15 – 74

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Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”

The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

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41 thoughts on “15 – 74

  1. [typo] “*My* fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

    Hmm, oh shit?

    Is Elilial back to lying already? She has to have a way to know that some of the Wreath is back in the mortal plane. She also does have to hide their presence, so it would actually make sense to put other people on their job. And who better than a band of divine infused fae wolf “animagi”? Possibly accompanied by upgraded pixies. I’m still really curious about what is going to happen to the Wreath now.

    What is Elilial going to do with Natchua now? She could do pretty much anything without any consequences, I think.

    I so had never thought of Shaath’s predicament as a premeditated affair to rebalance the world (instead of straight up evil. Andros could be telling the version he knows and facts were reinterpreted throughout history, though). That was quite unexpected. I don’t really like what it says about humans, and if you could answer this I would be really interested: do you think we can only achieve balance for most people if we have extremists on both sides? Or is this more something that fits the Bastardverse? (If this was not what you meant, I’m sorry, and would really like to understand the philosophy behind it c: )

    Something I just thought about last chapter, possibly both Gabe and Darling are going to learn how to hide information from the Gods to learn ascension secrets. I’m really looking forward to it.

    And finally, Principal’s army seems like it’s going to be an Avengers initiative. Several of our heroes got together to fight a big bad together, and now they are going to join a heroic organisation (how far in planning it was Prin? Did she even talk properly with the commander about it?).

    Great chapter, looking forward to the next 🙂

    Thanks for writing 💜

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My favorite metaphor for human society is a suspension bridge in which people are the cables holding it up. The ones on the ends and the ones in the middle are both necessary; remove either end, or the center, and the thing will collapse. Society needs both its extremists and its moderates.

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      1. I prefer the genetic diversity perspective: The more genetic diversity there is within a genepool, the more likely it is you have advantageous or immunity-providing traits around in the event of novel infections or other adverse conditions. This does not translate directly into beliefs and ideas, but groupthink kills people. Outside of trying to prevent groupthink it is useful and helpful to promote the maximum sustainable diversity of thought and habits to resist the potential problems of propaganda, fashions, and other events and lasting changes.

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      2. A spider web would be a much better metaphor. Society does not simply crash only because there isn’t anyone anymore who thinks slavery is a good idea or a god given right or something.

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    2. Seems to me like human opinions on basically anything will form a distribution, and those at the ends are by definition extremists. Doesn’t really matter how far apart they are, because most social views are relative. There are definitely absolute moral/societal/etc things (“murder” comes to mind as a pretty binary thing to accept or not), but things around acceptable behavior and who’s in charge are pretty hard to pin down absolutely. Equality between group X and Y (men and women, for example) definitely has an absolute scale, but there are also an infinite number of positions in between.

      Of course, the shape of the distribution can be a sign of problems in a society. If most people are towards the ends with nobody in the middle, that’s generally a problem. Whether it’s worse than everybody being clustered at one end is an interesting question. I think it’s worth a lot of negatives to prevent an entire generation from forgetting what group X and Y being equal is like, because it’s so hard to get it back once you start. It takes a lot to get most people to really imagine a world so different from their own.

      Relevant XKCDs: https://xkcd.com/915/ https://xkcd.com/1095/

      This puts Tellwyrn’s lesson back in 5-9 in a whole new light. I think she might have actually lied to Teal+Trissiny+Gabe+etc. She said “Shaath and Avei have been doing this dance since time immemorial.” She’s the one who killed Sorash in the first place though, which means she was around beforehand when Shaath wasn’t on the other end of that balance. Makes me wonder how mangled Andros’s version of events is.

      Although, in that same chapter Tellwyrn also claimed the Age of Adventures was on its way out, which isn’t exactly true any more.

      Also: I don’t think Elilial lied here. She said “as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist”, which seems very true. There are only a few of them, and they’re under Darling now and really not the Black Wreath any more.

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      1. Considering Tellwyrn is Sorash’s killer maybe she was glossing over that to avoid talking about killing gods. Or, for a more “Doylist” explanation, maybe Sorash hadn’t been written in yet at that point. I’m in no hurry to dig too deeply into that question.

        It remains to be seen whether a new age of adventures is brewing or if this is just a brief time of troubles relating to the divine alignment thingy where the rules and roster of gods is up for alterations.

