“First duty shift?”
They both nodded, Farah adding a belated “Yes, ma’am” after a moment.
“Don’t call me ma’am, I work for a living,” replied the Legionnaire, but she did so with a lazy grin.
“It’s a good shift to pull for first-timers,” added the other, older soldier, indicating the great temple space with a jerk of her head. Reflexively, Casey glanced around the huge chamber, at the Legionnaires standing at attention, the priestesses near the dais with its grand statue of Avei, the worshipers and petitioners coming and going. She couldn’t help feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as if she ought to be doing something specific, but they had been posted to the front of the temple, ready to be put to use as needed by Avei’s guests and at the discretion of the overseeing priestess. In between such discretionary acts, this seemed to chiefly involve standing around, waiting.
“I was sort of afraid they’d assign us to guard the Temple of Izara,” Farah admitted, permitting herself a shy smile.
The younger soldier snorted a laugh. “Yeah, they threaten all the newbies with that. Don’t worry, cadets are rarely assigned guard duty at non-Avenist temples. The bronze are too afraid you’ll do something to embarrass the faith.”
“I would be, too,” Farah murmured, adjusting her cuirass for the umpteenth time. Their armor was visibly lighter than that of full Legionnaires, but both of them were still very much unaccustomed to the weight. This was their first actual duty shift wearing it.
“Well, if you’d care to make yourself useful, keep your mind off the armor and the pressure, this posting means you can do some basic caretaking duties around the temple,” the younger Legionnaire said casually. “Refill the pixie dust, for example.”
Farah blinked. “Pixie dust?” Casey narrowed her eyes.
“Nobody likes doing it,” the soldier went on, while her older partner watched impassively. “It involves getting up on a ladder and opening the fairy lamps manually; it’s a pain. You’d probably rack up some serious brownie points for making the effort.”
“I…uh…what?” Farah frowned at her in confusion, then craned her neck to look around at the globes set above each of the hall’s columns, between the stained glass windows lining its upper story. “Fairy lamps are fully self-contained. Aren’t they?” she added uncertainly.
“The new ones, sure. These are historic, though; they won’t even hear about upgrading them. Apparently there was enough of a flap back when they put these in; the priestesses aren’t about to mess with the temple’s décor again. You can find pixie dust in with the cleaning supplies in the second sub-basement.”
“All fairy lamps, by definition, are self-contained and would simply break if you opened them.” Casey said firmly to Farah, then turned a hard stare on the Legionnaire. “It’s not kind, or just, to play pranks on someone who’s already out of her element. Ma’am.”
The soldier glared at her. “Are you sassing me, cadet?”
“All right, private, that’s enough,” the older woman interrupted. “You’ve had your fun, and she’s not wrong. Mind the chain of command, girl,” she added to Casey, “but good show of backbone. You’ll do well in the Legions.”
Farah suddenly snapped to attention, her eyes widening. The two Legionnaires followed her gaze, then immediately straightened up themselves, looking similarly shocked. Casey had to turn around to see what was up.
They had been approached by another soldier; Casey reflexively looked for her rank insignia to see what had the others so startled, but the woman didn’t seem to have any. She was going to catch hell for that from her commanding officer… Couldn’t have been very highly ranked, though; she was barely older than Casey and didn’t seem even as old as Farah. Just a rangy teenage girl with blonde hair tied back in a regulation braid.
Only then did she process the fact that the newcomer’s armor was silver, not bronze. In the space of half a second, Casey cycled through shock, self-recrimination and nausea, and only then finally came to attention, saluting. Beads of sweat manifested on her temples.
“All right, there, cadet?” the Hand of Avei asked mildly, looking directly at her.
Casey fervently wished she could just skip the preamble and die on the spot. “Yes, ma’am!”
The young paladin glanced her over. “You weren’t raised in the Avenist tradition, were you, cadet…?”
Outright terror burst in her. This was it; her first day in armor, and she had managed to antagonize General Avelea herself. She was going to be thrown out of the Sisters, and then straight into a prison like her parents…
“Cadet Elwick, ma’am!” she barked, frantically trying to suppress the quaver in her voice. “No, ma’am!”
Avelea nodded. “All these regulations and practices must seem downright oppressive.”
Oh, goddess, she was just fishing for an excuse now.
