1. Elinor Irkalla (Ereshkigal, The Sumerian Goddess Of The Dead!)
2. Nelika (Our Desert Guide Ri’bot!)
3. Valentina (Our Tiger Beastkin!)
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A thoughtful smile moved Elinor’s mouth as she studied the reaction of her ogress maid; it would be the first of many interactions they would have while in the process of this transitional method.
She could feel the Oltera Nexus within Adoncia swelling with Tiamat’s power, blowing it up and cutting its flow to allow it to condense within her essence before flooding it again, acting as a pumping heart to cycle and infuse the force within the maid.
A mortal needed their Core exercised, which was an exhausting process for them; they’d come to experience the results each passing day.
The sun brightened the valley as the light touched the heightened cliff she stood on, alongside Kulitta and Thor. Garu sat on the opposite side of the rocky face they were using, staring across the grasslands they would be trekking through today, and Nelika slept near him, rebuilding her strength.
“I assume it art over, seeing as they prepare to renew their journey,” Thor commented.
A frown touched Kulitta’s lips as she followed them through the sounds they made. “I believe Adoncia has slipped in speaking her name.”
“Hsss.” The tall red-haired man crossed his arms, cloak billowing in the wind behind him. “I was not aware such things were supposed to be kept secret. I spoke to them about thy children and Tiamat when discussing their options.”
Elinor shrugged. “It would have come out eventually anyway, I doubt Demon even understands the significance of Tiamat, regardless. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t count on Demon revealing such things easily, and, heh, I bet the other gods we face aren’t going to pay his price to obtain such knowledge. Demon will use it for his own ends—if he even knows how—and I look forward to how he does so. In the meantime, we would do well to keep them struggling.”
“Hmm. About that…” Kulitta placed one of her gloved hands against her cheek. “Is it just me, or has Apate lost some of her nerves since last night?”
Thor’s arms dropped to his sides. “Hmm?”
Elinor pushed her lips to the side, studying the pair as they interacted. The songstress wasn’t wrong; not a single trick had been played yet, nor had she touched their Core. If she didn’t know any better, she was scared or intimidated.
“Huh.” She took several minutes to pick apart the trickster’s actions before realizing the problem. “This… could be a problem.”
Kulitta smirked. “Oh? Care to elaborate, Mistress?”
“Not on this,” she whispered, pondering her way through this wrench that had been thrown into the gears she’d set into motion.
“That bad?” the songstress whispered, cheer dampening.
Thor appeared to be puzzling through his own thoughts on the matter; Elinor knew he had enough information and was intelligent enough to understand the nuances of her attitude.
Obviously, Apate was fixated on Adoncia, and that stemmed from the introduction of Tiamat; it could be assumed on a surface-level glance that she was simply intimidated. However, it was far more than just simple fright; no, her reactions and spiritual fluctuations held a complex weave of contradictions that pointed toward a hard reality.
Nungal might ruin Apate… Her issues run far deeper than I thought. Tiamat is a Celestial… just like Apate’s creator… Her mother.
After a second’s thought, she decided she needed a battle to clear her mind to reconsider the future of their pairings; this could prove positive, but it could also prove disastrous.
“Mmh… We may need to adjust things in the next day or two. Haaa. Trauma this deep is not easily dealt with in a positive way.” She turned a small smirk to the god beside her. “Care to spar a bit today?”
“Ho-ho. I am always up for a good battle. Lady Kulitta?”
“Hmm.” The blonde puffed out a thoughtful breath. “I suppose I could exercise my voice a tad.”
Elinor rose and held up a hand, causing a fissure to split space as a chain exited to latch onto her spirit. “I’ll meet you two below. Haha!”
Launching herself into the air, she soared over Garu, spotting the vast Wandering River below, excited to see how the teens would cross the divide.
She grinned at the undead ri’bot as she propelled herself through the sky at an accelerated rate to make it to the fields beyond the lowland forest. Wake Nelika up. Let’s see if she can make it to us by nightfall.
