16 – 41

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The subterranean Temple of Vidius was a veritable warren, designed to confuse those who had no business there. It was such a typically Vidian approach, creating needless complication which they themselves could navigate with ease while everyone else fumbled to keep up. So ingrained was the habit that they did it even in cases like the design of their main temple, where it caused more nuisance than benefit. Of course, there were areas where outsiders were not welcome, and others still in which secrecy and privacy must be upheld, but there were far less convoluted ways of achieving that end. It wasn’t as if anyone could just bumble in off the street and right into the High Commander’s office, or the chamber of the Dawn Council. Vidians just preferred to watch people chase their tails rather than go to the in-person effort of keeping them out.

It was not lost on Justinian that of the three temples in which the paladins could have chosen to meet him, they had selected this one.

Justinian’s estimation of the paladins’ abilities had steadily risen during the short trip here from the Grand Cathedral, when he had found himself with a considerable audience for his own passage to the Temple and been informed by Ravoud that evidently the trio had created that by riding all the way here from the city gates in a procession. Even at midnight, the passage of paladins had brought a crowd, who were still milling about in Imperial Square, discussing what they’d seen. Now, they had something further to discuss, and the Archpope had been seen emerging from his own citadel of power to follow them. Truly, what clever children—and how well they had diversified their skills in just a few years! They had certainly not learned that from Tellwyrn.

He had been required to leave behind Ravoud and his escort of Holy Legionaries, to the former’s vivid displeasure, but Justinian had soothed him and proceeded deeper into the temple accompanied by Bishop Raskin. It had never been the job or within the authority of the Archpope to make demands of the Pantheon’s member cults, particularly within their own temples.

Besides, this was not that kind of game.

They arrived, eventually, at a door which was suitably large and ornate to fit the gravity of the occasion, once Justinian no longer had a clear idea where exactly the twists and turns of their descent had brought them. Raskin stepped to one side and bowed deferentially.

“They await within, your Holiness.”

“Thank you very much for escorting me,” Justinian said, inclining his head in courtesy. “I hope I have not inconvenienced you too greatly, given the hour.”

“Nonsense, your Holiness, we are all here to serve the gods. I shall stand ready to return you to your soldiers when your business is concluded. Please feel no need to rush; I have plenty of time.”

“The courtesy is appreciated, my friend,” said the Archpope with a benevolent smile which Raskin returned. Neither felt any need to allude to Raskin’s planned denouncement of him tomorrow. It was such a pleasure to work with someone who understood how the game was played.

The door had no handle, but opened when Justinian placed a hand against it, swinging slowly under the effect of an obvious charm. He stepped through and, untouched, it drifted shut behind him. Even its gentle motion produced a resonant boom when it fell flush with the wall again, simply due to its size and weight.

The chamber beyond was circular, with a sunken floor reached by three steps which wrapped around the room and formed a mosaic at the bottom. Rather than the mask-and-scythe sacred sigil of Vidius, it was the much older symbol of duality the cult liked to use, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two teardrop shapes, black and white, wrapped around each other. This one also had smaller circles within the bigger shapes, showing the alternate colors to symbolize the essence of light and darkness found within one another.

Around the walls, in the upper tier atop the stairs, were three alcoves at right angles, forming a cross intersecting the room with the door at the fourth point. Chairs had been set in these, backlit by fairy lamps in floor stands, and in each chair was seated a paladin, staring down at him.

Justinian had to smile at how neatly they had reversed his planned trick of positioning. There was nothing for it but to step forward and stand in judgment before their collective eyes. He did have to wonder why the Vidians even had a room like this; they obviously went in for dualistic symbolism, and this was too perfectly arranged to have three parties convened around a single target. Most likely the chamber had some use in their secretive ritual magic. It would be just like Gwenfaer to repurpose such a thing on the fly just to help these three put him at a symbolic disadvantage.

He nodded his head again, just enough of an inclination to denote respect and courtesy without implying submission. In rank, an Archpope and a paladin related closely, hence this opening struggle over positioning.

“I am grateful to you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said aloud, “and apologize for the hour and notice. You are most courteous to be so accommodating.”

“We are all here to serve the gods, after all, your Holiness,” Toby said in an ironic echo of Raskin. “How can we help you?”

“It has come to my attention,” he said, “that you three are spearheading an effort to withdraw your cults from the Universal Church.”

“Full withdrawal isn’t on the agenda,” Gabriel clarified. “Nothing so permanent. But yeah, the Thieves’ Guild is still part of the Church, merely withholding its presence in protest. We feel they’re owed some solidarity.”

“In the case of the Sisterhood of Avei,” Trissiny added in a particularly sharp tone, “the same position is not voluntary on our part. After months of needless and petty obstreperousness, you now have the gall to begrudge us formalizing the position in which you have placed us?”

