously at the travellers. His heart broke for them, for their need was obvious. Osvond agreed to join them, and as they praised him profusely and assured him of a prize, he, in turn, assured them that he had no need of such things.”

“When it came to that night’s rest, Osvond never removed his armour, volunteering to take the first watch so that the weary travellers might rest. In his selflessness, he decided not to wake the man who was supposed to take the next watch, not wishing to interrupt their much-needed sleep. Many hours later than he was supposed to, he did eventually rouse his replacement before he drifted off to the land of dreams.”

“But, when he was awoken by dawn’s light, Osvond found himself alone. Gone were the travellers; gone was his sword.”

A child shouted in anger, and the entertainer slowly nodded with a disappointed expression.

“It was true; they had stolen from Osvond. Frustration burned in his mind, but he soon extinguished such feelings in favour of more productive thoughts. Of course, Osvond could always forge a new sword, but it was still a mighty inconvenience. Besides, he’d quite like to have his favourite weapon back.”

“The armoured man took to the road once more, tracking the group. Having travelled far, Osvond had heard the cries of people in a panic and rushed across broken, rocky ground, swiftly reaching the source of the terrified clamour. There, he found those who had betrayed his trust and goodwill, cornered by a towering beast of flame and winged steel. A Vulcanos had found them, circling the helpless folk with malice burning in its eyes.”

The entertainer used both arms to show the size of the Vulcanos’ maw. The crowd of children gasped, some fearful, others riled up with excitement and wonder.

“And what did Osvond do? Did he leave them to their fate? Did he deem it just and fair recompense for their betrayal? No! He knew that two wrongs never make a right. So instead, armed with nothing but his courage, he called out to the great dragon, issuing a mighty challenge as he charged into battle.”

“Despite its young age, the Vulcanos was ferocious and strong. It took a deep breath, preparing to incinerate the hapless thieves….” He straightened his posture and took a slow, deep breath. Another nervous gasp rippled through the crowd.

“But!” he exclaimed as he released his held breath.” Osvond rushed the beast, grabbed its jaw and, with a mighty heave, pulled it away from the direction of the would-be kindling. The angered drake roared, attempting to shake off our hero, but he held firm!”

“The travellers screamed and took their chance to flee, abandoning Osvond again. However, this time was different; one lingered, turned back and tossed something to our hero. The stolen sword!”

“Osvond released his grip on the Vulcanos and snatched his blade out of the air, immediately setting upon his foe with precise strikes. But, although his armour shielded him from the heat and claws of the beast, his weapon could not pierce the dragon’s scales. The Vulcanos struck back, denting metal and tearing leather, but every time he was knocked down, he got back up!”

The children leaned forward in anticipation as the entertainer fought with an invisible monster, pretending to be hit and striking the air.

“Unable to kill each other, the day passed into night with neither Osvond nor the Vulcanos yielding. Neither would relent, one driven by a burning fury and the other by stoic resolve.”

“Come dawn the next day, the beast spun around, and its muscular tail clubbed Osvond in the chest. It sent him flying across the ground, and the sword slipped from his grip.”

The entertainer dropped his sword to the ground with a clang, and the children yelled in support.

“He gasped for air; his armour smashed in so badly that he could no longer take full breaths. Despite his broken ribs, despite the pain and his exhaustion, Osvond hauled himself back up on his feet. He retrieved his blade and readied himself to resume the fight.”

The storyteller picked up his weapon and fell into a typical battle stance.

“The beast glared at him. Its legs were trembling with fatigue. Osvond’s sword reflected in Vulcanos’ glaring red eyes, and its eyes shone in the cold, battle-hardened steel. The ground around the two had been laid to waste during their battle, the barren rocks charred bare. What would it do next? Would it finally strike him down? Burn him away until nothing but ashes remained?”

He let the question hang in the air, the suspense of the crowd tangible enough that it could nearly be cut with a knife. The square was dead-silent, a silence only broken once he continued.

“The beast focused its gaze on the armoured hero, wounded but unbroken, still standing proud. Then, suddenly, it released a puff of black smoke in frustration and slowly turned. The Vulcanos limped away, too tired to even fly.”

