“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded. “How can you tell?”
The group backed away as another hammer blow knocked loose a cascade of ice fragments.
“I’m a fairy!” Fross exclaimed. “I know when I’m in the presence of one of Naiya’s daughters!”
“Fuck,” Ruda said emphatically. “For one blessed moment, I thought this was gonna be simple. Dunno why, but I did.”
The monster roared again, smashing the wall with both colossal fists. That entire segment collapsed, and it began forcing its way through the gap.
“Retreat!” Trissiny barked, backing away. “Fross, slow her down!”
“Retreat where?” Ruda demanded, even as she backed up from the creature. Fross zipped back and forth, rapidly building inverted icicles; the columns of ice were only waist-high to the creature, but the pixie was arranging them as an obstacle course in the transformed dryad’s path, forcing her to stop and batter through them. “There’s nowhere to go but back to the nexus!”
“That may work,” said Toby. “We didn’t see any illusion effects in there, right? Maybe if we coax her out of this hall, she’ll revert to herself.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Trissiny, nodding. “All right, slow retreat. Fross, good work; keep her from catching up to us. We don’t want to get too far ahead, let her keep us in view. Gabe, can you fine-tune your wandshots not to damage her? We may need to provoke her to keep following us.”
“I don’t really have that kind of control,” he said.
“I advise against it in any case,” Shaeine added. “If she does not return to herself upon reaching the nexus, we will have to coax her down. Hurting and enraging her will make that vastly more difficult.”
They beat a slow, nervous retreat back to the center of the complex, staying carefully out of Juniper’s reach with the help of Fross’s various ice constructions, while keeping her in view. No taunting proved necessary; the monstrosity kept after them, roaring and lashing out with her various limbs, which was both convenient for their plan, and rather worrisome. Fross, for her part, seemed to get into her task with enthusiasm, making her impediments increasingly elaborate and fanciful in shape as they progressed. Of course, they all ended up in pieces.
The Crawl didn’t try to thwart them, for once. In what seemed like less time than it had taken to get that far into the hallway, they were backing out of it, leaving the mist behind and stepping into the wide-open space of the central nexus. Fross laid off the ice works, zipping back to join the others as they picked up their pace to put some extra distance between themselves and their pursuer.
Roaring, she stomped forward to the edge of the mist, stingers poised to lash out. The students retreated nearly to the center of the chamber.
“Come on, June,” Trissiny muttered, keeping her shield in front of her.
The dryad-monster stomped forward, flaring her breathing sacs. The fog faded behind her, leaving her towering shape framed against a dense white backdrop. Emitting a guttural growl and flexing both stinger-tails, she took another step forward.
“Okaaaay,” said Ruda. “What was Plan B?”
“I’m gonna try something,” said Gabriel, taking a step forward.
“Gabe,” Toby warned.
“It’s okay. Shaeine, can you please be ready to rescue me from my own stupidity if need be?”
“That is my customary practice, yes.”
He grinned at her momentarily before continuing forward at a slow walk.
The monster roared at him; Gabriel didn’t falter. “Hi, Juno,” he said. She stopped, stingers poised menacingly, and bent forward as if to sniff at him.
Keeping his pace slow, he continued on. “I know you don’t like to talk about what’s bothering you. Like I’ve told you before, though, you can. Whatever this is, whatever you’re so afraid of…you don’t need to be. At the very least, you don’t have to face it alone.”
He stopped, finally. The monster took one step forward and leaned down, planting both fists on the ground on either side of him. Her stingers arched over her shoulders, hovering menacingly above his head.
“Gabriel, you are too close,” Shaeine said. “I can’t put a shield around you without burning her.”
“This doesn’t have to happen,” Gabriel said, ignoring the priestess. He slowly raised one hand toward the creature’s face, what there was of one. “There is no reason it will. You are what you choose to be.”
She exhaled sharply, blowing his hair back. He winced; they could smell it from yards away. He did not retreat, though.
“Choose,” Gabriel said quietly, placing his hand against her. “You’re not alone.”
The monster’s roar was almost enough to physically bowl him over at that distance. She seized him by both shoulders and hiked him bodily off the ground, straightening up.
Before anyone could even cry out, a tiny silver point appeared from the creature’s upper chest, just in front of Gabriel’s face.
