Tag Archives: Avei

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“Go ask Avei,” Gabriel muttered, turning to stare out across the city and the plains beyond. “Why did we think this was a good idea?”

“I have better questions,” Trissiny replied. “What’s your problem with it, and why are you only bringing it up now?”

“Oh, I’m just…I dunno.” He sighed, and hopped down from the stone guardrail—just in time, as the nearby Legionnaire who had been eyeing him finally turned away. This was not the kind of place where standing on the rails was looked on kindly. “Don’t mind me. It is a good idea, but the closer we get to doing it, the more I’m…nervous.”

“Why?” she asked more quietly, stepping up to the rail beside him.

Gabriel shrugged, staring at the horizon. The forest was just visible as a darker line at the edge of the world, and beyond it, a rise of distant mountains deep within Athan’Khar. “It’s Avei. And I’m me.”

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to her.”

He gave her an irritated look. “I’m being serious, Triss. You never exactly made it a secret that she has a problem with demonbloods.”

“It…was more that I had the problem,” she replied, now staring into the distance as well. “And the problem was my ignorance, not your blood. It’ll be fine, Gabe. You’re a paladin, now.”

“Mm.” His lips twitched in a faint grimace. “Seems not quite right that that makes it acceptable for me to exist.”

Trissiny opened her mouth, then closed it again, failing to find a worthy response to that. Instead she turned to check on the other two.

Schwartz was far from the only person winded by the climb. Vrin Shai was a remarkably vertical city, clambering up the slope of the mountains surrounding it toward its uppermost terrace on which sat the central Temple of Avei, flanked by the main administration buildings of the Silver Legions and the Imperial government. The city had been laid out with defense in mind; there was only one path from the gates to the highest terrace, with the ramps to the next terrace up at alternating ends of each, requiring pilgrims to traverse the entire length and breadth of Vrin Shai to arrive at the temple. It had never been tested against an invading army—none had got past the walls—but had done in plenty of visitors. A plaza was laid out atop the steps leading to the highest level, discreetly lined with stone benches on which over a dozen people were currently resting, watched over by Silver Legionnaires and a few priestesses trained in the healing arts.

There was, consequently, a thriving taxi industry, but Schwartz had refused to hire one when they offered, insisting that he had made this climb before. It wasn’t that he was flabby or even quite as scrawny as he sometimes appeared in his voluminous robes, but as far as physical shape went, he wasn’t on the same level as the three paladins. In truth, Trissiny had been mildly impressed that Gabriel wasn’t also winded when they reached the top.

“Whew!” Schwartz puffed, coming to join them with Toby still hovering solicitously nearby. “Sorry ’bout that. Thanks for waiting, guys, I don’t mean to hold us up.”

“You’re fine, man,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Gave me a chance to procrastinate for a little bit; you know how much I like that. Well, shall we go face the music?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Trissiny said firmly. “This is probably the safest place in the world. Come on, boys. Follow my lead.”

Meesie was not in evidence, having been temporarily dismissed while they were on holy ground. This temple was one of the world’s most sacred places, the historic center of Avei’s entire faith; the sheer concentration of millennia of built-up divine energy was the main reason Schwartz hadn’t been able to rejuvenate himself with a quick fae spell (and Toby’s divine healing did little for simple fatigue, unfortunately). His elemental familiar would have found it extremely uncomfortable.

Gabriel craned his neck back to look warily up at the enormous statue of Avei surmounting the temple, her outstretched sword pointing south toward Athan’Khar—and incidentally extending forth as the only part visible above them as they passed beneath the temple roof.

Being one of the world’s most important temples, there was enough of a crowd to keep them anonymous. Trissiny had neither armor nor sword with her, and Gabriel’s scythe was safely tucked away. Ariel, hanging from his belt, drew a few eyes—in this of all temples there were a good number of people who recognized a rare elven saber when they saw one—but of the four of them Schwartz stood out the most in his Salyrite robes. Pantheon temples did not bar one another’s worshipers, but they were hardly common visitors; he drew several raised eyebrows from the priestesses and Legionnaires in attendance.

Once inside the great sanctuary, Trissiny immediately led them to the side, out of the main path. The layout was identical to the central sanctuary of the Temple of Avei in Tiraas, which had been patterned after this one: a long room running from its broad doors to a great bronze statue of the goddess at its opposite end, with shaded colonnades running along the sides. At the rear of these, doors led deeper into the complex. Silver Legion soldiers stood guard at every entrance, but these were still open areas and they were not challenged upon passing through.

The door she sought was in a rotunda where several halls met—in fact, very similar to the door which led to the art gallery in the Tiraas temple, which she had forcibly opened last year with Teal. Here, the bronze doors towered eight feet high, wrought in a depiction of a long-ago Hand of Avei in battle against orcs. They were guarded by four Legionnaires at attention. A priestess in white was speaking with a well-dressed woman in front of them; both paused their conversation to look up in surprise at the four as they approached.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said politely. “We need to enter the inner sanctuary.”

The priestess narrowed her eyes, looked Trissiny up and down, then glanced quickly across the three boys accompanying her. “I’m sorry, but the inner sanctuary—being one of the holiest places in existence—is not open to the public.”

“It’s open to me,” she replied with a small smile. “I’m Trissiny Avelea.”

All four Legionnaires, though already at attention, stiffened slightly; the rich-looking woman with the priestess gasped, her eyes widening. The cleric, however, just made a disapproving face.

“You’re Trissiny Avelea,” she said with barely-concealed disdain. “Young woman, no one in this temple will find that amusing. Now, if you have need of guidance, I can find a sister to help you.”

“Be so good as to find Sister Astarian,” Trissiny said. “She knows me.”

“The High Priestess is no more available to wandering supplicants than is the inner sanctuary,” the woman said in mounting expasperation.

One of the Legionnaires behind her cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Sister—”

“As you were,” the priestess snapped without glancing back.

At the sudden change in Trissiny’s expression, the woman in the expensive dress began edging circumspectly away.

“I believe,” Trissiny said in a much cooler tone, “a supplicant does have the right to request an audience with the High Priestess of the temple. She is not obligated to grant it, but the request is to be conveyed. Any of these soldiers can do so; tradition dictates that the doors may be guarded by as few as two soldiers.”

“You are well read,” the priestess said in annoyance, “but nonetheless, you don’t get to walk into the central temple of the Sisterhood of Avei off the street and make demands.”

“Sister, she is correct,” the soldier interjected. “I will personally notify—”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the priestess repeated, now turning to give her a flat look.

And that was the limit of Trissiny’s tolerance.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you may want to shield your eyes.”

All three of them stepped back while the priestess turned to scowl at her again. “Now, look here—”

The light that erupted from her was blinding in that enclosed space. It receded quickly—far from completely, leaving her aglow, but diminishing enough to ease the burden on everyone’s eyes and enable them to see her golden wings, stretching nearly to the walls on either side of the rotunda.

Gaping, the priestess stumbled backward, nearly running into the woman wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was now trying very hard not to look smug. Trissiny stepped forward, forcing the woman to retreat right up against the doors and remaining just close enough to be uncomfortable without becoming too aggressive.

“Visitors to this temple are to be greeted and treated with respect,” she stated, wings of light still fully extended behind her. “If insane, they should be handled as gently as possible. If aggressive, they should be neutralized with the minimum possible force. In all other circumstances, they should be accommodated as much as is reasonable, and addressed courteously when they can be accommodated no further. While you stand in this temple, wearing that robe, you represent the goddess. There is no circumstance in which you should speak to a supplicant in that manner. Do I make myself clear, Sister?”

“Yes, ma’am. General. My apologies,” the priestess said, nearly stammering.

Trissiny remained silent, and held eye contact. The silence drew out excruciatingly, filled with the faint sound of divine magic, a harmonic tone like both a bell and a flute which hovered at the edge of hearing.

“My sincere apologies,” the priestess repeated, swallowing.

Finally, Trissiny nodded to her, and allowed the wings and the light to fade; with them went the subtle music of the divine, leaving the sound of strained breathing suddenly very audible.

“The door, then?” she said calmly, still standing just a touch too close.

Before the woman could reply, the doors were pulled open from within, revealing a stately woman with iron-gray hair tied up in a severe bun. Azora Astarian wore no mark of office aside from the uniform of a Sister of Avei and former Legionnaire: the white robe, with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder, and a belt from which hung her sword, a plain Legion-issue weapon with no decorative touches to call attention to it. In theory, the High Priestess of such an important temple occupied a place of tremendous honor in the hierarchy of the Sisterhood; in practice, she was as practical a woman as many who ranked highly in Avei’s service, and had never sought any particular recognition for herself.

“Trissiny,” she said with a warm smile. “I hope all is well; unexpected visits from paladins are often dire portents.”

“I’m sorry to descend on you without warning, Sister,” Trissiny replied, smiling back. “Don’t worry, there’s no emergency. Our business is merely unexpected, not dire.”

“That’s a relief.” Astarian shifted her eyes to the other cleric, her expression cooling noticeably. “Thank you, Sister. You may go.”

“High Priestess,” the younger woman replied in a somewhat shaken tone, inclining her head, “I was—”

“You may go,” Astarian repeated. The woman hesitated, bowed, then turned and hustled away. The visitor with whom she’d been talking had already fled, leaving Trissiny and her companions alone in the rotunda with the Legionnaires, who were still holding admirable composure.

“Who was that?” Trissiny asked disapprovingly, glancing after the departing priestess.

“An advancement-minded bootlicker,” Sister Astarian replied with a distasteful grimace. “Her work gets done and she causes a minimum of trouble, though the girl prioritizes doing favors for well-connected supplicants above accomplishing anything useful. She’ll be Bishop one day, mark my words. And who are your friends?”

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry,” Trissiny said hastily. “Everyone, this is Sister Azora Astarian, the High Priestess in command of this temple. Sister, may I present Tobias Caine, Gabriel Arquin, and Herschel Schwartz.”

“Ah! An honor, gentlemen. Welcome,” Astarian said with grave courtesy, bowing to each of them. She showed no less respect to Schwartz, whose name obviously carried far less weight than those of either paladin.

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Toby said with equal politeness. “We’re sorry to intrude so suddenly.”

“You are always welcome here,” Astarian replied with firm kindness. She stepped back and aside, gesturing them in. “Please.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, and nodded to the sergeant before following, the boys trailing after her.

Toby had moved to the head of the group, and now placed a hand gently on Trissiny’s back as Sister Astarian led them within. “That,” he murmured, “was a much better look on you than holding people’s faces in punchbowls.”

Schwartz was walking close enough to overhear and did a double-take, eyes widening. Trissiny just sighed through her nose and continued walking. Behind them, the Legionnaires pulled the doors shut, enclosing them in the inner sanctuary.

It was similar in layout to the main one, though more compact. The long corridor was lined with weapons, each displayed in an obviously custom-designed wooden mount affixed to the wall, small pillars forming arched alcoves to created a unique space for every one. They were an idiosyncratic lot, from spears, staves and warhammers, to crossbows, Shaathist-looking longbows, spiked iron knuckles, a bullwhip, even an orcish ak-tra. These were personal weapons owned by past Hands of Avei, tools of war each woman had used in addition to the sacred ones provided by the goddess.

At its end, the corridor opened into a round, domed space, encircled by flowing water which was fed by small fountains around its walls. In the center stood another statue of Avei. It was a marked contrast from the proud bronze statue in the main sanctuary, which depicted the goddess in an almost arrogant pose, chin up and sword aimed forward. This one, made of dark marble which contrasted with the white stone of the temple, showed her with her head bowed in contemplation, hands clasped behind her.

Toby and Trissiny both slowed, turning their heads to peer at an incongruous object among the weapon displays: a battered old leather-bound libram, its cover marked with the sunburst sigil of Omnu. The placard identified it as having belonged to Laressa of Anteraas.

“Don’t,” Ariel’s voice advised behind them, and both turned in time to catch Gabriel swiftly withdrawing his fingers from the namesake warhammer of Sharai the Hammer. Its haft was nearly as long as he was tall.

“What brings you to seek the inner sanctuary, Trissiny?” Astarian inquired when they joined her before the statue of Avei.

“It’s a bit of a story,” Trissiny explained, “and we are trying to keep it from becoming more of one, if possible. The short version is that we are on a divinely mandated quest. From Vesk.”

“Uh oh,” Astarian said dourly.

“Yeah,” Trissiny replied in the same tone. “Our movements have been directed by him personally, and brought us here. We are at a bit of an impasse, and wish to consult the goddess about our next move. I don’t lightly call upon her in person, but I think that is the pattern of this venture in particular. Vesk sent us on it personally, Vidius has already put in a direct appearance, and now we have reason to think Salyrene will become involved.”

“I see,” Sister Astarian said, frowning in thought and nodding her head slowly. “Well. You are right, business of Vesk’s is unlikely to mean anything terribly important is brewing. Still, it does sound like you’re being directed to seek out the gods. I can well imagine Vesk wanting to arrange that, in particular. Let me ask you, Trissiny, is the matter on which you want to consult Avei in any way secret?”

“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny replied with some confusing, turning to glance at the others.

“I bring it up,” Astarian explained, “because this is a truly rare event. Most followers of the goddess—of any of the gods, for that matter—will go their entire lives without being in the presence of their deity. If it is an imposition upon your quest I of course won’t ask, but if it’s not, might I have several of the senior priestesses and Legionnaires present? It would be a great honor for all, and a tremendous benefit to morale.”

“I can’t see any harm in it,” Toby said in response to Trissiny’s questioning look. “We’ve been given no reason to suspect our mission is secret or sensitive. She is your goddess, though, Triss; I’ll trust your judgment.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Gabriel said, raising one finger. “Sorry, Sister, could we have a moment alone?”

“Gabe, I trust Sister Astarian without reservation,” Trissiny interjected quickly.

“And if you have an objection, Mr. Arquin, you’ll find I’m hard to offend,” Astarian added with a smile. “I also know that paladin business is none of mine unless I’m invited to participate. Please, speak your mind.”

“Well…okay, then,” he said a little hesitantly. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to be rude. Triss, you remember Tellwyrn’s lectures about the gods, and how their nature can work against them, particularly if invoked by their own paladins?”

“Tellwyrn is hardly what I’d call a theologian,” Trissiny said skeptically.

“Yeah,” he replied, “and that’s exactly why I’m inclined to listen to her about the gods. She knows all of them, personally, and isn’t terribly impressed with most. Plus, there was that whole business with Avei and Juniper in the Crawl, remember? We know that the way we call on them can affect how they manifest.”

“What are you driving at, Gabe?” Toby asked.

“Just that the manner in which you call on Avei is likely to determine the manner in which she replies. A formal invocation in front of a solemn audience might very well make the difference between a reasonable person we can have a conversation with, and a fifteen-foot-tall being of light who speaks solely in grandiloquent pronouncements. I think, in this case, we want the first one.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“He has rather a point, there,” Schwartz admitted. “Theology isn’t my strong suit, either, but that much is sort of basic.”

“It is…uncomfortable to acknowledge,” Sister Astarian added with some reluctance, “but yes, Mr. Arquin is correct about the principles involved. When the gods grant someone the privilege of calling on them, exercising that privilege becomes somewhat inherently coercive. It is an expression of great trust between deity and paladin. And the absolute last thing I wish is to intrude upon that trust.”

“I really hope that isn’t too much of a disappointment, Sister,” Trissiny said.

“On the contrary, Trissiny,” Astarian said, smiling again, “it’s a needful reminder. We are all called to serve; the gods are not put there for our amusement. Well! It sounds, then, as if you have need of the sanctuary and some privacy. I will see that you’re not disturbed until you are done.”

“Thank you very much,” Trissiny said warmly.

They waited until the priestess had retreated and closed the sanctuary door behind her.

“Sooo,” Gabriel said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Full disclosure, I barely know how my own religion works, and apparently my god signed me on specifically not to care. So, uh, I’ll do my best but…”

“You don’t need to do anything, Gabe,” Trissiny said with an amused smile, patting him on the arm as she passed him on the way to the statue. Then she hesitated. “Actually… Just try to be respectful, okay?”

“I can do skittish and tongue-tied. Will that work?”

