Tag Archives: Scyllith

Bonus #59: Accursed, part 5

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“I’m just so proud of you, little Szaiviss!” the Elder Goddess gushed in a voice of pure sweetness. She made a languid gesture with one graceful arm, and the terrified shadow priestess drifted up from the ground, still too poleaxed by the overwhelming divine presence to struggle, or even protest. Scyllith smiled fondly, twirling one finger and causing Szaiviss to rotate slowly in midair. “And to think, I had all but written you off. Yet here you are! Digging up ancient secrets, consorting with surface elves… What a vicious betrayal you must have been working up to! I’m so proud, little one.”

The light swelled, and with a flash of pure white, Szaiviss was gone.

Kuriwa was fortunately too paralyzed by the pressure upon her mind to be humiliated by the little squeak that emerged from her throat.

“Oh, are you worried for your new companion?” the goddess asked solicitously, turning her full attention upon Kuriwa. “Aren’t you a thoughtful friend! But you needn’t worry yourself, child. I am hardly going to waste such a delightful source of chaos just when she’s finally started to demonstrate a little backbone! Why, given a few more decades and a lucky break or two, young Szaiviss may just work herself up to doing some real damage to my priestesses. I certainly don’t want to miss that.”

She couldn’t respond, could not do anything. The sensation was like being squished under a rockfall. Her thoughts were jagged, sideways things, struggling to function at all under the overwhelming pressure of Scyllith’s sheer personality.

Desperately, in the ragged back of her mind, instinct and habit began to claw together a semblance of control. She was a shaman, a wielder of the fae arts; her mind was her own, and feelings served her. She did not serve them.

And just like that, before she could make any real progress, the pressure lifted.

“Oh! I am sorry.” Scyllith folded her delicate hands before her slender waist, her doll-like face suddenly poised in an expression of sympathetic concern. “Please excuse me, young lady. I am accustomed to keeping order around here largely by pure force of character, and it has been so long since I had the privilege of entertaining a guest. I do hope you were not too discomfited? For an elder shaman of your station, it must be a most unfamiliar experience, to be so aggressively humbled. Well, so long as you are not visiting daddy’s house, of course.”

Her thin lips curled upward in a knowing smile.

Slowly, Kuriwa straightened, correcting her posture and still gathering her thoughts. The jibe was not altogether a surprise, given what this creature was goddess of, and yet it seemed oddly petty. There was a stark incongruity in hearing the architect of all the horrors she had seen during her journey through drow territory making lazy jabs about daddy issues.

“Do let me make it up to you,” Scyllith said earnestly, still smiling. “You have come on a most dire errand, I see! I shall be glad to help you solve your problem, Kuriwa.”

She didn’t bother wondering about the source of the goddess’s knowledge. According to some theories, gods were constructs of pure data; it was a prevailing hypothesis among the high elves intelligentsia that magic itself was the same.

“I do not want your help,” Kuriwa said evenly. The goddess was just standing there. Well, actually, floating; she seemed to prefer trailing her bare feet a few inches above the ground. The lack of overt aggression did not mean Kuriwa was any less cornered, or this situation one whit less hopeless.

“My dear child, of course you don’t,” Scyllith said in a fondly chiding tone. “I see you were rather unsettled by the things you saw while trespassing on my lawn, poor thing. It’s only sense that you’d prefer to have me out of your affairs! Because oh, yes, I am quite capable of peeling your psyche like a banana in the course of one conversation and without using so much as a glimmer of magic. But…may I be honest with you, Kuriwa dear?” She winked playfully. “Been there, done that. Nothing you could suffer here and now would be particularly entertaining, compared to what is going on for miles in all directions. Besides, my young friend, you are overlooking a couple of important facts. You may not want my help, but you assuredly need it. It would take you years, decades, to dig any useful stratagem out of Araneid’s ramshackle old research lab, here—much more time than your poor beleaguered family has left. And somewhat more immediately, I am here. Wouldn’t you rather I be helping you than…shall we say…” Her smile broadened, and it was amazing how much sheer menace she could project solely by making her expression more warm and kind. “…any of the other things I might do to pass the time?”

It was almost poetic that Kuriwa found herself literally backed against the wall, right beside the ancient data panel. She could neither fight nor flee a creature like this. Couldn’t even bargain; what could she possibly offer? Outwitting a nearly omniscient being was an absurd prospect. Her entire bloodline was counting on her, and now it seemed the only thing she could manage to do was face her surely horrific demise with as much dignity as she could muster.

“Besides,” Scyllith said pleasantly after a pause, “it’s not as if I am offering to aid you out of the goodness of my heart. I might suggest such a thing, were I more hard up for laughs, but I would be most disappointed if you believed it.”

“Why, then?” Kuriwa asked tersely. Playing along seemed like the least futile course of action available to her, albeit by a thin margin.

“Well, there is the fact that you are looking to undo one of Elilial’s pet projects,” Scyllith mused, turning and beginning to drift away around the perimeter of the open space, alongside the blinking lights and panels both steel and mithril of ancient machinery. So she carried on floating in a wide pattern while speaking, very much like any of the mortals Kuriwa had met who liked to pace while they talked. “What she’s done—and oh, yes, I can easily see the structure of that curse—is quite beyond dear little Lil’s innate capacity. I would be up for ruining her day just on general principles, but this? She would have to have used Order equipment to achieve such a thing. My equipment, from one of my citadels, on my world.” A light laugh dispelled the tension that had begun to gather in her voice; Scyllith had a very pretty laugh. “Insult upon injury, isn’t it? Oh, yes, for that presumption I would be pleased to tweak her nose.”

She turned to begin floating back the other way, catching Kuriwa’s eye and bestowing on her a coy smile before shifting her gaze to study the old equipment in passing. “Not that that alone would impel me to exert myself, of course. We had a saying, where I came from: if you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

“I can’t imagine what I might have that you might want,” Kuriwa said warily.

“Oh, not a thing, poppet,” Scyllith assured her. “But there is something you can help me get. A sacrifice you will make to attain that which you need.”

“Sacrifice?” Amazingly, this was starting to look even worse.

“I see what she’s done—it is actually rather ingenious.” The goddess turned again and drifted straight toward Kuriwa, starry eyes now fixed upon the elf, and Kuriwa had to force herself to stand straight and not press herself against the wall at her back. “It’s not a simple curse! Even you could dispel any such thing, given enough time and effort. No, she has actually tweaked the nature of reality itself. It’s tricky, but doable, given access to the right sort of facilities. Such as, for example, the installations in my personal dimension which were instrumental in establishing it and causing my specific field of magic to permeate the space. Making any major changes to the rules of magic would probably be out of her reach, and would set the Pantheon after her if she achieved it. But a subtle, specific, insignificant little tweak? That she can apparently achieve, and get away with.”

“A subtle thing like cursing my bloodline.”

“Kuriwa, dearest, weren’t you listening? You aren’t cursed. This is simply…the way things are, now. It is a rule of magic that you, and your genetic descendants, suffer these very exotic effects! It’s now your nature. Only a line of highly magical creatures like elves could be subjected to such tampering… Ah, yes!” Having stopped right in front of Kuriwa, Scyllith bent forward as if to examine her more closely. “Yes, I see what she did. The little minx definitely got into my equipment. This is a clumsy variant on the very methods I devised to help my pets adapt to my transcension field.”

“You mean, the way demons evolved to make use of infernal magic, instead of being destroyed by it?”

“You latter-day creatures do enjoy applying such quaint labels to concepts,” Scyllith said fondly. “But yes, sure; what’s important is that you understand what I meant. Sylphs fly, hethelaxi go berserk, and Kuriwa’s descendants gradually slip into the nether realm between dimensions. Those are just the rules…now. She tweaked the fundamental structure of magic; to counter it, we must tweak it back. This is something you could never achieve on your own, and something the Pantheon gods would refuse to aid you with, even the very few of them who might be capable. You need me, dearest. And there is an added benefit to this! I should hardly have to tell you that it is incredibly dangerous for Elilial to have figured out this technique. This is surely a small test run, for her. If it works, she has a fantastic new weapon, and on her of all subjects, I have to concur with your Pantheon: Elilial does not need fantastic new weapons. It is actually rather important that we re-work her little trick so that it raps her knuckles instead of emboldening her.”

Kuriwa drew in a deep, slow breath. “I see the sense of what you say. But you were talking about a sacrifice, before the abrupt change of subject.”

“Patience, darling, patience!” Scyllith finally drew back a bit, giggling. “I had to explain to you what is involved: you are asking me to re-write reality and the rules of magic to suit you.”

“I haven’t asked you to do anything,” she said quickly.

The goddess ignored that. “To do this, I will need my own skill, a great deal of the additional power I derive from having control of dear Araneid’s domain…” She casually ran caressing fingertips across the edge of the data panel beside Kuriwa. “And, most immediately, your active cooperation. As deeply rooted as you are in Naiya’s transcension field, your guidance will be necessary in arranging things as we want them to be arranged.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “So… You’re offering me a measure of control over this.”

“Oh, it’s not an offer, my pet,” Scyllith said, blinking languidly. The effect made her dark, luminous eyes seem to flicker like meteors. “It’s just how things have to be. If I wanted to make your life miserable, as Elilial did, then yes, I could just do it. That would be unpredictable, however. I rather doubt Elilial chose the specific form your family’s suffering has taken; it isn’t likely that she even could. Readjusting the effect to achieve specific results all down your bloodline—which, you being an elf, is as much a mental and magical connection as a genetic one—can’t be done without your input. So unless we are in accord as to what we are doing, it won’t get done.”

“And,” she said slowly, “you need me to agree to give up something in the process. You can’t just take it from me.”

“Child, you cannot begin to imagine all the things I could take from you at a whim,” Scyllith promised her in a light, pleasant tone. “In this case, yes: I want something I’ll need you to willingly surrender. And in the end, the fact that you are giving it of your free will makes it all the sweeter. You will hate yourself for this, poppet. Really, that is the dusting of sugar on top that makes the whole cake worth baking.”

