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Foolish as it was, her anger still festered. Even though there was nothing that could be done about it now. Even though there was no one left to mourn. It persisted, unsoothed by the passage of time.

And yet, Brilith knew that in some ways, this fate of hers was sealed by her own actions.

 


 

The nastika were king in the early days of the universe, even more so than they would be billions upon billions of years later. Their strength was raw and unconstrained, and the universe seemed to bend to their will. Planets and galaxies lived and died by their whims.

For all the knowledge and strength that humans could accumulate between lives, it was all a pittance in the face of power on that scale.

Developing civilizations were crushed, and planets that could one day be developed had their futures ended before it could even begin. Even the combined strength of the planet level astika and the humans could do little against attacks of that scale.

The highest level of astika were still weaker than the nastika by several orders of magnitude, but there was already an alliance of sorts with the lower zen astika that inhabited the planets. They had warned the humans that the astika of the higher zens operated on a different scale, but compared to the endless wars waged among the nastika, the enlightened astika who could at least be in the same vicinity with other beings of their own race without murdering each other seemed more persuadable.

When she met them with the other human delegates, their calm unsettled her. Planets--galaxies--were being destroyed, yet they were as serene as still water. It was like a muffling gauze was drawn between them and the reality that the humans experienced. Their smiles held a hint of mockery--as though they he reached an understanding beyond anything that humans could comprehend.

She didn't care to understand. The lower zen astika were dying off with the planets and galaxies. Their own species was being killed, but still they hardly seemed to care.

Indra promised to lend a hand for the sake of preserving the universe. It was a promise given with such indifference that she nearly failed to realize that he had agreed.

She couldn't see Indra's eyes when he spoke, but she was certain that they looked the same as the others: distant, already gazing past the humans. "The delegates are fairly spread out in the universe, correct? Then for convenience's sake, why don't we each keep in contact with one of you, and details can be taken care of more locally." He let out a short laugh. "Of course, the universe is too vast to cover properly, but for the sake of the alliance, we'll start with the populated planets first."

"I don't disagree with that arrangement," the human king said, "but there's eight of us, but only seven of you."

"Ah well, he's not here, but Agni will be included of course."

Fear swept over her like a rush of oppressive heat, and her body stiffened to brace against it. She could feel the same anxiety radiate from the other delegates.

Perhaps it was an illusion, but she almost thought Indra's lip curled ever so slightly. "What's the matter? If we didn't include the strongest astika, wouldn't that be insincere of us?"

Manusha grit her teeth. A king had to maintain their dignity, and in that moment, she didn't envy Manusha's position at all. "To give your allies one that you yourselves have sealed away is more insincere."

"Oh, he's been let out recently for good behavior. Wouldn't it be a shame to not put him to use? It's about time he started performing his duties."

 


 

Agni.

The last of the 5-zen astika to become enlightened, and the last to reign in his domain.

In his rage, he had let his flames spread freely, and like a endless wildfire it had devoured anything in its path. It was said that the gods were unable to finish their creation of the human realm until he was stopped. The astika had no choice but to kill him repeatedly to keep him trapped in the first dimension, and there his madness spilled out until the entire dimension was transformed into a fiery hell.

" Good behavior ?" one of the delegates seethed. "It's impossible for an astika to change like that. They're making fools of us."

"Could be worse than that," another said dourly. "The nastika may kill us carelessly, but the astika are deliberately trying to kill us if they're forcing us to deal with Agni."

"Gods, is this an alliance or a war…"

"Enough," Manusha sighed. "It was my decision to go to the higher astika, so I will deal with Agni."

Several of the delegates looked as though they wished to object, but speaking up would be the same as volunteering themselves. The thought of that took whatever words they wished to speak and crammed it back down their throats.

"No."

Manusha narrowed her eyes. "No? Then what are you suggesting, Svaha?"

She was already half regretting this. Her thoughts strayed to the other humans she would putting in Agni's fire and the regret became full. But...hadn't she spoken up knowing this? "The planets you represent are the most densely populated. That would be the last place that Agni should go near."

Svaha swallowed and forced herself to continue. "In comparison, I represent the planets that are just beginning to be explored, and many of them covered by oceans. The ones who live there specialize in water transcendentals, and I can at least guarantee that a planet can be evacuated if need be. If it comes down to it, we're the best equipped to hold him back."

 


 

The protests to her decisions had been immense. From the general population to the rulers of the surrounding planets-- they had made their objections known. The more polite ones simply tried to outline exactly how many lives she was putting at risk, while others settled for outright cursing her.