“That’ll be very authentic,” Toby said solemnly.

“It certainly beats the alternative,” Ariel added.

“Right then,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat. “Is there, uh…someplace I should stand?”

“Actually, guys, it would help if you’re just quiet,” Trissiny said, kneeling before the statue. “This isn’t very formal or ceremonial, but it is very personal. It’s not something I’m used to performing in front of an audience.”

“Mum’s the word,” Gabriel promised. “Oh, uh, wait. Is ‘mum’ a gendered—”

“Gabe.” Toby placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hush.”

Quiet fell, the peace of the sanctuary augmented by the soft sound of water. Trissiny remained on one knee before the statue, making a harmonious contrast to its contemplative pose. Nearby, Toby and Schwartz both fell easily into a kind of standing meditation; they came from different traditions, but both emphasized the ability to still the mind, and each instinctively recognized a situation in which that was important. Gabriel, at least, managed to be quiet. He stood rigidly to the side, both hands jammed into his pockets, his shoulders tight with tension.

He was the first to react when Trissiny moved, twitching once as she started to rise.

“Did it work?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“I don’t…know,” she murmured, a frown falling on her face even as she opened her eyes. “Avenism isn’t a very mystical tradition, Gabe. I just…felt something was…finished?”

“That’s a very good sign!” Schwartz added brightly. “In fact, you have a good instinct, if you’re not accustomed to recognizing that. Learning to identify that subtle sense is an important and often difficult step in mastering the—eep!”

“At ease, Mr. Schwartz,” said a warmly amused contralto voice.

All turned, Trissiny with the most grace, to find themselves in the presence of a goddess. Avei, at the moment, was making even less of a production than Vidius had; both, in their recent appearances, had simply presented themselves as people without the overwhelming aura of power their presence could carry, but she didn’t even have his dramatic props. She was a tall and broad-shouldered, in a simple Imperial Army uniform, with her black hair pulled back in a regulation ponytail. The most physically striking thing about Avei in person, at least in this form, was that she was a vividly beautiful woman. As was inevitable, to eyes raised in a culture which had based its ideal of beauty upon her.

“You came,” Trissiny said, somewhat surprised in spite of herself.

“You do have the prerogative to call on me,” Avei replied, stepping forward to stand in front of her. “Which is not to say I indulge every such request, but your assessment was correct, Trissiny. I don’t consider this a frivolous invocation. And yes, I already know of your quest—and the dilemma you face.”

“It’s a presumptuous thing to ask, I know,” Trissiny said quickly, bowing. “Obviously, Salyrene doesn’t want intruders into her sacred tower. If this is something you cannot or would rather not help with, I understand that completely.”

The goddess gave her a wry smile, tinged with fondness. “You really don’t care for Vesk’s little project, do you, Trissiny?”

“I don’t care for being manipulated,” Trissiny replied, her expression darkening. “Nor do I see the point in anything Vesk does.”

“Yet, you went to study the very art of manipulation, among other things, with the Eserites,” Avei observed. “And while Vesk’s personality is every bit as annoying as you have noted, he is a god. He sees and knows things beyond your imagination. You would be well advised to learn from him while you have the opportunity.” She paused to look at each of the four in turn, her expression betraying nothing. “Everything Vesk is sending you to find, he could acquire far more easily without involving mortal agents. His key is not the point—or at best, only part of it. This is one of those journeys which is more important than its destination.”

“One hears about those,” Gabriel murmured. “Honestly, I never thought that old saw made much sense.”

Avei glanced at him again, briefly, before continuing. “In truth, I am strongly inclined to encourage this, and will be glad to help. As a rule, intruding upon the private domains of the gods is a thing I advise you not to do, but this…is a unique case. Salyrene is personally to blame for the entire state of the world today, and I grow weary of her sulking.”

“That’s…I…” Schwartz trailed off as the goddess’s attention turned to him, and swallowed heavily. “…thank you.”

“Everything you need, you already have,” Avei said. “I will not do more than prompt you in the right direction—solving the riddle for you would invalidate the exercise, not to mention that me prying open a door to my errant sister’s tower personally would ignite a conflict the world truly does not need. But guidance is all you require. Mr. Schwartz, you need only guide your party to the door; you will know where to find it, as you always have. Mr. Arquin, you have the means to open it.” She paused, wearing a knowing little smile, to glance over them again. “Any questions?”

“What’s wrong with the world?” Gabriel asked, staring at her with a frown.

“Is that a serious question?” Avei asked dryly.

“You said Salyrene is to blame it,” he said, narrowing his eyes infinitesimally. “That’s an interesting word, blame. The world is better right now by just about every measurable standard. There’s more food, more wealth, more peace. And most of that comes from uses of magic. Salyrene’s domain. So what’s your problem with that, exactly?”

“Gabe,” Toby warned.

“You have taken an interest in the history of the Infinite Order, have you not?” Avei said calmly to Gabriel.

He hesitated before replying in a warier tone. “Yes. Is that wrong?”

“Not in and of itself,” she replied. “Anything you should not know is beyond your ability to learn, anyway. No, Gabriel, perhaps you should pursue that interest. Look into what drove the Infinite Order to leave their world, and come to this one. These things of which you speak so highly have a price. One this world has not had to pay in eight thousand years. One we gave up everything to prevent it having to pay. Nothing is free, young man. Every moment that life becomes easier, a bill is being tallied up. Were I you, I might look into returning some of those gifts before payment is demanded.”

“Like what?” he retorted.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said sharply, frowning at him.

“This hostility is about more than ancient knowledge, isn’t it?” Avei suggested.

He met her gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “I spoke out of turn.”

“The time to regret that was before opening your mouth,” the goddess said. “Rest assured, I don’t find you threatening. Please speak your mind, Gabriel.”

“I guess I’m a little uncertain on the concept of justice,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “I met another half-demon in Tiraas, named Elspeth. She told me about trying to come to you for protection, and being burned. Physically, right where she stood, just for trying to pray. To you. Which part of that is just?”

“None of it,” Avei said, nodding her head deeply. “That was a grave injustice, as have been many incidents like it. It’s injustice I am tremendously pleased that Trissiny has begun taking steps to correct. The Silver Missions are a start; shifting the attitudes of a whole society is the work of lifetimes. But that is why we need you, Gabriel. We are…what we are. In some ways, we are fixed in place; in some ways, we are terribly vulnerable to the very belief people place in us. Paladins provide us a way to correct course when we have gone wrong.”

She stepped toward him, and he stiffened further, making an abortive backward movement as if to retreat. In the end, though, he stood his ground. Avei simply reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Standing that close, she was taller than he, but only but a few inches.

“I applaud courage,” she said in a much gentler tone. “It’s an admirable thing, that you are willing to speak painful truths to great power. But be wise, Gabriel. Lashing out at a deity is not…strategic. A just cause is worthless if it is guided only to defeat.”

“I…see,” he said, then bowed his head. “Thank you. For the advice.”

“You are welcome.” Avei stepped back, lowering her hand, then turned to smile at her own paladin. “You are all doing rather well in this. And Trissiny… I am extremely proud of you.”

With a final nod to them, she turned and strode away up the corridor toward the bronze doors. Rather than opening them, she was simply no longer there when she reached them.

It took a few moments of silence for the tension to ebb enough.

“Gabriel, really,” Trissiny said in exasperation. “What was the one thing I asked you to do?”

“This is why people stab you,” Ariel said. “You understand that, right?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Gabriel held up a chiding finger again. “People fucking stab me. I think I was safe, there. A goddess would never do something so undignified.”

“If anyone could provoke her to, it’s you,” Trissiny snapped.

“Hey, when you guys are done bickering, I think Herschel has an idea,” Toby said mildly.

They turned to find that Schwartz, indeed, was pacing up and down, muttering to himself. “Already know, and always have… Oh, gods, of course, it’s so obvious. How could I not have seen that? And having to pester an actual deity just to jog my fool memory! Augh, how humiliating.” He pressed both hands to his temples, grimacing as if in pain.

“Herschel?” Trissiny said uncertainly.

“Yes!” He turned to her, lowering his hands and suddenly looking so animated she instinctively stepped backward. “Trissiny! We need a warlock!”

“A warlock?” she replied incredulously. “Herschel, this is Vrin Shai. Even the Topaz College doesn’t have a presence here!”

“No, no, what am I saying? Of course not a warlock,” he grumbled, turning and beginning to pace again. “That’s just borrowing trouble, not to mention making the whole affair more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, I see…don’t have enough skilled casters to take that approach anyway, all we need is to build an array of…” He trailed off, then turned and pointed quickly at each of them in turn, lips moving as if he were counting something.

“Are you…okay?” Gabriel inquired.

“Yes!” Schwartz suddenly whirled and dashed away toward the door.

“Hey,” Gabriel called after him, “I’m pretty sure there’s no running in Avei’s inner sanctuary!”

Ignoring him, Schwartz reached the doors, grabbed both handles, and hauled them open with no further ceremony. “Sister! Ah, there you are!”

Sister Astarian was, indeed, waiting right outside, and had turned to face the doors at their sudden opening, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “Here I am. Your efforts were successful?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” Schwartz said distractedly. “But anyway, sister, this is an ancient and very important temple, yes? So you must have vaults?”

Her brows lowered again in puzzlement. “Of course. Some very old, containing all manner of… Well, what is it you are looking for, exactly?”

“Perfect! Perfect!” Grinning in evident delight, Schwartz eagerly rubbed his hands together. “Where do you keep all your most dangerous and evil artifacts?”

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Bonus #23: Toujours, part 2

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After the tumult of that day, he did not have a restful night, even when safely tucked away in his stall. Uneasy and alert, listening to the sounds of wind around the barn and the other horses sleeping within, Silver was not awakened when the barn door opened a crack, admitting a figure carrying a lamp. Nor was he surprised.

He was surprised, a little, at who it was.

Raoul was cloaked against the night’s chill, but lowered his hood once he had the barn door shut. In addition to the half-shuttered lantern in his hand, he wore a rapier belted at his waist, its hilt visible beneath the cloak and the tip of its scabbard protruding tellingly from below. He crossed single-mindedly to Silver’s stall, and there paused, holding up the lamp. Simply regarding the horse with his eyes narrowed in apparent thought.

Silver watched him right back, ears alert, and not moving by so much as a swish of his tail.

“How much do you understand?” Raoul finally asked in a quiet tone.

Silver whickered at him softly.

The young man shook his head. “Old blood. Hell if I know what that even means. Even father just mutters when I press him on it. He was always too interested in elvish nonsense. That’s the cause of half his problems.” He broke off, drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh. “By Ryneas and his paintbrush, don’t you think I would have blooded that vicious, unhinged cow of a woman and hurled her across the yard if it would have helped Yvette? It’s not as if I am famed for my restraint, you know. It’s only made things worse. She may lose her position here. Father could only protect her by blaming you. Do you understand any of this?”

Silver lowered his head.

“I’m explaining family politics to a horse,” Raoul muttered. “Well, I guess being as mad as the old man is as good a start as any on taking the place over when he passes on.”

Silver nickered again, as quietly as he could.

“They’re selling you,” Raoul said abruptly. “To those Shaathists, as they asked. For now, Yvette isn’t going to lose her home or her position, but you had better believe Amelie is after her with a vengeance. I don’t know what the future will bring.”

Jerking up, Silver neighed angrily, even hopping his front hooves off the ground in agitation.

“Omnu’s sweet breath, you really do…” Raoul stopped, set the lantern down on the edge of the stall door, and reached up to lay a hand on Silver’s nose. The horse calmed, for the moment, swiveling his ears forward again and watching him. “Hell. I’ve no right to blame you for losing your temper. In truth, I might have been the one to strike the hag; you were just closer. But now, here we are. We have to protect Yvette. No one else is going to.”

Silver snorted once, loudly, and bobbed his head up and down. He pawed at the ground with one hoof for emphasis.

“Here’s how we’re going to,” Raoul said grimly. “You are going to be gone, and I am going to become the focus of everyone’s outrage around here. You’re leaving this ranch, tonight. It’s off to the wilds with you, where maybe that old blood can be of some use. I’m sorry, but you can’t say goodbye to Yvette.”

Silver whinnied in protest.

“You can’t,” Raoul insisted. “Do you hear me? If it’s even suspected she had anything to do with this, that’s it for her. She’s asleep in her quarters, and the other grooms will be able to attest she never left, I’ve seen to that. It has to be me who lets you out. An act of spite that’ll make me the target of Amelie’s venom for once. Silver, I will protect Yvette. This isn’t the end, I promise you. Even if it means I have to put steel through that old bag, I will not let my sister be harmed.”

Dancing back and forth in agitation, Silver whinnied a soft plea.

“This is the only thing we can do,” Raoul said. “Maybe someday, you can come home. But for now, this is the only way. Can you… Do you understand?”

Slowly, he lowered his head again, and let out a soft snort of defeat. Raoul stroked his forehead, running his fingers through that overhanging lock of his mane. Just the way she always did.

The boy retreated suddenly, removing the lantern, and crossed back to the entrance, where he opened one of the barn’s front doors.

“I’ve opened the north gate enough for you to get through,” he said, coming back to Silver’s stall. “…what am I doing? I’ve gone utterly insane, you’re a horse.” Pausing to growl at himself, he shook his head vigorously. “Ugh. If you’re more than a dumb beast, this is the time to prove it, Silver. The north gate. For Yvette. Try to take care of yourself out there. This is going to hurt her enough; I dearly hope she will get to see you again someday.”

He unlatched and swung the stall door open, standing aside. Raoul opened his mouth to speak, but Silver exploded past him, charging straight up the aisle for the open barn door.

He erupted out into the night, letting out a whinny of dismay, but did not slacken his pace, wheeling around to gallop north across the grounds, toward the gate. He could not slow; if he didn’t do this now, he would hesitate and it would all be over.

Behind him, a voice was raised in a shout; he couldn’t tell if it was Raoul’s. Silver ignored it, putting his head down and thundering toward the ranch’s only egress to the north. The Highlands spread out beyond, wild and untouched, full of who knew what dangers and wonders.

At first he thought Raoul had tricked him, but no—the gate was ajar. Not enough to admit him, but he cantered nearly to a stop to avoid crashing painfully into it, using his weight to nudge it open enough to pass through.

And then he was beyond the fence, outside of his home, and charged off into the northern wilds as fast as his powerful legs could carry him. For the first time, he was truly, completely free.

He had never imagined he could feel so alone.


It wasn’t all that hard to get by, he quickly discovered. There was grazing aplenty—not as good as the oats and hay his human friends furnished for him, much less the occasional apple or strawberry, but Silver did not go hungry. Nor was water hard to come by. At this time of year, it wasn’t even frozen yet. That should not be a problem when it was; he knew from experience that his hooves could break ice more than a foot thick, at need.

No one followed him from the ranch, though he had to have left a distinctive trail. He could barely imagine what was going on back there. He tried not to, as that only led to thinking about Yvette. And Marchand, and all the others who had been part of his entire life till now, but mostly of Yvette. She had always been there for him.

But this was for her. He understood Raoul. This was painful for everyone, but life was not perfect. This was all they could do to protect her.

He wandered, veering away from his home, along the long moors the stretched away toward the north, gently climbing in altitude as they drifted into even higher lands. The north itself was walled off by the distant peaks which had been a barrier to that part of the sky since he had first stepped out of the barn, but there was far more land between the ranch and those mountains than Silver had ever appreciated. He had ample room to put distance between himself and home, and they did not seem to come any closer.

On the second day, he was set upon by a pack of wolves, and made short work of that. They seemed to expect him to run, and were very confused when he stood his ground, watching them circle and ignoring their growling and snapping. They became less confused when he finally retaliated, but after he had broken two of their backs beneath his hooves, they decided to go seek an easier meal.

He didn’t know what other dangers lurked up here, but if that was the worst of it, the humans had exaggerated the ruthlessness of the Highlands in their stories. Silver had a suspicion, though, that he had only begun to learn what this harsh land could throw at him. Once in a while, when the wind shifted, that thing drifted upon it again. A scent that he couldn’t place, but which was wrong in a way that made him stop wherever he was, head up and swiveling to find the threat.