        Darling and Khadizroth rescued those Wreath folks, but it was never said that they turned them into Eserites or anything else other than survivors of the inter-dimensional firewall. It has been stated elsewhere that Wreath numbers had been low before this latest debacle, and we don’t know how many Wreath died during it before the rescued were tentacle-kidnapped.

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      2. It’s worth noting that Arachne is *only* three thousand years old, so it’s not like she had a ton of experience in the world when it was Sorash vs. Avei. She could just be wrong in this specific case of godly metaphysics. Maybe she met Shaath after she’d murdered Sorash and after Angthinor made the call to make Shaath the counterpoint to Avei and just assumed he was always like that.

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    3. The Wreath are probably going to lie low and focus on training, spreading and recruitment if Elilial has actually given up on accomplishing anything with this coming alignment.

      Natchua just demonstrated prime recruitment traits, and the Wreath is scraping the bottom of the barrel on personnel right now. If I were in Elilial’s shoes I would be tempted to make a recruitment pitch, or failing that to hand Natchua an itemized to-do list with dossiers on the Wreath’s overdue idiot warlock targets in need of extermination. I would laugh if she also hands over mail for Arachne, because making Natchua her mail-girl seems like a perfectly petty sort of minor slight.

      I don’t know that extremists are necessary so much as that people who lack sufficient, effective advocacy and protection of their rights tend to end up being the victims of more dominant groups. Diversity of beliefs and opinions is socially useful partially to help find and generate advocates for disadvantaged people and groups. This is a complicated topic.

      My guess is that Gabriel wants to learn defenses against telepathy because of his experience with Scyllith. Maybe that means learning more Elder God lore, but maybe it doesn’t.

      Did you miss the part where the HC Rouvad tasked Principia with finding her an adequate substitute for her nonexistent First Legion? No fixed deadline, but I’m pretty sure Avei wants it soonish: I expect the real deadline is that Avei needs it ready before this alignment nonsense gets so bad she needs to use it.

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      1. > Did you miss the part where the HC Rouvad tasked Principia with finding her an adequate substitute for her nonexistent First Legion?

        I remember that part of the story, yes. But I don’t remember Rouvad giving Prin full run of the thing. At least in my mind, the image I have of her includes her telling Prin to tell her all about every single thing that happens or is decided.


    4. I’m pretty sure all extremism is just Rupert Murdoch’s personal insanity on one side and people getting offended to the point of overreacting on the other.


  2. I expected better from Andros on this; he’s shown a nice grasp of things in the past.

    As noted if you want justice you go to Avei. When Sorash got what he deserved (and Andros cannot know the details leading up to his death if he has a problem with Arachne killing him) the problem wasn’t that Avei was unopposed on the gender front, it’s that her aspect of justice was subordinate to the female/strategy aspects due to the past conflict. The only reason to pervert the nature of your own god rather than pumping up Avei’s justice is that it was easy. Not best, just simplest with the tools on hand.

    Andros is parroting the party line here and it doesn’t suit him. When your own god is not happy with what has been done to them but you’re still toeing the line as part of a duct-tape-and-wire theological fix you may want to be open to other solutions (if you’re not open to other religions).

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    1. Frankly, Sorash sounds like a giant asshole that the world was generally better off without. That said, it is plausible his death could lead to power vacuums and lack of voice, advocacy and rights for men in the face of hostile sexists organized under Avei’s banner. Andros doesn’t have to believe that what Arachne did to resist slavery was wrong to believe it had unpleasant consequences.

      Also, the reason twisting Shaath into an avatar of paternalism worked is probably the exact same reason that misandrists twisting Avei’s justice into repression of men also worked. Accepting Avei’s authority on the matter of control over men’s rights could be a losing move if enough of her faithful agree that literacy, skilled craft, organization and communication with people outside the family is ‘women’s work’ that men are to be kept from. If Bradshaw’s stated rationale for male warlocks joining the Wreath from Avenist regions isn’t mostly teenage hotheadedness and ignorant rebelliousness then Avei’s misandrist followers are a problem even in the present.

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      1. We’ve had evidence of avenist misandry since chapter 2, if not earlier. That’s always been a thing. Heck, even if we didn’t, it’s inevitable. The pitfalls of having one gender represented but not the other are the core of first and second wave feminist writing and would apply anywhere such a thing exists.


