The Temple of Izara at N’Tali Falls was considered one of the wonders of the world, and certainly one of its most beautiful sights. The temple itself was not large, and not particularly impressive architecturally, being a small complex of domes and colonnades in a blended Omnist/Avenist style, with a single obelisk rising from its central courtyard. It was its location that gave it such appeal.
On the western edge of the Wyrnrange, a miles-long ridge spouted a veritable forest of springs and tiny rivers, which tumbled down its craggy slopes in a series of narrow falls, collecting in various ledges and running toward a series of larger waterfalls, growing progressively mightier as more and more of them met, until they all poured down from a single narrow outcropping in five great cataracts to a lake far below. The famous temple sat on an island right at the brink of one of these, its several outbuildings reached by arched stone bridges crossing the falls.
Framed above and below by falling water, the temple had further added to its beauty through its glorious gardens. Its roses alone were nearly the stuff of fable, encouraged by fae arts to thrive throughout the chain of little islands. Decorative trees had also been cultivated, the courtyards and small steppe gardens bristling with dogwoods, crimson maples, blossoming apple and cherry trees, and even several rare mimosas—one of which had produced a sapling donated to the Abbey at Virdill, in which a young Trissiny Avelea had climbed as a child. Verdant mosses overlaid the rounded rocks on which the temple complex sat, and the languid fronds of willow trees trailed over the water from the river’s banks.
It also had the distinction of being one of very few temples of any faith which had never been sacked or raided. That was due not merely to the consideration often extended the inoffensive priests of Izara, but to the fact that the temple was damnably hard to get to. It was easily and often admired from the three villages perched around the shores of the lake below, but the only paths up there were steep and too narrow for even a donkey. As such, while the clerics within would minister to any visitor just as any of their order did, the N’Tali Temple was used primarily as a place of training, meditation, and study for the Izarite clergy.
That fact made it somewhat convenient that visitors were few and passersby nonexistent. An awful lot of people suspected the private rites of Izara’s faith to be a lot more salacious than they were. N’Tali’s inaccessibility was likely the only reason the clerics in residence found any time to pray.
Which was not to say it was devoid of visitors. Some people were less inconvenienced by obstacles than others.
Only a handful of priests were present in the central domed sanctuary, most sitting or kneeling in prayer, and all looked up in surprise and interest when an unfamiliar figure came strolling casually in. Only two of them straightened further, their expressions even more startled; the rest were apparently not prepared to recognize Arachne Tellwyrn by description alone.
One of these happened to be the priest currently in charge, a lean man of local Western complexion in his early middle years. He rose smoothly from his seat beside the indoor fountain which formed the centerpiece of the chamber (Izara did not approve of statues or depictions of herself) and glided swiftly toward her.
“Nice place,” Tellwyrn commented, coming to a stop halfway toward the fountain and peering critically around, her hands planted on her hips. “I commend you on your skill at preservation. I’ve not been here in…damn, nearly two hundred years. It hardly looks different. Somebody finally touched up the mosaics, I see.”
She fell silent, watching with a faintly puzzled frown as the priest approached her wordlessly. Her frown deepened and she leaned subtly backward when he did not stop or slow, but neither backed away nor resisted when the man finally wrapped his arms around her in a hug.
“Excuse you?” she said in disbelief, scowling at his ear from inches away.
“Welcome,” the priest replied quietly, still holding her. “Welcome to our home. This is a place of rest; you can be assured we will tend to any of your needs we are able. You’re safe here.”
“I’m safe everywhere,” she said irritably, arms dangling at her sides. “I’m Arachne goddamn Tellwyrn, you twit. Get off me.”
The priest sighed softly, but slowly drew back, holding her gently by the shoulders and gazing into her eyes. “No one is more or less important than anyone else in Izara’s eyes; her people will do whatever we can to assuage anyone’s pain. My name is Taraue; I have the honor of leading this temple for now. And I want you to know, however it may feel sometimes, that you are loved.”
“Hi, Taraue,” she said curtly, directing a pointed look to one of his hands on her left shoulder. “All the way off, if you please.”
He complied, lowering his arms and stepping backward out of her space, to fold his hands before him and gaze seriously at her. “How may we aid you? We can speak here, or in privacy, whichever you prefer. I will be glad to accommodate your needs.”
“Uh huh,” she said, again looking around the temple. “Well, I don’t actually want to talk to you, no offense. It’s just that the boss lady doesn’t make herself easy to approach. Let the record show that any desperate measures necessary to do so are on her head alone.”