“Enough,” Kuriwa snapped. “Spit it out! What do you want?”

“I have a use,” the goddess drawled, “for a powerful high elf of a noble arcane bloodline and a practiced fae legacy. Oh, yes indeed, the wonderful things I could achieve with such a pet on a leash… We will have to work this craft upon all in your family, Kuriwa dear. I demand, in payment, that you give one of them up to me.”

Almost unbidden, power roared through her, forming two handfuls of flame. “Never.”

“Oh, don’t be cliché,” Scyllith said in a bored tone, and just like that, Kuriwa’s magic was snuffed out. She had never experienced such a swift and absolute severing of a spell actively called forth; even the constant presence in the back of her mind of her spirit guides was silenced. The goddess turned again and began drifting off around the room. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is tedium. I demand a terrible cost, you make a big show of outrage, the audience yawns. Honestly, child—”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Kuriwa spat. “Do what you want. I will not give you this satisfaction.”

“Oh, you silly little elf,” Scyllith said, giving her a pitying look. “I’ve already won, here. There’s no outcome at this point that doesn’t give me satisfaction. If you refuse my deal, well and good! Your entire family will die, slowly and in unimaginable terror, and you will get to live whatever time you have left in the knowledge that you condemned them to it when you had the option to spare them. Elilial will continue to use her shiny new toy, and I think we both know it’s a safe bet she will inflict it on your surface-dwelling allies for a long time before it ever occurs to her to start harassing me, down here in my hidey-hole. It’s very likely the Pantheon will strike back to take it from her before she ever dreams of trying to so much as inconvenience me. And who knows! I may end up being the one who unmakes her plans, anyway. It’s likely beyond the reach of even your gods, and they have appealed to me for help before. Imagine what a price I could demand for my services from them. Oh, yes, the Pantheon can reap for me a far greater harvest of suffering than you could even imagine. By all means, toddle off back to the surface, explain to all your children why you condemned them to agony and death. I won’t stop you! The passages straight upward lead into what you children now call the Crawl; it’s not exactly an easy clamber, but you’re a big girl.” Drifting to a stop several yards away, she turned back to Kuriwa, spreading her arms and smiling beatifically. “Go on, then. Defy and deprive me. You only postpone me getting what I want, and ensure I get all the more of it in the end. But you won’t be around to watch it happen, nor will be anyone sharing a drop of your blood. So if that’s enough of a victory to satisfy you, child, I guess you know what you should do!”

Rarely had she felt so out of control, even of herself. A shaman was nothing if not master of her own emotions, but the sheer helplessness of Kuriwa’s position coupled with the sick horror of what this ancient monstrosity demanded was enough to set her trembling in impotent fury. She managed to refrain from calling up magic again, as that would surely just provoke the creature before her, against which all her own power was as nothing. Her fists had clenched of their own accord, though, hard enough to make her arms quiver.

“If you’re having trouble coming to a decision,” Scyllith said in a kindly tone, “I find it often helpful to consider the perspectives of others. Consider those who will be affected, and ask yourself: wouldn’t any of them willingly sacrifice themselves for the safety of the entire family? Of course, not to tell you your own business,” she added with another mischievous wink, “but personally? I’d nominate any who wouldn’t take that dive to be put on the chopping block.”

If nothing else, there was a valid idea in that, a compromise Kuriwa might be able to live with.

“If I offer myself—”

“No deal,” Scyllith interrupted, and wagged a chiding finger at her, grinning. “Come, now. Surely you didn’t think I would make it that easy? You are not on the bargaining table, child, only your blood.”

“Monster.” The accusation spilled from her lips unbidden, like the fury that had seized her body.

“You say that as if you think it’ll hurt my feelings,” Scyllith replied patronizingly. “People are of two kinds: Victims, and victors. Words like ‘monster’ and ‘evil’ are used by the first group because childish insults are easier than the hard work of elevating themselves into the second.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes, thoughts swirling. Breathing slowly, she reached inward for calm. She needed to be able to think. Needed her emotions to settle enough that she was once again in control of herself. There had to be some way she could steer this—

“No, there isn’t,” Scyllith informed her. “You are an open book, little girl. Really, if you grow tired of using your tongue, you can just think at me. I understand it just as well.”

That explained a few things.

“If you are going to demand—”

“That won’t work, either,” Scyllith said with clear amusement. “I demand nothing; I offer options. You have a choice to make, Kuriwa, and you don’t get to slither out of responsibility for the consequences of either option.”

“You call me responsible for your cruelty?”

“Merely for being in a position where you have to endure it, poppet. What did you think would happen, when you intruded on my realm? What secrets did you expect to find down here that could help you overpower Elilial herself, if not with my help? Please. You may be adept at fooling yourself, little one, but you have no prayer of deceiving me. At no point did you not realize there would be a steep price for the help you need. Now pay it, or don’t. Either way, live with the consequences.”

Either way… Kuriwa made the determination that whatever happened today, at some point, by some means, Scyllith and Elilial would be made to pay for this.

“You and every soul in my domain,” Scyllith said with an audible grin. “Really, I am not taunting you. Try it, please do. My greatest joys in life are laid at my feet by those foolish enough to try to defy me.”

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes.

Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes, then blinked, disoriented.

She stood in some kind of upright coffin made of mithril, crystal, and machines. It was against another wall, in a different part of Araneid’s ancient lair.

“Welcome back!” The luminous, floating shape of the goddess of beauty and cruelty drifted into her field of view from around a corner, wearing a benign smile. “I imagine you are rather confused, my pet.”

“What did you do to me?”

“Now, if I have calibrated all this correctly—which I know I have—you recall our explanatory conversation prior to the procedure. What Elilial did, what we had to do to unmake it.” Her smile widened. “What you paid.”

Bracing herself on the edges of the sarcophagus, Kuriwa pushed forward out of its embrace. She felt…not weak, but somehow strained. And disheveled, she noticed; her tunic was askew, and a few locks of black hair had worked free of their braid to hang in her eyes.

“Allow me to anticipate and answer your questions,” Scyllith nattered, hovering aimlessly about the room once more. “Strictly speaking, I did nothing. The memories you have of what we discussed, and what brought you here, are technically fabricated. Oh, they are accurate to the timeline that was! But it is not, anymore. In this world, you offended Elilial just as she was working out a clever use of the technology left in my own former home, and she made you a vicious test case. In this world, it immediately backfired on her. You and your bloodline have been altered…and yet, not. She made it so that you had always been a certain way, and you and I made it so that it was a different way, ensuring that she will come to regret her alterations bitterly. I used a variant of the mechanism by which living things survive adaptation to the infernal.”

“You made us demons?” Kuriwa shouted, lunging forward.

Scyllith flicked a finger and she slammed bodily back into the coffin.

“No, you silly creature. Remember, you had to be awake and compliant for this procedure; would you have consented to become a demon? I said a variant of that mechanism, not the thing itself. There is no hint of infernal taint anywhere in your bloodline. Given how seeped you all are in Naiya’s transcension field, there was no realistic way I could have made that stick. No, this is an older and purer form of the same bio-magical principles from which I designed the properties of the infernal field itself. In short: we have turned corruption into aggression. The psychological influence is minor, and should be evident only in aggregate. I doubt you will be able to discern any difference in personality in the case of any individual, but as a group? Your clan is going to develop something of a prickly reputation among elves. They may find it rather difficult to be in a room together. Not demons; I guess you could saw we made you what you call tauhanwe.” She stopped her aimless floating, turning to Kuriwa with a wide smile. “I dearly wish I could see Elilial’s face, truly I do. Oh, that would be so sweet. She’s created an entire clan of hunter-killers which will stalk her minions across the centuries. Every time she sends demons or warlocks to the material plane, the line of Kuriwa whom she tried to curse will lunge out of the shadows from every direction and claw them to shreds. It’s just so…delicious.”

It actually was, Kuriwa had to admit. That did not lessen the sinking pit that had opened in her heart. As the disorientation of the procedure faded, she had recalled what this salvation had cost her.

“Who?” she whispered.

Scyllith slowly tilted her head to one side, making an inquisitive face.

“Don’t toy with me, you—”

The goddess laughed aloud at her. “Don’t toy with you? Me? Oh, child, you should hear yourself.”

“Damn you, who did you take?”

Grinning, Scyllith raised one graceful finger, and tapped the side of her nose. “It’s a secret.”

Kuriwa could only stare at her.

Abruptly the glowing figure blinked across the space between them, and then Scyllith was right on top of her, clutching the sides of the metal coffin and leering at her face from inches away.

“Do you understand the value of closure, little shaman?” Scyllith crooned. “Of course you do. Ultimately, when things come to an end, a person can make peace with them. In this case? You could go back to whichever of your descendants had just lost a son, or mother, or cousin… You could explain what happened to them all, and hear their reactions. Accept their forgiveness, or bear their grudges. You alone, and your family as a whole, would grieve, and come to grips. And now? You can’t.”

She leaned forward, her doll-like features splitting in a wide grin that made a mockery of her previously gracious demeanor.

“You will never know whose soul you sold for this, Kuriwa. You’ll spend your eternal life among your family, looking around at their faces, knowing that one is missing—missing from your very memories, plucked right out of history when we re-wrote the world to save them all. You will live, forever, with the knowledge of what you did, and that wound will never close. Oh, to a simpleminded or selfish person, this would be the greatest compassion, the thing that let them forget. But you? You, the mother, the shaman, the leader and teacher? You will walk through the endless ages, and for every moment of your existence, a part of you will be constantly screaming in agony.”

Scyllith’s starlit eyes drifted shut, and a shudder wracked her entire frame, her expression momentarily lost in open-mouthed bliss.

“I have my price, shaman. I received the soul I demanded. And you, my darling, have given me so much more than your weight in suffering. You’ve barely begun to feel that pain; you will be paying me from now until the second you perish… And we both know you don’t have it in you to lie down and give up.” Her eyes opened, and she smiled again. Warm, kind, gentle. “Our bargain is concluded, and I am paid well indeed. Do visit me again, poppet. You’re fun.”

