She sunk into the hotspring with a contented sigh. The water reminded Asceal of the mountain snow melting on her skin, but she would be quick to preface that by saying the warmth was a great deal more pleasant. Shimmering trees above her cast pretty reflections on the water and the sounds of an island filled with life echoed through the forest around her. It was peaceful, and that was what she needed.
After all that had happened this was a welcome reprieve. She hadn’t forgotten her pledge to stop the next disaster that befell Galbar, or at least try to, but it hurt nobody for her to put that out of her mind here. At least for a moment. She let the water take her burdens and began to float on her back, slowly drifting atop the steaming hot spring. Sadly it seemed that universe would not let her relax, as a familiar voice chimed into her mind.
”Hello Asceal, I hope this isn’t a bad time, but I’d like to speak with you.” spoke the directionless voice of Azura ”It’s nothing urgent, but I find myself a touch trapped at the moment and thought would be as good time as any to get in touch with you.”
For a second, Asceal panicked. Her eyes shot up to her glowing dress, hanging on a tree branch not far from the water. She nearly jumped out of the water before she realized Azura was speaking in her mind, although that didn’t stop her from scanning the forest around her to be certain of that. She swam over to the edge of the spring and sat on a conveniently submerged root before replying, a hint of resignation in her voice, “It’s no imposition Azura. You say you’re trapped? Do you need help?”
”No No I’m quite alright. Sorry. Should have phrased that better.” Came the apologetic reply ”To jump to the end of events I was going to speak about, Li’Kalla is currently taking a nap on my back and I don’t believe I can move without rousing her. She seems to be having a. um. pleasant dream? So it would be a shame to wake her.”
“Li’Kalla? The Goddess of… Rain? I don’t think I’ve had the opportunity to meet her yet,” Asceal looked up and wondered if snow was a sort of rain. Had Li’Kalla filled the mountains of Istais with the fluffy white substance? She would have to thank Li later, if that was the case. Asceal ran her hand through the water and tried to focus, “So what was it you wanted to tell me, Azura?”
”She’s lovely, if a tad fragile. So I highly recommend paying her a visit.” Azura said cheerfully, before her voice became more stern as she turned to more serious matters ”I agreed to share information I gathered with you and Aelius regarding Katharsos, so that is what I wish to do, if you have the time?”
“Yes,” Asceal matched Azura’s tone, and then some, “And I have some things of my own to tell you, albeit about another one of our peers.”
”Then I suppose it is only appropriate that I do as well. After I returned from the stars where i verified what you saw in their fires first hand I ended up battling a storm created by Orvus that was tearing across Galbar faster than the speed of sound as it chased his ruinous moon. I tired to fight it alone, then teamed up with Ashalla to successfully corral it to a Maelstrom just south of the western spinning continent.” She explained.
”Afterwards we got to talking and I discovered that Ashalla had met Katharsos in person and from her I learned a few things about him. He has a gateway, a vast vortex of souls, just to the east of the oldest continent, the one shaped a bit like a dragon's foot. It seems the monster is burning the souls to create something called soul ash, a raw resource from which all the new souls of the life we have created forms.”
“I’ve felt it,” Asceal muttered aloud, “And before you go on Azura, be wary of Orvus. I’m glad you managed to restrain his storm, but he’s already made an attempt on Phystene’s life. I’m afraid Katharsos isn’t the only one we need to worry about.”
”I had feared this would be so.” Azura responded, the weight of the many trials yet to come weighing heavily on her words”Parvus’s fears of divine conflict are coming true then, and here I thought I would be the first to... No. I should explain further first. Ashalla showed me something she had made working with Katharsos. Soul Oysters she called them, little shellfish that supposedly ‘cleanse’ the ash of its impurities. Whatever those are. As a result they create small pearls out of the ash. Like solid souls. I have turned this technique to my own ends and have invented an art that can make souls themselves into solid crystal, allowing them to resist the pull of his pyres and vortex even after death. It’s not a perfect solution. I have had no practice with complex souls such as ours and the end result is not more a storage state than a life after death at the moment. But it’s good enough for what I want to do.”
There was a pause in her dialog before Azura continued ”I’m gathering my strength Asceal, preparing for a day soon to come when I will return to the pyres and free all those that still remain from his infernal clutches. I will crystallize their souls and bring them back to a place I have prepared at the top of the world, where they will be safe from the pyres forevermore.“
Asceal took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. Azura had accomplished more than she’d thought possible in such a short time. Soul crystals. It wasn’t a solution, but Asceal wouldn’t gainsay the plan when she had nothing better. At the very least Azura had given them time. “Thank you,” Asceal’s tone was one of genuine gratitude, “If we can save them from the Pyres, even if it’s just to have them wait, it’s worth it. I’ll do whatever I can to help you Azura. You won’t be confronting Katharsos alone.”