“I understand your position,” Justinian said smoothly. “The ebb and flow of politics inevitably causes some affront. I have asked you to attend me in order to request that you abstain from this measure, and of course, Trissiny, it is at the very least fair to offer concession in turn. I understand you have brought Nandi Shahai to the capital to step into the role of Bishop? Her performance in the role was most satisfactory; I would be glad to confirm her.”

“Too little, too late,” she retorted. “I see no need to offer you the chance to sign off on what you can’t stop from happening.”

“Not to mention that this says nothing about why our cults should accept your proposal,” Gabriel added.

“All of which is ultimately beside the point,” said Toby. “We have not done this lightly or without reason, your Holiness. Your long-standing pattern of behavior has demanded a check upon your ambitions. Even if you were willing to offer the true scope of concessions it would take to make your request acceptable, you’ve brought us to a place in which we would be foolish to believe your assurances.”

“You want to stop this from happening?” Trissiny said, raising her chin. “Resign your position as Archpope. I’m reasonably confident I can persuade High Commander Rouvad to accept that compromise.”

“I’m sure you don’t need me to specify that such a measure is not on the table,” Justinian said gently, still smiling.

The Hand of Avei shrugged, armor rasping softly. “Then it would seem we have nothing to discuss.”

“Why did you come here?” Gabriel asked, leaning forward intently. “You can’t have thought asking nicely was going to get this dropped. I know you’re way too intelligent to think everything you’ve done would be forgiven that easily.”

“Well,” Justinian replied, widening his smile in acknowledgment, “there is the fact that the very act of reaching out to you positions me favorably for the next round.”

“Snowe mentioned that,” Toby said noncommittally.

“Ah? She must think well of you, then. Branwen usually tries to conceal her intelligence from casual acquaintances.”

“We’ve seen a bit too much of her to buy it,” Gabriel observed, “even before Ninkabi.”

“That was only one reason, though,” the Archpope said with a more serious expression. “I expect you three of all people to understand the greater. There are some things that simply must be attempted, even if the attempt is inherently futile, merely because they are right. If a destructive conflict might be averted by talking… How can the impossibility of coming to an accord justify foregoing the conversation?”

“You’re a fine one to talk about justification,” Trissiny whispered. “We know what you did at Ninkabi. And at Veilgrad.”

“If you plan to accuse me of something, I do hope you are prepared to furnish compelling evidence,” Justinian said, serene.

“Oh, let’s not play that game,” Gabriel snorted with a wave of his hand. “We know, you know we know, we know you know we know, and your ability to cover your trail to a reasonable extent is only more antagonizing. How’d you get past the dreadcrawlers?”

He was far too adept at concealing his expression to react overtly, save with a convincing little lift of his eyebrows to convey confusion. “The what?”

“It was a nice gesture, chipping the limestone off the plaque,” Gabriel continued, eyes intent on Justinian’s. “Obviously not useful or necessary for anything, but…nice. I have a hard time squaring that with, y’know, everything else.”

“You will doubtless find this a humorous statement,” Justinian said, “but I am a nice person.” Indeed, Trissiny and Gabriel both made derisive noises. “A good person…I think not. One tries, but no. Too many hard choices cost me the right to make that claim long ago.” He paused, tilting his head fractionally. “I am not certain to what you refer, Gabriel, but I would like to think I’d take the time to show a small kindness if I could, no matter what else might be going on. Doubtless that was not the impression Eserion wished you to acquire when he took to sending you down into dank holes. Be wary, my young friends, of anyone who guides you on a journey. They are well positioned to determine what beliefs you acquire along the way.”

They were good, he noted. Not great, but they were inexperienced and learning. All three faces went impressively blank, revealing nothing. Had they been better, they would have looked confused rather than revealing they were hiding something. As it was, all he gathered was that he’d landed a point. They had not known he’d known about Eserion’s meddling. Perhaps it was for the best that this confrontation came before the trio gained more experience. Trissiny and Gabriel, at least, had the training to avoid such blunders, they only lacked the practice.

“Unfortunately,” he continued in their silence, “the other and most important reason I requested this meeting is no longer a possibility. You have—quite cleverly, I might add—succeeded in positioning us to your advantage, with the regrettable side effect that I cannot now risk revealing too much, as I am no longer in surroundings I can control. There are doubtless few if any places in this temple where words cannot be overheard, to say nothing of your valkyrie friends, Gabriel. The necessary security of my position limits my options here. Had you met me in the Cathedral as I asked, I intended to tell you everything.

They stared at him in impassive silence.

Then Gabriel grinned, mockingly. “Bullshit.”

