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If one had to be sentenced to an eternity of indentured servitude, the citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis was surely the best place for it.
Though at first appearance the place seemed as spartan as it was purely weird, the accommodations proved downright luxurious. Most of them, it turned out, were concealed in the eclectic hodgepodge of floating structures which surrounded the complex. Given their sheer number, and the fact that several were clearly larger on the inside than their physical dimensions should have allowed, there was space for virtually everything a person could want. Except, of course, the freedom to leave.
Many were left empty, which was because these also provided housing for the Scions themselves. Everyone had the freedom to pick a dwelling from any of those not in use, and it seemed there as no rule or even convention against taking prime real estate. At least, nobody seemed to mind that one of the largest structures, a castle of medieval Syrrinski design, was Rispin’s personal residence. Aradidjad, doubling down on the lifelong enjoyment of irony which was helping to keep her sane, picked the lighthouse upon which she had nearly broken her neck immediately after arriving in the nexus.
At the moment, it was a spartan place to live. The method by which physical objects could be acquired in the nexus was not yet known to Aradidjad; all she knew was who was responsible for this. Kaolu created food, which it seemed the Scions did not need but were encouraged to eat as it was a pleasurable and satisfying experience, and as Rispin had warned her, taking care of their own mental health was an important duty in this state of eerie servitude.
Everything except food came through the auspices of Q. And apparently “everything” meant virtually anything; Rispin and Yalda both showed her their fully-furnished homes, and while Yalda had simple tastes, his was downright luxurious—not to mention huge. That made Q a living bottleneck in the process of requisitioning anything, and Aradidjad was beginning to feel the effects of the first impression she had made on him. So far, she had a hammock, a small stack of books, and a tacky fairy lamp which he claimed was “art deco.”
That aside, there were facilities for basically everything concealed in the floating buildings. The Scions had gymnasiums, swimming pools, botanical gardens, workshops, laboratories, a theater, no less than five museums and two smaller recreational libraries in addition to the “official” one Chao Lu Shen oversaw which supplied research material for missions. Kaolu’s residence was an apartment over the Tilted Hourglass, a pub which apparently served as the Scions’ principal casual hangout. It was stocked with vintages from across ten thousand years, and staffed by a funny little wheeled cylindrical golem with metal spider arms and bells for a voice, which was apparently an Elder God relic.
And that was just what Aradidjad had discovered in her initial poking around and talking to people. She met another dozen or so of her coworkers and found them, unsurprisingly, an eclectic bunch. Evidently they had plenty of leisure; there was no set schedule on which missions happened. Tellwyrn just showed up suddenly and started barking orders. According to Dravo, a talkative wood elf from the second century after the Elder Wars, she did a good job of spacing them to break up the tedium and avert any serious altercations, without overworking anyone. Aradidjad supposed that kind of thing was easy enough to arrange if you had a bird’s eye view of the timeline.
“Rise and shine, doctor,” Tellwyrn ordered, striding into the Hourglass, where Aradidjad was sitting at the bar with Yalda and Styrronski, a wizard she had just met and whose story she did not yet know. “Report to Shaft Three, you have an assignment.”
“What, just me?” she asked, glancing at the other two—and noting how flat their expressions had suddenly gone. This was only her third time being sent on a mission, and on both of the previous two occasions Tellwyrn had interrupted a gathering and dispatched everyone simultaneously.
“This time, yes,” the archmage said, wearing a pensive look which began to alarm Aradidjad slightly. The elf was usually the very incarnation of disdainful self-absorption. “I’ve been easing you into this, but now I’m afraid the leading strings come off. Shaft Three.”
She turned and strode back out, without waiting for a response. Aradidjad sighed, shook her head, and stood to follow.
“Hey.” She glanced back to find Yalda regarding her seriously. “Listen… It’s not going to be the end of the world. Okay? I don’t mean that to be condescending. Nothing she drags you through will be more than you can recover from, no matter how it feels at the time.”
