“Sorry,” he said, rather weakly, as he straightened up under his own power again.
Trissiny carefully released him, drawing back to give Toby a look of concern. “Don’t be sorry. You’re always propping everybody else up; you’re allowed to need a hug once in a while. But, Toby, what you were just saying…”
He found himself avoiding her eyes. “I don’t…”
“We need to talk about that,” she interrupted, her tone firm but not aggressive. “But not right this minute. Right now we need to figure out how to get Gabriel back.”
“You saw what happened,” he said, voice climbing in frustration. “How are we supposed to do that?”
“I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to try.”
“Try what? Trissiny, dimensional barriers are not something you can bull through with sheer determination!”
She took another step back, now frowning at him reproachfully. “Toby.”
“Everybody all right?” Fortunately, Agasti chose that moment to return. He strode up to them, straight-backed and alert, tapping his cane against the ground with every step but clearly not leaning on it. Behind and to either side came his two revenant companions, both still with weapons out and peering warily around. “Good, very good. I’m sorry to have ducked out on you, but I had to get Arkady and Kami out of that light show. You accomplished what you needed to, though, and that’s what matters.”
“What are you talking about?” Toby snapped. “We lost Gabriel!”
“Yes,” Agasti said evenly, nodding, “but you prevented that dimensional inversion from spreading, thwarted a demon invasion, and annihilated the infernal corruption that was seeping through before it could poison anybody. None of those are small things; in aggregation I believe they qualify as a pretty big deal. But you’re right, Gabriel is now on the other side, and that must be addressed before any of us can rest on our laurels. Arkady, fire up the carriage, if you please.”
“We can’t leave!” Trissiny burst out.
“There is a difference between surrender and tactical retreat, General Avelea, you know that well. I told you that this site is under surveillance; Izara’s cult obviously has little in the way of forces to deploy, but they will already be contacting the Sisterhood and likely the Empire about this mess. I would rather Arkady and Kami were out of the area when that occurs, and Ninkabi is farther than I can safely shadow-jump these days. You had better remain on site to settle everyone down when they get here.” He hesitated, then gripped the crystal head of his cane harder and nodded decisively. “I’ll be relying on your protection, because I plan to commit a capital offense in the next few minutes. It will take long enough that I expect the reinforcements to catch me quite red-handed.”
“Mortimer, no!” Kami exclaimed.
“A capital offense?” Toby asked more soberly. “Surely you’re not planning to… What are you talking about?”
“A hellgate.” Trissiny was staring at Agasti, who nodded at her again. “To get Gabriel back from the other dimension, we need to open a door between them.”
“You can’t!” Arkady insisted. “Mortimer, the law isn’t best pleased with you already. If you do this of all bloody things…”
“Arkady, the boy is in Hell,” Agasti said sharply. “Trust me, I don’t plan to throw myself to the headsman; there are extenuating circumstances aplenty, I’ll have the backing of three paladins and I do know a thing or two about weaseling around Imperial prosecutors, as you may recall. But right now we’ve a paladin to rescue and no time to argue. The situation forces me to act now and make plans later, which is hardly optimal, but that’s what the situation is and bemoaning it will change nothing. Now take Kami back to the club, I don’t want you two anywhere near this.”
“Hellgates have to be opened from both sides,” said Trissiny, “that’s why demons aren’t constantly making new ones. How do you plan to get around that? Do you have a contact in Hell who can do it?”
“Several, but none I would trust with or near a nascent gate,” Agasti admitted. “What we have is Gabriel. He’s still right on this spot, just on a different plane of existence.”
“Gabriel isn’t a warlock,” Toby objected.
“He’s an enchanter,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes pensively. “He has Ariel, a scythe which we already know can carve holes in reality, and whatever aid he can summon with Salyrene’s bottle.”
“So, not optimal,” Agasti agreed, “but far from hopeless. First, I will need to contact him…”
Toby had turned to stare again at the empty patch of blasted reddish stone where the temple—and Gabriel—had been minutes ago, but after Agasti’s voice trailed off, he shifted his attention back to the warlock, frowning impatiently. In the next moment, his frown deepened, now in real worry. Agasti was not moving at all. In fact, he didn’t appear to be breathing.