The monster emitted a guttural wail, dropping Gabe as suddenly as she had picked him up, and staggered backward, incidentally dislodging Ruda from her back. The pirate rolled away, nimbly landing on her feet, as the mutated dryad slumped to her knees, sagging in place.
“What did you do?” Toby shouted.
“Mithril,” Ruda said, retreating from Juniper without taking her gaze away. “Think Triss had the right idea back there. Good for cutting off magic. Hopefully not just hers; it should work on the Crawl’s, even.”
“That’s right through—you could kill her!” Gabriel exclaimed in horror.
“Nah, I’ve stabbed her with it once before. Just shook her up some.”
Juniper’s hulking form was listing markedly to one side now. As they watched in appalled fascination, the green of her mottled skin faded to brown, the brown to gray. Before their eyes, flesh turned to wood and began to crack, as if from age and rot.
“Look at her!” Gabriel shouted. “You bloody maniac, you—”
“Listen!” Shaeine said urgently, cutting him off.
In the silence which followed, a soft noise could be heard from the stilled monster, an apparently sourceless shuffling. Then, its central body shifted and seemed partially to collapse in on itself. Ruda’s rapier was tugged firmly to the side, its jeweled hilt knocking loosed a large chunk of calcified flesh.
“Have we yet been on an adventure when you didn’t stick this thing in somebody?”
The voice, though muffled, was unmistakeable. Gabriel leaped forward, followed swiftly by Toby and Ruda. They had to actually dig into the huge bulk of the body, pulling aside half-rotted chunks of wood, but in only seconds Juniper’s green hair was visible. With remarkably little effort—the husk of the monster now seemed about as sturdy as papier mache—they were carefully pulling her out of the ruins, still with the rapier through the center of her chest. There was no sign of her sundress.
“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked the dryad solicitously. “How do you feel?”
“Impaled,” she grimaced. “It doesn’t feel good. But…thanks, Ruda. That was a pretty awful thing.”
“People underestimate the curative powers of stabbing,” Ruda said with a grin. “Good to see your pretty face again, Juno. I’m gonna want that back, by the way.”
“Well, that’s fine, I’d just as soon have it out.” Grimacing, the dryad shifted around, giving Ruda access to the hilt protruding from between her shoulder blades.
“This might sting a bit,” Ruda warned.
“Less than it did going in I beoww!”
“You really do like to stab people,” Teal said, grinning.
“Hey, guys?” said Fross. “Look.”
The mist had faded from each of the side halls, revealing their shapes—which in all cases were virtually square. They extended no further back than they were wide, and seemed oddly sad, with nothing to reveal but blank stone surfaces.
“That’s almost insulting,” Ruda muttered.
“How so?” Trissiny asked.
“Couldn’t say, really. I just feel generally insulted.”
“Fair enough,” Trissiny replied with a smile.
“Well, I guess this means we officially won,” Gabriel said, letting go of Juniper’s hand and stepping past the group toward the middle of the room. In the precise center of the floor there now sat a small wooden chest.
“Are we sure we’re not still in the Descent?” Ruda demanded, planting her fists on her hips.
“Pretty sure, yeah,” said Fross. “Totally different style and methodology here. I’m equally sure it’s still the Crawl, though.”
Gabriel knelt and raised the lid. “…well, this is kinda disappointing.”
“What’d we get?” Teal asked, looming over his shoulder and craning her neck.
“I think this is for you,” he said, picking up an ebony flute from within the box and handing it to her. It was quite average in size, though carved in the slightly sinuous form of a snake, with another, smaller serpent cast in gold winding about its length.
“Ooh,” she whispered, accepting the instrument and cradling it tenderly before her face.
“Um, don’t blow in that,” Fross said nervously. “That thing is lousy with enchantments, and I can’t even tell what most of them do. It’s old, too. No telling what might happen.”
“We can have Professor Yornhaldt look at it when we’re back topside,” Toby suggested.
“Only one other thing here,” Gabe reported, straightening and holding up the remainder of their winnings. “So, uh, who needs a sword?”
