Aeons ago, when the star was still whole, and when humans expertly wielded the powers of creation…
Azem jumped out from a shaking treehouse, away from the path of a vengeful wind elemental. The house was seconds later ripped up, shattered, and carried to the gray sky in the wind. The furball creatures held under Azem's arms shrieked as the tornado uprooted their home. The air elemental within the vortex only grew stronger. The devoured wood fueled its unhinged rampage through the treehouses, and at this rate it would sweep over the entire village, killing helpless furry mogloids by the dozens.
If I’m not quick, Azem thought, not only will these fae creatures lose their village, but the mess will take ages to clear, and I will be late from Emet-Selch’s ceremony!
Resolute to be as fast as possible, Azem carried the furry creatures across a river to a safe distance away. The mogloids watched in awe as the hero dove back into the tornado, and inconceivably began wrestling with it. The wind vortex billowed and the elemental screamed.
Never before had the mogloids seen such a thrilling contest. The wind elemental was defeated in no more time than it would take to eat an apple. The wind subsided, and Azem rose from the aftermath, robes tattered and head spinning. The furballs cheered and stuck to their savior’s limbs like barnacles. Before Azem could get their head to stop spinning, the mogloids were pulling them along, insisting on crafting the hero a gift. Having missed the chance to refuse, Azem politely waited for the furball artesan to engrave the token of appreciation.
There was barely enough time left, and Azem hurriedly set flight towards Amaurot. They flew over verdant fields of flowers and rolling hills like oceans, mind set on their home beyond the horizon. But the focus wavered, and Azem’s attention was caught by a creature amidst the flowers. The creature was waving animatedly, in distress. All right, thought Azem, I will only make sure the creature is in no immediate danger, but no more, else I will really be late…
The freshly appointed Emet-Selch had long grown weary of accepting the cordial congratulations of his old colleagues.
The high-ceilinged debate parlor was dimly lit orange and blue for the occasion held in his honor. Sounds of Convocation members and dozens of Amaurotines engaged in conversation filled the space.
Emet-Selch sipped down the last remaining drops in his tall glass.
A former colleague from the Bureau of the Architect was currently slathering him in praise. Emet-Selch’s masterwork had left him speechless initially, but no more, as the words of reverence were neverending.
“I was impressed by the difficult subject you chose,” the former colleague, an old man, told Emet-Selch. He was in a dreadfully good mood.
“It was to be my final personal work—I might not get another chance. Best to go out with a spectacle to remember,” Emet-Selch said.
“And what a spectacle it was!” the former colleague exclaimed. “A constructed river that reflects the souls of the dead! I myself am not adept in the sight, but peering under its churning depths, even I could see glimpses of the free souls under. It was revelatory to see into the afterlife for the first time.”
“Thank you very much,” Emet-Selch said. He had heard similar praise in abundance today. His face was stiff from smiling since the crack of dawn. Through the ordeal he had come to the morbid realization that he could stand there until he grew old and wrinkly, and there would still be someone new left to congratulate him.
“I take it you have an opinion on the intended statement?” Emet-Selch asked, duty-bound to offer an opportunity for the old man to share his thoughts.
“It seemed quite the bold statement to me. As a crowning display for your ascension, you allowed the waters to flow free from the restraint of the river. The never before seen window to the lifestream was destroyed the same day it was revealed to the public. A statement of honor—we have the means to look, but choose not to. The dead have been given the rest they deserve.”
“A discerning analysis,” Emet-Selch said with a nod. In addition to the practical applicability of it, his goal from the start had been to arrange a meaningful event. A once in a lifetime spectacle the Amaurotines present would not forget easily. He had succeeded on both accounts. And not only that, according to many, he had far exceeded the high expectations.
Yet somehow, an evening’s length later, he was already tired of hearing about it.
Contribution to the star was his life’s work. He had every reason to be pleased for one evening, before new duties as Emet-Selch warranted his attention. So it was irrational to the extreme that he found himself to be, currently, somewhat irritated.
In the end, a certain someone had not been there to see his masterwork.
The ceremony of him assuming the seat had almost gone as it should. All Convocation members were expected to be present, and all were, except for one. So, there the thirteen of them had sat, in awkward silence, waiting for the certain someone to turn up. Lahabrea, ever the stickler for rules, had proposed to postpone the oath to another day, so that the ever tardy one may attend. But Hades had insisted they not wait—they may wait forever.
Thoughts disturbed by irritation and heart clouded with betrayal, he took the vows and became Emet-Selch.
His colleague seemed to have decided on another topic. “For one as righteous as yourself,” he went on, “I hoped for your advice on a certain matter."
Emet-Selch raised his eyebrows, wondering where the old man hoped to get with flattery.
"The Bureau was submitted a report concerning a set of creations about to go extinct." The former colleague shook his head. "A crying shame. They are two symbiotic species, a sheep and a shepherd, and they were revolutionary at the time of their approval.”
“I remember, yes. A diverting problem I’m sure, but my station has changed. Isn't there someone more suitable?”
“Absolutely not, your bottomless wisdom is without peer."
"I have additional responsibilities now."
"Very well, but let me just say this: The creators of these threatened species have returned to the star, satisfied with their work. To have their life’s work go extinct so soon, when the reasons are unclear," he leaned closer, "don’t you find that unjust?”
As the former colleague prattled away, Emet-Selch scanned through the masked crowd for his more loyal friend. He did so with minimal movement, counting on the old man to be distracted enough by his own voice. A good distance away, a rowdy group of accomplished Amaurotines was being entertained by Hythlodaeus. He raised his head then, and their eyes met across the crowd. Emet-Selch hoped Hythlodaeus would take his forced smile as the urgent plea for help that it was.
“Ah, director,” the dreadful ex-colleague said to the approaching Hythlodaeus. He had come upon yet another glass of festive drink. “I was hoping to debate with you. We have a void on our hands, now that the soon-accomplished Emet-Selch has graduated the Bureau.”
“Indeed,” Hythlodaeus said and smiled amicably. “This should be discussed, and discussed in detail, but no sooner than tomorrow. The hero of the hour could use some rest, hmm? You must be quite exhausted by now, shaking hands and accepting congratulations from dawn to dusk.”
“Not at all…” Emet-Selch said. He no longer had the energy to dodge instead of outright lying.
“Perfectly right,” the old man caught on and followed Hythlodaeus’ lead. “The entirety of Amaurot has benefitted from your marvelous contributions today. It would not be in our best interest to delay you any longer.”
The two left the celebrations behind. Hythlodaeus had done an admirable job getting them out of the grand debate room. On the way out, every single guest had wanted the final word with Emet-Selch. But firmly and politely, Hyhlodaeus had rejected them all.
The great stone hallways of the administrative building echoed as the two escaped through them.
“So easily exhausted,” Hythlodaeus said as they walked. “Does a seat in the Convocation come with a thousand years of old age to sweeten the deal?”
“Has the drink gone to your head and made you forget your own age?” Emet-Selch said. “The parlor trick of opening a door to the lifestream took considerable amounts of aether. A lesser man would have died on the spot from the exertion.”
“Clearly! Few could match your florid display, as well as your arrogance in expending so much. You were a sight to behold then, a marvelous sorcerer for sure.”
“Not you too. Subject me to one more word of praise and first thing in the morning I will resign.”
“My praise is a sought after commodity, especially now that the Bureau is mostly mine to manage…” At that, Hythlodaeus sighed. “Well, I shall just do what I can, and no more. I hope you will do the same.”
Outside, the luminescent sky of the summer night was blue, peach and pink. The sparse purple clouds drifted so high up they appeared to not be moving at all, like a domed ceiling painted brightly. The high tide had brought ocean water to the tidal river Anyder, the salty smell in the inland city a sign of a night fallen.
Hythlodaeus seemed to consider something, and gave him a side-eyed look.
“I’m sure Azem did not mean to miss your oath,” he said.
“Don’t. There’s nothing to discuss.”
“It won’t do you good to dwell.”
“Oh, I don’t intend to. Come the morning, I will be Emet-Selch, and things like this shall be too small to enter my notice.”
Hythlodaeus conceded a silent defeat and did not push. The two exchanged farewells and promises to meet again soon, and parted ways.
Alone at last, Emet-Selch felt at peace for only a few footfalls. Soon his troubled thoughts, ever only two steps behind, caught up.
Why could he not stop thinking?
Of the oath. Of a certain troublesome absentee. The morning could not come soon enough—hopefully bringing with it so much work that he’d never be idle enough to think about anything besides. Busy beyond belief, just like the troublemaker. These days, even Hythlodaeus was needed in so many places, seemingly at once, that the two of them could only speak fleetingly, or about work.
Emet-Selch grimly wondered what had possessed him to expect anything better from Azem. Even at the best of times, relationships were an ephemeral thing. Two ships passing each other in the night. He had been a fine fool to waste time on this particular one. And more the fool for assuming it would last forever.
In time he may come to terms with how Azem had first made no end of trouble for him, endlessly and every day, and then left him behind. In time.
He stomped down Amaurot’s streets, glad nobody was there to see his face. His thoughts always spiraled back to the fiasco of the oath, no matter how much he tried to redirect them towards the future of Amaurot. He was distracted. So it was to his surprise and ultimate horror when a person draped in dark robes and a red mask jumped from a building and landed hunched in front of him.
The slab stoned street buckled and dust billowed.
Azem raised their head.
“H-Hades…” they said from the hole in the pavement, “I’m sorry I missed your oath. I tried to make it.”
Emet-Selch wiped dust from his dark robes, ears ringing. “It’s Emet-Selch now, as you know, refer to me as you should.”
Azem rose from the dust occluded crater, avoiding eye contact, and took a wise step back.
Gloriously too late, Azem had come. Emet-Selch's mood fouled.
"Sorry, Emet-Selch…” they said, “I sent word ahead that I would be at your ceremony, and I intended to be, but you won’t believe the strange thing that happened on the way! A single gobblin–”
“Stop”, Emet-Selch interrupted. “At this rate I shall indeed not believe a word you say.” He placed two fingers to his forehead and took a few deliberate breaths. “I can’t imagine you returned all this way only to miss my appointment? What other obligations do you have?”
Azem fiddled with their hands. “Ah. Wish I had none, but unfortunately a few await me. And after dealing with them I must soon leave the city again. A few weeks of rest. Some festering problems in the far north seem to not care whether my break was all too short or not.”
Emet-Selch’s remaining joviality evaporated. Though it was a small miracle how some had remained all the way to this point.
Azem seemed to wait for him to reply, but Emet-Selch couldn’t find his tongue. Azem filled the silence and continued. “Congratulations, Emet-Selch. The moment a word reached me that the Convocation was finally considering you for the office I sent them my approval! Nobody would suit the seat better.”
Emet-Selch sighed. “Spare me. I have heard similar praise enough to last a lifetime, all in the span of one evening.”
Azem opened their mouth to continue, but Emet-Selch raised a hand to silence them. “Was that all?” he asked. “You should know, but I will be incredibly busy from today forward. Despite our now equal standing, I would not be surprised if this was the last we ever spoke outside of Convocation meetings. In fact, I think that might be for the best. Do not bother me, unless the fate of our star somehow depends on you ruining my day. What a tragedy, but such is life.” Emet-Selch thought he saw Azem flinch. Were they surprised their deeds had consequences, he wondered with scorn.
The color of Azem’s soul turned sorrowful. “You must be very tired,” Azem said. “I’m happy I could congratulate you despite being late. And, umh… I did have one more thing: Where does Hythlodaeus live these days?”
“It does not surprise me that you don’t know. He lives opposite bank of the river now, in the Tellis Pylades house. I’m sure you’ll find him like you found me, though maybe reconsider the meteorite approach and let the man sleep.”
He thought it pertinent to drive home just how badly Azem had failed today, so he gave them the coldest of wordless glares. He noticed Azem’s dark robes were tattered and dusty, proof of some trouble they had gone through to get here. But whatever their reason for being late, he found that he did not care to hear it.
In response to his glare, a sad smile curved Azem's mouth, for reasons unknown.
Realizing he really couldn't guess Azem's thoughts gave him pause. At one point in time Emet-Selch had thought he knew this person. That he could know their feelings and intentions, and share honesty and camaraderie with them. He wasn’t sure he could anymore. It stung now, but he would eventually forget and move past this all. In time.
Emet-Selch walked past Azem, taking some dark joy in being the first one to leave.Azem might have stayed behind in stunned silence, or left right away, he did not turn around to find out.
He could, however, be sure that Azem had not thought to fix the hole in the pavement.
Azem knocked on Hythlodaeus’ lamplit door. He had not gone to bed yet, and the surprise waiting behind his front door seemed to drive away all sleepiness.
“Hythlodaeus!" Azem sobbed, and scooped Hythlodaeus up into a tight hug. They squeezed with extra force to make up for all the time apart. "I missed you so much! Every pink flower in the meadows and every cotton candy cloud in the sky made me think of you! Did you receive my letters?”
Hythlodaeus sounded like he was choking, so Azem hastily set him down. Years worth of affectionate hugs were not meant to be dispensed all at once. Azem looked their dear friend up and down. Hythlodaeus was robed and masked, appropriately dressed to open the door in the dark of the night.
“I’ve longed to see your face!” Azem said. “Won’t you show it to me?”
“Heavens, aren’t you bold,” Hythlodaeus said with a laugh in his voice. “Asking me to undress before we’ve even closed the door?” In good humor Hythlodaeus closed the door, and removed his mask. Smile scrunched up the corners of his eyes.
Without much thought, Azem gave a peck on his cheek.
“An assault, truly!” Hythlodaeus said. ”Maimed and then taken advantage of? What have your travels done to you, dear friend?”
He paused to study Azem, and brushed dust off their shoulder. “Judging by your letters, not all of your adventures were pleasant.”
Azem matched their friend’s smile. “Where do I start? Do you have time tomorrow? I have so many things I want to tell you that a single evening will only be enough to recount the highlights.”
“No need to limit yourself! You can have monopoly on all my evenings for as long as you are in Amaurot, so much I have missed your sunny self! Hades should be delighted, though he was a bit cross you missed his oath of office.”
“Ah…” Azem’s heart sank. “I met him. He was …not delighted. Sounded like he’d prefer to never see me again. I should have stayed away if it was going to be like this.” Azem attempted a smile, but it probably fell short of the real thing. “Maybe I’ll just forgo my off-weeks and depart tomorrow. We’d not see each other for a few years, and he’d be glad for it.”
“Oh, no! You can’t allow him to hole up in Emet-Selch’s office and fester and sour there like a dead fish. All of Amaurot will suffer if his mood gets any worse.”
Hythlodaeus took Azem’s hand and brushed it with his thumb.
“I’m needed at the Bureau first thing in the morning," he said, "but we must talk in the evening, friend. It might be best if you avoid Hades until then. Gods know he will avoid you.”
Azem fell asleep on Hythlodaeus’ couch, and the night turned into morning.
The two ate a simple breakfast of fruits and vegetables from Hythlodaeus' garden, exchanged farewells in front of the house, and separated for the day.
Azem desperately needed something to do. Otherwise, they’d be idle while waiting for Hythlodaeus to finish his important managerial duties, and idleness was the dread enemy of an able body.
White and fluffy clouds wandered the bright blue sky. Sunlight bounced on the window glasses and metal decorations of the tall buildings.
The temperature was just right, as it always was in Amaurot.
The climates of the fifty-four cities were precisely controlled. Be it summer or winter, the temperature was always perfect for wearing their customary robes. Rainy days were scheduled months in advance, so that nobody would be caught unaware. It was very organized, and to be honest, Azem thought it all a little dull. Oh, what they wouldn’t do to see Amaurotines struggling to move through powdery piles of snow, sweating under their stuffy robes, or holding on to their masks in a stormwind. Hades would hate it.
Azem crossed the river near the center of the city, around the same area where they had found Emet-Selch last night. Azem could not help but look around for him, just in case, but instead they noticed an Amaurotine kneeling to fix a broken crater in the pavement.
“What happened here?” Azem asked.
“Oh, Azem!” the Amaurotine seemed surprised and straightened herself. "The street has been damaged overnight. I’ve yet to find out how this came to be, but all the same it ought to be fixed.”
“Dreadful, who would do such a thing?” Azem exclaimed. “What if a familiar trips and falls inside? If it’s okay, let me help.”
“If you insist, though you must be very busy?"
