“You surrender?” Trissiny said incredulously after everyone had digested that in silence for a moment. “You can’t just… Why on earth would anyone—”
“Why does anyone surrender, General Avelea?” Elilial interrupted with a sardonically lifted eyebrow, her hands still held in the air as if displaying that she held no weapons made her a whit less dangerous. “You’re supposed to be the military strategist here. Surrender is the appropriate action when you are no longer capable of prosecuting a war. My entire organized force present was just wiped out by pixies, because you Pantheon lackeys can never pass up the chance to heap insult upon injury. Kuriwa and Natchua, vicious little knife-eared monstrosities that they are, just tossed everything that remains of my cult into chaos space. You went and maimed my highest general, Avelea.”
“Oh, by all means, cry about that,” Trissiny retorted.
Elilial’s expression grew more grim. “No. No, about that I will claim no vendetta. Kelvreth unleashed his most destructive power against a mass of people including several he knew I was pledged not to harm, and at least one whose well-being is very dear to me. He’s going to stay blind for the foreseeable future; I will not countenance betrayal, nor my subordinates making mockery of my own oaths. Nor do I enjoy the position of owing Omnu a debt of gratitude for correcting that mistake. But the fact remains…” She bared her teeth in a bitter scowl, fangs glinting in the light of the stained glass windows. “I could kill you all, whatever the valkyrie believes. It’s well within my power. Not, however, without harming those I care about and discarding what remains of my integrity, not to mention calling Naiya down on my head. Congratulations, you mongrel horde of scoundrels and thugs. I have no more assets to wield. It has been eight thousand years of ups and downs, but now as the final reckoning looms over us all, it seems I am finally out of this fight, no matter what I would wish.”
She shrugged, hands still raised.
“So. You have my surrender. May you all choke on it.”
“Well, let me make this easier for you, then,” said Trissiny. “No. You don’t get to stop fighting, you miserable old beast. Form up!”
The assembled fighters began to shift forward, but paused when Elilial cleared her throat loudly, putting on a wry smirk.
“Per the Sisterhood of Avei’s doctrines governing the prosecution of war, any offer of surrender in good faith must be accepted, providing the surrendering party disarms and offers no further violence. A commanding officer who orders an attack upon surrendering enemies is subject to immediate court martial with penalties up to and including execution, circumstances depending. That’s article twelve if you need to look it up, Trissiny.”
“’No one negotiates with demons twice,’” Trissiny quoted back. “Sharai the Hammer, fourth chronicle of the Aveniad.”
“Also,” Gabriel piped up next to her, “’no quarter’ is the standard terms of engagement against demons, both for Sisterhood and every national force.”
Elilial smiled pleasantly. “I’m not a demon.”
“Yeah, well…” Gabriel looked her up and down slowly, grimacing. “You’ll do.”
The goddess’s gaze shifted to the side as if scanning for someone in the crowd, and settled on a point by the far wall, nearer a side door to the sanctuary than the front entrance. “Jonathan Arquin!”
Almost everyone turned in that direction, Gabriel and Natchua rapidly and with shocked expressions.
“Very recently,” Elilial went on, “your son deliberately poked me in the rump. Is this how you raised him to treat women?”
At that, most of the eyes present turned back to Gabriel, who went red and began spluttering.
“I—that was—with my scythe! I wasn’t—I was trying to see if it killed her! If anything I stabbed her in the—”
“In the left cheek,” Elilial said archly. “No one’s aim is that bad, young man. Look at the size of me.”
Ruda burst out laughing.
Over the sound of that, the incongruous notes of a lute being strummed echoed in the vast chamber. Out of the crowd as if he’d been in there from the very beginning sauntered a nondescript-looking man in colorful garments of a style a century out of date, complete with a floppy hat trailing a dyed ostrich feather down his back.
“All right, all right, let’s everybody settle down now,” Vesk said lightly, still producing chords from his lute with languid flicks of his wrist. “I do love me a spot of banter, but there’s a time and a place, after all.”
“You,” Trissiny spat, wheeling Arjen around to glare down at the god of bards. “Get the hell out of here before you cause more trouble. You are barely better than she is!”
“I’d have to look up the particulars of the chain of command, General Avelea, but I’m pretty sure I outrank the hell out of you,” he replied, winking.