After a fairly minimal discussion, they decided to make camp. Everyone was exhausted, hungry, and generally not feeling up to more adventure at the moment, and the only two ways they had out of the complex held the prospect of further trouble. The eighth hall did indeed terminate in a door out of the area, which Fross peeked through and reported opened onto the huge, sloping central cavern of the Crawl. There were no recognizable landmarks; they were either far above or below the level of the Grim Visage. They also had their waystone, of course, but as the portal from Level 2 was the apparent culprit in their current predicament, Trissiny was not alone in mistrusting the welcome they could expect from the demons there.
Fortunately, their shopping from immediately prior to this misadventure had equipped them to settle in if necessary. They improvised a fire by laying down a hearth-sized array of Gabriel’s spell paper inscribed with elemental protection charms, on which they made a puddle of oil of combustion, which Fross then enchanted with a minor time-dilation effect. The resulting campfire was somewhat eerie, shifting very slowly rather than flickering as flames normally did, and producing a peculiar hissing sound rather than crackling cheerfully. It put out heat and light, however. Soon enough, they had arranged their collapsible cook pot over the languid blaze, and set a stew of pork and mushrooms to simmering, while they chewed on unappetizing mushroom bread to stave off hunger.
“I feel kinda bad, though,” Gabriel was saying. “Are you sure nobody else wants it?”
“For the last time, only two of us use swords, and neither of us needs an upgrade,” Ruda said, grinning at him. “You picked it up, you may as well keep it.”
“Don’t try to fight with it, though,” Trissiny said firmly. “I’ve seen you handle a sword in class; you’ll impale yourself. That thing might just be magical enough to do you harm, too.”
“That’s sort of what I meant,” he said with a rueful grin. “Just seems like a waste.”
“Or you could view it as motivation,” Shaeine suggested. “Now you have a reason to learn the sword.”
“Or you could sell it,” said Ruda. “I can tell it’s old, and elvish. Fross says it’s heavily enchanted. Gotta be worth some serious coin.”
“Mm,” he mused, pulling the saber half-out of its sheath to study the blade. “I dunno. That feels…wrong, somehow.”
The leather wrapping the hilt was black, as was its attached scabbard. The blade itself was a single long curve, continuing to form an equally curved handle with only the most minimal crossguard and a heavy, rounded pommel. Its design was, indeed, clearly elven.
“What’s that written on the blade, there?” Toby asked.
“It’s some form of elvish,” Gabriel reported, holding up the sword and squinting at it in the firelight. “I can’t read it.”
“It says ‘Ariel,’” said Teal.
He frowned. “Ariel? What’s that mean?”
“It is a name,” said Shaeine. “A rather popular one among elves until about a millennium ago. I know three women named Yrril, which is the Narisian variant. Not as commonly used these days.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense!” said Fross. “A lot of magic swords have names.”
“I suspect Ariel was the sword’s previous owner,” Shaeine replied. “It would be the equivalent of a sword named Jane. Not inconceivable, but…rather odd.”
“Hmm,” Gabriel mused, sliding the blade back into its sheath and setting it aside. “Well…I might actually show it to Professor Tellwyrn, see what she says. Between the unidentified spells on it and the fact I suck at swords, I’m gonna leave it alone for the time being.”
“I think that’s a very good idea,” Toby said firmly.
“So!” Ruda said. “If we’re all settled in and done beating around the bush, let me pose the obvious question. What the fuck was all that?”
“Do we really need to talk about it?” Gabriel asked after a moment’s strained silence.
“In some cases, I think we do,” said Toby. “Some of the things we saw… I think the base question is, how much of it was true?”
“About a fifty-fifty split in our case,” Gabe replied, looking over at Trissiny. “It started off with some miscellaneous spookiness before it really got hold of us. Then Triss was turned into some kind of alternate universe version of herself, and I got dragged through that mess with Madeleine again.”
“Madeleine?” Teal asked.
“Wait, stop,” said Ruda, grinning hugely. “Alternate universe Trissiny?”
“One in which I was raised by my biological mother, rather than the Sisterhood,” Trissiny said quietly.
“Wh—your mother, that smarmy Eserite elf? Naphthene’s tits, what were you like?”
“A lot like you, actually.”
Ruda barked a laugh. “You poor, abused child.”
“I can see why the Crawl would come up with that,” Teal mused. “Avenists and Eserites are about as opposite as it comes. There’s probably no better way to attack Trissiny.”
“I don’t think it was an attack,” Trissiny said pensively, frowning into the fire.
