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Growing Pains

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The walls of Malfeas are tall in the distance. Even from here, Keris can see that they’re broken and shattered for once, but there are already new basalt ribs forcing their way out of the ground to take the place of the old ones. The light of Ligier is bright greenness on the horizon.

“Green,” she hears Kuha say behind her in her terribly accented and broken sort-of-Old-Realm. She’s learned a bit from Keris, but it’s not enough to really converse in. “Green! Green... green sun!”

Keris shakes her head, trying to rid herself of the fuzziness. She feels... all loose and liberated and free. And warm. Very, very warm inside. There’s a fire burning within her.

For a moment, she wants to snap at the child-like woman. She’s just gone and ruined the really fun dream Keris was having as she meditated-ran across the desert. The moment passes, though, and her hair ripples as she leaves the last remnants of sleep-fogginess behind - though not the memories of it.

“I will,” she whispers quietly. “I promise.”

Belatedly processing Kuha’s comment, she blinks. Huh. They’re at Malfeas. That... is honestly a little alarming. She hadn’t thought she’d sleep that long. If that dream had been sleep at all. Tilting her head and bringing the veil of hair that Kuha is nestled in around beside her, she glances over.

“Are you alright?” she calls, over the distant but already audible clamour of the Demon City. “Sorry; I was... meditating.”

Kuha pauses as she listens to her peronelle. She seems to want to learn Keris’ language though, bless her, so at least she’s trying to speak it. ‘Meditating’, however, is quite a bit beyond her. “Ah. I see,” she says. “How do it when you run?”

“Gift of gods,” Keris tells her - not quite true, but close enough. “Like how I run so fast, and Testolagh’s fires.”

“Ah.” There is a pause. “Are we there yet, Kerishyra?”

“Nearly!” Keris replies. “We go to the green light. Should be a few hours. Try and sleep; I’ll wake you when we’re there.” Honestly, Keris thinks. ‘Are we there yet’ comments are more the sort of thing she’d expect from the child Kuha looks like than a grown woman. More like...

“Mama!”

... ah. Whoops.

“Mama! Mama mama mama!” Rathan babbles. “You said you were going to play with us, mama! And you didn’t come! And then you weren’t there for ages and ages, like...”

“Like when you weren’t there when the mean man made you go away!” Haneyl interrupts, and yelps as Rathan - from the sound of it - splashes her for interrupting.

Echo shakes her head as they descend into bickering, and gestures that it wasn’t exactly like that, because they could hear Keris was still there, they just couldn’t find her! It was like she was hiding! Which was really mean!

“It was somewhat alarming, child,” Dulmea puts in, as Keris groans and lets her head fall forwards to knock into the hilt of Wyldeater. Which, she notices, still hasn’t stopped burning with multicoloured fire, even after five days.

“It was a... a weird dream,” she explains. “I think. I’m not sure, exactly. It was important, though.”

Dulmea sighs. “Keris, child,” she says. “I felt the chaos in your souls. The world shook.”

“No it didn’t!” Haneyl protests.

“It did. And the fire within you burns brighter.”

“Brighter?” Keris frowns, closing her eyes and listening to the hum of her own essence. It does feel... different, maybe? It’s hard to tell without a point of comparison - and she’s usually comparing other things to herself, not the other way around. She glances at Kuha again, measuring the owlrider with green-glinting eyes. She feels even weaker and more pathetic than usual.

“... like in Matasque,” Keris murmurs. “Do you remember, Dulmea? When I... uh. Well. When the winds grew stronger within me.”

She’s coming up on the edge of the city now, she realises - not the populated bits yet, but she’s starting to pass sand-drowned brass walls and broken chunks of basalt arch.

“I remember,” Dulmea says, and sighs. “So we must take your acquaintance back to your apartment in the City, and then make our delivery to the Lord Ligier.”

That’s easy enough, and Keris speeds into the City with a casual lope, seeking out a Ligerian bridge as she mulls over her dream. Is this what Yamal had meant? This growth in power?

It takes a while to find a way across the layers, but the lightbridge attendants recognise her when she does. The burning pyre that is Wyldeater further convinces them to speed her on her way, and soon the layers are whipping past as Kuha gasps in awe and terror.

Keris stops at the Conventicle just long enough to deposit her at her townhouse. Ligier’s attendants have probably already informed him of her return, so she gives only the briefest of instructions to make her comfortable before heading on to the innermost layer. Ligier appears to have stationed his servants to await her, and the snake-neomah she saw before escorts her directly to the light bridge across the layer.

“How goes it with you?” the strange demon asks.

Keris swings the tetsubo off her back and gestures at it. She can hear the wails of the raksha trapped within, and taste the mix of Pyrian and Wyld essence in the light it gives off; bathing the area in a maddened rainbow.

“Fairly well,” she says dryly. “My trip was a success, that’s for sure.”

The demon smiles widely, golden venom sparkling on her fangs. “Lord Ligier will be pleased. Thank you, peer Dulmeadohkt. He has been... ill at ease due to the war with the Blood Red Moon. Some good news like this may cheer him up.”

“... here’s hoping,” Keris mutters, wincing at the memory of Ligier’s dour glare a month prior. She’s definitely in favour of him being cheerful, rather than the alternative. Plus, it means she’s more likely to get her ship. And oh, does she want her ship.

Lord Ligier is busy and not to be disturbed when she arrives. On the plus side, however, his house staff show her to an apartment within one of the shining towers - the ones which make Nexus’ apartments look like dross.

“The Lord Ligier has put this apartment aside for you,” the jade-skinned automaton says mechanically. “I am here to serve you in any way whatsoever.”

“Nngh,” Keris contributes helpfully, staring around at the apartment. After a few moments of drinking it in, she shakes herself out of the daze and takes stock.

“Okay, um... food? Food first, and then...”

She ponders for a moment. She’s not really tired; not after a five-day nap. And while continuing some of the activities from her dream sounds appealing... well, she’d been mostly sated when Kuha had woken her. And she’s not sure she wants to carry on with anyone she doesn’t have feelings for. Not while the memories are still fresh and her skin is still tingling.

“... can you show me to my ship, after I’ve eaten?” she asks instead. “Just to see how it’s doing.”

“I am afraid I cannot,” the automaton says. “It is within Lord Ligier’s personal workshops, and none are allowed there without his personal permission.”

She pouts. “Food first, then. And afterward, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the lesser workshops on the layer. I’ve been meaning to pick up some children’s toys to give as gifts.”

“Of course, my lady,” the jade-skinned automaton says. “What would you wish to eat?”

Here, Keris is on much firmer ground. “Apples, meat, sweet things and delicacies,” she says confidently. ‘And yes, Haneyl, I’ll pass some to you,’ she adds inwardly.

The food is, of course, excellent. Keris dines at a crystal table, looking out across the shining expanse of Ligier’s level. The light of the green sun up here is warm and soft and delicate, more like leaves than the burning brightness in the wastes.

Haneyl is delighted, and only more delighted when she is shown to one of the lesser factory-workshops of the Green Sun. Keris marvels at the genius which has gone into it. This is not like Nexus. Instead, within a vast hollow space lenses focus the light of the sun overhead into great smelters. There are thousands of demons in here, and they have been cunningly fused with the machinery. There is one that hammers away, its massively overdeveloped arm in contrast to the atrophied arm. There is one that reaches in with glass hands and stirs molten metal. This place, her guide says, makes fripperies which are traded to other lords or gifted freely to the masses in some of Ligier’s celebrations of his own self.

Mass production isn’t quite the kind of craftsmanship Keris prefers, but she’s still entranced as she tours the place, taking notes on the cleverest of innovations and selecting a number of small products - games, toys and little ornaments - to take back with her. Rathan and Haneyl are both delighted, though Echo seems to lose interest in her whirling, chiming ball after chasing it around the Ruin for ten minutes or so; leaving it to the mob of excited szelkeruby. Haneyl seems split between running to take Echo’s abandoned toy and the fear that Rathan might take hers. Even Dulmea seems pleased with her little ticking globe-thing.

Overall, Keris is very happy with her outing, and returns to her rooms feeling pleased with herself. She occupies herself with some stretching for a while, and - when a summons from Ligier fails to materialise in the ten minutes or so that takes - falls into her reliable standby of melee forms.

Working on alchemy for a month and then using Wyldeater has put her a little out of practice, and moving through the forms and stances of Friagem Serpent and Snake Style is a pleasant and mostly mindless task that allows her mind to drift a little as she varies her speed - sometimes across the room with bone-cracking force, other times drifting through a spear form at glacial speed; muscles burning to make every tiny movement perfect. Ligier’s invite arrives after she’s had time to get nice and limber, and she’s swiftly shown through to his personal chambers.

Ligier himself is... almost entirely unclad, and is currently being oiled up and then scraped clean by servants. And he has worked up an elegant lather which just manages to make him look even more dashing. And from the smudges of soot on his face that just accentuate his cheekbones, he’s been working at his forge.

He is totally doing it just so he can show off how dashingly handsome he is, Keris vaguely considers in the parts of her brain that are not more occupied contemplating his physique.

“Ah, little Keris,” he says idly. “I see you have returned. And with such a bountiful harvest, too.”

Her cheeks flush as the double-meaning occurs to her... but no. No, he can’t know about that. And even if he can tell she’s stronger now, he wouldn’t know about the dream. He’s just talking about Wyldeater. It’s fine.

“Y-yes, my lord,” she stutters, and okay, she needs to look elsewhere or... or close her eyes, or something, because his physique is not doing her thoughts any favours.

... well, not any favours that are helpful for... talking, or thinking in straight lines that don’t loop back to oil and muscle and okay, perhaps she isn’t quite as sated from the dream as she had thought.

She compromises - with effort - on bowing her head to look at the floor instead of Ligier, and holding Wyldeater out with her hair. “The Wyld zone is destroyed, and all but a few of the raksha fell to your Wyldeater, my lord. She is a magnificent weapon.”

((S-stupid sexy Ligier))

He makes a vague harrumph, as if offended by her bad taste. “She is adequate, nothing more.” Still, he steps closer to take Wyldeater from her. This close, she can feel the heat radiating off him, and smell the scented oils that are evaporating from his skin.

Surprisingly, Rathan is also making admiring noises about how cool Ligier is and how everyone loves him and how his hair is also red and that’s great. Some of those noises even outweigh Haneyl’s gleeful keening. Keris herself makes a concerted effort not to swoon, and searches for a topic of conversation that won’t anger him like the war most likely would. “Do, ah... do you have any plans for what you will make with them, my lord?” she tries.

“Many, many plans,” he says effusively. “This... will not be enough for all of them.” She shrinks slightly, half-ashamed and half-afraid. “There will never be enough,” he says, sadly. “Not without my freedom.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, and means it. Despite her conclusions about the Unquestionable... it’s difficult - if not impossible - not to be drawn in by their charisma and presence when she’s so close to them.

“But still, this is a source that I have not had for thousands of years,” Ligier says, suddenly gleeful again. He whirls, his servants scattering around him and sweeps Keris up, planting a kiss on her forehead right on the caste mark. “With this, I shall work wonders!” he announces, as he spins her around and deposits her back down, striding to one of the great crystal windows. “Yes! Truly magnificent wonders!”

Sitting stunned for a moment, Keris takes a moment to settle trembling limbs, and finds herself grinning. “I’m glad it pleases you, lord. If you mean to begin at once, could I ask to see my ship while you work? I’m eager to see her rebuilt.”

Ligier clasps his hands together and turns back to Keris. “Indeed, that is one of the wonders I shall use some of that bounty on!” he declares, caught up in his mad glee. “Let us go inspect it together!”

((Awww yeah~))
((He will listen to Keris’ ideas, consider them, and then probably do something which at least takes them as a starting off point, so detailing that is all up to you.))

Keris doesn’t so much follow him as much as she’s dragged along in his wake. En-route, she manages to explain the few ideas she’s had - turning the large ballroom to serve double-duty as a cargo hold, adding a spike or ram to the front that she can use to take advantage of the First Age hull when fighting other ships, and a rather shamefaced reiteration of her naive idea to aspect the elemental fuels to her souls. He hums and nods along, though she can’t tell if he approves or if his mind is more on other things.

Her eyes widen when she sees where he has her ship stored. It’s inside a giant... a giant brass egg, that’s the only word she has for it. A giant brass egg that’s shined to a mirror sheen, inside and out. It hurts a little bit to see her vessel floating in the middle, partially gutted and with large sections of hull peeled away, but Ligier says that it’s all necessary due to the long neglect and the internal conflict within it. According to him, there’s wyld-scarring all along the hull from where the Balorian Crusade swept through Creation.

All too soon, though, she feels that he wants to do other things and she’d rather not risk annoying him. With an honour guard, she heads back to the Conventicle.

“Bring this as a gift to my lady,” Ligier says, with a graceful inclination of his head to Keris. He passes her a little brass box inset with emeralds. “One of your little faeries, trapped within a box of my design. Tell her I am delighted to see what she makes of it.”

“I will,” she promises - though she does cock an ear to the thing on the way back, listening for the power of the raksha trapped within it. She can hear the weak little wyld creature screaming within. A minor one then, she thinks. Apparently Ligier wants to keep the giants for his own use.

((Wyld aspected, Enlightenment 3))

Finding Lilunu in the Conventicle is both harder and easier than it sounds. In the very unhelpful sense, it’s easy. If you’re in the Conventicle, you’ve found her! Unfortunately, this is not helpful if you want to actually give her something, and her avatar has a tendency to wander the streets of her city-neighbourhood. Thankfully, Keris can follow her honour guard this time, who seem to know where they’re going. It is within the great gardens of the Conventicle, filled with plants from across the Demon Realm and Creation that Keris finds her. Dressed in a simple white robe, Lilunu sits in front of an emerald pagoda, where demons pose in a dramatic fight scene. She’s painting the scene on a great slab made of Malfean porcelain with paint she’s mixing herself. Every shade she’s using is either red or green, but there’s a thousand subtle nuances in the fractionally different tones.

Keris considers herself a good artist - a very, very good one, at times. She’s... not this good, though. The way Lilunu is using colour and stroke to bring the scene to life in front of her is every bit as beautiful as the wondrous works of craft in Ligier’s workshops. She recognises the style. Or, rather, she’s seen things which are not... dissimilar. It reminds her of some of the painted china workpieces she stole when she also stole the entire Dragonblooded summerhome. It’s not identical, but the same style of painting onto china using a very limited range of colours is something that the Realm’s artists seem to like doing.

“Honoured Lilunu?” she asks tentatively, waiting until the Unquestionable is between mixing and painting so as not to disturb her work. She’s fairly sure Lilunu knows she’s there, but she’d rather stab herself in the foot than risk spoiling the painting. It would probably be easier to fix.

Lilunu turns, and smiles widely at Keris. There’s a little bit of Keris that is quite glad that it isn’t that wide and Metagaos isn’t wearing her. “Oh, Keris,” she says. “It is so nice to see you.” She gestures for Keris to approach her.

“It’s good to see you too,” says Keris, blushing faintly as she approaches. Lilunu’s beauty isn’t the almost hammer-like force of Ligier’s, but in some ways it’s the more compelling of the two; inviting and with the fine features that remind her of Sasi.

... she should really ask about that, someday. But not right now.

“Lord Ligier asked me to give you this gift,” she starts, offering the emerald-studded box. “One of the raksha I collected for him on my latest mission to Creation. He’s eager to see what you make of it.”

Lilunu inclines her head, and accepts the gift. “I see you managed to satisfactorily carry a small box,” she says teasingly. “I shall praise you to Ligier for your skills in carrying boxes.”

Keris pouts. “I carried hundreds of fae across the Desert,” she objects. “Well, sort of. Ligier let me use a tetsubo that devoured them - but I was still the one who fought them all with it!”

She stops herself before she can start a full recounting of her mission and nods at the painting. “It’s beautiful,” she adds. “I still need to practice my painting - I’m best with music or silverwork, really. Can I stay and watch you work?”

“Of course,” Lilunu says warmly. She tilts her head, as her hair reshapes itself and twists, becoming momentarily black and oily before the oil sheds. “I would be pleased if you were to play, if your music is as good as you say.”

Shyly, Keris considers the scene, sorts through her mental library and puts her all into playing. She can see the structure of the fight from the way it’s been set up. Neither side is close to victory yet, and she weaves a treble melody of uncertainty and tension around a bass battle-hymn.

((So, roll it. Make sure you impress her))
((3+5+3 Time-Strung Harpist+2 stunt+8 Adorjan ExD {crucible of tragedy, catastrophe and calamity, bad things happen, inspire heroes, greatness}=21. 9 sux. Pretty damn good, then.))

Lilunu hums happily to herself as she paints to the sound of Keris picking out music from the strands of time. Keris gets to watch the flux in her features and the way that for all her power and her demonic nature, she seems to be genuinely happy to just sit here and paint. Perhaps even the demon princes have their hobbies.

She talks with Keris, too. It’s no great portentous discussion, and there’s not the edge of danger that every word with Ligier or the Shashalme has. She seems genuinely interested in Creation, and soon has Keris talking about the sights she’s seen in An Teng and the Tengese manner of silverworking.

After a few hours as best Keris can tell it, Lilunu is finished. Her white robe is splattered with paint and her fingers are messy, but the artwork itself is done.

((It is a 12 success artwork. It is indeed, incredibly beautiful.))

“Do you like it?” Lilunu asks.

“It’s gorgeous.” The only work of art Keris can think of that she’s made to match it is the silver relief of Pekhijira she made on the floor of Sasi’s cellar... Makers, was that really more than two seasons ago? “I think I’ve seen the style before, but nowhere near as well-done as this.” She grins up at the taller woman. “Do you think I could learn?”

“No doubt,” Lilunu says casually. “All arts are similar.” There’s something else on her mind, though. “Do you think it would look good within your townhouse?” she asks idly.

Eyes widening, Keris nods. “I can think of... at least three places it would go wonderfully!” she enthuses. Her armoury, for a start. Or... ooo, one of the practice rooms! It would suit her favourite training hall... or perhaps even one of the buildings within her soul!

... of course, that last one might be a little tricky to explain. Keris bites her lip, wondering if she can risk letting Lilunu in on that particular secret. She’s not as intimidating as the other Unquestionable, and she knows something about how Keris is budding souls already... but on the other hand, might she tell Ligier?

“Then please - it’s yours,” Lilunu says. “Find a place within your townhouse for it that does not break the existing aesthetics.” She stares for a moment across the beauty of the Conventricle - its fine arches, its graceful curves, the towering spires at the centre and the sprawling estaes around it. “I love such things,” she says. “I can at least make my own flesh into something beautiful. Would that I could make the whole Demon Realm like this - and Creation too.”

Choosing discretion as the better part of valour - she hasn’t let the secret of her inner world slip yet, and things seem to be working that way - Keris bows deeply. “I’m grateful. Um... if you’d like, you could visit at some point and I could show you? And we could talk some more?”

((Heh. The funny thing about the Enlightenment system is that the Third Circles are only marginally more powerful than the Infernals at this point, so it sort of fits that the relationship is almost more like elder DB to young DB in some ways))

Lilunu smiles. “I can’t be too long, but I can certainly take some tea with you, if you wish,” she says. She reaches out and brushes away a lock of stray hair from Keris’ face. “I notice you have come into more of your power,” she says, her ever-changing eyes alien and hard to read. Naturally, this brings up a flood of memories of how, exactly, she came into it. Keris turns crimson. “I... um... yes,” she manages. “While I was crossing the Desert. After I...”

The blush fades as she tilts her head, considering. “... moved on, I suppose,” she says after a moment’s thought. “Found some answers that I needed.”

“How interesting,” Lilunu says affably. “So many of you find your own paths to growth. Some wander out into the Endless Desert to get away from all distractions. Some stoke the light of your souls to full and fight for days on end in the abattoir-arenas. Some dance in the rain of Hegra and open your minds to remove human limits. And you seem to have found your own way.”

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” Keris admits. “Dulmea was the first one who realised what... oh!” She snaps her fingers. “Something else happened - on my way to Creation a month ago.”

She fingers the scar along her jawline ruefully. “I learned one of the gifts of the Silent Wind - the way she splits off lesser Gales. But when I created one, it... well, she mostly just screamed. I had to reabsorb her - she didn’t have Dulmea within her. She was just... empty inside, and couldn’t handle it. Are we... meant to have coadjutors? Do we not work without them? The memories from my Gale... it was horrible hearing her gone.”

Lilunu frowns. “You are not the first to learn such a thing from the Silent Wind,” she says, thoughtfully as the two of them walk back to Keris’ townhouse, servants carrying the painted china behind them. “None of the others had that problem. How strange.”

“Dulmea and I are close,” Keris muses. “Closer than Sasi is with hers. Far closer than Testolagh and his. Maybe that’s why.”

“Interesting. I wouldn’t mind seeing that,” Lilunu says. “Perhaps how you feel is how one of us - the Unquestionable - feel should one of our souls die. There is a gaping void within us, the feeling of being utterly unable to express that which it is. It is a dreadful feeling, made worse by the memory of being able to do such a thing and no longer being able to express that which you miss.”

Keris tries to picture Echo or Rathan or Haneyl dying; no longer being there. She... well, she can. That’s what’s terrifying. She can, because for a few moments, her Gale had experienced exactly that. She shudders. “I’d rather not feel that again,” she says with feeling. “Ever. I’ll have to find... some way around it. Somehow. A way for them to carry Dulmea with them, at least.”

Lilunu nods. “That would seem wise,” she says, and then only seems to notice that she’s still splattered with paint. “Oh, bother,” she says. “I am sorry, but I will have to pass on the tea. I need to wash and dress before a visitor of mine arrives. I am dreadfully sorry, Keris.”

Her shoulder droop a little, but Keris musters a smile and a shrug. “Another time, maybe?” she offers. “I have a project that will keep me occupied on the sixteenth layer until it suits you.”

“I would be more than pleased to,” Lilunu says, smiling. “I enjoyed our talk today, and you play well. The times when my princes and princesses tell me of Creation and the things they see keep me entertained for many screams.”

“I’m always happy to regale you, my lady,” Keris smiles as they part ways. “Until next time!”

Bouncing into her townhouse in a very good mood, it’s not long before she finds Mehuni. She’s still not sure how her adjutant always contrives to be nearby when she arrives home, but she’s not complaining about it.

“Mehuni! Good to see you!” she chirps. “I have some free time between missions, and I want to spend it at the Nests on a project. See if I can get the birds to help me instead of just obeying. Can you arrange transport for me and Kuha?”

“As you wish, my lady,” the shadowy butler says, bowing sinuously. “I should be able to arrange this some time past the next scream, if you would be fine to fly by agata-canopy.”

She winces. “Something quieter than agatae?” she asks. “Actually, never mind. I can summon a quiet steed for myself at the next sunset-scream... hmm. No real shelter there, though. Okay, Kuha and I will be there for a while. So instead of transport; send the agatae with supplies for a month or so. They can follow us - we’ll be fine for a few screams - but she at least will need food and sleep and so on.” She waves a hand vaguely. “You know the sort of thing.”

“As you wish, my lady, so it shall be done.” He coughs into one shadow hand. “I have put her in one of the guest bedrooms. She is slightly more civilised than your other guests were when they first arrived, and seems more tolerant of non-humans. Shall I prepare long term residence for her?”

“Probably not. You noticed the way she’s ill? I’m working on a treatment as part of a deal with Testolagh - I need the Nests to get the alchemy right. Once I’ve perfected it, I’ll take her back home. If she does stay with me, she’ll come back to Creation and An Teng.”

“Very well, milady. I will have two months of supplies sent to you, should it last longer.”

“Thank you, Mehuni. Efficient as ever.” She grins at him happily. “Oh! And have my lovely new painting set up in my favourite training hall. It was painted by Unquestionable Lilunu herself,” she confides proudly.

“Then I will be very careful to ensure that it is well placed,” he says.

Kuha is looking at the clothes that have been provided to her with a mix of disdain, confusion and contempt when Keris finds her. She doesn’t really seem to understand silk. Or anything that isn’t made of animal or feathers. She’s keeping her blanket wrapped around her since the servants have taken her furs.

“Hold on...” Keris tells her. “Let me... here.” She has an impressive wardrobe in her Domain - partly due to her habit of taking the empty clothes left behind by her kills - and it’s not too difficult to find something that’s both higher-quality than Kuha’s original crude furs while also being warm enough to suit her tastes. The coat is a little big on her, but that mostly just means that she has more to wrap herself up in.

“Thank you,” Kuha says with relief. “This place. Big strange than Testolaghsyra’s black stone caves.”

Keris nods. “We are princes here,” she explains; picking her words carefully. “We bring... many gifts to Creation. Rule there. Two screams from now, we go to a place of mine and start work on helping you again. Yes?”

Kuha purses her lips, clearly trying to put things together in her mind. “Kerishyra,” she says hesitantly. “I... I want owl. It... I am owl girl fly. It not right to be on ground so long when not hurt.”

Keris purses her lips. “Does it need to be owl?” she asks. “Pretty wasp? Or my ribbon horse? Do you need to ride owls, or just to fly?”

She clearly thinks about it. “If ground, then hurt or sick or soon dead,” she concludes. “If air, then not hurt. So owl not as big for this as air.”

“Then yes, you can fly,” Keris smiles. “Once we get there. It’ll help me test some of the things I’ll be trying, anyway. I need to be sure not to make you too heavy.”

Carefully, gingerly, as if she was as breakable as Lilunu’s artwork, she reaches out and hugs Keris with tears in her eyes. She’s saying soft, quiet intense things in her own language, and there’s tears in her eyes that can only be happiness. Eventually, she gasps out, “If no Kerishyra, then Kuha dead many days ago. If no Kerishyra in not yet days, then Kuha be dead in not yet many days. Dead is no Kerishyra.”

While Keris doesn’t quite understand the broken sentences, she gets the general idea. She hugs back - gently, so as not to hurt the fragile woman - and enjoys being, for once, the larger partner in an embrace.

((Oh, Kuha. Much cute.))
((Oh, Keris. The feeling of being the Sasi-height one in the hug))
((it is a strange and intoxicating power))

They set out for the Nests the next day on anyaglo-back - the same white and pink female Keris summoned in the Northwest, who seems happy enough to see her again. Sixteen layers is quite a distance, even for a ribbon-horse, and Kuha dozes off about halfway there, after even the spectacle of the Demon City beneath them becomes a tad repetitive. Keris uses her own nap as a chance to try and resolve a dispute between Haneyl and Rathan by getting them to sit down together and talk it out reasonably. She’s not entirely sure it worked, but at least they’ve stopped being so loud.

The depression and the strange black and white lake of her manse is down below when she wakes. Keris momentarily wonders whether the essence fuel from this manse might be useful for something. What if she tried using it as tattoo-ink, for example? Or painted using it as the solvent? Keris lands them gently on the shores of the island, and slides off her mount as the birds settle around her.

“Hello, Paricehet,” she says. “I’m back. To stay for a while, this time. I have a project.”

YOU ARE BACK, its wings spell out. WHAT DO YOU WANT, DEBTOR OF THE SHALSHAME?

“Two things,” Keris tells them. “Firstly, a place of vitriol-alchemy that can be used for fleshcrafting. And secondly, to talk to you.”

Chapter Text

WE ARE AT YOUR DISPOSAL, the wings spell out.

Kuha’s eyes are wide. No doubt she has no idea what’s going on, because while Keris has been dabbling in teaching her to read, it’s slow going when she can’t even speak Old Realm well enough to really understand the concept of reading. At least Keris knew that people could read markings when she lived on the streets. The owlrider clans are entirely illiterate.

“Pretty birds,” Kuha blurts out.

“A... hmm,” Keris begins, and pauses, trying to work out how to explain it to her. “A spirit,” she compromises on. “All one mind, many bodies. Speaks with words. Guards this place.”

She turns back to Paricehet. “You guard this place,” she repeats. “And you’re at my disposal, but you’re not forced to obey me, and you’re not forced to help me. Right? All you’re bound to do is stay here and keep your nests safe.”

YES, the wings spell out. THIS IS THE TORTURE THE UNQUESTIONABLE INFLICTED ON US WHEN THEY CUT US APART AND PLUCKED OUR FEATHERS AND TOOK SO MUCH OF WHAT WE KNEW.

Keris winces. “I’m sorry,” she says. Callous cruelty indeed. “I can’t change that, I don’t think. I don’t know enough to free you. And...” she bites her lip. “Not to offend, but I don’t think I’d be willing to make enemies of the Unquestionable even if I did. So. I can’t do that. But I might be able to do other things, if I can. I don’t need you to help me, but I’d like you to. And I’m willing to help you in turn. What else do you desire, besides being freed?”

One of the birds lands in front of her. It tilts its head, staring at her for a moment before taking off again, lost swiftly among the others. And then there’s a vast clattering overhead. Keris winces as seemingly the whole flock appears to stare at her.

BRING US DEMONS, the entire flock spells out. WE HAVE GONE SO LONG, FEEDING OFF THE SCRAPS OF THE FOOLS WHO TRY TO STEAL FROM THAT WHICH WE GUARD. BRING US MORE DEMONS AND WE SHALL DEVOUR THEIR TONGUES AND GIVE THEIR BLOOD TO OUR MOTHER AND USE THEIR FLESH AND BONES TO MAKE WONDERS.

Keris is quiet for a while, considering that. At first glance, she doesn’t especially like the idea of feeding demons like Haneyl’s horses or Echo’s little wind-friends to one of her creatures just to win it’s loyalty. But then... Dulmea’s angyals need to eat. Some demons have to prey on others, it’s how they are. Is it their fault?

“Mama,” Rathan points out patiently. “You’re being very silly. You just feed them demons you don’t like. Like those ones who tried to catch you and you killed them all and got the pretty sword! Or the fire lady who stopped your slingshot when you were getting my boat! Or... or Hanny’s demons who try and plant things in my sea!”

“Hey!” snaps Haneyl, but Keris is nodding. Malfeas is a big place. There are probably more than enough demons in it who deserve a quick death - and it’d still probably be cleaner than many other ways to die in the Demon Realm.

“Alright,” she tells the flock. “I’ll see to it. I promise.”

WE HAVE BEEN BETRAYED TOO MANY TIMES. OTHER HOLDERS HAVE PROMISED THINGS. THEY FORGET. OR GROW BORED. OR LIE FOR THEIR OWN AMUSEMENT. The birds clatter around, the flock thinning. WE SHALL WAIT AND HOLD OUR OWN COUNCIL.

She nods. “I’ll ask nothing more of you until I’ve shown I mean it,” she says. “Need they be alive, by the way?”

YES. COLD BLOOD IS VILE AND STALE. COLD TONGUES ARE LIKE ASHES.

Well, that makes things a little trickier. Dead demons are a lot easier to transport. Still, she nods again. “I understand. For now, then, I have alchemy to do.” Turning back to Kuha, she motions the woman closer. It appears that the massed gathering of the flock has somewhat unnerved the owlrider.

“It’s alright,” Keris reassures her. “They won’t hurt you. Follow me.”

It’s honestly easier to carry Kuha around here. In its current configuration, there are a lot of steps and whenever she comes to one, she is painfully slow when she eases herself up or down. Carrying her is much faster.

Bearing her down to the hearthroom, Keris holds her in a reassuring hair-sling as she reconfigures the Nests into a place of vitriol-alchemy. Holding the icon in both hands, Keris turns it over and over. It’s still in its silverworking configuration at the moment. It takes some thought and a sudden last-moment flash of genius, but she manages to work out out to twist the icon so it matches the pattern on the wall. “Vitriol alchemy,” she says, almost certain she has the right answer.

The grinding and clicking above tells her that she got it right. The pathway bends and twists like it’s dancing, and once it settles down, she follows it up. The structures here are radically different, and the path leads her up to the top of a tower. From the peak she can see that down below the buildings are flat and low, there are vast bubbling shallow trays of vitriol and fume guzzlers and cages and shorter towers with boiling-plates and focal lenses and... she lets out a happy giggle. This is so much better! It’s like it has everything she needs for alchemy!

Hugging Kuha - who is looking shocked again, and giving very the towers very suspicious looks - Keris starts eagerly pulling out her notes. She got a fair amount of theory work done, but not as much as she’d like. Here, though, she can experiment some more.

Experimentation requires test subjects, and she can’t use Kuha yet, not without killing her. Happily, this is easily solved through Rathan’s advice. A quick trip into the city and a brief bout of wandering through the streets looking like a scared and powerless mortal gets her a nice pile of unconscious volunteers who were willing to commit suicide-by-Exalt. She feeds one to Paricehet as a gesture of good faith, turning away and plugging her ears as the flock descends. There’s not much left afterwards.

The rest of the pile is whittled down... alarmingly quickly, really. With the Nests providing all she needs in terms of proper testing and a gorgeous ship being custom-made for her, Keris’s tower-laboratory is now expendable. She takes full advantage of that, oversaturating her vitriol blends and stressing the ritual components until they break, one by one. The test subjects don’t survive - and Keris herself has to dodge fairly quickly on more than one occasion and burn poisons off with the light of her soul on others - but each catastrophic failure shows her another flaw in the formula. Slowly but surely, she improves.

The lab is a write-off by the end. There are a few surviving beakers, somehow, and the structure is... well, it’s mostly intact, albeit with a few more holes than it started with. But her lovely equipment is so much shattered junk. She sheds a few tears over it. But it was worth it, for what she learned.

After a couple of weeks of testing and only a few minor burns, Keris thinks she has a rough formula prepared. The next phase will be getting it actually working on Kuha and people like her - and without killing them or hurting their frail bodies. Despite that, though, she has a good feeling about this. She made so much more progress, it feels, by getting up close and personal and working her way through those demons she hunted down.

Sasi would probably have sat down for... like, months at a desk, just scribbling away with... with numbers and stuff. Boring!

Kuha doesn’t like Malfeas. She doesn’t like the noise. She doesn’t like the constant green light. And she always make sure to stay close to the nest when she goes out for a ride. Keris keeps her happier by letting Haneyl feed her. Haneyl, for her part, is delighted to have someone to test her recipes on, although Keris has to negotiate a reduction in how spicy Haneyl makes the dishes.

Still, Keris is sitting at a workbench, discarded protective equipment on the ground around her as she writes up her latest finding when she hears the flap of great feathered wings overhead. Something far, far bigger than the guardian of this place is approaching - something big enough to have a fabric-covered tent on its back.

Cocking her head, she scribbles a conclusion to her sentence and tosses the scroll in to Dulmea - she really needs, like, some sort of little demon that can write things down for her and save her having to do it - and trots outside to see who or what has shown up to say hello.

Keeping a safe - which is to say, away from the edge of the crater and where Paricehet would attack - distance away is a great bird. It has black feathers and four wings, and the head and limbs of an ant. There’s a demon with pearly skin standing on its back. They’re clearly male, shunning clothing - and gorgeous, like a living statue made from pearl.

“Peer Keris Dulmeadohkt?” he calls out respectfully. Even at this distance, his clear voice is a little too loud for her liking.

She purses her lips and nods to the gathering flock. “He can land,” she tells them, and beckons him down. “I am she, yes!”

The great ant-bird glides over, and the man leaps down. He carries a coral lance in one hand which bears the banner of the red moon, and now that Keris can see him closer he has graceful moon-like carvings all over him - perhaps the equivalent of tattoos, she considers.

He sinks into a genuflection. “Lady Dulmeadokht,” he says, forehead pressed to the ground. “I would not disturb you, but my mistress, the Unquestionable Ululuya formally requests your presence with utmost speed. She says she has suffered great pain without your presence and that you must attend to her this moment or her heart may break.”

Keris glances back at the Nests. She is at a stopping point, more or less, or at least a point where she needs to do some more planning for a day or so before starting with the next round of testing. Sasi was scared of Ululaya, but... well, not going would probably offend her.

“I will come,” she agrees, for lack of any better option. “Allow me a moment to settle things here, and I’ll come at once.” She trots back into the buildings quickly and finds Kuha.

“I’m going on another quick trip,” she says. “I should be back soon, I think, but if I’m not you can ride the ribbon-horse if you get restless.” She unloads a good week’s worth of food and water from her Domain, just in case she takes a few days to get to wherever Ululaya is, and smiles at the woman. “If I’m going to be longer than a day, I’ll send a messenger to tell you,” she promises. “It should just be a quick trip.”

Heading back out again, she nods to the demon and climbs up onto the ant-bird. “Where are we bound?” she asks. “And what is your name?”

The pearly statueman turns to half-face her. He clicks his tongue and the ant-bird leaps into the air. “My lady,” he says, “I have been granted the name Messenger by my most blessed lady. She has honoured me with this most utterly. I live to bear her messages whither they should go.” He clicks again, and the bird ascends. “Ah, my lady, if I may be impertinent, may I ask something of you?”

“You may.”

“Has my blessed lady ever requested your presence before? Have you ever seen the glories of her heart?”

Keris frowns. “No, not myself. Peer Sasimana has met her, but not while I was with her.”

“Ah.” He lowers his head, and whistles. “My lady misunderstands my meaning.” The ant-bird ascends higher and higher. Heading up, Keris realises, towards the moon - which hangs overhead right now, its phase nothing like anything the moon of Creation. It is as if two crescent moons were back to back, sort of shaped like an X. “I referred to the glories of my lady’s blessed heart.”

“I... oh,” Keris breathes. It... it’s like...

“... it’s like my moon,” says Rathan, apparently unsure of how to take this. “But... not a heart.”

“I... haven’t, no,” Keris manages. “Not this one, anyway.”

((Wait. Dammit. Haneyl idolises the Shashalme (and Ligier). Echo fears the Csend. Calesco will feel scorn for her “elder sibling”.))
((Rathan is going to see Ululaya as taking all of his rightful attention.))

“Well, my lady may wish to cover her eyes. The beauty of her palace has been known to strike the careless blind.” He appears entirely serious.

Keris raises an eyebrow, but... well, it’s not like she strictly needs to see, with her hearing. She compromises, letting her lids fall most of the way so that all she can see is the floor under her feet. At worst, it looks like she’s keeping her gaze lowered demurely.

“Lord Ligier’s rabble have been kept far from this sacred place,” he says conversationally on the final approach. “He is so fond of his toys and his mechanisms. He so often forgets the power of my immaculate lady and her beauty.”

And they rise higher and Keris sees the city that hangs down from the moon. Little pearl moonlets float around the the main body of the moon. It’s beautiful in a entirely different way from Ligier’s level. That’s shining and beautiful and glorious. It’s clearly an act of artifice.

This is beautiful in the way that... Keris swallows. It’s beautiful in the way a woman is beautiful. It’s all curves and delicate pink and scarlet pearl. Keris blushes pinkly. She’s having problems looking away from it.

((The entire moon as Ululuya has Attention Holding Grace when you’re close enough to it. It’s hitting with 8 successes at the moment.))
((Holy wow. Okay, uh... fuck it. Rollin’ Conviction. 3 dice... haha, 2 successes. Lol.))

“... Mama?” Rathan queries, apparently sensing the shift in her attention as her eyes open wider. “Mama! Mama! No! My moon is better, not hers! Pay attention to me, mama, not her! Mama! She’s stealing you! Make her stop it!” His voice is getting shrill near the end, and she can distantly hear the beginnings of a truly torrential downpour out somewhere over the Sea.

Shaking herself, she bites down on the inside of her cheek with her tongue, hard. The pain is enough to snap her out of the fog of beauty, and she realises it’s... well, it’s like Rathan’s hypnotic charm. But stronger. Much, much stronger. She chuckles quietly and in a little fear as she realises how close she came to falling for it.

‘Okay, sweetie, okay,” she soothes inwardly. ‘Well done for warning me. Thank you.’

((Activating BSLD for 5m.))

And then the ant-bird rises up, and Keris realises that the hanging city wasn’t the real purpose of this moon. No, that’s just where the people who exist to adore the Blood Red Moon reside. Above the main body of the moon - which is still vastly larger than the entire world in her soul - floats a thick platelet, made entirely of ice and pearl. There’s a shallow lagoon atop it, and islands of ice float there. There are heartbreakingly beautiful buildings carved into the ice. The water up here is totally still, and Keris sees things moving in its utterly clear depths.

The bird comes spiralling in towards the largest of the islands. It has long sloping flanks which form beaches, and there are fine trees of coral and pearl growing up from it. It’s not rigidly organised in the same way that Ligier’s layer is, but somehow everything is exactly where it looks best. Keris thinks Lilunu’s best work just edges it out, but they’re clearly peers.
Upon one of the beaches, there’s a crowd. Endless hymns emanate from them, songs sung in praise of the lady of this place. Each one, Keris hears, sings purely out of the dedication of their own heart - yet together the adoration is total, each one unknowingly part of the chorus here.

And then she’s landed, and slithering off the ant-bird. The sheer presence of an Unquestionable hits her with perhaps more intensity than she’s ever felt before.

The Blood Red Moon is short in this form - barely taller than Keris herself. The similarities don’t end there, though, because her blood-red hair sprawls down around her, as fine as a veil. She dresses simply, almost... strangely humbly - demon-spider silk, undyed, but there’s a part of Keris which realises with all the love in her heart that that’s because no clothes can ever live up to her aching beauty.

Rathan’s wail reminds Keris to focus. Just being in Ululuya’s presence is like a hammer blow to her senses. It’s like she’s drunk.

“Keris,” the Blood Red Moon says. Her voice is warm and honey-soft and beautiful. “I was so unhappy that you weren’t here!” She smiles widely. “But now you’re here! It’s like everything is better! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

((Now you’re in her direct presence, she’s also hitting Keris with MOE, 15 successes on Beauty over Truth, and she has at the moment 9 successes active on Carmine Mantled Emissary.))
((hahaha, what the fuck))
((yikes))
((She walks around with those on, excellency boosts her activation rolls, and has high Enlightenment.))
((So... can’t attack her, everything she does is justified, can’t remember any way she wronged or offended her.))
((Well, Keris has a social defence, but yes, that’s what an social-specced Unquestionable does.))
((Also, remember Keris has a 3 dot principle to her family, and could eke out another point by TLA Rathan to love him even more than the others. So that boosts her MDV if she feels the mental influence threatens her love for her family. Though Haneyl might well never forgive Keris, at least for months, if she loved Rathan more than her.))
((Also Ululaya scared Sasi. So she can probably justify that with a bit of... yeah. So.))
((Yes, that’s one of the big reasons Ululuya scares Sasi. She can out-socialise her. And if she let down her defences, Sasi would love her with all her heart.))
((Rightio then. Hmm. None of those are at present problems, really. So, hmm. Keris is going to pay 3m to be aware of them via BSLD, but - for now - let them continue.))