“Oh, it’s this guy,” Jacaranda said, buzzing lower to scowl at him. “I don’t like this guy.”
“Nobody likes this guy,” Gabriel agreed.
“Hey, now, that’s just unfair,” Vesk protested. “Bards like me!”
“Ehhhhh.” Teal made a waffling motion with one hand.
“All right, that’s enough byplay.” Suddenly he wasn’t just an oddly-dressed man speaking, but a presence projected through the room with psychic force that commanded instant silence. “An offer of surrender has been made by an avowed enemy of the Pantheon. As no other institution represented here has the prerogative, nor the power, to take a goddess prisoner, it falls to a representative of the Pantheon to negotiate the terms of Elilial’s defeat. Or! I don’t suppose you were planning to surrender unconditionally, Lil?” he added, grinning up at her.
“No one,” the goddess said bitterly, “in all of history, anywhere, has ever enjoyed your sense of humor, Vesk.”
“You know, maybe if you gave your foes a little more credit you wouldn’t be in this situation right now, honey bunch. But fine, straight to business. What terms do you offer?”
Her nostrils flared in annoyance while she glared down at him; Vesk continued to placidly strum major key chords on his lute, meeting her ire with a bland smile. Elilial took several long seconds to consider before answering.
“I offer you three concessions,” she said at last, finally lowering her hands. “A complete cessation of hostilities against the Pantheon and all its agents, by me and all those answerable to me, until after the next ascension cycle. The revelation of my full plans for vengeance against the Pantheon. And…” She hesitated, glancing to one side with a disgruntled frown, then drew in a breath as if steeling herself and redirected her fiery gaze to Vesk. “And…my permanent cessation of hostilities against certain members of the Pantheon who…I will now admit…never wronged me. With my public apology, and acknowledgment of fault.”
A stir had rippled through the crowd at each statement, with the largest at the last, but even so they were quiet little disturbances due to the sheer pressure of divinity pushing all those present into stillness.
Some were more resistant than others.
“This is blithering nonsense,” Trissiny barked.
“I dunno, those sound like pretty tempting terms to me,” Vesk mused. “Better than anyone else has ever gotten out of her, anyway.”
“I mean that we are dealing with the literal personification of cunning who will obviously do anything to get out of the corner she is in! There is no possible scenario in which her word can be trusted. The very minute she’s no longer being stared down by you and all of us, she’ll go right back to what she was doing before!”
Vesk shrugged, still smiling. “Her and what army?”
“You cannot seriously think she needs a standing army to be dangerous,” Gabriel protested.
The god struck a minor chord, followed by a light ascending arpeggio. “Your concerns are heard, and they aren’t invalid.”
“But,” Trissiny said bitterly.
He winked at her. “I am going to invoke divine privilege on this one. She’ll abide by the terms; I will personally guarantee it. If she does not, I will personally be accountable to the rest of the Pantheon. Unlike Elilial, I have no convenient way of evading their attention, and Avei barely needs a reason to kick my ass as it is. Does that satisfy you?”
“What do you think?” she snapped.
“Fair enough,” he chuckled, “let me put it another way: does that meet the threshold whereupon you can acknowledge you’re not going to get anything better?”
“That seems unwise,” Toby interjected, the calm of his voice cutting through the argument. “You are placing yourself in a terribly vulnerable position, dependent on the integrity of someone who famously lacks it.”
“I know what I’m about, son,” Vesk said, grinning. “Appreciate your concern, though. Very well, Lil, if there are no objections, I find your terms—”
“This ascension cycle,” Khadizroth interrupted. “When, and what is it?”
“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Gabriel added. “After the cycle is vague, even if we knew when that was. How long after? A century? Five minutes?”
“Explaining the basics of ascension cycles is a necessary component of the second clause,” Elilial answered.
“Okay, sure,” he retorted, “but I assume you won’t do that until we come to terms, which leaves us agreeing to what might as well be a blank timetable. No dice.”
“Boy’s got a point,” Vesk agreed, nodding. “A little disclosure for the sake of establishing terms is going to be necessary, Lily my dear. Now there, Trissiny, you see how you can make actual progress by engaging with the process instead of whining about it?”
“And how much progress can I make by taking that lute away and smashing it over your head?”
He blinked owlishly at her. “None, obviously. What would that accomplish?”
