Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.
The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.
“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”
Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.
“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”
“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.
“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”
Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.
Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.
“What have you done with—”
“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”
It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.
“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”
From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.
“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”
Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”
She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.
“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”
Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.
“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”
“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”
“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”
Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.
“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.
“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”
“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”
“How noble and self-effacing you are.”
“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”
“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”
“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”
“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”
The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.
Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”
“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”
Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.
“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.
“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”
She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.
“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”
“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.
“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”
“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”
“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”
For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.
Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.
“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”
She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.
“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”
For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.
Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.
“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”
“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.
“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”
Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”
“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”
The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.
“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.
“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”
Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”
Elilial’s grin widened.
“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”
The goddess raised one eyebrow.
Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.
“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”
“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”
“No! Absolutely not!”
“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”
“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.
Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”
“I fucking hate you.”
“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”
“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”
Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”
“Don’t you dare—”
“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”
Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.
“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”
“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”
“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.
She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”
“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”
“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”
“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”
Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.
“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”
The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.
Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.
Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.