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This, naturally, begat a confused pause.
“Um,” Gabriel finally ventured, “where are we going?”
“On the next leg of your journey,” the god of death replied, smiling vaguely at them with his eyes half-lidded. It was a mild, almost sleepy expression, and something about the contrast of that with who and what he was, plus the sunshine and cheerful people in the near distance, was subtly unsettling. “I was asked to give you a ride, by a mutual acquaintance of ours.”
“Vesk,” Toby guessed unnecessarily.
Vidius inclined his head slightly in Toby’s direction. “Chauffeuring isn’t among my usual duties, but what the hell. Three paladins are worth making an extra trip for, if anyone is. And hey, it’s a chance for us to chat! We get so few. Assuming, of course,” he added, turning to Trissiny, “you’re all coming along.”
She hesitated scarcely a moment longer, then nodded politely and stepped up to climb into the open carriage. “Thank you kindly, Lord Vidius.”
“Please, none of that ‘lord’ nonsense,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “We’re the next best thing to family, as I see it.”
“Family,” Gabriel repeated in a nonplussed tone, still standing there and making no move toward the carriage.
“Well,” Trissiny said, settling down into the surprisingly deep padding of the seat, “I hardly know how to talk to him, which pretty much sums up my experiences with family.” That earned a laugh from the death god up front.
“So you are coming, after all?” Toby asked, himself climbing into the carriage now. Gabriel shrugged fatalistically and clambered up behind him.
“Apparently so,” she replied. “Some good advice I got is sort of stuck in my mind.”
“Ah.” Toby nodded, smiling. “I had a feeling that’s what Rainwood wanted to talk to you about.”
“As a matter of fact it was, but that isn’t what I meant. I’ve heard from several people over the years that the things you don’t try end up being much greater regrets than the things you try that go badly. And besides, the involvement of a god who has some credibility improves the overall outlook of this…quest.”
“Happy to be of service,” Vidius said brightly, and flicked the reins. The carriage lurched into motion as its creepy steeds started forward, and they trundled off up the path toward the park gates. People got out of the way without once seeming to notice it was even there.
“Okay,” said Gabriel, shifting uncomfortably and pulling Ariel into his lap. The bench seats were not designed for people with things attached to the belt. “But…where are we going?”
“All in good time,” Vidius replied. His position on the driver’s seat put his back to them, but his voice carried just fine. “I understand that Vesk and his antics can be rather frustrating, especially from the perspective of any mortal caught up in an affair in which he takes an interest. But I’ll tell you this much: the rest of us in the Pantheon, however we may feel about him personally, choose to accommodate him. The reasons for that are challenging to explain…and often unnecessary. You will likely gain some insight into the matter in the course of following him around. For the moment, though, if you don’t trust Vesk, I’ll ask you to trust me. And Omnu, and Avei, who would already have intervened if they didn’t want you going along with this.” He turned his head, so as to give them a sidelong glance. “This will work out for the best. Even if none of us yet know how.”
Another uncertain silence fell at that, the three paladins studying one another’s faces for cues which were not forthcoming. Toby had seated himself on the front bench, facing backward, and on the opposite side from Vidius so he could still see the god by turning his head. Gabriel and Trissiny were opposite him. Now, both frowned when Toby suddenly straightened up in surprise, his eyes shifting past them.
“Gah!” Trissiny had turned to follow his stare and let out a yelp, then immediately subsided, placing a hand on her chest. “Oh. Sorry, Vestrel, you startled me.”
The valkyrie was perched on the back of the carriage like a gargoyle, her wings arched protectively over them. Apparently proximity to Vidius—or maybe it was the carriage—rendered her visible, but she was still clearly disconnected from the world, a wavery and faded image whose details were completely obscured. The black wings and dark armor, contrasting with a pale complexion and blonde hair, were all that could be discerned.
She also, apparently, could still not speak across the gap. In silence, Vestrel reached forward and very gently patted Trissiny on the head. Or at least, sort of; her hand didn’t quite make contact, and Trissiny couldn’t help stiffening slightly at the sheer eeriness of it.
