Chapter 66. Aftershocks
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Lita’af Kamshad Hikmat

Her fist connected with his chest, sending him tumbling once again. Lita’af paused for a second and considered the strike — its strength and speed. She was capable of stronger and faster strikes but this one had to be just right. It had to be identical.

“How long do I need to entertain your frustrations, sister?” Muramat huffed, getting up.

“Be at ease, brother. I am merely trying to answer a question I’ve had for the last few days.” She waved at him to take a battle stance once more. “I can voice my frustrations afterwards.”

“Should I voice my frustrations as well? None of this would’ve happened if you weren’t so quick to accept his outrageous accusations. A slave accusing a Pillar Manor of theft? Better men have died for less.”

“Have you listened to anything I’ve said?” Lita’af deftly avoided his lunge only to step in and deliver the same blow once again. “Or did your opinions about other murks fill your ears with tar? This is a daimon we are discussing here. Murk or not, he made sure to steer away from any direct accusations toward our House and had the daughters of Kiymetl and Enoch nearby as witnesses. The same ones that managed to crack my armour when I grabbed him. Do you wish to stand against the Kiymetl with your word against theirs? To argue that killing the daimon was just in front of the Censor who seeks to claim him as her own? Have you forgotten the reason behind the suddenness of the last Divine Ritual? Or the reason for our presence here?”

“Remember our honour, sister.” He dusted himself off but kept his distance. “Our Manor offered Aikerim Adal one of the highest gifts possible, while she — rather than accept it with gratitude — rebuked our Matriarch.”

She took a step forward. “I am not a maniple of warriors for you to rile up. Remember your duty to our House before you speak about honour. The decision to join Emanai arms merely postponed her reply. Our presence here was to ensure that she remained unharmed and amenable to your union upon her return. Something that your hidden schemes keep undermining.”

Muramat stepped in as well and, instead of striking her, pulled her even closer. “And I will fulfil my duty as a filial son of Kamshad. But I am not stupid either — I will not be the second husband to that murk. I will not be her husband at all while he remains in control of their sadaq.”

Lita’af blinked.

“Yes, you heard me right. There is only one who would fear the generous offer of our mother. The only one who would be threatened by a would-be second husband. The male murk. Daimon or not, my seed will trump his and he knows it. When the time comes — all his secrets and sweet talks, all his skills at pleasuring women and the curve of his dick will be for nought. When Anaise Hilal starts looking — she will seek the strong Spark and not the sparkly eyes of silver. This is why Azhar Hatay Mesud had to be removed. He was getting too close to the daimon and — through him — to Anaise Hilal herself. With him to father future children, this sadaq would have no need for any other wermage husbands. Unless Kamshad wishes to send its sons into concubinage.”

She sighed. “Mother is not desperate, Muramat… She is willing to offer but will not beg. You will not be thrown away in such a manner. But your actions must not harm the Manor either.”

Muramat chuckled. “I can be reasonable, sister. Azhar Mesud was wise enough to step away from the matters of Pillar Manors and got himself a respectable position in Ulastai for his understanding. But I can’t reason with the daimon — he is too smart to understand how much power his current position gives him, yet he lacks the wisdom to comprehend how much he has overstepped his status. He is deaf because hearing the truth would lead to him losing power. So he needs to be made aware through other means. Either by making Anaise reconsider her reliance on the daimon or make him realise the limit-”

A sharp punch interrupted his speech and threw his body once again.

“Lita’af!” he growled, baring his sharp teeth. “I believe we were talking!”

“Yes,” she inspected her claws “and I just asked you a question. Why did you roll on the ground in response?”

“Have you forgotten our training!? No armour can stop a punch that lifts you off the ground. And our grip is only as strong as the earth itself! This is why we dodge and avoid those hits rather than meet them head-on. Are you going to demand that I squeeze the juice out of a rock next?”

“Yet, he did it.”


“I hit the daimon in a similar manner. Weak enough not to break him yet aimed just right to send him rolling through the dirt. He took it with his chest and didn’t move a finger back.”

“So he used some sort of trick, then.”

“Yes,” she bared her teeth. “Do I need to remind you about that fable when Mansiya the Wise rolled a head of cheese in soot and sent her enemies running? Fearful to witness the blood of a rock trickling through her clenched fingers. Do I need to remind you of the fate of Shahin Esca Yusuf-ja, who tried to kill the daimon yet ended up in Servitude herself? Or the fate of one of your Collectors that got broken in half, as if kicked by the hoof of a furious Enoch wermage? Do I need to remind you of my own exchange with him yet again? That was strength, not skill.