“Won’t know until we try,” she replied, baring her teeth in something that was just barely suggestive enough of a smile to be more unsettling than any simple grimace.
“I see why you look to Sharai for guidance,” Elilial said, folding her arms. “That girl was not right in the head, even for a Hand of Avei.”
“If we’re going to do this, answer the question,” Trissiny said, rounding on her. Arjen swished his tail irritably at the repeated turning, but complied. “When is this thing, exactly? And before anyone agrees to any terms, you need to establish how long afterward this truce will hold.”
“I can’t tell you exactly,” Elilial replied, “because that is not a thing which can be known with any precision.”
The goddess narrowed her eyes.
“She’s right about that much,” said Vesk. “Ascension cycles aren’t on a precise timetable. But generally speaking? Within the next two years, most likely.”
“Oh, that’s some truce you’re offering,” Trissiny sneered.
“You are a mayfly mistaking your eyeblink of an existence for the scope of the world, girl,” Elilial snarled. “I have labored toward this end for eight. Thousand. Years. You don’t even have a mental frame of reference for such a span of time; the very fact of your own fleeting perspective renders you incapable of considering what I am offering to give up. That I have to abandon all my plans with such a short span left only goes to show—”
“Yes, yeah, it’s very sad for you,” Gabriel said loudly, “but you’re the one surrendering, so either give us mayflies something worth our time or we may as well resume pincushioning your ass.”
“What is it with you and my ass, boy?” she replied, causing him to scowl and flush faintly.
“Since eight thousand years is such a vast period of time,” said Trissiny, “I’m sure you won’t object to one thousand years. You grant a millennium of guaranteed peace after this alignment, during which you make no preparatory activity on the mortal plane for the resumption of hostilities.”
“That’s right, Trissiny, you reach for those stars,” Elilial drawled. “I’ll give you a century, in which I and mine will do whatever the hell I please that isn’t overtly hostile.”
“Yes, forget the second clause,” said Toby, then nodded to Trissiny when she turned a frown on him. “Let her make preparations on earth; if she can only make them in Hell, that millennium will end with a new Hellwar.”
“Hm. Good point,” Trissiny grunted. “Fine. But as for your timetable—”
Vesk struck a triumphant chord. “Done!”
“What? No!” Arjen blew out an annoyed snort as his rider turned them both to glare down at the god. “You can’t just—”
“Can, did, and still outrank you,” he said cheerfully.
“Does anyone else think this is all kind of slapped-together for a world-altering historic moment?” Fross chimed, darting back and forth in the air above them.
“That is how they usually occur,” said Khadizroth. “Pomp and circumstance are added afterward by the historians. Solemn gravity in real time is most often in service of the insignificant self-indulgence of large egos.”
“You’d know,” Flora and Fauna said in unison. The dragon sighed, then nodded his head once.
“We have an accord, then?” Elilial asked, staring at Vesk.
“Wait,” Trissiny urged him. “Think about what you are—”
“We have an accord!” Vesk said, strumming a few upbeat chords.
“Well, at least he thought it over,” she growled. “Is it too much to ask that I be allowed to finish a sentence?”
“Tell me about it,” Elilial said with sympathy that earned only a glare in response.
“Actually, my dear,” Vesk said smoothly, “I believe it is your turn to tell us some things. We have a deal, after all.”
“Her only disincentive for breaking this deal is that you, someone she already hates, get punished,” Trissiny said in open exasperation. “This won’t hold starting the second she’s out of sight, so why give it that long?”
“Oh, Trissiny, always so dramatic,” Elilial chided. “On the contrary. Outstanding business between Vesk and myself notwithstanding, we have reached accord in the past. Recently, in fact.”
“Yes,” said Toby. “We were there.”
She smiled down at him. “And I will repay good faith with the same in kind. Vesk, insufferable creature though he is, held up his end of the bargain, taking you three off the hook. You should thank him for that.”
“Excuse me,” said Gabriel, “but we did all the damn work!”