“For once, I have all the time in the world,” Azem said, kneeling down to stack broken slabs back into the crater.
The sun had climbed many degrees higher when Azem at last reached their destination. They settled to wait in line at the Estate Manager’s building.
After a short wait, Azem’s name was called. From behind the counter, a clerk peered at Azem with sparkling eyes. “As I live and breathe, Azem in flesh! Last I heard, your esteemed self was on the other side of the star."
“You’re making me sound like some natural wonder,” Azem replied, trying not to show embarrassment. “I only arrived yesterday, but it’s lovely to be back and see that nothing has changed. Except for, well, one essential thing has—I don’t know where my apartment was relocated in the last lottery. Do you know its address?”
In order to keep everyone’s living conditions absolutely equal, Amaurotines held lotteries to rotate the residential houses and apartments. Every ten years. Azem had been traveling when the last lottery had occurred. As well as the one before that, too.
“It’s my job to know every address,” the clerk said, puffing up with pride. They summoned a ledger to their hand with a calm spin of the wrist.
“I just pray the house is a small one,” Azem said, anxiously waiting for the clerk to flip through the ledger. “The last time I got a house with a garden, the crops did not survive long. I haven’t had the face to go see if the new resident managed to make them bear fruit again. I can’t forget the tomatoes there… When I first moved in, the tomatoes were pristinely red and sweet, but a few years later nothing about them was pristine.”
“Then it seems like you are in luck,” the clerk said. “You have a regular apartment in the Medios Hekaline building. Nearly the top floor. I hope it suits your needs?”
“Blessed be the gods of lottery, it does!”
Azem walked through Amaurot in the breezy sunny day. Irregular reflections from the buildings speckled the pavement, like holes in foliage would cast specks on a forest floor.
Azem was carrying a human’s weight in cargo boxes from the Estate Office. The clerk had mentioned they were going to make a delivery, and Azem had insisted they’d take the boxes to the intended destination on the way. Azem was free, and the clerk was busy. Really, it is no trouble at all , Azem had said. Thanks to the detour, their walk to the new apartment took longer.
They took the elevator to the 39th floor in the Medios Hekaline, and entered their lottery-assigned door.
The first thing Azem noticed was what a great view the balcony had.
Sunlight filled the white and bronze room. In the distant horizon, the moisture in the air clouded the blue landscape, indicating the presence of the ocean out of sight.
Azem’s few personal possessions had already been brought into the new apartment, by some poor soul. Though few in number, Azem still had more personal property than many Amaurotines. Usually, if an item was worth owning, it was to be made a public concept that anyone could have. But Azem’s curiosities held little academic import.
The collection of junk was priceless in Azem's eyes.
The hoard held a blue pebble from a distant azure beach, there was a split-off tooth of a skyworm, and even a strange mummified finger that crawled around like an inchworm. Items of curiosity and memory that held true value only to Azem.
They placed the latest acquisition on an empty shelf; the mogloids had gifted Azem a bulbous stone vase, lovingly engraved with imagery of Azem wrestling the wind elemental. The carvings were not all that skillful, but they represented the creatures’ gratitude, and Azem couldn’t help but smile.
Maybe Altima’s Hall would be interested in the strange container? It was technically art.
They left the vase’s future undecided, and hoped it would meanwhile offset the apartment’s vacant atmosphere. Hythlodaeus often said that spatial balance was important, though Azem was uncertain what that meant, aside from a floor being tilted.
This brand new space, though beautiful, was horribly still and solitary. It held no memories for Azem. Not that the previous apartment did either. In the past when Azem, Hades and Hythlodaeus met, they preferred to meet at Hades’ house. In his own home Hades had nowhere to run, so they could revel until the morning with no fear of Hades getting fed up and leaving.
A faded memory pulled Azem away from the room. To another very similar room, the memory of it transparent and frayed.
A memory of a night Hades and Azem had never acknowledged afterwards.
During the wild days of their schooling, in the evenings the three of them used to get together. Whether it was for reasons mundane or fun, they used to tackle them with equal excitement.
One evening, the time had slipped their mind. Hythlodaeus had already crashed to sleep on Hades' couch, curled up like a cat after a good dinner. Azem had suggested there was enough room in Hades' bed for two to sleep a night, and Hades had not protested. During the night that followed, Azem had woken up from a dream, the content of it long forgotten. In the dark, they had found that they had been gently held by the sleeping Hades. Azem grimaced at the memory, for they had also been holding on to his robes. Back then Azem was unaccustomed to sleeping outdoors, where wild animals would rejoice in attacking an unaware prey. Untrained as they were, Azem would not have noticed if Hades had rolled closer, and intentionally caged them in his arms. But it was also possible Azem was the culprit. Maybe they had unintentionally pulled Hades into a slightly too intimate embrace?
The memory had never left Azem—the uncertainty of it troubled them to this day. They were not sure if Hades remembered. The two of them had never spoken about the embarrassing breach of friendly boundaries afterwards. Somehow, the mere idea of speaking about the night made Azem’s head swim and hands sweat.
The sound of glass shattering brought them back from the memory. They rushed out of the room. In front of the elevator doors, a neighbor had dropped specimen jars all over the shared hallway. The multicolor plant seedlings were spread all over the floor, and some were even crawling away towards permanent freedom.
“Azem!” the neighbor became even more flustered when he saw the red Convocation mask. “Excuse me, I will get this sorted i-immediately.”
“It’s alright, don’t worry. Seems like your cargo is the running away sort,” Azem said and squatted to catch a wriggling plant with their hands.
It took them a good while to re-capture everything. After being profusely thanked, Azem decided to return early to wait for Hythlodaeus. On the walk back through the city, Azem avoided the centrum with the many Bureau buildings Emet-Selch might conceivably work at. It also served the double purpose of avoiding the other Convocation members. Azem had not forgotten the Convocation expected them to finish a report or two.
They had barely finished the thought when a studious Amaurotine approached them on the street. The scholar was conducting a survey, and it sounded like a lot of work, so Azem offered to gather responses with them. After all, it would have been a shame not to, when they had all the time in the world.
When Hythlodaeus returned home in the afternoon, he found Azem elbow deep in the garden soil.
“By Byregot’s pants, what are you doing?” he exclaimed. “What has my garden done for you to uproot it?”
“Welcome home!” Azem said, shielding their eyes from the setting sun. “I’ve revitalized the soil. And, you’ll be surprised, some poison sumac has started growing under your raspberries. I thought I’d move it into pots so it won’t suck the life out of anything else.”
“It’s scarlet moko grass, it is supposed to grow there!”
“There? What, under the raspberry? Why would it grow in the shade?”
“It’s a new variety!” Hythlodaeus said, exasperated. “Or, well, it’s been around, but come to think of it you haven’t done much gardening lately.”
“… I thought…” Azem said, and in light of this shocking news examined the devastation in the garden. “Oh. Hmm. To think botany has changed this much since my childhood… I really thought I could help your garden grow.”
Hythlodaeus coughed. “If it’s any consolation, no plant would dare to not grow after being exposed to your aetherial reserves. As well as your determination to destroy all that is green. But, it’s okay. Actually, I think if we bring the moko grass inside, the garden might have room for something new. I’ll help you.”
Hythlodaeus squated next to Azem and conjured fresh soil for the half-potted scarlet grass. Azem sighed, and shoveled soil back into the holes they had just dug.
“I’m surprised your raid on my garden hadn’t progressed further,” Hythlodaeus said.
“I only got back just now.” Azem replied honestly. “I walked, did some odd tasks, and after getting back I needed something to do; your garden was my chosen victim.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve always been happy to be one of your chosen victims.” he laughed. “Odd tasks? What about your well deserved rest?”
“This is rest for me! And it was so little it’s barely worth a mention. Fixing, carrying, cleaning and a field survey, why would I not lessen someone else’s burden if I can?”
“Is it not rather much for one single person? To always help when someone in need enters your sightline…”
“Nonsense, I like it. What else would I even do? Not like I'll deprive Amaurot of problems by helping with a few.”
Hythlodaeus glanced at Azem with a strange expression. “Well, I concede the point,” he said. “Did you manage to avoid Emet-Selch? Last I saw, he was still sulking.”
Azem’s hands lost their purpose mid scoop. “He’s punishing me, and I think I deserve it.”
“What? No! It is not your fault he has chosen to brood and avoid you. I saw him today, but oh, how decidedly he changed the topic when I mentioned you. Three whole times!”
Hythlodaeus shoveled ground into a hole with decided and fast movements. “What, does he think you will stay around to wait for his tantrum to end? I can’t bear to watch you two fight the small sliver of time we have together.”
“You are being too harsh.”
“Exactly as harsh as both of you deserve. Well. I hope your day was good at least?”
“It was, really, but…” Azem had not made much progress in fixing the upheaved garden, and again their hands stilled. “...I think something is off with me. I had a good day, but it didn’t feel like anything. Amaurot is my home. I longed to be back every day, but now that I finally am, it was joyless. When I was traveling, riding over mountains of sand or through fields of ice, the warm memories of home gave me strength. To make even the impossible decisions with only losing answers to choose from.”
Hythlodaeus was listening intently, and with the floodgates open Azem kept going.
“You know? In times of doubt, when it felt like I couldn’t tell right from wrong, I used to imagine what Hades would say. Things like ´you can’t fight a volcano, be sensible´ or ´hastiness is for chocobos, and you are not a chocobo´. I should have told him when I had the chance, because now he won’t even mention me.”
“Told him… what?” Hythlodaeus repeated, and Azem felt like a bug under his knowing purple gaze.
"That I… Um. Hm."
Hythlodaeus hummed, the color of his soul bright and curious. Azem’s ears heated up. No doubt Hythlodaeus too could see Azem’s warm feelings dye the color of their soul, despite the words having been swallowed.
“H…Hyth… Please don’t tell him," Azem’s voice came out squeaky.
Hythlodaeus shook his head. ”So that’s what this all is about? If your years away helped you realize this, then I’d say those years were worth it! Yes, sure, the enormous contributions to Etheirys have also been worth it, but I am incredibly biased in your favor.”
Azem buried their head in the raspberry bush. Hythlodaeus had caught on so easily—Azem’s trust in their own powers of deception and subterfuge was shattered.
“Hades likes to be dramatic, don’t mind him,” Hythlodaeus said teasingly, his expression hidden by the raspberry. “You just have to make amends, in the sort of way he will understand.”
“Have I not ruined it already? He will not ascend to Emet-Selch a second time. I apologized, and he did not want to hear it. What more is there to be done, if there is something I don’t know of it…”
“Is this not a chance to dive into the unknown? Don’t you thrive on the chance to experience the never-seen-before, and love the danger and the risk? When have possible negative outcomes ever gotten greater weight in your mind? You can do it, you can surmount the insurmountable, you can win Emet-Selch’s love and favor!”
Azem threw a fistful of earth at Hythlodaeus. “Gods, be quiet!!! ”
“Hey!” Hythlodaeus yelled back. “I may not be an angel of truth of Hades' calibre, but can you say I'm wrong? Azem of bold and brave deeds?”
“Bravery won’t get me through this, unless you think punching Hades is the answer? Against him I am powerless…”
“Haa! On that matter you are mistaken! There happens to be a certain sophisticated martial art of punching that will be the heaven sent solution to your troubles. And I happen to be a master.”
Azem dared to peek out of the raspberry bush.
“I call it the…” Hythlodaeus paused dramatically, “the Art of Pestering !”
Azem’s mouth hung aghast, unable to be closed.
Hythlodaeus scooted closer and grabbed Azem’s hands to shake them. “With these hands you can show him you are sorry, and tell him the things you regret not telling! He will forget his anger once you give him a couple of these figurative punches! How about it? Do you accept my tutelage?”
Azem had gone limp, Hythlodaeus’ enthusiasm shaking them figuratively and physically.
Thank you for reading the first chapter! ♡ I'm forever and ever grateful for comments!
I have so many questions about the way the ancients civ worked
All evening and all night Azem spoke with Hythlodaeus. They shared stories, gossiped about things that should not be gossiped about, and made light of things that were too serious to take seriously. Without Hades to hold the reins, the two of them were out of control. And, Azem thought they might feel happy to be home after all.
When the sun rose, Hythlodaeus walked Azem to one of the Convocation’s many buildings, waved goodbye and wished Azem the best of luck. Looking back over their shoulder, Hythlodaeus’ smiling form in the shade of a tree was somewhat reminiscent of how Miss Venat used to see them off, back when she still held the seat.
The large public doors of Akademia Anyder were half open in welcome, so Azem sneaked through with a clear conscience. Though they had been sent spiraling from shock and mortification yesterday, today they were the picture of determination. They had a mission, and they had a plan.
Azem was going to ask for Emet-Selch’s help with their overdue report.
The dreaded report was expected to detail the final leg of Azem’s latest travels. They had intended to get it done first thing after getting home, but after returning to Amaurot, finishing it had felt impossibly hard. Whether it was to Loghrif, Mitron or Halmarut that Azem presented their findings and thoughts to, they always commented the reports were either not objective, jumped to conclusions, or didn’t cite sources properly—the complaints were endless. It was not like Azem enjoyed making trouble for them. But it was just that, Azem didn’t know how to convey the rich details of their journey otherwise. How had Miss Venat managed it?
Luckily, Azem knew Emet-Selch was liable to give in to requests.
It was shrewd, maybe, but would he deign to spend time with Azem otherwise? According to Hythlodaeus, the thing Emet-Selch needed was time to think. But with Azem’s fast approaching trip north, they were pressed for time. Azem would force him to think by being in his presence. This way, maybe the next time Azem offered apologies for being late to the oath, he might even listen.
Up a gr and elevator, through many hallways, casually peering into archival rooms, Azem squinted to follow the faint glow of Emet-Selch’s aether through ceilings and walls. The distinct hue of it was clearly visible and familiar. Sometimes, in moments of weakness during their travels, Azem had liked to imagine they could see him. That they could distinguish his distant soul’s grumpy color far in the horizon, twinkling like a northern star. Compared to those flights of fantasy, tracking him this close was delightfully easy.
In a windowless chamber too dark to read in, Azem found two brightly shining souls. Emet-Selch was speaking with Igeyorhm, the two surrounded by many scampering archivists.
“To return to the problem of the rhetoric for a bit,” Azem heard Emet-Selch say, “Although it currently has no sound basis, you don’t think the base idea is rooted in intuition, with a grain of truth behind it?”
Azem stayed their step in the doorway. He seemed busy.
“No, I do not,” Igeyorhm replied, sounding bristly. “Isolated instances should not be– no, it’s not this one–” an archivist was offering her a tome to examine, and she waved them away. “Where was I? Yes, isolated instances can’t be directly extrapolated, Emet-Selch.”
“Your worry for the integrity of my method is touching, though unnecessary." Azem could hear the eye-roll in Emet-Selch’s voice. “Certainly, no inappropriate extrapolation is underway. I’m surveying the possible angles of study.”
Another archivist approached Igeyorhm. “No, not this one either, try again,” she said, then responded to Emet-Selch with increased annoyance. “You asked for my opinion and you have heard it. To be completely frank, I wouldn’t have expected you to disregard a senior’s advice on your first day .”
“Nothing of the sort, oh illustrious senior,” Emet-Selch said. “I only suspect that, due to having your hands full, you have not had enough time to contemplate my query. I shall endeavor to present it to you more fully formed next time.”
An archivist approached Igeyorhm from between bookshelves with warranted timidness. Igeyorhm took a look at their offerings. “Finally, this is the one,” she said, taking the book and surveying her path to the exit, only to meet Azem’s gaze. “I must continue my day,” she said, “and seems like someone else wants your attention anyway.”
Emet-Selch’s expression was unreadable when he turned to look at Azem in the doorway.
“Azem,” Igeyorhm said on the way out, “Loghrif was looking for you. She is very keen to receive your report.”
“She is? I’m glad she is looking forward to it,” Azem lied.
Emet-Selch was suddenly very interested on an archival shelf labeled `87b: K`, and was decidedly not looking at Azem when they walked closer.
“What are you working on?” Azem asked. “Glad I don’t have to make sense of it—it sounded complicated.”
“It is,” Emet-selch said. He picked up a book from the shelf, and leafed through it.
“It… is, huh?” Azem paused to give Emet-Selch time to reply, but he said nothing. “You even needed Igeyorhm’s help? That bad?”
Azem waited for him to speak, but again, he didn’t.