Aware that tensing her jaw muscles might be visible, Keris very carefully forms a mouth on her stomach full of razor-sharp teeth and grits them. Hard. This close... blue silence and sunlight, Ululaya’s presence is even stronger than Ligier’s. Keris can feel the tug on her heart - it’s not even one tug, her heart’s being pulled towards the Unquestionable by two or three different things, from her innocence to her vulnerability to her sheer beauty. The pull is terrifyingly strong. She could shatter it - she thinks - but what message would that send; to start their conversation so? How might that hurt her feelings, to be so cruel?

She allows it. For now. She can feel the tethers on her heart, and as long as she knows they’re there, she can try and get through this talk and then get away without agreeing to anything she’ll regret. No wonder Sasi was so terrified of the Blood Red Moon. She doesn’t like anything she can’t control, and Ululaya must have scared her without even meaning to. Keris can feel tears gather just at the thought of such a senseless tragedy.

“I’m glad you’re pleased, my lady,” she says, smiling widely with the mouth on her face. “Your home is gorgeous.” She ducks her head, blushing. “As are you.”

Ululuya claps her hands together in obvious delight. “You’re so nice to say that!” she exclaims loudly. “Thank you!” Her eyes, Keris sees as she stares into them, have no pupils. They’re merely her moon-phase. Her entire skin has a faint luminescent glow which makes everything else around her seem pointless and meaningless. “And I’m so, so sorry to want your company. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while, but... well! You’ve just been in such close company with cruel, horrible, terrible Ligier and,” she reaches out and takes Keris by the hand, looking into her eyes with her large, gentle ones, “I feared he may have poisoned you against me. Told you terrible, dreadful lies.”

Keris gulps, her eyes fluttering closed. It helps. Slightly. Very slightly. “I... he hasn’t really spoken to me about your... disagreement, my lady,” she stammers - which is more or less true; she’d not been keen to talk to him about the war when he seemed so angry about it. “I... don’t think I would understand such things as wars and Unquestionable grandeur. I’m not as great as you.”

That part is in debate, actually. She tilts an ear to the ebb and flow of essence in Ululaya, moving like the tide. Keris can hear the sea within her - terrible, mighty, powerful, masterless...

... except not. She feels like a peer. Not a superior. Not an inferior. An equal.

((Kimbery essence, Enlightenment 9))
((Per + Pres to try to persuade her of that, enhance with Charms as useful.))
((Yikes. Uh, 3+5+2 stunt+3 Mendaciloquent Maverick+1 bonus {grain of truth}+8 Kimmy ExD=22. 10 sux.
I think now is a good time to use Rathan as a defence. Using Carmine Mantled Emissary for 10m, 1wp. Per+Pol roll; 3+1+2 stunt+5 Enlightenment autosux+4 Kimmy ExD=10. 5+5=10 sux.
Total spent: 22 motes, 1wp. Fuck, that’s half my remaining motepool in one shot. This demon is scary. Fortunately, that should keep “Ligier and the war” from tripping me up.))

Ululuya seems to frown for just a moment, something ugly and terrible flitting across her features and when she blinks the shape of her irises change, to something which looks like a full moon with horns. Under her, Keris hears stone and pearl grating, but dares not look away.

“How interesting,” Ululuya says, and suddenly her entire mood is different. She just sounds so smart! Even her hair is different - it’s a hime cut like Sasi’s. And she’s taller - and built more like Sasi, too, suspiciously so. She’s so smart, obviously cleverer than Keris - but so graceful too. The notes in the hymn change, and they’re now praising different things about her. “Well, Keris, my sweet one, I trust you. I really do. Your heart is like the ocean, something moved by the tides.”

And there’s a gleam in her eyes, too. “I feel your kinship, you know. I feel the me within you. Your taste is immaculate, my sweet one. So much of me, and nothing of Ligier. You really are much more like me. You know what it’s like to be maligned. To be persecuted. To be victimised.” Her voice is so soft. So coaxing. So gentle. She understands, she really does. “And your little friend, Sasimana. Me and her have an arrangement, too. You could join in. I like you, Keris. I like you a lot, my sweet one. You’re beautiful. You understand it.”

She folds her hands together gracefully.

“I think I’d like to sponsor you,” she says, a quiet smile on her face. She reaches out with her hand. “You’re a perfect pearl formed around disgusting mortal grit. I think I love you, Keris. Please. Be with me. Follow me. Love me too.”

((... goddammit))
((... ha ha ha ha ha))
((Oh, Ululuya.))
((Throwing 22 dice in.))
((4 successes))
((... hahahaha))
((Must have been the disgusting mortal grit comment that blew it.))

“Mortals aren’t disgusting,” says Rathan, and Keris almost reels for a different reason. Those are the quiet, level tones that Rat used to use when he got really, really angry. “If they love you, it doesn’t matter if they’re mortal or spirit or anything. I don’t like her, Mama. She only likes you because you’re strong now. She wouldn’t have liked you when you were weak.”

((Oh Rathan. For all that he has a nasty side... he’s also very egalitarian and accepting, as long as you love him.
Hmm. Heh. Rolling Valor 3. Uh. 2 sux. WELP. Okay, so... MOE stops me attacking her mentally or socially.))

Keris looks Ululaya in the eye. What was it Yamal had said, in her dream? A time would come when she’d have to make a choice. And a choice made properly should stop you having to make it again.

She looks away and thinks of Kuha. Of Piu and Shan and Yelm. She laughs - lyrical and quiet and very much out of place in a moment of such gravity.

((Breaking all three mental effects for 12m.))

“You are beautiful, my lady,” she says. “And wise, and easily loved. But there are,” her lips twitch in a razor smile, “‘disgusting pieces of mortal grit’ that I love, as well. I care about them, and I do not take insults to them lightly.”

She takes a step back. It’s a paltry distance, but a weighty statement.

“I’m honoured by your offer, my lady. But I’m not looking for a sponsor at the moment. I hope you understand.”

It’s like being in the centre of a battle, Keris thinks, and half-understands why Sasi isn’t bored by talking and socialising all the time. Hells, she’s not sure that she was this high on adrenaline in battle when she was fighting the hungry king. Every muscle is tense, every nerve is shivering as she waits to see what the Blood Red Moon’s reaction will be.

Ululaya doesn’t blink. “That is a shame, sweet one,” she says. It’s like nothing is wrong. “Oh well. I have other things I must do. I give you leave to depart. Please inform me if you change your mind.” She flicks her hair. “Go on. Shoo,” she says, making little flapping gestures with her hands.

As Keris mounts the antbird again, she can hear Dulmea keening in panic in her head. Rathan’s voice comes echoing out of her mind. “She’s going to remember this, mama,” he says, the frown obvious in his voice. “And I’m not sure I can eat all her meanness.”

‘I have to refuse someone,’ she says, half to Dulmea and half to him. ‘If I’d agreed, Ligier would not have been happy. Nor would the Shashalme. And Ligier still has my ship.’ She rubs her forehead. ‘Urgh. Three Unquestionable all wanting me to work for them. And none of them like each other much. Still.’ She smiles. ‘You did very well, sweetie, warning me of her. Well done!’

“He did stop her making you hers,” Haneyl grudgingly admits. Rathan makes a pleased sound, and Keris can almost picture the way he must be beaming at her. It’s hard to stay grudging or annoyed at him when he does that.

Dulmea sounds like she is hyperventilating into her hair. “You refused an Unquestionable! To her face!” she moans.

‘Should I have asked her to turn around first?’ Keris wonders. ‘Or agreed, and offended two Unquestionable?’ The lightheartedness hides the way that... her own heart is still pounding. Even though she’s fairly sure she could kill Ululaya one-on-one, the Unquestionable are terrifying.

“She’s going to send assassins and armies and she’s going to get her revenge and kill everything of yours she can,” Dulmea gibbers. “You... you can’t refuse the Unquestionable! You can’t!”

Keris hears both Haneyl and Rathan sigh distinctly. “Don’t worry, mama,” Rathan says. “We’ll hug her until she calms down.”

“She’s not one of the really Unquestionable unquestionables,” Haneyl says firmly. “She’s weak. Not like Ligier. He’ll beat her. You’re right to be on his side. He’s better than her.”

Echo suggests that if Ligier and her are in a war, Keris might want to see if Ligier wants her to break any of her stuff. She has a mischievous grin as she says that, which clearly indicates she’s just looking for an excuse.

“No, Echo, no!” Haneyl says sharply. “We need to finish doing mama’s alchemy-thingie, and then we can tell Mother and make sure she’s safe because Mother is scared of her too and that’s bad, but at least we’re together in not liking the stupid mean moon.” Haneyl pauses. “I’m not insulting moons,” she says reluctantly. “Just that moon.”

“That was a very stupid moon,” Rathan agrees firmly.

“Very stupid,” Haneyl nods.

Chapter Text

Keris returns to her manse, somewhat concerned. Dulmea, of course, is still outright panicking over the fact that Keris personally offended an Unquestionable.

Kuha knows nothing of this, and is just pleased to see Keris back. In very broken Old Realm she tells her firmly that she doesn’t like the black and white birds. That’s not too surprising. Even discounting what they did to the demon she left out for them, Paricehet is... well, a bit creepy. Keris repeats her promise that the birds won’t hurt Kuha as long as she’s under Keris’s protection, and settles down to meditate.

Meditating, Keris sinks down with a feeling of relief in the little study room she’s set aside for herself. She raided a few demon settlements for amenities when she captured the serfs to feed the birds and experiment with, and that means she has comfortable demon-fur rugs to lay down on. In her spare time, she’s even decorated the walls with paintings of her soul-world. It seems to make it slightly easier for her to access the place, she feels.

She opens her eyes within Dulmea’s tower. As she pokes around, however, is she finds that Dulmea is not here. Keris puts the kettle on and prepares a consolidatory offering of tea while she waits.

“Echo?” she says, stirring the leaves and raising her voice only slightly. Even if Echo isn’t close enough to hear her, it’s a fair bet that at least one of her little wind-friends is. “Could you get Rathan and Haneyl to come here as well? I think we scared Dulmea, so we should have a family talk about it and make her feel better.”

There’s a rustling of paper from one of the window ledges and... something unfolds from amongst the tea plants that Dulmea has taken up cultivating.

Keris frowns. She hasn’t seen this species of demon before. It’s the size of one of her children, but it’s clearly inhuman. Its flesh - if that’s the term - is made up of white petals that closely overlap like scales, and its head is halfway between a head and a bud. Cool green flame burns from its head, in place of hair.

And Keris knows that it’s cool flame, because the creature is wearing a dress made of paper covered in writing - it’s probably female, then? - and is carrying a bag which seems to bulge with crudely bound books. It’s even holding a book, which it’s peeking out from behind at Keris.

“Um,” it whispers, voice soft even for Keris. It has the voice of a little girl. “M-my lady. Um. H-Haneyl t-told me to wait here. For. Um. You.”

Keris does a very good impression of not being at all surprised, which the demon seems to buy. “You’re one of her court?” she asks, resisting the urge to poke at it - though her eyes do flash an evaluative green. “I don’t think she’s told me about your breed yet.”

The little demon swallows, her slit mouth opening and closing. Keris can see the same flame that comes from her hair and behind her eyes in her mouth - she thinks the bud-head is entirely filled with flame. “She s-says I’m her best friend,” it - no, Keris decides, it’s probably a she - says. “I... um, think I’m the first of me.”

From the flashing of her eyes, Keris can see how very weak this demon is. Her essence, though, tastes exactly the same as Haneyl’s.

((Enlightenment 2, Haneylian essence)

“... huh.” Setting the teapot down to steep, Keris rolls to her feet and stalks over to the little demon, squatting down to get on her level and examining her with rather more interest.

“Haneyl doesn’t make friends lightly,” she notes. “In, uh. Either sense. Here, let’s have a look at you. You taste like her, that’s for sure.” There’s a thought niggling at her; a vague sense of similarity that’s refusing to go any further than the tip of her tongue. She lets it lie for now, and stands again.

“So, she made you as a friend, then? And told you to wait here for me. What for?”

Hiding behind her books, the petal-girl demon passes a hand-written note to Keris. It’s been written in enthusiastic, albeit childish Old Realm characters - the same hand as the writing all over her clothes.

“Dearest mother,” the note says.

“I am writing to you to say that Dulmea has locked herself in the library and isn’t coming out. And she’s not letting us in either which is very mean because there are books in there I want to read. And she’s not even letting Rathan in and he’s going all I AM RATHAN LOOK HOW CUTE AND INNOCENT I AM on her and Echo said she had an idea of how to help and then she ran off and hasn’t come back so either she forgot or she’s doing something which you might need to stop her from doing because it’s probably a super bad idea.

“Rathan and I are trying to talk to her and make her come out, so I’m leaving this note with Countess Ellyssivera so I can make sure you get it. You need to come here and make it all better. Now.

“Yours sincerely,

“High Princess Haneyl Kerisdohkt, Seventh Soul of Keris Dulmeadohkt, Princess of the Green Sun”

Keris has a grand total of one child who would write like that. She sighs deeply, and gathers up the tea. “Alright... Ellyssivera, is it? Come on. Let’s go see what’s wrong.” She’s fairly confident that she can make the library open up - it’s hers, after all. And if it won’t respond for some reason, she can just cut through the wall.

Cringing, the little flower girl nevertheless nods. She puts her book away into her severely overloaded bag and pulls a fresh sheet of paper out. And then she tilts her head, and with a sudden flurry of motion quite unlike her normal shyness, quickly traces across the page with a finger, leaving ink marks in her wake. Curious, Keris peers over as they head out of Dulmea’s tower and towards the Library. It is a recounting of everything from when the little demon met Keris onwards. It... uh, mostly resembles reality. Keris is described in quite extravagant terms as well as apparently being super-tall and scarily powerful and as pretty as Haneyl herself.

Lips twitching, Keris continues on her way. So Haneyl’s little demon-friend is a storywriter. That... seems fairly appropriate, honestly.

Rathan and Haneyl are indeed camped out with a small crowd of demons in front of the Library’s great doors. They are - rather unusually - barred shut. Keris strolls through the crowd, which hastily parts in front of her, and gives them an experimental prod. They remain resolutely shut, and she can feel the power of a decree holding them that way.

“In hindsight,” she murmurs, “maybe I should have seen this coming before giving her total authority over the city.” She raises her voice. “Haneyl, thank you for the note. Any sign of... anything?”

“She’s not coming out!” Haneyl announces loudly. “Even when I say please! Even when I order her to! And... and there are a lot of books in there that I want to read!”

((Reaction + Politics))
((5+1+goddammit Dulmea is locked in the library and not helping=6. Fail. : (.))

Still, at least Haneyl is holding strong! There’s no risk of her throwing a tantrum because Dulmea is acting wobbly and that means one of the foundations of her world is unsteady. Keris nods. “Right. Well then, if she’s not coming out, I guess we should go in, huh? Here. We can bribe her with tea.”

Passing the tea over to Haneyl - who takes a sip, makes a face and sets about improving it - Keris strides forward and lays a hand on the doors.

“You’re my library,” she tells them quietly. “And I say you’re going to let us in. Now. So open.”

All around her, walls spring up cutting her off from everyone else. A roof closes over her. And then - and only then - do the doors unlock.

Stalking in, Keris can hear crying that somehow wasn’t escaping from the doors when they were closed. She finds Dulmea, red eyed and holding sodden handkerchiefs in her hair. She looks a mess. Her hair is dull, worry lines cover her face and she’s torn at her own clothes and bruised herself. Her fingers play twitchy, fearful songs that bring to mind every bad thing a demon prince could do if it had the will to do so.

“... oh, mama.”

Keris embraces her; thoughts of tea and bribery forgotten. “It’s okay. It’s okay, she can’t hurt us, mama, we’ll be fine. She can make trouble for us, but she can’t hurt us.”

“She’s an Unquestionable. She can. She can,” Dulmea moans. “You... you can’t go against the Unquestionable. They’re Unquestionable!”

I’m Unquestionable,” Keris says, a hard edge to her voice. “I have seven souls, just like she does. And I’m her equal in power; she’s no stronger than I am. And... she’s like Sasi. She talks. She talks and socialises and makes people love her and she doesn’t fight. Not herself. Not like Ligier can, not like Testolagh can.”

She looks down, biting her lip. “Sasi’s scared of me, a little bit,” she admits. “That’s why she tried to make sure to do things for me so she had debts over me. They make her feel safer, ‘cause she knows I could kill her if I ever really wanted to. Which I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t ever. But I could. And that was when I was weaker than I am now, and I’m betting Sasi might even be a bit better at fighting than Ululaya is. She’s an Exalt, after all.”

She cracks her knuckles. “So sure, the Red Moon can send armies or akuma or her slaves or even her own souls at me. But she’s not Ligier. She can’t craft deadly weapons. Anything she sends at me, I’m pretty sure I can kill it. And then I...”

She hesitates. It’s one thing to boast that Ululaya can’t seriously hurt Keris herself. The prospect of Keris hurting her, on the other hand... well, that’s a big step into unfriendly territory.

“... and then I don’t have any reason not to go all-out against her,” she settles on. “Join the war, wreck her moon, help Ligier destroy her holdings. She has more to lose than I do if she tries to hurt me. And I’m better at it.”

((Per + Pres))
((3+5+2 stunt+8 Malfeas “I WILL CRUSH ALL HER WORKS IF SHE DARES CHALLENGE ME” ExD=18. 10 sux. Keris is not fucking around.))

“But she’s an Unquestionable,” Dulmea repeats. It seems to be a sticking point. Her repetition is weaker, though, and she noisily blows her nose on one hanky held on her bioluminescent hair that’s somewhere between hair and a tendril.

Keris nods. “She’ll make life difficult, I bet. Posion people’s opinions against me. But Ligier is Unquestionable as well - and the Shashalme, and Lilunu. They’ll back me against her, I think. If it comes to it.”

“I don’t like this,” Dulmea complains. “Why did you go and get yourself involved in the deeds of the princes?”

“Well what was I supposed to...”

Tailing off and sighing, Keris shrugs, flopping down into a chair.

“The Shashalme summoned me. I... guess I could have said no back then?” she asks rhetorically. “Said I wanted to stay neutral, just do what I was assigned. Stuck to that. But I didn’t, and then we found the ship and it just seemed... obvious to take it to Ligier. I wanted it. Still want it. We can do so much with that ship. Pull the Lintha over to follow us - I’m definitely stealing them from her now, if she’s already angry at me.”

Her head flops back. “And then he wanted payment, and had his war, and... urgh. Maybe I should just stick close to Lilunu. She’s Unquestionable, and nobody can argue with me following her, right?”

She blinks. “Actually, hang on. You must have met her once, right? When she sent you out to... to find me. Back then.”

Dulmea wipes her eyes. “I don’t remember what happened then,” she says softly. “M-my master ordered me to go, so I went. I was taken to the Conventicle, but I don’t remember much else. The next thing I knew, I felt the burning of your soul within me. It hurt a lot. And Unquestionable Lilunu and... and others were giving me orders and telling me what I had to do to survive long enough that the burning soul would find who it was meant to. I was terrified all the time.”

“Are you still?” Keris bites her lip, a little scared of the answer. “Are you still scared, nowadays?”

“Things are fine when you’re obeying the princes and doing things in Creation,” Dulmea says softly. “It’s when you rise above your station that things are terrifying.” She pauses. “Or when the Silent Wind pays attention to you.”

That makes both of them fall quiet and still. Keris can’t agree, but... she can’t really argue, either. The Silent Wind is terrifying. She’s just... Keris feels like Her actions are meant to teach, not kill.

... well, that or Keris is just tough enough not to die from her lessons. She runs a finger along the scar that traces her jawbone.

“What if...” she starts hesitantly, but cuts herself off with a shake of her head. “We should let Rathan and Haneyl in, at least,” she says instead. “Haneyl wants to get at her books. And she has a new friend she made; she seems to like them too.”

She hugs Dulmea again. “I just... I wish I had a way to make sure nothing could hurt you. To make you less afraid when I deal with the Unquestionable.”

“You could stop angering them?” Dulmea tries hopefully.

“How?” Keris shoots back. “I mean... I’d love to think I could do that. I would love to. But from what I’ve seen, most of the Unquestionable get on like... well, like Echo and Rathan and Haneyl. And they think the same way, too. They demand that we Princesses pick sides, and whoever we say ‘yes’ to, someone else will take it as a ‘no’.” She wrinkles her nose. “Dragons, I hope the Shashalme and Ligier never get into a war. That... that would be bad. That would be very, very bad.”

“Yes, it would,” Dulmea says weakly. She lets out a breath, and sighs. The windows unlock letting red light in, and the door swings open.

The next moment Dulmea is hit by a ballistic Haneyl who sticks her face into her dress and descends into incoherent burbling. Keris has enough presence of mind to quickly close the doors again, before much more than Rathan and Haneyl’s little friend have slipped in. She picks her son up with a grunt of effort as Haneyl clings, kissing him absently on the forehead.

“Are you going to make your own little friends too, then?” she asks, and like that it hits her. She doesn’t drop him, but it’s a close thing.

Oh! Oh, of course!” She rounds on Ellyssivera, pointing with a hair tendril. “Szelkerub! You’re like a... a flower-szelkerub! A friend for Haneyl the same way they’re friends for Echo!”

Ellyssivera squeaks, and hides from the pointing hair tendril behind a bookcase.

Haneyl takes a break from hugging Dulmea. “Show her the book, Elly,” she orders, before getting back to hugging.

Silently and carefully, the little demon approaches Keris carrying one of the books from her bag with the hand-made bark covers. She presents it to Keris, hands shaking.

On the front cover is written ‘My Story, by Ellyssivera’. Someone else, whose name probably starts with an H- and ends with an -aneyl has gone through and added all the titles she’s awarded her. And also written a review on the inside cover praising her effusively.

((omg she’s adorable))

Keris raises an eyebrow - Haneyl definitely likes this demon - and flips through the first few pages. It’s... well, it seems to be a story about Haneyl being summoned by Sasi, and getting to show off what she can do. Well, probably by Sasi. The descriptions are, again, somewhat exaggerated from the Sasi that Keris actually knows. As are the descriptions of Haneyl.

There is a large sigh from Haneyl when Keris reads some of it out loud. She seems to be blushing quite a bit. “Not that book!” she says quickly. “The other book! The one about you!”

The flower-girl cringes, and quickly hands over another book to Keris. This one is entitled, “How I Stopped Being Made Of Wind And Light And Became Made Of Petals And Fire And Became Princess Haneyl’s Best Friend”

The last section has, once again, been added in Haneyl’s hand.

This one is rather more... well, no. The first one was hilariously interesting, and Keris is definitely going to see if she can get her hands on a copy and smuggle it out for Sasi to read. But this one is interesting for very different reasons. She skims through it, her eyebrows rising higher and higher.

“So... so let me get this straight. You were the szelkerub that Sasi summoned. And then you...” her lips twitch, “... you wrote a story for Haneyl after the great fire, because she was sad. And you... changed.”

Rathan tugs at her hair. “I was going to say, mama,” he says reproachfully. “This is why you should pay more attention to me. I don’t need to make friends for myself; I already have some. They landed on my moon and then I made them prettier.”

The flower-girl looks up at Keris with wide fire-filled eyes. She appears to decide that the sooner she tells the big scary lady what she needs to know, the sooner she’ll stop being asked questions. “I th-think I started ch-changing before I wrote the first book,” she says, hugging her book bag defensively. “I w-was getting petals in my ribbons and fire instead of light and. Um. I st-started making noise when I tried to gesture t-to Haneyl to explain because she tr-trapped me and wouldn’t let me go. I w-was bored at first, but then it stopped being boring. And there were books.”

“That’s... amazing.” Keris sits back, a little... well, a little stunned, if she’s going to be honest. “That... that’s amazing. You’re changing species. Because you’re not a szelkerub anymore.” She turns away, no longer really talking to Ellyssivera as much as she is thinking out loud as she paces.

“You’re something different. I bet Rathan’s are as well, probably... oh, I wish I had some proper tools. Or Sasi; she’d love this. I never really looked hard at the szelkeruby, but... they were the first, weren’t they? Echo made them even before I worked out how to create life.”

She spins on her heels, gnawing a hair tendril. “So you can... you’re a kerub, still, but not a szelkerub. A... a sziromkerub? Something like that. Is that something your kind can do, then? Or is it just Echo’s keruby who can change like that? Who have that... that fluidity? Oh! I wonder what would happen if some of you stuck around Dulmea long enough to- Dulmea?”

Her chatter stops abruptly. Dulmea is sheet white, her hair cradling her head as if she has the mother and father of all headaches.

“... Dulmea?”

“Change,” Dulmea coughs out. “Your serfs can... can change. Their nature.”

((Oh, Dulmea. That realisation that Keris’s demons can change their nature so drastically has dropped a heavy weight on one end of the slowly-tilting scales. You’re feeling a lot bigger than your body can handle all of a sudden.))

Keris hears peals of laughter from behind her. There’s only one person who frequently breaks out into laughter without Keris hearing them get behind her.

Echo waves hello impishly when Keris turns around. She also gestures to indicate that Keris managed to get the library open on her own, so she probably won’t care that Echo’s making a giant tyrant lizard skeleton animated using ribbons to break it open, which just goes to show how underappreciated she is.

“... I’m going to leave that to tackle later,” Keris says after a brief moment of thought. “And since you seem to know what’s going on most of the time, I’m asking you; what’s with your szelkeruby? Did you know they could change like this? And what’s wrong with Dulmea?”

Echo shrugs. She clearly indicates that if they can do that, it’s a) evidence that she’s even smarter than she realised, and b) it just makes sense that they can do that. Because they’re children, Keris, and children grow up to be different and if you treat them differently they become different. So of course if one of her szelkeruby is going to act all boring and read-y and hang around plants, they’re going to become more like Haneyl.

“And if they’re good enough to come to the moon, they’ll become the best,” Rathan says proudly.

Echo points out that they’re much, much worse because they aren’t as pretty and because also her ones are the original ones and that makes them the best.

Keris elects to ignore the ensuing three-way “nuh uh”, “uh huh”, “nuh uh” argument in favour of putting an arm around Dulmea’s shoulders and trying to work out what’s happening. Something is... perhaps not wrong, but certainly strange with Dulmea’s essence, and she closes her eyes to focus on it with all her sensitivity.

Except... this isn’t Dulmea, Keris realises with the same sinking feeling she gets when... uh, something or other. Honestly, she doesn’t get this kind of sinking feeling much these days.

It’s far, far too weak to be her. It’s... it’s like a chell.

Wait. No. It is Dulmea. Suddenly she’s back, full strength. And then she’s gone again. She’s... she’s flickering to Keris’ other senses, as the background music takes on a dramatic note for the incipient war between the three children. Especially kicking in when Echo starts pulling Rathan’s hair.

“Mama?” she asks tentatively. She’s even flickering to the touch now; bouncing between normal, the cool flesh-and-instrument skin or a chell and a body as fragile as a soap bubble. “Are you... here?”

“What do you mean, child?” Dulmea asks, her voice chiming in the air. “Although I do feel... strange. Light-headed.”

“You’re... you’re flickering.” Keris lowers her voice with an aside glance at the developing brawl. As she watches, it narrowly avoids knocking over a bookshelf, collides Echo-first with the wall and continues through it and into the next room.

“Fading in and out...” she continues, carefully. “You... you feel almost like a chell, and then you’re you again, and then you’re not there at all... what’s happening to you? You can’t... you can’t go! You can’t flicker away and not come back; you can’t!

“I don’t feel... like I’m going,” she says fuzzily. “I sound strange. I can hear them... next door.”

“You... what?” Keris asks, panic turning to confusion. “Of course you can hear them next door. They’re loud. But- gah! D-Dulmea! You... I can see through you!”

Dulmea blinks at her. Looking at her is like looking through tinted glass - Keris can see her, but also see through her. She frowns slowly, her melody a confused discordance of half a dozen different songs that don’t make sense together.

“No... I mean... I can hear them from the next room... and from the street outside...” she murmurs. “I’m... Keris, dear, I’m not... I’m not sure where I am...”

And then her essence surges deafeningly as what sounds like every single chell, musician and instrument in the City plays the same chord at the same time. Keris can’t even begin to describe it. She’s pitch-perfect, but she can’t name the notes that make it up. It’s a melody, an orchestra and a symphony all in a single bar; ten thousand songs packed into one sound in one moment. The sheer power of it knocks her flat on her back and blinds her for a second.

And when she opens her eyes and regains her feet; Dulmea is gone.

Echo pokes her head in and although her ribbons have clearly been pulled, she seems to be winning. She smugly gestures that Dulmea-grandmother has become more like other-mama.

“Wh-” begins Keris, wide-eyed and terrified, before a chell carefully opens a door on the adjacent wall and enters the room, showing an unusual level of coordination for a mindless musician.

The part where it then turns into Dulmea is even more unusual. Even Echo seems impressed. She claps happily - and also silently. Now Dulmea-grandmother doesn’t need to chase down everyone else when she wants to shout at them.

She pauses. Oh. She gestures that maybe it’s not a good idea. She should probably let Echo have that ability instead.

“... oh,” Keris breathes softly, taking in the sound of Dulmea’s essence now. It’s similar to what it used to be, but it... echoes, is the only way she can describe it. Like it’s one opening into a huge space with many other doors. “I... I did, didn’t I? I gave you the way I can split Gales off myself. Is that what this is?”

“I suppose it must be,” Dulmea says slowly.

“Does it... how does it feel?”

“It feels... like I’m everywhere. I... there’s so much. Everywhere. I can hear everything. Feel everything,” she says, sounding very confused.

“You’re greater than you were, then?” Keris asks, not without a hint of humour.

“I... don’t know,” she says.

Keris approaches her and squeezes her hand. “Play with it,” she advises. “That’s what I do when I grow a new power. See what it can do; learn how it works. Get used to it slowly.” She smiles. “Echo does have a point. It is pretty convenient for you.”

“Perhaps,” Dulmea says. She disappears, leaving just a chell in her place. “I need some time to think,” she says, music in the wind.

Left alone in the room - well, alone save the chell and a suspicious scribbling sound from behind one of the shelves that sounds rather like the creation of a story called “How Queen Dulmea Became Music” or something - Keris massages her temples with a sigh. She considers going and breaking up the Echo-Rathan-Haneyl fight, but... frankly, she doesn’t have the energy. She’s tired, more or less surprised out for the day, and just wants to rest.

And to left off some steam. The activities of her five day dream with Yamal and Rat took the edge off, but not entirely. It didn’t seem quite that long from the inside - though admittedly she was rather distracted from checking the time - and it’s been more than a season since she saw Sasi. Bluntly put, Keris is tired, frustrated and cranky.

Letting her own avatar dissolve, she floats away from her Tiger Empire and into the fog of pleasant dreams.

It feels a little strange to be dreaming normally. Normally-normally, that is, not meditating in her soul world or praying or... or anything like this.

And perhaps her thoughts are moving in a certain direction, because she dreams that she’s in An Teng. It’s hot all around. She can hear the insect-life around her. It’s dark here, too. The room here is familiar. Light streams in through the cracks in the shutters.

“How are you feeling, Keris?” Sasi says from the bed.

“Mmm. Lonely. And neglected,” Keris says mournfully, crawling over. “But a lot better now that I’m here. Now I’m feeling more...”

Her head dips down to Sasi’s ear as she continues, her breath raising goosebumps on Sasi’s pale skin.

“Mmm. I’ve been working too hard. So many rituals. So many cultists. I just need to unwind,” Sasi says, shaking out her long grey hair. She smiles. “I’ll be having my baby soon,” she adds. Keris can’t see any sign of the pregnancy, though.

Grinning, Keris traces her fingers up Sasi’s side. “Well then,” she says cheerfully. “We should relax properly, then. Let’s start by getting you out of those clothes.”

Sasi smiles, leaning in for a kiss. Her lips lock on Keris’ and the kiss lasts for a long, long time. Her hands explore Keris’ body, pushing her down. Her teeth gleam white in the shade. I want to, she gestures. Reaching around, leaning over Keris, she unfolds her robes.

And her skin.

And the room.

And the sky.

And Keris finds herself lying on the bed in the middle of a blasted plain. The sky burns with too many colours, fighting the sun and stars and moon. All around her, the bodies are stacked high like firewood. So many bodies. Hacked apart humans. Despoiled demons. So many races tossed around like offal.

Kneeling on Keris’ chest, a woman with pale skin, black hair and teeth like white jade smiles down at her.

Whatever feelings of relaxation Keris was feeling are so thoroughly gone that she’s not sure they were ever there. Eyes wide, heart pounding like a hummingbird’s, she scrambles to run. That’s... that’s what she needs to do. When the Silent Wind is near. Run; be running so she isn’t hurt. Run, because She’s as terrifying as She is beautiful, and being close to Her is as much pain as enlightenment.

It’s a dream. She can’t run. The weight of the Silent Wind upon her chest is a world upon her. The Yozi smiles down at her with the eyes of a lover. Eyes that have no humanity in them, they’re so full of boundless, endless, utterly insane love.

Do you remember my love the first time we met? It was here where I opened my eyes and the scream cut me away and you kissed me so sweet with your arrows that that cut away my chains to who I was so I wasn’t her any more and you remember her as fondly as I do but I’m not her and you’re him and you’re not him so you’re like me, my love. You’re like me and you’re becoming more like me and soon you will be me and when you’re me you’ll see because you’ll be me and I’ll be you and you and me will be free.

Keris realises that the warmth she’s lying in is not a bed. Not anymore. It’s fresh blood. Adorjan leans forwards, the titan kissing Keris again and her breath lacerates Keris’ lungs with love.

This is our marriage bed my love the bed you made for me when you set me free to fly on wings of freedom and I still love you I’ll always love you because I’ll never forget you and you came back to me, she breathes into Keris. I’ll always find you.

Because I love you.

Keris sobs, and she honestly isn’t sure if it’s out of fear or happiness. Because Adorjan loves her, in this moment. She can feel it, she can see it in every movement the titan makes; a hurricane of devotion and adoration vast enough to fill a need in Keris’s heart so fundamental that she’s barely even been aware of it until now.

She kisses back and clings, tears of joy and terror rolling down her cheeks, trembling like a leaf caught in the grip of a gale. I love you too, she thinks. You scare me - you terrify me - but I love you. Please don’t stop loving me. Please please please don’t stop. I’m scared of you being near but I’m scared of you going and I can’t choose.

I love you, and it hurts.

For Keris this night, Hell is warm bodies. Hell is someone - something insane and powerful and terrifying - who loves her with all their heart. She wants to scream. She wants to die. She doesn’t want it to ever stop.

And all the time, every action and every motion of the titan invading her dreams speaks volumes. She can’t remember many of them afterwards. But Adorjan reminiscences about her love, about the long-dead man she seems to think Keris is. Her gesture-stories about their wedding bed are explicit in the extreme, although it’s unclear whether she’s talking about sex or death.

And then there are stranger things.

I love you but my heart wants you dead, Adorjan indicates as their legs intertwine. So I’ll love you and you’ll become me and then you won’t die because you’ll be me so my heart will be at peace because all love is pain and my heart knows that so I know that but I love you and we’ll leave our pain behind just like you taught me so I’ll teach you in turn. Our daughters will know our lessons too because they are the proof of our love and four stayed with me and three went to you and now another is part of you and you can have one more but maybe I’ll have one too but then again maybe not because four is a good number but five is not mine to keep.

Her fingers flute against Keris. Even in the dream, her touch hurts. The agony is bliss. The bliss is agony.

She wakes screaming.

Wait. No. Neither of those are true.

She’s not awake. She’s in the Domain, around the border between the Marsh and the Ruin - all open grasslands and rolling hills that fade into desert to her left and vanish into the treeline to her right. Far in the distance ahead of her, she can see a blanket of the chilling mist that rolls off the cloud wall, but where she’s standing the heat is baking.

And she’s not the one screaming, either. Gasping, sobbing, yes. But not screaming. The scar on her jaw has split open again - all of her scars have; every touch that Adorjan has ever laid upon her. She’s dripping blood onto the ground and that’s what’s screaming. The grass is burning away, the soil dissolving into a liquid pit of bubbling, sweet-smelling tar.

Above her, the sky screams. The sky burns. White light fills the heavens for the first time ever. The shadows are burned away and Rathan’s red light is drowned out by the all-encompassing whiteness.

Something - something blinding white and blood-crimson and painful; agonisingly painful to look at - comes shrieking out of the heavens and slams into the still-spreading tar pool hard enough to send a wave up that Keris isn’t able to dodge in time, wounded as she is. The sizzling sound of boiling tar comes paired with the scent of caramel in the air.

Keris wipes her face clean with a grunt and licks a bit of the tar thoughtfully. Huh. It’s honey. Black honey, though there are deep reds and purples and browns shifting in the undertones as the surface ripples settle. Swallowing, Keris pulls a face. Whatever this stuff is, it’s sweet at first, but the bitter aftertaste makes her gag.

“Not to your taste, mother?” comes a low voice from the far bank. It’s husky in the way that voices are after a long bout of tears; rasped words from a raw throat.

Keris tries to blink her eyes clean. That’s hard. The tarry honey is sticky and is holding her eyelashes together. She eventually uses her fire to burn it off, white ash scattering down. She probably loses a few eyelashes too, but this is just a dream. She’ll cope.

With her vision returned, she confirms what her ears have already told her. There’s a young girl sitting on the far bank. She looks to be around Echo’s age - ten or so. She’s dressed all in dark shades, greys and purples and blacks, with layered veils over her clothes which are akin to what Keris remembers mourners in Matasque wearing.

Under the veils, her features are a little indistinct. She clearly has darker skin than Keris, but there are hints of brighter markings or tattoos on her body. And her teeth - her teeth are white and gleam like jade.

“Who-” Keris starts, but her mind is, at least on this occasion, faster than her mouth. “... ‘mother’. You’re... a new soul. A new daughter.” She sits down heavily. “Ador- wait, no...”

She peers closer under the veil. At that skin tone. At the tattoos.

She pales.

“Ogi,” she whispers, horrified. She’s still shaking from the dream. From the way that... that Adorjan had been too beautiful. Too strong. The way that Keris had loved her and feared her and been unable to think about anything else; unable to even remember that anything outside the bloodsoaked marriage bed existed.

Had... had Ogi felt like that?

“So you remember her name?” the little girl says cruelly. “I thought you’d just have discarded those memories. You twisted her mind, abandoned her, ruined her life - and you thought that your oh-so-great sacrifice of no longer being around was enough to make things all right?”

Keris flinches. “What’s your name?” she asks, rather than answer. “Was that you, falling from the sky?”

The girl stares at her, red eyes flashing. “I don’t have a name,” she says, eventually. “You’ll give me one. You need to show you can try to control me.” She morosely throws a lump of dry earth into the sinkhole. “You won’t be much use for your masters if you feel bad about hurting people.”

((... ow. She’s good at this.))

Another wince. Echo was cheerful and mischievous when she first appeared, Rathan was charming and fairly docile. Haneyl was shy and eager to please. This girl, on the other hand, seems to have a gift for picking out everything Keris is uncomfortable about and throwing them in her face. Every painful truth - and that’s the worst part. They’re truths. She can’t think of any rebuttals.

“Calesco,” she says instead, almost without thinking. The name floats up to her lips from somewhere deep inside. But it feels right. “You’re Calesco. And I won’t control you. No more than I do your siblings. Who...” she sighs. “You probably need to meet, at some point.”

“What’s the point?” The girl glares at Keris. “We’re not your children. We’re your souls. You just cling to that description because you prefer to talk about Echo and her practical jokes than accept and consider that an aspect of your self, of how you do things with the world and think, is based around hurting and killing everything around you.”

((Hmm. That’s sounding a bit advanced for 10.))
((Because she’s not entirely settled on 10 yet. She’s a newborn who’s still taking form. That’s deliberate. She is, in fact, trying to argue that she’s not Keris’ daughter while she’s still defining herself. Keris will need to press her and give her reasons to actually be Keris’ daughter if she wants that outcome - she’s not going to just take the form Keris would most want without some effort.))

That, Keris can rebut. “Who says you can’t be both?” she snaps. “You’re my souls, yes. And you’re my children. Dulmea is my soul and my mother. Family - real family - isn’t just about blood. It’s the people who care about and who care about you. Just because someone doesn’t come from the same parents as you doesn’t mean they aren’t your brother or sister.”

She narrows her eyes. “So maybe Echo is a part of me. She’s her own person as well. So are you. You can be part of me - I dunno what part, but still a part - and still be part of my family. You can be angry with me and still be my daughter. And I’d say having you as my children is a lot less controlling than saying you’re just parts of me like an arm or a leg. Children can argue with you. Your arms and legs can’t.”

Something about the girl flickers. Her build changes. Keris realises that before she’d said that she’d been growing taller - and filling out in other ways, too - but that pushes her back down again, back to being a little girl.

She - Calesco, or maybe Kalesko - turns her back on Keris, folding her arms. “I didn’t ask to be made,” she informs Keris without looking at her. “I didn’t want to feel... feel what you made me feel. You’re not my friend. I don’t like you.”

With effort, Keris pulls her knees up in front of her and lets her head drop onto them. She hugs herself for a few moments, just letting herself breath shakily in and out.

“I think I know which part of me you are,” she says after a while. “Normally when I see... when I work out true things I don’t like very much, I try to forget about them. Go do something else and don’t think about it. Like Echo. If she’s the one who forgets, you’re the one who sees, aren’t you?”

