It was not a good neighborhood. It wasn't the worst neighborhood, either - you weren't likely to be murdered or robbed during daylight hours, and some of the shops were still doing legitimate business. There was a pub, for example, that sold watery beer to tired laborers. A greengrocer had set up a stall outside where browning cabbages and woody carrots languished in the sun amid a small crowd of flies. The street was only hard-packed dirt, ribbed with ruts. A few puddles from last week's rain still glistened here and there. The people had a grubby, threadbare appearance.
Except one. A stranger moved slowly down the street, ambling along as if he had no fear of pickpockets or other ne'er-do-wells. He should have been concerned - no one in that neighborhood had ever seen clothing like his, much less worn it. From his sandals, which were of butter-soft leather with silver buckles and studs, to his earrings, which were polished malachite drops, he was clearly a man of some importance. He wore robes of silky, silvery gray, beautifully embroidered with a pattern of willow branches and leaves. His feet left no prints on the muddy ground, and when he stepped in a puddle, the surface of the water didn't even ripple.
That wasn't the strangest thing about him, though. The strange thing was the way his presence seemed to affect everyone around him. No one paid attention to him or even looked at him, but wherever he went, people seemed to suddenly remember themselves. A youth chatting to his friends abruptly excused himself and went back to his job. A woman going over her accounts was seized by a realization that her assistant deserved a raise. A man who had been flirting with a flower seller broke off his conversation and went home to his wife.
Arima paid little attention to all this. It was just the sort of thing that happened to him these days. He had been the god of duty and devotion for nearly two years now, and he was beginning to feel that he was getting the hang of his job. These days, nudging people into doing what they were supposed to be doing was something he could manage with only a thought. People like these were only the low-hanging fruit, to be dealt with in passing on the way to his primary mission. He had another, more challenging target in mind.
A few meters ahead of him, ambling along the street with no apparent destination, was a boy of about sixteen, whom Arima knew from earlier research to be named Ryobe. He was unemployed at the moment, with a reputation for getting himself into trouble. He occasionally ran errands and did odd jobs, but most of his time was spent lounging about with his friends, gambling, and occasionally picking pockets. Just now, he was drifting towards one of the better parts of town, perhaps hoping to find either work or a less ethical source of quick cash.
He hadn't gone far, though, before he encountered a moderately well-dressed man with the look of a merchant and the expression of a man with too much to do and not enough time to do it.
"You there, boy!" he shouted.
Ryobe paused and looked at him curiously. "Sir?"
"Are you busy? How would you like to earn a little money?"
Ryobe did. He nodded eagerly.
"Good," said the merchant. He thrust a folded sheet of paper at the boy. "Take this to the temple of Vitrine. Do you know it? On Forgefire Street?"
"Good. Deliver it to the chief priest. He'll know it's from me and he'll give you a coin or two for your efforts."
Ryobe agreed to the task, which was, after all, easy money. He tucked the message into his belt and began loping with more energy in the direction of Forgefire Street. Arima strolled after him, unnoticed.
Forgefire Street was a marked step up from the road where the two of them had started. It was still less than opulent, but it had the air of a place where important work was going on. There were indeed forges and fires there, and a full regiment of potters and blacksmiths and glassblowers to attend to them. The air smelled of smoke and hot metal, and rang with the sound of hammers. Amid these more homely buildings was a loftier site: the Temple of Vitrine, goddess of glass and glassworkers. Whereas the businesses were all clearly designed with practicality rather than beauty in mind, the temple was a glory to behold, a towering spire of white stone that somehow managed to stay clean despite the smoke, set with more windows than seemed structurally possible. In the late morning sun, the whole thing glistened like the world's largest jewel.
Ryobe hesitated outside the structure, apparently having second thoughts. It did not, after all, look like the kind of place where ragged street rats would be welcome. It would be very easy just to disappear back into the streets he'd come from and leave the hassled merchant to find another messenger elsewhere. Arima could hear all these thoughts passing through the boy's head as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud.
Oh, no you don't, my lad. I worked too hard to get you this far, and you're not dropping out on me now!
He'd spent days setting this up - finding a suitable businessman in the area who dealt with the temple, arranging matters so that he'd need to send a message, making certain that Ryobe would be in the right place at the right time to deliver it. Arima was in no mood to start over now. He gave the boy a careful nudge, reminding him that a place this lovely probably had lots of money, and would be generous to a boy who delivered an important message efficiently. The promise of a reward did the trick, and the boy gathered his courage and went inside.
He stopped just at the entrance to the sanctuary. The temple might be beautiful from the outside, but from the inside, it was glorious. Sunlight streamed through the many windows, making them blaze with light. They were all of stained glass, laid out in intricate patterns and full of colors both bright and subtle. Each one was different, and each was a testament to the skill of the master who had made them. The floor was made of polished white marble, uninterrupted by any kind of seating, meant to reflect the colors and patterns to the fullest potential. To a boy raised in a grubby slum, it must have felt as though he had wandered straight into the Heavenly City.
While he was still standing and staring, a young man in the white and gold robes of a priest of Vitrine walked into the room.
"I thought I heard someone come in," he said. "Is there something I can do for you, young man?"
The boy turned to him with wide eyes. "Were these windows made by gods?"
