Tag Archives: Izara

14 – 28

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Vesk doubled over very satisfyingly, the breath seemingly driven from him. Even the fact that this was an obvious case of playacting on his part didn’t dull the appreciative smiles it brought from several of those present. Trissiny didn’t smile, simply turning her back on him and resuming what had been her original course.

She didn’t hug Gabriel, after all, but reached out to grab him by both shoulders, and only then drew in a deep breath and blew it out in relief, as if unwilling to believe he was actually there until she had her hands on him.

“Thank the gods, Gabe. Are you…okay?”

“I’m really thirsty,” he said frankly. “You have no idea how dry the air is over there. Yeah, Triss, I’m fine. You guys?”

“We had the easy half of the bargain, don’t forget,” Toby said, smiling as he strode up. He did hug Gabriel, and was hugged back. Trissiny took a step back, smiling at the two of them for the long moment they shared.

Behind them, Izara blinked, a gesture so slow it verged on simply closing her eyes, and a serene smile spread across her thin features. Around her, the air seemed to lighten.

“Oh! Right.” Gabe released Toby and pulled back, turning to the woman who was now surreptitiously trying to hide behind him—which didn’t work well, since she was taller by a few inches. “Are you okay, Xyraadi?”

“I…have been manhandled before, with far less courtesy than that,” she said warily. Her yellow eyes had fixed on Trissiny, taking in the silver armor, and she stood tensed as if prepared to bolt. “It is a very great relief to be out of that place, again. I could have done without a personal audience with the Dark Lady and that creature Vanislaas, but given how quickly it was all over, I think I can forgive you for bringing me there.”

“I beg your pardon,” Agasti interjected, stepping toward them wearing an expression that verged on awed, “but did you say Xyraadi?”

“Ah, yes,” Gabriel said, grinning at them. “Everybody, meet the help Salyrene kindly arranged for us. You remember Xyraadi was mentioned when we were in Vrin Shai? I know we weren’t in there long, but she kept my ass alive the whole time; I would’ve been a sitting duck without her help. Xyraadi, may I present Mortimer Agasti, attorney at law and the only Izarite warlock I’ve ever met. And these are my two best friends! Toby Caine, Hand of Omnu, and Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”

Xyraadi glanced at Agasti and then Toby before her eyes returned to Trissiny, her lips pressed into a frightened line. She managed a terse nod of her crested head and a small noise deep within her throat.

Trissiny stepped forward, meeting her eyes, and held out a gauntleted hand. “Xyraadi? I understand you’ve been an ally of the gods for a very long time. Thank you very much for looking after Gabriel. I truly don’t think I could thank you enough for that.”

“I…” The khelminash swallowed once, nodding again.

“It’s all right,” Trissiny said in a softer voice. “I’m not going to stab you.”

“Well, you can’t blame her for wondering,” Vesk remarked from the sidelines. “I’m fine, by the way, thanks everybody for your concern.”

“You hush,” Izara ordered.

“I have known another Hand of Avei,” Xyraadi said, still tense. “I worked with her toward common cause for several days before she stopped actively trying to kill me. It was three years before she would accept me being on watch when our party camped and refrained from putting divine wards around me as I slept. I had to nearly die saving her life before she consented to speak with me directly.”

“That…sounds about right,” Trissiny said, her hand remaining outstretched and open. “And honestly, that also describes me just a few years ago. Hands of Avei…have to see the world a bit more black and white than it really is. You can’t very well bring the light into a world if you hold too much respect for the darkness. But the world is more complex than it used to be, and I have to appreciate the shades of gray more than the sisters who come before me. I judge you by your actions, Xyraadi, and they mark you a friend.”

Slowly, the demon reached out and placed her slender hand in the paladin’s grip. Trissiny closed her gloved fingers gently around Xyraadi’s and squeezed once, smiling at her, before letting go.

“There truly are wonders in the world,” Xyraadi said, herself sounding awed.

Agasti cleared his throat, catching her attention, and bowed deeply to her. By that point, there was no trace left of the hunch or stiffness which seemed to have plagued him just the day before. “My lady, it is a tremendous honor to make your acquaintance, and one I never imagined I should enjoy. You are a creature of legend, Xyraadi. Legends only told in certain circles, true, but legends nonetheless. Please consider me humbly at your disposal; I shall be only too glad to help you adjust to the world as it is now.”

“You are too kind,” she said, clearly mystified, but placed her hand in his outstretched fingers next. Agasti didn’t offer his grip in the same position as Trissiny’s, but gracefully lifted her hand and brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles.

“There, now, isn’t that just lovely?” Vesk said cheerfully, swaggering over to them with his hovering lute trailing along behind. “New friends and old, united in common whuff!”

Trissiny pivoted and rammed her fist in a precise uppercut into his solar plexus, bending him over again. This time he staggered to one side and his lute fell to the ground with a sad, discordant little plonk.

“I know that’s bound to get old eventually,” Gabriel remarked, “but something tells me it’ll be a while.”

“You two can come out,” Izara said kindly, turning to speak in the direction of the carriage which was parked some yards back down the path. “Elilial is gone, and neither of us the sort of god who smites without reason.”

“It’s quite all right,” Agasti added as Arkady and Kami gingerly poked their heads around from behind the vehicle. “Come, be sociable. The danger has passed.”

“Ah, but there’s always more danger!” Vesk declaimed, straightening. For all that he reacted like any mortal when physically assaulted, he recovered from the hits faster than a person of mere flesh and blood would. “Fortunately, you two won’t be asked to charge into it. Nor you, Mr. Agasti, nor our newest friend Xyraadi, here. Once more, it is time for a parting of paths, as our intrepid heroes proceed on to the next stage of their destiny! A good bit of the reason for this whole trip was introducing you kids to some new faces who’ll be more important later.”

Trissiny turned to him again and he took two circumspect steps to the left, his lute swinging around to hover behind him while plucking an offended little arpeggio.

“I knew it,” Gabriel said gravely. “The real great doom was the friends we made along the way.”

Toby drew in a breath as if to sigh, then grinned at him. “Gods, am I glad you’re okay.”

“But enough of that!” Vesk said more briskly, even as he minced around the group to place himself as far from Trissiny as possible without removing himself from the conversation entirely. “Let’s see the fruits of your labor, champions! How’s my key coming along?”

“You have got some nerve,” Trissiny spat.

“Indeed, you might say that’s my calling card!” Vesk said brightly, flicking a hand in her direction. A small piece of thick paper flew from his fingers, heading right for her face with the speed and precision of a paper glider, causing her to catch it purely by reflex. Trissiny thus found herself holding an actual calling card.

While she stared at this in utter disbelief, the god turned his attention back to the other two paladins, grinning and rubbing his hands together. “Well? Don’t keep a deity in suspense!”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it?” Gabriel muttered, but obligingly reached into his pocket. Toby didn’t bother to comment, simply producing the conjoined first two pieces of the key they had gathered.

Vesk reached out with both hands, almost reverently taking the objects from them. Slowly, with a solemnity actively contrasted by Trissiny flinging his card to the ground in disgust, he brought them together. The mithril fragment Gabriel had snagged from the temple wouldn’t have been taken for the teeth of a key on its own. Flat on one end, save for small indentations which caused it to fit neatly into the markings on the side of Gretchen’s Dowry, its other end was an irregular pattern of jagged points and angles, a thin lip of some glossy black material like obsidian emerging to resemble the edge of a serrated blade.

It attached neatly to the others, though, and the thing in the god’s hand did indeed have the aspect of a large, old-fashioned key. The shape was evocative, if the resemblance was not precise. Vesk held it out before them on his outstretched palm.

“Behold,” he said softly. “Once upon a time, a collection of interlocking bits and pieces such as might have been cluttering up anybody’s junk drawer. In this era, a rare assemblage of ancient and precious relics. But so it is with the passage of time, which elevates all trash to treasure—in the eyes of the archaeologists, if nothing else. To us…to you…this means more than you can possibly imagine.”

“I can think of precious few things you might do with that,” Izara said quietly, “none of them wise.”

“Ah, but dear sister,” he said, giving her a roguish grin and wink and closing his fingers around the key. “How often am I wise, yet how often am I right? In my experience, there is very little connection between those two qualities.”

She just shook her head. “I’ve learned to trust you, Vesk. I dearly hope you know what you are doing.”

“Especially since you as good as sold us to Elilial to do it,” Toby added, staring flatly at the god of bards.

“Here, since you’ve appointed yourself keeper of the artifact,” Vesk said with a less than subtle note of mockery now in his solemnity, handing the key back to Toby. “Now say your goodbyes, kids, we’ve got a long way to go, and this last leg of the journey you’ll have to make without any sidekicks. Though, frankly, you could have kept some of them along for a little bit longer. Honestly, Trissiny, what’s the big idea, scaring off the comedy relief I found for you? Without the Jenkins brothers, Gabe’s had to pick up that slack, and he has his own character development to—”

Trissiny strode swiftly through the center of the group, aiming another jab with her right fist at his midsection. Vesk reflexively ducked and retreated, bending his body to evade the blow and in the process bringing his head down and forward, which put it right within range of her other hand. He evaded the feint, but she slapped him upside the noggin with her shield.

Nobody paid the god the slightest attention as he rolled on the ground, clutching his skull and groaning melodramatically. Agasti turned to the still-nervous Xyraadi, bowing courteously to her again.

“My dear, I realize you are something of a fish out of water; rest assured I will not allow you to go without aid or shelter so long as I have it to offer. I believe you’ll find my home quite comfortable, if you would do me the honor of accepting my hospitality. Indeed, I very much look forward to the conversations we shall have in the days to come!”

“Mr. Agasti is a trusted friend,” Gabriel assured her when she turned her eyes questioningly to him. “I’m really sorry to just yank you back and then dump you like this, but believe me, you’ll be just fine with him. I don’t know how long this quest is going to keep us occupied, or what’s coming next, but I’ll do my best to come see you as soon as I can, okay?”

“Ah…well. I appreciate that very much. And I shall be glad to accept your offer, M. Agasti,” the demon said, inclining her head toward Mortimer. She then looked past him at the carriage, where the two revenants had emerged fully, but so far declined to approach any closer to the gods. “But perhaps the farewells are premature; it seems none of us is going anywhere quickly. In all the confusion your horses have run off.”

There was a momentary pause. Vesk, still slumped on the ground, grinned hugely and opened his mouth, but closed it when fixed by a glare from Izara.

“Also,” Gabriel said solemnly, “Mortimer has lots and lots of books. That’ll help you a bunch. You’ve, uh, got a lot to catch up on.”


Instantaneous travel by the auspices of a god wasn’t very much like being teleported around by Tellwyrn. There was less sensation, and not even the noise of displaced air. Vesk’s method was also a whole level more sophisticated, given how he arranged them mid-transit. The four of them had vanished from the sunny hillside below the Wyrnrange after saying their farewells to the others, and reappeared in darkness, in what seemed to be a ruined temple. It was hard to tell as they couldn’t see beyond the tiny island of firelight in which they found themselves, and anyway were more distracted by the fire and their own positions. They were seated on fallen hunks of masonry surrounding the flames, as if they’d been there for hours in conversation. Even their eyes were already adjusted to the light.

“I really hate it when people do that,” Toby said with uncharacteristically open annoyance. “I think yours is even worse than the way Tellwyrn does it.”

“Not at all!” Vesk said cheerfully from across the low flames. The fire looked to have been burning for quite a while, and was on the verge of sputtering out. “I can attest that I moved you through space, not unlike what you call shadow-jumping. Arachne’s method is a whole other kettle of fish. Tell me, have you covered the great quandry of teleportation in Yornhaldt’s class yet?”

Gabriel straightened up, seemingly ignoring the question, and turned on his seat to peer into the darkness around them. The shapes of scarred and pitted columns rose from the stone floor all around, barely visible where the fire illuminated them. Beyond that was nothing but fathomless blackness. “Did you hear something moving?”

“I wasn’t aware teleportation had any great quandries,” Toby answered the god. “I thought the method was pretty well ironed out by this point.”

“Oh, I don’t mean method,” Vesk replied airily, “I mean the ethical quandry. This is the reason wood elves generally refused to be teleported, by the way. See, in arcane teleportation, a person or thing is dissolved at one point and reappears at another. But! Here’s the unanswerable question: was that person moved, or destroyed and then re-created?”

Silence answered him. Then Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh.

“I might’ve known you’d find a way to ruin even that.”

“And she just ‘ports people around whenever she feels like it,” Toby huffed. “Usually doesn’t even ask. She’s even an elf!”

“Well, you have to understand Arachne’s mindset,” Vesk chuckled. “She’s never had much patience for philosophical dilemmas. Everybody comes out the other end with their memories and personality as intact and unchanged as their bodies, so why bother mulling pointless questions? Stuff like that is the lion’s share of why Arachne has never fit in with the other elves.”

“Also it’s pretty much a bogus question,” Gabriel said distractedly, still peering about at the surrounding dark. “Since you can’t break the teleport spell into its component parts. You can’t use it to just disappear someone without an exit point, or duplicate them. You have to move the subject from one point to another. Okay, I know I heard something out there.”

“Where are we?” Trissiny demanded.

“Uncomfortably close to Veilgrad, as the mole burrows,” Vesk said, leaning forward so that the firelight cast dramatic shadows over his face and causing her to roll her eyes. “Welcome, my children, to the lost city of Irivoss.”

Toby frowned. “Where?”

“There are, as you know, three Themynrite drow cities upon this continent,” Vesk explained, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Tar’naris, Akhvaris, and the unnamed city. Yes, I know its name, but nobody on the surface needs to; for purposes of this discussion, that’s an apt demonstration of my point. Each Themynrite city is an island, deprived of contact with its sister cities. All are fully devoted to Themynra’s sacred charge: to form a living, fighting barrier between Scyllith’s deep drow and the surface world. Existing in isolation as they do, they have developed no overarching Themynrite culture, and each has created its own way of expressing her will. The Narisians, like the Nathloi over in Sifan, have raided the surface for slaves and supplies, and have been amenable to peaceful trade and, much more recently, alliance. Tiraas’s firepower helping hold back the deep drow is an unprecedented development, and while that treaty is young, other human nations are eyeing it as a potential example. Queen Takamatsu is very interested in its implications. The Akhvari, by contrast, regard themselves as under a kind of sacred quarantine. They have consented to speak, briefly, with Imperial ambassadors at their borders, but they permit no one to cross, conduct no trade, and have never attempted to come out for any reason. And of course, the drow of the third city regard themselves as a kind of cleansing flame. Anything which approaches their borders from either direction is met with unreasoning violence. It’s funny, isn’t it? So many different ways for the commands of one goddess to be observed. But you see, kids, there are three Themynrite cities here now. At one time, on this continent, there were five.”