“We will be there.”
It took her three minutes to reach her desired location and begin her descent; a streak of lightning flew by her, several bolts arching out of the sparse clouds above to encircle Thor as a heavy rumble rippled through Elinor’s frame.
Smiling as she landed on the grass and rolled to a stop, she summoned her spear to absorb the electricity that shot for her chest, grounding it. “Haha! Let’s begin!”
Thunder shook the atmosphere, and Elinor’s chains pulled her back as Thor’s hammer grazed past her nose, sparks dancing before her eyes. Several more latched onto his body, yet their links were dragged out of the rifts from the Primordial’s overwhelming strength in his pursuit.
He kicked the air, shooting after her, and even after all the leveling she’d done, Elinor couldn’t hope to match Thor’s raw momentum—the man was a force of nature. An aura of decertifying force radiated from her, sapping Thor’s strength the longer he remained within her vicinity while drawing in all life from the greenery.
“Dangerous,” Thor laughed, spinning his hammer to create a barrier as the Gates of Irkalla flashed to her left; a focused sonic rod of pure vibrational force dented the shell and forced Thor to take a step back.
“Allow me to make my entrance in this free-for-all,” Kulitta smirked, hovering in the air, and, taking a deep breath, she summoned her whip and slapped it against the air.
Elinor had yet to see how her dominatrix songstress’ abilities had manifested and was mildly surprised when space fractured where she’d struck, fissuring to reveal an orchestra of faceless musicians prepared to follow their mistress’ orders.
“Ahem. Hmm-hmm-hmm,” she sang from her abdomen. “Let the symphony begin.”
Thor lifted an eyebrow. “Interesting.”
The orchestra’s violins lifted to their necks to play an increasingly ominous epic, Kulitta’s hums followed by a choir that chanted in the background.
Elinor’s smile tightened as the sounds escalated around them; Kultta wasn’t just a songstress, she was a Supreme Goddess of Song, and vibrations were a fundamental attribute in Existence that could trigger entire omniversal collapses.
Kulitta was far more dangerous than even Elinor had considered, and, unlike her older sister, she would use her voice to the highest degree to dominate those she saw as her enemy.
“Lady Kulitta?” Thor questioned, hammer still swinging as space rippled around them. “Consider me impressed!”
Slamming his hammer down, a shockwave of noise met the condensing reverberation, disrupting the field enough to leap out of; he still took a blow from the lingering gravitational waves, yet his body was more than capable of handling it.
Elinor studied the pressure fracturing her defensive shell. This form of attack was ramping; the longer she stayed in one place, the more deadly they’d become, yet it also struck on all sides, primarily centered in the direction of the songstress, which meant retreating would always be the safest route.
Flipping the Staff of the Dead to its globe of Death Energy, she backed to the edge of her fracturing barrier, sending chains through the ripples to test it; her links were shot against her shell, cracking at the focused pulses.
Timing her escape, she waited for the repeated rhythm of the music to reach its least climatic phase before launching a chain at her back and expelling a nova of Death Energy; the resistance gave her enough wiggle room for her chain to reach her back and tug her through.
She winced at the powerful wave that threatened to crush her artificial body, yet it held, and once free, she shot back, gaining distance. A bolt of energy skated past her belly as Elinor flipped out of Mjölnir’s path, and the sparking hammer curved to slam against Kulitta’s vocal barrier, rejecting the blunt object to be sent back to Thor’s grip in the sky.
This was a battle to keep her on her toes.
Elinor spent much of the next several hours locked in combat with the pair until finally running low on Death Energy. Kulitta managed to be shockingly efficient throughout the exchange, and if this was a real contest, Elinor didn’t like her odds at the moment, which meant she needed to become more accustomed to battling in this new style.
Naturally, Thor wasn’t breathless in the least upon dropping to his butt next to her, and the songstress dismissed her musicians, many of which did look to be struggling, but Kulitta was a slave driver.