”Thank you“ relief in her response was palpable, as if she had feared that she had gone to far ”This means alot to me.“
“It’s the least I can do,” Asceal replied kindly, even as she pondered the implications of what Azura had told her. She sunk deeping into the water, her hair splaying out around her as it floated on the hotsprings surface. There was a pause before she spoke again, this time hesitantly, “I have something I need to tell you, though. I found an island while I was exploring the world. An island that had been… Burned. Sartravius. There were a multitude of injured birds on it, and they claimed to be your creations. I saved the ones I could Azura, but I can’t say how many died.”
There was a long sullen silence ”Damn him.“ she finally cursed, ”Why? What could they ever have done to deserve that?“ another pause, and then she concluded that ”This is my fault. I wasn’t there. I couldn't be there. I didn’t make them strong enough. But there's just. Why are there so many? I can’t fight them all!“ Azura bemoaned.
“You can’t,” Asceal admitted bitterly, “And neither can I, but we still have to try. If nobody even tries to stop them, then what will remain? I only wish there were more of us.”
”If only.“ Azura agreed ”I’ve only met three apart from you and Aelius. Parvus is a manipulative snake who preaches peace with a sword at his side, Ashalla does not appear to even understand what empathy is even if she seems harmless enough and I don’t believe Li'Kalla is built for fighting. I don’t suppose you’ve had any more luck than I?“
Asceal shook her head before realizing Azura couldn’t see her. She flicked her forehead and spoke dejectedly, “No, I haven't. Phystene was traumatized enough by Orvus’s attack. I don’t think she’s one to rush into another confrontation. Shengshi, for all his hospitality, seems to be struggling to keep his own peace. I don’t understand his feud with Kalmar, but it’s enough for me to suspect neither of them can be relied on. As for Parvus… Well, I’m not sure he’s what you say. I agree he isn’t one to stand and fight, though.”
”Perhaps I am being to harsh on him. Still. That is disheartening to hear. It will be us three against the darkness then.“
“Us three…” Asceal muttered. Three against how many? It seemed every day that one of the other gods was committing some atrocity. They wouldn't be able to stop them. Unless. Unless it wasn’t just three of them. Hadn’t Shengshi made Xiaoli? Hadn’t she brought Liana to life? Asceal stood in the hot spring and grinned, “Maybe not, Azura. Shengshi has a companion he made, Xiaoli. I wonder, what if we made our own allies?”
”That does seem wise Azura replied ”I’ve made creatures to perform tasks already, so making weapons rather than tools could work. To have power in more than one place would be exceptionally useful.“ she agreed.
Asceal frowned at the mention of ‘weapons’ but agreed, “Yes, it would. We can’t be everywhere Azura, but they could.” The Goddess paused to exit the hotspring, water steaming off her as she brightened, “And perhaps those unwilling, or unable, to fight might create beings that aren’t so encumbered.”
”Perhaps, or they be able to lend us aid in other ways. Something to consider.” came the response. ”indeed you’ve given me a lot to consider, so thank you for that.”
“And thank you for all you’ve done Azura,” Asceal spoke earnestly as she stepped into her dress, “I’d have never thought of these soul crystals of yours. I don’t think I can properly express my gratitude that you did.”
”I do what I can, and I also got lucky. It’s ironic that Katharsos own handiwork was inspiration for the power we will use to oppose him. Thank you for listening Asceal. I’ll see you when we are ready to strike, if not earlier.”
”Until then, I wish you luck.” Asceal pulled the shoulder straps of her dress on and took flight, heading to the gateway to her sphere. She had much to consider herself.
Azura has a phone call with Asceal. They talk about how much Kathy and the other gods suck. They plot a soul heist and lament how few gods seem willing to stand and fight team evil. Asceal suggests making their own allies.
She sat atop the mountain, hands on her knees, humming a somber tune. Around her snow had begun to blanket the peak, falling in step with her song. Rivulets of water ran down and off her shimmering hair and face as the snow melted on contact with the Goddess’s body. It was a peculiar feeling, but one Asceal paid little attention to.
She dwelled on other things. Ever since Phystene had told her of Orvus’s promise she’d been unable to think of anything else. At least, not for long. Populating Istais had been a pleasant distraction, for Asceal and especially for Phystene, but that was what it had been: a distraction. The issue of Orvus’s attempted murder remained.
When the time came Asceal hadn’t stopped Phystene from leaving, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t worried for her friends safety. It was discouraging, to realize things were no better here than among the Celestial Spheres. Azura had warned her of that, though. Galbar had been the victim of a multitude of calamities already. What was one more?
Asceals song faltered and she muttered to herself, “One too many.”
She took flight, the radiant wings she’d given herself launching her from the mountain peak. She couldn’t hope to stop every disaster, she knew that. Truth be told she’d barely managed to keep herself safe, but that didn’t mean she should be ignorant as to what tragedies befell the world. As she soared above the clouds she took in a world unknown to her.