And yet, no one could think of an alternative. Breaking the fledgling alliance with the astika was even more undesirable, and to put Agni elsewhere where more lives were at risk was unthinkable. In the end, it wasn't quite approval, but there was a grudging acceptance. People could only curse themselves for being born in this corner of the universe and pray that they were born elsewhere in the next life.

The local astika hardly seemed to like the idea more than the humans did. Many left for the god's realm, and most of the remaining ones were water astika who hid themselves deep in the oceans.

It was too late to stop anything now. The preparations were set.

She had been uncertain where to set the first meeting with Agni. On a watery planet? Or would he take offense to that?

In the end, she had chosen the planet with the lowest population. Oren was known for its blistering sun and vast oceans that held large populations of Gandharva sura. They were nearly all low-leveled Mara that the clan at large cared little for. The planet was still too undeveloped to catch the eye of the clan and be taken as a stronghold.

She had the few humans living on Oren evacuated to another planet. There was not much she could do alone if Agni decided to attack, but that distance provided some meager comfort, and that was better than nothing.

She breathed in, willing herself to be calm and dignified. If she was going to die, then she didn't want to be cowering while doing it.

The astikas had crafted a spell to call them to the humans. So short, but the words felt bitter on her tongue.

" Idha etu Agni. "

Silence. Nothing but the wind.

Had the spell failed? Or perhaps...had Indra changed his mind? Was Agni locked back in hell?

The wind rose, and at first, it felt like the normal winds that blew over the dry bluffs. Then the air crackled with heat, bending the scenery around her until they resembled a puddle disturbed by rain.

A twister of fire grew in the spot in front of her, flames lashing out. She quickly cast a transcendental to curve the flames around her. The fire condensed, taking a vaguely human shape. It solidified, and all was still for just a moment. Then the flames shot out in a flash. Svaha threw her hands in front of her to block them.

"Ah! Sorry, I didn't know I'd be appearing so close."

The first thing she saw was the glasses. She couldn't help it. They were much too large for any face, had the most obnoxious swirls drawn on their lenses, and were shoved entirely too close to her.

She saw the messy, long mop of red hair next, still wafting in the air like live fire. What little she could see of the face was plastered over with wide grin. She took a step back. A raggedy robe covered a tall frame, ends fraying. She had seen better dressed bums than this.

The man was a step too slow in realizing that she had moved, and he remained bent over nothing before straightening himself. "Hello!" he said, filled with energy. She stared blankly. "...or am I supposed to say something else?"

There had to be something she was misunderstanding, Svaha thought desperately. "Who are you?"

"Huh?" He tilted his head--not even a subtle tilt, a full tilt until his ears almost touched his shoulders. "I'm Agni." She gave no reaction. "Did I...answer the wrong summons?"

A trap then? A trick? To lull her into a false sense of security before he ran off to...to…

The man who claimed he was Agni pursed his lips, and his cheeks swelled balloons. Somehow he had managed the impossible and looked even more like a buffoon than he did before.

Her mind was usually a frantic buzz of worries and ideas, but in that moment...she had nothing. "No...you're...in the right place."

His head snapped upright and he clapped once. "Oh good! If I messed up I bet the other astika would've shoved me back in hell." He let out a loud laugh, but that died away when he saw Svaha's unchanging expression.

She thought she saw his smile flicker out, but perhaps it was a mirage from the heat, because with a blink, it was plastered onto his face again. "...hmm...maybe I wasn't supposed to say that either." With one sharp motion, he suddenly stuck out his hand towards her, palms up. "And who are you?"

"Svaha…" she said, eyes on his hand. What was she supposed to do?

His hand hung awkwardly in the air, although his grin didn't fade. The seconds stretched on. "Uhh...maybe I'm doing this wrong…." He rotated it until the palms face the side. "Is this right?"

A handshake, she realized. He wanted her to shake his hand. Slowly, she raised a hand and took his. She had known that the astika's human forms were practically indistinguishable from a human's, but it still surprised her how normal it felt. It was as though he wasn't just fire given form. The only thing that was markedly different was that his skin felt like it belonged to a person running a high fever.

Agni shook her hand up and down with great vigor,  jolting her from her daze. "Well, is this the planet where I'm supposed to set up the meeting space then?"

"Yes…"

"Wow!" He spun around, taking in the vista in one sweeping glance. "Good weather, lots of sun...and check out this rock!" He stomped his foot for emphasis. "I didn't know they made them like this now!"

The bluffs were colored in stripes of various reds, greens, and blues. It was certainly beautiful, but his fascination with them only confused her more. They were uncommon, but not unheard of--nearly half the planets had stone like this somewhere on them.

"You've...never seen this before?" she said.

