Basal 80th, 1042

Aspen stood at the back of the Lunar temple, alone in front of the altar. A huge spherical dome window on the ceiling was the only source of light, the moon dead-center. In any of the six minor Gods’ temples, this would be the spot for Thauma to collect, but neither the Sol nor the Lunar God offered it.

He had lost countless hours of his life in the Sol God’s temple, forehead to the sun-warmed black marble, begging for any divine word, or even just a small sign. He had always been met with silence; he thought even if he wasn’t the Sol God’s chosen, that they ought to have corrected him somehow– how was he to know that? The Cachet on his and Clover’s hands were identical, both golden. There was no way he could have expected two champions from Fern Helion.

Now, in this temple, he stood tall, glaring right at the moon.

He would not kneel. He would not beg.

“You wanted to speak in the desert. Well, here’s your chance,” he spread his arms wide. “Go on! Explain yourself, try to convince me!”

The silence stretched on, the moon looming overhead like it was taunting him.

“Well?! Not going to answer me? I thought I was your champion. I thought you would have the courage to speak to me, considering you were bold enough to mark me as a sacrifice. To lie about the purpose of that sacrifice, too. How many lives have you stolen, from both this kingdom and mine?”

The curtain behind him opened, the heavy swishing of fabric giving it away. Aspen didn’t dare turn, knowing full well he had been alone in the temple and that looking at the God’s true form would kill him. They were only supposed to be able to come to this realm in their elemental forms, which was new information from Alouette, or the more common methods: through animals or through whispers in temples.

The huge shadow cast over him was enough of a hint that that wasn’t the case– they were massive, towering over him from behind. That should have been impossible.

Then again, he didn’t recall even coming here. He had been staring at the Lunar temple from his bedroom window, then had gone to bed…he was dreaming. Obviously, since the Lunar God had domain over sleep. He was completely lucid, though. He could feel the cold from their entrance, chilling him to the bone. He kept his eyes trained directly ahead.

“You called for me, My Chosen, and I have answered you. I am not wantonly taking lives without purpose, nor did the Gods get sealed out of maliciousness. Ash Rossingol has filled your head with lies.”

“Alouette. They go by Alouette, and you will address them as such,” Aspen demanded. Names were important; Aspen knew that much, having decided he was unhappy with his parent-given name at age five and had changed it; the kingdom had celebrated that he was blessed by Ash Rossingol, that they could see him grow into becoming his true self. Aspen had been using gold Thauma for as long as he could remember. He owed the God of it the decency of using the name they preferred, if no other respect.

“You stabbed Azaleon, and you probably would’ve killed everyone there, wouldn’t you?” Aspen asked.

“Not you, nor Clover, since you are both vital, nor Ash, who I am unable to kill. Their vessel would have gotten damaged, surely, but they could find another, or return to the Upper Realm. The others would have been welcomed into the After Realm. My intention was never to hurt you, but to clear obstacles for you. Poor influences. Your judgment is at risk of getting dulled by emotions.”

“For what reason would Alouette want to go to the Upper Realm, to just be tossed out again? No– they’d have more sense than that.” Aspen surprised himself by defending Alouette. Then, he surprised himself again with what came out of his mouth next: “My judgment has always been based on emotions; a ruler without care for his subjects is at risk of becoming cold-hearted, greedy and selfish. I am not going to be that sort of king. Clearly, if you thought otherwise, you don’t know me at all. Now, you’re going to answer my questions. Why did you seal the Gods? Why am I your champion, rather than someone in Lacus Mare?”

Aspen felt a burst of cold air beside him and squeezed his eyes shut. Massive fingers grabbed his hand, his cachet pulsing with energy and sending shocks of cold through his arm. They were holding his hand up gingerly, but if they squeezed down even a little bit Aspen was sure they’d shatter his bones.

This was a dream, but the danger felt very real.

“This,” they said, “Is a promise. To protect you; you ask why I did not choose someone from Lacus Mare? In the long run, that is a minor issue now.”

