Even that silence did not long survive in the presence of Gabriel Arquin.
“So, uh…what are you doing here?”
The other two turned incredulous stares on him, at which he spread his hands infinitesimally at his sides in an almost-shrug.
The woman made of light—Scyllith, if she was to be believed—blinked her starry eyes languidly, still appearing somewhat confused. “Here? Where are we, children? There are several points where I…” She closed her eyes entirely, the tiniest frown appearing on her doll-like face.
“Seems like an Elder Goddess would understand where she was, if nothing else,” Trissiny said skeptically.
“Goddess!” At that, Scyllith opened her eyes again, once more breaking into a chime of pleasantly musical laughter. “Oh, if you only knew. Some of my colleagues would fly into an absolute rage if you called them gods. I’d like to think I am more easygoing, personally. Let me guess: Avei and her renegades threw themselves into the label.”
“That was a very long time ago,” Toby said quietly.
“To you, I suppose it truly was,” she agreed with a solicitous nod.
“So, what happened with that?” Gabriel inquired.
“Gabe!” Trissiny hissed.
“Well, how often do we get the chance to ask someone who was there and isn’t in the Pantheon?” he replied. “I don’t think it’s disloyal to acknowledge they have an agenda that colors what they tell us. We’ve seen pretty firm proof of that in the last week!”
“You don’t engage with a manipulator and give her the chance to work a tendril into your head!”
“In this case, I think we kind of have to.”
“You’re both right, you know,” Scyllith said kindly, smiling at them. “You would be wise to listen to Trissiny’s caution, Gabriel; she has a solid grasp of how manipulative people operate, and how to avoid being snared by them. On the other hand, it’s not as if you have a choice this time, is it? After all, you have to keep me busy until your phasedrive finishes downloading the facility’s records.” While the three of them froze, she half-turned to look at the key, still inserted into that slot on the wall and pulsing blue. “That’s likely to take a few minutes, at least. It’s a significant amount of data, being harvested directly from the transcension matrix, and the systems responsible for organizing that data were damaged in…well, that little kerfuffle between your renegade friends and the Infinite Order. In the meantime, here we are!” Turning back to them, she spread her delicate arms to both sides and bowed, smiling benignly. “I am glad to put a few things into perspective for you.”
“Awfully accommodating of you,” Gabriel noted.
“Now, Gabriel,” she said in a tone of very gentle reproof, “you should always show consideration toward people who are in no position to threaten or influence you in the slightest way. It’s basic maturity, not to mention good manners—which, as my mother used to tell me, are miniature morals. Let’s see…” She began to drift off the crystal plate, floating serenely above the mushrooms with her feet dangling a foot off the floor. Wherever the glow emanating from her touched the fungus underfoot, they changed, taking on more subtly graceful shapes and patterns of bioluminescence. Scyllith floated slowly across the floor as if pacing in thought, leaving a trail of odd beauty in her wake. “I think what you children most need to understand is that an ascended being…a god…” She turned toward them with an indulgent little smile in passing. “…is not simply a more powerful person. It is a fundamentally different type of intelligence. When we have conversations like this—just as when you talk to members of your Pantheon—some of the experience is due to an active effort by the ascended to be more approachable, and some to your mind reorganizing information into a form it can process. But the very nature of my senses is different from yours, Trissiny dear, which is why I may be momentarily confused in a situation like this. I, you see, am a creature of magic, and magic is a system of data processing. Really, its entire purpose comes down to taking an idea, like your glowing shields or a wizard’s fireball, and performing the vast calculations necessary to turn that into a physical reality, using the energies inherent in the material universe. Merely the act of concentrating my being into one spot like this imposes limits on me. But it also gives me great clarity, for which I thank you!”
Again, she paused and turned directly to them, bowing courteously. All three just stared warily back.
“Now that I have my land legs, so to speak,” Scyllith continued lightly, drifting back toward the crystal platform, “I see what all this is about. Please forgive my earlier befuddlement, children. The flows of magic are whimsical, today! And certain individuals went to a lot of trouble to prevent me from pulling my consciousness together. About the only thing that can overcome that, temporarily, is to activate a transcension field editor keyed specifically to my access credentials. I’ve been bounced between a few of those over the last few…years, I think…and it’s rather disorienting.”