“Since she seemed to be needed elsewhere,” Azem continued, “in her stead, maybe I could help?”
“I doubt it.” Emet-Selch slammed the tome shut, and scanned down the shelf, searching for some other record.
Azem tailed after him. “Hythlodaeus wanted to ask if you would join us this evening? We were going to catch up, share stories, and maybe even play some cards.”
Emet-Selch had stopped to examine another shelf, this one labeled ´87c: E´. “Afraid I’m busy. Send him my apologies.”
And no apology for me?
“Well, that’s a shame,” Azem said. “I had many stories I hoped to share with you, and it’s not like I’m going to be completely free for the rest of my stay in Amaurot, who knows if I’ll have time later…”
Emet-Selch huffed a dry laugh. “Did you actually need something?”
Yes! You have waltzed into my trap , Azem triumphed internally. “Oh, I don’t know, I might–”
“Leave me be if not.”
“No, I do! You see, I’m stumped; my travel report has not come together as well as I’d hoped."
Emet-Selch hummed and took another book from a shelf. Azem hoped he was listening, and went on. "I suspect some parts of the report might be too convoluted. I’m not sure how to fix them. Last time Loghrif really struggled to make sense of my thoughts—I don’t think she would be very happy to go through the trouble again.”
Emet-Selch grimaced. "What’s this? You are not some unwitting apprentice anymore, you are the one and only Azem. Surely you know how to write a simple travel log?”
Azem was not actually sure they could, but if this was indeed a fistfight, then this was a malicious uppercut that should be blocked. “I lived three eventful years at the village my report concerns,” Azem said, “I might erroneously take very unusual things for granted. If only someone would offer me a second opinion…” They trailed off, expectantly looking at Emet-Selch.
He let out an offended grunt. “Gods bellow, I told you I’m busy!” The book in his hand was shoved back into the shelf with unwarranted roughness.
“But…? Never too busy to help a colleague out?” Azem ventured. “You can just accompany me to lunch and keep your ears open while I think out loud. It would be a huge help!”
“Lunch at this hour? You really have let loose.”
“A nourished body is fit to host a nimble mind.”
Emet-Selch finally looked at Azem, just so that he could scowl in judgment.
Cold yellow eyes under a red mask. Azem couldn’t put a finger on the jumbled emotions it awoke, to be harshly regarded by Hades through the slits in his mask. Something all too enthusiastic and fragile made Azem want to flinch and avert their eyes.
Thrive on risk and danger, Hythlodaeus had said. Azem steeled their nerves, held a steady gaze, and crafted their most luminous smile for Emet-Selch to enjoy.
They held each other’s gaze for what felt like a minute. Emet-Selch broke the eye contact first, resorting to a heavy, full-body sigh. A decisive victory!
“Make it quick,” he said. “I haven’t got all day.”
The top floor eatery Azem took Emet-Selch to could be mistaken for a small jungle. The eatery was in a prime location: Through the windows you could see the Bureau’s many specialized buildings around the Aetheryte shard. A very industrious someone had chosen to conjure a little too much greenery to liven the place up. Birds, bugs and even small mammals had found the thick underbrush and liana draped trees to their liking, and now great many creatures lived atop a thirty-floor building in Amaurot like it was normal. Nature is amazing, Azem thought.
“Try the dragonfruit! I hear the ninth Lahabrea came up with the Twelve Greatwyrms after sampling it!”
Azem pushed a plate of sliced pink fruit in Emet-Selch’s direction, who was absorbed in studying a stack of archival writings. The paper pages were already curling in the humid air.
“With the Twelve Greatwyrms already invented, don’t see what inspiration I could gleam from this— ” Emet-Selch looked up, “ —this blindingly pink fruit.”
“Are you saying that tasting it wouldn’t be very… fruitful?”
Emet-Selch gaped at Azem in disbelief. “I see your travels have made you quite the wordsmith. You won’t be needing my help with the report then I presume?”
Azem only avoided inhaling the fruit all the way to their lungs thanks to decades of experience surviving dangerous situations. A figurative punch from Emet-Selch had just landed, and it demanded a fast counter, lest Azem be knocked out very early in the fight.
“I just thought,” Azem coughed, “that you’d benefit from additional inspiration. Your assignment must be multifaceted if you sought out Igeyorhm, the topmost authority on rhetoric.”
A bright red bird with a comically large beak was examining them from a tree above their table. Emet-Selch was glaring back at it. “It’s hardly an assignment when I chose it myself,” he said. “A former colleague from the Bureau entrusted me with a problem: a certain valley a day’s travel from Amaurot is about to go through a mass extinction. It has to do with resource dependency, which is a broad subject that should be understood in every situation. A fitting first work for the new Emet-Selch.” He shrugged and turned a curling page.
“Anything really goes for the seat of Emet-Selch, doesn’t it?”
“The root of this conundrum is in fear of death. This has everything to do with the afterlife.”
Azem smiled at the large red bird, and moved the plate of fruit closer in case it might want an easy meal. “Don’t feed the animals,” Emet-Selch muttered.
“I won't, I won't. I saw you borrowed some concept applications from the archive. Are they related?”
“In this case, yes.”
Azem craned their neck to look at the tome Hades was currently going through. “Kar.. Kara..?”
“The absolutely magnificent sheeplike creature? They are about to go extinct? When I leave the island I sometimes make the detour to see them. A perfectly round and fluffy animal really is the pinnacle of creation—I’m in awe of whomever created them.”
“Prized for their wool, milk, meat and bone, they are the perfect livestock. As if this was not enough, they are very easy to herd thanks to their incredibly low intelligence. No wonder the sheep and you get along.”
“Oh? More you the fool for studying the sheep.”
“Mmh… But well, the sheep are simpleminded, and now they are in danger of extinction. A new variety of the antelope concept was approved a decade ago, and they were set loose to wander the same valley the karakulite graze on. Presently, the grasses brown from overgrazing. The karakulite starve, pitifully losing the fight for food to the bigger antelope.”
“This is cataclysmic! Would people want to go on living in a world void of a sheep the shape of a perfect sphere?! Not sure if I would.”
“I’m astonished this is the one thing in the world capable of killing you, when nothing else has. But, some will indeed not be able to go on; a species with a humanoid appearance shepherd the karakulite. The two species were created to perfectly complement each other—an ideal symbiosis.”
“How could this have been overlooked,” Azem asked. “Why were the concepts approved and planted in the same valley? It does not sound like a mistake Words of Loghrif would make.”
“They should have known, but they did not,” Emet-Selch sighed. “Carnivorous animals in the valley scared the shepherds, and they allowed the karakulite sheep to breed until the sheep were too numerous for the valley’s plantlife to support. This localized calamity is caused by the actions of creatures that feared death and did not know any better.”
“Fear of death, the wish to propagate your species…” Azem wondered out loud. “Characteristics often seen in soul bearing creatures with short lifespans. Beneficial in the long run.”
Emet-Selch shrugged. “Thankfully, we are less restrained by such primitive needs. Imagine how little we would get done if we were busy propagating .”
“Really? Would it not be enriching? I would pay for the chance to see a dozen small copies of you, all equally grumpy, climbing on you as you try to work.”
“And I would pay for you to keep some of your thoughts private.”
They talked about Emet-Selch’s project at length. Midday shifted to afternoon. Azem had fetched more vibrant fruits for Emet-Selch to scoff at. So far, Azem’s execution of Hythlodaeus’ devious plan was going perfectly. If he claims to be too busy to see you outside of Convocation business, Hythlodaeus had said, then just make everything work related! He will have no hope of refusing.
With a plan and a goal, Azem had been ready. They had stocked up on smooth segues, convenient by-the-ways and, most importantly, questions that Emet-Selch could never resist deconstructing in extreme detail. To see the dead ends before they quelled the conversation, to keep it all so interesting that Emet-Selch wouldn’t think to leave, Azem felt like the battlefield was pulsing exactly as they hoped. Emet-Selch not noticing their game was a testament to Azem’s expertise.
The sunlight filtered through the jungle foliage, painting Emet-Selch’s robe light and dark like a piece of lovingly brushed artwork. At intervals, Azem was spellbound by him. They had seen countless deeply moving sights on their travels, but neither the crystalline astral waterfalls or the morning fog in a realm of the faeries could hold a candle to Hades.
Many more hours than what a normal lunch required passed. Finally, Emet-Selch stormed to the elevator after the large-beaked red bird flew down, seemingly planning to make a nest in his hair.
They had made it outside the building when Emet-Selch stopped mid-step. “You absolute little menace!” he said as the realization hit him. “You deliberately avoided the subject of your overdue report! `Just keep your ears open`, rat’s ass!”
Azem faked a look of surprise. “Oh, how strange, I completely forgot! There was just too much to discuss in one sitting.” A sunny smile was never amiss, so they flashed one. “You said you are busy the rest of the day, but maybe we can try again tomorrow? Maybe we can just sit in a park—the less distractions the better I think? The imminent evening rain might motivate me.”
Emet-Selch ran a hand through his hair. “What am I to do with you? Leaving aside your determination to disturb my work, you also seem to shirk your own responsibilities. Should I report your unwillingness to do the work you were entrusted with, and see if Lahabrea is as compassionate as I am?”
“Say what you want,” Azem took on a more serious expression, “but I refuse to do poorly the thing which I could do expertly, with a day or two of extra time! Please, your insights are invaluable!”
Emet-Selch huffed, and stayed silent.
Azem watched Emet-Selch focus somewhere far away, considering. Birds cawed overhead, and the Aetheryte shard rotated in the distance.
Any studious Amaurotine you came across would gladly volunteer to plough the fields for ten years, just for a small peek inside the prodigious young Emet-Selch’s razor-sharp mind. And in that moment, Azem especially wished such a violation of privacy were on the table.
Disappointingly, Emet-Selch turned to leave without a reply. His robes swished as he flicked his wrist dismissively, as a farewell.
“You get one more chance," he said.
Azem smiled. Though Emet-Selch was already walking away, they yelled words of gratitude at the retreating back.
His warning, Azem thought, might have been meant in more ways than one.
Hythlodaeus rattled a deck of cards a finger’s width from Azem’s ear, making them jump up in their seat and scatter their papers.
Azem yelped. “Why are you sneaking?”
“You dare ask?” Hythlodaeus sounded offended. “You dare to pour our scant shared time into that stack of papers? I’m hurt, I’m shocked, and at this rate I may even become… devastated.”
After the lunch with Emet-Slech, Azem had hurried across the river straight to Hythlodaeus’ front door. Without delay or pleasantries, Azem had scuttled upstairs into privacy. Suddenly, it hadn’t felt so impossible to finish the overdue report. The final few incidents of their journey—days spent at a rat-infested lakeside village—had started spinning inside their mind almost on their own, and Azem could freely dissect them onto paper.
Hythlodaeus tapped his foot impatiently.
“Sorry… But, please understand,” Azem said, “the me of tomorrow will be thankful for my diligence today. Come morning, my idea for how to save Loghrif from bewilderment would’ve evaporated like a drop of sweat on desert sand.”
“I wouldn’t know, the only way I’ve visited a desert is through your tales. Loved the giant sandworms.”
“Ah, the worms, always a crowd-pleaser…”
Azem stretched in the chair. They were seated upstairs at a long desk. The minimalist reading room had two windows to the street, where torchlight illuminated the walk of a single lone Amaurotine. The workspace was never used by Hythlodaeus. He believed firmly in a clearly divided work-life balance, and that Bureau business should be left at the Bureau.
Hythlodaeus’ lips were half pursed in pout, so Azem hurriedly backtracked.
“Has the Department of Leisure created new cards for the game?” they asked. “I wonder how the additions change the most effective strategies? I’m sure you know already.”
“Ooh? Getting interested?”
“I don’t know, depends on if you plan to crush me with your unfair edge?” Azem squinted at Hythlodaeus’ mischievous smirk.
“No, I haven’t studied the cards, heavens, no no. It wouldn’t have been the same playing without you. I think you may actually have the edge this time—the new additions to the game were inspired by you and Miss Venat’s explorations. Would you like to see?”
They shuffled the cards and Hythlodaeus nevertheless delighted in teaching Azem the changed intricacies of the game.
Halfway through the game (Hythlodaeus was winning), Azem took a few minutes to think about their next move. To play red now, or to build for a stronger white table, but what about the fallen scholar that Hythlodaeus’ botanist took down… Azem racked their brain. Hythlodaeus’ banter had dwindled. Azem glanced at him from behind the hand of cards. Hythlodaeus had set down the cards, and his constant smile did not reach his eyes.
“Our time together will be all too short again,” he said. “You’d think a near eternity was enough, but it never is. Not when you return home for two short weeks and then leave again for years.”
Azem didn’t have a good response. Did a good response exist?
It wasn’t enough to say that duty was a thousand times more important. It didn’t quite ring true that their reunions would be all the sweeter for the decades spent apart. Not being part of your friends’ lives was painful. The three of them had spent their youths together and shaped each other. Azem knew Hythlodaeus’ tendency to delight in the absurd had rubbed on them, and knew Hythlodaeus now loved tropical fruit because Azem, at one point, ate them every morning. Innumerable tugs and pulls they had subjected each other to, twisting and contorting each other into gruesome shapes that slotted them tight together.
Hythlodaeus, Azem, and Hades, the three of them.
“To change…” Azem finally said. “Is it really inevitable? Out there in the world, it feels like so. Towns fall, mountains shift, oceans dry. The next time I come back I might return to you taking work to bed! I can’t know if you’ll be the same. Hades already… isn’t the same.”
“You don’t remain unchanged either,” Hythlodaeus said. “And don’t worry, the Bureau shall never have a place under my sheets while I breathe!”
“But Hyth… Even the playing cards have changed too much—I’m losing so badly!”
“Hmm. That, I can’t deny. Maybe you have a little too much on your mind? Should we pause the game and take a walk? It will rain tomorrow anyhow, so why not play cards then.”
Azem set down the hand of cards. “I invited him to work on my report, in the park, when it’s going to rain tomorrow. What was I thinking? He will have a handy excuse to leave once the sky turns gray.”
“Can’t say he is very keen on sitting in the rain, no. But for you, I’m sure he would suffer through it. He does care for you.”
“How can you say these things with a straight face?”
“Master of the craft, lest you forget?” Hythlodaeus shuffled the cards and pocketed them. The two of them got up, and left for a stroll.
“I made good progress on the report today,” Azem said as they walked in the night. “In the worst case, Hades will declare the report finished, and leave before I have had a chance to apologize. Then what? I will be out of excuses to see him.”
“Trust me, Hades will always find something to complain about. But if you are worried, should I come with you? The three of us working on a report, just like the old days.” Hythlodaeus’ smile was bright in the starlit night, and Azem’s heart ached at the kind gesture.
“Yes! Please, please do.”
That night, Azem had a dream.
Hythlodaeus had conjured another bed for Azem in his bedroom. Azem had soon crashed on it, and in a few breaths was out, like a matchstick in a storm.
In the dream that soon followed, Azem was standing in the dark. It was pitch black, too dark to discern even grayscale shapes. A cacophony of insects’ nightly song barraged their ears. The vividly green and moist smell of plants stung their nose. The humid air made even their fingers stick together.
They were late for something, so they ran. Long leaps over the invisible plantlife hidden by darkness. Ahead, a yellow light shone. Azem ran, and crashed headfirst into the source of the light.
Hades grabbed their shoulders, and grimaced. “You absolute clot. Running won’t get you where you should be.”
A yellow light reflected on the mask hanging at Hades' chest. The white color of it was familiar from their youth.
“Why wouldn’t it? I’m fast," Azem said.
Hades let go of one squeezed shoulder.
“Because where you should be… is right here.”
Hades touched his fingers to Azem’s chin, and tilted their face up. Yellow eyes shone in the dark, illuminating his unmasked face. His hand was so cold it burned. Azem was paralyzed.
The inevitability of the two of them moving closer floated in the air. But instead, Hades roughly turned Azem’s head from side to side, as if inspecting a concept submitted for approval.
“Lacking. So very lacking,” he said. “Some savior of the star you are, when you don’t even know why I’m mad with you.”
“But you will not tell me…”
Hades leaned closer. Azem’s honed reflexes said to run, said to hide and to escape the danger and the risk. But the traveler remained paralyzed in place, as Hades leaned in to graze Azem’s ear with his breath. Words were whispered, important words that were surely the answer to everything. Hades raised a hand, pulling on Azem's mask, lifting it to reveal written on their face all the secrets that must not be known, no, not before—
Azem was startled awake. The state of alertness appropriate for springing up to fight a horde of wild animals surrounding a traveler's campfire.