"This is my first time in the human realm since they let me out of the hell," he said cheerfully, still looking this way and that. "Last time I was here, Brahma was still in the middle of making it. They certainly put in the most effort to the human realm!"

There was no mistaking it then; this was Agni. The rumors about him were true as well. She watched him squat down to run his fingers over the fine yellow sand that covered the bluffs.

And yet none of the rumors felt right at all.

"Are there many humans or astika around here?" he asked, seemingly still absorbed with the stone.

Svaha hesitated. "No, it's an abandoned planet."

Agni nodded enthusiastically. "Good, good! I don't do well with a crowd." He stood and dusted his hands on his robes, making them look even more raggedy than before. "Although I guess that defeats the point of the meeting spaces. They're supposed to be for humans who don't have access to Idha Etu after all."

She doubted anyone would want to approach him.

"You're pretty quiet, huh? You're a lot like Kubera."

There was nothing she could do to prove him wrong. She still felt like her head was spinning.

 


 

In the end, she had taken him to the lighthouse at the edge of the abandoned fishing village.

He had made his token--an undying flame--and plopped it down where he stood, announcing that spot as the meeting space. She had been dumbfounded that he would pick a completely unmarked location for something of that importance, and with a sigh, taken him to the lighthouse.

The moment she had teleported them to the village, he had stared in awe at the simple one story houses, and then expressed with an even louder "WOW" when he saw the towering lighthouse.

"Humans sure like to build things," he had said gleefully. "These are amazing! I've never seen anything like them before!" For the next hour, he had run around the village like a child at a playground, expressing his shock at the most mundane things.

It was true that neither the nastika nor astika built structures--they would make items, but never buildings or shelters. After all, unlike humans, they weren't affected by the whims of nature and had little reason to create things to that would allow them to survive against that. Still, she was surprised by his pure fascination.

Eventually, she had managed to bring him to the top of the lighthouse where she lit the beacon with his undying flame.

"Mmmm, yup, this is a way better idea," Agni said, leaning against the window to gaze out to sea.

"How much of the situation with the sura are you aware of?" Svaha asked, a hint of impatience slipping through despite her best efforts. This wasn't an astika to enrage, but he had spent the entire afternoon dawdling around the village.

"Uhhh...that it's bad?"

With her remaining patience, she kept her voice even. "We're not directly in their crossfire, but we are collateral damage that they have no intentions of avoiding. Rakshasha level and below, we can manage, but the scale of the damage the nastika can cause is too large. We don't expect to be able to kill the nastika, even with the help of the fifth-zen astika, but we want to increase the chances of a planet escaping destruction."

"Oh, that's right. They made you humans pretty planet bound, didn't they?" Agni said, turning around to face her. His face still had the same easy grin on it. "As long as you're not expecting me to fight them on the planets. I'll do my best!"

"...do you have a problem fighting on planets?" she asked.

Agni laughed. "You don't need to be so careful about asking me these things. I'm sure you've heard all the rumors by now. But don't worry. I don't want to get locked up again."

 


 

Neyrut was the most heavily populated planet in her corner of the universe. Naturally, it became the seat of the sector alliance, and after she took the seat, became the planet where she resided. Even with interplanetary teleportation, it took several days to travel from the human capital on Mahameru to Neyrut, but transportation to Oren was a single teleportation away.

Svaha felt exhausted, but she managed to drag herself back to her office first. When she opened the door, there was already a man in there.

"You're back," Naksha said, voice surprisingly calm considering he nearly dropped the paperwork in his hand from surprise.

Svaha glanced at the neat piles already stacked on top of her table and resisted the urge to set the new stack in Naksha's hand on fire. Instead, she took them from him and quickly flipped through the contents. "Yes. Looks like you're safe from inheriting my position another day."

"Enough of that." Naksha pulled the papers out of her hands. "What happened? Did Agni answer the summons?"

"Yes, he answered the summons." She stopped. What else could be said?

"Well?" Naksha said impatiently.

She still wasn't sure what happened herself. It had been too simple. He had been too cooperative, yet not cooperative at all. It wasn't as it seemed; she was sure of that. "I don't know. At the very least, he didn't express any desire to destroy the local system."

"What kind of game is he playing?"

"We'll just have to find out as we go," Svaha said. "I'll keep monitoring him for now."

Naksha frowned. "You're just going to leave it at that?"

Svaha sighed as she took the papers back from Naksha.  "What else can we do?"

 


 

To her dismay, an opportunity to test Agni's sincerity came not even a few days later.

