High Priest Balthus Aster groaned to himself as he walked up another step. The thousand stairs of the Sky Tower truly were a testament to man’s prowess and a wonder of architectural and magical craftsmanship, but it was hell on an old man’s knees. Still, he knew the power of symbols and a gleaming tower of marble and golden magic jutting up almost 700 feet above the Ember Palace was one hell of a symbol for the pilgrims come from all over the known world to gaze upon the splendor of Al’Shazan, the One True Flame of Creation and God of All.
He paused for a second to catch his breath. From the nearby window he admired the view of Diyall, City of Flame and eternal capital of the Empire. It really was a beautiful view from these soaring heights, the bustle of commerce and supplicants giving it the impression of an anthill that had just been knocked over. It was even more beautiful at night, thousands of torches and paper lanterns lining the streets as the citizens engaged in the nightly festival of lights. The festival truly was a wonder, citizens en masse engaging in nightly drinking, music and revelry on a truly impressive scale only to return to their daily jobs the next morning, nursing a slight hangover.
He sighed and shook his head. The festival of lights, yet another headache gifted from Al’Shazan to him. Apparently the One True Flame needed to be honored with a festival of fire and revelry nightly, costing hundreds of gold daily. Of course, the gold was a mere annoyance compared to the fact that Al’Shazan in its great wisdom had decreed that a wooden city engage in drunken, fire based debauchery on a nightly basis. Diyall had only burned down twice during his tenure as High Priest, making Balthus one of the more successful leaders of the Church of Flame to date. At times, he suspected that the Ember Palace got its name from the number of times that it was the last edifice remaining at the bottom of the sea of fire that consumed Diyall.
Continuing his eternal climb, Balthus winced as pain shot up his back with each step. Every single time he made this climb, he could swear that it got higher. Given the Godking’s disposition and seemingly limitless power, it very well might. Probably just to spite him. Balthus had been the subject of the omnipotent being’s ‘jokes’ before, and altering reality just to torment an old man sounded just about right. Or maybe that was just getting older. That was probably just Al’Shazan spiting him too. Especially on cold mornings, he couldn’t help but suspect that there was some divine meddling behind his stiff and defective joints.
Finally, he stood before the grand portal to Al’Shazan’s eternal realm. A beautiful hoop of twisted silver spitting sparks of magic and lightning, guarded by two winged and armored Seraphim of the Host. Nodding to the faceless clay bodies possessed by the spirits of ageless beings of unimaginable power, Balthus stepped through the portal and did his best to avoid falling to his knees as the vertigo of the spatial transfer consumed him. Flashes of light ripped past him as all concepts of distance and time became irrelevant and for a handful of seconds, he was everywhere and everytime simultaneously. Closing his eyes, Balthus waited for the inevitable.
“BALT YOU CAME” the God of All, in the form of a tanned genderless youth stated, the power of its voice rocking Balthus back a step. “YOU DIDN’T EVEN FALL OR THROW UP THIS TIME. NOT NEARLY AS AMUSING AS LAST TIME. REMEMBER? YOU THREW UP AND FELL FACE FIRST IN IT, IT WAS GREAT!”
“Ahem,” Balthus coughed politely, taking in the terrified servants fanning the God with great fans made from phoenix feathers. “I believe I was ill that day my Lord, you requested my presence urgently so I hurried to your sanctum despite my infirmity only to discover that your excitement was related to creating a great snowfall of identical snowflakes with which you had caused an avalanche that trapped and murdered a sage of Lyles Hall. Apparently the man had recently written a treatise on how all snowflakes naturally grew to be unique due to the way ice mana interacts with natural water mana.”
“WELL HE WAS WRONG” Al’Shazan casually thundered, a smile on its childish face. “HE KEPT WRITING BOOKS WITH ALL OF THOSE BIG WORDS IN THEM ABOUT HOW NATURE WORKS, BUT HE’S WRONG SO I WIN. YOU WOULD THINK THAT WITH ALL OF THOSE BIG WORDS AND HIS FANCY TALK HE WOULD KNOW THAT SNOWFLAKES MANIFEST ACCORDING TO MY WILL. I SIMPLY GROW BORED REPEATING MYSELF SO I CREATE UNIQUE ITERATIONS EVERY TIME. IT’S OBVIOUS REALLY.”
“My Lord Al’Shazan,” Balthus replied, a tension headache beginning to replace the vertigo. “You always win. The sage merely came up with a theory for how your greatness manifests itself and he guessed wrong.”
“BALT,” the child-thing began glowing and hovered in the air, about two feet off the ground. “I TOLD YOU TO CALL ME AL. I’VE HEARD THAT HUMANS OFTEN SHORTEN COMPLEX NAMES AS A FORM OF ENDEARMENT. THAT’S WHY I KEEP CALLING YOU BALT. BECAUSE WE ARE FRIENDS.”
