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?
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.
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.”
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.”