Images in crystal balls were always somewhat distorted by the shape of the thing; it was like looking through a soap bubble. The larger and clearer the crystal, though, the sharper and more comprehensible the image. That was why the four men met in the Emperor’s own conference chamber rather than the little out-of-the-way nook in one of the Palace’s sub-basements, as they were accustomed. It was hardly less secure, and had the advantage of the proper equipment to display what the Hand of the Emperor felt they should see personally, without the awkwardness of making several of the Empire’s more important personages crane their necks and squint.
On a brass stand in the center of the hulking conference table sat a pumpkin-sized globe of utterly flawless white quartz, a gift from the queen of Tar’naris. Viewed from any angle, its central body was all but perfectly transparent, but with a white haze around the edges—at least, when it was not in use. Now, the peripheral discoloration remained, but the scene within was of another time and place. Modern “crystal” balls of formed glass avoided this property, but they held enchantments less well and showed paler, washed-out images with greater distortions due to the shape of the ball. On balance, the quartz made for sharper viewing. It had been a kingly gift indeed.
The four watched the recording in silence; the image in the crystal orb was the same no matter the angle from which it was viewed. There was no sound, but before sending the recording to them the scryers had added floating words to the bottom of the image conveying dialogue. A ripple briefly distorted the scene when Elilial casually destroyed one of the scrying orbs atop the watchpost, but the image cleared immediately. There was nothing much to see by that point, though, save the goddess walking away, but every man present observed that intently. Queen of demons or no, she was well worth looking at.
Once she vanished, however, so did the recording, and the four men leaned back in their chairs in unison. The black-coated Hand turned the crank beneath the table, and with a clacking of gears, the crystal orb descended back into its resting place inside the heavy piece of furniture, the hidden panel sliding over it once it was down. It wouldn’t do for it be be chipped or scratched, no matter how unlikely that was. Plus, they could now see each other clearly without having to crane their heads around it.
“The men?” asked Quentin Vex, who headed Imperial Intelligence. As usual he looked disinterested and half-asleep, which they all knew to be an act; one did not get ahead in his field by being dull-witted, but one often could by pretending to be.
“They’re fine,” said the man across from him, a slender and diminutive figure in a plain Imperial Army uniform without any medals. General Toman Panissar disdained the fripperies and indulgences that his position entitled him to; it was one of the things that endeared him to his men. “Woke up within the hour, none the worse for wear. Not even much confused, though getting coherent reports out of them was a chore. All three have an amazing literary gift for botching even a simple incident report. This is the first time I’ve had a clear picture of what actually happened that day.”
“Well, you’ve seen it now,” said the Hand, who sat at the head of the table in the Emperor’s place. For almost anyone else that would be a misdemeanor at least, but Hands of the Emperor were his voice and spoke with his authority. Outside their own ranks, nothing was known of the process by which they were selected and trained, nor what powers they wielded or even how many there were, but their absolute and devoted loyalty was a cornerstone of Imperial rule. According to rumor, these men had no names and no desires or even identity apart from their service to the Emperor. This Hand was a balding man with craggy features, his remaining hair a dark brown that matched his deep-set eyes. “The view from the ground, so to speak, is significant, but Lord Quentin has more for us, I believe.”
“Quite, and I’ll forestall the obvious question that I know is at the front of everyone’s minds,” the spymaster said, slouching languidly in his chair. “It’s her, beyond doubt. The visual identification is a complete match with Elilial’s other recorded incarnations on this plane. That can be faked, yes, if someone had the skill and the haycart necessary to carry his balls around, but we’ve no shortage of corroborating evidence.” He nodded to the Hand. “She was in the Palace itself immediately prior to this incident, having planted herself among the staff—”
“Omnu’s breath,” Panissar cursed, then shot a guilty look at the fourth man at the table. “Ah, my apologies, Bishop.”
Vex went on with an amused twitch of his lips. “…and we had our scryers point everything in their arsenal at the site the instant she set off the wards—which she did in a dramatic way. The hellgate was unmistakeably opened from the outside, then closed from within, which I’m sure you know is extremely unusual. And it was done by divine energy. We can know for an absolute fact that this was the act of a god. As an incidental aside, our scans picked up traces of another scrying spell on the site, which we tracked to the vicinity of Last Rock.”
“That woman,” Panissar growled.
“That about sums it up, yes,” Vex said wryly, then turned to regard the Bishop. “We sent a briefing and a request to the Church immediately…”
“Indeed, yes,” said Bishop Darling, putting on a polite smile. “His Holiness was appraised beforehand of events unfolding within the Palace, having himself foreseen Elilial’s involvement and warned the Emperor. He communed personally with the Pantheon immediately upon receiving your request. The Archpope personally verifies that none of the deities with whom we have any contact entered Hell at that location. Several were keenly interested to learn that Elilial apparently had.”