Neither, Toby immediately discovered, was Trissiny. She stood as if immobilized in ice, as did the two demons. The nearby birds and insects had already been silenced by the presence of so many demons, but he realized now that even the grass, wilted as it was by its brief trip to Hell, was completely solidified, disturbed by neither wind nor gravity. In fact, there was no wind, either.
The whole world appeared to have abruptly stopped.
“Godhood has its privileges,” said the voice from behind him just before he could begin to panic. Toby whirled, and found himself facing Izara, who wasn’t even looking at him, but studying the others whom she had just immobilized. “Even Vemnesthis doesn’t try to enforce his rules on me. Please don’t be distracted by the theatricality of this, Toby; it was simply necessary. This conversation will take more time than you have to spare, and it needs to happen now.”
“What conversation?” he demanded, forgetting to speak with proper respect. He felt entirely thrown from his equilibrium, and somehow frayed. Toby’s whole life was about control, serenity, and balance, and at that moment he felt as if every one of those things had been stripped from him, leaving him blindly reacting to events in exactly the way his teachers had all stressed that he should never do. Still worse, there was a significant and undeniable part of him which reveled in the freedom, even despite the pain of losing Gabriel.
Izara finally turned her attention on him fully, and her expression was unreadable. Nothing about her seemed particularly divine, apart from having apparently suspended them in time; she was just a somewhat gawkish young woman with frizzy hair. If he hadn’t seen her the night before Toby would probably not have recognized her at all.
“You never have learned to find a middle road,” she said after a thoughtful pause.
He bit back his first response, and then his second. Whatever conversation she meant, the goddess was right about one thing: he did not have time for it. “Gabriel is trapped in Hell right now. Can you help us bring him back?”
“Of course I can.” She tilted her head minutely to one side. “But why would I?”
Toby gaped in disbelief. “…he’s a paladin.”
“Not mine,” Izara shrugged.
“What is wrong with you?!” he exploded.
“That’s a large question,” she replied, showing no sign of offense at his outburst. “Let’s stick to what’s wrong with you, for efficiency’s sake. You have just learned an extremely wrong lesson, and now stand a hair’s breadth from committing to it, with disastrous results for you, those you care about, and the world at large.”
“Then why are you here lecturing me and not Omnu?” he shot back, practically tasting his pulse pounding on the back of his tongue. Toby felt heady, even a little dizzy, but still there was that strange exuberance.
Izara, for her part, finally reacted, pressing her lips together in a grimace of annoyance. “Because Omnu needs someone to slap some sense into him, which unfortunately I can’t. I’ll just have to settle for you.”
“This is ridiculous,” Toby exclaimed. “My best friend is in Hell waiting for someone to rescue him—”
“I assure you, Gabriel Arquin is not sitting around waiting on anybody,” she said archly. “I would hope you of all people would know him better than that. On the other hand, just a moment ago it sounded like you were about ready to give up on him.”
Toby felt that inexplicable sensation rising, the strange fusion of fury and uncertainty that had so thrown him off his keel but felt so satisfying. For just a moment, he was so tempted to just punch her that his arm actually twitched.
It was hard to say which did more to shock him back into a semblance of self-control: the sheer horrible depravity of striking someone just out of his own ill temper, or the incredible stupidity of trying that on a goddess. Instead, his years of training finally began to resurface, and he breathed. In, out, three times each, until the emotion began to ebb, the clarity to resurface.
“What are you doing?” he asked at last, narrowing his eyes.
Izara blinked at him, languidly, like a pleased cat. “What does it seem like I am doing?”
“It seems like you are deliberately trying to make me angry. And I can see no reason for you to do that.”
“Better,” she said with a slow nod of approval. “Drifting closer to old bad habits, but still an improvement over the terrible new ones you were on the cusp of developing.”
He breathed. In, out. “That doesn’t answer the question.”