He paused, likely just for effect, and in that moment there came a soft rustle, practically impossible to discern above the faint crackling of the fire. Then it came again, louder, and clearly from the darkness beyond them. Trissiny and Gabriel both drew weapons, shifting on their seats to peer around.

Vesk gave no sign of noticing, just continuing with his tale. “The first was lost ages and ages ago. Closer to the Elder Wars than to today, in a period before anything modern human records touch. Only the gods and the elves of Qestraceel remember Rakhivar at all. Their defenses faltered under the onslaught. The Scyllithenes broke through, routed the Rakhavi, and breached the surface. The Pantheon were forced to intervene directly—in fact, it was our last act of cooperation with Naiya, and pretty much the last time she was coherent enough to have a conversation with anyone, at least until Arachne began poking at her more recently. The whole city was flooded with lava and buried, the passage permanently sealed off.”

“Why not just collapse all the tunnels, then?” Gabriel asked, still peering around at the blackness at the edge of the firelight. There were no more skittering noises, for now. “Put a stop to that once and for all…”

“Come on, Gabe, don’t you think elves who live deep underground know how to dig? If all the tunnels were closed off, they’d just bore their own, and then they might pop up anywhere at all. No, there are paths left theoretically open, which is much easier than tunneling even if the Themynrites block them off. And yes, after eight thousand years, they could probably have gotten out faster if they had devoted themselves to excavating, but you have to understand how Scyllithenes think. Doing lots and lots of hard work is just plain not on the table, not when the alternative is committing horrific violence against those they see as enemies. So obsessive are they on this point that no major incursions of deep drow have ever tunneled all the way to the surface, at least not under their own power. That’s an excellent example of why they cannot be allowed to have access to the surface kingdoms.

“And that brings us to the fall of Irivoss,” Vesk continued, staring solemnly into the last dim flickers of flame. He had obviously conjured the fire here, wood and all; there was no fuel for it in this place. “The Irivoi were even more amenable to surface contact than the Narisians, and less inherently predatory about it. They had a great influence on the culture that would become the Stalweiss. Humans used to come to them, offering their strength and skill in combat against the deep drow in exchange for wisdom, divine and in rare cases arcane magics, and metalwork far beyond their own technology. The drow kept their mortal visitors at arm’s length…at first. Time passed, familiarity grew, and eventually it came to be that the primitive humans were a downright common sight in Irivoss. And this, in turn, fostered doubt. Very reasonable questions of the sort that the drow priestesses could not allow. Why must we bleed and struggle to protect these humans, who are so much physically stronger? What makes us truly better than the Scyllithene? Can we not take what we need from those above and below us? Would it really be so terrible if they were allowed to meet? Why should we care what happens to the surface world?”

“Okay, what is that?” Gabriel asked somewhat shrilly, getting to his feet. The other two did likewise, turning to stare out into the black. The rustling noises were intermittent still, but clearly came from all sides now.

“These questions rise in every Themynrite city, of course,” Vesk continued, ignoring them, “and are suppressed. But in Irivoss, the suppression…failed. Eventually the unthinkable and unacceptable occurred: complete penetration from both sides. The slightest trickle of deep drow sneaking through to the surface, and humans journeying beyond the lower gates to learn from the Scyllithenes. The Irivoi had failed in their sacred charge. And so, Themynra commanded them to die. Those still loyal and obedient, she ordered to end themselves and their entire society.

“And so they did.” Finally, the god stood up and turned to look outward, as the three of them already had, raising both his hands. “Let me introduce you.”

Light bloomed, clean, white light. It rose first from crystals embedded in the pillars of the temple above them, rising to illuminate the ruined splendor. Then it spread outward, ancient magics long dormant coming to life again at the god’s will, and crystals began to gleam throughout the city. They illuminated the ruin of crushed and fallen structures as well as the majesty of beautiful stonework still standing, rising and spreading ever outward until they revealed the shape of lost Irivoss, its half-moon arc around the black surface of a subterranean lake. The temple appeared to be at the highest point of the city, overlooking it all and built right against the wall of its massive cavern.

None of them appreciated the view.

The spiders were everywhere. They had clearly been creeping closer ever since the intruders had arrived, and were not arrayed just beyond what had been the rim of the firelight. Ranging from the size of wolves to a few specimens bigger than oxen, their carapaces glistened and sparkled in the sudden illumination, apparently encrusted with gems.

As the light rose, they swiftly retreated. A veritable tide of them hurried back down the sides of the temple and those thronging the ruined streets scuttled away into the shelter of buildings, tunnels, and alleys.

“Veth’na alaue,” Trissiny whispered.

“Dreadcrawlers do not enjoy light,” Vesk said with a casual shrug. “That and the fact that they’re rubbish at digging are the saving graces of this whole mess. They can’t get to the surface, and wouldn’t if they could. It was humans and dwarves who collapsed the tunnels and did their best to bury and forget the entrance to Irivoss after the priestesses did this to their people. Now, nobody on the surface even remembers this city, and so much the better. The dreadcrawlers, you see, are only sort of alive. There was necromancy involved in their creation; they’re basically walking husks, made almost entirely of chitin with very few squishy parts, and exceedingly durable against physical damage. Practically immune to magic, as well. They’re also as immortal as the drow they once were, and don’t strictly need to eat. They can eat, and will eagerly do so, but that’s only part of their breeding cycle. Given meat to polish off, they’ll make more dreadcrawlers.

“And still, the Scyllithenes have not collapsed their end of the tunnel. They still keep trying to attack Irivoss. It’s been four millennia and that always ends badly for them. But they can’t pass up having something to fight.”

“Themynra,” Toby whispered, aghast, “did that? To her own people?”

Now, in the rekindled light, they could see that the entire city practically sparkled with enormous spider webs.

“A lot of surprising things happened in the Third Hellwar,” Vesk mused, gazing out across the ruin of Irivoss. “One of which was Arachne popping up. I doubt she’s mentioned this to you—she doesn’t like to talk about it—but she and Elilial handed Scyllith the last and greatest spanking that old bag ever received, the most crushing defeat she’d suffered since Lil cast her into the Underworld in the first place. Ever since, she has been…remarkably quiet. Her own consciousness even more scattered and unfocused than Naiya’s, and her drow completely deprived of unifying agency. They’re just widespread colonies of maniacal murderers these days, without a singular purpose. You can’t imagine the reprieve this has been for the Themynrites. Before that… Rakhivar wasn’t the first or last city to fall. Themynra wasn’t winning. Honestly, I sometimes wondered if Scyllith wasn’t trying all that hard to break out—if she was just having too much fun slowly crushing the upper drow, one city at a time, to actually campaign for her own freedom. That was exactly the kind of thing she used to do, back when she was loose. Even the other Elder Gods didn’t want her around, and they were vicious megalomaniacs at their very best.”

He turned and paced forward, along the half-fallen colonnade of the main temple space, till he came to the top of a wide flight of stairs leading down into the spider-infested city. Silently, they followed him.

“And this is what godhood means,” Vesk said, staring emptily across the ancient ruin. “Compromises made with countless lives. Responsibilities no one could possibly uphold, weighed against fates too terrible to be imagined and costs no one should have to pay. It would make anyone detached after thousands of years, but the very thing that prevents us from becoming the monsters that power makes of everyone leaves us vulnerable to…subtler influences. We gods are fixed, in what we are. We can make decisions, up to a point, but at our core? We are cause and effect. Rules, unalterable and absolute. And so you know my bias, when I say that slamming a door in Scyllith’s face was well worth the atrocity done to these people. That is how terrible she was, in her heyday. And how unable I am to even entertain the idea that I might be wrong.”

Abruptly, he turned to face them.

“You’re desperate, by now, to know what the point of all this is. Why I sent you on this damn fool quest, what that key unlocks. It is a key to the possibility of change, my heroes. You see, the last and worst thing the Irivoi did, that caused Themynra to give up on them? They reopened a tunnel to the ancient Infinite Order machine which struck down the old gods and raised the new ones. I can’t even approach it; none of my brethren can. And for the longest time, I never doubted that that was a good thing. We have way too much power as it is without being tempted by the prospect of more. But things…have changed. If the Pantheon is going to survive the changes that are coming, I need you to take that key to that terrible contraption… And turn it back on.”

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14 -27

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“Lil,” Izara said in a supremely even tone, “you are looking well.”

“Why, yes, Iz,” Elilial replied with lurid emphasis, “I am. No thanks to you, of course.”

Izara inclined her head very slightly, folding her hands demurely before her. “I was very sorry to hear of—”

DON’T YOU DARE

Elilial did not speak. Reality rippled outward from her in a shockwave very like the previous disruption which had merged the dimensions, and in it were words, and the full weight of her outrage and derision—and, yes, grief—pressing on the minds of all those present. The mortals without exception stumbled backward from the sudden impact of it, though no physical force had touched them. Izara, by contrast, remained perfectly serene in her bearing, despite the way her clothes and hair were blown back by Elilial’s fury as though she stood momentarily in a high wind.

“Nonetheless,” the love goddess said quietly, “I was. I acknowledge your grudge, and that you aren’t without a point…in a way. But I would not have wished that—”

“Not another word,” Elilial grated. “You’re more a hypocrite than any of them, Izara, and that is truly saying something. If you had a beating heart or a shred of empathy you would have stopped that, at the very, utterly least. More likely would have resisted them with me in the beginning. Or if nothing else, walked away like Themynra did.”

“You were never completely in the wrong, in your beliefs,” Izara said sadly, “but the situation has never for a moment been as simple as you make it out to be. I wish I could make you see that.”

“They’re called principles, Izara,” the other goddess sneered. “I wish I could make you understand that, just because the reality of the concept would probably shatter your consciousness. Trissiny, don’t make me laugh. I am really not in the mood for your slapstick.”

Trissiny had taken two steps forward and had sword and shield up and ready; at being addressed directly, she stopped, not relaxing in the slightest. “Slapstick. I’ve been accused of some wild things, some of them accurately, but that is a first.”

“I’ve never yet personally harmed a Hand of Avei,” Elilial said dryly. “The few who managed to stand before me I sent off with a pat on the head and some motherly advice. They hate that; the outrage is absolutely hysterical. I honestly think you might be the first one willing to share a spot of banter. Eserion and Vesk have really done a number on you, haven’t they?”

“Get back, Trissiny,” Izara ordered. “And don’t you start, either!”

Toby had stepped forward as well, on her other side. Both paladins were still a few steps behind the love goddess, but flanked her in ready stances, staring down the queen of Hell.

“Aw, look how protective they are,” Elilial cooed. “Ready to lay down their fleeting little lives to defend this delicate flower of the Pantheon’s gentility. How utterly precious.”

“It’s all right, children,” Izara insisted softly. “I am not in danger here.”

“Yes, killing a god is not such a simple matter,” Elilial agreed. “Power for power, this waffling little puff of pixie dust doesn’t approach a match for me, or I assure you I’d have snuffed her out without bothering to chitchat. Everything that need be said between us was done eons ago. No, to annihilate a god, you have to get…creative. To sever them from their animating aspect, or simply remove it from the world. Ironically, the Pantheon are far more dangerous to one another than I am—I, at least, care what happens to the people of this planet. Just ask Khar. Oh, but I forgot. I guess you can’t.”

“Mortimer,” Izara said calmly, still holding Elilial’s gaze, “I want you to take the paladins and get back to Ninkabi with all haste.”

“Invulnerable or not, lady, you can’t ask me to leave you here,” Agasti insisted. “Not that. I would far rather—”

“She is stealth and deception incarnate,” Izara interrupted, and for the first time there was an audible strain in her voice. Watching her, Elilial began to smile. “The rest of the Pantheon is not coming—they don’t know this is happening. I can protect you from her for a time, but you must go!”

“Always in such a rush,” Elilial drawled. “Let your boy show off his courage, Izara. After all, how often does the chance for a conversation like this—”

The goddess broke off and physically jumped, stiffening up. Slowly, she turned around, angling her body to finally grant them all a glimpse of the hellgate behind her.

From the barely-visible vortex another figure had emerged, his dark green coat and slightly unkempt black hair ruffling in the breeze caused by air pressure equalizing across the rift. Gabriel was returning his staff to the upright position when Elilial’s burning gaze fell upon him, and he greeted her with an angelic little smile.

“You,” Elilial said flatly, “Did. Not.”

“So! It doesn’t kill gods,” he said. “And now we know.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Gabriel Arquin!”

For all that he had appeared without any of them noticing during the confrontation, Vesk still managed to make an entrance. By the time everyone turned to stare at him, he had already struck a dashing pose and plastered on a big, insouciant grin. It helped that he punctuated his introduction by striking a triumphant chord on his lute.

“You!” barked half a dozen people.

“Me!” Vesk exclaimed happily. “And not a moment too soon, I see! Of course, that goes without saying. A bard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely—”

“I’m gonna punch him,” Trissiny announed, taking a step toward the god.

“Nothing goes without saying with this one,” Elilial added wearily.

“Whoah, now, okay, let’s all settle down,” Vesk interjected in a soothing voice, holding up both hands at them all in a placating gesture. His lute hovered in the air next to him where he’d let go of it. “We’re all one act of careless temper from kicking off entirely the wrong climax for this story. Blood, tears, and suffering, y’all know the drill. But it isn’t time for that yet. Each of these things must happen at the proper moment, otherwise it all goes right to hell.”

“I have found myself wondering, over the years,” Elilial said, glaring down at him, “whether I could begin the process of snuffing you out by getting you into one of your well-trod archetypal narrative paths and them yanking you right out of it by not doing what the story demands next.”

“Worth a try,” he said agreeably, with a little shrug. “Of course, that experiment will probably have to wait. I assume you’d much rather find out who murdered your children, and six other children in the process, not that you care about that.”

“Vesk,” Izara exclaimed.

Elilial shifted without stepping; one moment she stood in front of Gabriel and the hellgate and in the next had seized the goddess of love by the throat and hiked her bodily off the ground. All the paladins and Agasti immediately surged forward, but were just as quickly stopped by a force that was not physical, nor even perceptible, but inexorable all the same. Something was projected by the three gods, some pattern woven right into reality itself, and the mortals present could no more step out of the roles it demanded of them than they could have lifted themselves off the ground by their own hair.

“You do not know,” Elilial whispered, “how treacherous is the ground on which you stand, Vesk. You think you know, but you don’t.”

“Once in a while, antagonists find themselves at common purpose,” Vesk replied, his solemn expression contrasting with the playful strumming of the lute, which he still wasn’t touching. “That secret isn’t mine to keep, Lil, and I’m with Izzy on this matter: despite what you think, there are some lines I don’t care to see crossed, and some offenses that demand to be avenged. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.”