A vast stony plain had been pulled from the ocean near her island, and with no better landmark in sight she chose to follow its coast. It was a barren land, but not a ruined one. It was desolate, full of crags and boulders, and yet it was still beautiful. Moreover, she knew that even without the intervention of a god the wild land would be lush in time. It made Asceal realize that Phystene had been right. Even faced with tragedy they couldn't lose sight of what they were here to do.
That didn’t justify ignorance or inaction though. Before long Asceal spotted the first sign of what she’d taken flight to find. In the distance, invisible to any but a god, a thin stream of smoke spoke of a great fire that had since burned itself out. She rushed to it.
What she found was an island, pitifully small, and black with ash and death. That wasn’t all though. Life was slowly reclaiming the island. Scattered around the scorched island were groupings of thin green stalks. The plants were sprouting from seeds being planted by a flock of multicoloured birds who could only be Azura’s creations. Asceal floated to the ashen ground and beckoned to one.
Around her a small group gathered. They looked like miniature imitations of the Goddess of Wind, and Asceal couldn’t help but take a moment admire their brilliant feathers. That, and the work they were doing.
She smiled at one and asked, “Little one, can you tell me what happened to this place?”
The bird cocked its head and sung a reply, “The burning one came. It burned the land, see?” The Gemstone Gardener looked around as if to illustrate its point before continuing in a somber tone, “Others were burned too. They don’t fly anymore, and they hurt.”
Asceal frowned and scanned the island, looking for any injured Gardeners. She glanced at the colourful bird she’d been speaking to and asked, “Can you take me to them? I may be able to help. I’m a friend of your mother.”
“You know Azura?” The Gardener chirped happily, “If you can help come, come! Fly with us!”
The Gardener and those around it took off and Asceal followed. She took care not to outpace the mortal birds, for even flying normally the ethereal wings that sprouted from her shoulders were a great deal larger than theirs.
They led her across the island, to a beach of glassy black sand. The beach sloped up to a wall of stone into which dozens of small alcoves had been carved. The holes concealed countless small, huddled bodies. The Gardeners that had brought her there approached cautiously and sung to their fellows, “We’ve brought a friend of Azura! She says she can help!”
A few Onyx Cockatoos emerged from the alcoves and flew up to the Goddess. They said nothing as they regarded her, but eventually flew back to the alcoves and squawked in careful invitation. Asceal approached one of the alcoves and saw the masses of quivering bodies within. Not all were Gardeners, but all were injured.
Many of the birds had lost the feathers of their wings. A few who were especially unfortunate had had lost wings or feet altogether. Theirs were merciful injuries compared to their companions, though. The small scaled lizards had suffered horribly.
Many had limbs fused to their bodies, nearly all were blind. She tried to stop herself, but soon Asceal had started to cry. Meager as they might be, these souls did not deserve such cruelty. Gently, under the watchful eyes of the Onyx Cockatoos, Asceal extended a hand and rested it on one of the Gardeners in the Alcove.
What sort of Gardener it was she couldn’t have said, for all its feathers had been scorched from its flesh. She felt its faint heartbeat, listened to its laboured breath, and etched the sight into her memory before her hand started to glow. The Gardeners breathing grew stronger, its scars faded, and its feathers began to grow back.
Asceal still wept silently, but she did her work. The glow spread from the Gardener to its fellow animals. Soon it had even begun to permeate the soil. All across the island those creatures who had survived the onslaught, no matter how great their pain, were restored to health.
The Goddess stood when it was done and wiped glowing tears off her face. She knew she couldn’t prevent every tragedy, but how could she allow such atrocities to happen again? She’d sworn to protect the souls of Galbar, not save the few that survived her siblings sadistic rampages.
As the healed creatures began squawking, chirping, and barking their thanks Asceal took to the sky. She couldn’t stop the depraved actions of her siblings. She couldn’t stop every tragedy in its tracks.
That didn’t mean she shouldn’t try.
Asceal decides she should see what calamities have befallen Galbar. She finds the scorched island. She saved the survivors. She decides she has to do whatever she can to stop this from happening again, no matter the cost.
Asceal: -1 MP Healing all the survivors of Toast Island.
Heliopolis rose and fell a number of times before Asceal felt the compulsion to stand. Pulling an island up from the depths hadn’t been an easy task, and the dirt she’d lain down on after was shockingly comfortable. When finally stirred from her torpor it wasn’t out of a desire to do so. A tingling in her mind had alerted her to the arrival of another god, one of her siblings, on her island.
Her contented expression soured and she took flight. The shining wings she’d given herself propelled her upwards until the island stretched out below her. From that vantage point she spotted her unexpected guest. A great boat floated on one of the many lakes Asceal had crafted on the island. She didn’t recognize it, but she still breathed a sigh of relief. At the very least it wasn’t Melantha.
The island she soared above was her gift to whatever souls would come to call Galbar home in the days to come. A gift and an apology, really. For now it was all she could do to make up for her failures. The simple thought she might have lost it in another battle with her opposite so soon after its creation had been terrifying.
It was safe though. Now more curious than concerned Asceal descended rapidly, streaking towards the ship. The ornate vessel was richly decorated and sported a golden hull. What was it with the other gods and gold? Her mystery guest seemed to enjoy the substance as much as Aelius did.