The birds outside sang with the morning. Hythlodaeus was still asleep.
The humidity of the dreamed jungle clung, and Azem’s face felt hot.
Emet-Selch POV this time. Hope you enjoy the hurt side of hurt/comfort. Fully embracing the ancients as a creator species here.
At the root of the immense Words of Halmarut greenhouse, Emet-Selch’s exit from the building was blockaded by Hythlodaeus.
The four apprentices following him ceased their chattering at Hythlodaeus’ approach. The flowerbed's worth of plant specimens the students carried wobbled to a halt.
Emet-Selch scowled at Hythlodaeus, whose smile was unreadable.
“Hard at work, esteemed Emet-Selch?” Hythlodaeus asked. “Sorry little ones, I will borrow your master for a short bit.”
Emet-Selch deposited a sample plant in one of the apprentice’s already overburdened arms.
“If it’s a ´bit´ on your metric, I won’t be seen for the rest of the day. Well,” he addressed the expectant students. His appointed assistants, as well as avid learners. “I trust you have the samples you need? We reconvene in two days, and I hope you’ll impress me with your findings then. Expect no help from me until then.”
The students nodded, expressions behind the walls of greenery serious, with a hint of eagerness. Emet-Selch hadn’t dared to ask to confirm his suspicion, but half of them looked to be older than him.
The shrubs, plants and hays rustled and bounced as the students hurried down the street.
“Heavens, you take apprentices already?” Hythlodaeus gawked after the students.
“I’d far prefer not to, but Igeyorhm insisted,” Emet-Selch said. He half expected one of the students to trip and drop their cargo.
Hythlodaeus looked thoughtful. “She’s so eager to have your bountiful wisdom passed to the younger generation? I wouldn’t have known.”
“That, or eager to have eyes kept on me. I doubt she thought to tell that to the students though; they seem to look up to me .”
“The things you go through!” said Hythlodaeus, failing to stop amusement from slipping into his voice.
A group of Amaurotines walked past them, heading for the glass greenhouse. They greeted the two architects with reverent words, and Emet-Selch forced a smile for them. Recently, he had begun to miss the days of his youth. Back then he could take a stroll through the center of Amaurot without once being interrupted…
Hythlodaeus descended the stairs and began walking away. Emet-Selch had no choice but to follow.
“And? What do you plan to ruin my day with today?” he asked as they walked.
“Ruin?" Hythlodaeus asked. "If only your apprentices knew of the cold manner you treat your friends with.”
“I will treat my friends better once they cease disrespecting my time. Revisions, guidelines, educated opinions, many final words, not to forget the brand new studies I must also complete. My to-do list is ever lengthening like some infinitely growing aberration, with many biting mouths angling to make the subtle balance of my day-to-day crumble.”
“What can I say? Some things should always go ahead of mundane responsibilities, else one may soon cease to be human at all. And in that way, I care for your well-being more than any of your apprentices or admirers.”
Emet-Selch had an inkling where this was going.
“This is about Azem, isn’t it?” Emet-Selch asked. “I know the troublemaker has been staying with you.”
“Bingo. Occupied as you are, you may not have realized, but soon Azem will leave Amaurot for unknown lands far away.”
Emet-Selch neglected to counter the jab—something all too venomous might have come up if he did.
"The time we have we ought to spend in each other’s company," Hythlodaeus continued. “I, frankly, don’t care how much you are needed elsewhere.”
“You are a step behind,” Emet-Selch said with a sigh. “The troublemaker already demanded I breathe over their shoulder as they toil away in the evening.”
Hythlodaeus paused meaningfully. “And you agreed? Didn’t I just hear that your disciples could expect no help from you? How curious… Is the new Emet-Selch playing favorites?”
Emet-Selch clicked his tongue. “Stop it. Azem would not have allowed me to refuse. Better get it over and done with.”
“All the better then. Allow me to join you. I won’t give you a chance to crush our friend’s good cheer with your overt harshness.”
“If only it were that easy to crush.”
Every district in Amaurot had a park in its center. The middlemost of the districts was an exception; the Aetheryte shard crowned Amaurot’s centrum. In others, the green parks were home to animals, exceptional plant specimens, choice sculptures from Altima’s halls, and round tables inside round gazebos. Picturesque. It wasn’t a competition, but Emet-Selch knew the rest of the fifty-four cities had nothing on Amaurot’s balanced and well considered elegance.
A sundial the size of a rural house dominated the center of this park. Under the round plate of the clock, a heavily stylized but shockingly accurate model of the universe was slowly spinning on its pivot. Concentric hoops represented the arcs of the celestial bodies, the space inside the largest of them big enough to host a soirée in. Every spinning stone that represented a star had been made of a mineral the researchers either knew or expected to be found at the distant planet. Speculative art at its finest.
Under the shadow of the giant sundial, Azem was absorbed in another world. They looked to be writing feverishly, as if the words would escape were they not fast.
To see Azem focus so dutifully made him hesitant to interrupt, but such common courtesy apparently had no sway over Hythlodaeus, who was already at it.
“Good progress since last night?” Hythlodaeus asked cheerily.
“So you two planned this,” Emet-Selch muttered as Azem raised their head from the papers.
“Hade– Emet-Selch! You’re early,” they greeted.
Hythlodaeus had chosen to sit next to Azem in the sundial’s shadow. Emet-Selch folded his robes to follow.
“Early, yes,” Emet-Selch said, “though I’d have preferred later. Hythlodaeus thought it his mission to disturb my schedule.”
“Oh, it’s alright isn’t it?” Hythlodaeus said. “The great thing about being everyone else’s boss is that, if you say it’s of utmost importance to lounge in a park for the afternoon, they'll have to believe you!”
Azem smiled at Hythlodaeus. “Your little architects have their hands full.”
“Not at all," Hythlodaeus said. "The eventual outcome is that it all balances out and gets done. Often my subordinates have told me they are grateful I’m variably late—gives them extra time to work on their assignments, you see.”
Emet-Selch scowled. “They only tell you that because you are their boss.”
Azem laughed, and Emet-Selch chanced a look at them. The papers on their lap were rustling in the wind. The pages were filled with underlined parts, red arrows and blue circles, and even small illustrative scribbles. Bottled inks of many colors were set on the grass.
“Enough with the niceties,” Emet-Selch said. “You’ve convinced me it’s of paramount importance I whip you into finishing, and so I shall.”
At that, Hythlodaeus was shaken by a violent snorting laughter. Azem blankly stared at the grass, face frozen in a hollow smile.
“Good graces!” Hythlodaeus said amidst wiping tears. "Mind your phrasing! What if children hear?”
“Oh, get your minds out of the gutter.” Emet-Selch made sure to project deep disappointment into his voice. He pinched the bridge of his nose, refocusing. The two jesters always derailed him.
As soon as Emet-Selch’s hand blocked his face, Hythlodaeus and Azem exchanged lightning quick glances. They seemed to think Emet-Selch could not see, and communicated in gestures of unknown meaning. He saw Azem squeeze a hand into a tight fist, to which Hythlodaeus enthusiastically nodded back in response. The wordless exchange was soon over.
“So,” Azem cleared their throat, “what is your opinion on rats? Suppose for a moment that a town was riddled with them, and the people asked you to eradicate them. What would you do?”
Emet-Selch crossed his arms. “Hypothetically? I’d tell the people to roll into a lake and sleep on the bottom. The responsibility is theirs, not mine.”
Hythlodaeus laughed. “Give me the choice between being chewed on by a thousand rodents or the help of Emet-Selch, I’d choose the former.”
Behind his mask, Emet-Selch raised an eyebrow at Hythlodaeus. “Since when? You were eager to accept my help with the Phoinix.”
Azem shook their head. “Maybe a thought experiment wasn’t the way to go. Useful to know,” they said, scribbling very small words into a margin. Diligent when it mattered, though their handwriting really was too messy to forgive…
Emet-Selch teared his eyes away from the tapping of the pen. “This must be the incident you will report to Loghrif, the topmost authority on terrestrial life,” he said. “I would rather hear how you actually reacted. Most definitely, it will boggle the imagination.”
Azem dipped the pen back into an ink bottle. “If you had been in my shoes, you’d have given your all to help, too.”
“I wouldn’t,” Emet-Selch muttered.
“We are captive, spill us your secrets,” Hythlodaeus said.
Azem leafed through papers, and pulled one out. “For clarity's sake, I drew out a map of the rat infested town. Here.”
“Oh, no,” Hythlodaeus said, “I doubt Emet-Selch can see so far. He has stayed holed up inside for decades, away from the sun, and now I fear daylight might be too bright for him to see in.”
Emet-Selch glared at Hythlodaeus, and tried to reach for the page. Instead of letting him, Azem pulled their hand out of reach, wearing a strange expression. They shuffled on the ground to sit closer to Emet-Selch, settling next to him and flattening out a new patch of grass. Emet-Selch's elbow almost touched Azem's. The proximity was considerably too intimate.
“So here,” Azem said, “is the layout of the town. As you see, here, the rat problem made the people very inventive. Complicated stilted houses and protected aqueducts, they are ahead of their contemporaries by leaps.”
Azem held the paper for Emet-Selch to read, sitting distractingly close. The scribbled monster of a report page had an enlightening illustration of the town’s protections. Enlightening, that is, in equal amounts whether you were sight impaired or not.
“Graphs are usually helpful, I agree,” Emet-Selch said, “but with a clause for minimum quality.”
“No no, nevermind the draftsmanship, illustrating the structures was my priority, see here,” Azem was unfazed by his harsh judgment and leaned even closer to point at the drawing. Their shoulders brushed, and Azem’s hand grazed his robed thigh.
Emet-Selch slapped Azem’s hand away.
Apparently, his body had skipped the part where limb movements are checked with the brain for their appropriateness.
Azem looked stunned. The impact of skin on skin rang in his ears. Hythlodaeus shook his head and sighed. Azem said nothing.
Emet-Selch's head was buzzing.
The betrayal of Azem not turning up for his oath of office flashed behind his eyes. The absolute disgrace of Azem not having been there to witness his masterwork, his now destroyed River of the Dead. His thoughts circled back to the many nights he had laid awake, wondering if the idiot was even alive, or dead under an avalanche in a distant land somewhere. And in equal amounts, he had been frustrated that he cared. When apparently Azem cared so little they didn’t even bother to keep their promises.
“...Too close,” Emet-Selch said, swallowing the complicated bundle of thoughts. He snatched the paper from Azem, who did not resist. The sliver of space between their shoulders was electric.
The scribbles were marginally less cryptic up close. Emet-Selch wanted to concentrate, but found that he had difficulty dissecting the drawings. His thoughts were scattered. Azem’s hand grazing his thigh dominated his mindscape. The point of contact tingled.
He pretended to study the drawings, and stole a look at Azem. But this time as well, he witnessed a wordless exchange between his two friends. Hythlodaeus was making punching motions, and Azem was responding by shaking their head furiously. Hythlodaeus nodded insistently, and motioned as if pushing a dog outside into the rain. Azem buried their masked face in their hands.
“Well,” Emet-Selch spoke up, unwilling to spy on the strange exchange any longer. “This will do. Make your crystal recording flawlessly clean, and these untrained scribbles can be allowed. I can somewhat glean your intention from them: the people’s sciences were advanced.” He angled himself on the ground to face Azem, putting more distance between them.
Azem snapped their head up. “Great, good, the core idea came through. Moving on,” Azem cleared their throat, apparently ready to move past the incident. “The town I’m reporting on used to worship a rat god.”
Hythlodaeus joined the conversation with such serene calmness that some of it had to be fake. “Quaint, an original faith of a secluded people? Though I’d reconsider the choice of worshiping a pest.”
“Their golden age of rat-worship was millennia ago.” Azem said, more serious now. “The age came to an end when Miss Venat, apprenticed to the Azem of then, journeyed to the town and spread the belief in the Twelve gods.”
“The great conversion,” Emet-Selch said. Since Azem was trying to make progress, he indulged the conversation. “Gods of sun, thunder, and of good harvests, many creatures already worship forces of nature as deities. It was natural progression to turn their worship back to us, when we are capable of godlike feats. As a joint effort from many departments, a fantastic pantheon was developed, loosely based on the seats of the Convocation. And truly, the pantheon is a work of art—the twelve and half imagined gods have personalities, relationships, domains, and motifs.”
Azem shuddered. “You would not be so enamored if you had spent a good part of your career converting soul bearing creatures into worshiping the Twelve.”
Emet-Selch was sure he wouldn’t, but he was not about to acknowledge Azem’s hardships so easily.
“I hear,” said Hythlodaeus, “that a conflict can sometimes rise between an old belief and the newly introduced idea of the Twelve. The old and new can coexist, but it does not always go smoothly.” He looked at the large sundial in thought. A chilly wind blew past.
“As it was this time,” Azem replied, voice serious. “Their faith in the original rat god was in decline. The rats, of course, resented the shift, and their hatred had metastasised into something new… Originally, the rat god was not real, only imagined, but the resentment of thousands of rodents birthed an actual god. They called it the Rat King. I was in for a surprise.”
Through the afternoon, the three conversed in the rotating shadow of the sundial. Emet-Selch and Hythlodaeus offered help and opinions, and Azem furiously wrote down the relevant ones. Every now and then, Emet-Selch forgot how he had responsibilities of his own waiting. The month’s worth of concept approvals and revisions that waited for his return at his new office, for example. He had intended to get through them in a week, but if the interruptions continued at the current rate, that was going to be unlikely.
While they had been lounging on the grass absorbed in each others’ company, the sky had darkened.
A cold drop of rain fell on Emet-Selch’s hand. A few more droplets pattered down on Azem’s papers.
“Time flies in the company of friends,” Hythlodaeus said, palms opened to welcome the rain. Azem gazed upwards to meet the falling droplets, and lowered their hood. The papers of the report were forgotten to absorb water.
Emet-Selch conjured a waterproof bubble around himself. Out of courtesy and concern for the ink handwriting, he began extending the magical umbrella over the three of them. But Azem grabbed his wrist, interrupting the spell.
His reflexes were sharp, but they paled to Azem’s. By the time he had seen their hand move, his wrist was already held. But the hold was gentle, as if Azem was wary of breaching his boundaries. But to Emet-Selch their consideration still seemed half-hearted; Azem should have refrained altogether if they actually cared.
Emet-Selch yanked himself free. “What? Does getting your report soaked serve a purpose I’m not privy to?”
In response, Emet-Selch was shocked to witness a warm smile illuminate Azem’s face. He had done little to deserve it, and yet was still blessed with these rays of sun that shone only for him. Emet-Selch thought he better avert his gaze, else this earthly sun blind and ruin him. But, despite the very reasonable fears at the back of his mind, he was unable to look away.
“Can’t you let the rain fall where it wants?” Azem asked. “We can continue indoors, how about my apartment?”
Emet-Selch was at a loss for words. He nodded.
Azem and Hythlodaeus gathered the papers and the inks. They marveled at an earthworm that had squirmed up from the ground. Then, the three of them ran.
Rain droplets exploded as they hit Emet-Selch’s waterproof forcefield, drumming loudly. His two friends ran ahead, their feet splashing on the muddy grass. Behind the running two, discreetly, Emet-Selch dissolved the magical umbrella and allowed the water to wet his robes. He would be damned if Azem noticed though; he was not planning to subject himself to this sort of tomfoolery in the future.
The loud drumming was replaced by a small tapping—the sound of water hitting foliage. The greenery of the park recoiled from the million small impacts. Cold water trickled along his forehead and under the mask, tickling his nose. He could sense the park focus its all on sucking in the lifewater.
He picked up speed to keep up with his running friends. Azem’s turned back felt intimately close. Their soul shone with joy. Within this shared experience, an invisible thread connected the three of them. The rain had created a transcendent moment, and Emet-Selch was privileged to share it with Azem. Vaguely, he realized that Azem’s stay in Amaurot was halfway over. Who knew if their entangled threads of fate would survive another separation? To him, the falling rain had a scent of loss.
Soaking wet and a little cold, the three entered Azem’s new apartment. The overabundance of trinkets was enough to drive anyone besides their resident mad, and yet somehow the room still echoed.