“Well, not everything,” Justinian allowed. “Forgive me, it seems I succumbed to hyperbole. There are a great many things you should and deserve to know, but some secrets are simply too dangerous to reveal. There are truths protected by the existence of divine magic itself, things which result in a person being instantly struck to death by the gods if they learn too much. I enjoy protection, but it is granted to me, not achieved by my own works, and I cannot extend it to others.”

He spread his hands at waist height in a silent gesture of apology.

“Perhaps the gods would protect you, but I deemed the risk too great. I can work with your cooperation, or I would not come here to ask it. My plans were made around the assumption you would oppose me. The one thing I cannot accept is your destruction, my friends. I will not risk your lives, not over something as simple as a secret.”

Gabriel’s grin widened until it was an overt threat, exactly the kind of wolfish rictus which had been the last sight of many a person who pushed Arachne Tellwyrn too far. That was undoubtedly where he’d learned it.

“You, sir, are talking out your ass. ‘Oh, I would totally have told you everything if you’d just come to my own center of power.’ Please tell me you don’t actually think we’ll believe that. Because that would be insulting.”

“And why not?” Justinian asked with a mild smile. “Because I am obviously manipulating you? Lies are limited tools, Gabriel, and prone to twisting in the hand that wields them. If you would control what people think, you must learn to use the truth with skill, not suppress it. Any of your Vidian brethren could explain that much.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Toby said firmly. “The powers and influence you wield are well beyond those granted to an Archpope. We would be foolish to march into your own citadel.”

“And that’s the summation of all of this,” Trissiny said, her voice bitter. “The Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church is not safe for paladins of the Pantheon. Can you not see how you’ve corrupted, twisted everything, Justinian? But no, if you were willing to unleash the kind of death and destruction you have on innocents, you wouldn’t balk from that.”

“So you would think,” he whispered. “I admit to none of your accusations, but it should strain no one’s credulity to state that I have blood on my hands and wrongs to my name. One cannot exist in a position of power and not be so stained. I assure you of this much: I feel the weight of every one of my crimes.”

“And you will be brought to justice for them,” she swore, glaring down at him. “One way or another.”

Justinian nodded deeply. “That is my ultimate intent, yes. That certainty alone keeps me going. I could not maintain the strength to do what must be done if I were not sure that the balance would come for me in the end. All my plans aim at that conclusion.”

“Why do all this?” Toby asked. “Or, let me guess, is that the thing you can’t afford to tell us where the Vidians might hear?”

“I don’t fear the Vidians learning the truth about the gods,” Justinian said, shaking his head. “If I meant them ill, I would tell them. No…someday, everyone will know the truth. Know what they did. A great doom is coming, and with it…the rules will change. They will no longer be able to hide.”

“Is that really all it comes down to?” Gabriel asked, leaning back in his seat. “You’re mad about some secret? How much destruction are you willing to cause just because you hate the gods?”

“You won’t be so cavalier when you learn the truth,” Justinian sighed. “But no. I don’t hate them. I did, I think, when I first stumbled upon the secret myself. The horror of it is just too… And yet, the very fact of resolving myself to right that ancient wrong has changed my perspective. I’ve come to understand what it means, to choose between evils, to accept a terrible wrong in order to avert a greater one. I have…sympathy, now, for them. They could not do what was right, so they did what they thought best. I still think their choice was the wrong one, but having been there myself, I am no longer able to judge them for it. Now, there is only rectification of what was done. And ultimately, the only redemption possible. For them, and for me. Only then, finally, will everyone be free of this ancient sin.”

“None of that means anything,” Trissiny said harshly. “You can stand there muttering bout secret sins all you want, but you can’t even furnish an accusation! Even if you could, after what we know you’ve done, there’s no chance we’d take your word over the gods’.”

“How certain are you,” he asked with a sad little smile, “that you know what you know?”

Gabriel shook his head, then looked at each of his comrades in turn. “Well. I think we’re pretty much done here.”

“There doesn’t seem anything more to be gained,” Toby agreed softly.

“Past time,” Trissiny spat.

Golden light rose around all three of them, shining out from their respective alcoves and overwhelming the glow of the fairy lamps. This was more than just the summoning of divine magic, however. With the light came pressure, the personal invocation of awesomely powerful entities, and suddenly the spacious ritual chamber was very cramped indeed, as the personal attention of the three greatest deities of the Pantheon was summoned onto that spot.

“You can spin whatever lies you like, Justinian,” Trissiny declared, her voice echoing, “but we know what you did, and what you are. And now, so shall they.”

Justinian bowed his head. “Your servant stands ever at the ready, to carry out the will of the gods when it is revealed.”

For a moment, all was silent as the immense force of their regard fell upon him. Vision seemed to shift and falter, each paladin’s aspect being simultaneously just their own, and that of another being entirely, and also everything in between. For long moments, it seemed the lines between mortal and deity were blurred.