The Gandharva clan was yet again embroiled in another war with the Asura clan, and the planet Danu had the misfortune of housing a Gandharva stronghold. The humans and planetary astika of Danu weren't viewed as significant enough to help by the Gandharva clan, but in order to prevent the planet from being destroyed, the humans and astika had attacked the Asura clan and drew harsh retaliation in turn.

The ruler of Danu had tried to make due and avoid drawing resources from other planets in the nearby systems, but the battle for the planet had escalated to the point that several of the major cities had already been lost, and the number of humans who could maintain the planet binding barrier was no longer enough. Another hit from even a casual transcendental from a nastika would be enough to turn Danu to dust.

It was a story that had repeated itself too many times across every life, yet like clockwork, she would still feel that initial stab of despair.

Many planets were just barely hanging on themselves, but after an impromptu meeting with the rulers of other worlds within the sector alliance, they managed to find four magicians who were capable of using the transcendental for the barrier and able to head to Danu immediately. With Svaha, the total would be five.

"What? You're going?" Naksha said.

"There aren't any more barrier magicians," Svaha said as she set in the coordinates for the transporter. "I'm not maintaining it here. We haven't set up a way for Danu to contact Agni either, so I have to summon him--"

Naksha grabbed Svaha's wrist and pulled it away from the entry pad. "The reason that sector leaders do not maintain the barrier isn't so that you can keep gallivanting to planets that are about to be destroyed," he said angrily. "It's bad enough you always do, but this time you want to do it with that astika there? The fifth-zen astika may not have the raw strength of nastika, but they can shape the parts of the universe under their domain. The planet binding barriers we have do nothing against that."

"We know what the fifth-zen astika can do," Svaha said, wrenching her hand from Naksha's grasp. "That's why Manusha chose to pursue an alliance with them. Whether we like it or not, Agni is here because of that alliance."

"He wasn't expected--"

"Naksha!" The hard edge of her voice silenced him, but the drawn frown made it clear that he still had plenty of fight left in him. "This is all the more reason for me to go. If it comes to it, I'll make sure there's a chance to evacuate. And...if he destroys Danu, the Gandharva clan's nastika will kill Agni soon enough."

She didn't give Naksha another chance to speak before activating the transporter.

 


 

Danu's capitol city was already half-collapsed and overfilled with refugees when she arrived. Buildings were in desperate need of repair, but could only be patched over. The city's barrier was weak. As she passed the rows of empty barrier stones, it was obvious that only a skeleton crew was left to maintain the city barrier--the rest had been pulled into maintaining the planet's barrier.

A city barrier's strength was in part determined by the planet's barrier, so the choice was obvious. However, even if one hundred of the magicians from the city barrier were pulled in, they wouldn't be enough to take over for one magician that specialized in maintaining the planet binding barrier.

One in a hundred magicians could maintain a barrier at all. Within that one percent, one in a thousand could be used to maintain a city barrier. And within that one in a thousand, one in ten thousand could be used to maintain the planet's barrier.

It was even worse than reported if the even the capitol had been reduced to this Svaha thought.

Danu had been steadily growing within the last few generations. Some who spent a life on the planet had told her of the rich seas and even richer mountains. The flexible ores brought forth new compounds that made the planet known for several systems around. A beautiful planet, they had said to her. A beautiful planet that were proud to have been a part of and help grow. Some had even spoken of moving back to spend another lifetime on Danu.

Of course, that richness was exactly what drew the sura to establish a stronghold on Danu in the first place. It was always like that. The more work put into the development of a planet, the more it attracted the attention of the sura.

Svaha grit her teeth. Even if the sura left, even if the planet survived, a significant amount of progress had already been lost.

When she entered the barrier room, the faces of the magicians were grim. She could guess the conclusion they had come to.

"Are we evacuating?" Svaha said.

"Yes," Danu's ruler said dully. "Even most of the astika have fled back to the god's realm. On the off chance that the planet survives, we could return, but…" He swallowed, but no more words could come out. He was not a young man, but he was less than halfway through his current life. With his tired eyes and lethargy, Svaha had initially thought him old.

"How many of the mass teleporters are still usable?" one of the magicians asked.

Danu's ruler trembled, struggling to get the words out. "Four of them."

The magician's eyes widened. "Four?! It'll take at least five trips to evacuate everyone…"

"And it'll take hours to recharge the teleporters between each trip," another groaned. "I suggest we start getting the children on first--"

An ear splitting boom sounded, and the ground shook with an even greater intensity. Svaha fell to the ground, wind knocked out of her. The walls cracked with a sickening sound, and screams managed to rise above the din of the rumbling earth.

When the ground stilled, Svaha scrambled to her feet to look outside of the collapsed barrier room. From horizon to endless horizon, runes of light ran across the earth's surface like veins, but some were cut and bleeding out the vigor being poured into it. The planet's binding was already on the verge of breaking.