The children cheered, but the entertainer raised one finger to indicate the story still needed to be finished.

“Our injured hero knew better than to celebrate his victory, for he was in dire need of rest and didn’t know what other dangers may lie in wait. He couldn’t stay there. So Osvond slowly made his way onward, coming across a small river, which he followed downstream until he stumbled into a village. The home of the very travellers who had wronged him!” 

“The villagers sang his praises and cared for the wounded warrior, treating his injuries as best they could. The thieves were wracked with guilt, begging Osvond for forgiveness. They offered him coin and what meagre luxuries they could muster, but he declined every offer. He then spoke for all to hear.”

The entertainer puffed out his chest and lowered his voice as far as it could go, his expression the very picture of stoicism.

“Instead of payment, I wish for you to reflect on why you still stand where you are, why you are still able to embrace your loved ones. Pay me not in coin. Pay me not in wares. Instead, repay me through deeds of kindness to those around you, be they family or strangers.”

The kids cheered and applauded enthusiastically. The entertainer bowed as his young audience showered him with praise.

He smiled, “Remember his example, children. Fight not for your own benefit or fame, but for what is right. Even if you have been wronged, do not let pettiness dissuade you from acting justly.”

The youngsters nodded, soaking in the entertainer’s wisdom.

“Who knows, perhaps all of you will grow to be as courageous and kind as Osvond someday?”

There were approving nods from many adults who had come to collect their children. They placed coins in his hat though he’d never asked for any, and the entertainer bowed each time in thanks. Finally, the crowd slowly dispersed, and he gathered his things, hitting the road once again.

He might not be able to fight a Vulcanos, but like Osvond, he was also fighting for a better tomorrow in his own little way. He hoped he’d lit a spark or two that would shine brightly one day.

Abyssal Broth Showdown

I, Lorekeeper Tir Birchir, have indeed travelled far into all corners of Nova Thera.

But on my journeys, I have never encountered a tale as ridiculous as the one 

that I am about to record. Feast your eyes, dear reader, on the nonsense in the pages that follow. For this is the story of the most devastating Abyssal Broth Showdown in Waveborne history, an event so utterly tarnished that it would never again be held in the village of Sharkfin. 

Rumours swelled of this year’s contest hosting a fourth, special judge on the panel next to the original three: the legendary Nina Coral. Such a famed chef’s participation could offer Sharkfin folk a chance to win a coveted recommendation that will change their lives forever. For you see, a spot in the Grand Abyssal Broth Showdown on Seahome could only be gained by those backed by such recommendations. Thus, the people of Sharkfin were struck by feverish excitement due to the esteemed chef’s remarkably important presence in their small village.

Almost the entire village had come out to witness the historic competition. Most predicted Promd Scollop to have the best chance of winning. Though newly arrived at the village, he had taken a job at the local tavern and had quickly learned the fine techniques of Waveborne cuisine. They said Promd had a unique way of handling the right kind of onion-chili mix for the broth.

Others claimed that Bamteor Kelp would win. This was based mostly on Bamteor’s great looks, which always favoured him in almost everything that he did. But few believed in Thyodore Fishbone of the Manta clade, who had yet to succeed with any contributions to the community. The only exception was Thyodore’s mother, his one unwavering supporter, and her reputation was maybe even lower than her son’s. 

Regarding the fourth contestant, none of the villagers had ever tasted Malica Koi’s cooking, and they all doubted that she could cook a broth that tasted like anything else other than water. Malicia was one of the village’s most successful cheats and liars, always scheming and plotting for her own gain and yet she has never been caught. Therefore, Bamteor suspected nothing when Malicia approached him. Her eyes wide, a finger twirling her hair, and soft lips ushering compliments. Bamteor experienced such approaches with a frequency most men envied, and thus simply basked in the attention while turning down her advances. His assumptions, born of hubris, led Bamteor to fail at noticing the girl pouring an entire jar of sea salt into his broth.

 

When Bamteor later tasted his food, he realised with horror that something had gone terribly awry. He cried out in disgust, alerting the judges of sabotage. The first judge, a gaunt old man called Vector Gar, came up to the podium. Bamteor pointed at Thyodore as the most likely perpetrator, but Gar hardly believed him. He shook his head and dismissed his proofless accusations. Of course, this was strictly due to it being in the best interest of the competition, and had nothing to do with Gar having bet a good amount of money on Thyodore to win.

