The Challenger (Apollo vs Artemis)
November 19th, 2017
It begins after night falls....
The cool starry night is still, quiet. The silvery crescent moon hangs low over the snow-capped mountains, offering little of her heavenly glow to illuminate the darkness that has settled over the lands of Lunaria. But blessed are these lands, where the shadows hold only places for pups to hide and play. The guardians that watch over all, a select few guided and led by the mighty Apollo, have always performed their duties well.
The silence suddenly breaks. Laughter, high and jubilant, echoes in the night as two young Wajas dash across a snow-dusted meadow. They are exhilarated by their daring, sneaking out of their warm and comfortable caves to continue their games of high adventure at the top of the hill where they had spent the previous day.
"One day, I shall be one of Apollo's Chosen!" one declares boldly, racing his friend up the snowy slope. "Nothing will ever stand against me! I will protect all of Lunaria, and I will never ever have a bedtime!"
"Me, too!" says the other. "I will be the greatest, the strongest, the fastest, the..."
The voices stutter away, young paws digging furrows in the snow as both slide to a clumsy stop. They had reached their favorite hilltop, and now stared at the place where just hours before, a wisened old tree stump had sat. Now, there was only shards of wood and dust. They stare in bewilderment and rising grief, their favorite place to play now gone. Their throne, their castle, their mighty mountain peak.
"W...what happened to it?" one whimpers. "It...it looks like it was eaten."
A flash of sudden light turns the snow to silver. Both pups squeal in fright, their heads turning to the heavens. A swirling glow of light, blazing red and violet, outshining all else. The shadows deepen and slant as it grows brighter, bigger. The pups stand frozen in fear and awe.
And then they let out wails of fright as a shadow momentarily blocks the swirling light, spreading wide wings as it soars down towards them. They turn and run for their lives, tumbling down the hill before catching themselves at the bottom and disappearing into the distance, leaving only frightened sobs in their wake.
Clouds of snow billow out as the shadowy being lands. Eyes glisten in the light of the swirling vortex above, slowly shrinking away to a glittering point high in the sky. It gazes at the remains of the stump for several moments, until the wails of the pups are long lost in the night. Finally, it blinks, growling softly as fangs flash in the dimming light.
"So...it begins again."
Episode 1: The Challenger
November 21st, 2017
Dawn was breaking, filling the air with dazzling golden light. In the distance, the sounds of activity were already beginning to increase. Some great event was happening today. Those she passed seemed to have thought for little else. Only an occasional glance was ever spared her way as she ran.
Her mind was a raging storm of emotion. Fear, confusion, anger, determination. This place, it was so beautiful. So...familiar. This was what it had looked like once. Beauty and peace and happiness. Until...
She shook her head fiercely, bright blue and green fur rippling from nose to tailtip. She hadn't known what to expect when she had made the daring flight through the portal, but certainly it was not what she had seen. Undeniable evidence that THEY were here too. And all of the Wajas she passed, so blissfully unaware.
It would not happen here. No matter what she had to do, she would stop it. Hot breath furled in steam curls before her as she came to a stop, head high and ears sharply perked. She could sense it nearby, the same as the other three. There were others around here, more Wajas, all laughing and talking happily. The glances were starting to linger upon her. She ignored them all. It was close now, so close. Right...THERE!
The air of calm and focus was something that Apollo almost never lost. He was a wise, just, and generous deity, and there was none in all the lands of Lunaria who did not know his name. Night and day, he stood guard over the land and its denizens. Many moons had passed since real trouble had last stirred under his watch. He had taken to his rest the previous night quietly confident that all would be well for the grand celebration of his Chosen due to begin on this day.
But for the first time in many years, he had given pause. The light, silvery and blinding, that had arched across the midnight sky was something the likes of which Apollo had never seen before. But there had been no streak of fire, no hint that something had fallen from the sky. When the light had faded to little more than a twinkling glow hidden among the stars, silent peaceful darkness had settled once more. Apollo had chosen not to set out and investigate more closely. He had decided instead to wait, to see if it would happen again.
It was hard to suppress the twinge of regret, even in his mighty heart. His wings were spread wide as he glided low and swift over the lands slowly coming alive with the rising sun. The Wajas hailing him and the four members of his Chosen that followed behind him were not the first ones he had seen today. The first hour of this day had been deeply troubling. Wajas coming to him, telling him of the damage they had found. A matronly Forest with her garden torn bare. Two Corsie brothers who had a long task ahead of cleaning their cave after the flood of water had spilled in, brought upon them by the sudden breaking of the old beaver dam that had for years held back the water of the neighboring stream without fail. And the tiny Imp pup, crying into her father's chest, while the elder spoke of their barn, inexplicably reduced to shards of wood and sawdust, the animals scattering. The young pup's prized pet lamb had not yet been found.
Apollo would have taken the time to offer a word of comfort, and guide the pup to the place where he could sense the lamb was safely hiding. But the frantic Tempest running up to him, and the words she shouted in fear and panic, distracted him entirely.
"The Park, my lord Apollo! The Wajas Park! Something is happening there! You must come, quickly!"
And so Apollo and his accompanying Chosen were now making haste towards the Park, pausing only to tell the Imp pup's father where to find the lost lamb. And the closer he flew, the more he could see that something was indeed wrong. The happy voices were fading away, turning to cries of shock and fright. Dust was rising into the air. He swooped down and landed before the gates, his great wings clearing the air around him, allowing him to see. A long moment of silence passed, as for the first time his expression of calm broke into one of astonishment.
"Oracle," he said at last, glancing over his shoulder at his Chosen Earth. "Make haste. Gather the others to me, quickly!"
