Basal 63rd, 1042

Cabriolets were less convenient than slidebuggy travel for a few reasons. Slidebuggies were more comfortable, for one, storage in the back and all of the seats facing each other save for the driver’s seat, and they typically had skylight windows for light. But they were limited to smooth roads and the fact they had to be charged. Cabriolets were more durable, so better for taking in harsh environments, but the ride was considerably bumpier. And because they were a method of travel left over from the Dark Age, they were fueled by oil, which had an odor and blew plumes of pollution into the air. The luggage went over the heads of the seats, making him worry it could drop on any of their heads at any deep hole or sharp bump on the path.

Not to mention the security risks with the way the windows were so low-visibility. It was suited for the freezing climate as they passed below Bear Lodge and further still towards the Northpass Tundra, but Azaleon would have personally preferred a steamtram. There were engineers and a pilot on a steamtram if something was to go wrong in the middle of nowhere. Towns in such a harsh environment were so spread out, if something were to happen, they would be days out in either direction.

…And Azaleon had no clue how to drive a cabriolet, even with his well-rounded education. Neither did Kuiper. It was such an old-fashioned vehicle, why would he have learned?

River was the only one of them who did know, and so she ended up driving. Azaleon had felt embarrassed over the whole thing and had apologized profusely, and she invited him to the front to teach him. She was considerably kinder than any of his former school teachers had been– he had believed she’d be a harsh and unforgiving teacher, being called ‘River, witch of Fawn Creek’ at the capital, but it wouldn’t surprise him if that rumor was started because she had taught King Alder Thauma lessons and hadn’t had the patience for the king.

He didn’t like the fact he didn’t have a great field of vision for the other four in the back, but he also hated to make River, who had been so generous thus far, drive for several hours without being able to swap; so he sucked it up and trusted Kuiper to make sure Aspen was fine. He could only just hear them through the thick glass separating the front driver and passenger seats of the vehicle from the back, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Clover was laughing, and he smiled.

She was a good influence on Aspen, that was for sure. Likely, she was still gloating over having made a nicer sweater than he had in their little competition. It wasn’t Aspen’s fault; Clover clearly had the advantage of being more creatively inclined to start with, if her embroidery skills were anything to go by. A prince’s education didn’t have time for as many art-related studies. On a technical level, Aspen’s had been…practical, Azaleon supposed, and he’d offered a pity vote in Aspen’s favor… it hadn’t done much good, considering literally every other person voted Clover’s design as the better one, but still. Aspen had not been a gracious loser, cursing them all out loudly at Bear Lodge station, including Azaleon, despite the fact he’d been the only one to give him his vote. It had been very amusing.

Now, though, around the two hour mark in the drive, there wasn’t anything to keep him alert aside from River’s company. The scenery was unchangingly stark: hazy purple and orange-tinged skies and flat, icy grounds with shrubs and lichen as the only flora.

River was an excellent conversationalist, luckily for both of them.

“I'm a bit jealous of how well traveled you are,” he admitted as she finished a story about one of her former students from Crater Acata, a town within Lacus Mare that was built in a massive crater hole.

“You’re young, you have plenty of time. This job is a good opportunity for it,” River said.

“That’s why I took it,” Azaleon told her. That was a good enough reason, and one he’d offered to Clover days earlier. It was a perk regardless, so not entirely a lie. He was enjoying it so far, save for the tundra, which was duller than anything that he’d ever seen, including watching carpet renos for hours, bored out of his mind at age ten.

“Where it is you’re from?”

“Well,” he said, a touch carefully, “My mother worked at an inn in Cheytell, so that’s where I lived up until I came to work at the castle a few years back. Have you been?”

“Of course I’ve been to Cheytell; you don’t mean the Shell’s Lodge?”

“Nearly everyone in town worked there, it’s just about all the town is known for,” Azaleon shrugged. “I don’t exactly have a point of comparison, but I always expected it to be overhyped. Surely you’ve seen much nicer inns, in your travels?”

“Not many. You probably find it dull if you grew up there, but when I was still very into traveling, I would always try to fit in a stop there regardless of which direction I was going to or from. You truly never traveled, even to see relatives outside of Cheytell?”

“My entire family is in Cheytell?” Azaleon hadn’t meant for it to sound like a question, but he was honestly confused why she assumed otherwise. Had he said something odd without thinking about it?