“Ah…” Taraue frowned faintly in confusion. “If you are seeking High Priestess Delaine, she can be found in the temple in Tiraas.”
“You’re either adorable or deliberately playing coy,” she said distractedly, turning in a slow circle and gazing abstractly into the distance all around. “I’m going to ignore that for the moment. I suggest everybody hold onto their butts.”
“Hold on—” He broke off as Tellwyrn peremptorily held up a finger before his face, closing her eyes in concentration. For several long seconds, she simply stood there, still and silent. Taraue glanced questioningly at the priestess who had tentatively approached them; she shrugged helplessly.
Then, quite suddenly, the light changed, the temperature rose sharply, and everyone’s ears popped from a very abrupt increase in air pressure.
For a few moments, there was nothing but shouts of dismay and disoriented stumbling about from the priests, most clutching their heads. Through it all, Tellwyrn stood calmly, opening her eyes and gazing around with a self-satisfied little smile while they regained their equilibrium, only to have it snatched away again at the sight visible through the wide archways opening onto the temple grounds.
Gone was the moisture in the air, the roar of the falls, the faint mist of the mountains drifting inside. Even the interior fountain had fallen still. Also gone were the views of the mountain waterfalls, and the expansive vista on the other side of the forests of N’Jendo stretching away to the west, far below. Now, there was only a featureless expanse of sand extending in all directions beneath a scorching, cloudless sky, illuminated by a lurid red sunset.
The N’Tali Temple now sat in the middle of a desert.
“Wh—” Taraue’s equanimity was well and truly disrupted now. “What—how did you—Why?”
He broke off suddenly, eyes widening, as she laid the blade of her gold-hilted saber against his throat.
“That’s just the opening act, of course,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Gods can’t just come running every time I make a pest of myself, or they’d never find time for all that aimless sitting around contemplating infinity which I am pretty sure occupies most of their day. Say, Taraue, did you know that when a person is beheaded, the brain survives for up to two minutes?”
He emitted a soft wheeze, seemingly afraid even to swallow.
“Of course, dismemberment on that scale is more than virtually any healer can fix,” she continued with the same lightly conversational tone. “But for a deity, that’s nothing at all. Why, I bet even if—”
The saber suddenly and soundlessly vanished from her hand. Taraue took the opportunity to stumble backward, clutching at his throat.
Tellwyrn turned slowly to face the figure which had appeared behind her.
“Arachne,” the goddess said, “put my temple back where it was, please.”
“Aww,” Tellwyrn said, smirking and folding her arms. “You mean a great and mighty goddess of the Pantheon can’t handle that herself?”
“Yes,” Izara said evenly, “but I would like for you to do it.”
The goddess of love, in human form, was a short, gawkish young woman who would not have earned a second look if passed in the street, or possibly even a first one. Standing barely as tall as Tellwyrn’s chin and with a skinny, bony frame almost devoid of curvature, she had narrow features, rather protuberant blue eyes and a nose far too large for her face, surmounted by a mane of dirty blond hair that was too frizzy to be properly contained by her loose ponytail.
“Well, all right,” Tellwyrn said at last, smiling faintly. “I suppose that’s entirely fair. Hang tight.”
This time, she didn’t close her eyes, simply gazing without focus into the distance; the momennt of concentration stretched out longer, though, punctuated by continuing cries of alarm from throughout the temple complex.
The transition back was far smoother, however. There was barely a flicker of passage, no alarming jolt, and everyone arrived without even another disturbance of the inner ears. In fact, every soul on the grounds experienced an apparently sourceless sensation of calm and even faint euphoria upon the restoration of the temple’s famous mountain views and coolly humid atmosphere.
The fountain began splashing again; it sounded almost relieved.
“There, you see?” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “You can lend a hand when you want!”
“Only because you never think of the other people affected by your antics,” Izara said severely, folding her arms. “I am only still here because I assume you’ll simply throw another cosmic tantrum if I depart without hearing you out.”
“As I was telling Vesk just the other day,” the Professor replied cheerfully, “I like this new state of affairs. It’s so much easier and quicker to get you turkeys down off your pedestals when I don’t need to care if you like me.”
The look Izara gave her was too sad even to be reproachful. She turned her head, addressing her priest with a warm smile. “Taraue, would you kindly send messengers to the villages below? I imagine that spectacle was rather alarming for them. The people should be reassured that all is well.”