“In ordinary circumstances,” Elilial said more loudly, and suddenly with the intangible weight of her personality commanding silence for her words, “a god cannot simply be killed. To do it requires severing the personality from the aspect—and for most aspects any god has taken, there is just no practical way to achieve this. Khar perished because he was tied to a land and a people which were annihilated. Sorash perished because he was stupid enough to place an incredibly powerful individual with a domineering personality in a position from which she could personally defeat him, thus suborning his aspect of conquest. These are incredibly rare circumstances, virtually impossible to predict, much less arrange. The more vague the concept, the more untouchable the god. How would you destroy duality? The wild? Art? How could you even drive a wedge between these things and their patron deities? From the beginning, my revenge against the Pantheon was simply outside the realm of possibility… Except during the ascension cycle.
“It is a byproduct of the way the Elder Gods created this world and the space around it, the way they folded the dimensions over each other, blocked off our solar system from the rest of the galaxy, and applied the fields of energy that we know as magic. Every eight thousand years, approximately, these amorphous factors align for a brief window in which it is possible for one with the right knowledge, equipment, and power to change the nature of godhood. That is how we killed the Elders, and how I planned to wipe all gods from existence.”
Her smile was a cold and vicious thing, laced more heavily by far with bitterness than humor.
“That is what I was building toward, the intricate plan of thousands of years that you cretins and your allies have wrecked in the space of less than five. Changing the rules so that no one gets to be a god.”
A short silence hung.
“No one?” Toby asked at last. “Don’t you mean, just the Pantheon…?”
Elilial snorted derisively. “I regretted having to harm Themynra, but in the end, it would have been for the best. Scyllith’s very existence is an ongoing crime which urgently needs to be expunged. Naiya’s existence is doing no one any favors, least of all herself. And I…” She grimaced, shaking her horned head. “I have nothing but a singular purpose to hold me here on this world. With it accomplished, why would I want to linger? You don’t need gods, any of you. Gods are things imposed on populations that would be better off commanding their own destinies.”
“Wait,” Trissiny said quietly, staring up at her through narrowed eyes. “You are…”
“As for the rest,” Elilial went on, still curling her lip in distaste, “I can’t defend everything I’ve done, nor will I try to justify any of it. As agreed, though, I will admit to certain specific wrongdoings in pursuing my vendetta. The circumstances around the end of the Elder War and our ascension were chaotic, confusing; some were swept up in events they never desired to be a part of. Some were gathered into the Pantheon’s aegis whom I condemned, unfairly, just because of that association, when in truth they only remained out of desperation to survive in new circumstances they never wanted and could not understand. It was… In truth, it was unjust of me to punish fellow victims of the Pantheon’s actions. And so, to Naphthene, Ouvis, Ryneas, and Shaath, and any who follow them… I am, honestly, sorry. You should have been on my side; I should have tried to reach out to you. I swear that I will never again strike out against you for wrongs that were not yours. It may be that nothing I say or do will ever be sufficient to make amends, but I… Will try. That is a promise.”
This time, the stunned silence lingered as if no one dared to challenge it.
“The bargain is made, and your part upheld,” Vesk said at last, and for once his tone was suitably solemn for the occasion. He nodded deeply toward Elilial, the feather in his floppy hat bobbing. “At least, that which you can fulfill here and now. For the rest… I will trust you to keep to your word.”
“Why,” Trissiny hissed, and was ignored.
“And so at last,” Vesk continued, “there is peace between us. An end to this ancient war, witnessed by all those gathered here.”
“And so it is known when the next war will begin,” she replied, her tone grim. “But for now and until that time… Peace. You are satisfied?”
“Never more so,” he said, grinning. “Go in peace, old friend. And hey, who knows? Maybe during the next hundred years we’ll all manage to work out our differences for good!”
Elilial sneered. “Ugh. You have always been such a pain in the ass.”
A thunderclap shook the cathedral, momentary darkness and a flash of blinding light causing everyone to look away, many shouting in protest. Just like that, Elilial was gone.
So, they discovered after a few moments of looking around, was Vesk.
“So! That sure just happened, didn’t it?” Principia Locke called out, striding out of the crowd and then stepping forward in front of them, clapping her hands to capture everyone’s focus before the mutter of renewed conversation could get out of control. “All right, even with the demons gone, there’s still a city in crisis out there and while many of us don’t have talents suited toward humanitarian work, many do, and many others will be able to find a use for any working pair of hands. I won’t keep you from it long, except to say one thing: Avei wants adventurers.”
“Ex…cuse me?” Joe Jenkins asked incredulously.