There was already no more time for hesitation. She teleported to the abandoned wastelands just outside the city and summoned Agni.

He appeared before her as he had before, still looking raggedy, and still smiling that stupid smile. He glanced around at the destruction, expression never changing all the while. "Wow, things look pretty bad--"

"I don't care what you have to do," Svaha said, unable to remain patient with his carefree demeanor, "but don't let this planet be destroyed."

"Hmmm…" Agni tilted his head, and Svaha wanted to shake him until he felt the gravity of the situation. "That's a pretty tall order. It's not like I can help the Gandharva clan very much--Varuna would be better support for them, and it looks like the Asura are pretty much done wrecking this place. With what remains of the barrier, even if the planet is held together, the surface of it--"

"This planet is being evacuated," Svaha said, "but until then, the planet has to hold."

For the first time, Agni didn't reply immediately. His mouth was slightly open, and the stupid grin present, but it seemed like he was considering her request. "...well," he said after a moment. "I'll see what I can do."

 


 

Time passed in a blur. She was vaguely aware of the the increasing frequency of the tremors, and she poured all she could into the planet's binding barrier. The five magicians that had been added to it wasn't enough. She could feel the barrier breaking apart, each crack like a brand that burned itself into her, a searing cut deep within her skull.

There would sometimes be an immense flame that that spread over the skies, briefly turning the world to a blazing twilight. The tremors would lessen while the flames shielded them, but inevitably it would fade and the sky would flash and she could feel the pressure on the barrier once again. She could only imagine what the surface of the planet looked like outside of city barriers, and prayed that there were no people attempting to hold out in the villages.

Finally, someone rushed into the barrier room to tell them to join the last group of humans on the mass transporter. Letting go of the barrier and being suddenly free of the searing pain was disorienting. Without it, she suddenly felt the sting on her palms where her fingers had clenched into the flesh. She felt drained and heavy, legs barely able to support her standing and vigor too low to cast a teleportation transcendental.

They were forced to run instead. She glanced overhead as they approached to the teleportation point. Flames still lit up parts of the sky. For a moment, she considered letting Agni fight until one of the nastika finally decided he was enough of a nuisance to kill. It would be one way of being rid of him for the time being without giving the higher astika any reason to be offended.

But..wasn't he holding up his end of the bargain? Wasn't he fighting for them as promised?

Svaha grit her teeth. "I'll catch up!" she called to the others as she doubled back a short distance. Agni had said he didn't like crowds, and she had no intention of finding out why now.

She called him back, and after a moment, a mass of flames burst in front of her. In the flickering fire, she could vaguely make out the shape of man, but it seemed that Agni had no intention of taking a form more solid than that. The skies above her continued to burn.

"What is it?"

"You can retreat," she said shortly. She didn't want to say it. Didn't want to admit that it was all over. That there wasn't anything left that they could do.

What looked like a head turned towards the mass teleporter in the distance. "I'll leave once that does."

Guilt from her earlier thoughts stirred, and she averted her gaze.

Her eyes fell upon an old woman sitting among the rubble. Svaha felt her heart skip a beat. They had almost left someone behind.

She rushed past Agni, ignoring his "Wait, that's--" to reach the old woman. "You need to leave," she said. "This is the last trip."

The old woman didn't react. Her gaze never faltered from the distant horizon. "No," the old woman said. "I was born for this planet, it's only natural that I die with it too." A smile crept onto the old woman's face. "I always pitied humans' mortality, but it seems that you will all outlive me. Remember this place somewhere in those books of yours, won't you? Remember my name."

Svaha stared, but the old woman didn't stir. She bowed once and turned away.

Agni had called the humans planet bound, but in reality, there were those with far greater limits than them. She wondered what an astika of the planet felt. Could she feel the pounding of feet as humans fled it? Could she feel each strike of the transcendentals that struck it? Could she feel the planet--feel herself--falling to pieces?

Svaha glanced back one more time at the astika as she stood within the transporter. The old woman was just a speck in the distance, and with a flash, she was gone.

 


 

A few days after the evacuation, the closest inhabited planet to Danu managed to send out a ship to survey what remained. There was nothing at all; no stone, no rubble. No hint that there had ever been a planet called Danu.

 


 

"Oh! You're here again!" Agni said. He was lying on one of the beds in the abandoned village, one leg dangling freely over the side. A small pile of books occupied the bed with him, some thrown over his stomach. When he sat up, several tumbled to the floor.