Asceal shook her head and focused on the vessel as it grew from a distant speck to a towering divine construct. At the last second, immediately before she would have crashed into the ship, she slowed to a stop and hovered just above the deck. The air she’d displaced buffeted the vessel as she floated down and set foot on the ship.
It was, she realized, a tad more aggressive of an entrance than she’d intended. She looked around sheepishly before spotting a wide-eyed, pale-faced girl on the front of the deck, just underneath the dragon’s head, holding a teapot with both hands. It would seem Asceal had made quite an entrance, as the girl seemed not to be paying attention to the fact that her teacup had already overflowed considerably, too busy basking in the light of the goddess.
“Oh, hello.” Asceal wracked her brain but couldn’t seem to recall having met the girl before. That wasn’t too shocking. Asceal had made Liana a body and it wasn’t beyond imagining that the other gods could have performed similar acts. What caught her off guard though was the distinct trace of divine essence emanating from the girl. It wasn’t a god's essence, not even close, but it was there nonetheless.
Well, stranger or not there was no reason to be rude. Asceal smiled and introduced herself, “I’m Asceal, the Goddess of Light, and this is my island. Would you mind if I asked your name?”
The girl immediately put down her teapot, turned so her body faced the goddess and immediately reached her arms forward, placing her hands on the deck and then her forehead on her hands. As she kowtowed, she spoke, “M-my deepest apologies for intruding upon Your Holiness’ s-sacred grounds! This servant of Yours is named Xiaoli, councillor to the River Lord.” She kept her pose, prostrating herself before the deity.
Asceal’s smile faltered and gave way to a look of confusion. It wasn’t that she minded the compliment, but rather that she was at a loss as to how to speak to someone who was looking at the floor. That hadn’t happened before. She tried to reassure the girl, “There’s no need to apologize Xiaoli. You and anyone else willing to respect this land and the people here are welcome. Now, uh, please stand.”
The girl looked up and blinked. She cleared her throat sheepishly before gracefully getting to her feet and bowing curtly before the goddess.
“Pardon this servant’s perhaps unfamiliar behaviour - this servant understands that certain norms and rules differ between the Lord’s siblings.” She gave the goddess a sweet smile. “This servant of Yours, as well as her master, are deeply honoured to be granted a stay on Your Holiness’ sacred land.” She bowed again.
“Speaking of your, um, master,” Asceal paused and looked around again, “You said he was the lord of rivers? Would I be mistaken to assume this is Shengshi’s home?”
“Your deduction is sound, Your Holiness. This is Jiangzhou, His Lordship’s flagship and palace, open to all children of creation, from His siblings to their subjects.” She bowed again. “Would Your Holiness like me to summon His Lordship for You?” The gift’s lips gently curved into a sweet smile.
The Goddess nodded, “If you would, Xiaoli.”
The girl bowed yet again. “Certainly, Your Holiness. If Your Holiness would excuse this servant for a moment...” The girl proceeded to walk sideways and backwards towards the door - always facing the goddess, before finally turning around once she had moved close enough to the door to the palace, which she promptly entered. All the while Asceal had watched her go, concerned she would trip and fall. By some miracle the girl managed to reach the ship and disappear inside before tumbling, but the act had left the Goddess with a sour impression of the girls master.
There was nothing wrong with respect. Asceal valued politeness, even formality, but what she’d just seen felt to her like the reflection of something far beyond those simple concepts. It looked like submission, and submission born of terror at that. A frown marred the Goddess’s face as she watched the ornate door to the ships interior. She could only hope she was wrong.
After a while, there was a gentle shuffle from behind the door. The hinges sang sharply as the colossal gates swung open to reveal the tall snakeman, his arms raised in amiable welcome and his lips parted with a wide smile. His scales shone like rubies in the light of Heliopolis and Asceal, and his eyes were a magical crystal blue.
“May the Architect cast his most gracious blessing upon Your holy being, my dearest sister.” The snake bowed deeply before the goddess of light. Xiaoli, who stood behind him to his right, once more got down on her knees - however, she did not kowtow all the way as before, seeing as her hands were carrying a small tray with two cups, a strange pot, short and stout, with a handle and a snout, and a slightly larger cup with a small protrusion at the mouth. “Welcome to my humble abode,” the snake said warmly.
“And on you,” Asceal did her best to return Shengshi’s smile as she regarded him. He seemed kind enough, but a mere welcome wasn’t enough to ease her doubts. Not with Xiaoli on her knees. If the girl was paying attention she’d have noticed Asceal’s form had dimmed somewhat compared to their last meeting. Indeed, Xiaoli appeared somewhat curious, regarding Asceal with a slightly elevated brow - however, she did not seem to produce the reaction the goddess perhaps was hoping for and remained kneeling. The snake continued.