Emet-Selch evoked a warming spell to dry them, disregarding Azem’s protests. They sat around Azem’s small table, and returned to work on the report.
The curtains of rain traveled through the city. The gray sky darkened as evening fell.
Hythlodaeus yawned. “The end is in sight, will you make do without me?”
“Sleepy? Is your age catching up?” Azem grinned.
Hythlodaeus scoffed in mock offense. “How are you one to speak, when it is you who kept me awake? I blame your captivating tales. They are simply too unbelievable, and I just must stay up to find out the conclusion…”
“Completely no blame on your part, there,” Emet-Selch said. “But, rest if you must. We don’t have much left.”
Emet-Selch scanned his own notes. The core idea of Azem’s report had been clarified during the evening. Together, they had made notes to prepare Azem for the crystal recording. The tale of the Rat King really was remarkable, Emet-Selch had realized as they went over the story. Azem had lured the writhing mass of rats away with music, and pacified the malicious god with kindness . He supposed these sorts of strategies only worked for Azem, but the story still illuminated base truths about the star they lived on. Compassion as a virtue was the core value of this tale.
As he raised his head from the notes, again, he caught wordless communications between the other two. Hythlodaeus winked at Azem, who grimaced.
“What is it with you two?” he asked. “Spend a few nights with each other and you have developed a secret language. Spare me.”
Azem jolted. “Ah, give me a second.” They scampered up to find a glass for water.
Hythlodaeus waved his hand dismissively. “What weird things are you imagining?” he asked Emet-Selch. “Constructed languages take time and expertise to craft. And besides, if I were to design one, I’d not start with sly winks as the base of a lexicon.”
“Indeed,“ said Emet-Selch. ”You would need complicated grammar to be the true dispenser of lies that you are.”
Hythlodaeus shrugged. “Azem, let me know when you are free again. If you leave the city without me seeing you off, I will not forgive you!”
“You’re not staying the night?” Azem came back with a glass of water. “There’s room for the three of us.”
“Ah, no, you see,” Hythlodaeus stretched. “I’d like some alone time with my beloved books. You know?”
Azem choked on water and Emet-Selch rolled his eyes. “Please don’t enlighten me on what that is a code for,” he said.
Like a hurricane, Hythlodaeus whirled around slathering kind goodbyes and liberal hugs. Emet-Selch begrudgingly allowed him. Then the door slammed shut behind him, and the two of them were alone.
“Well. Back to work,” Emet-Selch said, reclaiming a seat at the table. “Our pace should improve with the moodmaker out of the equation.”
Azem returned to the seat across the table. “Lightening the mood is important for a work environment, were you not aware?”
“True, but two court jesters is two too many anyhow.”
Azem’s smile was impish. “What about the court scowlers? How come I have not heard of them? Must be because not many desire their company.”
He was about to leave it at that, but something made him pause. Maybe it was the exhaustion, maybe it was the dim lighting that made the space feel safe, or maybe Azem’s insanity had finally rubbed off on him. But, he was feeling reckless.
“And? Do you desire their company?” he asked.
Their eyes met. Under the red mask, Azem’s eyes had widened. The traveler’s steady gaze did not flinch. Emet-Selch held his breath.
“Emet-Selch…” Azem whispered.
His concentration faltered, and he broke the eye contact. “...This is getting ridiculous,” Emet-Selch said and brushed a hair away from his face. “For heaven's sake, Hades is fine. Though only in private, mind.”
“Really? Then, Hades.” A warm smile curled Azem’s mouth very becomingly. “I wanted to ask you something. There is a concert tomorrow. Would you come with me? As a seat holder I have a responsibility to be an advocate of the arts, and since the last time I heard music in Amaurot, apparently they have invented something called …big band? My opinion of it wouldn't be at all educated!”
“Hmm? You ask for my company, rather than some musically versed admirer’s? I do not see the point, and the many young architects waiting for my revisions certainly would not either.”
“Really? Shame.” Azem lowered their voice. “I do, in fact, enjoy the company of a court scowler.”
For a heartbeat, Emet-Selch’s thoughts screeched to a rare halt. Then, cruel reality mowed over the brief void.
This was a temporary bliss, possibly an untruth, and it came with a cost. The more of this he allowed himself, the more the inevitable separation would pain him. Azem had time and time again proved that their primary concern was the well-being of every single creature on the star, except his. Emet-Selch would be left behind. And worryingly, it seemed that currently he did not care.
He leaned back in the chair. “Very well. As a reward for finishing your report, I can grant you that much.”
Azem’s glowing eyes burned through him, and he was glad for the red mask that obstructed half of his face.
“That’s great,” Azem said, like they really meant it. “I think you will enjoy it, Hades. Hades?”
“Fine, I get it, stop repeating my name.”
The mask on Azem’s face made half of their expression unreadable, but their movements were lively as they arranged the tablecloth of scribbled papers into straight rows.
It must have been a decade since Emet-Selch had last seen Azem without a mask. He knew those sunny smiles creased the corners of Azem’s eyes, in a way that was truthfully criminal to keep hidden. Their incredibly serious expressions when something required deep thought were, too, a thing of elegance.
Emet-Selch thought these were normal and balanced thoughts to have about a friend. No lapses in logic. He was not ailed in any way. Azem had not, in fact, captivated him in some unspeakable way. If he had time to get accustomed to Azem’s company again he could prove that this was nothing more than a strange phase, brought on by stress and separation. Surely.
“Well, your apt attempt at distracting me almost worked.” Emet-Selch shook his head. “Last sprint, and the crystal recording of the legendary Rat King should become a heavily referenced masterpiece.”
“Shall I credit you as a co-author? Igeyorhm would be shocked at your benevolence.”
“Don't you dare. This will not happen again. I do not have the time to babysit any more indolent troublemakers.”
By the time Emet-Selch was satisfied with Azem’s work, the rain had ceased. Neither of them suggested that he stay the night, and Emet-Selch exited to the wet streets alone. The thought of spending a night next to the sweetly slumbering Azem had made him viscerally uneasy. It almost reminded him of something that had happened a long time ago, but the exact event eluded him.
His steps were light and hopeful, against his better judgment.
Azem was dying of stage fright while waiting for Loghrif to finish schooling her apprentices.
It was the morning after the intense preparation session with Hythlodaeus and Hades. The sun had risen abnormally early, causing confusion. An hour too early and a few degrees to the north. But such oddities could usually be blamed on strange experiments performed inside the Weather Tower, and despite the solar impossibility, life went on. Azem had barely slept, and at the unusually early crack of dawn they rushed out to find Loghrif. There was a lot to get through before the date with Hades.
Azem’s mad dash to the Words of Loghrif building was eventful. First they were interrupted by an inquisitive schoolchild harboring a dozen tricky questions, followed by a panicked trio whose insectoid concepts had escaped and needed capturing. Once Azem reached their destination, it was decidedly no longer the crack of dawn.
The facility was a cloud-piercing building, famously filled top to bottom with enclosures for common and unusual concepts alike. Inside, Azem found Loghrif in the shadow of a humongous gray animal, which had a fifth limb in the place of a nose.
Azem sneaked inside the enclosure hall. Loghrif was amidst conjuring a new version of the large animal for an audience of twenty awed students.
“Take care to replicate the defining characteristics exactly,” Azem heard Loghrif tell her students. “Nothing pays homage to the original creator better than a faithful recreation. But, allow your own handiwork to shine through too. This maridphant already exists—your creations should be new.”
Loghrif finished conjuring the second gray animal. This individual sported smaller ears than the original. The students paired up and began working on their own large mammals. Free for a moment, Loghrif noticed Azem.
“Dearest Azem. How have you been?” she said.
“If I say ´good´, that will make my tardiness seem rather unwarranted, won't it?”
Loghrif muffled a laugh. “Sure, so please, refrain. I’ll believe you’ve gone through seven hells to be here and won’t have the heart to be mad. You are one of a kind—no choice but to wait when it comes to you. I don’t dare to hope this will be the last time you are late either.”
Azem laughed, hoping it would alleviate their nervousness. “Although it is overdue, the final tale from my most recent journey is almost complete. Would you have time to look it over? Your approval would be invaluable.”
Loghrif patted hay and dust from her robes. “At least this time you ask for my approval first. Which is preferable. Hopefully I don’t hurt you by saying this, but I will not allow your attempts at zoology to go public, not before I have approved them. I’m sure you understand? Last time was unfortunate.” Loghrif’s smile turned sinister, and Azem shivered.
Overall, the scolding was much more tolerable than expected. Azem appreciated the no-nonsense attitude of the animal expert, and trusted her judgment. Azem begged her to wait only a few more hours, and rushed to record the tale.
The recording rooms were small, soundproof, and otherwise featureless. The serenity of them was optimal for focusing your mind. Or, it should have been. Azem sat cross legged in the quiet room, failing to meditate and empty their head. With nothing external to focus on, Azem’s thoughts were scattered like the papers in front of them.
Azem rearranged their notes in a semicircle and concentrated. The very beginning of the tale had been rigorously reworded by Hades. The introduction was basically all his authoring, and Azem was of course grateful. But, unsurprisingly, when Azem focused on the words, Hades’ voice filled their head. Oh, how weak the report’s construction was, and how exactly additional clarity could be achieved. Azem knitted their brows together tight enough to meld them into one.
Unfortunately, mind elsewhere or not, Azem was on a tight deadline. Despite the bouncing thoughts and a fair certainty that this might not end well, they initiated the recording.
It did not end well.
Few hours later, Azem met Loghrif in a private study room. Loghrif was viewing the freshly-baked crystal recording with an amused expression. Azem’s face felt freshly-baked too, and they feared its color currently rivaled that of their Convocation mask.
Loghrif laughed at something in the recording, making Azem jump up in their seat. They seriously considered an early return to the star.
When Loghrif finally opened her eyes, her face was aglow with glee.
“Oh my, I wouldn’t have known,” she said.
Azem deflated like a balloon. “Gods, let me die, it is over…”
Loghrif spun the orange crystal in her hand. “The tale itself was extraordinary. I am astonished at your improvement, but. Hm. The rose-colored visions of Emet-Selch between the lines were rather distracting.” She then had the gall to chuckle. When would the humiliation end?
Considerable amounts of dubious material had slipped into the recording, much more than Azem had feared. It was normal for thoughts to wander, and not unusual for strange visions to color the tales inside crystals. The crystals recorded memories first and foremost, not messages. It was standard procedure to have another pair of eyes check the contents for this exact reason. Unfortunately, the nature of Azem’s misrecordings was personal, and embarrassingly earnest.
Their head spun with the effort of finding a good excuse. “You misunderstand. I had only two hours, and I swore to you I’d be done without any delay, and in a week I’m leaving for the arctic north, and…” Azem finished deflating, slamming their head on the table. “I’ll clean up the …mess. The first chance I get.”
“And when exactly would that be? Next century?” Loghrif leaned closer conspiratorially. “Let me do you one better; I’ll help you, and in return there’s a small thing I could use your assistance on. You will help me, won’t you?” Phrased like a question, but Loghrif must have known Azem would not refuse. She sounded so pleased it was scary. “Let me just inform my students that something realm-shattering suddenly came up.”
Loghrif was delighted by the drama.
“And you can’t tell him because…?” she asked later, while scrubbing some vaguely sweet image of Emet-Selch from the recorded tale. She channeled aether inside the recorded memory, twisting and scraping like the aether she wielded was a cleaning utensil.
“Tell him? Under these circumstances? I’m never home, I’m leaving again soon, and for some strange but probably very logical reason he is mad at me.” Azem concentrated on overwriting another florid portion in the crystal with the intended blankness. In this bit of misrecording, Hades’ disembodied voice dissected what exactly had been wrong with saying the rats were ´viscerally vicious´. Azem tried to not think about all the miniature scenes Loghrif had seen—the full reality of that might have been enough to make Azem become a hermit on the spot. They scrubbed the portion clean with vigor.
“Emet-Selch, mad at you?” Loghrif said. “Is that unusual? The way he talks about you, he always seems a little displeased.”
“Ah, but that's just his way of– Hm." Azem stopped to think, and swallowed. Usually, his harsh words originated from worry and care. But since Azem’s return, all signs pointed to Hades being angry with them. In addition to the openly expressed disappointment after Azem had turned up late for the oath, there had been an unusual distance between them, and always avoidance from Hades. But strangely enough, he had also agreed to the concert with very little pestering. Currently, Azem was not sure of their standing in his eyes.
Azem cleared their throat. “Well, soon he will be rid of me for a good while. A relief for him surely. No more of me tricking him into doing things that are fun. Ever since his ascension he seems to hate the idea of fun.”
“Hmm, I wonder,” Loghrif said, trailing off.
Azem scooted over to give room for Loghrif, who seemed to take great joy in eviscerating another vision of Emet-Selch. In this one he looked to be deep in thought, a white strand of hair escaping over his forehead very charmingly, eyelashes fluttering over yellow eyes, oh, Gods, this was humiliating…
“When are you leaving?” Loghrif asked, satisfied with the squeaky clean portion of recording. “Towards the far north?”
The anxiety at the fast approaching journey effectively cooled Azem’s beet-red face. "In a week,” they said. “Headlong to risk and danger once more. Much better than writing reports, so at least there’s that. I can’t be sure when I will be back. I haven’t dared to inform Had– Emet-Selch.”
“Hmm. Separated all too soon, the pathos of it… You don’t get lonely?”
“Thankfully I have my dear steed, my sole companion. And I get to meet so many people out there that I don’t have time to be lonely.” Azem smiled.
“Traveling on horseback? No hopping into the aetherial sea? Would that not be much more expedient?”
Azem had been focusing on the orange crystal, and now it sounded like they had missed some important context for a strange question. “Y-yes? No? Maybe someday a faster way to travel will be invented, but last I heard it hasn’t come to be. It would be a difficult undertaking to invent something faster. And anyway, what’s important is the journey rather than the speed at which you reach your destination…”
“But didn’t– Wait, so you …don’t know?” Loghrif seemed puzzled.
The confusion spread to Azem. “I don’t, no? If something of the sort was invented I’d hope I was told. I tend to journey a lot more than the average person.” Azem desperately hoped Loghrif would at the very least laugh at the joke, but she remained thoughtful.
“Aah. So it’s like that. Well,” Loghrif nodded, “I misspoke.” Azem thought she must have misunderstood something, and left the matter alone. The topic made their heart ache anyway.
Thanks to Loghrif’s centuries of experience cleaning recordings made by fresh-faced students, the two cleaned Azem’s tale into an experience that could be even described as very good. Towards the end, Loghrif commented many times on the excellency of the tale. Azem was relieved; if the foremost authority on the matters of terrestrial life said so, it really must be an exemplary tale well told.
As was agreed, in return Azem assisted Loghrif. The task she had in mind was not as dire as they’d have thought: she wanted Azem to coach her apprentices.
The students from the morning had finished their recreations of the large gray mammal. Loghrif herself stepped out on `urgent business`, leaving Azem to enrich the lives of the youngsters, free of supervision. Azem was delighted with the chance to teach. The rapt audience feverishly took notes as Azem recounted how in the wild, maridphants were actually great swimmers, so a version that was pushed even further in the aquatic direction would be a great project for a collaboration with the aquatic Words of Mitron.
The students were very insistent that Azem wrestle each of their creations, to see whose had turned out the strongest. Azem was in the middle of vertically suplexing the fifth such arcane entity when a horrible realization hit them.
“Excuse me, little one, what time is it?” Azem asked, and death dropped the maridphant onto its neck. The animal didn’t seem thrilled with the way the match went, and its creator rushed to heal it.
“The time?” One youngster eagerly came forward. “The sun has just set, esteemed Azem.”
Azem had forgotten. The concert.
They had been swept away by the relief of finally having finished their overdue assignment, and wrestling new inventive concepts conjured by starry eyed youngsters had been enough fun to make them forget the time. Now it was evening, and they were late.
Hasty farewells had barely been exchanged, and Azem was off. They dashed into the hallway, towards a window, out a window, and zoomed off into the darkening sky at the speed of a meteor. The Amaurotines walking down below wondered who could be in such a hurry, on such a peaceful evening.
Altima’s alabaster hall shifted into view from behind another building, and Azem adjusted course downwards. A crowd was gathered at the base of the white building, and a familiar bright soul was shining at the center of it. An inhale, exhale, and Azem closed the distance at their meteoric speed. But unfortunately, once you got up to speeds such as these, stopping was no longer an easy task. Usually for Azem, going down until you naturally came to a halt against a hard surface did the trick.