“What are your thoughts?” she softly asked, bringing around her half burnt off hair to glare at the smoking ends. Violet’s clothing could take punishment, yet they kept their battle at a reasonable level to not destroy them; Thor’s lightning could get a little intense sometimes, though.
Kulitta rubbed her throat, remaining standing. “You adapted well, Mistress… I need to instill more discipline into my orchestra if I am ever going to deliver the proper timing on some of the slower-building moments. I couldn’t overpower Thor, so I was forced to use far more energy than him in repelling his strikes… I would not survive an extended battle lasting over fourteen hours.”
Thor chuckled, tapping his hammer with a thoughtful smile. “Thou both hath proven thyselves warriors. Not once did thy strength nor will fade, and thy concentration did not waver. Refinement in combat seems to be the best approach, by mine estimation.”
“We’ll make this a trend,” Elinor commented, scanning the wide field they’d landed in; the signs of ri’bot forces and tents could be seen in several areas. “Hmm. Perhaps I should start refining my own Core faculties again… When was the last time I dealt with my inner demons? Too long.”
Elinor leaned back and closed her eyes as Kulitta and Thor struck up a conversation. Delving into her own Core, Elinor began to explore the internal changes since Ishtar’s spiritual invasion when they were still eggs within Tiffany’s womb.
There was much to discover and reconnect with, and Elinor had many more attributes she could cultivate using this Seed.
However, near nightfall, a strong emanation drew Elinor out of her silent study, and opening her eyes, she saw Thor’s smile.
“Thy daughter pushed Valentina to awaken before we had planned.”
Elinor snickered, stroking her tiny spiritual snake as it returned from its hunt, gobbling up any small rodent that hid in the fields. “Nungal never did like being in second place… but her road will be long if she is trying to compete with Tiamat. Valentina has her work cut out for her, dealing with my youngest, and Apate… Good luck.”
* * *
Nelika jolted awake as something touched her arm; smacking it away, she found purchase against the stone to leap back, refusing to make a sound.
“Heh. Jumpy in the mornings?”
Her skin darkened green in her embarrassment as she huffed. “You could have just said my name or flashed your spots… like a normal scout should to wake someone up.”
She wanted to slap him, furious at Garu’s weak shrug and a three-toothed smirk that said he did it on purpose. “Was I never not? Uh…”
Nelika’s muscles tightened as she hopped into a twirl, scanning the full rocky shelf to see only Thor walking their way. “Where’s Empress Elinor, and… Why are they flying off?!”
She jogged to the cliff’s edge upon seeing them far in the distance, almost to the point she wouldn’t have been able to spot them.
Thor laughed, lightning sparking in his eyes. “Lady Elinor has requested we have a friendly spar. I suspect Garu and thou are also to be tested this day. Be strong, comrades!”
He blurred, and a powerful boom made her flinch as it passed through her; Thor swiftly overtook the flying pair; lightning danced across the heavens, and roars followed. Nelika couldn’t keep her eyes away from the field beyond the forest as sonic waves erupted through the atmosphere to reach them.
“Incredible,” Garu whispered, bending down at the edge to watch the god and goddess’ battle. “Hmm… I need to grow stronger.”
Nelika forced a laugh, pointing at the area as unnatural sounds played in the distance, making her shiver. “That is what impossible looks like! There’s no way we could ever do something like that; I don’t think my grandpa could!”
“You must believe in achieving the impossible,” Garu whispered, having an annoyingly knowing look that said he’d just spit ancient wisdom from his clan.
“Fly, and I’ll believe you,” she grumbled, rolling around her shoulders and stretching out her long legs.
His disgustingly handsome face brightened with his light blue spots. “I can make that work, and I’ll hold you to it!”
“Sure… Huu-haaa. Let me guess, we need to get all the way across that massive river and beyond the forest before dusk?”
Garu rubbed his hands together, giving her a look she really didn’t like. “No problem… if you can keep up, sand licker!”