The other two judges quickly sided with Gar, agreeing that without proof this was merely an accident or attempt to cover for a mistake. Nina Coral sat quietly, observing the scene with a sceptical look on her face.

And so, Bamteor’s mind darkened. There was not enough time for him to start over. His suspicions were fixed on Thyodore, the little shrimp of a man whose mother was looking at him like he was a white knight. As Thyodore’s beady eyes locked with Bamteor’s gaze, he smirked, bearing the unmistakable expression of smug satisfaction. Bamteor almost erupted with anger, but instead pretended to focus on saving his dish. His chance for revenge came when Thyodore went to collect more ingredients, leaving his mother in charge of watching the broth. Bamteor had no problem charming her, and while reaching out to put an arm around her shoulder, he seized the opportunity to empty an entire bottle of chili flakes into Thyodore’s dish. A quick stir buried the flakes into the depths of the red liquid. 

When Thyodore returned and tasted his broth, he experienced a violent coughing fit. He sprinted for a barrel of water and, in sheer desperation, stuck his entire head under its surface, emerging some time later, cursing the unknown saboteur for his wicked deeds. 

When Thyodore’s mother awkwardly told of her interaction with Bamteor, Thyodore immediately called for the judge. Up came the second judge: Jessa Bait. She was a small woman with a page haircut. She listened to the man, who was sputtering due to both anger and the lingering chili burn, but she refused to believe anything about this sabotage nonsense. Of course, she did not mention that she too had money on one horse in the race, and I bet you can guess who the handsome devil was.

Thyodore wanted revenge, but there was no point sabotaging Bamteor whose food had already been ruined. To win he would have to ruin the food of the first saboteur. Who would that be? Thyodore studied his contestants before settling on Promd.

And so, when no one was looking, Thyodore hauled out a net of living Shelkers from his bag. He placed the bag of wriggling, crablike mechanoforms just under Promd’s table and opened it. Soon, the Shelkers were running wild in the kitchen. The judges all screamed for the creatures to be caught. In the chaos that followed, no one noticed Thyodore pouring vinegar into Promd’s pot. Just as the last Shelker was captured, Nina Coral blew the final whistle. Time was up. All four contestants plated up and stepped away from their bowls.

And this is why, when the judges tasted the food, they found all four dishes impossible to eat. Bamteor’s broth was all too salty. Thyodore’s too spicy, and Promd’s broth tasted like vinegar! The fourth dish, made by Malicia, was tasteless like water. In the end, water was deemed the best of the worst choices, though the radiating disgust from Nina Coral’s expression left the crowd speechless. That was until one of the judges found the courage to speak up.

“Not so fast!”, said Jessa Bait. “I-I thought I saw Malicia pour salt into poor Bamteor’s food, but wasn’t sure if my eyes deceived me. If Bamteor’s food was indeed sabotaged, then he should be the rightful winner.” 

“Hold on,” called Vector Gar. “Would you look at that? Bamteor’s chili jar is empty, and only one broth was too spicy, and it wasn’t his own! Bamteor must have poured it into Thyodore’s food. Thyodore deserves to be the winner.”

“Stop!”, cried the third judge, the theatre man Jirimi Hook. He loved to be the centre of attention, and walked up in front of the spectators and the other judges, like he was on a stage. 

“Why, oh why, is there an empty vinegar bottle at Thyodore’s table?”, he asked dramatically, waving his hands wildly over his head. “Now, I don’t mind a dash of vinegar in my broth, but this, this is simply far too much! No chef would ever willingly destroy their own work in such a manner. Since he is the only one here not accused of sabotage, then he should be the winner!”

Jirimi Hook’s two colleagues immediately protested, and the entire crowd erupted in a wild debate about who should really win. Vector Gar threw a tomato at Jessa Bait, who in turn threw a mushroom back at Gar, all while Jirimi Hook tried to strangle both of them with a long strand of seaweed. He failed.

In the turbulence, Nina Coral noticed a small paper note falling out of Jirimi Hook’s pocket. She picked it up and read it. She immediately held up a hand, and the room went completely still in a second. No one said a word.