The priest laughed. "Only by their servants. Is this your first time inside the Temple of Vitrine?"
The boy nodded shyly. Of course he'd never been inside this temple before. He had been forced by his mother to go to a few of the local temples for services as often as she could drag him, and he had formed the impression that temples were dull, boring places full of strict people and stricter rules. Something of that must have shown on his face, because the priest laughed again.
"This isn't your everyday sort of temple," he said. "This is a working temple, dedicated to one of the craft gods. We're less concerned with morals and rules than we are in honing our skills. We serve our goddess by doing the best work we can."
"Oh," said the boy softly. He stared a moment longer before seeming to come to himself. He scrambled for the message he was carrying. "Here. I need to give this to the chief priest. Is that you?"
"Oh, no. I'm just a junior priest, but I can take you to the chief. He's in the workshop."
"Workshop?" the boy repeated. "You mean you actually make..." He waved a hand at the windows. "...here?"
"We make all sorts of things here," said the priest, smiling. "Windows and mirrors and glasses and ornaments... Would you like to see?"
"Can I?" the boy asked.
"Of course you can," said the priest. "We welcome everyone who is interested in our craft. If you like, you can even help us with our work."
The boy looked as though he had just been offered the kingdom's greatest honor. The priest set a hand on his shoulder and began leading him deeper into the temple. Arima watched them both for a while, then turned and began walking back out into the street.
"A job well done," he told himself.
The boy might not join the temple right away, but he was hooked now. He would come back after this, start hanging around the workshops, begin helping the initiates and acolytes with their work and running errands for the priests, and sooner or later it would dawn on him that this was the life for him. Left to his own devices, he probably would have grown up to be a professional thief or pickpocket, and more than likely would have ended up in jail or hanging from a gallows. Arima didn't know what would happen to him now - maybe he would become high priest someday, or the greatest and most wealthy craftsman in the city. Maybe he would merely live out his life as a humble glassblower, making things both useful and beautiful for his neighbors. No matter how it turned out, though, one thing was for certain: he would never again feel that he had no purpose in life.
Among his followers and peers alike, he was known as the Friend of All Gods. His work was to guide lost souls like that boy. Whenever he found someone who was drifting aimlessly, he would lead them to something they could devote themselves to - a cause, a person, a religion. Whatever it was, it would always be the thing they were best suited to, and the thing that would make them happiest when they pursued it. He was known for his impartiality - no cause was too small or too challenging for him. In fact, he had become immensely popular among the minor gods, because he had begun leading people to them who might otherwise have become devotees of the more important, well-known gods instead. This was what had earned him his nickname, and even the temple where his religion had been founded was sometimes called The Friend of All Gods Temple. It was based on the site where his childhood home had been, and the garden where he had first met Aurite was preserved there - not as a vegetable garden now, but as a place of quiet meditation. Arima was looking forward to the day when some lost soul would wander there, begging him to find the path they couldn't find on their own, and he could rest his hand on their shoulder and tell them, "You are favored by me above all others. From this day onward, you will be my servant." He hoped ardently that when that day came, whoever he selected would be as happy in their work as he'd been in his.
At the same time, he was finding his new place in the universe something of an adjustment. It wasn't that he was unhappy in his new life. In many ways, he was probably happier than he had ever been before. He was surrounded by dear friends who welcomed him as their equal. After a lifetime of asceticism, he now had the freedom to indulge in any luxury he cared to. For the first time in his life, he had a garden that was entirely his own, his very own private courtyard where he could plant whatever he liked. It was hard to absorb. He had lived all his life by someone else's rules, and now he was being told that the rules no longer applied to him, and he could follow or ignore them as he chose. It was a little overwhelming, and left him wondering if he was really making the right choices. After all, there had been lots of high priests of Aurite before him who could find all the pitfalls and leave instructions on how to deal with them. There had never been a god of duty before, and the only way Arima could know he was doing a good job was to try his best and watch the results.
He was still dwelling on that thought when he became aware of a flash of movement and bright color out of the corner of one eye. He managed to turn around just in time to see a blonde boy flinging himself at Arima's side.
"Hey, hey, I found you!" the boy exclaimed, hugging him as if he'd been searching for Arima for years. In fact, they had seen each other at breakfast only that morning. Arima smiled. After all, this was no mere boy. In truth, it was the little god known as Scarlet, or sometimes simply as Chance. Either way, he was one of the greatest of the gods, and also one of the most mysterious. More importantly, he was one of Arima's good friends, and Arima was rather touched by his enthusiasm.
"Were you looking for me?" he asked.
"Well, I was looking for someone," said Yumoto, looking up at him with a bright smile. "And I found you! I knew I would find somebody, if I looked."
"That is usually the way of things," Arima agreed cheerfully. "Is there any particular reason you were looking for someone? Or did you just want to see what you could find?"
"I was looking for someone to go on a picnic with," said Yumoto. "I already found a few people, but we can always add more. Do you want to go on a picnic, Arima?"
Arima thought about it. If there was one thing he had learned about Yumoto in their long acquaintance, it was that Yumoto appreciated good food. If he was having a picnic, whatever they would be eating would probably be worth the trip.
"Who else is going?" he asked.
"So far, En and Atsushi and me," said Yumoto.
