The Gods made our world to be their hunting ground. This we all know.
There is no suffering in the Spire of Heaven, where the Gods –– the Devos –– rest. There is no pain, no hunger, no fear of death.
Nor is there challenge, excitement or growth.
Thus the Devos made Pangaea, land on which to walk. They made people, creatures of flesh and spirit with which to converse. They made fearsome, land-striding beasts to chase in glorious hunts.
"So you see, the hunt is a sacred task, the holiest of rites! Why then do you fear, little spark? Be generous, and the gift of your slaughter shall honor the Gods themselves...!"
Arjasoot drew their sword, a flash of leaf-shaped sun, and made two cuts:
The first cut sliced through the spear-shaft embedded into their belly.
The second cut carved through the Bog-Hunter’s throat, silencing their oily words.
The Bog-Hunter’s head flew off their shoulders in a spray of filth and peat. It landed in the bog-waters with a loud plop and sank; the rest of their mossy body soon followed, mud returning to mud.
Arjasoot sheathed their sword, a finely worked bronze blade with a carved jade hilt. "A generous offer," they told the dead Bog-Hunter, "but I’ve had enough of people telling me how I should die."
Mollusk horns echoed in the distance, loud drones followed by a chorus of shrieks. Arjasoot turned and narrowed their bright orange gaze. The swamp was veiled in a thick, pale-white mist, but...there: they could see shapes moving through the fog –– more Bog-Hunters, riding on the backs of their Gorgons, brandishing their grey bone darts.
“Devos above,” Arjasoot cursed, clenching their teeth and reaching down to the spear-shaft embedded in their gut. “What I wouldn’t give –”
They ripped the spear-head free, a loud groan slipping past the gaps of their teeth. Smoke gushed from the gap in Arjasoot’s ashen chest, threads of smoke and spark dissipating into the foggy air.
“– for a nice, ordinary volcano right now,” the Smoke Spirit groaned.
Arjasoot fumbled with their shoulder bag and pulled out a round brass pot, engraved with slender glyphs of warmth and safe travel. Their fingers trembled: a handful of embers spilled from the pot’s rim, sizzling as they vanished into the murk.
Arjasoot clutched their fire pot close to their lips and breathed deep, drinking in the sweet, fresh threads of smoke that wafted from its depths. Slowly, the hole in their chest closed up, threads of smoke weaving together into new flesh.
From behind their back, the hunter shrieks grew in volume.
“If only there was a forest I could burn,” Arjasoot rambled, clutching their pot of embers as they ran through the swamp waters, away from their pursuers. "Or a nice set of bushes. Spire, I’d even take a clumb of seaweed right about now!”
Bog mud clung to Arjasoot’s legs, cold and thick, dragging the strength from every step they took. Their kilt and bark-cloth sash were caked with slime, brushing roughly against their thighs with each step they took. Maybe, Arjasoot thought, I should cast off my garb: it’s just weighing me down, isn’t it? Maybe I should put down my pot…no, I can’t put the pot down. That’s important. Why is that important?
A whistle in the air. A bone javelin flew past Arjasoot’s ear, embedding itself in one of the giant swamp ferns.
This is rather wretched, Arjasoot thought, quickening their pace even as the waters stole away their warmth. What was I thinking, leaving the Hearth-Vale? If my parent was here, they’d be chewing me out for getting lost in a wet bog!
Wait. No. They didn’t chew me out.
They told me to run, so run I must. One foot, then the next…
Arjasoot’s toes bumped into a solid rock. The Spirit’s eyes smoldered with light, their vision coming back into focus. They saw a long shelf of rock, which led to more rock, which led to an arid stretch of land. With shrubs.
Arjasoot’s mouth went dry. They crawled and clawed their way onto the shelf of land, straining their ash-formed sinews to the brink. They left a trail of slime and charcoal stains as they crawled, carrying their fire pot closer and closer to the dry, desiccated shrubs.
Just a little further, they thought. A few more paces and I can make a scrumptious blaze…!
Three bone darts flew down and sank into their back. Arjasoot stumbled. Two more Bog-Hunter darts pierced their left arm, tearing it from their body in a gush of smoke.
The brass pot fell from their grasp, rolling across the dry ground, coals spilling from its rim.
Arjasoot collapsed, their smoke-formed flesh unraveling, withdrawing into the cinder-filled depths of their brass pot, there to hibernate and die in darkness as the last embers of their being went cold.
The hunting horns blared loudly in their ears, the Bog-Hunters rejoicing as they ran their prey down.
“Fire…” Arjasoot murmured, already feeling their lips start to dissolve. “Someone…” They clawed at the ground with their one remaining hand. They looked up with their fading eyes and saw a hazy, two-legged shape drawing near, a bright blade burning in their right hand.
“Please…” they whispered to the approaching creature. “…I want to hear my parent…call me a fool...one last…”
Arjasoot burst back to life, rising from their brass pot in a shower of sparks. They drank in the flames and warmth and acrid smoke, rebuilding their body grander than before:
More ash-white hair tied in coiled knots! More slender fingers, six on each hand to better grip a sword! More sculpted muscles and folds of fat! A pair of eyes that gleamed a beautiful ember-orange!
They grew feet with which to touch the ground. They raised their hands towards the sun, drinking in the delicious golden light, joy and love for life warming their entire being...
“Oh!” The figure sitting by the campfire exclaimed. “So you are a Smoke Spirit!"
Arjasoot grew fresh vocal cords and lips with which to speak.
