Basal 91st, 1042

"Perhaps they aren't coming at all. Maybe they didn't see the footage, maybe– maybe they think I just decided not to contact them, they think I simply vanished and they don't care," Alouette lamented dramatically. "Or maybe they died horribly somehow. What if Glacier got mad and killed them? Did you tell Glacier not to kill them? Can Glacier even kill them?" They were laid out on the lush and vibrant grass, their wings spread around them like a puddle of tar; a long time ago, their wings had been white. When sunlight peeked out from behind the big white clouds and caught their dark feathers they gleaned almost gold, iridescent and radiant. Gold pulsed just beneath their flesh, their veins almost visible from the glow of it.

No. Inferno was sure the Quasars would come. The trip from Moonvale all the way to Briarwood would simply take time. Days Alouette had spent worrying audibly, swinging from self-pity, to panic, to hopeful so fast it might give them whiplash, had they not known them so well and expected such a reaction.

Inferno was patient. Especially given how pleasant the day was, blue skies overhead a nice reprieve from the many days of rain in a row.

They sat under the large tree, Juniper's hands folded on his lap. They stared down at his hand, the false Cachet he'd marked himself with printed on his brown skin. It was a poor imitation of the real thing that shimmered like liquid, the same way Alouette's wings did when Inferno's sunlight hit them just right.

The body was hungry again. Alouette had fetched them eataya fruit from a nearby grove.

The plants near where Frond was kept were lush and unkillable, growing far larger and healthier than anywhere else. It was also nearly impossible to do proper farmwork on the radius, considering how fast weeds also grew, so it was only Alouette and themself here in this overgrown meadow, a few cows, too, but no humans nearby.

They ran Juniper's thumb across the fruit's thin purple skin. This was the result of both their own sunlight, Frond's gift, and even Seiche's water, somewhere down the line... The skin was a bit tart, but the green flesh of the fruit was sweet, almost reminiscent of marshmallow, with the faintest hint of citrus in the aftertaste. The fruit used to have a large pit, but humans had bred that out, bred the fruit to be much bigger and sweeter. They had transformed it into something that suited their needs better, and wasn't that due to Alouette's gift as well? To even learn how to do that they would've used science– Fillip's gift, and they must have used means to protect their crops from pests, so Refuge's gift of protection would have been involved, too...

"Is this fruit used in medicinal capacities?"

"What?" Alouette looked up, confused. "Not exactly medicine, but River used to make a soup with it that she'd give me when I was queasy...? Have you been listening to anything I've been saying?"

They hummed. So nearly all of their gifts had been used on it, in one way or another.

What a lovely thought.

"You needn't worry anymore, Alouette. They're here," Inferno said. They'd felt the presence of the Quasars approaching miles away. They were in some sort of vehicle that Inferno didn't know the name of, but it skirted to a stop a few yards away, kicking up a cloud of dirt in the process.

Alouette leapt to their feet, and Inferno rose too, slowly, letting Juniper's body get used to standing again. They'd been sitting for a while too long.

Clover practically barrelled out of the vehicle, several people yelling at her to slow down, to let them go first. Inferno could only focus on her in the turmoil: their Chosen, so headstrong, truly made after their own image in her brightness. They smiled. How wonderful, to get to see her in the flesh like this.

Seiche was grabbing around her waist, picking her up to try and stop her from approaching them. Perhaps not Seiche, perhaps the vessel; it didn't matter to Inferno who it was. The moment they locked eyes with her, walked forward to meet her halfway, she went limp in his arms. Seiche very gently put her down, and pulled out the guard's staff full of cobalt Thauma, putting himself between them.

"Get out of her brother, Inferno."

"You wouldn't risk hurting him," Inferno said.

"I would, bitch!" Clover yanked the staff from Seiche's grip, closing the distance, and Inferno saw stars. The world went sideways, and they realized they were on the ground. She had hit them on the head with the staff, hard.

River of Fawn Creek was over them, her boot on Juniper's chest, her Wonderworking wand pointed down at them. Her eyes were a sharp red, like Refuge's scarlet; she was casting a working of protection over everyone while threatening Inferno. Could she do a multi-hue casting? ...They didn't want to find out.

Prince Aspen was beside her in an instant, his own eyes faintly blue from cobalt Thauma; he was fully prepared to fight. Both of the guards had their staffs pointed at them. Ah...they surely wouldn't win in a physical fight against so many in such a weak vessel, especially not when Seiche was here. He'd gotten the staff out of Clover's hand, but she didn't look any less furious, holding her own small Wonderworking wand, full of...amber Thauma?

"You have five seconds to get out of him. Five," Clover said sharply.