“Well, that just shot right past ominous and straight into horrifying,” Aradidjad replied, frowning. “Is there something in particular I should know?”
“Yes,” Styrronski replied, then scowled at Yalda when she jabbed his arm with a fist. “Yes. She deserves a forewarning, same as all of us—”
“I was forewarned,” Yalda snapped, “and it made it infinitely worse. The anticipation was the cruelest part, and exactly why Tellwyrn doesn’t give those out. Look, Cyria, after you’re back and…you know, feeling up to it, come visit my place, all right? I’ll set up a girls’ night. Or…whatever you need.”
“..sure,” Aradidjad said suspiciously. “Thanks. I guess I’d better report to Shaft Three before the boss comes looking for me.”
“She won’t,” Styrronski said morosely, glaring down at his vodka. “She has all the time in the world.”
“So the Scions are what anchor your perception and time-altering powers to the world, is that it?” Aradidjad asked upon stepping out of the place between onto a familiar street in Calderaas. The city was frozen, like Tiraas had been on her last assignment, but other than that looked…normal. This must be very close to her own time.
“Not bad. How’d you reach that conclusion?” Usually Tellwyrn affected a vague blend of condescension and approval that befitted a seasoned professor addressing a precocious student, but her voice was still tense. It was not improving Aradidjad’s nerves.
“Logic, and awareness general magical principles. Apparently you have to guide a Scion through the place between to actually perform time travel, but once we’re here you can open gates right to us. Which makes sense as magic requires a sapient mind to be actively performed. There’s a precedent for the presence of such a mind serving as a focus for passive enchantments and supplemental effects, too.”
“Mm hm. All right, you know the surrounding area. This is not an intervention against a time traveler; the perpetrator enacted their spell from several years into the future. Another Scion dealt with them. You’re here to plug a hole, that’s all. A temporal rift will form in Calderaas and you are to neutralize it.”
“Well, that’s idiotic,” Aradidjad snorted, sidestepping immobile pedestrians. She didn’t actually know where she was meant to be going, but preferred walking to standing around. And it was nostalgic, seeing her city again. No telling when or even if she’d have another chance to visit. “Why didn’t the other Scion just stop it from that end?”
“One of Vemnesthis’s more arbitrary rules, I’m afraid. Everybody cleans up their own mess.”
She stopped cold.
“Keep following the crowd you’re presently weaving through. There’s a market on the next street over, and a demonstration occurring at an ice cream shop—”
“The rift will form directly on that location. I know you’re familiar with—”
“I’m not doing this, Arachne. Get someone else.”
“Yes, you are. You’re familiar with the specific spell, but I can walk you through the steps— No, Aradidjad, it’s not going to be that easy.”
She had turned and started running back the other way, heedless now of the time-locked people she jostled in passing. Aradidjad got half a dozen steps before Tellwyrn rewound her right back to where she had started.
“Keep walking. As I was saying, the surrounding obstructions rule out a nice, neat spell circle, but I’ll show you how to compensate using the available space.”
She gritted her teeth, focusing arcane power. The familiar whine of building energy rose in her ears, and with a blue sparkle of magic, Aradidjad teleported away. The scene around her was still frozen, but changed to the highway extending south from the gates of Calderaas, toward the distant capital of the Empire.
“Oh, you like teleporting?” Suddenly, Tellwyrn’s voice lost its grim flatness, replaced by overt anger. “Fine, let me show you something.”
This time she vanished and reappeared instantly and far more cleanly, a humiliating reminder of how far Tellwyrn’s magical capabilities outstripped her own. Aradidjad was now standing on a flat rooftop, overlooking the market street. In fact, directly across from the ice cream shop, the proprietor standing out front demonstrating his exotic new delicacy, with beside him the brand new, state of the art, unknowingly faulty freezing apparatus which was the cause of so much misery.