“Oh, there was also a message,” Vidius said from up front, defusing the awkwardness. “For when you arrive.” He turned again, this time laying his arm across the back of the driver’s seat to look at them directly. “You will need his help.”
“Well…we’re already in the carriage, so I guess that’s taken care of,” Gabriel said, frowning.
“I doubt it means Vidius,” said Toby. “I mean, we are in the carriage. What would be the point of that?”
“I question how much of a point there is in any of this,” Trissiny muttered. “All we know for sure about Vesk’s directives so far is they are deliberately misleading more often than not.”
She glanced to the side, and blinked in surprise. They were trundling down a sparsely-trafficked highway, on a gentle slope that was clearly several miles from Calderaas. Evidently this thing moved much faster when its passengers weren’t paying attention. Which, all things considered, wasn’t surprising. It also meant there was no way of even guessing where Vidius might be taking them. She knew better than to ask again.
“So,” their driver said lightly, “you kids have been doing fairly well for yourselves. This is all uncharted territory, for all of us. A lot changed with your calling; the old routines simply don’t work as they once did. And we gods are nothing if not creatures of routine. We’re all feeling our way in the new world together, but you three, slowly but surely, are acquitting yourselves well. Trissiny in particular.”
The boys both looked at her in surprise, and she blinked.
“…thank you,” Trissiny replied uncertainly.
“I have my biases, of course,” Vidius acknowledged, turning his head again to glance at her. He wore a knowing little smile which was made to look even more sly by his hawkish profile. “You’ve recently gained a great appreciation for duality. More than most Hands ever have; paladins, particularly those of Avei, tend to be rather fixed on one idea. And, of course, you have become more acquainted with death.”
He turned to face forward again, and the silence which fell had a distinct chill. Trissiny stared ahead, at a point past the god’s shoulder.
“You can’t appreciate,” Vidius said after a pause, “how unusual it is that three paladins, two of them five years into their calling, are still so insulated from the effect of death. A Hand of Avei with your seniority, Trissiny, would ordinarily be standing on a veritable mountain of corpses by now.”
“I’ve killed,” she said tersely.
“And even those of Omnu,” the god continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “would be expected to have known the loss of friends. Yours is dangerous work. Of course, the situation is new, as I said. Sending you to Arachne has been a good practice, I think, but not without its downsides. You are a little coddled by the tutelage of such a fire-breathing mother hen.”
“Coddled isn’t a word I would have chosen,” Gabriel said, grinning.
“How many friends have you had to grieve, Gabriel?” Vidius asked mildly, instantly wiping the smile off his face. “I don’t think this is good for you, to be frank. Death and life are intertwined deeply; to live on is to know the loss of those you have loved. You, Trissiny, have only recently become acquainted with death. So far, you could be handling it more gracefully—but you are doing no worse than I might expect. With time and experience you will become better acquainted, and better able to cope.”
She turned to stare out over the side in silence. They were now plowing through a rolling field of stubby tallgrass, the slope of the mountain on which Calderaas stood far behind them.
“I think I’ve killed more than Trissiny,” Toby said, also staring into the distance.
“Hey, that isn’t fair,” Gabriel protested. “You’re still talking about the hellgate? You were the conduit Omnu used to vaporize a lot of demons. Blaming yourself—”
“I don’t think of it in terms of blame,” Toby interrupted. “But I was there, and voluntarily or not, I was the means by which it was done. Demons or not, those were sapient beings—thinking, feeling people. To cause such destruction…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve grown used to living with it, and I think that bothers me the most. It’s been a year, and I still don’t understand. And…Omnu won’t enlighten me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”
“Nothing,” said Vidius. “Omnu isn’t displeased with you, Tobias, trust me. He’s just…not very communicative. As a general personality trait, but particularly with regard to his Hands. Your lineage has always had the least personal guidance from your patron. Omnu’s approach has always been to trust his Hands to make the right choices, and encourage them to trust themselves.”
“By not answering simple questions?” Gabriel demanded, frowning.