“Not at all, ma’am,” Casey croaked. “I find it…that is, it’s all very…”
“Arbitrary,” Avelea said with a smile. “Pushy, pointless, and apparently calculated to exhaust and confuse you to no real purpose. Yes?” There was absolutely no safe reply to that, but while Casey was struggling to come up with something, to her astonishment the General reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s like that for everyone, Elwick,” she said gently. “Getting through training takes faith. I don’t mean in religion; faith that the rules serve a purpose, and faith in yourself that you’ll find the strength to push through. You truly will, though. In hindsight, you’ll be astonished by how much sense it all makes, and how much you’ve grown for the experience.” She let her hand fall, turning her head to include the other three in the conversation. “At ease.”
They didn’t ease up much, considering whose company they were in, but did relax slightly, staring. Casey couldn’t tear her gaze off the paladin’s face; suddenly, all she could think was that Avei had chosen perfectly. She could see herself following this woman into battle.
“General Avelea,” said Sister Ramousi, gliding over to join them. “Welcome. Forgive the reception; I was not even aware that you were in the city.”
“It’s something of a surprise to me, too,” said Avelea. “I won’t take up your time, Sister. If someone could simply direct me to the quartermaster? I’m afraid I haven’t visited this temple often enough to remember the layout that well.”
“Of course!” said the priestess. “I’ll be glad to escort you, with a proper honor guard.”
“That isn’t at all necessary,” the paladin said quickly. “Your soldiers have much better things to do than chaperone me around. Directions will suffice; I can find my way.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” Ramousi replied. “Quite the opposite, it’s a matter of honor. You have not visited the Temple in several years; we cannot do less than show the respect due your station.”
Avelea looked momentarily annoyed, but quickly schooled her features. “If you say so, Sister. I wouldn’t want to let down the dignity of the temple.”
“If you will follow me, then?” Sister Ramousi bowed to her, then nodded at the two Legionnaires and their attending cadets. “Fall in, ladies. Lieutenant! Cover the door post, please.”
Stares and whispers followed them as they crossed the great chamber. For once, Casey didn’t have to struggle with the irrational worry that somebody had sussed out her secret; everyone was quite obviously watching the paladin. Endearingly, she seemed slightly uncomfortable with the attention. All in all, Trissiny Avelea was not how Casey would have imagined her. If anything, she was much better.
It eased up when they passed into the quieter halls of the temple. Avelea and Ramousi walked in the front of their little formation, the priestess deftly leading the way without stepping in front of the paladin. The Legionnaires followed on their heels, with the two cadets bringing up the rear. Farah and Casey took advantage of the momentary lack of scrutiny to exchange excited glances.
Once they were out of the full view of the public, the General spoke to her guide. “If I could trouble you to carry a message to High Commander Rouvad, Sister, I would like to arrange a meeting in the next few days, as soon as it is convenient.”
“Of course, I’ll be glad to,” Ramousi said, somehow managing to bow while walking without looking foolish. “If you wish to speak with her today, though, you most assuredly are entitled to her time.”
“The Commander is busy,” Avelea said firmly. “I will not disrupt the running of this Temple and the Sisterhood by intruding on her schedule unless the matter is urgent. Which it is not.”
“Very well,” Ramousi said diplomatically. “If you have questions or concerns of a lesser nature, General, I’d be glad to offer any insight I may?”
She left the suggestion hanging. From the rear, Casey of course couldn’t see the General’s expression, but the quiet stretched out as they walked. She had just about decided Avelea was refusing to continue the conversation when the paladin spoke.
“Are all temples and facilities used by the Sisters consecrated?”
“As…a matter of policy, yes,” Sister Ramousi said slowly. “Some divisions of the Legions, in particular, may make temporary use of unsanctified structures and locations, but blessing the spaces we use is a high priority, both for spiritual and defensive reasons.”
“Even our social outreach missions? Women’s shelters?”
“Hm. Then what considerations are put in place for the care of demonbloods?”
Ramousi actually missed a step. “Demonbloods, General? What… Are you referring to prisons?”
There was a bite in Avelea’s tone when she answered. “I was discussing, specifically, shelters. The Sisterhood offers sanctuary to any woman who claims need of it. If all our facilities are sanctified, how do we accommodate half-demons?”
“I… I am not sure that has ever come up. Or would.”
“No? Who, I ask you, is in a more vulnerable position in Tiraan society than a demonblooded woman? She would face all manner of persecution through no fault of her own.”
“Half-demons do show a pronounced proclivity toward joining the Black Wreath, General…”
“That’s hardly a wonder, if they are denied any better options.”