“At once, lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her before backing a few steps away and turning to gently take the arm of a nearby priest and lead him toward the far door. Three remaining clerics were left in the sanctuary, all on their knees in the presence of their goddess, but all watching the unfolding confrontation with keen interest and, in at least two cases, expressions of very un-Izarite asperity for the elf.
“Your boy is causing trouble, Izara,” Tellwyrn said, the jocularity gone from her own expression.
“It was just a hug, Arachne,” Izara said wryly. “My clerics do not customarily place their hands on another person without permission, but you cannot bring the kind of inner pain you are accustomed to ignoring into the presence of an empath without inciting a deep and instinctive need to comfort you.”
“Do not yank my threads,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You know very well who I’m talking about, and what I’m talking about. Make this any more difficult than it needs to be and I’m going to get less playful.”
The goddess gave no reaction to the threat. “Yes, Arachne, but you know very well how the covenant that established the Universal Church works. Whatever lingering sympathies a sitting Archpope may feel, he or she belongs to every faith and none. If you wish to complain about Justinian’s behavior, it would be more fitting to speak with Avei, Omnu,or Vidius. Of course,” she added rather archly, raising an eyebrow that was too bushy for her face, “you’d find it a lot harder to bully them, wouldn’t you?”
“You really think I went to all this trouble to talk about politics with you, of all people?” Tellwyrn shot back. “A rather troubling pattern is emerging. Quite apart from Justinian’s puppet-mastering, I have Branwen Snowe serving as the mouthpiece and gloves for his current scheme. And since you apparently managed not to notice, your current Bishop is a ham-fisted, manipulative egotist. As was her predecessor, since we’re discussing him anyway. Where the hell do you find these people?”
“That’s not exactly fair,” Izara said calmly. “Justinian was never ham-fisted. My clerics are chiefly interested in getting about the business of tending to those in need of love; the necessary political posts related to the Universal Church end up going to those who are interested in political advancement—who not coincidentally are those whose presence in my temples is not considered essential. You are aware of all of this, Arachne, and making me recite common knowledge is a tired old conversational gambit. I can tell you really have been hanging around with Vesk lately.”
“I’m telling him you said that.”
“I’ll tell him myself before you see him again. Right now, I find I have about as much patience as you have for dissembling. What is it you expect me to do, Arachne? Justinian answers to the Pantheon as a whole, now; I could speak to him, but I can’t command him on my own. And if you wanted me to carry messages either to him or to the other gods, you are too intelligent to think the way you chose to approach me would gain my cooperation.”
“Regardless,” Tellwyrn said curtly, “everywhere I turn, it seems I have a rogue Izarite making mean-spirited advances against my University.”
“Really? You have only turned in two directions?”
“You know my faults quite well,” the elf barreled on. “I’m sure you could make quite the speech about them. You should also know, therefore, that I’ve done nothing to deserve this. If it were just me, I could sit back and enjoy the luxury I have of not giving a flying damn what Justinian or Snowe say about anything. They are creeping toward being a threat to my kids, however, and that I will simply not allow.” She folded her arms, glaring at the goddess over her spectacles. “Now that I have your attention, Izara, this is what I want from you: prevent this from turning into a situation where I have to put a stop to these machinations myself. Use those subtler, gentler methods you are so justly proud of. I don’t mind acknowledging that I frankly suck at them. If I have to shut Justinian down, the shockwaves will ripple across the world and hurt a lot of people.”
“So long as he is Archpope,” Izara said quietly, “your preferred methods will not even touch him.”
“And if you think my preferred methods are brutal,” Tellwyrn countered, “you don’t want to see me forced into methods that I don’t prefer. I’m not suggesting you should tell him to back off; I doubt it would be worthwhile to talk to him at all, even for you. A simple public statement from you would put a complete halt to all of this, however. The aggression is coming from an Izarite Bishop and a—fine, formerly—Izarite Archpope. All it would take is a few words from you that you don’t approve of this behavior, and their credibility would vanish instantly.”
The goddess shook her head, a rueful little smile flickering across her features. “Vesk put you up to this, didn’t he?”
“I thought you didn’t like my usual methods? Well, here’s me, trying a—for want of a better term—Vesker approach. You gonna help, or you’d rather I just fall back on blasting assholes to smithereens if they provoke me?”
“Have you given the slightest thought, Arachne, to what would happen if I said the words that would damage the credibility of the Archpope and my Bishop?” Izara asked almost plaintively. “Talk about something that would send shockwaves.”