Her sudden absence lowered the light in the room. It was all but silent in that cave far below the surface, even the hum of the ancient machinery all around her barely audible to her senses.

For a long time, she could do nothing but stand there, alone.

Her father’s house had always felt lonely and too quiet, ever since her mother had died. Part of Kuriwa felt guilty for leaving him to wander its halls alone, but she could not make a life in Qestraceel. Now, tonight of all nights, even as close to him as she sat in the little aquatic solarium, the dark and quiet house felt lonelier than it ever had.

“Am…” She paused, swallowed heavily. The silence had stretched out for long minutes after he heard her account of the Underworld. “Am I… That is, I’ve been trying every idea I had. Anything that might be a hint to what she changed. Are you sure I am the only elf ever born with black hair? Every one of my descendants has it, and I cannot think that is coincidence…”

“We have been over this many times, Av—Kuriwa,” he replied with a soft sigh, catching on her name but correcting himself more smoothly than he ever had, that she could recall. “It is a harmless mutation. Anomalous hair and eye colors have occurred in the past, a consequence of the arcane saturation in our society. Most of our people undergo genetic procedures to correct it, but your mother insisted you be allowed to grow to adulthood before making that decision for yourself. And then…you decided. And I gather the woodkin feel differently about changing what nature has decreed.”

Mutely, she nodded, staring at the floor.

With amazing tenderness, given the way their relationship had gone in the last few centuries, he reached out to brush her dark hair back behind her ear. “Maybe it is something she changed, my daughter. If she truly did re-write reality itself… There is just too much unknown. I have never heard of any spellcraft or technology that could do such a thing.”

“You don’t recall me coming here, to ask for help with Elilial’s curse?”

“I do,” he said, shaking his head, “but not as you describe it. You were here only weeks ago, and spoke of a lifelong pattern of aggression among your bloodline, that you had only finally come to think had an external cause after your descendants numbered enough that the pattern was clear. There was nothing about Elilial. If you truly remember what you describe, daughter… A curse that causes the mind to sink into void space is unthinkably cruel. Nothing that afflicts you now is anything nearly so terrible.”

She heard the unspoken offer in his voice: forgiveness. The assurance that she had done well.

“No,” Kuriwa whispered aloud, squeezing her eyes shut. “I can’t—” Her voice broke, and she choked on a sob. “Oh, father, I made the wrong choice.”

He was suddenly on the seat alongside her, wrapping both arms around her and pulling her close. She sank into her father’s embrace for what felt like the first time since she was a little girl, just letting him rock her.

At least he believed her, outlandish story and all. She and her father disagreed on virtually everything that mattered in life, but when it came down to it, he respected her enough to trust her account of events more than his own understanding of what the world should be like. This was a cruel way to learn it, but it was something she was deeply grateful to know.

“You made the choice you could, Kuriwa,” he murmured into her hair. “There was no good choice. Life is…that way, sometimes. Things are taken from us, and nothing given back. Suffering has no inherent meaning, except that which we give it. Take time to grieve, daughter, but don’t forget to look forward.” He squeezed her harder, pressing a kiss to her temple. “You are the only child I have, Kuriwa, and it shames me how little I have supported you. These are our bloodline…our legacy. You and your family will have every support I can give you from this moment on, I swear it.”

She leaned against him, letting the tears spill without fighting them. They stayed that way for a long time.

“Meaning,” Kuriwa whispered at last. “I don’t know what meaning to give this.”

“The wound is fresh. You will find a way forward, child, I know that much. You’ve never lacked an ability to find your path, even when everyone insisted there was not one ahead of you.”

“I have to…to…” She blinked moisture away from her lashes, staring sightlessly past his shoulder at the fish and kelp outside. “I must give something back, for what I’ve taken away.”

“Don’t forget that you did this for them.”

“I can’t forget any of it. I am…a matriarch, now. I’ll watch over them. Over all of them, even if they don’t care for my presence. I have to…to do something. I have to do something forever. It’s the only semblance of peace I will ever have.”

“I love you,” he said simply. It was sweet, and sharp, like the first taste of tangy fruit to an unprepared tongue. A jolt of joy that was nearly pain. Kuriwa closed her eyes again, relaxing into him.

Her world might have been rearranged by the living force of cruelty, but within it, she still lived. There was still love. And now, she and her family…most of her family…would live on.

“And someday,” she whispered in a breath barely loud enough even for herself to hear, “she will pay.”

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Bonus #58: Accursed, part 4

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“I am not unusual among the shadow priestesses for despising our goddess, but only for leaving their sisterhood,” Szaiviss explained later, when they were sitting cross-legged on the floor of the ancient Elder chamber with a few certainties having been established. The drow had not interfered while Kuriwa exercised her own magic to make sure that the web of spells around them did what she claimed. And it did; her guides confirmed that it was a beacon, aiming to draw in powerful aid against the Elder Goddess, and guaranteeing that no one within it would be able to lie. Szaiviss, as the priestess introduced herself, claimed that part was a common ritual working, and it said a lot about the drow that they would commonly need such a spell. At least Szaiviss had sat quietly while Kuriwa worked, demonstrating her willingness to extend the same consideration for which she asked. It was as promising a start as Kuriwa could have hoped, considering.

She had told her story—minimally, but without prevarication. In fact, she had tried to add a few little obfuscations just to test the Scyllithene spellwork, but it was quite impossible.

“Why would it be unusual for priestesses to leave, if it is common for them to loathe Scyllith?”

“You know nothing, golden-hair,” Szaiviss said dismissively. Kuriwa repressed all the obvious responses to that, simply staring at her and studiously ignoring the rune-carved dead man laid out on the slab right beside them. It was a sharp reminder that under any other circumstances she would have refused to have anything to do with such a creature, and perhaps attacked her outright on general principles. Here and now, though, she had not the luxury of choosing her allies.

After a pause, the priestess finally deigned to explain.

“There are some who are fully devoted to Scyllith’s way, who are passionate in their cruelty. Mad, they are. That is not a way for people to be. From birth, we are taught it, but not for everyone does it take. The devotees, the happily cruel, they do not become priestesses. The Lady of Light, she has no need for loyalty. She wants her will done by those who hate it, hate her.”

Kuriwa could only inhale slowly, trying to make sense of that.

“You wonder, why does it all work?” Szaiviss quirked an eyebrow in dark amusement.

“I wonder exactly that. How can you possibly run a society on terms like that?”

“You cannot.” The drow shook her head. “You cannot. It needs a goddess to make something like this run. Without Scyllith, it would all collapse. Immediately.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. Szaiviss stared back, unblinking.

“And so…you want to get rid of Scyllith.”

The priestess just stared at her.

“How?” she prompted at last, not bothering to hide the skepticism in her voice.

“I am not close,” Szaiviss said at last, reluctantly. “I will probably not succeed. An impossible task, it is, to destroy a god. Wildly unrealistic, to disrupt her enough to break her hold on my people. Dangerous and pointless to lurk and meddle and harass, which is all I have done. But I aspire to the impossible.” She shrugged. “It is that, or work to sustain the insanity.”

“I see,” Kuriwa murmured. Faced with a choice like that… She would likely have done the same, in truth. “I am not sure what I can offer you, Szaiviss. I am in a desperate corner myself, and taking a stand against Scyllith is totally beyond my means. Anyone’s, I suspect. If that is the price you demand for helping me, I will have to look elsewhere.” She did not move, not truly thinking that could be the end of it. Her spirit guides often enough led her into trials, but never to a dead end.

“No one is taking a stand against Scyllith,” Szaiviss retorted. “No one, it is madness to even think. We will try very hard to not get her attention, yes? Or anyone’s.”

“Seems wisest,” Kuriwa said noncommittally.

“You have seen things like…this, yes?” Szaiviss leaned to one side, reaching out to rap her knuckles against a wall where pristine mithril peeked out between tattered spidersilk hangings.

About this, of all things, every instinct Kuriwa possessed demanded that she be cagey, but the spell continued to scintillate around them. Refusing to answer was as good as an answer, so she kept it terse. “I have.”


She actually tried to lie, but the words wouldn’t leave her throat. The best she could do was answer with a different truth. “That is a closely guarded secret, and not mine to betray.”

Szaiviss grunted. “Yes. Here, too. Fine, it is not as if I am about to go to your surface and dig in your secrets, I wish now only to know what I must explain. You know what were the Infinite Order, yes? Scyllith’s generation of gods?”

“To the extent that anyone knows, I believe I am up to date,” said Kuriwa, nodding. “Their leavings are best avoided, even the relatively benign ones. Are you actually living in here?”

“Hah! Even I am not that crazy, not quite. Not yet.” The brief mirth leaked from her face. “What you are wanting to do? I mean the hard parts, the time travel, the genetics, the dimensional shifting. For that you will find answers in the old Order’s vaults—some of them. Any adolescent here can cast a curse, but you want knowledge that exceeds Elilial’s. That means Infinite Order.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Kuriwa muttered.

“I do not know what that means,” Szaiviss said dryly, “but I can tell what it means, and it is right. They are bad news. The old facilities that do not just kill whoever looks at them too hard, they are further protected by many guardians and traps. But!” She leaned forward, grinning and raising one finger. Her teeth were yellowed, something Kuriwa had never seen on an elf. “Those defenses, they were made by shadow priestesses, weaving the corrupting fire and the divine light. Your magic, the green magic of Naiya, that is not known here. It is the best, the most powerful against what Scyllith’s people have. My knowledge and your power can get us into a place I know, which has answers we both need.”

A lead, and a solid one. From what she knew of the Infinite Order, it was exactly as Szaiviss said: their understanding of magic and science both outstripped even that of the current gods, but any repository of their data would be a fiend’s nest of terrors. The Elder Gods had used traps and curses practically as décor, both to secure their domains and because, she suspected, the suffering of others amused them. Naturally any such sites would be revered by these deranged dark elves.

