Tag Archives: Verniselle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Agasti, your guests.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And…why is that?” Trissiny asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re an Izarite?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

There came a knock at the front door.

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

“No bet,” Toby replied.

Mr. Agasti raised his voice. “Yes?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel raised his hand. “Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

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

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14 – 20

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“They expect us to step into that?” Trissiny demanded, stopping just inside the club’s door.

“Relax, that’s an arcane enchantment,” Gabriel said, edging past her. “They can’t have people walking in a real infernal effect, that’s incredibly dangerous and also illegal. More important, what is that music?”

“More important?” Trissiny muttered, but began gingerly descending the stairs into the mist.

The main floor of Second Chances was sunken, with the entrance and the bar area five steps up and the stage taller than that. It was a neat layout, the stage along the left side of the big room from the door and the bar to the right, with a clear space in front of the stage itself presumably for dancing and marked off from the tables which occupied the rest of the floor by a ring of comfortable couches and chairs. The entire floor area was covered by gently swirling mist which looked to be about two feet deep. That would simply be mysterious and pretty, if not for the sullen flashes of orange light which flickered through it from time to time, hinting at submerged hellfire.

At this early hour it was relatively quiet in the club, with a few musicians playing a peculiar syncopated tune on the stage, a lone bartender and a single waitress on duty on the floor, and only a handful of other patrons. The cluster who had been waiting outside were more than half the occupants, now sitting together at a table opposite the floor from the entrance.

All employees of Second Chances, from the serving staff to the musicians to the burly sleeveless man standing just inside the door, were revenant demons.

“It’s called jazz,” Nell answered Gabriel’s question, gently shooing them all down the stairs and into the misty floor. There were no visible fairy lamps; the faintly glowing mist appeared to provide the illumination, which would have been a spooky effect even had the interior walls not been rough-shaped to resemble a natural cave. “A natural outgrowth of the ragtime music you’ve probably heard around the prairie. I can’t say I really get it, but Vesk insists it’s going to be huge and he definitely knows music, so I’m watching spots like this to see what opportunities pop up. There’s nothing more profitable than getting in on the leading edge of a trend. Over here, best table in the house.”

She directed them to a table tucked away in the space to the left of the entry stairs and the right of the stage, with a decent view of both. Nell was the first there, largely because Trissiny and Toby were stepping with uncertain care through the mist and Gabriel kept slowing almost to a stop, gazing in apparent wonder at the musicians. By the time they had arrived, she had already seated herself and was lounging back in the wrought iron chair wearing an amused little smile.

The waitress manifested at their table almost the moment they seated themselves, a young woman with blunt little horns and facial features that looked like they might have been of local Jendi stock. It was hard to tell, between her oddly marbled skin and hollow skull full of flame.

“Nell, I haven’t seen you in the longest,” she said with a smile, flickers of orange light visible between her silvery teeth. “And these must be the special guests! Welcome to Second Chances, my lords and lady. I hope you’re not here looking for trouble?” The edge of fear in her tone and bearing were only just discernible.

“Oh, uh, no titles are necessary,” Gabriel said, tearing his gaze from the stage to give her a reassuring smile. “None of us are big on formality.”

“If there’s to be trouble, it won’t be us starting it,” Trissiny added.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Nell interjected when the waitress tensed up. “Settle yourself down, girl. Don’t worry, Kami, I’ll talk to them. We’re not gonna have any problems here, upon my word. I’ll have my usual. And what’s your poison, kids?”

“What do you have that’s not alcoholic?” Toby asked.

“Well, we make a fantastic Onkawi-style punch,” Kami offered. “Which is doable with or without the rum.”

“Without, please,” Gabriel said.

“Hey, as long as you don’t get too sloppy, I don’t mind,” Nell said, winking. “I’m not gonna rat you out to Arachne. Her rules don’t apply out here, anyway.”

“Thanks, but none of us drink,” he replied. Trissiny turned to him, raising her eyebrows in surprise.

“So, three glasses and a pitcher,” Kami said with a smile, “and Nell’s customary graveyard wisp. Anything to eat?”

Nell cleared her throat loudly, putting on a theatrical frown.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” the waitress said, tilting her head back in a gesture which suggested the rolling of eyes, though the flickering flame behind her empty sockets didn’t alter. “I don’t set the prices, hon, I just work here. Be back with your drinks pronto.”

The demon turned and swished away in a trail of disturbed mist, all three paladins gazing thoughtfully after her.

“So, you don’t drink?” Toby asked Gabriel. “Since when?”

“Well, when have I had the opportunity?” Gabriel replied, grinning back. “First it was my dad, and then Tellwyrn, and then… Well, honestly, I’m just afraid to chance it. Gods know I put my foot in my mouth enough sober. There’s too much riding on my already fragile discretion for me to be taking chances like that. It’s not a religious thing, like with you two.”

“Actually,” Toby replied, glancing at Trissiny, “that proscription is unique to Omnism.”

Gabriel blinked, then also turned to Trissiny. “Wait, you’re allowed to drink?”

“Avei doesn’t prohibit drinking,” she said with a shrug, “nor even drunkenness, at least not explicitly. But an Avenist is expected to maintain self-control; being drunk is not acceptable if you’re in the Legions or the clergy. Alcohol in moderation is pretty harmless, so long as you know your limits and respect them. Me, though… I decided more or less the same you did, Gabe. I’m just uneasy about anything that takes away my control. Speaking of which,” she added, shifting her stare back to Nell, “I am really doing my best to be open, here, but I’m in a room full of demons and I think some explanations are overdue.”

“One sec,” Toby interrupted. “Gabriel, that Vidian thing you can do that makes people not pay attention. How much concentration does it take exactly?”