"I only want to ta–" they tried again.

"Four." Clover ignored them. She wanted to speak to Juniper, evidently. That wasn't going to happen.

"You need to understand, we–"

"Three." River's boot pressed harder. At this rate she may break Juniper's ribs. Clover seemed totally unconcerned for her brother's well-being. Or maybe...

"Ah, is that why your wand is full of amber? You think you can just fix him up? I-"


"Or what? You'll kill him?" They asked. Clover's eyes crackled white in warning.

She was using Inferno's power through her Cachet, the same way Aspen had used Glacier's power against them in the desert. She was going to try and forcibly purge them out.

"You'll kill this body if you do that. In the desert Aspen was able to expel Glacier that way because of the messy method they used to possess those people. Their presence was spread thin within them all, like a square peg shoved into a round hole. Unfortunately, Alouette is the only one who can make us properly 'fit', but if you try and force me out, he'll be left a husk."

They saw it, then. Her hesitance. Her eyes didn't look up from theirs, but she posed a question to Alouette. "Alo?" she asked quietly. "You didn't."

"Let's talk," Alouette requested. "Please? River?" they begged their human mother, and Inferno expected the woman to give in, to listen to Alouette if not them.

"No, we're not going to 'talk' with someone who sealed–" Aspen, bold, impetuous little Aspen, started to say. Alouette blessedly cut him off.

"They didn't seal anyone. I did. Just like I made the Cachets and let them use them; that's why I was the one who could prevent anyone from getting marked in Lacus Mare. Didn't you find it strange that your Cachets are gold? The Sol and Lunar Gods, their powers are White and Black, respectively. I found Frond last week when I got here. Had to dig a lot..." Dirt was still caked under their sharp nails. "And I...I saw the lock on the box they're trapped in, ten feet underground. Had to move a lot of thick roots to even reach them, haha, it was such a pain...the lock was coated with gold. Mine. My power. all being mad makes more sense, in hindsight."

The humans were quiet; if they were shocked, they were doing a good job at staying composed about it; Inferno respected their resolves.

"I remembered," Remedy said. "Seiche might not have seen, as he was ambushed– Refuge might have been too hurt to say it. But this you- you've been...different."

"Alouette–?" River asked, finally getting her shoe off Juniper's frail chest, taking a step back.

"I only suspected, I didn't really know until I saw how Remedy spoke to them, saw her anger. I thought if we told them that they would've restarted the Phoenix cycle for sure," Seiche muttered.

"Thank you. That was kind of you. I...said I wouldn't do that again, though, and I'm sticking to that," Alouette said with a nod. "And...for the record, even if it means nothing now, I am sorry."

"It was a past incarnation of you; and the one before this you, they were trying to undo it, too! I know you only want to help!" Fillip chirped. "I never worried over it." The guard she was hosted by jerked, shaking his head until the purple faded almost entirely from his eyes. The humans were twitchy about the Gods speaking through them, it seemed.

"No– you owe us some explanation, both me and Aspen! You owe me my goddamned brother!" Clover screamed. Alouette recoiled, looking at Inferno. Inferno shook their head; no, they wanted to be the one to do this.

"I've been trying to give you an explanation, and if you allow me to, I'll let you speak with Juniper afterwards," they said, getting up despite the various weapons pointed at them. Juniper's glasses were cracked. A small annoyance.

Clover stood there, shaking, but she was silent. She would grant them a chance. They bowed their head gratefully before they started. They had already told all of this to Alouette days ago when they found them weeping under this very tree, upset they had been the one to seal their fellow Gods. They likely had been the reason Alouette hadn't cycled again, as they had been able to calm them down.

"When the universe began, there were two Gods. Materia and Chronos: keepers of Matter and Time, keepers of Chaos and Order. The universe was stuck in a limbo, a sort of in-between state; the Upper Realm where they dwelt was a lonely void. Chronos peered far into the future, and saw the nothingness stretched on forever. Materia offered a solution with their Chaos. An explosion so powerful it would create your realm, your entire universe. A big bang so strong it could only be caused by the Gods ripping themselves apart. And so they did. They tore themselves asunder to gift you everything you have, each splitting into four pieces, eight between both of them."

The Protection God of Safeguarding, Refuge Bunting. The Violent God of War, Seiche Carving. The Harvest God of Victuals, Frond Peter. The Healing God of Salubrity, Remedy Posie. The Inspiring God of Art and Science, Fillip Arabella. The Phoenix God of Transformation, Ash Rossingol. The Lunar God of Lacus Mare, Glacier Silverbell. And The Sol God of Fern Helion, Inferno Ladybird.