“If,” she growled, “I dance to your tune.” Her grip tightened on Izara’s throat, and the smaller goddess tilted her chin up slightly in response, still without struggling. All of them were beings well beyond the physical forms they now presented; the evidently mortal drama now playing out between them was a manifestation of something happening on a different level entirely. It was difficult to look at directly and impossible to look away from; pressure was building up from the exposure of human consciousness to something it wasn’t meant to experience. So far, all of the mortals held their ground, weapons and magics at the ready, but no one could make themselves intervene by even so much as a word of objection.

“But it’s such a simple few steps,” Vesk said, smiling, “and you do it so well. Come on, Lily, you have your own reasons for wanting everything to fall into place at the right moment. I’m not holding out on you; there are some things that can’t be rushed, and you know it well. You know the forces that can…inhibit the likes of you and I from doing what we wish. These delightful youngsters are assembling a key for me. A key to the ultimate lock. You know the one.”

Slowly and slightly, Elilial relaxed her fingers on Izara’s neck, though her eyes remained locked on Vesk. “You have finally lost it.”

“You can’t do this, Vesk,” Izara agreed, somewhat hoarsely. “It won’t work.”

“It won’t work the way it did for us,” he agreed. “Weren’t we just discussing timing? There’ll be no apotheosis for the kiddos, don’t you worry. The alignment isn’t here yet; the great doom is still coming. But it’s close. The lock can be opened. And there is much to be gained from the opening, with the right key in hand.”

“You know who will be released if they do that!” Izara said urgently.

“Common cause, indeed,” Elilial added, giving her a grudging sidelong look. “Letting that thing out is absolutely out of the question. We worked too hard and sacrificed too much to make sure the monster couldn’t escape.”

“And so the monster won’t,” Vesk said, bestowing upon them all a placid smile which just begged for a slapping. “Because this must be done now, at the right time. Just before the alignment, when true escape is impossible, when there will be no gods present to provide fuel for the fire. When a few sufficiently gifted mortals—like, say, three paladins—can snatch their treasure from the beast, and yank out the key again before she can escape.”

In the silence which fell, the hellgate whistled ominously.

“Let her go, Lil,” Vesk said softly. “Let them go. Once they do what they need to, I’ll have your answer.”

“Oh, you’ll have it,” she said, narrowing her eyes to blazing slits. “But that does me no good, Vesk. I know very well what your integrity is worth. I will make you a deal, though.” A smile lifted one side of her mouth, and for the first time, Izara struggled weakly, lifting her hands to grasp Elilial’s wrist. “We will consider your champions the collateral. Send them in there with your key. If they survive, you’ll owe me the truth. And if I don’t get the truth, Vesk, I will claim them.”

Trissiny finally managed to emit a growling noise from deep in her throat. It was more than any of the rest of them could do. There was no force upon them, no restraint they could feel; the thing holding them back was subtle, ineffable, and felt almost like their own impulses. They stood, and watched, because in this drama they were the bystanders and could not go against their role.

“You’ve struck down brave Hands of the Pantheon before,” Izara said, her voice slightly strained by the grip on her neck—or rather, by Elilial’s grip on something important in her being which looked, to the mortal eyes watching, like a hand holding her throat. “You, and yours, and it’s never profited you in the long run. More will rise.”

“Exactly. I’m not going to kill them.” Elilial turned her eyes on Izara and grinned broadly. “You are. I will take them back to the domain you cast me into, beyond the reach of your power. And there I will tell them the truth. All of it. Everything you did. To the Infinite Order, to me, to those who worked and fought alongside us, to all the people of this world. To them. And once I’ve done that… I will trust their sense of justice. When that great doom comes and I return to claim what’s mine, it’ll be with three of your own paladins leading my armies. Have we a deal, Vesk?”

He raised his eyebrows, seeming unconcerned by her threats and Izara’s plight. “You’re that confident they would side with you?”

“That’s the ultimate flaw in this whole paladin thing, you know,” Elilial replied in a lightly conversational tone. “You two, at least, have better sense than to raise up and empower beings of pure, incarnate principle. You get by with being inherently sleazy and vague, respectively, and your followers don’t stand to lose much by following your asshole example. Maybe Vidius’s new pet would stick by his master; he seems a charmingly irreverent boy. But Avei’s? Omnu’s? Those raised and trained to honor justice, and life? You know what they will do when they learn the truth.” Slowly, her grin broadened into a vicious snarl, and the hand clutching Izara’s throat tightened. “All these years I have respected that unspoken truce. I could have done this at any time, simply abducted the Pantheon’s best servants beyond its reach and stripped away your lies. But you kept your hands off my daughters, and I showed restraint in return. Now, though? We’ve well and truly moved beyond that, haven’t we?”

“Vesk, no,” Izara rasped. “They aren’t yours to gamble with! They’ll never survive what you’re sending them into, and even if they do—”

“But don’t you see, Iz?” he said with a soft, plaintive sigh. “This is the price that must be paid, the suffering that must be endured. We’ve come to that point in the story. Without a cost incurred, it can’t progress. I have worked so hard, harder than you’ll ever know, to ensure the stakes are as bloodless as I could make them. There’s been no way to save everyone, but the kids have made it so far without paying for their success with the lives of their comrades. We need them all to live a while longer, and so the cost comes in the risk I can’t face for them, and the devil’s bargain they can’t even decline. Just because nobody’s died doesn’t mean there are no stakes. This isn’t that kind of story. Yet.” He turned his focus back to Elilial, and swept a bow, doffing his floppy hat. “We have a deal.”

She held his eyes for a moment, simply to make her point, and then abruptly released both Izara and the world. The indefinable pressure holding everyone in place lifted, and immediately all three paladins charged her.

In the next moment all went bowling over like ninepins. She hadn’t so much as gestured.

“That’s an option, you know,” Elilial said pleasantly, turning to sweep a smug little smile across them. “Let’s say you succeed at the insanity your patron, here, is about to drop you into. Then there are two outcomes: either he keeps his word and I get to learn what I need to drive a stake through the rotten heart of the Pantheon…or he doesn’t, which I would say is about fifty-fifty odds, and I get you. I’m the goddess of cunning, ducklings; this is what I do. Any way it shakes out, I win. But there is, of course, one alternative. If you want to arrange it so that I lose, all you have to do is die.” She grinned broadly down at them. “I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an opportunity. Oh, it won’t be so bad! Paladins automatically get seats in the best part of Vidius’s little hive-mind heaven. And your gods won’t really need their laboriously-trained paladins when that great doom hits in a few years, now, will they?”

“So help me,” Trissiny grated.

“Oh, don’t be boring,” Elilial admonished. “Every Hand of Avei blusters and makes threats she can’t back up. What happened to being your own woman? You were off to such a promising start just a moment ago. Oh, and Gabriel: don’t forget your baggage.”

Stepping over to the hellgate again, she plunged one arm into the vortex momentarily, then pulled it back out with a struggling khelminash demon gripped by her hair. Gabriel actually let go of the scythe to catch the woman as Elilial tossed her in his general direction.

The queen of Hell, meanwhile, lifted one hoof to step back into it, her half-disappeared leg an eerie sight where it vanished into the scarcely perceptible swirl of the new hellgate. “One way or another, kids, I’ll be seeing you soon. And just to show you all what a good sport I am, I will do my part from my end to close this exciting new escape hatch you’ve so thoughtfully provided for me. After all, it’s not as if I need any more help to get my way in the world. Ta ta…for now.”

Ducking her head, she slipped back through.

Behind her, the swirl diminished under the combined stares of Izara and Vesk, until with a final soft puff, it vanished entirely into the air.

There was silence.

“What?” Gabriel said, picking up his scythe and grinning at them. “No hug? It’s not every day a guy comes back from Hell, y’know.”

“I cannot believe,” Toby said, staring at him, “you tried to stab Elilial in the back.”

“That motion could hardly have been described as a stab,” Ariel said. “He poked her. In the butt.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vesk repeated, grinning insanely, “I give you Gabriel Arquin! But, ah, anyway… I suppose you’ll be wanting a few questions answered.”

Trissiny had taken two steps toward Gabriel, sheathing her sword and looking very much as if she did intend to hug him. But at that, she abruptly changed course, crossed the distance to Vesk in three long strides, and punched him hard in the stomach.

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14 – 26

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In that moment of absolute tension, Gabriel called on every scrap of education he had received thus far. Val Tarvadegh’s coaching kept him still, kept any hint of his thoughts or feelings away from his face—though it would have been presumptuous in the extreme to assume he could stand before the very goddess of cunning and prevent her from knowing the shape of his mind.

Elilial appeared to be ignoring him for the moment, critically studying the scythe in her hands, which he knew was an affectation. Prince Vanislaas, by contrast, stared avidly, his lips bent in a hungry little smile. That was the look of a vulture observing a dying cow’s last breath. Xyraadi was still prostrate on the ground, her face pressed against the now-dead grass from the other world. Ariel, wisely, kept silent.

There was absolutely no winning here, through either power or strategy. Considering who he was dealing with, outsmarting his foes didn’t appear to be an option either. That left…what?

The basics.

Gabriel knew his failings; it had been repeatedly pointed out to him that his self-awareness with regard to his own weakness was one of his greatest strengths. So he channeled better examples, and put on a mask.

The posture exemplified by Professor Ezzaniel, Trissiny and Toby: a martial artist’s bearing, fully upright but not stiff like a soldier’s, a stance that conveyed poise and command, and bless Ezzaniel for so laboriously beating that into him over the last two years. The ineffable, inoffensive arrogance of Ravana Madouri and Sekandar Aldarasi, a subtle positioning of countenance which conveyed absolute self-confidence even when such was wildly inappropriate, without being aggressive. Intuitively he felt that a better choice here than Shaeine’s more serene poise.

“Excuse me.” Gabriel borrowed Tellwyrn’s voice, the tone she used that didn’t bother to be peremptory or commanding, but secured obedience through the simple conviction that she would be obeyed because this fact was as immutable as the downward acceleration of velocity resulting from the pull of gravity. He held out his hand in a gesture that was part Ezzaniel and part Ravana and just a little bit Darling, graceful and commanding and a tad effeminate. “That is mine. Return it, please.”

Prince Vanislaas’s red eyes widened notably, as did his smile. The demon lord actually began dry-rubbing his hands together in visible eagerness for whatever was about to unfold.

Xyraadi quivered.

Elilial looked up from her perusal of the weapon to meet his eyes, and Gabriel had the sudden and deeply incongruous thought that she wasn’t nearly as pretty as she could be, even aside from the horns and red skin and such. Couldn’t a goddess take any form she desired? She had rather hawkish features, a nose that was too long for her face, and despite a rather skimpy leather outfit (with metal spikes and buckles serving no evident purpose) she was much more lanky than curvy. Though of course, standards differed across eras and cultures, to say nothing of individuals. He wondered if there was some significance to her appearance, something he could perhaps use. Unlikely, but he wasn’t too proud to grasp at any straw at this point.

“Salyrene’s work,” she mused after a hesitation, returning her gaze to the scythe and slowly turning it over in her hands. “They’re very adaptive, you see; she is the best at what she does. Yes, this thing has a long memory, much of its shape and nature comes from its first master. But your touch is present, as well, Gabriel Arquin. Such…restraint, it has leaned from you. How odd, considering your reputation.”

She could probably hear his heart pounding. Well, hell, just because the game was over didn’t mean he had to concede. Gabriel cleared his throat loudly, raised his eyebrows in an expression he had seen Shaeine and Ruda both use to great effect, and subtly extended his outstretched hand an inch further in a silent demand.

“You know why Vidius is the god of death?” Elilial asked, now smiling down at him. “A coincidental affiliation that was baked right into his very identity when we seized ascension for ourselves. All due to his association with the valkyries. He won Naiya to our side by sheltering and supporting them. Have you ever found yourself wholly dependent upon someone for your very existence, Gabriel? Even if they are less of a two-faced snake than Vidius, it’s a relationship that tends to provoke…resentment. Have your valkyrie friends ever complained to you about your mutual boss?” One corner of her mouth drew upward in a lopsided smirk. “No? You needn’t answer, young man, I seldom trouble to ask questions unless I already know how they end. There’s a warning in that silence, you know. Everyone complains about their boss… Unless they are too afraid to.”

Gabriel experienced a most peculiar sensation. His mouth moved and words fell out, but unlike the habitual blathering habits which had caused him so much trouble over the years, he felt an almost transcendent state of flow, as if he were truly in control in a way he couldn’t even consciously grasp.

“Yes, yes,” he heard himself say in a bored tone, “and thus the seeds of suspicion are sown between me and my patron, and meanwhile there is no need for you to be insulting, madam. If I’m important enough to manipulate, I’m important enough to deserve better than cheap tricks that even Vesk wouldn’t write into a ballad. My scythe, if you please.”

“Oh, I like him,” Vanislaas breathed, pausing to lick his lips. “Such a shame he has the two-faced one’s favor; I dearly wish his soul could return here. He’d make such a splendid incubus. Elilial, my darling, may we restrain him here?”

“Hush, Van,” she said fondly. “Ignore him, Gabriel. You have nothing to fear from me.” So saying, she lightly tossed the scythe in the air, making its wicked length spin once, and caught it on the haft just below the blade, which ended up pointing skyward. Its long, subtly twisted shaft extended toward Gabriel, ending just barely past the reach of his hand. “My high priest nurtures a…pet theory, if you will, that he can somehow turn you three paladins against your masters by slowly introducing you to the truth. I know your gods better than you and I rather think they’ll just kill you if you learn more than they want you to know, but Embras is a good servant and I am willing to indulge him. Much more to the point, I’ve promised Arachne to bring no harm to her students—and that includes by omission and negligence. And…it seems my Vadrieny does rather like you, for some reason. Altogether, these facts mean you are as safe with me as anyone can be said to be, anywhere. For whatever that may be worth.”

He just met her fiery gaze until she came to a stop, before finally stepping forward and extending his hand to grasp the scythe. He’d half-expected her to exert some petty little power move, like moving it out of his reach or using it to tug him off balance, but she simply waited until he had a firm grip and released the weapon.

“Thank you,” Gabriel said with light dignity from behind the mask of Ravana Madouri, regretting that he hadn’t troubled to get to know the girl better. What little he had picked up of her mannerisms was already fabulously useful; the undeserved poise was very appropriate in this situation.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, and the combination of deliberately casual tone and overtly sly expression was a screaming warning of danger, “the same is not true of your little…friend back there.”

Xyraadi quivered again, not lifting her face out of the dust.

“This is a rare treat,” the dark goddess purred. “It is not every day a traitor wanders right back into my web. I don’t begrudge the odd demon struggling to escape this realm, Gabriel; you can plainly see what a mess it is. If I had my way, nobody would have to live here. But the khelminash are another matter. All the trouble I go to, ensuring they have lives of comfort! And truly, Xyraadi’s existence before she betrayed her kith and kin was luxurious beyond the dreams of most of Hell’s denizens. For that, I only ask diligent service; I don’t think that unfair. Yet, not only did she flee at the first chance, but threw in her lot with the Pantheon!” Elilial’s lips drew wider, baring teeth in an expression that no longer pretended to be a smile. “I suppose one betrayer is attracted to others. But to willingly bend knee to beings who despise you? I am torn between simply destroying the little wretch and compelling her to give me a satisfactory explanation first!”