“Go on,” Toby said after a moment.
She sighed and lifted her gaze. “I’ve been…wondering. The whole time I’ve been at this University it seems I can’t do anything except mess up; I’ve only succeeded in places like the Golden Sea and Sarasio where there’s an enemy to fight. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise,” Ruda said amiably, producing a bottle of whiskey, “you do shit like try to execute classmates and start civil insurrections.”
“….yeah,” Trissiny said with a grimace. “It was Bishop Darling who put the idea in my head that…that maybe the other side of my heritage might have value. I’m an Avenist raised and trained, but I’m also the offspring of a particularly devious thief. Everyone keeps going on about how the old ways don’t work in the new world. Avei herself said the new paladins were being called after such a long time as a break with old traditions, so the gods could prepare us for other ways of thinking. And… Sitting here now, I find I’m feeling grateful for the experience.”
“Grateful?” Gabriel’s eyebrows rose sharply.
Trissiny nodded. “That girl I was…I remember her. Not the details of her life, but what it was like, seeing the world through her eyes. Studying the angles, the complexities, always looking for the less-trod path, the perfect place to put the tiniest pressure to achieve her ends. And…and finding such joy in it. The constant thrill and, and celebration in being challenged and having to survive with nothing but your wits and skills. If that’s what life is like for Eserites… Well, I think I understand them a lot better. And I think that may be exactly the thing I needed to learn. I’m not sure how to incorporate that into my mindset, but…it’s a start. I feel it was important for me.”
“Tellwyrn and Ezzaniel both called the Crawl a teacher,” Teal said, frowning into the fire. “Could this really have all been arranged for our benefit?”
“In some cases more than others,” Gabriel grunted. “I don’t see the educational value in the shit I had to deal with.”
“I have to ask,” said Trissiny, looking up at him, “how did that play out in the real world? I know I wasn’t there to rescue you that time.”
He shrugged, not meeting her gaze. “Madeleine’s bargain-basement diabolism didn’t hold. The hethelax demon broke through the circle and managed to restrain me before I could hurt her. After that… My dad had a little talk with her, and Toby arranged for Church summoners to send the demon back where he came from. I didn’t see her again.” He sighed heavily. “Not even a week later I went back there looking for her, because I’m really not that bright, and her whole house was cleaned out.”
“Not many people want to be on your dad’s bad side,” Toby said with a small smile.
“Well, I don’t think we necessarily need to drag everyone’s deep, dark secrets into the light,” said Ruda. “I for one don’t see a reason to discuss the crap it dumped on me back there.”
“Yeah, it is kind of counterintuitive that you’d be afraid of becoming an accountant.”
Ruda slammed her bottle down. “Fross.”
“Really?” Gabriel tilted his head inquisitively. “You’re actually really good with figures. How come—”
“Arquin, after the day we’ve had I barely need an excuse to come over there and fuck you up.”
“Peace, please,” said Shaeine. “This has been extremely trying for all of us. Let us please not make the mistake of taking it out on each other.”
“Anyway,” Ruda said loudly. “With that said, I agree with Toby. There is some stuff we really do need to talk about.”
She looked pointedly at Juniper. One by one, the others swiveled their heads to do the same.
The dryad sighed, slumping slightly. She had been silent up till now, sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees. After being sluiced off with some of Fross’s stored water to get the slime and rotted wood off her, she’d been persuaded to don one of the lightly-enchanted robes they’d acquired as Descent level rewards and been unable to sell. The whole time, she had been uncharacteristically quiet and pliable.
“I’m made of magic,” she said quietly. “I’m a living conduit to my mother’s power. Even if I can’t do much magic, that’s a lot of power. It’s a huge amount. Basically infinite. And…and it can change.” She paused to gulp heavily, still staring at the slow flames. “Dryads… One way or another, that’s how we end up. After hundreds of years, we start getting a little weird. In the head, I mean. And a dryad who’s lost a sense of herself tends to…change.”
“Into creatures like that?” Gabriel asked.
Juniper shrugged, not looking up. “Not necessarily. I don’t even know what that was. Some personification of my worry, I guess. And it’s not just age that does it; we’re not built to handle mental trauma, either. A dryad who lives long enough to go senile, or suffers a bad enough emotional shock… Well. Anything could happen.”