“The tricks are only tricks once they are known, brother. Do you know all of his to be this bold? How can a murk have the strength of a wermage? Where did he get his flying dragonfly that can fly to Samat and back faster than a swallow? Or the meaning behind the sails that he is working on every single day, despite Kiannika travelling on foot?”

Lita’af walked over to Muramat and grabbed him by his muzzle. “What if his ‘lack’ of Spark is a daimonic trick? Hmm? What if it is Anaise Hilal who is trying to keep the daimonic seed to herself? Her reaction to that Denag wermage getting close to him was quite telling. And the suddenness of her sadaq in general.”

“Mother’s orders. And I have done nothing that would cause direct hostilities between the Manors.”

She sighed and let him go. “Mother’s orders. But she is in Samat and we are here. I would rather defend your ‘failure’ to our frustrated mother or claim it as my own, rather than let our Manor meddle in the plans of the Divine. Be watchful, brother.”

“You think that he-”

Lita’af smacked him with her tail and started to transform back into her wermage form. “Of course not. But Censor is here and the Kiymetl Feast procession — with him in it, mind you — witnessed the Goddess herself. He is being watched, I can bet my tail on it.”


Muramat Kamshad Nishad

Siavash bowed. “We can pass the steel shard to Layla Denag Gol.”

He shook his head. “The shard went through the furnace and doesn’t smell. Moreover, Layla was present at the meeting and isn’t that dumb to keep an obvious piece of Kiymetl property. Take a pouch of cuts, rub them with the cloth that held the sword and pass them around the arm. Give a large portion of them to her too. Make sure to bury the cloth and wash yourself with the Kiymetl soap afterwards.”

“To say that he has a nose as sharp as Kamshad…”

Muramat pressed his lips thin. “Treat him as if he is a wermage, just in case. Keep your distance and act indirectly. Deal with him through Layla and switch to other targets.”

“Anaise Hilal?”

“No, too risky. The other one, Irje. From what I’ve heard, she barely qualifies to be an archer — her magic is weak and her skill with a werbow is non-existent. As unusual as it may be — she might be the weakest of the three and easiest to work on. The fact that her ancestors hail from the east is even more convenient.”

“An eastern spy.” Siavash smiled only to bow low once again. “I deeply regret my previous suggestion. If I knew more about his abilities I would’ve kept my mouth shut.”

Muramat smirked and ruffled his hair. “I will punish you later. But don’t fret — we have learned more about the daimon from this venture than it cost us. Lita’af acted swiftly once she was made aware and the few concessions to the Censor were an acceptable outcome. At least now we know who the real daimon of the Kiymetl is. And we can change our plans accordingly.”


The Forest was approaching us with every step we marched. The change wasn’t a sudden one, however. There was no wall of alien flesh and bark similar to the Emanai Border Wall. The first thing I saw after passing the gates was more fields and a smattering of houses up on a nearby hill. Farmers with their tools were busy collecting the late harvest of the season.

We passed a few villages and hamlets on our march, but there were no usual Manors among them. There were no lavish villas of local wermages, fattened by the yearly products of their land. Nor were there any towns beyond the wall either.

Just a bunch of murks, an occasional wer, and their tools and cattle. And occasional patches of burgundy biomat here and there, accompanied by a copse of ivory trees. Not exactly grass, not exactly flesh.

“I swear on the Three Horns, Mule Boy,” Roshan sent me another glare, “I will find a way to get back at you for what you have done.”

I sighed as I kept looking around. Our helmets were on as we passed the Border Wall and I had to twist my neck a lot more to see everything. At least my face-guard was up — a bulky upward crescent covered most of my face when it was down, leaving only two gaps for the eyes, but drastically limited my field of view.

“And I apologised for not warning you. The medicine made your body too pure for any parasites. I spoke about bloodsuckers, but bile-drinkers could not drink your other humours either, so they ran away.”

Mosquitoes and fleas were common and visible, but I completely forgot to warn the guy about the intestinal parasites. Something that Roshan’s howls and curses from the latrine reminded me a little bit too late.

“I asked you to cure me, not curse me with worms!”

“And you asked me to make the medicine strong. To make you pure overnight. It did. Those worms were living inside of you before you took the medicine, and now they are gone. And new ones will never come back.”

There were signs that local residents tried to curtail the growth of alien flora around their fields. The patches of red were surrounded by mounds of rocks with amulets and symbols drawn all over them. Some structures tried to keep the growth encircled while others merely directed it away from the fields.

“How do I know that it wasn’t your medicine that cursed me with them?”