Xyraadi emitted a shrill little groan, quickly stifled.

Gabriel took two steps to plant himself between her and Elilial, deliberately placing the butt of his scythe against the ground, holding the weapon up but not in an aggressive position. “Or you could do neither, and kindly show us where to find the nearest hellgate.”

Prince Vanislaas giggled. That was somehow much more unsettling than if he had unleashed a sinister laugh like a villain in a play.

“Young man,” Elilial said condescendingly, “I don’t know what made you think this is a negotiation, or that you are a party to it. Move aside, please.”

But it was, he realized as she spoke. A being like Elilial did nothing without a purpose and a plan, and there was no reason for her to make speeches in his presence unless she saw a reason for him to hear her thoughts. Still not losing sight of how out of his depth he was, Gabriel nonetheless concluded it best served his interests here to play along.

“Regardless,” he said firmly, switching to a mask of Trissiny implacably facing down a foe (and immediately thinking Toby doing the same might have been a smarter mask to assume but not willing to weaken his position by waffling), “Xyraadi is a friend and has helped me considerably, not to mention that I’m responsible for her being here. I’m not going to allow you to touch her.”

Elilial took one long stride closer, the dead earth crunching beneath her hoof, and loomed over him. Gabriel realized that his instinct had been right; they were playing roles, now, and Trissiny’s righteous defiance best suited the one in which he’d been cast.

“You can’t possibly imagine you are a threat to me, boy,” the goddess said, her voice just above a whisper and yet projecting powerfully over him. “Why don’t you spare yourself some avoidable grief and move?”

He pitched his own voice low and even, but firm. “You can’t possibly imagine that you’re a threat to the Pantheon, lady. Why don’t you?”

In the subtle but swift widening of her fiery eyes, Gabriel had a sudden warning that he’d gone off-script and was about to pay dearly for it.

Then Vanislaas began laughing. Loud and deep this time, wracked by belly guffaws that almost doubled him over.

“Shut up, Van,” Elilial snapped, cutting her gaze to him. It served to break the tension Gabriel had just created, and he wondered how much of this encounter was proceeding according to a script. Between Vesk and Elilial, nothing would have surprised him at that point. “I give you credit for not brandishing your weapon at me, Gabriel, but that appears to be the full extent of your forethought. Why in the hell, pun intended, should I show any compassion to this backstabbing creature?”

Well, it was a slender opening, but he’d take it. “How can you not? If you’re not going to kill me and you think there’s some strategic merit in influencing me, a show of force here doesn’t gain you anything. It’s not as if your power is in question.” Again, his words tumbled out, but they fell smoothly this time and left him with the sense that some part of him was in control, even if it was calculating too fast for his conscious brain to follow. “You can either play right into the stereotype of you that the Pantheon and the Universal Church try to push, or show a little…nuance. Are you the mad monster, or is there maybe something more going on here? Something it would benefit you to have a paladin wondering about?”

“Hmm,” she murmured, her expression calming, and once again that lopsided smirk tugged at her lips. “There may be something to that, after all. But meet me halfway, Gabriel. If you expect me to suspend my retribution on the one under your protection, it’s only fair that you offer me something in return.”

A sudden realization swept in, and both instinct and strategy prompted him to go with it. “No, I don’t think so.”

Xyraadi emitted a plaintive squeak. Elilial took another step forward, now looming over him with more overt and deliberate menace. “Oh? You are a presumptuous one, aren’t you?”

“And you don’t know when to stop,” he retorted. “You just got me to argue out loud why you’re not such a bad sort after all. Really well done, very crafty. I’m pretty sure I’ve had Eserites tell me about that trick. Fine, that’s your win; congratulations. You’re not extracting further concessions from me on top of it. If anything, maybe I should be asking for a favor now.”

Xyraadi reached feebly to tug at the leg of his trousers in a silent plea. Gabriel didn’t dare acknowledge her in that moment.

“Oh, but isn’t he delightful!” Prince Vanislaas crowed. “Please, Lil, can’t we keep him? He’s a little rough, sure, but the potential!”

“Yes, it’s a funny thing,” Elilial said dryly, ignoring her underling for now. “Spend a few thousand years as the actual goddess of a thing and you get sort of good at it. You do surprise me, though, Gabriel Arquin. Based upon everything I’ve heard of you, I really didn’t expect you to pick up on that. Color me…grudgingly impressed.”

“And that’s really good flattery,” he replied in the same tone. “Just the right hint of condescension to make it backhanded and harder to spot. Got me right in the ego.”

“All right, boy, don’t push your luck,” she said, fortunately in amusement. “Xyraadi, have some damned dignity. Your young friend here at least faces certain destruction with his spine in the vertical position, and now look! He appears to have bluffed his way out of it. There’s a lesson in that, if you have the wit to learn it. Van, how is your work progressing?”

“Splendidly,” the demon lord replied in a self-satisfied tone. “While you were playing verbal footsie over there, I’ve intercepted overtures from dear old Mortimer, directed at young Master Arquin.”

“When did you have time to do that?” Gabriel asked in spite of himself.

“Really, young man,” Vanislaas said, arching a condescending eyebrow. “Not everyone performs magic with grandiose and gratuitous gestures and sparkles. The Elilinist tradition of infernomancy is all about subtlety; it is by definition poor technique if anyone standing nearby even discerns that you are casting, much less what you are casting. Oh, but matters are ever so much more intriguing than we first anticipated, my darling,” he added to Elilial. “I presented my replies as coming from little Xyraadi over there, and my hunch was correct: no one was surprised. But Lil, dearest, it is not just Mortimer, nor even mostly Mortimer, working to extract our young friend. I think you will find this a grand opportunity.”


“Oh, no.”

That was the last thing anyone wanted to hear a goddess say under any circumstances, but especially not when they were in the process of boring a hole into Hell. At Izara’s soft interjection, Toby and Trissiny both stepped up on both sides of her and Agasti strode forward from his position on the sidelines, where his expertise had been rendered somewhat redundant by the presence of a deity to handle their dimensional bridge as it formed.

Izara didn’t look at any of them, seemingly keeping her attention focused on the nascent gate, which at that point was still little more than a shimmer in the air. “Stay back, children. This is more than you’re prepared to handle.”

“We’re far from helpless,” Trissiny said tersely. “Is it demons?”

“Is Gabriel all right?” Toby added.

“Back,” she said with enough of a snap in her voice that both obeyed. “We’ve been tricked. I’ve been tricked. That’s always a risk when one deals with Hell, but this…this is worse than I feared. All of you, be prepared to flee. Do not attempt to fight what’s coming.”

“That gate is still forming,” Agasti objected. “If it’s that dangerous, we can still collapse it. Elilial herself couldn’t rip it open without help from this side.”

Izara shook her head, still staring at the distortion before them, which was beginning to take an upright ovoid shape. It was as if heat waves had been captured and formed into a pillar which was being pulled apart at its center to create an opening. “Gabriel is still in there. If we abandon him now, there is no telling when or if we might be able to try again. Not to mention what might be done to him in retaliation if we retreat from this. Some risks…have to be taken.”

The hellgate finished forming with alarming suddenness, emitting a blast of hot, sulfurous-smelling air and a telltale prickle across the skin as loose infernal radiation bled out. The aperture itself remained scarcely visible; if anything, its borders became harder to perceive as they were stretched wide to create a proper door. There wasn’t even a view into whatever lay on the other side. Light was not one of the things which innately traveled through a hellgate, all part of the same dimensional effect that made them difficult to scry through.

Then a figure stepped out, and all of them save Izara retreated further. It was not Gabriel.

She emerged one leg first, as though striding across a threshold, and appeared almost to have to clamber through the low opening, straightening up finally as she crossed fully into the mortal plane. Once there, though, Elilial raised her horned head up to its full height, staring down her nose at the more diminutive love goddess before her.

“Well, well, well,” purred the queen of Hell, and the fiery blaze of her eyes did not conceal the vengeful hunger in them. “Look what we have here.”

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14 – 25

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“Sorry,” he said, rather weakly, as he straightened up under his own power again.

Trissiny carefully released him, drawing back to give Toby a look of concern. “Don’t be sorry. You’re always propping everybody else up; you’re allowed to need a hug once in a while. But, Toby, what you were just saying…”

He found himself avoiding her eyes. “I don’t…”

“We need to talk about that,” she interrupted, her tone firm but not aggressive. “But not right this minute. Right now we need to figure out how to get Gabriel back.”

“You saw what happened,” he said, voice climbing in frustration. “How are we supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to try.”

“Try what? Trissiny, dimensional barriers are not something you can bull through with sheer determination!”

She took another step back, now frowning at him reproachfully. “Toby.”

“Everybody all right?” Fortunately, Agasti chose that moment to return. He strode up to them, straight-backed and alert, tapping his cane against the ground with every step but clearly not leaning on it. Behind and to either side came his two revenant companions, both still with weapons out and peering warily around. “Good, very good. I’m sorry to have ducked out on you, but I had to get Arkady and Kami out of that light show. You accomplished what you needed to, though, and that’s what matters.”

“What are you talking about?” Toby snapped. “We lost Gabriel!”

“Yes,” Agasti said evenly, nodding, “but you prevented that dimensional inversion from spreading, thwarted a demon invasion, and annihilated the infernal corruption that was seeping through before it could poison anybody. None of those are small things; in aggregation I believe they qualify as a pretty big deal. But you’re right, Gabriel is now on the other side, and that must be addressed before any of us can rest on our laurels. Arkady, fire up the carriage, if you please.”

“We can’t leave!” Trissiny burst out.

“There is a difference between surrender and tactical retreat, General Avelea, you know that well. I told you that this site is under surveillance; Izara’s cult obviously has little in the way of forces to deploy, but they will already be contacting the Sisterhood and likely the Empire about this mess. I would rather Arkady and Kami were out of the area when that occurs, and Ninkabi is farther than I can safely shadow-jump these days. You had better remain on site to settle everyone down when they get here.” He hesitated, then gripped the crystal head of his cane harder and nodded decisively. “I’ll be relying on your protection, because I plan to commit a capital offense in the next few minutes. It will take long enough that I expect the reinforcements to catch me quite red-handed.”

“Mortimer, no!” Kami exclaimed.

“A capital offense?” Toby asked more soberly. “Surely you’re not planning to… What are you talking about?”

“A hellgate.” Trissiny was staring at Agasti, who nodded at her again. “To get Gabriel back from the other dimension, we need to open a door between them.”

“You can’t!” Arkady insisted. “Mortimer, the law isn’t best pleased with you already. If you do this of all bloody things…”

“Arkady, the boy is in Hell,” Agasti said sharply. “Trust me, I don’t plan to throw myself to the headsman; there are extenuating circumstances aplenty, I’ll have the backing of three paladins and I do know a thing or two about weaseling around Imperial prosecutors, as you may recall. But right now we’ve a paladin to rescue and no time to argue. The situation forces me to act now and make plans later, which is hardly optimal, but that’s what the situation is and bemoaning it will change nothing. Now take Kami back to the club, I don’t want you two anywhere near this.”

“Hellgates have to be opened from both sides,” said Trissiny, “that’s why demons aren’t constantly making new ones. How do you plan to get around that? Do you have a contact in Hell who can do it?”

“Several, but none I would trust with or near a nascent gate,” Agasti admitted. “What we have is Gabriel. He’s still right on this spot, just on a different plane of existence.”

“Gabriel isn’t a warlock,” Toby objected.

“He’s an enchanter,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes pensively. “He has Ariel, a scythe which we already know can carve holes in reality, and whatever aid he can summon with Salyrene’s bottle.”

“So, not optimal,” Agasti agreed, “but far from hopeless. First, I will need to contact him…”

Toby had turned to stare again at the empty patch of blasted reddish stone where the temple—and Gabriel—had been minutes ago, but after Agasti’s voice trailed off, he shifted his attention back to the warlock, frowning impatiently. In the next moment, his frown deepened, now in real worry. Agasti was not moving at all. In fact, he didn’t appear to be breathing.

Neither, Toby immediately discovered, was Trissiny. She stood as if immobilized in ice, as did the two demons. The nearby birds and insects had already been silenced by the presence of so many demons, but he realized now that even the grass, wilted as it was by its brief trip to Hell, was completely solidified, disturbed by neither wind nor gravity. In fact, there was no wind, either.

The whole world appeared to have abruptly stopped.

“Godhood has its privileges,” said the voice from behind him just before he could begin to panic. Toby whirled, and found himself facing Izara, who wasn’t even looking at him, but studying the others whom she had just immobilized. “Even Vemnesthis doesn’t try to enforce his rules on me. Please don’t be distracted by the theatricality of this, Toby; it was simply necessary. This conversation will take more time than you have to spare, and it needs to happen now.”

“What conversation?” he demanded, forgetting to speak with proper respect. He felt entirely thrown from his equilibrium, and somehow frayed. Toby’s whole life was about control, serenity, and balance, and at that moment he felt as if every one of those things had been stripped from him, leaving him blindly reacting to events in exactly the way his teachers had all stressed that he should never do. Still worse, there was a significant and undeniable part of him which reveled in the freedom, even despite the pain of losing Gabriel.

Izara finally turned her attention on him fully, and her expression was unreadable. Nothing about her seemed particularly divine, apart from having apparently suspended them in time; she was just a somewhat gawkish young woman with frizzy hair. If he hadn’t seen her the night before Toby would probably not have recognized her at all.

“You never have learned to find a middle road,” she said after a thoughtful pause.

He bit back his first response, and then his second. Whatever conversation she meant, the goddess was right about one thing: he did not have time for it. “Gabriel is trapped in Hell right now. Can you help us bring him back?”

“Of course I can.” She tilted her head minutely to one side. “But why would I?”

Toby gaped in disbelief. “…he’s a paladin.”

“Not mine,” Izara shrugged.

“What is wrong with you?!” he exploded.

“That’s a large question,” she replied, showing no sign of offense at his outburst. “Let’s stick to what’s wrong with you, for efficiency’s sake. You have just learned an extremely wrong lesson, and now stand a hair’s breadth from committing to it, with disastrous results for you, those you care about, and the world at large.”

“Then why are you here lecturing me and not Omnu?” he shot back, practically tasting his pulse pounding on the back of his tongue. Toby felt heady, even a little dizzy, but still there was that strange exuberance.

Izara, for her part, finally reacted, pressing her lips together in a grimace of annoyance. “Because Omnu needs someone to slap some sense into him, which unfortunately I can’t. I’ll just have to settle for you.”