“What kind of anythings can happen?” Ruda asked sharply.
“Cherry…I don’t even know what happened to her, but she became a kind of aquatic monster. She swims up and down rivers, pulling people in and drowning them. She doesn’t even eat them, just wants to watch them die. Sequoia turned into a tree when the mortals she had become friends with were massacred. Some elves built a grove around her so they could protect her until she wakes up, which was nice of them, but…I think if she were going to she would have by now. And that’s nothing compared to what happened to Jacaranda.”
Fross abruptly forgot to keep flying and plunged into the stew pot.
She was out the next second, spluttering and spraying droplets of gravy everywhere. “What? Who? What did you say?”
“Yeah,” Juniper said, nodding. She finally raised her eyes to look at the pixie.
“Wait, you know that one, Fross?” Toby asked.
“J-Jacaranda? That’s the Pixie Queen’s name! It can’t be the same person, she hates dryads!”
“That…could be an argument in favor of it being the same person,” Shaeine said thoughtfully.
“It is,” said Juniper, still watching Fross. “She…well, to make a long story short, she fell in love with someone, and he decided he didn’t want her. She couldn’t cope with that.”
“Wait, the Pixie Queen is a dryad?” Gabriel exclaimed.
“No,” Juniper said wearily. “The Pixie Queen is just one of the things that can happen to a dryad who gets her heart broken. She wanted to always feel loved, and to be distracted from her own thoughts. She wanted it more than she wanted to continue existing, wanted it badly enough to warp her very nature. Like I said, we’re hugely magical. If we lose sight of ourselves…the sky’s the limit. Anything can happen.”
“So, then… Does this make you…my…aunt?” Fross whispered.
Juniper managed a smile at that. “Well, the relationships aren’t exactly biological, y’know? You’re a piece of her aura. Part of her conduit to Naiya. Basically the same thing I am, but smaller, with more structure. So… I guess I’m more your big sister. Is that okay?”
“I…I…” Fross sounded completely overawed. “That’s okay with me.”
“So, I understand your worry about becoming a monster,” Toby said quietly. “How about why you’re worried about it?”
Juniper dropped her gaze again. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? Whatever happens, will happen.”
“No,” he said firmly, then stood and strode across the circle to sit down beside her and drape an arm around her shoulder. “Juniper, I’ve had time to think since Tiraas, and I’ve come to realize I wasn’t being a good friend to you at all. I was hovering around, worrying and generally treating you like some kind of dangerous animal instead of doing what I would for someone I care about. Which means, in this case, a little tough love.”
“Uh, I am not certain this is a good idea,” Trissiny said carefully.
“It’s a good idea,” Ruda insisted. “Juno, hon, we all know you’ve been gnawing at this, and we all know the basics of why. And we’ve left you alone about it, but it’s time to lay some cards on the table. If those are the stakes we’re dealing with… Your issues are everybody’s business. You get that, right?”
“Take all the time you need to get it out,” Toby said gently, rubbing her shoulder. “But we need to talk about this. Tonight.”
Juniper hunched in on herself, tightening her grip on her knees, as if to shut them all out. She leaned against Toby, though. “I… I did something really bad,” she whispered.
“Yeah?” said Ruda. “Why’d you do that?”
“Ruda!” Trissiny exclaimed.
“I’m not just bein’ an ass here. It’s a pertinent question. If you knew it was bad, what was your reason for doing it, Juniper?”
“I didn’t,” the dryad said miserably. “I didn’t understand… It was never like…” She paused to swallow painfully. Toby continued gently rubbing her shoulder. “We were apart from everything, you know? Naiya’s favored daughters. We did what we wanted. I always tried to keep in balance with nature, do what I saw other animals do. Only kill to eat, only when I needed to. Most of my sisters did the same, but some… Mostly the older ones… They were weird. They’d hunt for sport, or… Well, some of them had funny hobbies. And that was fine! It didn’t seem like much fun to me, but they were dryads. In the Deep Wild, dryads do whatever they want, and it’s okay. By definition.”
“Just to be clear,” Gabriel said carefully, “we are talking about you eating humans?”
“It was just the one,” Juniper whispered. “Just that one time. He was the first one I’d ever seen. I was curious.”
“Curious?” Teal burst out, then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking abashed.
