The first thing Hythlodaeus saw was a burnt tongue. It’s charred black from the base to the tip, and while he could see the detached body part far before its odor could be registered, it was only a matter of time before it would attract pests of all sorts. But what’s strangest of all is a complete lack of a soul, despite the fact that the incident looks recent, too recent for one’s aether to return to the star. There’s not even a hint of fire-aspected aether left, a hint of whatever incident may have caused such an incident. No, it’s almost like the entire soul had been carved out of the body and then all its appendages were thrown out to shrivel.
Hythlodaeus clutches his satchel tighter, and his feet hasten with every step until he’s running for yalms and yalms before he actually passes the burnt body part. And with each yalm he starts to see the bigger picture. If the hue had been just slightly altered, one could call it a beautiful little star shower, as if fragments of life rained down from the starry night sky. Yet the color of the aether wisps is one he knows too well, and they are begging to be brought back together.
If this were any other situation, the already greyed-out man would huff in frustration and correct him, “You mean Emet-Selch. You were so eager to slide that title to me yet now you barely remember that’s how I’m supposed to be addressed.” But he doesn’t, despite his brow being furrowed the way it usually does in any situation. Hades is frowning like he often does, but his lips run four shades too pale for comfort.
“Do you see it?” Hades asks.
“Do you?” Hythlodaeus responds with another question.
Hades’ expression says it all, but he talks anyway. “I saw enough to know that there must be something left somewhere. But he always has to make things difficult.”
Hythlodaeus opens up the satchel where two smaller sacks await and hands one over to the man. “Can I trust you to help then?”
“From something I can’t even-” Hades’ voice rose in pitch out of disbelief. Then comes a sigh while he takes the sack from Hythlodaeus’ hand. “He owes me after this, making me clean up all of his messes like always.”
“And then you’ll tell me how all of this happened? Like always?”
Hades opens up the sack and pulls out one of the auracites, feeling the edges on his fingertips. “Fine, after we’ve both done our parts.” Which is easy for him to say. He’s squinting as he looks around the barren field and at the colossal crater a couple yalms in front of them where whatever meteor came crashing down had also shattered into several pieces. At least those were plain to see, even for the shortsighted.
“Don’t squint too hard, now,” is about the lightest tease that Hythlodaeus can make himself say, given how he can already see six wisps of aether where Hades is cluelessly scrutinizing.
Hythlodaeus had no idea how many small auracites were need when that frantic call from Hades arrived, so he grabbed as many as he could, including ones that were probably too large because he could get Hades to break them into whatever the appropriate sized chunks were. The sky is starting to wake up now, and they ended up using every auracite fragment and… it should be enough?
Is it truly? Hades seems to be able to see the chunks of soul held in these crystals now, so that seems to imply that there’s at least enough to make at least an arcane entity. That’s quite the floor, though.
“Are you ready?” Hythlodaeus asks instead, eyeing between the man and the satchel they had laid on the ground.
“Ready enough,” says Hades, staring down at the dark orange hues shining just slightly out of the satchel. His forehead relaxes just slightly as he sighs, and he snaps. On cue, the satchel explodes with a force that almost makes Hythlodaeus lose his footing. When the air returns to its early morning stillness, a glowing body lays unconscious where the crystals had been.
“Wow! You really replicated him perfectly to the last detail!”
Hades huffs and snaps again to give the glowing body some proper robes before the light effect wore off. “All I did was rejoin the parts, the body knew how to put itself back together.” He pulls the unconscious body up from under the shoulders and Hythlodaeus helps out once it’s upright, pulling the mask over the face.
“Good night, Azem.”
The first time Azem wakes up is not with a sigh or a yawn but a dry, crackling scream. Hades runs over from the next room, only for his arms to be used as handlebars at the mercy of Azem’s iron grip. It’s hard not to hiss as nails dig through the black cloth, some of them getting right into the veins. Hythlodaeus and the chirurgeons storm in and manage to yank the screaming Azem’s hands off of Hades, but it takes them five times the potency of normal sedative spells to finally make the screaming stop.