“Forgive me for assuming, but your accent-” She started, and he could’ve slapped himself. He hadn’t though that would have been an issue at all, but Clover and Aspen had also called him out on it pretty quickly, and he’d only barely dodged their questions about it. “-Sounds more like one from the capital. I would have expected Kuiper to be from Cheytell, if I was guessing between the two of you.”

“My father was from Hollyway. Very, um, strict. When not speaking Eventidian, he didn’t want me to have a noticeable accent.”

“Goodness,” River said under her breath. It was clear she didn’t approve of such a thing. It wasn’t as if Azaleon had, either. But he’d been a child and hadn’t been given a choice. He’d only felt a semblance of control when he’d become an adult and learned to leverage blackmail against the man to get him to back off. It had been a scummy thing for him to do, but then, it wasn’t as if his father was a saint or anything, so he didn’t feel guilty at all.

“He and my mother aren’t together,” he said, “So that at least makes me feel better, if only for her sake. He’s only in my life when I choose to let him be, now.”

She looked thoughtful, her eyes sharp on the path ahead. It wasn’t a road, not really, but a patch of land where the shrubbery was sparser than the rest of the land.

“Sorry if that was too personal!” He added. “I never know what’s considered oversharing, and I do hate bringing the mood down.”

“No, it’s alright. He sounds like a piece of work. I was married, once, myself, to a man like that. He died,” she added idly, a small smile on her lips.

“Better to fertilize with, if nothing else?” He asked, and she laughed.

“You are surprisingly morbid,” River noted, still laughing. “Don’t go reporting me to your officials at the castle, that was not a confession.” She winked.

“I am supposedly one of those officials,” he said. “Though I usually don’t feel like it.”

“No, and most days I don’t feel like an expert on Thauma, though I’m considered one. Funny how simply having passion makes people believe you know what you’re doing.” She was quiet for a few minutes, then added: “I am surprised you actually didn’t report the real reason behind this trip to the king. Kuiper made quite the compelling statement about working for King Alder rather than Prince Aspen when we first talked, you know.”

“Well, technicalities,” Azaleon murmured.

“Technicalities? Humor me with your thought process?”

“I would just hate to deprive Aspen of a chance at learning with you. We don’t really know what will come of this trip, if anything truly,” he fumbled, realizing there probably wasn’t an easy explanation that didn’t sound like conspiracy against the king. Would she report them? But– no, she wanted more or less the same thing Aspen was now after, wasn’t she?

“That’s very noble of you, thank you.” She said, and she changed the subject to converse about the maze southeast of Glassview, and together they speculated what in the world the people of the Dark Age would’ve used such a thing for. His heart was hardly in the conversation, it was still pounding in his ears, along with a lump still in his throat. He didn’t consider himself a very good liar, and he certainly wasn’t a quick thinker. Kuiper would have been able to come up with something that sounded better.

Thirty minutes later, just as his heart had calmed, something outside the window made it jumpstart back to racing.

There were people outside. Strange, since they were very, very far away from any towns or cities. Then, the entire vehicle bounced.

The wheels had been hit. With what, he hadn’t seen.

River slowed the vehicle to a stop, exchanging a sharp glance with Azaleon. The conversation in the back died off, too, and he met Kuiper’s eye. He could read Aspen’s lips– he was asking what the hold up was.

Their vision would’ve been limited in the back, more than it was in the front, even. Alouette went to grab for the door, and River made a sharp sign with her hands, halting them in their tracks.

There were ten of them surrounding the cabriolet. It had been coordinated– they’d gone right for the wheels first, then the motor, like they’d done this a dozen times before. Maybe they had; maybe they weren’t intentionally going after the prince, but just anyone who passed by.

They had picked the wrong vehicle to rob.

“Please, allow me,” River offered, clearing her throat and unrolling her window, just enough of a crack to shout from, “Who are you to attack us? What is it you seek?” She had every single hue of Thauma in her wand, and it occurred to him her thumb was hovering over scarlet. While she spoke to the bandits, she was casting a shield of protection with the most unwieldy type of Thauma without breaking a sweat. “These are people from the West Twilight Desert, I recognize their clothes,” River told him. “They should have no need to steal from us, that is a thriving city.”

A ring of scarlet exploded out from her like a shockwave, a cloud of red hanging in the air like millions of glittering droplets of blood suspended in the air. It was so strong it shattered the windows, easily. Well. Now at least he could hear the four in the back better.

Alouette tapped the space where their window had been, looking at River expectantly.