"Sorry, I had meant to come earlier…" But instead she was preoccupied dealing with a planet's worth of refugees. It was an uncommon occurrence, but the timing was poor. Many planets were already struggling with their existing populations. It seemed that the best choice would be to start gathering volunteers to start again on a new planet. A planet that had been abandoned like the one currently occupied by Agni would be ideal, but to put so many humans in his constant proximity…

"Eh? Was there something you needed?"

To see if he had set the planet on fire. To see if he had shown any signs of being the astika she expected him to be while her back was turned. That was what the council had told her to be wary of.

But all she saw was him lazing in a bed, book raised over his head. To her own confusion, it didn't surprise her to see him like this. "Where did you even find all these?" she asked, gesturing to the books.

"Found them in houses around here," he said with a shrug. "It adds up. They're real interesting! This one's great!" He held up what she recognized as a popular children's novel. "The evil king got beheaded! And this one--" A book of fables. "--the serial killer's transcendental backfired and killed her!"

"I...see."

"Some of them were stowed away in weird places though…" Agni turned back to the pile and shuffled around until he found a small green book. "I don't understand. Were they trying to hide this?"

Svaha leaned in to read the title.

The Temptation of the Queen.

Svaha stared blankly. Agni stared back expectantly for an answer.

She couldn't stand it anymore. Perhaps her worries had been too much, perhaps recent events had put her too much on edge.

The tension popped. Mirth bubbled up and she let out a ringing laugh that made Agni jump. She laughed until she felt her stomach ache, tried to stop, pictured Agni with his round glasses gleaming as he stooped over someone's hidden porn stash, and laughed even harder.

"I don't really get it," he said, scratching his chin. "It was a pretty normal romance story."

He read it. Her laughing redoubled. "N-normal--hahaha--stories don't--haha--don't get so explicit," she managed to gasp out.

"If you humans think that's explicit, you should've seen how things were when the gods were still creating the universe. This stuff is tame compared to that." He shivered in horror. "Ravana and Asura especially. The gods got so tired of it they banned everyone from doing it out in the open."

"S-stop talking!" was all she could say before a new wave of laughter hit her. The image of the high and almighty gods being forced to ban their creations from public sex so they could concentrate enough to finish the universe was too much.

But Agni wouldn't stop talking. He moved onto things he read in other books, but Svaha was already too trapped in a cycle where everything was the pinnacle of humor. Her laughs turned into soundless heaves that had her doubled over. It was only then that he mercifully stopped talking.

He watched Svaha as she slowly regained her composure. "I take it back, you're not like Kubera at all."

 


 

There was always a reason for going to Oren to see him. Setting up better communications, improving coordination with the lower astika (slowly returning from the god's realm despite their apprehension of Agni, except for those on Oren who refused to return to the planet while he was there), devising plans of attack and defense.

It was just that inevitably, every visit would end with her being pulled into something ridiculous. Something mundane. Something ridiculously mundane and mundanely ridiculous.

One meeting started with her finding him trying to eat a thoroughly charred corpse of a low-leveled Gandharva mara. He had apparently gotten curious about what food tasted like and proceeded to burn a sampling of plants and animals he had read were edible until they were mostly ash.

"It all tastes the same!" he had complained. She spent most of the afternoon teaching him basic cooking. The only real seasoning was the salt from the ocean, but he ate it relish.

On a whim, she brought spices the following meeting, and before she left, he begged at her feet to bring more things the next time.

So she did. Bread and sweets from a nearby bakery. Dishes from a stall she had always meant to try but kept forgetting about (she didn't find them as delicious as Naksha had sworn they were but Agni raved about it). Eventually he started having specific requests.

A volume of a book in a series he was unable to find on Oren. Equipment to play some game he had read about. On one occasion when he was strangely fixated on seeing what it was like to be drunk, he asked for alcohol.

She teleported over with an large gourd of the cheapest but strongest liquor she could find. It probably tasted like shit, but she figured there was no point in spending top gold on someone who was just going to down it as a test. She regretted it when he made her drink with him.

She got tipsy. He made a small explosion go off inside of him when the liquor made contact with his stomach. As it turned out, his stomach worked by burning its contents.

In her half-drunken state, it seemed like a good idea to pour the rest of the shit-quality alcohol out and have him set it on fire. He obliged by making a multi-colored flames burst forth from the puddle she had dumped onto the ground.

She didn't want to return to Neyrut tipsy, so she sat there, watching the flames and waiting for the buzz to pass. As she did, guilt crept up on her.

The sura attacks still dealt damage, even with Agni's cooperation. There was always some lives lost, some planets destroyed. The council and rulers of the planets had assured her that it was better--planets were saved, and the populations largely evacuated if not. But it wasn't enough . There had to be something she could do, something more. If she simply poured in more effort, spent more time, gave more of herself….