“Yup,” Vidius said noncommittally. “You’ll note I don’t go out of my way to hold your hand, either, Gabe. But in my humble opinion, Omnu overdoes it.”
“I feel…like I’m not doing so well as a paladin,” Toby said quietly, still staring off at nothing.
“You could be doing better,” Vidius said bluntly. “If I’m any judge. It’s not time to worry just yet, Tobias, but you have room for improvement. Let me tell you this much, as an observer who knows Omnu and has watched you with interest: a big part of the reason the gods call Hands is because we are bound by concept and structure in a way that ‘mere’ mortals are not. A Hand is an agent of action, and of change. You confuse pacifism with passivity, Toby, and that is what predominately holds you back. The world doesn’t respect peace; if you intend to bring piece to the world, understand that you will have to inflict peace where it is not wanted. Learn to assert yourself, boy.”
Toby was frowning by the end of that, but nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”
“Wow,” Gabriel murmured. “After all that, I’m almost afraid to ask how I’m doing.”
Vidius glanced back at him. “Toby and Trissiny represent a departure from established patterns, Gabe. You represent something new entirely. I encourage you to learn from them, and from past paladins, but please don’t try to walk in their footsteps.”
“I…really haven’t been,” Gabriel said, shifting nervously in his seat. “I mean, what I’ve been trying to do is pretty much what you just said.”
“I know. But you could be trying harder.”
Gabe’s expression flinched before he marshaled it. “I…see. How so?”
“For example, your scythe. You haven’t done a lot of experimentation with its capabilities, have you?”
“I note that they weren’t explained to me,” Gabriel retorted with some exasperation.
“That is correct,” Vidius replied calmly. “What do you make of that?”
Gabriel opened his mouth, scowling, then snapped it shut.
“Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that nothing would have stopped you from spouting the first thought that flittered across your mind,” Trissiny said, and lightly punched him on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Gabe.”
“It wasn’t so long ago that your support came with a dose of condescension,” he shot back. “Oh, look! I guess we haven’t all changed too much.”
She just grinned at him and leaned back in her seat.
“The scythe destroys things,” Gabriel continued in a more measured tone. “Just about anything the blade touches. Even magic. That’s… I mean, quite apart from the fact that a divine artifact deserves to be treated with some respect, this thing is incredibly dangerous. It’s not something to just screw around with.”
“Gabriel,” said Vidius, turning again to fix him with a look. “What I’m about to tell you is in response to that, but it also applies well beyond it. Screwing around is your greatest strength.”
“Oh…kay,” Gabriel said slowly, after a momentary pause. “I’m…not sure what that means.”
Vidius chuckled and turned to face forward again. “It’s something to chew on, isn’t it?”
“Or screw around with?” Toby suggested with a smile.
The god laughed. “See? He gets it.”
“This may be none of my business,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “and I’m sorry if that’s so, but… Why now? Why, after eight thousand years, have you suddenly decided to make such an enormous change as calling a paladin?”
Vidius gazed ahead without responding, and they glanced at each other again. The only sounds were the gentle rumbling of the wheels and the creaking of the carriage itself, oddly mundane for a divine vehicle, and the much more exotic ringing of the unearthly horses’ hooves against the ground. They were now wending their way through a forest, a moss-carpeted and well-tended vault of redwoods that had to be an elven grove.
“Have you ever given much thought to religion?” Vidius asked suddenly, just when the quiet had begun to stretch into discomfort. “Not to yours in particular, I know you’ve pondered your specific dogmas. But the thing itself, religion as a phenomenon. What it is, how it works?”
“I’m…not sure I understand the question,” Trissiny said, frowning.
“Sure you do,” he replied easily. “But the answer is ‘no’ and you feel awkward admitting that even to yourself. Don’t back down from such challenges, Trissiny. We are all our own greatest rivals; growth is a process of overcoming your own weaknesses. But yes, religion. Seems peculiar how something can both uplift and destroy people to such a great degree.”
“Well, that’s any tool, though,” Gabriel pointed out. “It’s only as good or bad as what you do with it.”