The stiff back of the little girl is answer enough. Keris sighs.

“I’m sorry,” she offers. “I didn’t... expect this either.” Her body tries to yawn for a moment, but she forces it down. She’s still tired and achy - the dream bought her no rest or relaxation whatsoever - but after an experience like that, she’s going to make a spirited attempt at never sleeping again. At least until she can find an anyaglo to lick away her dreams.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. Maybe throwing herself back into fixing the owlriders will be enough of a distraction from everything else to buy her some peace, if she can’t sleep. Anyway. The sooner she’s done here, the sooner she can get back to An Teng, and away from the Unquestionable and the Yozis and the constant clamour of Hell.

Calesco is curled up on herself in almost the same way. Keris walks slowly around the edge of the tarpit, vaguely aware that she’s still dripping blood that sizzles on the soil around it, and sits down next to her. Despite her claims of not liking Keris, she doesn’t flee or shove her away, which is a start.

Keris wraps a careful, tentative arm around her shoulders and tries to blot out the stresses and strains of the day in favour of giving and taking comfort from a simple embrace.

Up close like this, Calesco is tiny and vulnerable. She’s smaller than Echo - who’s built like a greyhound, all limbs and thinness - and the veils and puffy clothing means that the girl is almost lost amidst her coverings.

“There, there,” Keris whispers to her, rocking her back and forth. She wonders why a soul born of Adorjan - and who has the same Adorjani teeth as Echo - seemingly has more of the Dragon about her. “There, there.”

From under Calesco’s veils, strands of something that’s half hair and half liquid shadow escape, to cling onto Keris’ own hair. She doesn’t seem to want to touch Keris’ flesh, but her mass of red hair is okay for Calesco.

She lets her cling, and brings the rest of her hair around to cradle the girl. A new daughter to learn about; a new set of quirks and likes and dislikes to get used to. That’s... not entirely a bad thing, really. A good thing, even. Admittedly she doesn’t like Keris very much at the moment, but there are times when Haneyl doesn’t like Keris very much, either.

There’s still a little lingering curiosity about whatever that blinding white thing was that hit the tar. It was probably Calesco, Keris knows, but there’s no sign of that light now - that searing, horrifically painful light that made it feel like her heart was being ripped out through her chest. She’s the furthest thing from it, in fact; all dark veils and shadows like Sasi. But questions can wait. For now, Keris can just sit with her youngest daughter and appreciate the wind over the grasslands.

Chapter Text

There is a little bit of Keris’ mind that compares and contrasts what it’s like to hug and spend time around her various children. When she’s pressed up against her like this, Calesco is warm and soft - softer and warmer than even Haneyl, whose body temperature is such that she always feels like she’s running a temperature. Her semi-liquid black hair is amorphous and almost gloopy when it extrudes out from under her veils, but there’s an inner wiry strength to it which means it still forms strands.

She certainly doesn’t dress like her siblings. Echo only ever wears light or ribbons - or that special dress made from Keris’ voice, while Rathan tends to wear whatever Dulmea makes him wear and then loses bits of clothing as they get torn. Even Haneyl, when she isn’t trying to be a little Realm princess tends to run around in clothes like the children in An Teng, because her swamp is hot and humid. It might be even hotter here, but Calesco covers up completely. Her clothes are dark purples and blacks - like mourning clothes - and gauzy veils cover her face and her upper arms. She’s even wearing long black velvet gloves.

And her smell is different again. It’s very, very sweet - almost perfumed. Her daughter smells of honey and sweetness. It’s a nice smell to be around, at least for short periods. There’s something slightly alien about it, though, that makes Keris think of tar or wet paint.

“Do you want to meet Dulmea?” she asks carefully after a while. “For tea and music and introductions.”

Calesco takes a deep, shuddery breath and rubs her forearms against her eyes. “C-can you bring her here?” she asks softly. She looks around this hot place at the edge of the Swamp and the Ruin. Keris’ blood has scarred the land and it’s melting into tar, while in other places slabs of the ground are protruding up like teeth or tiny mountains. “I... I like it here. It’s peaceful. I d-don’t want to go.”

“I can... hmm.” Keris pauses for thought. “I’m not sure about her leaving the City. Whether she can, I mean. I can definitely ask her - but are you okay with me going?”

“I’ll be okay,” Calesco says. She wraps her arms around her knees. “I...” she looks over the foggy, tar-scarred landscape, and then looks straight at Keris with her liquid dark eyes. “And you know that she was never meant to be your mother. She’s your handler. She’s the ratchaser’s dog they set on you.”

Keris was half-expecting that one, and it seems somewhat half-hearted. “She started that way,” she agrees. “But if that was all she was, she wouldn’t have agreed to the rules about citizens I made here. She definitely wouldn’t have told me to keep what I’m doing secret from the Unquestionable.”

Habit moves her to drop a kiss on Calesco’s forehead, but unlike Rathan or Haneyl, the girl flinches away before it lands. Keris hovers awkwardly for a moment, and tries not to feel hurt as she tightens the gentle hair-hug a little instead.

“I’ll be back soon, then,” she says, standing. “Hopefully with Dulmea, but I’ll come back either way.”

“I’ll be around here,” Calesco says with a somewhat overblown - at least in Keris’ opinion - sigh. “If you can’t see me, call. And I’ll come running like a good little demon.”

Keris nods and leaves at a gentle - for her - jog. Once she’s out of sight, it turns into a sprint. This fragile new relationship isn’t a disaster, but it’s nowhere near as stable as she’d like, and she’s not overjoyed at the idea of leaving Calesco alone for too long until they’ve settled things.

Also, the thought of what might happen if Haneyl or Echo should run into her without Keris there to mediate... well, it’s not a very reassuring one. Keris hurdles the wall to the City and grabs the first chell she sees. It’s a vaguely Tengese-looking thing with cymbals coming out of its knee and elbow joints, which it brings together with melodic ‘ting’s as it rakes a gravel garden.

“Dulmea! You need to come quickly - really quickly, it’s urgent! That light, the scream in the sky after the end of... of that dream. It was Ca- it was a new soul; I have another; an eighth soul. She’s called Calesco, she wants to meet you - I need your help with this!”

The music intensifies and the chell morphs and reforms into a shocked looking Dulmea. “Child! What is happening? The sky caught on fire and-”

“Her name is Calesco,” Keris repeats. “Please, she wants to meet you. Not here; out on the border between Marsh and Ruin. She says it’s peaceful there a-and...”

She bites a hair tendril in agitation, and huddles close to her mother. “Dulmea, she doesn’t like me. She says... things. True things, but painful things. She... she pushes and accuses and... and I think she’s the bit of me that sees things I don’t like but can’t forget about them or ignore them like Echo does, and she hates me for making her see them...”

She gulps painfully. “She’s Ogi’s daughter,” she says in a small, trembling voice. “And mine. But she doesn’t love me like you do. She hates me.”

Dulmea swallows. “Keris, child. Please breathe. What do you mean she hates you?”

“Come see?” Keris implores, looking up at her. “I know you like being in the City, but she doesn’t want to come here, and she’s... I think she’s hurting as much as she hurts. She doesn’t like me, but she might like you. And she needs someone.” Misery is clear on her face at the fact that the someone Calesco needs isn’t Keris. “She’s hurting. And she’s my daughter. Please, Dulmea?”

Dulmea exhales. “Right away,” she says. “Now, what will we need? Gifts?”

“I...” Keris stammers. “I don’t know. I don’t...”

Don’t know much about her, she doesn’t say. Don’t know what she likes and what she doesn’t, apart from Keris fitting solidly into the latter group. Don’t know how to win her affection. The thought of her daughter hating her is a vicious thing in her heart; an ugly squirming bundle of blades.

“... I don’t think so,” she says after a moment. “Or... not anything expensive. She’s not like Haneyl. Maybe... instruments? Things she can play to be peaceful, happy. And... try not to get angry when she’s cruel. Please.”

((Oh Keris. Be Loved Be Loved Be Loved.))
((Now that she doesn’t need to hold it together around Calesco, she’s panicking.))

Dulmea thinks, and crosses her hair in front of her. “In that case, we’ll bring some nice calming tea and an assortment of sweet things. I’m already preparing it, and we’ll collect it from me.” She looks at Keris. “I think you need some tea, too,” she says critically. “Child, you are in quite a state.”

Keris nods blankly for a moment, then shakes her head. “No... no, we need to get back there. I said I wouldn’t leave her alone for long, and... and if Echo or Haneyl find her then they’ll fight and one of them might get hurt, or...”

Dulmea takes Keris by the shoulders. “Child,” she says firmly. “You are in a state. You need tea. You can’t do things if you’re in a panic like this.” She eyes Keris up critically. “You’ll just wind up blurting out something and risk accidentally offending her,” she says bluntly. Keris flinches.

“... okay,” she says after a moment’s thought, and tries to gather herself. “Okay. Yeah. Then... tea. And calming down.” Another hopeful glance. “But then we go as soon as possible?”

“Of course, child,” Dulmea says calmingly. “But you have to keep yourself together. You don’t act properly when when you’re off balance. Proper standards and behaviour, remember?”

The tea she prepares for Keris is bright blue and almost painfully peppery, but it... it does leave her feeling calm. Very calm, in fact. And slightly sleepy. She gives Dulmea a vaguely suspicious look as a group of flutist-chell arrange and pick up a palanquin for them. “Is... is this sleepy tea?” she yawns. “Did you drug me?” She tries to summon outrage at this, and manages a slightly offended pout.

“It is baruteme tea,” Keris’ mother says calmly. “It is a bracing tea which calms the nerves. I don’t know what your ‘sleepy tea’ is, but no, it shouldn’t make you fall asleep. Perhaps numb your emotions slightly and blunt the extremes of your feelings, but you’ll be awake.” Another two Dulmeas walk in, carrying baskets.

“We’ll be taking these,” one of them says.

“I’ve packed a teapot for us so we can have civilised fresh drinks,” the other one says.

Keris looks from the first Dulmea to the other two Dulmeas, rubs her eyes, and looks again.

“Um,” she says. “There are three of you.”

“No,” says one of the Dulmeas.

“There’s one of me,” says the one in front of Keris.

“I’m just in several places,” the other one says. “Or, rather, the bodies here aren’t the real me.”

“I am the music, child,” Dulmea says to a triumphant chord. Her voice seems to come from all around Keris.

Closing her eyes, Keris can hear it. Dulmea’s presence, the orchestral hum of her essence... it’s not in any of the three physical bodies. It’s all around them, in the sound. Her mouth opens in an ‘o’ that slowly spreads to a wide smile of delight.

“That’s... amazing!” she breathes, gleeful. “I can hear you, everywhere!” She opens her eyes and looks at the closest one. “You worked it out, then? Wonderful!” The happiness is muted a little by the tea, but it’s still enough to temporarily wipe out her worry and prompt her to hug Dulmea enthusiastically.

“There, there,” Dulmea says, hugging Keris tight. There’s a look of worry in her deep eyes. “I’m sure all things will be fine. You worried about the other three children at times, right?”

Keris nods. That’s true enough. Haneyl’s tantrums never made her stop loving Keris... though she did love her to start with. But... still. Calesco hadn’t even been alive for more than an hour or so. Maybe she just needed some time to settle. If she was hurting inside, it made sense that she’d lash out. It didn’t mean she really meant it.

“Come along,” Dulmea says, ushering Keris into the palanquin. A small chorus of chell surround it - more than just those carrying them. A little bubble of the music that is Dulmea’s body now, Keris supposes.

“Now, rest,” Dulmea tells Keris firmly. “We will take some time to travel to the edges of the world, and you can tell me about her and what you think about her and what you felt when the sky caught on fire - and why it did that. Why did a new soul form?”

Flashes of the dream come back. Blood. A touch as much pain as pleasure. Silent crooning about a man she doesn’t think she ever was.

“I... I had a dream,” she croaks. “But not an ordinary dream. And I wasn’t the only one having it...”

She skips over the details. But the gist is there. And Dulmea is easily able to put the pieces together.

“She’s more beautiful than any mortal woman,” Keris says miserably when she’s finished. “Even Sasi. Too beautiful. It hurt when She touched me. I felt sick. Unworthy. And I... I still feel flushed whenever I remember it.” She cuddles into Dulmea’s arms and sniffs. “I wanted it to last forever. But I also never want it to happen again.”

Dulmea hugs her more tightly, and there are several Dulmeas hugging her. Keris feels practically cocooned in hair. “That explains everything, child,” Dulmea says firmly. “You always go a little bit crazy for days after you encounter one of the Yozis, and this time you coupled with one in your dreams. It is amazing that you are making as much sense as you are right now.”

This only manages to make Keris look more downcast. “Maybe that’s why she hates me,” she suggests, hanging her head. “Maybe some of the hurting went into her when she was born. I didn’t mean to do that, but maybe I did.”

“Then,” Dulmea says firmly, “if it is in her nature to hate you then that is all she can do and it is neither of your faults and so you should not worry about it. And if it is not in her nature to hate you, then you can change her mind in time and you should not worry about it.”

“I don’t want her to hate me, though,” Keris says. The sound of bubbling tar reaches her ears, and she wipes her eyes dry with the back of a hand. “We’re here.” She climbs out of the palanquin, hesitating for a moment to breathe deeply and muster her calm before turning to survey the tar pits. The tar is starting to leak into one of the nearby rivers that meanders out of the forest, forming dark scum on the surface of the water.

Calesco is not where Keris left her. There’s just this tar-spotted landscape, broken and scarred with burned trees and smashed ground. “Calesco?” she calls, looking around and listening carefully. “Are you here?”

Her voice echoes in the empty space. And then in the distance Keris hears a patter of feet and then the flapping of wings. The wings get closer, and Keris sees a dark shape up above her. It plummets down, and Calesco lands gracefully before her. The eight shadowy wings sprouting from her fold back into her robes. “Keris,” she says, without blinking. She turns to face Dulmea. “Demon.”

“Wait, no,” Keris says, waving her hands and pulling a curtain of hair between them. “No, before you get started on that. You can fly?” She cranes around to try and see the point where the wings came from. “Actually fly? On your own? Not just jumping really high or riding something?”

Calesco stares up at Keris, a distinctly patronising look in her eyes. “Of course I can fly,” she says. “I am your messenger. That’s what you made me for.” There’s no sign of any wings now that she’s on the ground. If they exist all the time, they must fold very flat under her clothing.

Keris flinches. “I... didn’t make you for anything,” she mumbles. “I didn’t make you consciously at all. Or any of your siblings. You just... happened.”

now another is part of you, the motions of Adorjan echo in her mind’s eye, and you can have one more...

She flinches again, and shivers. “You’re not just a messenger,” she repeats, a little louder. “And I didn’t make you for something.”

“You did,” Calesco says softly. “You made me to be your messenger, you made the liar so you could pretend you were innocent, you made the disease so you could infect others and make them your slaves and you made the killer so you could kill everyone around you.”

“I didn’t-” Keris snaps, and clenches her fists. “You’re wrong,” she says tightly. “That’s not how I see you. You’re not just the powers of the All-Makers.” She glances at Dulmea for help, already distressed at the way this conversation is going.

“We haven’t been introduced yet,” Dulmea says, mildly. “Keris, dear, would you please do the honours?”

“Right. Sorry.” Keris drops the hair. “Calesco, this is your grandmother; Dulmea.” She shoots the dark little girl a glance. “And it doesn’t matter that we’re not related by blood, she’s still my mother” she adds. “We are, anyway. Sort of. From the Chrysalis.”

She clears her throat. “And Dulmea, this is Calesco. My daughter, and my... my eighth soul.” She swallows nervously, not fully sure she wants to ponder the implications of that just yet.

Calesco stares at Dulmea sullenly. Keris’ mother directs her usual calm gaze back at the young girl. Surprisingly, Calesco blinks first.

“Um,” she says. “Hello.”

“Hello, little one,” Dulmea says. “I like your clothes. They’re pretty. Now, would you like some tea? I also brought sweet things.” She leans in conspiratorially. “If we are going to tell Keris all the ways in which she is a failure and a big disappointment prone to thoughtlessness and rashness, we might as well be comfortable as we do it, yes?”

Surprisingly, Calesco giggles, a bell-like noise which makes the air dance. Keris makes a rather offended sound, and belatedly realises that... maybe bringing Calesco into contact with Dulmea, who has a habit of telling her off whenever she does something impulsive, was a bad idea.

Well, it’s too late now. Sighing mournfully, she takes a second cup of peppery blue baruteme tea and settles down to be criticised.

“I know where to go,” Calesco offers. “I found somewhere.” She stares at Keris, daring her to try to put her foot down and contradict her. “That’s where I’m going to live.”

Instead of disagreement, she gets a smile. “If you want to, you can,” Keris says. “Do you want to show us?”

Calesco hitches up her skirts and begins wading through the tar. “Follow me,” she orders.

The chell lift Dulmea’s palanquin again, and Keris skips over the surface of the tar in quick zigzagging paths, letting Calesco lead while trying not to slow down to the point of sinking.

Keris gets the distinct feeling that Calesco is walking slowly, to try to get Keris to sink. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe she’s just forgetting how slow people are who aren’t... well, uh, her or Echo.

Calesco leads them to...um. It’s a cave. It looks like there was some harder rock here when the blood fell and it dissolved the surrounding rock while leaving the small hill that now exists intact. There’s a honey spring flowing from the cave mouth in dark rivulets, and Calesco leaves a trail of sticky footprints as she heads into the rough hollow space and sits herself down on a boulder, swinging her legs.

“We’re here,” she announces.

Keris and Dulmea share a glance. It’s bare stone and sticky honey streams from the walls in here. There’s nothing soft. And it’s very, very dark. The cave faces the fog wall, so the moon is on the other side of the domain and only a tiny amount of dim light creeps in. Most of the illumination is coming from Dulmea’s hair and the green-burning lanterns carried by some of her bodies and the chell.

“It’s... nice,” Keris offers. “You like the dark, yes? Are you going to change things? Add...” she waves a hand vaguely. “Furniture? That sort of thing? I could help, if you wanted.”

“I like it,” Calesco repeats. “It’s... comfortable.”

Keris doesn’t really understand, but...

“Then that’s all that matters,” she nods, and runs out of casual conversation topics. “So. Um...”

Humming the same music to themselves, two of the Dulmeas busy themselves with setting up a little heater and putting a kettle on. Another one is setting up a low table and is placing cushions around it. Carefully, she helps Calesco to sit.

“There,” she says. “Isn’t that nicer?”

Calesco looks up at her, and nods.

“Now, while the tea boils, let’s have some cake. Keris turns into a grouchy bear when she gets hungry,” Dulmea says conspiratorially to Calesco, which produces another giggle.

Unsure of whether to pout some more or smile at the way they’re bonding, Keris hovers a little and settles at the table when one of the Dulmeas prompts her to. Her mother is sympathising with Calesco, she realises. Agreeing with her, and putting herself on Calesco’s side. But at the same time, gentling her criticism into a sort of teasing admonishment.

Not for the first time, Keris marvels at Dulmea’s skill in mediation. She notices a slight wavering in Calesco’s attitude, too. More than that, she didn’t seem to approach Dulmea with the same aggravation even from the start. And Dulmea is acting a bit strangely too. It’s like... Keris’ eyes widen. It’s like she expects newborns to be driven by various impulses. Like that’s a normal way that people work.

((... hahaha. Dammit. Dulmea’s “this is how normal babies happen” theory gets more support! Curses!))

“Dulmea?” she murmurs quietly to one of the bodies that isn’t talking to Calesco. It sounds like... oh hells, Dulmea’s telling the cat story. She’s never going to let that one go. “Do you know where the others are? Or if they’re looking for us?”

“I am trying to track them down as we speak,” Dulmea breathes back. “There is, of course, no sign of Echo, but I am riding with Haneyl now and have chased down one of Echo’s steeds so I can reach the moon.”

Keris nods. Echo, she has a feeling, will show up whenever she feels like doing so. It won’t be hard for her to track down the site where Calesco landed, and from there she’ll be able to follow the sound of their voices. She shifts to get a better view of the cave entrance and resolves to keep an ear out for the ripple of quiet sounds that flee her as she approaches.

There’s no strange silence outside. There is, however, one directly behind her. Inside the cave already. Pausing for a moment, Keris lets her head fall forward and brings a hand up to knock herself in the head.

“You caught up while I was running back to the city, didn’t you?” she accuses in a sub-vocal whisper. “You know, you are annoyingly stealthy when you want to be.”

She feels a tap on the small of her back which clearly communicates that it’s not Echo’s fault that Keris doesn’t have eyes on the back of her head.

And with that communicated, Echo makes her triumphant, grinning appearance, waving a cheerful hello to all. She waves her hands in sheer exuberant glee at her new sister, and notes in passing that they really are proper sisters because both of them are children of Other Mama.

And with that said, she barely lets Dulmea get out of the way of one of the seats before she kicks the cushion out of the way and sits; eroding the bare rock and snatching for a teacup which rapidly begins to degrade under her touch as she picks it up with her hair.

So, she indicates with a casual wave of her hand as she silently slurps at her tea, what is everyone talking about?

Keris very quietly puts her head in her hands, and groans.

((... echo, goddammit, you have a ribbon dress and gloves that let you sit on and pick up things without eroding them. you’re just doing this to be a troll.))

Calesco stares at Echo. Many people do this, especially when meeting her for the first time. Or the second time. “Hello, murderer,” she says softly.

Echo nods along, cheerfully. Murder is fun, she gestures. Like dancing! And ribbons! And music! And silence! Hey, Mama, she adds with a jabbing finger at Keris. She wants to know why Keris didn’t tell her that she was going to have another baby with Other Mama. If she had, she would have had her trident weavers make little woven baby socks for her little sister!

She twists back to Calesco, and adds that she loves her teeth, darling. White jade teeth really are the best kind of teeth, she expresses with a grin.

Calesco stares accusingly at Keris. “How is the silent one a chatterbox?” she demands.

“Don’t ask me to explain Echo,” Keris groans through her hands. “I gave up a year ago.” She peeks through her fingers at them. The contrast is stark - Echo is all red ribbons around white smoke, long-limbed and coltish and indistinct when she’s not moving. Calesco, on the other hand, is dark and rounder, perfectly solid but blending into the shadows of the cave.

Despite that, there is a sense of similarity to them. A harmony of sorts; two notes that form a natural chord.

“Echo, if you’re going to be here, please put your dress on,” she says, pulling her hands down tiredly. “It’s not nice to disintegrate Calesco’s home when you can help it. Not to mention that it would be easier to drink your tea if you weren’t dissolving the cup.” She takes a long sip from her own cup, winces at the bite of the pepper, and feels slightly better.

Echo pouts, and stands up, pulling the dress from thin air and beginning to slip it on. She indicates that if Keris is going to make her wear the dress, then Calesco is going to get cuddled.

Keris also notices that Calesco has apparently given into peer pressure and is also holding her teacup in her hair. Although from the looks of her cup, she’s added a large dollop of fresh-flowing honey to it. Keris tries to drink her tea and not worry too much about what’s going to happen when the other two show up. Among other things, right now she has to worry about the fact that Echo - now that she’s put her gloves and special dress on - and is playing with Calesco’s hair, tying it up with ribbons she produces from unseen pockets.

Catching Calesco’s eye, Keris lifts her eyebrows in a silent question; trying to judge how her new daughter is taking the attentions of her elder sister. Who... um, looks like her same-age sister. Honestly. Soul growing-up-ness. So confusing.

Aided somewhat by a meaningful nod from Dulmea, Keris decides that Calesco looks... well, she looks somewhat confused by Echo. This is a normal state of affairs when around the girl, of course, but it’s more than that.

... there is also a certain mixed edge about the fact that she is getting her hair tied up in red and white ribbons. She seems to like the attention, but not necessarily like the ribbons. Maybe it’s the colour? The red and white doesn’t really fit in with how she dresses like a raven.

“Echo?” she suggests. “Maybe some other colours? Calesco, what do you like? Besides black, I mean.”

Calesco appears to give this some thought. “Purple,” she eventually decides. “Purple is good. And grey.”

Echo pouts, and holds up another pair of red and white ribbons mournfully. But they look so pretty, she conveys, and they match Calesco’s eyes and teeth! Those are her prettiest features!

“Red and white is your colour scheme, though,” Keris points out. “Let Calesco have hers.” She turns to Dulmea as Echo grudgingly produces some appropriately-coloured ribbons from... somewhere. Which, Keris notices, might be the right colours but are nonetheless sparkly in a metallic sort of way and seem to be inset with shiny studs.

“Rathan and Haneyl?” she asks her mother quietly. “And thank you. For... for being you.” She waves at the general surroundings - at Calesco not throwing painful accusations their way, and even smiling a little, and the four of them having a fairly pleasant picnic of sorts instead of a blazing row.

“Haneyl is nearly here,” Dulmea breathes back. “I have found Rathan and we are riding at full speed across the land as we speak. You may wish to... ah, ready Calesco for her sister’s arrival. She may be... quite Haneyl-like, child.”

Keris rolls her eyes, muttering a quiet “don’t need to tell me twice,” before raising her voice a little. “Calesco, Echo? Your sister Haneyl is about to arrive. Echo; please don’t tease her. Calesco... I hope the two of you can be friends. Or at least not fight as much as Rathan and Haneyl do. Do you want to meet her outside, or shall I bring her in here for introductions? After all.” She dips her head respectfully. “This is your home.”

Calesco stares directly at Keris. “You’re afraid,” she says bluntly. “Why are you scared of her?”

There’s a brief silence, in which Echo eagerly puts her hand up because she knows the answer. Keris considers briefly, but Calesco is too perceptive to outright lie to.

“Because I wan- I’d like you to get along,” she says after a moment’s pause, ignoring Echo’s attempts at an explanation. “That is, it would make me happy if you did, and sad if you didn’t. And your siblings tend to squabble. I’m worried about this picnic turning into a fight.”

Echo helpfully points out that she doesn’t squabble with her siblings, but her siblings squabble with her. Tilting her head, she does admit that she sometimes squabbles with Keris, but really that’s just because mama is so immature.

“I’m not the one who makes giant skeletons in the Ruin and forgets what they’re meant to be skeletons of halfway through,” Keris ripostes smugly. She’s been saving this comeback since her last dream-run through the Ruin. “Unless you meant for that one behind the hill in sight of the city walls to be an crocodile-headed duck from the start.”

She cocks her head at Calesco as Echo counts on her fingers, trying to remember which giant skeleton that was. “So, do you want to meet her outside or in here? She’ll be here soon.”

((I give it 50/50 between Echo following a “what else swims?” train of logic halfway through, or her genuinely deciding to improve ducks.))

Calesco tilts her head. “Which would you prefer more?” she asks Echo.

Echo frowns, wobbling her hand in front of her. She indicates it’d probably be funner to meet outside, so there’s more room for explosions.

“We’ll sit down in here,” Calesco says firmly.

Echo pouts.

“I’ll go show her in, then,” Keris offers. “Otherwise she might not find us.” She finishes her cup of tea and thanks Dulmea politely for it, then rises and heads outside.

Keris leaves the cave. The land has got even more barren and pit-covered while they ate. She has to say, she doesn’t really like this bit of her soul much. Which... does this mean she doesn’t like this bit of herself much?

She shakes off such unpleasant thoughts as the hooves of a great horse ridden by an armoured warrior become obvious. It comes around a hillock, and Keris sees a rider covered in lamellar armour painted a bright green, riding a great grey horse. Behind it sits a Dulmea, sitting side saddle, and Haneyl in full princess regalia. Haneyl has obviously put even more attention into her appearance than usual, because she has carefully chosen as many brightly coloured flowers as possible, and even has a bundle of flowers held before her.

“Mother,” Haneyl says formally, slipping off the back of the farisy. She looks around with a frown. “This is ugly,” she says critically.

“Everything’s pretty to someone,” Keris replies non-committedly, and shifts into formal tones. “Welcome, Princess Haneyl. Princess Calesco is hosting a picnic in her new home, and invites you to attend.” She nods at the flowers Haneyl has. “Those are nice. Are they a welcoming gift?”

“Well, clearly she needs my help to make this place look better. I mean, this was meant to be my land but now you’re going to give this gloopy smelly place to her. It’s fine. I don’t want it. But it’s not allowed to be so ugly if it’s next door to my place!” Haneyl says, with a harumph and a toss of her hair.

“... maybe don’t call it ugly to her face,” Keris suggests. “She seems to like it. Come on, we’re this way.” She helps the other Dulmea down off the farisy and takes the opportunity to give her a hug, then leads the way into Calesco’s cave.

Haneyl refuses to hold Keris’ hand on the way in. She does, however, give her a kiss on the cheek beforehand. “Is my robe looking all right? Is my tiara on straight?” she asks Keris nervously.

Keris steps back and looks her up and down critically. She adjusts one of the flowers in Haneyl’s hair slightly, kisses her on the forehead and smiles. “You look perfect, sweetheart. Now, let’s go and meet your new sister.”

Haneyl takes a deep breath, and then turns on her heel and marches in ahead of Keris. “Princess Haneyl Kerisdohkt, lady of the marshes and the flame, seventh soul of Keris Dulmeadohkt, greets her younger sister, eighth soul of Keris Dulmeadohkt,” Haneyl announces pompously. Keris follows her in, crosses her fingers and hopes very hard that Calesco isn’t going to respond with something blunt and ego-puncturing.

Okay, so it’s not a very likely hope. But she can still hope for it.

Calesco stares at Haneyl, and then rises from where she was sat.

The two sisters are very different. Well, not as different as Calesco and Echo, but that’s because Haneyl isn’t literally made of wind and light and ribbons and smoke. But where Calesco is darkness and dark colours, Haneyl is bright greens and greys and splashes of the rainbow - and her golden robe and crowd, of course.

And there’s one more thing - one more thing that unfortunately Keris and Haneyl seem to notice at the same time. Not only does Calesco look older than Haneyl, but she’s also taller than her.

“Hello, Princess Calesco,” Haneyl says in a sickly sweet voice. “I brought you some flowers so you could help make the place actually pretty.”

“Infecting things to make them more like you is what you are,” Calesco retorts in an equally sickly sweet voice. “Of course you’d give me your flowers.”

“Was that meant to be a criticism, dearest sister?” Haneyl retorts. “Forgive me if I actually like pretty things. As you are of course my dearest little sister, I want you to have pretty things too.”

Like pretty ribbons in her hair, Echo gestures happily. Everyone should have pretty things, like dancing and music and silence and running and murder and laughing.

... well, at least they’re not fighting, Keris thinks. Or, well, they are fighting. But they’re only fighting with words. And not, say, fire and painful light and screaming.

Honestly, why did Rathan have to be the last one to arrive? He’s the least difficult of her children and the most charming. And the only one who consistently listens to her. Keris sighs quietly and sits back down at the table. She was hoping they’d get along, but... well, as long as they’re not actually fighting, she won’t intervene.

Though...

“Dulmea? Can I have some more baruteme tea, please?” she asks. “And perhaps some for Haneyl? Or do you want another blend?” she adds, directing the last sentence at her daughter.

Haneyl breaks off her staring match with Calesco. “I’ll make my own blend,” she says quickly. “Dearest, dearest little sister, allow me to do the great service for you of letting you taste one of my special types of tea.”

“I’m sure it’ll make you happy,” Calesco retorts. “So I can’t stop you.”

Haneyl sweeps over to the teapot, in a motion which Keris is sure she is trying to deliberately copy from Sasi, and fussily starts breathing out a little firepit of her own, coaxing plants into growing around it. She keeps periodically looking behind her, though.

Sipping at her baruteme - she’s getting used to the peppery flavour, and the calmness it induces is doing wonders for her nerves - Keris keeps an ear on her, glancing at Dulmea every so often. Keris... thinks Haneyl is nervous. She wants something from Calesco. Approval, maybe. Or maybe just a sister who’s less... Echo about things, who she can be closer to and who doesn’t run away half-way through a conversation to chase butterflies. And unfortunately she’s doubling down on Haneyl-ness to try to cover up her nerves.

Worse still, Calesco’s Calesco-ness is putting Haneyl off. She doesn’t know what she’s done to make her sister short with her and Keris knows well how that makes her little girl uncomfortable. She’s getting defensive.

Keris knows this because... well, she feels a lot of the same way. She thinks hard. Calesco... Calesco is the bit of her that sees the ugly truth behind things. Maybe that’s why her land is so... like it is. What have she and Haneyl done that’s not got any ugliness like that behind it, then? Something that’s just a nice thing done without any... any nasty reasons behind it. Ah! Of course!

“Oh, Haneyl?” she asks casually, putting her teacup down precisely. “While you’re working on your special tea, I was wondering if you’d thought up any more dishes to make for Kuha? You said you were going to think about less spicy ones, didn’t you?”

Haneyl carefully plucks the leaves from the plants she’s growing, and places them around her fire to dry. “I have,” Haneyl says happily. “I’ve been testing them on Elly! She likes them! Oh, yes,” she adds smugly. “Mother, mother, mother! I got more like Elly! They aren’t as good as her, of course, but they’re still better than Echo’s szelkeruby.”

Keris’s eyebrows rise, and she forgets about probing Calesco’s feelings on the owlriders for a moment. “More sziromkeruby, huh? Interesting.” She purses her lips. “And Rathan said that he had some on the moon... Dulmea? I don’t suppose you’ve seen any up there, have you?”

Dulmea coughs. “Oh, indeed,” she says. “Child, it would seem that Rathan’s little friends have the form of children of ice and red pearl.”

Echo shakes her head sadly. He’s so predictable, she mimes with a tragic expression.

Four pairs of eyes - well, actually more like eight, but four of them belong to Dulmea - stare at her for a moment.

“... your szelkeruby are made of wind and ribbons,” Haneyl points out. “You’re the predictable one, stupid!”

Echo shakes her head sadly. Poor silly Haneyl, she expresses. Her ribbon-friends are very unpredictable! Some of them have red and white ribbons, which are clearly the best, but others have blue ones! Or green, or yellow! A few even have multiple colours in each ribbon, in stripes or even more surprising patterns!

Yes, she concludes, nodding. Ribbons are an endless source of originality and wonder.

“... okay,” says Keris, once they’ve all processed that. “But... what I’m wondering is...” She cocks her head at Calesco. “If Echo, Rathan and Haneyl all have keruby-friends like them, I wonder if you might be able to change some to keep you company?”

“Well,” Haneyl immediately interjects, “I suppose I can lend her a few of mine. They’re better friends than Echo’s because they’re very good listeners and they can write super-good stories.”

Echo crosses her arms, pointing out that they’re not very good friends if they aren’t doing fun stuff all the time. Calesco needs Echo’s friends instead!

“How about you both find one of your keruby who wants to come and stay with Calesco, if she’s willing to host them?” Keris suggests. “And Rathan can do the same, and we can all see what happens. Calesco? Are you happy to let citizens live in your lands?”

“If they want,” Calesco says. She crosses her arms. “They won’t be allowed to kill each other,” she says firmly. “No one is allowed to kill anyone in my lands.”

It’s hard to say whether Echo or Haneyl is more shocked and/or outraged by that comment.

“... what happens if they do?” Keris asks, when it becomes apparent that neither is going to answer. Echo actually seems speechless. Or... whatever her equivalent of speechless is. Mimeless, maybe.

“They’ll be banished,” Calesco says decisively. “Or imprisoned in honey until they’ve learned their lesson.”

Keris relaxes. That’s a lot less... well, it’s better than some of the things she was imagining. “Well then, it’s your land, so they’re your rules,” she says. “As long as they don’t break the citizen’s rights, which that doesn’t.”

Humming to herself, she nods. “I think I’ll tell Lilunu about you, if that’s alright?” she asks. “Nothing personal, just that I birthed a new soul, when I wake up. And Sasi too, it’s... been a while since I talked to her.” She sighs. “I’ve been too busy with this owlrider project.”

Over by the firepit, Keris distinctly hears Haneyl’s guilty noise. Calesco reacted too, to the mention of the owlrider project, but Keris doesn’t catch how. Because Haneyl’s little gasp came before that. At Sasi’s name. She looks over at her daughter slowly.

“... Princess Haneyl?” she asks. “Is there something I should know?”

Haneyl takes a deep breath, and carefully puts her dried homemade tea-ish leaves into a pot from Dulmea. “Keris,” she says, trying to sound self-confident. “Mother has been summoning some of my demons. I have been... um. Exchanging letters with her when she banishes them and when she summons new ones.”

“... and not telling me about it.” Keris finishes. She still feels mostly calm. But there’s a little bit of hurt. “Why? Even if I’m not allowed to read your private letters, couldn’t you have said you were talking with her?”

“Couldn’t you have thought of it yourself?” Calesco asks. Echo giggles and offers her a high five, which she ignores.

“I... I didn’t want to tell you,” Haneyl says softly. “Because... because then you’d want to read them! Because you miss her lots! And then I meant to tell you about the old ones but then the fire burned some of them and then I thought you’d get angry if you found out!”

Keris clenches her jaw hard. Haneyl... well, she’s not wrong. Letters from Sasi. Some of them lost forever to the fire. She would have hoarded them like... like her po hoards silver.

“I’m not angry,” she says, which is... well, it’s not exactly a lie, but only because the tea is keeping her from getting much past ‘annoyed and hurt’. “But I’d like you to have some of your new friends copy out all the letters that aren’t just for you, so that I can read them as well.”

Haneyl’s lip wobbles slightly, but she’s clearly mostly just relieved she’s not getting shouted at. “Of course, mama,” she says quickly. “I promise.”

“Good. Now, Calesco? Were you going to say something about the owlriders? I still have more testing to do; did you have any ideas?” Keris pauses. “Actually, do you know about the owlriders? You seem to know about your siblings, but I’m... not sure how much knowledge you were born with. Or how you were born with it.” Another slightly longer pause. “Or how any of you were born at all, really. Besides the obvious.”

Echo raises her hand. It’s very obvious and easy, she points out smugly.

“Why don’t you explain it?” Calesco demands.

Echo frowns. She didn’t say it’s easy to explain. Also, her hands are sore from all this talking.

“I... I know you’re trying to change people,” Calesco says, looking slightly unfocused. “To make them... healthier.” She frowns, and then smiles. “And you’re doing it to be kind.”

Keris grins. “Yeah, more or less. They live up in the north-east - where I was gathering raksha not long ago - and they take drugs to make them small so they can fly on giant owls...”

She does most of the telling, though Haneyl and Echo interject here and there with crucial details about tyrant lizard feathers and silly fat giants whose arms go splat. They’ve more or less summarised the problems with the owlriders and Keris’s plans to fix them when one of the Dulmeas clears her throat.

“Rathan is almost here,” she says. Keris glances at Calesco.

“In here again?” she asks.

In here was fun, Echo indicates.

“... we’ll go outside,” Calesco says after a thought.

“... you’re having fun doing that, aren’t you?” Keris accuses, her lip twitching at Echo’s exaggerated pout. Calesco doesn’t seem to notice Echo give a tiny giggle and a thumbs up behind her back. “Alright, come on. We’ll meet him as he arrives.” She stands, and offers a loop of hair for Calesco to thread her own through. It’s like holding hands, but with more fingers.

Three ribbon horses arrive, trailing ribbons from their hooves. Rathan rides the biggest, reddest one, a Dulmea rides another one, and the third one has three small children made of red pearl on them.

“Mama!” he cries out gleefully. And then his eyes narrow at the sight of someone else holding mama’s hair.

Keris hefts him off the horse and spins him round in greeting, dropping a kiss on his forehead and putting him down carefully. “I see you have new friends, Rathan,” she says, with a gesture to the children. “Well, you can introduce me to them in a moment, but first! Rathan, this is your new sister, Calesco. Calesco, this is Rathan.”

They size each other up assessingly. Calesco; older, slight of figure and veiled in dozens of layers. Rathan, younger but already a match for her in height, with a simple tunic on that’s still slightly damp with seawater. Rathan moves to cling onto Keris tighter. Calesco’s eyes narrow at that.

“I don’t want another sister,” Rathan wines. “I’ve already got two.”

Keris isn’t sure how to answer that. “Well... maybe Calesco won’t be like your other sisters?” She frowns. “What’s wrong with them, anyway? Wait, no, never mind that. Are you going to introduce us to your friends? Are these the keruby who you found on your moon and made pretty?”

“Well,” Rathan says, “it started when-”

“He doesn’t want me to exist because he’s selfish and self-pitying,” Calesco says quietly. “He wants everyone to love him. I’m his enemy because I’m stealing attention from him. And he’ll never change his mind.”

After a second or two, Keris becomes aware her mouth is hanging open. That was unexpectedly vicious, even for the caustic blunt truths of her youngest daughter.

“Calesco!” she protests. “Rathan doesn’t think like that! Echo and Haneyl take my attention too, and he doesn’t want them not to exist!”

She hesitates, glancing down at her son. “Well, maybe you want Haneyl to not be able to send plants out into your sea and for Echo to not be able to wreck your ships,” she concedes. “But not to stop existing. Wouldn’t you be sad if they were gone?”

“Not when they’re constantly mean or try to steal you from me, mama,” Rathan says, his honest expression utterly endearing. “If they were gone, I’d just have you to me.”

((6 successes on Beauty Over Truth))
((Ooo dear. Keris’s MDV is 7 when boosted by her “I Love My Family” Principle.))

Keris blanches, sick horror ricocheting through her at the thought of losing her children. She drops down to kneel at Rathan’s eye level and takes his hands, speaking fiercely but quietly so that his friends don’t hear.

Rathan,” she scolds. “No. No. You can be angry or squabble with your siblings; I won’t stop you from doing that. But you don’t wish they were gone. Ever. Remember how I felt when Rat disappeared? Remember how I felt when the ice nearly killed Haneyl’s horses?

“Your family is what you have when you have nobody else at all, sweetie. You remember that picnic we had, when Echo helped you get the food and Haneyl helped us cook it and we all played music? Don’t ever wish they were gone. Because if they were, you could never ever get them back, and you’d never get to have times like that again. I’d be heartbroken, and who would I have to get revenge on for taking them away?”