It never materialized, but it was out there. Nothing which smelled like that could be good.

Above all, he missed his home. The horses he knew, the people he knew, the dogs and cats. Chickens barely had enough personality to be interesting; they weren’t his friends, but even their familiar presence would have been good. He missed sleeping in the barn, his blanket and good food provided for him by caring hands.

Mostly, he missed her. So much that sometimes he stopped where he was, bucking and heaving, punishing the very earth with his mighty hooves and bellowing his despair at the sky.

Neither earth nor sky showed him any pity.


Only three nights in, he found them. Or they found him.

Silver didn’t sleep well, out in the open. Keenly aware of the vulnerability as he was, every little thing made him raise his head. He caught naps during the day, when the light was better and no wolves howled in the distance, but nights were bad times out on the moors.

It only grew worse as that smell came more and more frequently. Until, by that third night, it seemed to come every other gust of wind. It was definitely from the north…but not just that anymore. It was making him constantly anxious, even more than his situation itself.

He plodded along, concentrating on placing his hooves carefully; it would be easy to trip in the darkness. But sleep wasn’t an option. The menacing night itself, that unearthly stink…and especially, the dilemma it posed. He couldn’t go back south, toward the ranch; he had to stay away to protect Yvette. On the other hand, he definitely could not go north. Whatever was making that smell, he needed to head away from it, not toward.

Silver had compromised, and that day begun making his way west, toward the sunset, simply because the hills looked somewhat lower in that direction. Now, after dark, his plodded that way still, just for something to do to keep his mind off the danger and his loneliness.

They moved so quietly he didn’t notice them until he was quite close, scarcely a hundred yards away, despite there being nothing between them but a stretch of open moor. He stopped, jerking his head up and snorting in surprise, ears swiveling.

Their procession was moving steadily south, on a course that would lead past the ranch—toward Glassiere proper. Altogether, they were like smaller, oddly distorted versions of the life he knew. People, and horses, only…not. They were strangely thin people, garbed in sleek clothing unlike the thickly warm coats and cloaks the Glassians wore against the Highland climate. And those horses… No, they weren’t horses. Every one as white as he, built almost like deer, each with a single horn sprouting from its forehead.

They’d seen him first, obviously; two- and four-legged alike, their heads swiveled to watch him as they passed. They did not slow, however, nor seem alarmed by his presence. He couldn’t feel alarmed by theirs, either. The smell of them was quite unfamiliar, but it was… Silver had no basis for comparison. He had the thought, though, that they smelled somehow opposite whatever vile thing it was the wind had been trying to warm him about. They smelled like something fundamentally, inexplicably, good.

And so when one broke off to approach him, he stood his ground, watching with alertness but not alarm.

The elf’s walk seemed to be almost a glide, as if he barely deigned to respect the shape of the ground. Projecting calm, he came up to Silver, raising one hand as he drew close, and brought it to rest gently against the horse’s nose. Silver’s nostrils flared, taking in his scent, but he did not protest.

“I see you,” the elf said. He did not speak Glassian, and in a way it catapulted Silver back to his earliest days as a foal, absorbing intent and meaning behind two-legged speech without knowing specific words. This language, though, seemed to convey those meanings more clearly. Or perhaps, it was some other gift of the elf. He still liked the sound of Glassian more, but at least he could understand. “What a story you must have, my friend.”

The elf bent, reaching for Silver’s leg in much the way the farrier did. Obligingly, he lifted a hoof, and the man ran long fingers over his iron shoe before releasing him.

“You came from the ranch,” he said. “Are you Monsieur Marchand’s mysterious old blooded stallion? I wonder what has brought you here. There is great danger rising. Have the humans been destroyed? But no, you would be running away from the evil, not toward…”

He stepped forward, closing his eyes, and leaned his forehead against Silver’s.

Magic was something with which he had no direct experience. He had barely heard of it; his humans spoke of such things, from time to time, but it was nothing to do with the ranch. This, then, was his first brush with the shaman’s art. It was surprising, to say the least, but not threatening.

Meaning bloomed in his mind, expression clearer than words could convey. He knew the elf, felt and saw him in a startling new way. And the elf knew him, just the same.

He touched upon Silver’s loneliness and worry, and sympathy came from him in turn. It was a purer speech, and imprecise for that; they shared feelings, not words or even images. But while the elf doubtless did not acquire the full story in every detail, he grasped the gist.

“Wise,” he whispered aloud. “And brave. But friend, be wary. You head toward danger.”

Gently, accompanying the threatening sensations with a firmly reassuring presence of his own, the elf shared with him what was happening. Danger, corruption, fire, slaughter. Trees and whole groves burned, poison spreading through the very ground. Evil people practicing their horrid arts. Creatures that did not belong in this world. In the north, rising. More and more, and spreading.

The elves were leaving their lands, taking the desperate (for them) step of moving to join the humans. They had to stand together against this.

Silver neighed in agitation, stomping a hoof, and related firmly the conversation he had overheard between Marchand, the Captain, the Huntsmen and the Squire.

Surprise came from the shaman at the clarity of those words, followed by gratitude for the information shared.

“So they do live, and are taking action,” he whispered. “Not all, but some. That is the way of humans. There are always the stupid and destructive, and always the brave and stalwart. We must find the right kind. Thank you, friend, for the warning.”

He gave a warning in kind, now that he knew Silver could make sense of words.

Hellgate.

It took some further work to express exactly what that meant, but Silver got the message. When he did, he jerked back, rearing up and whinnying in sudden fear. Not for himself—for his home. For Yvette. For what was coming.

“They have already passed to the east,” the elf warned as Silver wheeled away, raising his voice. “Be wary! Warn your people if you can, but do not let them surprise you! They are coming!”

Heedless of the danger, Silver galloped through the dark, making directly for home. It was no longer due south; he knew the direction unerringly, and his course had brought him miles to the west of it. The Marchand ranch was more east than south now, and it was that way that he ran.

Silver forgot fatigue and suppressed fear. He had to keep going. Had to reach her. The urgency heightened swiftly to desperation.

Because now, as the elf had warned, the foul smell of demons was in front of him.


Too late.

Everything was too late, and it all turned to disaster.

He didn’t make it all the way home to the ranch. Heading straight there, he made it a day’s travel before finding them. Yvette had eventually come in search of him…too late. Raoul had gone after her, and arrived too late. Silver was the last there; he came upon them on a long moor just a few miles northwest of the ranch, only barely in time to do anything at all. Too late to do enough.

The smell of the demons had become an omnipresent stink; he had even seen several in passing, creatures which moved in weird ways and resembled nothing he had ever seen. He ignored them, and some ignored him. Some had tried to chase him, but Silver outdistanced them quickly. After his frantic all-night journey, he arrived tired, but what he found sent a spike of pure, desperate adrenaline through him that spurred him on.

He could smell the evil of them before he heard the battle, and the sound of carnage reached him before he came in sight of them. By the time he was close enough to see, he could smell them, the familiar scents of Raoul and Yvette, even through the demon stench and the frightening tang on the air of blood.

Rounding a copse of stunted trees, he found the scene of the confrontation just as the familiar scream of Cannelle, Raoul’s mare, ripped through the air. The thing that had torn at her throat was quickly dispatched by his rapier even as she fell, but there were more of them. Different kinds—things that were almost like dogs, and almost like spiders, and almost like birds. Things designed by someone who enjoyed mocking everything that was beautiful in nature.

Silver bellowed a challenge, charging straight at the group. One of the long lizard-dog beasts turned and scuttled right at him; he came down on it with his full weight on his front hooves, just as he had those wolves. It was not nearly so fragile, but it was slower, and still no match for the force he brought down on it. He left the dying monster and thundered toward the others.

Raoul was bleeding heavily, slashing and stabbing with his rapier as quickly as he could but unable to move as rapidly as fencing technique demanded with a leg injured. He had slain several demons already, but the rest smelled weakness and were quickly losing respect for the whirling steel which had felled several of their companions.

Silver hit them like a landslide, stomping through the cluster of spidery things as he would a low thicket and reducing most of them to smears and fragments. It cost him, though; at least two seized his legs and scuttled up his frame, piercing in multiple places with claws and fangs. He screamed in fury, bucking and thrashing to hurl them off, but they clung tenaciously, working their way up toward his neck. And before he could even finish dealing with that, one of the flying things landed right behind his head, the beating of its wings all but deafening him.

And then Raoul was there, spearing the bird-demon with his sword and flinging it contemptuously aside. He slashed one of the spiders off, and seized the other bodily with his free hand, hurling it away.

Silver wheeled and charged past him to crush the other lizard-dog monster as it came at Raoul from behind. The man was nearly immobilized, but Silver cantered in a circle around him, crushing demons under his hooves and wheeling back close when one tried to jump onto him to be ripped apart by Raoul’s sword.

It was over so abruptly that the silence almost had physical force. They stood, looking around at the carnage and gasping for breath, both streaked with blood and pierced in multiple places. The stink of demon filth hung with tangible weight, though the bodies themselves were even now dissolving away to clumps of charcoal and black ash.

Then he saw her.

Emitting a shrill cry of anguish, Silver dashed to her side, bending his neck to nudge at Yvette with his nose. She made no response. Blood streaked the ground around her, as well as a dozen black smears where demons had fallen. Silver snorted, raised his head to whinny piteously, and ducked back down to desperately nuzzle at her face. He felt no breath upon his nose.

Barely able to use one of his legs, Raoul only reached them seconds later, and fell at her side, dropping his sword. Landing in an ungainly heap, he nonetheless lurched to a semi-kneeling position, and pulled her into his lap. Raoul cradled her close, hunched over her and rocking slowly in place. Silver bent, leaning his forehead against the man’s, just over her still form.

“This is our fault,” Raoul rasped. “I caught up too late. Should have known she would follow you. Of course, she would. Stupid. It was my idea, I as good as killed her…”

Silver didn’t so much as snort. This was his doing as much as Raoul’s. It was true; they should both have known she would come. She had always been there for him. But he hadn’t been for her, at the end.

He wished he could weep the way Raoul did.

There was no telling how long they remained there, holding her, but the long, ululating cry demanded their attention. Man and horse raised their heads, turning to look to the north.

The things practically covered the moor. They were crawling forward, flying through the air… It would be minutes, at most, before they overtook them.

Raoul and Silver looked each other over. Bloodied and exhausted both, there would be no outrunning this.

Resolutely, Raoul lowered Yvette back to the ground, shrugged out of his coat, and draped it over her. Silver nuzzled at her face once last time before it was covered, then stood aside to allow Raoul to retrieve his rapier.

“Well, old man,” he said, his voice hoarse, “here we are. I’ll have to ask to borrow your legs.”

Silver studied him. He had struggled getting back to his feet; the man couldn’t walk, much less run. With a snort, he lowered his front half, kneeling on the cold ground.

Even with a leg useless, Raoul got astride him smoothly; he had ridden horses since he could walk.

Silver stood, carefully, but his rider held his mane with one hand, keeping the other free to wield his sword. He was steadier on Silver’s legs than his own. Together, they turned to face the oncoming monstrosities.

“Then all that remains,” Raoul declared, “is to make sure, when we get to Hell, they already know to fear us!”

Silver pawed the ground once, then tossed his head and surged forward. His bellow of challenge was matched by Raoul’s roar, both of them unified in unrelenting rage.

They slammed into the horde, and everything was blood, pain, and chaos. But the monsters that survived learned something of fear that day.


“Whoah! Easy, boy, take it easy. Your battle’s over now.”

Tossing his head and bucking, he only belatedly calmed, and still pranced in place for a moment, taking stock. He was…he had been…wait, where was he?

It didn’t even look like a place. There was no smell…there was really nothing. It was as if the whole world was made of light. It was serene and gentle, not glaring, but still eerie.

Right in front of him stood a woman she didn’t know, but immediately he couldn’t help liking her. She was pale, with golden hair like Yvette’s, and dressed in some kind of ragged gown that seemed to be stitched together from scraps of armor and various garments, every piece in solid black. And she had wings. Feathered wings. He’d never seen a person with wings before.

But she smiled, and calm approval seemed to radiate from her. The winged woman stroked his nose, grinning up at him.

“There you go,” she said soothingly. “That was a hell of a stand—you have a lot to be proud of. Now, there’s somebody you’ll want to see, I think.”

She stepped aside, and bent to pick up a long scythe which had been thrust blade-first into the ground nearby—an odd sight, as there wasn’t really any ground, but just a point where the omnipresent misty light seemed to coalesce into something hard enough to stand on. But past her, previously hidden by her wings, was Yvette.

She rushed forward and Silver whickered happily, coming to meet her, and then her arms were around his neck. Yvette stroked him, murmuring contentedly. He stood, nuzzling at her and just…being there. This, finally, was good.

Raoul was there, too, sword still in hand. He stood back somewhat, and said nothing, but reached out to stroke Silver’s nose.

The two of them had never been close, but now…there was an understanding between them, at least.

“All right,” the woman with the scythe interjected finally. “It’s time to go. This way, everyone.”

She casually swiped her weapon through the air, and it seemed to carve away part of reality. A doorway opened up, peeling back from the wound she had made in existence and forming into a vague shape made of light. Beyond it, things looked more clear; there was a path leading through a brilliant forest, and ahead in the distance… Silver couldn’t make it out, but he knew it was good.

With an encouraging whicker, he nudged Yvette forward. She and Raoul went first, hand in hand, with him trotting along behind.

“Just a moment,” the valkyrie interjected, placing a hand against his chest. He paused and snorted at her in annoyance. Yvette and Raoul stood right on the threshold and stopped, as well, turning to look. Yvette frowned in consternation. “It’s only for a moment,” the valkyrie assured them all. “You two, come with me. Somebody wants a word with you, Argent. Believe me, this is a particular honor, and the reason you’re with us. We don’t ordinarily bring horses. You’ll want to hear her out before you catch up. Come on.”

He laid his ears back, only belatedly realizing that she wasn’t speaking the language he knew. His name had always been a word, something that meant something; in a different tongue, it was nothing but a sound. It meant nothing but him. He wasn’t sure whether he liked that.

Yvette looked back at him, clearly reluctant, but followed the valkyrie’s urging as though something compelled her to. Argent whickered in protest as she vanished across the doorway.

A hand was laid on his neck.

This presence, despite the abruptness with which it had arrived, somehow calmed him greatly. Something about her…filled the sky. She was there in front of him, a tall woman with waves of dark hair and deep brown eyes, but somehow it was as if he stood within rather than before her.

The way she spoke made the elf’s deepest communication a shallow mockery. There was total union of their thoughts; everything she had to say was expressed in perfect detail, with no words exchanged. It was, in fact, almost as if no thoughts were exchanged. He simply understood, immediately, what she wanted him to.

She was impressed with him, and wanted him to join her horses. She showed him her Hands, a line of paladins stretching back centuries, millennia—hers and those of other gods. It was Avei who kept the stables, who gathered the greatest steeds from across the history of the world, providing mounts for those paladins of every Pantheon god. But with him, in particular, she was very impressed. He was to be a companion only to her own Hands, if he accepted this.

And what would that mean?

Battles, she showed him. Endless struggle. Strife, war, violence beyond imagining. Pain, and in the end, always death. One brave, intrepid woman after another. They fought, until they couldn’t any longer, far past the point where other mortals would have fallen. In the end, they all fell.

Argent snorted in fury and jerked away from her bucking and dancing around. How dare she try to inflict this on him? Was it not enough that he had to see his Yvette fall this way? She wanted him to go through that again? And again, and again? For all eternity? He reared, slashing his hooves menacingly at her face.

Avei reached up to stroke his nose, and looking at her, he could not help calming. Tears glowed in her eyes. The goddess stepped forward, resting her forehead against his own, and showed him.

Those brave, loyal women… It had to be that way. Their duty was too important to forsake, and she simply could not bend the rules of reality enough to save them. But she would never abandon them. They would not fight alone. They would die, but not alone.

Argent lowered his head. Yvette… She had always been there. He had always been with her…except at the end. She had died alone.

He understood. And he decided.