They landed in front of the ornate building, and dust billowed.
Azem panted and wobbled up. Even such a short burst of zooming through the sky had exhausted a large portion of their aether. One of the reasons it wasn't widely utilized, the difficulty of stopping being another. They scanned the gathered crowd for a red mask, for that grumpy glowing soul–
“What. Is. This,” Hades’ voice came from behind. Azem turned around to see Hades cross his arms, surrounded by a curious crowd.
“Sorry…. I didn’t mean… to make you wait…” Azem panted and swayed towards him.
“Hm. I didn’t wait long. The sunset caught me unaware, loathe I am to admit. I could have sworn there was still an hour of light left. But, the musicians were on time. They are tuning their instruments.”
“Great, we might barely not miss the opening, let's be quick,” said Azem.
Hades raised a hand to impede their path. “I will not let you leave a mess behind wherever you go. Clean this up.”
The rubble and gravel laden street entered Azem’s field of consciousness for the first time. The crash landing must have been more forceful than they had thought. How hadn’t they noticed?
Azem hastily fixed the pavement while Hades stood watch sternly. Any help offered by the bystanders he refused. Allow the rowdy child to let out steam before the concert , he told the considerate Amaurotines.
As the pair walked inside the echoing building, Hades made sure to let Azem know that he had not been happy to wait. While standing outside the hall Hades had been cornered by an enthusiastic art lover, who had hoped to engage the seemingly idle Emet-Selch in a debate. They had been curious about his thoughts on the relationship of the dead to the art they created while alive. A crowd had gathered to observe the heated exchange of suppositions. Hades said he hated every second of it, but Azem had to wonder…
The interior of Altima’s Hall was white stone. The first Altima, the architect of the artful building, seemed to have abhorred right angles; ceilings tilted, corners were never exactly a quarter turn, and the walls were decorated with triangular engravings. Music echoed through the halls. The first opus of the night was already being performed.
The two waited by the double-doors of the hall for a break in the performance. After a lively final verse, they sneaked to their seats while the musicians prepared to play the next arrangement. The audience turned to acknowledge and greet the two Convocation members, some even looking eager to engage in conversation. Azem smiled at them but kept going, all the way up until the topmost balconies, praying they would get at least some privacy.
Only a little light reached their pair of seats in the angular balcony, but sound was not impeded. The reality-defying nature of the hall meant that all the seats had equally great acoustics. The performers blasted off the second piece with oomph, and Azem was blown away.
Hades grew more and more captivated as the piece went on. At a similar pace, Azem’s confusion deepened. The composition didn’t always have a clear melody, and the pianist seemed to be scrambling for their life to keep up with the fast saxophone.
Out of the corner of their eye Azem discreetly watched Hades. He had a hand to his chin, and his fingers brushed against his lips, parted in thought. In the dim light he looked sculptural, like he belonged in one of the building’s lengthy corridors lined with breathtaking marble statues. He started clapping, and Azem realized the song had ended.
“Very… innovative?” Azem ventured while clapping, gauging Hades’ opinion.
“Innovative? Maybe, but unusual? Most definitely,” Hades said. “It was a trial by fire for the aspiring pianist. This piece is notoriously difficult to improvise around because of its unusual chord progression, and the pianist managed it with a crystal clear quality to the playing. A novel take on a classic.” Hades paused to side-eye Azem. “Your look of bewilderment gives me a bad feeling.”
“It’s been so long since I heard Amaurotian music, and I never prioritized my bard’s training to tell you the truth…”’
“Really,” Hades sounded astonished, “but you managed to lure the rats away with a song? I had assumed your playing had improved since our academy days, although your talecraft obviously has not.”
“Ah, no, mimicking the rats with music was surprisingly a simple trick, no virtuosic skill required… Would you like to hear? You might think it novel.”
“And let you summon a thousand rats right here? No, and please warn me if you ever get the hankering to play a little tune so that I know to stop you.”
The next few songs featured a melody that was easier for Azem to grasp. Between the songs Hades shared more details and analysis with minimal prompting. He really seemed to enjoy the live music. Despite the passing of decades, Hades still retained the same reverence towards the arts as he had when the three of them were in the academy. After having it pointed out, Azem even noticed a leading motif that was present in many of the pieces, and thought they could grasp a story being told with no words.
A calm mellow piece filled the hall. The tune brought Azem’s thoughts to a campfire, with only the stars for company, to the peaceful moments before sleep. The dim lights of the balcony combined with the comfortable seat had made Azem’s eyelids the weight of lead. They hadn’t had a good night's sleep since arriving in Amaurot, and the day's many events had taken a toll on their aetherial reserves. And so, they closed their eyes...
Thunderous applause filled the hall, and Azem stirred from their nap. They were leaning left, and their cheek was pressed against soft fabric over a warm shoulder.
“At least clap and pretend you were listening,” Hades said softly. Though the words were chiding, he did not sound angry.
Azem straightened and tried to shake the grogginess. Their cheek was warm where it had leaned on Hades’ shoulder. The fabric had probably left an imprint. “Think I dozed off for a little bit,” Azem said, clapping along with the audience.
“A bit? I don’t know how you managed to sleep through the combined force of ten saxophones, but you did. For three songs. You have missed the finale too.”
The nap had not felt that long, as was often the way with naps. To Azem it had been just a few seconds, but in reality such a long time had passed. Had they been leaning on Hades’ shoulder the whole time?
“Why didn’t you wake me up? I was here to learn!” Of the many questions in Azem’s mind, this one seemed the most neutral.
Hades huffed. “The appreciation for the arts must come from within. I cannot force you. Especially not when you are running on fumes.”
So he had noticed. Azem’s heart beat under their sternum, more rapidly than was necessary for sitting still. When Azem had accidentally touched him in the park he had reacted violently, going so far as to slap Azem away. After such a denial, one could safely assume that their advances were repulsive. Had Hades shown compassion despite the personal discomfort?
The concert was over, and the audience flooded the stage to congratulate the performers and debate with them. The young pianist with crystal clear playing was carrying enough flowers to feed a herd of sheep. Some audience remained in their seats, as did the two Convocation members.
“Should I take you home? Seems that you could use rest,” Hades asked, still softly, almost with kindness. His tone contrasted with the timeless frown of his red mask.
Azem had not expected this reaction, and felt caught in an ambush. “I’m sorry about, um, just now. I must have been tired.”
“Mm, does your mortality shock you?” Hades gazed down at the concert-goers below mingling. Tranquil laughter traveled through the hall. “Your mortality…" he continued, more quietly. "I wish you paid mind to it more often, or the next time you leave for unknown lands far away I will go bald from worry.”
Azem’s heart jumped to their throat. “You worry? Enough to go bald? Where's your trust in my skills? I'm a little hurt.”
“I will not repeat myself. Your unusual occupation being the way it is, unvoiced thoughts are better off being said. So," Hades looked decidedly away. "I have more or less forgiven you for missing my oath of office.”
The rapid fire revelations made Azem’s head spin, and they were glad to be sitting down.
“And I seem to have missed my chance once more,” Azem managed to say. “I’ve wanted to apologize. For being late. But you have beat me to it, forgiving me before I could even beg for it.”
Hades waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s fine. I’m sure the reason for your lateness is quite the tale as well? Regale me with the details of it some day.”
Missing the oath had been forgiven, and Hades was acting so kind it was almost scary. Azem couldn’t believe that Hythlodaeus had been right, and that ceaseless pestering had really been a fruitful method to seek forgiveness. The concert hall was still abuzz with conversation. So far the uppermost balcony had offered the two privacy.
“Right." Azem wasn’t going to give their face time to redden, and hastily thought back to the events they'd faced en route to Amaurot. "The day of your oath, I was flying home when a small creature in a field of flowers waved to get my attention: a young gobblin. Would you like to hear what happened?”
“Yes, go on. Was their village in peril? Their people about to go extinct?” Hades rested his chin on a hand and looked almost amused.
“Not exactly, no. The gobblinfolk’s sense of smell is very sharp, acute enough that it has turned into a curse. The gobblin could smell me coming from malms away, but up close my odor was too much for him to bear. He had been looking for a new flower to stuff his nose with, to stop unwanted creature smells from driving him mad. The little one was nearly in tears, so I helped him look for something obnoxiously fragrant. But no flower I presented him was quite right, so I had to fly over a couple mountains, and when finally I brought back a suitable flower it was already evening. But the little one was happy, at least until the flower wilts…”
During the story Hades had gone quiet. At long last, he asked: “You were late because you were picking flowers?”
“It was a small task, maybe, but who would have helped if I was not there?”
“Nobody? Is it not natural selection at this point if the gobblin perished? You have no responsibility towards it!”
Seeds of confusion were sown, and Azem was not sure if Hades was joking. “What are you saying? I am Azem, and I have a duty to protect every living creature on this star!”
“Listen to yourself,” Hades raised his voice, and it did not sound like he was joking. “You ran an errand for a creature with a lifespan so short it will not be around the next time you return! An inane errand, with a temporary solution. You can’t help every pathetic creature on the star, and I hope you don’t plan to?”
"I was rather pressed for time, you'll have to excuse me for not coming up with a long-term solution."
"Well, why not? You were already late, what's a little more? Hells, why not live with the gobblins until evolution fixes what's clearly broken!"
Azem stood up. “You had your oaths, and I had mine! I swore to scour the realm for those in need, and I will not turn a blind eye if someone comes to me in tears!”
Hades rose from his seat with force. “Stars above, Azem, you are one person! I had thought that the reason for your tardiness was grander, that hundreds of lives depended on it, and so I was ready to forgive, but this? I am at a loss with you.”
A heavy pressure had lowered over them. There was poison mixed in the air, as well as a promise of an explosion if kindling was scratched. Azem’s stomach turned disgustingly. The change in Hades’ temper had been so abrupt, and Azem struggled to understand it. They had thought that Hades would accept the pull and tug of duty, and know that responsibility could take precedence even at inconvenient times. Contributing to the star was the meaning of their existence. The silence stretched, distorting the space between them into an acidic swamp, where the more you struggled the more you sank.
Azem swallowed a rising lump in their throat. “My conviction is really so detestable to you? I admit, I regret that I was slow, but never the fact that I stopped to help. My responsibility is binding, and I am leaving to pursue it a week from now. No short-term solutions, since they seem to sit poorly with you. By the time I’m back you will have swapped houses twice.”
Hades’ yellow eyes were aflame as he snapped to look at Azem. His fist shook with barely contained rage, but when he spoke the words were cold.
“What am I to you?” he asked, turning with it a bucket of ice over Azem’s head. He didn’t seem to care for any possible reply, like no answer Azem could give would be adequate. Hades circled around his seat and left the angular balcony without looking back.
Down below, the hall had quieted. Many curious heads had turned. Azem waited long enough to be sure that Hades had managed to exit the building, and then ran for the nearest window. They jumped into the night sky.
Azem jumped from roof to roof, ending up at their own apartment. They crashed through the balcony and landed face down on the floor. A halo of falling glass from the broken window rained around them. After squeaking to a stop, Azem did not get up.
Felt like a corpse, looked like a corpse. In the dark Azem stared into nothingness and contemplated death. They had wanted to protect the star that Hades so loved. But the two of them had changed too much. Azem didn’t seem to be enough for him now, and despite many attempts Azem could not stretch everywhere. Their hands could not protect everyone and they were slow, so slow, always behind in some way…
Azem lay on the floor, mourning the future they had dreamed of sharing with Hades, and fell asleep.
In the morning, when the sun was still below horizon, a knock on the door awoke Azem. Their eyes felt sand encrusted, their heart shattered and empty. But someone at the door was waiting, and some indestructible part of Azem was unable to let them down.
They wobbled to open the door, to the sight of an unfamiliar Amaurotine.
“Morning, honorable Azem. Strange how dark it still is, no?”
“What is it?” Azem’s voice was foreign to their own ears.
“Miss Loghrif has sent me to relay an urgent message. It relates to the strange cycle of day and night of late, and a mission you were about to embark on?”
“Get on with it, please.” There might have been a sense of foreboding if Azem had not been numb to everything.
“The anomaly in the lunar-solar cycle has reached Amaurot. The imbalance seems to be growing in strength, increasingly dire for the star. The Convocation in attendance thought it extremely urgent to put an end to the anomaly before it gets out of hand. So, they hope to send you two on the mission even sooner than planned.”
“I shall read this part straight from the missive? Yes, you, the honored Azem, as well as the esteemed Emet-Selch, who possesses specialized knowledge essential for the solving of this mystery.”
Azem’s ears rang, and in their numb disbelief they couldn’t answer at all.
Huh? You thought abandoning the MSQ and stopping to read sidequests everywhere you went would have no consequences?? HUH???
(Note: Tagged happy ending.)
The next time Azem and Hades met was at Amaurot’s gates.
After the fiasco at the concert hall, staying idle became intolerable. Azem permanently settled in Hythlodaeus’ house, and paced room to room all night to at least occupy their feet with a menial task. Hythlodaeus inquired what had made their good cheer plummet so, but Azem avoided the questions like they would a hot stove. As a sleepless morning dawned, with a two-handed push Hythlodaeus forced Azem out of the house, insisting they try going for ´a walk´. But as was always, at every turn of the street Azem met a poor soul with too much cargo to carry, or a scholar with a tricky problem for any open ear to hear. Azem rose to every such challenge, and in the end did not have time to be alone with their thoughts. Thankfully, as the prospect made them uneasy enough to scream.
Throughout the four days, Azem pestered Hythlodaeus for things to do, scoured the city for more odd tasks they could help with, and visited Loghrif and her students twice. The remainder of Azem’s stay whirled past amid the forced distractions, and soon the expedited date of departure dawned.
Hythlodaeus’ unused reading room was buried deep in the challenging process of packing. You never knew when you’d need an umbrella, or a set of beakers and flasks, not to forget firewood… Azem gave up after the wooden logs did not fit inside the saddlebags, and sat down.
Four days had been too little time to reach a conclusion. Azem was half sure that someone was playing a cruel joke on them.
In the grand scale, it was not unheard of to have seat holders collaborate. When dangers of unfathomable scale endangered civilization, the combined power of the brightest minds alive could be a necessary overkill. One famous collaboration of recent years had Halmarut and Emmerololth, the specialists in plant life and medicine, team up to terminate the spread of a worryingly persistent fungal plague. The plague had been miraculously contained and terminated, though of course, a miracle or two was the expected outcome when two seat holders put their enlightened heads together.
Unlike the other team efforts of the past, sending Emet-Selch up far north with Azem did not seem reasonable. Currently it was doubtful the two of them could even collaborate on sharing the same air.
Azem had asked Loghrif for the reasoning to have them both sent up north, but the answers she gave were nonsense. Apparently haste was important, and supposedly Emet-Selch had a way for them to reach the far north expeditiously. Her vague answer still puzzled Azem on the day of the departure.
Early in the morning, Hythlodaeus pushed Azem out the door, and the two left for the north gate, with Azem packed up and ready to go all but at heart.
The monumental gray arch of the gate cast a stretched U-shape on the grass. The morning sun had risen several degrees more from the south today, the angle of its rays recognizable as unnatural to even the least perceptive Amaurotines. Sundials erred, and people’s days were sent into chaos. The shadow of the gate’s arc was cast at a strange new angle. Cradled by the shadow was Emet-Selch; arms crossed, waiting.
Azem’s stomach turned. They had not been certain if Hades would show up. Him now waiting there was one of the worse outcomes Azem had imagined. At least being ghosted by him altogether would have been more final, and simpler.
Thankfully, Hythlodaeus broke the forming silence between them.
“Well, you look about as prepared as I do. No bags, no nothing?” Hythlodaeus said to Hades.
“I have magic, hauling luggage is a waste of energy,” Hades said. “And good morning to you, too.”
Hythlodaeus shrugged at Azem. “Well, it seems I cannot reason with him.”
“Amaurot’s aether is rather dense,” said Azem. “Out there in the wilderness the density varies. Sometimes the right tool for the right job can’t be conjured.” Purely business, no personal feelings—they were going to rely on professional courtesy like it was a lifeline on a hiking expedition. But the measured distance of their factual reply had to sound as hollow to Hades as it did to their own ears.
“Is that so? I would like to see the desolate place where I couldn’t siphon enough aether to conjure a,” Hades glanced at Azem’s luggage, “a bedroll.”