“Y-You did not! Garu!” He promptly jumped off the edge of the cliff. “Get back here!”
Rushing over to look down at the near sheer drop, she was somewhat, and begrudgingly, impressed by his finesse and acrobatics as he found areas just angled enough to slow his fall; she started to wonder if the Ethereal had their scouts go through beginning Xaria lessons, but she couldn’t let him think she was scared, so she jumped after him.
She was terrified and wanted to scream every time she thought she wouldn’t see a way to break her fall, but pride carried her through, and, chest heaving with internal panic, she landed beside Garu with throbbing toes.
“D-Don’t ever do that to me again! You didn’t even give me time to prepare!” she panted. “Stupid; I’m not undead!”
“So… why did you follow me?” Garu questioned with a smirk that made her furious.
“I… I… Whatever! Mmgm. My feet are burning!” she complained, dropping to her butt to tend them, but the boy wouldn’t let her rest.
“Sounds like you could go for a dip in the river!” he grinned, pointing at the rapid mouth of the river that she couldn’t even see the opposite side from ground level.
He made a surprised sound in his throat. “Oh. Can you desert ri’bot not swim that well? I guess that makes sense.”
“I… can swim very well; I learned in the oasis and underground springs! I just…” She drew in her mouth, staring at the very rapidly moving river. “I just never practiced too much in… that kind of water.”
“Is that so?”
“No… Garu…” she whimpered as he took a step toward their wavy destination. “Isn’t there a bridge or… or something we can use? I… I thought Lady Kulitta was going to hover us across like… like she did the other day with the sound bridge… thing?!”
“Is High Lady Kulitta here?”
“Hehe. You don’t need to act cute. I’ll help you if you start drowning, or… the Empress could just resurrect you, I suppose…”
“D-Don’t you dare!” she cried. “I’m not going to die… You’re the sand licker… I can do it!”
“Prove it! Meet you on the other side!”
Nelika ran after him, growling from the pain that stung her feet; she only hesitated a moment when reaching the edge, but it was enough to lose all her momentum, and she fell in. It was deeper than she thought, and the lapping waves against the side felt unnatural.
Holding her breath, she fought against the current, wildly looking for the white-and-blue-spotted ri’bot; flashing lights snatched her attention—Garu.
“I’m here. C’mon. Don’t panic. Spread your webbed fingers and toes, and swim toward me… You can do it!”
Her white spots glowed in response. “I’m not a child!”
The current was strong, but she could fight through it, and there was an odd haze near the bottom of the seemingly bottomless river, obscuring the floor; she couldn’t be sure if it did end there, but there appeared to be movement underneath it that brought the current into a frenzy.
Not wanting to find out what could stimulate such a massive river into its current state, Nelika fought to reach Garu’s flashes, but he told her something strange.
“Relax a little. Let the current help you down and swim with it to the other side; we have a long way to go.”
“Won’t we be too far away?”
“It’s better we’re not exhausted fighting against the current and walking than making it to the other side, and it will be easier jogging around the forest than going through it.”
Her mind began to clear, and her racing heart calmed; he was right. They’d been able to survey the terrain from a high vantage point and going around the high hills and dense forest with the graveyard of clans the Empress had slaughtered didn’t sound like a good time.
Following Garu, a smile came to Nelika’s mouth; it was almost natural, and the cool water soothed her feet. It was as if her skin had been made to repel liquid, cutting the current in a way she hadn’t experienced in the relatively still oases of the desert, and it took a good hour to reach the opposite side.
She observed all sorts of unusual fish—some five times bigger than her—but everything ignored her due to the stealth element she could employ, becoming wind to skate along the surface for a short distance.
Just as Garu seemed to have predicted, they came out near the bloody fields, still littered with thousands of dead ri’bot—making her shiver; fortunately, they’d be moving at the edge of the field, but she would never forget the terrifying show the Empress put on.