But when they spoke, it was as themselves, out of the air itself and not through the lips of their mortal anchors.

“Well done,” Omnu’s warm and deep voice pulsed in the very stones around them, “good and faithful servant.”

“Keep faith, Archpope of the Universal Church,” said Avei, a resonant alto that seemed to come from within the hearts of those listening as much as it vibrated through the air. “The times grow ever darker. It falls to you to bring the light to our people.”

Vidius said nothing, simply conveyed a must surge of approval that washed over all of them.

“My thanks,” Justinian said softly, then raised his head. He met Gabriel’s eyes while he spoke, keeping his own expression utterly calm in contrast to the boy’s increasing shock. “Now go back to sleep, you tired old things.”

On command, their presence faded, leaving the four mortals alone once more in the chamber.

“Well. That’s unfortunate.”

The deadly calm of Trissiny’s voice was his only warning. For a woman in full armor, she could move with astonishing speed, and uncanny silence; Justinian barely raised a wall of divine light in time to deflect the sword that had nearly plunged into his throat. A pulse of energy sent her staggering backward, but she immediately lunged forward again, ramming her blade into the barrier.

Gabriel launched himself forward in the next moment, whipping out his gnarled black wand and extending it to full scythe form even as he brought it down in an overhead swing. The tip of the blade impacted the sphere of power surrounding the Archpope, which rippled under the pressure. Not, in fact, the pressure, but the nature of that all-destroying valkyrie weapon. It was hungry, its nature seeking the annihilation of whatever it touched.

Under that force, the shield rippled…and stilled. Justinian turned a cold shoulder to Trissiny’s repeated and ineffectual hammer blows upon his shield, once again meeting and holding Gabriel’s gaze as the scythe of death just rested there, seemingly impotent.

That was when he felt the pressure again from his left, the consciousness of Omnu pushing down on him. Justinian’s connection to the cosmic entities which now called themselves gods was of course not the same as that which the paladins had, a thing of ancient machines, attunement of vast energy fields, and meditative disciplines of his own devising. But he had done that work years ago, otherwise he would never have risked coming here. Shaking his head, he simply directed his will back into the staid, mechanistic intelligence of the god, as he had before.

This time, it did not bend. Someone else was pushing on Omnu’s very being, commanding the god to think in a certain way. Someone with a far more powerful connection to him than Justinian had.

He turned, staring to Tobias Caine, who simply stood in evident serenity before his chair, hands folded. He was not straining, or fumbling; this was no last desperate attempt, but the execution of a feat he already knew how to do. Something he had clearly done before.

Well, that answered some of Justinian’s lingering questions about Ninkabi. More immediately, it raised the first actual danger to himself he had faced in many years.

The Archpope acted decisively, before Omnu’s will could fully coalesce under Toby’s direction. The pulse of divine energy which surged outward from him threw all three paladins bodily backward, even as a second blast was drawn in the opposite direction—not crushing them between the two, but cushioning the force, to prevent them from being dashed physically against the stone walls behind their alcoves.

It was at the exact moment of that impact that he unleashed a subtler surge of the Light, snapping directly into their minds and severing their own workings. All three divine auras winked out, along with the golden wings fanning behind Trissiny—and, most importantly, Toby’s immediate connection to his god.

Many knew that mind magic was the province of the divine, but relatively few bothered to study it. Those crafts were difficult and incredibly dangerous, and suppressed when not outright prohibited by many of the Pantheon cults. Despite the intricacy of most mental workings, it was actually fairly easy to disrupt a spellcaster’s focus on any magical working they sought to perform, if you knew how. The real trick in using the mind snap was to time it exactly with a physical attack and give no outward sign that anything else had been done. Most people would naturally assume their concentration had been disrupted by the bodily impact and fail to realize you had done anything else, and thus, fail to develop a defense against the mental attack they never realized had been used.

Justinian shoved them back and forth with a series of outward and inward pulses of powerful kinetic force, rattling all three and causing their own divine shields to collapse, before finally depositing them none too gently into their seats in the alcove. Then, finally, quiet restored itself in the chamber as the three rattled paladins stared down at him.

After a moment, he deliberately let his aura drop, leaving the room in the dimmer light of the surviving fairy lamps. Two had been knocked over, one of which had shattered.

“Now that we have established beyond doubt that you pose me no physical threat,” he said, calm as ever, “there is something I need you three to understand: I have nothing for you but admiration. I urge you to remain committed to doing what you believe is right, with all the courage and ingenuity you can muster. If that must put us at cross-purposes, so be it. The one thing you must not do is give up. Despair is a sin, my young friends—perhaps the ultimate sin. So long as we aspire to do and to be more, so long as we look out on the world and see not only what is but what could be, we are doing justice to the only thing that makes us more than brute beasts.”