“They don’t know things like that anyway?” Panissar asked drily.
The Bishop shrugged. He was a new addition to their group, the previous Church liason having retired quite recently, and this was his first attendance at their regular meetings. He was also, by at least a decade, the youngest man present. “What the gods do and do not know is a matter best not speculated on. Of course,” he admitted with a grin, “we do anyway. They are known to be able to hide their movements from each other, and Elilial, perhaps by necessity, is exceptionally good at that. To the point that I don’t believe we would have been allowed to see this move on her part if she did not wish us to.”
“I agree,” said Vex.
“And that is where the matter stands, gentlemen,” the Hand said, drumming his fingers on the table. “The Mother of Demons is on the move, and has an interest in the Empire itself, specifically. Tiraan forces have fended off several of her campaigns at various times in the last thousand years, but this marks her first direct move against our government that we know of.”
A sober silence fell as they digested this, broken by the General. “What, exactly, was the nature of her interest in the Palace?”
“That’s classified,” said the Hand stiffly.
“Seriously?” Panissar leaned forward, glaring. “Classified to us?”
“Sealed to the Throne,” replied the Hand. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, General, that this is not a thing lightly done. The mere knowledge of what she was up to would rock the Empire if it spread. Therefore, preventing its spread is our highest priority. Rest assured that his Majesty and the Empress are tending to it with the full support of the Hands.”
“What are we allowed to know, then?” Panissar shot back with heavy sarcasm. “Bureaucrats sending soldiers into battle with faulty intel is a recipe for dead soldiers and not much else.”
“At this point, our priority should be preventing this from becoming a matter for soldiers,” said Vex. “We can’t match a deity for brute force. Our best chance is to play her game. No matter how powerful or how beyond us the gods are, an individual god isn’t more intelligent or devious than a human is capable of being. Or am I wrong?”
“You aren’t,” said Darling, “though I may be forced, later, to deny admitting that.”
“And so the game is on,” the Hand said grimly. “I’d like to begin by sketching a profile of our enemy, if Bishop Darling will oblige us. You are the resident expert on the gods.”
“I don’t see this leading to anything but a sermon,” said the General.
“Well, the high points such a sermon would hit are relevant.” Darling folded his hands on the tabletop, gazing earnestly at them. “Mother of Demons, betrayed mankind, cast into Hell, obsessed with revenge against the Pantheon, et cetera. All this is pertinent to her motivations, but I’m going to assume you’ve all managed to attend enough Sunday services to have heard it before. Unless someone wants to correct me? Good. I have, in fact, made something of a study of the records of Elilial’s various gambits over the millennia, and I am struck by an observation that I’m afraid the Church tends to bury in its zeal to warn against her. Elilial is, by any reasonable definition, a trickster god.”
“How do you mean?” asked the Hand, frowning. “That she’s sly? We knew that.”
“I would say it is more that she’s gleefully sly.”
“That makes a difference?”
“It does indeed,” said Vex, looking somewhat more alert.
“It means,” Darling went on, “that she fits a pattern of behavior which better suits, say, Eserion or Vesk, than the leader of rampaging demonic hordes that the sermons tend to portray. In account after account, she has favored subtlety over brute force, and never been gratuitously cruel except on the rare occasions when she had a god of the Pantheon at a disadvantage. She really hates them. When it comes to dealing with humans and other mortals… I would say that she seems to appreciate a worthy opponent. From her recorded comments alone, it’s apparent she has quite a sense of humor.”
“Humor,” Panissar said flatly.
The Bishop nodded. “We think of evil in a certain way…a rather theatrical one. But ‘evil,’ gentlemen, describes a class of actions, not a state of being. I am imposing my perspective somewhat, here; as I said, I have made something of a personal study of Elilial’s movements. It’s a hobby, you might say. But my impression from this is that she tends to be less aggressive and more…playful.”
“How certain are you of that analysis?” asked the Hand after a moment in which the other silently digested this.
“Very. If you would like, I can bring you a selection of materials to read. None are actually classified by the Church, but most of the accounts are not widely published…”
“That’s all right,” the Hand said quickly, “I have enough reports to slog through. You’re the expert; we’ll take your word. That’s why you’re here, after all.”
“That being the case, it’s a significant observation,” said Vex. “A campaign against a con artist will play right into her hands if you try to approach her as a general, but if you know what she is and how she works…”
“Then the game becomes less one-sided,” said Panissar, nodding. “Know your enemy. Unfortunately, if we are not allowed to know what she is up to, her personality profile is of little use.” He pressed his lips into a thin line, staring at the Hand.