  3. Elilial playing lots of games with the “shadow hunters” or whatever they will be called.

    Most obviously, she did take her job at tangling rogue demons seriously. Even with the remains of the Black Wreath she’d need more man power. That’s the obvious point.

    The least obvious smallest fringe benefit is it might hurt Natchua. Natch is allied/friendly with four demons and is the most powerful infernomancer left on the mortal plane. Odds are that won’t hurt her too badly, but again fringe benefit.

    Another benefit is by giving them this idea, she removes a chaotic element from the board meaning more groups can be predicted in the actions they will take. Schemers hate both chaos and Chaos.

    Finally and I think this is her main point. A lack of direction will result in a stalemate, a quagmire of Shaath’s followers. Basically, Ignvar won’t make any headway into reforming Shaath without a concrete goal for his group. Now why would Elilial want Ignvar to reform Shaath?

    Ostensibly it could be seen as atoning. That was one of three gods she apologized to. More importantly however, was Ingvar’s idea to make Avei face her own justice (and possible death). Now that is a plan Elilial can get behind and with so little investment the risk is minuscule and al the benefits are massive (not even including the ones I haven’t thought of or penned out in this comment).

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    1. Not sure how to respond to the rest, but a reformed Shaath might lead his followers out of the Universal Church that’s propping up Justinian. All by itself that may be reason enough for Elilial to want to support Ingvar.

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  4. Small typo: *by* not *but* a halo of seething …..

    I love the backstory we are learning on the history of Shaath; it makes a crazy kind of sense. I could see the actual history being that Aginthor was an angry misogynist, that got fed up with how progressive society was becoming, and his resentment overcame his faith. He could later then have justified his actions to be closer to what Andros described. It could be similar to what he said, but I feel like other gods could be counterweights, especially Eserion/Vidius for balance, or even passively Omnu for ‘traditional’ gender roles.

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    1. I suspect that Aginthor was right, it would go a long way to explaining the title of the whole series, with the pressure a god exerts on society and the followers on the god then it makes sense, a god could do incalculable damage just by existing unopposed, it would also make Napthene and Ouvis the smart and moral ones by taking a ‘the only way to win is not to play’ stance.

      And the problem with Eserion or Omnu providing pushback is that they’d have to get a lot stronger to match what Sorash was previously providing against Avei, which also enforced the rest of their aspects on society. Now personally I quite like pacifism but I’ll admit it’s a problem on a societal level when someone like Elilial is still on the board. Eserion’s philosophy only works when Eserion’s the underdog, if all systems are corrupt is your core principle then that becomes a hell of a problem if you become the system, possibly enough to make Eserion vulnerable.

      Then there’s the really worrying effects the other gods must be having, if you look at their aspects then some of them could do some serious damage if they had more power than the rest, Vidius and Vesk come to mind on that front, as does Elilial herself.

      Also makes you wonder how many other people who know how to manipulate gods have done something monstrous to either throw society out of anything resembling function or back into balance. Tellwyn had to know what the long term effects would be and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if she had a hand in the rebalancing, for all her faults she seems to make a point of clearing up after herself.

      Looking at what each gods societal pressure could be it’s probably a good thing Avei was the opponent to Soresh, her aspect of justice probably held things back quite a bit. Imagine if it had been Elilial, Scylith or Themyrna. Or worst case scenario Vemnesthis; not sure what that would do but the idea that ‘time gets stronger’ isn’t one I like.

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  5. Elilial is going to do the worst thing possible. She’s going to tell Natchua she did perfectly what She needed her to do.

    Whether that’s true or just the God of Guile version of making lemonade… Well, knowing whether or not you’ve won vs Elilial after the fact has likely been one of the most difficult things in that world for the last 8000 years.

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    1. Oh yeah, if that self-proclamation that she is the goddess of Hellfire was as much bullshit as I suspect we are about to see Elilial implementing a whole series of prepared plans to exploit this truce to the fullest. As the goddess of cunning the smart move regarding Natchua is to aim her at a part of Elilial’s to-do list with some kind of emotional or rhetorical kick to convince her she wants to do Elilial’s dirty work. If that includes making her regret opposing Elilial somehow then convincing Natchua to do it to herself makes sense as a way to save time, because a newly ‘neutral’ Elilial has a whole lot of opportunities right now that she didn’t have in more than a thousand years.