“You really wanted to slap me just then, didn’t you?” she countered, smiling. “But you didn’t.”
“I would like to think I’m neither a complete monster nor an imbecile. I hope that isn’t too arrogant a thing to claim.”
“I’m glad to see you controlling your urges, Tobias, but have you considered that maybe smacking me would have been the right thing to do?”
He stared at her. “…no.”
“Really, even after such a display of heartlessness?” The goddess smiled a little more widely. “Does the idea shock you so much?”
“I am a pacifist,” he said firmly. “And you are the goddess of love. It’s just a little incongruous to hear you talk about hitting people being the right thing!”
“Well, that’s the core of all this, Toby,” she said. “Neither of us is a pacifist.”
Izara let that hang for a moment while he stared, just wearing that mysterious little smile. Only when he finally drew breath to speak again did she continue, cutting him off.
“The nuances of my followers’ doctrine tend to be above the heads of laypeople. More than most other cults, probably even more than the Eserites or the Wreath, Izarites have stereotypes applied which preclude people from really understanding what they believe. Yes, my people assiduously avoid violence—in no small part because we have the Avenists and Eserites and Vidians and Shaathists and even, yes, the Omnists, to take up arms for us at need. In that circumstance, our efforts are better bent toward increasing the love in the world than fighting for it. But some of the incidents I most bitterly regret have come from the doctrine of love urging or even forcing my followers to become passive victims of violence. And as for love itself… If you love someone, Toby, you place their needs above your own. And in many relationships, there comes a time when the thing someone most needs is a swift kick in the ass. Metaphorically, of course. Usually.”
He shut his mouth, belatedly becoming aware that it was open. “But I…”
“Now, there is a pacifist tradition in Omnism,” she continued. “Such as the Sunset Way sect which produced Chang Zhi. There are others, though, and have been many others which have fallen from practice over the centuries. You, Toby, were raised by the most common sect of your faith on this continent. So common are the Cultivators that many in the Empire don’t actually know there are other interpretations of Omnist doctrine which are considered legitimate.” Again she tilted her head, back the other way this time. “Adeche N’tombu was a Cultivator. I assume I don’t need to remind you how his career as Hand of Omnu was spent?”
“Omnu,” Toby said stubbornly, “is a god of peace.”
“Peace can mean a lot of different things, several of them mutually exclusive. We were talking of pacifism. You have a very poor grasp of what that means, Tobias Caine. Of what it is, and what it is not. The truth is, you don’t even know any pacifists. Who are your colleagues, your examples? Teal Falconer? That girl is a walking disaster—not because she harbors an archdemon, but because she refuses to control it. She relies on her drow princess to smooth her way, and on her demon counterpart to terrorize anyone who defies her. There is no strategy in it, no plan. She isn’t a pacifist, she’s just averse to conflict.” Izara folded her hands, gazing intently at him. “Just like you.”
“You—those are two terms for the same thing! Why even split that hair?”
“Conflict aversion is a personality trait. Pacifism, like any ism, is political. It is a belief about what the world should be, and an attempt to make it so. To hold a belief is to disrespect the choices of others, for it demands that you impose your will on creation. It requires discipline, sacrifice, courage, and above all, strategy. Toby, the best guidance you have ever received was in your first martial arts class at Arachne’s school. Emilio Ezzaniel is one of the deadliest men alive; has he ever seemed to you a violent person?”
“That’s… I mean, that’s not unfamiliar. A lot of martial artists can be described that way. The great ones, anyhow.”
“And have you not seen the significance of that? Ezzaniel explained the true nature of peace to you that day: that it exists when those who hate to fight are better able to fight than those who love to. And you brushed him off.”
“I listen to Professor Ezzaniel,” Toby protested, hearing the defensiveness in his own voice and hating it. The creeping euphoria had all faded from him now, leaving him only off-balance and unfocused, confused.