“May I?”

“You may,” she said to them, still holding the scarlet Thauma in the air.

Azaleon wondered what they intended to do. A pacifist, they had called themself. It was an easy stance for an immortal to take. River cracked their window, just a bit, and they spoke.

“Well? You were asked a question, I suggest you answer it,” Alouette said, their voice loud as River’s had been. “Which is you is the leader?”

“Ash Rossingol,” one of them stepped forward, raising their head. It sent a chill down Azaleon’s spine then, to see the man’s eyes. They were pitch black. And they called Alouette by their true name, not their alias.

“Is it Thauma sickness? Look at their eyes,” Clover whispered.

“But you had Thauma sickness and you were perfectly in control of yourself!” Aspen said towards Azaleon, “That is not like any Thauma-sickness I’ve ever seen,” Aspen hissed, suddenly reaching for his own Wonderworking Wand.

Alouette had gone still, frozen at the mention of their name. Granted, these people shouldn’t have been able to move to harm any of them with River’s protective scarlet Thauma blanketing the area, but then, something about this was extremely, very wrong.

“Ash Rossingol is lying to you, My Chosen. You felt me coming, did you not? From that protective sigil on your hand,” the man continued, his voice increasingly wet, until he finally let a dribble of blood fall from his lips and collapsed. The next person stepped forward, talking as if they were all a part of one mind, as if that hadn’t happened. “Aspen, come to me, and I will ease all of your worries.”

Aspen flattened himself against the seat of the cabriolet as much as humanly possible, his mask of indifference replaced entirely by dread.

“No, I think I'll stay here, thank you,” Aspen said faintly. “One of you tell them– that thing– those things– that.”

Azaleon wasn’t sure if he should be proud of Aspen for saying ‘thank you’ or pissed that those things had actually managed to scare Aspen.

“Shall we go out and handle it for you, then?” He offered.

“No, I don’t think anyone going out there is a good idea.” River said quickly. “That’s–”

“The Lunar God.” Aspen whispered. His Cachet was pulsing with an inky black energy, rather than the gorgeous liquid-y gold it had been before.

“A God? Wait, are you serious?” Azaleon asked, looking between the strange people and River. Even Alouette looked nervous.

“The people they’re puppeting have not built up tolerance for Thauma, let alone the full Divinity of a God. If I had to guess, they can’t even fit all of their essence into a single vessel. So they spread themself out. But the people are still dropping like flies.” Alouette said with a grimace. “I think going out there runs the risk of them puppeting any one of you, save perhaps Aspen.”

“Out of the question,” Azaleon said without thinking.

“What choice do we have? It’s hardly those people’s faults, you can’t just go out hoping to kill them all to get me out of danger. They’re my subjects to keep safe. They’re my responsibility, and they’re in danger because that…think wants to speak to me,” Aspen muttered. “Let me talk to it.”

“Oh, no, I don’t know that they just want to ‘speak’,” Alouette trailed off, “They’re very mad at me, I can feel that much…I have no idea if it’s possible for them to choose a new Quasar, or to rip that Cachet off of your hand, or what, so stay put.”

“If we free them from their control, they can be taken to an amelioration center for purging and rehab; they can recover.” Clover hopefully. “Right? Is there any way we could do that from here?”

“No.” River said. “If they could possess any one of us, they would have by now to drag Aspen out. The reason they haven’t yet is because of my scarlet shield. That’s not to say I think it’s safe to let Aspen venture out, but I believe if we could at least thin out those people, just a few, then like Alouette said, they wouldn’t have room for all of their essence to possess them and be forced to leave for now.”

“What if they really just want to talk?” Aspen whispered. “I mean, what if…”

“No one who wants to talk with good intentions would wait until we’re in the middle of nowhere and destroy our means of leaving like this,” Azaleon said. Aspen looked angry all of the sudden, no doubt because he knew Azaleon was right.

“I suppose even fools can be right twice a day.”

“You’re thinking of broken clocks,” Clover supplied.

“And I’m thinking they’re not even at their strongest right now. We’re not in Lacus Mare yet,” Alouette said. “‘S not a moon overhead, so it’s– possible, maybe. I can’t do it. I can’t, I’m sorry, you’re all my responsibility but the idea of hurting humans is repulsive to me,” they babbled, panicked. “If they looked like their Upper Realm form, I could, I could do it, but–er, then they’d be too big to fight here, I guess…”

“No one is asking you to, then,” Azaleon reassured them. “That is the reason Kuiper and I are here, to protect His Highness, and the rest of his traveling companions, right?”