“This much I can tell you,” the Hand replied, “her actions suggest an attempt to place a puppet on the throne of the Empire itself. The Bishop’s observations fit with her methods, in fact,” he added, frowning in thought. “She killed four Hands, but only when they attacked her. She was left with a golden opportunity to assassinate the Emperor himself, but offered him no harm.”
Vex suddenly sat bolt upright in his chair. “The recording. She said ‘you wouldn’t shoot a pregnant lady.’”
“Omnu’s balls,” Panissar hissed, realization thundering down on him.
The Hand shot to his feet, slamming both palms on the tabletop and leaning forward to glare at them. “This matter is sealed to the Throne. You will not repeat anything you have heard outside this room, even to each other, nor speculate further on the matter! Is that utterly clear?”
He did not relax even slightly until receiving a verbal acknowledgment from each of them.
“You were right, though,” Darling noted. “That information would rock the Empire. And I think we’ve seen the evidence of her willingness to use it. Dropping that hint just where it would get back to the people analyzing it…”
“I think,” Vex said slowly, “you had better begin laying contingency plans for the rumor, at least, to get around.”
“I believe that is your job, Lord Quentin?” the Hand shot back, still visibly irate.
“Indeed, sir, and now that I have an idea what is going on I may be able to actually do it.” He sighed, slouching back down in his seat. “There’s a method to countering rumor, if you get out in front of it. Of course, one runs the risk of spreading the very tale we want to suppress, if she doesn’t, in fact, attempt to spread it herself.”
“And so it begins,” Darling said. “We second-guess ourselves and each other while she is out there, freely acting. This is exactly how trickster figures operate.”
“What would you suggest we do about it, then?” demanded the Hand.
“Individually, I’d have to say we would be overmatched. As a group, however, I advise you each to simply be careful not to become bogged down in introspection. Trust your instincts, communicate clearly with the rest of us, and between our various skills I believe we have a good chance of countering her.”
“So, you suggest we fulfill the letter of the reason for this group’s existence,” the Hand said flatly. “Thank you very much, Bishop.”
“Don’t take it to heart,” said Vex with a grin. “He likes to have the last word.”
“Let’s keep this on track,” said the Hand, still quite stiffly.
“Indeed, he reminds me of a smart-mouthed fellow I used to know in my younger days. Always had to make sure he was the head of the group, that one.”
“But you forgave his trespasses and became the bigger person, as the gods would have it of us,” said Panissar, rolling his eyes. “Yes, yes, we know.”
“Actually,” Darling mused reminiscently, “eventually I kicked the crap out of him and slept with his girlfriend. And then his sister.”
A dead silence fell, the three of them staring at him. The Bishop spread his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling beatifically. “No one is born a priest, gentlemen.”
“Anyway,” the Hand said loudly, “all other things being equal, we are in the unenviable place of needing to await our opponent’s next move before we understand enough of her plans to counter them. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that each of the bodies represented by this group is aware of the situation, in communication with one another, and able to meet the threat as it rises.”
“That’s it, then?” Panissar grunted. “We wait?”
“We’ve little choice, General, unless you propose to invade Hell.”
“I have, in fact, drawn up projections of that very campaign.”
“Oh?” The Hand lifted an eyebrow. “And what did you conclude?”
“I can’t imagine I would need to spell it out for you. Insufficient data to properly plan an attack, and even the Tiraan Empire hasn’t the resources to wage war on an entire plane of existence.”
“Then yes, we wait. In the meantime, there are two related matters that need to be addressed, pertaining to the security of this matter. First is the ping from Last Rock.”
“We should just send someone round to put that damned elf out of our misery,” Panissar said sourly. “You could see to that, couldn’t you, Quentin?”
“It’s been attempted,” Vex replied with a dry smile, “by the best. The last time it was attempted by the Empire itself, Tellwyrn sent the family signet ring of the then head of Intelligence to Princess Sharina as a wedding gift. His hand was still in it.”
“There is a policy in place to deal with Tellwyrn and those like her,” said the Hand, “and it revolves around not antagonizing them without good and specific cause. The effort it would take to purge the Empire of such troublesome individuals would leave our civilization in ruins. For the time being, we are simply concerned with keeping her out of this matter.”
“Need we, though?” asked Darling. “It seems to me she could be a useful ally in this.”
“The Tiraan Empire does not make alliances with individual citizens living in its borders!”
“You know what I meant. Tellwyrn’s name crops up repeatedly in my readings of the histories of the gods. I rather think she knows many of them more intimately than their own priests. I’m sure all three of you are aware that she’s almost certainly killed one herself. For all her apparent love of causing trouble for its own sake, she is a heroic figure in legend as often as a villainous one. And she’s very likely been investigating this matter longer than we have.”