And there was another point which made her wary.

“So you’re telling me,” she said carefully, “that the exact thing I need just so happens to be the same exact thing you need? How…improbably fortuitous.”

Szaiviss grimaced, and Kuriwa wondered if she were struggling against her own truth spell. “The old vault I have in mind, it is not any part of my plans. I did not plan at it because I cannot get past its protections, and because I do not know exactly what is there. But you can get us in, I think. And once we go to it, I will find something useful. It is a cache of tools and knowledge from the Order, yes? There is bound to be something. And you, I think, are not to be my personal guardian, adventuring through the tunnels after all my desires, yes? So we compromise at a thing we can both use.”

“If you don’t know what’s in this vault, how can you be so sure?”

“Sure? No. A reasonable guess.” She shifted in place, resting her hands on her knees in a meditative posture belied by the intent set of her eyes. “Not very far away on this continental shelf, on the surface there is what was the great stronghold of Druroth of the Infinite Order, once. It was mostly destroyed by Taluvon before the new gods rose up, half the whole mountain sunk into the ground. Druroth went elsewhere, keeping only some servants and passive systems to watch his old fortress, yes? So it fell into confusion and decay, long before Druroth himself died. And so beneath it, among its deepest roots, Araneid made herself a little nest.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “Araneid.”

“The spider goddess.” A touch of reverence crept into Szaiviss’s tone. “Creator of all drow, and once the ruler of us all. Until the uprising of the new gods. Themynra came, and then Scyllith, and yet Araneid, she is not forgotten, not gone, even dead. Rumors persist that there is still her arachne, hidden among us somewhere. Scyllith has what was left of the spider goddess, a cosmic egg containing her essence. It is a major source of the Lady of Light’s power, a reason that she is still running a society while Naiya, well… She is not talked to much anymore, yes? Not so able to keep her thoughts in order?”

“Is this…egg…in this place you are talking about?”

“No!” Szaiviss waved both hands urgently. “No, no, that is in Scyllithar itself. We are not going there! But my point is, this is a chamber of two Elder Gods who were not Scyllith. Araneid’s secret rooms, built amid the wreckage of Druroth’s stronghold. It is sealed off and protected, not touched in countless generations. There we will find secrets, things Scyllith does not want known. Things you can use, and I can use.”

“A slender thread,” Kuriwa said, leaning back.

Szaiviss curled her lip in a slight sneer. “And you came down to this sunken hell for what? Certainty?”

“You have a point,” she admitted.

“My beacon, your spirits,” the priestess pressed. “I called for the help which can make a difference for me. You asked to be led to where you can get what you need. We are brought together, and this is my one idea. Yes, it is slender. It is what we have. Will you go back to your cursed family empty-handed instead, golden-hair?”

It was not that simple, of course; Kuriwa could always look in a different direction for resources down here. But when it came to it, she had no better ideas than this. It was no more farfetched or less dangerous than anything she had feared, and not as bad as she had begun to expect after three days of watching the Scyllithene drow and their sadistic lunacy.

And she did not have time to dither. Every hour, the curse progressed.

“Your skill, then,” she said, “and my power. Very well, Szaiviss. Let us…try.”

The unspoken agreement that made their enforced partnership possible hinged on staying out of one another’s way. Kuriwa already detested everything the drow priestess was and stood for, and while she could hardly imagine the particulars it seemed a safe bet that the feeling would be mutual. And so they made no conversation save that which circumstances demanded, kept a wary eye upon one another, and proceeded in silence. Oddly, the tension imposed by their situation made for one of the least awkward silences Kuriwa had had to endure. Once it was established that there would be no socialization, social concerns ceased to apply.

The Scyllithene dialect, while recognizably the same language as the elvish with which Kuriwa had been raised, was even more garbled than that spoken in Tar’naris. Narisian elvish featured multiple levels of formality and several other features owing to their caste system, but apart from that was little different from surface elvish. Szaiviss’s tongue had some weird grammatical features which Kuriwa recognized as coming from the influence of demonic, a notoriously erratic constructed language which was fiendishly difficult to learn, by design. It rarely become enough of an issue to cause communication problems, especially given as little as the two of them tried to communicate; Szaiviss just constructed her sentences backwards, sometimes. Spoken, it made little ultimate difference, though Kuriwa did discover as they passed the odd sign on their journey that the Scyllithene wrote using demonic runes half the time.

They continued along a series of tunnels that avoided contact with other elves, which suited her perfectly. For the most part these were natural crevices, interspersed with ruins clearly crumbling from long abandonment. In an odd way, the ruinous underground wilderness was a lot more comforting than the ornate aesthetic of the well-maintained corridors Kuriwa had followed at first.

For all that, their progress was slow as Szaiviss warned her that anyone else lurking in these forgotten byways would be exiles from Scyllithene society like herself. Some of those might be potentially useful allies, who disdained the cruelty of Scyllith’s commands, but just as likely a stranger encountered here could be a lunatic or criminal, and the kind of people too unstable to function even among the Scyllithene were as dangerous to encounter as rabid animals. Kuriwa suspected her new companion had an agenda in keeping her (and her fae magic) away from other potential competitors, but she was altogether content minimizing her contact with the lunatic drow of the deep dark.

After less than half a day’s travel—it could be difficult to keep track with no sun but Kuriwa had a decently developed sense of time—they reached their first destination, which was another piece of Elder God ruins.

“Good, no one is here,” Szaiviss grunted, brushing past the warning signs and totems affixed all over the half-collapsed entry. Again, the Scyllithenes had not attempted to render the place inaccessible, merely posted warnings. “Oh. Anymore.”

Kuriwa peeked past her and grimaced. This room was built along the same plan as the tower-like space in which Szaiviss had crafted a ritual chamber: circular, hollow, and surrounded by now-inert panels of ancient technology. It had three entrances, though, rather than the one, and all of them were spaced evenly around the floor level. In the center was a raised, circular dais with a slightly convex crystalline floor, and lying against the base were the lower halves of two different corpses.

There was no smell, even. Was the lack of decay due to drow magic, or Infinite Order science? Or a simple lack of microorganisms down here? She was fairly unfamiliar with the normal ecology of caves, let alone what must have developed under Scyllith’s unnatural aegis.

“What is this?” Kuriwa asked while Szaiviss, ignoring the dead, paced around the edges of the chamber and began trying to tug loose one of the dead screens.

“Transportation platform,” the priestess grunted. The screen finally came free and lifted upward on silent hinges, and she reached into the array of inscrutable wires and parts beneath it. “A long way, we have to go, and long ways become short ways in the Underworld. Always, everywhere, things stalk the paths. The more you travel, the quicker doom meets you.”

Kuriwa scowled, flicking her eyes back to the bodies. “It doesn’t look like it’s working properly. You really expect me to get into that?”

“Works properly if used properly, like anything.” Something snapped audibly under Szaiviss’s fingers and she stepped back, lowering the panel back into place. It had already come alight. “The old gods, the things they built do not break with time. These devices are dangerous to use because there is security upon them—curses and traps for the unwary. Jealous, they were, not keen to share their tools with their servants. This one, I have known a long time. Changed the locks, I have. Dangerous for others to use, but I can make it work for me.”

“And…the one at the other end?” Kuriwa said skeptically. “I presume this comes out at a similar platform. Can you make that one work?”

“We go to one that will be safe to land on. But to leave…” Szaiviss turned back to her, a sly grin flickering across her features. “Less safe. Hopefully we find what we want where we are going. From there, I have many ways to get around, and there are paths up through the ancient fortress to the surface for you to escape. Not by this way will we come back, golden-hair. Now step quickly, it is set for two and will not stay long.”

Kuriwa indulged in a small sigh, but did as instructed, keenly aware of the risk she was taking. Of the use of Infinite Order technology she knew nothing; Qestraceel law forbade meddling with it and the Avatar she had met beneath the grove was self-contained and left none of his attendant machinery open to tampering. If Szaiviss intended to lead her into some kind of trap, this was a golden opportunity.

But the spirits had led her here, and one thing she knew Szaiviss did not have the capability to do was deceive them. Like all wood elves, she disliked teleportation on philosophical grounds, but having grown up in a city where it was as mundane a way to get around as it had apparently been to the Elder Gods, her personal objections where less stringent. If being teleported did indeed destroy the person and create a clone, for her that ship had sailed many times before she reached adulthood.

The platform began to glow beneath their feet, and then a flash split the room and their surroundings changed. Not entirely; they were in a chamber built to exactly the specifications of the previous one, which had suffered different particulars of decay over the long years. There were no dead bodies present now, but spidersilk banners hung upon the walls, ragged and thin with age, and scrawled with demonic runes of warning. A rockfall had buried one of the three exits from the room and a second was closed off by a solid mithril door which, to judge by the lack of any active panels near it, wasn’t going to open any time soon.

Most importantly, she was fine. Unharmed, unchanged, with her magic and connections to the spirits fully intact. If Szaiviss intended to ensnare her in some trap, she was playing a longer game.

“Where are we now?” Kuriwa asked, stepping quickly off the platform.

“Closer,” her companion said tersely, following her down. “Below what was the inland sea at the center of this continent. The great prairies, now. Close but not within the spatial distortion that is the Darklands on the infernal plane. How it is on the surface, I do not know, but it is suicide to go in there underground. So we will not. Our goal is right at the edge, should take us less than another day to get there.”

“I see.” Kuriwa let the shadow priestess slip past her and followed her out. This time, rather than opening right onto a natural cave, they followed a narrow mithril-lined corridor of Infinite Order make, its built-in lights long since inert. “Interesting. You measure time in days? I wouldn’t have thought your people even knew what they were.”

“We all of us live in a tiny ball of rock spinning through infinite space,” Szaiviss retorted, giving her a contemptuous look. “Because we live below a ceiling of stone does not make us stupid, or blind. All our peoples are made from the same ancient stock; we spend about the same times awake and asleep. Quiet now, we are closer to traveled paths here.”

