Stories

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.

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.”