Oracle nodded and was gone in scarcely a blink. Apollo turned back around, focusing on another Earth that was running towards him. Familiar green and yellow fur and a mane of orange were all dulled by dust.
"Peace, my friend," Apollo said sagely, seeing the wild look of fear in her eyes. "Did you see anything? What happened here..."
"Still here, my Lord Apollo!" the snack stand keeper panted. "Still here! It's...it's..."
A sudden gale-force gust of wind blew over them, forcing the shop keeper to stagger. Even Apollo had to squint as dust flew past him. But then the air was clear again, and everything was in view. The broken gate to the park, branches torn from trees, the snack stand in near ruin, wisps of smoke still curling up from smoldering remnants. And in the shadow of the ruin stood...
The Chosen standing with him did not speak. All of their eyes were upon the figure. All could see what Apollo saw. His exact height, the same aura of strength, great wings spread wide as the last of the dust settled back to the earth. The Waja was a mirror of his own image, and yet...she was not. Instead of calm, her expression blazed with determined anger. Her teeth were bared and her eyes flashed as she raised her head high.
"So it is you that has marred the peace of Lunaria this day?" Apollo said, his tone calm but firm. He could hear the rapid approach of the rest of his Chosen. "Explain yourself, stranger. Who are you?"
The Waja did not flinch, but stared back fiercely. She paid no heed to the rest of his Chosen forming a circle around them, but strode forward until they were scarcely inches apart.
"Can you not sense that we are one and the same? I am the bravest of my kind, the first volunteer. I am the defender of the once proud lands of Solaria." The Waja looked around, growling at the destruction she had caused. "I came here hoping to find salvation. Instead I find doom. I know not your name, and I do not care. If you and your followers are the ones meant to defend these lands, then I have grave news." She growled again. "My name is Artemis, leader of the Artemis Corps."
"And you have failed."
Episode 2: Great Plague
November 24th, 2017
Absolute silence fell. Only Apollo kept a determinedly calm expression. The rest of his Chosen, the gathering crowd further beyond, and the speechless snack stand keeper were all staring at Artemis with various ranges of shock. Artemis growled sharply, her fur bristling.
"Well?!" she barked. "Can you not sense what is right in front of you? Are you and your Chosen just going to lay by and let this land fall to ruin?"
"What ruin? The only ruin that has been seen on this day was by you!" his Chosen Forest snapped. "If not for the celebrations today necessitating an early start, lives may have been lost when you broke the beaver dam. And what of..."
"Peace, Antheia," Apollo said firmly. "I do not think Artemis is unaware of the trouble she has caused. She is fortunate there has been no lasting harm."
"No lasting harm?? No lasting..." Artemis stuttered off, seemingly too incensed for words.
"My lord Apollo, the Park!" the stand keeper protested. "All of this mess could take weeks to fix!"
Apollo did not respond to the stand keeper, no longer hiding his confusion. He could sense no danger anywhere. The damage he could see around him was nothing that could not be repaired in time. The land beneath his paws breathed the same as it always did, a comforting presence that had been the tie to the power he wielded to guard Lunaria from harm since time immemorial. It told him no concern, not even from Artemis. This was what kept his tone calm as he spoke again.
"Artemis, explain," he said. "What is going on? What do you sense? If there truly is danger, then we will quell it."
Artemis gave a single derisive snort. And then she raised a hind leg and kicked viciously, sending one of the smoldering snack stand displays tumbling over onto its side, where it instantly cracked into pieces on the grass. The stand keeper let out a wail of shock, but Apollo did not hear it. He was staring at the display remnants. On the outside, the wood looked normal, if charred in places. But within, it was the dry gray color of cold ash. Artemis turned towards it and raised a paw, knocking aside a few broken shards, clearly searching for something. Finally she raised her head and glared at him.
"There," she growled coldly. "See it now? Take a good look, all of you."
A single small insect had been revealed, crawling feebly over the burned and decayed wood. It did not seem abnormal at first, but then Apollo saw its strange rippling golden color. He blinked slowly, and then raised his head, meeting Artemis's gaze. The anger in her eyes slowly faded as a silent understanding passed between them.
"The great plague," he said grimly.
"The great plague?" The tone in the voice of his Chosen Divine was skeptical. "My lord Apollo, how is that possible? Legend says that the great plague will only rise from below when the living force of the Pear Tree begins to wither."
"What what is the great plague?" the Chosen Corsie asked.
"Legend long claims it is a destructive menace held at bay by the great power of the Pear Tree," the Divine explained. "It is an old story, but it is said that the Pear Tree itself is what binds the lands of Lunaria together. Should its power fail..."
"The lands will crack and shatter as they are devoured from below," Artemis said bitterly. "When the Pear Tree of Solaria withered, it left almost nothing behind. It is a desperate struggle to keep the remaining infestations from taking what is left." She growled again. "So now you see, oh mighty Apollo. What happened there is happening here. This is proof." She suddenly lashed out with a snarl, crushing the little insect into the ground. "I could sense the infestation the instant I arrived here. I have taken out all of the nests I could find. This...this one was the biggest, but for now, it is the last one. But there will be more. Thousands more, millions more."
"Pear Tree is fine," Bill said simply.
There was a brief pause as everyone momentarily glanced towards Bill.
"But what ARE they?" the stand keeper asked, having backed well away from the wreckage of her shop.
"They are known in Solaria as isopterons," Artemis answered. "For lack of a better word, they are termites. Termites capable of devouring the foundations of the earth itself."
Apollo nodded slightly. It was starting to have a strange sort of meaning now. He took a deep long breath, feeling for the warmth of the Pear Tree's embracing roots. It was still there, ever constant and unmarred.
"I think I see," he said aloud.