“For me, none,” Nell replied before he could. “So let me dissuade the onlookers while you kids listen up. Trissiny is quite right, you’re entitled to some answers. Well, I’m sure you noticed that Ninkabi is a city of cliffs and bridges, where you’re never out of walking distance from a truly terrifying drop into the chasm.”

“Even I noticed that,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Bit hard to miss.”

Nell nodded back, though she was no longer smiling. “So I’m sure you can guess what the most popular form of suicide is around here.”

A short, grim pause fell. Toby shifted in his seat to glance around at each of the revenants in the room.

“Mortimer Agasti started walking the bridges at dusk when he was twenty,” she continued. “Being a criminal defense lawyer, he kept contacts among the local police, and knew what all the biggest jumping spots were. Suicide… Nine times out of ten, it’s a spur of the moment decision, a knee-jerk reaction to a surge of despair. If you can get to someone and talk them down, much of the time they won’t try again. Morty walked those bridges for twenty years, stopping and talking with anyone who even looked like they might be on the edge. He saved hundreds of lives.” Nell turned her head to gaze abstractly up at the stage, where the players had switched to a slower, almost meditative piece. “But you can’t save them all. Some people…didn’t want to talk. Sometimes, he had to watch people die right in front of him. Just snuff themselves out. And whenever that happened, he did the only thing he could to give them another chance.”

“By enslaving their souls?” Trissiny asked evenly. Toby and Gabriel both gave her wary looks; a year ago she would have delivered that line at the top of her lungs, probably with sword already in hand, but now she just sat there, apparently calm.

“Well, that’s the loophole I mentioned,” Nell said with a little smile. “It turns out the language prohibiting the keeping of revenants in Imperial law very rightly focused on that piece of evil. But a modified revenant whose creation specifically omitted the control clause is another matter. Then, they are classified as free-willed sapient undead and thus eligible for second-class citizenship.”

“Uh…citizenship has classes?” Gabriel demanded, straightening up in his chair.

“Not…exactly,” said Trissiny. “Free-willed sapient undead are citizens, or anyway can be, but the law puts some limitations on them. They have to be regularly checked up on by Imperial agents, they can’t travel by Rail or change address without notifying the government in advance. They automatically inhabit a higher tax bracket to offset what this costs the Empire to administer. Technically there aren’t different classes of citizenship, at least not as the Writ of Duties applies to people, but certain conditions that make a person inherently dangerous mandate those provisions. The same applies to some types of demonbloods and curse victims.”

“I’ve never even heard of that,” he said, looking shaken.

“Well, as a half-hethelax it wouldn’t be applicable to you. That bloodline doesn’t give you any magical affinity or infernal aggression. Malivette Dufresne lives under terms like that, as does your friend Elspeth. I’m surprised she never explained it to you. Juniper definitely will, if she decides to become an Imperial citizen.”

“It’s a strange sort of mercy,” Toby mused, again glancing around at the revenants working the club. “It is a mercy, though, clearly. And I understand the name now; Second Chances, indeed. Did he forcibly draw them back to this world?”

Nell shook her head. “Gave them a choice. A suicide victim rarely encounters a valkyrie, so it was a long time before anybody caught on to what Morty was doing. And some of those he called back preferred to move on to be judged by Vidius. He let them. But like I said…suicide is an impulse. Many of them regretted it. He offered them that second chance. It was the trial of the decade, when the Empire caught on,” she added, winking at Trissiny. “I know you Avenists like to follow legal matters, but I’m not surprised you hadn’t heard. Things like this are exactly what the Sisterhood doesn’t want people getting ideas about.”

“So…they’re not forced to work here?” Trissiny asked.

“They’re as free as anyone, but…” Nell shrugged. “Where else are they going to go? Not every revenant Morty brought back still works for him, but most do. More than a second chance, he’s made sure to offer them a place. Nobody else but the Wreath would. I’m sure I don’t have to argue that this is a better option.”

“That still doesn’t quite track,” Trissiny objected, frowning. “If the man wanted to go around saving lives, why would he want to be a warlock? This is the first time I’ve ever heard of infernal magic being used as anything but a weapon.”

“I’m very choosy about my friends,” Nell said serenely. “Mortimer Agasti is one of the most interesting men in the world, if my opinion counts for anything. If you wanted me to walk you through his whole life in enough detail that all his decisions make sense, I could. Given a few weeks. You’re getting the need-to-know version, and I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with that.”

“Well…that’s fair,” Trissiny replied, a trifle grudgingly.

Kami returned before any further argument could be offered, bearing a tray with three glasses, a pitcher, and a cocktail, which she began laying out on the table.

“Nell’s favorite: the graveyard wisp, made with the house absinthe!” The drink was livid green, glowed in scintillating patterns of light, and put off roiling smoke which poured onto the table and then over the edge to join the mist already covering the floor. “Aaand a pitcher of Blushing Virgin.” The demon winked at them while setting their glasses in front of the punch. “For the blushing virgins.”

Gabriel grinned lazily. “Wanna bet? Ow!” He abruptly straightened up, tucking his feet under his chair, and turned a scowl on Trissiny. “Why are you always so violent?”

“That was me,” Toby informed him.

“Thanks, Kami,” Nell said, beaming. “Put it on my tab.”

“Nell,” the waitress said in exasperation, “first of all, everything’s on the house tonight, and I know you know that. Second, as I explain every time, you don’t have a tab! There’s no point in opening one when you always pay up front.”

“It must flow,” Nell said solemnly.

Kami just shook her head. “Enjoy. Someone’ll come get you when the boss is ready. If you need anything else before then, just give me a wave.”

“Okay, I gotta ask,” Gabriel said while Kami sauntered off again. “What are you drinking?”

