Sarah Rosales, Academy for Information Technology

 

     Aster was a god who had been banished from the stars, and after roaming the world for hundreds of years, he believed his favorite place in all of Fayern was the gentle shores in the far south with their warm blue waters and soft white sand. A shack laid there, nestled away from civilization, gifting him the bare necessities to live each day. For the rest of his banishment, Aster made it his home. 

     A small wooden dock overlooked the water where Aster would catch fish. But he preferred to sit at that edge, take off his boots, and dip his feet in the ocean. There were moments when he would sit there for hours, as still as a statue and wait for the days to end. The sun was as unaging as him, but at least it had the moon to accompany it. Aster was keenly aware of his existence. Reminding him of the twining vines that grew around his home, immortality and loneliness were linked so closely that there was no room for things like love to seep through. 

     One night, as the god was preparing to sleep, he noticed a dim light outside his window. He frowned. He didn’t mind visitors, but it was late and having to deal with one was bothersome. He could just barely see a figure, standing on his dock, and he waited for it to leave.

     But the visitor didn’t, and instead kneeled over the edge, leaning in too far and falling into the water. Whoever it was struggled to break the surface, a hand narrowly missing the dock's lip as the figure tried to pull itself back up. The water splashed violently, and Aster rushed outside in a panic.

     “Hey!” Aster shouted. He hauled the person up by the shirt collar and―he saw now it was a man―dragged him onto the dock. The man coughed up the salt water.

     “Are you okay?” Aster hoped the man wasn’t unconscious. 

     The man rolled to his hands and knees, still trying to get the water out of his system. “I’m alright, thank you sir.” He didn’t look at Aster, instead he stared out into the ocean.

     “Mister, it’s nearly midnight,” Aster tiredly sighed into his hand. “Please go home.”

     The man stood up wordlessly and gazed at the moon shining over the shores. Then he said,      “I’ve come from Sycamore.”

     Aster pinched the bridge of his nose. That town was on the whole other side of the island! This man had traveled two days to get here and he probably hoped he could have stayed at an inn by the end of the day. If Aster sent the man off by himself at this time, who knows what could happen to him?

     “Who are you?” 

     The man shivered in the cool wind. He put his hand out in standard formality, “Hart.” He put it down awkwardly, when he sensed that Aster wasn’t going to take it. 

     “You can stay with me for the night, but you must leave in the morning,” Aster said sternly, then observed the stranger. It was the decent thing to do, even if Aster was slightly hesitant. He was still willing to be kind, even after everything he’d been through.

     “Thank you,” Hart spoke in an embarrassed tone. If he declined the offer, he’d have to sleep on the sand in wet clothes or walk back to the nearest inn. The god led the man to his small shack, where he brought the dying fire back to life for the drenched man to dry off.

It had been years since Aster had invited another person into his home. He had grown accustomed to the stillness of life and all its calmness and solitude. Sometimes, the slow beating of his heart would be the only thing he could focus on to make sure time was still advancing for him. There were instances where he had to convince himself that he wasn't stuck in some dark abyss that fate had cruelly pushed him into.

     The god examined Hart. He could make him out now that he was sitting in front of the fire. He was a lightly tanned man with black hair darker for being damp. Hart took out a journal from a soaking wet satchel seated by his side. It was leather bound with a yellow ribbon attached to the spine. His face broke out into relief to discover that it was left untouched by the water.

     “Thank the Stars!” Hart exclaimed, and he flipped around the pages and scribbled something down.

     Aster searched around for extra blankets and pillows. “You can take my bed, I’ll sleep here,” and he gestured to the space beside his bed. He hadn't anticipated that he would have a guest, so he had not bothered himself with an extra cot.

     “I can’t do that to you sir―” 

     Aster held his hand up, “It’s only for a night. Like I said, you must be gone in the morning.” 

     Hart went silent in understanding. 

     Aster put out the fire and he climbed into his makeshift pile of blankets and pillows. He heard the other man climb into his bed. 

     Hart seemed harmless enough and hadn’t done anything to make Aster wary of him yet. But the god’s mind wandered.

     “May I ask, Hart,” Aster tested the name on his tongue. “What were you doing by the water?”

     Aster thought the man might have fallen asleep already, but Hart shifted in his bed. 

     “Don’t laugh at me for this, but,” Hart whispered, “I had read that tonight the water was supposed to glow at this very beach.”

     Hart sat up and grabbed for his journal. Aster raised an eyebrow at the man. “Glow?”

     “Yes! Here look,” and he leaned over excitedly to try to show his journal in the moonlight. It was harder to see the pages without a brighter source of light, but Aster could discern some words. “It's a dazzling phenomenon! Each season, these fish lay their eggs at this beach and when night comes, the ocean looks like it's filled with glittering gold coins!”