"See what, my Lord?" Oracle asked.
"What is happening here." He gave Artemis a calm smile. "Artemis, there is hope yet. I could not sense these creatures burrowing into my lands, but now I know why. It is the same as you, who seems to be unable to feel the warm embrace of our living and breathing Pear Tree. These creatures, these...isopterons...are not the plague of Lunaria. They came with you. Either ahead of you, or following behind. You have my thanks for stopping them before they could spread further."
Artemis looked at him for a long moment, clearly struggling to decide whether he could be trusted. Finally, her stance seemed to relax.
"If your Pear Tree is truly alive, then I want to see it," she said.
"I will take you there myself, but not yet." Apollo glanced up at the sky, now a clear cloudless blue. "Last night, I saw a great silver light flash across the heavens. I know now it signaled the moment you crossed into our world from yours, as you call it, Solaria."
"A portal, a gateway, I know not what it was. It appeared in the night sky without warning. I came, because I could see no other option."
"But where did it come from?" his Chosen African asked. "My lord Apollo, I fear it still does not make sense."
"There are still many questions to answer," Apollo agreed. He looked around, his gaze sweeping across the crowd of nervous Wajas standing in the distance. Then he turned back to his assembled Chosen. "My friends, I am afraid our celebration must wait. The infestations may be gone, but there is still much cleanup to do. I will not be long in returning." He beckoned to Artemis. "Come with me."
"And were is it that we are going?" Artemis asked warily, but she mirrored his movements as he spread his wings and leapt airborne.
"To see the only one in all of Lunaria who might know anything about portals in the sky and the sudden appearance of strange creatures." He glanced back at Artemis and allowed himself a slight grin. "We are going to see the Mad Scientist."
Episode 3: The Mad Scientist
November 25th, 2017
The pause of the gathered Chosen lasted only until Apollo and Artemis had vanished into the distance. In one moment, the snack stand keeper found herself surrounded by fourteen quiet and impressive figures, their fur glistening with the Mark of the Chosen. The next, she was standing quite alone, the Chosen spreading out as if their actions had been planned, though the stand keeper could not recall any conversation of the sort passing between them. The closest to her now was the Chosen Corsie, who had approached the gathered crowd and was now beckoning for their attention.
“There is work to be done,” he said. “Be not concerned, for the Lord Apollo has things under control. What has been damaged will be repaired with haste, but we need assistance. I call for any and all willing to volunteer. Let us start here, in the Park, and work our way out."
There wasn’t a breath of protest or complaint. The stand keeper stood breathless with pride and gratitude as Wajas gathered and began to clear away and clean. She was still loathe to go near her ruined displays, but she soon found a suitable task overseeing the gathering of what product was still salvageable.
“You know, you do not have to eat them to know if they are still good,” she chided a pair of young Aerial pups reaching into a box of pretzels. They froze and looked up at her, eyes wide and shining. The stand keeper held her stern expression for only a few moments longer. Then she smiled widely and nudged forward a box of fresh cookies. “But these, I daresay, could use a good taste testing."
The pups squealed in delight as the stand keeper handed them each a cookie. But she had turned back towards the stacks of product still left to be checked for only a few moments before she saw someone run by. She looked up as the Tempest slid to a halt, panting for breath.
“Sir, you must come quickly!” he gasped, looking up at the top of the sign over the entrance to the Park, where the Chosen Aerial was expertly perched. “The party meadow, the stage, it has just collapsed! Collapsed into dust!”
“Oh no, there’s more?!” The stall keeper gasped in horror. “What are we going to do?? They could be everywhere!”
“Squish them,” said Bill.
The Murky Forest lived up to its name. Even on the brightest, coldest days, the dark foreboding trees choked out the sun, and a haze of heavy wet warmth hung permanently in the air. Normally the Wajas who dared to venture here were accosted by the many shadowy creatures that dwelled in the mossy undergrowth, but Apollo and Artemis’s passing was uninhibited. The Mad Scientist had found refuge here since being expelled from his laboratory two years prior. Apollo had taken pity on him at the time, gifting him with one of his own wingfeathers to act as a protective ward while he attempted to rebuild some of his old experiments. He had heard scarcely a whisper about him since that time.
Artemis had remained silent during the rest of their journey, clearly deep in solemn thought. Apollo wondered if it was proper to ask what she was thinking. But before he could speak, Artemis had suddenly jerked her head upright, her eyes wide.
“More of them!” she had barked, and Apollo had needed no further explanation.
The Mad Scientist’s new “laboratory” was little more than a sturdy wood and stone shack in the lonely heart of the swamp. Apollo could hear shouting as it came into view through the fog, the silhouette of a figure with arms thrashing about visible through the dirty windows. Artemis ran ahead of him, her wings fanning before her a great wind that burst the door open as she reached it. Apollo could see the Scientist running wildly about, trying to scoop the little gold insects into a glass jar, and then giving another high shout of surprise as the jar shattered in his hands, the bugs spilling once more onto the floor. The force of Artemis’ power knocked the man flat on his back, and all of the bugs swirled into the air, forming a swarm of glittering gold before being thrown into the fireplace. There was a few loud pops from the flames, a belch of purple smoke, and then silence once more.
It took a long moment for the Mad Scientist to push himself upright. And then he was slammed right back down against the floor as Artemis planted a paw to his chest. Apollo quickly pushed his way inside the now very crowded hut, as the single room within it was cluttered with strange gadgets and lab equipment on rough wooden tables, with a tiny living area in the far corner. He was reaching for Artemis to pull her back, but then he realized that the Mad Scientist was laughing in delight.
"It worked, it actually worked, my theory was correct!" he was crowing in delight. "You look just as I predicted you would. Please, please let me up, I will explain everything."