“What, this?” Picking up her livid cocktail, Nell grinned and took a sip. “For all practical purposes, just absinthe. With a touch of enchantment to add the glow and a touch of alchemy for the smoke.”

“So…” Toby tilted his head. “There’s…nothing to change to flavor, or alcohol content? It’s just absinthe, but needlessly flashy and more expensive?”

“Exactly,” Nell said merrily.

Trissiny was already pouring out glasses of the rosy fruit punch, which was garnished with pineapple slices and a hibiscus blossom. “Well. I suppose this is a good thing, overall. Sounds like this Mr. Agasti is an…unusual specimen of a warlock. Maybe I’ll have time to pick his brain a bit before we leave.”

Nell hesitated, her drink halfway back to the table. Instead of setting it down, she raised the glass again and took two more heavy sips before finally putting it aside. “Trissiny, that is a good impulse. And I understand that it represents some personal progress for you, which I don’t mean to discourage. But in this case I must ask you, as a personal favor, to leave Morty alone. Do what you came to do; you’ll find him a good host and likely to help in whatever way he can. But please refrain from poking into his business aside from that.”

“Well…all right,” Trissiny said slowly, setting the pitcher back down and pulling one of the glasses she’d just poured over to herself but not yet drinking. “Might I ask why?”

“It’s just not a good time. Morty has had a rough…” Nell trailed off, then sighed and shook her head. “All right, I suppose I need to tell the story in order for it to make sense. It’s about his daughter. He adopted a Tidestrider scapeling.”

Toby leaned forward, watching her closely. “I’m given to understand the Tidestriders aren’t well liked out here on the coast. I don’t know what a scapeling is, though.”

“You’re damn right, they’re not liked,” Nell stated. “The Tidestrider clans have raided the coast for centuries. N’Jendo is a very militaristic society; for most of its history the country was pressed by the islanders from the sea, by Thakar up north and Athan’Khar to the south. The only peaceful border was with Viridill, which naturally only added to its militancy. Well, nowadays, the Thakari are fellow subjects of Tiraas, and the orcs are gone. The Tidestriders aren’t a threat, but they also aren’t citizens and are heavily disadvantaged by the Empire’s hold on the Isles. Every society needs someone to hate, and they make excellent victims these days. Any ‘striders who come inland are in for a rough time in the Western provinces, and there’s nobody more vulnerable than a scapeling.”

“Nobody needs someone to hate,” Toby said with pure weariness.

“I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or in any way helpful,” Nell replied in the same tone, “but it is the nature of human societies. Don’t maunder too much on that part, though, because this is about to get worse. Scaping is a ritual practice whereby a Tidestrider clan will designate one of its members the source of its misfortune, and…well, kill them. Eventually. The process leading up to that gets pretty ugly, even more than it needs to. The idea is that all the clan’s ill luck is placed onto the scaped one and then destroyed. Their families are then banished from the tribe and abandoned on the coast. They prefer to pick on individuals with the least amount of family for that reason. Well, on one occasion about twenty-five years ago, a clan scaped a widow with a young daughter, whom they then tossed ashore on the docks below Ninkabi.”

“That’s repulsive,” Trissiny hissed.

“Stuff like that doesn’t endear them to the Jendi, or Thakari, or Onkawi,” Nell said wearily. “Discuss the Tidestriders anywhere in the West and the word ‘savage’ will come up almost immediately. The really sick thing is that similar practices have existed in every human culture on this continent, though in the distant past. It is neither accident nor their own fault that the Tidestriders haven’t shared in the progress and prosperity of the mainland; the Empire finds it useful to keep them as a weakened vassal state to secure its west coast, and the Western provinces use the clans in exactly the way the clans use the scaped ones. If you’re a politician it’s very handy, having a convenient source of primitive foreigners to label as a menace whenever the question of why your country is being mismanaged into the ground comes up.”

She paused, grimaced, and tossed back the rest of her drink. Smoke poured from her mouth for a few moments as she continued speaking.

“Morty found Maehe on one of his evening bridge patrols, half-starved and traumatized almost senseless. Her community had just ritually murdered her mother and tossed her out like old chum, and in Ninkabi locals had taken to tossing garbage at her for sport, as is the custom with Tidestrider scapelings. He took her in, and… Well, to make a very long story very short, taught her everything he knew. Morty raised Maehe as his own daughter, trained her in Imperial and Jendi law…and in infernomancy. She was to be the successor to all his enterprises, his assurance that there would be someone to continue looking after the revenants he’d rescued, which was a great concern of his as he grew older because their position became a lot more uncertain with him out of the picture.”

Nell paused again, glancing regretfully down at her empty glass.

“On the night of her eighteenth birthday, the day she would be an adult by Imperial law, Maehe snuck out and ran off. She hired a boat to the Isles, and despite having been raised in Jendi customs, found a wavespeaker to give her the traditional tattoos of her clan, so they would know who she was when she returned. Then she went back to the island where she had been born. And then she scoured it off the face of the earth.”

Soft jazz played over the chilling silence which descended, clashing with the mood. Nell met each of their eyes in turn before continuing.

“Mortimer taught his little girl well. It takes a hell of a warlock, pun intended, to take out multiple fae casters, but Maehe hit the wavespeakers first. She let the children escape on a boat to the next clan’s island, but destroyed every other craft that tried to flee. It took her a whole day to slaughter every last member of her clan, and char the island itself so completely that its beaches were molten glass and not a thing still grew there. Apparently she was very patient and methodical about the whole thing. At any rate, she had just finished up when the Empire deployed a strike team to deal with the renegade warlock.

“Maehe was waiting patiently in the middle of what used to be her village when they arrived. She politely explained what she’d done and why, and requested a quick death.”