"Who are you?" They stammered. A dreadful thought occurred: "The Bog-Hunters... my sword and supplies!"
"Here, safe and sound," the stranger explained, gesturing to the bundle of cloth and metal by their side. "As are you, I should add! Those Swamp-Spirits won’t bother you anytime soon."
"Ah," Arjasoot said, rubbing at their fresh-grown eyes, trying to squeeze their vision into a less blurry state. A question. There was a question they needed to ask...
"Kind stranger, are you the Keeper of Blades?" They asked.
Their savior tilted their head to the side. "The keeper of blades?" They asked.
"…pardon," Arjasoot sighed, tapping the side of their brow. "I still seem to have water on the brain. Don’t know what I was saying."
"Indeed," the stranger replied, a blurry shape that grew clearer by the minute. "That bog did you quite the wrong turn! What are you doing, so far from the Hearth-Vale?”
“I wanted to see the world,” Arjasoot croaked in reply. “Which was perhaps unwise...”
Their words trailed off as their vision cleared. “Oh!” Arjasoot exclaimed, focusing on their savior with better-shaped eyes. “You’re a human!”
“Am I?” the human replied dryly. "I hadn’t noticed."
Arjasoot stared the human up and down, taking special note of their long-lashed eyes, their rounded breasts and the ruby lips hidden behind their veil of copper links.
“You’re the woman kind of human, right?” They guessed, trying to recall their human lore. “Oh! Should I be wearing clothes?” They asked, glancing down at their very much nude form. “I’ve heard that your kind have many taboos.”
“Fear not,” the human replied with a languid wave of her ring-encrusted fingers. “If I was the kind of person who fussed over taboos, I wouldn’t be out here wandering the Sodden Coasts.”
This human, Arjasoot realized, was beautiful even by the high standards of Smoke Spirits. She had dark eyes that glimmered like the finest jewels, acorn skin that glowed with health, hair that rippled and swayed like the currents of a wine-dark sea…
“Pardon my rudeness, good human,” Arjasoot said, letting out a polite cough. “But is it normal for Children of Flesh like yourself to wear that much metal?”
The human flinched. “My circumstance are unique,” she mumbled, reaching down to brush dust off her clothes –– a loose linen dress dyed in checkerboard patterns, an armored vest made from bone tiles...and over that, long chains of iron, wrapped around her waist like a sash.
“Unique?” Arjasoot asked.
“Chains, for a human, are not exactly…” The human’s voice trailed off. “It’s a long story,” she muttered, pressing her lips shut.
She seems ill at ease, Arjasoot realized, taking note of how their savior averted their eyes. Did I violate one of those human taboos after all? What should I do to put her at ease? Ah! Of course!
“Well!” Arjasoot said, forcing a bright smile onto their face. “Odd human or no, you saved my life!” They clasped their hands together and bowed to their savior. “A true Smoke Spirit never leaves a debt unpaid."
The human stared at Arjasoot.
The Smoke Spirit bowed to her: "Ask me any boon, fair one, and I swear to grant it!”
The human’s dark eyes narrowed.
Arjasoot ignored the sudden chill in their heart-flame but continued with their promise: “If I break this oath, may the Devos break ––“
The human slapped Arjasoot in the face. She did not punch or strike with her palm: her blow was a light smack, a mosquito blow that stung the Smoke Spirit’s flesh and rattled their teeth.
“No,” she said.
“Ah!” Arjasoot said, stepping back and rubbing at their cheek. They glared. “What was that for?” Realization dawned on them: “Blast it all! Did I violate one of your taboos after all…?”
“You’ve done me no wrong, spirit,” the lady said, her gentle voice darkening in pitch. “But if you’re going to swear to me under the gods, I want no part of your oath.”
“Why not?” Arjasoot asked, hissing despite themselves. A surge of anger warmed their chest: “Do you take me for an oath breaker?”
The human closed her eyes and clutched her brow, as if pained. "Think for a moment, Kindly Spirit," she said. "What if I’m a wicked person? How do you know I won’t use your oath to make you do awful things?"
Arjasoot’s breath caught.
“Oaths are dangerous,” the human whispered. “Easy to make, easy to regret. I think, perhaps, I can trust you. What makes you so sure you can trust me?”
Arjasoot’s heart-flame fluttered with agitation. Bitter memories filled their head, tickling their thought with cold despair.
"True, there are many villains in this world," they said at last to the human. "True, there are too many pale-flamed wretches who abuse the faith of the righteous...”
Arjasoot forced a smile onto their face: “But I won’t let fear of them twist me into something I’m not."
The human mulled over Arjasoot’s words, then nodded. "A sound enough philosophy," she said. "Fear of misfortune should never keep a virtuous being from taking action."
"Besides," Arjasoot said, smiling for real this time. "Something tells me you’re a good person!"
The lady’s cheeks flushed red. "You’d be the first in a long time to call me that..." She mused, casting her gaze to the ground.
Damn it all, Arjasoot thought. And here I thought I’d put her at ease! What to do, what to say…ah!
“Where are my manners?” They said, stretching out their hand for shaking. “I am Arjasoot, Heir to the Tribe of Glass, at your service!”
“I am Varayana,” the lady replied, folding her hands behind her back. “Just Varayana. Under better circumstances, I’d gladly take your hands in friendship, Arjasoot…”
Varayana’s own forced smile could not hide the sickly dread and shame in her next words.
“…but I am Death, you see. Death to all who receive my embrace.”