“Yep, and faith is a powerful tool indeed,” Vidius agreed easily. “But for context. You boys recall the faith of the Infinite Order you encountered in Puna Dara?”
“Ugh,” Gabriel said, grimacing. Toby just nodded.
“Fross mentioned something about that,” Trissiny said. “She disapproved of it pretty firmly.”
“It’s sheer positive thinking,” Gabriel explained. “The idea is that what you think becomes your reality.”
She frowned quizzically. “How is that a religion?”
“Well, it comes with its own cosmology,” said Toby, “which itself is rooted in fact. The Rust cultists talked about arcane physics a lot, how observation determines reality.”
“Ah, yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “We’ve been over the broad strokes of that in Yornhaldt’s class. So, if they’re correct, what’s the problem?”
“The problem,” Ariel interjected, “is that the entire barrier to widespread understanding of arcane physics is that sub-atomic particles and their interactions are subject to fundamentally different rules than the physics which govern your experience. Such principles describe nothing with which a sapient mind will ever interact under ordinary circumstances. Attempting to apply arcane mechanics to one’s personal life is like trying to shoe a horse with a toothbrush and a wheel of cheese. Those tools are wildly unsuited to that task.”
“That about sums it up, yeah,” Gabriel agreed, grinning. “You’ll have to excuse Ariel. She’s designed to assist with magic, and misconceptions about it irritate her.”
“I am not irritated, I am simply right.”
“And that’s the crux of it,” said Vidius, his hat shifting as he nodded without looking back at them. “That cult was authentic, at least to that extent. That was the official religion of the Infinite Order—the original Infinite Order, the Elder Gods. In fact, they were utterly contemptuous of religion. They didn’t call themselves gods, and got mightily offended when someone did. Which, of course, is why I still do,” he added with a chuckle. “They instituted and spread that faith for the specific purpose of hampering the mortal population of this world. It served the dual goals of impeding actual scientific understanding, and shifting the onus for the plight of every suffering person onto themselves, instead of the megalomaniacal omnipotent beings oppressing them. And yet… It was something that, at its core, they believed in. The Infinite Order came to this world to pursue their great experiment with godhood because of faith. They were scientists, but what impelled them was sincere belief.”
“The…Elder Gods…believed in positive thinking?” Trissiny said slowly, frowning in pure confusion.
“Their driving faith was that the process of evolution was an orderly and purposeful progression,” Vidius explained. “From the great explosion that created reality, to the formation and death of stars, to the formation of planets, to the birth of life from a coincidental chemical reaction, to the process of evolution, to the emergence of sapience, with its capacity to deliberately advance evolution according to plans rather than random chance. They believed the universe was trying to understand itself, and the emergence of intelligent life was the most recent step in the process. They wanted to advance to the next step, and approached the task with great reverence. Who knows, they may even have been right; it explains the universe as well as any other idea I’ve ever heard. Based on what happened next, ascension was obviously not that next sacred step, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea. It does demonstrate my point, though. That same faith was used for great advancement and great oppression, by exactly the same people.”
“It’s not exactly a surprise to me that people can misuse religion,” said Trissiny. “I’ve met wonderful and terrible people among the Eserites. Some of the best people I know are Avenists, but I think the very Bishop of the Sisterhood is a dangerous, deviant lunatic.”
At that, Toby and Gabriel both gave her sharp looks, but Vidius nodded.
“And so, my question: What is a religion?”
“What do you think it is?” Toby asked carefully.
“There are many ways to answer that question,” said the god. “To embrace my own idiom, I think that a faith, a true faith, is a duality of two things: a problem, and a solution. A religion which actually provides for the spiritual needs of people must posit what the core problem of mortal experience is, and then offer a way to solve it. And this has been true since long before the emergence of actual gods, going back to the faiths of the old world from which the Elders came. Humanity had faiths before it had actual deities. Faith speaks to something in the core of what it means to be a person.”
“Wait, how does that work?” Gabriel protested. “How did they have religions if they didn’t have gods?”
“Well, perhaps I misspoke,” Vidius said, amusement lightening his voice. “They had gods, all right. They didn’t strictly exist in the physical sense, but they had ’em.”