“Temporarily?” Trissiny asked in a deliberately neutral tone.
“Oh, yes, dear,” Scyllith answered, giving her a warm smile. “Of course, once that phasedrive…I’m sorry, that key is removed, the editor will power back down, and with it everything that’s holding my mind together.” Floating up onto the disc again, she placed herself deliberately between them and they key, and smiled kindly at them in silence for a few seconds.
They all stared back, tense and keenly aware that no power at their disposal would help if she decided to do worse than talk. Not to mention the question of how to get the key back when it was time…
“I’m afraid, Gabriel, this means I can’t answer your question,” Scyllith continued at last, offering him a rueful smile. “I’m just so enjoying our chat—it’s so rare that I have the opportunity to meet such charming young people!—and I would just hate for it to be cut short by your abrupt deaths. Oh, please, relax!” she added, laughing softly when they all visibly tensed again. “I’m not going to harm you! Why ever would I? No, I just mean there is a mechanism built right into the transcension field you know as divine magic which would instantly kill any mortal who learns certain facts about those events. There are ways that could be circumvented, of course, but I’m afraid I’m in no position to offer you my protection, and it would take simply too long to teach you the method yourselves. If you’re interested, you might ask Elilial. I’ll bet you anything she’s shielded her little helpers from the effect.”
“The gods wouldn’t do such a…” Trissiny trailed off, and Scyllith turned an indulgent smile upon her.
“I think you know very well, Trissiny, that they aren’t so purely good as you were taught in your childhood. But I earnestly urge you not to take my word on something like this. Obviously, I’m simply not credible! No, you really ought to ask your patrons. It’s one thing not to bring up the topic; they’ll find it rather more difficult to lie to your faces about it.”
“…thanks for the tip,” Gabriel said warily. Scyllith nodded graciously to him.
“But my point, children, is that I can see such details as easily as you see me before you—and more accurately, since what you’re seeing is not quite what is happening. Magic is data, and the data is visible and intelligible to a being like myself. The structure of thoughts, likewise! So yes, children, I’m well aware by now of Vesk and his charming meddling. I know what he wants that key for, which is certainly more than he’s told you. I know all about that flute you’re hiding, Trissiny, and I do hope you have better sense than to call on Calomnar for help no matter how severe your peril. I also,” she added, her smile beginning to fade away for the first time, “know that you are students of my own dearest Arachne. It’s so good of you to visit me, children; you can’t imagine how relieved I am to learn that she is not only alive and well, but thriving. Actually contributing to the world! It makes me so proud, to learn how she’s grown! Do give her my love when you see her next. Promise me?”
Toby glanced at the other two. “Well, that’s—”
“Promise.” The word rippled across them with a tangible psychic force. All across the room, spots of light blossomed on a random smattering of mushrooms.
“…sure,” Toby said, staring. “We’ll tell her you said hello.”
“Thank you ever so, Tobias,” Scyllith replied, turning upon him a smile which was all gentle kindness and sincere gratitude. “Do you mind if I call you Toby? I’ve never been one for needless formality.”
“The way I heard it,” Gabriel interjected, “Tellwyrn and Elilial handed you quite a setback the last time you saw them.”
“Gabe,” Trissiny warned.
“Oh, pish tosh,” Scyllith said airily, waving one graceful hand. “You simply cannot go through life bearing grudges, Gabriel, it’ll drive you mad and gain you nothing. Oh, yes, Elilial and my Arachne caused me no end of trouble! But that’s done, and all is well.”
“Even though you’re trapped underground unless someone puts a key in that machine?”