“This is ridiculous,” Toby exclaimed. “My best friend is in Hell waiting for someone to rescue him—”

“I assure you, Gabriel Arquin is not sitting around waiting on anybody,” she said archly. “I would hope you of all people would know him better than that. On the other hand, just a moment ago it sounded like you were about ready to give up on him.”

Toby felt that inexplicable sensation rising, the strange fusion of fury and uncertainty that had so thrown him off his keel but felt so satisfying. For just a moment, he was so tempted to just punch her that his arm actually twitched.

It was hard to say which did more to shock him back into a semblance of self-control: the sheer horrible depravity of striking someone just out of his own ill temper, or the incredible stupidity of trying that on a goddess. Instead, his years of training finally began to resurface, and he breathed. In, out, three times each, until the emotion began to ebb, the clarity to resurface.

“What are you doing?” he asked at last, narrowing his eyes.

Izara blinked at him, languidly, like a pleased cat. “What does it seem like I am doing?”

“It seems like you are deliberately trying to make me angry. And I can see no reason for you to do that.”

“Better,” she said with a slow nod of approval. “Drifting closer to old bad habits, but still an improvement over the terrible new ones you were on the cusp of developing.”

He breathed. In, out. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“You really wanted to slap me just then, didn’t you?” she countered, smiling. “But you didn’t.”

“I would like to think I’m neither a complete monster nor an imbecile. I hope that isn’t too arrogant a thing to claim.”

“I’m glad to see you controlling your urges, Tobias, but have you considered that maybe smacking me would have been the right thing to do?”

He stared at her. “…no.”

“Really, even after such a display of heartlessness?” The goddess smiled a little more widely. “Does the idea shock you so much?”

“I am a pacifist,” he said firmly. “And you are the goddess of love. It’s just a little incongruous to hear you talk about hitting people being the right thing!”

“Well, that’s the core of all this, Toby,” she said. “Neither of us is a pacifist.”

Izara let that hang for a moment while he stared, just wearing that mysterious little smile. Only when he finally drew breath to speak again did she continue, cutting him off.

“The nuances of my followers’ doctrine tend to be above the heads of laypeople. More than most other cults, probably even more than the Eserites or the Wreath, Izarites have stereotypes applied which preclude people from really understanding what they believe. Yes, my people assiduously avoid violence—in no small part because we have the Avenists and Eserites and Vidians and Shaathists and even, yes, the Omnists, to take up arms for us at need. In that circumstance, our efforts are better bent toward increasing the love in the world than fighting for it. But some of the incidents I most bitterly regret have come from the doctrine of love urging or even forcing my followers to become passive victims of violence. And as for love itself… If you love someone, Toby, you place their needs above your own. And in many relationships, there comes a time when the thing someone most needs is a swift kick in the ass. Metaphorically, of course. Usually.”

He shut his mouth, belatedly becoming aware that it was open. “But I…”

“Now, there is a pacifist tradition in Omnism,” she continued. “Such as the Sunset Way sect which produced Chang Zhi. There are others, though, and have been many others which have fallen from practice over the centuries. You, Toby, were raised by the most common sect of your faith on this continent. So common are the Cultivators that many in the Empire don’t actually know there are other interpretations of Omnist doctrine which are considered legitimate.” Again she tilted her head, back the other way this time. “Adeche N’tombu was a Cultivator. I assume I don’t need to remind you how his career as Hand of Omnu was spent?”

“Omnu,” Toby said stubbornly, “is a god of peace.”

“Peace can mean a lot of different things, several of them mutually exclusive. We were talking of pacifism. You have a very poor grasp of what that means, Tobias Caine. Of what it is, and what it is not. The truth is, you don’t even know any pacifists. Who are your colleagues, your examples? Teal Falconer? That girl is a walking disaster—not because she harbors an archdemon, but because she refuses to control it. She relies on her drow princess to smooth her way, and on her demon counterpart to terrorize anyone who defies her. There is no strategy in it, no plan. She isn’t a pacifist, she’s just averse to conflict.” Izara folded her hands, gazing intently at him. “Just like you.”

“You—those are two terms for the same thing! Why even split that hair?”

“Conflict aversion is a personality trait. Pacifism, like any ism, is political. It is a belief about what the world should be, and an attempt to make it so. To hold a belief is to disrespect the choices of others, for it demands that you impose your will on creation. It requires discipline, sacrifice, courage, and above all, strategy. Toby, the best guidance you have ever received was in your first martial arts class at Arachne’s school. Emilio Ezzaniel is one of the deadliest men alive; has he ever seemed to you a violent person?”

“That’s… I mean, that’s not unfamiliar. A lot of martial artists can be described that way. The great ones, anyhow.”

“And have you not seen the significance of that? Ezzaniel explained the true nature of peace to you that day: that it exists when those who hate to fight are better able to fight than those who love to. And you brushed him off.”

“I listen to Professor Ezzaniel,” Toby protested, hearing the defensiveness in his own voice and hating it. The creeping euphoria had all faded from him now, leaving him only off-balance and unfocused, confused.

“The greatest pacifist paladin of recent times,” Izara said softly, “was not Chang Zhi, who never accomplished much but to try to lead by example. No, that was Laressa of Anteraas, who once overthrew a corrupt governor by arranging to have his enforcers beat her bloody in a public square while she distributed famine relief supplies to the poor. It took conviction, courage, and a great willingness to suffer for her to go through with that—but more importantly, it took significant cunning to meticulously arrange all the pieces of that drama and ensure they would collide at exactly the right moment. Its result was a popular revolt and overthrow of her enemy the next day, leaving her in a position to guide Veilgrad into a more peaceful era.”

He couldn’t find anything to say. Izara watched him for a moment, then continued.

“You’re not a pacifist, Toby. You have no plan, no strategy. You just hate it when people fight and try to stop them when you see it happening. What does that accomplish? Teal has her archdemon; you have your holy nova. The pressure builds up, caused by stumbling from one crisis to the next, until in your incompetence you’ve backed yourself into a corner from which your only possible action is a huge explosion of power.”

Toby sat down in the grass, no longer able to look her in the eye. She just pressed inexorably on.

“You know the answer you need; it’s in your training. The Sun Style is all about redirecting your enemy’s own force to control his movements. Avenist battle doctrine is about defeating an enemy by controlling their options, and holds that the highest strategic victory is to prevent an enemy from going to war in the first place. The great game of Houses that your friends Shaeine and Ravana have learned from the cradle is about control of a much more intricate variety, but even in the ruthlessness you saw from the nobles of Calderaas, there was an underlying ethic of subtlety above force. The Vidian doctrine of masks is all about control of the self, extended outward to control the external forces which act upon the self. The Eserites and Punaji seek to restrain those who would harm them through intimidation and fear—to control others with only the specter of violence, so that they can commit as little actual violence as possible. Even Arachne keeps the Empire and the other great powers of this world off her back with strategic acts of grandiose disruption punctuating a general policy of carefully not rocking the boat. Control, control, control! Every person or faction or philosophy you have encountered which has an actual impact on the world does so by the same maxim your trainers in the Sun Style hammered into you from your earliest practice: control the encounter. You’ve been so close, Toby. In Puna Dara you seemed to grasp it more closely than ever yet.” Finally she hesitated, as if to draw breath, then shook her head. “But today you came so close to throwing it all away. Control, Toby. Grief, pain, and fear are real, and valid, but you must control them. Otherwise, they will control you.”

Slowly, he lifted his head to stare plaintively up at her. “…why is it you? Why is every other god coming to…” Toby had to stop and swallow against a painful lump in his throat. “Why won’t he ever talk to me?”

Izara heaved a sigh, then stepped over to sink down into the withered grass beside him. There, she leaned comfortingly against his shoulder. There was still no discernible aura of power about her; it might have been any slightly-built young woman pressed to his side. Somehow, that mundane warmth seemed much more comforting.

“Because he needs a swift kick in the ass,” she said wearily, “and I can’t give it to him. Oh, not because he’s a more powerful god than I am, or because he is and has always been a stubborn old ox, though both those things are true. The truth… The truth is, Toby, we are vulnerable in a way, more to our followers than to our enemies. I think it’s a fine thing that godhood comes with strictures and limitations. I remember the Elder Gods, and what absolute power with no restraints does to people. But we end up being shaped by the belief of those who act in our name. Omnu can’t change. I can smack him upside the head to my heart’s content, but it won’t accomplish anything. He wouldn’t even be annoyed more than a moment later, he’s always been a forgiving sort. Omnu is paradox, Toby, and it’s not entirely his fault. In life he was always vague, standoffish and mystical, and between the solidification of those traits and their enshrinement in doctrine, you’re left with a god whose idea of communication is sending you warm feelings.”

“I don’t understand what you’re telling me,” he said weakly.

“That divine nova of yours?” Izara rested her head on his shoulder. “It really is Omnu’s power; you simply can’t channel that much sheer divine magic unassisted, you’d incinerate yourself. But that he sends it to you in those extreme moments… It’s not so simple as him having a plan, Toby. It’s more that he reacts when you have a need. You are the kick in the pants he needs. Please don’t think I don’t care about you, because I do. Truly, I do. But in you, I see a real chance for my old friend to…wake up. And Vidius is not the only one of us who is growing concerned with the way things are. I have been reminded, recently, how I myself have allowed individuals to rise within my cult whom I would have disdained to be in a room with in my own mortal days.”

Toby stared up at Trissiny, standing frozen in time before him. Really studying her, in a way he rarely did anymore. It was funny, how quickly one could grow to take people for granted, once one was used to having them around. He remembered Trissiny in their earliest days at the University, the uncertainty and vulnerability she had displayed, the bluster with which she covered it, the rigid and frankly bigoted shades to the conviction that powered her. Now, in armor again, he could still see the contrast. She stood square and tall, but without any of the tension and stiffness she used to carry. Her expression was intent and pensive as she listened to Mortimer, but underneath the focus there was calm, totally unlike her borderline fanaticism of just two years ago. It was all right there, subtle but so plain when he really looked, even when she was suspended like a sculpture.

Trissiny had grown so much. They all had. Gabriel and Fross were practically different people. Juniper was in the grip of so many transitions it was hard to say how she might end up. He wasn’t sure whether he had only recently come to detect the care and compassion in Ruda, or the warmth and humor in Shaeine, or whether they had themselves grown more comfortable in those traits. Even Teal, despite Izara’s criticism, was slowly evolving into her own woman despite the pressures upon her.

Could he say the same? Had he really changed? Looking back, Toby found, to his shame, that he could see little that was new in himself except his ever-growing uncertainty.

Izara was right: he did nothing but react. Without a plan, and without focus, just constantly wandering about trying to be a calming presence wherever he was. He knew without self-aggrandizement that he had had a positive influence on his friends. But to the world at large? What could he really achieve by just being the nice guy? How many people could that help?

Chang Zhi was spoken of with tremendous reverence within Omnu’s faith, as perhaps the perfect spiritual role model. When he pressed himself, though, Toby couldn’t come up with anything of significance that she had actually accomplished.

“I’m such an idiot,” he said aloud. Without recrimination or angst; it was just an observation.

“You’re no more of one than someone your age should expect to be,” Izara replied, a note of humor lightening her voice.

“I don’t…know…what to do with this.”

“I would recommend following the examples of your friends. Trissiny has looked beyond the boundaries of her original faith for valuable perspective. Gabriel is becoming, if anything, a specialist in versatility. The truth is, Toby, that the traditions which raised you have let you down. It’s not that they are without value, but such limited perspectives may not work in the world anymore.”

Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you. That’s really good advice. Do you really think I can…” For that matter, what was it she was asking of him, exactly? “…save Omnu from himself?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say he needs to be saved, any more than you do. As his paladin, you are a focus for his personality; your growth can only benefit him as well. But simply as a man, you are very much like Omnu was in mortality. Kind, warm, gentle…a little bit bland and aloof. I just want you to be the best person you can, Toby. Hence…all of this.” She waved a hand at the frozen scene around them. “I’m not in the habit of such insistent interventions, but you came right up to the edge of a terrible precipice. The potential loss was more than I could bear to think of.”

“I see your point.” Toby nodded, then carefully gathered himself and stood, gently dislodging her. He turned to offer the goddess a hand up. “Thank you, Lady Izara, for all of this.”

“Please don’t be so formal,” she chided gently, even as she took his arm to rise. “I never have learned to enjoy being called Lady.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to compromise, then. I don’t think I can bring myself to call you Izzy.”

She grinned at him, and then suddenly the air moved again.

“…which will be the trickiest initial part, as—oh!” Agasti’s voice cut off mid-explanation for the second time to Toby’s ears, though it was the first to everyone else’s. He, Trissiny, and the two revenants both turned to Izara in surprise.

“Please,” she said, raising both hands, “no genuflections or other time-wasters. In theory, the Pantheon aren’t meant to intercede and solve mortal problems in person, but for this sheer concentration of paladins, extenuating circumstances, and backlash from one of my own projects, I have decided an exception is in order. Now, let’s get our young friend back here before he meets something he is truly not prepared for.”

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14 – 21

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Nell just gestured them to go ahead, waving to flag down the waitress. “You’re on your own from here, kids. Don’t worry, it’ll be perfectly fine.”

To judge by his expression before he got it back under control, the demon sent to bring them shared their instinctive unease about this prospect.

The door to the private area of the club was cleverly hidden in an alcove next to the bar, where the apparently natural shape of the cave walls veiled a gap behind a cluster of stalagmites; someone who didn’t know it was there could have stood right next to the aperture and never noticed it, thanks to the dimness of the club floor. Their standoffish revenant guide politely gestured them through, then followed them into the short corridor beyond, which ran behind the bar.

Around a corner, the spooky ambience abruptly vanished; they were now in a wood-paneled hallway with slightly threadbare carpet, lined by doors and terminating in a spiral staircase, with perfectly conventional fairy lamps providing ample light. The demon slipped past them and led the way to the stairs. All three paladins trooped along behind him in silence, single file.

They ascended roughly one story in the circular well, where the staircase terminated in a small foyer which looked for all the world like somebody’s front porch. Against the wall ahead was a door of ornately carved and highly polished wood, complete with a brass knocker. It was lit by a pair of decorative fairy lamps in wrought iron housing. Giving them little time to take in the scene, their guide produced a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and once again diffidently gestured them to proceed.

“Thank you,” Toby said politely as they passed. The demon didn’t acknowledge him.

It was like stepping into the upscale house at which the front door hinted. They arrived in a short entry hall that was visibly richer than Princess Yasmeen’s townhouse back in Calderaas, with marble floors and columns, mahogany paneling and velvet drapes providing an abbreviated glimpse of the sitting room beyond. Their guide glided past them and ducked under the curtains.