“The greatest pacifist paladin of recent times,” Izara said softly, “was not Chang Zhi, who never accomplished much but to try to lead by example. No, that was Laressa of Anteraas, who once overthrew a corrupt governor by arranging to have his enforcers beat her bloody in a public square while she distributed famine relief supplies to the poor. It took conviction, courage, and a great willingness to suffer for her to go through with that—but more importantly, it took significant cunning to meticulously arrange all the pieces of that drama and ensure they would collide at exactly the right moment. Its result was a popular revolt and overthrow of her enemy the next day, leaving her in a position to guide Veilgrad into a more peaceful era.”
He couldn’t find anything to say. Izara watched him for a moment, then continued.
“You’re not a pacifist, Toby. You have no plan, no strategy. You just hate it when people fight and try to stop them when you see it happening. What does that accomplish? Teal has her archdemon; you have your holy nova. The pressure builds up, caused by stumbling from one crisis to the next, until in your incompetence you’ve backed yourself into a corner from which your only possible action is a huge explosion of power.”
Toby sat down in the grass, no longer able to look her in the eye. She just pressed inexorably on.
“You know the answer you need; it’s in your training. The Sun Style is all about redirecting your enemy’s own force to control his movements. Avenist battle doctrine is about defeating an enemy by controlling their options, and holds that the highest strategic victory is to prevent an enemy from going to war in the first place. The great game of Houses that your friends Shaeine and Ravana have learned from the cradle is about control of a much more intricate variety, but even in the ruthlessness you saw from the nobles of Calderaas, there was an underlying ethic of subtlety above force. The Vidian doctrine of masks is all about control of the self, extended outward to control the external forces which act upon the self. The Eserites and Punaji seek to restrain those who would harm them through intimidation and fear—to control others with only the specter of violence, so that they can commit as little actual violence as possible. Even Arachne keeps the Empire and the other great powers of this world off her back with strategic acts of grandiose disruption punctuating a general policy of carefully not rocking the boat. Control, control, control! Every person or faction or philosophy you have encountered which has an actual impact on the world does so by the same maxim your trainers in the Sun Style hammered into you from your earliest practice: control the encounter. You’ve been so close, Toby. In Puna Dara you seemed to grasp it more closely than ever yet.” Finally she hesitated, as if to draw breath, then shook her head. “But today you came so close to throwing it all away. Control, Toby. Grief, pain, and fear are real, and valid, but you must control them. Otherwise, they will control you.”
Slowly, he lifted his head to stare plaintively up at her. “…why is it you? Why is every other god coming to…” Toby had to stop and swallow against a painful lump in his throat. “Why won’t he ever talk to me?”
Izara heaved a sigh, then stepped over to sink down into the withered grass beside him. There, she leaned comfortingly against his shoulder. There was still no discernible aura of power about her; it might have been any slightly-built young woman pressed to his side. Somehow, that mundane warmth seemed much more comforting.
“Because he needs a swift kick in the ass,” she said wearily, “and I can’t give it to him. Oh, not because he’s a more powerful god than I am, or because he is and has always been a stubborn old ox, though both those things are true. The truth… The truth is, Toby, we are vulnerable in a way, more to our followers than to our enemies. I think it’s a fine thing that godhood comes with strictures and limitations. I remember the Elder Gods, and what absolute power with no restraints does to people. But we end up being shaped by the belief of those who act in our name. Omnu can’t change. I can smack him upside the head to my heart’s content, but it won’t accomplish anything. He wouldn’t even be annoyed more than a moment later, he’s always been a forgiving sort. Omnu is paradox, Toby, and it’s not entirely his fault. In life he was always vague, standoffish and mystical, and between the solidification of those traits and their enshrinement in doctrine, you’re left with a god whose idea of communication is sending you warm feelings.”
“I don’t understand what you’re telling me,” he said weakly.
“That divine nova of yours?” Izara rested her head on his shoulder. “It really is Omnu’s power; you simply can’t channel that much sheer divine magic unassisted, you’d incinerate yourself. But that he sends it to you in those extreme moments… It’s not so simple as him having a plan, Toby. It’s more that he reacts when you have a need. You are the kick in the pants he needs. Please don’t think I don’t care about you, because I do. Truly, I do. But in you, I see a real chance for my old friend to…wake up. And Vidius is not the only one of us who is growing concerned with the way things are. I have been reminded, recently, how I myself have allowed individuals to rise within my cult whom I would have disdained to be in a room with in my own mortal days.”