"All right, I'll join in," said Arima. En and Yumoto were both interesting company in their own ways, and Atsushi was one of his dearest friends.
"Yay!" said Yumoto, bounding into the air. "Come on, then!"
He seized Arima by the arm and began dragging him forward, and there was nothing Arima could do but follow.
The two of them vanished in a swirl of red light that smelled oddly but not unpleasantly of sun-ripened strawberries and steaming rice. When they reappeared, the city was far behind them. Instead, they were standing on the side of a mountain. Cool green pine trees loomed all around, but not spaced so tightly that shafts of sunlight couldn't stream past them. Arima looked around appreciatively. He had lived most of his life in the City of Seven Pillars, but he had been born in a mountain town and he always had felt at home among the peaks. This site didn't look familiar, but it was enough like his childhood home to make his spirits lift.
"Oh, good, you found him," said a pleasant voice. That was Atsushi, leaning against a nearby tree. "Are we ready to go now?"
"I just got comfortable," En complained.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," said Arima.
Atsushi grinned. "Don't worry. I never expect anything to happen on any sort of regular schedule when Yumoto is in charge." At the look Yumoto gave him, he added. "You're spontaneous. It's a compliment."
Yumoto seemed to take it as such. He beamed.
"Ready to eat now?" he asked.
"I don't see anything to eat," said En, half-opening one eye. He had been lying on the ground, his head pillowed on a soft patch of moss. Of course, he was the god of sleep and dreams, and probably could have slept anywhere, including mid-air or the bottom of a lake, if he felt like it.
"Well, I wasn't planning to eat here," said Yumoto, as if that should have been obvious. "I thought we'd walk a little and pick out a good spot."
"Leaving it up to chance, eh?" Arima asked with a half-smile.
"You got it!" said Yumoto cheerfully.
"Well, I suppose that means we'd better start walking," said Atsushi. He bent to give his friend a hand up. "Come on, En."
"Remind me again why I agreed to this?" said En, but he got up anyway, dusting pine needles off his shining blue robes.
"Because Yumoto always has the best picnic food," Atsushi replied.
"Big Brother makes it," said Yumoto. He picked a likely-looking direction and began to walk.
"Why isn't he here, by the way?" Arima asked. "Is everything all right?"
The question seemed to make the others nervous. Last winter, just after Midwinter Night, there had been an event that was now called The Chaos War, though calling it a war was something of a misnomer. A war implied armies and nations. This had been a more personal affair: all the gods against a single man, and that was Yumoto's big brother, the God of Fate. The cause of the battle had been the fact that a wizard with more ambition than sense had kidnapped Yumoto, and without him around to juggle the odds and make sure nothing bad ever happened to his older sibling, Fate's darker persona, Chaos, had broken free. He had nearly managed to destroy the entire Heavenly City and a noticeable chunk of the earth besides, before Atsushi, En, and their friend Ryuu had managed to rescue Yumoto and reunite the brothers. Everyone was now just a little twitchy about separating the two of them for too long.
"He's fine," said Yumoto. "He's keeping an eye on the bathhouse." Apparently, he guessed what everyone was thinking, because he added, "Don't worry, he's safe. I don't need to be standing next to him all the time just to keep him safe. He just got scared before because he didn't know where I was."
Arima wasn't sure there hadn't been more to it than that, but he decided Yumoto probably understood it all better than he did. After all, Yumoto had been doing the job of keeping his brother in line since the dawn of time, and Arima had only been doing this god thing for a couple of years. He decided to change the subject.
"I've been wondering," he said. "Why is it that you and Gora don't have temples and priests? You two are the greatest of the gods, and yet I've seen only a few small shrines to you and nothing at all to your brother. It seems odd."
Yumoto shrugged. "No point to it."
"I don't follow," Arima admitted.
Yumoto scampered up the side of a large rock and balanced there on one foot, letting the other swing freely in the air. "Well, what's the point of having priests and things?"
"To act as liaisons between the gods and mortals," Arima answered promptly.
"Yeah, there's that," said Yumoto. "But that's just part of it, right? I mean, the really big thing people need priests for is to tell them what the rules are, and how to follow them."
"That's so," Arima agreed.
"So what kind of rules would Brother and I have?" Yumoto asked.
"I don't know," Arima admitted. "What kind of rules do you have?"
"None," said Yumoto. "I'm the god of chance, right? So sometimes I make one thing happen, and sometimes I make other things happen. No point in me making rules if I'm going to change my mind about them five minutes later. And Brother is Fate, so when he decides something is going to happen to someone, it does, whether he tells somebody to do it or not."
"I suppose that makes sense," said Arima.
Yumoto jumped down from his rock. "Besides, we're kind of in charge of everybody and everything. We made a lot of different kinds of people for a lot of different kinds of reasons, so we want some of them to do some things and some of them to do other things. It would be pretty hard for us to make rules to apply to everybody. I mean, we think it's good for some people to serve Aruite, and it's good for some people to serve Vesta, but could you imagine someone trying to follow both sets of laws at the same time?"
Arima considered that. Aurite's law, as he knew all too well, tended towards an abstemious mindset. His followers were not to overindulge on food or drink, and were expected to remain chaste before marriage and faithful afterwards. Vesta, on the other hand, was the god of romance and of physical pleasures in general, and his worshipers were encouraged to make the most of every good thing life had to offer.