Hades sits down on a stool and covers his face to groan, only to get back up a minute later and drop by the next room over and come back with a stack of papers and a pen.
“Not going to look away from your station as the eminent Emet-Selch or as our friend?” Hythlodaeus takes one of the vacant stools in the room and brings it over to be next to both of them.
“If you’re concerned about me not being able to do either jobs correctly, then you can, by all means, lend a hand,” Hades offers an envelope full of papers.
“Me? I’m sure my handwriting won’t meet your standards.”
“Then watch. Surely you can do that much.”
Hythlodaeus can’t argue against that. Even to his eyes, Azem now looks like any other slumbering person, snoring lightly, mask still on like they forgot after a long day of work. The fingers that had gripped onto Hades so tightly have now gone slack, and the only hint of the screaming just moments before was the small drop of blood in the middle of his bottom lip from the skin tearing. Hythlodaeus dabs the drop of blood off with his finger and while he’s at it, he figures it’s a good time as any to gently pull the mask off Azem’s face. Unveiling the mask, Hythlodaeus is greeted with a serene, slumbering face, with lips slightly parted, and black liquid oozing out of every orifice.
He blinks. The black liquid is gone.
“Is there something amiss?” Hades is staring right at him.
Hythlodaeus feigns a yawn. “Must have been a trick of the eye.”
“A trick of your eye, out of all people?” Hades raises his eyebrow like he’s about to inquire further, but he goes back to signing off on some paperwork instead.
Azem wakes up fine the next day. The chirurgeons didn’t do anything to him besides sedate him after that screaming spell, but that’s because there was nothing that was required. He is fine. Hythlodaeus had looked at him all night, and there was not a single scratch on that radiant flame of a soul he has. The chirurgeons run a plethora of tests on him, as was necessary out of procedure for any extraordinarily rare cases, yet everything came back perfectly normal. His body and soul are fine.
“Tis a pleasure to see that you’re well, and more importantly, whole again,” Hythlodaeus smiles. “I was shocked to see you had been completely sundered. Usually when Hades calls me up for some urgent errand, it ends up being something of relatively trivial urgency.”
“Almost getting consumed by a volcano is not a trivially urgent matter,” Hades snaps.
Azem laughs and it’s so natural, easygoing, and him that it’s almost enough to convince the two that he really is alright. “Sounds like you want a bigger challenge. I can easily accommodate for that.”
“Don’t you dare. Do you have any idea how much trouble you made for us?” Hades frowns.
“No. I was a little out of it during that time. Kinda scatterbrained, one might say,” Azem’s mouth twists up like a cat.
The groan from Hades could probably make the earth shake. “Why did I even bother with you,” he starts off on a spiel about how hard it is to have auracite of that quality ready at hand, the sheer amount of time to find all of Azem’s fragments because of the absurd quantity of them and in turn, how small each one was. Azem nods along sympathetically, slight smile on his face, looking back at Hythlodaeus occasionally. One of Azem’s pupils dilates. It could have just been looking at something with interest, except the clinic room is quite mundane. The dilation continues, breaching the borders of the iris and expanding to conquer the rest of the eyeball. And then it’s gone. Hades doesn’t look perturbed in the slightest, still listing out his grievances. Hythlodaeus tries not to either.
No response. Hythlodaeus tries again, knocking on the side of the door even though he’s already one foot in. “Trismegistus? Tris?”
Azem’s head shoots up from the book he’s reading in his bed. “Oh, excuse me. I didn’t realize you had come. The chirurgeons are just as stuffy as Hades, telling me I should stay in bed for a couple of days even though all the tests came out normal, so I was trying to read this Ancient Minoan book which is still in the backlog for translation from the Bureau of Transparency.”
“I see. I didn’t know you wanted to only wanted to be called Azem though, even in private.”
“Hm… Perhaps I didn’t call for you loud enough that other time, Trismegistus?”
Azem blinks, puzzled, but manages to make himself smile. “Ah, yes, I guess I must not have heard.”