When they turned to pass through the gate together, the goddess’s hand on his neck as she walked by his side, Argent wore the silver armor of the mantle he had accepted. It would never be that way again. For each woman, each warrior, he would be there. As many as it took. No matter how many he must grieve, they would have him by their side. Not one would fall alone.

He had not been there for her, but he would be there for them.

Always.

 

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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”


They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”

 

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10 – 51

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With a soft sigh of relief, she pressed the wax seal onto the final envelope, stacked it neatly on the side of her desk with the others, and pushed her chair back. For a long moment, Tellwyrn indulged in a luxurious stretch, arching her back and pressing both fists at the windows behind her. Fifty years and she’d never grown to like all the damned paperwork. Only some days could she even claim to be somewhat used to it.

Without warning, the presence slammed down on her, the sudden proximity of an entity whose very consciousness was enough to make an indentation in reality.

“ARACHNE!”

Grimacing, Tellwyrn straightened up and stared sardonically at the goddess glaring at her from inches away, fists planted on her desk.

“Well, hi there. Won’t you come in.”

“I am not going to indulge your nonsense, Arachne. How dare you allow the Black Wreath to manipulate my paladin? When I sent here here I understood that your unconventional methods could be important to her growth, but there are limits. You cannot have thought that was an acceptable line to cross!”

“Stop it, Avei,” Tellwyrn said flatly, staring at her over the rims of her spectacles. “Just…spare me. You’ve had the whole afternoon to come blazing down here in a fury if you wanted; this is a calculated move, and I’m not going to indulge your nonsense. What is it you really want?”

“Why, I should think it’s obvious,” Kaisa purred from behind her chair, slinking out into view. “Like all unhappy parents, she wants a word with the teacher who dared administer a spanking to her little darling. After all, Arachne, you did promise me I could handle this, no?”

Tellwyrn groaned and slumped back into her chair, covering her eyes with a hand, glasses and all.

“You are stepping into matters better left alone, little fairy,” the goddess growled. “The business of the Pantheon is not fodder for one of your elaborate pranks.”

“Omnu’s balls, don’t say that to her,” Tellwyrn pleaded.

Kaisa laughed softly. “Dear Avei, I understand your worry. Truly, I do. But you chose to trust Trissiny’s education to Arachne, and she has trusted part of it to me. You have my solemn word, at no point has any of this trust been betrayed.” She paced slowly around the desk to join Avei on its other side, ears alert and tail bobbing lightly. “I do love my little jokes—but I am a teacher first and foremost. My great joy has been in the forming of young minds far, far longer than Arachne has been at it. Longer than you have called paladins, in fact. If I choose to allow the Black Wreath to play their little games with my students, it is for one reason only: I deem it in the best interests of my students’ education.”

“The Wreath wants nothing more than to sink their claws into the Hands of the gods,” Avei grated. “You are not to give them what they want!”

“They want that, yes,” Kaisa mused. “Which is why I was careful to supervise and set boundaries; I fear Mr. Mogul would have taken shocking liberties had I not monitored him. But no, the exercise proceeded according to my plan. The paladins have not been turned against their gods; they have only learned to ask piercing questions and to challenge dangerous assumptions. And if you are bothered by this, perhaps it is not you who should be criticizing me, hmmmm?”

“I’ve already heard from Janis, Emilio and Kaisa herself about Trissiny’s demeanor after this morning’s events,” Tellwyrn added. “All indications are that she has managed what I haven’t in eighteen months and your people couldn’t in three years: she got through to the girl.”

“To what end?” Avei snapped. “I didn’t send her here so you could teach her to challenge the gods!”

“You sent her here so I could teach her to think,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “And Kaisa is right about that, too. If thinking results in turning on the gods, that’s something you should think about, rather than complaining at educators. But no, so long as we do our jobs well, it won’t come to that. Based on everything I know, the Pantheon could benefit greatly from criticism and challenge, but knowing the full truth is unlikely to make your own Hands turn against you.”

“Embras Mogul certainly does not agree with that,” Avei said pointedly.

“Embras Mogul,” Tellwyrn replied, steepling her fingers and raising an eyebrow, “is a man of faith. Specifically, a faith which keeps him locked in a very weak position. No matter what cunning their goddess teaches them, the Black Wreath are utterly defined by their obsession with their enemies. If the gods actually did fall, the Wreath would go down soon after, just because they’d have nothing left to cling to. On matters of gods and paladins, I may or may not know as many secrets as Mogul, but I am certainly more objective. And I’m telling you, he hasn’t done nearly the harm he believes he has. Mogul assumes critical thinking by the paladins will bring them ultimately to his point of view because, like all religious people, he is emotionally unable to entertain the prospect that he isn’t right.”

Kaisa giggled; Avei glared at her.

“Critical thinking,” said the kitsune, waving her tail playfully, “is always worth pursuing, for its own sake.”

Avei straightened up to her full height; even in a purely mortal shape as she was now, wearing a crisp Army uniform without insignia, she was well over six feet all and powerfully built besides. The far daintier kitsune was dwarfed in comparison.

“Allow me to make myself clear,” the goddess intoned, her voice suddenly resonating through far more than the air; the fabric of existence around them appeared to pulse with it. In the next moment, she was holding a sword and shield made of pure golden light, with blazing eagle wings fanning out behind her. There wasn’t actually room for them in the office, but they didn’t brush the walls. “My trust is limited and hard-earned, and I have chosen this course for my Hand because I will not take foolish risks with her. Your antics here have eroded my patience for any further tricks, Ekoi Kaisa. If I have any further indication that your actions will harm Trissiny, I will put an immediate and absolute halt to them.”

Again, Kaisa giggled.

Light flared through the office, and suddenly she, too, stood taller than the space should have been able to hold. A corona of pure, pale light shifted and pulsed around her, and the office was filled with the scent of cherry blossoms.

The kitsune’s coiffed hair, the fur of her ears and tail, were all luminous as spun gold. In fact, a whole fan of tails swayed and waved behind her, shifting too rapidly to be counted.

“Dear, Avei,” she said in a fondly indulgent tone, her own voice like the music of galaxies. “Dear, silly little Avei. No. You will not.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn complained. “Can’t you two have your pissing contest somewhere other than my office? Other than my campus, for that matter.”

“Indeed so!” Kaisa said pleasantly. “This is, after all, an institute of learning. Avei, I want you to remember something important, when next you feel an urge to intervene in your paladin’s education.”

The kitsune leaned forward; the goddess shifted back, frowning suspiciously, but Kaisa continued to smile benignly, even as she raised one hand with a single clawed forefinger extended.

And then the fox-woman poked the goddess of war lightly on the nose.

“Boop!”

Her laughter echoed through the office as she swirled in on herself, a brief cyclone of swishing foxtails and golden light, and was gone.

In the aftermath of her passing, Avei’s golden effects had vanished as well, leaving the goddess scowling at empty space in an apparently mortal shape.

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn grumbled. “Would you please not rile her up?”

“Me?” Avei exclaimed, rounding on her.

“Yes, you,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You I expect to have the judgment and self-control to know what powerful fae are like and not push their buttons, nor rise to the bait. Honestly, if this is how you’re going to act, sending Trissiny here for an education was an even better idea than you realized. And speaking of that, I now need to go finish what Kaisa started.” She stood up from the chair, straightening her tunic. “The girl’s had long enough to ponder, I believe. Do me a favor.”

The elf gave the goddess a sardonic look over the tops of her spectacles.

“Butt out.”

Then, with a soft pop, she vanished.

Standing alone in an empty office, the goddess sighed. “This is what happens when I go too long without publicly smiting someone.”


After a year and a half, Trissiny was inured to the horror of hanging suspended over the edge of the mountain and had learned to simply appreciate the views offered by Clarke Tower’s position. The Rock itself blocked the sunrise, but the little outdoor patio at the tower’s “ground” level offered the most amazing view of sunsets she had ever seen. In some ways, it was symbolic of the reversal her life had taken since coming here. In Viridill, you could always see the sun coming up in the distant east, but the mountains hid it by mid-afternoon.

The sun had just vanished below the distant horizon, leaving the plains swathed in reflected crimson and orange, when the door behind her clicked open.

“Here you are,” Ruda said, striding out and kicking it shut behind her. “You missed dinner.”

“Mm.” Trissiny didn’t lift her stare from the empty distance. “Not hungry.”

There was a moment of silence while Ruda stared at her critically, then the pirate sighed, stepped forward, and plunked herself down on the bench next to Trissiny.

“Boots, I can see you’re upset, but come on. You have to fucking eat.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Trissiny said without inflection, not shifting her gaze. “Did some experiments with Professor Rafe this summer; turns out I have the elvish metabolism, or most of it. After nineteen years of regular human-sized meals, he figures I won’t need food for at least five years. Or I could just hold my breath for a month.”

“Oh,” Ruda said, nonplussed. “Huh. That’s…well. That’s pretty nifty.”

“I managed half an hour,” Trissiny said absently. “Without breathing. It feels wrong, though, and it got boring. Breathing is habitual.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty fuckin’ good habit to be in.”

Trissiny continued to stare at nothing, face blank. Ruda, frowning worriedly, studied her for a few moments before speaking again.

“So…you wanna talk about it, or do I need to badger you first?”

“That’s the second time we’ve dealt with the Black Wreath,” Trissiny said softly. “And both times, they played me like a lute.”

“Played all of us, to be fair…”

“I’ve got two and a half more years to be a student. Then, there’ll be no more improbably friendly vampires or kitsune keeping watch. It’ll just be me, out there with them. I’m the hand of Avei. Gabriel’s unprecedented and Toby’s calling is far more nurturing. Me? Striking down the Wreath is a huge part of my purpose in this world. And I…just keep failing.”

“Trissiny…”

“It’s not just failure,” Trissiny continued, a frown slowly forming on her face. “I can learn from failure and do better, next time. It’s what I learn that… I mean, we even had intelligence they couldn’t have guessed at; we had the valkyries feeding us information, we knew in advance what they were about, and they still played me.”

“Well, it’s the Wreath,” Ruda said reasonably. “And let’s face it, Boots, nothing about this is new. They’ve always been sly, and the Hands of Avei have always been badass. Your predecessors managed.”

“My predecessors managed for a while, and almost every one of them died fighting. And that’s okay with me, I’m long past fearing that end. Everybody dies; all I ask is that it’s meaningful. Y’know?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruda said quietly, nodding.

“Yeah.” Finally, Trissiny glanced at her. “You’re as much a woman of action as I am. But it’s not just the Wreath. People keep making the point to me that the world is about connection. That dealing with it is about subtlety. I just can’t… I’m not good at that, Ruda.”

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with your intelligence, Triss.”

“It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s the way I think. What I was trained to be. You were brought up to be clever. Down in the Crawl I experience that…alternate of mine, the one raised by my mother. She was brought up to be clever. I know the capacity’s in me. I just… I have no idea how to reach it. When I look for it, nothing’s there. I can do strategy, I can do tactics, but I can’t do…espionage. Con artistry. I’m a warrior, and you can’t just swing a sword in this world and expect to get anywhere. They…” She paused to swallow heavily. “They trained me wrong. I’m equipped to serve my goddess a hundred years ago. If I keep on now, all I’m going to do is fail her.”

“Trissiny,” Ruda said in alarm, “stop. You are seriously scarin’ me, here. Come on, remember last spring before the hellgate? You told me that whatever happened with my people, we’d be together to deal with it—all of us. Well, same goes. So the world’s about connection? Fine. You’ve got connections, and I think you’re doing a kickass job learning to use them. I mean, c’mon, remember our first week when you tried to straight-up murder a guy for callin’ you a dirty word?”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “In fairness, it was for calling me a dirty word while being a demonblood.”

“Right.” Ruda grinned and jostled her with a shoulder. “So, thoughtless, hotheaded and racist. You can’t deny you’re a much better person now. Hell, you and Gabe are as close as any of us; who woulda pictured that, way back then? You’re going to be okay.”

Trissiny looked at her again, suddenly with a slight smile, and shifted to drape an arm around her roommate’s shoulders.

“Ruda, I love you too, but you can stop comforting me. I’m not having a crisis, I’m thinking.” She heaved a sigh, again frowning out at the horizon, where the last dregs of the sunset were fading. Right behind them, the small fairy lamp above the tower’s back door clicked on. “Like I said, woman of action. I’ve identified a problem and what I want is to solve it, not sit here maundering. I’m just… I’m stuck. I have absolutely no idea what to do, where to turn. How do you learn a whole new set of skills and adjust your personality to accommodate them, all at once? Who can teach that?”

“I get what you mean,” Ruda murmured, nodding. “Not much is worse than being unable to act when you need to.”

“I know it’s possible,” Trissiny said pensively. “It has to be. People change—people gain new aptitudes all the time. But…how?”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re finally asking those questions,” Professor Tellwyrn said warmly.

Both of them jumped up, whirling on her. The elf sat in the other chair on the terrace, positioned just out of view of their bench. She had clearly not come through the door; they hadn’t even heard the customary puff of breath caused by her teleportation.

“Goddammit!” Ruda shouted. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, woman, do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Not strictly, no, but it amuses the hell out of me,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Go on, sit down. The truth is, Trissiny, none of what you’ve been pondering this afternoon is news to me, or most of your teachers, but we’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone isn’t going to listen to a certain idea.”

“Great,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Trissinly,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “if you had the world figured out and needed no help finding your way, what would be the point of getting educated? I’m not condemning you. This is progress, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see it. However,” she added with a sigh, “it also brings us to a point I haven’t been looking forward to. The truth is, this University is not equipped to grant you what you need.”

Trissiny blinked at her.

“You’re quite perceptive,” Tellwyrn continued, “to note that the root of your problem is not simply a set of skills, but a mindset. For most people, I would say the simple awareness of the world’s complexity and a habit of analytical reasoning would be all you need to get yourself in order. You, though, aren’t just working against a certain kind of upbringing: you have the pressure of a deity who wants to do things a certain way on your mind at all times. I’m not saying anything against Avei, here—”

“Yeah, we can pretty much tell when you do that,” Ruda commented.

Tellwyrn ignored her. “—but it’s a factor that you have to consider. What you need is specific training, and not only that but guidance, in exactly the kind of cunning and underhandedness that you’ve been brought up from the cradle to disdain.”

“What…are you suggesting, Professor?” Trissiny asked warily.

The elf gazed at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then glanced out over the Golden Sea, and nodded to herself. “Well. It’s not something I commonly encourage my students to do, but unique as your situation is, it’s not without precedent. Sometimes, Trissiny, the right thing for a certain student in a certain position is to take a semester off.”

“Off?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What do you mean, off?”

“I mean, off campus,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “Elsewhere. Pretty much the only circumstance in which I’ll endorse the idea is if the student in question needs a particular course of study that the University isn’t able to provide—which is what we’re facing here. There’s a lot of things your professors here can teach you beyond what you learn in their classes, Trissiny, but my own predilection for straightforward methods has left me surrounded by people who simply don’t have the kind of adaptive, underhanded thinking you’re looking for. Quite frankly I do not enjoy the company of such people.”

“What about Professor Ekoi?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Well, yes, she could. Could. And if you can pitch that to her in a way that she’ll go for, I think it’d be a great solution. But Kaisa came here to teach specific things; she has a contract, and takes it seriously. Besides, studying under a kitsune, one on one… Well, take it from me, there’s a lot involved that you wouldn’t think of until you’ve done it. And frankly, you’re entirely the wrong sort of person for that experience.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Ruda protested. “Come on, now, you’re talkin’ about breaking up the team. We have a good thing going here! We’re a group!”

“We won’t always be, though,” Trissiny said softly. “Don’t look at me like that, Ruda; we’ll always be friends, and I’m sure we’ll have a place in each other’s lives. But most of us have specific places we’ll have to go after the University. Once we graduate, it just can’t be the eight of us, roving around as a unit.”

“And,” Tellwyrn added severely, pointing at the paladin, “I said semester, singular. You’re a smart cookie when you want to be, Trissiny; it won’t take you all that long to nudge your mind and your habits in the direction you need, especially if you find the right mentor. I expect to see your ass back on this campus the following autumn.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, her eyes wandering away to the horizon, and her mind clearly beyond that. “I still… I mean, that kind of leaves me right back where I was. Worse, even. I have no idea where to start looking.”