"Everything you all have, every facet of your lives, every part of what you all are, of what we are? It's all gifts from the Original Two. We are what remains of them. We are the embodiments of your lives, your deaths, and all between."

"Fillip says she's never heard of such a thing, and knowledge is her domain. Why would you know that and not the rest of them?" The guard asked. Inferno gave him a sidelong glance, wishing they could speak more directly to their fellow Gods and Clover, rather than having to have messages passed through them in such a roundabout way.

"There was never a need for you all to know; you functioned exactly as you should. There was always...a problem, in this grand plan of the Original Two, unfortunately. The universe, it remembers Two. Only Two. Not eight. Glacier and I were the only ones who knew, as the keepers of the cosmos, and who noticed. That the rest of you were so very close. Drawn together. We were, too, of course. One day the two of us were walking together, and our hands met, and something happened. It was as if our very souls were trying to re-merge together, our molecules trying to fuse. The universe remembers, like an echo, like an impression long-left that can't be rewritten."

They held Juniper's hand up, recalling how frightening that had been to realize. "We thought...perhaps if we stayed apart, we could avoid it. That is why their moon dances opposite my sun, eternally opposing each other across the sky."

"...'A catastrophic refusal'. A re-fuse-ing," Aspen said slowly. "...The Lunar God wasn't talking about a fight; they meant– they meant you would all literally fuse again if you were all in the Upper Realm?"

"Yes. Or– even if they're all together in this realm in their elemental forms, then it's a risk. If that were to happen, the Sun would blink away. Every element we provide, every domain of ours, along with it. Every animal. Every plant. Every trace of Life. Every trace of Death. We thought— that perhaps the two of us staying separated for all time would be enough, but it wasn't. Ash was the one who discovered as much, when they nearly fused with Refuge and broke her mind in the process. They came to me, then, this Ash of past incarnations, asked me what had happened, what they could do to help. You all– you needed to be separated, and there had to be measures put in place to keep you there, to keep humans from stumbling across you."

"You found it necessary– easier, to seal them to suffer for thousands of years– than simply killing them? Would death not have been kinder? The methods used were cruel, don't you think?" River questioned. Alouette looked ashamed, hanging their head.

"Yeah, it was cruel. There–there surely had to be better–nicer–ways of doing it," Alouette murmured.

"Destroying them would destroy the facet of their domains, their elements, their animals, all of it, and splinter the universe. All eight of us must exist to sustain it. All eight of us must exist separately so as to not re-fuse. Ash took on the burden of sealing you all for the sake of all life. Because even if we were to tell you, even if you understood, you wouldn't be able to help yourselves from meeting again. Even now, don't you feel the pull, even while those vessels temporarily prevent it? The universe wants Two, and so, so do we all. But we must resist, for their sake. So that the mortals may live."

They looked off to the side, gazing at the large trench-like hole that Alouette had dug to reach Frond, on the other side of the tree they had been seated under. "...Frond Peter is still sealed, locked within a glass coffin, still in his elemental form of wood. I am giving you a chance to right this; Alouette didn't know what they were doing when they were unsealing everyone, and for that, I don't fault them. But for the sake of the mortals, let yourselves be willingly sealed. That last bit of the last Quasar's soul on Frond's lock, it should hold a few years longer without Alouette removing it, before it fades to remerge with the rest of her soul, in the After Realm. Clover, Aspen, for the good of the universe– truly, that was never a lie– I will ask you two to go through with the ceremony. You could even discuss amongst yourselves which of you will be the sacrifice, who would be more willing. You would be granted years more in this realm before then, and I can assure they would be well-lived; you will want for nothing."

"That's such–" Aspen tried. River had also opened her mouth, ready to respond, but Clover held a hand up in front of them, and they both stopped. She hadn't looked away from them during the duration of their speech, her gaze hard.

Alouette went over to Aspen with a flap of their wings, likely to keep him from speaking out again, dragging him to the side. They murmured something to Aspen, low and harsh, but Inferno didn't care if the young prince was getting scolded, if Alouette was warning them of Inferno's power. They tore their eyes away, back to their real focus. Their focus was entirely on Clover. Truly, they only had to convince her; they were sure Aspen would follow her lead, just as the moon trailed after the sun and reflected its light.

"Do you understand the gravity of the situation?" Inferno asked her, a bit softer.

"Yeah...Okay, I think I do. Is that everything? Are you done? I want to talk to Juniper now, if you are," Clover said. Something ugly twisted inside of them, then, at her insistence. Juniper didn't deserve so much care from her. Not after what he had done.