Kuriwa, as she was constantly advising the young elves of her grove, extended her senses and shut her mouth.

This new territory, again, consisted of well-kept halls and tunnels. There were a few adjacent caves through which to pass, but mostly they were forced to travel in public spaces in order to proceed, and when thus exposed Szaiviss scurried furtively, on the lookout for any fellow travelers. Kuriwa could have concealed them both from anyone’s senses, but for the time being kept that knowledge to herself, as they encountered no one, and indeed no sign that anyone had been here recently.

It was a far cry from the ornate rooms and corridors leading to Tar’naris. Though carved in the same high-ceilinged style, pillars and all, these were unadorned white stone, and seemed less assiduously maintained; not only was there dust on the floors and patches of mushrooms in some of the corners, there were occasional cracks and chips in the stonework, left unrepaired. Of statuary, mosaics, or paintings, there was no hint. Startling as the artistry of the passages had first been to Kuriwa, they made sense, given that Scyllith was also the goddess of beauty. It seemed strange that her touch lay less heavily here.

Szaiviss was jumpier now and irritable about being questioned, but as they proceeded for hours and found no hint of any other drow, she finally (mostly out of sheer exasperation) condescended to answer Kuriwa’s increasingly insistent questions.

“These chambers lead to the halls of the dead,” she said grudgingly, creeping down a corridor and nodding to a doorway in passing. “All the halls that go off in that direction are to mausoleums. So there is less traffic here.”

“I would have thought there’d be more, given how readily you people slaughter each other.”

Szaiviss seemingly found no insult in that. “Few who die are preserved with honor. Most are left at the bottom of whatever chasm they fell into, or feed the lizards. It takes an important station in life, or a manner of death most noteworthy, to be worth the trouble of preserving a body.”

“And why is it so plain? Most cultures treat the fallen with reverence, and decorate—”

“We are not most cultures,” Szaiviss hissed, baring teeth at her. “It is plain here because beauty is a sign of the Lady of Light’s favor, and for the dead she has no use. Their suffering is over. Only the living can be tormented.”

It gave Kuriwa a sinking feeling, contemplating how much sense that actually made. Presumably, the other demented details of this society would be equally sensible in context. Part of her feared burdening her mind with enough understanding of their insanity to discern the patterns. With any luck, it would not become relevant.

Szaiviss finally selected a side corridor down which to travel, pausing to order Kuriwa to complete silence, and crept forward far more slowly. The shaman stayed behind her, quietly as ordered, and reaching out as far as her senses both mundane and magical could extend. Obviously Szaiviss’s caution was well-founded; there was magic up ahead, of a kind that made Kuriwa’s skin crawl.

The hallway terminated helpfully in an arched doorway braced by thick columns which gave them ample space to hide, with ahead of it a balcony bordered by a chest-high stone wall and curving ramps sweeping away to both sides, to a floor ten feet below. Kuriwa wondered in passing if the drow designed features like this because it created opportunities to ambush each other. For now, it at least spared them from blundering into the monstrosity below.

The chamber below the balcony was the size and shape of a small theater, with its opposite wall taken up by a mighty arched door over three stories tall; though broad enough for two wagons to pass through abreast it looked narrow simply due to its height. The thing was of iron, forming thick bars rather than being one solid piece. It looked impossibly heavy nonetheless, but before getting through that they would have to deal with its guardian.

Kuriwa had seen necromantic constructs cobbled together by humans, things stitched from multiple corpses or pieces thereof. This was on an entirely different level. It had no seams or stitching, looking as if it had simply grown naturally the way it was, which was not possible. Lacking a single head, it had five faces lumped together at the top of its torso, clustered like insane growths from some great tumor. Their eye sockets were empty and flickering with blue flame, all five mouths open and all groaning, gasping, or in one case wailing in obvious, constant pain. Its arms were disconcertingly normal in appearance, but below the torso was a huge swollen thorax like a spider’s—except that the bulbous body was covered in enormous blisters and pustules, all lit faintly from within by the same blue lichfire and several pulsating slowly. Like a spider, it had eight legs, but rather than segments of chitin exoskeleton, they were simply drow bones. Miscellaneous bones, fused together into uneven segments so that they had spider-like proportions, at least. Apart from the bony legs, its skin was the plain black of the drow—unbroken skin, marked by no seams or stitches.

The thing’s incessant noises of agony at least made cover for a whispered conversation.

“And that is…”

“The less than honored dead,” Szaiviss said dryly. “Some rites there are, which call for the use of interred corpses, or must be performed in crypts. Not forbidden are they, but meant to be difficult. To enter the crypts, one must get past the guardians. But not destroy the guardians! That brings more priestesses.”

“So not only the living can be tormented after all.”

“The dead can only suffer if condemned before they are dead.” The shadow priestess grinned without warmth or humor. “Once the spirit passes, it is beyond even Scyllith’s power. The name of Vidius is as despised here as that of Elilial.”

“And why are we going into the crypts?”

“The crypts are made around the old structure where Araneid’s nest is hidden. Much time I spent there, when I served among the shadow priestesses; I know the way beyond. But I now am exiled, and the guardian will seek to kill me if I try to pass.”

“So that’s what you need me for.”

Szaiviss withdrew her head from around the corner, pressing her back to the wall so she was again fully hidden from the room beyond, and looked at her expectantly.

The construct was made of a remarkable fusion of infernal and divine magic. It was amazing that the shadow priestesses could do such a thing at all, given how those two magics reacted when brought into contact. Were Kuriwa more of a scholar—or did she have time to analyze it in detail—she could probably have learned a great deal by studying how it had been done. For now, though, the task was to get by it as quickly as possible. Without destroying it, which was the hard part. Being half infernal, it was incredibly vulnerable to her own arts.

This would have to be done indirectly.

Silently, while Szaiviss stared impatiently from inches away, she considered possibilities. Vines and roots could entangle and immobilize it, or she could cause aggressive lichen to clog the joints in its segmented legs. But she did not know how physically strong it was; undead always had greater brute strength than the living, as they had fewer physical limitations on the stresses to which they could subject their limbs.

Of course, its innards would be vulnerable to the same kind of attack… But no, that ran the risk of damaging it catastrophically, which apparently they must not do. The same problems faced any prospect of simple elemental attacks with wind, fire, ice, or the like; there was an all-important middle ground between what would be ineffectual and what might destroy it outright. Worse, that was likely to be a very narrow gray area, and she had little chance of hitting it precisely given how little she knew of the thing.

Could it be simply distracted? Kuriwa had only a very basic ability to access the thoughts of others, and it would require considerable ritual preparation; telepathy was the province of divine magic, not fae. Empathy was another matter, however. Any shaman skilled enough to be let out on her own would be able to sense the shape of unguarded emotions.

From this thing, she sensed nothing but pain. Kuriwa cringed, immediately closing off her mind an instant after opening it to the monster. She had expected anger beneath its agony, but no, there was only anguish. Sorrow, loneliness, the aching hollowness of a multitude of souls chained to constant suffering, longing for the most basic mortal comforts which were forever beyond their reach.

Scyllith’s evil was truly beyond description.

“You making faces is not pacifying the guardian,” Szaiviss whispered fiercely. “I can make faces! For dithering there is no time.”

Pacifying it…

Struck by inspiration, Kuriwa retreated down the hall till she had space to occupy its center without being in view of the creature. There, she sat down and began removing ritual components from her pouches.

“Do not make a mess!” Szaiviss hissed.

“I’ll clean it,” Kuriwa said curtly. “Hush, let me focus.”

It did not require a highly complicated ritual, anyway, just a few crystals and candles to dilenate a circle; she was a sufficiently advanced practitioner that she didn’t need chalk or dust to fully draw the lines, so long as the space was defined. Two feathers—one sylph, one phoenix—she placed before her on the floor, forming a cross. Their magic made a focus from which to project her own thoughts while also shielding them. A lesser shaman would have needed far greater preparations to attempt this, but not for nothing was she an Elder of her grove.

She found the spirits in the construct easily; their agony was a horrible beacon to her senses. Kuriwa called upon the older, calmer spirits of nature, embodying the sluggish consciousness of the very earth itself. Deep underground, they were surrounded by rock, by the endless, sleepy patience of stone. Inanimate objects had no innate will or awareness, but a sufficiently powerful shaman could imbue the ground with familiar spirits, forming all around them a quiet animation.

The earth was patient, quiet, calm. Its presence was an all-encompassing sense of rest.

Having brought it thus to life, she brought it to the screaming spirits of the guardian.

Kuriwa had expected it to be far more difficult; she had been called on to pacify agitated spirits before, and it was usually as slow and coaxing a process as performing any kind of therapy for a living person. This was not a natural case, however, and whoever had designed the guardian had not anticipated this particular measure. The spirits within it hungrily seized the infinite calm of the earth as soon as she introduced it. With Kuriwa’s guidance, they sank into the surrounding quietude, losing their own sense of identity in the eternal earth itself. She gave them exactly what they wanted most: rest.

“What did you do?” Szaiviss demanded from up ahead, where she was peering into the chamber.

Kuriwa opened her eyes. “I put it to sleep. I don’t know how long that will hold; it is eager for the rest, but such is not in its nature. We should not tarry.”

“Look who tells who not to tarry,” Szaiviss muttered while Kuriwa gathered up her ritual accoutrements, but didn’t henpeck her any further.

They crept with care into the antechamber, but the guardian, having slumped to its side upon the floor, did not stir even as they approached. Its breathing was still loud, strained, but there were no more screams or even groans.

Kuriwa wished fervently that she could give it true, lasting peace. She wished she could do that for all the drow in this psychotic pit Scyllith had made of their world, but that was as futile as wishing for the moon. Trying to test her will against that of an Elder Goddess would be empty vainglory. It would be all she could do to accomplish her own mission here and get out.

Despite its size, the iron gate opened smoothly, the balance of its hinges clearly flawless. The two of them slipped through, carefully shutting it behind, and then hastened silently forward into the halls of the dead.