Rathan’s lip is wobbling in genuine distress now, so she kisses him gently on the forehead. “You’re allowed to want more time with me,” she tells him more softly. “And you’re allowed to squabble with them when they’re mean; I won’t blame you for that. But I don’t ever want to hear you wishing your siblings weren’t there at all. Okay?”

“But you pay attention to them and not me,” Rathan wails.

Calesco makes an audible noise of ‘I told you so’-ness. There’s some contempt in there.

“Tell you what,” Keris says, glancing at her with a quelling look. “From now on, I’ll make extra-sure to be fair in how I spend time with you all, and be sure that I don’t give any of them more attention than I give you. Okay?”

Sniffing, Rathan indicates that this might be enough, as long as he gets to go first.

“Right then. Now...” Keris dries his eyes and picks him up in a hair-loop seat. “These are your friends?” Wrapping his arms around her neck, still crying, he makes a muted, “‘es.”

The little pearl and ice children are looking somewhat mutinous at Keris, with outright hostility directed at Haneyl and Calesco.

“And what are their names?” Keris asks. She ignores the glares, but she’s a little impressed underneath. Not many demons in her Domain are brave enough to even raise an eyebrow at her, let alone give her a mutinous look.

“‘ey’re called Glem and List. An’ the girl is Fox.”

It makes Keris’ heartstrings twinge. Those are street names. In fact, she knew a Glem and a List. She smiles wistfully.

“Then,” she decides, “I think perhaps we should all have some tea, and then...”

She looks around the group. Several Dulmeas, though she’s turned one or two of her newly arrived bodies back into chell. Echo, lithe and happy. Calesco, dark and caustic. Haneyl, hiding nervousness behind princessing. Rathan, still clingy and sniffling. There’s only one obvious activity that all of them can agree on without fighting too badly.

“And then,” she finishes, “we can make some music.”

Yay music, Echo gestures happily.

Chapter Text

The morning finds Keris still flushed and aroused from the dream-memory of Adorjan. Uncomfortably so. Even the softest silks seem to grate across the sensitive parts of her body, and her skin cycles from too hot to too cold. The pulsing ache and longing refuses to go away, and she finds lurid thoughts and fantasies invading her head at all hours - many of them disturbing, and some terrifying in how closely they resemble the blood and carnage of the dream.

It doesn’t take her long to figure out that relieving the tension doesn’t last for long. Stupid... stupid mortal frailty. This is her own mind’s fault for not being able to handle the glory of an All-Maker. It’s like Adorjan broke something and now her body won’t turn off. It’s muted in her Domain, thank goodness, but she can’t do her work from there.

So, she womans up and deals with it. Her first order of business is materials. The next two weeks are going to be spent experimenting on Kuha directly, and that means she can’t afford to fuck up. She’s growing increasingly fond of the little woman - the obvious adoration and hero worship - and it’s bad enough that Keris is going to have to ground her for the next fortnight unless she’s testing out modifications under supervision. Hurting or killing her with some stupid slip-up would break Keris’s heart.

High-grade materials, then. That means grade five vitriol; the purest and most refined form on the demonic market. It sells at a horrific price, but Keris doesn’t need to spend for it. She cuts out the middle man and summons a metody.

Of course, while metody can produce pure theion to instead of the tainted stuff found in the Demon City’s acid pits, it’s still not of the quality Keris needs. Which is why she made an effort to call a particularly cruel and unpleasant demon with her summons, not that she gives it much of a chance to prove itself such. She crushes its will almost as soon as it appears, and orders it into a crucible to be rendered down. It resists, but... well. That doesn’t work out well for it.

That gives her the raw materials. Then it’s a matter of applying them. Kuha is nervous, and upset at being grounded, but she trusts Keris enough by now that she doesn’t complain. Partly, Keris suspects, because she doesn’t entirely understand the risk of what’s being done to her.

Hopefully, all will go well and she’ll never have to.

The changes to Kuha are slow at first. Slow, halting, and tasty.

Wait. Maybe Keris doesn’t mean tasty. Well, she sort of does. She is tasting the drugs a lot, and as she slowly applies her calculated doses to Kuha and the fragments of her own flesh that she’s embedded in her twist under the vitriolic influence, just like she planned.

But still. It’s a thing to watch, slowly. Half the time Keris is very worried it’ll go wrong, but the very pure vitriol she got her hands on seems to be working very well for her goals.

She hasn’t been the only one experimenting. The keruby living with Calesco are starting to show signs of change - Keris suspects that the way they’re drinking her honey-tar might be speeding things up there. And she’s come up with a demon of her own, too.

“So, uh...” Keris says, staring at the... thing. It looks a bit like a snake, if snakes had five mismatched moth wings stuck down the length of their body and a sort of bat-like face. “What are they?”

“They’re useful for you,” Calesco says. The creature is coiled around a staff, and she tickles under its chin with a quiet smile. “You use people as things, killing or sacrificing them to suit your ends,” she continues bluntly, turning to glare at Keris. “But sometimes you can make good come of it. So these dugohuzo will make sure that at least you’re not using innocents.”

There’s one of the keruby that isn’t changing, Keris notes. A petal-cherub isn’t showing any signs of the creeping tar which is slowly consuming the others. She beckons it over, cocking her head. “Okay...” she says slowly to Calesco. “How, exa- gah!”

The snake-moth thing - dugohuzo - flits off the staff and coils itself on the ground as she asks, folding its wings around itself. And then, abruptly, it isn’t a snake-moth thing. It’s a little Tengese girl. Keris leaps back in surprise and checks with her ears.

No, she realises. It is still the demon. But the wings have sort of... crumpled and folded and meshed together to reproduce the shape of a little girl. One that looks up at her in fear and vulnerability, sobbing quietly.

“... I get it,” she says, grinning. “And then if something attacks it...”

“Then the dugohuzo knocks it out and takes it back to the staff,” Calesco finishes, nodding at the jet staff planted in the ground. “Where they can be punished.”

“Impressive,” Keris praises. “And yeah, you’re right. Useful. Very useful. I can plant a few of these around the Nests to make Paricehet happy, and... look, would you stop cringing and come over here?” She tosses a faintly annoyed look at the petal cherub, who cringes more, but reluctantly makes her way over.

“Hmm. Why aren’t you changing?” Keris muses, looking her over. “You’ve been drinking the honey, right?” Her eyes flash green as she examines the little... actually, she thinks this one might be a boy, though it’s a little hard to tell under all the blueish-green petals and fire.

It nods. “Yes, mum,” it says. It sounds more boyish, too, and now that she looks closer it’s a little bulkier. And has a fake-stick-sword worn at his hip. “I dunno. It happened when I ran away into the forest when Echo said it’d be funny to find lots of kinds of fruit.”

“... wait, Echo?” She looks closer, listening to the essence blend inside him. “Not Haneyl? What happened?”

He sounds Haneylish, but there’s a slightly mischievous Echoish note to that. The same one that Haneyl’s beloved Elly has.

He shuffles his feet, getting nervous. That’s more familiar. “Well, I mean, I sort of got a bit lost in the swamp and then there were big pretty horsies and then I started following them around and then I fell in the swamp and then my ribbons got all soaked and then they started growing flowers. Oh, and then I found a tree covered in leaves that were pages and I read them all.” He smiles widely. “That was wonderful.”

“... you’ve already changed once,” Keris realises. She glances at another of Calesco’s friends; one of the ones who is starting to look tarry. No double-note. Or... a developing one, but it’s tar overlaying the petals. And... yes, when she looks back at the little boy, he feels more... static, than the others. A little less fluid.

“Maybe you can’t change more than once,” she murmurs. “Interesting. Hey, tell you what. I’m doing an experiment at the moment, and I could use someone to write up my notes for me and make copies of the story of what I did and how I did it. Up for it?”

“Writing for you? That could be fun!” he says brightly. He seems more confident than Elly around Keris, albeit just as book-centred. Maybe spending time around Haneyl suppresses their self-confidence, Keris considers. “Miss Calesco? Please may I go?”

“As long as she promises to look after you,” Calesco allows after a moment’s thought. “And not to bind you, since you’ll help anyway.”

“I promise,” swears Keris, tipping her head in a salute.

The first thing her newly-summoned scribe does is organise her notes, which... takes him an hour or so even with his reading speed. But once he’s done that, she finds she quite likes having someone else to take notes for her. Her workspace starts to feel all organised and neat. It’s uncanny.

“I’ve been talking to the birdies,” he tells Keris brightly, one scream. “I’m writing a story about them. We can talk really quickly because they talk-write. I have a story about them eating eyes.”

“... I should have known you would get along well,” Keris sighs. “They’re not scaring you? Or trying to eat your eyes?”

He - his name is is Rounen, according to Calesco who seems to have taken a thing to naming things - taps his face. Keris realises that, yes, he doesn’t really have eyes. There’s just gaps in his face leading through to the fires within his head. “Don’t have any eyes, mum,” he says.

She grins. “Cheeky. Alright, have fun. I’ll summon some dugohuzos for them over the next few screams and set them to bringing in demons.” She purses her lips. “You might want to ask them about their days of conquest and their war against the Unquestionable, if they’re willing to talk about it,” she suggests. “They might not be, but I’d guess that there are a lot of grand stories there. And they may not have had the chance to tell their side of them before.”

He nods happily. “I’ll write stories when you don’t have notes for me to take, mum,” he says. He clears his throat. “Though, um. I’m running out of paper. There aren’t any paper trees around here.”

“... yeah, that’s a problem. Hang on... Dulmea? Yeah... no, something... yeah, perfect.” Keris sticks a hand into her hair and comes out with a largeish book, recognisably hand-bound and Marsh-crafted. “There you go. Blank, for now. Tell me when you fill it up and I’ll see about getting you another one, okay?”

He hugs the book tight, protectively shielding it with his arms. “Thank you thank you thank you mum,” he says. “I promise I’ll write you a really nice story!”

She kisses him on the forehead, unable to help her smile at the way he addresses her. “I’m sure. Now, run along. I’ll have another set of notes for you to write up next scream, but for now I’m mostly going to be checking how the treatment’s making Kuha see her new body as hers, so it’ll be fairly boring as a story.”

He scurries off, and Keris enters the room she’s set up for her patient. She’s put quite a bit of work into it. The walls are padded against the noise from outside, there are orange-burning metal candles which almost look like sunlight, and the lead in the walls dims the green light that creeps into everything.

Kuha is in bed. She’s been complaining about her bones hurting, which isn’t really a surprise considering that Keris can hear them creak as they’re totally rebuilt. She looks the... the woman up and down, making note of the changes. And she is a woman now, not a strange twisted half-child. It’s not done yet and she’ll need at least a week more to ensure that it won’t revert, but Keris thinks the current blend is having the right effects on her transplanted wood-flesh.

Her skin has darkened a bit, and it’s healthier now - the sallow look from liver afflictions receded early. She’s still petite; perhaps an inch or so under five feet. If it weren’t for the subtle but present womanly curves and proportions, Keris would guess her to be maybe twelve or thirteen from her height - or ten, if she was from a taller people than the Tengese and wasn’t malnourished like the Nexan kids she’d known.

There’s a growing solidity to her, as well. Not weight, exactly, but toughness. Her grip is already a lot stronger than someone would expect from a glance, and careful testing of her bones have shown them hardening. There’s something about the changes to her face as well, but the childish roundness and baby fat hasn’t finished melting away yet, and Keris knows that chasing the thought won’t bring it to her any faster.

“Arms?” she prompts, and Kuha stretches them out with a sigh. Keris examines them closely, and nods in satisfaction. The flaps of skin aren’t wide wings like those of a bird or flying squirrel, and they’re closely furled around her limbs at the moment. But gentle pressure is enough to coax them into unwinding to the width of a handspan or two. Their shape, along with how little Kuha weighs, will be enough to set her down gently if she falls, more like a spinning sycamore seed than a plummeting stone.

((Oh, keris. It takes her a while to spot the subtle things.))
((She has learned to let them come to her.))

“How long more will this take, Kerishyra?” she asks, inclining her head. “I am hungry again. You will make me eat more of the bad food when I eat?” She doesn’t like the taste of the drugs. Keris can’t really see the problem, but maybe it’s a human thing. Apparently they’re incredibly bitter.

“Not much longer,” she promises. “And I know I keep saying that, but it really won’t be. A week more, maybe, to make sure the changes have set. Then I can put you through your paces with some really intensive flying - and we can head back to Creation.”

Kuha says something in her native language, and then frowns, clearly trying to put a more complex thought together in the bastardised mess of languages Keris has wound up teaching her. “I... I want to think of how most like my mother I will look,” she says, haltingly. “Owl riding like me are not a proper woman. But not like men either. Like twig child, easy to snap. But you make me not twig child. So I must be a woman?”

Keris frowns. “You’re asking... hmm.” She purses her lips. “Okay... hold on.” Retrieving Kuha’s peronelle; left off during treatment so as not to get in the way and to allow Keris better access to Kuha’s body, she settles on the end of the bed. “So you’re asking whether you’re a man or a woman now, since you weren’t really either before?”

“I wonder if I’ll look like my mother,” the peronelle translates for her. “I was made to be an owl-rider, so I’m not a woman. I didn’t have breasts, I couldn’t have children - I wasn’t a woman. But even though I rode owls like the men, I wasn’t a man. I was a twigchild with my breakable bones. But now I’m not going to be one. So since I don’t have a willy, I must be becoming a woman, but women don’t ride owls. I... I don’t know. Will I have to have children?”

Keris shakes her head. “You’re still too small to have children yourself,” she says, a little regretfully. “You look more like a woman, but you’re sort of a... third gender. I put some thought into how this,” she waves her hand vaguely, “these changes, would work. How they’d be passed down.”

She scoots closer and pets Kuha’s hair as the peronelle translates. “There is a way for you to have children - owlrider children,” she explains. “But it isn’t for you to bear them yourself. That would be too dangerous. And it isn’t for you to give a woman a baby either, since... like you said, you don’t have a...”

Another vague wave. Keris blushes a little. It’s... very uncomfortable talking about this. Usually it wouldn’t be, but at this particular time, her mind keeps wandering to graphic pictures of the process, and... well, it’s very uncomfortable.

“You’d basically...” she explains, “... there would be you, and a man, and a woman - three genders, instead of just two. And when all three of you are together; that would be an owlrider baby - your part in it would mean that the baby they made would be an owlrider, with traces of you in it. You see?”

Sasi and Testolagh cross her mind, and Keris patiently squeezes her eyes shut and resists the urge to bang her head on the wall until they go away again. It wouldn’t help, anyway. Just give her a pounding headache.

Kuha stares blankly at Keris, even after the peronelle translates for her. “Can I have some food?” she says, clearly giving up on thinking about the topic.

That, Keris is far better equipped to answer. “You can,” she agrees. “Haneyl has been trying something new. A nut dish, I think. Here we go...”

With Kuha happily tucking in, Keris walks her through a few more questions and answers, noting the responses down. It looks like she’s adjusting fairly well to her new biology. There are some areas - like the sex one - where she seems confused or not sure what to think, but nothing seems to be causing her active distress. Her biggest complaint seems to be the bitter taste of the drugs and the fact that Keris won’t let her fly unsupervised until the changes have settled.

One of Lord Ligier’s messengers arrives that same scream. Apparently he has won some glorious victory against the forces of the Blood Red Moon and laid waste to many of her holdings on the thirty-nineth layer with some kind of super weapon, and thus is holding a celebratory feast. He wishes Keris’ presence as a guest of honour, to thank her for her assistance with the Raksha fuel he required for this.

Rounen once again proves himself a helpful little thing, and volunteers to help Kuha with her Old Realm by reading her some stories. Keris isn’t entirely sure that he doesn’t just want an audience for his stories, but it’s a good idea that will keep the woman in company - similarly-sized company, even - and she agrees happily after extracting a promise that he’ll leave out the eye-eating ones from Paricehet.

That done, she mounts her pink-white anyaglo and sets off for Ligier’s domain. The war has been pushed back away from the innermost layer, Keris notes. It’s a peaceful, quiet-but-not-in-a-dangerous-way ride and since the dinner is not for several days it gives her time to take it slowly. Which is useful. Among other things, she... finds she gets easily saddlesore while she heals from what Adorjan inflicted on her.

She’ll need to think about what she’ll wear to such a fancy dinner. And she’ll also need to keep her head around Lord Ligier when she’s feeling like this. Hopefully he won’t decide to show off his physique again. In fact, she thinks, it might be a good idea to spend some time with a neomah... or two... or six, and get it out of her system. Maybe experiment with another Gale. If she doesn’t pour everything into it, it might not scream so much? Hopefully, at least.

“You even make yourself suffer.” Calesco’s voice comes drifting from inside her head. “Isn’t that telling?”

Apparently she felt she had gone too long without a mean comment.

“They suffer from being alone,” Keris points out. “Like I would, if I didn’t have all of you.”

“You often go for extended periods without talking to any of us, especially if you’re distracted,” Calesco says critically. “But you said that last one started screaming in seconds. Maybe it’s just in your nature to hurt yourself. So maybe you’ll just do what Echo does and cut out the bits it doesn’t need. Throw them away, like...” she sighs, “like ribbons on the breeze. She dumped ribbons in my honey pits again.”

“I’d love to know why she’s so obsessed with ribbons,” Keris muses, choosing not to respond to the barbs. “I really would. It can’t be from me; I can mostly take them or leave them. I mean,” she strokes her anyaglo’s neck, “her demons are great. I just don’t get what’s so amazing about ribbons on their own.”

“Gouts of blood and sprays of death are like ribbons in the air,” Calesco says morosely. “My sister is a killer.”

((dammit calesco y u so goth))

Keris opts not to respond to that. It’s true. Echo is a killer. So is she. And when Calesco puts it so bluntly, she isn’t entirely comfortable with how much she enjoys it, while she’s caught up in the thrill of battle.

“Maybe Lilunu can help,” she thinks instead. “She made the coadjutors in the first place, right? Even if Dulmea doesn’t remember anything.”

“I remember most of that time, child,” Dulmea interjects. “The orders from the Unquestionable, and the walk across the Desert. It is only the process of taking your soul into myself that is beyond me.” She clears her throat. “I do believe, though - given I possess the same talent to assume many bodies, child, it might be possible to impart less of yourself into one. I do so myself, for when I might just need an extra set of eyes to watch for something. They would be just a pale reflection of you, but that might be enough if they just were needed for a single thing. And I do believe Calesco is right that the Silent Wind already has the skills to limit such a lesser extension.”

Keris nods thoughtfully. “I’ll stop over at my townhouse and, uh, blow off some steam, then,” she says. “See if that helps.” A literally painful shudder goes through her at the thought, and she bites down on her lip in frustration. “I really hate this,” she whines. “Tell me it’s been fading?”

“Would you prefer to be confined to your bed in a fever for two weeks, as you were the last time?” Dulmea seems genuinely curious. “But yes, you do seem to be recovering.” She sniffs. “Of course, you think of such things far more than an angyalka would at all times.”

“Ye... n...”

Keris has to think about that, which at least distracts her from the sensations. She’s honestly not sure, right now, whether she’d prefer the fever. At least she was delirious for most of that. Even if she had been hallucinating and cycling through various states of hysterical joy and terror.

They arrive at her townhouse with three or four screams to spare, and Keris wastes no time. Experimentation, and a large bedroom, reveals several things. First, she can indeed make lesser Gales who seem to be less bothered by the lack of music in their heads. They seem discomforted at first, but the presence of an angyalka in the room and more pressing matters for them to attend to seems to let them shake it off.

Second, it... sort of creeps her out a bit, talking to such... well, stupid versions of herself, to be blunt. They’re giggly and sex-obsessed, and don’t really have anything to offer on what she’s doing with Kuha at the moment or the dinner she’ll be attending. It doesn’t take long for Keris to decide that talking to her lesser Gales should be kept strictly within whatever subjects she made them for.

And third, it is in fact possible to sate the Yozi Sickness bothering her. It just... takes a while. And three clones. And destroys most of the bedroom.

And doesn’t last forever. She can already feel the simmering heat growing hotter again, even as she lies in the afterglow. But it’s much reduced from the all-encompassing burn that it was. That’ll have to do.

Urgh, Keris thinks as she takes a cold bath. Another problem is that she has three other dumb-hers worth of stupid in her head right now. She’s got four sets of memories there, and she’s never had to reintegrate memories before. It feels weird.

She’ll need to be at the dinner soon. This’ll be very important and there will probably be other Unquestionable there. And she’s acutely aware that whatever she wears will be taken as a political statement, because that is something that Sasi hammered into her before the last All-Thing.

She really didn’t need this invitation from Lord Ligier. Not now.

She resorts to her tried-and-tested method of problem-solving in extremis when time is short and she lacks the necessary expertise to make judgements herself.

“Mehuniiiii! Help me pick out what to wear! I want to go for a sort of... broadly neutral, leaning towards Ligier and Lilunu since it’s their party, sort of thing. But not too overstated. Or dull and fru- urgh, no, shut up. Never mind that last bit; leftover stupid. What do you think?”

“My mistress,” Mehuni says in oily tones - as is his wont - “I would not presume to lecture you here. But perhaps you might wish to go in your armour, as you are coming as his valiant champion? And then combine elements on top of that?”

“... you’re a genius.” Keris grins. “Okay, armour up! Ooo, huh. I wonder if I can get him to tune it up? I mean... I remember Rosseah being able to do... things, with it. Special powers. But I think time and tainting it has made them stop working.”

She purses her lips and thinks it over. “I’ll ask him. He might be in a good enough mood to do it for no further cost, depending on how hard a fix it is. It might just be unblocking some essence paths. So, armour, with a surcoat over it... cut half-and-half between him and Lilunu, I think. No symbols, but have their colours. Yeah, and Amulet plus armour for once. This should do.”

“I would advise against asking more of him - not without more gifts,” Dulmea says quickly.

“Well, I can ask him how hard he thinks it would be to fix, at least,” Keris decides. “Okay, time to start getting ready. And urgh. Hopefully the stupid will have drained away by the time I get there.”

Echo interrupts with a teasing hand gesture that indicates that this wouldn’t be possible, as Rathan is still around.

((Oh, sibling rivalries.))

Despite the presence or lack thereof of stupid, Keris arrives at the dinner in a relatively good mood, and looking fantastic. She is aided in this quite considerably by an unexpected appearance from Lilunu herself, who requests that Keris accompany her. Apparently she will be attending, and this is very special because she rarely leaves her own flesh. Ligier seems to have insisted, however.

Lilunu is wearing an incredibly elaborate layered robe of ten thousand scale-like scraps of cloth, each one a subtly different colour. They seem to float freely around her body, but they are so layered that the cloth-scales form a perfect, cohesive whole that gleams in the green light like a living thing. Upon her brow she wears a diadem with an emerald the size of a man’s fist, and a bindi hangs down onto her brow that shines bright green just like Keris’ own caste mark.

Next to her beauty, Keris - in her armour and surcoat - feels plain, if not ugly. She’s pretty sure that Lilunu notices, but the Unquestionable doesn’t mention it; instead asking after the artpiece she gave Keris, and what she's been doing in her manse on the sixteenth layer. Keris is more than happy to chatter with her, though she does ask for a brief talk in private at Lilunu’s convenience.

“Of course,” Lilunu says brightly. “I do enjoy our talks. Perhaps... hmm, yes, down by the Lake of Cranes.”

And then they’re getting out, and it’s all pomp and pageantry and being whirled through to present one’s self in front of Unquestionable Ligier who is literally radiant in plate of his own sunlight.

Keris is careful to observe the proper formalities when she presents herself - and it’s easier, now, to keep her head. There’s no longer quite so much terror of screwing up and inadvertently offending him and being blasted into ash, not with her newfound understanding of her power, and her plans.

Also it sort of helps that she remembers the vaguely paternal air he had when they met in private. And this time he’s happy already! Keris’s caste mark burns proudly on her forehead as she congratulates Ligier on his - of course - inevitable victory.

Ligier smiles benevolently at her. “Oh, little Keris,” he says, giving her a proud kiss on each cheek. “So good of you to come here. I know I can always rely on loyal and most wonderfully effective service from you.”

There are mutterings from some of the witnesses. Some of them sound a little shocked. Others, Keris hears clearly, are already considering how to raise their status in Ligier’s sight by befriending Keris.

“He treats you like you’re a well-trained pet rat who’s just done a trick,” Calesco says cynically. “Incidentally, mother, why do I know that about pet rats? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a rat!”

‘... you’re going to comment for this whole supper, aren’t you?’ Keris realises, as she murmurs thanks and departs with Lilunu. ‘And I know, okay? But for now, I’m playing along. Apart from anything else, he still has my ship.’

“Calesco!” There’s sounds of a scuffle and also of an angry Haneyl. “How dare you not tell me that respected and honourable and amazing and fantastic Ligier and super and special and pretty and also amazing Lilunu are going to be here! I get to be watching! Not you! You’ll ruin everything!”

“You bring ruin to everything you touch,” Calesco retorts.

“No, you!”

Keris is served little sliced heads of frog-like creatures as the two sisters start fighting. And pulling each other’s hair, using their own hair. Which is somewhat counterproductive given how that just lets them get their hair on your hair.

Calesco is kicking Haneyl in the shin as Keris digs in. It’s... quite bloody tasting.

((Her warring feelings over the Unquestionable are fighting.))
(( : D ))
(( : P ))

‘People who aren’t fighting get to eat,’ she points out. ‘And these are really pretty tasty. And a bit moreish. Hmm. I wonder if you could do them with rat, instead of frog-thing? I think Rathan’s made some rats up on his moon.’

“But she’s going to ruin everything!” Haneyl wails in protest. “She doesn’t like them!”

“I don’t like them because I’m not a stupid little girl who doesn’t see them for what they are,” Calesco counters.

There’s a shocked silence. Calesco appears to have launched the Ligierian essence superweapon of conversational options.

“So, little Keris,” Ligier says, leaning over to her conversationally. He holds an oversized goblet of something golden in one hand, and holds Lilunu’s hand in the other. “I hear you have been carrying out private research for the past while. On what, I might ask?”

“A project Peer Testolagh and I are collaborating on, my lord,” Keris says. The complicated politics of the Demon Realm may be above her head, and long-term planning is beyond her, but this; this she knows well. “He has a curious little group in north-east of owlrider savages.

“Their riders take drugs that leave them small enough to fly, but which weaken their health. I’ve been creating an alchemical process to keep them small while fixing their failing bodies. In return, he will train and deliver me the core of an air force that cannot be banished or bound by sorcery. It’s been going well, all in all.”

Ligier tilts his head, clearly a momentary fancy catching his whim. “Ah, yes. But why not just strip out their failing organs and replace them with constructs of brass. And then perhaps give them skin of lead. Now, yes, no mortal bird could carry such weight, but I’m sure it would be trivial to construct something far superior to carry them.”

“Alas,” Keris spreads her hands, “I’m afraid I lack the genius for such a thing, my lord. My skill lies in alchemy. Though... I did hope to ask your opinion on a matter of craft?”

Ligier looks momentarily disappointed. Keris gets the distinct feeling that he was getting into the idea of lead-skinned riders upon some kind of golem steed. “What manner of question?” he enquires.

((Reaction + Awareness, sight-based))
((12 dice; OH COME ON. 1 sux, wtf.))
((What even are the odds for that?))
((1.52%))

Keris continues unabashed, not noticing anything at all. Because there was nothing to notice.

“The armour I wear is from a First Age tomb,” she explains. “And while it’s excellent armour, it’s largely inert. I wondered if it might have powers I haven’t been able to access, or which have degraded with time - I have no idea how to look for such things, but I thought your eye might well spot them at a glance.”

((... now I’m getting a mental image of Keris attempting to divine the workings of a First Age microwave by trial and error. Keris cannot into HFA tech.))

He doesn’t look too interested, but at least he doesn’t look to have taken offence. He may still be thinking about the owls. “Perhaps,” he says casually, and that’s that.

Lilunu clears her throat. “Keris,” she says, leaning in slightly. She smells of the night’s air and flowers and ozone, Keris thinks at the moment. “I did actually have an enquiry with regards to your work with Testolagh. How does it go? Do you feel your skills are best used there? There are many things that must be done throughout the South-West that might be yours to do, if you felt like a challenge or a change of scenery.”

“Oh, I believe she’s enjoying herself where she is - and being very useful,” Ligier says, with a gleam in his eye.

“Well, I’d certainly like to take my ship back to the Southwest once it’s finished,” Keris admits. “A masterpiece like that deserves to be used, and I know I can cripple the Realm with it. I’ve heard as many rumours of raksha pirates down there as Lintha, too,” she adds, looking at Ligier. “But I was planning on taking another trip back to the northeast - to deliver the owlrider project, if nothing else. And there were a couple of other large raksha groups in the area...”

“See?” Ligier says smugly. “I trust her to do what is best for all of us. Have more faith in me, my beloved.”

Lilunu dips her head. “Of course, my love,” she says softly. Keris looks between them, getting the distinct impression that she’s missed something.

((Reaction + Politics))
((5+1+2 Coadj+2 stunt=10.))
((...))
((holy shit, 11 sux. three tens. wtf is with you today, dice fairies? Did someone cast that “extremes of luck in both directions” rote on me?))
((0.81% chance, there.))

She’s taking the reprimand more... harshly than the words would seem to justify. It looks just like lovers bickering - hell, she’s had similar conversations with Sasi - but while Ligier is acting perfectly normally for that sort of thing, Lilunu... isn’t. Unease circles in the back of her mind - and also in her soul, where Calesco is pacing. Keris isn’t sure what, exactly, she’s on the edge of, but she decides it would, for now, be a good idea to back away from it. Busily applying herself to her meal, she waits until the tension has faded and things seem safeish again.

The air has faded and Keris is involved in a conversation with several prominent figures in Hell about the artistic merits of a new school of silver-sculpting - the luck to find someone who actually knows about it, Mehi Sabene, a Second Circle who serves Ligier - when Haneyl starts speaking to her.

“Mother,” she asks formally. “Are you going to ever get your own place to live? Really your own, I mean? Not just in the Conventicle? A place which belongs to only you? Like how this place is only Ligier’s?”

‘Yes, dear,’ Keris assures her. ‘Not for a little while longer - until we go back to the Southwest - but once I have my ship, we’re going to scoop up the misbegotten who agree to come with us, find an island somewhere outside Tengese waters and make it ours.’ She pauses to weigh in on the respective merits and downsides of wax-casting, and nods thoughtfully at the responses.

‘And,’ she adds darkly, ‘I might take that demesne, too. And Garooj’s fleet. If Ululaya’s going to hate me anyway, I don’t see any reason to let her waste the Lintha on rotting to death.’

“Oh. Okay. That’s good.” Haneyl sounds quieter than usual, and not just because Keris distinctly heard Calesco elbowing her in the mouth. For such a quiet morose little girl, Calesco fights in a very... Nexan style.

... Keris is rather proud of that.

Ligier has got involved in the discussion on silver-smithing, and the topic has shifted to the best kinds of silver ore. “I, for one,” he says, “am very fond of the black silver ores from the Omphalos. They’re a pain to obtain these days, with those wretched Dragonblooded dogs controlling that place which should be ours...”

“Hear hear!”

“... not to be said the problems with working with it when both my light and the light of the Traitor Sun ruins them, but when properly prepared they drink up the light in wonderful way only to release it when no light shines on them. Keris, what silvers do you work with?”

((Haneyl is preparing to say something which is why she thinks it’s important to have her own land no one can take from her (for raisin’ babbies), and I’ll let you put it in when you want.))
((Oh god.))

“Well, I learned the craft in An Teng, so obviously Tengese silver was what I started with,” Keris says. “I’ve used a few other types since then - some better quality - but I’m still fond of it; though that might be their methods as much as the silver itself. The best I’ve found...”

She purses her lips, and Haneyl chooses that moment to speak up again from a temporary vantage point kneeling on Calesco’s back.

“Are you going to raise the babies on the ship, though, or on the island?”

“... are probably the- what.”

Keris’s train of thought takes a figurative turning into a cliff. “The...” She clamps her mouth shut. ‘The what? Babies? What babies? Where? Whose?’

“... yours, Mama,” Haneyl says, as if this should be obvious. “Your twins.”

Keris’s mouth opens, but no sound comes out for a moment. “... my... twins?” she manages. “How...” She glances down at her belly - still flat, and touches the layer of silk and moonsilver over it as if this will answer the many, many questions currently vying for attention. Then, realising she’s being stupid, she opens a tiny, tiny toothless mouth within her womb, just enough to get a taste inside herself.

There are two little... little things in there. Things that don’t taste entirely of her. And the inside of her womb is filled with Kimberyian waters, and the walls are teeming, seeping coral and ice. Neither of the little... the little babies have a single umbilical cord - they’ve got many fronds extending into them. She’s... fairly sure her body wasn’t like that before.

Questions arise, as Keris stares numbly at the lords of Hell in front of her. Questions like... how? And who is the father? And... what if they’re Adorjan’s?

“I’m... pregnant,” she says faintly, unsure of whether she’s saying it internally, externally or both. “How am I pregnant? How long have you known I was pregnant, what am I pregnant with, when did this-” She takes a couple of steps back, her hair moving in jerky motions as if unsure of which way it wants to go.

“Whose are they? They can’t be- She only said...” She opens the mouth again, tasting, assessing, vaguely aware of someone talking but not really able to focus on anything but panic at the moment. Her eyes glint green as she focuses on the not-her parts of the tiny things that she is not thinking of as babies because she needs not to have a complete breakdown here, and that will definitely happen as soon as she lets herself think hard about this.

Her interior tongue tastes them. They don’t taste of Adorjan. That’s... that’s good.

One tastes of golden sun and fire and Hell and girl. And Yamal.

The other tastes of death and moon and Hell and boy. And Rat.

Um.

“... that... that’s impossible; it was a dream, that doesn’t happen!” Keris rants, bewildered and yes, okay, this might be a slight meltdown. Or. Not-so-slight. She laughs slightly hysterically. “At least they were from that dream, and not the second one, or I might be carrying Adorjan’s...”

A wave of terror cuts that sentence off before it finishes, and she staggers backwards in search of a chair, eyes wide and unseeing. She finds a table, which is almost as good, and also a hand, which grips her firmly by the arm and shakes her.

“I’m pregnant,” she tells it blindly, sucking in air in an attempt to calm herself down. It... mostly just leads to her starting to hyperventilate. “I’m pregnant and I didn’t know and I don’t know how I’m going to- and how long have you known?”

Her voice goes whip-sharp as she tilts her head forward and closes her eyes, focusing inward. “How long have you known this and not told me? How did you know? How long have they been there - no, it must have been the dream, so... a month? Six weeks.”

Haneyl - paler than usual, on the verge of tears, also with a black eye - wrings her hands together. “I... I realised your blood tasted funny a few weeks ago but I wasn’t sure what it was until not so long ago and then I didn’t know what to do or say and I was worried because you didn’t have a place but you said you’d get a place so that would mean it’d be okay? Right? Mama, please be okay? Y-you’re scaring me!”

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. “No, yes, okay. Fine. Okay. I’m okay. I’m p... I’m okay.” She surreptitiously clings to the table a little bit. It occurs to her, though the haze of shock, confusion, possibly-delight, probably-panic and almost-definitely-insecurity, to check who the owner of the hand still clamped around her arm is.

One of the lavishly dressed servants has her arm. “My lady,” it’s saying.

Ligier has a hand half-raised, as if he’s about to gesture to unknown purposes. Lilunu looks shocked and concerned. The other guests are confused and there’s some fear there, too.

Oh, hey, there’s another feeling added to the mix. Embarrassment? No, probably not. Mortification? Yeah, that sounds closer. Her breathing is speeding up again, so Keris closes her eyes and curls in on herself; her hands automatically going to her midriff. She’s shaking, she realises; trembling like a leaf in a gale. The tinkling sound at the edge of her hearing; that’s her. Metal fingers rattling against each other; her hair shaking the table.

“I...” she gets out in a whisper, and the cavernous sound of the hall becomes too much. Twisting free of the servant’s grip, and hopefully not hurting it in the process, she bolts.

When she opens her eyes again, she’s by the water. Somewhere. Wait, no. This is the Lake of Cranes that Lilunu mentioned. If anyone was here when she arrived, they’ve either fled or are being very, very quiet. Keris breathes out, sinks down to the ground and concentrates.

Fear. Panic. Confusion, uncertainty, humiliation, hysteria. A boiling cocktail of passion that’s making it impossible to think - almost impossible to hear over the pounding of her heartbeat.
She breathes out. She turns her back on them, and steps away.

... that’s better. Now she just feels sort of... hollow.

“Child!” It’s Dulmea. She sounds furious.

“... how can I have their children?” Keris whispers, confusion bubbling up again. Not overwhelming, this time, but a solid wall against anything else for the moment. “It’s... I never slept with Rat after... after he vanished and came back. I never slept with Yamal at all - I wasn’t even alive at the same time as Yamal. How can they...”

She looks down at her midsection and touches the armour there, as if it’ll tell her the answers to her question. “Did She do this? Or was it something about that first dream? I was stronger, after. I-”

The blood drains from her face abruptly as another possibility raises its head. “I... I had that dream running across the Desert. She... She grants wishes. Wh-what if it was Her?

“What? Child, I don’t follow. You’re raving. Oh, oh, this was a mistake. You shouldn’t have come here, not still half-mad from Adorjan. You must make sure the Unquestionable know that you’re not yourself!”

“Dulmea,” Keris repeats numbly. “The Desert. She grants wishes. And I want... I want a family, you know that. And I had a dream as I ran across the Desert, of Rat and Yamal, and now... now I’m...”

((Hee. This theory genuinely had not occurred to me until just now. But it is hilariously plausible from what Keris knows.))
((Or possibly terrifyingly plausible.))
((... yeah, more that second one.))

“Don’t be scared, mama,” Haneyl says fearfully. “I don’t want you to be scared. It tastes of the ocean and there’s coral and stuff like Rathan in there and the babies are all tied up in fronds and things like that. It’s not deserty! I’d taste it if it was deserty!”

“... the Great Mother,” Keris murmurs. “You’re sure? No, I tasted too. And she is a mother, so... okay. Okay.” Her heartbeat starts - very slowly - to settle. “Okay. So. I’m pregnant. With... with some gift of the Great Mother, and I’m carrying...” she winces, “Rat and Yamal’s children, oh, that is not going to go down well when they’re born. And unlike Sasi I have no idea what I’m doing. And I’ve already got all of you. And... and they don’t taste human, and it’ll be a year before they’re born, which... which doesn’t seem like long enough at all, and I just... just broke down completely in front of Ligier and Lilunu and who knows how many of Hell’s finest and I need to stop talking.” She buries her face in her hands. “I need to stop right now or I’ll do it again. This is...”

This is a good thing, Echo gestures. And for once, she’s subdued. Well, for Echo. She’s beaming, and vibrating in place with the desire to run all over the Empire with birthday ribbons, but she’s staying still and using little words because Mama is scared and still a little bit crazy and stupid. And that’s probably why she can’t see that even if things are sort of messed up, it’s a good thing! Because she has babies! A little girl that’s half her and half Yamal, and a little boy who’s Rathan’s brother and half her and half Rat! And they’re hers and she’s theirs and they’re going to be so cute!

“... ‘something to remember us by’,” Keris murmurs, lips twitching reluctantly. “Just as I was waking. He knew. Bastard.”

Haneyl and Rathan seem for once slightly united in their uncertainty if they want siblings.

And Calesco is... smiling quietly. Okay. Right. That’s creepy.

“What’re you smiling about?” Keris mumbles, glancing out across the water. “This isn’t funny.”

“Isn’t it? Don’t you long to have more and more and more family? Of course you’d have your own children, rather than just declare your souls to be your children.”

“... was hoping to have them later,” Keris says, which isn’t actually an answer to either of Calesco’s questions. Normally she’d avoid further questioning by springing to her feet with a ‘now what?’, but right now she’s feeling too emotionally exhausted to do much more than look at the ripples spreading back and forth in the lake.

Eventually - she’s not too sure exactly how much later, but it’s not a short while - there’s a sound behind her. The faint noise of flux and chaos that often accompanies Lilunu in the form of Omen Weather.

“Not,” Keris admits as the Unquestionable draws closer, “my best reaction ever to unexpected news.” She squeezes her eyes shut. “I should’ve talked to you earlier. This is because of - well, partly because of - the after-effects. Of what I wanted to...” she waves a hand uncertainly. “Tell you about? Ask you about?”

Gulping, she turns around. Lilunu is the only living thing approaching her. There are automatons behind her - quite a few of them, and powerful ones - but no other demons.

“Is Ligier angry?” Keris asks in a small voice.

Lilunu pauses behind her. “He is not happy,” she says quietly. “You embarrassed yourself - and therefore him, because he had praised you.”

Keris nods. “I... think I should tell you what happened two weeks ago,” she says quietly. “Nearly two weeks. Uh... twenty five screams, I think?” She shakes her head, dismissing the technicality.

“I was dreaming,” she says. “Not of my souls or... or anything magical or true, just a normal dream. Fantasy. Sasi was there. And... and then she split herself apart; tore off her clothes and her skin and the sky and the dream. And I was somewhere else.”

She goes quiet for a moment. “That dream. That was true,” she says. “It was Her. The Silent Wind. There was... we were lying in... and she loved me. Me, alone. So much love that it could... could tear down empires and scour layers clean and endure for thousands of years.”

She looks up at Lilunu, shaking faintly again and hoping she won’t see the features of the Hushbringer on the Unquestionable’s features. “She thought I was someone else, I think. I don’t know who. But she was so beautiful, and... terrible. Beyond words. Beyond sound. Beyond sanity.”

One hand trails in the water, moving back and forth slowly. Lilunu stays silent and composed, her expression veiled as she waits for Keris to finish. The automata are watching her too. Keris wonders if Ligier is watching through their eyes. She drops her gaze.

“That was twelve days ago,” she finishes quietly. “The first time I met Her, I went mad. The second time, it took days before I could speak again, and she gave me this.” She traces the scar that runs up her jawbone. It’s not the only one Adorjan gave her that day, but it’s by far the most obvious. “This time... Dulmea says I shouldn’t have come here. Not so soon after. Not like this.”