“Nonsense, of course you do,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You’re letting the enormity of the future cloud your thinking. To start with, you can always go back where you came from. Trissiny, have you ever given thought to the fact that the Silver Legions use exclusively weapons and tactics rendered obsolete by modern military enchanting? I assure you, followers of the goddess of war did not give up their ability to wage war effectively just to placate the Empire, or anyone else.”

“What are you getting at?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Look… Narnasia trained you as best she could, toward the best purpose she knew how. She most certainly didn’t tell you everything. In the time she had, there was no way she could have, and she had to pick and prioritize. You, however, are at least the equal of the High Commander, and you outrank everyone else in the Sisterhood. There is nothing they are entitled to keep secret from you. I guarantee if you go back to the Abbey and tell Narnasia what’s on your mind, she’ll have just the thing ready to start you on.”

“Hm,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “I…well. Hum. That’s actually very good to know, thank you, Professor. But…”

“Yes?” Tellwyrn prompted after a moment.

“It’s… Never mind. I’m not sure if it’s a worthwhile idea.”

“Trissiny, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the pattern, but I only get on your case for the dumb comments you make when you think they’re smart. If you’re having a thought that you’re not sure is wise or not, it’s the perfect time to share it with a teacher.”

Trissiny had to smile faintly at that. “Well, it’s… With all I’ve heard about the complexity and connectedness of the world, plus the fact that my schooling at the Sisterhood’s hands is kind of what put me in this position in the first place… It feels almost treasonous to say it, but I can’t help thinking the best thing for me would be to seek some answers elsewhere.”

“That,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod, “is in fact a very perceptive thought, and I’m proud of you for having it. And there, too, you certainly have prospects. Just off the top of my head, according to Admestus’s report on your Veilgrad expedition, you were an absolute hit with the Shadow Hunters. You couldn’t ask for better than they to teach you precisely what you’re looking to learn.”

“Hey, that’s a point,” Trissiny said, brightening up. “Raichlin gave me a book on the Silver Huntresses, which I’ve absolutely loved reading. And they have a huge library.”

“Oh!” Ruda said in sudden excitement. “Boots, remember back in Lor’naris when that Colonel came and got you to finagle his brat daughter into the Silver Legions?”

“Um…yes, Covrin. Jenny, I think. Actually, now you mention it, I meant to check up on her, but it managed to slip my mind. I sort of doubt she lasted all the way through basic…”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruda said impatiently. “Point is, he started by suggesting I have her fostered in Puna Dara, right? Because that’s actually a standing custom. Well, if you gotta break up the unit, where better to go? My mother would love to take you under her wing for a few months, and I bet you’d get along famously with her. She’s a sword-swinging badass like you, and a sly as a bag of foxes to boot. They called her the Sea Devil back in the day. ‘sides, she loves having somebody around to mother!”

“There, see?” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “You do have options. I bet if you give it some time and some thought, you’ll come up with even more than that. Anyhow, though, you’ve got a few more weeks till finals, and a week of break after that. This is not something that needs to be settled right now. Think on it, sleep on it, talk to your classmates.” She stood, brushing off her trousers. “And Trissiny? Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you.”

She vanished with a little puff of displaced air before the paladin could respond.

“You know,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “the thing that surprises me the most, I think… If you’d told me a year ago I would one day give a damn about that, I’d’ve called you a liar.”

Ruda’s laughter rang out over the prairie.


“Well,” Vanessa said, swirling her glass of rum punch idly in one hand, “are you happy?”

“All things considered, I am,” Bradshaw said fervently. “As much of a runaway mess as that was for most parts of it… And regardless of however we may be beholden to that crazy fox now… I’d have paid a great deal more for what she did for us.”

“You know I’m in total agreement,” Vanessa replied with a broad smile. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon just walking up and down the docks. Just walking. But I was talking to him.”

She turned expectantly to face Embras, who was gazing out to sea.

The dockside bar remained lively despite the darkness that had fallen over Puna Dara. The Punaji were a people whose famous zest for life didn’t yield to storm or fog, much less anything so commonplace as nightfall, and besides, open-sided taverns like this did a great deal of business among visiting merchants and other strangers to the city. The pier on which it was built was well-lit, both with modern fairy lamps inside the building and torches lining the rails protecting the pub-goers from a drop into the ocean. Talking, laughing, and singing patrons in varying states of inebriation thronged the pier, while musicians played frantically on a platform near the bar and comely young waitresses in matching sarongs dodged nimbly through the crowd. For once, the warlocks didn’t need to employ any magical effects to go ignored. Besides, if they had, they’d never have been served.

“Well,” Embras drawled at last, “we mustn’t lose sight of the future. The paladins are wary, but we’ve made a start there. Ekoi and Tellwyrn have proved willing to endure and even facilitate our presence, provided we behave accordingly. And more importantly, we’re set up, now, for next semester’s campaign on Falconer and Vadrieny. Even considering all the uncertainty to come…”

He grinned, swiveled in his seat to face them directly, and picked up his glass. “You know what? I do believe I am happy.” Embras lifted his drink. “To the future.”

Both his companions raised their own in reply. “The future!”

In the far distance, at the very rim of the horizon, there came the faintest flicker of light, and a soft growl of thunder that was lost to the noise in the restaurant. Whether they heard it or not, the storm was on its way.

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10 – 34

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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6 – 23

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“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded. “How can you tell?”

The group backed away as another hammer blow knocked loose a cascade of ice fragments.

“I’m a fairy!” Fross exclaimed. “I know when I’m in the presence of one of Naiya’s daughters!”

“Fuck,” Ruda said emphatically. “For one blessed moment, I thought this was gonna be simple. Dunno why, but I did.”

The monster roared again, smashing the wall with both colossal fists. That entire segment collapsed, and it began forcing its way through the gap.

“Retreat!” Trissiny barked, backing away. “Fross, slow her down!”

“On it!”

“Retreat where?” Ruda demanded, even as she backed up from the creature. Fross zipped back and forth, rapidly building inverted icicles; the columns of ice were only waist-high to the creature, but the pixie was arranging them as an obstacle course in the transformed dryad’s path, forcing her to stop and batter through them. “There’s nowhere to go but back to the nexus!”

“That may work,” said Toby. “We didn’t see any illusion effects in there, right? Maybe if we coax her out of this hall, she’ll revert to herself.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Trissiny, nodding. “All right, slow retreat. Fross, good work; keep her from catching up to us. We don’t want to get too far ahead, let her keep us in view. Gabe, can you fine-tune your wandshots not to damage her? We may need to provoke her to keep following us.”

“I don’t really have that kind of control,” he said.

“I advise against it in any case,” Shaeine added. “If she does not return to herself upon reaching the nexus, we will have to coax her down. Hurting and enraging her will make that vastly more difficult.”

They beat a slow, nervous retreat back to the center of the complex, staying carefully out of Juniper’s reach with the help of Fross’s various ice constructions, while keeping her in view. No taunting proved necessary; the monstrosity kept after them, roaring and lashing out with her various limbs, which was both convenient for their plan, and rather worrisome. Fross, for her part, seemed to get into her task with enthusiasm, making her impediments increasingly elaborate and fanciful in shape as they progressed. Of course, they all ended up in pieces.

The Crawl didn’t try to thwart them, for once. In what seemed like less time than it had taken to get that far into the hallway, they were backing out of it, leaving the mist behind and stepping into the wide-open space of the central nexus. Fross laid off the ice works, zipping back to join the others as they picked up their pace to put some extra distance between themselves and their pursuer.

Roaring, she stomped forward to the edge of the mist, stingers poised to lash out. The students retreated nearly to the center of the chamber.

“Come on, June,” Trissiny muttered, keeping her shield in front of her.

The dryad-monster stomped forward, flaring her breathing sacs. The fog faded behind her, leaving her towering shape framed against a dense white backdrop. Emitting a guttural growl and flexing both stinger-tails, she took another step forward.

“Okaaaay,” said Ruda. “What was Plan B?”

“I’m gonna try something,” said Gabriel, taking a step forward.

“Gabe,” Toby warned.

“It’s okay. Shaeine, can you please be ready to rescue me from my own stupidity if need be?”

“That is my customary practice, yes.”

He grinned at her momentarily before continuing forward at a slow walk.

The monster roared at him; Gabriel didn’t falter. “Hi, Juno,” he said. She stopped, stingers poised menacingly, and bent forward as if to sniff at him.

Keeping his pace slow, he continued on. “I know you don’t like to talk about what’s bothering you. Like I’ve told you before, though, you can. Whatever this is, whatever you’re so afraid of…you don’t need to be. At the very least, you don’t have to face it alone.”

He stopped, finally. The monster took one step forward and leaned down, planting both fists on the ground on either side of him. Her stingers arched over her shoulders, hovering menacingly above his head.

“Gabriel, you are too close,” Shaeine said. “I can’t put a shield around you without burning her.”

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Gabriel said, ignoring the priestess. He slowly raised one hand toward the creature’s face, what there was of one. “There is no reason it will. You are what you choose to be.”

She exhaled sharply, blowing his hair back. He winced; they could smell it from yards away. He did not retreat, though.

“Choose,” Gabriel said quietly, placing his hand against her. “You’re not alone.”

The monster’s roar was almost enough to physically bowl him over at that distance. She seized him by both shoulders and hiked him bodily off the ground, straightening up.

Before anyone could even cry out, a tiny silver point appeared from the creature’s upper chest, just in front of Gabriel’s face.

The monster emitted a guttural wail, dropping Gabe as suddenly as she had picked him up, and staggered backward, incidentally dislodging Ruda from her back. The pirate rolled away, nimbly landing on her feet, as the mutated dryad slumped to her knees, sagging in place.

“What did you do?” Toby shouted.

“Mithril,” Ruda said, retreating from Juniper without taking her gaze away. “Think Triss had the right idea back there. Good for cutting off magic. Hopefully not just hers; it should work on the Crawl’s, even.”

“That’s right through—you could kill her!” Gabriel exclaimed in horror.

“Nah, I’ve stabbed her with it once before. Just shook her up some.”

“You’ve what?”

Juniper’s hulking form was listing markedly to one side now. As they watched in appalled fascination, the green of her mottled skin faded to brown, the brown to gray. Before their eyes, flesh turned to wood and began to crack, as if from age and rot.

“Look at her!” Gabriel shouted. “You bloody maniac, you—”

“Listen!” Shaeine said urgently, cutting him off.

In the silence which followed, a soft noise could be heard from the stilled monster, an apparently sourceless shuffling. Then, its central body shifted and seemed partially to collapse in on itself. Ruda’s rapier was tugged firmly to the side, its jeweled hilt knocking loosed a large chunk of calcified flesh.

“Have we yet been on an adventure when you didn’t stick this thing in somebody?”

The voice, though muffled, was unmistakeable. Gabriel leaped forward, followed swiftly by Toby and Ruda. They had to actually dig into the huge bulk of the body, pulling aside half-rotted chunks of wood, but in only seconds Juniper’s green hair was visible. With remarkably little effort—the husk of the monster now seemed about as sturdy as papier mache—they were carefully pulling her out of the ruins, still with the rapier through the center of her chest. There was no sign of her sundress.

“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked the dryad solicitously. “How do you feel?”

“Impaled,” she grimaced. “It doesn’t feel good. But…thanks, Ruda. That was a pretty awful thing.”

“People underestimate the curative powers of stabbing,” Ruda said with a grin. “Good to see your pretty face again, Juno. I’m gonna want that back, by the way.”

“Well, that’s fine, I’d just as soon have it out.” Grimacing, the dryad shifted around, giving Ruda access to the hilt protruding from between her shoulder blades.

“This might sting a bit,” Ruda warned.

“Less than it did going in I beoww!”

“You really do like to stab people,” Teal said, grinning.

“Hey, guys?” said Fross. “Look.”

The mist had faded from each of the side halls, revealing their shapes—which in all cases were virtually square. They extended no further back than they were wide, and seemed oddly sad, with nothing to reveal but blank stone surfaces.

“That’s almost insulting,” Ruda muttered.

“How so?” Trissiny asked.

“Couldn’t say, really. I just feel generally insulted.”

“Fair enough,” Trissiny replied with a smile.

“Well, I guess this means we officially won,” Gabriel said, letting go of Juniper’s hand and stepping past the group toward the middle of the room. In the precise center of the floor there now sat a small wooden chest.

“Are we sure we’re not still in the Descent?” Ruda demanded, planting her fists on her hips.

“Pretty sure, yeah,” said Fross. “Totally different style and methodology here. I’m equally sure it’s still the Crawl, though.”

Gabriel knelt and raised the lid. “…well, this is kinda disappointing.”

“What’d we get?” Teal asked, looming over his shoulder and craning her neck.

“I think this is for you,” he said, picking up an ebony flute from within the box and handing it to her. It was quite average in size, though carved in the slightly sinuous form of a snake, with another, smaller serpent cast in gold winding about its length.

“Ooh,” she whispered, accepting the instrument and cradling it tenderly before her face.

“Um, don’t blow in that,” Fross said nervously. “That thing is lousy with enchantments, and I can’t even tell what most of them do. It’s old, too. No telling what might happen.”

“We can have Professor Yornhaldt look at it when we’re back topside,” Toby suggested.

“Only one other thing here,” Gabe reported, straightening and holding up the remainder of their winnings. “So, uh, who needs a sword?”


 

After a fairly minimal discussion, they decided to make camp. Everyone was exhausted, hungry, and generally not feeling up to more adventure at the moment, and the only two ways they had out of the complex held the prospect of further trouble. The eighth hall did indeed terminate in a door out of the area, which Fross peeked through and reported opened onto the huge, sloping central cavern of the Crawl. There were no recognizable landmarks; they were either far above or below the level of the Grim Visage. They also had their waystone, of course, but as the portal from Level 2 was the apparent culprit in their current predicament, Trissiny was not alone in mistrusting the welcome they could expect from the demons there.

Fortunately, their shopping from immediately prior to this misadventure had equipped them to settle in if necessary. They improvised a fire by laying down a hearth-sized array of Gabriel’s spell paper inscribed with elemental protection charms, on which they made a puddle of oil of combustion, which Fross then enchanted with a minor time-dilation effect. The resulting campfire was somewhat eerie, shifting very slowly rather than flickering as flames normally did, and producing a peculiar hissing sound rather than crackling cheerfully. It put out heat and light, however. Soon enough, they had arranged their collapsible cook pot over the languid blaze, and set a stew of pork and mushrooms to simmering, while they chewed on unappetizing mushroom bread to stave off hunger.

“I feel kinda bad, though,” Gabriel was saying. “Are you sure nobody else wants it?”

“For the last time, only two of us use swords, and neither of us needs an upgrade,” Ruda said, grinning at him. “You picked it up, you may as well keep it.”

“Don’t try to fight with it, though,” Trissiny said firmly. “I’ve seen you handle a sword in class; you’ll impale yourself. That thing might just be magical enough to do you harm, too.”

“That’s sort of what I meant,” he said with a rueful grin. “Just seems like a waste.”

“Or you could view it as motivation,” Shaeine suggested. “Now you have a reason to learn the sword.”

“Or you could sell it,” said Ruda. “I can tell it’s old, and elvish. Fross says it’s heavily enchanted. Gotta be worth some serious coin.”

“Mm,” he mused, pulling the saber half-out of its sheath to study the blade. “I dunno. That feels…wrong, somehow.”

The leather wrapping the hilt was black, as was its attached scabbard. The blade itself was a single long curve, continuing to form an equally curved handle with only the most minimal crossguard and a heavy, rounded pommel. Its design was, indeed, clearly elven.

“What’s that written on the blade, there?” Toby asked.

“It’s some form of elvish,” Gabriel reported, holding up the sword and squinting at it in the firelight. “I can’t read it.”

“It says ‘Ariel,’” said Teal.

He frowned. “Ariel? What’s that mean?”

“It is a name,” said Shaeine. “A rather popular one among elves until about a millennium ago. I know three women named Yrril, which is the Narisian variant. Not as commonly used these days.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense!” said Fross. “A lot of magic swords have names.”