They stopped for thirty minutes; Garu showed off by giving her a few fish he’d snagged near the shore. She couldn’t deny that the red-scaled fish was very tasty, as he’d bragged; it took her mind away from the horrific fields.
However, when they started on their route again, she discovered one of the partially decaying titanic abominations not that far away from the river, now lifeless and filled with insects picking at its innards.
Its gaping jaws, filled with teeth and fingernail-coated, three-prong tongues, made her want to vomit—the smell unfortunately did—all thoughts of the fish, or any food, were gone after that.
They neared the end corner of the forest as the sun began to fall, and she paused on a small hill to stare back at the field, seeing hundreds of ri’bot still sorting through the mess to discover anyone whole enough to bring back or that could be identified.
Tents had been set up, and she spotted a few quen’talrat—likely the unintelligent kind that only took orders—that she’d seen in Nethermore helping move carts and sort tents.
Her spots flickered, showing a mournful display in their luminosity as Garu joined her.
“I never imagined war could be like this…”
“This… wasn’t war,” Garu hesitantly returned, swallowing a lump in his throat as his focus settled on another one of the abominations, still standing in the distance. “This proved a point… It showed the Empress’ divinity and what would happen to those that stood against her… This was her being merciful.”
Sweat broke across Nelika’s skin as she recalled the horrific detonation of blood, guts, and bone that slaughtered thousands before drawing into those gore-filled cyclones, producing the terrifying, seemingly indestructible titans.
She now understood why her grandfather left the moment he met Garu and understood what he was, sending her to represent their clan; he didn’t need to complete any kind of negotiation or relations with the Great Clans because he knew they would soon be irrelevant. He had to return and set things up for when the Empress visited their clan, so they didn’t suffer something like this.
Breathing out a long stream of air, she turned away from the slaughter to chase after the goddess that had caused such a horrific scene; she couldn’t disappoint her and arrive late. All Nelika could see in the darkening skies were massive and terrifying green irises watching her progress, so she pushed past the stitch in her side and aching in her legs.
* * *
Valentina was in a somewhat good mood as she sat in a tree at the foot of a slight, stony-ground rise that would take them out of the valley; she’d prowled this a bit more than a week prior with the other Seed bearers.
She glanced down at Apate from her high vantage point; the woman observed the far slower group make their way across a clearing. They’d be exiting this bug-filled hell soon enough and camping on hard ground; Adoncia carried a full Ragnlar on her back after crushing its skull earlier that morning.
Valentina couldn’t believe how much stamina the 18-year-old woman had; she seemed to have unlimited energy since her meeting with Tiamat, and Apate had been unsure how to treat her for some odd reason.
The trickster hadn’t said a single word since that morning, studying the dark-haired maid in a conflicted way that bewildered Valentina. Of course, she wasn’t complaining. It had been way easier without the personification’s unbearable mood, and the freedom from doubting what she sensed every minute made her realize just how utterly demonic Apate’s manipulation abilities were.
Scratching her chest, Valentina glanced down at her fur bikini; she’d started to sweat more than she liked due to the workout they’d gone through throughout the day, so she reverted much of the fluff. It was strange because she didn’t perspire nearly as much when traveling with the other teens.
In any case, today also showed how far they could get in a day without Apate’s interference, and she giggled when Alisa collapsed on her belly when Adoncia dropped the cat near the fire Valentina had already prepared.
“Kill me,” she grumbled, her flushed, dirty, and slick face in the tall blades and mud; she didn’t appear strong enough to even scream as Sal dropped their makeshift water bottles—using bamboo-like material they’d found—by the camp.
Valentina sighed, rubbing her sore shoulders with envy upon seeing him walk over to his girlfriend and start massaging her back and legs. Lucky…
“Mmm! Thanks, Sal…”
“Of course! Am I pressing too hard?”
“No… A little harder—to the left—yeah, there… Oof…”
Adoncia gave her brother a warm smile while ripping a leg off the beast she’d killed, spraying blood away from the camp and preparing it to cook.