“To think that it was your glorious self that brought this exquisite land into existence - my, I certainly could have guessed this was the work of one of my more cultured siblings.” The snake gave the goddess a wink. “I do so hope you do not mind our presence here,” he gestured to the river around the ship, “as well as our little indenture upon your holy soil.”
“As I said to Xiaoli,” Asceal turned to inspect the river the Jiangzhou sailed on, “Any who respect this land and the people on it are welcome here. It is my gift to whatever souls come across it and I do not begrudge you for your addition to it,” She paused and came to face Shengshi once more, “Tell me though, what brought you here? I hadn’t expected guests so soon.”
The snake tapped his chin pensively. “I could not say, for I did not steer the ship here. That honour goes to my dearest advisor.” Shengshi gestured elegantly to the girl, who bowed her head, though her face betrayed a slight discomfort. The snake did not seem to notice.
Asceal looked to the girl, “Oh? Would you mind telling me what led you here Xiaoli? I don’t mean to pry, but I am curious as to how you found this land so quickly.”
The girl’s expression quickly became a warm smile once again. “After my lord requested that we leave Kalgrun, we decided to explore the southwest. While my lord,” she paused for a moment,” rested after considerable strain performing his divine duties, he tasked me with sailing the ship to a tranquil place. Thus, we arrived upon Your Holiness’ island.” She giggled softly. The snake shot her a glance and nodded curtly.
“She is quite the capable one - a truly loyal and faithful companion,” he said with a gentle chuckle.
Asceal wasn’t sure the girl was being entirely truthful, but neither did she suspect Xiaoli was being compelled to lie. The Goddess’s form brightened perceptibly at that. At the very least she didn’t suspect Shengshi was deliberately terrorizing the girl anymore. As for what was happening there, Asceal had no clue. She’d learned a great deal from the lost souls that she followed to this universe, but she would be the first to admit there were gaps in her knowledge.
Her smile became more genuine and she nodded, “It seems so. I hope you have enjoyed your rest here, both of you. I haven’t had the time to sow the land with life yet, so I fear it is rather barren. At least, beyond this river.”
The snake waved his hands curtly. “Oh, do not worry about that. Life will come in time - I suspect our sister Phystene will arrive at some point.” He gestured to Xiaoli, who presented the tray before the two deities. “Would you care for a cup of tea as we talk? This will be my first time serving it to a sibling.” The snake gave her a giddy grin and snapped a low table, some silk pillows and a small, potted bonsai tree into existence. He centred the table on the deck, placed one pillow on each side and put the potted bonsai tree on the table.
“Please, sit,” the snake said and gestured to a pillow.
“It’s a drink, this tea?” Asceal eyed the pot Xiaoli was carrying warily. The girl had been drinking it when Asceal arrived hadn’t she? The Goddess glanced behind her to the small puddle of tea that had gathered on the deck after Xiaoli spilled it earlier. Somewhat reassured Asceal took a seat on one of the pillows and found herself marvelling at how soft it was. And she’d thought the dirt was comfortable? She would be recreating these on the Garden, of that there was no doubt.
The snake coincidentally also noticed the puddle and shot Xiaoli a momentary sharp glare, which the girl noticed, hanging her head. The snake then promptly snapped his fingers. A water globule came zooming out of the doorway at blinding speeds. It slid over to the puddle and licked over it a few times before zooming off again, leaving the floor completely clean once more. The snake then promptly seated himself across from the goddess and gazed across the river. Xiaoli came over with the tray and gracefully placed it down on the table, taking out a small towel which she proceeded to elegantly fold into thirds until had formed a triangle. While she dusted and wiped out the cups with intricate, almost ceremonial movements, the snake let out a soft sigh.
“You know, the beauty of this place reminds me of a poem…”
“A poem?” Asceal asked while watching Xiaoli clean what she had the distinct impression were clean cups.
“Indeed… A short collection of phrases that together form a poetic message greater than the sum of its parts, if you will.” He cleared his throat. “Allow me to perform for a spell…” In two delicate moves, the girl placed one cup down on the table in front of each deity, with Asceal’s being placed first. Meanwhile, the snake spoke.
”Upon the river, Flanked by sand and reed, The golden dragon Bringing with it peace.
The nature around Gazes in great awe. The dragon, humbled, Wills a blessing there.
The frogs skip through streams; Fish peruse with glee; Plants bloom with great joy - Sharing the fortune.”
He smiled. “It is not my finest work, by any means, but one I found suitable for the situation.” Xiaoli poured some boiling water into the teapot without putting in any tea, then waited for a moment.
“It’s still quite pretty,” Asceal remarked as she continued to observe the strangely meticulous way Xiaoli worked, “Much like a song, really. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer you in turn Shengshi. Perhaps when this island is complete I’ll have a poem of my own to describe it, but for now I’m at a loss.”