Artemis growled, but she seemed as equally surprised by the man's reaction as Apollo was, and she grudgingly let him go. He scrambled to his feet and pointed to a strange object on the closest table. It looked like an oval mirror, but its surface flickered with a dim swirling glow that obscured the reflection. As Apollo glanced at it, he saw the image shift completely, briefly revealing an island of rock floating suspended in a fiery red sky. The Mad Scientist was beaming in pride.
"My greatest discovery," he declared. "For years and years I have seen hints of it, little glimpses that there is something hidden just beyond the veil of our world. A sister world, a mirror world, exactly the same and yet entirely different. Oh, it would take me days to describe it, the endless research, so many failed attempts, and..." He froze, his eyes widening as he turned from the mirror to Apollo, startling as though he had just realized he was there. "My lord Apollo, it is you who gave me the means to succeed. Your feather was the perfect..."
"Feather?" Artemis interrupted, her hackles on end again. "What feather?"
"The feather, one of my own wingfeathers, that I gifted him to act as a protective ward when he sought refuge here." Apollo's expression darkened as he looked at the Mad Scientist, whose smile slowly faded. "You wasted my gift on an experiment?"
"Not wasted, my Lord!" the Scientist protested. "I was able to send it through. My first breakthrough! I made the portal, and I sent your feather through to the other side. I saw it drift away. The portal only lasted seconds, but it was enough. I found the way to open more, for longer! Bigger! Last night was my greatest success yet. See, my Lord! See!" He gestured towards Artemis.
"I see her," Apollo said firmly. "I also saw the isopterons that almost devoured your home."
"Isopterons? Is that what they are called?" The Mad Scientist glanced towards the fire. "How fascinating. I wonder...oh!"
He spun back towards the mirror, whose glow had now grown much brighter. He fiddled with the stand it sat on, his eyes widening.
"Look!" he said again. "So strange, so beautiful in its strangeness."
Despite himself, Apollo stepped forward for a better look. The mirror's reflection now showed the floating rock island very clearly. But it also showed something else, something that made even his great heart turn cold. The twisted dead form of a tree, its bark as dull and gray as ash.
"It did not always look like this," the Mad Scientist said, his tone solemn now. "When I first glimpsed it, it was a beauty as equally breathtaking as anything to be found in Lunaria."
Apollo sighed, turning to Artemis, whose gaze was downcast. It was clear she could not bear to look at the dead remains of Solaria's Pear Tree.
"Artemis, what happened in Solaria?" he asked softly. "How did your Pear Tree fail?"
Artemis was silent for a long moment, her expression one of deep pain. When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper.
"It...failed...because of me."
We interrupt this broadcast...
November 27th, 2017
Psst! Is the narrator still around? No? Good! This is Artemis (yes, that Artemis,) and I want to tell you how it really went down. We'll start with Lunaria, shall we? Beautiful Lunaria, happy home to millions of Wajas of every size and shape and colour imaginable. To its inhabitants, it feels like a true paradise, where the sun always shines and the sacred pear tree bears its colourful fruit in abundance. Lunaria wouldn't be Lunaria, however, without the divinity Apollo, who watches over every Lunarian Waja from the smallest pup to the oldest Breedless. Apollo is all things to all Wajas, and his shape is that from which all other Waja breeds are descended. Aiding him are his legion, Apollo's Chosen, whose thick green fur and powerful wings mark them out as the strongest, smartest and bravest on the planet. To be one of the Chosen is to embody all the virtues of one's breed, be that the loyalty of the Normal, the good humour of the Corsie or the wisdom of the Divine.
You know this, however. You've been indoctrinated by that big fuzzy green jerk. You know Lunaria, and chances are that your Wajas have never known anything else.
What you might not have been aware of, however, is that Lunaria has a sister world, a parallel place kept hidden only by the gossamer-thin barrier that separates one dimension from the next. This world - my world - is Solaria, and once it, too, was a place of unending beauty. That was long, long ago, however, back before the Isopteron plague, back when our sacred Pear Tree grew strong and healthy, its roots holding together the very ground on which we stood. After the plague? Yeah, not so much. The tree's basically bug chow now, and my homeworld? Let's just say that when you live on a series of floating islands, these wings come in pretty handy.
I'm honestly not sure how we'd have coped without our friend the Heroic Scientist and her assistant, Nicholas. They've been working their backsides off to try and find a way, any way, to keep our world in one piece. They were the ones who travelled from island to island, searching for that one tiny spark of inspiration that might make all the difference. They were the ones who found the hole in the sky, and the single green and blue feather that fell through it.
I should probably explain that what follows is what I've managed to piece together over past weeks and months; with Solaria the way it was - is - it's been far too easy to lose track of time. The Heroic Scientist told me that she recognised immediately that the feather was an object of great power, and immediately returned to her laboratory to take a closer look. I can't pretend I understood the words she used (frankly, I'm not even sure she did), but she thought it was from another world. I scoffed, of course; said the Isopterons had started eating birds and were spitting out the indigestible bits, but she gave me a Look and told me to shut up and mind my manners.
The Scientist speculated that the feather came from some sort of otherworldly superwaja, and that if it was processed correctly, it might yield what she called "a highly complex DNA modifier that would enhance the finest qualities of any waja to whom it was administered". She sent Nicholas out again to find any brave Waja who might be prepared to volunteer to participate in such a radical experiment. He returned, eventually, with a representative of every breed, asking the group which of us was ready to go first.
That, in case you hadn't guessed already, was where I came in, specifically into a laboratory full of stuff that looked like it'd been made by a glassblower with hiccups. I'll spare you the gorier details, but yes, there were needles, and yes, there was a special table with bits that locked in place in case I thought I wanted to escape.