“Perhaps, General, you may fail to appreciate the full historical context of the issue,” Sister Ramousi said very carefully. “I have made something of a study of the history of our faith. Like all the cults of the Pantheon’s gods, the Sisters of Avei have always been a specifically human institution. Of course, we welcome any who are called to Avei’s service, and there are elves, gnomes and dwarves among our ranks. But originally and ultimately, the Sisters have been raised up for the protection of the human race. Our species does not enjoy the natural advantages of many of the others. We haven’t the longevity or magical aptitude of the elves, the hardiness of dwarves, the resilience of lizardfolk or the famous gnomish versatility and adaptability. If you will forgive me for pointing it out, General, this is why paladins have always been human. The gods protect us as their chosen. If the demon-blooded are not accorded a share of this protection…perhaps that is the will of the gods at work.”
“I see,” the paladin said quietly. Casey had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep herself in check. Showing her tongue to a priestess and the bloody Hand of Avei herself would lead to nothing but trouble.
“It seems the world truly is changing, then,” Avelea said after a pause. “And surely Avei must expect us to change with it. Why else select a half-elf as a paladin?”
Farah stumbled, but luckily, no one so much as glanced back. Casey could almost see the two Legionnaires studying their paladin with fresh eyes, taking note of her golden hair, lean build and narrow features. She could definitely see the wide-eyed priestess half-turn to do the same.
“Thank you, Sister,” Avelea said politely. “You have given me some things to think about.”
Ramousi managed a strangled noise that might have been acquiescence. Casey was paying her no attention, her gaze fixed on Trissiny Avelea’s back past the shoulder of the soldier in front of her.
Never mind battle. She would follow this woman straight into Hell.
Getting the day to herself had been refreshingly challenging. Kheshiri’s management of Shook had become stiflingly routine, almost dull; she’d had to think creatively and make good use of their surroundings in order to get out from under his thumb for a few hours.
Luckily, their surroundings included Alan Vandro’s constantly rotating collection of vapid young women drawn to his villa by the promise of leisure, fun, free food and booze, and if they played their cards right, the prospect of becoming a kept woman to one of the wealthy men who also frequented the estate. For a certain kind of person, any number of little indignities were bearable if it meant attaining a comfortable life without having to get a real job.
Shook, of course, had noticed them—often, and in detail. They’d noticed him, too, and taken note of his clearly privileged position in Vandro’s eyes. He had kept fairly aloof, however, concerned about his anonymity and the Guild hunting them… At least until Kheshiri had started getting clingy and jealous. When she began viciously trying to chase other girls away from him, Shook had latched onto an amenable pair and led them toward his room. A particularly shrill tantrum from Kheshiri had resulted in her being banished from the suite with instructions not to wander far.
For a being who had traversed continents, centuries and the very planes of existence, “far” was an extremely relative term.
Now she knelt in a small, natural cave she’d found connected to the city’s sewers. Some detritus strewn in its corners suggested this place had once been used by smugglers, back in the days before Onkawa’s extremely lax import and export laws made most smuggling pointless. Kheshiri was losing patience and growing tense; she couldn’t afford to spend any more time than necessary at this, and she was on her fourth attempt already. The first three summons she had attempted had yielded nothing, the demons called upon either dead or already on the mortal plane. Much had changed while she’d languished inside that damned reliquary. She was running out of names, and wasn’t about to risk calling up an unknown.
Before her was drawn the faintly glowing circle, on which she was putting the final tweaks, spelling out yet another name in demonic runes. More modern enchanting paraphernalia sat in neat stacks near her. The night before, Vandro had taken them to his “guy” in the city to get her reliquary modified for improved stealth. She knew, then, to leave him alone, and had confined her “shopping” to other enchanting suppliers throughout the city, making use of a different face for each. None had even caught her stealing, but if any happened to remember her after they discovered their missing goods, whatever they told the city guard would lead them nowhere.
The fascination of applying a small arcane charge to the summoning circle hadn’t worn off, at least. Back in her day, this would have involved no end of chanting. She’d still be on the first attempt, in all likelihood. Really, it was amazing the things humans came up with.
She all but cheered aloud when a figure began to form inside the circle this time, but kept her calm and put on a smug, aloof smile while he coalesced. In just a few seconds, the incubus was fully present, peering around quizzically and stretching his wings until the tips brushed the edges of the circle. He grinned, his eyes falling upon her.
“Well! This is the best in a string of surprises. It’s been, what…ninety years? I thought you’d been bound, Kheshiri.”
“Oh, they tried,” she said airily. “You should know I’m not so easily taken.”
“That’s not what I hear,” he said with a leer.
“Now, now, let’s be polite, Adrimas,” she admonished, grinning and wagging a finger at him. “I’m assuming you do want out of that circle eventually, yes?”