"I suppose you're right," he said at last. "But it sounds a little bit lonely."
"It's okay," said Yumoto. "We have you guys for company."
"I have noticed you guys have been hanging around the Palace more often lately," said Atsushi.
"Yup," said Yumoto. "Brother said he thought it was a good idea, and I think he's right. It's hard to know what to do about the bath house, though. I mean, I can fix it so no one shows up when we're not around, but I hate to just abandon it. I really like that bath house."
"You'll think of something," said En. He hung around the baths more than any of them. The Palace had its own public baths, but he seemed to enjoy being the only one of the gods who actually knew where the brothers' bath house was at any given moment, and shamelessly took advantage of it.
The four of them walked aimlessly for a while. At least, Arima assumed that they were walking aimlessly. He didn't think Yumoto had any idea where they were going, but was simply trusting that if they walked far enough, eventually they would come upon a good site for a picnic. Given his nature, they probably would.
Instead, they struck a path. They didn't realize what it was, at first, because it was eroded, sunk into the earth and mostly covered in pine needles. It was only when they passed an open place where there were no trees for several meters did they realize that what they were walking on wasn't just a convenient gap in the trees, but an actual paved road, made of cleanly quarried gray stone.
"Hey, look at this," said Atsushi. He prodded one of the stones with his foot. "Who do you suppose put this here? There aren't any major cities nearby..."
"Let's follow it and see!" said Yumoto.
En frowned down at the stones. "I don't know. I don't have a good feeling. Random roads in the middle of nowhere are creepy."
"I want to know, though," said Yumoto, and picked up his pace, so that there was nothing to do but to follow him.
The road wound its way further up the mountain, looping around outthrusts of stone and worming its way through clefts. At last, they found themselves standing in front of the ruins of a great stone building. It looked very old, with only a few feet of wall and some broken pillars standing, but in the ornamentation of the few remaining stones, Arima could see traces of lost beauty. Everyone stopped to stare at it.
"Wow," said Atsushi. "What do you suppose it is? It looks like an old temple."
"It is an old temple," said Yumoto. His eyes had gone wide and solemn.
En was the one who stepped forward, passing through the space where the front door would have been and into the remains of the sanctuary. His voice echoed back to them.
"Wow," he said. "I haven't seen one of these in eons. These are real second-age ruins."
Arima followed him into the sanctuary, brimming now with professional curiosity. He knew what the second age was. The first age was the age of creation, when Fate and Chance and the earliest gods had been fitting the universe together. The second age was the age when the newly created gods and mortals had still been running more or less unchecked over the earth, struggling with each other for dominance. It had been an age of strife and brutality, and had ended when the greater gods had struck down some of the most dangerous entities, sealed others away, and given a few others new, more peaceful responsibilities. After that began the third age, the age of civilization. There were some scholars who classified the age they were living in now as the fourth age, beginning with the day when a young man named Akoya had been chosen to become a god. It was the age of ascended mortals, and Arima was interested to see where it would lead. Second age temples, though, were unusual enough to be interesting.
"Can you tell who it's a temple to?" he asked, coming over to stand next to En.
En was leaning down to inspect and engraving on the wall. It was on the leeward side of the mountain, half buried in rubble but largely protected from the ravages of wind and rain, and therefore still mostly legible. Arima had never seen the specific design it bore, though. The wall was engraved with a stylized sunburst on one side, a crescent moon on the other, and between them, something that looked a bit like an egg with steam or heat rising off of it.
"Wow, would you look at that," En murmured, with something like appreciation. "When was the last time I saw one of these? I'd almost forgotten about this." He touched the egg-like symbol with one forefinger.
"I've never seen one at all," said Arima. "What in the world is it depicting?"
"I know that one," Yumoto chimed in, coming closer. "It's an old symbol for Fate. He doesn't use it much anymore. These days anyone wanting to draw a symbol for him uses an axe instead. It used to be an egg, though, for creation. That's why our bath house is called the Kurotama. But we don't use eggs much anymore."
"Why not?" Atsushi asked, as he joined them. "I mean, I guess an axe is a little more to the point, but..."
"Mostly because this particular cult used the egg symbol so much," said En. "It got a bad rep."
"So these were bad gods?" Atsushi asked. He looked around, expression alarmed, as though he expected them to jump out and attack him for daring to set foot on their property.
"Well, they weren't good," said En. "I don't know. I mean, I don't guess they were bad, but... well, they caused a lot of trouble, and we had to get rid of them."
"What were their names?" Arima asked.
"I forget what their real names were," said En, "but their titles were Sol and Luna. They were really powerful, back in the day - two of the strongest gods there were. You should ask Kinshiro about them. He fought with them. He'd remember."
They stood before the carving a moment longer, staring at it solemnly. Arima had never thought he would find anything as bright and beautiful as the sun and moon menacing, but something about this grim, desolate place was giving him chills.
"Let's have our picnic somewhere else," he said.
"Yeah," said Yumoto. He looked subdued. "I don't think staying here any longer would be a good idea."
"Maybe Akoya would let us use his meadow?" Atsushi asked.