"...He kept you from me," Inferno said. Clover's eyes widened. "He hurt you to keep you from your duty, your fate written in the stars. The amount of undiluted gold Thauma he used to hide your Cachet caused irreversible damage. Did you know you were in so much pain you blacked out the very memory of it? I can still hear your screaming. This was before Alouette even came to him in the night with their own false story; he was intending to face Aspen himself. And then, after Alouette's little tale, he decided to stay on the run; to keep anyone from finding the final Quasar, to lie about Alouette, letting them believe it was him, so if anyone came looking, they'd find him. Either way, the universe would have been damned, he was ensuring that. You wouldn't have been safe if he did that– you, along with every living thing, would have ceased to exist."

"He didn't have all the information we do. I'm willing to bet he didn't know about the Original Two. All Alouette could've told him is what they told us at the start, that they knew the Quasar stuff was just to seal up some other Gods." Clover was too adamant to defend him. Juniper had left her all alone. That senseless act alone...

"Misguided or not, it doesn't matter. He intended to lie to the Gods. His audacity, his deceptiveness, it won't be forgiven. This bag on his shoulders, do you know what it's filled with? Unsent letters to you, to your mother. Instructed to be sent after the year the ceremony is due. He wrote all about his travels. He intended it to be closure for you; but you and I both know it would have only distressed you and your mother. Made you mourn all over again. I should have smote him the moment he walked into my temple that first time; but I know you, know your heart."

"That's...that's why you're possessing him," Clover realized. "Give me that!" She practically tore the bag from Juniper's shoulder, clutching his bag protectively to herself, and they let her. She'd realize they were right about Juniper, sooner or later. For now she could be emotional about it.

"I knew you would listen to words from his mouth. It had been an easy thing, drawing Alouette to my temple with whispers from dim campfires and from the tongues of bears in the wilds, given the desperate and miserable state they were in. The brother you feel so reverental about, the one you recall as stoic, composed, intelligent? He's constantly at my temple, face down like a dog, begging me to make his Cachet real, to unmake yours. He's a mess, he has no real grand plan, and he crumbled entirely when I told him you were with Aspen. He truly didn't know you at all; he kept saying you should be at home, safe with your mother. He believed you to be someone who could sit quietly, he never recognized your ambition, your hopes, your undying fire."

She pressed her lips into a line, challenging them to continue. Even now, her fire was so, so bright, they thought it rivaled their own.

"You think talking about him that way will make me want to do what you want?"

"No; I believe you deserve the truth. Because you're my Chosen, and I love all of you, every single person that walks this realm. And I believe you know what's right."

"What's right—" her voice raised in pitch, her eyes narrowing, "The thing is, you can say you love us all you want; you can give us the best life. But you're still cutting it short, like we're all cattle to you, ripe to slaughter. You're still making us suffer. You're still putting a tremendous burden on us; one we didn't have a say in. And you didn't even give the other Gods a chance to try and help, to brainstorm. Smart as Fillip is, don't you think she could've helped, if you and past-Alo hadn't locked her in her own dreams? No– you lied to us for a reason; you knew we'd never willingly make our Gods suffer. Not for our sakes, not with our souls."

"Only those of you we know are strong enough to carry it are burdened," they murmured, ready to look up at Aspen. He was strong, too, practically pre-forged for handling pressure with his status to inherit the kingdom. Clover grabbed Juniper's face, jerking their gaze back to her forcibly, so hard it made Juniper's neck cramp up.

"Look at me! Look in my eyes! Really, honestly think about what you're doing! Do you think hurting my brother is a– a way you know, get my favor? You should– you should know with my horoscope alignment that, that's real, since you said my 'fate was written in the stars' um..." she stuttered out, and they were confused by her sudden directional change.

"Horoscope?" they asked.

"Yeah," she nodded, not really answering their question, almost as if she were distracted, before glancing over Juniper's shoulder, then back with a nervous little grin. "You know that you talk a whole lot, don't you?"

They jerked around, seeing the hole Frond was in lit up with an explosive green and gold light.

Aspen's hand reached over top of the hole, and when he clawed his way up, his already green eyes were alight with a glowing emerald in the pupil. Branches twisted around him, helping him out of the grave. Alouette was perched on the edge of the hole, swinging their legs, their hand still sparking with gold light. When– when had they even–

"You–" Inferno hissed.

"Me?" Alouette asked innocently. "What did I do? I forgot, please jog my memory," they laughed like they had just told the funniest joke in the world. "I knew I couldn't get out of putting you in Juniper, couldn't free Frond while your attention was on me, but I also knew help would arrive if I waited long enough, and you'd get distracted. Shit, even I get distracted by Clover! She's so good at it!"