“And I’m assuming it’s going to cost me,” he said lazily. “By all means, darling, let’s hear it. I’m in a mood to be mercantile; I’m sure you know very well I’d part with everything but my manhood to be loose on the mortal plane again.”
“Well, before you go running off and getting into trouble, you may want to hear a bit about how humans have advanced. You just would not believe some of the stuff they can do, now. For example.” She picked up a slender object from the nearby pile of arcane goods and held it up between thumb and forefinger, waggling it at him.
Adrimas leaned forward till his nose nearly brushed the tubular field containing him, peering quizzically at the tip of the wand as she shifted her grip to the clicker. “What’s that?”
At that range, the shot threw him bodily backward. He bounced off the back of the circle, sliding down to lie twitching at its base, his whole head a smoking ruin. It was only seconds before he suddenly slumped through the invisible wall that had been partially propping him up, wings and one leg flopping outside it as well. The summoning circle had been designed to contain living demons, not dead flesh of hellish origin.
Kheshiri hummed to herself, exchanging the wand for for a large hunting knife and setting up her sample jars in the arcane cooling matrices that would keep their contents fresh for weeks (according to the manufacturer, anyway). She got to work, collecting and storing pieces of flesh. Piled on her other side was work for another day, the much more complex tangle of spell components and golem logic controllers. She’d have to do some finagling to mix that enchantment with her infernal craft, but the right modern golem circuitry in combination with the proper spells and the all-impotant magical substance of an incubus should, in theory, yield six portable, self-driving illusions. Servitors that would play her assigned role in Vandro’s plan, impersonating the conspirators, while Kheshiri herself, left behind while the others went to burgle the chieftain’s safe, would find herself with a wholly free evening—at exactly the right time to make the best use of it.
She worked as quickly as she could without sacrificing precision. Best to be back at Shook’s side as soon as possible; today’s window of freedom was brief, and not well-timed to take good advantage. Very soon, though, she’d have a better one. A perfect one.
“Hey, Toby!” Gabriel called across the common room, waving. “C’mon over!”
Toby threaded his way through the tables. It was early evening, yet, not by far the busiest time for inn common rooms, but it was already well into the dinner hour and the chamber was filling up. The noise and fuss was distracting, but it would afford a measure of privacy, he reflected as he slid into a seat across from his friend. Relative privacy would be good. So would sitting down and not having to be responsible for anything for a little while.
“Dang, you look worn out,” Gabriel observed, pouring an amber liquid from a pitcher into a mug and pushing it across to Toby. “Long day?”
The paladin peered suspiciously at his pint. “What, exactly, are you giving me?”
“Oh, relax,” Gabe said with a grin. “It’s spiced cider—the family friendly variety. Good stuff for this weather. Yeah, our jovial innkeeper has been warned against serving us the hard stuff.”
Toby took an experimental sip, then a longer one. He had learned to mistrust the food in this establishment, but the cider was actually quite good. “Mm. Thanks, I needed this. You do realize, though, you could probably get beer if you really wanted. It’s a big city, and Tellwyrn’s already left for Onkawa.”
“Why, mister Caine, are you trying to corrupt me? I am shocked. Shocked!”
“Oh, sod off,” Toby said, grinning. “Just not like you to pass up a chance for mischief, is all.”
“Yeah, well.” Gabriel paused to take a long drink of his own cider. “I’m reasonably sure Tellwyrn would just know, somehow. And then she’d strap me down, stuff a funnel in my gob and pour me full of holy water.”
Toby grimaced. “You know, I really wish it was harder for me to imagine her doing that.”
“I know, right? So what’s got you looking so knackered? Surely Juniper hasn’t caused any trouble. I have a feeling I’d have heard about it if she had.”
“No…nothing. Yet.” He took a long drink, staring contemplatively at the wall past Gabriel’s head. “That’s part of what’s starting to wear on me, Gabe. I’ve just got this feeling… Something is gonna go wrong. I can feel it.”
“Hm.” Gabe set down his mug and folded his arms on the table, leaning forward to peer at Toby. “This feeling. Is this an Omnu thing?”
“Not divine in origin, if that’s what you mean. I just…” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “She’s a dryad. In Tiraas. How can this possibly go anything but badly? But all she’s done so far is just…look. Walk around, look at stuff. She seems kind of confused, really, like everything’s disorienting. No hostility. I’m starting to go a little crazy from the anticipation, I think.”
Gabriel leaned backward. “Toby, don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
“Oh, this should be good.”
“Well, if you’re not getting a warning from Omnu about this…maybe it’s all in your head?”
“My head,” Toby repeated, giving him a look.