“…okay, point taken,” Gabriel said in a shaking voice. “We won’t pester the guy with personal questions. I…damn. That poor man. Poor girl. Poor everyone. What a crappy way to die after all that…”

“Oh, she isn’t dead,” said Nell. “No, the Strike Corps has a bit of a problem recruiting warlocks to round out its teams. When they found one who was lucid, educated, and not gibbering crazy from infernal corruption, they gave her the standard deal: a ten-year term of service, with a full pardon if she was still alive at the end. So far, she is. And that’s where Morty is left, now. The Empire was obliging enough to at least notify him, but he gets no contact with his daughter until she is released from her term, assuming the Corps doesn’t get her killed first. And then the two of them have to deal with the fact that she took all his teachings and did the most abhorrent thing he could have imagined, not to mention throwing away all he had invested in the future and the hopes of all the revenants who had been her own family growing up.”

Slowly, she leaned forward, pushing aside her glass to rest her elbows on the table and stare firmly at them.

“And that is why Mortimer Agasti doesn’t see anyone anymore. The man who used to patrol his city every night, looking for people to rescue, has become practically a shut-in. So I would like you kids to be nice to Morty. Okay? Despite what you may think of warlocks, he’s a good man—as good a man as I’ve ever known, and I have known more people than you can imagine. The absolute last thing he needs is any more grief.”

“We will do our best to shield him from any,” Toby promised. Trissiny and Gabriel nodded mutely in agreement.

In the quiet which descended, they were approached by another revenant who cut a wake through the mist of the club. He was tall, lean of build, and walked with the grace of a martial artist, his skull surmounted by horns longer than any of the others they had seen, and branching twice almost like antlers. Though the man’s features were set in a cold expression, he bowed quite diffidently upon stopping at their table.

“Mr. Agasti is ready to see you now.”

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14 – 19

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The goddess began by buying them dinner.

“We won’t be eating at Mortimer’s place,” she confided while handing over coins at what she insisted was the best falafel stand on the Western coast, to the beaming satisfaction of its proprietor. “He overcharges horribly for everything but the liquor. Ordinarily I would never enter an establishment without buying something, but I cannot in good conscience support gouging, and Morty knows that. Besides, the joint has a cover charge, so he can suck it.”

“Uh…” Gabriel looked a little spellshocked, even as he accepted the folded flatbread full of meat and cheese she handed him. “This guy…sells food?”

“Oh, I didn’t mention it? Mortimer runs a nightclub. Well, owns and lives over it; he doesn’t actually manage the business himself these days. That’s the dream, isn’t it? Getting to the point where you can delegate all the work and let your business interests pay you to goof off.”

“Nothing for you tonight, Nell?” the falafel guy asked, all three of them having received theirs.

“Not this time, Apir,” she said, winking at him. “I’m watching my figure.”

“Well, I can’t blame you for that,” he replied with a broad grin. “I don’t mind watching it myself.”

“Say hi to your wife for me,” she said dryly, turning to go. “Come along, kids.”

Toby waited until they had proceeded out of earshot down the street before asking. “So, does that guy know you’re a…?”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” she snorted. “I could never get any business done if people knew.”

“Do you do a lot of business yourself?” Trissiny asked. “Most of the…well, your colleagues tend to be pretty hands-off.”

“Yeah, well, that’s their lookout. Me, I’ve gotta to stay in circulation. Nothing is more important than staying in circulation. Everything you see here is the work of mortal industry, kids. This suit?” She turned and extended her arm to show off its cut. “From Chevantre. Glassian tailoring in the styles I prefer has fallen a bit by the wayside the last few years, but Marcel is still my go-to guy, and will be so long as his eyesight holds out. The tie is Sheng silk, though the actual weaving was done in Puna Vashtar—Shengdu and Sheng-la have lots of natural resources but their industry was smashed in the war, and both states have gotten way too dependent on raw exports and neglected to rebuild. They’re heading for a worse depression than the Five Kingdoms if they don’t straighten up. Speaking of which, the cufflinks are Stavulheim gold. I actually don’t care for dwarven aesthetics, personally, but I’ve made it a point to support jewelers in the Kingdoms ever since the Narisian treaty. They need the help. This, now!” She produced her lighter again, flicking the switch and igniting the tiny blue arc of energy. “The actual mechanism is new, from a custom workshop in Calderaas. The place for the latest arcane gadgetry. It used to be an alchemic lighter; I had to buy something for it to justify keeping it around, but the thing itself has sentimental value. Was a gift from Boss Catseye; she stole it right out of the pocket of Lord Aristan Vasaar. Yeah, I buy everything I might want, I have business interests and at least one piece of real estate in every major city in the world. I stay in touch.”

“Amazing,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful of falafel. Aside from his manners, it wasn’t clear whether he meant the sandwich or the goddesses recitation. The food was really good.

“Why?” Trissiny asked simply. She was paying more attention to where she was walking, taking her falafel in small nibbles.

Nell turned her head to give them a serious look without slowing down. “I would never damage the value of currency by conjuring it. Nor the goods and services it can buy. All of those are the product of people’s effort, knowledge, care…their lives. Let me put it this way: you all know that every cult has a passage from its dogmas that is repeated so often as to become idiomatic. Almost a slogan, if you will. All systems are corrupt. All love is good. Justice for all, or for none.”

“Lot of ‘alls’ in there, now you mention it,” Gabriel observed.

She laughed, still facing ahead. “And have you heard the one most widely associated with Vernisites?”

Gabe glanced at the other two and shrugged helplessly. Trissiny just drew her eyebrows together in a quizzical frown.

“I mean no offense,” Toby answered after a pause, “but…that particular cult was never seen as very important to the people who trained me.”