“But my Lord, that would be terribly improper,” Balthus replied, taking some pleasure in in frustrating the omnipotent and fickle being.
“BUT BALT,” it repeated. “I TOLD YOU THAT YOU CAN CALL ME AL.”
“And I thank you for the inestimable privilege Lord Al’Shazan,” Balthus stated, bowing his head to hide his slight smirk.”
“WELL I… OK,” it replied, flustered by Balthus’ response. After several seconds it continued, apologetically, “I’M SORRY ABOUT THE SAGE. HIS BOOK WAS JUST FRUSTRATING AND IT WAS REALLY FUNNY FOR HIM TO DIE DUE TO SOMETHING HE STATED WAS IMPOSSIBLE.”
“I’m sure it was my Lord,” Balthus demurred.
“BALT YOU WOULD HAVE LOVED THE LOOK ON HIS STUPID FACE,” Al’Shazan said with a booming laugh as he returned to his usual joviality.
“Very droll. Possibly blue from hypothermia I would expect too,” Balthus stated evenly.
“IT WAS BLUE!” the God flew in a loop through the air, his laughter a physical force beating down on the beings in the room. “YOU HUMANS LIVE SUCH TRAGIC SHORT LIVES AND DIE IN SUCH FUNNY WAYS. HOW CAN IT BE NORMAL FOR YOUR BODIES TO BREAK DOWN ON THEIR OWN AND BECOME WEAKER UNTIL YOU CEASE TO EXIST ENTIRELY. THE ENTIRE THING IS GROSSLY INEFFICIENT. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN JUST AS EASY TO MAKE YOU IMMORTAL AND IMMUNE TO HUNGER, THIRST AND DISEASE LIKE THE ANGELIC HOST, BUT THAT HARDLY WOULD HAVE BEEN FUN.”
“I’m glad our suffering has amused you my Lord,” Balthus replied after forcefully unclenching his teeth.
“NOT MUCH,” the God of All shrugged, corkscrewing through the air, “BUT IT DOES HELP TO BREAK THE TEDIUM A LITTLE.”
“Regardless, you requested my presence?” Balthus blew out a sigh, getting mad at Al’Shazan was like becoming angry with a dog or a duck, albeit one that could and had destroyed entire civilizations in a fit of pique. It simply was pointless. Al’Shazan could barely even comprehend the concept of ethics let alone seriously consider that the opinion of anyone other than itself carried any value whatsoever.
“OH RIGHT BALT I CALLED YOU HERE,” the flying God snapped his fingers before landing on the ground. “NEXT WEEK MARKS THE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY OF YOUR ASCENSION TO THE POSITION OF HIGH PRIEST AND I THOUGHT THAT WE SHOULD CELEBRATE IT PROPERLY. YOU KNOW, WINE, FOOD, ORGY THE USUAL.”
“But my Lord,” Balthus responded. “Per your edict, like all prospective priests, I was castrated at the age of twelve. I don’t really see how an orgy would be any fun given that I am incapable of participating.”
“BALT,” the God said with another forceful laugh as he plucked a cherry from a silver tray. “I HATE TO BE THE ONE TO SAY THIS TO YOU, BUT YOU REALLY ARE A BIT OF A DOWNER. CONSTANTLY TALKING ABOUT FUNDING BENCHMARKS, NOBLE UNREST AND THE STARVATION OF THE LOWER CLASSES. NO ONE WANTS TO TALK ABOUT DRIVEL LIKE THAT YET EVERY TIME YOU ENTER MY REALM YOU SIMPLY CANNOT SHUT UP ABOUT IT. YOU’RE A FRIEND, BUT I’D HARDLY WANT YOU AT A PARTY THAT I’M THROWING. YOU’D REALLY BRING THE MOOD DOWN. PLUS, YOU’RE JUST SELFISH. ALL YOU COULD TALK ABOUT IS HOW THE PARTY CELEBRATING YOUR ASCENSION TO THE PRIESTHOOD WOULDN’T BE FUN FOR YOU.”
Balthus began to reply but just stopped. His mouth hanging open as he stared at his God while the being idley ate another cherry.
“ANYWAY,” Al’Shazan continued. “I WILL NEED YOU TO FIND ME TWENTY VIRGINS FOR THE PARTY. ALSO MAKE SURE TO INVITE THE FINEST BARDS AND JESTERS. WE TRULY NEED TO MAKE IT A CELEBRATION TO REMEMBER.” It paused, and made a slight face before theatrically whispering to Balthus “BUT REMEMBER, NO ONE BORING. I GET ENOUGH OF THAT RUNNING THE EMPIRE.”
Balthus sighed and nodded, defeat lining his face as he turned towards the portal and the thousand steps back down to the Ember Palace beyond it.