He bowed once, as they just stared at him in shock and confusion.

“Thank you for meeting with me. We shall doubtless speak again. Until then.”

They didn’t speak, or even get up, as he turned and glided back the way he had come to the door, which had handles on this side. The silence remained behind him even as the door boomed shut again, sealing them back in the trap he had just sprung and walked away from.

“Your Holiness,” Bishop Raskin said, bowing. Apparently the man had just stood there by the door, as patient as any Butler. “I trust your meeting went well.”

“A most fruitful discussion, your Grace,” Justinian replied, nodding to him. “You have my thanks for waiting. I fear I must call upon your aid to find my way back out.”

“No imposition at all, your Holiness, that’s why I am here. This way, if you please.”

While he followed the Bishop back toward his men and the surface, Justinian kept his face serenely calm, and furiously planned.

He had never really hoped for an accord with the paladins, and was not exactly certain whether the seeds he had attempted to plant with that conversation had properly taken root. It seemed their plan would proceed starting tomorrow, and the true endgame would begin. He was…as ready as could reasonably be expected. Obviously it would have been ideal for him to set the timing himself, but one could not ask too much.

The biggest concern by far was Toby. How had he learned to do that? It could ruin everything, and it was far too late in the game for such a disruptive new element. Worse, he could not even remove the threat; without Tobias’s prodding, nothing would shift the Omnists into action, and Justinian needed them on the move along with everyone else when the moment came. Toby had to be alive and active to the end. His cult wouldn’t even seek revenge if he murdered the boy in the middle of Imperial Square.

So he walked, and already began plotting new measures. He had come too close to be thwarted now.

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71 thoughts on “16 – 41

  1. How the fuck can Justinian have distorted the Gods so thoroughly that even their paladins cannot get through to them when actively trying?
    I mean, sure, he’ll have made extra sure to have blinded the Trinity to whatever he’s up to, but still. I thought the whole point of paladins was that they were directly tied into their god far tighter than anything or anyone else.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I’m pretty sure the Elder God technology he used makes it impossible for the gods to feel anything but approval toward him, judging by the chapter with the meeting of the Pantheon early in the series and Vesk’s not-so-subtle, “I just can’t bring myself to think anything negative about the guy,” more recently.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. That explains their everyday blindness to Justinian.

        But this? This was the direct attention of the Trinity invoked by their Paladins, who know (some of) what Justinian did, for the express purpose of exposing him to them and punishing him, if not necessarily an outright divine smiting.

        Remember there deal with Basra not being noticed by Avei until Trissiny invoked her attention while knowing what Basra had done?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @Javvies

        Remember, this isn’t a Fantasy story, this is science fiction. I’m pretty sure the gods at this point are more software than hardware, and that Justinian cracked the thing the new gods did to overthrow the elders. What this looks like to me is Justinian either writing himself a cheat-mode in the opinion heuristics or inserting a trojan that resets values according to his parameters. That’s why he’s worried about Toby cracking Omnu, he can’t reset his own crack of Omnu without someone sitting at the right keyboard at the right time.

        Liked by 5 people

      3. @Javvies

        I don’t think this is like Basra. In Basra’s case, Avei was just unaware of what she did. Justinian actually made it impossible for the gods to think anything negative about him. Every time they try to focus on him, as shown in the early chapter where the gods meet in Elysium, their attention to him is replaced with positive feelings. Even if they know something is off, they cannot attribute it to Justinian. They can just hope their followers take him down. That’s why Eserion talks about being happy he has other people to think for him.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for the chapter!😊

    It’s a shame they were taken by surprise. If they knew a fight would begin, they could have asked Tellwyrm/Zanzayed to help them, and Justinian would probably have died there and now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, they don’t want to kill him. I mean, we know there’s a whole lot of people that saw the Archpope and the Paladins entering the same building.
      Don’t forget that the broad public doesn’t know squat about Justinian’s plans, also the paladins have no way to prove anything he did. As we just saw, not even their gods can judge him. He also holds a lot of sway with the general public and is not on most people’s radar for “Evil Mastermind”.
      Have fun trying to explain that the paladins killed him for a reason.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Well, Trissiny kind of nearly stabbed him. They just witnessed him exert direct control on their gods, wrestling it from them. They realized he was more dangerous than what they could ever imagine, and every other consideration went right through the window

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Of course that spurred them into action. But they did not plan it beforehand and couldn’t tell anyone to accompany them for backup. Originally their plan was not to kill him but to make him step down and get him away from power.
        Them attacking Justinian was a spontanious decision to go for the kill instead of anything peaceful.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. It’s a shame they were taken by surprise.