Yumoto brightened immediately. "Hey, yeah, now that's a good idea! Let's go ask him. Maybe he wants to picnic too!"
He vanished, and his three friends followed him, leaving the temple once more empty.
One of the most remarkable sights in the known world were the Seven Pillars of Aurite. They stood in a loose ring near the center of the city that bore their name - seven vast monoliths reaching towards the sky. From a distance, a traveler could be excused for thinking that they were no more than a stand of dead trees, blasted limbless by fire or wind. It was only as you drew closer that you realized that these pillars were taller than trees, taller than castles, taller even than mountains. They stood so high that seen against the sky, they looked less like stones and more like cracks in the world. No one had ever been able to determine if they were made of stone or wood or some kind of metal. Whatever they were, they were rough, craggy, dull reddish-brown, and so hard that no tool could break or crack them. Though they were only a couple of feet wide, so thin that it seemed they must collapse under their own weight or topple at the slightest breeze, they had remained steadfast for centuries. Many brave risk-takers had endeavored to climb them. A few of those had fallen to their deaths, but most turned back long before reaching the top, dissuaded not so much by the immense height as by the unsettling aura the stones projected. No one wanted to build a home or business too close to them, no matter how much they trusted them to remain upright come storm or quake. Each of the seven pillars was surrounded by a ring of grass and wild plants, which was trimmed every week or so by a diligent gardener, and otherwise left alone.
That was probably why there was no one near to see several interesting things. The first was that a squirrel was climbing up one of the pillars. No wild creatures ever ventured too close to them, and even birds gave them a wide berth, but this squirrel made its way straight across the grassy verge and up its chosen pillar with a directness that was unusual in such a creature. The second oddity was that this wasn't just any squirrel - it was a flying squirrel, a species that didn't make its home anywhere near the City of Seven Pillars. Red squirrels were common there, but this squirrel wasn't red in the least. It was, in fact, a soft shade of green.
But the oddest thing, the most important thing, was the pillar itself. It was something that a human would have had to come very close to see. Standing even a foot or so away, it would have been almost invisible, hidden as it was amid the rough crags of the pillar's surface. There, where no damage had ever shown before, was a hairline crack about a foot long. The squirrel scampered up to it, examining it with clever paws and huge black eyes.
"Aha," it said to itself. "I thought so, dacha!"
With that, it leaned closer, fitted its teeth against the crack, and began to gnaw.
"Hello, I'm home," Atsushi called, as he wandered into his rooms.
Technically, this was his private space, created by the Palace itself to be perfectly suited to his tastes. The practical reality, though, was that he was happily married, and he'd given his beloved husband permission to wander in and out whenever he liked, and had in fact made sure that there was a connecting door between the two sets of living quarters. Since Kinshiro's rooms were almost purely functional, designed as places for him to get his work done in rather than relax in, that meant that Kinshiro spent most of his sparse free time in Atsushi's space.
Just now, in fact, Kinshiro was in Atsushi's sitting room, perched on one of the more upright armchairs, a book held delicately in one hand and a teacup in the other. He glanced up when he heard Atsushi enter the room.
"I was starting to wonder where you went," he said.
"Yumoto dragged us off on a picnic," said Atsushi. He flopped onto the sofa and made himself comfortable. "It was interesting, actually."
"I can imagine," said Kinshiro dryly. He had never completely approved of Yumoto. Respected him, yes, insofar as Yumoto was one of the people who helped keep the universe from folding in on itself and disappearing, but Kinshiro was the god of order, and Yumoto's haphazard nature irritated him. "Well, I can't say I'm sorry I missed it, but I'm glad you had fun."
"It was... educational," said Atsushi. He rolled over and leaned on the arm of the sofa so that he could look straight at his husband. "Say, Kinshiro... who were Sol and Luna?"
Kinshiro dropped his book and set the teacup down so hard it sloshed onto the end table. He yelped and scrambled to wipe drops of tea off his clothes.
"Where did you hear those names?" he demanded.
"En mentioned them," said Atsushi.
"Hm," said Kinshiro thoughtfully. He picked up his book and carefully smoothed the pages. "Well, he would remember them. He was around back then."
"So who were they?" Atsushi repeated.
Kinshiro scowled. "They were abominations. They never should have existed."
"Hm," said Atsushi.
"Don't go 'hm' at me," Kinshiro muttered. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that it's my job to disapprove of things, and whatever they did probably wasn't something the rest of the world would think was that bad, and probably I'm overstating the case. Am I right?"
Atsushi blushed and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. I guess I should know you better than that by now."
"Well, if you were thinking it, you probably had good reason," said Kinshiro, mollified. "But in this case, it really is true - Luna and Sol really were mistakes. They were created by accident."
"Tell me about it," Atsushi encouraged.
"There isn't much to tell," said Kinshiro. "It was way back, almost at the very beginning of things. Gora was experimenting, trying out this and that to see what would happen. He made this big egg and put a lot of different things in it, things that wouldn't normally go together - light and darkness, heat and cold, sound and silence, that sort of thing - and sealed them all up inside to see what would happen to them. I told him such a thing wasn't viable: either the disparate elements would force each other apart and the whole thing would split into pieces, or they would cancel each other out and there would be nothing left." Kinshiro shook his head. "He should have listened to me."