“Gabe,” Trissiny said more insistently.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” Scyllith gently remonstrated. “I could work myself into a tizzy about Arachne’s betrayal, or Elilial’s frankly gratuitous assistance in it. Or Elilial ousting me from my own domain in the first place. Or little Themynra going to such lengths simply to irritate and inconvenience me. Can you imagine? How bored must a person be to do something like that? Then, there’s the way your Pantheon—ah, but I forget. That could be dangerous for you to know, children, please excuse me. If I were inclined to keep inventory of offenses against me, I’d be rather more irked at Naiya for going to such effort to lock me out of the Order’s systems—or the Order itself for various offenses which were why I helped the renegades topple them in the first place. But there is just no point in that. You win some, you lose some! That has always been my philosophy, going all the way back to before we left the old world to create a better future. Everyone was in such an absolute uproar about the changing climate scorching human life off the planet. Me, I planted oranges and mangoes in my yard in Toronto. Life is what you make of it, children.”
“Well, that seems very…enlightened,” Gabriel said carefully.
“I’ve met a few people I would describe as enlightened,” she said with an amused grin. “Honestly, I found them all insufferably pretentious. It’s simple common sense, isn’t it? There’s really only one truth of intelligent life, children: what you have the power to do. Everything else—your justice, your peace…whatever it is Gabriel’s religion does, it doesn’t seem very clear, does it? All these values and philosophies are things humans impose on reality to make sense of it, missing the greater point that reality makes perfect sense on its own, it is simply that human consciousness isn’t prepared to understand most of it.”
“So your own philosophy is simple nihilism, then,” Trissiny retorted. “Of course, just by having a philosophy you negate your own point.”
“And for someone who knows better than to listen to a manipulator, you’re awfully willing to engage me in a philosophical debate,” Scyllith replied, then laughed gently. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I’m not making fun of you. There’s a lesson in that, if you’re open to it. But let me turn that point around on you: everyone has a philosophy, simply because philosophy is the unavoidable byproduct of human consciousness meeting existence. You need these ideas in order to function in a universe which is vast, doesn’t care about you and seems designed to be mostly inimical to your life. And so, what good is all your philosophy unless you have the power to make something real of it?” She spread her arms gracefully, thin shoulders rising in a little shrug. “You can be as high-minded as you wish, so long as you acknowledge that the exercise does nothing but make you feel better about yourself. Without power, your beliefs are nothing, and you are nothing. With power, all creation and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge you is, itself, nothing. Power is the only significance the wee infinitesimal speck of a mortal consciousness can ever have.
“It takes a…a god, in your parlance, to have true significance, to defy reality itself. But you can bring all the meaning and satisfaction to your life that your limited mind will ever need by having power over other mortals. Power is the only value which fully justifies itself, no philosophy needed. If you are able to do something to someone, then you are entitled to, period. Any other belief is a construct requiring—again—power to put into effect. So no, children, to bring this back around to where it started, I bear no grudges. Everyone who has wronged me fully justified the act by pulling it off. Nursing a vendetta over my defeats is pointless, churlish, and worst of all, weak. Gloating in my victories, likewise! There is only the next struggle, the obstacle in front of you and whether you have the power to overcome it. Any other way to live is just an exhausting exercise in confusing yourself. And, hey! If it makes you feel better to live that way, you absolutely should. As long as you have the power to do so, it is your perfect right!”
She folded her delicate hands in front of herself, smiling beatifically at them.
“I have a feeling I’d find all that a lot more disturbing if it made sense to me,” Toby said slowly.
“Ah, yes, you have your own philosophies,” Scyllith replied with a light laugh. “Omnists! Really, you can’t imagine how much I enjoy that.”
He blinked. “Enjoy?”
“Oh, of course! I have always been a lover of irony. Imagine! A major world religion, spawned from the half-understood Zen/Sufi/Taoist/Jedi goulash concocted by my own semi-literate gardener. Why, it’s the most splendid thing I’ve ever heard! I couldn’t have created anything more hysterical if I’d tried!”
“I’m not sure what you mean to accomplish by insulting me,” Toby said, raising an eyebrow. “If you can read thoughts so easily, you surely know I’m not that easy to get a rise out of.”