Lilunu’s face holds rigid for a moment. She flickers for a moment, and there’s a gleam of jade in her smile and a darkness in her hair.

She smiles.

So sweet of you to remember me our love burns eternal and I’ll always love you no matter what, her smile says. And now you’re here and I’m here and all the plans of the weavers who spin their webs have come to nothing because creatures like us run free and unchained, my beloved.

Lilunu takes a step forwards, and now she has a knife in her hand. Don’t flee, my love, you won’t escape me because my heart is for you, she indicates, clutching her knife tighter. And don’t scream because screaming hurts creatures like us. She taps her own mouth, silently sticking out her tongue.

I’ll free you from the agony of noise, she gestures with the knife. Stick out your tongue. Then you’ll be free.

((Wheeee, special end of session, extra XP for SPECIALNESS))
((...))
((... ... ...))
((did))
((did you just))
((did you))
((...))
((you just))
((... gaaaaaah.))
((HATE))
((HATE YOU SO))
((HATE))
(( : D ))
((AAAaaaargh, why didn’t I see this coming, you even said she had a present for Echo, argh.))
((Well at least the automata will be permissible as evidence for my insanity plea.))
(( : D ))
((You’d got a little too comfortable over the past few sessions~))
((i am literally headdesking right now))
((you bastard, you planned this as soon as I said I wanted to have Haneyl drop the bomb in front of Lilunu))
((argh, why do I keep handing you sticks to beat me with?))
((it’s like you don’t even read the adorjan excellency~))
((hate hate hate hate haaaaaaaaate))

Chapter Text

Adorjan-Lilunu steps closer, a wide smile on her pale, doll-like face. The wind is picking up, and Keris can feel it brush through her hair. It hurts when it touches her skin. The knife in Adorjan-Lilunu’s hand makes the air shiver. Keris thinks it would scream if it wasn’t so close to the possessed demon-princess.

Two daughters you have from me two beautiful daughters who are part of you an eternal testament of our love, her smile tells Keris. I’ll make you more like me no more screaming only laughter. They’ll learn from me and we’ll all be free because we’ll be the same like a family except that won’t hold us back.

Inside her head, Keris hears Calesco whimper in absolute terror. Echo isn’t laughing and her trembling says everything it needs to.

All around Adorjan-Lilunu, the carefully engineered metal plants are dying.

((... welp. I was going to take a more reserved approach, buuuuut... whee, valour rolls every action. 3 sux. Keris is not yet terrified enough to bolt.))

Keris backs away, dead white. A pleading look at the automata gets her nothing. Unsurprising, really. What could they possibly do against this? Her ears prick, but there’s nothing nearby, nowhere to hide, nothing to distract the mad titan.

Adorjan’s presence is almost a physical force. It’s all Keris can do to back up one terrified step at a time. All the same, she manages to whisper inwardly.

‘D-Dulmea,’ she hisses. ‘Run. Cloud wall. Away from the Tower.’ The way in and out of her inner world; the window through which her souls can see, is in the tower. Whatever’s about to happen, Keris doesn’t want her souls seeing it.

And she doesn’t want to risk that window working both ways, either. She feels her feet hit the water’s edge and manages to essay a tiny, miniscule shake of her head.

“I’m n-not leaving you, child,” Dulmea whispers. “I pr-promised to be your mother. I have to be your g-guide. H-Haneyl and Rathan are gone, but... but the others won’t go.” There’s clearly tears in her voice. “Just run,” she pleads.

“I’m staying,” Calesco whispers. “Sh-she’s crazy. I c-can’t run from the truth. That’s the truth. H-her love will kill you in the end. If not now, some day.”

Time slows down. Keris can feel the immense, colossal danger lurking ahead of her. Each footstep takes an aeon.

((1 sux. Welp.))

Keris bolts. Not away, though. This is the Silent Wind. The Hushbringer. Keris can no more outrun Her than a mortal could outrun Keris. The lake is open water; she’d be run down in seconds.

So Keris runs into the gale. Straight towards Lilunu, aiming past her, towards her guard. If she can get behind them, they might slow Adorjan down. And that’s all she needs, because as strong as Lilunu is, not even she can host the power of an All-Maker for long.

((Aiming to Who Strikes The Wind past Adorjan-Lilunu and put as many automata between her and Keris as possible in what is commonly known as “desperate stalling attempt #1”.))
((Okay, so, essentially, this is Adorjan throwing a 5 attack flurry at Keris every action that she’s in range. This is therefore meaningfully a chase - if Adorjan is in range, she’s throwing 5 attacks at Keris, if Keris manages to get away then her timer is counting down. Does Keris have a flurrybreaker?))
((... frell. Uh. No. No she does not. And Laughing Gust Denial just went up another notch on my “to buy” list.))
((... on the plus side, I am in my armour. Small mercies, I guess.))
((So, she’s effectively currently in full maxed out mode, throwing everything she has into maiming Keris without much care for Lilunu’s body. Hence, her dice pools for the 5 attacks are 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, as she’s using Self-As-Cyclone-Stance. Since Keris is running past her she’s getting a free set of attacks on her.
These are, of course, “normal” attacks and so Keris may, if she so chooses, perfect or resolve normally with her DVs against any of them. We’ll bulk resolve them.))

Keris lunges pass Adorjan-Lilunu. But she’s already moving lightning-fast, knife in hand. She seems to be striking to cripple, not kill - a small mercy. Or perhaps it’s not a mercy. Keris knows all too well that Adorjan doesn’t want her dead. She wants her to become her.

The deadly knife sweeps in, and meets only air as Keris dissolves into wind to get past it. Adorjan almost seems amused as Keris uses her own secrets to evade her touch - and perhaps she’s right to be, because the cost is chillingly high. Keris flares her anima as bright as it will go as she makes for the automata, but despite the surge of power as she lights up the lake in scarlet and silver, she’s left drained and terrified at how close her ephemeral gusts came to being cut.

And they’re off. Adorjan-Lilunu skips after Keris, her pace somehow indomitable and also lightning fast. Her grace is beyond measure - but Keris herself is elegant in a way no mere mortal could be. Neither could most green sun princes. One step sends Keris flickering over the heads of the brass-armoured automata, the machinae corroding under the light of her newly burning soul.

But borne up on red and white winds is Lilunu right behind her, an ecstatic smile on her face. She’s almost blindingly bright, glowing from the power within her and her clothes are shifting and changing from the terrible essence flux, becoming ribbons that trail and writhe around her.

We will dance together, you and I my beloved and our hands shall meet and your dance will never end and your children shall be mine and mine shall be yours my love my sweet my darling, she smiles, blood oozing from her eyes. I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you.

Ahead of Keris is a vertical wall of great Ligierian towers, reaching up towards his glowing bulk in the sky. To her right she can see one of his grand avenues, thronging with demons - to her left, what looks to be delicate workshops for pottery.

She swears under her breath and darts left, unwilling to lead Adorjan into a populated area. Opening her senses to her surroundings, she darts left again, racing towards the lake and hoping that the Silent Wind won’t be willing to follow her underwater. Open ground without cover it may be, but the Yozi on her tail is faster than her. Fast enough that cover is meaningless. She’s going to catch up - probably before Keris makes the lake. At least this way Keris will have the home field advantage when she gets there.

And she needs that home field advantage. She needs this to be over, as soon as possible. Because if she’s caught, she and her souls will be flensed of feeling - and every second she prolongs the chase is hurting Lilunu. It’s a double-edged sword that’s hurting someone whichever way it falls, and Keris can hear Calesco’s terrified sobbing laughter in her mind.

((Physique+Athletics=5+5+10 Adorjani ExD {always in motion, restless}+2 stunt+5 Be Loved=27. Oh fuck you, dice fairies. 6. Shit.))

Two turns is two too many. Swinging around to intersect her path; Adorjan is on her again.

Adorjan-Lilunu is right in front of Keris, leaping over in one graceful swan-like bound. The ribbons around her wave in elegant heart-like shapes, unveiling the mottled bruises starting to proliferate across her flesh.

So sweetly you dance, she says with each flicker-fast stab. She’s aiming for the limbs, aiming to slow Keris down so she can do... whatever she plans to do. All too aware of how costly it was to tear herself into wind the first time, Keris ducks away from the blows, praying for her armour to save her from a crippling wound. She tries her best to dodge, but even inhuman agility isn’t enough to avoid this kind of speed. A part of her is in awe. The rest is occupied with much more sensible terror. The first few blows go through her guard with uncanny ease, and though she manages to avoid one; it’s more luck than skill.

But she calls on the Great Mother’s power; sends it rushing through her body, and feels the wounds heal before they’ve finished forming. Hissing tongues of dark green fog rise from the punctured holes in her plate as her wounds seal over as fast as the knife comes out.

And now the water is dead ahead of her.

Adorjan-Lilunu pouts at her, in a worryingly Echoish way. Why use the ocean she’s too tied to things in her heart she swirls and nurses old pains I fondly remember her screams as she burned she was a bad child and so she burns her children too if she was more like us she’d let it go and not make others suffer like she suffered because suffering is attachment and she is too attached don’t be like her my love if you were like her you’d be hurt too but you won’t be.

Blood oozes from between her parted, noiseless lips.

Just let me do what I came here to do my sweet you’ll be like me even more and then I’ll go this place is too loud some day it’ll all be silent but not now because the city’s heart beats too loud for me my sweet, she says, licking Keris’ blood off her knife with a frisson of pleasure. It’ll be all so fast because speed is life and my darling there will be no death for you no no death again you won’t die you’ll be with me be free with me love me freely like I love you.

Just one cut and there’ll be no more screaming for you just like there was no more screaming for me when your love set me free my beautiful one my beloved our passion will run free through the streets just like we do forever and ever and ever.

((Adorjan is annoyed that Keris is using Kimbery’s powers rather than her own, and is making a social attack to persuade Keris to submit to what she wants to do so Adorjan can go away from this noisy place having come what she wants to do. As far as Keris is aware, she is telling the truth when she says she doesn’t want to kill her and she just wants to do what she intends to and then she’s leave and stop possessing Lilunu.
That’s 24 dice, + 3 dice stunt + 5 autosucceses from her TLA intimacy which she’s channeling to teach Keris.))
((... yeah, okay. Hmm. Yeah. Self-sacrifice time. And hopefully I can heal this later if needed.))

Keris glances forward at the water of the lake. So inviting, so tempting. If she dove in... she could probably lose Adorjan.

... but the Silent Wind would keep chasing her. And Lilunu is already badly, badly hurt.

“You-” Calesco starts, high-pitched in terror. She doesn’t seem to be able to finish her sentence. Dulmea is playing a single low note over and over, whispering “no” with each beat.

... she could probably lose Adorjan. But she might not. Is that chance worth Lilunu’s life?

Keris grits her teeth and stops, turning as she skids to a halt on the shores of the lake and retracting her helmet. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath...

... and opens her mouth.

Adorjan-Lilunu’s eyes widen in pure pleasure, and with an ecstatic glee smile she throws herself at Keris, locking her arms around her neck. Her lips burn Keris’, but it’s like eating snow, not the raw agony of kissing the Wind herself. Keris is reminded that this is not Adorjan, not exactly - and this kiss explains just how different it is.

It also doesn’t help matters that the Yozi-sickness still infests Keris’ mind, and without meaning to, she sinks into the possessed demon’s arms. Their legs move together and they run, lips still locked. They don’t need to breath. Keris can taste Lilunu’s blood from the cuts and bruises opening up over her.

Adorjan-Lilunu inhales. Keris feels the breath sucked out of her lungs, feels her voice flee her throat. It’s like what the Weaver of Voices did to her, only more so.

And then the lips separate and there’s metal in Keris’ mouth and then there’s pain. Sudden, blinding pain. Keris tries to scream, but she can’t. All there is is the taste of blood in her mouth and the hollow vacancy and the sudden awareness that there isn’t anything where her tongue should be.

No screaming, the other woman gestures, knife still in Keris’ mouth. That’s a sign of our love that you don’t scream.

Adorjan-Lilunu pulls the severed muscle out with her other hand, closes Keris’ mouth, and gives her a chaste kiss on the lips.

You won’t be needing that, she smiles happily, cheekily waving Keris’ tongue at her. Before her eyes, she pulls it between her fingers, the bloody red flesh stretching and elongating beyond measure, until it’s a red band or sash of threaded muscle-fabric.

Then she passes the sash and her knife to Keris who takes them in numb, shocked, shaking fingers. For my daughters, she indicates. The knife is for the one who runs behind like my own dear heart so all doors will be opened for her, while the sash is for the one who runs ahead to carry your love to others so all will know she is a messenger.

She kisses Keris again, less chastely. Her tongue runs over the stub of Keris’ own. There’s no pain there. Or perhaps there’s so much pain she can’t register it. And now my love I must go our time is too short and think of me for when I think of you I will send you sweet dreams of me, she breathes down Keris’ throat. I love you with all my heart though she does not love you and I long for when you will shed your skin and learn to move without your heavy flesh to weigh you down.

She breaks off the kiss, steps back, and Lilunu sags. She collapses down, eyes rolled back, weeping blood.

((Adorjan has cut out Keris tongue as a Crippling effect, and also stolen her voice as another Crippling effect. The knife and sash are special presents Adorjan is giving as child support.))
((... yay?))
((It’s a “mundane” magical Crippling effect, both of them, so can be fixed by things that can fix magical Crippling effects. Oh, and Keris may use this as a Training effect to learn Eloquence in Unspoken Words. She will recieve an XP discount if she does, from Yozi tuition.))
((She shall. That gives her a telepathy radius of... 100 yards. Cool.))

Keris all but throws the sash and knife into her Domain, lunging to catch the... um, taller and heavier woman. She screams for help, and... makes no sound.

Right. No screaming. Even her anima has gone silent. But Lilunu is hurt now! And as long as Keris is still burning bright, people won’t be approaching what could be a full-scale battle.

Looking down, Keris realises she is in fact making the situation worse, and hurriedly lays Lilunu down and jerks away, far enough that she’s not hurting her further. She doesn’t have time to find someone and mime things out... Keris snarls angrily, throws her head back and screams, sending her voice inward to refract off the cloud wall with fey instinct.

Get here now!’ is what comes out. But... silently? It’s like an echo, a ripple of unsound that carries as well as a voice but isn’t one. The reflection of sound from her soul.

Time enough to question it later. ‘Now!’ she orders again with her newfound skill. ‘Lilunu is hurt! Move!

((I’mma gonna say that this also means that Keris can communicate with Echoese, at least within her own soul, if she sees fit. : p))
((Yes, she has two paradigms for it. One is Echoese - which is easier and more natural - the other is bouncing sound off the cloud wall for “address everyone within range”.))
((Oh yeah, Adorjan did 2 levels of Agg cutting out the tongue too.))
((Owwww.))
((On the plus side, thanks to her Exalted-healing the stump isn’t bleeding anymore.))
((That is probably for the best.))

Keris is in shock, she thinks later. The demons swarm over once she moves away from Lilunu, and she’s taken away. She keeps on trying to lick the inside of her mouth and she isn’t feeling anything at all.

Everyone is keeping a long, long away from her. They’re terrified of her. They’re terrified of the fact that the Silent Wind is paying personal attention to her. She can hear them talking.

The demons. They’re scared of her. Not just first circles, either. She can hear that there are second circles and sublimati that are terrified of her. There are rumours and whispers about what she could be. Some kind of akuma? But her brow burns with Ligier’s light.

She frowns and checks her hands in a spare moment, remembering the knife and sash. Where are they? Oh, right. She threw them into her Domain. She cocks her head, wondering what they do and why Adorjan gave them to her souls. Keris sinks into her domain, looking for them

The first thing that happens when she opens her eyes is she feels a stinging slap on her cheek. It hurts, and her eyes water.

It was Echo who slapped her, who is probably the angriest-looking Keris has ever seen her.

You made Calesco cry, Echo glares. You need to say sorry! Right now!

Keris waves her hands frantically, wide-eyed. She’s sorry, she’s very sorry! She hangs her head and shrugs sadly. She didn’t want to scare Calesco, but it seemed like the best thing to do. If hosting the Silent Wind had killed Lilunu, it would have been even worse, she communicates with a grave look and a finger across her throat. Not to mention Ligier would have been furious, she adds with a tap to her caste mark.

“I understand,” Calesco says, in a tiny voice. Behind her veils, her nose is snotty and she’s getting the fabric wet. “It’s okay to let yourself get hurt to help someone else.” She hugs herself. “I... I’ve never b-been so scared,” she whispers.

No, Echo gestures. Keris doesn’t get to be forgiven! Not yet! She scared Calesco and she scared Dulmea. She crosses her arms and glares at Keris.

“Yes, she does,” Calesco contradicts her sister. “It had to be d-done. Even if it really h-hurt.”

It didn’t, Echo insists firmly. Mama should have kept running away! Not be stupid and stop! She should have found a really super-noisy place because Other Mama doesn’t like noise at all and she’d have got all confused and if it was loud enough she’d have been forced out of Lilunu!

Keris kisses Calesco on the forehead. She’s sorry she scared her, she communicates. And she’s very proud of her for staying. So, so proud. She was very brave.

Then she moves in a quick lunge, grateful that she’s still wearing her armour in here, and scoops Echo into a hug. It would be an effort if Echo weren’t so light, but as it is, Keris manages to scoop the little ribbon-girl up off her feet and cradle her firmly, rocking her to and fro.

She holds onto her as she picks her way across the room to Dulmea, where she gently puts Echo down with another kiss on the forehead. This one barely hurts. It’s possible Keris’s lips have gone numb.

Gingerly, she kneels down and bows humbly in apology to her mother.

“Why did I get you?” Dulmea says softly, tears running down her face. “Why? You... you... you stupid little girl! Why can’t you keep away from Adorjan? I... I told you to run! Now you’re maimed! Now you... you can’t speak at all! All you can do what Echo does! I want you to be safe! I... I... I love you and I can’t help you! I can’t help you or keep you safe when you do things like this!”

Hanging her head, Keris’s lip trembles. Dulmea helps her all the time, she begs her to understand, looking up with pleading eyes. And... and being safe from being hurt physically isn’t what she needs! She can do that herself, she gestures; she’s good at that. She protects other people in that sense.

She shrinks in on herself again. It’s other kinds of hurt that she needs protecting from, she adds quietly. She can run fast enough and dodge well enough to nearly outrun the Silent Wind’s avatar without even fighting back. She might have done it if she hadn’t stopped, and that means she can be safe herself from most things that attack her.

She looks up urgently. But she still needs Dulmea! For wisdom and caution and feelings and thinking! Now more than ever, since she’s going to be trying to do more planning soon! And Adorjan isn’t the sort of thing anything can protect from or keep away, so that’s not Dulmea’s fault!

She doesn’t intend to say, but suspects lets slip anyway, the pang of fear at Dulmea’s first question. Maybe Dulmea wishes she hadn’t got Keris, is the cold whisper up her back. All she seems to do is scare her. Maybe Keris is just taking here, and not giving anything back. If that’s the case, does she even deserve Dulmea’s help?

“I don’t know what you see in the Wind. Why you become like her. Even now, you’re talking like she does,” Dulmea says numbly. “Or like she doesn’t. It... it’s scarier when you do it than when Echo does it.”

Because Mama scares people, Echo gestures meanly.

“Why are you being like this, Echo?” Calesco asks, her voice soft yet sudden.

Being like what, Echo retorts.

“You’re not happy. You’re angry!”

Echo crosses her arms. She’s angry because Mama scared Calesco and Dulmea, she gestures with snapping motions.

“No, that’s not it,” Calesco says, tilting her head. “You’re acting angry because Mama scared you. Because you’re scared of our other Mama.” She rubs her eyes on her sleeve. Just for a moment, she dislodges one of her veils and Keris sees a flash of white light from underneath. “Is this the first time you’ve been afraid?”

I’m not scared, Echo insists.

“You’re acting like Haneyl,” Calesco says gently.

Echo is not acting like Haneyl, the ribbon-girl motions, turning on her heel and storming out. Calesco is just wrong and stupid and... and... and wrong and stupid, she adds, sticking her head back in before leaving for good.

Outside her body, Keris dimly senses the incandescent flame that means Ligier. She looks up at Dulmea and bites her lip, then taps her lips and pillows her head on her hands. She’ll talk about this later, she promises, but right now she needs to stop things from getting any worse and make her apologies. She squeezes Dulmea’s hand. She will talk this through with her, she swears. Until it’s okay.

Ligier is not happy. He’s not in his normal, urbane form. He glows in a halo of noxious energy - so very much like the anima banner of an Exalt - and his flesh burns. His four arms don’t hold weapons, but the Sword of the Yozis floats by his side.

He stands there like he’s at the edge of suppressed, barely-restrained violence, ready to act against Keris if she’s a danger to him. She glances around at the demons who are still muttering among themselves; even more terrified now that Ligier is here as well, and immediately prostates herself in front of him as humbly as she can. The murmuring kicks up a notch.

That seems to buy her a respite.

“Come.” The word is quiet. “We will talk. In private. Without the ears of lesser beings to spy on matters that do not concern them.”

He gestures and demons burn and melt in intense green fire. The others scatter. He seems to take some relief in that, as he leads Keris through the streets to a private, lead-lined room.

“Talk.”

She opens her mouth. The stub of her tongue makes her point fairly eloquently for her.

Then she shakes her head and thinks for a moment, before turning and pointing at an automaton. She told Lilunu some of it, she mimes with a sweep of her hair and a tilt of her head. Did they see? Or should she explain from the beginning?

Keris quite audibly hears the catch of breath in Ligier’s throat when he ‘hears’ how she’s talking. It’s fear.

“I would prefer for you to explain in full. In your own... words,” he says, a hint of contempt covering any fear that he may be letting through in his voice. “I am quite interested as to why you started acting erratically when you were my guest of honour. Especially when your behaviour set off an... affliction of my beloved and so now she raves in pain in a quiet room. She is very sensitive and must be protected from such callous shocks to her system.”

Keris winces and nods guiltily. Then, haltingly and with the occasional pause as she gropes for a way to communicate a word or concept, she relates what she told Lilunu. That Adorjan has... focused on her, for some reason. She’s not sure why, but the Silent Wind seems to think she’s someone that... she’s pretty sure she’s not, and never has been. That she’s encountered her twice before, and been thrown into madness or muteness each time, and left with the scars on her face.

And then the dream two weeks ago. The terrible beauty and awful bliss of that night spent in a Yozi’s loving embrace. The way that this, too, left her unstable and erratic, and that she’d thought - hoped - that it had worn off enough after almost a fortnight for her to come out in company again. Apparently not.

She gets more confused then; less sure of herself. Lilunu had come after her when she ran from the party. Keris had tried to explain why she’d run, why she’d been so erratic. And then Adorjan had come into her, unexpectedly and without warning. She relates how she’d fled at first, terrified - but then stopped when it became clear that Lilunu’s life might be in danger, and let Adorjan do as she wished. Which hadn’t been to kill her, but merely to maim in some sort of lesson.

She hangs her head in shame as she finishes. It might not be directly her fault, but Lilunu wouldn’t be hurt if not for Adorjan’s interest in her. Keris is at least partly to blame for her injuries.

Ligier just stares at her. “And you did not see it fit to inform me that the Silent Wind had taken a personal interest in you for... what reason, precisely?”

Keris blinks. It... hadn’t really occurred to her, she suggests tentatively. Until these last two weeks, Adorjan had seemed to think of her relatively little. She thinks back and nods with a little more assurance. She’d only encountered Her twice, and both times were when Keris was already out running in the City. It’s only just recently that the Silent Wind has started coming to her.

Ligier says nothing for a while. Then he seems to make up his mind. “Then I command you to return with my beloved to her flesh. While the Silent Wind pursues you, you are not welcome on my layer. Should she come with her full power - well, she must not come.” He folds his lower set of arms. “I believe it would be a good idea for you to make your way to Creation to serve my interests - and soon,” he says firmly. “Perhaps she might forget about you if you are not here to remind her of your existence. And at least you will be safe from her there. You are skilled, little Keris, and she will kill you if she gets the chance. She kills everything. She is our affliction, a curse laid on us by the cruel Sun and his lackeys.” He shakes his head. “Would that Adrián were still here, things might be better - but she is dead and Adorjan is not her. So, for all our sakes, leave my layer before she decides to return.”

Keris opens her mouth - somewhat pointlessly - to protest or ask about her ship. Then she thinks better of the notion and closes it. When the first among the Unquestionable tells you to leave, you leave. She bows low and makes her way out without another gesture.

There is a vehicle being prepared for Lilunu, a great airship pulled by emerald-feathered birds. Keris is not allowed to see her, and only cracks of her mad ravings escape through the door when one of her mute, ear-less guardians pass in and out of the sealed place. Ligier instructed her on pain of death to not attempt to listen to her until Lilunu regained her sanity - and there is a writ from Orabilis hanging above the door which says that the things she says are knowledge only permitted to the Yozis.

The madness of Adorjan fills her, Ligier says, and her mind is not her own. She will rave for days until she remembers who she is. Deprived of the ability to apologise in person, Keris accompanies the ship back to the Conventicle and spends several hours there penning as elaborate an apology note as she can manage. In between throwing away discarded attempts, she marks Lilunu down on a new list of people she needs to repay. After a moment’s thought she adds the Shashalme as well - she still owes it for the gift of the Nests. And she should do something nice for Sasi as well.

Putting Dulmea on the list is somewhat superfluous given that Dulmea is the one keeping the list, but Keris does so anyway.

Then, loath to put Lilunu in more danger by lingering in her flesh, she heads back to the Nests. There are several dugohuzo nests lining the shores of the island now, and though the dangers of the Demon City will undoubtedly reduce their numbers, Keris has promised to work out a Beckoning ritual that the flock can use to call more.

Ligier was right. It’s time and past to get back to Creation - back to the southwest. She estimates there’s only about a week of work left to do on her owlrider project now. The ritual could use more streamlining, but that can wait. Despite Keris’s original intentions, Testolagh doesn’t have any alchemists who can pull off a procedure this advanced and delicate. So it’ll be up to her to make enough doses for his owlriders here, and take them back with her. She can make that artifact she was planning later, but for now converting the riders he already has will have to be enough.

Kuha is very confused by Keris’ current state. Among other things, Keris finds that only people who can speak Old Realm understand Echoese. Some harried gesturing and use of the peronelle as a translator is eventually enough to convey a careful phrasing of the truth - Keris implies that she has chosen to give up her tongue and voice for a while in order to grow in power and wisdom; a test that no mortal could survive but which she can manage - and recover from, in time.

Even in the little time she’s been away, Kuha has changed more. She’s put on even more height and weight, and she’s clearly been eating well because she’s filling out. Keris is, however, filled with joy because she, if anything, weighs even less than she did before. Even if she now has the body of an adult - albeit tiny and slender - woman, she’s lighter than any mortal with her height would be.

Her skin is darkening more, too, as the last traces of the jaundice clears and there’s an attractive auburn tint to her hair. She happily demonstrates to Keris how much stronger she is, and how she help the petal-cherub lift his books without risking breaking her fingers. In fact, she proudly announces that she dropped a book on her foot and nothing got broken.

Admittedly, she calls books ‘lumps of wood’, but it’s the thought that counts. Rounen is somewhat annoyed when he tells Keris that Kuha dropped a book and didn’t even apologise for it, though.

Keris mollifies Rounen with a promise that he can teach Kuha the importance of reading at some later point in time, once they’re back in Creation. Kuha she hugs happily, spinning her round with almost as much ease as she lifts Echo and suggesting they go flying. Which will also be a good opportunity for her to have a short talk with Paricehet, she thinks. Even if speaking Echoese from anyaglo-back might be a bit wobbly in her current state.

“Flying?” Kuha exclaims loudly, throwing her arms around Keris’ neck. “Yes! It will be wonderful!”

Keris feels a bit guilty that she notices how much easier it is to talk with Kuha when they don’t use broken language and she just talks to the peronelle to translate. Old Realm lessons as well, she decides. Maybe she can find a... a tutor-demon or something. It occurs to her that she’s sort of been assuming that Kuha will accompany her back to the Southwest, but... well, she can’t really see her choosing otherwise, with how attached she seems. She asks, just in case, as they mount their ribbon-horses.

Kuha rubs her hands over the back of the ribbon-horse. “I will follow you wherever you wish,” the peronelle says for her. “I will go where you want. I will do what you want. I am not who I used to be, Kerishyra. I do not break like a doll. I fly like a bird. You gave me the sky and the land. I am yours.”

Keris smiles happily, which Kuha seems to understand as acceptance. Sending the owlrider - or anyaglo rider, at the moment - off on a circuit of the Nests, Keris settles down near a group of the birds and raises an eyebrow. So, she indicates, motioning to the edge of the isle and the stave-nests rooted there. She’s started to follow through on her promise, giving them a way to get demons even when she’s not there to supply them.

WHAT DO YOU WANT NOW? the birds ask

Keris pouts, finding that a little unfair. She’s not even asked anything of them yet, she indicates with injured innocence. She’s supplying them with blood and tongues and bodies for them to craft with; a regular-if-small supply that they haven’t had in a long, long time.

So, a tilt of her head and a wide shrug conveys. She’s shown she’s willing to work towards their interests. Are they willing to help her with hers?

TALK. WE MAY CONSIDER IT.

Not exactly what she might have wanted.

Start crafting again, Keris suggests with a grin, pointing around the Nests. Though the knowledge of how to make weapons was stripped from them, she’s guessing they must still be able to make things of value. Her estate can begin to sell such things in the City, which in turn can buy more to craft with and begin to build up some wealth.

She taps her nose sneakily. Their flock might be bound here in their nesting grounds, but their influence - as a lieutenant of hers - need not be. Right? And while that helps her, in practice they’d have a lot of autonomy in managing it while she’s in Creation.

She pauses, her finger on her lips. Just as long as they don’t try to get revenge against the Unquestionable, she adds. That would be a bad plan. A very bad plan.

The birds convene, flocking overhead in seemingly random patterns. They seem to make their decision.

WE WILL MAKE THINGS THAT CAN BE SOLD FOR YOU, they decide. YOU WILL BRING US SLAVES TO DEVOUR. THAT IS A SOLID ARRANGEMENT. HOLD TO YOUR PART AND WE WILL HOLD TO OURS. WE HAVE GONE HUNGRY FOR SO LONG, UNABLE TO MAKE, UNABLE TO FEED. YOU WILL SATE BOTH OUR HUNGERS.

((lol, the conversations here where neither party is talking))

This works quite nicely, in Keris’s view. She beams at them in agreement, and goes to catch up with Kuha.

... who, she realises, is actually rather better at riding her anyaglo than Keris is.

That’s... sort of annoying, actually.

Then Keris is back to her manse. She has a plan this time. She’ll prepare the drugs for many of the owlriders. Maybe even all of them. She really regrets not counting how many of them there were, but there can’t be that many. Perhaps two hundred, tops, scattered between the tribes? They’re not the only fliers - just the best.

She decides on two hundred and fifty doses - hopefully that will be enough, and if there’s a surplus... well, Testolagh can undoubtedly make use of it as a bribe to lure other tribes into the fold.

Keris will need enough ingredients for such a large batch, and she’ll need time. Fortunately, here in the manse she can make things in larger amounts, because she has the tools and the vessels to do it, but she’s still going to need quite a lot of vitriol and other exotic ingredients. Maybe she can... maybe she can use Kuha in some way to help her? Is there anything from Kuha, as the first of her owlriders, she can use to make it easier to transform other ones, so there’s... there’s like something they know how to turn to be healthy?

Keris knows she’s not Sasi. She’s not so good at abstract thought. But she has Kuha here, and she knows now what a healthy owlrider should be like. That’s got to be useful, right?

Oh, and of course, she’ll need quite a lot of metodies.

The metodies, at least, she can start things off with. She won’t need one for every dose - now that she knows what she’s doing and isn’t wasting vitriol on experiments anymore, she should get several doses out of each. Still, that’s a marathon day of summoning, almost non-stop. The only thing that gets her through it is the cruel glee in targeting demons so devoted to the Ululaya that they’ve forgotten what it is to have their own goals.

It makes her feel a little less guilty to be using demons whose lives are already over - and the petty revenge doesn’t hurt, even if the Blood Red Moon is unlikely to ever notice the loss of a few dozen demons from her adoring masses.

Rendering them down takes her the better part of another day, and she takes a break by summoning, but not binding, an experienced neomah to use as a sounding board. Once she explains in fairly abstract terms what she’s doing and bribes it with some flesh samples, it proves helpful enough in suggestions of how to use the essence signature of Kuha’s body to make more of her kind.

Blood, they decide, is a tried-and-tested way, but the pollen that will allow a couple to have owlrider children might be a better one. It is, after all, an already-existing way of making more of them. Keris by now has big vats of acid bubbling away. She’s added her own blood, and elements of her Metagaoiyn seed-flesh, harvested from cuts on her hands. Haneyl is hiding from her, still scared by Adorjan, so she has to do it on her own. It’s beginning to seep into it, changing it along her designs.

But, hmm. What next? Keris calls Kuha to her. Her change is basically complete. She’s quite pretty - still somewhat windblow and a little pinched around the face, but the transformation has worked wonders on her. She likes spreading her gliding wings even when she’s on the ground, and has been introduced to drawing by the petal cherub. She seems to be working on tattoo-designs for her wings.

There’s no real way for Keris to ease into it, so she goes with bluntness. She needs Kuha’s pollen, she indicates, making several gestures that are somewhat obscene, and a few more that are merely very odd. To make more alchemical draughts, she adds hastily. To take back to Kuha’s kin.

Even if Keris couldn’t hear the running translation the peronelle is providing, she’d be able to pinpoint the moment Kuha understood what she was asking. It’s the point her eyes go wide and her face goes red. Keris fights down a blush of her own. Stupid lingering dream-arousal.

“Uh,” Kuha says, shifting awkwardly. “I... I haven’t... I am... I mean, I was a twig-child. I haven’t ever...”

Keris frowns. There’s something about the way she’s shifting and stuttering in embarrassment - beyond it just being plain embarrassing, that is. It’s like...

... oh Great Makers. Keris reels back, poleaxed. It’s like her. Kuha’s mimicking her mannerisms when she’s flustered - and she’s pretty sure Kuha hasn’t seen her flustered. And now that she’s looking for it... the darkening skin, the tinge of auburn to her hair, they’re familiar.

Familiar, but not. Her new build, for a start - she’s stockier than Keris; still lightweight but not as slender or petite. Which is probably why it took this long to realise; she’s only about half-to-a-third Keris, with the rest a mixture of her original features and...

...

... ah.

It occurs to Keris for the first time that maybe, just maybe, it might have been a good idea to put more thought into exactly what mixing her and Testolagh’s flesh and blood meant, in the context of a full physical transformation.

This is... going to be pretty awkward to explain, Keris thinks with a wince. To everyone involved. Including Sasi.

None of this awareness passes through Kuha’s head as Keris looks at her. She’s just awkwardly stammering.

Keris reevaluates the concept of being in any way involved with getting the pollen she needs in light of this new information, holds up a finger and makes a tactical retreat from the room to grab her neomah consultant. A rapid explanation on the way of what’s going on fills the demon in, and with a faintly desperate plea to both explain and help her... um... apparently adopted daughter, Keris pushes it into the room with Kuha and firmly closes the door.

That, she cringes to the corridor at large, was way more mortifying than it should have been. Also she probably needs to fill Kuha in on the whole adoption thing, but that can wait.

... come to think of it, she should leave. At speed. The conversation inside the room is already going places she doesn’t especially want to hear about.

((Neomah sex education! The most comprehensive kind you can get. : P))
((Keris stop getting a hooker for your biologically-adopted daughter.))

By the time the deed is done and Keris can recover the demon, the neomah is notably male and also has a strange brassy pollen on it. Keris collects the pollen - which smells sweet, but with a metallic afterscent - and stores it for later work. When she sticks her head in the room, the pollen hangs heavy in the air.

Kuha looks at her with wide eyes, wearing only her peronelle. “Kerishyra, I think I am a woman now,” she decides out loud. “Are you sure I will not have a child?”

This produces a long, awkward silence. About that, Keris signs after a while. The answer is sort of... yes and no.

A brief explanation later, Kuha’s eyes are if anything even wider. Keris brings her along to the workshop to think about it and ask her questions, while she occupies herself with working the pollen into the bubbling cauldrons.

“So I am meant to like both men and women?” she asks curiously. She licks her lips, tilting her head. “I... I think I have feelings for people now. More than I used to. I once had weak feelings for a man who was married, but they feel much stronger now. Should I have feelings for women too, if I am meant to love men and women so no more little girls will have to be twig children?”

She folds her arms. “I will certainly do that. I want a daughter who will be like me, not a niece who is a twig-child.”

Somewhat relieved that Kuha seems to be taking the whole “apparently being sort of Keris and maybe Testolagh’s daughter now” thing fairly well, Keris nods in relief. Daughters are adorable, she confirms. At least when they like you and follow you around or want to cuddle with you and so on. When they’re tantruming, slightly less so. But, she motions with a finger, she’ll make sure that Kuha gets the chance to have one if she wants.

“At least I won’t have to put up with childbirth or being weighted down,” Kuha says, looking more pleased. She frowns. “It was... very strange, though. It felt... good. I liked it. I have the body of a woman, but I give out...” she blushes, “... pollen like a man.”

Pausing for a moment, Keris indicates that she’s fully supportive of Kuha exploring that sort of thing as long as, preferably, Keris doesn’t have to know much about it. But, she motions with a faint blush, if they’re on the topic anyway, she does have a few questions to make sure everything is working properly and as intended.

The questioning session reveals no problems, and no side-effects that Keris hadn’t expected and accounted for, and she lets Kuha go fly again with a measure of relief as she tends to her cauldrons. It’s a good thing she has her Domain to carry them in, to be honest, because it would be an effort to haul it across the Desert otherwise.

“Mother,” Calesco says. “When you are free, I have prepared some tea for you.”

She seems to be being nice to Keris. She hasn’t said a cruel thing to her since she got her tongue cut out.

She’s at or about a stopping point, so Keris lowers the cauldrons to a simmer as the pollen bonds to the acid tincture and ducks into her Domain while she waits. Calesco is waiting for her in the tower, sitting at Dulmea’s low table, and has prepared tea all on her own. There’s also the blood red muscular sash that Adorjan gave her and that’s... um. Made from Keris’ tongue.

Calesco comes over immediately and gives Keris a hug. “Are you feeling all right, mother?” she asks gently. “Does your mouth hurt?”

Keris hugs back and waggles a hand. Sort of, she indicates, opening her mouth to show off the stub. It’s healed over already, and there’s only a faint throb now and then to remind her it’s there.

She quirks an eyebrow at the voluntary contact, a little confused at the shift in mood from before. Nervously, Calesco lets go and sits down behind the table, pouring out tea for the two of them. She adds large globs of honey to both ones. “Here,” she says.

The tea is awful. Not only is it watery and weak, but the honey is bitter. And she can taste it.

It is at this point that Keris remembers that not only can she grow more mouths at will and more tongues thanks to Metagaos, but she also doesn’t even need her tongue to taste things.

... Adorjan probably wasn’t considering the fact that Keris was part Metagaoiyn.

The sentiment is appreciated even if the tea... isn’t, exactly, and Keris drinks it in quick gulps, glad to have something hot in her stomach no matter what it tastes like. She cocks her head, curious as to what Calesco has to say.

“What are we going to do with... this?” Calesco asks, gesturing at the sash. “M-mama, she... she cut it out. It hurt a lot. She hurt you to... to make something for me. I d-don’t want something made of... made of pain like that.” Calesco swallows. “I kn-know I’m her daughter too. I don’t want to be. She’s very bad and scary. You try to be nice. She doesn’t. I... I don’t want to be like her.”

Keris chews on her lip thoughtfully, and shrugs. Spreading her hands, she nods at the sash, unsure of what it even does, and raises a curious eyebrow.

“She... she said that it was to make sure that people knew I was a messenger,” Calesco says. “But... maybe you should have it. It’s made of your t-tongue.”

That earns her a downward quirk of her mother’s lips. The thought of wearing her own body parts doesn’t really appeal to Keris. Eyes flashing green, she examines the sash carefully, trying to puzzle out its function. She frowns. Somehow it feels like... it feels like Calesco. Well, not quite like Calesco. There’s not the shadow feel there. It makes Keris’ eyes water. And worse, it... it feels like it’s already part of Calesco. It’s part of her. Just not attached to her.

... somehow, Keris concludes, she managed to make something that’s part of Calesco and... um. Make it part of Calesco. From her tongue.

Keris blinks. She has a headache from trying to even work out how Adorjan might have done this. And more worryingly, it seems that this means that the Yozis can - if Keris lets them - change her souls.

As for its function, that’s somewhat more confusing. It’s part of Calesco, and it’s like it was always meant to be there. And Keris thinks it’s there to protect her in some way. Or possibly terrify other people. Adorjan might not see much of a difference.

After some consideration, she comes to a decision and relays her best guess to Calesco. Forged from pain or not, the sash seems to part of her daughter now - and a part that’s meant to protect her. Keris has a feeling it won’t work for anyone else, not given the uncanny similarity between their essence flavours. She makes a mental note to track Echo down when she’s less angry and have a good long look at that knife.

And, she indicates, not only would it be a waste of whatever pain went into the thing to not use it; having Calesco be safer makes it worth it. Keris can probably heal her tongue and voice back as if they’d never been gone, in time. Losing Calesco isn’t something she wants to face. Especially, she adds with a wink, now that they’re getting along better.

Calesco bobs her head up and down. She carefully takes it, and puts it on. And then it starts slithering like a snake, warping and reforming. It becomes a bloody scarf, wrapped around her shoulders, and then it reforms again, becoming a bloody fleshy veil that hangs in front of her face. “I think it’s meant to be a marker,” Calesco says softly. “It has to be obvious. How should I wear it?”