Well, that explains the egg symbol, Atsushi thought.
"So these two... they hatched out of an egg?" he asked, to see if he'd guessed right.
Kinshiro nodded. "It split apart, just like I said it would, and these two were inside, and they were... well, I had been expecting the egg to hatch into things, objects, not something alive. And these two weren't just any living things, they were gods, but they were... well, wrong."
"How so?" Atsushi asked.
"Because a god is meant to have a purpose," said Kinshiro. "You can't just be a god in general, you have to represent something. It's part of our nature. You've noticed, haven't you?"
Atsushi nodded. That had been something of a shock, when he'd first made the transition from mortal to divine. Something like that couldn't help but change a person, and he'd noticed after a while how much his new duties had come to define his life. He had given up needing to obey physical demands for food or sleep, but he had traded those needs for the need to do his job. He didn't regret making the trade, but it wasn't something he could have understood until it happened to him.
"But these two... they were made up of too many mismatched parts. There was no direction for them they could go that wouldn't conflict with some part of them or another. And they were so strong... I can't understand how it happened. Nothing created by accident should have been so strong. I was all for destroying them the minute they came out of that egg, but you know Gora." He grimaced. "He was all for giving them a chance. He told me to leave them alone and wait and see how they'd turn out."
"I'm guessing not good," said Atsushi.
"Not good," said Kinshiro. "In the beginning, Gora made these two the gods of the sun and the moon, and that was fine. I'd have been happy if they had stayed that way. But after a while, people began calling them the gods of day and night, and then of light and darkness, and of winter and summer... practically everything, in other words. They were so versatile, there wasn't much they couldn't do when they put their minds to it. They were drawing worshipers away from other gods and towards themselves, and you know what happens when a god gains more attention from their followers."
Atsushi nodded. It was a fairly simple equation: the more followers a god had, and the more ardently they were worshiped, the stronger they became. If these two gods had managed to amass the sort of influence Kinshiro was talking about, they would have been very powerful indeed.
"They were staging a coup," said Kinshiro. "We had every reason to believe their ultimate intent was to unseat the rest of the pantheon and rule the universe themselves. It finally got to the point where even Gora admitted that letting them roam free was a bad idea, and even then, he still wouldn't let me destroy them. I sealed them up with seven seals, and put a temple on top of them so they would be guarded forever. Their temples were pulled down and their congregations scattered. That's the last any of us have ever heard of them."
"I see," said Atsushi. "I guess I can see why you didn't like me bringing them up."
Kinshiro's expression softened. "It's fine. How could you know? Most of this happened before even people like Io and Ryuu were born, so I definitely don't expect you to know everything about it."
"I think I'm glad I didn't live back then," said Atsushi.
"It wasn't your sort of time," Kinshiro agreed. He looked thoughtful. "Although..."
Atsushi sat up a little straighter. "Although?"
"Although," Kinshiro said, smiling a little, "it might have been nice if I'd known you back then. I wouldn't be sorry to have had more time with you."
"Well, you have me now," said Atsushi, smiling back. "And I don't plan to go anywhere any time soon."
"Then why don't I come to you instead?" Kinshiro replied. He set his book and cup aside and went to sit with Atsushi on the sofa. "We can talk about more pleasant subjects for a while."
"Sounds good to me," said Atsushi.
He decided that Kinshiro was probably right. All that had happened with Luna and Sol had happened eons ago, so long ago that even most of the gods didn't remember. It probably wasn't important anymore. Stumbling across that temple had just been one of those odd random incidents that happened when Yumoto was around, one that didn't mean anything at all. With a sigh, Atsushi settled into his husband's arms and put the whole thing out of his mind.
Night was falling over the City of Seven Pillars. Most of the businesses had already closed for the day, and the sound of crowds was fading, being slowly replaced by the sounds of crickets, night birds, and the ringing of the temple bells.
And then, another sound: the sound of something cracking.
One second, there was nothing on the grassy mound but the pillar itself, vast and inscrutable. In the next instant, two young men were standing there, back to back. Without turning, they reached towards each other, hands twining together in an instinctive gesture, leaning back until their shoulders touched. They were beautiful, these two, as lean and graceful as dancers, fair-haired and bright-eyed, with clever, piquant faces. They wore simple, toga-like garments, one fastened at the waist with a red cord, the other with a blue one. A wind played around them, blowing first from the east, carrying the cool scents of moonflower and juniper, and then from the west, smelling warmly of orange and spices. The two men sighed.
"I can see the sun," said one, gazing off at the western horizon.
"I can see the moon," answered the other. "It's been so long..."
Moving in eerie unison, they pivoted so that they were face to face, then fell into each other's arms.
"Brother," one murmured. "We finally made it."
"At last," the other replied. "We're free to begin again..."
They remained that way a little while longer. Then a small voice overhead said, "Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt this touching scene, but..."
The two of them looked up, their expressions registering annoyance at the intrusion. A squirrel peered interestedly back down at them, hanging nose-down from the side of the pillar.
"What do you want?" snapped the one who'd been staring at the sunset. "Can't you see this is a private conversation?"
"Who are you supposed to be anyway?" the other added.
"My name," said the squirrel proudly, "is Dadacha."