“I would say it’s more that your ascetic faith is inherently contemptuous of money and those who work with it,” the goddess said, her voice fortunately amused. “Likewise Trissiny’s, albeit less so; people who raise and field armies damn well learn the value of money.”

“I have heard one idea several times, during my training with the Church,” Toby added. “It must flow?”

Verniselle spread her arms wide and threw her head back, shouting to the darkening sky. “It! Must! Flow!” All three paused in eating to look warily around, but they garnered only a few curious glances from other passersby. Ninkabi was a large city, and thus home to many a strange sight; an expensively-dressed woman gesticulating and chanting the code of a major faith apparently wasn’t worth too much interest. Nell carried merrily on, seemingly ignoring everything around her. “Money is nothing, kids. It has almost no material use! Bank notes are just paper and ink and security charms; even coinage is typically made from the metals that are too soft and heavy to do much with. No, money is not a thing unto itself, it is potential. It is nothing, but it could be anything! Any object, any material you might want to possess. Any activity you might want to have another person do for you. Money can be turned into any of those things, into virtually anything you can imagine. It is not matter, but concept. It is energy. And energy wants to flow! Whoop, hold that thought.”

The street along which they were walking bordered the canyon. The view was incredible, though somewhat obstructed by the chest-high stone wall and iron fence on top of that. Evidently the authorities in Ninkabi didn’t mean to take chances with their citizens’ safety. Along the other side of the street, though, were storefronts and free-standing stalls and carts. Now, their guide suddenly cut to the left, making a beeline for one of these, where she bought them all sweet spiced tea in disposable paper cups. Like the falafel, it was amazingly good. Apparently she really did know where to find all the best of everything in the city. Which made sense, given her claims.

“Do you know what the greatest sin in my faith is?” the goddess asked them as they resumed course. This time she’d bought four servings, and sipped at her own tea upon pausing.

“No, I don’t,” Trissiny replied after glancing at the others. “I do know that Eserites find Vernisites somewhat mystifying. It’s an iron rule in the Thieves’ Guild that you don’t run a job on a Vernisite bank unless an Underboss at the very least authorizes it. But…several people within the Guild told me that Vernisites actually like us. They always send gifts to the local chapter house after someone’s robbed them. Nobody could explain why.”

“That’s just willful obtuseness, you know,” Nell said merrily. “Eserites of all people would understand, if they could get over their perception of ‘money people’ as inherently evil. The greatest sin for Vernisites is hoarding. It must flow! Money is meant to be in circulation, to be active, to be keeping economies alive, enabling people to work, to live. And just like every cult, mine has a way of attracting people who have serious trouble with its core values. You know, the way some Avenists just want to stomp around giving people orders, justice be damned. Or how some Eserites are in it for the stealing, not for resisting power.” She glanced back at them again. “How ’bout you boys? You’ve seen the same in your own cults?”

“Vidians are supposed to be two-faced,” Gabriel said lightly.

“Omnism doesn’t have…as much of a problem with that,” Toby added. “It’s a faith that emphasizes a simple life, growing useful plants and sharing the fruit of one’s labor with those who need it. The worst sort of person who is intrinsically attracted to that is smug and self-righteous. Which is annoying, but mostly harmless.”

“Well, in my banks, that problem manifests as people who want money. Always more money; always longing to possess more and more stuff. Which is an innate misunderstanding of what money is, what it means, how it works, and how it should be used. We have doctrines to teach better ways, of course, but even so… All systems, as our Eserite friends like to remark, are corrupt. It’s tremendously helpful to have the Thieves’ Guild operating outside the law to administer a knockdown when one is needed. Otherwise, who would? Actual law enforcement is way too easy to influence, when you control the flow of money.”

“Huh,” Trissiny grunted, seeming lost in thought.

“It must flow,” Gabriel murmured, also frowning pensively.

“It must flow,” Nell agreed gravely. “I’m constantly frustrated by the association of my cult with rich people in the minds of the general public. Almost nobody who’s not innately interested in trade looks into my faith, and far too many of those are exactly the kind of people I don’t want. In truth, the rich do not like my rules. Now, I realize most traditions apart from mine don’t hold charts and graphs in great esteem, but do you kids know what a bell curve is?”

“I’m going to clamber way out on a limb,” Gabriel said solemnly, “and guess that it is a curve…which is shaped like a bell.”

“Is he gonna sass every god of the Pantheon?” Trissiny muttered to Toby.

“That depends on whether we meet every god of the Pantheon,” he murmured back, smiling.

“He’s right, though!” Nell turned without slowing, walking backward and tracing an arch shape in the air with her finger. “A bell curve is a line graph describing a thing which progresses upward to a certain point, then after that point, back down in close to the same trajectory. In this case, the horizontal axis represents the amount of money a person has, while the vertical represents their health, happiness, satisfaction, and overall success in life. What do you make of that?”

Trissiny cocked her head, lowering the cup from which she’d been about to sip. “Wait… I might be misunderstanding, I wasn’t raised to think very much of money or possessions. It sounds like…you’re saying that after a certain point, having more money makes your life worse?”

“That is exactly what I’m saying,” Nell replied seriously, nodding at her and then turning back around to walk forward again. “It starts at the bottom left, with zeros on both axes: absolute, destitute poverty. None of your material needs are met, your very survival is uncertain from one day to the next, and you live in constant fear and stress. From there, obviously, as you gain more wealth, your quality of life increases…up to a point. The higher you climb on that arc, the smaller the overall benefit you get from every increase in your income. Until you crest the top, and getting more money just…stops…helping. And then comes the descent. You already have everything you need and more; beyond that point, the pursuit of more wealth is purely a neurosis, both the effect and the cause of a deep, underlying insecurity. You must constantly chase more money, more possessions, more power, more stuff, until it’s all you can do in life and the pursuit saps your very vitality. Until, at the bottom of the curve, there is just nothing inside you but that cold, meaningless, insatiable hunger. There’s nobody more miserable than a miser, kids. As miserable, perhaps, but not more.”