“You don’t agree with my choice of equipment? A good night’s sleep is a free powerup,” Azem said, the corner of their forced smile twitching.
Hythlodaeus looked back and forth between the two. While freeloading at Hythlodaeus’ home, Azem had not told him the details of their argument. Even a short acknowledgement of it had burned, and Hythlodaeus must have noticed because he had allowed Azem to switch the topic. Now his mouth was uncoiled into a straight line, rather than his near eternal mysterious smile.
A morning wind blew through them. There was a smell of adventure in the air, and Azem took stock of the current reality. The two of them were going to suffer through the journey together, and there was no choice but to accept it. A stiff smile was all Azem could manage. Smile and nod, brave through it…
“Sorry to bother you, Emet-Selch ,” they said. “I could have completed this trip on my own.”
“A tad presumptuous of you to discredit the Convocation’s decision,” Hades said, swatting an early morning moth away from his face.
“I have to wonder what the merit is, to separate you from your new duties when you are so sought-after.”
“Several of our colleagues divulged to me their reasoning for why my involvement would be crucial. And after hearing them I was compelled to agree.”
“Shall I just take your word for it? Miss Loghrif was somewhat vague.”
“If you would.”
Azem couldn't help but admire his commitment to duty. Outward he was impartial, despite the significant personal inconvenience. Deep in Akademia Annyder there lay a famous book with true definitions for every word. On the page where the ideal scholar was detailed, they might as well have Hades' image in lieu of a definition.
Azem's reply was late, and Hades frowned. "As much as this is your personal duty,” he said, “it is from this moment forward also mine. Be professional, please.” Hades gazed northward, as if he, too, were mentally preparing for the trials ahead.
“Likewise,” Azem said, certain that their smile was cold at the corners.
Errant guessing is better off quenched with activity, they thought. Azem inhaled deep, and whistled to summon their steed. In unison, Hades unpocketed a dark concept crystal and released his mount from it.
Azem’s steed flew over like a gust of wind. The creature, Arion, had been created to go fast, and any time spent still was to it deathly dull. The winged horse had been grazing a meadow, but it had enjoyed none of it. Now Arion was dying to leave as it glided to stop before Azem.
A magnificent creature that, unfortunately, was Hades’ handiwork.
Once the two mounts stood side by side, their similarity was striking. Fashioned to match, equines with lizard-like tails and naturally armored bodies, modeled for two good friends who would be apart in body but not in spirit. Hades had been so poetic back then. The steed had been a gift for Azem when they had ascended to their current seat, so that they could better perform their duties. Gone seemed to be the sentiments of those days.
It had been decades since the two mounts had gone on an outing together. The original intention had been to go on many trips, but both Azem and Hades had been so busy for so long, and the opportunities never came around the way one would hope.
The moment of departure drew near. Hythlodaeus warmly hugged them both. At this point he might have as well been reading from a well rehearsed script, so many times he had seen Azem off. But he gave the separation its due fondness and sorrow, with heartfelt and genuine farewells. We will meet again, and the reunion will be all the sweeter for the bitter longing in between, he said sagely while holding Azem's hands in his own. Azem could only dream of reaching his level of inner calm in the coming centuries.
“Don't lose toes to frostbite,” Hythlodaeus said as the two climbed to their saddles. “Hard to believe I must watch both of you go.”
“We will be back before you know it,” Hades said.
“There may be delays,” Azem said, “and I can’t do much but ask for your forgiveness.”
Hythlodaeus shook his head. “There always are, aren’t there… I am used to it, and still I dislike your delays with a burning passion.”
“You plan to subject me to your ´unforeseen delays´?” Hades asked. “We will see, won’t we? Likewise, I intend to demonstrate what a positive impact I can exert over unruly schedules.”
Arion flapped its feathery wings, and Hythlodaeus’ waving form shrunk to a patch of black and lavender against the green grass. A few lengths of horse away, Hades rose into the air with the wingless Grani, purely by strength of magic rather than by flapping of wings. The bounds of aether it took to ride Grani, the only one capable of riding the dark steed was most likely Hades.
They rose up above Amaurot's roofs. The glittering city seemed more alluring from above compared to the familiarity of it at street level. The two flew over the island, and soon the northern ocean stretched under them. Amaurot and the fifty-four cities grew smaller, and the island they occupied on the northern shore of a vast continent was left behind.
It would take them two days to cross the ocean. The sun was an unreliable aid in navigation lately, so Azem decided it was better to rely on sight. They spun to sit backwards on Arion’s saddle and squinted south at the retreating lights of their island. The shine of the myriad souls in the fifty-four cities would be visible to Azem for half a day, so they were going to use it as an anchor point until the curvature of the star swallowed it.
Evening fell on the first day of travel, but the two travelers could not stop to rest. Partially because of the ocean underneath.
A bead of sweat from Hades’ neck was swept away by the numbing wind and caught a glint in the setting sun. Azem raised their voice to be heard over the wind: “Tired already? You can still turn back.”
“What? Of course I’m not tired, don’t be stupid,” Hades yelled back.
Azem steered Arion to fly closer to Grani and evoked an opposing bubble of wind so that they could hear each other at least a little.
“Don’t blame me when you collapse and fall into the ocean,” Azem said, voice still raised over the suppressed sound of the wind.
“Concern or condescension, all the same it's unnecessary. Not a day can be wasted.”
“Right? The day of the missive I was prepared to set flight, but they told me to stay put for four more days. What was that about?”
“Hmph. I wonder.”
Azem recognized his tone, even when the beating of wings and yelling of the wind obscured some of it. Hades tended to appear indifferent when he wanted to avoid a topic.
“You wouldn’t happen to know, really? Any idea at all, please understand that this has been troubling me– no, that it endangers our mission.”
Hades looked down at the patchwork of clouds, neglecting to answer right away. Azem thought they saw him sigh.
"You will not cease prying until I speak, won't you," he said.
"If you'd like to maintain a trusting companionship on this journey, you can start by letting me in on this."
Hades rolled his eyes, and immediately winced as wind got in them. “I’d say that ship has long since sailed. But, fine. I requested to have four days before departure, and asked her not to tell."
“You did? You yourself, you? What happened to ´Your duty is my duty´ and ´Not a day can be wasted´?”
“What would you have done in my stead, then? The duties of Emet-Selch don’t just enter superimposed time stasis while I am away—the problems of the cities are a never ending cascade. Four days was the bare minimum needed to set my affairs in order. I had to leave lengthy instructions for Hythlodaeus if I was to have any peace of mind that he’d not cut corners with my obligations.”
“You convinced Hythlodaeus to take care of Emet-Selch’s duties? What dark sorcery have you secretly learned, he was so adamant to not ascend the seat himself.”
“He offered, actually. Since the Bureau of Architect and the duties of Emet-Selch partially overlap, he said. But he only has to delegate urgent approvals and revisions forward, and any that must be specifically seen by me will be waiting once I return. Once I hopefully return,” Hades lifted one hand from Grani’s reins to rub at his temple.
Azem looked back behind to the no longer visible Amaurot, and attempted to send a curse Hythlodaeus’ way. The godsdarned meddler had known Azem didn’t want to even mention Hades, let alone meet him, why had Hythlodaeus gone out of his way to enable Hades to hijack the mission? Azem swore to return home alive so that they could set thousand rats loose in Hythlodaeus’ garden and sagely say it was ´for the best´ or something enlightened like that.
“Right… Well, since you are already letting me in on crucial info; why did Loghrif say you could get us to the arctic quickly? You cannot have a way, do you? Other than telling me to go faster, because although that might work to a degree…” Azem trailed off, expectant for a reply.
Hades seemed to go through an internal struggle. He squeezed at the reins, gritted his teeth, and glanced Azem’s way through windswept bangs. Whatever the struggle was between, giving an answer seemed to win.
“There is a way, though esoteric,” he said loudly against the opposing winds. “If a spellcaster is able to see the souls of the dead, and if an ample pool of aether is supplied, with proper protocol it is possible to slip under the currents of the lifestream while still alive. Then, one may travel across vast distances riding the waves of the aetherial sea.”
Azem’s eyes widened, and then stung when wind took the chance to needle them.
“Are you serious? I did not mishear? It would change my seat’s duties massively! As hugely as aetheryte travel changed travel between the cities.”
“Don’t get excited. I doubt anyone but me could accomplish it, at least currently. Underneath the surface of the river, if you run out of aether or lose sight of the path, you sink. One must have acute vision and large reserves of magic for the trip.”
“Difficult or not, you’re going to make the idea public right? How long have you been working on this?”
At that, Hades laughed. “Not long, not at all, just a little side project.”
Against the wind, Azem squinted. A revolutionary way to travel had been a ´small side project´? It had to be a lie. Certainly, such a feat would have taken years. But this was the first Azem heard of it. In the days of their shared past Hades would have shared details of such a big undertaking with his closest friends. Azem seemed to have lost such privileges long ago without realizing.
“Don’t keep me waiting, when do we activate this trump card of yours?” Azem asked, mentally backpedaling away from their wounded thoughts at a reckless speed.
“We’ll dive into the river when we reach the opposite shore. Crossing under the actual ocean is too risky. Upon an accident we would be expunged into a trench under malms of salt water, and I’d rather not deal with the grim logistics of that.”
The wind had numbed the two traveler’s hands and legs, the discomfort aptly helping them stay awake. Stars overhead were shining, and even the constellations were acting strange; ones that should be visible only during late winter now capriciously tempted Azem to navigate by them. Down below, the ocean shone with lights that rivaled the stars above. Millions of soul-bearing aquatic creatures under the surface made the ocean glitter almost as brightly as Amaurot.
In the ocean Azem found what they hoped for: a family of whales migrating north for the summer. The hereditary path to the opposite shore was engraved into their core being, and Azem set a course to follow them.
Hades looked tired. And like a prey animal, he seemed to be making an attempt to hide it. Azem watched as his posture in the saddle progressively folded more in half, until he corrected it.
Earlier, he had revealed that he’d needed four days to sort his businesses, and Azem knew how to translate that to mortal-person language. The estimate was certainly excluding all things frivolous, and to him even sleep was a frivolous nuisance. The unceasing wind had made Azem’s eyes dry as desert sand, so if Hades was many days behind on sleep he could not be feeling half as good. But letting a colleague know would not cross his mind, no, he’d rather plunge himself into the ocean.
As morning dawned, Azem kept them on course by following the whales. Hades nodded off a few times, and Grani compensated for his rider’s swaying balance. Just in case, Azem flew under, ready to catch him if he fell.
After hours of flying on the second night, speckled firelight appeared in the horizon. A single fishing boat was floating along the dark shoreline, returning home towards the lights of an idyllic flatland village.
The mounts landed, and right away Hades fell down on the rocky shore. By the time the campfire rose up to warm the two of them, Hades was already asleep, breathing calmly against his chosen rocky bed.
It was none of Azem’s business, but it didn’t feel right to leave him there, to sleep upright against a seaweed covered rock. Azem unfurled their bedroll next to him, and shoved. Hades capsized onto the bedroll, grumbling in his sleep. To crown the terrible sleeping arrangements, Azem threw a blanket over him, and called Grani closer to warm him. The haphazardly thrown blanket barely did its job, but Azem would rather eat a whole sack of lemons than have Hades wake up and find Azem gently tucking him in.
They settled to rest as far away as possible, and at long last closed their eyes.
In the night, Azem woke up to their spine tingling with a sense of danger.
The campfire had been surrounded. From between the rocks, a starbelt of glowing eyes stared back. A mass of unreasonably big beasts with red eyes and furry forms circled their camp. Growling merged with the whisper of the waves.
Unaware, Hades was still sleeping soundly. How he managed was a mystery, especially when next to him Grani had bared its strange metal teeth, and was hissing like a snake.
Azem wanted to sleep for another century, so they decided to be swift and silent. They got up and entered the growling beasts’ range with decided calmness, which smarter animals might have sensed as superiority. Quick punches under chins, a quiet kick behind to stop the lunge of one, and a whirlwind spin with the body of another to give the rest of the pack bruises for weeks. Azem was about to start their routine from the beginnin g, but the beasts were already lumbering away, tail between their legs. Many with fewer glowing red eyes than what they had started with.
Sweat prickled Azem’s neck; atop the hill, hundreds more red eyes lined the tall bank.
If the distant firelight was anything to go by, over the tall bank there was a fishing village full of people. At this point in their career Azem had no illusions about what would transpire if fishermen faced off against a large number of hungry carnivores. It did not involve inviting them over for tea.
A world record for building a fortress was set then. Azem thought back to the best castle fortifications they’d seen, stones and plaster in a thick combination, and conjured up a replica of the fortifications around the sleeping Hades. A miniature castle rose up, hiding Hades from the view, with a little flag on the top. If he woke up angry for being trapped inside, that was a problem for later.
“Arion! Grani! Take flight until I am back.”
The fishing village was more beast than house. Gargantuan bearlike wolves clawed at the doors and roofs, trying to worm their way inside the too small stone houses. Azem punched, kicked, elbowed and hauled, and occasionally retreated and healed, before going back in to do it all over again. The beasts shifted their interest to Azem, and left the houses be. As Azem fought their way around the village, they summoned fire to the ground, and drew a large circle around the perimeter of the compact village. The beasts had been streaming in from the hills, but they seemed to shun the circle of spellfire.
The dark gave way to a sickly dawn. The piles of beast bodies had covered the streets so that little of the cobble could be seen. Two doors into the small stone homes had been breached. Azem did not find whole bodies, but they did find blood. Some of it was in fresh puddles, some blackened and old.
A creak of a stone door echoed in the quiet. A creature of the village had dared to peek at the devastation outside. From the thin crack of the door, wrinkly skin came into morning light, with one long tusk protruding from the creature's mouth.
“Are you God?” the creature asked. The tusk made them speak with a lisp.
“A lousy god if so. I’m sorry, some of your people–” Azem swallowed, “have fared worse than you.”
“So it has been written.” The door rattled with the shaking of the creature’s hands.
“How long have these beasts troubled you?”
“Quarter circuit of the moon,” the tusked creature shuffled their shaking hands, and procured a fan of cards. “But the moon is a fickle host of late, oh, his waning and waxing only spell lies.”
“You have noticed the anomaly?”
“Not only noticed, o’ God. Studied it, had it foretell our demise. Are you here to pass judgment?”
Azem tried to angle for a better look at the creature, almost certain now that the species had once been concepted by humans. "Judgment? Ah yes, that you shall… live! Past the demise, which is…?”
The tusked creature shuffled the hand of cards with dramatic movements. “The sun and the moon dance as they will, and in their merrymaking they forget where day should go and where night ought to fall, the ground we walk will spiral from its celestial orbit, and collide with the guiding light that is our dear moon!”
The creature pulled out three cards, and threw them on the ground outside. The three cards all depicted the same image: a kneeling man, in the act of pouring water from an ornate vessel.
“The Ewer, over and over," the creature wailed. "It’s as if all the other cards have disappeared from my deck! Great disaster is spelled out here, to pull the same card not twice or even thrice, but all the time. And this card is linked to the great Luna, as well as magic. A great disaster, magical and lunar…”
Azem shook their head. This amazing creation must have been the masterwork of someone.
“To think that you can divine so much from such a simple deck. But I wonder, are prophecies really carved in stone?”
The tusked creature leaned on the doorframe for support and shook their head mournfully. “Can you tell us, God, are they? Will this go on? The fickle tides dry our shore, and fish have swum deeper, far from our nets. If we are not eaten by beasts, then we will starve, and if yet that has not killed us all, the lunar collision at the very end will.”
“Sorry you’ve had to go through this. Don’t worry, I will fix the balance.” The large promise left their lips easily. “Soon, the moon will again bring you high and low tides as it should, and your cards will again be able to foretell things other than disaster.”
Azem checked the circle of spellfire for weak spots before leaving the fortune-telling fishermen to wait in relative safety. The morning sun, though dispirited, had made the beasts retreat. The sun glided in the southern horizon, seemingly undecided between rising and going back to bed.
On the windy beach, the miniature castle still stood. Azem allowed it to dissipate, and inside, Hades was sleeping soundly. Curled up, arms crossed, mouth in a hint of a frown even in his sleep. Hades was so unused to traveling he probably didn’t know how vulnerable he was, laying there.
The sudden increase in illumination made him stir. Azem startled, jumping three yalms back, and pretended to only just be preparing for the day.