They have a little fashion show, mother and daughter, as Calesco puts the thing through its paces. Keris is an old hand at shapeshifting clothing by now, and they come up with several styles that work well - a scarf, a surcoat, a veil and - with the aid of a makeshift pole - something akin to a war banner. The sash and scarf seem to be the easiest ones for moving around with.

The meeting ends in a second hug from Calesco. “I know you can be better,” Calesco whispers to her mother. “I know it. You can be good. You don’t need to hurt people. I... I love you, mama. Even if you fail so much. Sometimes you can be really good.”

Letting out a huff at the backhanded compliment, Keris wraps her up in her arms and hair. She loves Calesco too, she says with a gentle kiss to the forehead and some hair stroking. Even if she can be mean sometimes.

She taps Calesco’s nose as she pulls back and squeezes her hand. Try to keep the peace for a few days, she asks, until Keris can apologise to everyone properly on the way back to Creation. Right now she needs to finish her brewing and make the arrangements to leave as soon as she can.

“Goodbye, mama,” Calesco says gently. “Close your eyes and try not to listen. Promise you won’t peek. Really promise.”

Keris hesitates for a moment in confusion, then obligingly squeezes her eyes shut and plugs her ears. There’s a moment of quiet, and then there’s a sudden spike of pain on Keris forehead - sudden, sharp, blindingly agonising pain that makes her cry. Her heart hammers in her chest, feeling like it’s breaking.

She can’t help opening her eyes, but her tears obscure things. She can see brightness among Calesco’s darkness, and as she blinks away the tears the light vanishes and she can see Calesco lowering her veil again.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” Calesco whispers. “I wanted to feel your heart. You’re happy. You love me too. There’s so much hate in you, but there’s love too.” She passes Keris a single snow-white feather, that feels as soft as silk and as sharp as steel. “Remember the love, mama.”

Staring at the feather in wonder for a moment, Keris nods slowly, and tucks it into her hair. She’ll try, she promises.

It’s still there when she wakes.

The next month is busy. No, in fact, it’s Busy. Kuha and her souls see very little of her as she juggles the demands of a quarter-thousand alchemical tinctures, several visits from Mehuni and a Second Circle or two who are interested in buying her wares, and the occasional break to meditate on Metagaos in the hopes of learning a new way to claim land. She’s hindered a little by the swelling of her belly - far, far faster than any natural child would grow - and has to take a day off in the first week of work to curl around herself in overwhelmed tears and listen to the two tiny heartbeats that start to beat within her. This seems to confuse Kuha even more, but Keris doesn’t have the time to give her a detailed explanation.

Her souls deal with the rush in their own ways. Echo seems to forgive her once or twice and spends a few days being cheerful each time before remembering that she’s angry and returning to a sulky mood. Rathan’s moon is underwater, and has been since Adorjan cut her tongue out, though the young prince himself has been assembling some sort of protective honour guard from fighty demons.

Calesco disappears after the first few days of non-stop activity, carrying a message to Sasi that Keris isn’t entirely sure of the contents of. When she comes back ten days later, she says only that she ‘explained things’ before going off to find Haneyl, who Keris hasn’t heard so much as a whisper from since the party. She’s pretty sure the two of them are plotting... something, and Dulmea mentions a commotion out in the Marsh, but one of the major cauldrons develops a crack before Keris can ask for any details and she forgets in the midst of transferring the contents and starting the cooling process.

If nothing else, the project has pushed her limits. Even her creation of An Teng in Miniature didn’t really have anything on this; the owlrider tincture is a far more ambitious goal. By the end of it, Keris feels like she’s really achieved something, and that she’s furthered her own understanding of her subject in the bargain.

Keris gets a response message from Sasi, thirteen days days after Calesco leaves.

“Dear one,” Sasi’s little glass fox says.

“It is very good to hear from you. I had worried about you, for I had heard nothing from you and Testolagh said that you were still in Malfeas. I feared that you had been sent somewhere by the Unquestionable and could not communicate to them.

“I am sending this message for I had a most peculiar dream. A small girl-child, perhaps ten years of age, visited me as I slept and claimed to be one of your daughters. Her teeth were made of jade and she wore a bloody red scarf and black clothing. I knew on sight that she was a messenger and that to strike her would bring retribution.

“She said she brought me a dream and I saw many things. I dreamed that you are hurt, but alive, and that you work amidst great cauldrons, melting down metodies. The green light of Ligier fills the sky. You are doing some strange work of vitriol alchemy, to some unknown purpose. It was good to see you, my love, even just in a dream.

“As for my part, I am fine and my daughter is the sort who sleeps through the day and wakes at night, which suits me fine. She is a biter, I am sad to say, but I believe I have trained her to nurse properly and control her bowels. It is much better this way.

“I miss you and wish to see you again soon. When you are free to return to me, I will embrace you with all my heart. It is strange to find myself missing you as I do. I believe I have found many things that you will enjoy, too - and I have been keeping track of the shipping goods and the authorities, so you will be able to take up your duties for the Yozis without reprimand.

“With all my heart, dear one,

“Sasimana.”

The message leaves Keris a little shamefaced about her lack of communication with her lover. There’s just been... so much to do. In the North, the theory work and preparations for her attack had distracted her from sending many messages - or thinking about much else at all, really.

Then she’d had the dream on the way back, and met Ululaya, and... well, she’d had a lot of other problems to wrestle with. And it had always seemed like she’d be able to head back to the Southwest in just a little while longer, so it would be easier to wait and tell Sasi everything in person.

Unfortunately, she’s a little prohibited from making her excuses now, on account of not being able to send a message back. Not one that has any words attached, anyway.

So annoying. She was able to hum to herself yesterday, though. She’s still not up to words, but her voice is coming back slowly. Of course, she can bring out a replacement tongue whenever she sees fit. She decides to leave it until she leaves Malfeas - just in case - and spends another day working before inspiration strikes. Speech may be beyond her, but sound isn’t. An Infallible Messenger the next scream carries a sweet harp melody of love and longing to Sasi across the Desert, and Keris follows it with another whenever she has enough time to sit down and play. Which isn’t often - once every few days at best - but it’s at least something, and she feels a little better for doing it.

The next message that comes from Sasi is quite... um, sharp.

“Keris, dear one,” she says, “could you please not send me messages in the middle of the day? It is more than a little inconvenient to have a demonic messenger appear when you are trying to meet with someone.”

((Huh. I thought Sasi was going to stay in the Middle Lands for some time while she brought Aiko up?))
((Yes, but apparently she’s started at least meeting with people now that Aiko is sleeping in the day reliably. And Keris is out of synch with Creation’s day night cycles. : p ))
((Ahhh, I see. Ooops.))

Keris winces when she gets that, and spends a few hours and a summoning or two synchronising herself with Creation’s day and night cycle again. She’s thankful that - as far as she can tell - the only two messages sent between her first and Sasi’s message arriving probably arrived during the night and late evening, and makes sure to time her messages appropriately from then on.

There is one fortunate thing about Keris’ delay here, working, and that’s that by the time she completes her strange woody seeds that she’ll implant in their bodies and returns to the Conventicle, Lilunu has recovered. She requests Keris’ presence as soon as she arrives.

((... okay, you know what? I’mma roll Hoard to find a gift for her, because Keris is very ashamed of getting her so hurt. Hmm. First Age Luxuries 4, so I will roll Cog+Occult=2+4+2 stunt=8; 6 sux. Hah.))

Keris arrives with another exquisitely calligraphed apology letter, a golden box scavenged from the icy confines of the Cloud Wall as a gift and a guilty expression. She is immediately shown into one of Lilunu’s finer rooms, whose walls are covered with strange abstract art depicting draconic shapes. Lilunu today is absolutely fetching in a pale pink gown, and looks also somewhat guilty on her sight of Keris.

“Keris Dulmeadokht,” she says, sitting behind the table. “Please, sit. Will you take tea or chocolate?”

Keris bows and wordlessly accepts the chocolate, sinking into one of the seats and closing her eyes blissfully at the taste.

Lilunu folds her hands. “I must more dreadfully apologise for what the Silent Wind had me do,” she says, a catch in her voice. “I... I do not remember it, but from what I have been told she had me cut out your tongue. I... I am surprised you can face me. Have you been able to heal that maiming?”

Keris shakes her hands in denial. No no no! she mimes. She’s the sorry one! Lilunu was hurt far worse than her, and she wouldn’t have been if Keris hadn’t spent so long running around trying to avoid something that happened anyway. She opens her mouth to display the stub of her tongue, but an upraised finger and a sly tap to the side of her nose make it clear that she could heal it if she wants to, she’s just not risking it right now.

It helps that Lilunu... doesn’t look especially Adorjani today. At least not at the moment.

“But... but you have no tongue now!” Lilunu protests.

Keris considers this for a moment, then holds up a hand, opens a mouth in it and sticks the tongue out with an expression that Echo would probably translate as ‘tada!’.

“Well... I see,” Lilunu says slowly. “And you are happy like this? Or at least content?”

This gets a cocked head and a moment’s thought. After some brief debate, Keris wobbles a hand. It would be annoying, she indicates, if she needed to do much speaking at the moment. But she’s been so busy with alchemy that it hasn’t really interfered in the way it normally would. When she’s back in Creation, she can put more effort into fixing it.

She decides not to mention the nightmares of an advancing Lilunu with a jade-white grin that had ruined two nights sleep before she’d let the lingering terror blow away in the wind.

Biting her lip, she offers the golden box and indicates Lilunu’s body with a wave of her hand. Is she recovered? she asks. She was hurt very badly, and if having a Yozi cut your tongue out is terrifying, having it take over your body must be even more so.

“I have had worse,” the demon-princess says, with almost painful casualness. “Fortunately it was not too long. The Silent Wind is one of the more painful, but the cuts are cleaner than some.”

Wincing, Keris changes the subject. There... was one thing she wanted quite badly to talk to Lilunu about, she indicates. She was going to bring it up after explaining her behaviour at the feast, but... well.

Lilunu takes a sip of her tea. “I am at your service,” she says. “But I have a message for you, too. Perhaps you should go first.”

Keris nods and produces a sheet of paper from somewhere about her person. It’s already been written on, neatly and in a hand that isn’t hers.

‘The dream with Adorjan had another side effect,’ it says. ‘I have budded another soul; Calesco, who is a winged messenger. The thing I’m worried about is that she is my eighth soul - my hun and po, my Exaltation, Dulmea, Eko, Rathan, Haneyl and her. But the Unquestionable only have seven souls. What does it mean that I have an eighth? Is something wrong with me?’

Lilunu tilts her head, frowning. “I have two things to say,” she says. “Firstly, you are not Unquestionable, even if you have more souls than a mortal. It is not a thing for you, necessarily, to have seven souls. But even if you should only have that number of souls, I count only four newborn souls. All my dear princes begin with their very nature to have their two mortal souls and the two souls of their Exaltation. You have grown four more in emulation of us higher beings. I see no problem with that.”

Lips widening in a silent “oh”, Keris nods thoughtfully. She hadn’t considered that. Looking decidedly happier, she agrees that this sounds logical and asks what Lilunu’s message is.

Lilunu clears her throat. “Keris, since you were last here my beloved Ligier has delivered the reworked vessel that you desired. It was... ah, considered better that he deliver it here, than you attend his level - since he does reaffirm that you remain unwelcome due to the risk of the Silent Wind.”

While Lilunu already had Keris’s full attention, this more or less rivets her focus. The Scourge herself manages to merely seem eager, but behind her back, her hair is literally tying itself into knots in her excitement. She understands the decision and agrees it sounds intelligent, she gestures, and would be happy to go and see her newly repaired ship so that she can thank Honoured Ligier for his generosity.

“Then we shall,” she says.

The vessel itself is floating in a mercury lake within a walled garden. The high walls of opaque ice are carefully engraved and the gardens grow plants from Szoreny, so everything is a mirror.

And in the lake sits Keris’ ship. It isn’t the same ship that she gave to the Green Sun. The orichalcum has been stripped from the hull and it’s been replaced with bronze that only reflects green light. The entire prow has been replaced with an ornate ramming spike that somehow feels predatory in its hungry intent.

Keris lets out a small, semi-vocal whimper of glee as they approach. It appears to be only with considerable effort that she’s not running straight across the lake and hugging the vessel. If not something more carnal.

Lilunu steps forwards. “It is quite the beauty,” she says admiringly. “The vessel was fine before, from what I have seen of sketches, but my beloved has clearly worked hard on this.”

Nodding absently, Keris asks if she could please please pretty please have a tour and see the absolutely everything.

“I must say, I haven’t seen it myself,” Lilunu says. “I do not know what’s inside. Perhaps you could take me on a tour of such a beautiful thing.” She smiles and hooks arm with Keris. “Lead on, my lady,” she says teasingly.

Holding Lilunu’s arm like a treasure, Keris bounces forward. They start with the control tower; all gleaming brass and Cecelynite glass displays. Ligier has extended the hull up and the tower back into a lightly-armoured combat superstructure, full of grappling lines and boarding ramps and ballistae mounts. The top deck has staterooms for Keris and any guests she might host, as well as an indoor garden aspected as a shrine to her souls. She’ll need to modify it a little to add Calesco, but... it’s wonderful.

There’s also a cargo hold at the bow of the ship, accessible from the deck, and workshops kitted out for both alchemy and metalwork - mostly for repairs and ammunition, but she’ll be able to work in them herself. The core is an especially important stop; a furnace of solid emerald at the heart of the ship that burns with vivid green fire, surrounded by a scary amount of lead plating. And of course there’s a shrine to the Yozis amidships, empty at the moment but sufficient for whatever demons she has working for her to worship the All-Makers from.

All in all, Keris is very nearly weeping in joy by the time they’re finished with their impromptu tour, and impulsively hugs Lilunu as they ascend to the main deck once more.

Lilunu embraces her back. “It delights me to see you so happy,” she says softly. “And it is wonderful that you were not broken by what the Silent Wind has done with me. I do not like to leave this place. The Yozis take my flesh more when I leave it. Only here am I safer - and you have seen me taken by two of them. Or perhaps I grow so imbalanced that my mind becomes a mirror of theirs. I try to stay calm, but sometimes I fall. I am sorry for that. Really, truly, deeply sorry. It is their right, but I wish it were not so.”

Keris gives her a sympathetic look and offers the golden box again. As far as she can tell, it’s some sort of luxury set of reusable... somethings. She’s pretty sure they’re meant to be used when bathing, and make the water turn pretty colours and smell wonderful and feel even better.

((Yeah, I’m going to say that she got her hands on what is basically a set of multiple-use High First Age bath bombs.))
((Sasi: “... I don’t suppose you can find any more of those, can you?”))

Keris’ explanation produces interest from Lilunu. “I would be most interested in a demonstration of such a princely gift,” she says pleasantly. “But, unfortunately, I must also bring more weighty news. There has been a judgement of the Unquestionable that such a powerful asset as this vessel should be monitored so that it cannot be stolen by those who might mean us ill. With the forces of the Dead and the servants of the Traitor Gods so potent in Creation, this would be a deadly weapon in their hands. To that end - and to bless this vessel in its service of the Yozis - this ship shall be consecrated in the service of the All-Makers as a temple of their might, and a priest of Cecelyne shall be stationed in that holy place.”

Keris’s mouth twists at that. She...

... yeah, okay. Crap. That’s... um, more or less exactly what she didn’t want. Because she has little doubt that the priest isn’t just there to keep the ship safe. It’s there to keep an eye on her; the powerful and worryingly erratic Exalt who now has a mobile powerbase. She wonders if the decision was made before or after Adorjan showed a public interest in her at Ligier’s celebration.

Nevertheless, she manages a slightly strained smile, and agrees that a priest will be good to have onboard to preside over the worship of whatever demons she summons to crew it.

The Conventicle Malfeasant inclines her head to her. “That is good, yes,” she agrees. She looks at the vessel, her eyes lingering on it. “I am sure it will see many wonderful sights within Creation as you captain it,” she says, voice with just a hint of envy in it.

Maybe, Keris suggests tentatively, she can try and find a way of capturing such sights and sending them back for Lilunu to see?

“More artwork would be lovely,” she agrees. Lilunu smiles. “In fact,” she says spontaneously, “I think I will provide my own blessing. Some great artwork for the master bedroom, perhaps. Hmm. Yes, that would be fitting. Something for my green-lit princess, so that she might look at it and think of me. I believe there is some time left until it is ready fully for your departure - the priest is not yet here. I shall paint you. Please,” she requests, “consider it my apology in full for what I did to you.”

Keris blushes and agrees wholeheartedly to this idea, in both parts.

“Very well,” Lilunu states. “I will call for you when I am ready for you. In the meantime,” she passes Keris an emerald key, “this is the key to this dock. I am sure you will need to ensure preparations go as they must, and select your own provisions and readiness. Just speak to the necessary people, and things will be arranged.”

And like that, Calesco’s voice creeps into the back of Keris’ head. “Mother,” it points out critically, “for all that you so idealise being a pirate captain, I note that at no point have you actually truly learned to sail.”

Chapter Text

Unquestionable Lilunu informs Keris that there will be passage arranged down the Malfean sewers when she needs to leave Hell, which will open up into a hidden undersea cavern after five days sailing. Or, rather, there will be when the proper arrangements actually get... ah, arranged. In the meantime, Keris has to arrange for provisioning - and of course, crew her ship. This is a problem, because she also needs to deliver the owlrider project to Testolagh. And by now, Keris is very much in favour of getting back to the southwest as fast as humanly possible.

She spends half a day in her townhouse’s study, writing, cursing and holding impassioned and entirely silent debates with the walls, floor and ceiling. When she comes out, it’s with a long list for Mehuni. It’s split half and half between supplies - everything Keris can think of - and a set of requirements.

He is, she explains, to inquire among the more powerful serfs and citizens of the First Circle - especially sublimati - for crew members willing to sail with her into Creation - two factors that she suspects will dissuade all but the bravest of demons. Needless to say, only the very best applicants are to be considered.

Rather cunningly - at least in Keris’s opinion - she’s drawn up a rough list of questions regarding what her prospective lieutenants think is necessary to prepare for such a mission, which serves the dual purposes of weeding out those who don’t know their stuff, and also filling in anything she didn’t think of.

Keris herself, she explains, will be travelling as rapidly as possible to the northeast and back, to deliver the agreed-on owlrider doses to Testolagh and see what it is he wants. She’ll be back in ten or eleven days, by which time the ship should be more or less fully stocked and the list of hopefuls should be winnowed down to a number she can interview.

((keris is much clever, very cunning))
((compensates for lack of knowledge in supplies by comparing suggestions from applicant captains~))
((Roll his Persuasion + Politics + Keris’ Infamy + ExD + 2 dice stunt = 10 + 3 Infamy dice.))
((13 dice; 9 sux, fuck yeah.))
((So yeah, when Keris gets back, it’ll basically all have gone swimmingly and - indeed, better than expected.))

Mehruni bows sinuously to Keris. “Your will be done, my lady,” he says, voice oily. “I have arranged for ten days of supplies for your return to Creation, as you wish. Shall you be taking your latest foundling with you? The one you have modified? Or should I assign her to a room in your townhouse?”

Keris nods, walking her fingers across the air. She’ll be taking Kuha, yes. She needs to use her as a showcase to Testolagh for how brilliant her modifications are, so that he’s satisfied with the end result and will agree on payment.

She purses her lips for a moment, holds up three fingers and launches into a rapid series of gestures and expressions. Her three little Nexan children will be coming with her when she returns to the southwest, she decides. At least for a while, to see if they like it better there than in Malfeas, where they’ve spent the last year. Now that she has her ship, they can stay in one of the guest suites until they make a decision one way or another.

It won’t hurt to have some more loyal humans around, either. Even if they’ll be obviously foreign, they can do things in An Teng that demons can’t.

“As you wish, my lady. I expected that you would take her with you, and took the liberty of preparing some proper clothes for her. They are with the food and baggage. I had the servants do the best with her size, but she may require some tailoring,” the shadow-man says.

Keris beams, and gives him an enthusiastic thumbs up. Nobody can hope to beat Mehuni in adjutanting. He is simply the best there is. The clothes he considers proper are a mix of all-covering silks and thick, metal-lined demon-leathers. He even provided her with thick glass goggles. Kuha seems quite overwhelmed with the clothes which aren’t anything like she’s used to.

Rather than run across the Desert with Kuha in her hair, Keris opts to ride this time. Not only does it make Kuha happy - now that she’s stronger, she’s able to stand up to five days of riding in a way that she probably wouldn’t have been beforehand - it also gives her anyaglo a chance to really cut loose and run to her heart’s content; a fact she’s delighted about.

Which Keris knows because, uh. Apparently her favourite steed can talk now. Well, sort of. Keris has suspicions that her ribbon-horse has been associating with Rounen or Paricehet or both, because while the pink-and-white demon is still largely silent except for the occasional wind-whistle whinney, she’s learned how to shape some of her ribbons into writing. Her name, apparently, is Cissidy.

It’s halfway through blaming Echo for this new development that Keris remembers she never got round to having that talk with Dulmea and the rest of her souls. Well, at least that will give her something to do on the five-day ride. Hopefully without a freaky pregnancy-causing dream this time.

Keris looks down at her notably bulging belly with a sigh. If she wore real clothes rather than just generating them from her amulet through the power of... however it works, she wouldn’t be able to fit into her dresses any more.

It’s not fair. Sasi had a normal pregnancy, slowly getting bigger and bigger. Keris pales. If she’s already this big after a month or so, how big will she be by month 14? She might only be able to roll!

There’s the sound of silent, mocking and sort of mean laughter in her head. Somehow. Echo still hasn’t forgiven her, or rather has remembered to stay angry at her. Keris can almost hear her eldest daughter making mocking depictions of a fat and round Keris rolling around.

Mounting up with a sigh, she points them in the right direction and lets Kuha take over before sinking into meditation. It’s been a month - she’s honestly kind of surprised Echo is still mad, given that - and she has quite a few long-overdue apologies to make.

She starts with Dulmea, fading into being in her mother’s harp-tower and realising with a frown that her mental avatar has bags under its eyes that aren’t there on her physical body. Eeesh. Has she mentally tired herself out that much?

... yes, she concludes almost immediately. Yes, she has. Bleagh. And on top of that, she still can’t talk. At least she has humming back down, and can almost-but-not-quite force coherent words out in a whisper.

Echo is waiting for her, ribbon hands on her ribbon hips. She’s glaring.

Keris frowns. Echo is... actually starting to get hips, she thinks. And maybe even a hint of breast under her ribbon dress. That’s... well, it’s hard to tell Echo’s age, but she’s certainly grown yet again. Keris winces. Her daughter is her height now, and might be... twelve or thirteen? Keris didn’t start to show until she was older, but she was a starving street rat. Echo doesn’t seem to complain about being hungry, certainly.

Wow. Spending an entire month focused on one thing, just being angry at Keris seems to have made her grow up some more. That’s... well, that’s a thing. Maybe the fact that she’s also being a big sister to Calesco is also influencing matters.

Regardless, Echo being here is... not exactly what Keris had planned. She’d wanted to make things up to Dulmea first, and then... well, and then get her help in calming Echo down.

Unfortunately, it looks like Echo anticipated this strategy and made sure to be here so she couldn’t use it. Sometimes, Keris reflects, it is very annoying how Echo is so smart. Especially when the girl with an attention span of about five minutes predicts your long-term plans before you’ve finished making them.

Keris puts her hands together in prayer position, and ducks her head. She’s sorry, she indicates. She’s sorry for letting Adorjan hurt her. But now that she has her ship, she points out, she won’t need to spend as much time in Malfeas! She can try to stick to Creation, where she’ll be safer.

And it’s such a cool ship! In this, at least, Keris has something on her side. Echo is her joy and her glee - and Keris is very, very happy about her new ship. Echo may still be angry, but Keris is pretty sure that the spirits of everyone in her Domain are on the rise compared to a week ago, now that she’s seen what the refitted yacht has to offer.

She’s thought of the perfect name for it, too. But that will have to wait until she gets back.

Echo silently harrumphs, and turns her back on her with a flick of her hair. She occasionally looks back at Keris to glare at her again. Also, to flick her hair again. It would appear that she does not consider that good enough.

Hanging her head, Keris holds her hands out, palms spread. Is there maybe something she can do to make up for it, she asks hopefully? She’s very sorry about what happened, but she’s not as clever as Echo, so sometimes she messes up and doesn’t know how to fix it. She looks up through her lashes with a sad expression, meeting Echo’s glare for a moment before another hair flick.

Echo pulls a face, while also trying to glare. She can tell Keris is trying to manipulate her. She’s not stupid! And what Keris needs to be is to not be so super-stupid again! Also, Echo adds consideringly, owe her a super-major favour or seventeen.

Keris pauses. Okay, she concedes with a tilt of her head. That was a bit obvious. And she really is going to try not to have that happen again. If she’d known it was going to happen in the first place, she’d have avoided it. A lot. These favours, on the other hand...

She narrows her eyes and considers. Three big outside-in-the-world favours, she decides. And Echo is only allowed to use one of them on “telling Keris to use the ship’s silent windstorm on something while she’s attuned to it”. And Keris gets to veto them if they would destroy something important, like an island, or a ship full of treasure, or something Sasi wants intact.

She considers this much-reduced list for a moment, and then grudgingly concedes that raksha ships are fair game, even if she would prefer to capture them and sell them to Ligier. She’d also, she adds with a frown and a raised eyebrow, quite like to know what that knife does.

((... wait, if Keris is attuned to the ship when it uses the windstorm... does that mean Echo can dart around in the trail?))
((... well, Echo is certainly willing to find out.))

Echo pulls a face. She’s not stupid! She’s not going to waste the fact that Keris ~owes~ her. She smiles, and spins, suddenly a lot more cheerful.

... Keris gets the sneaking suspicion that Echo may have been angry at her just to extract the favour.

Echo pulls out the knife, and plays with it. It’s a very special knife! It’s super-cutty! And it lets her get through doors. All kinds of doors. Even special ones like Haneyl’s one!

Keris groans and drops her head into her hands. She should have seen this coming. And Echo, she points exasperatedly. No cutting your way into Haneyl’s... palace?

Hold on a moment. She tilts an ear to the... well, it’s not a noise that the knife is making as it slices back and forth, because it’s completely quiet. But there’s a sort of ephemeral hiss as it cuts the air apart.

Keris blinks. Just like Calesco’s sash, it’s part of Echo now. She can hear it. And it’s... it’s a knife that slices things open. Like people. And sealed openings. When Echo says ‘Haneyl’s door’, she signs with vague dread...

Echo nods happily, spreading her arms like the big tree Haneyl has been hiding in lately. Dropping her motions to a whisper - which makes even less sense when Keris repeats it in her head than it did thinking it the first time - she leans closer and informs Keris behind a cupped hand that Haneyl gets really stroppy when she gets unexpected visitors coming round for tea. Honestly! What with all the fuss she put on when she came around to Calesco’s cave for a tea party, you’d think she’d be more polite about it when she was the host!

Keris quietly sinks down and begins to lightly beat her head against the table. So Echo can now get into Haneyl’s tree. And probably the moon, and possibly even her vaults and anything Dulmea has sealed. Oh, this is going to do wonders for her inter-soul fighting.

Echo points out that Haneyl can go anywhere she wants in the Ruin. It’s just fair. The head-thudding stops, and Echo grins happily as she hears Keris try to conceal a snort of laughter. Once she has her face under control, she looks up and concedes the point with spread hands and twitching lips.

On another note, she asks, since apparently Echo is a devious little thing who made sure to be here before Keris could find Dulmea, does she perhaps know where her coadjutor is? Keris has some more apologising to do.

Echo scuffs her feet. It’s hard to find Dulmea since she became music, she indicates disappointedly. Normally she has to kill chell until Dulmea gets angry and shows up, and that annoys her. It doesn’t help matters at all, she advises Keris. Not at all.

Echo twirls, as a thought strikes her. Does mama like how her body changed again?

Keris opens her mouth, and then closes it again. And then opens it again.

She’s... still mostly happy about why it changed, and Echo was very clever for pointing that out, she prevaricates. But the being big and round is... uh... well, it’s already kind of annoying, to be honest. And is probably going to get more so. Sasi seemed to be annoyed by it, and Keris is going to have to be like this for even longer.

She sighs morosely. If only she had a way to speed things up so that she didn’t have to be pregnant for as long. Thirteen more months like this! Argh.

Echo pulls a pouty face. She wants to know why mama is so self-centred? Because she is! Echo is gesturing about herself! She’s as tall as mama now! And her special dress is getting tight!

Blushing a little, Keris ducks her head apologetically. Yes, she agrees. Echo has grown. And might want to think about getting her dress adjusted - though an idea occurs to her in mid-gesture that makes her eyes light up and then go misty for a moment.

... would, she says with a slow twirl of a finger, would Echo maybe think about giving up a few of her ribbons for a special project, at some point when she’s a bit bigger and isn’t in the middle of a growth spurt? Because... well, she grins, Echo knows about mama’s armour, yes? And it’s very pretty, isn’t it?

Echo gives a cautious nod. Mama’s armour is very shiny and glittery, she agrees. That much is true.

Well, Keris says with a tap to her lips, she knows quite a lot about alloying metal and vitriol. So if she were to get some thin, springy metal and cut it into thin strips, and then soak it in a solution of vitriol that some of Echo’s own ribbons had been infused in... that might well be a way to make metal ribbon armour.

((... okay now I really want to see that. I’mma make this at some point. It has gone on my list.))

Echo jigs happily. That sounds wonderful, she indicates. She stretches and mock-yawns. Now she doesn’t need to keep on staying angry at mama. It’s really hard work being angry, she gestures loudly.

Keris smiles in relief. It’s hard work having Echo be angry at her, she gestures back. And now that she’s not, Keris needs to go and make things up with her other souls who are angry at her. Echo, she suggests, might want to go and consider ideas for her three favours.

This does leave her with the problem of how to find her other souls. Dulmea is music, Haneyl is likely hiding in her tree, and Rathan... well, Keris would assume that he was in his moon. If not for the fact that the moon is not in the sky.

... Dulmea first, then. Happily, Keris has more tools at her disposal than “murder chell until one of them objects”. Hopping down to the base of the Tower, she stretches her fingers out and begins to play.

She only has to play for a while before the chell have gathered around them. And then like that, one of them is Dulmea sitting to her right. And another Dulmea, sitting to her left.

“Keris,” one of them says.

Keris brings her tune to a halt and bows. Mama, she replies.

Dulmea sighs. “An entire month without you doing some... some damn fool thing like seeking out the Silent Wind again,” she says acidly. “Are you wanting some prize?”

A mute headshake. Wrapping her hands together tightly, Keris promises that she didn’t seek out Adorjan this time. Either time! And now that the Silent Wind is coming to her, she swears she’ll be more careful, and... and try to avoid Hell as much as she can so as not to draw Her attention. She hums a few hopeful bars, chewing on her lip.

One soft hair tickles Keris throat. “Your voice is recovering,” Dulmea says, more gently and less tartly. “I worry about it. You’ve already lost it once already, and the Weaver of Voices is much less... dangerous than the Silent Wind. But what if the damage scars?”

Keris nods. She’s been thinking about that, she reveals. A little bit, at least, in between bouts of vitriol-work. And she’s pretty sure that it won’t be disaster if it does. A hair tendril waves as she tries to communicate her point. The scars on her face, she signs; they were the Silent Wind directly. Her own avatar - something Keris is going to take great pains to avoid ever happening again, if possible.

But this time it was action through Lilunu - and hasn’t Dulmea noticed? Keris isn’t Yozi-sick from it. She was mad from the dream, yes - but the Silent Wind cutting out her tongue herself? Nothing. It’s because, she theorises, She was acting through Lilunu - her glory sort of got filtered down. Which means the scars are much less likely to contain as much of her power as the previous ones.

Also, Keris adds, her expression turning sly. Haneyl can help her graft features from one person onto another - and remember what she has frozen in sleep, up in the tower? She giggles as Dulmea’s eyes widen in realisation, and bounces happily. That’s right! A Gale of her own - from before losing her voice. In fact, she knows for a fact that the Gale has a voice, because she was screaming when she was made! So if her voice and tongue don’t fully come back on their own, Keris can just take the ones from her Gale, wait for them to be fully tied into her body, and then dismiss the Gale without waking it. At most, she might have a faint scar around the base of her tongue where the stub ended - and possibly not even that!

Dulmea sighs, fingers plucking out music from the air. She’s changed so much from when Keris first met her. They both have. “I hate to be useless,” Dulmea admits. “I can’t keep you safe from yourself. No one can stop the Silent Wind - only distract her. Echo was frantic. She’s been furious at you, I think at least because she thought you were being stupid. She was raging to me in private about how you should have tried to drive the possessed-Lilunu off with noise.”

Keris holds up a finger with a doubtful expression. They were, she points out, somewhere Adorjan already found noisy. She was complaining about it. And while She doesn’t like noise, are either of them absolutely sure She would have left? Or would She just have tried even harder to do what She came to do so that She could leave again - and possibly also tried to make sure Keris couldn’t ever drive Her off with noise again?

That said, she adds with a nod, she does understand what Dulmea means by wanting to help more. While it’s not something she’s tried yet because she hasn’t wanted to risk it... would it maybe be okay if Keris tried summoning one of her bodies, once they were on the ship and could spare the time?

“If you think it would work,” Dulmea says, sighing again. Her eyes look down to Keris’ midriff, and to her own strangely bloated one. “I wonder how this will be for you. You have grown big swiftly.”

Pouting, Keris folds her arms sulkily. If Dulmea had ever said how annoying it is being like this, she’d have tried to help more! Her balance is totally off! She tried to do a Snake Style kata when she was writing up her lists, and she fell over! It gets in the way when she’s sitting down! And she’s pretty sure she’s slower than before! Her lip trembles with a sudden wave of depression and feeling all slow and fat and not pretty at all.

“I still don’t understand how this happened,” Dulmea said bluntly. “It’s not even like you lay with a man. Or a woman.”

Keris’s eyes widen guiltily, and she quietly begins to shift herself away with her toes. Well yes, she indicates, that’s a very good question that is probably a mystery that will never be solved, and in fact it’s probably one of the secrets that the Great Mother guards in her fathomless depths because the pregnancy is one of Her gifts and so there’s probably no point in even thinking about it very hard really.

Dulmea glares at her. Hard.

... it’s very unfair. Keris suspects that Echo, Calesco and Haneyl have all been watching and learning from Dulmea’s glares. So cruel to have your mother and your daughters working together against you!

Well, okay, she admits under scrutiny. It is hypothetically possible in the most unprovable way ever that just maybe at some point during that five-day long period where she was floating outside the Domain somewhere on her last trip across Cecelyne, she... might have dreamed of Rat? And Yamal? At the same time? And, well... things happened. And then Things happened. Also there was a fight, she recalls thoughtfully. And she’s pretty sure Yamal was a really good martial artist for an old guy. Except it wasn’t really Rat and Yamal. Apart from how it’s their babies that she now has growing inside her.

It was a confusing dream, she concludes with a nod. But it is probably why she’s more powerful now than she was before, so there’s that.

Dulmea purses her lips. Several Dulmeas purse their lips. “They’re not Adorjan’s?” she says bluntly. It seems she’s willing to accept dream pregnancies as long as Keris doesn’t have a thing of the Silent Wind growing inside her.

Keris shakes her head. She tasted them, she motions. More than Haneyl did; she tasted them directly. One of them... one of them is a little girl of Yamal’s who seems to somehow blend Sun and Hell and Fire, and the other is a little boy of Rat’s who’s Death and Hell and Moon.

How exactly they’re managing to mingle Hellish essence in a Kimberian womb with - variously - Solar, Lunar, Fire and Necrotic essence, Keris gestures, she has absolutely no fucking idea. Because everything she knows about both healthy Yozi metabiology and about Kimbery in particular says that they should not be able to do that.

She checks again. They appear to be doing it anyway. Keris radiates bewilderment from every line of her body, and shrugs. Dulmea shakes her heads. “I don’t understand it,” she says plaintively. “But... you want this?”

She thinks about that for a while. Yes, she eventually nods. Well, not so much the process, because she’s faaaaaat. But the children, yes. Rat... she still misses Rat, wistfully and with an old and familiar pain. The guilt and shame is mostly faded, but it still hurts. And her memories of Yamal paint him as a good man; someone who cared about little people and wasn’t one of the monstrous veterans of the Primordial War and had been cut down by treachery by someone he loved.

Having their children; a little boy and girl who she can love and raise and protect and teach, who can make the world better in their stead and be there for her to care for and to love her back... it will be closure, and an expansion of her family, and... yes. She wants this.

“Then I only hope it leads to you becoming more responsible, like how I learned so much when I trained my first pupil,” Dulmea says, eyes momentarily misty. “She died, of course, but she did not fail - sheer bad luck meant that the entire area she was in, along with her target, were melted when the Demon Sea flooded the region.”

What was her name, Keris asks sadly, wrapping a curl of hair around Dulmea’s and giving it a comforting squeeze.

“She hadn’t earned one yet,” Dulmea said, sadly. “If the Sea had not come in, she would have received one after her first successful contract for the house. She was merely ‘Student’ to me. That is our way.”

Nodding sadly, Keris draws that Dulmea into a hug. Is she training students here, she asks quizzically? Besides the children in things like music and tea ceremony, obviously.

Dulmea smiles quietly. “I’m training the children in more than that,” she says. “You wanted me to be your mother-teacher. I will arm your souls with my knowledge - and I am an assassin. Haneyl is a prodigy at moving unseen. Echo is fast and agile. Rathan is skilled at seeming harmless. I have not begun Calesco’s training yet, but I shall. In the end, I will be disappointed in them if they are not fully the equal of any house angyalka.”

That gets a grin. They’ll have to have a demonstration!, Keris bounces eagerly. Or a competition! Yes, with... with some sort of dummy, maybe, so that Calesco won’t get upset, and they each have one and they’re timed on it... she giggles. This could be fun. She’ll have to remember the idea.

... speaking of Rathan, she adds. She has noticed there is something slightly different about her Domain. Namely the way that the moon is gone. She remembers something about Rathan taking it underwater, but... firstly where, and secondly why, and thirdly it’s still down there?

When did he ever learn to do that, anyway? Could he always do that? It was a lot of work for her to put that moon up there the first time she was pregnant! She didn’t leave it in the sky just so it could get hidden underwater again!

Dulmea nods. “He took the moon and submerged it when the Silent Wind came,” she says. “He has not surfaced since. I did know he could control its height - and sometimes he took it low enough to touch the water, especially when he wanted to launch some of the ships he’s been playing with, but I did not know he could submerge it.” Dulmea sighs, and looks up at the dark sky. “It would be nice to have the moon back,” she says. “We’re having to use torches for light now, and that leaves everything rather green.”

Welp, Keris sighs, flipping to her feet. She’s made up with Echo, and... she thinks Dulmea is less mad at her now? If so, she should probably go get the moon back. And also comfort Haneyl and see about getting her voice back.

“That would be good, child,” Dulmea says, flickering and leaving only chell in her place. Slipping into the nearest canal, Keris heads out into the Sea and follows the sound of ice.

... there are quite a lot of ice sounds. Apparently Rathan has been busy. She heads for the largest mass she can hear; deep and red and radiant. In fact, she realises as she approaches it, they aren’t just ice sounds. There’s vein-like strands of ice down here, wrapping hollow icebergs. Those veins... they’re tubes.

... Rathan has built a city down here, made of ice. Underwater ice. That isn’t floating. And which is already starting to be armoured in coral. Fascinated, Keris swims closer, listening to the sounds of this underwater fortress-city.

There’s quite a few things down here. Keris can hear lots of wave-cherubs. But there are other, larger, more ponderous ice things down there. Swimming quietly over to one of them, she listens carefully and prods it with a hair tendril as it moves past her. They’re not like Rathan’s normal pretty things. There’s something of the scary form of his horsies about them, but unlike the horsies they’re not hiding what they are. It turns ponderously to face her, and makes a whale-like noise, then turns back to whatever it’s doing.

Keris notices that there’s a bunch of wave-cherubs watching the big scary thing. One of them waves happily at Keris, in a way which she’s pretty sure suggests it used to be a szelkerub. It’s too insolent to be anything else. Jetting over to them, she waggles her hair around and motions that she’s looking for Rathan. The probably-an-ex-szelkerub waves its hands at her, gesturing her in towards one of the ice pipes. It lets Keris in, squirming through the ice.

Keris... thinks it’s a boy wave-cherub? Maybe?

“What do you want?” it asks Keris. It’s sounding a bit rude. And probably male, from the sound of its voice.

To see Rathan, Keris gestures again. She needs to apologise to him and hug him a lot and spend some time asking about what he’s been doing and why there’s a city down here all of a sudden. And perhaps most importantly of all, to get his opinion on their new ship, and ask him if he has any ideas about what she should do with it.

The wave-cherub perks up. “This way!” he says cheerfully, feet flapping against the icy floor. He leads Keris down through the tunnels, happily babbling about how Rathan is building a super-amazing army and how they’re going to kill the wicked mean scary wind who hurts people. “For justice!” is their big motivation.

Keris chooses not to fill them in on the problems with this plan. It’s not like they’re going to get the chance, so it’s... probably kinder to just leave them to it. She does make a mental note about that “justice” thing, though. She suspects she can guess why Rathan’s three friends at Calesco’s tea party were glaring at her.

Eventually the tubes connect up to the source of the red glow. Keris finds her way through into Rathan’s now-submerged moon, which is really now a secret underwater base filled with wave-cherubs running around the place with weapons made of pearl and ice, enthusiastically play-fighting and occasionally real fighting, too.

And there are a few more things which... um, Keris suspects are going to make trouble. She can hear other breeds of her demon down here. A lot of them aren’t Rathan’s breeds. Rathan appears to have been stealing his sisters’ demons and... well, hopefully he’s just been studying them. Hopefully.

She comes into the grand central chamber. Rathan is sprawled on a big comfy chair, surrounded by wave-cherubs sitting on cushions around him. One of them has a blackboard up in front of him, and is expositing how they could made a giant horsie made of ice and then cover it in spikes and that would mean any wind that blew against the ice would cut itself.