Perhaps Hythlodaeus should ask Hades about a personal memory exam, since the chirurgeons already found the man’s working memory to be in peak condition. “I wanted to hear what happened. Sure, I got Hades’ account earlier after we scurried around to get you back together, but it doesn’t lack his own flavor in the exposition.”
Azem chuckles and puts the book aside, making no indication of what page he was on. “Of course. But I don’t think there’s much that I can say that wouldn’t just be repeating the same story you heard before. I was out sniffing out areas where we may find some relics in the southwestern desert, and I wanted to drag Hades along because we wouldn’t be able to embark on an expedition so easily again after the title of Emet-Selch is officially given to him. I ran ahead because he was being too sluggish like always and that’s when the meteor shot through my head.”
“You went on ahead for no particular reason?” Hythlodaeus tilts his head. “Usually, you’re quite quick to jump to your explanation, something of import.”
Another puzzled look. “I suppose I would, yet I can’t bring myself to remember what. The impact of the meteor probably knocked that reason right out of my head.”
That would be a sensible explanation in most cases. Hythlodaeus crosses his arms and inspects Azem’s facial features, still maskless from the insistence of the clinic staff. Those warm red eyes still glow with a vitality that only an Azem could have, with the pupils sized appropriately given the brightness of the room. The split in the middle of his bottom lip has been repaired, returning to the soft pillows Hythlodaeus and Hades know quite intimately. Aside from the natural pores on his round nose, his skin looks perfect. Indeed, Azem looks just like Trismegistus.
“We may have lost that memory, but I’m glad to see you seem otherwise intact. Do you feel well?”
“Yes, quite. Even I didn’t expect to feel this well after something so shocking,” a small phantom of a beetle falls out of Azem’s mouth as he says that and Hythlodaeus couldn’t help but flinch at the sight. “…Is there something wrong?”
“No, it must be the draft,” Hythlodaeus smiles, his left hand going inside the right sleeve to run his fingers over the bracelet Hades made him over three centuries ago back when they were classmates, back when Hades didn’t mind occasionally looking like a bit of a white knight, “if the situation really, truly called for it,” he had once called it. Knowing how skilled he was even as student, Hythlodaeus was careful not to grip on the beads too hard, lest he accidentally use it too soon.
The phantom trace of a beetle walks a couple ilms down the thin clinical bed blanket then flips over in a spontaneous death.
“No, there is something a little wrong. This room feels colder than it actually is sometimes. Not so cold that I need to whine to the staff, but it’s a little off, don’t you think.”
“A little off,” Hythlodaeus repeats.
“Perhaps the meteor’s impact is affecting the atmosphere a little,” Azem continues. “I’ve read of such reports, and they usually have much more adverse effects so we’re quite lucky if the occasional slight draft is all that happens for a while.”
“That would be quite fortunate,” Hythlodaeus’ fingers let go of the beads but linger on the wrist bone. “We still know so little about the celestial.”
“Yeah, but that’s what makes things exciting, doesn’t it?” Azem smiles and something cracks. It kind of sounds like bones. “If the rest of the Convocation weren’t so set on prioritizing the earthen and ocean depths before any “new, outlandish ideas” then I think an adventure to other stars would be the first thing I try. Once we know more about the celestial plane, then they won’t be able to affect our atmosphere as much, I bet.”
“Yeah, you could see it, right? Your eyes never miss a weakness.” Azem’s soul looks perfectly fine. All thirty-seven pieces were found by Hythlodaeus and stitched perfectly together by Hades. And yet. “Don’t worry as long as you stay away from them.”
“…Stay away from what, exactly?”
Azem replies with the worms that fall out of his mouth. Slowly. Then all at once. They flail. They fall off the bed and struggle on the tile floor. They are trying to escape. Escape from something larger than them. They should look just as phantasmal as that single beetle, with how little aether is weaved into them, but they look just as solid as any arcane entity.
They are privileged with the gift of creation, but despite all the rationales and abstracts in papers Hythlodaeus read in his station, he just stands there. A smile hangs on his face, disconnected from emotion, disconnected from the unspoken energy wriggling at their feet.