“What’s the point of a god that’s not even real?” Trissiny huffed.
He glanced back at her. “Anything that makes a difference in people’s lives is real. The gods of the old world were invisible and silent, unverifiable and imaginary, but they were very real. The weight of their presence was deeply felt. It was inevitable, because there were problems, and there needed to be solutions. To the Christians, the problem was sin and the solution was grace. To the Muslims, the problem was hubris, and the solution was submission to the divine.” His shoulders shifted minutely in a little chuckle. “To the Satanists, the problem was corruption in all the other cults, and the solution was mischief and defiance. And so on, and so on. There were more faiths there than there are here. A lack of gods did not mean a lack of problems.”
“Hey.” Grinning, Gabriel nudged Trissiny with an elbow. “Those last guys sound a lot like Eserites.”
“And that is another point,” Vidius agreed, turning his head and nodding at Gabe. “Creating religions was the last thing my brothers and sisters in the Pantheon were after. We sought to bring down the gods, not join or replace them; we simply adapted to the way things turned out, from sheer necessity. We had become beings whose very identities were broadcast throughout the world via the magic which fills it. Dogmas and rituals rose around us over time, rooted in what we each thought was best in life. And our own ideas, like everyone’s, were shaped by the knowledge of those who came before us. There is an iron barrier across your history, children, but you are the heirs of traditions much older than you know. Ancient faiths still resonate through the cults that exist now.
“And that brings us to the world as it is today. We have the Pantheon, guided by gods who acknowledge and—to an extent—respect each other. In a way, this has eased a dilemma which plagued the old world: that everyone does not have the same problem. That the faith which soothes one person’s anguish might be the very cause of someone else’s.”
The carriage was now climbing, the road taking them up a steep incline. All around rose the rolling hills Trissiny remembered from her childhood; they were passing through Viridill.
“Works in theory,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Actual religions, though, don’t tend to be quite so…open minded.”
“Yes,” Vidius agreed, nodding. “The fallacy of the god-shaped hole survives; people of faith tend to assume that what fills the void in their heart must do the same for everyone else’s. Which, unfortunately, isn’t the case. But consider the different gods and cults, and how they approach this. Take the gods which embody simple, straightforward archetypes: Izara, Ryneas, Nemitoth. Love, art, knowledge. Their core duality is quite clear: these are the solutions they offer, to the problem of the lack of whatever it is. Now, have any of you ever heard of an Izarite, Rynean or Nemitite loudly insisting that someone should convert to their faith?”
“Izarites do tend to be awfully preachy,” Trissiny muttered, glaring at the passing hills.
“To an Avenist, I’ll bet,” Toby said in a much milder tone. “There’s a deep and well-known doctrinal divide, there. With all respect, Trissiny, Izarites are just about the most inoffensive people in existence. I think your perception of them simply comes from disagreement.”
She snorted, but didn’t try to rebut.
“Good,” Vidius said from up front, nodding again. “In such simple pillars of faith is a built-in acknowledgment that there are answers they cannot provide. Now, consider some others: Eserites, Veskers…” He hesitated fractionally. “Elilinists. Defiance, narrative, cunning. Less concrete ideals, less simple ones, and designed to address a different sort of problem. Overarching problems, the problems which infect whole societies. These cults also do not presume to be universal; they want only a specific kind of person to join them, and don’t aspire to run anyone else’s life. They are, at their core, oppositional.”
“Solving other people’s problems,” said Gabriel, “whether they want it or not.”
“Exactly,” Vidius agreed. “That’s an aggressive way to live, but not a domineering one. And now broaden it further, to the gods of multilayered concepts. Myself, for one. Avei, Omnu, Themynra, Shaath. Duality and death. Justice, war, femininity. Life, the sun, peace. Those are big things, ideas which span huge swaths of mortal experience; things which are not easy to sort into neat little boxes. Even judgment and the wild… Singular concepts, but what are they? How is a person supposed to separate such sweeping ideas out from other aspects of their lives? They subsume everything. And what else do you notice about those cults in particular?”