“A receipt for a bet… and belonging to a judge no less”, Nina Coral growled, “and for every rat in the kitchen, there are ten more hiding elsewhere.” Her eyes pierced her three colleagues, who all went red in their faces. With her suspicions confirmed, she drew in her breath before making a historic announcement.

“I hereby declare Sharkfin village to be forever excluded from any official participation in the Abyssal Broth Showdown, from now and for all eternity or until Sharkfin produces a broth so miraculous that it brings the tradition to an end!”

With that, Nina Coral left the stage. The three judges all followed her, trying to make her change her mind. But, Nina Coral could not be swayed. She was as cold as the sea and boarded her boat without uttering another word. She left Sharkfin, never to return. Since then, no chef from Seahome with any sense of self-respect would set foot in Sharkfin. 

To this day, it is still argued amongst the Sharkfin people who really is to blame for the devastating story of the Abyssal Broth Showdown competition in their village. You, who have now read the story, are free to make up your own mind. 

Untying

Martyne’s steps felt lighter than usual as he made his way down the hill, taking the very path he and his dear Velenya had once walked so long ago. The memory of her hit him with full force, as it always did when he walked this path. The sound of the day’s powerful winds rustling through the leaves felt like a mournful dirge to him. 

Martyne tightened his grip on the rope he‘d brought as he tried to control his emotions. He lifted his gaze and tried to be grateful for what he actually had. Nothing lost. Not today. Still, the emptiness plagued him, even after all these years. The apple he had brought remained uneaten, his appetite absent.

“When will this sadness leave me?”, he thought to himself. Velenya had been gone for more than seventeen years, yet the memory of her did not fade, even though nearly everything else had.

Today was his most important day of the year. It was their wedding day, at the very height of the year’s Expression celebrations, a time of creativity, dreams, imagination and hope. Today was the longest day of the year, marking the slow but inevitable advance of autumn and the Exchange. 

There had been a time, way back, where Martyne thought that he had understood the meaning of these traditions. Back when he had someone to share his dreams with, and that someone shared hers with him. Now, only memories remained, and this was his day to honour them. Perhaps later he would attend the children’s Dream Drawing. He wasn’t certain if he’d go, but he’d brought the crayons just in case. If he didn’t end up going, he would likely just spend the entire day by her tree. Only time would tell. 

Martyne glanced at the rope he was holding. It was of the same kind that he had used for the last seventeen years. The sturdy red hemp rope resembled the bright autumn colours that would soon arrive. Velenya had told him where she wished to be buried. She never mentioned where she wanted her memorial tree to grow. She never had the chance, for she was gone too soon. So, Martyne had to choose her resting place, and he could think of no better spot than the place they’d first met.

As Martyne approached her tree, he felt a sense of unease. Something was amiss. At first, he could not determine what it was. As he came closer, he realised there was a person sitting in front of the tree. His heart skipped a beat.

“Velenya?” he whispered as a flicker of hope ignited within him.

He quickly dismissed the thought, realising how ridiculous it was. As much as it pained him, he brushed that spark of hopeful delusion aside, and took stock of the situation, his heart beating loudly in his chest. 

Someone was sitting by the foot of her tree—a young boy. Martyne didn’t recognise him. He didn’t look like a Lifetender, and the broken glider on the forest floor told Martyne that the boy must be one of the Wingfolk.

Something was terribly wrong. The tree did not look like it was supposed to. The ropes of last year’s Expression had been disturbed. Someone had climbed the tree, defiling the ornaments. On some branches, the rope was hanging loose in the wind, like the last dead leaves that clung on even in the cold dark of winter. It was a disaster.

The old man’s eyes fixed on the boy, who looked at him with an expression of surprise, rope in hand. Fury, like one he hadn’t felt since Velenya’s passing, began to well up inside him. The boy had broken a branch off the tree, and Martyne neither knew or cared why he did it. 

“What in Nova Thera’s grace do you think you are doing, boy!?”

The sheer force of the anger in Martyne’s voice caused the child to wince, looking ever so small against the tree’s roots. Rather pitiable, really. Though Martyne had no pity to spend on the one who had so harmed Velenya’s oak. 