The snake blushed. “My, my, you are much too kind, dearest - oh, and do not feel indebted to me, please. A mere possibility of one day hearing your poem is more than enough for me.” He gave her a gentle smile. Meanwhile, Xiaoli poured the hot water over into first Asceal’s cup, then into Shengshi’s cup. She discarded what water remained before unlidding the pot and carefully plucking some green leaves out of a small pouch and placing them inside the tiny pot. She placed the lid back on the pot and took a small box out from her sleeve. She opened the box and elegantly extracted a small, intricately carved frog figurine, which she placed on the table next to the bonsai tree. The snake lifted a brow.
“Xiaoli, would you explain to our most honourable guest, as well as to your lord, what that is?”
The girl bowed her head forward. “Your Holiness, my lord - this is the product of an idea of mine: I call it a tea spirit.” She picked the frog figure up again and let the deities look at it closer. “I hope that I may one day ward off evil-minded spirits so that gods and mortals may drink tea in peace without disturbance.” She placed the figurine back on the table and looked up with a smile. Shengshi nodded.
“Truly capable, is she not?” he said and grinned at Asceal.
She glanced at Shengshi and met his grin with her own soft smile, “She certainly seems to be.” The Goddess looked down at the figurine and reached out to grasp it before suddenly pulling her arm back. She asked Xiaoli apologetically, “Would you mind?”
The girl giggled softly and instinctively covered her mouth with her sleeve. “Of course not, Your Holiness. Please, look as much as You would like.”
Asceal picked up the little frog statue and turned it around in her hands, appreciating the craftsmanship. She looked up to Xiaoli, “You know, I have a friend who enjoys making sculptures too. Nothing so intricate or purposeful though.” The goddess paused and carefully placed the small icon back on the table. She suppressed a frown before continuing, “You say it’s meant to ward off wicked spirits? Have you encountered such beings?”
The girl giggled. “You are much too kind, Your Holiness. It is by no means that intricate.” Her smile faded at little at the goddess’ question and in two quick, ritualistic movements, she discarded the hot water in both the deities’ cups. “If this servant may clarify, Your Holiness, her use of the phrase ‘evil spirit’ describes a much less tangible phenomenon than it may have implied - it is simply a term this servant likes to use to describe all manner of ill-minded thoughts!” She giggled again and unlidded the teapot, pouring in some warm water in a circular pattern. The snake smiled warmly at her. “The figure carries with it no actual power, but I hope that its presence will be enough to remove any and all animosity or ill intent between two creatures sharing a cup of tea. This servant hopes her explanation was satisfying to Your Holiness.” Then, nearly as promptly as she had poured the water into the tea, she poured the slightly verdant and somewhat golden drink through a filter into the slightly bigger cup. She proceeded to pour Asceal’s cup half-full, before filling her master’s cup with the same amount.
“I see,” Asceal intoned thoughtfully as she looked into the tea. She gingerly raised the cup to her glowing lips with two hands and sipped. The liquid seemed to take on shine of its own as it touched her lips and her eyes widened as she drank. She put the cup down and eyed it curiously, “How strange. I realize I’ve never taken the time to taste something before. Is all food and drink so… Energizing?”
The snake lifted a long, black brow and hummed pensively. “I see, you have never had the chance to enjoy the consumable pleasures of life before.” He paused to quietly slurp some tea. “I can confirm that food and drink do provide a certain boost to energy, perhaps, but for us deities it does little in the way of actual merit, as opposed to the mortal beings of this world.” He paused to drink some more. “Naturally, this does provide us with the perk of being able to enjoy as much as we would like for the flavour - which, if I may say so myself, is among the most exquisite pleasures this existence has to offer.” The god snapped his fingers and a water globule came flying out of the door to the palace, balancing a tray of assorted hors d’oeuvres like seaweed crackers, berries and small, sweetened biscuits.
“Would you like some?” the snake said and gestured to the tray just as the water globule sat it down on the table and zoomed off again.
“I would,” Asceal’s gaze fixed on the morsels and she carefully picked up and ate a berry. A wide smile blossomed on her face as she savoured the treat and before she could restrain herself she’d eaten two more. She deliberately rested her hands on the table and looked to Shengshi, “How wonderful! I hadn’t thought food would taste so good. I’ll be sure to tell Aelius of this. Where do these,” She pointed at the berries, “Come from? Are they your creation, Shengshi?”
“Indeed,” said the snake. “These snacks are all the products of my desires for the finer things in existence - part of a much greater selection that I one day intend to share with all of creation.” He threw his arms out to the sides to illustrate his point. Xiaoli giggled softly as she refilled the deities’ cups. “If you would allow it,” the snake continued, “then I shall do everything in my power to plant my river valleys full of shrubs, bushes and trees that sprout all manners of nature’s sweets.” He popped a grape into his mouth and gestured to the river.
The Goddess followed Shengshi’s lead and tried a grape. It was unlike the berries, not nearly as sweet, but it had its own charm to it. Was there even such a thing as an unpleasant flavour? She sipped her tea again and nodded enthusiastically, “I couldn't possibly deny such luxuries to those who come to reside on this land. To think there were so many foods, and all so pleasant! You’re more than welcome to create as many rivers as you’d like so long as you line their banks with these wonderful plants.”