“Now, I don’t know about that, honestly,” Gabriel said. “Being poor is no fun at all, trust me.”

She peeked over her shoulder at them, expression inscrutable. “Hmm. None of you three grew up with much money, did you? But you two never felt the lack; everything you needed was provided for you. Gabriel, though. You know the sting of privation.”

“…a bit,” he admitted, his expression closing down.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Though still facing away from them, she sounded absolutely sincere. “Both because no child should have to live that way, and because that sets you up for dangerous habits in the future. Now you have power, and there are all kinds of ways you can turn that into wealth. Not all paladins are ascetic; more Hands of Salyrene than otherwise have lived like kings and queens.”

“And you think…that’s wrong,” Gabriel said skeptically.

“I think it is bad for you,” she replied. “The crest of that bell curve is nowhere near as high as most people think it ought to be. Nobody needs to be rich. What a person needs is comfort and security. They need to have their needs met, food and shelter and clothing, all that. They need to have fulfilling work and time away from that work to enjoy their lives. They need healthy relationships with other people, which you can’t really buy, though having things to share certainly helps. They need a few luxuries—and oh, yes, that is important, a person is not a machine that runs on fuel alone. People need pleasure like crops need fertilizer; they can technically exist and grow without it, but only as wan, scraggly things. Ultimately, though? People just need enough, not too much. Too much fertilizer buries crops, and too many possessions bury people.”

“Hmm.” Gabriel took a sip of his tea, having polished off his falafel before the others. “How…do you find the top of the bell curve, then?”

“Now that,” she said in a satisfied tone, “is one of the core goals of my religion. It’s all about knowing the value of money, which means knowing the value of life, and of goods and services. I could go into detail about the Vernisite codes, but let’s be honest: your eyes would glaze over within a minute.”

“I suspect that is accurate,” Gabriel agreed, ignoring his fellow paladins who were both nodding solemnly.

“The central rule of thumb that I think would guide you best, though,” Nell continued, “is this: do not own more things than you can appreciate.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

“It means that everything you possess, you should pause every time you see it, and take a moment to really feel the satisfaction and gratitude that it is yours. Own nothing that you take for granted.”

“Um.” Toby blinked. “I…may not have the best perspective on that, I was specifically taught to appreciate people and not things. But… I mean, just with the average quantity of stuff a person needs to get through life, that sounds like it could get exhausting.”

“You’d be surprised!” she said cheerfully. “For one thing, it makes for a slower pace of life—which is for the good both materially and spiritually. Anybody is healthier and better off when they take time to enjoy existing. But basic needs, if you stop and appreciate them for what they are, don’t distract you too much from the business of living; doing so just makes you happier. It’s the luxury items that start to get you. Valuable things, precious things, expensive things. Things that cause you to truly stop, to truly feel a sense of joy and pride in possessing them, if you bother to. There’s a limit to how much of that you can do in a day and still get anything done. The Rule of Appreciation not only ensures that you are gaining true fulfillment from your material possessions, more importantly it forces you to really consider what’s most valuable to you, and dispense with what isn’t. It stops you from squandering resources on junk that doesn’t actually contribute to your well-being. And speaking of junk, it’s time for dessert!”

They had come all the way to the end of this tier of the city; ahead, the plateau dropped off into the next level, a descent of nearly a hundred feet. Before that, broad staircases carved into the face of the rock descended back and forth in a series of turns and landings. Nell stopped before the stairs, though, and bought them pastries from a nearby cart run by a smiling dwarf woman. These were like nothing they had sampled before: thin sticks of deep-fried dough, generously coated with sugar which itself had been infused with citrus juice. Sweet, tangy, and crunchy, the treats were a perfect after-touch for the falafel and went beautifully with their spiced tea. They also served to keep all three paladins quiet while their guide led them down the steps and resumed her lecture.

“No offense to your religion, Toby, but there’s nothing wrong with owning nice things. There’s nothing wrong with valuing nice things. Having an emotional attachment to possessions is perfectly normal, and not unhealthy in and of itself. There is, however, something seriously wrong on many levels with owning a whole lot of expensive things that you don’t actually feel much regard for. Not only are they wasting space and not really contributing much to your quality of life, but excessive possessiveness is an example of hoarding.” Again she turned to walk backwards, which was downright terrifying as she was walking down stairs at the time, to give them a grim look. “And hoarding is the ultimate evil to the person who understands and values money. You do not need more than you need. Going out of your way to own more than you need is an outright affront to everyone around you. Money should not be gathering dust in a vault, nor should any of the things it can buy. Money wants to be used, to be appreciated—money wants to work. The job of money is to be out there in the world, paying people for their labor, providing resources to everyone. Money is the lifeblood of economies, sustaining societies, nations, civilizations. And what, my young friends, is the nature of blood?”

“It must flow,” all three of them chorused obediently, Gabriel spraying crumbs in the process.

“IT MUST FLOW!” Verniselle bellowed, startling a woman passing up the stairs the other way. They had reached the next landing down, and she turned to walk forward again down the next flight of steps. By now, it was fully dark, the path well-lit by fairy lamps and not much less crowded than it had been earlier. A city the size of Ninkabi never truly slept.

“If money were allowed to flow the way it wants to, there would be no poor and no rich. Nobody hoarding more resources than they need, and nobody going without their necessities. In any society that’s not actually in the process of collapsing due to unavoidable resource scarcity resulting from natural disaster, there is enough for everyone. And not just for everyone to survive, but to live lives of quality and satisfaction. The existence of poverty invariably means that some asshole is hoarding.”