        If they knew he could control the gods they could have prepared and maybe kill him

        Liked by 4 people

    2. IMHO they were not seriously trying to kill Justinian, if they were Triss would not have said anything, she would have just lopped his head off. They were forcing him to show hid hand and as the last sentence of the chapter shows, making him react to them instead of them always reacting to him. Up until now everyone has been dancing to his tune, now he is being forced to dance to theirs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So he walked, and already began plotting new measures. He had come too close to be thwarted now.

        It doesn’t prove they were trying for him to show his hand. It’s a consequence of their killing attempt

        Like

      2. “Well. That’s unfortunate.”

        The deadly calm of Trissiny’s voice was his only warning. For a woman in full armor, she could move with astonishing speed, and uncanny silence; Justinian barely raised a wall of divine light in time to deflect the sword that had nearly plunged into his throat.

        The only reason that he got a shield up was Triss talking. If Triss really wanted him dead, she wouldn’t have said a thing just attacked and he would have died…inside the Vidian church where everyone saw him enter. Do you really think those three are that dumb as to want to kill him after they made sure people saw him enter to meet them?

        Liked by 2 people

      3. She just saw her goddess being controlled by a man who nearly caused the fourth Hellwar. Obviously she was shocked by that, and it affected her composure.

        And after seeing that, she probably thought that killing him publicly was a better solution than letting him control the gods for longer.

        Liked by 3 people

    3. What annoys, even somewhat offends me a little is that the paladins should have known all of this and prepared for it. Where are the divine disrupters? Justinian was known by all and sundry to be a stupidly powerful divine caster; shutting him down should have been literally their top priority if they were intending on attacking him at all, especially if they were intending on doing so in defiance of their own gods. This was such a massive idiot ball moment: to see these three make such a basic tactical error when we’ve spent so many books attempting to show that these three kids don’t make the same mistakes without learning from them is just so disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think they didn’t planned to attack him. Their plan was probably to summon the Trinity and have them fire him from his job, and they resort to violence when it was impossible. They didn’t know he could force the gods to obey in presence of their paladins.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. @Konstantin von Karstein

        Yeah, that’s exactly my problem. They had no backup plan at all. Did they really think that Justinian was just some pushover that they could strike down with impunity? That he had nothing in reserve but a flimsy bit of misdirection on the gods? This is a plot that Justinian has been hatching at least as long as any of them had been alive, and they went after him with less prep work than they did for some of his pawns. This was unforgivably lazy of them.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You have to take into account the fact that this happened on Justinian’s timetable, not theirs. This wasn’t a planned showdown, it was what they threw together on the fly in the last hour or so.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. “Oh, let’s not play that game,” Gabriel snorted with a wave of his hand. “We know, you know we know, we know you know we know, and your ability to cover your trail to a reasonable extent is only more antagonizing. How’d you get past the dreadcrawlers?”
    ….
    “I am not certain to what you refer, Gabriel, but I would like to think I’d take the time to show a small kindness if I could, no matter what else might be going on. Doubtless that was not the impression Eserion wished you to acquire when he took to sending you down into dank holes. Be wary, my young friends, of anyone who guides you on a journey. They are well positioned to determine what beliefs you acquire along the way.”

    They were good, he noted. Not great, but they were inexperienced and learning. All three faces went impressively blank, revealing nothing. Had they been better, they would have looked confused rather than revealing they were hiding something. As it was, all he gathered was that he’d landed a point. They had not known he’d known about Eserion’s meddling.

    And right there is where he fucked up, because it was NOT Eserion, but rather Vesk who led them on that jurney. Me thinks he forgot to consider that one as a trickster god and thus made the same mistake many a Villian has comitted: dismissing the Bard.

    Liked by 11 people

  4. The biggest question I still have about Justinian is whether or not he realizes that altering the prerequisites of divinity to allow anyone to become a god will also instantly resurrect the Elder Gods.

    If he doesn’t know, then while his personal motives might be noble, he may be getting manipulated by one of the surviving Elder Gods to restore them to their former glory (money is on Scyllith, of course).

    If he DOES know, that is most likely his true goal, with everything else being a smokescreen. And of course he may be doing it at the direct behest of an Elder God (again, money’s on Scyllith).

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      1. Scyllith is still around, and is likely the one Justinian is actually working for, whether he knows it or not. I’m betting he thinks he’s using her, when in actuality he’s been altered so that he is serving her. Think the Illusive Man in Mass Effect; in fact, Justinian bears a lot of resemblance to the Illusive Man.

        I suspect one of the many twists in the endgame is that Justinian will enact his plan to alter the nature of godhood, only to inadvertently empower Scyllith. Scyllith will arise and torture everyone, gloating about how she’s the greatest and Justinian was his unwitting pawn, and then Araneid will arise and hold her down for the paladins to strike down.