      However, that may not be excruciating or useful enough. For real, severe, self-inflicted torture she might tell Natchua that this is a golden opportunity to establish a new Ellinist sect of many worshipers that counterbalances the stupid, brutal horror influences of her demon followers. Telling Natchua that she has a deadline of just over a hundred years to prevent the next Hellwar from starting is high on the list of creatively terrible punishments she could inflict.

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    1. That would require Natchua to be like Ellial, a paragon of cunning.

      Also, given what happened with Shaath, and today with Omnu, it would require Ellial to extend an awful lot of trust to Natch, which I just don’t see happening.

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  6. Couple thoughts.

    Current Tiraan society seems pretty egaliterian in terms of gender roles. Is this because of the Avei and Shaathist cults, or despite them?

    In our world, male domination over females has been the rule throughout most of history and into the present day. Assuming this is not due to the intervening influence of a god (?????) it probably stems from the biology of males being stronger and more muscular and so able to physically dominate females, which apparently became engrained in society. Bastardverse, on the other hand, is an engineered world, with some cultures (drow) set up to be matriarchal. Do the “divine” nudges toward female empowerment for humans need to be stronger and more deliberate than male influences, to even achieve balance?


    1. The dominance of the patriarchal religions and societies is more of a factor of their economics and social arrangements than the physical differences between men and women. When herding made it clear that sex leads to children this gave men a strong and clear reason to create a set of norms and rules that limits women’s sexual freedoms to control their fertility: Note how many of the derogatory terms for women in their societies are all about women that either fail to sexually serve their designated male owners, or instead are about women who have sex with people who aren’t their designated male owners. Patrilineality requires and leads to patriarchy, and the rest of the whole Abrahamic pattern of militant tribes and expansionist wars directly falls out of that like a steaming turd when non-inheriting sons need to go kill the guys over the next hill to be able to afford a wife. I suspect this is the real reason the US is more militant and violent than most of the other so-called first world nations: Their social services and social safety net is horrible, and this leads to poor men joining the military and other gangs of thugs both legal/legitimate and otherwise, as has been the standard thug recruitment pattern in Christian states for many centuries.


    2. Not entirely true. It generally worked out that whichever gender was better at producing food became the dominant gender. In hunter gather societies neither dominated cause women provided more calories and men provided more meat. After that we had Hoe based agriculture which were all matriarchies since a hoe requires a strong lower body. Then we had plough based agriculture which led to patriarchy due to the upper body strength needed. After that it isn’t until modern times that women are able to produce just as much as men. So from ~18,0000-15,000 bc to ~6,000-3,000 bc women were the dominant gender.


  7. Am I the only thinking that maybe Angrhinor simply didn’t know that destroying Avei or strong-arming her into line by her aspect was an option? Clearly the dude had some inside knowledge on the nature of gods to do as he did, but that specifically seems like something the Pantheon would go to some lengths to keep on the down low. It bugs me when people with perfect hindsight dump on historical figures for making the best possible decision with the information they had.

    I’m more interested in that the Cult of Shaath has maintained lore on how to manipulate their god for generations. Makes me wonder how much the other cults and the Universal Church know.

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    1. I agree that Angthinor did what was the least wrong thing available to him. Clearly, after what happened to Sorash, killing a god can have disastrous unintended societal consequences. He may have known it was possible to kill Avei and decided that trying to do it would just bring about more harm than good. Plus, she’s in the Trinity and I have to imagine actually killing her would be incredibly difficult or near impossible. Better to strong arm the weakest Pantheon member into being her counterpoint.

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  8. Actually, since we know from the Deathspeaker chapters that Khar is in the process of being slowly resurrected after being “killed” in the Enchanters Bane shouldn’t it be theoretically possible to resurrect other “dead” gods? Not that they should be going on a quest to do so for Sorash, it just seems to me that could be something that comes up in the main storyline at some point.


    1. Khar can be resurrected because he’s bound to the land. Restore the land and he’ll be restored with it. Well, not quite as easy as it sounds.

      Sorash was never bound to anything physical, he’s bound to concepts.