Gabriel shrugged. “Let’s face it, you’re a worrier. This is not news. You feel responsible for everything that goes on anywhere near you, you’re always wanting to help people and prevent any kind of misfortune.”
“This whole thing is a giant misfortune waiting to happen!”
“Is it, though? Honestly, man, I think you’re not giving Juniper enough credit. Or Tellwyrn, when it comes down to it. Yeah, she’s definitely a sink-or-swim mentor, but think back. She’s never tossed us into a river where we didn’t have the chance, at least, to swim. Plus, for all her big bad wizard act, I don’t think she wants to piss off the Empire. Who would? I suspect the situation with Juniper is more stable than you’re thinking.”
“Hm.” Tobdy drummed his fingers absently on the table, frowning in thought.
“This kinda concerns me, actually,” Gabe went on, regarding him seriously. “Juniper is… I don’t know if ’empathic’ is the word, but she’s got senses we don’t. People senses. She responds very directly to emotion.”
“I thought that was all sexual stuff.”
“It’s mostly sexual stuff,” Gabriel admitted. “But…not all, no. I think she can perceive people’s feelings sort of directly. At least, I’ve known her to pick up on things that…well, that’s neither here nor there.”
“Uh huh,” Toby said, grinning.
“What concerns me,” Gabriel went on hastily, “is if you’re spending all day around her, being all tense and nervous and holding the idea in your head that she’s about to snap or something… Well, I can sort of see that becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Y’know?”
“Hm. You’ve…maybe got a point,” Toby said reluctantly. “I don’t know what else to do, though. With all respect to our roommates, I don’t think it’s smart leaving them in charge of a dryad by themselves.”
“Yeah, no, you’ll get no argument from me on that.” Gabriel grinned broadly, picked up his mug again and took a drink.
“Well, why don’t you come with us, then? I mean, what have you been doing all day? I know the girls are all tied up in preparations for that party tonight.”
“I’ve been hanging around at the local magic shop,” Gabe said casually. “The shopkeeper is…interesting. Nicer to me than most people in the city, too.”
“Well, how about you come along with Juniper and the boys and me tomorrow? I bet you’d be a help in getting her acclimated. She likes you.”
“Oh, she likes everybody,” Gabriel said dismissively.
“Yes, that’s true… But in addition, she likes you.”
“Yes, really. I mean, don’t fall in love with her or anything…”
“I’m not quite that lacking in self-preservation,” he muttered.
“I wasn’t gonna make assumptions,” Toby said with a grin. “But seriously. She does like you. She’s calmer around you.”
“Where is she now, by the way?”
“Upstairs with the fellas,” Toby said, wincing.
They both drank.
“…wanna take bets whether they’ll come out grinning or traumatized?”
“I am a monk, Gabriel,” Toby said piously. “Gambling is a sin.”
Gabe snorted. “Especially for someone who’s as bad at it as you.”
“That aside,” Toby said more thoughtfully, “you’ve gotten remarkably insightful lately. It’s almost like you’re growing up or something.”
“You know, I’ve discovered the most fascinating thing,” Gabe said cheerfully. “So I walk around doing stupid shit like I always do, y’know? But it turns out, if I pay attention to what happens as a result of that, sometimes I actually learn stuff. Incredible, right?”
“Wow. You should write a book.”
“I’m thinking about it!” He gestured with his half-empty mug. “Dumbass: The Life and Times of the World’s Lamest Half-Demon.”
“It’s got a nice ring to it.”
“Anyhow,” Gabriel went on, his expression sobering, “yeah, sure I’ll come with tomorrow. It’s not like I have anything better to do, and I do like hanging out with you guys. And Juniper, of course. Seriously, I don’t think you need to worry all that much. This must all be alien for her, but she’s smart. And Tellwyrn brought her here for a reason. I really think there’s more, y’know, humanity in her than we may be giving her credit for. Come on, she even looks almost human. Why would dryads look like beautiful women if there wasn’t something fundamentally human about them?”
Toby toyed with his mug, staring into it. “You remember last semester when I couldn’t find half the allegedly common medicinal plants Rafe set us to collect from around campus, and he let me do a research paper to make up the credit?”
“I ended up reading a bit on the local insect life. Did you know the way fireflies flash is a kind of mating dance?”
“They actually signal with very precise timing. But out in the Golden Sea, there’s a species of predatory worm that climbs up on the tallgrass and flashes back at them. It uses exactly the right firefly signals to lure them in close, mimicking a receptive female. Then when an amorous firefly lands…crunch.”
He raised his eyes, staring grimly at Gabriel’s suddenly serious face.
“That’s why dryads look like beautiful women.”