The crypts were a maze, consisting of towering chambers lined by person-sized notches in which bodies were laid, many with a single huge, ornately-carved sarcophagus standing in the center. Most of these rose four or five stories at least, some as much as twice that and the shortest they passed being twenty feet tall. Doorways and galleries opened onto them from all heights; they might have to pass through a burial chamber at its bottom, or skirt an unrailed drop to the floor of one from high above. These shafts were connected by smooth tunnels which wound in serpentine patterns, not only from side to side but vertically.

The layout was a tangled mess, but Szaiviss moved swiftly and purposefully, seeming to know exactly where she was going. Kuriwa could only trail along after her, keenly aware of how lost she was becoming, and how utterly dependent upon her guide.

Ironically, it was in here that they finally encountered other drow, though fortunately only at a distance. At one point, their corridor opened onto one side of the uppermost level of an open chamber and then followed it three-quarters of the way around its edge before branching off, which gave them an unfortunately long time to observe the ritual unfolding in the chamber below. At least, Szaiviss told her once they were a safe distance down the tunnel that it was a ritual; it just looked like two women violently making love on top of a sarcophagus around which they had piled a bunch of corpses.

Following the shadow priestess in front of her, Kuriwa found herself contemplating that spectacle, and the freshly-sacrificed male drow over whom Szaiviss had been chanting when they first met, and wondered what other twisted things this woman had done that she couldn’t even imagine. It was truly chilling, to consider that someone with such a different threshold for horror had found Scyllithene society so unbearable that she had risked her life to flee it. How could anyone live like this? How many drow were down here? Tens or hundreds of thousands? Millions? The scope of suffering was unimaginable.

Eventually, they emerged from a tunnel onto yet another burial chamber, this time about ten feet up, and rather than heading off to the side again, Szaiviss hopped down to the floor below. Kuriwa followed, watching at a distance while the shadow priestess unceremoniously dragged a mummified corpse out of place so that its stiff legs protruded over the side of its bier, and then crawled bodily into the alcove alongside it. Moments later there came a grinding noise, and Szaiviss’s legs disappeared as she wiggled fully into whatever she had just opened up.

“Come along, golden-hair, there is nothing else to see out there!”

With a sigh and a silent apology to the long-dead drow whose rest she had to disturb, Kuriwa clambered in after her. A piece of the wall inside the funerary alcove had shifted to the side, forming a narrow hole into a larger chamber beyond. Once she was through, Szaiviss reached back out to tug the corpse into its proper place and then push the stone barrier into place again. It was obviously intended to be opened thus; that much rock was simply too big for an elf to shift unaided.

They were now in a natural cavern, and there was light in the distance. Szaiviss carefully led the way toward the faint illumination, stepping over uneven rocks slickened by the underground stream along whose bed they now walked.

“Have you ever been here before?” Kuriwa whispered.

“I have looked in,” the drow replied. “Enough to see that a thing is beyond, to sense the magic that says who made it. I have found records that describe its place, lost and hidden fragments not known to the priestesses. But no…this is farther than I have gone. When I was a priestess, the others watched me constantly. That is their way. Only after being long absent from their ranks am I free enough to come here without leading them all after me, and I did not want to give my sisters access to this. Only with you along could I get past the guardians outside the crypts. I very much think it has been since Araneid’s time that any drow has stepped foot here.”

“That’s encouraging,” Kuriwa murmured. She sensed no living things in the vicinity, but from up ahead came a faint, unpleasant tingle of strange magic at work. Magic, or something older.

The light came from a single glowing Infinite Order data panel, affixed right to an apparently natural cave wall. To elven eyes, its faint glow was enough to discern more such touches upon the cavern in which it stood. It was clearly an already-existing geological feature, a cavern of uneven proportions which spread around them in a series of winding branches and stretched upward into a narrow shaft which ascended into infinite darkness above. More machinery was everywhere, worked right into the very walls and floor, pieces of metal, crystal and glass at whose purpose Kuriwa could not even guess. Only the lone, glowing panel which faced the entrance was still active; of all the artificial structures around, the only thing she recognized was the simple metal staircase and ladders which climbed the cave shaft toward where Szaiviss had said Druroth’s long-destroyed fortress lay, high above.

Both of them came to a stop in front of the panel, then looked at each other. It glowed in the darkness, but there was nothing depicted upon it except a single line of text in an unfamiliar language.

“These things, they work by touching,” said Szaiviss. “But there should be symbols to touch, things that show what it does. I see nothing like that and I fear to poke it at random.”

“Yes, let us please not poke anything at random,” Kuriwa agreed.

They jerked back from the panel in unison when a canned, unnatural voice suddenly spoke from it.

“Dialect identified: I.O. Codespeak, homo sapiens sindarin variant two. Please state your directive, users.”

“Directive?” Kuriwa repeated, frowning. “I hardly know how to proceed.”

“We should see what this thing knows,” Szaiviss suggested.

“Yes… Obviously what we want is locked away in some of this dusty old machinery. The trick is knowing where to look and what to turn on.”

“Acknowledged,” the raspy voice of the machine grated. “Cycling main power core. Primary system boot queued.”

“Wait!” Szaiviss shouted, too late.

All round them rose the hum of technology coming to life, accompanied by the rising glow of tiny running lights, and then artificial lamps producing the clean white illumination favored by the Infinite Order.

“I hope we’re buried too deep for anyone to notice this,” Kuriwa said, wincing.

“Should be,” Szaiviss replied, peering around nervously. “I suppose the risk, it is necessary; we can get nothing from these machines while they are asleep. I did not mean to turn it all on at once, though. There is no telling what—”

It hit them suddenly and with the weight of an avalanche, the force of a consciousness so many orders of magnitude mightier than their own that just to be in its presence felt to the mind like being stepped on by a dragon would to the body. Kuriwa and Szaiviss, both forgetting all the poise and dignity of their respective stations, staggered under the impact, crying out and tumbling to the ground.

Before them appeared a graceful figure of light, slender and lovely more in the way of a doll than an elf, with eyes like miniature galaxies. Her smile was kind and welcoming, even as her very aura blasted them against the far wall of the cavern.

“Why, how very lovely!” Scyllith cooed. “Visitors!”

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14 – 30

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Even that silence did not long survive in the presence of Gabriel Arquin.

“So, uh…what are you doing here?”

The other two turned incredulous stares on him, at which he spread his hands infinitesimally at his sides in an almost-shrug.

The woman made of light—Scyllith, if she was to be believed—blinked her starry eyes languidly, still appearing somewhat confused. “Here? Where are we, children? There are several points where I…” She closed her eyes entirely, the tiniest frown appearing on her doll-like face.

“Seems like an Elder Goddess would understand where she was, if nothing else,” Trissiny said skeptically.

“Goddess!” At that, Scyllith opened her eyes again, once more breaking into a chime of pleasantly musical laughter. “Oh, if you only knew. Some of my colleagues would fly into an absolute rage if you called them gods. I’d like to think I am more easygoing, personally. Let me guess: Avei and her renegades threw themselves into the label.”

“That was a very long time ago,” Toby said quietly.

“To you, I suppose it truly was,” she agreed with a solicitous nod.

“So, what happened with that?” Gabriel inquired.

“Gabe!” Trissiny hissed.

“Well, how often do we get the chance to ask someone who was there and isn’t in the Pantheon?” he replied. “I don’t think it’s disloyal to acknowledge they have an agenda that colors what they tell us. We’ve seen pretty firm proof of that in the last week!”

“You don’t engage with a manipulator and give her the chance to work a tendril into your head!”

“In this case, I think we kind of have to.”

“You’re both right, you know,” Scyllith said kindly, smiling at them. “You would be wise to listen to Trissiny’s caution, Gabriel; she has a solid grasp of how manipulative people operate, and how to avoid being snared by them. On the other hand, it’s not as if you have a choice this time, is it? After all, you have to keep me busy until your phasedrive finishes downloading the facility’s records.” While the three of them froze, she half-turned to look at the key, still inserted into that slot on the wall and pulsing blue. “That’s likely to take a few minutes, at least. It’s a significant amount of data, being harvested directly from the transcension matrix, and the systems responsible for organizing that data were damaged in…well, that little kerfuffle between your renegade friends and the Infinite Order. In the meantime, here we are!” Turning back to them, she spread her delicate arms to both sides and bowed, smiling benignly. “I am glad to put a few things into perspective for you.”

“Awfully accommodating of you,” Gabriel noted.

“Now, Gabriel,” she said in a tone of very gentle reproof, “you should always show consideration toward people who are in no position to threaten or influence you in the slightest way. It’s basic maturity, not to mention good manners—which, as my mother used to tell me, are miniature morals. Let’s see…” She began to drift off the crystal plate, floating serenely above the mushrooms with her feet dangling a foot off the floor. Wherever the glow emanating from her touched the fungus underfoot, they changed, taking on more subtly graceful shapes and patterns of bioluminescence. Scyllith floated slowly across the floor as if pacing in thought, leaving a trail of odd beauty in her wake. “I think what you children most need to understand is that an ascended being…a god…” She turned toward them with an indulgent little smile in passing. “…is not simply a more powerful person. It is a fundamentally different type of intelligence. When we have conversations like this—just as when you talk to members of your Pantheon—some of the experience is due to an active effort by the ascended to be more approachable, and some to your mind reorganizing information into a form it can process. But the very nature of my senses is different from yours, Trissiny dear, which is why I may be momentarily confused in a situation like this. I, you see, am a creature of magic, and magic is a system of data processing. Really, its entire purpose comes down to taking an idea, like your glowing shields or a wizard’s fireball, and performing the vast calculations necessary to turn that into a physical reality, using the energies inherent in the material universe. Merely the act of concentrating my being into one spot like this imposes limits on me. But it also gives me great clarity, for which I thank you!”

Again, she paused and turned directly to them, bowing courteously. All three just stared warily back.