He contemplated turning the boy in. Dragging him back to The Tree, handing him over and having him punished. The voices of reason and empathy were muffled, drowned by the overwhelming fury in his veins. Martyne would have him punished alright. He would teach the whelp the meaning of consequences. He clenched his fists, calloused by years of hard toil, and marched toward the boy, the latter timidly stammering words he didn’t care to hear or listen to.

It was at this moment that a voice called out to him, “Stop, Martyne!” He stopped dead in his tracks. He listened for the voice, for it hadn’t been the boy. Martyne looked around and lowered his hands, bewildered by what had just happened. There was nobody else there.

Now trembling, the young boy picked himself up from the dirt and waited nervously, fear evident in his eyes. Martyne was suddenly unsure of how to handle his conflicting emotions, as reason was slowly beginning to chip away at his initial outrage. The moments dragged by at a snail’s pace.

“What is your name?” He tried to soften his voice and relax his stance, but the boy’s fear didn’t ease. Now that he’d calmed down, it pained Martyne to see how he’d frightened the poor lad.

“Rickgart”, the boy finally replied. “Most call me Rick.” 

Silence fell over the clearing. It was empty as usual, with the exception of this scared child. He looked famished, like he hadn’t eaten indays. He was probably lost. The last vestiges of Martyne’s fury wilted away.

“What are you doing here?” Martyne finally broke the silence. It hadn’t occurred to him, but it was strange to see one of their younglings in such a state. “Where are your kin?”

The boy, still afraid, didn’t answer him, but instead said “Forgive me elder, I didn’t mean any harm. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“Nevermind that.” Martyne said, trying to reassure the boy. “I’ll explain in time, but I promise you’re not in danger. I won’t hurt you.”

The boy looked at him and the doubt in his eyes cut at Martyne, though he knew he only had himself to blame. He could hardly fault the lad for distrusting him. 

“Well… I’m… lost, I guess… My glider broke in bad weather, I don’t know where my band is.”

“How long have you been out here?”

“A few days… Maybe five, I’ve lost count.”

The old man was unsure how to proceed. He certainly wasn’t young or spry enough to track down people that could fly. As he stood there pondering the matter, his thoughts were interrupted.

“I know what the Martyne I knew would do.”

It was that voice again, the same one that had snapped him out of his blind rage earlier. This time, it sounded calmer, almost gentle. Soft as a memory and full of grace. The gentle reminder was all he needed to figure out what to do. How to set things right again.

“I’m not going to hurt you”, Martyne reassured him. “Do you know the meaning of these ropes?” he asked, gesturing to the tree and the pieces the boy had taken.

Rick stared at him and shook his head, indicating his ignorance.

Martyne sat down in front of the tree and gestured for Rickgart to join him. When Rickgart came close, he offered him the apple. “Your people are custodians of stories, allow me to share this tree’s story with you.”

The boy hesitantly sat down next to the old man. “Once, there was a woman named Velenya. She and I met here, many years ago. We shared a life together, until one day, when I woke up to a world without her.” 

He paused, putting considerable effort into maintaining his composure.

“I buried her here, along with the acorn that grew into this oak. Every year, I come here to mark the tree with these ropes, as a request that the tree be left alone.”

The boy looked at the rope in his hand, visibly distressed. Martyne put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t you worry, I have already forgiven you.” He then withdrew his hand and continued, “I come here every year to replace the decaying strands, and to reunite with her, in what small way I can. Under normal circumstances, what you have done would be a crime, but I don’t fault you. You didn’t know, you just want to get back to your loved ones.”

Martyne handed Rickgart the brand-new rope he’d brought.

“Take this. Mend your glider.”

“Really?” stammered the boy.

“All I ask is that you remember to treasure those dear to you. One day, they will no longer be there. One day, they will no longer be able to hear how much you love them.”

Rickgart accepted the rope with a respectful bow, and then set to work repairing his broken wings. Martyne watched as the glider was restored to its once-lost glory.

“That should do.” the boy claimed, his tone mostly confident, but that confidence quickly disappeared. “But, I haven’t found any good cliffs here.”