“Wait and see. In the coming days, you will notice that arm rations are more filling to your stomach and there is more strength in your body in general. As if someone took a burden off your shoulders that you didn’t know you had. Those worms are sneaky — they feed off your stamina but they do it slowly so that you don’t realise they are even there. Rather than feed from your corpse one time as predators do, they milk your body day after day, year after year. Taking just enough to gorge themselves but not enough to kill you.”

“Eeeugh!” Arash shivered and spat on the ground. “You’re gonna make me lose my breakfast with such talk! I already had enough of the worms that make you sick and now you are telling me there are other worms that just eat your stamina but keep you healthy!? And anyone could have them?”

“Now that I think about it — with how often you wash your hands, yes.” I nodded at the alien tree we just passed. “I see they aren’t chopping or burning the trees to stop the growth, it doesn’t work?”

The old man harrumphed. “Do I look like I don’t take care of my body? I wash myself daily after the march! And people here aren’t stupid like you. The burning smell attracts Things. They will set as much of it on fire once the harvest is done and they are ready to retreat into protected territories. The fire, iron, and snow will keep the Forest back for the winter and it will take time for it to regrow during the warmer seasons.”

“Your body is visibly clean, yes. But your hands need to be cleaner when you are cooking or eating. Or if you tend to suck your thumbs.” I answered absentmindedly as I kept looking around.

Roshan’s latrine serenade didn’t immediately earn me any ‘customers’ but it did draw attention to him and my medicine. I was certain that my finger would watch him rather closely in the upcoming days. Especially Patriarch Irfan — it took me almost an hour to assure him that Roshan would not only survive the night of horrors but would be able to march the next day.

The First Spear kept ignoring me, for now. There were drills and there were lectures on how a messenger needed to behave in front of his superiors, but there were no other conversations between us after the meeting.

The thieves decided to lay low, which wasn’t surprising, but so did Sophia. If I had to guess, either the role of the General actually demanded her immediate attention or she was occupied by her brother. A small respite among the creeping shenanigans. Not that I could use this time as I saw fit — the arms spent most of the day marching at a very brisk pace straight into the Forest. After asking around I learned that we were marching to intercept the so-called barbarians that were roaming suspiciously close to an exclave of Emanai.

Chirp brought me some clarification from Samat. Emanai had no tin within its borders yet a healthy demand for bronze. There were some shipments of tin from other countries but those demanded silver and gold in return. And Emanai hated parting with its wealth to meet the demand for ‘lower’ metal. So they tried to find another way.

A Shebet ship travelling across the Bay of Tir stumbled on traces of tin ore along the shores of some river. An expedition inland was fortunate enough to find a place rich with ore, unclaimed by others and not too densely overrun by the Forest.

Unfortunately for Emanai, the place was also in the open. While the Border Wall used the natural borders formed by the Bay of Tir in the north and the Babr Mountains in the south to be as small as possible, the ore deposit was too far inland to rely on water borders and too far east and past the mountain range.

Attempts to expand the territory to cover that region were disastrous. It wasn’t just the expansion itself that Emanai had to give up — the increased drain on resources and manpower meant that the original Border Wall was now too big to defend properly. The arms stepped back once more, closer to the city of Uureg where the mountains were closest to the water, built the current Border Wall and started to lick their wounds.

But the demand for tin remained. And arms were humbled but not defeated. Emanai still had the strength to punch through the Forest with its forces. So a mining city was born. Bayan Gol. A small settlement, big enough to supply Emanai with tin but small enough not to strain the supply of food from Emanai. Surrounded by walls to stop barbaric invasions and surrounded by the Forest and Biomat to stop any attempts at local farming.

Obviously, Emanai would not leave the place undefended. There was at least one arm garrisoned within. An auxiliary arm like Ulastai — to protect the walls and to provide an additional labour force for the mines. I wasn’t sure how long each garrison had to stay there but additional arms marched across the Forest twice a year to maintain the road connection with the city.

Not for the merchants — no sane merchant would send a caravan through the Forest and travel by foot and by cart was a lot more expensive than travel by boat — but for force deployments just like ours.

Originally, Kiannika was scheduled for the road maintenance trip. An ordinary campaign that paid a bit more to the soldiers than border duty. Now, with the addition of our new General and another arm, we were marching to reinforce the exclave itself. And possibly meet said barbarians in battle. Faces all around me were bright, and smiles were common, apart from the glowering Roshan.

And I kept looking at the trees.

As we kept marching, the alien life started to turn more and more alien. Once they reached an appropriate concentration, the trees stopped acting like trees and merged into a network of trunks and branches. There was still a clear distinction between the white ‘wood’ and burgundy ‘leaves’ but there was no longer any individuality of each organism. Branches split in all directions, only to merge back somewhere else. And I was certain that this wasn’t done by some passing artistically inclined wermage.