Instead she was drunk on a planet watching a flame set by a sober idiot at her goading.

She always had a reason for going to see him. A good reason.

But never a good reason to stay as long as she did.

"Ah, you're leaving?" Agni said after she suddenly bolted into standing position.

"Yes," Svaha said, taking the moment to reorient herself. "I still have things I need to do."

"I see. Well...come back soon!" He gave a grin then, one that felt different from the one that was usually stiffly painted on his face.

She decided not to dwell on that, but as she walked back to the transporter, she couldn't help but look back.

He was a single figure on the bluffs. She thought of him scavenging through empty buildings in the village or the small towns that dotted the abandoned planet. Finding the remnants of those who lived and piecing together their lives. Thinking up his strange ideas…

Quickly, she turned away and increased her pace.

It wasn't until she had returned to Neyrut that she realized he hadn't requested anything except that she go back.

 


 

"I'm afraid the number of viable planets isn't enough."

The wars between the sura clans had become more active in their sector as of late, and as a result, the number of refugees was climbing. It was fortunate that they could save as many as they did, but now there was the matter of dealing with where they could go.

"I thought you mentioned there was another habitable planet right in your system," Naksha said.

One of the planetary representatives nodded. "Yes, but our initial exploration teams are still setting up the infrastructure needed for mass immigration. There's no communication networks, no teleportation channels. Nothing. It will take a few more years."

"It's already been so long. The people from planets like Danu can't wait that much longer."

"What about abandoned planets?" another asked. "Could any of those be re-evaluated?"

"The Ananta clan made the surface too poisonous…"

"The seismic activity hasn't quieted down yet…"

One by one, planets fell from consideration.

There was a long silence.

"...what about the planet Agni is on?"

Everyone stared, eyes wide with shock. Even Svaha herself was almost surprised she had suggested it.

"Are you sure that's wise?" Naksha said.

All attention was snapped on her. She considered for a moment. "Almost a year has passed--"

"That's nothing to an immortal created at the beginning of the universe," Naksha countered. "He's already existed for several million years."

"It isn't that much time," Svaha said with a nod. "But he has already had plenty of opportunities to turn against us if that had been his goal."

"He may be biding his time--"

"Biding his time for what? We already have our backs to the wall dealing with the sura. And haven't we been using him all the same?" Her eyes scanned the room. All their faces were set in deep frowns. "An alliance is only as strong as our trust. To save more lives...don't you think that that is necessary?"

Seeing that the other representatives were unwilling to speak, Naksha did. "You have to understand, trust shouldn't be so easily given. Not to an astika like that."

"I'm not asking for an immediate change, just that we do change. We can't keep our distance from our allies out of fear when the sura have already pushed us to this point."

Another silence followed. They glanced around for anyone to speak up, for guidance; but each was equally as directionless and uncertain as the other. Finally, one person whispered something to the one next to them, prompting another to begin muttering to the person next to them. Soon, a low murmur filled the room.

Svaha leaned back in her seat, waiting.

The sun had set by the time Svaha left the room, an uncertain yes obtained, but she teleported to Oren immediately.

"Humans are coming here?" Agni's smile turned a bit stiff.

"Too many habitable planets have been destroyed lately--"

"--and Oren can't be left empty anymore. I get it, I get it…" his voice trailed off.

It wasn't a yes. "I don't understand," Svaha said, eyes narrowing. "You make me sit at a table with you to eat. You make me drink with you. You're fixated on these normal lives you've read about or imagined. These human lives." Agni's lips were drawn shut in a tense smile, but he didn't correct her. Svaha swallowed. "I don't think you want to be alone...and I don't think you hate us. So why--"

"I'm fine with it." His smile relaxed just a fraction. "I want to try."

 


 

At first, she didn't make much of his disappearance from Oren. They had already set up several points of contact among the astika as well who would often directly ask him to help when the situation on their planets became too desperate. She was too busy aiding with the setup of towns and cities to pay much attention.

The remaining populations of Danu and a few other planets would move to Oren, and so would the original inhabitants of Oren who wanted to return. For those original citizens of Oren, watching their villages become towns and towns become cities over the course of a few short weeks was equal parts inspiring and terrifying. There was construction to be done, resources to be evaluated, trade and business to be considered. The details were handled by others, but even the broad strokes that Svaha had to track was enough to consume her waking hours.

After those weeks passed and the humans began settling in, his absence became harder to ignore. The planet wasn't his prison, but he had chosen to stay there all this time, and he had said that he wanted to try living with the humans.

She climbed the lighthouse to where the first meeting space had been established, intending to use it to contact him, but he was already there.