The snake bowed his head in gratitude. “Your praise and blessing are truly heartwarming, dearest sister. I will naturally do everything in my power to ensure the mortals of this land will eat and drink in the river’s bounty.” Xiaoli, meanwhile, was peeling a mango with a gold-bladed, rosewood-handled kitchen knife. “Unfortunately,” Shengshi continued. “Not all the fruits enjoy life right by the river bank…” Xiaoli plated the sliced mango and offered some to the deities. Shengshi impaled a few slices on his claws and popped one into his mouth. He gave Xiaoli a grateful smile, who returned it cordially. He turned back to Asceal. “After all, what reed could support a fruit as juicy as this mango, hmm?”
Mangos, Asceal resolved upon trying one, were her favorite fruit. Her form grew brighter and brighter as she ate the slices one after another. Before long it became difficult to tell where the glow ended and the Goddess began. It was only when she reached for another mango, only to find none remained, that she realized what had been happening and dimmed. Her embarrassed expression made it clear she hadn’t intended to do that. She nervously ran a hand through her shining hair, “Oh dear. I seem to have eaten them all. I’m terribly sorry. It’s just that these mangoes of yours are frighteningly tasty. Tastier than the berries, even,” She looked out to the grassy riverbank and seemingly endless dirt beyond, “Would it be too much for me to ask for one of these plants? I’d love to spread them to the rest of the island.”
The snake chuckled. “I will gladly grant you as many specimens as you can carry, my dearest sister.” He straightened his back and let his feline nostrils examine the air and atmosphere. After a moment, he looked to the north. “My estimate is that the north side - that would be here - of the island would be absolutely perfect for a grove or two. Note, however, that the mango tree is rather heavy and needs sufficient soil and solid ground to grow.” He snapped his fingers and there was a ruckus below. Soon enough, five small globules of water came out the door, each balancing a plated whole mango on their heads, if one could call them that. They placed them down next to the goddess.
“The pits within will suffice as seeds,” the snake said. “If you are able to get in contact with Phystene, I am certain she would be more than happy to counsel you on botany.” Xiaoli filled the teapot with hot water again and waited for a mere few seconds before pouring the water into the large cup, which she then used to refill the deities’ cups.
“I’ll be sure to contact her soon. After all, I wouldn’t want to go too long without having these fruits again,” Asceal laughed happily and sipped her tea. She was having a good time; it was nice to have some escape from the worries that had been plaguing her. She did feel vaguely guilty for misjudging Shengshi, though. The God’s relationship with Xiaoli still puzzled her, but perhaps Asceal didn’t need to know more than she did.
She regarded the pair and smiled. It was deeply reassuring to know that the other gods could be as kind as Aelius and Azura. Especially after all that had happened. Feeling better than she had in a while Asceal asked, “Do you mean to stay here long Shengshi? Xiaoli? The island certainly needs more rivers.”
The snake plucked at his beard thoughtfully. “Indeed. It is quite likely that we will remain for a little while longer. This land yet requires a pinch of the Flow.” He grinned at Asceal. “This will not be the last you see of me, dearest sister.”
Xiaoli let out a quiet sigh. “I go where my lord wishes me to go,” she said, an uncertain smile on her face.
Asceal smiled weakly and gave Xiaoli a look of silent concern before she spoke, “Ah, well you are both welcome guests. I’ll be around of course. That said, I’d like to invite you, either of you, to my home. At the peak of this island's tallest mountain, hidden in the clouds, is the entrance to my Lustrous Garden. I’d love to have you, and I’m sure my friend Liana and Xiaoli would get along.”
Xiaoli grinned from ear to ear, revealing all her colourful river pebble teeth. She immediately covered her mouth with her sleeve, but kept giggling joyously. She looked to Shengshi and asked, “Oh, my lord, may I please go see this Liana? Please, please, please?” The snake raised an eyebrow at the two and ran two clawed fingers along his black beard. He let out a pensive hum, looked once again to Asceal and nodded.
“Very well. Should the opportunity arise, I will grant you leave to see this Liana.” Had she not been sitting on her knees, the girl would likely have jumped with joy. Instead, she threw her arms into the air in an uncharacteristically sudden burst of bubbly happiness. The snake gave her a strict glare and the girl swiftly regained her composure. She bowed to the goddess.
“Your Holiness, Your invitation is most humbling. This servant would be beyond honoured to visit.” The snake hummed in approval. “I will, too, come the opportunity,” he said.
“Excellent!” Asceal nodded and her smile widened, “I’m certain Liana will appreciate the company, as will I,” The Goddess looked over her shoulder at the state of her island and deflated a little, “I should see to the island first, though. I’ve enjoyed this, and you have my thanks for the introduction to these wonderful ‘mangos’, but I think it’s time I finish what I started.”
The snake nodded and stood up, bowing deeply before the goddess. “It was an absolute joy to have you over, dearest sister. Please, do come for dinner one time - the drinks served there are perhaps a little more interesting to the soul.” He winked. Xiaoli huffed and gave him a disapproving scowl.