"I am Akihiko," said one of the men grandly, "and this is my brother Haruhiko, but you should address us as Luna and Sol."
"Of course, of course," said Dadacha. "It's an honor to meet you both. I've heard so much about you."
Haruhiko's eyes narrowed. "You have a lot of nerve, talking to us. We're gods, and you're just a tiny little imp."
"Yes, yes, I quite understand," said the squirrel pleasantly. "But I'm also the one who broke your seal, so I think I should get some credit for that."
He scampered a little further up the pillar and indicated the cracked pillar with a flick of his tail. Both gods leaned in for a better look. The crack definitely had a gnawed look about it.
"You let us out?" asked Haruhiko skeptically. "These pillars were created by Aurite himself, meant to hold us imprisoned for all eternity, and a little fluffy green imp broke one of them?"
"Well, uh..." Dadacha groomed his whiskers in embarrassment. "I just happened to notice a crack was forming in one of them, so I decided to hurry things along a little."
"And why did you do that?" Akihiko asked. "What made you think we wouldn't just squash you flat as soon as we saw you? That's what most self-respecting gods would do."
"Yes, but you're not the everyday sort of gods, are you?" Dadacha answered. "The legends say you were the greatest of the gods once."
"Greatest of the created gods," Haruhiko corrected irritably.
"Of course, of course, what you said," Dadacha replied, flicking his tail in agitation. He had the air of a squirrel who knew he had just said something wrong and didn't quite know what it had been. "The point is, you were powerful once - more so than most of the other gods combined."
"That's better," said Haruhiko. "Go on."
"Well, it's also true that - don't take this the wrong way - a lot of people in the pantheon aren't going to be very happy to see you again," said Dadacha. "In fact, they're probably going to be working as hard as they can to put you back in your seal. Basically, what I'm saying is that my enemies are your enemies, and I think we ought to work together."
"Do you really think we would lower ourselves to working with imps?" Akihiko asked. "Why shouldn't we just turn you into a pair of green fur-lined gloves and go find ourselves some real minions?"
Dadacha's whiskers flicked nervously, but he kept his voice calm as he answered, "For one thing, the humans barely even remember you exist anymore. You'd have to talk to thousands of them before you'd find one who even so much as knows your names. You need an in with them if you want to rebuild your congregation. Two, you've been out of circulation a long time - a lot of things have happened that you don't know about yet. You need someone who knows the history and culture to tell you things. And three, you need a base of operations. You aren't going to be welcome in the Heavenly City or any of the underworlds, and staying on the mortal plane is just asking to be caught. I can set you up safely in the Abyss where the gods can't find you."
The twins looked at each other.
"He does raise a point," Akihiko said. "There's no point in bringing down trouble by making ourselves conspicuous too early."
Haruhiko stared at Dadacha thoughtfully. "What's in it for you?"
Dadacha, apparently sensing that they were coming around, scurried a little further down the pillar, putting himself on their eye level.
"I'm only a little imp," he said. "I could never make it as a greater demon, never mind aspiring to demon lord. I've got nothing to look forward to but the day some god will decide to squash me because I was in his way. The best thing I can do is attach myself to someone more powerful. I can be useful to you, you protect me, we all win."
"It sounds to me like you'd be getting more out of this than we would," said Haruhiko. "What do you think, Aki?"
Aki shrugged. "I suppose we must start somewhere. At least he'll be loyal. He can't go to the gods, and if he allies with us, the demons will never take him back. Once we take him on board, he'll have nowhere else to go."
Dadacha made a small noise as though this hadn't occurred to him before. Haru looked at him and smiled with amusement.
"All right. Let's keep him," he said. "He's funny."
"Thank you!" said Dadacha. "You won't regret it!"
"That's up to you, isn't it?" said Aki. "Now, I believe you said something about finding us a place to stay?"
"Right, of course," said Dadacha. "It's not much, but it will do until you've got something better."
"Oh, don't worry," said Aki airily. "We're more than capable of making some improvements..."
"...so I really think you would be the best person to deal with this," Kinshiro was saying.
Ryuu nodded. He, Kinshiro, Arima, and Atsushi were sitting together in Kinshiro's office. It wasn't often that Kinshiro asked for his help with anything, but in cases like this, he was willing to agree that there was no one better to call.
"Sure, I'm up to it," he said. "It doesn't strike me as a complicated case."
The case in question involved, as it so often did when Ryuu was called to consult, a philandering spouse. In this case, it was a middle-aged husband who had responded to seeing gray hairs in the mirror by trying to recapture his youth. Unfortunately, he'd decided to do so by chasing after younger women. Ryuu, who was naturally familiar with the husband and wife in question, knew full well that the man still loved his wife, and suspected that deep down he was afraid she would lose interest in him as he aged, and was doing this in an effort to make his wife jealous. As far as Ryuu could tell, it was working to some extent - she was jealous, but considered it her duty to defer to her husband's desires and keep her own needs to herself, which meant she was bottling up her feelings and pretended she didn't notice or didn't mind, which was only making the husband even more certain she didn't want him anymore. It was a breakdown waiting to happen, in other words, and a totally unnecessary one at that. Ryuu would be more than happy to start piecing things back together again.
"If you say so," said Kinshiro, with one eyebrow slightly arched.