Martyne considered the situation. He was certainly no expert on gliders, so he tried to recall all the stories he’d heard of the Wingfolk over the years, to help him conjure up an idea. Then, he had one.

“Tell me Rickgart, if we had a good wind, would you be able to take off from the crown of Velenya’s oak?”

The boy looked stunned, needing a moment before he could respond. “I… think so. But, can I really?”

Martyne stood up, then hunched down by the tree, hands held together. “You can. Here, I’ll help you. It’s got to be tricky to climb while lugging that glider around.”

Rickgart got up and, with Martyne’s help, climbed the oak with great care, making sure not to break any more of its branches. After a while, he reached the treetop, and made his way towards the edge facing the wind. He strapped the glider to his back, looked down and said a simple but heartfelt “Thank you.” Then, when the moment was right, he leapt into the wind. A mighty gust took hold of him, carrying Rickgart into the sky.

Martyne watched him disappear, then sat down to rest in the shade of Velenya’s tree. He sat in her silent company for hours, listening to the wind as it meandered in different directions and watching the sun wander along its course, until he saw something peculiar in the amber evening sky. A cluster of dots drew closer, gradually descending as they approached. His aged eyes struggled to make out what exactly he was looking at.

Moments later, the answer revealed itself to him—it was a band of Wingfolk and their gliders and, at the very head of the formation, a little boy waving at him. Martyne waved back with a smile, knowing Velenya would’ve been overjoyed to know that her oak had helped save a life and mend a family. A tear welled up in the corner of his eye as Martyne whispered to the oak, “Thank you, my dear Velenya, for bringing out the best in me. You always did.”

Bloop Club

“It’s not fair!”, Hrosse cried.

The young boy slipped out the door and made a break for freedom before his father and older sister could catch him. It was not fair! He did not want to do the dishes. Not again. It was her turn now; he had done them yesterday. Hrosse didn’t care about what she had done instead; he did not want to do the dishes!

Tears welled up in his eyes, but he wiped them away. Composure regained, he moved with steady pace towards the water channel, where he would always meet up with the two twins next door.

Hrosse knew that something was wrong from the minute he got there. Gronn and Frenn, each of them wearing a carved stone bead around their neck. 

“Did you guys …”

He expected the worst while Gronn bore a toothy grin.

“Yep! Our father tied the beads last night, after we brought home… this! We found it on the plain.”

The two brothers stepped aside and behind them was the strangest thing Hrosse had ever seen. A Bloop! Hrosse stared at it. He had never seen one before. The Bloop was a floating blob of green, and above its head, a stunning, shining light was giving it a grace that had Hrosse just as green with envy. It was floating joyfully back and forth between the brothers.

“We have formed the Bloop Club”, Frenn proclaimed proudly. “Only true spiritmasters with a Bloop can join!” He stared mockingly at Hrosse, “Where’s yours?”

“I don’t want to be in your stupid club!”, Hrosse shouted, his previous anger flaring up again. “Bloops are … stupid!” 

Gronn and Frenn laughed. “Sorry, we have a Bloop Club meeting now. Gotta go!” 

The twins walked out of sight, cackling the entire time.

Hrosse was left all alone. He sat down on the ground, fuming and yet sad.

The appearance of a looming shadow reminded Hrosse he was still on the run from his responsibilities. The sight of his father caused a brief moment of panic but when his father spoke, there was no hint of anger, or even annoyance.

“Hrosse”, he began. “Life is seldom easy. It constantly throws tasks at us that we might not want to do, but we have to. Discipline lets you tackle those things, so you can be free to do what you want to. By making you do chores and such, I’m trying my best to make sure you’ll be ready for the big things that’ll come when you’re older.”

“Yeah but… Why do I have to do the dishes again? I did them yesterday,” Hrosse grumbled. 

“She’s off to help grandpa and grandma today. So, even though you did the dishes yesterday, it would be unfair to make her do them on top of helping your grandparents, don’t you think?”

In response, Hrosse just grumbled some more. His father stood, gently helping Hrosse up to his feet. “You’ll understand when you have to take care of something, or someone, other than yourself. Come on now, let’s go home.”