Apparently they weren’t going all the way to the bottom of the stairs; at the next landing down, Nell turned into a large opening into the wall of the plateau itself, leading them back the way they had come but about four stories down. This underground passage was obviously a street, as well, fronted by shops and businesses and lit by fairy lamps. It was tall and broad enough that it did not feel claustrophobic, though in most cities it would have counted as little more than an alley. There definitely wasn’t room for horses or carriages, but then there didn’t need to be, considering that no such could have made it down the stairs.

She fell silent, finishing off her cooling tea, while they pressed deeper into the plateau’s heart, and the doors they passed became fewer, the chambers behind them apparently stretching more widely. The lights, too, were more scarce past a certain depth, attached to the arched roof of the tunnel rather than lamp posts along its walls. The place wasn’t growing rougher or poorer, though; if anything it seemed to get increasingly trendy deeper in. Shop signs glowed with arcane charms, and the people passing by were mostly young and expensively dressed.

“So,” Gabriel broke the thoughtful silence after a few minutes, “how would you enforce that, exactly?”

Nell heaved a sigh, hard enough to make her shoulders visibly shift in front of them. “An economist might have an answer for that question, Gabriel. And sure, most economists would have my idols on their desks. But there’s a reason I run a cult and not a consortium. I’m talking about values and virtues, not practicalities. The fact is, you can’t enforce those. It’s the disappointing reality of every religion. There is just no way to make people be kind, or peaceful, or just, or whatever it is that your faith values, and efforts to make them, well… That medicine is worse than the disease. And so, all too often, money doesn’t flow. People hoard and people starve, because people suck.”

“There’s the dwarven system,” Toby offered. “Ruda was talking about that during our downtime in Puna Dara. Apparently they have high taxes and the Kingdom itself makes sure everybody has everything they need…”

“Nnnnyehhh…” Though she was not facing them, the grimace on Verniselle’s face was audible. “I am not a fan of redistribution by fiat. Think about it: that’s basically where an entity—the government—seizes people’s hard-earned property for the crime of having earned property and decides who deserves it more. More often than otherwise that leads to worse injustices than it’s meant to correct. I tend to share Eserion’s view of systems like that. But, taxes and governments are necessary evils, because the alternatives are worse. Nothing enables hoarding by a powerful few like anarchy. So, yes. Societies have crowned heads, which collect taxes and provide services. It’s gotta be that way because people just won’t damn well behave unless compelled to. That doesn’t make it any less annoying. It’s a reluctant adaptation to necessity, not the way things ought to be.”

“I’m suddenly glad that Ruda and Teal aren’t here,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “You boys have missed some of the heated discussions we’ve had about economics and social justice in Clarke Tower.”

“How do you have heated discussions about economics?” Gabriel asked skeptically. “Even porridge is more exciting than that, and it’s supposed to be heated.”

“I would imagine,” Toby mused, “that if the discussion included hereditary royalty from a culture that prizes individual freedom, and the daughter of industrialists, that conversation could get pretty dicey, pretty quick.”

Trissiny sighed. “It’s even better when it includes two confused fairies trying to understand how economies work. I swear, Shaeine is the only reason nobody got punched that first semester.”

“I do like the Punaji,” Nell said lightly. “They have the right idea about a lot of things. I also like the Falconers—they pay their employees very well. That’s another of my most important rules. Well, anyway, I could lecture on this subject for hours and hours, but we’d better table it for now, kids. We have arrived!”

She had turned a sharp corner while speaking, into a smaller and narrower tunnel; the three of them slowed to read the enchanted sign above it, which glowed a sullen orange in the dimness, and named the establishment Second Chances.

This side tunnel terminated in an alcove in which was the actual entrance to the club, and it was immediately clear why the door was situated at the end of a corridor and not out on the street. For one thing, there was already a line of people—only five deep, at this early hour, but if it was a popular club that could stretch to really impair traffic out in the main avenue.

For another, the doorkeepers were demons.

Trissiny stiffened slightly as soon as they came close enough to see; both boys gave her sidelong looks, but she only slowed for a half-step, then resumed following the goddess’s pace without comment.

They were two, a man and a woman, both garbed in black clothes of a stylish cut and androgynous style. Their skin was pale, not like the pale flesh of elves or Stalweiss, but very much like marble: a grayish color, shot through with irregular veins of black, and with a glossy sheen of polished stone. Both were bald, with horns of the same material as their skin rising from the peak of their forehead, the woman’s long and swept backward over her skull while the man’s were shorter and stood almost perfectly upright. Their eyes were empty sockets, opening onto a flickering space within, as if each had a hollow skull containing a live infernal flame.

Verniselle led the way past the end of the line, to the vivid annoyance of those standing in it, but they were interrupted before anyone could complain. As the group drew closer, infernal magic surged around them, causing all three paladins to freeze in place; Trissiny and Toby reflexively threw up golden shields. Embedded in the walls, runes burst alight, casting an orange glow across the corridor. Immediately, the five people waiting to get into Second Chances scurried away, pressing themselves against the wall farthest from the new arrivals.

“Ah, ah, ah!” said the male demon loudly, wagging his finger at them. In speaking, he confirmed the impression of his eyes; his mouth opened onto emptiness lit by inner fire. “You know the rules, Nell. No clerics!”

“Oh, come on, you know me better than that,” she said, putting on a charming smile and sauntering forward. “When have I ever shown a lack of respect for the bossman? These aren’t clerics.” She leaned close and lowered her voice. “They’re paladins.”

Both demons turned to stare at the three, their eyes narrowing to fiery slits.

“This is one of those things you were talking about last time,” the woman said after a pause. “Something that’s never going to be technically illegal because it’s so damn unlikely nobody would bother outlawing it.”