Toby stared up at Trissiny, standing frozen in time before him. Really studying her, in a way he rarely did anymore. It was funny, how quickly one could grow to take people for granted, once one was used to having them around. He remembered Trissiny in their earliest days at the University, the uncertainty and vulnerability she had displayed, the bluster with which she covered it, the rigid and frankly bigoted shades to the conviction that powered her. Now, in armor again, he could still see the contrast. She stood square and tall, but without any of the tension and stiffness she used to carry. Her expression was intent and pensive as she listened to Mortimer, but underneath the focus there was calm, totally unlike her borderline fanaticism of just two years ago. It was all right there, subtle but so plain when he really looked, even when she was suspended like a sculpture.
Trissiny had grown so much. They all had. Gabriel and Fross were practically different people. Juniper was in the grip of so many transitions it was hard to say how she might end up. He wasn’t sure whether he had only recently come to detect the care and compassion in Ruda, or the warmth and humor in Shaeine, or whether they had themselves grown more comfortable in those traits. Even Teal, despite Izara’s criticism, was slowly evolving into her own woman despite the pressures upon her.
Could he say the same? Had he really changed? Looking back, Toby found, to his shame, that he could see little that was new in himself except his ever-growing uncertainty.
Izara was right: he did nothing but react. Without a plan, and without focus, just constantly wandering about trying to be a calming presence wherever he was. He knew without self-aggrandizement that he had had a positive influence on his friends. But to the world at large? What could he really achieve by just being the nice guy? How many people could that help?
Chang Zhi was spoken of with tremendous reverence within Omnu’s faith, as perhaps the perfect spiritual role model. When he pressed himself, though, Toby couldn’t come up with anything of significance that she had actually accomplished.
“I’m such an idiot,” he said aloud. Without recrimination or angst; it was just an observation.
“You’re no more of one than someone your age should expect to be,” Izara replied, a note of humor lightening her voice.
“I don’t…know…what to do with this.”
“I would recommend following the examples of your friends. Trissiny has looked beyond the boundaries of her original faith for valuable perspective. Gabriel is becoming, if anything, a specialist in versatility. The truth is, Toby, that the traditions which raised you have let you down. It’s not that they are without value, but such limited perspectives may not work in the world anymore.”
Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you. That’s really good advice. Do you really think I can…” For that matter, what was it she was asking of him, exactly? “…save Omnu from himself?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say he needs to be saved, any more than you do. As his paladin, you are a focus for his personality; your growth can only benefit him as well. But simply as a man, you are very much like Omnu was in mortality. Kind, warm, gentle…a little bit bland and aloof. I just want you to be the best person you can, Toby. Hence…all of this.” She waved a hand at the frozen scene around them. “I’m not in the habit of such insistent interventions, but you came right up to the edge of a terrible precipice. The potential loss was more than I could bear to think of.”
“I see your point.” Toby nodded, then carefully gathered himself and stood, gently dislodging her. He turned to offer the goddess a hand up. “Thank you, Lady Izara, for all of this.”
“Please don’t be so formal,” she chided gently, even as she took his arm to rise. “I never have learned to enjoy being called Lady.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to compromise, then. I don’t think I can bring myself to call you Izzy.”
She grinned at him, and then suddenly the air moved again.
“…which will be the trickiest initial part, as—oh!” Agasti’s voice cut off mid-explanation for the second time to Toby’s ears, though it was the first to everyone else’s. He, Trissiny, and the two revenants both turned to Izara in surprise.
“Please,” she said, raising both hands, “no genuflections or other time-wasters. In theory, the Pantheon aren’t meant to intercede and solve mortal problems in person, but for this sheer concentration of paladins, extenuating circumstances, and backlash from one of my own projects, I have decided an exception is in order. Now, let’s get our young friend back here before he meets something he is truly not prepared for.”