The next day, Hrosse got up early and went out to the ashen plains, towards the glacier south of Rings of Cinder, determined to find a Bloop. He had to find one, and form a bond with it. He had to prove that he could do it, to prove that he wasn’t just some good-for-nothing little kid. Prove that he could totally take care of stuff and things other than the stupid dishes. Not to mention that he had to show Gronn and Fenn that what they had to do together, he could do by himself. He didn’t really have a plan, he just aimed for a random spot along the glacial wall, and walked towards it. The first few hours were surprisingly boring.

Then suddenly, the clear day was overcome by a snowstorm, the blizzard seemingly appearing from thin air. Buffeted by the powerful winds and feeling the snowflakes stinging his skin, he stumbled towards a large pile of stones. He moved some, making as good of a makeshift shelter as he could. He curled up within it, all the while shouting for help. For his dad. The only reply was the eerie, sharp shriek of the blizzard around him. 

He cried out for his father again but still, no one came. He realised he might never make it home again.

He thought about his family. How silly he had been last night to run away from his chores. Why did it matter what Frenn and Gronn had? How could he care more about what those bullies thought than helping his own sister? He would give anything to be at home now, doing the dishes instead of huddling among the rocks and snow. Visions of being buried beneath a featureless blanket of ice frightened him.

“You were right, father.” he mumbled, shivering in the cold. He shed a tear. “I’m sorry I wouldn’t do my chores. I’m sorry I was such a bad kid.” Exhausted from having walked so far and moving such heavy rocks and the situation he was in, he slowly drifted into unconsciousness.

When Hrosse eventually reopened his eyes, the storm had ceased. He poked his head out from among the rocks. The clouds had parted, the cold winds replaced with the gentle warmth of the afternoon sun. But, he noticed something moving out there—robed spirits, playing in the fresh snow.

“Tevun!”, they called, voices like laughter. “Tevun!” 

Hrosse suddenly remembered his father telling him about Sharmen. They were spirits of the dead, he had said. Spirits that would occasionally guide the living onto new paths. Hrosse found them unnerving, their glowing eyes shining within the lifeless sockets of the skulls they seemed to wear. 

Despite his misgivings, Hrosse couldn’t help his curiosity. The pack of Sharmen gathered around something else among the ash and snow. It was a creature, of the same green goo as the Bloop that Gronn and Frenn had bonded with. But this one was clearly different. This one looked larger, had a larger body with a larger halo. And it had wings! The Sharmen turned to face Hrosse, staring at him. In unison, they beckoned him to approach. The winged Bloop looked at him too, waiting to see what he’d do. This had to mean something, but what?

Hrosse approached, trying his best to hide the fact that he was so nervous that he was shaking. He stood up straight and tried to walk with confidence. He forced himself to walk right up to the glowing blob, and introduced himself.

“Hi! I’m Hrosse will you… be my friend?” Hrosse asked as he extended his hand as one would for a handshake.

The Sharmen all took a step back, and by the time that Hrosse noticed they were no longer in view, they’d all disappeared without even leaving tracks in the snow. However, the winged blob remained. It looked at him, as if it was evaluating his offer of friendship, or perhaps evaluating him. After some time, it put one of its tiny hands in Hrosse’s, smiling at the boy as the boy smiled back, unable to contain his excitement.

“You’re the best! Do you have a name? Or do I come up with one? Anyway, let’s go home!”

Their walk home took a bit longer than expected, as the two played around in the snow along the way. As they approached the Rings of Cinder, Hrosse thought about all that had happened in the last day. He decided that no, he didn’t care about what the brothers thought or about showing them that he was just as cool. He had a real friend now. 

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard a familiar voice shouting “Hrosse!”. The boy spun around, and saw his father running towards him. He was expecting to get yelled at, but he didn’t run away. Instead, he ran towards his dad.

But, instead of yelling at him, his snow-covered father hoisted him up into the biggest of hugs. “Thank the mountain, I thought I’d lost you! I was following your tracks in the ashes when the blizzard came in and covered them all, I’ve been searching for you all night.” He held his son tight, while the Bloopius decided this was now a group hug and joined in.

“I’ve learned a lot, dad.” Hrosse said. “I’ll tell you everything, and I won’t run away like that again. Promise.”