It had been Valentina’s job to gather all the needed sticks for skewering the meat, lighting the fire—as Adoncia had taught her the night before—and finding leaves they could use for beds. She’d had enough time to fashion a long, hollow stick to add more water into to fill up during the night, as well.
Not having much else to do until the food was ready, she settled in for a nice cat nap, which came pretty quickly since she was an actual cat. Her tail swung back and forth as she sprawled out on the branch, yet a feminine hum brought her hair up in shock.
“Mmh. Well, aren’t you the most adorable tiger?”
Practically jumping straight into the air, she almost fell out of the tree, claws digging into the side of the platform she was using, upon seeing a purple-haired girl with butt-length hair draped across her front.
“N-Nungal?!” she stammered, swallowing the lump that shot into her throat as she backed into the trunk.
The goddess gave her a peace sign and flashed her teeth in a dazzling smile. “Yo! Took a bit longer than I wanted to reach out. Ugh… Tiamat talks forever! I left my big bro to handle her incessant questions; it’s never about herself. Go figure, and I don’t like talking about myself too, so… yeah. What’s up, scat?”
“Scary-cat is kind of too long to say,” she snickered, combing out her thick locks before separating them to braid. “I’m just playing. How’s my mom?”
“Hehe… Wooh. Just let me chill for a second,” Valentina breathed, hand pressing against her pumping chest. “You just snuck up on me the second I let my guard down to sleep—the second!”
“I had to! It was the first chance I got, and, ugh… Tiamat was bragging.. Plus… you were adorable!” she teased, making Valentina’s face flush; she acted like they’d been friends forever, but when you were the princess to basically Hell, you probably would make friends easily.
Valentina snorted, settling in and allowing her nerves to calm down. “Competitive much?”
A rather unsettling gleam came to the goddess’ lavender irises and curved her lips. “Oh… you have no idea. So, c’mon, tell me what’s happening! We, unfortunately, don’t have all that long… Give me something you really, really want!”
The fire in Nungal’s face took her back. “Umm… I want to block out Apate’s insufferable ass… Her illusions make me want to kill myself.”
“Is that all?” the girl mused, tying a band around the tail end of her braid before her intense glowing eyes dug into Valentina’s.
“Okay… I’ll prepare something that, heh, will be sure to put the insufferable personification on her ass the next time she tries to manipulate you. Make sure you don’t give in to the pain because she’s sure to push back, and for this to work against her, it needs to be a double-edged sword… you can’t recoil. Luckily, you’ll have a surprise attack. Have fun!”
Nungal’s all-consuming, smiling eyes hazed to be replaced by Adoncia.
“Dinner’s ready. You okay?” the maid asked, concern showing on her face. “I thought I felt… I don’t know. It was only there for a second, but…”
Clearing her throat, Valentina forced a laugh. “No, I”m fine.”
“I can eat your portion,” Apate snickered from below, giving her a lilting smile. “Have a visitor?”
“Visitor?” Alisa asked between bites of her meat.
“It’s nothing…” She hopped down to sit by the flames, accepting the chunk Sal handed her. “Thanks.”
“No prob! Thanks for the fire and extra water. Hehe. It really hit the spot.”
Her focus drifted to the wine-haired trickster, who appeared to be studying Adoncia again; from what she knew about Nungal, she would do absolutely anything to prove herself to her mother, and it wasn’t just some random girl that was her patron—it was the princess and head jailor of Irkalla.
Valentina was a tad scared of what she was preparing, but she wouldn’t shy away from it; if she could get back at Apate somehow, even if just once, she would gladly accept some pain.
The trickster’s narrow-eyed frown turned to her. “What are you smirking at?”
“Mmh. Nothing. Thanks for the meal, Adoncia. Hehe. It’s great.”
Apate… Tomorrow you’ll get a taste of your own medicine. I hope you’re ready!
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