“Mr. Agasti, your guests.”

“Thank you, Arkady,” replied a thin voice from out of sight beyond the curtain. “That’ll be all, for now.”

The demon hesitated, glancing inscrutably at them. “Sir, if you would like, I can remain—”

“It’s all right,” Agasti replied in a tone that, while gentle, cut off the protest without effort. “Do me a favor and check on Nell, if you please. I know Kami has everything in hand, but I hate to leave an old friend languishing in the bar like any other punter.”

“…of course, sir,” Arkady said after another pause. He fixed a flat look on the three paladins again, but stepped back past them to the door. Toby once more smiled and nodded, and was again ignored.

“Please, come on in, lady and gentlemen,” Mr. Agasti urged them as soon as the door had shut behind the demon. “Don’t be shy.”

The room beyond seemed to be a combination library, sitting room, and private pub, as they discovered upon stepping through the curtain. Along the right wall was a small bar, behind which stood shelves of bottles. The walls were lined with bookcases, the floor laid out with comfortable chairs and a sofa, all in a matched red leather set. There was also a low table in front of the couch, stands by two of the chairs, and a huge globe in a waist-high setting which allowed it to rotate on two axes. Most strikingly to them was a piece tucked between two bookcases along one wall: a shabby old locking cabinet with a modern disc player on top. Most people would not recognize a Vernis Vault by sight, but this so perfectly matched the arrangement Tellwyrn had in her office that they couldn’t miss the resemblance.

“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” said Mortimer Agasti, approaching them slowly from the corner armchair from which he had apparently just risen. “The embarrassing truth is that most days, I don’t bother getting out of my bathrobe. There are some meetings, however, for which a man ought to make himself presentable.”

It was strangely difficult to guess at his age. The man walked with a slight stoop and a shuffling gait which suggested advanced years, and his short wiry hair had gone pure white. His brown face was totally unlined, however. In his bearing and the sad little effort at a smile he made, Agasti seemed worn down by an exhaustion that went well beyond the physical. He could have been a well-preserved seventy or a particularly beaten-down fifty. At least, he had clearly made an effort with his appearance, and while his suit was slightly loose on him as though it had been tailored for a more robust man, it was of obviously expensive cut.

“That’s no problem at all,” Gabriel said, for once beating Toby to the pleasantries. “We appreciate you taking time to see us at all, since we did just show up out of nowhere. Sorry to impose on you like this, Mr. Agasti.”

“Please,” the warlock said, raising a hand and managing a slightly more enthusiastic smile, “it’s just Mortimer. Mr. Agasti makes me sound so…old. When you are as legitimately old as I am, every little piece of self-delusion matters. Please, make yourselves comfortable anywhere. I trust Kami took good care of you down in the club? I can have something brought up if you’d like.”

“Thanks, but we just ate,” Trissiny said, gingerly seating herself on the very edge of one of the chairs.

Agasti nodded, shuffling over to slowly sink down in another. The armchairs were tall and had broad backs; once settled into one he looked positively shrunken. “Well, then. To get the awkward necessities out of the way up front, I should let you know that an old lawyer like myself is better prepared than most for his own demise. Obviously, nothing I’ve left behind will pose a serious threat to any of you, but if my employees come to harm in the course of my untimely death I can guarantee that the fallout will make it all but impossible for your cults to operate in Ninkabi for a decade or so.”

“Um,” Gabriel said, wide-eyed, “I think there’s been a mis—”

“I’m willing to compromise, however,” Agasti continued, his thin voice snuffing out Gabriel’s as effortlessly as it had his own employee’s, by sheer firmness. “The revenants working for me, despite their appearance, are perfectly harmless citizens who are in no way responsible for their current state. If I have your assurance that you will leave them be, I am prepared to ensure that no aggressive action is taken by my estate.”

“We’re not here to harm you!” Toby exclaimed.

“If we were,” Trissiny added, “we wouldn’t have come in and sat down. That just makes it…awkward.”

At that, Agasti cracked a grin of real amusement—a relatively weak one, though it brought more life to his countenance. “Ah? Well, then, forgive me for assuming. It did speak well of you that Nell vouched for your conduct, though frankly I don’t know what she could have done to make you behave any certain way.” Evidently Nell had neglected to clue in her “old friend” as to her real identity. “Please pardon an old scoundrel’s over-caution. I’ve found it a vital habit in every line of work I’ve undertaken.”

“Did…we really give off that impression?” Gabriel asked somewhat plaintively.

“Let’s just say my luck with Pantheon cults, and higher representatives thereof, has been spotty. Besides.” Agasti blinked slowly and leaned back in his chair, his fatigued body language belying the sharp intelligence of his eyes. “Most old shut-ins make a point of falling as far out of touch as they can, but I do subscribe to newspapers from around the continent; staying up on current events gives me something to fill my day. I am very much aware of the hot stories fresh out of Calderaas. So when you three young rascals suddenly manifested out of the blue on my doorstep… Well, that paints a certain picture, doesn’t it?”

Toby actually cringed, while Trissiny sighed and lowered her eyes.

“That, uh…was a very different situation,” Gabriel said, clearly choosing his words with care. “Irina Araadia had worse coming than that…and even so, in hindsight we were more ham-fisted than may have been wise. Seriously, Mr…that is, Mortimer, we didn’t come here to cause you trouble. Nell’s been singing your praises all evening, and while we haven’t known her long, she’s someone I personally would just as soon not disappoint. The truth is, we came here to ask for your help.”

“Oh?” At this, he leaned forward again slightly. “Well, what an interesting bundle of surprises you charming young folks are. And here I’ve assumed these last five years that the mere existence of a Hand of Avei in the world again meant the clock was ticking for me.”

“It’s ticking for all of us,” Trissiny said. “I… Assume you’ve had some run-ins with Avenists, sir.”

“I’m a lawyer, General Avelea,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I’ve lived my life surrounded by Avenists. As a breed, they’re not shy about sharing their opinions with regard to other areas of my life.”

“And by ‘opinions,’ I assume you mean ‘prejudices.’”

“Now, now. Leading the witness.” He wagged a chiding finger at her, but his tone remained amused. “I assure you I have better sense than to up and say that to members of such an admirably forthright faith.”

“Well, as one such member, I’m willing to say it,” she replied frankly. “I have them, too. I won’t lie, I’m having a little trouble politely sitting still in a complex full of actual demons. But I recognize prejudices for what they are. I do now, at least.”

“Well, well,” he mused. “A Hand of Avei who can actually see that the world is complicated. And here I’d thought Laressa was the eternal outlier. If you’ll forgive my curiosity, Ms. Avelea, is there any truth to the rumor that you’ve studied with the Thieves’ Guild? Several of the papers are repeating that one.”

She flicked her wrist, making a coin appear in her hand, and rolled it across her fingers with such a fluid motion that the light glinting off it resembled flowing water. “Fully trained and tagged, in fact.”

“That I should live to see such times,” Agasti murmured. “Well, then! I apologize once more for being a suspicious old goat. Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. Do please tell me how I can be of service, and I don’t just ask because I’m flummoxed what three paladins could possibly want from me.”

“Well…” Toby glanced at the others, and getting two encouraging nods, took over. “We are on a quest. Yes, an actual quest, from an actual god—but it’s just Vesk and so far indications are that it’s in keeping with his established pattern of sending paladins on quests just to give them something to do. So this venture does have Pantheon backing, but please don’t feel pressured; we’re not yet convinced how important any of it is.”

“Wise to be cautious,” Agasti said approvingly, leaning forward even more. He seemed to be slowly but surely recovering some of his vital force right before their eyes. “For a fellow like me with, shall we say, classical sensibilities, I confess I find that even more interesting than if you were out to save the world or some such. At least, now that I know my own life is not actually on the line. Please, continue.”

“The short version is, we’re assembling pieces of a key.” Toby reached into his pocket and produced what they had so far, holding it up to the light. “All Vesk told us at first is that there were four parts and some vague hints as to where they might be. We’ve had more detailed information from Salyrene recently, who had the second piece. She revealed that the fragments are all pieces of Infinite—that is, Elder God technology, probably made at least partly of mithril. And that you had the next piece. It would go on the end there, see, where the slots are? Clearly, this doesn’t look quite like anybody’s front gate key, but the resemblance is strong enough that it would probably look like the teeth.”

Agasti leaned forward to stare at the key with narrowed eyes, but did not reach out to touch it. As Toby finished, he shifted to rest his back against the chair again, frowning. “To be honest, the mithril does more to give it away than the shape; it would never have occurred to me to think of that thing as the teeth of a key, though I suppose that description fits. You don’t find mithril doodads in just any souvenir shop, though. Well, my young friends, as you have at least partially guessed, I have good news and bad news.”

“That means the bad news is really bad,” Trissiny said fatalistically. “Nobody tries to soften it that way, otherwise.”

“Smart girl,” Agasti agreed, grinning. “You know, young lady, you remind me of someone… But I digress. The good news is, of course, that I do recognize your description, I know exactly what you are looking for, and it was one of my most prized possessions for many a year. The bad is that I no longer have it.”

“I see,” said Toby, tucking the key away again. “Do you know where it is?”

“And that’s the worse news,” the old man said gravely. “Yes, I know where it is. But I can’t tell you.”

“And…why is that?” Trissiny asked.

“The attorney’s old bugaboo,” he replied. “It’s a question of confidentiality. To be frank, I don’t mind revealing my own secrets, if it’s an affair of interest to the gods directly. I have few enough left, and it’s always a relief to unburden oneself, don’t you think? But I have to protect the secrets of others, and that’s an altogether more serious matter, to me.”

“So…one of your law clients has the key fragment?” Gabriel asked.

Agasti shook his head. “This isn’t one of those things you can get around through simple tricks, Mr. Arquin. You are Mr. Arquin, right? I’m reasonably sure of the descriptions…”

“Oh. Sorry, I guess we failed to introduce ourselves, didn’t we?” Gabriel grinned cheerfully. “Anyway, it’s just Gabe. Mr. Arquin makes me sound all respectable, and there’ll be no end of trouble if I start getting a big head. Just ask Trissiny.”

“Duly noted, Gabe. But as I was saying, I’m not the doorman of a labyrinth and this isn’t a riddle. The confidences with which I am entrusted are of the utmost importance to me, and they are not to be circumvented by a game of twenty questions.”

Trissiny leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “And yet, you’re still talking to us. I can’t help thinking a lawyer who had nothing more to say would have dissolved into empty platitudes and apologies by now.”

“Never underestimate a lawyer’s ability or willingness to waste your time, young lady,” Agasti said with a grin. “But you’re correct, I am every bit as interested in helping you as I indicated. It becomes a little more complicated now, that’s all. To proceed, you will simply have to get the go ahead from the client whose secrets I am obliged to protect. In most cases, I would not even tell you who they are… But you are paladins, you are on a quest from an actual god of the Pantheon, and as this affair pertains to my magical rather than legal expertise, I don’t face disbarment for taking a slight liberty. The mithril piece you need I lost in the course of doing work for my cult.”

“I…see,” Trissiny said slowly. “Well, that does clear things up; I was worried for a second there. It’s a little ironic we have to go back to the Collegium now, but Salyrene herself signed off on this, so I doubt they’ll be excessively difficult about it.”

Agasti tilted his head minutely to the side, putting on a bland little smile. “The Collegium? Now, why would you assume that is my cult?”

She blinked. “…you’re right, that was a pretty bold assumption on my part. I meant no offense.”

“I am not offended,” he said, still smiling. “It’s not as if I don’t follow your logic, after all. An old warlock, not at odds with the Pantheon, to whom else would he pray but Salyrene? And yet, the Collegium is considered a religion only because its patron is a member of the Pantheon. They call it a Collegium for a reason, after all; Salyrites are more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than providing comfort and spiritual understanding. No, I’m afraid this business doesn’t involve them. It does go to the highest levels of Izara’s faith, however. You will have to seek the approval of no less a person than the High Priestess.”

Trissiny stared at him, seemingly unaware that her mouth had fallen open. Toby simply looked intrigued. It was Gabriel who spoke, with customary tact.

“You’re an Izarite?!”

“Is there some reason I should not be?” Agasti asked mildly.

Trissiny finally shut her mouth. “…we were recently told that a religion, ultimately, consists of a problem and a solution. That a true faith postulates what the core problem of existence is, and then provides a way to address it.”

“I’ve heard that theory!” Agasti replied, nodding. “Back in my university days, I attended a fascinating lecture series on theology; the speaker devoted a whole hour to the idea. Yes, Ms. Avelea, that is a very good way to look at it, though not the approach to which I am personally accustomed. But to take that tack… I suppose you could say that in my view, the fundamental problem of existence is brokenness. And the glue that holds people together, both within themselves and in the bonds between them, is love. Look closely at every force, every philosophy or idea, which prevents people from either turning on each other or falling apart individually, and you’ll find that ultimately, it boils down to love.”

Silence fell, the three of them digesting this while Mr. Agasti simply regarded them with a knowing little smile. In the quiet, the very faint ticking of a clock could be heard, having gone previously unnoticed underneath the conversation.

“So…I guess it’s off to Tiraas, then,” Trissiny said at last. “The good news is we can probably get an audience with the High Priestess…”

“A-hem?” They all looked over at Gabriel, who was suddenly grinning. “I bet we can expedite that a bit. Let me just run downstairs and grab Nell—”

There came a knock at the front door.

“Aaaand ten doubloons says that’s my idea being preempted,” he muttered.

“No bet,” Toby replied.

Mr. Agasti raised his voice. “Yes?”

Rather than a verbal answer, there came a click and the soft whine of hinges, followed by footsteps on the marble floor of the entry hall. And then, Nell’s grinning face poking through the velvet curtains.

“Morty!”

“Nell, you smirking reprobate, how do you keep looking younger every time I see you?” he complained.

“Cheating,” she said cryptically, stepping the rest of the way in. “I hope I’m not interrupting you guys, but a mutual acquaintance just popped in downstairs and I figured we should combine all this into one conversation, so as to cut down on all the catching up and explanations later. Kids, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, kids.”

Another woman had followed her through the curtains, apparently young and homely almost to the point of looking weird. She was short, bony as a bundle of twigs, with buggy eyes and practically no lips, and unruly blonde hair that frizzed defiantly against the rough ponytail into which she had gathered it.

At her entrance, Agasti went wide-eyed and shot to his feet.

“Now, Mortimer, none of that,” Izara ordered with a smile, quickly gliding across the room toward him. “If you even think about kneeling I shall be very cross with you. Please, sit back down, you should know I’m no great fan of ceremony.”

“M-my Lady,” he whispered, his voice rough with awe.

But unspoken agreement, the three paladins rose and retreated, to give them some space. Gabriel leaned close to Nell, who was watching the scene with a broad grin. “By any chance, did Vesk send her? Because, you know… The timing. It was practically comedic.”