“I hope we will see eachother again sooner rather than later,” the snake said warmly. “I wish you the best of luck with your mission. There may be a few more rivers around by the time you return, I predict.” He waved as the goddess flew off and looked at Xiaoli.
“You did well today, Xiaoli; however, your stance was off when you poured tea. That is alright in front of me - not in front of guests.” The girl huffed and looked down. “I will work to better myself, my lord,” she said. The snake nodded.
“You will have to if you want me to grant you leave.”
Asceal scares a girl when investigating a new presence on her island. Asceal worries the Xiaoli is being abused. Asceal, Xiaoli, and Shengshi talk. Asceal concludes Xiaoli probably isn't being abused. She doesn't understand hierarchical manners though. Fruit and tea is had. Invites to later events are given.
2. Asceal meets Aelius, Phystene, and Kalmar. She and Aelius discuss their desire to offer the lost souls of the universe some measure of what the Architect has given them. Phystene offers her support, Kalmar is confused. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4838618)
3. Asceal and Aelius devise a plan to offer the lost souls warmth and comfort by bathing Galbar in eternal light. Together they construct the Heliopolis and the first Celestial Furnace. This done, they illuminate half of Galbar. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4839348)
4. Having departed Heliopolis Asceal and Aelius arrive at her empty sphere. Aelius takes a nap and Asceal creates a world of crystal which will magnify the effect of the second Celestial Furnace and illuminate far more than just the other half of Galbar. Before she finishes the Furnace Aelius awakes and warns her Melantha is attacking Heliopolis. They speed off to prevent the destruction of the first Furnace and repulse Melantha. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4840066)
5. Asceal and Aelius confront Melantha and try to persuade her to leave. When this fails they resort to threats which provoke Melantha into attacking. Her attack causes superficial damage to Helopolis and she flees before there can be any retaliation. Asceal sets off for her own sphere fearing it will be Melantha's next target. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4842038)
6. Asceal returns to her sphere and finds it intact. She completes her Celestial furnace and activates it, but notices it has been sabotaged at the last moment. Before Asceal can fix the Furnace it explodes, destroying her sphere and injuring the Goddess. As she floats amidst the wreckage of her home Asceal despairs before noticing a nearby soul that was disoriented by the explosion. Asceal sees the souls destination, realizes Katharsos is burning the lost souls, and saves it from its fate. She makes a body for the soul and names it Liana. Together they set off for Heliopolis. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4842141)
7. Asceal and Liana arrive at Heliopolis. Aelius, who has witnessed the destruction of Asceal's sphere, is shocked to see her alive and well. The two share a moment as Asceal comes to terms with what has happened to her. Afterwards she tells Aelius of Katharsos massacre of the lost souls. Asceal then pledges to do all she can for both the souls that survive the slaughter and those that rise from the ashes of their predecessors. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4847684)
8. Azura arrives and Heliopolis and is greeted by Aelius and Asceal. From them she learns of what Katharsos has done and the three agree to share information regarding the state of Galbar. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4849834)
9. Asceal and Liana return the wreckage of the Goddess's sphere. Asceal rebuilds the Lustrous Garden as Liana looks on in awe. As a gesture of friendship Asceal fills the reforged Garden with shimmering vines which she gives Liana dominion over. The two finish the sphere together. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4850871)
10. The effects of Asceal remaking her sphere play out on Galbar. The Goddess struggles with feelings of guilt and responsibility for both the destruction of her Sphere and Katharsos massacre. Frustrated with herself and her self-pity she creates a gateway and flies to Galbar. Once there she decides to create a land that will both hide her gateway and function as a sanctuary for the souls she swore to aid. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4851355)
11. Asceal senses the presence of another god on her island and investigates. She meets Xiaoli and is disturbed by her behavior. Worrying Shengshi, who Xiaoli fetches, is abusing his subordinate Asceal questions the pair on how they came to her island. Xiaoli's answers and Shengshi's affable manner assuage the Goddess's concerns and she accepts the river gods offer to stay for tea. They share a friendly conversation and Shengshi introduces Asceal to food. After eating a number of fruits Asceal decides she likes Mangos most of all. The Goddess invites Xiaoli and Shengshi to the Lustrous Garden and leaves to finish her work on the island. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4857060)
12. Asceal asks for Phystene's aid in populating the island. Phystene arrives shortly thereafter and recounts her harrowing experience at the hands of Orvus. Asceal is shocked and offers Phystene any support she might need. Afterwards Asceal conveys to Phystene her desire to create a land where no creature need fear the dark; Phystene interprets this as a request to make every plant and animal on the island bioluminescent. Asceal creates a number of hotsprings at Phystenes request and the nature Goddess goes on to craft an glowing ecosystem that relies on both the sun and the springs for energy. The two admire their work as the night falls on Galabr. - (roleplayerguild.com/posts/4858337)