“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied seriously. “But those would be shockwaves of a much lesser severity…and you’re avoiding the important point. I’m right. This kind of underhanded, aggressive politicking is not Izarite, and it’s not appropriate behavior for the Universal Church or its leadership. This is a blatant attempt to use me as a scapegoat for simple political gain. I’ll be frank: I am asking you to damage his credibility in order to secure my own interests, but it remains true that he deserves and needs to lose it if this is how he’s going to behave. Otherwise, he’ll just keep doing this, the Church will suffer, all the cults will suffer, and whether or not he achieves whatever goal it is he’s ultimately after, he will step on a whole lot of faces along the way. The Archpope is supposed to be a mediator between faiths, not some kind of religious demagogue or mastermind.”
Izara sighed. “That may be… But you are definitely blinded by your own stake in this. The thing I have always admired most about you is your awareness of your own flaws, Arachne; please don’t lose that.” She held up a hand to forestall the argument Tellwyrn opened her mouth to deliver. “I will consider what you’ve said, I promise you. I will also speak with the others of the Pantheon. On a matter as complicated and potentially dangerous as this, I will not swear any action beyond that. Does that satisfy you?”
“For the moment, I suppose,” Tellwyrn said with a disgruntled grimace. “That doesn’t mean this is over. If nothing is done, and I have to keep revisiting the issue…”
“Yes, yes,” Izara said with a sigh. “I’ll have that conversation to look forward to. As I told you before, Arachne, if you ever decide to accept my help in addressing your own teetering tower of personal issues, you have only to speak your request. I really wish you would take me up on it…but of course, I wouldn’t force you even if I could. Barring either of those eventualities, farewell.”
“Just a moment,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “Give me back my sword.”
“The one you were just holding at the throat of the most innocent man with whom you’ve spoken in a week?” Izara said dryly.
“That’s not giving Alaric his due, you know.”
“What makes you think you deserve to have it back?”
“It wasn’t a request, Izara.”
That was finally too much for one of the watching priestesses. “Speak to her with respect!” she burst out, surging to her feet and glaring at the elf, stopping only when Izara gave her a kind smile and a forestalling gesture.
“I can only assume that was directed at you,” Tellwyrn remarked, her gaze still fixed on the goddess.
Izara sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’ll find it back at your home. Which is where you should take yourself now, please. Good-bye, Arachne. Call me when you’re ready to accept the help you actually need.”
And then, with no fanfare or production, she was gone.
Professor Tellwyrn paused to snort disdainfully before vanishing herself with a soft pop.
The wind, for once in this place, was gentle. The sun-baked desert stretched out below, but this tiny outcropping high in the Dwarnskolds was cool and touched by a mild breeze. He hadn’t even needed to use magic to protect the site—which was fortunate, as his particular brand of magic was less than helpful for manipulating weather. Nonetheless, infernal charms hung within the structure he had raised, ready to throw up protections against the fickle wind should they be needed. Not great protections, but they would hopefully do.
Four craggy arms of glossy obsidian had been grown incongruously from the golden-brown native stone of the mountain, arching toward each other to meet in the middle and with a painted paper lantern hanging from their intersection. At this time of day it added no light to speak of; it was merely there for decoration, like most of the other touches in place. A folding paper screen in the traditional Sifanese style stood along the rear opening of the impromptu gazebo (firmly secured to the ground, of course), leaving it an unobstructed view of the sprawling desert below. Three hefty pots were arranged artfully around the perimeter of the space, each containing a cherry tree, young and none as tall as a grown man, but all dusted with lovely pink blossoms which bobbed in the light wind.
Embras Mogul sat at one of the two chairs arranged on either side of the table he had placed in the center of the sheltered spot, humming softly to himself as he carefully placed tiny objects in precise locations around it. He had a whole bag of mismatched little game pieces in one hand, using the other to arrange them just so on the board.
“I’m afraid the pots don’t match.”
Mogul rose smoothly to his feet, depositing the bad on the chair and bowing deeply to the slender figure which had stepped out from behind one of the obsidian columns.
“Welcome, dear lady! I apologize for my paltry hospitality. Yes, indeed, each of them came from a different city—there are not so many portable blooming sakura trees in the Tiraan Empire, unfortunately. Getting them to blossom at this time of year, much less to flourish while being moved around, requires some considerable skill in the fae arts, I understand. Individuals with the requisite talents are necessarily somewhat dangerous for my people to approach.”
“Ah, but no hospitality is poor which is arranged at such effort,” Ekoi Kaisa said with a sly little smile. “You honor me.”