“Are you under the impression that Veskers are the only people in the world who know anything about rhythm?” she retorted, also pitching her voice low enough not to interrupt the other two, who were caught up in a soft conversation of their own. “Kid, critters like us have means at our disposal you can scarcely imagine. When I said I like I keep in circulation, I didn’t mean the way you would; right now I am doing business, in person, in a hundred different cities. Izzy’s not usually one to pop up in the flesh, any more than most of the ol’ family are, but for this? No, it’s not a coincidence she chose the perfect moment.”

“Well, this is good, though,” Trissiny murmured. “If the pattern we’ve seen so far holds out, this means we’ll be getting a nice long lecture on her personal philosophy. The fact that the thought annoys me so much probably means I need to hear it.”

“Oh, Trissiny,” Izara said in a fond tone, looking over at them. “Love doesn’t require any explanation. Please, all of you, sit back down. You, too, Nell, there’s no point in anybody looming around uncomfortably, now that we’re all here.”

She herself perched on the arm of Agasti’s chair, having gently urged him back into it, and kept a hand on his shoulder. The old man’s eyes glinted with unshed tears, and his awed expression had not faded, but he recovered enough of his aplomb to give Nell a wry look.

“And to think,” he said, “I thought you were exaggerating when you claimed you knew everyone.”

“Oh, I was,” she replied earnestly. “But I do know some surprising people, and that claim keeps giving me perfect opportunities to make this smug expression I’m making right now. It just feels so good on my face!”

“In any case,” Izara continued, shaking her head, “I know what you are seeking, and what you need from Mortimer. There is no need to bother Delaine with this; I am quite willing to authorize you to know what has happened. In fact, the intervention of paladins in the affair may do a great deal to rectify certain old mistakes.” She squeezed Agasti’s shoulder affectionately. “To begin… Do all three of you know what a shatterstone is?”

Gabriel raised his hand. “Nope.”

“They’re magical artifacts the Izarites use to defend their temples,” Trissiny explained, tilting her face in his direction but keeping her eyes on Izara. “Purely defensive and reactive. If you do any hostile magic at or even near a shatterstone, it lets out a pulse that neutralizes any non-Izarite casters in the vicinity. Those things have knocked out dragons. Exactly how they work and are made is one of the greatest secrets of that cult, which…really explains why Mr. Agasti was reluctant to go into detail about this.”

“They are an unfortunate necessity,” Izara said sadly, “not a high secret, Trissiny. It would be better if such things weren’t needed at all…but the world isn’t so obliging. And so, the shatterstones are necessary, as is the secrecy surrounding them. And to cut a long story short, Mortimer is one of the specialists who made them for my temples.”

Trissiny straightened up. “Are you telling me those things are made with infernomancy?”

“It would be more accurate to say that I made them with infernomancy,” Agasti replied, looking up at his goddess and getting an encouraging nod. “The real secret of shatterstones is this: there is no secret. There’s no specific formula or pattern. They have fallen into hostile hands in the past, but no attempt to reverse-enchant them has succeeded, because no two are alike. Shatterstones are made by trusted members of the cult from all four branches of magic, and most incorporate all four schools, and some shadow magic besides. But even within the efforts of each individual craftsman, the stones are not identical. A shatterstone is an individual work of art. The challenge is to create one in a new way each time—to achieve the specific, predictable effects they must have through a unique working. Thus, they can never be countered or anticipated. A hostile spellcaster who obtained one would find it no help at all in getting around the defenses of another temple. Thus, Izara’s sacred grounds remain protected, without any blood needing to be shed. And the constant arms race of new tactics and weapons passes them by.”

“That is actually brilliant, militarily speaking,” Trissiny marveled.

Toby, though, frowned. “Now, my source for this is Gabriel, so take it with a pinch of salt…”

“Hey!”

“…but I thought that standardization was very important for any complex, permanent magical working. Don’t they have a tendency to go wrong if you’re constantly improvising?”

“They do,” Izara said quietly, shifting to drape her arm around Agasti’s shoulders. The warlock sighed heavily, lowering his eyes. “That brings us to the problem before you.”

“That Elder God trinket you’re looking for?” Agasti raised his gaze again, his expression now resolute. “It’s designed to help control the flow of powerful magics. I used it in my work to craft shatterstones, in a secure and sacred location far from the city where I did my work on behalf of the goddess. But the last time… The last time, I made a mistake. The piece you need is still in that hidden temple, but after that last disaster, I barely got out of there with my own life. I’m afraid the entire thing went right straight to Hell.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Oh,” said Gabriel, his eyes widening. “Oh, gods. That’s not a euphemism, is it.”

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10 – 43

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“This Ingvar sounds like he’s cruising to get himself digested,” Tellwyrn snorted.

“Perhaps,” the Crow mused in reply. “Perhaps not. Likely not, I think. His manner toward Aspen is not at all the approach I would take… If anything, he appears to be relating toward her as a devout Shaathist toward a young woman who has suddenly become his responsibility.”

“You could print that up in a handsome leather binding under the title How to Get Eaten by a Dryad.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly. “In general, yes. I think that this situation reflects Sheyann’s hard work, and ours. Assuredly Aspen as she was when you placed her in this situation would have responded very poorly indeed to such treatment, but Sheyann reports that she has found success in teaching the dryad some self-awareness and responsibility. Not enough that I would inflict her upon your campus like Juniper, but she is, at least, primed to want to better herself. You of all people know how it is with the young. They act out, on some level, because they need to find where the boundaries are. Ingvar is providing her that. She appears to be taking to it quite well, far better than I could have anticipated.”

“So he’s teaching her Shaathist boundaries.” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Be it now or further down the road, someone’s getting eaten. Meanwhile, we face the question of what to do with this.”

“Yes.”

They stood in the magically fortified chamber deep beneath the University, staring up at the time-frozen form of Aspen locked in mid-transformation.

“This new body,” Tellwyrn mused, “you said it exhibited no signs of transforming?”

“And I studied her carefully with more than just my eyes, yes. Whatever Khadizroth did, it brought her back in a default state.”

“I wonder why you didn’t just do that in the first place.”

“First,” Kuriwa said with faint annoyance, “because stabilizing her emotionally was necessary before that was safe, and we are the beneficiaries of great good fortune that that process had gone far enough to be successful when Ingvar blundered across her. And second, it honestly did not occur to me that such was possible. I’ve added it to the ever-lengthening list of things I intend to discuss with Khadizroth when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Well, we’re procrastinating, here, and we both know it,” Tellwyrn said somewhat brusquely. “I’d advise retreating a couple of steps. Presuming what you just let loose in Viridill is the real and only Aspen and not some kind of clone, this thing might just slump over dead, or it may be savage, mindless, and predatory. And there is absolutely no guessing what Naiya will think of us dispatching it.”

“In the worst case scenario,” Kuriwa said calmly, “you can always re-freeze it, no?”

“Right,” Tellwyrn grumbled, “because this is exactly the kind of nicknack I want cluttering up my basement for all eternity. Stand back.”

She gave no more warning beyond a curt gesture of her hands, and without any visible magical effect, the partially-transformed dryad continued the motion she had been in the middle of, which was a very aggressive step forward.

A low groaning sound echoed from within her snarling face, and she staggered forward another step; neither elf backed up further, Tellwyrn keeping her hands up and ready to cast again. Aspen’s body swayed drunkenly to one side, then slowly toppled forward.

She hit the stone floor and completely collapsed. Five seconds later they were looking down at a pile of sticks and golden aspen leaves, only the spray of grass stalks that had been her hair serving to hint at a humanoid form.

“Well.” Tellwyrn shook her head, and folded her arms. “Well. I suppose that was the absolutely ideal outcome.”

“Yes.”

“I’m always mistrustful when those happen.”

“Yes.”

“Should we check outside and see if the world is ending?”

“We are underground, Arachne. Naiya’s domain is more than plants and animals; if she thought us guilty of slaying one of her daughters, we would be hearing about it already.” Kuriwa shook her head. “No, I believe we can consider this matter satisfactorily concluded. Aspen is, really and truly, safe and free.”

“And,” Tellwyrn drawled, “running around Viridill with some Huntsman, that smirking weasel Darling and Joseph Jenkins, who I rather like. I was hoping to persuade him to attend my school in a few years; I’ll be very put out if you get him eaten, Kuriwa.”

“Someday, Arachne, we’re going to have a conversation which includes no exchange of threats, and both of us will be left with a great yawning void in our hearts.” The Crow turned and stepped toward the room’s only door. “Now, I believe I had better visit Sheyann and inform her of this. She will be rather disappointed that her work was thus interrupted; hopefully she finds this conclusion as satisfactory as we.”

“Kuriwa.”

The Crow paused at the tone of Tellwyrn’s voice and turned back to face her, raising an eyebrow.

The sorceress wore a frown, but it was a pensive and slightly worried expression. “Not to tell you your own business, but I really think you ought to go keep an eye on this group you set loose in Viridill.”

“Oh?”

“The events you describe down there, Khadizroth’s apparent involvement, and especially this hint that he’s answering to the Universal Church now… In the last few days, Justinian has been making hostile noises at my school, to the extent of riling up a continent-wide debate in the newspapers. I have had to seek out advice from gods of the Pantheon with regard to this, the Black Wreath has taken it as an opportunity to strike at his interests by ‘helping’ some of my kids…”

“That is an unsettling prospect.”

“Imperial Intelligence has likewise gotten involved… And the whole time, the big unanswered question has been what the Archpope thinks he can accomplish this way. He poses zero threat to me, and he knows it. Now this. Whatever else he’s done, this has done a bang-up job of fixing the world’s attention here. To the point that I, for one, had no idea anything so interesting as a rash of elemental attacks was taking place in Viridill. I think, Kuriwa, someone competent had better be on site there. Someone who knows to keep an eye out for Justinian’s sneaky fingers.”

“Hmm.” Now frowning herself, Kuriwa nodded slowly. “You raise an extremely valid point, Arachne. Yes, I believe I shall take your advice. Thank you.”

“I suppose wonders never cease.”

“If they did,” said the Crow, turning again to leave, “you would simply make your own. Which is a better prospect for the world than you becoming bored.”

Tellwyrn grinned down at the pile of leaves and twigs that had previously been a dryad’s body as the sound of small wings receded down the corridor behind her. “Said Elder Pot to Professor Kettle. Bah… Now, where does Stew keep the brooms?”


“Sorry I’m late,” said Basra, arriving in the command tent and helping herself to a position around the map table. “Have I missed anything significant?”

“No, and you’re hardly late, your Grace,” said Colonel Nintaumbi, nodding respectfully to her. “The only development since last night is that our scouts and scryers have confirmed the absence of any further reaction from Athan’Khar; there are no more monsters north of the river, or indeed north of the corrupted region. Scrying is ineffective beyond that point, I’m afraid.”

“My scouts,” Yrril said calmly, “have ventured to the edge of the corruption and found it calm. The denizens of Athan’Khar are howlingly mad, to the last. It is not in their nature to strategize, or lie in wait. It is safe to assume they are not planning another attack.” She had removed her helmet and carried it under one arm; in the light of day, her armor was revealed to be a form-fitting tunic and trousers of some densely woven material overlaid with strategic plates of metal. All of it, as well as the hilt of her saber, had been treated to prevent them shining even in the sunlight.

“That fits,” Basra agreed, nodding. “Our quarrel is with the elementalist currently hiding there, not with the spirits of Athan’Khar. What we faced last night were simply the specimens antagonized by Falaridjad’s stupidity. Where is she?”

“En route to Vrin Shai to be held pending arraignment,” said General Vaumann. “You and your other companions will naturally be called upon to testify, so the proceedings will have to wait until things are somewhat settled here. I did, on your recommendation, have a suicide watch placed on her, though if I may say so she doesn’t seem the type.”

“Good. Thank you.” Basra nodded deeply to her. “The type or not, I want no risk taken of that treasonous imbecile finding an easy way out of her mess.”

“The rest of your party are still resting,” Vaumann added. “After the night you’ve had, no one would blame you if you remained with them. What an interesting group, Captain Syrinx. A bard, a witch, a sole Legionnaire and a priestess of Izara. One might think you were trying to form an old-fashioned adventuring party.”

Colonel Nintaumbi cracked a grin at that; Yrril cocked her head infinitesimally to one side.

Basra drew in a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. “I have a feeling that was rather amusing, General. I may ask you to repeat it sometime when I’m not so fresh from shepherding that gaggle of misfits away from a mostly self-inflicted doom.”

“It’s a date,” Vaumann said with an amused smile.

“In any case,” Nintaumbi said more briskly, “the core of our strategy will rely on magical superiority. General Panissar has sent us two strike teams, and the last scroll I got said four more were requisitioned and on the way. In addition to that, we have no lack of battlemages, both those attached to the units already present and a detachment from the Azure Corps who arrived just an hour ago.”

“We have been assured by our fae specialists,” said General Vaumann, “that while this summoner’s ability to call up elementals at such a long range is impressive and dangerous, maintaining a fine control over them at that range is beyond the realm of possibility. Even if he is a competent general, which we have yet to see evidence for or against, his troops are more like animate weapons. Our objective will be to create controlled chaos on the battlefield and prevent any elementals which arrive from coordinating.”

“Makes sense,” Basra agreed, nodding.

“The Second Legion is going to take a primarily defensive stance,” Vaumann continued. “We’re backed by clerics, and I’ve had them hard at work since yesterday buffing and applying more than the standard blessings to weapons and armor. They’ll make a fine bulwark against anything operating on fae magic. The Imperial Army is going to take a more aggressive stance, using mages, staves and what mag artillery we can get into the field. Yrril’s troops are far more mobile than any of ours; Narisian infantry are quicker even than cavalry, as the Silver Legions have had cause to observe.” She gave Yrril a wry look, receiving a bow and a polite smile in reply. “They’ll form our primary means of controlling the field. The trick here is going to be avoiding any friendly fire incidents; the Legions should be adequately shielded against stray staff shots, and Colonel Nintaumbi is having full suites of grounding and shielding charms issued to the Narisians from the Army’s stores. Beyond that, it’ll be Army hammers and Legion anvils all the way down, with Narisian tongs to put our enemies in just the right spot.”

“Will you have problems fighting in the sun, Yrril?” Basra asked, turning to the drow.

“We have means of dealing with it,” she replied.

“In fact,” Nintaumbi added, “we have reversed variants of the same charms to enable our troops to operate in the dark. We intend to draw up plans for a counter-attack at night. Drow are known to have an advantage in the darkness, but the hope is that human forces moving at night will take them by surprise.”

“As long as this character hides in Athan’Khar,” Basra said grimly, “we’re at a stalemate. Surely you don’t plan to cross the river in force.”