She squeezed her eyes shut, turned, and started running back across the roof. Not that she had any plan for what to do once she reached the other side; all she could think was to get away.
“No, you don’t,” Tellwyrn grated. Aradidjad slowed to a halt, then was reversed through time back to her starting point at the edge of the roof.
This time, though, she remained frozen there. Below, the street came to life with movement, but she herself was fully suspended in time. Physically, at least, unable to move even her eyes. Her consciousness, however, remained fully in sync with the world. Somehow, she couldn’t manage to marvel at the finesse of Tellwyrn’s control.
“Since you’ve decided to make this difficult,” the elf’s voice informed her, “you’re going to watch yourself get your wish, and see how much you enjoy it. Pay attention.”
They were there; she couldn’t look away. Right there at the very head of the crowd, nearest the demonstration.
Dashar was a tall man even without the four-year-old boy perched on his shoulders; naturally they stood out, and given how close they were, the vendor immediately fixed on them as ideal volunteers for his demonstration.
She wanted to scream. Couldn’t, but desperately wanted to. Tellwyrn could at least have given her that much.
At this proximity, having studied the Imperial Inspectors’ analysis after the fact, she knew exactly what happened, knew what to look for, saw the things that would lead to the disaster even from a rooftop across the street. The tiny imperfection in the arcane containment system which created intense cold within a sealed compartment; a flaw so minute it had doubtless been right on the threshold of the factory’s quality control standards. If operated as intended, it would never have mattered. But the stupid fucking ice cream man had the unit, designed to sit in the back of a restaurant kitchen, running out in direct sunlight, an hour before noon, in midsummer, in Calderaas.
Even that wouldn’t have caused such a crisis, though. From her perch, Aradidjad could sense, helpless, the flicker of infernal magic within the crowd, not far from Dashar and Selim. She didn’t know who the warlock was or what they were trying to do; there were limits to what investigators could reconstruct after the fact. A Black Wreath spy committing an act of terrorism, a hedge warlock with poor control who’d have been doomed for a messy death one way or another, maybe even some hapless oaf afflicted with a curse whose existence they didn’t even know if. It didn’t matter in the end.
She watched her son, perched on his father’s shoulders, getting his first and only taste of ice cream. At that angle, she couldn’t even see his face. But she was focused enough on the scene to feel the flicker of infernal power brush against the nimbus of arcane energy surrounding the cold unit, catch in that tiny flaw in its spell boundary, saw the containment begin to unravel. Had there been another mage in the audience, they would have noticed the same, maybe even been able to stop it. There was not.
Except this time, another power intervened.
The temporal portal burst into being directly over the crowd. It wasn’t visible to the eye, but caused an immediate change in air pressure which made every ear on the street pop, eliciting outcries. It would take someone with magical senses to realize something was happening, let alone something that big; that thing was a blaring beacon that would alert every arcanist in the city. The only reason Imperial or Sultanate troops weren’t on the site already was they would know better than to try teleporting that close to an obvious rift.
The characteristic high whine pierced the air, and flashes of blue began sparking around the front of the crowd. With a final burst of light, Aradidjad’s husband and son vanished, teleported through the rift to a point six years into the future. To safety.
This, of course, generated even more of an outcry, but that lasted only moments before the thermal containment charms on the ice cream maker finished unraveling. The first thing that happened was that the damn device exploded as metal parts under pressure were suddenly flash-frozen while exposed to hot sunlight and destabilized magic. The force of the blast lifted the vendor himself and hurled him away like a doll.
On the heels of the explosion, which bowled over the entire front row of the crowd, came a torrent of super-chilled air. Every drop of moisture in the local atmosphere froze. The nearest people froze. Flesh turned as brittle as glass—and in the midday heat and the tumult of people falling over each other, the results of that were immediate and grisly.
And her Dashar and little Selim were meant to have been right there at the forefront of it.
Aradidjad had never had much use for Avei or any of the professions which looked to her as a guardian, but the lawyer she’d found had had a paladin’s fury over injustice and a soldier’s ruthless aim for an enemy’s weakest spot. By the time she, the other victims, the Sultana and the Empire had finished with the manufacturer of those cold boxes, the negligent piece of shit’s great-grandchildren would be out of business. It had been a fairly successful company up to that point, too. The proceeds had funded her temporal research.
“So much stupid suffering from such a random little thing,” Tellwyrn murmured. “Fate is way too fond of that callous plot device. Oh, but what comes next is very different.”
It was. That rift wasn’t going away. Vast quantities of arcane energy funneled through a planar portal presented nigh-insurmountable problems; it could be stabilized on one end through tremendous effort, and on the other… Well, that was possible, in theory. She hadn’t managed to do it.
She hadn’t cared.
The rift was only sealed on the other side.
That left a hole to nowhere in the street above the already-screaming crowd. Distracted as they were by the horrid aftermath of the explosion, it was several more seconds before anyone noticed the lightning arcing out of a spot in the empty sky above.
Aradidjad had no idea it could have been this bad. Punching a hole through spacetime and leaving it to feed back on itself quickly unraveled more physical laws than she had anticipated. Things began lifting off the ground as a rival force competed with the planet’s gravity. Trash, then objects displayed on storefronts, trash cans… And soon enough, people. Then carriages.
And while the contents of the street started rising toward the rift, so did more power from nearby. Calderaas was an industrial center; no single spot was far from massive factory antennae discharging electricity into the atmosphere. There were three of these within sight of the street, and all of them began pouring lightning bolts in the direction of the market. Then, streams of pure arcane magic as the rift seized these power sources and began to suck them in. The antennae themselves bent toward it…
“I believe I’ve mentioned, doctor, that way too many Scions were fools who had no idea what they were messing with. So this is somewhat anomalous, you see. On the other end of that portal was a theoretical arcanist—one of the best in her field, in fact. One of the very few people in this era who had some idea what would happen if she pried open a temporal rift and shoved a teleport spell through it, then failed to close it properly.”
It was ripping up pieces of buildings and sections of the street, now. Masonry, metal, lightning, and screaming people were being crushed into a ball above Calderaas right before her frozen eyes. The very roof on which Aradidjad stood fractured and crumbled; only she, suspended in time, remained unaffected amid the carnage. Vemnesthis’s grip on her was more than a match for the spell she had unleashed.
“This is a great deal more destructive than most of what we have to clean up after, you know. And also, a great deal more maliciously fucking negligent. This is the act of an obsessed, unhinged, selfish monster who cared about no one and nothing except her own pain.”
Tellwyrn made her watch until the unstable rift reached a critical mass, stopped drawing in matter and energy, and instead expelled it. All of it, at once. The explosion sprayed debris and loose arcane energy for miles, and instantly flattened a good quarter of the city.
Only then was she rewound. Back through all the horror of the market, and then her futile attempts to get away. Back further, across two teleports, and leaving her standing in the middle of the street, a block distant from the ice cream shop.
Aradidjad instantly slumped to her knees.
“In the hours to come,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “you’re going to be complaining at length, and in a very loud voice, about my heartlessness. I just thought you should have some context before we got started. You know how this ends, Dr. Aradidjad. We can take as long as you need to before you accept it.”
She still fought. Of course she did.
And, of course, she lost.
She tried to flee, on foot, via magic, by stealing a carriage. She sat down in the street and refused to do anything, and even managed it for a long time before reliving the same three seconds on an endless backward-then-forward loop drove her to the brink of madness. She tried attacking—first that stupid warlock, then the ice cream vendor, then random people in the crowd. She attempted to warn or rescue Dashar and Selim countless times. Tellwyrn just implacably rewound anything Aradidjad did that was not following her instructions to intercept and seal the temporal rift before it even finished opening. The damned elf even let her spend three hours purchasing a wand, a sword, and a Rail ticket to Last Rock (after stealing the money from the ice cream shop) before rewinding and forcing her to live through every second of those hours, at the same speed only backward.
Aradidjad tried to teleport to Last Rock, after that. Since that was way outside the range she could manage and she’d never been there anyway, that only resulted in dropping her from a height of thirty yards above some random patch of prairie. Tellwyrn let her lie there with a snapped spine and generally mangled body for a few minutes to reflect on her decisions before rewinding that one.
Even her vivid and flexible imagination was running out of new ways to kill herself by the time Tellwyrn got tired of cleaning up after her increasingly extravagant suicides. Aradidjad took a faint, grim satisfaction in the fact that the elf’s patience broke before her own. Even that was immediately stripped from her.
The archmage suffered Aradidjad’s struggling for some time before she started asserting herself right back—by using a combination of her own much more powerful teleportation and temporal freezing to make her watch the cold box explosion at the end of every rewind. Aradidjad had long since lost the ability to keep track of time; it felt like she had been fighting this forever, but she had no idea how many hours or days it had actually been before Tellwyrn changed tactics. She started counting after that, though. Forty-seven times, she watched helplessly as own temporal rift decimated her city.
“Surely you know you didn’t save them,” the elf said after the forty-seventh. “You were caught in that explosion, idiot. All you’ve done is create a paradox which split off a splinter timeline in which they, you, and most of Calderaas are continually massacred because this situation can’t resolve itself in a linear manner. I realize you don’t like the eternity you’ve been sentenced to. Is that one really so much better?”
Tellwyrn, at least, gave her as long as she needed to cry until she no longer could.
Setting up the spell array across multiple surrounding rooftops was fiendishly complicated. Fortunately, Tellwyrn was a better mage than she, and understood time travel far more thoroughly; all she had to do was follow directions. She still made mistakes, which Tellwyrn had to rewind, but at least the elf didn’t make her watch the carnage again so long as she was behaving.
And so, finally, she stopped it. Neutralized the rift before it could even form. Calderaas was not destroyed by her hand; no one’s ears even popped. And her husband and son were caught right at the brunt of a stupid, random accident, frozen and shattered like crystal sculptures.
Over a taste of ice cream.
Tellwyrn, apparently only a sadist when she was making a point, didn’t make her watch that either. Aradidjad hurled herself through the rift, away from that day, before the cold box finished destabilizing.
She slumped against the rail of the elevator, and refrained from hurling herself off it only because she knew it wouldn’t do any good. Aradidjad stared emptily past the astonishing spectacle of the citadel as the vehicle slowly descended, reached the bottom, chimed pleasantly, and opened its door.
For several minutes, she just hung there, draped against the upright support of the elevator. It took that long for her to summon even enough energy to raise her head.
Tellwyrn was standing there, watching her over the rims of her golden spectacles.
Exhaustion and numbness vanished in blinding torrent of rage.
Aradidjad burst out of the elevator, screaming incoherently and hurling spells without strategy or restraint. Fire, lightning, pure arcane bolts, blasts of kinetic force, localized gravity wells—everything she could think of that could possibly break something, she flung at the archmage.
Aside from having an elf’s capacity for mana storage and three millennia (and who knew how much longer, if she’d spent a lot of time in the nexus) of practice, Tellwyrn’s reflexes were thrice as fast as Aradidjad’s. Her attempting to assault the elven archmage with magic was exactly as efficacious as a child pounding on a brick wall with bare fists. Tellwyrn barely even bothered to gesticulate as she cast, calmly backing away and unweaving every spell Aradidjad shot at her before it could so much as singe or dent the platform.
She kept doing it anyway. Aradidjad poured every spark of mana she could muster into hurling destruction at the elf until, with surprising suddenness, she found herself without the energy to keep standing upright, much less cast spells.
Slumping to her hands and knees, she stared at the metal plates of the floor with blurry vision, panting for breath.
“Feel better?” Tellwyrn asked.
To her own surprise, she managed an incoherent screech and conjured a combination of heat, gravity, and kinesis that manifested as a tornado of pure fire. She didn’t even see what Tellwyrn did to it, but just collapsed onto her side with the sudden stabbing pain in her temples and spontaneous nosebleed which signified the onset of a solid case of mana fatigue.
“No, of course you don’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. Aradidjad couldn’t muster the energy to react, even internally, when the elf sat on the floor next to her.
They were silent for a while. The show she’d just put on had doubtless attracted the attention of every Scion in the citadel, but nobody came anywhere near them. Based on Yalda and Styrronski’s earlier reactions, they probably knew exactly what was happening here.
“What’d you do?” Aradidjad whispered finally. That wasn’t one of the things she’d urgently wanted to know. She was too tired and too numb even to be surprised at herself for asking.
“To get sentenced here, you mean?”
Tellwyrn shrugged, gazing into the distance. “Every Scion except me wanted something. Tried to get something for themselves. All of them were either after unreasonable power, or trying to recover something precious they’d lost. Me, all I wanted was Vemnesthis’s attention. I fired a four-dimensional flare across his nose. It harmed no one, affected nothing, and presented no possibility of profit to me. What I wanted to ask him about didn’t even require any time travel expertise.”
“…you were actually punished for that?”
“Rules are rules. But…no, not exactly.” Tellwyrn shifted, bringing her gaze down to meet Aradidjad’s eyes. “That’s what all of this is about. The reason we were all sentenced to this. Because we are not special. We all tried to unmake reality for our own purposes, and we don’t get to do that. A Scion of Vemnesthis is a wizard who, at some point, decided that having power over space and time meant we were entitled to do whatever thing we wanted. We are confined here and compelled to serve to disabuse us of that notion. I am no threat to the timeline, Vemnesthis told me that himself. But in many ways I embody this problem—the idea that I get to do whatever goddamn thing I please because I damn well can and hardly anyone is in a position to stop me.” She shrugged again, raising her head to stare up at the endless hourglass. “He decided to impose some limits on me, because no one else had. I can’t say I appreciate it, but… I also can’t say I blame him.”
Aradidjad closed her eyes. She was lying in a very uncomfortable position. Somehow she didn’t care enough to move. “And this warrants eternal servitude.”
“You want justice? Well, Avei probably wouldn’t have done it this way,” Tellwyrn said with a bitter laugh. “But if we’re talking proportionality, you do realize that you’d be here longer than anyone. None of your colleagues actually tried to destroy a major city, Cyria.”
There wasn’t really anything to say to that. Another long silence fell.
“I’ll tell you what I know, though,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “Two things. Gods never reveal everything… And there are far too few Scions.”
Aradidjad opened her eyes to stare a mute question at her.
“Given the rate at which we recruit them? How often some fool wizard tries to mess with existence and won’t listen to reason?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “There ought to be hundreds. Thousands. This place is certainly big enough to accommodate that. We have barely three dozen. And I don’t remember any others, but… Would I? Speaking as high priestess I can’t promise you anything. But just as someone who has been watching the comings and goings here for quite a while, I am absolutely convinced that there is some kind of retirement clause for Scions of Vemnesthis. And when they’re done, they are simply…erased from our timeline.”
“That’s the most twisted fucking thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Yeah.” Tellwyrn scrunched up her nose in distaste. “He tries so hard to be considerate of us, and just does not understand what it’s like to exist as a linear person. The result is a lot of existential horror. Well.” With a sigh, the elf stood up, then bent to offer Aradidjad her hand. “Come with me, Cyria. There’s someone you need to meet.”
Standing with Tellwyrn on some miscellaneous piece of prairie in the horrible place between places, trying not to think about the writhing monstrosities that filled the sky, Aradidjad reflexively grabbed at her revolver when a black shape came swooping out of the sky at them.
“Easy,” Tellwyrn said, placing a hand on her arm. “This is her. Doctor, this is Evaine. Evaine, Cyria Aradidjad.”
“It is a sincere honor to finally meet you,” the valkyrie said enthusiastically, and swept a bow. It was an elaborate gesture involving a horizontal brandishing of her scythe and arching of her great black wings overhead. Aradidjad eased backward a half-step in response.
Her voice, even to her own ears, was unnaturally flat. “Why.”
Evaine straightened up, still smiling at her and clearly taking no offense. “I understand your suspicion, Dr. Aradidjad. I’ll try to explain things in order, since if I know Arachne, you have no idea why you’ve been brought here.”
Tellwyrn rolled her eyes under their combined stare, but said nothing.
“The afterlife,” the valkyrie began, “is a dimensional plane like the prime material plane upon which you were born. The Elder Gods set it aside for the purpose of…well, power. You know, I’m sure, that magic requires a sapience to be initiated?”
“She’s one of the best theoretical arcanists of her era,” Tellwyrn said. “You can skip the review.”
Evaine made a wry face at her before turning back to Cyria. “Very well. That, doctor, is the reason the Elders began harvesting and storing souls. In the suspended state which is normal there, they have no will as such. They can be used to create magical workings on a scale no mortal caster could even dream. And now, that vast soul battery is under the control of the Pantheon.”
“Why,” Aradidjad asked faintly, “is every new thing I learn more horrific than the last?”
“Because you messed with time and blew up Calderaas,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “Hush up and listen.”
“Still working on those people skills, I see,” Evaine said cheerfully. “Anyway, doctor, don’t worry—things are much better since Vidius took over. The souls of the dead aren’t being used for anything, just allowed to exist. And no longer in neutral suspension, either. The afterlife is just…bliss. Pure, existential happiness. Except!” She held up one finger. “The few souls my sisters and I are sent to gather… They retain a consciousness and individuality. Not just everyone is added to that roster, because, well… The world would be filled with them, and it would have all the same problems as the mortal plane. The honored dead are given a paradise in which to live as people, and even that requires an awful lot of maintenance, even for the comparatively few of them.”
“Who are the few?” Aradidjad asked woodenly.
Evaine’s answering smile was gentler now. “Mostly? The brave. We bring those who fell in acts of great courage and heroism. But…there are a few extras. Now, this part probably isn’t strictly allowed, so don’t spread it around. Arachne here pulled strings with us. We don’t mind at all, and neither Vidius nor Vemnesthis has said anything, so hopefully that’s that. Some of the Scions, I understand, end up serving because they lost someone and tried to bend time to get them back.”
Aradidjad didn’t dare speak. Her pulse was suddenly pounding in her throat.
“For those,” Evaine said with a knowing smile, “we make exceptions. Those dead loved ones are brought to paradise. It’s a chance for life to go on. And… A chance, at least, for children to grow up, to actually live. It’s not the world, but it’s a life.”
She opened her mouth, not sure what she could even say. It ended up not mattering, as her voice was gone. For what seemed the dozenth time very recently, Aradidjad slumped to her knees, too overcome to carry on holding herself upright.
Evaine knelt with her, wrapping arms around her shoulders and holding her close.
“We won’t often have the opportunity for our paths to cross,” the valkyrie murmured, “but when I can manage it, I’ll bring you news. I was the one who brought Dashar and Selim home; I made sure they knew they have you to thank. I’ll let you know how Selim is growing when I can.”
“I know it isn’t much,” Tellwyrn said. “It’s not…enough. Not the same as having your life back. But it’s what I could manage to arrange, thanks to Evaine and her sisters being willing to help.”
Aradidjad drew a shuddering breath, the valkyrie’s wings folding protectively over her. No, it wasn’t enough. But it was something. It would strengthen her enough to keep going.
And maybe, if Tellwyrn was right, she could be with them again. For now, that was something she could cling to.
For a time.