Spoiler: I really, really wanted to escape.
Luckily, though, I couldn't, and eventually I emerged a new waja, faster, stronger, allegedly smarter and with far nicer breath. The procedure, in other words, was a success.
Others followed me, but the Scientist was testing dosages with me and so they got a smaller and presumably less agonising dose. They became the Artemis Corps, and like me, they each had a wrong to right and something to prove. We all fought day and night to try and reclaim our home from those accursed bugs, although I never dared tell anybody why. We were the warriors, while the Heroic Scientist was tireless in her efforts to find out more about the feather and its world of origin. I think she was hoping to learn about the place, to open a portal like the one that brought us the feather in the first place.
In my heart of hearts I thought it was nonsense, but I was in a bad place back then - how could I not have been, knowing that full responsibility for the Isopteron plague lay on my fluffy little shoulders? The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I'd doomed everything I'd ever known to a slow, painful extinction. Oh, the Scientist was trying, we had to try, but was there really any hope left for us?
That was when I saw the flash of silver light in the sky; it was blinding, so bright that I thought at first my eyes were tricking me when I glimpsed the portal it left in its wake. After a second, though, I realised that no, it was real - maybe the Scientist really had succeeded! There and then, I knew exactly what I had to do (yep, poor impulse control - again); I used those huge shiny wings and flew myself up higher than any Waja had ever flown before.
By the time I reached the portal, the air was so thin I was half-frozen and dizzy, but the moment I glimpsed Lunaria I knew I'd done the right thing. I rammed myself right through that filthy great hole in the sky, and felt the sun on my face for the first time in years...
Artemis Interrupts (again)...
November 29th, 2017
Artemis here, again. A few people were complaining that last time I spoke to you I may have been making overly generous use of what's known as poetic license. In light of this, I'd like to take a moment of your time to answer some questions and set things straight once and for all. We'll start with the business with the Solarian Pear Tree: certain wiseacres have seen fit to point out that I never actually got around to explaining how I was singlehandedly responsible for the destruction of my homeworld. All I can say is that I was just a pup, okay? It was my first visit to the Pear Tree and I got excited; I'd never had any leaves of my own before. At first I took a pink leaf, then I took a green one, and I knew that was all that was allowed and so I went to walk away like the good girl I was. They told me there was a curse, but nobody really believed that, did they?
That was when I saw it, a glossy, perfectly-shaped leaf that gleamed with all the colours of the rainbow. It was only one little leaf - it wasn't as though anybody was ever going to miss it, was it? Besides, the tree was just a tree - how could a tree tell if somebody took just one extra leaf? So I hid it under the green one, and then I really did try to leave. I was doing really well, too, until I noticed something shining gold in the high branches. Did you know wajas can climb trees? I didn't, either, but apparently they can if they see something they want enough. And once I was up there, well, I'd never seen so many leaves in my life.
After that, things really started to go, err, pear-shaped. Or rather, they very definitely didn't, because the poor Pear Tree was looking mighty chilly without a single leaf to cover her modesty. I kept hold of the pretty ones, but I had a lot to carry so I left most of the greens and browns on the ground. The reds and pinks and blues? They smelled nice, so I figured I might as well have a nibble on one. Fun fact: in addition to being a useful currency, Sacred Pear Tree leaves taste amazing. If you can imagine Apollo on his own with a giant bag of potato chips, yeah, that was me. I basically gorged myself into the most colourful stupor you ever saw, then fell asleep beneath the tree's bare branches.
When I awoke, I awoke with a superpower, but not the really cool kind like invisibility or laser eyes. Nope, I was gifted with billions and billions of little Isopteron buddies, who'd awoken from their dormant state thanks to the ancient curse I thought I'd managed to bring down on myself, and on the planet. That turned out to be nonsense, by the way - the Scientist has (fairly) reliably informed me that it's not superstition, just science. Trees need leaves - Sacred Pear Trees especially so, apparently. When the Tree gives us a leaf, it gives us a sliver of its life force, which turned out to be a whole lot like the life force of the world itself. I'd managed to consume a significant chunk of the tree's living essence - which, put that way, still sounds like an atrocity but also like a heck of an achievement. The Isopterons, filthy parasites that they are, immediately recognised me as one of their own and set about finishing what I'd started, chewing on the tree and then, when there was next to nothing left, on anything else they could find.
The Isopterons still follow me and respond to my presence; now, at least, with this new body, I can fight them. Outrun them, too, if I think there may be others who can offer us the chance of salvation.
And that's all there is to it, really; I did something stupid, and now I have to put it right. I haven't come alone, though; as I mentioned before, there are plenty from Solaria who've done things they wish they haven't, and wish to right the wrongs of their past.
Cast your eyes, if you will, towards the window to Solaria. See that bunch of sleek blue bug-annihilating machines? They're here, ready to fight the fight - unless they get a better offer, obviously.
Hang on a minute - why'd it suddenly get so bright? Guys, are you still there?
Episode 4: The Infestation
December 1st, 2017
It was rapidly becoming clear that the problem was more widespread than even the initial panicked reports had guessed. But swift and determined were the Chosen. They quickly calmed the panic, but even as they led their fellow Wajas into the fray, they could tell the problem had grown far greater than they could handle on their own.
"We need Lord Apollo," Antheia said. "We..."
But she froze, her eyes widening in shock. As one, all of the Chosen turned as Apollo and Artemis soared into view, followed closely by fourteen familiar and yet completely unfamiliar Wajas. Artemis smirked as she and Apollo landed, the others settling into a line behind them.