“Now that I have my land legs, so to speak,” Scyllith continued lightly, drifting back toward the crystal platform, “I see what all this is about. Please forgive my earlier befuddlement, children. The flows of magic are whimsical, today! And certain individuals went to a lot of trouble to prevent me from pulling my consciousness together. About the only thing that can overcome that, temporarily, is to activate a transcension field editor keyed specifically to my access credentials. I’ve been bounced between a few of those over the last few…years, I think…and it’s rather disorienting.”

“Temporarily?” Trissiny asked in a deliberately neutral tone.

“Oh, yes, dear,” Scyllith answered, giving her a warm smile. “Of course, once that phasedrive…I’m sorry, that key is removed, the editor will power back down, and with it everything that’s holding my mind together.” Floating up onto the disc again, she placed herself deliberately between them and they key, and smiled kindly at them in silence for a few seconds.

They all stared back, tense and keenly aware that no power at their disposal would help if she decided to do worse than talk. Not to mention the question of how to get the key back when it was time…

“I’m afraid, Gabriel, this means I can’t answer your question,” Scyllith continued at last, offering him a rueful smile. “I’m just so enjoying our chat—it’s so rare that I have the opportunity to meet such charming young people!—and I would just hate for it to be cut short by your abrupt deaths. Oh, please, relax!” she added, laughing softly when they all visibly tensed again. “I’m not going to harm you! Why ever would I? No, I just mean there is a mechanism built right into the transcension field you know as divine magic which would instantly kill any mortal who learns certain facts about those events. There are ways that could be circumvented, of course, but I’m afraid I’m in no position to offer you my protection, and it would take simply too long to teach you the method yourselves. If you’re interested, you might ask Elilial. I’ll bet you anything she’s shielded her little helpers from the effect.”

“The gods wouldn’t do such a…” Trissiny trailed off, and Scyllith turned an indulgent smile upon her.

“I think you know very well, Trissiny, that they aren’t so purely good as you were taught in your childhood. But I earnestly urge you not to take my word on something like this. Obviously, I’m simply not credible! No, you really ought to ask your patrons. It’s one thing not to bring up the topic; they’ll find it rather more difficult to lie to your faces about it.”

“…thanks for the tip,” Gabriel said warily. Scyllith nodded graciously to him.

“But my point, children, is that I can see such details as easily as you see me before you—and more accurately, since what you’re seeing is not quite what is happening. Magic is data, and the data is visible and intelligible to a being like myself. The structure of thoughts, likewise! So yes, children, I’m well aware by now of Vesk and his charming meddling. I know what he wants that key for, which is certainly more than he’s told you. I know all about that flute you’re hiding, Trissiny, and I do hope you have better sense than to call on Calomnar for help no matter how severe your peril. I also,” she added, her smile beginning to fade away for the first time, “know that you are students of my own dearest Arachne. It’s so good of you to visit me, children; you can’t imagine how relieved I am to learn that she is not only alive and well, but thriving. Actually contributing to the world! It makes me so proud, to learn how she’s grown! Do give her my love when you see her next. Promise me?”

Toby glanced at the other two. “Well, that’s—”

“Promise.” The word rippled across them with a tangible psychic force. All across the room, spots of light blossomed on a random smattering of mushrooms.

“…sure,” Toby said, staring. “We’ll tell her you said hello.”

“Thank you ever so, Tobias,” Scyllith replied, turning upon him a smile which was all gentle kindness and sincere gratitude. “Do you mind if I call you Toby? I’ve never been one for needless formality.”


“The way I heard it,” Gabriel interjected, “Tellwyrn and Elilial handed you quite a setback the last time you saw them.”

“Gabe,” Trissiny warned.

“Oh, pish tosh,” Scyllith said airily, waving one graceful hand. “You simply cannot go through life bearing grudges, Gabriel, it’ll drive you mad and gain you nothing. Oh, yes, Elilial and my Arachne caused me no end of trouble! But that’s done, and all is well.”

“Even though you’re trapped underground unless someone puts a key in that machine?”

“Gabe,” Trissiny said more insistently.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” Scyllith gently remonstrated. “I could work myself into a tizzy about Arachne’s betrayal, or Elilial’s frankly gratuitous assistance in it. Or Elilial ousting me from my own domain in the first place. Or little Themynra going to such lengths simply to irritate and inconvenience me. Can you imagine? How bored must a person be to do something like that? Then, there’s the way your Pantheon—ah, but I forget. That could be dangerous for you to know, children, please excuse me. If I were inclined to keep inventory of offenses against me, I’d be rather more irked at Naiya for going to such effort to lock me out of the Order’s systems—or the Order itself for various offenses which were why I helped the renegades topple them in the first place. But there is just no point in that. You win some, you lose some! That has always been my philosophy, going all the way back to before we left the old world to create a better future. Everyone was in such an absolute uproar about the changing climate scorching human life off the planet. Me, I planted oranges and mangoes in my yard in Toronto. Life is what you make of it, children.”

“Well, that seems very…enlightened,” Gabriel said carefully.

“I’ve met a few people I would describe as enlightened,” she said with an amused grin. “Honestly, I found them all insufferably pretentious. It’s simple common sense, isn’t it? There’s really only one truth of intelligent life, children: what you have the power to do. Everything else—your justice, your peace…whatever it is Gabriel’s religion does, it doesn’t seem very clear, does it? All these values and philosophies are things humans impose on reality to make sense of it, missing the greater point that reality makes perfect sense on its own, it is simply that human consciousness isn’t prepared to understand most of it.”

“So your own philosophy is simple nihilism, then,” Trissiny retorted. “Of course, just by having a philosophy you negate your own point.”

“And for someone who knows better than to listen to a manipulator, you’re awfully willing to engage me in a philosophical debate,” Scyllith replied, then laughed gently. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I’m not making fun of you. There’s a lesson in that, if you’re open to it. But let me turn that point around on you: everyone has a philosophy, simply because philosophy is the unavoidable byproduct of human consciousness meeting existence. You need these ideas in order to function in a universe which is vast, doesn’t care about you and seems designed to be mostly inimical to your life. And so, what good is all your philosophy unless you have the power to make something real of it?” She spread her arms gracefully, thin shoulders rising in a little shrug. “You can be as high-minded as you wish, so long as you acknowledge that the exercise does nothing but make you feel better about yourself. Without power, your beliefs are nothing, and you are nothing. With power, all creation and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge you is, itself, nothing. Power is the only significance the wee infinitesimal speck of a mortal consciousness can ever have.

“It takes a…a god, in your parlance, to have true significance, to defy reality itself. But you can bring all the meaning and satisfaction to your life that your limited mind will ever need by having power over other mortals. Power is the only value which fully justifies itself, no philosophy needed. If you are able to do something to someone, then you are entitled to, period. Any other belief is a construct requiring—again—power to put into effect. So no, children, to bring this back around to where it started, I bear no grudges. Everyone who has wronged me fully justified the act by pulling it off. Nursing a vendetta over my defeats is pointless, churlish, and worst of all, weak. Gloating in my victories, likewise! There is only the next struggle, the obstacle in front of you and whether you have the power to overcome it. Any other way to live is just an exhausting exercise in confusing yourself. And, hey! If it makes you feel better to live that way, you absolutely should. As long as you have the power to do so, it is your perfect right!”

She folded her delicate hands in front of herself, smiling beatifically at them.

“I have a feeling I’d find all that a lot more disturbing if it made sense to me,” Toby said slowly.

“Ah, yes, you have your own philosophies,” Scyllith replied with a light laugh. “Omnists! Really, you can’t imagine how much I enjoy that.”

He blinked. “Enjoy?”

“Oh, of course! I have always been a lover of irony. Imagine! A major world religion, spawned from the half-understood Zen/Sufi/Taoist/Jedi goulash concocted by my own semi-literate gardener. Why, it’s the most splendid thing I’ve ever heard! I couldn’t have created anything more hysterical if I’d tried!”

“I’m not sure what you mean to accomplish by insulting me,” Toby said, raising an eyebrow. “If you can read thoughts so easily, you surely know I’m not that easy to get a rise out of.”

“Ah, yes, I must ask your pardon again,” she replied, nodding. “I tend to forget that limited creatures like you can’t read thoughts. You’re stuck using empathy to discern the minds of other people—surely the most broken tool biology has ever devised for any purpose. No, Toby, I’m not interested in insulting or getting a rise out of you. Really, what would I gain? I thought we were simply having a pleasant conversation. You know, while we wait on your download. Long, long ago, I passed many a relaxed hour with colleagues, in the aftermath of all the hard work, waiting for the code to compile. This is all so pleasantly nostalgic for me!”

Behind her, only slightly obscured by her glowing form, the key’s head continued to pulse blue.

“I do hope you’re not offended that I monopolize the conversation,” Scyllith added with every appearance of real concern. “It isn’t that you have nothing interesting to say, children! Why, the adventures you’ve had in such short lives already—truly remarkable! But it’s all laid out before me like text on a screen, you see, which is ever so much faster a way to learn than by asking you a lot of annoying questions. What interesting things your memories reveal about the world. Imagine, my little Arachne managed to poke and prod Naiya into some semblance of paying attention, even for just a moment. Incredible! I always knew her power to be annoying had the capacity to change the world. Poor Naiya, though,” she said with a regretful sigh. “It got to be difficult to respect her, long before the end. As brilliant a mind as any among us, and yet she let herself be reduced to the capacity of a groundskeeper. Always so concerned with repairing the ecosystem and cleaning up the planet after our colleagues’ experiments got out of hand—which they inevitably did. If anything, you would think I would be her favorite colleague, since at least I had the courtesy to take my dangerous research to another plane of existence where it didn’t mess up her precious ecosystem. You know,” she added confidentially, “we were all supposed to leave behind every attachment and everything that identified us with the old world, when we came here. That was the agreement. Of course, not a one of us truly followed through on that, and it wasn’t all that long before even the pretense of it in public broke down. Poor Naiya, though. I think she never did get over what happened to her original country. That was a shame, of course. They were such nice people. So polite! But sadly, as it turns out, the ocean doesn’t stop rising if you apologize to it.”