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    1. Wait, do *we* know that doing whatever will “instantly resurrect the Elder Gods?” I don’t remember anything hinting at that, but this is a big story…

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  5. Really cool chapter here. Hopefully Triss thinks to tell Darling about the extent of Justinian’s control of the gods. It would help him reconcile what’s going on with Tricks.

    I am also starting to think that the “sin” the gods committed is related to making a deal with Scyllith. Like perhaps giving Araneid to her in exchange for help setting their aspects. I imagine Elilial wanted to then launch a rescue mission to get Araneid back and the other gods were like “nope, too dangerous” then when Elilial tried to do it anyway, they defined her as the bad guy.

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    1. This chapter also explains -why- someone would want to make Eserion act oddly. It was to discredit him in the eyes of the paladins, in order to discredit the quest “he” sent them on.

      …I wonder how Vesk pulled that off, getting Justinian to believe that someone other than “the god of sending people on quests” was responsible for that quest.

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      1. It probably helped that Trissiny got herself a direct line to Eserion as one of his followers. My guess is that Justinian suspects Eserion partially because of his long-established habit of acting mostly through his followers, and partially because he was running the main interference against Justinian at the time in Vesk’s scheme. At the pointy end of the chapter where Justinian saw Syrinx get a bit of what was coming to her Eserites were the main, visible support for the plan too. Anything more I can say about it is pretty much wild speculation.

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  6. Thanks for the chapter!

    On the whole, I’d say that was a beneficial for the paladins. Most importantly, they learned about his control over the gods. They also learned a good deal about his personal casting abilities. Hopefully they’re able to put the pieces together and figure out a counter to mental attacks.

    The only loss was that he learned about Toby’s trick, which was a hell of a trump card to have. It’s unfortunate he’ll have time to come up with a countermeasure to it. Still, I’d count that as a win. Better they learn something of his capabilities now rather than in a clutch moment.

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  7. So these guys are not even going to catch a break and get one win against this guy?

    So far, Justinian is untouched.
    When at all is that going to change?

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  8. Interesting enough is that Justinian and Elilial seems to share goals and convictions, both hate the gods for some injustice done 8000 years ago and both knows about the instant death that happens to someone who learns about that injustice. He may be her real High Priest if not for the act of killing her daughters.

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    1. Nah, they’d never get along. If Embras Morgul is too much of a planner for Elilial, just imagine how much worst her relationship with Justinian would be?

      What gets me is how much Justinian exemplifies the traits valued by the Vidian cult, and how little of Izara. He and Snowe are both the same, in that regard; how on Earth did either of them manage to become Izarites, when a temple full of empaths should have known immediately what snakes they were?

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      1. It’s been said elsewhere in the series that the Avenists and the Izarites are two cults prone to using the position of Bishop as a disposal ground for overly ambitious snakes. It’s all about trying to promote them to somewhere their troublemaking tendencies may actually be useful.

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    2. The difference is that Elilial actually saw what happened, and has been standing against them almost from the beginning, for millenia. We don’t know how Justinian learned, but he’s probably less than a century old… and he thinks he can end the story altogether?

      And of course, the Chekov’s Guns lying around: There are at least two new-generation gods who Justinian doesn’t have a link to, and who aren’t dependent on the main divine-magic field.

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      1. The Drow goddess has her own version, which is different enough that it doesn’t auto-burn demons. And the biggie, Elilial primarily uses the infernal field with the “standby-mode” shadow-magic fields.

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      2. They are all dependent on the same TF, that of divine magic, because they are from the same generation of gods that was created after the Elder War. Only their use of it varies.

        Themniscyra ´s light doesn’t burn half-demons and can judge someone because the goddess make the link between the pool of divine magic and the cleric, and so influence the effects of the light. A proof of that is the fact that Vidius choose that his light doesn’t burn half-demons anymore.

        And concerning Elilial, I suppose that by being Queen of Hell she has access to knowledge of infernomancy. Salyrene is the goddess of magic, and so has access to knowledge of the arcane, and probably the 3 other fields.

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      3. Justinian thinks he can end the story altogether because the 8000-year convergence is happening during his lifetime. So he’s probably right

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  9. Justinian isn’t quite a sociopath I don’t think. He reads a lot like a zealot or fanatic to me, someone who believes so strongly in the righteousness of their goal that means don’t matter. He could be that and still genuinely care about people after all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s the Villianry I see on display in Justinian. Not Psycho, but someone who’s been justifiably (to their knowledge) driven to extreme or even evil actions to prevent calamity or misfortune.
      Not a Xanatos, but a Magneto, or Victor Von Doom.

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  10. Finally caught up in the story!

