Bombshells of information aside, it's important to remember when the focus is back on Aster that she isn't aware of any of this. Wren is going to die! Or is already dead. There was no dramatic ceremony for exaltation, just a signed deed at the city hall. He could be long gone by now. And dead.

It was not a day for school, meaning Aster had free range of... well, the house. Unless a friend came to walk with her, it was not a good idea to venture alone too far. And now, with Wren gone, she did not have any hope of leaving. Her father was at his work, exalting or ambassadoring or whatever he did.

She decided to read, and then read for a few hours in tedium and general uninterested. She was quite absorbed in it, of course, but overall it wasn't the most exciting way to spend a day.

Around three, there came an excited knocking on her door, and she looked through the eye hole to see Wren and what appeared to be his entire family.

He leapt into her arms the moment she opened the doors, and the act of joy was so unknown to him that Aster almost felt the need to check he really was Wren.

"I'm going to live!" He exclaimed. "Ikina, the blessed mother, has chosen me to live."

Aster was not sure how to match his enthusiasm, though truly very excited on the inside. With his entire extended family here, however, she felt the pressing need to try. "That's... amazing." She tried. The grin was not hard to conjure. "How do you know?"

He pulled a feather from his coat pocket. It had been sticking obviously out before, but Aster had taken it as nothing special. Wren carefully handed it to her by the tip, and she spun the soft golden feather about in her fingers. It still did not look sacred, but was definitely beautiful.

"This could have fallen off of any bird." She whispered, handing carefully back to him. "But your family interprets it to mean you shouldn't be exalted?"

"Of course I'm going through with the exaltation, Aster! Ikina has blessed me. I'm meant to finish this quest."

Aster grimaced on reflex. "You'll die. A cocky attitude will only ensure it."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence. I'm sure the mother of the sky is going to look fondly on you for doubting her so ruthlessly." Wren was more energetic than Aster had ever seen him, and she did not enjoy how easily his sarcasm was heard. "I came here for your regards. Will you give them to me?"

She didn't want to disappoint her friend, no matter how wrong he was, so she bowed her head at him, two fingers on each hand pressing down- the traditional custom of blessings.

Wren smiled, lightly touched her head once to signal her to look up, and returned to his family.

As he continued down the street, his overjoyed parents in tow, he glanced back once long enough that Aster could sign out: 'I will not pray for you.' Then he was gone.

"Cold." A man's voice said behind her, and she yelped and punched him as hard as she could without stopping to look at her face.

If she had, of course, she would have been met with the appearance of a man she had never met before, but the gaze of someone who knew her very well.

He didn't fall to the floor, and event hough her punch had made contact, there was a sort of soft feeling to his body that made Aster queasy.

The man stopped to close the front door, then stood in front of it while Aster's mind raced. There were many ways this man could hurt her- and she was too weak to overpower him. What weapons did this house hold? Surely her father had a gun of some sort, or perhaps a shovel?

The man seemed malevolent in that he was in her house, and a stranger. But otherwise his face was bank- though perhaps a small pout of a frown had gathered on his lips.

"Aster." He said. "Come speak with me."

"Are you an associate of my father?" Aster was halfway up the staircase when he had spoke, and she stood tense waiting for a reply.

"No. But he knows me. And you know me." The man took a few steps up the stairs, but the moment Aster began sneaking silently down the hall with the intention of hiding, he stopped. He met her gaze. "You are chosen."

"No. That's just something you tell to people you're going to kill." Exalted, after all, just meant 'in high regard' or 'extremely happy'. No one went around choosing people randomly- it was always predetermined who would be going places and who wouldn't be.

Of course, unknown to Aster, this was predetermined. Very much so.

"I am Ikina." The man said. He did not offer any more proof than the pure will to say those words of blasphemy, and had Aster been a more aware girl, she would have realized this and bowed.

"You're a man, in my house, and you plan to exalt me so you can take the coin and meal it provides."

"I am Ikina." He said again, and this time he proved it with nothing more than a single line of feathers and scales bursting grotesquely through the skin of his left arm. He let them boil back into his flesh a second later.

Aster was about to throw up, but she forced the mucus down. "Okay." She said weakly. There was nothing else to say, for if this man wasn't a god he was a monster, and either ways nothing good could be in store for her if she didn't cooperate.

"I had hoped you would offer to join your friend on his journey. Instead, I am reduced to ordering you to. Please, you are chosen Aster, and you must complete this task."

"Why? If you also chose Wren, why also pick me?"

"If something goes wrong, I'll need a backup. Now, hurry along."

"What about my father?"

"I will talk with him."

"So I have to go now?"


And she did without further protest, though she walked warily and aimlessly once she was past the front door. The man- or the creature, really- was not following her to ensure she did as he had ordered. But there was a sense in the air that he'd know, anyways.