Jogging over, Keris waves happily at Rathan and beckons him in for a hug. She’s quite resoundingly tackled and clung to by Rathan, who breaks into very nearly literal floods of tears and thus gets Keris’ dress very wet indeed. Keris cuddles back, humming sympathetically and stroking him until the crying starts to peter out. The words “you were hurt” and “so scary” and “don’t wanna ever go back to Hell again you should stay in the real world all the time,” are heard amidst his babbling.

Once he pulls back slightly from burying his face in her hair and shoulder, Keris motions that he’s right, and that she’s going to try to avoid Hell in the future. And she can afford to do that, because now she has her wonderful ship that she can sail around the southwest!

That just sets him off into fresh tears, where the words “Talk properly!” and “Don’t be Echo! No!” are insistently demanded while he beats on her chest with his fists. Some more humming calms him down a little, and Keris hastily promises that she’s going to get her voice back as soon as she can find Haneyl. She cuddles him closer, rocking him back and forth, and kisses him on both cheeks, and apologises for scaring him so much. The wave-cherubs, she notices, have retreated and given them some privacy.

Rathan is reduced to a shivering wreck, clinging to his mother. “I was so scared,” he whispers to her. “She’s scary. And mean. G-girls are scary when they’re like that. It’s like Echo. But worse.”

Keris nods and listens, combing his hair gently with her own. Lots of his cherub-friends are boys, she prompts. Does he like them better?

“None of them are as nasty as Echo. Or as mean as Calesco. Or as horrible as Haneyl,” Rathan complains. “But none of my friends are as horrid as my sisters. Even the ones who are girls.” He sniffs piteously. “Haneyl and Echo and Calesco bully me all the time,” he says pathetically.

This earns him a sad look, but Keris doesn’t argue. She holds him, and lets him vent and complain about his siblings to his heart’s content - or at least until he starts repeating himself. Then she kisses him on the forehead again and cocks her head. Why is his moon all the way down here, she asks? Dulmea says it’s all dark up above, and they’ve having to make do with green torches instead of his gorgeous red light.

He tries to put on a brave face, but he’s shivering again. “I... I didn’t want the scary wind to find me,” he says. “And then I realised! I just need an army! So I can beat her! And we can all be safe from her being scary!”

Does Rathan know the secret weakness of the scary wind, Keris asks? She doesn’t like noise. In fact, she hates noise! She hates it so much she almost never goes near it, because it hurts her ears. That’s why Hell is so noisy - to keep her away all the time. So if Rathan played pretty music from his moon, it would definitely be safe in the sky again - especially since he’s in mama’s soul, and Keris promises to protect him.

“But Echo doesn’t go away when you play music,” Rathan complains. “Or Calesco. And Haneyl is very shouty!”

That’s true, Keris agrees. But Echo can’t run on nothing, and unlike her sisters she doesn’t ride very much. What would happen if Rathan made a waterfall stop while she was running up it to try and get into his moon?

After a brief pause for thought, Rathan appears to like this idea a great deal. Keris grins. And, she adds, speaking of moons. How much does he think Ululaya likes the Lintha - or at least considers them hers? She flexes her fingers and winks at him. How long will she keep thinking that, now that Keris has her ship?

Rathan smiles widely and sweetly. “We can take everything she has in the proper world and she can’t do a thing,” he sing-songs. “Because she’s stupid and ugly and steals attention and she tried to trick you into loving her. So she needs to pay.”

Keris nods smugly. Though, she adds, they should try to be careful about it. It’ll be best if she doesn’t even know who took them - because if she realises it was Keris, she might move on Keris’s things in Hell, which would be bad.

Also, not knowing who to blame will make her even angrier. Which will be hilarious.

Rathan twirls a finger in his gorgeous red locks. He really is a very very pretty little boy. Only Calesco can compare to him in looks. Keris wonders if his... his brother... will be as pretty as him. “Do you like my new ice place?” he asks. “I made it all around my moon, but if I move the moon back out I’ll break it and it’ll probably all break apart. And then the ice will try to come to my moon because it loves me, so it’ll all float to the surface.”

It is a pretty ice city, Keris agrees. It would be a shame to break it up, but also a shame to not have the moon lighting up the sky.

Rathan twirls his hair in hers, and hugs her closer. “Maybe I’ll make them into icebergs,” he says. He seems worn out from his crying, or maybe just wanting to sleep in Keris’ arms. “I could make them come up and I’d... I’d give them to my favourite friends and they could each have their own little ice city and they’d all be able to look up at me above them. Wouldn’t that be pretty? And I’d have pretty ice cities to look down at. All floating on the waves, with nice towers. Much better than Haneyl’s stupid tree-castle. She’s starting to build more castles on the shore, did you know that? And... and it’d be much better than Echo’s towns. They’re all messy! People just build things wherever!”

Keris nods encouragingly. Maybe he could have them make a pattern from above! Or have some of them move between others!

“And then we could make our own icebergs out in the ocean!” he says, and then pouts. “But wait. It’d be too hot. Mama! You need to go more north!”

She grimaces. North means bumping into the mean Realm though. Oh! But she could grow coral atolls instead! And maybe little floating coral islands built out from ships!

“Coral is... okay, I guess,” Rathan says, hugging her closer to express his disappointment.

Keris holds him for a while longer and then tickles him, sparking a brief but fierce tickle war whose bouts of shrieking laughter end with Rathan sitting victoriously atop his defeated mother. Vanquished, she admits his victory and begs for mercy.

“You’re getting fat,” he says with the charming bluntness of a small child sitting on top of his pregnant mother.

She is, Keris nods. She has a little boy and girl growing inside her - and the boy is his little brother. She taps Rathan playfully on the nose. When he’s born, he’ll probably look up to Rathan a lot, she predicts. So he’ll have to be a smart responsible protective big brother and make sure his little brother knows what he needs to know.

“Good,” Rathan says solidly. “I need more brothers! Mama! You’re banned from having more girls! You need more boys!”

Keris laughs. She’ll try to have boys from now on, then, she agrees. Well, one of the twins in her belly now is a girl, but she’ll try to have boy souls.

“You better!” Rathan says, accusingly. And then he brightens up. Literally. He’s glowing a faint red. “Do you want to see a moonrise, mama?” he asks slyly. Arching an eyebrow, Keris stands and nods. Rathan squirms loose from her grip, and stands there, proudly. He calls his friends in, and makes sure that everyone is looking at him.

And then the entire moon lurches upwards. Ice breaks and ruptures. Everything moans and groans and shakes. Snap. Snap. Snap. One by one, the veins break and the icy heart bobs upwards, glowing brighter and brighter.

And then the water over the top of the icy walls is gone and through them Keris can see her heart’s domain spread out underneath her. She can see the scattered green glow of the swamp, and the storms of the Ruin and the darkness of Calesco’s lands and all around her, the stormwall. And in the centre, the brightest lights of the City.

Keris might not be up to speaking just yet, but the sight draws a long, impressed whistle from her. A moonrise from the inside... that’s something else. She runs a hand through Rathan’s hair in sincere amazement at this bright, brilliant little boy who’s of her and a part of her and a child of hers.

“Is it pretty, mama?” he begs.

She nods. It’s more than just pretty, it’s gorgeous. Much like he is, she adds, coming back to herself somewhat with a smile. That wins her a big hug around her waist. Rathan is utterly charming when he wants to be. Keris sighs, mournfully. He takes after his father there. And not the Rat of her dream, not the Dead Rat. No, the utterly shameless, conniving street rat who’d been her friend, the only person she could rely on - and yes, her first love. Kissing him on the forehead, she taps her throat. She needs to go get her voice back, she motions, and promises to look around the engine room of her ship for him when she gets back to it next.

Finding Haneyl is an even more daunting task than finding Dulmea. While Keris never quite got the full story on whatever “commotion” went on in the Marsh while she was working, a brief look from up high shows that the fog there has been blown back a lot more than in the other Directions, opening up more mist-shrouded lands for habitation - and hiding, if her Seventh Soul is in no mood to be found.

However, she has a secret trump card from Echo. Instead of looking through the Marsh itself, Keris makes a beeline down to the City and roof-hops her way over to Haneyl’s tree. The fireflowers on the branches are brighter than normal, which is an encouraging sign. The fruit...

... the fruit has diversified quite a lot since Keris last examined it. The ripe apple-fig things now have a range of faces - most Tengese, but some that Keris recognises as Lintha, and several demonic visages as well. Clearing her throat and preparing herself for what might well be another tricky conversation, Keris knocks politely on the truck.

Slowly, and with a hint of reluctance the grey wood of the trunk creaks open, opening a split into a hidden place. Keris carefully steps inside.

It... huh. She doesn’t think she’s ever gone inside this place before. Haneyl has clearly been busy. It’s... well, it’s positively luxurious here. A little bit of Keris swells with pride at the way that Haneyl has made her private hidden place so pretty. There are elegant silk tapestries on the wall. There’s the smell of fresh bread in the air. And so much gold and fancy decoration and...

... and other things that look like items that Keris stole and she thought the snake had its hands on. Its... its claws? Whatever it has.

Oh.

Keris’ mood is complex by the time she arrives in the inner sanctum, to find Haneyl, her beloved Elly and - surprisingly - Calesco sat around a low table, wrapped up in blankets and having tea and one of Haneyl’s experimental cuisine items. In this case, it’s strange little red cakes with sliced up leaves decorating the icing.

“Oh, hello Keris,” Haneyl says. She’s sounding... well, not entirely pleased to see her, but not actively angry. “Would you care for some tea?”

Keris nods, shifting gears into formal mode. It’s interesting, she thinks, how her souls all like different approaches. It’s best to be playful with Echo, while Rathan prefers a more informal and tactile approach. Calesco wants blunt honesty, and Haneyl... Haneyl likes her formalities and her rituals.

Bowing slightly, Keris thanks Princess Haneyl politely for hosting her and agrees that tea would be lovely. Sitting down at the table, she waits for her daughter to give her a cup and a plate before taking an experimental sip and nibble.

“I see you’ve finally shown up, mother,” Calesco says, her cup of tea held in her shadow hair. She’s wearing her red veil, and is has what looks like a thin twig in the drink, which is what she’s using to drink it without raising her veil.

“Be polite,” Haneyl chides her. Keris inspects her. She’s grown up a little bit, but she’s still noticeably younger than Calesco in appearance. It’s probably not a good idea to mention how much Echo has grown up, or it’ll just start a fight. Keris sighs inwardly. Just looking at Haneyl makes her miss Sasi when she’s in this mood, just like looking at Rathan brings Rat to mind. But even worse, because Haneyl looks more like Sasi in terms of colouration than Rathan does Rat.

Keris nods in response to Calesco’s greeting. She’s sorry for being away for so long - the owlrider doses took longer to brew than she was expecting, and needed a lot of attention. And she wanted to apologise to everyone before asking for Haneyl’s help in getting her voice back, since asking for a favour before apologising would be rude.

And on that note, she bows deeply to Haneyl. She’s very sorry for scaring everyone, she reiterates. Now that she has her ship, she’s intending to stay in Creation as much as possible so that something scary like that doesn’t happen again.

... and... speaking of things that people now have, she adds, she’s... pretty sure that some of the things in here were out in the fog wall last time she checked?

Calesco and Haneyl have identically smug expressions. They’ve never quite looked like sisters so much as they do now.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Haneyl says, voice dripping with amusement. “You’re not very good at getting things from the snake. Surely neither of us could be better than you.”

... they’re kidding, Keris thinks flatly as she stares at them. They have to be. She couldn’t get that thing to relinquish its stuff! And neither Haneyl or Calesco are even fighters! Granted, they’re both sneaky, but... there’s loads of stuff here! No way would it not have noticed a theft on this scale!

Haneyl just sits there, looking smug. She’s clearly waiting for Keris to ask her how she did it.

... okay, Keris eventually relents. How did she do it? Seriously, how? Does the snake have some sort of secret weakness? Or did she bribe it with food?

She takes another contemplative nibble of the red cakes. She could... almost believe the food thing, to be honest. She’d probably trade at least one of the First Age bath thingies for a plate of Haneyl’s best efforts.

With an amused flick of her head, Haneyl grins widely. “Oh, something as little as this?” she asks. “Me, much smaller than you?”

“You’re gloating more than is tasteful,” Calesco mutters.

“I am not! Gloating is properly tasteful!” Haneyl snaps. She coughs, and settles down again. “Well, my dearest little sister Calesco came to me shortly after Echo most rudely cut her way into my place and then ranted a lot about you - you should punish her for saying mean things about you but mostly for being rude and cutting into my tree - but then Calesco came and she decided she wanted a bow and I realised that it was super unfair that Calesco and Echo had got presents and I hadn’t. So we came up with a nick to go pocket some’ve the stuff the snake has!”

Haneyl beams widely, apparently unaware that her accent has been slipping in her excitement from her usual High Realm to Keris’ own Nexan street vernacular.

A bow? Keris looks at Calesco in surprise for a moment. She... never really got the hang of archery, when she tried it shortly after joining the Reclamation. Especially since the bows in her townhouse are... well, not to put too fine a point on it, most of the longbows are at least a third again as tall as she is. And even the shortbows are...

... well, it was hard finding one that matches her draw length, is all she’s saying. And then it turned out that shooting an arrow was completely different from throwing rocks or knives like she’s used to. And she skinned the inside of her wrist on the string. And then gave up and sulked for a while and went back to spear practice.

She shakes herself out of the pout that accompanies these memories and turns back to Haneyl, more evaluatively. So. Not a fight over the goods. A con. A theft. That’s... clever, she admits. Attacking it head-on didn’t work, that’s for sure. But it always knows when its treasure is moved - even when Keris was finding that box of bath things for Lilunu, she had to be pretty quick on her feet to avoid it coming and taking them back after she laid a hand on them. How in the world did Haneyl fool it?

Haneyl looks smug. “We tricked it,” she crows. “Calesco distracted it when pretending to be me and then we stole fog-land and made it into proper land! And I stole everything in the new land and since it was in new land it was mine not the snake’s.” Haneyl pauses. “Oh, and I gave some to Calesco because she helped. And some of it was her idea.”

Distraction, and mass-stealing everything in the area so it didn’t sense them taking it away. That’s... that’s really clever, Keris admits. Well, it’s also somewhat worrying because, haha, wow is her po going to be annoyed about this. But clever, definitely. Okay, she admits. the pair of them win this one on inventiveness and effectiveness. She looks around. She likes what Haneyl has done with her home, too. It’s very pretty.

Her daughter preens. “Of course it is, mama,” Haneyl says happily. She harrumphs. “I wanted to give Calesco some nicer things, but she likes her dark sticky cave. I even wanted to give her pretty wall hangings and more things!”

“It suits me,” Calesco says.

“It doesn’t! You’re my sister and that means you should have nice things! Otherwise I look like you’re not as good a sister!”

Calesco smiles quietly. She seems to like that... that they’re getting on better than they were before.

Keris grins. She’s glad they’re not at each other’s throats anymore. And, she asks politely, if Haneyl is up to it... well, she’s not in Malfeas anymore. And while she’ll be going back, it’ll only be for a day or so. So it’s probably safe, now, to get her voice back. If, that is, Haneyl is willing to help her out with it?

... also, she adds, it would probably help to be able to talk to Testolagh. And send an Infallible Messenger to Sasi that has, uh, words in it. Though Calesco’s message to her was very helpful, Keris notes, even if she’s not... entirely exactly sure how she delivered it.

Haneyl bites her lip. “I haven’t done something like that before,” she says, frowning. “But since I’m the best, no doubt I can find out a way to do it properly!”

As it turns out, she is correct in this, though it necessitates a trip to the Tower and some rooting around in the sleeping Gale’s throat. Still, by the time the chill of the northeast welcomes them back to Creation, Keris is speaking once more. Which is useful, because she’s got a lot of talking with Testolagh to do.

“Kerishyra,” Kuha says, looking surprised. “It is cold here compared to your green town. Does my new me feel more cold?”

((Hmm. Actually, timelinewise? What month are we up to now?))
((It’s actually a fair way through Rising Earth now - the 19th. Keris is about two months pregnant. And, uh. Looks like she’s about six months pregnant by real-life standards.))
((This may confuse Testolagh somewhat.))

It’s nearly halfway through the year. Keris is very confused, actually. Where has the time gone? Temperatures are rising in Rising Earth, and she can see heavy clouds in the west. The entire forest smells of wet earth and damp soil and leaves. Most of the snow is gone, only traces remaining hidden under the deepest darkest woods.

“Huh.” Keris frowns, thinking it over. “I... hmm. I think it’s less that you feel the cold more, and more that you feel everything more. Those painkillers you were on when you were a twig-child left you pretty much numb.” She taps their steed on the back of the neck. “Cissidy? Take us down for a moment, would you? I need to send a pair of Infallible Messengers to work out where Testolagh is, and let Sasi know I’ll be home soon.”

The first ice-marlin flits off to Testolagh, and Keris marks the direction she hears it go. It’s a pretty short and simple message. “Testolagh, it’s Keris. The owlrider changes took longer than I thought they would, but I have them and Kuha back to show you. I’ll follow the Messenger in your direction to find you.”

((Reaction+Awareness=14. 6x2+4=16 sux.))

She hesitates a little before sending the second message, but... yeah, judging by the angle of the sun, she’s pretty sure it’s afternoon. And the message won’t reach An Teng for hours, so it’ll arrive after nightfall.

“Sasi,” she begins warmly, remembering how Sasi tends to treat her messages like letters. “Where has the time gone? It’s Rising Earth already and the snow is all but gone, even this far north. Lately things have been a rush, and since returning to Malfeas in Crowning Water it’s been one crisis after another. But I’ve managed to solve them all, one by one, and very soon now I’ll be back with you.”

She pauses, biting her lip thoughtfully. “There have been a few... things that have happened,” she admits, “of which the soul you met is only one. Her name is Calesco, and she and Haneyl have been getting along well, though they had a bit of a rough start. Just recently they managed to steal a number of treasures from the snake, the cunning little things.” Within herself, she hears Haneyl beaming smugly.

“I’m in the northeast for perhaps a day, delivering the results of the vitriol-alchemy you saw to Testolagh,” she continues. “But then it’s only a quick return to Hell to pick up the rest of my things, and I’ll be on my way to you. Lord Ligier has finished repairing the High Barge of An Teng for me, Sasi, and... oh, I can’t wait to show it to you. It’s amazing! Swift and gorgeous and beautiful!

“The rest of the new developments, I’ll explain to you once I’m back in the southwest,” she finishes. “I look forward to seeing you there; I’ve missed you terribly. Ten to twelve days, Sasi - then I’ll take you on a luxury cruise, if you can spare the time. I’ll see you soon.

“With love and looking forward, Keris.”

She lets it go with a longing look as it begins its long journey, then mounts up again and nudges Cissidy in the general direction of Testolagh. It’s not a long flight, especially with Kuha here to actually guide her. It seems that the owlriders have little rituals that help them navigate, and it makes things a lot easier.

The sky island has expanded since Keris was last here. Not only are there even more complex Malfean structures on it, but they also have lashed two smaller sky islands to it. And as she circles overhead, Keris can see that there seem to be demons tending strange crops on the top. From what she knows, that will make a big diffence food-wise. She’s rather smug to see that as well as the metal chains stapling them to the main island, there’s also a network of metallic Malfean vegetation and roots. That, she proudly recalls, was her idea. She urges Cissidy down to land, and reminds her to stay within Testolagh’s territory if she still wants a run, though it seems that five days of galloping to her heart’s content is enough to make even a ribbon-horse prefer to rest for a while.

Kuha in tow - and picking up multiple stares and whispers from the residents of the island, Keris heads in to meet with the man she’s here for.

Testolagh is here - and shirtless - working at a forge he’s set up. With his bare hands he lifts a crucible out of the flames and pours it into a clay mould, superheated bronze dripping over the edges. Around him, red-skinned heranhal demons work on hammering out iron weapons and loop together iron links for chainmail.

The sound is loud. Painfully loud. After venturing a couple of steps into the room three times before having to back out again wincing, Keris eventually resorts to plugging her ears as best she can and tossing a small scrap of metal at his head once he’s finished pouring the bronze. Testolagh turns, and frowns. “When did you get here?” he shouts, raising his voice over the already-racket. Keris winces again and beckons him out, doubling up on covering her ears with a layer of hair over her hands.

“When did you get here?” he says, once he’s taken out into one of the buildings away from the forging area. “Are you just back? And...” then he sees Kuha. “Oh? Who’s your compatriot?”

“Just back, yeah,” Keris says. “Urgh, my head. How do you work in that racket?” She shakes her head. “Never mind. I sent you a Messenger, didn’t you... oh.” Glancing back towards the forges, she rolls her eyes. “You probably didn’t hear it over the noise. Well, yes. I’m just back. And as for my companion...”

She smirks. “I promised you better health, no more fragile bones, quality of life and maybe even an improvement in flying. And not only did I manage every one, I even helped them with falling. Testolagh, I’d like to introduce you...”

She makes a dramatic bow, and gestures to Kuha with both hands and all her hair. “To Kuha. An owlrider, born anew.”

Testolagh opens his mouth. Testolagh closes his mouth. “That’s not Kuha,” he says.

“Oh. Yeah, that.” Keris rubs her temples, the smugness receding in the face of tiredness. “Yeah, there were... side effects. You know how child-like they looked? The process basically acts like...” she searches for a word. “... puberty, I guess. Which... sort of blended in a slightly unexpected way with the fact that I was... well, using my blood to bolster their healing.” She gestures at Kuha. “Which led to this. But... well, ask her yourself. It’s Kuha.”

There’s a faint pause as she finishes, in which her ears catch the murmuring of Kuha’s peronelle as it finishes its running translation. Keris winces a little and turns to the petite little owlrider. “Sorry, Kuha. I’ve been talking like you’re not here.” She squeezes her on the shoulder. “Do you want to explain your side of things? That might help.”

Kuha looks up at Testolagh, and begins a flicker-fast babble of the local language which Testolagh responds to her in. Keris winds up rather lost, but at the very least the fact that she speaks it properly and responds as she should seems to assuage some of his doubts. And he certainly seems interested as she pulls off her outer silken robes to show the fold-out wings and the way she’s moving with confidence and strength unlike the childlike owlriders.

“I see,” he says to Keris in Rivertongue, after that conversation. “So... she says you’ve made it so more owlriders will be born? If that is really true, that will be very useful and we might be able to get the tribes to properly accept them. She seems a bit confused - it will need a man, a woman and her?”

Keris nods. “It was a problem I wrestled with for a bit - even stronger, they’re too small to safely have children, and the pregnancy would make them unable to fly for months anyway, so they’d be rusty when they got back and... it wouldn’t be fair to anyone. But they’re physically female, so they can’t just sire one on someone else. So what I eventually came up with was a way for them to apply the changes to a baby when it’s conceived, and then have another woman carry it.” She nods at Kuha. “Her idea, actually. Well, she inspired it, when she said that the owlriders are already sort of a third gender - not men, but not women either.”

She grins smugly. “But that would take too long to build up your forces. So I made you some doses for conversion - fully prepared, all you have to do is implant them and my alchemy will do the rest. If, of course, you’re satisfied that she doesn’t look too Hellish?” It’s an effort to keep herself from dancing on the spot. She can’t wait to see the look on Testolagh’s face when she tells him how many doses she’s brought him.

“Well, let’s see her on owlback compared to one of the others,” Testolagh says.

Claiming Kuha for a quick hug of encouragement before she mounts one of the birds, Keris takes the opportunity to whisper an idea to her. They’ve tested her wings extensively back in Hell, first with very short drops, then on progressively longer ones with Keris ready on anyaglo-back to catch her should they not work. It took a few tries, but she’s confident Kuha has the hang of staying stable and landing on her feet by now.

“If you think you can manage it,” she whispers, “show him how safely you can fall, after showing off a bit. See if you can land right in front of him.”

((Roll 11 dice for how well she does. Enhance with stunt if you can.))
((I’m guessing that Kuha casually leaping off the owl’s back in mid-flight to spiral-glide down and pull of a three-point landing right in front of Testolagh completely unharmed is worth a 3-die stunt? : D))
((Yes.))
((11+3 stunt=14. 12 sux, whoa.))

Kuha grins back. “Kerishyra,” she whispers, as she threads her fingers into the great-owl’s feathers. “I show off lots more than a bit.”

And then she’s off, in a flurry of wings and delighted laughter. She has, Keris realises, been missing this. Ribbon horses and demon wasps are all very well and good - and perhaps they may even be faster and stronger. But there’s something about the feel of feathers under her and the powerful beat of silent wings that makes her heart soar.

And she soars. Oh, does she soar. Keris hasn’t seen much of this sort of flying - only Melunen, really, the first time she was here - but Testolagh’s eyes are wide as Kuha puts the owl through its paces. She’s mobile, far more so than Keris expected, clinging low and close to the bird’s back one moment and then leaning out the next to shift her balance and change direction in ways that have Keris squeaking in fright. Before long, there’s a small crowd watching, and Keris is pretty sure she hears the word for “impossible” thrown around more than once.

The capstone of the performance, though, is when Kuha sends the owl swooping down in a dive towards them. She’s high - sixty feet or more above the ground - when the two shapes separate. To someone who wasn’t half-expecting it, it would look like an accident - and Keris hears cries of alarm, of terror, of grief and panic around her. Even Testolagh swears fluently and starts looking around for some way he can help, but a loop of Keris’s hair grabs him by the chin and forces his head upwards.

The owl levels out from the dive, winging its way back to the roost. Kuha doesn’t. She snaps her arms open, and her sycamore-wings billow, spinning her around as her light little body slows dramatically. Her head is tucked in and down, Keris sees, and she’s holding her breath, putting pressure on her ears to counteract the dizziness. She draws her arms in slowly as she comes down, angling them to alter the path of her descent and slow her rotation.

She touches down almost lightly, perhaps five paces before a stunned Testolagh, and comes down on a knee and both hands to steady herself from her no-doubt spinning head. A few deep breaths is all it takes, and then she stands with a quirked smile.

Keris tries, she really does. But looking at Testolagh’s face as he stares, she can’t help but burst into gales of triumphant laughter. Kuha’s little grin is very like Keris’ own. That’s the starring moment of it all.

“Wow,” is about all Testolagh can say. “Oh. The... the tougher bones. She can take collisions and impacts and hard take offs.”

“That...” Keris forces out between giggles. “That was better than even I expected. Oh, wow. Kuha, come here.” She wraps the woman up in a hug, lifting her up with ease and spinning her around. “That was amazing. Incredible.”

Calming down a bit, she turns back to Testolagh. Kuha, sitting proudly in a hair-sling, turns to face the crowd of onlookers and starts to smugly answer their questions in her native tongue.

“Tougher bones, less likely to bruise, no painkillers or drugs slowing her down,” Keris agrees. “And she’s lighter, too - lighter even than she was before, for all that she looks better.” She grins, wide and brash and joyful with sparkling eyes. “Ask me how many doses I brought you. Go on, ask.”

“How many?” he asks.

Keris bounces in place happily. “Two hundred and fifty,” she crows. “I forgot to do a headcount when I was here, so I made a rough guess and did a few extra. But if there are more than you need, I’m sure you can offer them to any tribes who’ve been uncertain about accepting you.”

((Oh, Keris. She’s almost forgotten that she’s getting paid for this. At the moment she’s just basking in how amazingly she did.))
((An impartial observer might note a similarity to Haneyl.))

“... well.” Testolagh bites his lip, and then sweeps Keris up in a grand hug. “You are amazing! You’ve more than held up your end of the bargain. Come with me, back to my quarters. I think this calls for some rice wine.” He’s very warm, Keris notes. His body temperature is substantially higher than hers, and she can feel the heat from his chest and hear his second heartbeat. Warm and big and strong.

“I am amazing,” Keris agrees proudly, depositing Kuha back on her feet. “Uh. As long as it, you know. Stays just rice wine. We, um, don’t want to wreck another building like, you know.” She blushes. Just a little. “Last time.”

They get inside, and Testolagh relaxes. He looks awkward now. “I do note,” he says, as he pours out the wine, “that. Um. You’re pregnant now. And I... uh. Didn’t think you were pregnant the last time we met.” He swallows. “Who... who is the father?”

Wow, he sounds awkward.

Keris opens her mouth. Keris closes her mouth. Keris drags a hand down her face.

“Eurgh,” she groans. “Fathers, actually. Twins. And yeah, they... came as a bit of a surprise.” She glances up at him and makes a mental connection. “They’re not yours,” she assures him hastily. “Or... well... it’s kind of complicated. There was a dream - not the normal kind, one with truth behind it. You’ve noticed I’m stronger now? That was one of the results.” She motions at her midsection. “This was the other. It’s... it’s been an interesting few months.”

She wrinkles her nose. “And apparently I picked up a secret of the Great Mother somewhere that made them take up far more space than they need.” She glares vaguely downward. “This is two months in. I’m not looking forward to the next thirteen. Or explaining this to Sasi, which... I think I probably need to do in person, because you just know she’s going to have questions.”

Keris pauses to consider this, and groans again. “Many, many, many questions,” she adds in tones of dread. “And probably some poking and prodding. Joy.”

Testolagh visibly relaxes at the news that they’re not his. “I’m sure you’re lovely and Sasimana clearly loves you,” he says stiffly. “I just have no desire to... ah, become a father again because of something I don’t even remember with you.”

“Still pretty sure we didn’t... do anything,” Keris reminds him. “We were very, very drunk. But... yeah. Same here.” She accepts a glass of rice wine and sips at it appreciatively as something tips her memory. “You said, when I left for Malfeas, that you had something to discuss with me? After I finished with the owlrider changes?”

“Yes.” Testolagh sighs, nursing his rice wine. “We need to talk about... well. Me and Sasimana and... you.”

Keris stiffens slightly. “What about... uh...” She tails off as the word “us” fills itself in, and more or less answers her question for her. “Shouldn’t... Sasi really be here for that?” she tries instead. It’s a pretty weak attempt at dodging the conversation, all things considered. At best, it’ll only delay it.

“No, she really shouldn’t,” Testolagh says heavily. “She’d just make things more complicated.” He downs his drink, and pours himself another one. “I love her,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard and I don’t see her enough and... I love her. She’s the mother of my daughter. I want to meet my daughter and... and I want a family. So when you come in, it makes things... complicated.” He leans back. “I know she’s a dynast and... gods help me, but the Scarlet Dynasty has the morals of cats. She doesn’t see anything strange about carrying on a relationship with both of us, but... that just leaves us flapping in the wind.”

“I think...” Keris begins, and stops to sip at her wine. This is really not a conversation she wants to be having. Though she... kind of has to admit that Testolagh has a point about Sasi.

“... she misses you, too,” she says after a while. “I think part of... part of your problem, part of that is that you’re up here and she’s down in the southwest. You...” she spreads her hands, “you couldn’t be any further apart, unless one of you was in Hell or something. But she’s rooted there; wouldn’t be much use in wilderness like this. And you seem pretty established here, with all the work you’ve put into the tribes.”

“That’s not the point, though,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “If you’re going to be a part of her life, then we’re going to have to come to some kind of terms. Some kind of arrangement.”

“That’s what I’m... wait, no. Huh. I see what you mean.” Keris blows out a breath in a slow, soft whistle. “We can’t be fighting over her; that’s what you’re saying. Two people on the same side fighting over a third is never pretty.”

She looks down at her hands, thinking about it.

“When... back in...” she starts haltingly. “After... Haneyl; after Sasi saw a painting of her, I asked her, about... this, sort of. Well, not exactly this. But something like it.” She sighs.

“Sasi’s kind of... messed up, inside, I think. She still misses the family she had before. She loves you, and she loves me - and she trusts me, deep down. I wasn’t... I wasn’t sure of that. Not until this Calibration just gone. I don’t know when she started trusting me... it might have been that night, actually. When I declared she could...”

She trails off for a moment, frowning slightly, then snaps herself back to the present. “But she loves me,” she repeats. “She loves me, and she trusts me. Even though she’s got... things, about being in control all the time. She knows I could hurt her in ways she can’t defend against, and she trusts me not to.”

Keris smiles a little tearfully, remembering Sasi - Salina - letting that slip. Trusting her, even when she didn’t remember who she was. “That means a lot to me. That’s what’s important to me, more than... than papers about who’s married to who or who gets whose land or name or any of that stuff.

“So. I think... I don’t know exactly how Dynasts think, let alone Sasi, but I think you and her are more... formal? She’s been with you longer, and I think you’d probably be her husband, if she were less... her. And I think... I think I can deal with that. It does kind of help that you’re all the way up here,” she admits, “but I can deal with being less formal and ‘proper’, as long as she doesn’t feel for me any less.”

She doesn’t mention Rat, or Yamal; whose children she’s carrying. They’re not something Testolagh needs to know about.

Testolagh frowns. “You’re babbling,” he says. “Slow down a bit.” He paces back and forth, thinking. “You’re right,” he says. “She has problems. When... when she first arrived, I was still in training. She was a wreck. Some people take this power badly. I... I think she might have tried to kill herself. Possibly more than once.”

The words hang in the air. “She doesn’t act now like she used to. She was very... vulnerable back then. She’s grown colder, more controlled, more...” he smiles wearily, “more like a dynastic princess. Even more beautiful, too. I... I just can’t bear the thought of... of you stealing her away from me.”

There. He’s said it now.

“I couldn’t steal Sasi, thief or no,” Keris objects. “If she chooses, it’s a choice. Her choice. But you’re not listening to what I’m saying.” She looks away, frowning. “She still misses her family - still loves them, even. She hasn’t seen them in years, and they’d try to kill her if they knew what she was now. And she still loves them. She might look cold on the outside, but she doesn’t just stop loving people.”

She looks him in the eye; half-challenging, half-sulky. “If she hasn’t let them go, she’s not going to let you go. Or me. Not unless one of us forces her to. And it’s your child she has, not mine. So your problem isn’t that I might steal her away from you. Your problem is that you’re up here, and she’s down there, and you miss her.”

((Compassion 3; 1 sux.))

Wrinkling her nose, Keris drains the last of the rice wine. “And I guess I can’t blame you for that,” she admits. “I do too. Only an idiot wouldn’t.”

“So what then?” He raises his voice. “So what are we going to have to do? Especially with... that night there. Where if we didn’t do anything, the only reason was that we got so drunk that we couldn’t. That just makes things even more complicated!”

“I don’t know!” Keris yells back. “Okay? I’ve only loved two people like this, ever! I know about holding onto love and not giving up on it, not about steering around the reefs! The last two times I tried to help someone I loved-”

She snaps her jaw shut, turning around quickly and brushing a lock of hair across her eyes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” she continues, as levelly as she can. I’m the youngest of the three of us; I don’t know why you’re expecting me to.”

“Because you’re the one who’s getting in the way!” he says, teeth gritted. “I come back and find that she went off with you and you’re sharing a bed and she presents it as a done deal. I didn’t exactly get a say in it. Because the Realm has no morals and she just assumes it’s natural for her to have a mistress.”

“And how is that my fault?” Keris shoots back. “Sounds like you’re more angry at her, and just taking it out on me! I’m not the one from the Realm! Or the one who let work get between me and someone I loved!”

He slams a hand into the wall, cracking the black stone. “Now you’re just talking for yourself!” he retorts. “You won’t be saying this if you were the one stuck up in some freezing wasteland who hasn’t even got to see your newborn daughter because you’ve got your orders from the Unquestionable! You wouldn’t be lecturing people about ‘letting work get between you and your love’ if you were the one stuck up here because you can’t leave these idiot tribesmen alone for a month without the confederacy nearly on the edge of war as soon as you get back!”

((... oh, wow. Called shot to the Be Loved/Family. Nice one, Testolagh. Even if it was by accident.))

Keris flinches. Hard. Her hair, fluffed up out of its braid and coiled angrily, drops limp to the ground and pools at her feet.

“... no,” she admits quietly, hugging herself. “No, I wouldn’t.”

The abrupt cooling of her temper seems to catch Testolagh off-guard for a moment as she thinks.

“... sorry,” she offers, as he regains his equilibrium. It’s grudging, but it’s honest.

Testolagh seems confused, but he grudgingly accepts it. “And once again we’re back to the start,” he says, shoulders slumping. He stoops, and picks up some of the fallen stone from where he broke the wall. He forces himself to smile. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in taking this region?” he says, a little too much curiosity in his voice for it to be a joke.

“Hah,” she says. “No way. But, hmm. Maybe that’s where to look. See if you can get someone else to take the region; petition for a transfer.” She frowns - half at the problem, and half at how he’s somehow managed to sneaky-turn her around into wanting to help him. “Could someone else take it? Would you be able to hand things over to someone else if they were good enough to handle it, or would the tribes not accept anyone but you personally?”

He laughs bitterly. “I lead because I beat down every man who challenged me. Their tribes are family groups. They only accept me as leader of the leaders because I’m no mortal man. The plan at first was to unite them under a cultist, but... well.” He spreads his hands. “I’m not like Sasimana. I solve things directly, and I needed them listening to me so I took charge.”

Keris blows out a sigh. “You need a proxy. Like, even the Althing could agree to that; if you had someone to handle things day-to-day here, it would free you up to do other things - and you could show up in person within ten days for any emergencies.”

She chews a hair tendril thoughtfully. “If I were queen of a place I’d carved out myself,” she muses, “and I wanted someone I trusted completely to take charge of it for me while I... was... elsewhere...”

Light dawns. It is green, and flickering.

“Oh oh oh! Mother! Mother mother mother!” Keris isn’t sure exactly how long Haneyl has been listening to the conversation, but she sounds like she’s come to the same conclusion Keris has. “I would be the best at that, mother! I could make everything pretty and make the stupid raksha stay back and nobody would argue with me and I’m part of you so they’d know I was a proper princess who was in charge of them and mother mother mother, you have to see if you can summon me as soon as you try with Dulmea!”

A giggle slips out without Keris quite meaning it to. “I... oh wow, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but... that makes sense.” She runs a disbelieving hand through her hair. “I’d... yeah. I’d get Haneyl to do it.”

She looks Testolagh up and down, considering. Sasi loves him, so he’s probably trustworthy. And... she does sort of feel like the more Infernals with souls like hers there are, the better. The Unquestionable might demand that the souls of one Princess be put under oaths, but they won’t risk making a ruling that will turn a significant number of their Chosen against them.

“... Sasi made me swear not to tell anyone this,” she says slowly. “It’s one of maybe... two, perhaps three times I’ve seen her genuinely scared for me. I’m not sure if she’d have shared her part with me if I wasn’t already hip-deep in it, so... has she told you about her souls?”

“I... don’t really see how that’s relevant?” he says. “I just need to find someone in the tribes who I can make understand that there’s a more important thing than their grudges. I’m seeing if I can train a few, but it’s slow going.” He pauses. “But she said... oh, what was it? She had new souls that were basically like the coadjutor.”

Keris nods. “They’re aware, is the point. I have my own, too - and they’ve made demons of their own. Demons I can summon. You said the tribes follow you because you’re more than mortal. I don’t know what your odds are of finding someone - a mortal someone - who can unite the tribes and keep them together and stay alive and run this whole region for you. You’d know that better than me.

“But...” she leans over and taps his chest. “You have two hearts. One of them is a soul, Sasi said. We’re not so different from the Unquestionable, if we have souls that can think for themselves - younger, and not as strong, but still. So what if you could summon one? If you can’t trust someone else to keep war from breaking out here, trust part of yourself. If Rathan or Haneyl were older, I might ask them to care for things when I couldn’t.”

“That would be nice,” he says, “except... you know, the whole fact that I can’t do that. I don’t have strange awakened lesser souls, and I can’t summon them. I’ll just get what I need to do done.” The man pours himself another drink. “You?” he says, offering the wine.

Keris is slightly distracted by Haneyl’s cheering inside her head at the news that when she’s older she’ll get to run things.

She accepts another drink with a shrug. “Sasi’s souls weren’t awake like mine, at first,” she tells him. “Ask her about it. Though I guess it’s your choice how you deal with things here.” She purses her lips, empathy nagging at her.

((Rolling Compassion 3... haha, 3 sux.))

“You can’t leave the tribes for long, and it’s... twenty days to get to the southwest and back via Cecelyne,” she muses aloud. “But if you haven’t seen your daughter yet... I’ll see if I can, you know. Talk Sasi into visiting here. She can’t complain about comfort too much, not when you’ve got these buildings. And she’s not neck-deep in work at the moment.”

“That would be good,” he says, with a sigh of relief. He cracks a smile. “I’m sure you can take over for everything she does in An Teng,” he says. That’s a distinct teasing note there.

Instead of rising to it, Keris grins. “I have a pretty new ship to explore the oceans and attack the Realm with,” she boasts. “Once, uh. I finish learning how to sail her, and get a crew.”

“That sounds nice,” he says. “I don’t know. Maybe... maybe we should just talk it over with her.” His shoulders slump. “I am angry at her for taking up with you, I suppose. I mean... I knew things weren’t exclusive because her duties to the Yozis mean that sometimes she has to act like someone’s mistress, but... but it feels like more of a betrayal for her to be involved with someone else she loves, rather than just someone she’s manipulating.”

“I can understand that,” Keris says. “Talk it over with her, yeah. We probably do need a conversation with all three of us there. Somehow. Maybe she can find some Sapphire spell for it. Like Infallible Messenger, but more.” She shrugs. “I’ll ask her about that, too, when I see her. Speaking of which, I should unpack what I’ve brought you and start heading back soon. I’ll take you over how to use the doses, but you’re probably better off summoning a vitriol alchemist to do it. I’ll leave a copy of my notes for them.”

He nods. “Very well. I’d like to see a demonstration on a few of them. Ten, perhaps. To see how they work and how many of them die from it.”

Keris nods. “Alright. Show me where I can start, and I’ll take you through the basics. I’ve made it as safe as possible for them, though it takes time to have full effect.”

“Very well,” he says. “I’ll gather some up for you, and we’ll see.”

