Celestine gazed upon the ragtag group assembled before him and shook his head. “I don’t pretend to understand how Kami-sama thinks, but this is ridiculous.”
Azrael smirked. “To quote a human proverb, if I had a penny every time you said that, I’d be a millionaire.”
“I know, I know. But, still. To send ones so young into that battlefield, while we’re here guarding a holy relic which, in reality, has no power whatsoever!”
“The enemy knows just as well as we do that it’s not the relic we’re protecting, but the portal back to Yggsadril. Even if an invasion from here can be dealt with quite easily, it wouldn’t look good on our record if we let anything in, especially [not] reanimated corpses.” Azrael flicked her braid behind her. “Of course it’s boring to babysit this bunch of godlings, but we’re lucky that they seem to be pretty competent so far. I’ve been on missions where the enemies have battled right up to the gates of the City.” She pointed to two of the trainees who were not attempting to mingle with the rest. “On the other hand, if those overeager brats land themselves in hot water, that’s what you’re here for, hm?”
Celestine chuckled. “Glad to see you care so much.”
Azrael rolled her eyes. “I’m the Angel of Death, Celestine. I wouldn’t be too effective if I cried every time someone kicked the bucket, [but] unlike the guy I replaced, I’m not some sort of sick freak that gets off on seeing people croak, [either].”
Celestine suppressed a shudder. “Boy, am I glad you aren’t. But still, don’t you think you should show at least some concern for those mortals? Kami-sama certainly thinks they are worthy of His love.”
“Her,” Azrael corrected. “I refuse to call my Lady by a title that has been corrupted by centuries of suppression and hatred.”
Celestine shrugged. “Either pronoun would be equally sexist and incorrect. Besides, there are plenty of ways to show our fealty without using such a limited vehicle as language.”
Azrael—about to counter—hesitated, then glowered. “I hate it when you’re right.”
Celestine’s eyes twinkled. “So there are things that get to you after all! There is hope for you yet.”
Azrael scowled even deeper. “I’d rather eat my halo then get mushy on anybody.”
The God of Change just smiled.
“Well, Shizuka? Anybody out there trying to kill us?”
Shizuka leapt down from his perch. “Negative. However, I also do not see any allies.”
“So we’ve gotten too far ahead of the group—again.” Forseti shrugged, then winced as he remembered his broken arm. He clenched his other hand into a fist. “I’m not stopping until I find the blasphemers responsible for this and sending them back to where they came from.”
Shizuka nodded, mirroring a colder version of Forseti’s expression. “Agreed. The wrath of God is not to be trifled with.”
“All right, then!” Forseti began drawing runes in the sand at his feet.
“You wish to attempt another Channeling?” Shizuka raised an eyebrow. “I admire your persistence.”
“It’s not like I’m going anywhere. Besides, I’m bound to get this right sooner or later.” Forseti frowned as his arm wobbled. “Ugh. Next time, remind me to break my other hand, okay?”
Deciding not to comment on the smidgen of a smile that Shizuka showed, Forseti erased what he had and started over, concentrating harder this time. His second attempt was better, but not that much of an improvement. Forseti growled half a curse and tried again.
Shizuka peered into the distance and almost at once shifted into a defensive stance. “We may have a problem.”
“Not now, Shizuka. I need to focus.” The sound of a deck of cards being shuffled, however, got Forseti’s attention. Looking up and following Shizuka’s line of sight, he realized what was happening. “Okay, so maybe the Channeling will have to wait.”
Azrael whistled as she watched the two young upstarts ward off a group of bloodthirsty liches. “Pretty impressive. I don’t think they’d last this long.”
Celestine shook his head. “They’ve only managed it by charging ahead of the main force. It’ll only be a matter of time before they’re totally surrounded. Even if they do manage to make it to the Worldstone, they’ll be totally unprepared to face what’s down there.”
Azrael shrugged. “It’s only a training exercise anyway. We’ll bring them back before they try anything too crazy.”
“Too late,” Celestine sighed, as an explosion lit up the night sky.
“That hurt,” Forseti ground out through clenched teeth as he leaned against a dead tree.
Shizuka brushed away the bits of cauterized lich from his uniform. “That is what one expects to happen when one casts such a high-powered offensive spell in such close proximity to oneself.” He shook his head. “And you consider me to be insane.”
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?”
“Only because you were extremely lucky,” Celestine admonished as he appeared beside Forseti and steadied him.
“You haven’t forgotten that your primary objective is to stay alive so that you can get sent off to even more dangerous missions, have you?” Azrael added, drawing an elaborate shielding circle with her scythe.
“Have you seen those things, ma’am?” Forseti wheezed, sending himself into another coughing fit.
“Yeah, yeah, total affront to all things decent and good, blah blah blah,” Azrael was dismissive. “But how are you supposed to smite the lot of them if you get yourself killed on your sortie, hmm?” She turned to Shizuka. “And aren’t you supposed to be the levelheaded one?”
“I have been navigating this labyrinth in a way to avoid as much direct confrontation as possible,” Shizuka pointed out.
Azrael crossed her arms. “You know what I mean. Why didn’t you stay with the group?”
“Because they were exhausting themselves attempting to eliminate everything that moves. I tried to recruit more assistants for a full scouting party, but only Forseti agreed to join me.”
“Scouting party? You two looked like you were ready to charge the very gates of Hell at the speed you were moving.”
“This is getting us nowhere, Azrael,” Celestine butt in, having finished healing Forseti’s wounds. “I highly doubt we’ll be able to knock any sense into them. Let’s just send them back early and exempt them from any future excursions into this place.”
“What? You can’t be serious!” Forseti tried to stand up, only to have Celestine keep him seated.
“Oh, I am. Unless Kami-sama overrides us—and I highly doubt He would—the two of you are to never take this course again.” Celestine nodded towards Azrael. “Will you kindly do the honors?”
“Gladly.” With a flick of her wrist, Azrael had changed the wording of the circle so that it would now transport instead of protect. A moment later, a beam of light from above connected the group to Yggsadril.
Celestine turned to address Shizuka. “Now, then. Will you voluntarily leave, or do I have to force you?”
“No, I shall depart.” Shizuka bowed his head in deference to the older god, then stepped into the beam and disappeared.
Azrael pointed to Forseti. “Your turn.”
“Fine.” Grumbling under his breath, Forseti also positioned himself to be recalled to Yggsadril.
Celestine coughed as Forseti gestured in a rude manner just as he disappeared. “Oh, dear. I wonder how he’s going to explain himself to Kami-sama on this one.”
Azrael shook her head. “Kids.”