It could be debated if Ikina was psychic or not, but at the very least it was agreed that he was highly intelligent. Whatever he thought was unknown to all- the 'all' only being his two gods- but it seemed he had thought of everything. And while he truthfully was not making sure Aster was heading in the right direction, he had little worry that she would go too far astray.

Ikina sat down on the couch, content to sit very, very still until the man who was Aster's father returned. It would be a while. But rarely was Ikina impatient.

Aster met Wren at the steps of the town center, moments after his parents had finished exalting him. His family stood a distance away, watching as he departed in the direction of the wilderness.

When Aster ran up to him in a half-hearted and truthfully awkward jog, he seemed again to be the timid boy she was comfortable with.

"What is it?" He said, almost alarmed.

"I'm-" She clenched her jaw. She didn't want to admit what had just happened, and if she told Wren she was expected to travel with him, well, it'd be a done deal wouldn't it? She'd have to, and if she somehow got out of it, he'd always know she was supposed to.

Wren glanced about cautiously, then whispered with a sharp glance to his extended family. "M-my parents said you might want to... ask for my hand in marriage. Since I'm chosen, and all that. Once I came back." He did not seem any more fond of the idea than Aster was.

But it was normal for girls to marry young in Renen, and arranged marriages were just as common. It was this exact reason that Aster had to sit though weekly classes on sewing and homemaking as well as history and math. Even though it was acknowledged many young girls excelled in the sciences, society needed children to exalt. And if a girl could marry into a wealthier family, well, all the better.

Aster did not live in a traditional family, and had a feeling her father would allow her to get away with not marrying. Wren was not as lucky. Before he might have been able to live in a peaceful quiet, overshadowed by his older siblings and their children, but now as Ikina's chosen he was fully expected to marry and reproduce.

He had once admitted to Aster that he did not like girls so much as boys, and Aster now realized marrying him would probably save him from a hassle of a life. If Aster married him, they both would avoid the hard-gaze of society, and at least they'd get along.

But of course, Aster was seventeen and not really into the whole concept of marriage. She grimaced, and Wren flinched, and then she realized one of them was going to die on this journey anyways and that she might as well make a few empty promises. If either returned home without the other, at least now they had the excuse of 'lost love' to use to escape matrimony.

"That's not why I'm here." She whispered, taking his hand into hers. "But I know." She leaned her head against his chest for a few seconds, hearing his heart beat and utterly indifferent to what was happening. He took the feather- Ikina's?- and searched around before finally jamming it the hairband that held her ponytail.

It started to drop as Aster lifted her head, so she took it out and started to twirl it in her fingers as she looked over at Wren's family. She nodded once, and, thinking they looked somewhat happy about what had happened, took Wren's hand in hers and continued walking.

"Where are you going?" Wren asked as they turned onto a street and left his family behind.

"With you. Into the wilderness. Into exaltation."

"Why? It's too dangerous for you, I mean. It's too dangerous for me, but Ikina is watching over me."

Ikina was not watching over him right now, actually, and instead was watching the old mantelpiece clock in Aster's house tick the minutes off. Winged humanoids topped the frame. Angels, but here they called them Ikieen- his supposed messengers. There were no such things, of course. Just because their gods were real, that didn't mean there had to be monsters as well.

Aster thought over her choices, running her thoughts into charts of sequences. If she had a chance to write this out, the answer would come easier- but it was not a hard choice to begin with. There was nothing to be gained from lying. "Ikina came to me as well. He told me to travel with you."

"Maybe our marriage is meant to be." Wren said grimly.

"I mean, if you want to look at it that way, maybe our friendship is meant to be- which is a sort of useless thought since we were already friends to begin with." Aster said. "No need to drag our spontaneous and never-actually-happening marriage into this."

"I won't mention it." Wren promised.

The two of them made their way to the edge of the city, which took a few hours. Baased was spread over a great deal of land, and was more or less in the shape of the shore it bordered.

The quest of exaltation was that of the ocean, and Silanah, but it wouldn't be enough if the city simply threw their children off the docks and called it a day. The route began on the western gate, through the mountains that covered most of Renen, and to the sacred mountain of Ae-en in the neighboring country of Aela. From there, it was assumed the child would be visited by Ikina and told the way to the deepest cave where Silanah was held. Silanah would then be awakened, granting the child's country safety and flooding the planet with a newly wondrous tide.

No one had made it to Ae-en. That was a simple fact, known because the exalted were watched as they made their pilgrimage. And none had ever made it to the base of Ae-en. They all had died along the way, bodies usually missing and deaths never caught on camera.

Because it was unknown what caused the deaths half the time, it was impossible for Aster and Wren to feel truly prepared for the journey ahead. Aster had a feather, now, and Wren had the supposed protection of a being currently fascinated by a clock.