((They need a lot of food during the about-two-weeks transformation, and there’s about a ten percent ‘complications’ rate where they’ll need someone to do a successful Cog + Occult roll or they die. You can just demonstrate it as a stunt.))

Implanting the flesh-seeds is simple - for Keris, or stomach bottle bugs that can tease apart human flesh, it’s a matter of ten or fifteen minutes to settle them where they need to be and ensure everything is feeding into and from the implants properly. The transformation itself will take around a fortnight, she informs Testolagh as she works, and warns him to lay in a lot of food for them in advance - they’ll need it.

One of her patients is a bit of a surprise, and requires some fast thinking on her part when something in her liver objects to the seed planted beside it. Keris solves that by shifting the liver-seed away, and altering the positions of the others. It’ll mean her body will shift in a different order, but by the time the changes hit her liver, her health will be bolstered enough that whatever allergy caused her reaction won’t kill her.

... it’ll probably be a miserable couple of days as her newly empowered immune system sorts itself out, of course. But she’ll come out of it alive, and as healthy as the others in the end. Keris jots down a few notes on what happened at the end of her procedure for the benefit of Testolagh’s alchemists. Shifting the seeds should be enough for most complications along those lines that she can think of, though where and how to shift them will be a matter of on-the-spot judgement.

“So I’ll need stomach-bottle bugs to hand,” he says out loud.

“They’d be best for this, yes,” she agrees. “Or neomah, for the flesh-crafting aspect. I’d go for both.”

“Hmm. So noted.” Testolagh looks at Keris. “I did notice that Kuha looks somewhat like you, now. Is that some side effect? Are there any others like that?”

“Like I said earlier,” Keris explains. “The process is like a second - or first, I suppose - puberty. Since it’s my blood that I used to base the changes on, it... sort of... yeah. Altered them my way a bit. They’re... somewhat blood-related to me now.” And please, she thinks, don’t think too hard about that and what else I used to base the changes on.

((Reaction + Occult = 8 dice -> Uh... 7 successes))

Testolagh looks at her with a sudden expression of bemused faint horror. “Wait. But you took some of my...”

Dammit. “They’re still who they were, by blood,” she says quickly. “Just with a bit added. Probably something like... hmm.” Her first reaction, back when she had realised, had been “daughter”. Working on the rest of the doses had given her time to realise that wasn’t quite right. “Maybe half what they were before, half a mixture of us? Think... I don’t know... cousin? Maybe niece.” She hesitates. “... you could argue for ‘grandchild’, I suppose.”

He pinches his brow. “Still. You’re telling me that...” he gestures towards the owlriders, “... that they’re going to become our descendents? This is... fine. Fine.” He jabs a finger at Keris. “But you’re telling Sasimana that!”

His expression lasts for a few moments, and then it cracks and turns into uproarious laughter.

Keris buries her face in her hands. “Staying here is starting to look more and more tempting,” she mutters to herself despairingly.

“I... I should just court you,” he manages, through the tears of laughter. “After all, y-you need do the h-honourable thing and m-marry me after d-doing this! Otherw-w-wise our children will be bastards!” He staggers against a wall, wiping his face on his bare arms. “Sasi should see how she likes that!” he guffaws.

“I’m glad you find it so funny,” she groans. “Oh, I am not looking forward to that conversation. Explaining this is going to be enough as it is.” She gestures at her pregnancy, and resists the urge to beat her head something as Testolagh has to lean against the wall to stay upright through his laughter.

Despite her trepidation, she sets off back to Malfeas with Kuha and Cissidy that night. The owlriders that will be coming to her, they agree, will wait until the changes are established and people have had time to get used to them. And also until Keris has her own islands set up to host them, back in the South West. She gives Testolagh a respectful-if-sullen salute as she leaves, and to his credit he manages not to laugh at her apprehension. Much.

“Kerishyra,” Kuha says to Keris, as they slip through the path into the desert. “I do not know if I will ever come back. Even like the other owlriders, I am not like them. You have made me even more different.” She looks at Keris, wrapped up in silk, leather underneath, only her eyes visible. Her glass goggles are pushed up on her face. “Will you change me more? Make me even more different?”

Keris considers it, thinking through her answer as they emerge onto silver sand under a black sky. “Do you want me to?”

“I do not know,” Kuha says. “You are more different to me than I am to the others. Will you make me more like you?”

“Perhaps someday,” Keris decides, after some thought. “But not soon. Some things I have, I can’t give you. And you’re good as you are.” She shifts in the saddle to pull Kuha into a one-armed hug. “Worry about those things later. For now, let’s focus on heading to our new home.”

“Yes.” Kuha kicks her mount, speeding up. “Come on, Kerishyra! Let us get there faster!”

Alas, enthusiasm is not enough to circumvent the nature of the Endless Desert, and it is five days later that Keris and Kuha arrive back in Malfeas. After seeing to a tired-but-happy Cissidy’s feed and directing Kuha on where to change into clothes more comfortable for her, Keris goes to see how Mehuni’s preparations have been going.

“Twenty three screams, my lady,” Mehuni observes. “You are back earlier than I expected. I am barely finished.”

“It was a quick visit,” Keris agrees. “Though not a boring one. But I’m glad our timing matched. What do you have for me?”

Mehuni folds his hands together, bows, and then turns and recovers some documentation. “I have found you a helmsman and a navigator, as well as crew,” he says, inclining his head. “These are the results of my investigations on them.”

He passes the scrolls to her, and Keris curls into a chair to peruse them. Helmsman; a decanthrope - and apparently a powerful one, whose bodies don’t suffer as much from the listlessness and stupidity that body snatchers’ hosts normally do when the demon isn’t in them. The list of neuroses has her sending an incredulous look at Mehuni, but it’s followed by a note in her adjutant’s hand that directs her to the demon’s voyages. Which are... impressive, to say the least. He may be neurotic, but he’s an excellent pilot despite that. Or possibly because of it.

The other officer, Neride, is a sublimatus; an ascended First Circle like the neomah-dragon thing that works for Ligier. She’s serpentine too, but more like a snake than a dragon. A venomous one, Keris notes. According to Mehuni, she seems eager to be under the protection of someone like Keris, since a Green Sun Princess has a combination of personal power and distance from Hell that will protect her from certain unfriendly eyes among the citizen-souls of the Yozis. Excellent fighter, and experience at captaining ships across Kimbery.

Keris groans when she sees the third scroll. “The Priest,” she sighs. “I’d almost forgotten.” Mehuni has tried his best, but even his resources haven’t been able to dig up much on the upholder of the Law she’s been saddled with - not helped by how hard priests are to tell apart. Looking them in the face is illegal. after all. All he’s been able to figure out is that it’s old, even for a priest, and seems to be a little more mentally flexible than its kin. It would have to be, she realises, if it’s coming to Creation with her.

The crew are all tried-and-tested sailors; a scattering of various different species. None of them have been on something quite like her ship before, but they’ll all be able to do their jobs, and most can fight as well. All in all, she’s thoroughly pleased with the job Mehuni’s done, and says as much.

“You are too kind, my lady,” Mehuni says with a supple bow. “Unquestionable Lilunu’s servants were most useful. She asks you at your convenience to attend to her, as she wishes to talk about her painting of you.”

Keris grins. The trip back across Cecelyne gave her time to come up with her own idea on a return gift for Lilunu, and she’s eager to deliver it. Lilunu greets her in a soft lavender robe covered with growing flowers made of living gemstones. “You were not away long,” she says, leaning in to kiss Keris once on each cheek. “I suppose you didn’t see much in Creation with so little time there.”

“It was a brief visit,” Keris agrees, blushing. “But long enough for me to think of another gift for you, my lady.”

“Goodness,” Lilunu says, as servants bring food in. They’re delicate sugar crystal structures, and Keris can taste the stimulants in them. “I await the surprise.”

“I’ll keep it a secret for a little longer,” Keris smiles, and blinks in surprise at the drug-laden sugar treats. “Uh... why do- oh. Yes, you mentioned using my... skin, to paint on.” She looks at the food nervously. “Well... I do heal fast. And if I was high on chalcanth...”

“Oh, yes, that’s much what I do,” Lilunu says placidly. “Blood, hair, skin - shall I show you some of my paintings that I’ve done in the same manner? It’s just an extension of using one’s own body as a canvas.” Casually she turns and slips her robe down, showing her back.

Keris boggles. The tattoo on her back is a vista of the Conventicle Malfeasant that could almost be a window. In fact - her eyes widen - she can see things moving under the Unquestionable’s skin. “Tattoos tend to go whenever my chakras get out of flow enough,” she adds, turning back around. She discards her robe, showing Keris the dragon which writhes under her skin on her chest, writhing around the ornate piercing on her belly button. “I made this one since Adorjan took me. I long for beauty. My flesh,” she gestures at herself, and at the building around her, “I shape it for that.”

She claps her hands, and butterflies flock to her, quickly changing her robe for a dress of insects. “So, yes,” she says casually. “Art made from your body. Not a tattoo, a painting - though for me they’re much the same thing.”

“One showing me, and of me...” Keris says thoughtfully. She can appreciate the artistry - and honestly, the chance to be painted by someone as skilled as Lilunu is something she’d give a lot for. “Yes, okay. This sounds good. You can take materials while I’m blissed out on something, and I’ll have healed by the time I’m aware again.”

She pauses for a moment as several inner voices clamour for attention.

“... uh. As long as it will heal,” she clarifies. “And won’t scar or linger like...” A tap to the scar on her jawbone. “Or my voice and tongue. Though they did come back, after a while.” She throws a nervous glance at Lilunu at that, but it doesn’t look like she’s unbalanced enough for possession at the moment.

Lilunu nods. “Yes. You can heal through the gifts of Kimbery, yes? That’ll make things much easier. It should take only a short while to gather what I need. When will you be free for... oh, less than half a scream?”

“My ship is being loaded and provisioned, but Mehuni can handle that,” Keris shrugs. She grins. “Can your servants gather what you need for you?”

“Oh, I’ll do it myself,” Lilunu says. “Servants can’t handle such precious things. If you’re free now, come with me to one of my workrooms.” She calls for a servant, and makes some requests for a few things to be delivered, and then rises. “I can show you one of my painting rooms, while I am at it. Tell me, is there any interesting art in Creation where you were?”

“Well, this trip just gone I was up in the northeast with Testolagh,” Keris explains, happy to chatter. “There’s not much there, but back in An Teng is another story. I’ve been reading a book on Tengese art, and that has some gorgeous pieces in it. Their silverworking is gorgeous, of course, but they also have these beautiful embroidery styles that barely ever see the light of day! They wear them as undergarments or on the inside of their clothes - it’s a pain finding out much about them anywhere but the Shore Lands - and...”

Lilunu’s workroom is a vast, airy space with a crystal room that lets the warm soft green light of Ligier in. She’s got more fires around here, in other colours and - somehow - the different coloured fires somehow average out to white. It’s one of the strangest things Keris has seen, where she realises now how green the rest of the Demon City looks.

And under this light, there are paintings everywhere. They’re hung on the walls. There’s racks and rows of paint-making chemicals, sealed pots of exotic chemicals, and white-clad demons flecked with paint who are quietly working away mixing things. They’ve clearly been used as canvases too, because they’re tattooed and pierced according to sketches on the walls. Keris can even see a rack of piercing tools discarded on one side.

“Wow...” Keris whispers. In its own way, it’s as amazing as the workshops of Ligier. And unlike her first impression of those, she now feels an itch of... envy? Competitiveness?

... no. Ambition. It feels like a Haneyl thought, but there’s a bit of Rathan-thinking in there as well. ‘When will I have somewhere like this?’ is the best way she can think of to phrase the feeling. ‘I want a place as amazing as this - a place people will look at and be in awe of me.’

Someday, she thinks, she’ll have one.

Lilunu walks her over to part of the room, where things are clean and scrubbed. “Now, this is what I use for when I gather paint and materials from myself,” she says. “I have other fleshes of mine take it, but here I can do it for you. And... ah ha.” A servant brings an assortment of drinks on a tray. “Keris, take whatever you need. And... you will need to expand the light of your soul. Stand away from anything breakable, please. I can withstand it, but some of my tools aren’t so resilient.”

Keris takes her time choosing her drinks, and - after some careful taste-tests of a drop or so each - selects a three-glass concoction that should have her zoned out for at least an hour, even with her healing factor taken into account.

‘You are,’ she thinks to her souls in general and Echo in particular, ‘categorically banned from doing this until you’re at least as old as I was when I had my first drink of chalcanth. In outside time. I do not want to see what happens when one or more of you gets high. Especially if it’s Echo.’

That done, she downs all three drinks in one triple-mouthed gulp, and flares her soul to its highest before they start to kick in. It’s changed, she dimly realises, uncertain whether or not this is something she’s noticed before. It doesn’t feel surprising. But her head already feels a bit... floaty.

The ocean-whirlwind ripples and swirls around her. She’s crowned in green fireblossoms, and a mandala of light is at her back; abstract patterns reflecting the geography of her soul. The names of her souls are written around it, and she can see the silver scales of her po coil around her body. It’s crooning softly, not angry or territorial as usual. It sounds almost...

... almost happy. Like... like the ticklish ripples playing along her skin, and the... the colours in the air that it’s snapping at. And the way Dulmea’s music sounding through her soul is... tasty, like cherries and apples, and... mmm.

Keris drifts in a dreamland, hypnotised by her own anima light for quite a while. She doesn’t even know when Lilunu moves in. But she feels great like this. If Lilunu picked these ones out, she has to find out what they’re made from.

Then the pleasant sensations take her again.

Some time - some indeterminate period - later, she finds that her head is clearer. The anima light is gone. She’s sad about that. She’s quite dreamy feeling, but she’s moving fine. She pokes herself in the cheek. She can barely feel it.

Keris looks around, supporting herself with her hair. Oh, look. Lilunu has a big red thing next to her. A thingie. What’s the word? A fat? No, not that. A vat? No. A... a crystal thingie. Full of red. And then there’s a thing that Lilunu is doing with thread and... and a vat and... and dipping something that’s all pale brown into a tank. There’s other things hung up next to it, dripping.

“Wflbt,” she says, as a hazy memory returns. Oh. Oh, yeah. This is like. This is like when she was thingie. Drunk. With thingie. Testyman. Where she couldn’t remember which limbs were hair and which were feet and which were wings and which were arms and which were tails.

She holds up one at random and inspects it. It’s pretty sure it’s not a leg or a tail. That leaves a choice of three, none of which are useful for walking.

... maybe she should stay sitting down for a while, she decides. Until her head clears up a bit more.

After... uh, a while she’s feeling somewhat clearer. Lilunu is dressed in a smock and a leather apron, just what a mortal artist might wear. Although, uh, the blood on her is probably less artistic. Keris’ blood, too.

Lilunu looks over, humming as she sews together what must be bleached sections of skin before hanging it to dry. There are sealed crystal containers full of Keris’ blood - a lot of blood, wow - and there are other things in smaller opaque containers. “You’re waking up,” Lilunu says happily, covered in Keris’ blood. “How are you feeling? I find it can take a scream for the sense of touch to come back properly after that mix.”

“Gluh. Wasn’t... wasn’t expecting... so much.” Keris gratefully accepts a glass from a servant and checks that it is, in fact, the water it purports to be before downing it. She looks over the materials. “Is that... all from me?”

“Oh yes,” Lilunu says contentedly. “You were excellent for that. I took rather more than I needed, because you were just so good at it. In fact, you were healing a little too fast at times, so I had to be a little crude and so I had to take more to avoid wastage.” She shakes her head. “I’m a little envious, you know. You recover so quickly from almost any injury. There is one more thing, though. I’ll need some hair. I realised when I tried to take some that it didn’t grow back, so I thought it would be better for you to offer it as you saw fit. Don’t worry, I cleaned you up after I was done. It was quite messy.”

Keris nods a little dizzily. “Haven’t... needed the healing much. In fights. Yet. But s’useful for other things.” She shakes herself a little. “Did you, ah. The...” she waves around herself. “Light? Pretty?”

Lilunu’s request sinks in a moment later, and processes. “Oh. Hair. How much?”

“It’ll be for the brushes,” Lilunu says. “I’ll need several, but it shouldn’t be much overall.” She takes a lock of Keris’ hair. “This should be enough.”

“Right.” Keris nods again. “Oh, um. Maybe, uh... maybe not the...” She taps her baby bump. “Not that. Just as I normally am?”

Lilunu smiles, a quiet reserved smile that nevertheless is quite smug. “You’ll see. My portraits capture the very essence of the person. Now, where shall we paint you? And what should you wear? Your armour?”

This inspires some thought, but eventually Keris shakes her head slowly. Another glass of water clears her head a bit.

“I’ll... I think I’ll have it in the royal suite,” she says, picking her words with care. “Probably the bedroom itself. So the only people who see it will be people who matter; me and Sasi and maybe a few others. So...”

She blushes faintly. “If it’s to capture the essence of me, it should be all of me. Body and soul, without anything in the way. So... maybe nude? And with my soul flaring?”

The demon princess nods understandingly. “So... hmm. That means that not much will be visible, so the backdrop matters less. Down by one of the lakes? Or on one of the roofs? The soul will dominate the view, I think, but a good background is wanted.”

“... a lake,” Keris decides after some thought. “On the shore, between land and sea.” She grins. “It’s where I’m most at home.”

“Well, I think... oh, we’ll need a few sessions. I’ll meet you for your first session at the scream after next,” Lilunu says. “I wouldn’t want to interfere with your duties, and I...” her face falls slightly. “I have certain others I need to see. And you should take time to clear your head.” She doesn’t seem to look forwards to what she’s about to do, Keris thinks.

“Your gift...” Keris says. “Or... will you look forward to it for next time?”

“You can give it to me when I finish the painting,” Lilunu says, smiling. “It’s only fair.”

Keris nods uncertainly, and asks a servant for a palanquin home. She’s not really in a fit state to walk.

Once they sort things out, it will require a week of sessions. In the meantime, Keris will have time to experiment once she finishes her preparations.

“Like trying to summon Dulmea!” Haneyl says excitedy. “Because when you work out how to get her out of here, you can let me out too!”

This is true, Keris agrees. She does, however, make sure she’s very, very much in private, deep in her townhouse, before she tries it.

After sending Sasi a messenger to explain the delay - one does not say no when an Unquestionable offers one a gift, even it if takes a week or so to paint - Keris gets down to the business of Sorcery. There’s something different immediately about trying to summon one of her souls. For one thing, there’s no searching needed as she incants the spell and sends her mind inward. She can always tell where they are when she meditates like this - indeed, she barely has to think of Dulmea and she’s drawn to her Fourth Soul like an arrow.

“I am Keris,” she intones in powerful Old Realm as her anima flickers and surges. “I call upon a Gale of my Fourth Soul; a chord from the Endless Melody! Come to me now, Dulmea!

There’s a flash - different from normal. It’s anima-coloured light, and curling streamers of Keris’ soul wrap out and take form in the shape of a pregnant-looking quasi-angyalka.

“Child?” Dulmea asks, inside Keris’ head. “Did it work?”

“Child,” says the Dulmea in front of Keris. “It worked.”

“I can’t feel the me out there,” Dulmea says in Keris’ head.

“I can’t feel the me inside you,” the Dulmea outside says.

Keris is open-mouthed in awe. “It... it worked!” she laughs, honestly surprised. “Hold on, hold on... stay still.” Closing her eyes, she takes in the quasi-angyalka in front of her, the sound of her essence and the nature of her being. She frowns. She... she doesn’t think that’s a demon. Not exactly. This Dulmea is... she’s something Kerisian. And she’s very weak compared to the Dulmea in her head - no stronger than a normal demon.

((Enlightenment 2 Kerisian akuma.))

Leaning forward, she wraps the Dulmea-Gale in a hug - a real-world hug, something she’s only had from her mother once. Almost two years ago now. It’s scarcely believable.

“Alright,” she murmurs into her mother’s shoulder happily. “Return, and rejoin the Melody.” Dulmea melts away into anima light, rejoining the greater Keris.

“How strange,” Dulmea says. “I... I feel a bit dizzy. I remember being out there now. But I didn’t before.”

“That’s going to be useful,” Keris predicts. “Very useful. Let’s keep this quiet for now - Sasi can know, but I don’t think we’ll let...”

Despite the fact that the conversation is inside her own head, she still lowers her voice for the next part. “I don’t think we’ll let the Unquestionable know I can do that yet,” she whispers. “I don’t want to find out what they might do with a coadjutor they could talk to in person.”

She straightens. “Okay. Haneyl; your turn.” Haneyl is, honestly, the best choice. Echo can already get out to some extent, Rathan is scared of Adorjan, and Keris has no intention of even putting Calesco in the same realm of existence as the Unquestionable if she can help it.

“My turn my turn my turn! Oh! Hold on! I need to... and... and also...” Keris can hear Haneyl scrabbling around for the things she needs. Which, from the sound of things, includes a sword. She nods in approval.

“Okay! Ready!”

Once again, Keris launches into the summoning. Once again, her mind finds her soul easily.

“I am Keris, and I summon a shard of myself! I call upon my Seventh Soul, my daughter, my Flower Maiden! Appear before me now; Haneyl! Essence flickers and twists in front of her. Keris’ eyes light up, and Haneyl cheers in her head.

And then the anima-light shatters, detonating explosively. Keris feels the world slow to a crawl as the essence explodes and she feels it burn her skin - before she draws on Kimbery and her flesh reforms from the blast. All around her, essence-fires flicker over the walls. Ice and flowers and wind gust around her, cracking the surfaces.

There’s a frustrated wail inside Keris’ head.

“No!” wails Haneyl. “No!”

“... ow,” Keris grunts. “Okay. Okay. Ow. Haneyl, are you- Haneyl! Sweetheart! Are you hurt?”

“It didn’t work! I didn’t even feel a tug!” Haneyl cries.

Keris rubs a gash as it finishes closing. “Right. It didn’t... hah. Work.”

She grins tiredly. “Don’t be upset, Haneyl. You know what that means? That it didn’t work?”

“It means I can’t get out and I can’t do things for you and it’s all useless and stupid and useless and stupid!” Haneyl snarls. There’s a bestial reverb in her tone, and a rush of fire.

“No,” Keris corrects, patient but quick. It sounds like Haneyl is heading tantrum-wards, which means she’ll have to calm her down quickly. Happily, her theory should do just that.

“It means that summoning of the Emerald Circle has no hold over you. Banishing either, I’d reckon. But we just saw that it can summon Dulmea’s Gales. So it’s not that you’re not summonable at all, or I wouldn’t have been able to summon them. After all, Dulmea’s Gale wasn’t even a demon, exactly. She was a... an akuma, I think. About as powerful as a First Circle. And an Emerald Summoning worked on her.”

“So?” growls Haneyl. Keris smiles.

“So if you are summonable, but you can’t be summoned by Emerald Sorcery, what does that make you, Princess?

“But I want out now!” Haneyl wails.

“I know, sweetheart, I know,” Keris soothes. “Tell you what. Once we’re back in Creation, and I have my islands set up? First thing I’ll work on after that? Getting you out. After all.” She grins. “You are going to be one of my top helpers. So that’s very much a necessary step.”

“... plus, I really want to be able to wipe out whole camps like Sasi can,” she adds after a moment’s thought. “If I’m going to steal the Lintha and start claiming territory, power on that sort of scale is going to be really, really useful.”

Haneyl takes a deep breath. “Mmm hmm,” she says weakly. “I... I’m going back to my tree. I w-want a nap. And Elly to tell me a story.” She takes a deep breath. “You need to make sure you look your b-best for Unquestionable Lilunu,” she insists, clearly trying to distract herself. “You have to be as pretty as possible! I... I like her, so you can’t disappoint her. She’s pretty and she does pretty painting and she’s very very kind and has lovely dresses and... and even if Ligier likes her, she’s... she’s not bad because she’s nice to you.”

“Actually,” Keris says. “I wanted your help with the gift I have planned for her. She seems a bit lonely all on her own - so I was thinking of summoning her up a little group of keruby, like how you have Elly. One of each kind, do you think? Three little helpers.” She hums thoughtfully. “Do you think I should have them be unchanged, to see if they might shift to mimic her? Or shifted ones, so they stay different and unique?”

Haneyl takes a deep breath. “I think they should be young ones. Special ones for her would be special. And also, mama,” Haneyl chides her, “you want to keep some things in here secret! You told me that! So new ones won’t be able to say things because keruby say things a lot especially if they’re Echo’s ones.”

“... that is a very good, and very clever, point.” Keris admits. “So I should make them outside, with your help. Well done!”

“Also, mama,” Haneyl continues quickly, “um... there are actually five kinds. Calesco has some too now! Remember! You saw that all of them we gave her were going tar-y, except for the one of mine who used to be one of Echo’s. And the mean snake has some! They’re all foggy and silvery and they try to pounce you when you’re sneaking around near the fog but then you set them on fire.”

Haneyl hums to herself. “You probably shouldn’t give them as a present,” she says critically, blowing her nose. “They’re a bit pounce-y and screamy and they can’t talk but they just sound like wooooooooohoooooo noises.”

Keris blinks. “Calesco’s have finished changing?” she asks in surprise. “Wait, of course, it’s been more than long enough. And... fog cherubs?” She considers that. “No, it... does make sense, actually. It’s been out there since the first keruby showed up, and it’s certainly strong enough. If they don’t like to leave the fog...”

She nods. “Alright then. We’ll start with a sziromkerub, then. How do they make more of themselves?”

How they make more of themselves, apparently, is by writing a story about the new cherub coming into existence, which seems a little tautological to Keris but is at least easier than the four hours of joyful dancing that produce new szelkeruby. She takes Haneyl’s advice, and opts to produce only four little companions for Lilunu - one for each of her child-souls. Their names, she decides to leave as a matter between them and Lilunu.

“The four of you,” she tells them, “are going to be friends and helpers to a very, very important lady. Even more important than me - and more powerful, and prettier!”

All four of them seem very impressed by this, though she’s not sure which descriptor they’re more shocked at.

“So, I’d like you to be good for her,” she tells them. “And to look after each other. Follow her rules, help her with making pretty things, and...” she smiles, “try to make her happier. Can you do that?”

The szelkerub gestures happily, indicating that of course he can do it. Spinning on the spot, he flips into a handstand.

“I wonder if it’s my Happening!” the tar-cherub says brightly, holding her hands to her chest.

“You’ll be meeting her soon, but not yet,” Keris says. “Until then, you’re going to be learning about this place, since there are things you need to know. And on that note...”

Mehuni takes the orders to arrange basic lessons on Hell for four new arrivals with unruffled poise. He has, in fact, had a basic introduction to the Demon Realm for those who know nothing of it prepared for the better part of a year, on the assumption that Keris would probably be bringing back more strays from Creation sooner or later.

He... kind of has a point on that one. Keris is reluctantly impressed. It’s a fairly pleasant introduction that skips a lot of the nastier aspects of Malfeas, since there’s little chance they’ll be travelling much outside the Conventicle, and she surrenders her keruby to their teachers without much worry as she heads to her first session.

The lakeside is beautiful, with brass glass under soft green light that means it almost looks like Creation. The indigo water has silvery things darting through it. Once again, Lilunu is wearing simple undyed clothing, but she’s already set up her easel. Keris boggles at the knowledge that it’s made of her own skin, because whatever Lilunu has done to it it looks like it’s just a grand canvas. Considerably bigger than life-size, Keris observes wryly. The Keris on the painting will be just as tall as she is. No wonder she needed a lot of materials.

“Keris,” Lilunu says sweetly, waving to her. “You’re early. I’m just setting up!”

“Can I help at all?” she asks. “Beyond standing in the right place and looking pretty?”

Lilunu gestures to some servants, who are carrying boxes made of a pale green metal. “You can take over for them and help ready my brushes and my charcoal. “So, this session we’ll begin by sketching you using the charcoal I made from your flesh and bone, so we can capture the core of you. This is the vital first step. I hope I made enough! It takes quite a few rare reagents to prepare!”

It’s peaceful work. Outside their sessions, Keris meets with her new crew members and hunts down some ballistae for the main deck. She gets her hands on four - two light and two heavy - as well as a supply of algarel-tipped bolts that will blast holes in any ship she attacks. They’re hulking things of metallic Malfean plant life rather than wood - and they can probably survive a brief dip in the water, though to be safe she’ll need to have them disassembled and brought below decks whenever she submerges the ship.

Her crew-members are a similar mix of positive and negative. The Helmsman is probably the simplest. He - all twelve of the decanthrope’s bodies are male, so Keris feels comfortable using the pronoun - is excitable and more than a little paranoid, but he knows his trade.

Neride is a little more of a mixed bag.

“I won’t be your first mate,” she says straightforwardly, once she’s sure their meeting is private. Her snakelike body makes her height variable, but she is - for now - staying on roughly the same height as Keris.

“With respect, Princess, you don’t know how to sail,” she tells Keris. “You don’t need a first mate. You need a captain. Like the owner of a trading barge - the ship might be yours, but you need someone with the knowledge to run it. Even when you’re not onboard.”

It takes a day or two of grumbling, but Keris eventually agrees. She can still be a pirate queen, she supposes. That’s good enough.

The Priest is just creepy. It folds its bone hands together and bows to her, giving no name but assuring her it will uphold the law on her vessel and bless their mission. There are a pair of Creation-made sabres at its belt that Keris asks about, and it isn’t until she’s listened to a story of a judgement from almost a century ago and left it in the main shrine that she realises it never actually gave her an answer about where or how it got them.

... yeah, all in all, the sessions with Lilunu are the most relaxing part of the week. They can talk about art, and be content in the making of something beautiful. Lilunu manages to avoid letting Keris see any of the developing work as she works at it, but Keris can hear the charcoal’s soft noise against the skin-canvas and then later the noise of hair-brushes layering paint on it and then paint on paint.

At first it’s a little embarrassing in front of Unquestionable Lilunu, especially when she’s feeling fat and bloated and spherical because of the two babies growing inside her. After a short while, though, it’s stopped mattering. Anyway, she wears her burning soul here. That’s all she needs.

It’s the last day, and Lilunu says that she’ll have it done by the end of this session even if it has to drag on. She’s worked her way through a lot of paint, and now she’s emptied out a lot of her mixes. Today Lilunu is wearing barely more than Keris, just a simple armless shift. There’s paint on her arms and she’s got a brush behind her ears.

Fortunately, Keris hasn’t seen any sign of Adorjan appearing again. She has been listening to Lilunu’s essence flows - and her heartbeat, too. She’s calm when she paints, and when she’s calm her essence flows are much more equally blended. It’s good for her to paint.

((lol “even if it has to drag on”))

“About my gift to you,” Keris says, holding still. “It might need a little explanation, if you’re not concentrating too hard?”

“Oh, certainly,” Lilunu says, around a brush in her mouth. “Just... try not to move too much. Your face is done, but your soul is taking more trouble. It keeps on moving, and that makes it harder to get the lighting just right.”

Keris’s lips twitch. “Apologies for that. But yes. I figured out a while ago that I could create demons of the First Circle myself. My souls came up with a few for me - they like to play at designing them. I think some of their creations are part of some sort of competition.

“The first ones, though. The very first demons of mine. They were interesting. I didn’t think much of them at first. Little wind-girls that were like lesser reflections of my Fifth Soul - the Silence In My Wake.” She twitches a lock of hair minutely, gesturing at Echo’s place on the mandala-wheel of light behind her.

“But they were more than that, it turned out. They were special. Because without my other souls going to the work of designing new species - without even consciously changing their design - I found I could make them in different forms. Like... like the Dragonblooded, and how they have different elements, but are all the same type of being.”

Lilunu stops painting for a moment. Keris seems to have caught her interest. She bites down on the urge to move or gesture as she explains, but she can’t help grinning.

“One type of demon - but four aspects. There’s a sort of fluidity to them - and I’ve found they can even change from one type to another, under the right circumstances! Though only once, as far as I’ve been able to tell. I’m not even sure I’ve figured out all their secrets yet - at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if there were others.

“I tell you this, my lady, because it seemed to me that you could use some company - if not to tell you of Creation, then at least to amuse you and provide a puzzle for you to play with. So I thought - if you wish it - that I might leave a quartet of keruby here with you, as servants and aides, and to remind you of me?”

Lilunu puts down her brush. There’s something very... Sasi about her expression, though Keris can’t pin down the reason exactly for that. “That would be an interesting gift,” she says plainly. “Thank you. I am... well, I’ll be interested to see them. I am sure they will be finely chosen servants.”

“I’ll introduce them to you once we’re finished,” Keris says happily.

((Heh. Tolerance of Keris Kerising, interest in a puzzle, or being charmed at how sweet Keris is? Questions, questions.))

“Hold still,” she says, leaning in to carefully add a tiny amount of paint.

The painting goes on. Lilunu fusses over the details, adjusting things and adding tiny amounts of paint here and there.

And eventually, it’s done. Lilunu straightens up, wiping her brow and leaving a streak of paint on her forehead. “There we are,” she says. “Very nearly done.” She turns around, adjusting a mirror so green light is reflected onto the canvas. “It just has to dry.”

She steps away. “Now, come on. I’ll accept your gift. I just need to let it dry under the light, and then I can make the final touches.”

If Keris is perhaps a tad nervous as she leads them back to her townhouse, Lilunu is gracious enough not to comment on it. “I left them unnamed,” she explains. “I thought that you would prefer to decide on those - or let them choose, either way. They’ve been taught the essential things they need to know about life in the Conventicle; I had Mehuni see to that. And they should... ah. Here they are.”

“Here” is in one of the gardens, where three of the keruby are gathered around the tar-girl, who is peering intently into a bowl of something. The petal-cherub seems to be taking notes.

“Children!” Keris calls. The four look over to her, trade glances, and hastily line up.

“Children,” Keris says. “This is Lilunu. You are to help her now.”

She stands behind them - a little boy of wind and yellow ribbons, a pinkish-red ice girl with a cape of trickling water, a green-petalled boy with a book cradled in his arms, and a smiling girl of dark tar.

“Honoured Lilunu,” she introduces them. “These are my keruby.” As trained, all four of them fall down on their faces before her. Admittedly, the szelkerub only does it because the sziromkerub grabs him by the ribbons and pulls him down, but it’s still an effort.

“Are... they children?” Lilunu asks. “They are... strange little demons. They remind me a little of pre-sublimati demons. That same potential in them.”

Keris nods. “My souls - when I see them in dreams - are still children. The first few keruby; the wind-ones, they were originally reflections of Echo. I think that might be why they’re so fluid. They’re born with the potential to grow and change.”

“They’re too weak to be sublimati, or even close to that,” she observes. “Rise. You may look at me,” she tells the keruby. “Approach me if you will.”

Naturally the szelkerub is the first one to dance up to her, in a cluster of spinning ribbons, light and laughter. He indicates that she is the prettiest lady he has ever ever seen, a cheeky gesture indicating that no offence is meant to Keris. He is also sure that she is as kind as she is pretty.

“They love music,” Keris grins. “All of them. And they love to dance.”

All four of them perk up at the mention of music. The sziromkerub clears his throat. “Um... Unquestionable One,” he says, softly, “I don’t... um, I wrote you a poem. When I heard I was made to be a present, I asked teacher-Mehuni about you.” He reaches into his clothes, and retrieves a poem. “Here you are, Unquestionable One.”

Lilunu reads it. The corner of her mouth quirk up. “That’s very sweet,” she says. “Although your pattern is a little crude and freeform. What do you know of structured poetry?”

The sziromkerub looks utterly blank at that.

“Nothing yet,” Keris guesses. “Instinct. His kind are storytellers and readers. I’m sure he’ll learn fast. Meanwhile, her brothers and sisters,” she pats the wave cherub on the head, “are fighters and guards - I haven’t tried teaching any martial arts yet, but I suspect they’d take to them. And this little one,” she finishes with a squeeze of the tar-cherub’s shoulder. “This little one’s kind is the newest. But I believe she was trying to scry the future just now.”

The tar-cherub nods, sitting up, hands on her thighs. “I know there’s something special for me in the future,” she says, voice full of determinism and certainty. “I was made specially for one of the Unquestionable. I will be special, and something special will Happen for me.”

With the introductions made, and feeling less nervous after Lilunu’s largely positive reactions, Keris looks to the Unquestionable for a verdict.

“This is certainly a fascinating little gift, Keris,” Lilunu says. “I will freely accept these little things into my service.” She looks up at the sun overhead. “Now, I think the painting should be dried under my beloved’s light by now. Would you like to see it?”

“Oh yes,” Keris breathes. “Very, very much.”

Keris’ nerves hum as they head back to the lakeside. She can’t wait to see it. She really can’t wait.

She strolls beside Lilunu, up to the lake where Lilunu’s servant demons are clearing things away and packing up her precious paints. Keris wonders for a moment whether her keruby will end up being decorated in the same way. But right now, her interest is mostly on the grand canvas.

Lilunu places her soft hands over Keris eyes, as she walks her around to face it. The air still smells faintly of paint - but Keris’ ears are sharper than her eyes and what she can’t see, she can hear.

She can hear... herself. She can hear her own power. It’s like she... she’s standing in front of a mirror. A mirror that’s reflecting all her sounds. Her eyes flare green beneath her eyelids and she can almost see herself, just as strong as she is. She almost doesn’t need to look at it. Somehow the Conventicle Malfeasant has captured her so well that it... is her.

Keris’ eyes open as Lilunu removes her hands, and she gazes into her own face. Every pore, every last brush stroke is perfect. Clad only in her soul, Keris Dulmeadokht stands before her. The ring on her forehead burns, flickering within the artwork. Every piercing is correct, her hair is correct - she admires her own body - and Lilunu seems to have ignored her instructions not to paint her pregnant because her belly is swollen and yet wonderfully elegant in the work of art.

Behind her, her soul burns bright. The colours melt and merge and flicker beneath the canvas, the artwork living through the soul. Her po-soul, resplendent in the picture, coils and curls around her; protective of her and yet part of her too. The mandala of her souls is all there. It’s the first time Keris has truly seen the burning light that rears around her when she unveils it.

She’s... she’s beautiful. Keris’ eyes well with tears. She’s beautiful and the painting is beautiful and everything is beautiful. Tears come to her eyes, as she turns and hugs Lilunu. “It’s beautiful,” she whispers. “I’m beautiful. Thank you for... for showing me that. So that I’ll always know.”

“Remember what you said about not wanting to be painted to show your pregnancy?” Lilunu says, embracing her back. “Do not feel shame. The painting is made of you. Every last bit of it is part of you. It is you.” Keris feels soft hands at her earlobes, as Lilunu unhooks her ear-kerises and removes them. “Look at it again,” she suggests.

Keris blinks, and looks. She’s still there, still gorgeous, still- wait.

... the her in the painting. Her earrings are gone.

“...” says Keris, her mouth falling open. “Wha... how...?

“I didn’t paint an image of you,” Lilunu says, with the simple brilliance of one of the Unquestionable. “I painted you. The painting will always be one of you, because it is you. In every way.”

((Yes, this also means it depicts her Shintais when appropriate.))
((Yessss~))
((pretty giant snake painting gooooo~))

“... it looks... like I look. In the now. And always will?” Keris tries to wrap her head around the idea. “That’s... I didn’t even think you could do that. This is...”

She shakes her head in speechless awe. “I... I shall treasure it, my lady,” she says. “And do my best to capture the beauty of Creation and bring it back for you.”

“That would be wonderful,” Lilunu says, handing Keris back her ear-kerises. “You will be heading back to An Teng, yes? You can bring me some of those embroidered garments you mentioned. I would love to know of some of their more techniques. I haven’t done so much with fabrics, and humans are so much more reliant on clothes than demonkind.”

((Lilinu is willing to increase her Mentor rating with Keris.))
((Yesssss~))

“I’ll find you some of the best,” Keris promises. “And perhaps learn the art myself, if I can find a teacher.”

“That would be wonderful,” she says, kissing Keris on the brow. “You are one of my favourite princesses,” she says naughtily. “You talk to me about art and you’re an excellent model. Maybe some day I’ll teach you to make this style of artwork, if you can learn it. I developed it from my work using my own flesh as a canvas, and well, it seemed like a sensible next step. You might be able to learn it too, with discipline and a willingness to experiment.”

Lilunu frowns. “In fact,” she says, eyebrows raising, “you might have dabbled in it already. A little birdy told me that his greater self had received a quite exquisite map of An Teng from you.”

Keris blushes under the praise and perks up at the offer, but gasps at the last comment. “Oh!” she says, surprised. “I hadn’t... I hadn’t thought of that. But... the principles are sort of similar, aren’t they?” She rubs the back of her neck, smiling ruefully. “I barely knew what I was doing, then,” she admits. “I’m lucky that it worked at all. I would be honoured to accept your teaching in how to apply the art properly.” She smiles. “I look forward to it!”

“I shall have the portrait transferred to the ship, then,” Lilunu says. “Would you care for tea?”

And so a few screams later, Keris stands on her deck. The maps show the way down into the catacombs, and through the catacombs down the path to the hidden tainted demense that shall be their emergence path. Lilunu has waved her off, and Keris is looking forwards to what she’s about to do.

She takes a deep breath, letting the gentle and fortunately not-silent breeze blow through her hair. And then she descends into her vessel, sealing the door behind her. The brass shines under the green lighting and she heads up to the bridge.

“Will my lady have anything to say before our first voyage?” the captain says, coiled around the command post.

“One thing, yes,” Keris agrees. After all, she still needs to give her ship a name.

“You’re going to be a home to me,” Keris tells her beautiful vessel, running a hand along the gleaming brass of the wall. She presses a kiss to it, and lets her awareness expand to the sound of the whole vessel; the power behind it, the essence running through the structure.

“A home that belongs to me and only me; one that I won and bought with my own actions,” she continues. “I haven’t had one of those in... ever. So if you’re to be a home to me, you need a name to make you so.”

She straightens. “The Memory of Baisha, I name you,” she says, her voice ringing out with a touch of sorcerous power behind it. “Captain?”

“My lady?”

“Launch!”

And the Memory of Baisha comes to life, slipping beneath the water like some predatory animal.