“Well, see, that’s already not as bad as some of us were thinkin’,” Ruda said lightly. “That’s why I was asking about motivations. You didn’t know better, right? I mean, don’t get me wrong, that was a shitty thing to do and it sure as hell mattered to him, not to mention his family, but you’ve gotta make allowances for the circumstances.”
“I was curious,” Juniper went on, barely above a whisper. “I wanted to know everything. Sample…try everything. See what it all was, how it worked. So…I ate little bits. From each part. And used healing to keep him alive so they all stayed fresh.”
The silence was deafening. Even Fross settled to the ground, stilling her wings.
“How could you do something like that?” Gabriel whispered at last.
Juniper buried her face in her arms.
“Okay,” Ruda said slowly, “that is pretty fucked up. You understand that, right?”
Juniper made a soft whimpering noise.
“I asked you a question,” Ruda said with a bit of an edge to her voice. “I’m not making small talk, here, Juno, we are discussing this.”
“I didn’t know!” Juniper wailed suddenly, raising her head. Tears were pouring down her face. “He was a monster! Humans were just these unnatural creatures that lived out of balance and destroyed things for no good reason. I didn’t know how complicated it all was! How, what, it…” She choked off, swallowed twice, and continued, her voice breaking. “But people are different than animals, and they matter, and I get that now. I shouldn’t have done that, and I can’t go back to thinking he was just a thing. It hurts, and I can’t make it stop, and I’m scared! I don’t want to be a monster!”
“Hey, hey, take it easy,” Ruda said more gently. She stood and went over to sit on Juniper’s other side, leaning against her. “Hon, guilt is a nasty thing. It will fuck you right up if you don’t learn to deal with it.”
“How do you deal?” Juniper sniffled.
“There are many ways,” said Shaeine.
“Personally, I have duty to fall back on,” Ruda said. “I have a job to do. I don’t get to wallow in my bad feelings. If I’ve done something wrong, I do my best to make it right. If that can’t be done… Then I remember I’ve done wrong in the world and make an effort to add some good to it. For my family, my people, everyone who depends on me.”
“That sounds…complicated,” Juniper said, her face falling.
“It is,” Toby agreed. “Any method you settle upon will be. This is not something that can be corrected with a few magic words, Juniper. What you did… The action you describe is abhorrent almost beyond description. But.” He gently placed his fingers under her chin, lifting her face when she tried to hide under her arms again. “The fact is, you do feel this way. You understand, you have the empathy to know it was wrong. And you started feeling this way when you developed that understanding. You really are a kind person at heart, Juniper. I don’t believe you could have done that, had you known what you were doing then. Would you do it now?”
“Never!” she burst out, looking panicked.
“Then it’s time to go forward,” he said firmly. “Backward is only pain. You need to take some responsibility for your own growth. I hate to tell you this, June, but you’ve had an absolutely terrible upbringing.”
“That’s sure as hell true,” Ruda agreed with a grin.
“My mother is a goddess,” the dryad said, frowning. “I’m sure she did right by me.”
Toby sighed. “Did she ever tell you she loves you?”
“What? I don’t… Why does that matter? I know she does. She protects me, after all. You’ve all seen that.”
“Okay,” he said. “But did she ever tell you?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she huffed.
“Juniper,” Teal said gently, “you know we love you, right?”
“I… Well, sure. I love you, too.”
“Right.” Teal nodded, smiling. “But isn’t it so much better to hear it?”
“The thing is,” Toby went on while Juniper frowned in thought, “you were raised with no boundaries. No ethics. You learned to do whatever you wanted, to whoever you wanted… June, that’s a recipe for a person with no moral center who can’t function in the wider world. Honestly, it sounds like your mother didn’t even try to raise you at all, you or any of your sisters. She just…turned you loose.”
“I’ve been proceeding under the assumption that dryad morality is simply alien and inscrutable,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying it, Juniper, when I look back over our interactions, there’s nothing that can’t be explained by you simply being spoiled. I wonder if that might not be why your sisters are so vulnerable to emotional trauma. What reason have any of you had to develop emotional resilience?”
“I’m starting to feel kind of ganged up on,” Juniper muttered sullenly.
“Yes, well, we just learned you tortured somebody to death,” Gabriel said sharply, “because you were curious. This is kind of a serious matter.”