I glanced ahead of us where the mass of red was looming over the horizon. Those sporadic nets were just the beginning. From Chirp’s observations, the Forest itself was one enormous network. And my samples kept confirming it.

There were no ‘trees’, there was no ‘grass’. There was one Forest. All of these were merely parts of one entity that was not only capable of splitting apart but clearly showed the ability to merge back into the whole collective once it was large enough.

Was there only a single alien on this planet? Did one entity envelop Tana and out-compete everything else out of existence, only to get a severe case of invasive species from Earth? Or was this how alien life emerged in the first place while I was looking for individual organisms because I expected that life should evolve in this particular way?

“Hey, Mule Boy.”

How were Creatures related to the Forest, then? Were they some mobile part of this alien mega-organism? A jellyfish phase to the polyp that was the Forest? The colour palette was identical and shell samples were rather surprisingly similar to the tree ‘bark’. Apart from the organic runes that ‘trees’ obviously lacked. Or were they separate organisms and the colour was part of their mimicry?

Then, the question was — what were those Creatures hiding from? The Old Ones? What about the clear lack of alien microorganisms on Tana? Did they go extinct or were they absorbed into the Forest? Or did they never exist in the first place? Did they have evolution in the first place?

Arash punched my shoulder. “The fuck, Mule Boy? You think that you are so above us that you can’t be bothered to respond anymore?”

“You said something?”

He rolled his eyes. “I asked you — do you have more of that medicine.”

“Arash!” Roshan hissed. “You old fart! Haven’t you seen what he did to me? Mark my words — he will make you fart snakes!”

“Roshan, shut the fuck up. Do you think I am blind? Or deaf? How many times have you slapped yourself since the morning?”

“I have been slapping myself all morning for agreeing to take his medicine!”

“You fool! I am asking about the gnats in the air!”

Roshan scoffed. “What are you talking about? The breeze is fresh today.”

“We just passed the Border Wall gates! Have you seen how many beggars there were? How many cattle pass through every day? While you were busy glowering at the kid, the rest of us were fighting gnats!”

Roshan sputtered.

“What is going on?” Irfan barged into our conversation. “And why is it the Mule Boy, once again!?”

“Arash wants to skip the night watch by sleeping in the latrine.”

“Who asked him to make you a strong medicine, then? ‘To make you pure overnight’? Huh?” Arash poked me in the ribs. “Tell me, none of that would have happened if he took a murk portion, not a wer one, right?”

I smirked. “I will be honest with you, Arash. If you have worms inside of you right now, they will leave. The question is — how fast do you want it to happen? Roshan wanted it as fast as possible. He got exactly what he asked for — life without parasites, now. The only reason he is grumbling is because he wants another jar of ale to recover his lost fluids.”

“Hey! I am still sick!”

Irfan’s hand gripped my shoulder. “So he is fine, now?”

“I am a man of my word, Patriarch Irfan.”

My reminder made him grimace but he didn’t let go. “And you can make the entire finger parasite-free?”

I tapped the golden Gestr on my neck. “I can make the entire finger parasite and disease free for the rest of their lives.”

He wanted to say something but stopped himself. “Start with the old man, since he wants it so much. If they get better… we will talk. If they get worse…”

“My medicine is expensive, Irfan,” I interrupted him. “I am not going to waste it. Nor am I going to give it away for free. And my medicine works, Patriarch Irfan.”

He ground his teeth. “What do you want?”

“Freedom. If you want me to act as the healer of the finger I need to have time and ability to act when we aren’t marching, training, or fighting. I will help with food because the foodstuffs we are getting are bland and repetitive, but I need to do my own work too. To brew my potions and to craft ointments. I want the ability to meet my wives when we set up the camp.”

I needed to finish the balloon too.

He snorted. “Show me results first, Mule Boy. Then we will talk.”



Anaise Kiymetl Hilal

“…and that’s how the meeting ended.” Mushaf Davlat finished her tale. “I hope you aren’t too ashamed of your murk.”

Anaise gripped her kattar. “What in ten hells is he doing?”

The Kishava Lady of the House chuckled. “You are asking me?”

“I am not talking about Erf. I am talking about your future husband! Does he think that spreading rumours will make me like him more? Does he not understand that if this continues, I wouldn’t even need to deny the offer of the Kamshad Matriarch? I could just point at his deeds and demand recompense.”

Mushaf’s smile was replaced by a frown. “You claim that he was involved in the theft? The Censor rendered her justice.”