"We didn't come all this way to enjoy the scenery," she barked. "Corps! Move out!!"
Antares keeps watch! There is trouble on the horizon...
Andros HATED isopterons.
As much as he hadn't gotten along with Apollo or his Chosen much when they first arrived in this world, untroubled by despair and adversity as it was, his heart broke seeing the damage these revolting insects were wreaking on the once picture perfect world.
They were all moving as fast as possible, trying to keep up with the swarms as they also rushed to sate their never ending hunger. As soon as they'd destroyed one nest, another began.
A screech from farther away caught his attention as he paused to catch his breath. It took him a moment to pinpoint where it was coming from in all the chaos, then he spotted a little grey pup running from the Mining Caves. It was dragging what looked like a partially eaten wallpaper behind it. There were no defenders in that area yet.
He took off, barking a call for help to any of his comrades near enough to hear as he did so. If the isopterons had infested the Caves, any number of Wajas could be in danger. They wouldn't be able to hear the commotion that far into the mountain and there was more then enough root systems to feed on. If the caves collapsed completely....
Using his wings to lend greater speed to his legs he dashed into the nearest cave entrance, howling a warning to everyone to head for the cave entrances. Individual isopterons were crawling everywhere but deep in the bottom of the cave system he found the main nest, a loose ashy grey stalagmite already forming beneath it.
Grabbing an abandoned shovel he started squishing as fast as he could, using his wings to try to herd them into groups to kill all at once. So focused was he on his task, and his worry about the other caves above him, that he didn't notice the deep growl of earth or the shaking of the ground beneath him a section of the ceiling fell from above.
A cave in.
As he ran desperately back up the path, dodging falling rock as best he could, one thought was now greatest in his mind.
He HATED isopterons!
Okay, so, Axiom wasn't a huge fan of those six-legged, huge-headed freaks, with their oversized mandibles and little antennae that twitched and the way you could hear them munching away at wood whenever a whole colony was near.
He wasn't scared of them like most things.
He was just disgusted.
So disgusted that he didn't bat an eye as he rubbed his paws together, creating a spark which engulfed his paws in a green flame. He spread out his wings, hovering over a mound that had formed at one of the park's trees, before hurling green fireballs towards the little bugs.
When one would observe it seemed a bit of an overkill - the amount of flame he cast into the mound caused some of the isopterons to spill out. While some of them were burnt to a protein-packed crisp, others began to march away attempting to find a new food source, while some trailed after their attacker.
Axiom's eyes widened, and he quickly turned, running towards the Chosen and the Corps as he screamed. "HELP!"
As he ran, he did not notice a green Earth wander over to the mound, sneakily gathering the crunchy bugs into a small pouch before fleeing the other way.
Anansi wants you to know that he's spoken to the Isopterons and they actually seem like pretty nice guys.
Bill and Jill paused to gaze solemnly at Anansi.
"Don't think he has the right idea," Bill said.
"Nope," replied Jill.
Naydra's voice rings through the air: "I'm going to be the very best, termite squisher there ever was! To find them is my real test! To squish them is my caaauuuuuussseee!"
Clarine generally doesn't like harming any creatures, but for the fate of Lunaria she's more than willing to do her part!
Lokison the Corsie was great at killing termites. All his tricks and traps and pranks really helped. It turned out termites were a lot easier to fool than wajas or humans; they'd even fall for the 'sniff this comically fake flower' gag. At which point, he'd squash them.
Many many shiny bugs fell it his traps; even more fell beneath his stampy little paws. Being so close to the ground made it easy to spot them, though it give them a very short way to run before- Oh gosh, Artemis help, they're on me, they're on me!
Lokison had one special technique though. A secret one. A dark, secret one. A dark, special secret technique he hid away from the world.
When no one else was watching, Lokison would eat the bugs.
He liked the crunch.
Delos takes a breather from destroying insect invaders to make it Very, Very Clear what he thinks of them.
"Artemis Corps Earth" doesn't like getting dirty, and s/he will never change their mind about that. Even if it involves squishing termites to save their homelands.
Zarek's lip curled as he looked at the ground, how he loathed these isopterons. He knew the damage they had caused on the other side of the rift, what they wanted to do here as well.
He knew where they were headed, wiggling toward the pear tree on his side of the rift. Zarek joined the throng of wajas smashing them but there were so many right here. He wondered how many were hidden in the holes and burrows of THIS world. How would they ever find them all?
Zarek shook himself out of his desperate thoughts, there was work to do right now. He brought his mighty foot down a group of them, thrilling as they exploded under his weight. He moved to another group where he was joined by Bill and a few wean lings throwing rocks at the golden bugs.
Zarek felt something hit his head at first he thought a rock thrown by one of the pups had hit him but then it wiggled! AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW he screamed and jumped at the same time, an isopteron had fallen on him from a tree. The wajas ran pell mell from his dance of terror, when at last he cam to a stop gasping and shaking all the bugs lay squished as far as the eye could see.
Suddenly everyond burst out laughing and clapping. It was a moment of complete silliness during the worse crisis their history, they needed that.
The Mad Scientist sat down on a fallen log, mopping sweat from his forehead. This, he supposed, he had brought upon himself. It had been little more than a shack, but it was home. And it had served its purpose far better than he could have ever guessed. The experiments with the portals would not have progressed nearly as far had he been any closer to civilization, and more consistently interrupted.
The portal generator had been his finest work. A way to not only create the portals, but also to control where they opened. The only goal he had been struggling to overcome was how long the portals could last. His generator expended its energy quickly, and required time to recharge. Last night he had dared to test the limits of the power it could contain. The portal had been glorious, so glorious. And what had come of it! It had all been beyond his wildest dreams.