“You do have a habit of saying anything you don’t like is unnatural,” Ruda said. “Contributing to the spoiled theory.”
“All right!” Juniper exclaimed. “What do you want from me?”
“What do you want?” Toby asked more quietly.
She paused, blinking in confusion, then frowned. “I… I’m not sure.”
“It doesn’t have to be a big question,” he said. “We’re not settling your whole life or anything. Think in the immediate term. What is it you would like to happen, Juniper?”
“I…” She swallowed again. “I just want to stop feeling so bad, right now. And…and I feel like that’s even worse. Selfish. I should suffer.”
“It’s good that you have a sense of fairness,” said Trissiny, “but inflicting suffering for suffering is rarely constructive. Justice is about everyone getting what they need, not what they deserve. What anybody deserves is often too complex a matter for us mortals to judge.”
Shaeine stood, stepped around the fire and crouched in front of Juniper. “You understand why my healing works for Gabriel when Toby and Trissiny’s does not?”
“Well…yes. Professor Tellwyrn explained that to us in Sarasio.”
The drow nodded. “To call upon Themynra’s attention is to invite her judgment. If it will put your mind at ease, Juniper, we can give you the word of no less than a goddess on the matter of your culpability.”
“It’s…divine magic,” Juniper said nervously. “It’s not good for fairies, even if she…y’know.”
“It will weaken you, yes,” Shaeine said seriously. “But believe me, you will know the difference between that and Themynra’s wrath. I will not impose this upon you, but if you would like to have the clarity, I offer it.”
“I…okay,” the dryad said in a small voice. “I think…yes, please.”
“Give me your hand.”
Gently taking Juniper’s hand in both of her own, Shaeine lit from within, a subtle silver corona forming around her. The dryad winced, staring down at her hand, which was in the center of the brightest part of the glow. It subsided after only a few seconds, however, and Shaeine released her. She pulled her hand back, flexing her fingers experimentally.
“That…tingled. And…and I feel a little weak.”
“But not burned,” Shaeine said with a smile. “Not judged. A full ritual to call upon Themynra’s judgment in detail is another matter; I fear that is beyond a priestess of my relatively low rank and training. But you know, now, that for immediately practical purposes, she does not deem you worthy of being struck down.”
“See?” Ruda said lightly. “All good.”
“It’s a long road forward, but you have friends to help you along it,” Toby added, gently rubbing her shoulder again.
Juniper frowned in thought, staring into the fire for a long moment before lifting her eyes again. Her gaze settled on Trissiny. “Can…can you do that, too?”
Trissiny straightened, a frown crossing her features. “I… That’s not the same thing, Juniper. Avei is a very different goddess than Themynra. The light I call on is subject to the Pantheon’s mandate, not her individual judgment.”
“But Avei is the goddess of justice,” the dryad said, staring intently at her now. “Can you do…like Shaeine said? Ask her judgment?”
“Once again, Avei’s judgment is not like Themynra’s. I can, yes, but it’s not something to be done lightly.”
“In all honesty, I don’t think anything about this is light,” Gabriel noted.
“Would you, Trissiny?” Juniper asked.
“June,” the paladin said, her tone worried now, “what you’re asking for… If Avei passes judgment on you, I will have to carry it out. There are certainly extenuating circumstances, but what you did… This would mean a death sentence in any nation of laws, anywhere.”
“You’re saying you’d kill her?” Ruda said, scowling.
“On the direct command of my goddess, at Juniper’s own request? I wouldn’t have a choice. It’s not just a question of my position beneath her. Avei doesn’t inflict death needlessly; if she deemed it necessary for Juniper to die, I would trust her judgment.”
“That’s kinda fucked up, Boots,” Ruda said. “You know that, right?”
“It is not an unreasonable position,” Shaeine said.
“You said it’s not likely she would demand my death,” Juniper said. “And…that there are extenuating circumstances. Right? You were raised Avenist, you know how Avei thinks. Do you think she’d order that?”
“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny said worriedly. “But I also cannot rule it out. Juniper…think about what you’re asking for.”
“She’s asking for closure,” Toby said quietly. “She wants to take responsibility. I think it’s a very important step.”
“If…I mean…” Juniper sighed, looking down at the ground for a moment before raising her eyes again. A determined expression settled on her face as she met Trissiny’s gaze. “I’d rather not die, obviously. But…if Avei has some punishment for me… I sort of think I would feel better.”