“Those,” Gabriel said almost defiantly, “are the ones most likely to tell somebody else how they ought to be living their lives.”
“I’ve never heard a Themynrite say such a thing to anyone,” Trissiny protested.
“Themynra’s worship has a racial component which pretty well precludes that,” said Vidius. “The noteworthy thing there, Trissiny, is that it wasn’t Avei you immediately defended.”
“Okay,” she said with growing irritation. “You’ve made your point, but I still don’t think I really understand why you made it. What’s the lesson, here?”
“Speaking as an Avenist, Trissiny,” he said, “what problem are you trying to solve?”
“Injustice,” she replied immediately. “And that is also speaking as an Eserite; it’s only the methods that differ.”
He let out a whistle. “A tall order. What about you, Toby? What’s the problem, and what’s the solution?”
Toby stared rigidly at the distance, looking quite perturbed. “I don’t…know. That’s not… I was never taught to think of it in those terms. Life is important because we are life. Peace is the optimal condition for living. That’s just…how things are.”
“Mm hm,” Vidius said noncommittally. “And you, Gabriel? What problem and solution do you find in Vidianism?”
“Man, the fuck if I even know,” Gabriel said bluntly. “Almost every Vidian I’ve ever met was fully invested in creating their own damn problem, as best I can see.”
The god turned again in his seat to look at them with a satisfied smile. “And that is why I have called a paladin after all these millennia: to correct what I see as a growing problem. In the world, but specifically within my cult. Because when a faith encompasses potentially everything, its practitioners will try to make it encompass everyone. Because people who think they have all the answers are incredibly dangerous, to themselves and everyone around them. And so, I have given the clever Vidians a paladin who has no idea what the hell he’s even doing, one whom I trust to screw around. Because they know a lot less than they think they do, and they need to be made to appreciate that fact. And so, Gabriel, does everyone else.” He fixed his gaze on his own Hand, expression becoming more severe. “You are called to question, to challenge, and to generally make everyone uncomfortable. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I expect you to force people to consider the questions.”
Gabriel could only gape at him.
“That,” Trissiny said slowly, “just might make this the single most appropriate choice of Hand in all of history.”
“You just had to sneak in a shot,” he muttered, giving her an accusing look.
This time, it was she who prodded him with an elbow. “It’s a good thing, too, Gabe.”
“It’s something to think about,” Vidius said brightly, turning forward again and giving the reins a pull. “Well, this has been great! I’m glad we had the opportunity to chat. But for now, we have arrived.”
The carriage had pulled to a stop on the street of a city, next to a canal. All around them rose structures of white marble, and the city itself ascended along one side in terraces, falling in the other direction to a double set of high walls and a broad plain beyond. In every other direction, towering mountains arose.
“This is Vrin Shai,” Trissiny said in surprise. “Why are we here?”
“I suspect you’ll find that out quite soon,” Vidius said solemnly. “For now, though, I have to be moving along. The business of death is eternal. Everybody out!”
“Thank you very much for the ride,” Toby said politely, standing. “And…the lesson.”
“Yes,” Trissiny agreed. “I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this conversation for quite a while.”
“That’s the mark of a really good conversation, you know,” Vidius replied, while they all clambered out onto the cobblestones. Vestrel flared her wings and ascended, her vague shape vanishing from sight when she departed the carriage. “I hope you do continue to think, and learn. But such things are interludes in life; eventually, the action picks up again. I hope you’ll be ready.” He touched the brim of his hat, nodding to them. “Take care, kids. I’ll see you again.”
And with that, the god of death flicked the reins, the unearthly steeds began moving, and his carriage rolled off into the crowd.
Its departure left them standing with their backs to the stone wall separating them from a drop to the canal below, looking at the street. And directly in front, revealed by the departure of the carriage, was a man staring right at them.
A man with tousled blonde hair, spectacles, and a scowl, with a glowing rat perched on his shoulder. Both of them had their arms crossed.
Trissiny’s eyes widened. “Oh. Um. Hi, Hershel.”
“Hello, Trissiny,” