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“Don’t worry about it.”
Toby heaved a deep sigh, allowing his usual mask of calm and the posture crafted by years of martial arts to finally relax, now that he was surrounded by nobody whose opinion he needed to care about. This might be the only place where that was true, and so he let himself slump over the bar, absently toying with his “cup” of “tea,” which was a large snail shell with a flattish bottom, full of hot water steeped, somehow, in mushrooms. He didn’t know how in the world one made tea out of mushrooms, but after his last visit here, the flavor was unmistakable.
Poise and bearing were disciplines cultivated for their own sake, not affectations he kept up for appearances, but considering how many rules he was already breaking just by being here alone, it somehow felt right to let loose. It was oddly liberating.
“It was just a question,” the bartender hummed, idly running a threadbare rag over the bar’s stone surface, which didn’t need it. “All part of the gig, you know. You slouch at my bar, gazing morosely into your non-alcoholic beverage, I pretend to be interested in your problems. Bartenders and losers have been doing this dance since time immemorial. It’s bigger than both of us, sweetheart.”
Toby gave her an annoyed look; Melaxyna grinned right back, ostentatiously unrepentant. After a moment, though, he had to smile a little in response. It was slightly funny, anyway. That didn’t mean he could afford not to be careful. Sanctuary or no, a succubus was a dangerous thing. All the more so when she tried to appear otherwise.
“I was answering the question,” he said, “not telling you to drop it. That was what I got from my god. After traveling to Tiraas, requesting use of the central temple—and that’s not a small thing, paladin or no, it puts a lot of people out to clear off from the main center of Omnist worship—and did the ritual to call him down. All that, and that’s what I got. ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
“He said that?” Her grin widened, if anything. “That’s cold.”
“Good thing one can always count on a bartender for a sympathetic ear.”
“Well, let’s not forget you’re talking to a demon, here,” Melaxyna said, still grinning. “You can’t bring me this kind of validation and expect me to be all glum. No, I am not shocked to learn of a god of the Pantheon being heartless and dismissive to his allegedly most valued servant. Tough break, kid, but that’s pretty much how the bastards are.”
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, again pushing the shell cup back and forth between his hands. After one sip, the prospect of actually drinking it didn’t appeal.
Behind him, the sounds of other patrons in the Grim Visage formed a low hum. It was a different clientele than under Rowe; according to Sarriki, since the dismantling of his attempted dimensional gates, they hadn’t seen any visiting drow or gnomes, much less travelers from other worlds. Tonight it was mostly goblins, two naga and a small party of caplings clustered in one corner. He hadn’t realized caplings were sapient enough to patronize bars, and indeed, these appeared to be trying to eat their table. Sarriki still slithered about with her crafty smile, carrying trays of mushroom beer hither and yon. Now, Melaxyna’s surly hench-hethelax, Xsythri, was perched on the rail between the bar’s two levels, keeping a grim eye on everyone.
“Omnu isn’t much of a talker, as such,” Toby said slowly, frowning at his drink. “I’ve found that myself, and it’s been born out by what I’ve read of the writings of other Hands of Omnu. Trissiny and Gabe apparently have conversations with their gods, when they talk at all, but for me… Communing with Omnu is more like…what Teal describes of her relationship with Vadrieny.” He glanced up at the succubus, but she was just watching him attentively, now, and made no reaction to the archdemon’s name. “This time, it was a sense of peace. I mean…you could make the case that Omnu’s very presence is a sense of peace, but this was more specific. It was a message. Be a ease, don’t worry, all will be well.”
She shrugged, again fruitlessly wiping the bar. “Well, I’m not one to give the gods credit, but that sounds like good advice. Unless, of course, you went to him with a problem that was seriously bothering you and has far-reaching implications that you need to understand if he expects you to do your fucking job.”
“Well, this is one reason I’m down here,” Toby said wryly. “I’ve heard plenty of encouragement and platitudes from people who didn’t seem to register that getting encouragement and platitudes was what was bothering me in the first place. It’s tricky, finding someone willing to offer a critical view of the gods. Especially if they know you’re a paladin.”
“In their defense, that’s because paladins are usually the ones doing the rounding up and slaughtering when people do horrible, deviant things like think for themselves,” she said sweetly. “Not you, of course, but to the average shmoe who just wants to live his life, the difference between Hands of Omnu and Avei are fairly academic.”
“Yes, your unbiased perspective is a breath of fresh air,” he replied, quirking an eyebrow, and she laughed. He had to remind himself how deftly manipulative her kind were; even that laugh seemed friendly, approachable, effortlessly fostering camaraderie. At least she hadn’t tried to flirt with him, but then, she could probably tell as easily as Juniper that there was no point. “I confess I’d thought you might have some personal view on this. We’re talking about what is, for all intents and purposes, a weapon. A massively destructive weapon, one which incinerates demons. Like you.”
“The holy nova?” Melaxyna lifted an eyebrow of her own. “I’m sorry to tell you this, kiddo, but you didn’t invent it.”
“Yes, using it as glibly as you describe and walking away is something new and interesting. Assigning more dangerous powers to their followers is actually a reversal for the Pantheon, considering Salryene hasn’t called a Hand since her last one scoured Athan’Khar off the map. And here I thought they might have actually learned a lesson, there. That’ll show me.”
“Magnan didn’t actually do that—”
“You’re Arachne’s student; I know you know your history better than that. If you build a horrible weapon and bend your energies to campaigning for it to be used, you don’t get to dodge responsibility just because someone else’s finger was on the switch. More to the point, you’re deflecting.” She cocked her head to the side, smiling smugly. “That’s what’s bugging you, isn’t it? Escalation.”
“Escalation,” he said, again frowning at his tea, “and…change. Change of what should be fundamental, immutable. Omnu is a god of peace. Why…why a weapon?”
“Putting aside the fact that the holy nova is just as useful for cleansing and healing as fighting demons,” she said, “you’re being tripped up by a willful misconception, there. Omnism is a religion of peace. Omnu is a god of life, and of the sun. Ask your friend the dryad how peaceable life is, and hell… The sun burns. Maybe you’re just turned around by all this because you’re expecting your god to act like you want him to act. Like the pleasant father figure your upbringing created an image of, instead of a nigh-omnipotent creature with as much of an ego and an agenda as anyone else.”
Toby’s frown deepened. Her own agenda lay thick over her suggestions, but beneath it was some logic. Enough to be worth mulling over, if he could separate the kernels of truth from the manipulations woven through them. They had to be there; Trissiny had made the point repeatedly, in their discussions about the Vanislaad, Eserites, Black Wreath, and others, that all good manipulations required a core of truth. Simple lies were far too easily debunked. Re-framing truth made a smokescreen that could be nearly impossible to penetrate.
He lifted his gaze to study her curiously; she just stared back, wearing a faintly knowing little smile.
“Well,” he said, shifting back from the bar, “thanks for the tea and conversation. I should probably go find out whether I’ve actually gotten away with this. I know students sneak down here all the time, but—”
“Why did you really come?” she asked mildly. “This is not your scene, Toby. Not just because it’s full of demons and monsters and located deep in an otherworldly pit of violence. Bars are not your scene. Besides, I clearly recall you and your little posse were rather close-knit. There are much more immediate people you could go to with your problems. Safer people.”
“Like I said—”
“Oh, all right, you want me to narrate? I can narrate.” She winked. “I’ve been around long enough to have seen this before, after all. Your whole problem is that you’re questioning your god. You know what a Child of Vanislaas is, and where we come from. Being that you’re a young man with a mind of your own and a conscience, not yet too blinded by dogma to have forsworn the use of both, you’d naturally seek out the perspective of someone who, like you, started out a mortal human, and yet ended up violently opposed to your Pantheon.”
“I don’t know if it’s all that mysterious,” he demurred. “I daresay I’ve met some people myself who I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see becoming incubi or succubi.”
Melaxyna’s smile faded. She had been leaning forward over the bar in a way which showed off her cleavage, possibly just out of habit, but now straightened up and folded her arms in a manner which, for once, was not suggestive. Toby shrugged and resumed getting up from his stool.
“I was a priestess of Izara.”
Slowly, he sat back down.
“I died in the Third Hellwar,” she continued, tilting her chin up. The gesture was prideful, but not condescending; she could do wonderfully expressive things with the tiniest touches of body language. “To make a very long story relatively short… My village was pressed by demons. I wasn’t a healer, specifically, but I damn well did my best. The light does heal, even if the one wielding it lacks much skill. It wasn’t enough, of course. And worse, all I could do was heal.” She bared her teeth in a contemptuous sneer. “My light wouldn’t burn the demons. Oh, once or twice, when I helped the defenders close to the gates, I’d actually singe one in passing. But if I tried? If I wanted to protect my home and family, and use the power I had to drive back the monsters that were trying to slaughter us? Well, Izara cut me off. Can’t have that. The goddess of love just couldn’t bear the thought of any of her precious followers surviving to carry on her will, not when they had the option of making some kind of obscure point of principle by being helplessly butchered. If I seem to lack sympathy for you because Omnu’s willing to let you kill in his name, well, now you understand my bias.”
She snorted and lashed her tail once, wings flaring briefly before settling back around her shoulders. “Oh, but we were almost saved! An actual, honest-to-gods Hand of Avei came to the village. Had two Silver Huntresses with her—do you know what those were?”
“I’m not familiar with them…”
“Well, look it up sometime, they were interesting. Anyhow, there the Avenists were, here to save the day! Huzzah, rejoicing! Except that no, they couldn’t be bothered.” Her fingers stiffened into claws, digging into her own arms. “One little flyspeck village wasn’t important. They were there to get supplies and reinforcements and continue on to the real battlefront. And by get, I mean take, as they made abundantly clear when some tried to bar them from our rations and limited weapons. The option they gave us was to let any too young, weak, or infirm to fight just…stay there and die, when all the food, weapons, and able-bodied fighters had been taken from the village, or come along and almost certainly meet the same fate on the road, because there could be no question of slowing their pace enough to protect them.
“So,” she drawled, “I took some initiative. Managed to catch one of the Huntresses unarmed, got a knife to her throat, and demanded that the Hand call on Avei. I figured there was just no way the actual goddess of justice would be party to that kind of barbarism if she could see it being done in her name.”
She met his eyes challengingly, ancient fury smoldering behind her own. “The demons didn’t kill me. Even the Hand of Avei didn’t. Avei did. Personally. She couldn’t be arsed to protect my people, or even to leave us with what we needed to protect ourselves, but somehow the goddess of justice found time to strike down a loyal cleric of the Pantheon for the unpardonable crime of standing up and demanding that she do the one thing which was her entire reason to exist.”
“I guess,” he said slowly when she stopped talking, “threatening a servant of a god and blackmailing a paladin gets an automatic damnation…”
“Oh, no,” she said, sneering again. “Oh, no no no. Vidius was a rather more reasonable chap, as I recall when I came before him for judgment. He’s really not too stringent; he said I’d done remarkably well in a terrible situation and thought I deserved reward beyond the average. Even kept at me on it when I refused; I had to cuss him out at some considerable length before he was willing to send me to Hell.”
“Did you…” Toby’s voice caught, embarrassingly, and he had to swallow before continuing. “You were already planning to seek out Prince Vanislaas?”
“Oh, Toby,” she said, shaking her head. “That was a different time. I was a backcountry yokel; for most people in my situation, one village was the universe and the horizon as unreachable as the sky. There were no telescrolls, no newspapers even; books were rare and precious, and we seldom saw a bard. There certainly weren’t any Rails or zeppelins. Shitty roads in most places, for that matter. I could read and do my sums, which made me as close as the village had to a scholar. No, I had no idea what a succubus even was, much less how they were made. All I knew, standing before the seat of divine judgment, was that at the thought of spending eternity with the fucking gods, I’d rather take my chances with the demons and the damned. At least I already knew what to expect from them.”
Toby did not voice the most immediate thought that came to mind: good deceptions had to contain a kernel of truth—except, perhaps, if they were about things which had happened thousands of years ago and left no records. Instead, he asked a question.
“Have you ever regretted it?”
“Regretted what?” she asked sweetly. “The years of wandering in Hell, pursued and abused by demons? Millennia of sneaking in shadows, matching wits with the gods’ followers, sowing chaos among their works wherever I could? The loneliness, the hardship, the privation, the constant enmity of an entire plane of existence, all just so I could make the point to the Pantheon that at least one soul was not going to stand for their bullshit?”
She opened her wings slightly, arching them menacingly above her head, and bared her teeth in a savage grin.
Tellwyrn was frowning deeply and far away in thought as she climbed out of the sunken grotto, emerging through the gap between massive tree roots into the fading afternoon light beneath the forest canopy. So lost in her own reflections, in fact, that despite the acuity of her senses she did not realize she was no longer alone until she was forced to stop, her way forward blocked by another elf.
“And what,” Linsheh demanded icily, “do you think you’re doing? Who gave you permission to go in there?”
The mage stared at the shaman in silence for a moment.
“I honestly can’t recall the last time anyone gave me permission to do anything,” she answered finally.
Linsheh’s eyes narrowed to furious slits. “The time for you to seek knowledge here was before you spent so much time and effort burning those bridges, Arachne. You are not welcome in this grove.”
Another elf came bounding out of the forest, coming to a stop off to one side. “Elder,” he said worriedly, “please. She’s already been and come back, this won’t do—”
“Be silent, Adimel,” Linsheh ordered curtly.
“I was actually going to apologize to you,” Tellwyrn said in a soft tone. “Well… Maybe going is a little strong, but I was thinking about it very seriously. It’s been enough years now; with the benefit of some distance, thinking back on our various altercations, it’s seemed to me that I was unnecessarily rude. At any rate, Kuriwa seemed to think so, and much as she rubs me the wrong way I think the worst thing about her is how seldom she’s wrong.”
“Kuriwa,” Linsheh growled. “I might have known I’d find her at the back of this.”
“But that was before,” Tellwyrn continued, still deadly quiet. “It’s no secret to you, I’m sure, how the knowledge of what you’re hoarding down there would change the world. But you know, and I know you know, what it meant to me, personally. What it would have meant if I’d learned of it long before now. All the absolute hell I could have spared myself. And now, suddenly, I find myself thinking I wasn’t hard enough on you.” She tilted her head down, staring coldly over the rims of her glasses. “And furthermore, that it isn’t too late to correct that oversight.”
“Arachne,” Adimel exclaimed, “please. This is pointless.”
“I should hardly have to state that you do not frighten me,” Linsheh said, curling her lip.
“Isn’t that precious,” Tellwyrn replied, flexing her fingers. “I wonder how frightened you’ll be if I burn this grove to the ground.”
The shaman took one step toward her, snatching up the tomahawk hanging at her belt. “You were better off in the days when you didn’t dare challenge me openly, Arachne. All I need is the excuse of one fireball and my tribe will put a stop to your insanity, finally, for good.”
“That’s enough!” Adimel exclaimed, interposing himself bodily between them. “You are both behaving like—”
Both women pointed fingers at him.
A blast of wind pushed him one way while a burst of pure concussive force shoved the other; Adimel spun in a full circle, losing his grip on his staff, and staggered away to land on his rear in a fern, blinking in confusion.
“You really want to drag your tribe into this?” Tellwyrn asked, baring her teeth. “You know very well the lot of them don’t have the collective power to stop me doing any damn thing I please, Linsheh.”
“That’s right, Arachne,” Linsheh retorted. “Keep pushing. I always did hope I would be there on the day you learned how oversized your estimation of yourself is.”
“Ah, if I may?”
Both turned to glare at the speaker.
A drow man approached, wearing sweeping robes in deep shades of red and green. Having seized their attention, he bowed deeply.
“It is a tremendous honor to meet you, Professor Tellwyrn. I most humbly apologize for interrupting your discussion, but may I request with the utmost respect that you both refrain from destroying the grove while my delegation is present?” He put on a disarming little smile. “Reporting on the demise of multiple family members results in the most tedious interviews with my head of House.”
They stared at him as the silence stretched out, and then Tellwyrn let out a soft huff of amusement through her nose.
“Well, this I was not expecting. Asron, isn’t it?”
“Asron tyl Rinshae n’dar Awarrion,” he replied, bowing again. “Indeed, I was not expecting the great pleasure of making your acquaintance during this mission, Professor. It is honor enough to learn that you are aware of me. I am particularly grateful, however, that fortune has brought you here.” Turning to Linsheh, he bowed deeply to her as well. “Elder, I would not presume to involve myself in your personal affairs, nor those of your tribe. But, as we have established a precedent of laying aside old grudges to speak openly with one another, I must humbly suggest that this most fortuitous circumstance presents a golden opportunity for more of the same. Professor Tellwyrn, if she would graciously consent to join our discussions, has a unique and imminently relevant perspective on the matter under consideration.”
“So polite, these Awarrions,” Tellwyrn mused.
“Yes,” Linsheh replied with a sigh. “So much so that I can’t even bring myself to fault this one for his florid manner of speech.”
“You’re a fine peacemaker, Asron,” Tellwyrn said, finally stepping away from Linsheh and down the tree roots to the bank of the stream below. Behind her, Adimel had resumed his feet, and now folded his arms, directing a reproachful frown at his Elder. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do. Hell, I think it’s a fine idea, and my only complaint is that nobody tried it thousands of years ago. Better late than never, and hopefully not too late still. But no, involving me in this isn’t a good idea at all.”
“Your modesty is admirable,” Asron said, not responding to Linsheh’s bark of scornful laughter. “But if anything, Professor, you are an expert at what we are seeking to accomplish. Blending together different cultures the way you personally have learned—”
“Young man,” she said pointedly, “you need diplomats. You literally just walked in on me expressing my pissy mood by threatening to burn down the forest. Tell me you can see the disconnect, here.”
The drow smiled again, this time with a hint of true amusement. “Well, with respect, I was not proposing to put you in charge of the discussion. But if, now or at any point in the future, you would kindly agree to join our conversations, I do believe quite sincerely that your perspective would be of tremendous value, even if you were willing to merely answer a few questions. You did, after all, express esteem for the spirit of the endeavor.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I will think about it. I have no shortage of my own business to attend to. Speaking of which.” Tellwyrn turned to aim a finger at Linsheh. “This conversation is not over.”
“You have nothing else to say that is of interest to me,” the shaman said disdainfully.
Tellwyrn grinned up at her. “I bet I can surprise you.”
She vanished without warning, leaving behind only a tiny puff of displaced air.
Linsheh rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Asron, I appreciate you coming to check on me, but as you see I am quite well. If you’d kindly return to the circle, I shall be back presently.”
“By your leave then, Elder,” he said diffidently, bowing to her, and then turning to glide back into the trees.
“Are you all right?” Linsheh asked Adimel.
He folded his arms and looked down his nose at her. “How humbling it is that you express concern for my well-being at this juncture, most esteemed Elder.”
“Well, if you’re all right enough to do that, you’re all right,” she said archly, then turned and paced off after the drow.
The blast of wind which struck her in the back failed even to ruffle her hair. Linsheh paused, turned, and said dryly, “Do you feel better now, Adimel?”
A pine cone plummeted from above, striking the top of her head.
Linsheh blinked, grimaced, and looked upward. She was standing beneath a redwood tree. There were no pines closer than the Wyrnrange.
“Much, thank you,” Adimel said with more cheer, gathering up his staff and striding off toward the village.