    Mr. Webb, I should just say that I’ve been having a bad few months, and your story’s been a big part in helping me get through them. Thank you.

    Not to mention that today’s update (almost) answered the biggest question I had on the read-thru: “How come nobody’s even considered assassinating Justinian?” I mean – we knew it wouldn’t work, for narrative and spider-goddess reasons. But you’d think at least one of Darling, Sharidan, Mary, Khadrizoth, the Jackal, etc, etc would have tried before, or at least have thought on-screen about wanting to..m

    Liked by 3 people

  11. They really should be involving Tellwyrn on all of this. Just the academic, “We’re going to bring down the Archpope who somehow messed with Elder Tech” would get her interested.

    Also, she has 4,000 years of experience to their collective 30.

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  12. too bad about the plot armor, although I guess it would be too easy a resolution. no doubt we will learn that Justinian trained with the greatest salyrite battle clerics who ever lived to learn combat divine magic and then killed them so no one would know, all while pretending to be a simple Izarite priest in a temple full of mind-readers before he could have learned defenses against them.

    Really the evidence continues to stack up that he’s a puppet for the spider goddess, who used revision magic like Scyllith did to Kuriwa or temporal shenanigans to make his backstory hold together at all.

    Also kind of amusing that Justinian implies that the Omnists could cause his plots to fail simply by doing what they always do and not reacting at all to his manipulations. Toby’s frustration with their passivity aside, that’s another point in favor of their tendencies.

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    1. I think it’s simpler: When he was an adventurer he probably used divine magic because of how useful it is to cover up the lacks and weaknesses of relying on arcane doodads without breaking them in the process. The gods themselves inventing the position of Archpope seem to have handed it ridiculous power access directly supported by the pantheon, and this makes him unreasonably effective: Veteran combat competence as a divine caster and an unmatched, ridiculous amount of power seems like it could explain all of it aside from him being so good at mind magic.

      Perhaps instead he’s a Scyllith torture priest, of the kind known for using both divine and Scyllith magic, under insanely deep cover that makes him look human. Elves often live long enough to develop as many skills as their minds and muscles will take to, which seems oddly higher than what human minds and muscles can be simultaneously good at. You sure he’s not a Scyllith tool? The active and intentional backing of Scyllith has always been my first guess at why he’s unreasonably effective even for being a manipulative, opportunistic, mind-reading shit.

      Passivity as a trait is adaptive in many circumstances, and actively detrimental in others. The older I get the more respect I have for the notion that the most effective groups tend to have a diverse set of skills, interests and tendencies. Some of those traits can be hazardous or outright sacrificial to the people who have them yet also beneficial to the groups that have such people in them.

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  13. As a completely random comment I have to say that I miss Razzavinax. It would be splendid to see him and Natchua meet and compare.

    Liked by 4 people

  14. I am happy to see that Toby is actually a threat to Justinian. So far (at least up till Ninkabi) Toby has had very little impact in the story and on the world as a whole. Trissiny and Gabriel have made themselves known through public actions that draw attention to them. That tied with their half-human heritage always seems to put the spotlight on them. Couple that with their battle achievements (as well as what practically amounts to an instant kill weapon from Gabriel) and suddenly nobody focuses on Toby. This shows here, because Justinian made a point to be able counter Gabe’s scythe attack, and was especially conscious of how dangerous Trissiny was. Toby barely registered until his trick with Omnu, and even then Justinian didn’t think anything of it until his own truck failed. Seeing Toby go from the least threatening paladin to Justinian to the only one potentially capable of ruining all of his plans in a single instant was wonderful to see.

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    1. Even for the other gods it was an important step to get Omnu and Toby to be more active in the world, its a work in progress one where a certain elf will do wonders 😀

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  15. I’m dealing with depression as well. It sucks.

    However your writing actually helps. So thank you for that. I have also finally joined Patreon :).

    Time to talk to Tellwyrm, I would guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Update on the current silence:

    I’m having dental problems again. The pain is barely manageable with my very limited supply of Vicodin left over from my last crisis, so I’m either in agony or too brainfogged to be good for anything. I’ve called my dentist, but I’m waiting for a call back; they’re only seeing people on an emergency basis due to the lockdown. I hope my case qualifies or I dunno what I’ll do.

    Updates will resume ASAP, and I’m really, really sorry for the delay. I’m just kind of generally fucked up at the moment. If there is any mercy in fate, this is a temporary setback.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Oof, your teeth really are not on your side. Here’s hoping that they’re able to see you, for pain relief meds if nothing else…

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  17. Due to the quarantine I’m not actively seeing patients, and am thus extremely available to help the author of one of my favorite stories. So here’s your formal offer: I’m a dentist practicing outside of Philadelphia and I’m willing to help in any way I can. AMA.

    Liked by 1 person

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