She laughed, and it was as warm and kind and pleasant sound as any of them had ever heard, the kind of laugh that made everyone instinctively want to join in. Now, all three of them shuffled a few inches backward. It was chillingly eerie, the discordance of hearing such good-natured amusement over the apparent drowning of an entire nation. For all her apparent friendliness, it was a glimpse at the inherent cruelty of her aspect that commanded intimidated silence.

From most people, anyway.

“Kind of an asshole, aren’t you?” Gabriel observed.

Toby closed his eyes; Trissiny pressed a hand to her forehead.

“Aw, Gabriel,” Scyllith cooed, “that’s why you’re my favorite, you know. There’s always one person in every room who says what everyone is thinking, but hasn’t the gumption to voice aloud. That was always my role, back in the day. Don’t ever let them silence you, Gabriel. Every chorus of ‘think before you speak’ is a spurt of pure jealousy from someone who lacks the courage to speak at all.”

“Mm,” he grunted skeptically.

“Thinking before speaking,” Toby said quietly, “is the same as thinking before doing anything, which is always important. Words have weight.”

“A noble sentiment,” Scyllith said in a light tone, “born of a barely more than medieval grasp of psychology. If you thought before doing anything, Toby, you would never do anything. Most of the wonderful structure of the human mind, painstakingly assembled out of billions of years of evolution, serves the purpose of enabling you to act without pausing to consider the ramifications of everything, which is the only way you have time to act at all. Instinct, stereotype, intuition, analogy, emotion, pattern recognition… The mechanisms of the mind that cause you to misunderstand so much of the truth of reality are the only thing that kept your ancestors alive long enough to reproduce! And even so, you are not wholly wrong. Words can have a great impact. Have you ever paused to consider how much harm you have inadvertently done by opening your mouth—or failing to?”

“That criticism,” said Trissiny, “applies less to Toby than to basically anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Even a cursory glimpse at your memory shows that isn’t true, Trissiny,” Scyllith said kindly. “What of your Bishop Darling, or Shaeine? The motivations are very nearly opposite, but they have in common careful, purposeful control which young Tobias, unfortunately, lacks. It’s a real irony that she is the one to speak up in your defense, Toby,” she added, turning back to him with a warm smile, “the very person your carelessness has probably hurt the most. Why ever didn’t you tell her the rejection wasn’t personal? Even after all this time? All you had to do was say that you’re not interested in women, and you could have spared your friend so much pain. But your own privacy was just more important, wasn’t it?”

The silence that fell was like the blow of a hammer, Toby and Trissiny both gaping as if the very breath was driven right from them.

“You utter bitch,” Gabriel hissed, withdrawing his wand from his coat and extending it to full scythe form.

“Now, that is exceedingly inconsiderate, Gabriel,” Scyllith said in a tone of compassionate reproof. “You know how such gendered terms offend Trissiny. Honestly, the sheer disrespect both you boys show her is shocking. Now she has to wonder how much you really respect her principles, if all it takes for you to throw aside the pretense is a moment of anger. You see, children, this is what I was talking about. It’s nothing but trouble, letting these things fester; you should never be afraid to speak your truth! Why, Trissiny—”

Trissiny ripped out her sword and burst alight with divine energy. “Shut your slithering mouth!”

“Come, you’re better than that,” Scyllith said gently. “Embracing a moment of pain to gain a longer-term benefit is the whole nature of courage, something you don’t lack in the slightest! Really, what is the worst that could happen if you told Gabriel how you really feel about him? He’s not Toby; I do hope you’re not thinking it would end up the same way.”

“I—that’s not—I don’t—” Trissiny had gone white, sword upraised as if prepared to strike, but she seemed frozen in place.

“After all, don’t many of the great romances involve paladins? The fact they’re considered tragedies simply isn’t worth dwelling on, Trissiny. Everything ends; if you only started things on the basis of how they might end up, you would never take a risk or accomplish anything of note. Embrace it! Life is pain, anyway; take what pleasure you can before it all goes to hell. Listen to someone who’s been there!”

“Enough!” A staff of golden light coalesced in Toby’s hands. “It’s not hard to see what you’re doing. Be silent—”

Her warm, chiming laughter drowned out the rest of his sentence.

“Oh, Toby,” Scyllith said, fondly chiding. “What I’m doing is the lesser concern, here. What are you doing? Don’t you know better than to threaten and posture at a being who knows you pose them no threat at all? It merely makes you look ridiculous. Tell me, do you still have chihuahuas? They were these yappy little rats—”

She casually raised one slender arm to slap aside Gabriel’s scythe as he swung it at her head. A scream as of tearing metal resounded through the room, accompanied by a shockwave which knocked over a swath of mushrooms, and he stumbled back, barely keeping his grip on the weapon.

“Now, let’s have none of that,” Scyllith said indulgently. “Truly, Gabriel, that’s a magnificent weapon, and has a lot of history! If you force me to break it, it’ll be a real shame and we’ll both feel bad.”

“Just shut it!” he snarled, leveling the scythe at her and discharging a blast of black light.

She caught it. Scyllith held up the suspended beam of dark energy in her hand, turning it this way and that to examine it with detached curiosity, then tossed it aside with a flick of her wrist. Where it impacted the wall, a long stretch of mushrooms and lichen shriveled and disintegrated into dust.

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, young man,” she said mildly. “Really, I do not. It’s not that I’m awfully surprised at how poorly your friends are taking some simple, constructive criticism; this is hardly the first time I’ve been around young people. I know how volatile it can be, having all those feelings. But honestly, Gabriel, what could I possibly say in correction to you? Everything you do is just so…” Slowly, her smile stretched, growing gradually ever wider until she was grinning at him in a truly disturbing rictus, her mouth stretching farther toward the edges of her stylized features than human lips could. “So wonderful. Just be you, Gabriel Arquin. I could not be more delighted at everything you do if I’d planned it myself.”

The pause which followed was pierced by a tiny chirping noise. On the wall behind her, the head of the key turned green.

“Ding!” Scyllith said cheerfully, glancing back at it. “The toast is done! What a shame—we were having such a lovely chat. But now you’ll have to fetch your key back to Vesk and consign little old me back to muddled oblivion. Ah, well, such is life. Step on up and claim your prize, children.”

All three glared at her, weapons upraised. As one, they took a single step forward, bringing themselves just out of range of her, surrounding the goddess in a three-point formation. There they hesitated.

“Well? Don’t be shy!” Scyllith’s grin widened even further, till it seemed in danger of actually splitting her head in half. “After all, only one of us has forever.”

The silent standoff held for another moment. Gabriel eased to the side, as if he might rush past her to the key, but she just turned her gaze directly on him, that unsettling rictus still in place on her features.

Then Trissiny straightened, shoving her blade back into its sheath. “I knew it. I knew that divine ass wouldn’t give us something we wouldn’t immediately need to use.”

“I really cannot overemphasize,” Scyllith cautioned while Trissiny withdrew the Pipe of Calomnar from her belt pouch, “how strongly I don’t recommend that, Trissiny. Come, just grasp your key. Pull it out of the machine and send me back. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“If there’s a time for kicking the board, this is it,” Gabriel said tensely.

“It’s the one thing she fears,” Toby added. Neither took their eyes off Scyllith, who was watching Trissiny with that wild, avid smile.

The Hand of Avei held the Elder Goddess’s gaze as she raised the flute to her lips and blew.

What came out wasn’t a sound. It hurt the ears, all right, but it was not a vibration in the air, but more of one through the soul.

And Scyllith started laughing. In the same way as before, at first, with a kind and pleasant tone, but this time it quickly escalated until she was practically screeching in hysteria.

All around them, the first beginnings of the unraveling of reality began to appear as the chaotic presence Trissiny had just summoned turned its attention upon them. The light shifted, flickering as if shadows were being cast by things not there. The mushrooms started to change, some growing and others merely altering shape.

“I had a little bet with myself, you see!” Scyllith informed them, still chuckling. “I was so, so certain that nothing I could possibly say would make you desperate enough or reckless enough to blow that flute. But it’s like I said—you can’t win them all! Ah, you children really are a delight. Here you go.”

She reached behind herself and plucked the key out of the wall. Immediately, the half-covered screens and machinery to either side of its panel went dark, and the light began slowly to fade from the crystal disc beneath her.

Scyllith’s own form began to dim, to grow subtly indistinct, as if her coherent essence were dissipating.

“Don’t you worry about little old me, children,” she said pleasantly, and tossed the key to Toby. “It was so very kind of you to give me the prospect of escaping my bonds, but really not necessary! I have my own arrangements. We’ll chat again soon, my dears. Now, remember, give my love to Arachne! You did promise.”

She fixed her glittering eyes on Toby, even as the rest of her body faded from existence, and finally the facade of warmth and kindness faded entirely. Her gaze and voice were ice cold in the last seconds before they vanished.

“I will hold you to it.”

The lights around the panel went dark, as did the crystal disc. The last of the ancient machines fell silent, and Scyllith’s presence was gone, dissipated back into whatever unfocused state she had been in before.

Their own situation did not markedly improve, though. The increasing intrusion of chaos made itself known, Calomnar’s approach heralded by an escalating breakdown of the very order of reality. The three of them clustered together, Toby clutching the key, but it was difficult to move; a quality akin to the helplessness of nightmares hung over the darkened facility, as if they were struggling to slog through molasses while some faceless monster pursued.

It was brighter, now, intermittently, sourceless light filling the room with a sickly greenish intensity, which apparently just served as a medium for the shadows of tentacles and claws which flexed and writhed along the walls. The mushrooms continued to twist and grow and transform all around them; now, some began to moan. They had voices like children. Along the stretches of the ancient facility’s walls and floor where Gabriel’s misdirected scythe blast had annihilated the covering fungus, rust spread across the incorruptible mithril.

And then, with a sudden onslaught of enormous psychic pressure that seemed to crush their very minds into the farthest corners of the room, the chaos-tainted god Calomnar arrived in person.

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