Azaleon had to pick up a new weapon in Fawn Creek– a plain Wonderworking Staff, longer than he preferred and a bit unbalanced. He had liked his whip staff. It was multi-functional, and a beautiful, custom-made weapon that was only allowed to him because of how embarrassingly desperate Alder had been to get anyone to stick around Aspen. It boiled his blood quite a bit that the king really resented Aspen enough to believe the kid could scare off his most seasoned expert guards with a nasty attitude, rather than suspecting bribes or a dozen or so combat-based bets being won behind his back– it should have been funny, if it wasn’t so sad. Regardless, Azaleon had put in a lot of legwork to get this position, and wasn’t planning on losing this fight to a handful of Thauma-sick Eventidians, regardless if they were possessed by the Lunar God or not.

“The first time with Alouette was a fluke! And even if it wasn’t– even if it wasn’t Alouette is a weak God in comparison! You cannot hope to win this! Are you out of your mind?!” Aspen yelled.

“Five out of ten,” River said, looking at him and Kuiper, “That should be enough, just half. I will take out three, and leave two for the two of you. Alouette, I expect you to keep Clover and Aspen safe, okay?”

“I said no!” Aspen was practically begging. “Can none of you feel that in the air?! You’re going to die–” Alouette threw their wings around Aspen and Clover both when the door opened. Clover, no doubt gifted with a bit more sense and self-preservation than Aspen, curled herself into a ball and plugged her ears. Aspen was screaming profanities.


“I can’t die you absolutely foolish morons, do you have worms eating your brain?! This would be a stupid, senseless death! Don’t you dare die for me, that’s an order and I’ll have you locked away forever if you do!”

That threat made no sense, and Azaleon couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up.

He might actually die, but Aspen would toss his bones in a dungeon somewhere deep in the castle and stick a big ‘FIRED FOR BEING AN IDIOT, POSTHUMOUSLY’ sign around his neck to shame him when he did, and that was a hysterical mental image.

Kuiper would get bragging rights, too, for saying taking this job was a suicide mission. He wondered, faintly, what Kuiper would say or do to Aspen if he did die here and Kuiper was to survive. He didn’t really want him socking the prince in the face over it.

River in battle was one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen. She moved with the grace only a very experienced fighter could, her Wonderworking Staff lit up every single color of the rainbow. She was wielding two to three hues of Thauma at once while maintaining the scarlet Thauma shield of protection. Her staff lit up green, and vines shot out of the ground, tangling all of the puppet’s legs, halting them. They were all unnervingly blank-faced and clumsy when they moved. She blasted one with amber, and the body crumpled, eyes rolling back. She was purging the God right out of them.

He hoped hitting them sufficiently hard would work, too, because that was his plan. Sure, she was using cobalt to dodge and enhance her movements, but she didn’t seem to want to land hits like Azaleon wanted to. Kuiper hit when he had to, as precisely as he could with the clumsiness of the God’s movement, but Kuiper’s targeted hits on nerve-clusters didn’t seem to be working in downing them like River’s purging.

Ah, well, Azaleon liked Kuiper for everything he was outside of a fight, so he couldn’t fault him for at least trying. There was something romantic about the idea of dying in battle together. He thought he would like to kiss Kuiper very much right now, but held back, aware they were being watched by three sets of eyes from the space where the cabriolet window was formerly.

“Apologies, but if you want to speak with His Highness, you have to make a formal appointment and be pre-approved by our higher security. Which I suppose in this case is the two of us,” he informed the God.

Azaleon turned and slammed his own staff into the face of the closest possessed body, hard as he could without killing–he thought, but it was hard to judge, really– it was brutal, lacking all of the grace the other two had; yet he thought it was a beautiful sight regardless when the body collapsed in front of him. Efficient, even. Aspen would appreciate that.

Then he felt something sharp slide between his ribs from his back.

“You’re as bad an influence as Ash is for My Champion,” the garbled voice of the Lunar God said, their puppet’s lips on his ear, “And for that, we welcome you into the After Realm sooner than expected.”

The last thing Azaleon saw before he passed out was the cabriolet door fly open, Aspen’s eyes go black, and his left hand exploding with black smoke, glittering with hundreds of lights that looked like stars in the sky.

prev chapter next chapter