“Yeah, well, you know why we have that rule,” the male said, clearly unimpressed. “I’m gonna go ahead an say it applies extra hard to paladins. They’re not coming in.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” she said soothingly, “I’ll vouch for them. These kids need to have a word with Morty, and they’re not gonna cause any trouble.”

“No clerics, and nobody sees the boss without an invitation,” he said flatly. “You’re outta luck, Nell.”

“Ah, but there is a higher rule,” she said solemnly, “one which applies in all places, in all situations: Go ask the boss himself. I guarantee he’ll want to see us.”

The demon was shaking his head before she finished. “Not happening—”

“Yeah, I’ll go get him,” his counterpart said, turning toward the door.

“Come on, Celeste!” the man snapped.

“You come on,” she retorted. “There’s three paladins in the world, Drake. You think the boss wouldn’t want to be informed when they all show up at the door with one of his friends? I’ll go get him. You!” She leveled a finger at Nell, who looked deliberately innocent. “Just hold your horses. No funny business until I’m back with Mr. Agasti’s word. I know your tricks.”

“You know some of ’em,” Nell said with a wink. “Don’t worry, I have no reason to get clever, here. Morty’ll understand.”

Celeste shook her head, but opened the door a crack and slipped inside.

Drake folded his arms, glaring sullenly at them; the five would-be clubbers were staring with wide eyes. All around them, infernal runes blazed a warning.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said into the ensuing quiet. “What the hell?”

“Second Chances is one of the more exclusive clubs in the city,” Nell explained, turning back to them. “Heck, in the world. So, in case this doesn’t go without saying, once we’re allowed in you will kindly refrain from any smiting and purging you may be considering.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Trissiny said curtly. “But for your information, the sheer concentration of infernal magic around here has me rather on edge. Anything which jumps out at me suddenly is asking for whatever it gets.”

“They won’t,” Nell said in a wry tone. “They want to live.”

“A little late for that, isn’t it?” Trissiny retorted.

“Oh, the hell with this,” said Drake with a heavy sigh. “You! All of you, go on in. Go on, get outta here.”

The goddess and the paladins watched in silence while he ushered the five onlookers into the club, doubtless sparing them from a rash of annoying questions.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Gabriel asked, “but what kind of demon are you?”

“An annoyed one,” Drake replied. “Why, what kind are you?”


Orange flames winked momentarily out as he blinked his eyes in surprise. “…that was a rhetorical question. I didn’t expect it to have an answer.”

“Yep, I get that a lot.”

“They’re revenants,” Trissiny said quietly.

Toby gave her a quizzical look. “I’m not familiar with those. I thought I’d learned as much demonology as you. Apparently not, though…”

“Revenants,” she said, eyes on Drake, “aren’t proper demons; they’re demonic undead. Specifically, mortal warlocks’ feeble attempts to reproduce the work of Prince Vanislaas. They are colloquially called the poor man’s incubi.”

“Or poor woman’s,” Gabriel intoned. “Or succubi. I mean, I presume.”

“Shut up, Gabe,” she snapped. “Their powers are considerably diminished compared to a real Vanislaad, but the basic process is the same: it begins with a damned soul. Except, to get one of those without going into Hell, you have to damn your own. Revenants are made in broadly the same way as talking swords. For a warlock to have one under their control is an automatic death sentence in the Tiraan Empire. In most countries!”

“Less automatic than you may have been led to believe,” Nell said with a placid smile. “Morty is great at finding loopholes.”

“Is this guy a warlock?” Trissiny demanded.

“He is a very good warlock,” the goddess replied, her smile broadening. “What’s more, he is a lawyer. Between the two skill sets, Morty has never met a rule he didn’t want to twist to his advantage. You’ll like him.”

Trissiny began massaging her temples.

“Don’t rush to judgment,” Nell said more soberly. “I wouldn’t bring you here without reason, you can trust that.”

“I’m trying,” Trissiny muttered. “Rushing to judgment is a problem I have, I know this. I am really trying. But this? This is not making it easy!”

Drake snorted loudly and leaned against the wall by the door.

Before anyone could respond to that, fortunately, the door opened again and his companion returned.

“That was really fast,” Drake said warily.

“Yeah.” Celeste nodded to Nell. “Apparently, your arrival isn’t a total surprise.”

“Ah, Morty,” Nell said, chuckling and shaking her head. “Never misses a trick!”

“Yeah, well, you can go on in,” the revenant said, stepping out of the door and clearing the way for them. “Boss isn’t exactly ready for visitors at the moment, but he said he will be soon enough. Meantime, you’re welcome to his hospitality. Everything’s on the house for you this evening.”

Drake’s head snapped around to stare incredulously at this pronouncement, but Nell just grinned and rubbed her hands together. “All right! That’s my boy. Welcome to your evening in hell, kids. C’mon, let’s hurry and get a good table.”

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14 – 18

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“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.

“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”

“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”

Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.

Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.

And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.

Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.

The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”

Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”

“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”

At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.

“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.

“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.

A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”

“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.

Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”

“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”

“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”

“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”

Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.

Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.

“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.

“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”

“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”

“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”

“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”

“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”

Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.

The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.

The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.

The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.

“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”

“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.

They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.

Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.

They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.

Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.

This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:


It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.

The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.

“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.

Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”

“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.

Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”

“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”

“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.

“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”

Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”

“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”

“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”

“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”

She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.

Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.

“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”

“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.

Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”

“Have you told Trissiny?”

“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.

“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”

“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”

“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.

The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.

Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.

“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”

“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”

“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”


Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.

“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.

“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”

There was a beat of uncertain silence.

“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”

“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”

“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.

“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”

“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.

“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”

“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”

“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.

“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”

Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.

“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”

“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”

The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.

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10 – 34

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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