“I suspect Ariel was the sword’s previous owner,” Shaeine replied. “It would be the equivalent of a sword named Jane. Not inconceivable, but…rather odd.”

“Hmm,” Gabriel mused, sliding the blade back into its sheath and setting it aside. “Well…I might actually show it to Professor Tellwyrn, see what she says. Between the unidentified spells on it and the fact I suck at swords, I’m gonna leave it alone for the time being.”

“I think that’s a very good idea,” Toby said firmly.

“So!” Ruda said. “If we’re all settled in and done beating around the bush, let me pose the obvious question. What the fuck was all that?”

“Do we really need to talk about it?” Gabriel asked after a moment’s strained silence.

“In some cases, I think we do,” said Toby. “Some of the things we saw… I think the base question is, how much of it was true?”

“About a fifty-fifty split in our case,” Gabe replied, looking over at Trissiny. “It started off with some miscellaneous spookiness before it really got hold of us. Then Triss was turned into some kind of alternate universe version of herself, and I got dragged through that mess with Madeleine again.”

“Madeleine?” Teal asked.

“Wait, stop,” said Ruda, grinning hugely. “Alternate universe Trissiny?”

“One in which I was raised by my biological mother, rather than the Sisterhood,” Trissiny said quietly.

“Wh—your mother, that smarmy Eserite elf? Naphthene’s tits, what were you like?”

“A lot like you, actually.”

Ruda barked a laugh. “You poor, abused child.”

“I can see why the Crawl would come up with that,” Teal mused. “Avenists and Eserites are about as opposite as it comes. There’s probably no better way to attack Trissiny.”

“I don’t think it was an attack,” Trissiny said pensively, frowning into the fire.

“Go on,” Toby said after a moment.

She sighed and lifted her gaze. “I’ve been…wondering. The whole time I’ve been at this University it seems I can’t do anything except mess up; I’ve only succeeded in places like the Golden Sea and Sarasio where there’s an enemy to fight. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Ruda said amiably, producing a bottle of whiskey, “you do shit like try to execute classmates and start civil insurrections.”

“….yeah,” Trissiny said with a grimace. “It was Bishop Darling who put the idea in my head that…that maybe the other side of my heritage might have value. I’m an Avenist raised and trained, but I’m also the offspring of a particularly devious thief. Everyone keeps going on about how the old ways don’t work in the new world. Avei herself said the new paladins were being called after such a long time as a break with old traditions, so the gods could prepare us for other ways of thinking. And… Sitting here now, I find I’m feeling grateful for the experience.”

“Grateful?” Gabriel’s eyebrows rose sharply.

Trissiny nodded. “That girl I was…I remember her. Not the details of her life, but what it was like, seeing the world through her eyes. Studying the angles, the complexities, always looking for the less-trod path, the perfect place to put the tiniest pressure to achieve her ends. And…and finding such joy in it. The constant thrill and, and celebration in being challenged and having to survive with nothing but your wits and skills. If that’s what life is like for Eserites… Well, I think I understand them a lot better. And I think that may be exactly the thing I needed to learn. I’m not sure how to incorporate that into my mindset, but…it’s a start. I feel it was important for me.”

“Tellwyrn and Ezzaniel both called the Crawl a teacher,” Teal said, frowning into the fire. “Could this really have all been arranged for our benefit?”

“In some cases more than others,” Gabriel grunted. “I don’t see the educational value in the shit I had to deal with.”

“I have to ask,” said Trissiny, looking up at him, “how did that play out in the real world? I know I wasn’t there to rescue you that time.”

He shrugged, not meeting her gaze. “Madeleine’s bargain-basement diabolism didn’t hold. The hethelax demon broke through the circle and managed to restrain me before I could hurt her. After that… My dad had a little talk with her, and Toby arranged for Church summoners to send the demon back where he came from. I didn’t see her again.” He sighed heavily. “Not even a week later I went back there looking for her, because I’m really not that bright, and her whole house was cleaned out.”

“Not many people want to be on your dad’s bad side,” Toby said with a small smile.

“Well, I don’t think we necessarily need to drag everyone’s deep, dark secrets into the light,” said Ruda. “I for one don’t see a reason to discuss the crap it dumped on me back there.”

“Yeah, it is kind of counterintuitive that you’d be afraid of becoming an accountant.”

Ruda slammed her bottle down. “Fross.”

“Sorry!”

“Really?” Gabriel tilted his head inquisitively. “You’re actually really good with figures. How come—”

“Arquin, after the day we’ve had I barely need an excuse to come over there and fuck you up.”

“Peace, please,” said Shaeine. “This has been extremely trying for all of us. Let us please not make the mistake of taking it out on each other.”

“Anyway,” Ruda said loudly. “With that said, I agree with Toby. There is some stuff we really do need to talk about.”

She looked pointedly at Juniper. One by one, the others swiveled their heads to do the same.

The dryad sighed, slumping slightly. She had been silent up till now, sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees. After being sluiced off with some of Fross’s stored water to get the slime and rotted wood off her, she’d been persuaded to don one of the lightly-enchanted robes they’d acquired as Descent level rewards and been unable to sell. The whole time, she had been uncharacteristically quiet and pliable.

“I’m made of magic,” she said quietly. “I’m a living conduit to my mother’s power. Even if I can’t do much magic, that’s a lot of power. It’s a huge amount. Basically infinite. And…and it can change.” She paused to gulp heavily, still staring at the slow flames. “Dryads… One way or another, that’s how we end up. After hundreds of years, we start getting a little weird. In the head, I mean. And a dryad who’s lost a sense of herself tends to…change.”

“Into creatures like that?” Gabriel asked.

Juniper shrugged, not looking up. “Not necessarily. I don’t even know what that was. Some personification of my worry, I guess. And it’s not just age that does it; we’re not built to handle mental trauma, either. A dryad who lives long enough to go senile, or suffers a bad enough emotional shock… Well. Anything could happen.”

“What kind of anythings can happen?” Ruda asked sharply.

“Cherry…I don’t even know what happened to her, but she became a kind of aquatic monster. She swims up and down rivers, pulling people in and drowning them. She doesn’t even eat them, just wants to watch them die. Sequoia turned into a tree when the mortals she had become friends with were massacred. Some elves built a grove around her so they could protect her until she wakes up, which was nice of them, but…I think if she were going to she would have by now. And that’s nothing compared to what happened to Jacaranda.”

Fross abruptly forgot to keep flying and plunged into the stew pot.

She was out the next second, spluttering and spraying droplets of gravy everywhere. “What? Who? What did you say?”

“Yeah,” Juniper said, nodding. She finally raised her eyes to look at the pixie.

“Wait, you know that one, Fross?” Toby asked.

“J-Jacaranda? That’s the Pixie Queen’s name! It can’t be the same person, she hates dryads!”

“That…could be an argument in favor of it being the same person,” Shaeine said thoughtfully.

“It is,” said Juniper, still watching Fross. “She…well, to make a long story short, she fell in love with someone, and he decided he didn’t want her. She couldn’t cope with that.”

“Wait, the Pixie Queen is a dryad?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“No,” Juniper said wearily. “The Pixie Queen is just one of the things that can happen to a dryad who gets her heart broken. She wanted to always feel loved, and to be distracted from her own thoughts. She wanted it more than she wanted to continue existing, wanted it badly enough to warp her very nature. Like I said, we’re hugely magical. If we lose sight of ourselves…the sky’s the limit. Anything can happen.”

“So, then… Does this make you…my…aunt?” Fross whispered.

Juniper managed a smile at that. “Well, the relationships aren’t exactly biological, y’know? You’re a piece of her aura. Part of her conduit to Naiya. Basically the same thing I am, but smaller, with more structure. So… I guess I’m more your big sister. Is that okay?”

“I…I…” Fross sounded completely overawed. “That’s okay with me.”

“So, I understand your worry about becoming a monster,” Toby said quietly. “How about why you’re worried about it?”

Juniper dropped her gaze again. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? Whatever happens, will happen.”

“No,” he said firmly, then stood and strode across the circle to sit down beside her and drape an arm around her shoulder. “Juniper, I’ve had time to think since Tiraas, and I’ve come to realize I wasn’t being a good friend to you at all. I was hovering around, worrying and generally treating you like some kind of dangerous animal instead of doing what I would for someone I care about. Which means, in this case, a little tough love.”

“Uh, I am not certain this is a good idea,” Trissiny said carefully.

“It’s a good idea,” Ruda insisted. “Juno, hon, we all know you’ve been gnawing at this, and we all know the basics of why. And we’ve left you alone about it, but it’s time to lay some cards on the table. If those are the stakes we’re dealing with… Your issues are everybody’s business. You get that, right?”

“Take all the time you need to get it out,” Toby said gently, rubbing her shoulder. “But we need to talk about this. Tonight.”

Juniper hunched in on herself, tightening her grip on her knees, as if to shut them all out. She leaned against Toby, though. “I… I did something really bad,” she whispered.

“Yeah?” said Ruda. “Why’d you do that?”

“Ruda!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I’m not just bein’ an ass here. It’s a pertinent question. If you knew it was bad, what was your reason for doing it, Juniper?”

“I didn’t,” the dryad said miserably. “I didn’t understand… It was never like…” She paused to swallow painfully. Toby continued gently rubbing her shoulder. “We were apart from everything, you know? Naiya’s favored daughters. We did what we wanted. I always tried to keep in balance with nature, do what I saw other animals do. Only kill to eat, only when I needed to. Most of my sisters did the same, but some… Mostly the older ones… They were weird. They’d hunt for sport, or… Well, some of them had funny hobbies. And that was fine! It didn’t seem like much fun to me, but they were dryads. In the Deep Wild, dryads do whatever they want, and it’s okay. By definition.”

“Just to be clear,” Gabriel said carefully, “we are talking about you eating humans?”

“It was just the one,” Juniper whispered. “Just that one time. He was the first one I’d ever seen. I was curious.”

“Curious?” Teal burst out, then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking abashed.

“Well, see, that’s already not as bad as some of us were thinkin’,” Ruda said lightly. “That’s why I was asking about motivations. You didn’t know better, right? I mean, don’t get me wrong, that was a shitty thing to do and it sure as hell mattered to him, not to mention his family, but you’ve gotta make allowances for the circumstances.”

“I was curious,” Juniper went on, barely above a whisper. “I wanted to know everything. Sample…try everything. See what it all was, how it worked. So…I ate little bits. From each part. And used healing to keep him alive so they all stayed fresh.”

The silence was deafening. Even Fross settled to the ground, stilling her wings.

“How could you do something like that?” Gabriel whispered at last.

Juniper buried her face in her arms.

“Okay,” Ruda said slowly, “that is pretty fucked up. You understand that, right?”

Juniper made a soft whimpering noise.

“I asked you a question,” Ruda said with a bit of an edge to her voice. “I’m not making small talk, here, Juno, we are discussing this.”

“I didn’t know!” Juniper wailed suddenly, raising her head. Tears were pouring down her face. “He was a monster! Humans were just these unnatural creatures that lived out of balance and destroyed things for no good reason. I didn’t know how complicated it all was! How, what, it…” She choked off, swallowed twice, and continued, her voice breaking. “But people are different than animals, and they matter, and I get that now. I shouldn’t have done that, and I can’t go back to thinking he was just a thing. It hurts, and I can’t make it stop, and I’m scared! I don’t want to be a monster!”

“Hey, hey, take it easy,” Ruda said more gently. She stood and went over to sit on Juniper’s other side, leaning against her. “Hon, guilt is a nasty thing. It will fuck you right up if you don’t learn to deal with it.”

“How do you deal?” Juniper sniffled.

“There are many ways,” said Shaeine.

“Personally, I have duty to fall back on,” Ruda said. “I have a job to do. I don’t get to wallow in my bad feelings. If I’ve done something wrong, I do my best to make it right. If that can’t be done… Then I remember I’ve done wrong in the world and make an effort to add some good to it. For my family, my people, everyone who depends on me.”

“That sounds…complicated,” Juniper said, her face falling.

“It is,” Toby agreed. “Any method you settle upon will be. This is not something that can be corrected with a few magic words, Juniper. What you did… The action you describe is abhorrent almost beyond description. But.” He gently placed his fingers under her chin, lifting her face when she tried to hide under her arms again. “The fact is, you do feel this way. You understand, you have the empathy to know it was wrong. And you started feeling this way when you developed that understanding. You really are a kind person at heart, Juniper. I don’t believe you could have done that, had you known what you were doing then. Would you do it now?”

“Never!” she burst out, looking panicked.

“Then it’s time to go forward,” he said firmly. “Backward is only pain. You need to take some responsibility for your own growth. I hate to tell you this, June, but you’ve had an absolutely terrible upbringing.”

“That’s sure as hell true,” Ruda agreed with a grin.

“My mother is a goddess,” the dryad said, frowning. “I’m sure she did right by me.”

Toby sighed. “Did she ever tell you she loves you?”

“What? I don’t… Why does that matter? I know she does. She protects me, after all. You’ve all seen that.”

“Okay,” he said. “But did she ever tell you?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she huffed.

“Juniper,” Teal said gently, “you know we love you, right?”

“I… Well, sure. I love you, too.”

“Right.” Teal nodded, smiling. “But isn’t it so much better to hear it?”

“The thing is,” Toby went on while Juniper frowned in thought, “you were raised with no boundaries. No ethics. You learned to do whatever you wanted, to whoever you wanted… June, that’s a recipe for a person with no moral center who can’t function in the wider world. Honestly, it sounds like your mother didn’t even try to raise you at all, you or any of your sisters. She just…turned you loose.”

“I’ve been proceeding under the assumption that dryad morality is simply alien and inscrutable,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying it, Juniper, when I look back over our interactions, there’s nothing that can’t be explained by you simply being spoiled. I wonder if that might not be why your sisters are so vulnerable to emotional trauma. What reason have any of you had to develop emotional resilience?”

“I’m starting to feel kind of ganged up on,” Juniper muttered sullenly.

“Yes, well, we just learned you tortured somebody to death, Gabriel said sharply, “because you were curious. This is kind of a serious matter.”

“You do have a habit of saying anything you don’t like is unnatural,” Ruda said. “Contributing to the spoiled theory.”

“All right!” Juniper exclaimed. “What do you want from me?”

“What do you want?” Toby asked more quietly.

She paused, blinking in confusion, then frowned. “I… I’m not sure.”

“It doesn’t have to be a big question,” he said. “We’re not settling your whole life or anything. Think in the immediate term. What is it you would like to happen, Juniper?”

“I…” She swallowed again. “I just want to stop feeling so bad, right now. And…and I feel like that’s even worse. Selfish. I should suffer.”

“It’s good that you have a sense of fairness,” said Trissiny, “but inflicting suffering for suffering is rarely constructive. Justice is about everyone getting what they need, not what they deserve. What anybody deserves is often too complex a matter for us mortals to judge.”

Shaeine stood, stepped around the fire and crouched in front of Juniper. “You understand why my healing works for Gabriel when Toby and Trissiny’s does not?”

“Well…yes. Professor Tellwyrn explained that to us in Sarasio.”

The drow nodded. “To call upon Themynra’s attention is to invite her judgment. If it will put your mind at ease, Juniper, we can give you the word of no less than a goddess on the matter of your culpability.”

“It’s…divine magic,” Juniper said nervously. “It’s not good for fairies, even if she…y’know.”

“It will weaken you, yes,” Shaeine said seriously. “But believe me, you will know the difference between that and Themynra’s wrath. I will not impose this upon you, but if you would like to have the clarity, I offer it.”

“I…okay,” the dryad said in a small voice. “I think…yes, please.”

“Give me your hand.”

Gently taking Juniper’s hand in both of her own, Shaeine lit from within, a subtle silver corona forming around her. The dryad winced, staring down at her hand, which was in the center of the brightest part of the glow. It subsided after only a few seconds, however, and Shaeine released her. She pulled her hand back, flexing her fingers experimentally.

“That…tingled. And…and I feel a little weak.”

“But not burned,” Shaeine said with a smile. “Not judged. A full ritual to call upon Themynra’s judgment in detail is another matter; I fear that is beyond a priestess of my relatively low rank and training. But you know, now, that for immediately practical purposes, she does not deem you worthy of being struck down.”