      The same is true for most gods, only a few have choses physical domains (sky, oceans) and even there it doesn’t really matter. How do you destroy the sky or oceans? I mean, you could pollute them and that might corrupt the god somewhat…

      … but in the end the big secret about gods that Elilial revealed to everyone? It’s not going to be very useful.

      Good luck getting Avei to oppose her own aspects… I mean, how would you do that? Start an unlawful, unjust war against women in her name?

      Nice theory, but actually doing this is going to be next to impossible.


      1. Also an important difference between khar and sorash is both had their concepts severed but only sorash was specifically killed by arachne. Khar’s “body” was never attacked so his resscurection occurred naturally.

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  9. The new pixies are different from the old ones…

    They multiply, they can drain the magic of demons and the one we just met seemed relatively smart.

    Anything that powerful that multiplies is something to be concerned about. What if they are all like Fross? Or just some of them?

    What is going to happen when new meets old? Will it create a schism? Will there be adorable, glowy pixie carnage? Some of the old pxies have been absorbing the power of their fellow kind for centuries. What happens when they are presented with thousands of new pixies who don’t fight back?

    Can all pixies drain magic? Is it just infernal magic or all schools? In a world where basically everything is magic?

    …why is no one terrified of that? Because they are cute?


  10. I’m thinking part of Ellial’s strategy is to get the hunters to harness the pixies instead of just having then run wild across the world. If these pixies go everywhere then there won’t be another he’ll war that lasts longer than a day. I am curious if you just sent a bunch into he’ll would they just purge the whole world of demon life?


  11. Yeah, I’m just gonna say it, this ‘twist’ about Shaathism’s paternalism is quite possibly the least interesting place the Shaath arc could have done. “But what if there actually was some circumstance that made misogyny necessary?”, “What if the feminists really were the extremists all along, not just a few of them as in any social movement, but as the natural end-state of their ideology?”, and “Bigotry is countered with equal and opposite bigotry” are just …. such tired plot points.

    Like, yeah, this is a minor part of the overall Shaath arc and it’s at least partially rebutted by Ingvar. But at least part of those ideas are now officially enshrined in how this world works and just …. *sigh*. Yes, one can make worlds which function like this internally. But why would you want to? No like literally, why? “Dude had a sexist worldview, wanted people to identify with his sexist worldview, used religion to do it” is a whole and complete story, no further explanation required. This literally just takes a cultural setup w.r.t. sexism that’s very analogous to our world and makes it *less* analogous. Why would you do that? It just seems counter-productive.

    And I’m still waiting for us to see the revelation of Shaathism’s truth from a Shaathist woman’s perspective. Like, we’ve tangentially kind of a little bit heard about Shaathism from a woman’s perspective when one of Locke’s soldiers briefly mentioned leaving Shaath. But we’ve never even seen it from one who’s actively part of the cult, let alone post-revelation. There is so, so, so much fascinating territory to be covered there and interesting narrative structure to be had. I mean, we’ve had a story about Shaathist men making all kinds of decisions and talking to one another and hashing stuff out with the narrative focus on how *they’ll* feel about the truth and *nothing* from the key people most affected by this, the Shaathist women. Wouldn’t it be a fascinating narrative conclusion to take us through the end of the arc from *their* perspective? How *their* decisions are now controlling the Shaathist narrative? Can you imagine an interlude about the Shaathist men who decide “no we’re right to live like this anyway” only to find that, mmm, no, their wives *really* disagree? Or tackling the even more complicated emotional turmoil all these women must be feeling? Seriously there is just so much juicy and interesting stuff to be had there.

    But instead the Shaathist arc seems to be concluding with … yet another Shaathist dude in a position of power talking to another Shaathist dude in a position of power about how maybe the misogyny was necessary all along vs. maybe we should have just killed the feminist god (who’s apparently really just misandrist when left unchecked).

    …. actually, seriously, did we just have an entire goddamn arc about breaking down a misogynistic culture which literally never showed a woman’s perspective and instead focused entirely on the men’s feelings about what they’d ignorantly participated in? That concluded with throwing some ‘shades of grey’ over whether or not enslaving a god to be a cultural misogyny engine is a bad thing?

    Cus that’s a pretty fucking dissatisfying end to the arc.

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