"We're on the same side! In service of mortals, we have to–"

"Bullshit," Frond growled through Aspen, flowers blooming under his feet as he strode forward, more aggressive than Inferno had ever seen him. "Why'd neither you or Glacier get sealed, too, then?"

"We had to make sure Quasars kept getting marked, we had to watch over the humans!"

Seiche got between them and Clover again, pushing her protectively behind him. "And you don't even offer them Thauma, like we do. You love them, but not enough that you're willing to bleed for them. You love humans as pets, as abstract concepts, as your little toys. You're proud to have made them, but you see them as beneath you. You're unwilling to meet them in the middle or allow them to try and understand your true motives, not until you're forced to. We, on the other hand, we love them...personally, intimately," Seiche said, using the guard's staff to tilt Inferno's chin up towards him. Inferno felt a shock of disgust run through themself at Seiche's coy little smile. "Remedy and I already told the humans Alouette was behind the sealings on the way here. And River was sure Alouette was still on our side, so we put our faith in her judgment, and it seems like it paid off. They're all little liars, horrible, conspiriting rats, but half-decent actors. If you're wrathful towards Juniper for trying to deceive you, you ought to be furious with everyone here. Offer me your fury, I'll take it as tribute."

Inferno wrapped Juniper's fingers around Seiche's vessel's neck. "You wouldn't be able to handle my fire. I'll melt you out of this vessel," Inferno threatened. In the grand scheme of things everyone here besides Clover and Aspen were insignificant. They saw red, their own fire burning hot, blinding their judgement for a moment.

"But you can't." The other guard finally spoke, twirling his own staff absentmindedly. "You just admitted all eight of you have to exist; can't go destroying one, the whole thing will fall apart. We're at a stand-still. Clover and Aspen won't do what you want, they won't sacrifice themselves. Alouette isn't going to re-seal any of the Gods, unless you're willing to offer yourself up. Seems like we might have to have a real conversation about this. One that's not so one-sided this time."

"...You're all a lot more clever than I gave you credit for," Inferno admitted.

"It's not a matter of being clever," Alouette informed them. "It's a matter of kindness. They're all incredibly kindhearted. They've been willing to extend forgiveness to me; they can do the same to you, if you'll speak with us on even-terms. Let us solve this together, meet in the middle about it."

In the middle; of course that's where Ash would want to meet, that was their domain.

"We can't. I'm sorry, Ash, perhaps the next time you go through the Phoenix cycle, you'll have shed this too-human mindset and be willing to do what has to be done. Glacier," Inferno said softly. "I'm coming back up."

"Oh no you don't, not after we finally got you down here–" Alouette said, rushing to them far too quickly in a burst of wind, their nails digging into Juniper's shoulders. A white-hot pain, unlike anything they'd ever felt ran through them, causing them to collapse.

"What did you do?!" Clover cried, dropping to her knees with them.

"They were going to run away. I locked them in there–"

"In my brother?! They were going to let him go!"

"If they went back to the Upper Realm, I have no idea what they're capable of, the two of them together! I had to!" Alouette argued.

"So you made that their permanent body, with a human soul already in it?! Alouette, that's like bringing all of their power here, you moron! Clover's brother will be hurt!" Seiche yelled.

"It's not like I had a whole lot of time to think of something better!" Alouette screamed back, flaring their wings. "I didn't get invited to the little brainstorming party, I was too busy being Inferno's hostage here!"

Inferno could feel something heavy on their head, not so different from the spiked halo they donned in the Upper Realm. It shouldn't have been on this body. When they looked down, it looked as if they had dipped Juniper's brown arms and hands into white from the elbows down, as if the color had been siphoned out in a neat gradient.

"Oh dear..." Fillip whispered.

"Juniper– Juniper, you can hear me, can't you? You've gotta help us, you need to fight them–!" Clover yelled, grabbing their shoulders from the front. "We can fix this! We can–" Alouette still had a forcible grip on them from the back, holding them back from doing anything. River still had her casting of scarlet Thauma going. Frond was trying to hold them down by growing roots around Juniper's legs. Their legs.

Inferno hung their head, letting out a soft laugh, burning the roots away with a flick of their wrist. At the sight of fire, everyone backed up; Seiche raised a hand, but Remedy beat him to it, extinguishing it by manipulating dirt to snuff it out. The smoke was rich and thick and made their eyes water.

None of them understood.

They waited until the orange waned from Clover's eyes before they told her.

"My soul was too large; there wasn't room for both of us. He was dead the moment Alouette put my soul into him."

prev chapter next chapter