He sat on a window ledge overlooking the town that had once been the village. His body was held rigidly--straight-backed and still. There were no superfluous movements--no playful finger twiddling, no free swinging leg.

Except for the flames. The ragged edges of his robe disappeared into the tendrils of red fire that turned to white at their extremities. Wisps of flames radiated from his body out into the small room, making the air crackle with a heat that would've burned her skin had she not enforced herself with a transcendental.

"Agni!"

With one sharp movement, he turned to face her. There was not a hint of his usual grin. She could see a stiffness in his jaws where his teeth were clenched tightly together. It was smooth and expressionless, but something about it made her heart pound with a fear she had forgotten to feel.

His eyes, she realized. Agni had neglected to construct those glasses, and for the first time, she was seeing his eyes. They were a molten gold, but although it blazed white hot like a young star, there was no light behind them. No hint of the fool she had known, it was as though he was reduced back to his elements--a force of nature that impassively consumed everything in its path.

Svaha unconsciously took a half step back. He grinned. From the shape of it, it was a match for his brightest, but she realized with a jolt how horrifying a smile like that was when none of it's light reached the eyes.

As if he sensed her apprehension, Agni raised a hand to his face, and when he uncovered it, the thick-lensed glasses were back on his face. The grin became the usual grin. If she hadn't seen him before, she could've pretended that everything was as it usually was. That this was the fool right before her.

She willed herself to take a step towards him. "Is something wrong?"

"...sorry." His lips moved, but his body was still as unmoving as stone. "I thought it would be fine. I thought I got better."

Another step towards him. "Do you hate humans that much?"

"It's not like that."

"Agni," Svaha said slowly, "why were you put in hell?"

In the silence, she closed the gap between them. "Why were you put in hell?" she repeated.

She was close enough to see the tension jump in face as he worked the words out. "I don't remember the exact reason. I think I must've lost something, but I don't know what I lost. I just know that I was desperate for something I couldn't grasp. The greater the domain, the more difficult it is to maintain, and I lost control."

Agni didn't continue, but she already had a vague idea of the rest. The gods had passed down some stories from creation, and the astika Agni's rampage had been one of them. He had sublimed the very building blocks of the universe and almost destroyed the worlds that the gods tried to create.

His mouth hung half open, words teetering on the edge. So she waited.

"Do you know what an astika really is?" Agni said at last. "We are just that domain given form, given awareness and will. I am the flame of a candle, and I am the flame of the farthest star. If I focus, if I maintain control, then I am 'me'. If I don't, then I am every fire, and every fire is tied to my will. Every fire is an extension of my senses. The singular astika is lost in the all the instances of the domain."

He looked away. "Being locked in hell sealed my connection the flames outside of it, but it did nothing to disconnect me from the fire inside the realm. And hell...the time in hell is much slower. Thousands of years in hell may just be a few days in the human realm. Events that would've passed by in a flash elsewhere stayed long enough for me to dwell on it."

"I really like those stories you humans tell. The evil king is beheaded. The serial killer is killed by his own abilities. But I could see the sins of those dropped into hell, and I could see lives they lived, and it almost never happened like the stories. I saw what humans could do to each other, I saw what the sura did, and...I saw what the astika did."

"It was disgusting," Agni said, lips curling into a snarl. "Whenever I saw anyone, all I could see was the same patterns of hatred play out.They hadn't even done anything, but I would see what they could do one day. I would just become even more enraged, lose control again, and be sealed back in hell. I wanted so badly to leave. I still don't understand why I wanted to leave so desperately, but the desperation eventually won out over my anger. I could at least ignore it as long as there weren't too many individuals around me."

"Then why did you agree to having humans return to this planet?" Svaha asked shakily, mouth dry.

"Because I felt calm when I was with you!" he shouted suddenly. "I thought…I thought I that had stopped seeing all those things." He buried his face in his hands. "But I didn't."

"Agni, do you want to be left on this planet alone?"

After a long pause, Svaha saw his head shake, just once.

Her hand slowly rose until her fingertips ghosted his jaw. He didn't react.

Svaha took a deep breath, and in one movement, she forced him to lift his head and face her. "Then...you have to change." With even more trepidation than before, she tried to still the shaking in her hand as much as possible and removed his glasses. The lightless eyes stared back at her.

Svaha forced herself to be calm. "Look at us properly," she said. "Search as hard for our virtue as you've dwelled on our sins. Perhaps everything will happen as you fear...but perhaps it won't. As long as humans are alive, our paths can still change."

There was no smile on his face. No glasses to make him appear a friendly fool.

He nodded once, and for that moment, it was enough.