“Ah, yes, I must ask your pardon again,” she replied, nodding. “I tend to forget that limited creatures like you can’t read thoughts. You’re stuck using empathy to discern the minds of other people—surely the most broken tool biology has ever devised for any purpose. No, Toby, I’m not interested in insulting or getting a rise out of you. Really, what would I gain? I thought we were simply having a pleasant conversation. You know, while we wait on your download. Long, long ago, I passed many a relaxed hour with colleagues, in the aftermath of all the hard work, waiting for the code to compile. This is all so pleasantly nostalgic for me!”
Behind her, only slightly obscured by her glowing form, the key’s head continued to pulse blue.
“I do hope you’re not offended that I monopolize the conversation,” Scyllith added with every appearance of real concern. “It isn’t that you have nothing interesting to say, children! Why, the adventures you’ve had in such short lives already—truly remarkable! But it’s all laid out before me like text on a screen, you see, which is ever so much faster a way to learn than by asking you a lot of annoying questions. What interesting things your memories reveal about the world. Imagine, my little Arachne managed to poke and prod Naiya into some semblance of paying attention, even for just a moment. Incredible! I always knew her power to be annoying had the capacity to change the world. Poor Naiya, though,” she said with a regretful sigh. “It got to be difficult to respect her, long before the end. As brilliant a mind as any among us, and yet she let herself be reduced to the capacity of a groundskeeper. Always so concerned with repairing the ecosystem and cleaning up the planet after our colleagues’ experiments got out of hand—which they inevitably did. If anything, you would think I would be her favorite colleague, since at least I had the courtesy to take my dangerous research to another plane of existence where it didn’t mess up her precious ecosystem. You know,” she added confidentially, “we were all supposed to leave behind every attachment and everything that identified us with the old world, when we came here. That was the agreement. Of course, not a one of us truly followed through on that, and it wasn’t all that long before even the pretense of it in public broke down. Poor Naiya, though. I think she never did get over what happened to her original country. That was a shame, of course. They were such nice people. So polite! But sadly, as it turns out, the ocean doesn’t stop rising if you apologize to it.”
She laughed, and it was as warm and kind and pleasant sound as any of them had ever heard, the kind of laugh that made everyone instinctively want to join in. Now, all three of them shuffled a few inches backward. It was chillingly eerie, the discordance of hearing such good-natured amusement over the apparent drowning of an entire nation. For all her apparent friendliness, it was a glimpse at the inherent cruelty of her aspect that commanded intimidated silence.
From most people, anyway.
“Kind of an asshole, aren’t you?” Gabriel observed.
Toby closed his eyes; Trissiny pressed a hand to her forehead.
“Aw, Gabriel,” Scyllith cooed, “that’s why you’re my favorite, you know. There’s always one person in every room who says what everyone is thinking, but hasn’t the gumption to voice aloud. That was always my role, back in the day. Don’t ever let them silence you, Gabriel. Every chorus of ‘think before you speak’ is a spurt of pure jealousy from someone who lacks the courage to speak at all.”
“Mm,” he grunted skeptically.
“Thinking before speaking,” Toby said quietly, “is the same as thinking before doing anything, which is always important. Words have weight.”
“A noble sentiment,” Scyllith said in a light tone, “born of a barely more than medieval grasp of psychology. If you thought before doing anything, Toby, you would never do anything. Most of the wonderful structure of the human mind, painstakingly assembled out of billions of years of evolution, serves the purpose of enabling you to act without pausing to consider the ramifications of everything, which is the only way you have time to act at all. Instinct, stereotype, intuition, analogy, emotion, pattern recognition… The mechanisms of the mind that cause you to misunderstand so much of the truth of reality are the only thing that kept your ancestors alive long enough to reproduce! And even so, you are not wholly wrong. Words can have a great impact. Have you ever paused to consider how much harm you have inadvertently done by opening your mouth—or failing to?”