"Hey, I know my business," said Ryuu. "I know when a relationship can be saved and when it can't. This one can, if I can just get them talking to each other. It'll go faster if you'll loan me Arima for a few minutes."
Arima, who had been silent up until then, offered up a smile. "I'd be happy to assist, if you think I'd be useful."
"You can at least talk some sense into that woman," said Ryuu. "I'd lay good odds that this whole thing would be settled in an evening if someone could just get her to say what she's feeling."
"That, I can do," said Arima with a smile.
"Good," said Atsushi. He was the one who had prompted this meeting in the first place, having reviewed the man in question's case and recommended an attempt at salvation rather than punishment. "I really didn't want to punish anyone over this if we can get it settled peacefully."
"No doubt about it," Ryuu assured him.
"In that case, I think this meeting is concluded," said Kinshiro. "Thank you both for..."
Then it happened. One minute, everyone in the room was relaxed, content, eager to get their jobs done. The next minute, a shockwave ran through the room. Kinshiro gasped and clutched at his side as if someone had stabbed him. Ryuu doubled over, seized by a sudden wave of nausea. Arima made a gagging noise. Ryuu thought distractedly that he'd never seen a god throw up before, but Arima looked like he might be the first. His face had gone greenish-white. Only Atsushi seemed unaffected.
"Guys? What happened? Are you okay?" he asked anxiously.
"Ugh," said Arima, grimacing. "That was horrible. What was it?"
"I don't know," said Ryuu. He swallowed hard, trying to get his own stomach to settle. "If you've got a guess, I'd be glad to hear it."
"Nothing good, that's for sure," said Kinshiro. He rubbed absently at his side, as though whatever phantom pain had struck still troubled him. "It's interesting that we all reacted differently. Atsushi, did you feel anything at all?"
"Not really," he admitted. "A little shiver, maybe. I probably wouldn't have noticed a thing if you three hadn't reacted."
"And yet, I felt as though someone had just gashed me with a knife," said Kinshiro thoughtfully, "and that isn't what you two felt at all, was it?"
"Not at all," said Arima. He still looked rather pale. "I wish I had felt like that. This felt more like that time when I was twelve and ate those sausages that had gone off." He shook himself again. "Ugh."
"I've never had that problem before," Ryuu admitted, "but if this is what it feels like, I'm glad it never happened to me. I've felt like this before, but never that badly, and never all of a sudden like that."
Kinshiro gave him a keen look. "You know what this is, then? What caused it?"
"Sort of," said Ryuu. He squirmed. He didn't much care for being put on the spot like this. His work was supposed to be all fun and games, not trying to explain difficult concepts to someone known for asking probing questions. "Okay, it's kind of like... Well, think about this, maybe. Do you ever run into some shyster who's figured out some way to take a perfectly good law and apply it in some way it was never meant to be used to do something that's the opposite of what was intended?"
From the way Kinshiro gritted his teeth, Ryuu inferred that yes, he probably had.
"It feels awful, right? Like some housewife with an eggbeater is stirring up your insides. Your head spins, your pulse pounds, your hands get all sweaty, your stomach churns, you can't breathe..."
"It's like you're being unmade," Arima said softly.
"Ah," said Kinshiro, nodding. "I understand now. So this is something that affects the two of you... love and devotion."
"But not the good kind," Ryuu concluded. "This is the kind of obsession that eats a person alive, and it came out of nowhere. That's weird. Usually that kind of thing builds up over time. It doesn't just come down on someone like an avalanche."
Kinshiro frowned. "Whatever it is, I don't like it. Can you two still sense it?"
Ryuu paused, considering. Arima looked equally thoughtful.
"Yeah," said Ryuu at last. "I think I still have a line on it."
"I definitely still sense it," said Arima. "I can almost feel it pulling on me."
"Let it pull," Kinshiro advised. "Find it and stop it, whatever it is. Anything that strong and that unpleasant isn't doing anyone any good. And let me know what it is when you figure it out."
Ryuu sighed. He would much rather have been sorting out other people's marital problems then dealing with whatever this was. Still, Kinshiro was right. Whatever it was, it was bound to be trouble, and it was best to sort it out as soon as possible.
"I'll ask around and see if anyone else felt it," he offered. "Maybe we can home in on it better if we have more information."
"It's worth a try," said Atsushi. "Should I check some of my resources as well?"
He looked anxious, and Ryuu didn't blame him. Ryuu would be anxious too, if something had been hurting one of his consorts. If he had been Atsushi, he'd have been ready to hunt down whatever it was and throttle it. Anything that could hurt a god, even temporarily, wasn't good.
"You might as well try," said Kinshiro thoughtfully. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"And on that note," said Arima, "I'm going to get started. I don't like this one bit. It's all wrong."
"Guess I'd better get going too," Ryuu agreed. He didn't like to show it, but he was rattled. It wasn't just the whatever-it-was, though that was bad enough. Seeing Arima this agitated, though... that was something new. Arima was unflappable. How bad must he be feeling to let his nerves show this way?
The first thing I'm going to do, he decided, is check on Io and Akoya. If this thing is getting to them the way it's getting to me...
Well, if it was, it had better be ready, because it was going to be surprised how violent a god of love could be.