“What?” The Hand leaned forward, frowning. “How?”
“There is the matter of the exploding girls. You’re aware of it?”
“I wasn’t,” said Panissar, though Vex and the Hand both nodded. “Exploding girls?”
“Roughly four years ago, there were five confirmed cases of spontaneous human combustion,” Darling explained. “All teenage girls. In each case, it was discerned after the fact that the victim had been attacked by a demon of extraordinary power, which attempted to possess her, resulting in the destruction of both demon and girl in all cases except one. The one successful possession was of Teal Falconer, who is, I believe, currently enrolled at the University in Last Rock.”
“Blazing hell,” Panissar whispered.
“Indeed,” said Darling, nodding. “The Falconer girl has control, and the demon Vadrieny appears to be amnesiac as a result of the trauma of possession, and evinces no desires except to exist. After a thorough examination by the Church, they were issued a Talisman of Absolution. I can’t imagine Tellwyrn is ignorant of the other events surrounding this student’s condition, nor that she’s let them go.”
“She hasn’t,” Vex said. “She’s been sniffing around the attack sites for the last year, despite our attempts to keep the business hushed up. You’re assuming this is part of Elilial’s current activity?”
“I’m not discounting Elilial’s capacity to have multiple irons in the fire,” the Bishop replied, “but on the scale on which gods move, four years is nothing. I think it’s a safe assumption that the matters are, at least, related. So not only is Tellwyrn already involved, and a person of useful capabilities who could help, but I think there’s a good chance she’s a leading expert on the matter.”
“Bringing her in is absolutely out of the question,” said Vex. “That, too, has been tried. It was…ugly.”
“How ugly?” asked Panissar.
“Ever heard of the Ministry of Mysteries?”
“That’s right, you haven’t. Neither has anyone else, since they tried to hire Arachne Tellwyrn.”
“I agree,” said the Hand. “Directly involving an individual with a legendary capacity to destroy everything she touches is not on the table.”
“However, it’s not impossible that we can make use of her, provided we maintain a very circumspect distance,” Vex mused, “especially if she’s already involving herself. Pointing Tellwyrn at Elilial would be a handy way to keep them both busy.”
“I’ll present the idea to his Majesty,” the Hand said briskly. “The only remaining matter is our three witnesses, who I believe are currently being detained. Obviously, the most logical solution is that they be silenced—”
“No,” Panissar said flatly.
The Had scowled. “Imperial security is a matter well worth the lives of three extremely underperforming soldiers…”
“The Empire is people,” the General snapped, “not some vast mechanism. The day this government begins to exist for its own sake instead the benefit of its people is the day it needs to fall.”
“General,” said the Hand quietly, “you’ve picked a strange audience to give voice to borderline treason.”
“Go tell the Emperor what I said; it’s nothing I’ve not said to his face. I’m fairly confident, in fact, that he agrees with me. Those three boys may not be the best soldiers by any stretch of the imagination, but I want you to remember something: faced with the most evil force in existence, their response was to draw their weapons and invoke their Emperor’s name. They will not be thrown away like inconvenient puppies. I will fight you with every resource I can muster if you try.” He leaned forward, staring intently at the Hand. “I advise you not to force me to exhaust the resources I can legally use.”
“Getting soldiers for those posts is tricky,” Vex explained to Darling in the icy silence which followed. “Hellgate guard and such. We like to use men who’ve tested well above average on loyalty and devotion to the Empire, but in the bottom rungs of every trait that makes them useful as soldiers. Loyal enough to be trusted, in short, but expendable in case whatever they’re guarding acts up. It’s not a common combination of traits, and well…it leads to complications like this when it comes time to actually expend them. This is why you don’t name the goats you raise for meat.”
“I…see,” Darling said slowly. Panissar and the Hand were still glaring daggers at each other. “I might be overstepping my bounds, here, but I believe I have an idea.”
“Go ahead,” said the Hand wearily, leaning back in his seat.
“Well, it sounds to me like we have two problems,” he said. “There’s the matter of handling Professor Tellwyrn, who is probably inextricably involved in this already, without letting her botch our own efforts completely or attempting to force her out of it, which we’re assuming would backfire.”
“Backfire horrifically, yes,” sad Vex with a faint smile.
“And then,” Darling went on, “we have three soldiers who frankly deserve medals, but who for security reasons need to be stuck somewhere that they cannot go blabbing and blow the lid off the whole thing.”
“Yes,” said Panissar. “And?”
The Bishop smiled. “Sometimes, gentlemen, if the gods smile on us, two problems are the solutions to each other.”