“See?” Ruda said lightly. “All good.”

“It’s a long road forward, but you have friends to help you along it,” Toby added, gently rubbing her shoulder again.

Juniper frowned in thought, staring into the fire for a long moment before lifting her eyes again. Her gaze settled on Trissiny. “Can…can you do that, too?”

Trissiny straightened, a frown crossing her features. “I… That’s not the same thing, Juniper. Avei is a very different goddess than Themynra. The light I call on is subject to the Pantheon’s mandate, not her individual judgment.”

“But Avei is the goddess of justice,” the dryad said, staring intently at her now. “Can you do…like Shaeine said? Ask her judgment?”

“Once again, Avei’s judgment is not like Themynra’s. I can, yes, but it’s not something to be done lightly.”

“In all honesty, I don’t think anything about this is light,” Gabriel noted.

“Would you, Trissiny?” Juniper asked.

“June,” the paladin said, her tone worried now, “what you’re asking for… If Avei passes judgment on you, I will have to carry it out. There are certainly extenuating circumstances, but what you did… This would mean a death sentence in any nation of laws, anywhere.”

“You’re saying you’d kill her?” Ruda said, scowling.

“On the direct command of my goddess, at Juniper’s own request? I wouldn’t have a choice. It’s not just a question of my position beneath her. Avei doesn’t inflict death needlessly; if she deemed it necessary for Juniper to die, I would trust her judgment.”

“That’s kinda fucked up, Boots,” Ruda said. “You know that, right?”

“It is not an unreasonable position,” Shaeine said.

“You said it’s not likely she would demand my death,” Juniper said. “And…that there are extenuating circumstances. Right? You were raised Avenist, you know how Avei thinks. Do you think she’d order that?”

“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny said worriedly. “But I also cannot rule it out. Juniper…think about what you’re asking for.”

“She’s asking for closure,” Toby said quietly. “She wants to take responsibility. I think it’s a very important step.”

“If…I mean…” Juniper sighed, looking down at the ground for a moment before raising her eyes again. A determined expression settled on her face as she met Trissiny’s gaze. “I’d rather not die, obviously. But…if Avei has some punishment for me… I sort of think I would feel better.”

Trissiny stared at her in silence for a few seconds, then sighed heavily. “Juniper…be sure. Whatever the details, you are asking for an outcome that may be very permanent.”

“I’m sure,” the dryad said firmly. “I’m… Nature is balance, Trissiny. I’m out of balance; it hurts me like a lost limb. I’m asking for your help.”

The paladin rose slowly to her feet. “We had best step away from the others, and the fire. Gabriel…keep well back, please.”

Juniper followed her meekly several yards away, leaving the rest of the group sitting in silence around the campfire, watching them closely. At Trissiny’s direction, both of them knelt, facing each other. Trissiny drew her sword, setting the tip against the floor and bowing her head over the hilt.

For more than a minute, they simply knelt there. Juniper glanced uncertainly back at her classmates.

The change was subtle, but abrupt. Trissiny spoke, her voice carrying a resonance that made it seem to fill the huge chamber.

“Priestess, shield the demonblood in Themynra’s light if you do not wish to see him obliterated.”

“Wait, what?” Gabriel squeaked, even as a silver sphere flickered into existence around him.

Trissiny stood, and Avei stood with her.

It was almost like looking at an image through water, the perspective flickering with each shift of the eyes. Trissiny was there, a slim blonde girl in armor, but it was also Avei, a powerfully built woman with her black hair pulled back in a severe tail, towering over them in more ways than the physical. The room was suddenly illuminated as if by the noon sun, but no shadows were cast anywhere.

Juniper stared up at her, eyes so wide they bulged, her mouth clamped down into a thin line.

“You are not mine to judge, daughter of Naiya,” Trissiny and Avei said, their voices resonating in unison rather like Vadrieny’s, but with a power that made the walls vibrate. “You stand apart from the world, from all the laws which govern mortals, shielded from the natural consequences of your actions by the favor of your mother. By inviting my judgment, you ask that this state be changed. If this is your intention, Juniper, be certain. My judgment is not to be gainsaid, once pronounced.”

“I’m certain,” Juniper managed, her voice trembling.

Very slowly, the paladin and goddess nodded, staring down at her. “Naiya is a protective but inattentive mother. You have seen the fates of your sisters who fell from their given state. Once changed beyond recognizability, they were beyond her notice. To strike you down would be to invite her retaliation… But to separate you from her sight is another matter.

“I see in you the capacity for significant virtue or fathomless carnage, dryad. The thing that seems most promising to me is that you have called this upon your own head. You have sought to place yourself in the world of mortals, to walk among them as one of their own. To take responsibility. Know, though, that while your crimes were committed in innocence, they are no less severe for this.

“My judgment, Juniper, is both punishment and aid. I hereby sever you from the unmerited favor of your goddess.”

Golden wings sprang up from behind Trissiny, and a matching pair flared into existence from Juniper, accompanied by a golden corona. The dryad cried out in apparent pain, slumping forward and barely catching herself on her knuckles, short of falling to the floor. The golden light around her faded quickly, leaving her gasping for breath.

“You are alone now, child,” Avei said. “Exactly as alone as all mortals are. You shall have only the connections you build, only the power you earn for yourself. I cannot lessen the magic that animates you, nor change your essential nature, without destroying you utterly. But know this: you are no longer watched over by divine mandate. If you fall, you will not rise again. The creatures of the wild will respect your power, but they will not see in you the will of your mother. You are a powerful fairy, Juniper. But you are no longer, for all intents and purposes, a demigod.

“This is the price of your crime… And the promise of the life you seek to build for yourself. Judgment has been passed.”

The light diminished, quickly but smoothly, leaving the chamber in the same omnipresent dimness that prevailed in the Crawl, lit by the students’ campfire. Trissiny staggered for a second as if dizzy.

Juniper drew in a shuddering breath, tears spilling down her cheeks. She started to rise, but lost her balance, once again barely avoiding a fall.

Trissiny knelt before her and wrapped her arms around the quivering dryad. Juniper’s shoulders began to shake in silent sobs; she clutched the paladin as if Trissiny were the only thing holding her up.

“Soooo,” Ruda said after more than a minute had passed with no sound but Juniper’s quiet weeping. “Who wants stew?”

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Bonus #2: All Those Who Serve

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Years after her battles were all won or lost, Narnasia had learned that glory and victory were nothing at all, compared to watching her girls play in the sun. They darted in and out of the shadows—and there were always shadows in Viridill, where the high altitude kept their skies clear, but the rounded old peaks to all sides, many topped with massive trees, cast unpredictable patches of shade. The air was filled with the warmth of early summer, the smell of baking grass and leaves, the screams and laughter of a dozen teenage girls. They had been playing some kind of game at some point, some variant of tag perhaps, but by now were just chasing each other around for the sheer joy of it. Girls in sleeveless white novice robes dashed this way and that, shrieking and tackling each other, rolling in the grass, bounding up to take off again.

It was getting very close to time for afternoon drill. She really ought to put a stop to this, call them to order… But they were just so happy. So alive. Indulgent it might be, but she was indulging herself as much as them.

Narnasia leaned with both hands on her cane, braced against the ancient stonework in front of her, soaking it all up. The sun did her bones a world of good, soothing the ache that tended to accumulate in her joints, but the happiness of the novices was just as therapeutic to the spirit as the sun was to the flesh.

“Okay, all right!” shouted a gangly blonde, waving her arms. “Everybody back to barracks to wash up, or we’re gonna be late.”

They were a far from homogenous group, in temperament as much as description. Several immediately came to a stop—or picked themselves up off the grass—and began moving toward the novice barracks. Mostly, Narnasia noted, the orphans who had been raised in the Abbey and some of the boarders who’d been there longest. From others came groans, shouted imprecations (mild enough that she didn’t feel the need to intervene) and one loud, wet raspberry.

“Yes, I know, your life is so hard,” said Trissiny, the older girl calling them to order, with an easy smile. “You can complain all about it all the way there and back. Just get it out of your systems before Sister Zanouri is—”

She broke off, pivoting on one foot to hook the younger girl who tried to leap on her back by the arms. Half a second later, Trissiny had Mafi, a short thirteen-year-old with an olive Tiraan complexion, in a headlock.

“No fair!” Mafi shouted, struggling impotently.

“You can have it one of two ways,” Trissiny said, holding her without apparent effort. “Either ambush people from behind, or talk about fairness. Can’t do both, squirt.”

“Thug! Tyrant!”

“Yup, and I sleep with one eye open.” She finally released the younger girl, giving her a playful swat on the rear to shoo her in the direction the others were drifting off. “All right, barracks! Nobody wants to be late for drill; you all remember what happened last time.”

More groans and razzes rang out, but the girls were all moving now. They were a mixed lot, these dozen. A core of five them had always lived in the Abbey; they had grown up together and shared the surname Avelea, which made them sisters in every way that mattered. Others rotated in and out of the ranks with each year, few staying more than a handful of months, though some returned on a seasonal basis. They were a mix, some the well-trained daughters of particularly devout Avenists who viewed a stint in the barracks a vital part of their upbringing, and some just the opposite, troublesome girls sent here to benefit from the Sisterhood’s famous discipline—often as a last resort.

Narnasia’s smile widened as she watched Trissiny chivvying them along. She was the oldest of the Abbey-raised in this lot, just a year off from being able to enlist in the Silver Legions. Not all Aveleas did, but there had never been a question about Trissiny. The faith was her life, its discipline as natural to her as breathing. She was a skilled fighter and in the last year, since the previously eldest sister in her barrack had grown and left, had slipped into the role of leader with effortless success. That girl would be an officer by the time she was twenty.

She leaned one-handed on her cane, lifting her other arm to beckon. Trissiny glanced at her, then made a final round of shooing gestures and paused to make sure her squadmates were moving in the right direction before turning and trotting over to Narnasia.

“Mother Narny,” she said with a respectful bow and a bright smile.

“How’re your squad faring, Trissy?” she asked, then chided herself inwardly at the brief grimace that flickered across the girl’s face. At the mature age of fifteen, she had decided the childhood nickname no longer suited her and insisted on its retirement. She was too polite to make an issue of it, which was largely why Narnasia accommodated her—when she remembered. She was too old to quickly discard the habits of a decade and a half.

“We’re having a really good few weeks,” Trissiny replied, her normal good cheer quickly returning. “It still takes a while to get Mafi and a couple of the others moving, especially in the mornings, but they’re good girls once they decide to be.”

“Good. I think you’ve earned a little extra responsibility.”

Trissiny straightened slightly, her expression growing serious. “We’d be honored. What’d you have in mind?” One could always tell the Abbey-raised girls from the boarders by whether they regarded extra responsibility as a privilege or a punishment.

“Just a little thing for now. Since the weather’s holding, I believe we’ll move dinner to the lawn this evening. What do you think?”

“That sounds grand!”

“Good. Your barrack is in charge of setting up tables. Everything needs to be ready by five.”

“Consider it done!” Trissiny swelled with pride and snapped off a salute—a little too exuberant for regulations, but she wasn’t an inducted Legionnaire, and Narnasia wasn’t foolish enough to punish a child’s eagerness to please. “We won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t, Trissyyynnny.” She caught herself, barely, and the girl’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Best get after your squad. You don’t want to disappoint Sister Zanouri.”

“No, I don’t,” she said seriously, stepping back. “I prefer my nose un-bitten-off.”

“You mind that attitude, child!” Narnasia leveled a finger at her, barely managing to keep her face straight. “That’s a full Sister you’re speaking of, one who could be out serving with the Legions but stays here to see to your education.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Trissiny replied, making an effort at an abashed expression. “She’s only done that once.”

“Brat!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Grinning now, Trissiny bowed again before turning to flee after the rest of her squad. Watching her go, Narnasia let the smile spill back over her features.

Having favorites was an absolutely terrible practice, both in raising children and in training soldiers. She had to be content with the self-discipline not to let it show in her actions, however. When the Goddess sent her a true golden child, well, she was too human to be truly objective. Ah, it was going to be a hard thing when her Trissy left, and the time was coming all too fast. But that was the way it was. Girls grew up, and women had to create their own lives.

She turned and walked back into the shade of the Abbey, slowly so that her arthritic legs supported her without the need for her cane. It was simple pride that made her do it, the same reason she refused to call on the healing light to soothe her aches except when she was alone in her chambers, but Narnasia Darnassy had served her Goddess with distinction, ran a well-ordered Abbey and had raised a fine crop of girls. She was entitled to a little pride.


 

Important as discipline was, a good commander didn’t forget morale. Besides, however they had been raised, teenagers were not soldiers, and a treat now and then was a healthy part of their upbringing. The picnic had proved quite a success; the conversation over dinner was louder and happier than that which usually rang out in the mess hall, but didn’t cross the line into raucousness. Some of the girls present might have pushed it toward that if left to their devices, but they were surrounded by better influences that kept them in check. Avenist discipline could bend when the situation allowed, but it did not break.

The Abbey’s current population—at least those not tending to guard posts or other duties during the dinner hour—fit at four long rows of tables. The folding tables set up on the lawn were more narrow than those in the mess hall, forcing their occupants into a greater than usual intimacy, but no one complained; personal space was always at a premium in the Abbey. There were the girls in training, several barracks of youngsters boarding at the Abbey, and about twice their number in cadets, adult women undergoing their basic training as Legionnaires. The Legion currently stationed in Viridill, the Third, was most encamped around the area, but two squads of full Legionnaires were present, positioned in the Abbey to look after their trainees. The cadets treated them with appropriate respect; the Abbey girls kept shooting them awed and envious glances. Between the various guests and trainees, the mix of priestesses and retired soldiers who ran the Abbey itself were a small minority.

There were no men present, though some few were attached to the Abbey in various capacities. It was a delicate line to walk; Narnasia had no patience for sexism of any kind and didn’t tolerate it in her Abbey, but she also had to manage the practical considerations of a campus full of teenage and twenty-something women. With an even blend of men and women, there was rarely a problem. When it was just women, men were of course a non-issue. A large group of women and a handful of men, however, resulted in all manner of competitive nonsense that undermined everything she was trying to teach these girls. It was tricky to ensure that male Avenists were shown adequate respect while still keeping them isolated for the sake of the students. It didn’t help that Avei’s faith tended to attract misandrists, though Narnasia took great pains not to employ any of those.

Still, tonight she put aside such headaches, eating slowly and letting the babble of conversation wash over her. As much of her attention went to looking around as to her dinner. Barrack Four had outdone themselves; they had taken the time to pull out the sturdy benches from the dining hall rather than inflict the Abbey’s stock of notoriously unreliable folding stools on the diners. The tables were impressively even, despite the inevitable small dips and fluctuations in the lawn’s terrain. Lanterns were hung carefully from the branches of ancient trees that twisted overhead, above head height but low enough they weren’t going to set the foliage afire. That was an impressively thoughtful touch; it saved space on the narrow tables, which of course was at a premium to begin with. Narnasia wondered whose idea that had been. Likely Trissiny, though she was wary of giving her golden child too much credit. That was a slippery trap.

Already the lamps were necessary, despite the early hour. To the southwest, through a gap in the surrounding mountains, they could see a rolling expanse of foothills still glowing in the late daylight, but the peaks sheltering the Abbey itself had already cast their deep shadows across the grounds.

Some commanding officers arranged their mess with themselves and their command staff at a head table. Narnasia much preferred to be amid her troops, to be part of them. Her seat was at an outer corner of one table, from which she could see the whole group. The ate, talked, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. Not all were so outgoing, but she saw no overtly unhappy faces.

Arrogance was a character flaw, one she tried vigorously to expunge, but looking over the women who answered to her, Narnasia again allowed herself to enjoy a rush of pride. However long she had left on this world, she would leave it confident she had done well by her duty. Who could ask more out of life?

Her musings, and everyone else’s talk, were interrupted by a sudden blaze of golden light.