“They times, they are changing,” Principia said, smiling lopsidedly. “With the times, war changes, and with war, the Legions. The Sisterhood of Avei is offering recruitment for any who call themselves adventurers and are willing to fight for Avei’s cause, and live by…an admittedly relaxed version of her precepts.”
“Lady, are you nuts?” Taka called out. “Adventurer guilds haven’t been a thing for a hundred years.”
“A gathering of what can only be called adventurers just beat the single largest demon invasion this world has seen since the Hellwars,” Principia replied. “Just because the Age of Adventures is famously over doesn’t mean a new one can’t start; ages are funny like that. If you just like wandering around by yourself being chased out of towns and side-eyed by police because society has no use for heavily-armed nomadic loners, well, you can go on living that way. What I’m offering it housing, resources, funding, allies, protection, and most importantly, purpose. And one thing to sweeten the deal, which I think will prove very enticing to some of you. Right now, at this one time only, the Sisterhood is offering amnesty. We lack the authority to pardon Imperial crimes, but if you join up with Avei, so long as you toe the line and play by the rules, you’ll receive whatever protection the Sisterhood can grant from any past misdeeds. A clean slate. If you think this opportunity is for you, make your way to the Temple of Avei in Tiraas or the Abbey in Viridill and ask for Lieutenant Locke. They’ll make sure you get to me.”
“Well, that sounds good to me!” said a high-pitched male voice, followed by a giggle, and an elf wearing a somewhat bedraggled pinstriped suit came swaggering to the front of the crowd. “I say, sign me the hell up!”
“You,” Khadizroth said coldly, turning to face him.
“Ah, ah, ah, Mr. K, don’t be like that,” the Jackal chided, wagging a finger in the dragon’s face. “You heard the lady! You of all people should be grateful for the offer of a free pass. Consider me your first convert, Prin my darling!” He turned toward the suddenly blank-faced Principia, grinning and throwing his arms wide. “Why, me and all my most recent group of friends would just love to start over in Avei’s service. Ain’t that right, gang?”
A single beam of pure white light burst out of his forehead, flashing across the room to drill a smoking hole in the marble wall of the sanctuary.
The Jackal’s expression froze in a nearly comical look of puzzlement. He blinked his eyes once, and a strangled gurgle sounded in his throat.
He staggered, slumping to his knees, then toppled over onto one side and lay still.
Directly behind him, Jeremiah Shook slowly slipped his wand back into its holster, then raised both his hands in the air, not otherwise reacting to all the weapons suddenly being leveled at him.
“Now, before anybody gets too excited,” he drawled, “let me just explain that that was the assassin known as the Jackal. He’s the shit who’s been murdering police in this city for the last week, for no reason except he could and he thought it was funny. He was also the last known confederate of Basra Syrinx and the main reason she was able to mislead the Army and what remained of the local cops into attacking the only people who could’ve stopped this whole fucking crisis if they’d been allowed to work together. There are several folks here who can vouch for every part of this. So, with that established, I’ll just pose a question.”
He lowered his hands incrementally, still keeping them up and in view.
“Anybody got a problem with that?”
After a moment’s silence, Joe pushed his way through the crowd, wand up and at the ready. He met Shook’s gaze and held it for a moment, then turned, leveled his wand, and put three more beams through the fallen elf’s head.
The Jackal didn’t so much as twitch.
“Just checkin’,” he said finally, holstering his own wand and turning back to tip his hat at Shook. “I’ve learned you can never be too sure with that guy.”
“No,” said Trissiny, pointedly sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “I should have a problem with that, but goddess help me, I do not. All right, that’s enough drama. We don’t know what the fallout from any of this is going to be, but in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a city practically in ruins out there, and countless people who need our help. Everyone move out.”
The whole group responded to her command, for a wonder. Not without a lot of shuffling and muttering, but everyone turned and began moving toward the door.
Khadizroth the Green paused in his own departure as someone caught and tugged on his sleeve. He turned to meet the eyes of Bishop Darling, who leaned forward and pitched his voice low enough that no one but the elves could have overheard through the muffled hubbub.
“Before we join everybody in doing all the good there is to do out there,” Darling murmured, “how’s about you and I go cause one last piece of trouble that only we can?”
Very slowly, the dragon raised one eyebrow.