     This man had come all the way here just to see some glowing eggs? He was a fool, wasn’t he? Suddenly, Aster felt a laugh drawn from his throat, a rough and aged sound. It surprised him then, because he thought that part of him had crumbled away after all these years, but it greeted him warmly like an old friend.

     “You came all the way here, by yourself, to witness the mating season of some fishes?” Aster chuckled. “I’ve been here a while, and what you want to see won’t happen for a few weeks.” 

     Although Hart had told Aster not to laugh, the human smiled despite himself. “I must look silly then, don’t I?”

     Aster glanced at the sheepish man who tried to hide his abashed smile. Hart was as faded as him, but mortals drift through time differently. He must’ve been one of those men who shined strongly when he was younger, but now, the bright suns of youth had found another subject to light, and all he was left with were calloused hands and crow’s feet. Unconsciously, Hart’s hand drifted to his mouth to cover his smile, as if somebody had said it was ugly. It was a habit Aster had seen in many people, but it was a curious feeling to want to pull it away.

     “Very,” Aster said. 

     Hart put his journal away and lied back down, “It would be rude of me to sleep in your bed and not ask for your name.”

     “Aster,” the god replied in a low voice.   

     “Aster? Like the flowers in the north?”

     “I―,” he started, at the same time a distant memory appeared in his mind suddenly— one that took place centuries ago. “I don’t know…” 

     He remembered dewy grass beneath him, his skin prickling with the cold. Ghosts of dread and helplessness had swarmed inside of him. He hadn’t noticed how black the night had become, a void that blanketed the sky. Many purple flowers had bloomed instantaneously around him, staring upwards with scrutinizing yellow eyes. There had been millions of them, like the stars had fallen with him in his exile and planted themselves deep within the dirt. 

“I wish to travel to such distant places,” Hart sighed dreamily, and Aster’s memory dissipated like mist. “The farthest I’ve been was off the continent, but it wasn’t even for leisure.”

Aster could have ignored him, maybe even feigned sleep so as to end the conversation, but it had been too long since he had anybody to talk to. 

     “I have travelled to many places,” Aster said, and Hart shifted in his bed. “It’s not as impressive as you think it is.”

     “Really? Tell me more, Aster.”

     The god paused, thinking of what to say, whether he should tell this man about all that he’d seen, even if they had just met. He sat up then, and Hart did the same. He saw how curious Hart’s eyes were, and how patient they looked.

     Aster spoke of his travels from each of the four continents. He had walked through crumbled kingdoms, through withering ruins. He remembered the grand festivals, and the way humans would dance and feast with reckless abandon. There were the golden fields of Depennia in the west and the magical waters of Etril. He despised the northern winters, but their night skies beamed in glorious colors like paint had spilled all over them.

     As Aster recalled his adventures, Hart leaned in closer with wanderlust in his dark eyes. 

     “What would be your favorite place?” 

     “Here,” Aster replied right away.

     “Here? Out of all the wonderful places you’ve been to, you like it best here? Why?”

     It’s quiet, isolated. It is fit for someone who had been banned from the stars. 

     “I just do.”

     “I guess there’s no beating home, is there?” Hart didn’t seem satisfied with Aster’s answer, but he laughed to himself. “I would say I’m jealous, but the way you talk makes it seem like I’m there with you. Tell me, aren’t you lonely here on this beach?”

     Aster looked away, the mood turning solemn. He never had anybody who was willing to stay with him—friend or otherwise—even for a short while. It was a sharp thorn in his heart that sank deep, but that was the nature of a fallen god. He didn’t like thinking about it too much. 

     He felt a hand on his shoulder.

     “I understand,” Hart said, and Aster wanted to believe, just for a second, that maybe this man did understand. But he had to remind himself that Hart wasn’t like him. He had an ending to look forward to, whereas the god was trapped in a perpetual cycle.

     Aster took Hart’s hand from his arm, and he held it between them for a brief moment. He felt it was calloused and rough in that small touch, but it was gentle. There was an unexplainable feeling in his chest, one that wondered whether lonely hands could find places where they belonged. Aster let go, a heat passing through the cool shack. It had been too long since he had touched another person.

     “I think it’s best we go to sleep,” Aster muttered.

     “Of course…,” and Hart turned away in his bed.

     Sleep overtook them as the ocean foamed and crashed softly outside. Aster had told Hart that he must leave in the morning, so he hesitantly shook the idea of asking this mortal to stay a while longer. It was dangerous what friendly conversation could do to a person.

     Loneliness echoed throughout the god’s aching ribs, showing how incredibly empty they were, like vast tracts of land once ruled by powerful empires.