He looked up, gazing morosely at the rubble that had once been his hut. The remnants of his tools, his bed, and the roof and two walls of his hut were scattered in all directions. He had been so engrossed in Artemis and Apollo that he had not noticed his portal generator becoming dangerously overcharged. By the time Artemis had pointed at the generator again, revealing the reflections of fourteen powerful Wajas standing on the other side, it had been too late. He had been unable to control it when it had released its energy in a violent burst of white light, opening the largest portal yet.
The Scientist had been a quiet observer to the brief conversation that had followed. Half because he had spent the first few minutes dangling from the low branches of the tree into which he had been blown, and half because for the first time in his life, he could think of nothing to say.
“You wish your team looked half this good,” Artemis had said to Apollo. “It’s time to finish what I started.”
“We’re ready when you are, Commander,” one of the Corps had declared proudly.
They had all departed after that, leaving the Scientist to disentangle himself from the tree and contemplate everything that had just occurred. As he sat there now, pondering, his gaze landed upon a few shards of glass on the ground, the remnants of the jar in which he had been collecting his specimens. Those strange little golden termites. It had been a few months into his experiments when he had first realized that some of the portals had left behind the strange insects. The first small grouping he had examined thoroughly. But he had found nothing extraordinary about them except for their golden color. They had burrowed a little ways into the ground or into a nearby tree and then had gone dormant. The ones he had gathered in the jar had shown no hint of any movement until a few minutes prior to Lord Apollo’s arrival. But now…now they were no longer dormant. They were alive, and active, and extremely destructive. The damage he had watched Solaria endure through the portal generator now made perfect sense.
The Mad Scientist suddenly sat bolt upright. The isopterons were here, in Lunaria. They had come through his portals, and had been awoken by Artemis’ arrival. Because of him, they had to be practically everywhere by now. Everywhere he had allowed a portal to open. Was Lunaria now doomed?
He jumped to his feet, his mind racing as only his could. There was something Lunaria had, something that Solaria did not. There was a way to stop this, there was a WAY.
But there wasn’t a moment to lose.
Final Episode: The Deity of Solaria
December 2nd, 2017
Apollo could feel deep pride in his heart as he watched the denizens of Lunaria join together. The Corps, his Chosen, and every Waja that had gathered for the celebrations, from the oldest gray-nosed Divine down to the youngest pups; everywhere he looked he saw them fighting the isopteron swarm. Though some seemed squeamish, none were showing outright fear, though there had been one rather spectacular overreaction from his Chosen Divine Zarek. The infestation that had been discovered in the party meadow had been swiftly stamped out, and slowly the search was widening. The members of the Corps knew what to look for, and the Chosen were quickly learning. Nest after nest, bug after bug squashed, stamped, burned or—with growing frequency, particularly among the younger pups—eaten. He had been concerned at first, but Artemis had flatly assured him that the isopterons were edible.
“Bugs are bugs,” she had said. “In some places back home, these little beasts are the only food source left. You won’t find anyone admitting to it, but they’re easy pickings and choice is slim these days.”
It was several hours into the fight when Apollo finally took pause, the truth beginning to sink in. It seemed that not five minutes passed between reports of a newly discovered infestation, and each report was coming from further and further out. With each nest cleaned, two or three more were found. It had seemed impossible at first that there were so many. But Apollo had pieced it together over the past few hours from his talk with the Mad Scientist and hearing Artemis’ story. The isopteron population had been steadily building for years, deposited by the Scientist’s uncontrolled experimentation on portals. Apollo had never sensed the danger because the bugs had gone dormant on arrival, separated from the trigger that brought them to life. Now…
“You see it, don’t you?” came Artemis’ voice. Apollo turned towards her as she approached him, a humorless smile on her face. “You see what’s happening here, I can tell. It’s the same thing in Solaria. We have managed to stem the further destruction of the most populated islands that remain, but it is a fragile stalemate. They reproduce too fast.”
“Then maybe just killing them isn’t the right way to fight them,” Apollo said. “We know they’ve been here for a while causing no harm. Maybe the answer isn’t just to outright wipe them out, but find a way to put them back into their dormant state.”
Artemis narrowed her eyes, glaring at Apollo.
“I know I made a mistake coming here. But there is no stopping them. If there was a way, I would have found it by now. But…”
Both Apollo and Artemis turned. To Apollo’s surprise, the Mad Scientist was running towards them, his clothes torn and splattered with mud, gasping for breath. It could not have been clearer that he had run the entire way from the Murky Forest. He staggered to a halt in front of them, clutching his sides and spluttering as he tried to continue to speak.
“I…think…there’s a way,” he gasped. “One…thing…Lunaria has…that Solaria didn’t.”
“I know! The Pear Tree!” Artemis snarled. “I killed it and doomed us all. And you have a poor sense of self-preservation if you are thinking of trying to rub that in now.”
“N…no. Not…not the Pear Tree.” The Mad Scientist took a long deep breath. “Apollo.”
Artemis froze, glancing from the Scientist to Apollo and back again. Apollo shrugged a shoulder, as baffled as she was.
“The Pear Tree is the life of Lunaria, but it is the chosen deity that defends it,” the Mad Scientist continued. “Solaria didn’t have a deity like Lord Apollo before, did it?”
“What are you talking about?” Artemis snapped. “Solaria has me, and my Corps.”
“Yes, but you were created out of the power of Apollo’s feather,” the Mad Scientist insisted. “That’s the critical difference. And that, I think, is the answer to saving Lunaria.”
Apollo shook his head slightly, still confused. Artemis growled loudly. But the Scientist was not swayed. The same gleam of wild excitement from before was back on his face.