In Wren's bag was the standard, a number of filling compact meals that were lacking in nutrition, a filtered water bottle, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a pocketknife, and a book of prayers. One thing about Aster being ushered to leave so quick was that she was now very unprepared. Her pants were somewhat warm, she guessed, and her coat had a fur lined hood. But it got very cold in the mountains of Renen, and Wren was packed with enough food for one.

Aster decided not to mention this problem. The dunes beyond the gates of Baased were friendly enough, still holding paved roads, and Wren was altogether too optimistic about the situation right now.

Not much happened for a number of hours between the two of them. Then a monster tried to kill them. But that didn't happen for a few more hours, and before that could really happen, Ikina finally met with an old acquaintance.

Using the word 'acquaintance' implies a certain sort of connection though. And Aster's father, a man named Linson, was not particularly aware of a bond between him and the woman on his couch. He had never seen her before, in fact, until she opened her mouth to speak and confirmed the sort of fear he only worried about in nightmares:

"I am Ikina." She said to him. "I've removed your daughter."

"Is she okay, at least?"

"She'll be fine. But how much trust do you place in blood?" Ikina phrased her question like it was on a survey and scored on a ten point scale. Like the data would be collected and analyzed, but ultimately there was no correct answer.

"I don't care."

"Notable. She was your daughter. By genetics. If I had said that before asking, would you have had a different answer?"

"Sometimes I had figured that was the case." Linson said, but in truth he had never considered it. Ikina had come to him in the shape of a blonde man, and guided him to adopt Aster. It had been on a day when he was already at an orphanage and seeking to adopt, so he had not thought anything odd until the orphanage called the next day to check if he was still interested in adoption.

And then, of course, the odd man had come to his house and told him he was Ikina. And Linson had had little choice but wonder what his daughter was destined for, and erect a small shine in his house, just in case.

When the world only has three gods, you can't risk having more than one of them on your bad side.

"She'll be safe. And I've come to thank you for raising her for these past few years."

"What gifts can a god give?" Linson said, interupting without thought.

"Oh, nothing but my thanks, and word that she will return alive and well."

"That's good."

Ikina seemed more pleased than Linson, and suddenly she made a quiet sort of exhale, the sort that might precede laughter.

"What is it?"

"Oh, Laila doesn't recognize her anymore."

It took a while for Linson to realize the Laila in question was likely Lailana, and by then Ikina had disappeared.

If anyone took a few moments and thought hard, they would have been able to put a few details together and realize this: On a quest to grant the sea god supreme power, the land god was probably not too happy.

She wasn't purely unhappy, of course, just protective of her interests. And yes, of course, she lacked the omnipotence that would have allowed her to recognize Aster.

She was not there, of course, when the monstrous wolf spawned from the shadows and threw itself on top of Aster. It's jaws were open, but luckily failed to grasp the curve of her shoulder- instead, it's jaws snapped shut below her collarbone, taking with them minimal blood and a whole lot of cloth.

Aster screamed right away, and flailed her arms about like she was trying to punch it in the jaw. She was unable to find a way to calm down and think rationally, but her instinct took over and did just as well: she turned her head away from the beast, put an arm up to shield her face, and tried to roll on her back so her legs might kick it's stomach.

The wolf was stronger than her, however, not being a truly wild wolf but instead a manifestation of Laila's power. It's teeth found their way to the flesh of Aster's arm first, causing deliberately light bleeding. Then the wolf let go and stood calm.

Aster could smell only blood and rain and her ears were foggy from the wolf's presence. When it seemed to stop it's assault, she could not feel calm, but she slowly inched herself away from under the creature.

Then, the moment she took her arm away from blocking her neck and shoulder, the wolf leapt again and gripped her so tight in it's jaws that it picked her body up like a ragdoll and dragged her along the ground as the wolf retreated into the forest.

She was not dead yet, but there was a certain assumption that she would be soon. Then she felt something very precise in her neck, like a needle, but it was really hard to gauge exactly what it felt like- she was in so much pain it was generally pointless to think of anything beyond it.

Then there was something warm after the point had receded. And then she fell to the ground. And then, standing above her and bathed in blood, was Wren and his pocket knife.

Aster had a feeling she looked dead, or else actually was dead. But it was very hard for her to make up her mind.

Wren leaned over her body and checked her pulse on the side of her neck that wasn't cut open, and he found that there wasn't one. He cleaned his knife on his jacket best he could and folded it back into it's sheath. He looked back in the direction he and Aster had come from, and considered how long of a walk it was going to be to return her body.

If Ikina had really been protecting her, she wouldn't have died. So had she been lying? Or had Ikina?

Wren fixed his cap. His clothes had been a mix of pale blue and white before, stylish but called unsuited for adventuring. Now he understood why.

He took Ikina's feather back from Aster's bloodstained pocket, and found it completely clean. He turned it over in his hand a few, captured by it's soft and bloodless glow, and set off down the path. He had a feeling if he tried to return Aster's body, another wolf would come for him too. And if he was going to die, it might as well be far from home.