“That criticism,” said Trissiny, “applies less to Toby than to basically anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Even a cursory glimpse at your memory shows that isn’t true, Trissiny,” Scyllith said kindly. “What of your Bishop Darling, or Shaeine? The motivations are very nearly opposite, but they have in common careful, purposeful control which young Tobias, unfortunately, lacks. It’s a real irony that she is the one to speak up in your defense, Toby,” she added, turning back to him with a warm smile, “the very person your carelessness has probably hurt the most. Why ever didn’t you tell her the rejection wasn’t personal? Even after all this time? All you had to do was say that you’re not interested in women, and you could have spared your friend so much pain. But your own privacy was just more important, wasn’t it?”
The silence that fell was like the blow of a hammer, Toby and Trissiny both gaping as if the very breath was driven right from them.
“You utter bitch,” Gabriel hissed, withdrawing his wand from his coat and extending it to full scythe form.
“Now, that is exceedingly inconsiderate, Gabriel,” Scyllith said in a tone of compassionate reproof. “You know how such gendered terms offend Trissiny. Honestly, the sheer disrespect both you boys show her is shocking. Now she has to wonder how much you really respect her principles, if all it takes for you to throw aside the pretense is a moment of anger. You see, children, this is what I was talking about. It’s nothing but trouble, letting these things fester; you should never be afraid to speak your truth! Why, Trissiny—”
Trissiny ripped out her sword and burst alight with divine energy. “Shut your slithering mouth!”
“Come, you’re better than that,” Scyllith said gently. “Embracing a moment of pain to gain a longer-term benefit is the whole nature of courage, something you don’t lack in the slightest! Really, what is the worst that could happen if you told Gabriel how you really feel about him? He’s not Toby; I do hope you’re not thinking it would end up the same way.”
“I—that’s not—I don’t—” Trissiny had gone white, sword upraised as if prepared to strike, but she seemed frozen in place.
“After all, don’t many of the great romances involve paladins? The fact they’re considered tragedies simply isn’t worth dwelling on, Trissiny. Everything ends; if you only started things on the basis of how they might end up, you would never take a risk or accomplish anything of note. Embrace it! Life is pain, anyway; take what pleasure you can before it all goes to hell. Listen to someone who’s been there!”
“Enough!” A staff of golden light coalesced in Toby’s hands. “It’s not hard to see what you’re doing. Be silent—”
Her warm, chiming laughter drowned out the rest of his sentence.
“Oh, Toby,” Scyllith said, fondly chiding. “What I’m doing is the lesser concern, here. What are you doing? Don’t you know better than to threaten and posture at a being who knows you pose them no threat at all? It merely makes you look ridiculous. Tell me, do you still have chihuahuas? They were these yappy little rats—”
She casually raised one slender arm to slap aside Gabriel’s scythe as he swung it at her head. A scream as of tearing metal resounded through the room, accompanied by a shockwave which knocked over a swath of mushrooms, and he stumbled back, barely keeping his grip on the weapon.
“Now, let’s have none of that,” Scyllith said indulgently. “Truly, Gabriel, that’s a magnificent weapon, and has a lot of history! If you force me to break it, it’ll be a real shame and we’ll both feel bad.”
“Just shut it!” he snarled, leveling the scythe at her and discharging a blast of black light.
She caught it. Scyllith held up the suspended beam of dark energy in her hand, turning it this way and that to examine it with detached curiosity, then tossed it aside with a flick of her wrist. Where it impacted the wall, a long stretch of mushrooms and lichen shriveled and disintegrated into dust.
“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, young man,” she said mildly. “Really, I do not. It’s not that I’m awfully surprised at how poorly your friends are taking some simple, constructive criticism; this is hardly the first time I’ve been around young people. I know how volatile it can be, having all those feelings. But honestly, Gabriel, what could I possibly say in correction to you? Everything you do is just so…” Slowly, her smile stretched, growing gradually ever wider until she was grinning at him in a truly disturbing rictus, her mouth stretching farther toward the edges of her stylized features than human lips could. “So wonderful. Just be you, Gabriel Arquin. I could not be more delighted at everything you do if I’d planned it myself.”
The pause which followed was pierced by a tiny chirping noise. On the wall behind her, the head of the key turned green.