“The answer is you, Artemis,” he said excitedly. “Solaria did not have a deity before, but it does now! You were created into what you are now from Lord Apollo’s feather. You have Lord Apollo’s power! But what you don’t have that he does is the connection to the Pear Tree. Solaria’s Pear Tree is gone, but you still have Lunaria’s. Through Lord Apollo’s power, I believe you can form the same link with it. You will become a part of Lunaria. And the isopterons will no longer be able to sense you.”
Now he understood. Apollo smiled, nodding to the Mad Scientist. He turned to Artemis fully once more, slowly settling one of his paws over her and gently pressing down. Artemis’s expression melted from anger to confusion.
“When you first arrived here, you said that you could not sense Lunaria’s Pear Tree. But your power came from my feather, and my power comes from the Pear Tree. You can sense it, you just do not know what to feel for. Feel for her now. She will not begrudge you for what you did.”
Artemis’s gaze fell. For the first time, she looked genuinely frightened.
“I…I don’t…what does she feel like?”
The only witness to what happened next was the Mad Scientist, but the Chosen, the Corps, and all of the rest of the Wajas battling the isopterons sensed it. It felt as though the very land itself sighed softly, and in its wake, a moment of absolute silence fell. Then, one after the other, the hordes of tiny golden termites became dormant and still. Those Wajas watching them the closest would claim that the bugs displayed no hint of distress. They simply stopped eating, clustered together in the closest hidden crevice they could find, and ceased to move.
Cries of confusion and jubilation soon broke the silence. But the members of the Corps and the Chosen did not join in. They gathered as one in the clearing where they had last known Apollo and Artemis to be, finding only the Mad Scientist standing there. He smiled widely at their approach.
“A lovely day, isn’t it?” he said happily.
“Where is Lord Apollo?” Zarek asked.
“And Commander Artemis?” Naydra demanded.
“They will be back soon. There is just something they need to discuss.” He looked around, his head nodding slightly as his gaze moved over them one by one. “Hm, someone is missing.”
There was a brief pause as they looked amongst themselves.
“Andros isn’t here,” Anansi pointed out.
“Did anyone see which way he went?” Axiom asked.
“I heard him, but I didn’t see him.” Bellona looked around, and then gestured towards the north. “That way. He’s…”
But she paused. A winged Egyptian was flying towards them, trailing a comettail of dust in his wake. He landed with a thump, slumping onto his haunches. He was so covered in dust it was nearly impossible to discern the color of his coat.
“Lot of dust,” Jill pointed out.
“Are you alright?” Clarine asked.
Andros gave a half-snort, half-cough, and another cloud of dust floated into the air around him.
“I…really…HATE…isopterons,” he growled.
In the sacred grove of the Pear Tree of Lunaria, there was no hint of the coming winter. The tree’s leaves shimmered in brilliant color, and the sunlight was warm and bright. Apollo led Artemis forward, sitting down and gazing up into the tree’s canopy with a contented smile. Artemis hesitated.
“It’s alright,” Apollo assured. “She is a part of you now. It is time to say hello.”
In the presence of the Pear Tree, Artemis’s swagger was clearly subdued. But she soon approached, sitting down next to him. Apollo did not speak, allowing her the time she needed to think. Several minutes passed before her gaze finally turned from the tree back to him.
“It felt like an itch,” she said. “The isopterons. I could feel them like an itch under my skin. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t scratch deep enough to relieve it.”
“Do you feel them now?” Apollo asked.
“No. It’s gone.” Artemis sighed. “But I can still feel…what I did. That’s never going to go away.”
“There is still hope for Solaria, Artemis. You are the deity she needs.”
“But what can I do? My power can’t pull a broken world back together again.”
“No, but she can.”
Apollo gently brushed his paw over the ground, moving aside some of the fallen brown and green leaves. After a moment, he revealed a small shriveled pear-shaped seed. As Artemis watched, he dug a small hole into the earth with his other paw, brushed the seed into it, and covered it gently.
“When the spring sun melts the winter snow, this seed will sprout,” he explained. “You will take it to Solaria, and plant it where the old tree stood. It will be your duty to tend it. Help it to grow. I have faith that in time Solaria’s wounds will be healed.”
“I can’t do that. I can’t…is it even possible to grow one of these things from a seedling?”
“Of course it is.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because I grew this one.”
Artemis’s eyes widened in shock. Apollo chuckled.
“When the time comes, you will know what to do and how to do it,” he assured. “Trust me.” He shook his head, for he sensed Artemis was going to ask the obvious question. “Just trust me. You’ll know.” He looked up at the tree again. “I can’t promise this is the end of it. I cannot foresee the future. But I will do everything I can to help you, and Solaria. We will see her green again, you have my word.”
Artemis almost seemed to smile.
“And you have mine,” she said. “The Corps and I will always be there should you have need of us. Considering we have no idea how long it’s going to take to get another portal open, you’re stuck with us. So we might as well make ourselves useful.”
Apollo laughed, a genuine laugh that echoed merrily in the sacred grove.
“Well, I suppose if you wish to help, there is one thing. Not all of the celebrations have been interrupted. We have something much grander coming. If you and your Corps wish to assist, we would happily welcome you to the festivities.”
“And what sort of festivities is it?” Artemis asked.
“Come now, my friend. Have you not ever heard…” And to Artemis’ astonishment, Apollo shifted around and pulled a distinctive fuzzy red and white hat out of nowhere, setting it smartly between his ears. “…of Santa Apollo?”
Artemis blinked, and then blinked again as Apollo produced a second hat, the colors reversed, and offered it to her.
“Hmph,” she said, studying the hat warily. And then she took it from him, whipping it onto her own head. “Bring it on, old man!”