“Well, humor me anyway,” Aspen said through chattering teeth, his body starting to tremble from the cold.

“There is some truth to the lie that the universe will wither, if the ceremony isn’t completed; you’ve already been told by Ash that the true purpose of your sacrifice is to hold the Gods in their containment–”

“Their prisons. Barbaric, antiquated ideas of punishment over rehabilitation; we in this realm replaced them long ago with amelioration centers, yet I’d expect nothing less than upholding those old ideals from beings as ancient as yourselves,” Aspen bit out.

“Whatever you would like to call it, that was always going to be a temporary solution to a greater problem. Ash could recall how the Gods were being contained, by your souls, but not the true purpose for the containment itself. Perhaps my anger towards them was unjust; perhaps they don’t know what they’re undoing; assuredly they would care for the consequences. The sealing of the Gods, it was to prevent a catastrophic refusal.”

“What does that mean?! A refusal– you’re saying it was an argument of some kind? Why don’t you speak clearly and explain yourself? Because if you don’t, you can kiss your ceremony goodbye. Neither I nor Clover will ever do anything in your service, not as things stand now. You two sealing them for such petty reasons is disgusting.”

“Two?” The Lunar God asked. Aspen’s eyes snapped open as they released their grip on his hand. The entire world around him was so cold, the color draining out of it, all except that gold Cachet on his hand, a star flanked by half-moons. For a moment it seemed to glow and spin, and his head hurt. His limbs were going numb. “I am glad the two of you stand together. Do you know why there can only be two Quasar? As in the Upper Realm as in your realm, My Chosen. I must let you leave this place soon. You are going to freeze to death if I keep you much longer, and that will not do.”

“I can’t die–” he said on habit. The God’s eerie laughter echoed across the booth like cracking ice.

“Not by anyone’s hand but the other Quasar, and the one who marked you with that Cachet,” they said. “Would telling you which of you come out of the ceremony victorious change your mind?”

Aspen froze. Which would be worse– him losing and Fern Helion left with no successor, or Clover dying at his hand? Or– the thought of Clover having to live with that guilt…no, he couldn’t live with that guilt, either. ‘Greater good’ be damned. Neither of them would die, especially not at the other’s hand. It simply wasn’t an option.

N-No. I don’t want to hear that.”

“Very well. When you learn the truth, you are welcome to return to me. I will gladly speak with you again, as many times as you would like.”

He woke up with a start, absolutely freezing despite several large blankets on the guest bed. He gathered them up, shoving his face into them and trying to force him breathing to be even again. He wondered if Clover would have a similar but opposite problem if she was to contact the Sol God. He was sure being a sweaty puddle at risk of overheating would be worse than this, but then, he hated sweating, so…

He got out of bed pulling on two coats with no care how ridiculous it looked. The clock on the wall said it was past time to get up anyway. He was almost afraid to take a bath right now for fear of going into shock, so he decided to go to the library. He could have gone to the dining room, as his sister surely had a breakfast spread prepared, but he had no appetite. Walking would force the feeling back into his shaking limbs.

When he opened his door he was startled to see Azaleon already posted there. Right– he and Kuiper did have jobs to do, appearances to keep up, if nothing else. His sister’s guards would be suspicious if they didn’t keep their posts.

“Good morning!” Azaleon said, far too loudly and happily for how early it was. “Did you sleep well, Your H– Aspen?” he corrected himself.

“Fine, except the fact that the Lunar God tried to intimidate me by nearly killing me. Though, they did stab you, so maybe I got off lightly?” Aspen asked.

“What–?!” Azaleon’s eyes flashed a darker blue, and Aspen waved him off.

“Nothing to get worried over. Honestly, it only solidified my idea that they need me, since they didn’t actually do it. Where is Kuiper? Surely not still sleeping?”

“...In the library already. Everyone else woke up an hour ago.”

That was strange; Aspen had always been such a night owl that it circled around to him getting out of bed early in the mornings after barely sleeping; he never slept in. The idea that Clover of all people was up earlier than him was odd, and he chalked it up to the Lunar God keeping him so long.