“Morning, Emet-Selch. Was your rest peaceful?”
“Ghh… Would have been, if not for your snoring.” He held his head.
“Slept like a log, then.”
“What in the blazes happened there?” Hades asked. He was pointing towards the fishing village, the circle of spellfire visible from their camp.
“Ah… The anomaly has brought out some carnivorous threats. They looked to be arcane entities, specifically constructed to terrorize.”
“Ugh, what next? Only a plague of insects is amiss and we’d have a disaster of mythical scale to deal with.”
Azem dug through their backpack. “Like locusts, there must be millions of beasts between here and the far north. The continent has been affected severely in such a short time.”
“And as such, we will make haste.”
Hades got up joylessly, and engraved the first glyph of many into the wave-smoothed beach stones. Taking their chance while his back was turned, Azem pulled up their robes and changed into cold-weather clothes.
“Your act of concern was unnecessary,” Hades said as Azem walked up to him. He was wielding a tall staff in hand, from which letters and symbols swirled out to glow against the dark rocks.
“What do you mean? I have not been concerned."
“And I did not set out to sleep on a bedroll.”
“Is that so? How strange,” Azem said. They yawned and stretched, more to annoy Hades than to actually hide the truth. Hades turned to look their way, about to say something, but stopped midway and took another look.
“Y-your clothes,” he said.
As soon as the winter clothes were brought up, self-consciousness started nagging at Azem. Collar of animal fur, leathers to warm the torso, shoes resistant to water and to cold, and most importantly: breeches with a thick layer of knit wool underneath. Out of courtesy and pretend professionalism they had left their red mask on. But even with the mask, the getup was far from the modest Amaurotian robes. For any good citizen it was intimate to be seen in nonconforming attire, and Hades was even more modest than most.
“Outerwear that serves a practical purpose, this must come as a shock to you,” Azem said, embarrassed by how shocked Hades was. “All Azems have done this since eons gone. You and I would get very cold in our city-robes. And so, as a helpful collaborator, I have taken with me a spare set for you—”
“Absolutely not, I will not play along,” Hades huffed a laugh, shook away the shock, and turned to his carvings. “I have magic, and the repose has charged my reserves more than enough for the voyage on the aetherial river.”
“Really? Suit yourself I guess, though Hythlodaeus was not joking about losing toes to frostbite.”
“Please. Put Arion inside its crystal, we’re going.”
Azem dropped the reasonable questions. Against their mount’s vehement wishes, they recalled the animal back inside its often unused blue crystal.
The night’s all too short sleep had left Azem groggy. The conjuring the spellfire as well as the miniature castle to protect Hades had depleted their reserves enough to completely negate the effects of the rest. They observed Hades finish the preparations, and he looked even less chipper. He grunted and corrected his posture, rubbed at his presumably aching neck, and generally looked the same he did after all-nighters at the academy.
Azem took small joy in knowing that when tired, he would probably prefer to keep chitchat to a very definite minimum of none.
“Anything I should know,” Azem asked, “before dipping into the river of the dead?” The glowing circle was completed, their camp had been dismantled, and they were ready to continue.
“Stand here,” Hades said. “Arion is put away? Good. While in the aetherial sea, keep your eyes closed, fully closed the entire way, understood?”
“Right, because it’s dangerous and I might die on the spot?”
“No, because it is a delicate process and I won’t have time to answer your overeager questions.”
The two stood at the center of the glyphed circle. Azem closed their eyes. They were curious to find out what a temporary visit to the land of the dead would feel like.
A dense radiation of magical energy, as well as the sense that something large had appeared very close bristled Azem’s neck. An exhale of breath sounded from far above. A cold stony claw came around their waist and captured them in a safe jail.
Despite its size, Hades’ other form was as silent as death itself.
With some apparent care he lifted Azem up. They recalled a picture of his jaw-dropping manifestation: dark and spiky, the underworld embodied in a grotesque display of superior capability, and many sharp edges. Even the most rugged of men would have wept at the sight, and then fallen in love as an afterthought.
Azem gripped the topmost of his fingers, and found a place for their feet on his pinky. Secretly, ever since Hades had mastered this form near the end of their schooling, Azem had daydreamed of being carried by him. They desperately wanted to look now, despite being warned not to. What was he thinking now, cradling Azem in his hand like they were a precious cargo? Though their mind was going towards dangerous territory, Azem did not steer away. Worse ever: they were enjoying this.
“Hold on,” echoed Hades’ voice.
The world behind Azem’s eyelids popped from convex to concave. They didn’t see, but felt it.
The lifestream was hot and it was cold. Like being underwater if the water was halfway into becoming a stormcloud.
Sweat poured from Azem’s forehead unbridled, and the next moment it crystallized, froze, and chipped away. The hostility of the plane ravaged the living newcomer, willing them to join its collection of souls in a peaceful wait for reincarnation. There was no air, but they went on breathing out of habit. Hades had been right; they had many questions, and it was a struggle to stay quiet.
Honestly, what had he expected? Azem opened their eyes.
They were swimming through solid ground. White and blue stripes spiraled around them, combining into cords, puncturing beyond earthly existence. Hades’ gargantuan body loomed dark against the flashing lights, unwavering and corporeal amid the souls of the departed. Azem looked down, and saw their hands and through them simultaneously.
Their sight was as acute as Hades’. But, as their goals in life were among the living, they had neglected to train their ability to see the unliving. Hades and Hythlodaeus had been much more diligent, Hythlodaeus exceeding the two of them in seeing both the living and the dead. As the two drifted with the flow of the aetherial river, Azem could see outlines, some wavering forms, but no more. The river was as much free soul as it was negative space. The hot and cold spots were souls passing through the interlopers.
Before reassuming their role as a blind passenger, Azem took in the sight of Hades. He was siphoning aether from the stream and letting it out the same as breathing, propelling them forward at an impossible speed. He had always been brilliant without peer, but just like Azem had changed, he had changed too. At some point, he had become even more dazzlingly expert, and now it was questionable if anyone out there could deserve the time of a person so monumental. Azem grasped at their heart, concerned that it might jump out of their chest, and be left behind in the underworld.
Ahead, the stream darkened. Azem had intended to respectfully close their eyes, really had, but just then Hades grumbled, and they started sinking.
His claw dragged along the bottom of the river, making Azem’s bones rattle. He had tensed, seeming to concentrate on keeping to their original direction, but Azem squinted and there was no river ahead. Dry and dark, all aether had been dried up where they were going, and how did one swim on dry land?
They resurfaced to a freezing night.
Azem stumbled and fell elbow deep into powder snow. Hades had abruptly released his grip on them. Azem craned their neck to look for him, and saw Hades shrink back into a person. He then fell, face first, into the deep snow and disappeared completely.
“Hade– Emet-Selch!” they yelled, mortified, and rushed through the snow. They forcefully pulled him up from the deep hole. Hades coughed, and his teeth clattered. Yet he still had enough vigor to swat away Azem’s helping hand. The Amaurotian robes did nothing to protect him from the arctic cold. Snow had entered his collar, and melting clumps were dripping down his bare chest.
“I told you as much,” Azem said and began casting a spell of warming. Heated aether traveled from their hand to Hades, and the clattering of his teeth calmed.
“What– The aether here, it is so thin! I did not intend to surface—we were spit out! Something has corroded the stream here unnaturally.”
“Right… How does that bode for your ´I have magic, I will be fine´?”
Hades turned to face Azem, maybe to scowl in judgment, but the eye-slits of the mask had been filled with snow in the fall. His face looked quite goofy. Azem stifled a laugh.
”Kindly turn around, now," he said without humor.
“Hahha– sorry, yes.” Azem politely looked away. Only after being granted privacy, Hades removed the snowy mask. When Azem looked back, the mask hid his face again, cleaned of snow. So, he no longer wanted to share his face with Azem, even out of necessity?
“Anyhow,” said Azem and surveyed the desolate landscape.
The sky was black but the snow shone blue. The cushioning of the mounds of snow muffled sound. Nothing angular remained—all had been rounded. Only lumpy trees protruded from the flat land. Some trees were bowed deep under the weight of the snow, as if in reverence, while others held their heads up high. The sole landmarks were a hill on the horizon, and a mountain farther out still.
“It seems we are close,” Azem said and squinted. “Lesser creatures have gathered on that hill, as well as a centerpiece the size of a thousand souls. Can’t be unrelated, or, what do you think?”
“I defer to your expertise here, old and wizened Azem,” said Hades and got up from the snowy bank. The spell of warming made the snow melt and steam as he brushed it off. He squeezed on Grani’s crystal, about to summon the mount, but stopped midway. “Until we find our mark, I ought to conserve aether” he said. “My hungry companion would devour the last of me. He is regrettably fuel-inefficient.”
“Mmh, you made Grani not for travel, but to be a show-horse to turn heads in the city. How vain.”
“If you had ideas for further development, you should have submitted your critiques a few decades earlier.”
“You would not have listened. Well. It will be slow going, but we can both ride Arion.”
Hades sighed, the breath a white cloud. “...No. We will walk. How did you phrase it again? That it is the journey and not the destination?”
“It largely depends on if the star is in immediate danger but you know what, yes, let’s walk.”
The two struggled through the waist deep snow at a fraction of walking speed. They waded from tree to tree, under which shallow holes had been left where the glacial winds could not reach to push snow. Azem plowed them a path ahead, turning to check on Hades at intervals. His robes were covered waist down in clumps of wetted snow, heated enough to stick to clothing by the warming spell. He was huffing, winded, and Azem stopped to wait for him.
The distant horizon lightened to a pale strip in a hint of a sunrise. They had reached the incline to ascend the hill. The two stopped to re-apply another warming spell when they heard screaming.
Without hesitation Azem summoned Arion and took flight.
“You cannot be serious,” Hades yelled after them.
Uphill behind trees, a robed person crawled in the snow, leaving a dark trail after them. One of the large beasts stalked a circle around them. Instinct had taken over Azem. They jumped off Arion mid flight and landed with both feet on the back of the beast. The bear-sized monster of a wolf snarled, and trashed its head to throw off the bug stuck to its neck. Azem struck an open palm at where its skull and spine met under thick fur.
The wolf yelped, stunned. Azem jumped off its back and surveyed the treeline. Four toppled sleds, and more stains of blood—the rest of the pack had left, with their victims most likely going through the first stages of digestion.
“Are you alright—” Azem was about to ask the person previously bleeding on the ground, but they were running away.
The winterwolf stumbled to its feet. Azem took a wide stance. Before it could decide on where to pounce, its ears twitched, and it stopped to listen. Azem watched as its demeanor changed; tail between the legs, it retreated backwards between the trees, and judging by how the ground shook, ran.
“Just what… do you think… punching the wolf will solve?” Hades had reached the scene of the attack and was panting heavily from running. “And what right have you to disturb the food chain for that matter? Please think, for once, or I cannot in good conscience work with you.”
“I am thinking, seven hells!” Azem yelled.
“Wantonly running around, in this snow? You may be made of endless energy like a young foal, but I am not.”
“You will ride behind me, or stay here. Either way, I don’t care.”
Hades shot a sharp glare. Their begrudging and somewhat mutual professional courtesy from the first half of the trip had been completely discarded.
“Then take Arion and go,” Hades said. “I won’t hold you back.”
Ever so slightly, Azem regretted their outburst. “You will be alone.”
“Who do you take me for? Is there currently in Amaurot a mage more powerful than me? Just go.”
Azem believed his words like a fool, and set flight uphill.
The sun was rising. Azem followed the escaping victim, circling above them like a vulture.
They were excited; the chase was on. Unknown forces had been disturbing the daily rhythm of poor Amaurotines, and soon Azem would discover the who and how of it. They vaguely realized they had longed to feel the thrill again. Running errands within the safety of the city hid no secret danger. But now, they could push the limits of flesh, and Azem felt more alive than once in the past few weeks. The joy of exceeding your limits, and knowing that nobody else could have done better. Might the excitement have ruined Azem permanently, they wondered, but the errant thought didn’t make them anxious.
The hooded figure was stumbling through the snow for the hilltop. The faint wind carried to Azem’s ears chanting.
“You are bleeding,” Azem shouted, and landed in front of the escaping person. The person changed course, and ran around Azem.
“Stop, or I will heal you by force!”
The robed person shrieked, and did not stop. Azem made good on their promise, and jumped the escaping person, much like a ravenous wolf might. The captured person trashed under Azem, dyeing the snow with blood. Under the hood, their face was gray and void of features, save for a pair of large white eyes. Azem pumped aether into their fresh wound, and the skin around it was crudely knit back together.
The person still seemed frightened, so Azem released them. Freed, the healed person squirmed up and dashed through the snow, at a slow pace no predator would have trouble catching up to.
Azem followed, granting them a safe headway.
Up on the hill, a blazing bonfire the height of a dragon was surrounded by a crowd of robed people chanting. They were enraptured in the worship of the fire, not noticing Azem. Around the fire, whole tree trunks had been stacked to make modest square houses. The snow blanketed cottages had been built along the highest point of the hill, and the houses cast long blue shadows in the pale sunrise.
The people were kneeling on the frozen ground, seemingly impervious to the cold. As they sang, the bonfire’s flames reached up higher, gathering power.
If the sun won’t rise, the day won’t shine.
Wheat will quiver, herds will shiver,
Illness the birds, death the girls,
If the sun won’t shine and the day won’t come.
The bonfire opened its flaming eyes, and found Azem behind the crowd.
“...YOU…” the fire said.
A flaming creature had bid its time under the wood.
Azem stepped into a stance, ready to fight. “You may find me out of line, but I must ask: Are you forcing the sun to rise?”
“WE ARE… FOR THE WITCH OF THE ICE… HAS MADE THE SUN SINK, NEVER AGAIN TO BE SEEN… AND PEOPLE NEED THE SUN, TO LIVE, YOU SEE…”
The entity inside the bonfire herded the flames, consuming the prayers more than the firewood it was tethered to. Flaming wings stretched up to the dark sky, and smoke swirled. The people gasped, and sped up their chanting.
Azem relaxed their stance. “The prayers are fueling you, and you are making the sun rise. That’s amazing!”
“SHE… AND I… WERE PEOPLE ONCE… BUT AS DEATH DID US APART, SHE LOST HER SELF, AND CAME BACK A HUSK. SHE IS MADE OF REGRETS, AND NOW THE WORLD MUST BEAR HER APATHY…”
“You were citizens of Amaurot? You’ve gone through such a painful reanimation, the Convocation should have noticed sooner, before things got this badly out of hand.”
The fiery ghost, again, took its time replying. The sun rose in the horizon at the speed of a small bug climbing up a tall wall. Which was not fast, but unnaturally fast for a celestial body.
“Do you know anything about the wolves? Are they creations of your friend?”
“THE WOLVES OF THE WINTER. IN STEAD OF TREES AND FLOWERS, HERE GROW BEASTS. SHE TOLD THE EARTH HOW TO BIRTH MONSTERS APLENTY, AND THE EARTH WAS BULLIED TO LISTEN…”
“You have gone through a lot.”
A log within the fire crackled in half. Up on the hill, Azem had a clear sightline into the flatlands. Breaking the even landscape was a sole triangle of a mountain. Under the mountain, there were additional signs of civilization; another village to mirror this one, but unlit and dead in comparison. The rays of the tired sun were stopped by the mountain, leaving the village in its shadow.
“I will fix this,” Azem said, “and you can resume your deserved rest. I’m sorry. It's my fault that this happened to you.”
“HOW COULD IT BE… A FAULT OF YOURS? YOUNG AZEM…”
“Consoled by a ghost? That is new.” They laughed joylessly. “Please, with the help of your people, hold the sun up a little longer. I will help your friend find peace, and maybe then you can rest in peace as well.”
It was best to regroup with Hades. The two of them had only been separated long enough for the sun to climb above the horizon, but Azem could not help being worried.
Arion flew Azem back down the hill.
They landed between the trees where blood and tousled snow marked the scene of the attack. Azem scanned the ground for Hades' shining soul, to no avail. A trail in the snow marked Hades’ struggle through the snow, coming to an end where he had yelled at Azem. Next to the terminus were six small holes for six horse legs. Snow had fallen off the tree by the force of Grani setting flight.
Hades had left, all on his own, with depleted dry aetherial reserves, out to the cold. Azem’s face was drained of all color, as if the winter had finally crept to their bones.