“Ding!” Scyllith said cheerfully, glancing back at it. “The toast is done! What a shame—we were having such a lovely chat. But now you’ll have to fetch your key back to Vesk and consign little old me back to muddled oblivion. Ah, well, such is life. Step on up and claim your prize, children.”
All three glared at her, weapons upraised. As one, they took a single step forward, bringing themselves just out of range of her, surrounding the goddess in a three-point formation. There they hesitated.
“Well? Don’t be shy!” Scyllith’s grin widened even further, till it seemed in danger of actually splitting her head in half. “After all, only one of us has forever.”
The silent standoff held for another moment. Gabriel eased to the side, as if he might rush past her to the key, but she just turned her gaze directly on him, that unsettling rictus still in place on her features.
Then Trissiny straightened, shoving her blade back into its sheath. “I knew it. I knew that divine ass wouldn’t give us something we wouldn’t immediately need to use.”
“I really cannot overemphasize,” Scyllith cautioned while Trissiny withdrew the Pipe of Calomnar from her belt pouch, “how strongly I don’t recommend that, Trissiny. Come, just grasp your key. Pull it out of the machine and send me back. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“If there’s a time for kicking the board, this is it,” Gabriel said tensely.
“It’s the one thing she fears,” Toby added. Neither took their eyes off Scyllith, who was watching Trissiny with that wild, avid smile.
The Hand of Avei held the Elder Goddess’s gaze as she raised the flute to her lips and blew.
What came out wasn’t a sound. It hurt the ears, all right, but it was not a vibration in the air, but more of one through the soul.
And Scyllith started laughing. In the same way as before, at first, with a kind and pleasant tone, but this time it quickly escalated until she was practically screeching in hysteria.
All around them, the first beginnings of the unraveling of reality began to appear as the chaotic presence Trissiny had just summoned turned its attention upon them. The light shifted, flickering as if shadows were being cast by things not there. The mushrooms started to change, some growing and others merely altering shape.
“I had a little bet with myself, you see!” Scyllith informed them, still chuckling. “I was so, so certain that nothing I could possibly say would make you desperate enough or reckless enough to blow that flute. But it’s like I said—you can’t win them all! Ah, you children really are a delight. Here you go.”
She reached behind herself and plucked the key out of the wall. Immediately, the half-covered screens and machinery to either side of its panel went dark, and the light began slowly to fade from the crystal disc beneath her.
Scyllith’s own form began to dim, to grow subtly indistinct, as if her coherent essence were dissipating.
“Don’t you worry about little old me, children,” she said pleasantly, and tossed the key to Toby. “It was so very kind of you to give me the prospect of escaping my bonds, but really not necessary! I have my own arrangements. We’ll chat again soon, my dears. Now, remember, give my love to Arachne! You did promise.”
She fixed her glittering eyes on Toby, even as the rest of her body faded from existence, and finally the facade of warmth and kindness faded entirely. Her gaze and voice were ice cold in the last seconds before they vanished.
“I will hold you to it.”
The lights around the panel went dark, as did the crystal disc. The last of the ancient machines fell silent, and Scyllith’s presence was gone, dissipated back into whatever unfocused state she had been in before.
Their own situation did not markedly improve, though. The increasing intrusion of chaos made itself known, Calomnar’s approach heralded by an escalating breakdown of the very order of reality. The three of them clustered together, Toby clutching the key, but it was difficult to move; a quality akin to the helplessness of nightmares hung over the darkened facility, as if they were struggling to slog through molasses while some faceless monster pursued.
It was brighter, now, intermittently, sourceless light filling the room with a sickly greenish intensity, which apparently just served as a medium for the shadows of tentacles and claws which flexed and writhed along the walls. The mushrooms continued to twist and grow and transform all around them; now, some began to moan. They had voices like children. Along the stretches of the ancient facility’s walls and floor where Gabriel’s misdirected scythe blast had annihilated the covering fungus, rust spread across the incorruptible mithril.
And then, with a sudden onslaught of enormous psychic pressure that seemed to crush their very minds into the farthest corners of the room, the chaos-tainted god Calomnar arrived in person.