Vaumann shook her head. “The hope is that if we can decisively crush a full complement of whatever he or she fields, it will put our enemy in a more conciliatory frame of mind and we can try diplomacy again.”

Basra grunted. “If he wants Falaridjad, I fully endorse handing her over.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Vaumann said dryly. “Now, with regard to the immediate—”

“General!” A runner dashed up to the tent, saluting as she came to a stop. “Ma’am, we’ve had a… It’s hard to describe. Some people just arrived on our northern flank, insisting on speaking with whoever’s in charge. They got here with some kind of fae fast-travel effect; they say they just crossed the whole province in the last two hours. On foot.”

Nintaumbi frowned deeply; Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“’Some people?’” Vaumann repeated. “Can you offer a little more detail, Corporal?”

“Very little, ma’am, but it’s a weird group. A woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath, a boy about sixteen, a woman who appears to be a dryad, and a man claiming to be the Eserite Bishop.”

“What?” Basra straightened up.

“Did you say a dryad?” Nintaumbi exclaimed. “Are you sure?”

“No…sir,” the Legionnaire said, glancing between him and General Vaumann. “She has green hair and an odd complexion. She’s under-dressed and, um, somewhat lacking in social skills. I was ordered to alert the General, not interrogate them. Ma’am, the Eserite says they have important information about the elemental summoner.”

Vaumann drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Well. This is peculiar enough, and suggestive enough, that I think it’s worth investigating. Any disagreements?”

Yrril shook her head. “I concur.”

“If we’re going to talk to this lot, let’s go to them,” Nintaumbi said firmly. “If that is a dryad, apart from wanting to know what the hell is going on, I don’t want her in the middle of my troops.”

“Good thinking,” said Basra. “I’ll come along, if I may. I know the Eserite Bishop quite well; if this is an impostor I’ll be able to alert you.”

“Splendid,” said Vaumann. “Lead the way, Corporal.”

The defenses across the southwestern border of Viridill consisted of a line of fortresses, jointly staffed by the Imperial Army and the Silver Legions, marching between the Tiraan Gulf and the southernmost tip of the Stalrange, where the Viridill hills merged with the younger, craggier mountains. The land stretching between them was heavily patrolled, but the fortresses themselves were not large, serving primarily as platforms for mag artillery. They lacked the space to house the much larger than usual forces being assembled along the border, and as such, most of the troops were currently encamped in tents.

One reason the joint operation had gone so well thus far was that the three commanders of the coalition forces got along very well, sharing, among other things, a preference for leading from the front. They had a command center set up in Fort Naveen, which stood right on the coast, but had preferred to move themselves to the middle of their assembled army during the day.

It was a fairly short walk to the point where their mysterious visitors had arrived, and they saw their destination long before getting there. Imperial troops, both on and off duty, were clustered around the region, craning their necks to see what was up ahead and generally preventing the arriving commanders from doing so. A few bellowed words from Nintaumbi scattered them back to their own business, leaving the visitors guarded only by the Silver Legionnaires who were actually supposed to be present.

They were at a staffed checkpoint, either having gone for it directly or been brought there by the soldiers. Legionnaires saluted General Vaumann upon her arrival, stepping aside to grant, finally, a view of the mysterious party.

They were very much as the runner had described: a youth in a sharp suit, a beardless and uncomfortable-looking individual wearing the ceremonial gear of the Huntsmen of Shaath, a sullen-faced young woman with green hair wearing a black leather duster and clearly nothing underneath (as she couldn’t be bothered to hold it closed), and…

“Bas!” Antonio Darling crowed, throwing wide his arms and beaming at her.

“Antonio, what do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded, stalking toward him and ignoring the Legionnaires who moved to intercept her before being called back by a gesture from Vaumann.

“Straight to the point!” he cried, grinning from ear to ear. “Hah, just like old times. I’ve missed you!”

“I gather this actually is him, then?” Vaumann said dryly.

Basra sighed heavily through her nose. “Antonio, these are General Vaumann, Colonel Nintaumbi, and Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, the joint commanders of the force assembled here. Ladies and gentleman, may I present Bishop Darling, of the Thieves’ Guild and the Universal Church. And the rest of this I am just dying to hear.”

“Of course, of course,” Darling said gaily, gesturing to his companions. “Meet my very good friends, Brother Ingvar of the Huntsmen, Joseph P. Jenkins of Sarasio…”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tugging the brim of his hat.

“…and of course, Aspen, daughter of Naiya.”

The dryad just folded her arms and grunted sullenly.

“She’s had a trying morning,” Darling confided. “Tree spirits aren’t usually much for cross-country running, and then on top of that we made her wear clothes.”

“You didn’t make me do anything,” Aspen snapped. “I agreed to.”

“What she said,” Darling said equably.

“Excuse me,” said Nintaumbi, “But…the Joseph Jenkins?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Jenkins replied.

“What a fascinating story this must be,” said General Vaumann, her eyes roving across the group. “I was told you had information for us?”

“Of course, of course,” said Darling, cheerful as ever. “Might there be someplace a tad more comfortable where we can sit and chat?”

“With the greatest possible respect,” said Nintaumbi, “there are Imperial laws governing dryads.”

“Excuse me?” Aspen exclaimed. “How dare you?”

She stilled instantly when Ingvar took her by the elbow, leaning forward to murmur softly in her ear. The dryad’s expression fell and she lowered her eyes, abashed. Whatever the Huntsman said was too quiet for most of them to hear, though Yrril raised an eyebrow at it.

“I understand your concern,” said Darling, “but Aspen is a friend. We’ll vouch for her.”

“Oh?” Basra folded her arms. “And who’ll vouch for you?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “Oh, come on now, Bas.”

The two Bishops stared at each other for a long moment, then she shook her head. “All right, fine. I cannot say that Bishop Darling doesn’t generally know what he’s doing. If he says Aspen is safe, I’m inclined to believe him.”

“It’s not necessarily that simple,” Nintaumbi said, frowning.

“Perhaps,” Yrril said, “we should consider whether, in an unprecedented situation such as this, codes and regulations are as important as the needs of the moment.”

“I have to agree with that,” said General Vaumann. “Very well; Captain Syrinx, why don’t you escort our very interesting new friends to the command tent? We’ll join you momentarily; I would like a quick word with my fellow commanders.”

“Of course, General,” Basra said with a sigh. “Silly me, hoping I could for a few hours escape the menagerie of oddballs and…adventurers.”

“You do seem to have a knack for finding them, don’t you?” Vaumann agreed.

“I haven’t found a damn one of them,” Basra grumbled, “they keep getting dropped on me. Except Covrin, who I’ll note is the only one who doesn’t add to my headaches. All right, Antonio, bring your friends this way, please. And…try not to touch anything.”


The Universal Church of the Pantheon did not host worship services as such, at least not in the sense that individual cults did. Its smaller chapels, in less-populated areas, often did so, where there were only a few followers of each faith and no space or budget to build a temple for everybody. A Church service tended to be general to the point of generic, lacking the specific flavor of any one deity. The Church’s sanctuaries were built along a plan that encouraged people to sit with their attention focused on a single speaker in the front, as they served as general meeting places in many parts of the Empire and the world, even when not being put to use as houses of worship.

Exactly how much activity the great sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral in Tiraas saw depended very much on the inclinations of whoever was currently Archpope. The sanctuary area was always open, but most often served as a quiet place for prayer and contemplation. Some Archpopes had held prayer meetings multiple times a week, while others did not see fit to call any assembly except in times of great tragedy or celebration.

Justinian’s presence before the public was carefully measured, as was everything he did. Prayer meetings at the Grand Cathedral were regular but not frequent; he sponsored smaller services once a week on average, conducted by a rotating roster of clerics, but himself led a sermon only on a monthly basis. It served to keep him present and memorable in the minds of the public, while always keeping the appetites of the faithful whetted for more of their Archpope’s sparing attention.

This was his first public address since the beginning of the newspaper-driven controversy surrounding the University at Last Rock, and his Holiness was playing to a bigger crowd even than usual; the Grand Cathedral was packed to the point that Holy Legionaries had finally stopped more people from entering, so many were standing along the walls. Thus far, his sermon had been fairly typical, but when he shifted to the topic everyone most wanted to hear about, the hundreds present stilled so fully that their collectively indrawn breath was plainly audible.

“I know that many of you have been concerned with reports from Last Rock,” the Archpope stated, gazing out across the crowd with a solemn frown, his hands resting on the edges of his pulpit. “The matter has been argued over so much in recent days that I think this issue has become somewhat muddied. At its core, it seems to me that this is a controversy over nothing less than the role of adventurers in our society. Whether they are still part of the modern world… Whether they should be.

“It speaks well of our people, I think, that so many have opinions on this, and care enough to discuss them. We were once an adventuring society; wandering heroes have done much to shape our history, and the destinies of nations…and Empires. This is a question of who we once were, who we shall become, and who we are. A society will only flourish while its members care about such questions.”

He paused, then smiled with a careful touch of ruefulness. “If you hoped to hear me endorse or rebuke Arachne Tellwyrn for teaching a generation of young adventurers to follow the old ways, I must disappoint you. It is important for an Archpope, more even than most spiritual leaders, to remember his or her place, and to cultivate a measure of humility. I am here to intercede, to mediate—not to direct.

“This, though, I will say: it is my fervent hope that in the days to come, while this matter is discussed and debated, you will all remember the importance of solidarity.” He raised his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling kindly down on the assembled faithful. “Everything that brings us together here is rooted in the concepts of togetherness, and oneness. We are many nations under one Empire. We are many faiths under one Church. Even the very gods we follow have led the way and set this example: they are many deities, gathered in one Pantheon. It is a universal truth that people are stronger together than when they are split asunder. Please, remember this as you contemplate the role of adventurers, of this University, of any matter that engenders strong feeling. Anyone who would divide you from one another seeks only to control or destroy; look to those who bring togetherness. Only together do we continue to grow toward the bright destiny to which the gods have called us.”

“I am glad to hear you say so.”

Gasps rose all around as her voice echoed through the cathedral. She appeared at the opposite end of the central aisle from the Archpope behind his pulpit, just inside the great open doors without having passed the Holy Legionaries guarding them.

She was a young woman rather shorter than average and not much to look at—but she was also a towering figure, her head brushing the peaked roof high above, and her presence filling the vast chamber. Her voice was soft and unprepossessing, yet powerful enough to echo through the ears and souls of every person present as if she stood right beside them. Nothing changed upon her arrival, and it it was as if the cathedral were filled with brilliant sunlight, with the smell of flowers…or at least, the sense of such things.

Izara paced slowly forward, smiling calmly to the left and right as she came. Shocked worshipers belatedly fell to their knees as she passed, as did the armored Legionaries posted throughout the sanctuary.

“The Pantheon have talked about this among ourselves,” said the goddess as she strolled forward. “The nature of the world today, the needs of our people. And, specifically, the University at Last Rock, its students and graduates. Its…eccentric…founder and leader.” She shook her head, slowly, and it was as if sunbeams shifted throughout the room, the scents of different flowers changing rapidly as though carried on playful currents of wind. “Arachne Tellwyrn… What a difficult individual. We have long observed her, and dealt with her. We know her faults, and they are many.

“But we know her virtues as well, and those are also many. Ultimately… Arachne is someone we know, and who knows us. Someone who cares for the world and the people in it, though her unique way of being can obscure that fact. She has earned a measure of trust.”

Izara continued forward, having crossed most of the sanctuary by now; the Archpope had stepped around from behind his pulpit to meet her. He did not kneel, but bowed to the goddess, and held that uncomfortable position as she came.

“Your Archpope has spoken truly. This question is one of adventurers, of heroes, of whether they are necessary, and what form they should take. I have discussed this with my brothers and sisters, and this I will tell you: we were once adventurers, and heroes. Taking up the mantle of godhood was necessary in those dark times. It is a fate I would not wish upon anyone for whom I cared, but it was what had to be done.

“And that is all a hero is: someone who does what is necessary. You may think, when you hear the word, of rangers and wizards, rogues and bards, embarking on a quest for gold and glory. It applies just as well to the man who rushes into a burning building to rescue a child. To the woman who seeks a public office to represent the needs of common people who have been too long ignored. To a priest who prays for you, and with you, and helps you through your darkest hours, no matter how exhausted he may be in his own soul. Heroes are all around you.”

The goddess reached the end of the great chamber and turned to face them, her back to the Archpope and pulpit. She was far too short to obscure the crowd’s view of the dais; her awesome, towering presence blotted out everything but herself.

“One thing a hero must be is prepared, and that means there must be those dedicated to preparing them. Perhaps someday, this shall be a peaceful world. A world where all of nature is in harmony, where no wars rage and no diseases ravage. A world in which every government and every church has no aim except the well-being of those who look to them.” Slowly, mournfully, Izara shook her head again. “It is not such a world yet. And in addition to those mundane problems that have always plagued humanity, it is a world complicated by magic and still haunted by surviving memories of the bitter times that gave birth to the Pantheon. I will say this to you: it is not time for the age of heroes to end. Not yet.

“They must change, though. The old ways don’t work in the new world. No one understands this better than we. My sisters and brothers called no paladins for three decades while we considered the state of the world, and those called since have each been of a new pattern, selected to address new needs. A new kind of hero is needed.”

She paused, her eyes moving across the kneeling crowd, then smiled. “I trust Arachne to teach a new generation how to fill that need. Remember what your Archpope has told you today: it is togetherness that will save us all. Arachne cannot do this alone, and should not be expected to. I agree with the criticism of some that she ought not be the sole arbiter of what youths become powerful and successful, but that does not mean she should be condemned for stepping up to fill a need. More must rise. It is up to you to shape the destiny of your world, and to decide what kind of life you will leave for your children. Love one another always, and you will find the heroes among you who are needed.”

The goddess smiled, and everyone present felt suddenly alive as never before, giddily joyful and yet solemn. Then, just as quickly, her expression sobered.

“On a personal note, I would clarify that Branwen Snowe does not speak for me, or my faith. Remember love, my friends. Care for each other as yourselves.”

And she was gone.

The stillness left by her absence was stunning; the hundreds of souls kneeling in the Cathedral stared, awestruck, at the place where the goddess had stood.

Archpope Justinian, fittingly, was the first to recover his poise.

“We have been blessed beyond measure,” he said, his normally controlled voice slightly rough with emotion. He stepped back behind the pulpit, gazing fervently down upon his people. “Remember this day, my friends; it is only rarely, and never for nothing, that the gods speak to us in person. Remember what you have been told. Love one another as yourselves. Each of you must carry this forward in your hearts, and decide what it means for your lives. For now, I believe a prayer of thanks for this blessing is called for.”

Somewhat shakily, the parishoners rose to slide back into pews, following along as the Archpope led them in a devotion of gratitude and humility before their gods. All the while, he remained a living picture of perfect serenity.

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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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