Trissiny stared at her in silence for a few seconds, then sighed heavily. “Juniper…be sure. Whatever the details, you are asking for an outcome that may be very permanent.”
“I’m sure,” the dryad said firmly. “I’m… Nature is balance, Trissiny. I’m out of balance; it hurts me like a lost limb. I’m asking for your help.”
The paladin rose slowly to her feet. “We had best step away from the others, and the fire. Gabriel…keep well back, please.”
Juniper followed her meekly several yards away, leaving the rest of the group sitting in silence around the campfire, watching them closely. At Trissiny’s direction, both of them knelt, facing each other. Trissiny drew her sword, setting the tip against the floor and bowing her head over the hilt.
For more than a minute, they simply knelt there. Juniper glanced uncertainly back at her classmates.
The change was subtle, but abrupt. Trissiny spoke, her voice carrying a resonance that made it seem to fill the huge chamber.
“Priestess, shield the demonblood in Themynra’s light if you do not wish to see him obliterated.”
“Wait, what?” Gabriel squeaked, even as a silver sphere flickered into existence around him.
Trissiny stood, and Avei stood with her.
It was almost like looking at an image through water, the perspective flickering with each shift of the eyes. Trissiny was there, a slim blonde girl in armor, but it was also Avei, a powerfully built woman with her black hair pulled back in a severe tail, towering over them in more ways than the physical. The room was suddenly illuminated as if by the noon sun, but no shadows were cast anywhere.
Juniper stared up at her, eyes so wide they bulged, her mouth clamped down into a thin line.
“You are not mine to judge, daughter of Naiya,” Trissiny and Avei said, their voices resonating in unison rather like Vadrieny’s, but with a power that made the walls vibrate. “You stand apart from the world, from all the laws which govern mortals, shielded from the natural consequences of your actions by the favor of your mother. By inviting my judgment, you ask that this state be changed. If this is your intention, Juniper, be certain. My judgment is not to be gainsaid, once pronounced.”
“I’m certain,” Juniper managed, her voice trembling.
Very slowly, the paladin and goddess nodded, staring down at her. “Naiya is a protective but inattentive mother. You have seen the fates of your sisters who fell from their given state. Once changed beyond recognizability, they were beyond her notice. To strike you down would be to invite her retaliation… But to separate you from her sight is another matter.
“I see in you the capacity for significant virtue or fathomless carnage, dryad. The thing that seems most promising to me is that you have called this upon your own head. You have sought to place yourself in the world of mortals, to walk among them as one of their own. To take responsibility. Know, though, that while your crimes were committed in innocence, they are no less severe for this.
“My judgment, Juniper, is both punishment and aid. I hereby sever you from the unmerited favor of your goddess.”
Golden wings sprang up from behind Trissiny, and a matching pair flared into existence from Juniper, accompanied by a golden corona. The dryad cried out in apparent pain, slumping forward and barely catching herself on her knuckles, short of falling to the floor. The golden light around her faded quickly, leaving her gasping for breath.
“You are alone now, child,” Avei said. “Exactly as alone as all mortals are. You shall have only the connections you build, only the power you earn for yourself. I cannot lessen the magic that animates you, nor change your essential nature, without destroying you utterly. But know this: you are no longer watched over by divine mandate. If you fall, you will not rise again. The creatures of the wild will respect your power, but they will not see in you the will of your mother. You are a powerful fairy, Juniper. But you are no longer, for all intents and purposes, a demigod.
“This is the price of your crime… And the promise of the life you seek to build for yourself. Judgment has been passed.”
The light diminished, quickly but smoothly, leaving the chamber in the same omnipresent dimness that prevailed in the Crawl, lit by the students’ campfire. Trissiny staggered for a second as if dizzy.
Juniper drew in a shuddering breath, tears spilling down her cheeks. She started to rise, but lost her balance, once again barely avoiding a fall.
Trissiny knelt before her and wrapped her arms around the quivering dryad. Juniper’s shoulders began to shake in silent sobs; she clutched the paladin as if Trissiny were the only thing holding her up.
“Soooo,” Ruda said after more than a minute had passed with no sound but Juniper’s quiet weeping. “Who wants stew?”