Burning against the darkening sky, the eagle sigil of Avei hung suspended a dozen feet from the ground at the end of the long table arrangement. Stunned silence fell, but held for mere seconds before there came a scramble of benches being pushed back. Not everyone present knew what the sign meant; there couldn’t have been more than a few who had seen this in person. Even the Abbess hadn’t. But those educated by the Sisterhood recognized it, and surged to their feet to stand at attention. The Legionnaires and priestesses were first upright, saluting, followed by a smattering of the Abbey girls who had grown up with Avenist traditions, several of them looking shocked almost to the point of terror. The other students and trainees straggled to their feet, clearly uncertain what was happening, but following the example of their peers and superiors.

Narnasia was one of the last to rise, and not due to any sloth on her part. Rare and precious as this event was, her joints simply did not suffer leaping about; even once upright, she had to lean upon her cane, which didn’t adhere to regulations for standing at attention, but the Goddess would surely forgive her.

In a short span of moments, every woman present was upright, the enlisted saluting and all facing the glowing golden eagle, their expressions a blend of awe, reverence, fear and exultation.

The sigil pulsed once, trailing a curtain of light to the ground below it, which coalesced into a figure nine feet tall. There were several soft cries, quickly silenced, as the last of the younger groups finally realized what was happening.

Avei, in human form, was a strikingly beautiful woman, in a way that was impossible not to notice even when one knew how little value she and her cult placed on looks. She wore Legionnaire armor in the etched silver that had distinguished her paladins in the days when she still had them. A crested helmet concealed her black hair and partially obscured her face, but those blue eyes swept piercingly over the assemblage, causing more than one person to quail. She carried no shield, but had a traditional leaf-bladed short sword buckled at her waist, and a lance in her right hand, its butt resting on the earth.

There was near silence. The presence of divine magic in truly awesome quantity caused a faint but constant hum at the edge of hearing; it was a soothing, pleasant sound that filled the listeners with energy and calm. Even Narnasia’s aches ebbed away in the goddess’s presence. She knew that when they chose, the gods could project such a force of sheer personality that anyone gazing upon them could be driven to their knees, incoherent with awe. It was a good sign that Avei did not choose to unleash so much of her essence here, boding well for her intentions.

“The world is changing.” Her voice was deep, powerful, and echoed among them as though emerging from every part of the air. “Humanity regularly does what has once deemed impossible, or at least rare. Justice remains constant, but the nature of war has changed swiftly, and even we who should know best have struggled to adapt. As humankind have elevated themselves, the gods have grown more distant. We have watched you to see what came of all this progress.”

She paused, and slowly panned her gaze around the entire assembly. “We are concerned.”

Avei let this hang ominously for a moment before continuing. “The changes wracking the world are without precedent. The quiet of the gods in the last few years, the dwindling of our cults and the absence of paladins, has not been because we have left you to your fate, but because the times demand that we act carefully. As the world changes, the faithful must change with it, and even the Pantheon must adapt to properly care for our people. We have watched, in these latter days, and judged. We have considered deeply, planned accordingly, and made decisions. Now, the time has come for new action.

“In Tiraas, a Hand of Omnu has been called.”

The faintest stir rustled across the women present. One did not shift about and mutter to one’s neighbors in the presence of a goddess, but the implications of this announcement were too enormous, and too easily seen, to be ignored; quite a few reacted physically before they could restrain themselves. Narnasia especially saw immediately where this was going. Her heart tightened in her chest; her grip tightened on the head of her cane, hard enough that it would have seriously hurt her arthritic hands if not for the constant glow of divine light.

“Others will follow,” Avei declared. “Many have said that the age of paladins has ended, and they were right—but only because the nature of paladins needed to change. In addition to a period of observation and introspection among the gods, a clean break was needed. Now, a new age begins, one that will be led again by Hands of the Pantheon, by all the gods who have summoned paladins to their bidding, and in the years to come, by some who have never done so before. We serve the world according to its needs, just as you serve me. Now, the call goes out.”

She fixed her stare at a point near the middle of the assembly.

“Trissiny Avelea. Stand forward.”

Narnasia felt every muscle in her body tightened into unbidden rigidness. It saved her, barely, from screaming.

No.

Trissiny gaped at the goddess, completely poleaxed. She made an erratic, whole-body twitch before apparently remembering how her limbs worked; even then, the girl stumbled as she stepped out of line. Swallowing visibly, she walked slowly toward the deity, past the lines of silent, staring women. Her body struggled between disciplined posture and an obvious desire to curl up into invisibility. Though she didn’t hurry by any means, in moments she stood within reach of the towering deity’s arms. One knee buckled momentarily, then stiffened. Avenists were not required to kneel to anyone, but few people could stand that close to the goddess of war without feeling a powerful urge to show some kind of obeisance.

Narnasia clutched her cane, actively trying to snap it now. The sturdy hardwood was in no danger from her aged arms, but it served as an outlet.

No, no, no, not her. Not her!

“There is a hard road ahead,” Avei said more quietly but still audible to everyone present. “The call I lay upon you is an honor, but it is also a heavy burden, and will exact a steep price, more painful than you can yet appreciate. In my thousands of years guarding the world, I have summoned many of the bravest and best to my service. Some have refused the call, and not one of them did I condemn. It is a lonely thing and a hard one, to give up your own life for the sake of others. Do not doubt that I ask anything else of you. Do not answer this call out of any desire for glory, or any expectation for your own happiness. Answer it only if you desire to serve. That you will serve is the only thing I can promise. What say you, Trissiny? Will you be my Hand in this world?”

NO! Narnasia screamed silently.

Trissiny gulped. “I—I’m not…ready. I’m not worthy.”

Avei smiled at her, and her expression was both gentle and achingly sad. “No one is ready, child. No one can be. And I would not call upon anyone so arrogant as to believe herself worthy. If you doubt yourself, Trissiny, do not doubt me. I have chosen carefully, I promise you. The only question is whether you are willing.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and set her face. Slowly, she sank to one knee, bowing her head. “I will serve however you think I best can.”

“So be it.”

The three words rang across the Abbey grounds, echoing in the luminous background noise of the goddess’s aura. Above and between the two figures, light flashed and coalesced into two shapes, a sword and a shield. Both were clearly ancient, and battered from long use. They floated slowly downward to hover at chest height.

Narnasia glared at them. She had seen those weapons before.

“Rise, then, and take the tools of your calling.”

Trissiny rose slowly; almost hesitantly, she reached out, first threading her left forearm through the shield’s grips. Then, finally, she grasped the sword by its handle.

The change was instant and without fanfare. One moment the girl stood diminutive before her goddess, a slim and somewhat gangly figure in a short robe. In the next she stood tall, sword and shield in hand, clad in the silver armor that so many present had only seen in paintings.

“We have a long road to travel together,” said Avei solemnly. “You will face countless battles and many hardships, but you will never do so alone. This new world will learn to respect you, Trissiny Avelea. Hand of Avei.”

Trissiny’s own aura flared into existence, and eagle wings of golden light stretched from her back, blazing with the intensity of the sun. The light swelled until no one could stand to look, then faded just as suddenly, leaving her standing alone in the dusk, only a faint gleam of divine favor limning her sword and shield. In the dimness that followed, Avei was gone, even more abruptly than she had arrived.

The newly minted Hand of Avei stared into space where the goddess had stood. Despite her armor, despite everything, she looked bemused and lost.

Then, quite suddenly, she was mobbed by a rush of women from each of the tables. The air was filled with cheers, praises, and shouted questions, mixing into an unintelligible jumble and overridden only by the shrieks of Barrack Four, who were the first away from their seats and managed to cluster around their squad leader before everyone else dogpiled her.

“ENOUGH!”

Old and thin her voice might be, but Narnasia Darnassy had commanded troops in her day, and could still seize and hold the attention of a battalion at need. Silence fell as she stepped forward—slowly, as her joints demanded, but not so slowly as her pride asked. She limped and relied on her cane, making her way between the tables as quickly as her legs would permit, unwilling to leave Trissiny alone for a second longer than necessary.

“Mother Narny,” the girl said desperately as she drew close, “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

Narnasia struggled as she had rarely struggled with anything to smile, but for Trissiny’s sake, she did it. “When you need to do something, child, you will be told. That is one of the advantages you have, now. For now, you only have to be.”

Trissiny carefully sheathed her new sword at the scabbard hanging from her belt and slung the shield over her back, then stepped forward, arms outstretched.

Narnasia met her half way, gathering the girl into an embrace. She squeezed as hard as her thin arms could, ignoring the way the armor pinched and dug at her.

“I am just so proud of you,” she whispered fiercely into Trissiny’s hair. With her expression momentarily hidden, she allowed it to relax, permitted the tiniest sliver of the agony she felt to show through. She wanted to weep.

She did not, of course.

Discipline.


 

In the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, she limped doggedly through the winding paths between tombstones and mausoleums behind the Abbey. The moon had already vanished behind the mountains and there were no torches, but the faint starlight of the mountains was enough. Despite the darkness, despite the betrayal of her aging body, she had walked this path many times. She hardly needed to see.

The tomb occupied pride of place, facing a little cul-de-sac which itself encircled a bronze statue of the woman interred here. Narnasia only glanced up at this; it was only dimly visible in the darkness, anyway. She limped past it, making a beeline for the tomb itself. In her haste, she actually stumbled the last few steps, dropping her cane and throwing up both hands to catch herself against the broad stone door. There she stood, leaning against it, finally, finally letting the tears come.

It was far too dark to make out the words, but she could feel their indentation under her hands. She knew that name better than her own.

Here lay Jasmine Darnassy, the last Hand of Avei. Dead these twenty years, and as everyone had believed, truly the last. The Age of Adventures, the era of paladins, was over. There would be no more brave, brilliant women hurled into the thick of the carnage, set to face struggles that no one could hope to survive for long even with the full aid of a goddess. Narnasia had allowed herself to believe, and take comfort in the hope, that no more mothers would ever have to lay their girls to rest this way.

Now it was all starting again. And the first lamb laid on the altar was another beautiful, amazing young woman she regarded as her daughter.

There was a saying among their cult, fully endorsed by history: No Hand of Avei ever died in bed.

“Why?” she rasped, letting her head hang and the sobs come. “Haven’t I given you enough? What more do you want from me? I have never asked anything of you. Is it too much that I be left with someone to love?”

She drew back a fist and slammed it into the stone. That, needless to say, was agonizing, spikes of white-hot pain roaring up her entire arm, her hand throbbing unbelievably. Narnasia was falling before she realized it.

Strong hands caught her, then gently and with the utmost care pulled her upright, held her steady. It was light, now… And the pain that had so undone her seconds ago had already receded.

She heaved a deep sigh, closing her eyes, then turned. When she lifted her head and opened them, Avei was regarding her with an expression of weary sorrow. She was human-sized, now, scarcely taller than Narnasia would be if she could still fully straighten her spine. She didn’t glow, per se, but it was lighter around her, bright enough to see clearly.

“You’ve given everything,” Avei said quietly. “You have done all I ever asked, and done more than I would have required. Willingly, even eagerly. I have had soldiers as valuable as you, Narnasia, but none more so.”

For a devout, lifelong Avenist to hear such praise directly from her goddess—in fact, to be personally visited by Avei at all—was all the dream she would once have wished for. Now, all she could feel was bitterness.

“If I’ve earned any favor from you,” she whispered, “don’t take my Trissy. She deserves so much better.”

The goddess actually hung her head for a moment. “…she does. As do you. As has every brave woman who has followed me into an early grave, and all those left to mourn them.”

“Then it’s just business as usual,” Narnasia said, the bitterness of it clawing at her from the inside. “A world full of paladins again. More meat for the grinder.”

“I know your pain,” Avei said quietly. “You may not believe it, but I do. Jasmine was my daughter, too. I shared your pride in her, your love for her, and the agony that I couldn’t protect her in the end. Everything you’ve suffered, Narnasia, I have suffered. And not only the once, but for every Hand I have lost. Every single soldier who has fallen in my name. Every Legionnaire, every loyal trooper of the hundreds of nations that have lived in the last eight thousand years. They serve, they suffer, and they die, and they never do so alone. I’m there at the end to mourn each one. Every. One.” Narnasia couldn’t look away; there were tears sparkling in Avei’s eyes. “And each time, I call forth more, knowing it will only end in more loss and bereavement… Because that is the meaning of duty. We fight because someone has to, even knowing the fate of all those who serve. Every time I think I can’t possibly bear to go through this once more, I remember every soldier who has fallen in my name, and I have to go on. They didn’t quit. How can I?”

“I’m sorry,” Narnasia whispered. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I… I shouldn’t have dared to speak to you like that.”

“You hurt, sister. And you have every right to.” The goddess shook her head, gently leading the Abbess over to a stone bench and helping her to sit. “The day I no longer care about your pain is the day you should find a new faith.”

Narnasia leaned back against the bench, closing her eyes. “…how do we go on?”

“How do old soldiers do anything?” Avei sat down next to her and slumped forward, planting her elbows on her knees. “We’ve forgotten how to do anything else.”

The Abbess nodded. There was silence for a while.

“I only wish I could take the burden from her,” she whispered at last. “I wish I could have suffered instead of my Jasmine, too. Let them have the glory and me the pain. But… I know very well why you called them and never me. Jasmine, Trissiny… They’re special. I couldn’t have done justice to that duty. Jas did her title proud.”

“She did,” Avei said, nodding.

“Trissiny will, too.”

“I have no doubt of it.”

She heaved a sigh. “Forgive an old woman’s hysterics. How, then, can I help her? Whatever time I have left, I’ll do anything I can. I wasn’t there to support Jas; I’m not leaving my Trissy to face this alone.”

“She’ll never be alone.” Avei straightened, gazing up at the bronze statue of Jasmine Darnassy. “As I said before, the world is changing. Paladins have to change, too. I won’t make you any promises, but I have…plans. I have hope. I’m holding to a chance that we won’t lose this one so easily.”

“I’ve never told her,” Narnasia whispered. “About her blood. I’ve gone back and forth on it… To this day I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. I just wanted her to have as normal a life as she could, but… I suppose that’s not a consideration anymore.”

“You have some time, still, to make a decision,” said the goddess. “Three years.”

“Three?” She had expected to have Trissiny to herself for one more year at most. Girls raised in Avenist temples could join the Legions at sixteen.

“Three,” Avei said firmly. “At eighteen, she will be old enough for the next stage of her education. She will go then to the University at Last Rock.”

Even in the goddess’s radiant presence, Narnasia’s body ached at the speed with which she sat bolt upright. “Tellwyrn?!”

“Arachne,” Avei said, her expression grim. “Believe me, I know her faults; they are numerous and deep. I also know her virtues, however, and I think my cult has become too eager to discount those. Trissiny already owes everything to her kindness.”

“But…why Tellwyrn?”

“You have raised up a fine soldier, Narnasia. But do you know how many fine soldiers I have?”

“…all of them?”

“Exactly.” Avei nodded. “Trissiny is destined to be more, and Arachne can teach her that. She lives in a gray, meaningless world of nihilistic complexities with no moral compass whatsoever. Somewhere between that and the stark, black and white ethics you have instilled in Trissiny is the balance she will need to do her duty in the world that is taking shape around us.”

“What could I have done differently?” In spite of herself, Narnasia bristled. “I raised her in the faith. I’ve taught her your principles.”

“This may be a very painful thing for you to learn,” Avei said wearily, “but even the gods are not perfect. I am not content with sacrificing my most prized warriors like chess pieces. I want Trissiny to have a chance. Don’t you?”

Narnasia could make no reply to that.

“To do this, she will need more resources than my Hands have had in the past. It’s a new world, and a new type of paladin will be needed to uphold justice in it.” She turned her head to stare directly into Narnasia’s eyes. “We may yet lose her. But it will not be because we failed to arm her with everything she needs.”

The Abbess drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…three more years, then. There’s so much left to teach her… Suddenly it doesn’t seem like enough time.”

“You’ll have my help. Together we will send her off prepared.”

“All right…” Steeling herself, she nodded firmly. “All right. I’ll do as you ask.” Narnasia rolled her shoulders, feeling the old aches, but also the old determination of her younger self. She would not send her Trissy off with anything less than everything she had to offer.

“How may I serve?”

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