“Are you sure you’re–”

“Yes I’m fine, let’s go,” Aspen said, walking ahead.

“You’re not going to have breakfast-?”

“No, and if I get hungry I’ll have someone fetch me food. I would appreciate it if you stopped blathering so I can wake up enough to be of use while we’re researching.” And he wanted time to go over what the Lunar God had said. “They had some nerve, trying to offer the results of the Quasar Ceremony to me to make me go through with it, as if they’d know such a thing,” he muttered, thinking aloud. Azaleon sucked in a breath of air, and Aspen looked at him.

“...Seiche wants to talk to you about that, if that’s alright?”

“He has more sense to ask, rather than force me like the Lunar God did. Let him,” Aspen said despite his own apprehensiveness. The shift was near imperceivable, Azaleon’s eyes growing much bluer and his expression flattening into something uncharacteristically colder.

“Thank you for granting me an audience, Your Highness, I’m going to be to the point as to not waste either of our time,” Seiche started. Aspen was surprised he’d start so formally. “Alouette has been able to break the chains on all of our seals before the Quasar Ceremony had to be performed again, while the former Quasar’s sacrifices still should have been holding us. And with the majority of us freed, what purpose would the ceremony serve now, if not to hold us? Why should they still want you to go through with it?”

Aspen halted in his tracks. “...That…is a good question,” Aspen said slowly.

“You’re surprised? People who expect the nature of War to be without strategy and thought are fools, and I didn’t take you for a fool,” Seiche said.

“No. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it in the moment. I was getting worked up, while talking to them,” he hated admitting it. The Lunar God had been right in that sense; his reasoning was compromised the second he’d thought of Clover being killed, or grieving him, and he had missed something glaringly obvious because of it. “You remember more than Alouette,” Aspen realized. “If there’s more to this that you know, I’ll ask that you tell me.”

“Of course I remember more than them about the Upper Realm in general, but I was the first to be sealed away. I can’t tell you the reason for it, as I didn’t even realize what was happening at the time.” his brow creased. “I spent my time down there believing I was the only one who got cast out, since of course they wouldn’t want War for their precious mortals. Which, rage-inducing as that is, would have made more sense to me than sealing all of us; the Sol and Lunar Gods were never…they never ones to act without reason.”

“Your sealing was to prevent a ‘catastrophic refusal’, that’s what the Lunar God said. Does that mean anything to you? They also called it a temporary solution. They’re trying to deal with some kind of problem that can only be solved by keeping you all down here. They said…there can only be two. ‘As in the Upper Realms as in this realm’,” Aspen recalled.

“We all existed just fine before. All eight of us, together, we worked in harmony in the service of you mortals. Even I was willing to hold the peace, against my own nature, and they think they can be the ones to break it without explaining themselves?” Seiche said, and Aspen caught notes of bitterness. “And a refusal about what? It was my place to spot and snuff out conflict before it started. If the Sol and Lunar God had proposed some change, if there had been a ‘refusal’, I would think I would have known. My memories are without holes, unlike Alouette’s.”

Aspen considered this. “I was under the impression they didn’t know a lot because of their age; but you’re saying that they’re, what, some sort of amnesiac? Is there a way to help them recall more? If they were the last to come to this realm, and if they’re able to unseal the Gods, they must be vital. Ugh, I hate that, relying on them, but…they were the first to try and give us important information.”

“Well, I don’t think you should rely on them for anything, they’ll just forget it soon,” he muttered. Aspen waited for him to elaborate. “This is just my opinion, and should stay between us, but I feel that Alouette didn’t truly unseal us like they think they did, but just transferred us, and I think if you and Clover do the ceremony again we’ll be trapped in these vessels for as long as they hold up. I think the Sol and Lunar Gods want that,” Seiche growled. “I don’t know why, since you mortals are so quick to expire, it’s not as if we’d be trapped for very long; certainly not another hundred years, like the Quasar Ceremony ensured. I think they’re buying themselves time any way they can, they’re up to something in the Upper Realm; sure, they’re letting Alouette believe they’re changing something, but they wouldn’t be letting it happen if it didn’t benefit them. This isn’t the first time Alouette’s done this.”