“I know that someone within his or his sister’s entourage was involved.”

She raised her eyebrow. “You believe him?”

Anaise looked at her askance. “Why shouldn't I believe my husband, Mushaf?”

“Ah, young love. I knew I was there once. He is a murk, Anaise. He will say anything just to ensure you don’t find someone better. In his case — anyone at all.”

“Well then, let me correct myself.” Anaise swirled her cup of wine. “Why shouldn’t I believe my daimon?”


“Lita’af learnt a lot during her last meeting with Erf. I am certain that a Kamshad messenger is currently riding as fast as they can to reach Samat. Within a tenday, Roshanak Gulnaz will know of Erf’s status. I am certain that she will immediately inform your mother so there is no need to play coy anymore.” Anaise tapped her chin. “Or maybe she wouldn’t. Perhaps Lita’af told you about this already but I can’t be sure — she tends to avoid my company recently.”

Mushaf growled, threw the cup at the canvas of the tent, and got up. “‘Stay silent during my Feast’ my ass!”

Anaise shrugged without any remorse. “You expected me to stay silent after your jabs? At least now you can be assured that I have no intention of standing between you and Muramat.”

“I have my pride, Anaise Hilal! I am not going to wait for Muramat or Roshanak Gulnaz to change their mind, nor will I chase after him like a discarded pet! If you want him to stop chasing you and come back to me — do it yourself. I might forgive him if he comes back crawling on his knees, but no sooner! If he continues to meddle in your affairs — well, you should’ve kept your mouth shut back then.”

She sighed. “Worth a try.”

Mushaf rolled her eyes. “If you were trying, you would have purchased slaves from us, rather than ship them from Yusuf. But we can discuss old grievances until the morning. Tell me, since you are so taken by your daimon and not looking at other candidates — what do you know about Azhar Mesud?”

Anaise choked on her wine.

“So… you do know something,” she smirked. “Wermages of his kind don’t appear often and since I am looking for a replacement, I might act quickly. Lest the General herself will claim him as hers.”

Anaise coughs turned into wheezes. “Oh, Goddess!”

“What? Tell me!”

She wiped her mouth and tried to calm herself. “I have little to tell…”

Mushaf narrowed her eyes and Anaise quickly followed. “Of what I am allowed to say. Be assured that you have plenty of time to pursue him. You might need plenty of luck too — from what I know, he isn’t eager to settle and has had plenty of offers over the years. Even from Pillar Dominas.”

Rumour had it, all three Matriarchs from the Houses of War once actively pursued Albin Chasya. And some whispered that all three of them were still trying.

“Another spoiled male.” Mushaf tsked. “Why was he learning to play the kithara then? Was he trying to woo your daimon?”

Anaise sighed and put the new cup of wine aside. She didn’t feel like drinking anymore. “I stopped asking why Azhar Mesud does anything a long time ago. It helps me avoid unnecessary headaches. Be assured that neither is my daimon getting wooed by him nor will I let my husband to get wooed by him. Or woo him himself.”

She had more than enough of Erf’s quirks alone. Or, as he called it, shenanigans. Anaise shuddered — just the mere thought of that word brought forth unpleasant memories of the past.

“An eccentric, then? That is more palatable than a spoiled one.” Mushaf crossed her arms and nodded to herself. “Very well. Let me meet your daimon, then.”

“What? Why?”

“So that I can talk to him, of course! Did you think that I would talk to your husband without your permission? I have my honour. If Azhar Mesud wasn’t trying to woo him, he did find him interesting enough. I need to know what made him so curious.”

Anaise slumped on her couch. Two of them were already too much for Emanai. A third would be unthinkable.

“Don’t forget that the General lives in my arusak and your daimon is the messenger of the first finger. Neither you, your wife, nor the Enoch twins have the rank to walk into her meetings. But I can. I am sure that you wish to remain informed.”

“It is your sanity that I am worried about, Mushaf Davlat.”

“I thought that you trusted your husband?”

“Trusting him is easy, he is like an open codex to me. Loving him is easy. Trying to reason his actions… Legends speak true when they say that daimonas watch the world and see the future.”



The water was cold but he didn’t mind. The stream washed away the sluggishness of his body and brought clarity to his mind. He took his time washing the body, letting other warriors leave once they were done and only then stepped back onto the shore.

He put on his tunic but left his sash to hang on the tree.

A whisper nearby. “The Lord expects results.”

“And he has them. He is walking into the Forest. Alone.”

The whisper tilted her head at the camp.

“Separated and apart.”

The whisper remained silent for a while and then nodded. “Let them hear his roar.”






Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.