“It is you who honor me by accepting my sadly belated invitation,” he said gallantly, stepping around behind the table and holding the other chair out for her. Kaisa paced forward and seated herself daintily, curling her tail out of the way. Only once she was settled did Embras resume his own seat, whisking his bag of game pieces aside. “I am very relieved you opted to do so, madam. I fear I have been sadly remiss as it is; thank you kindly for allowing me the chance to amend my error.”
“Well, you are a courteous one, aren’t you?” she said, her smile growing subtly more vulpine. “I had more than half expected this conversation to begin with a reminder that laying hands upon a high priest would invite the wrath of his goddess.”
“Your pardon, Ekoi-sensei, but having already misstepped so badly, I would not dream of belittling your intelligence by pointing out the obvious.”
Kaisa laughed, softly but in apparently sincere delight. “And so nimble with your tongue! Very well, I am curious. In what way do you imagine you have offended me?”
“Why, simply by failing to welcome you to our realm,” he said with an easy smile. “Far be it from me to criticize Professor Tellwyrn, but her admirable forthrightness does have its downsides, does it not? I fear no one has taken the time to acquaint you fully with the situation into which you’ve been suddenly included.”
“Ah, Arachne,” Kaisa said with a fond little smile. “Such an apparently brutish creature on the surface, but I do believe she is one of the most interesting individuals I have met in all my long years.”
“For that, I shall take your word,” he replied. “I’m afraid I’ve not had the pleasure of the lady’s acquaintance.”
“You might not survive the pleasure. She is less susceptible than I to flattery, and assuredly not intimidated by Elilial’s ire. So, you wish to…bring me up to speed, is that it?” She tilted her head quizzically, one tufted ear twitching. “And I am to simply…accept your assessment of this so very complicated situation which you believe I do not understand.”
“Ah,” he said ruefully, “it seems I’ve put my foot in my mouth again. My humblest apologies, Professor; a clever old goat like myself is far too quick to think himself smart, usually at exactly the worst moment. No, indeed, I don’t imagine that you lack understanding—of Tiraas, or of anything. I can hardly dream how much a person must learn in the course of a life as long and interesting as yours.”
He made a sweeping gesture over the round table, whose top was painted in an exquisitely detailed map of the continent, now festooned with various little carved pieces.
“I am certain you are quite familiar with everything immediately concerning your position here,” Embras began, setting a tiny pair of golden spectacles atop the dot marking Last Rock, where it was surrounded by a hodgepodge of other bits and bobs, the largest being a small sunburst, a golden eagle, and a black scythe. “However, as you surely know better than most, events in one place very often feel the pull of those transpiring elsewhere, especially in this ever-more-connected world of ours. In particular, the machinations of those in great centers of power exert a pull on all they survey, and indeed upon things they never trouble to imagine.”
He carefully placed an upright silver ankh by the star-marked city of Tiraas, where it completed a little tableau. A cluster of tiny bishop pieces, like those from a chess set but smaller, were positioned around the ankh; a second cluster of more varied pieces stood next to this one, centered upon a silver gryphon.
“Then, too,” he continued, placing another small bishop on Veilgrad, “there are independent players—one never knows what unknown elements might up and do, but there are always a few whose actions have specific relevance to one’s own activities.” With a small flourish, he added two more bishops, this time to Vrin Shai. “In fact, I’m quite certain you know a few details about this game that I do not; at least, one hopes so. It would hardly be any fun otherwise. Regardless, whatever you may think of my trustworthiness—and you are surely not so unwise as to be unwary—be assured I am under no illusions that you cannot sniff out any lie I tell you. And that would bring your annoyance down upon me, which is an outcome I would rather avoid.”
“Indeed,” she said pleasantly. “That is rather the point of this exchange, is it not?”
“Quite so!” he said, beaming. “So, no, honored lady, I do not presume to lecture you about the state of the world. You were wiser beyond my highest ambitions when my grandparents were yet unconceived, and will be even more so when I am long dust. Rather than an attempt to educate you, I am offering a courtesy. You are here, you are involved, you are surely a greatly interesting element which will enliven this game considerably. And, sadly, I fear no one has troubled to extend to you the polite, and obvious, question.”
Embras held out his hand and uncurled his fingers, revealing a tiny carved jade figurine of a fox. He smiled disarmingly at the kitsune.
“Would you like to play?”
Tellwyrn shut the door of her office behind her and paced forward, stopping right in front of her desk. She planted her fists on her hips and shook her head slowly, staring down at the gold-hilted saber driven half the length of its blade into the desktop.