“Done what, forgotten?” Aspen asked.

“It really can’t be helped; has Remedy not told you at all about their cycle? They’re the God of Transformation for a reason. It’s not exactly my place to be telling you this. Don’t go telling anyone else.”

Aspen bristled, fully ready to yell at Seiche in the middle of the hallway. It was blessedly empty, but he knew his voice would echo if he raised it too much. “This doesn’t just concern you and I; it’s everyone’s concern, and Clover and Alouette especially should know something like that. If they’re at risk of randomly forgetting things, that's something I’m sure they’d like to know.”

“Why, just to distress them? What if I told you stress is a trigger? We had a name for it– Ash’s Phoenix Cycle. They’d get too worked up then go and burn themself up, being reborn each time. We’d have to reintroduce ourselves, it was annoying and unpredictable, and they’d be an entirely new person each time, yet still the God of Transformation, so still prone to the cycle– Remedy’s probably also figured out they’ve restarted the cycle since the last time we spoke to them, by the way they’re acting.”

Aspen sighed, growing more annoyed the more he heard. “Well, you’re being awfully forthcoming about this all of the sudden. How do I even know it’s true?” It sounded dreadful to deal with. Aspen didn’t want it to be true. Maybe it was just Seiche trying to start a fight between him and Alouette about something entirely fictional.

“How do you know anything Alouette has told you is true? We could go around in circles about this all day and all night; you can choose to believe me, or not. You can choose to keep it between us, or you can tell them and risk them getting so anxious they explode, then you’ll have to wait for them to reach maturity again for them to have a handle on their powers, which I don’t think they do yet as it is– honestly, do what you want. I’m telling you because it’s in my best interest to do so. I don’t want to be resealed. That’s all; I’m tired of talking to you if you refuse to listen to what I’m saying. I don’t have anything else to say about this.”

“Thank you for what you’ve told me,” Aspen said with a small sigh. He hadn’t realized Seiche was so sensitive; he was used to speaking to Alouette a certain way, and had slipped back into the habit with Seiche, too. But clearly the Gods had different levels of tolerance for disrespect. Perhaps next time they spoke he’d have to keep his manners about him to learn more. When he blinked, Azaleon was back, looking vaguely ill. “...You aren’t going to throw up, are you?”

“N-no, just…a bit sea-sick, a little bit feverish…I’ll be fine,” Azaleon smiled. “It sounds like you had a productive conversation?”

“Yes. Could you hear all of that?”

“Yeah, it’s weird. I can still see, hear, and feel what he does, but…yeah, not in control,” Azaleon had to lean against the wall. “Sorry– I just need a moment. It’s disorienting.”

Aspen leaned against the wall too. “So what are your thoughts about it?”

“My thoughts?” Azaleon asked, eyes wide.

“Yes? You do have them occasionally, don’t you?”

“Um..yes. I think he’s being honest, if the way he felt was anything to go by. And I think it’d be a good idea to try and speak to Remedy and Refuge first, just in case.”

“And you plan to tell Kuiper, too, naturally,” Aspen noted. Azaleon nodded. “...So we’d just be leaving Alouette totally in the dark while everyone else knows they’re a ticking time bomb? They made themself a criminal while they tried for years to contact me to tell me the truth,” Aspen ran a thumb over the Cachet on his hand. “It’s not as if we’re friends or anything, it just doesn’t sit well with me to withhold that information.”

“It’s up to you, I just wouldn’t want Alouette to hurt themself. Maybe just..think on it, and if you do decide to tell them, be as gentle as you can. Maybe let River know first and ask her to be there, since they trust her so much,” Azaleon suggested.

Aspen nodded. That wasn’t such a bad idea. Once Azaleon looked less green, Aspen pushed off the wall and started walking towards the library again, slower now.

Both Gods had given him a lot to consider.

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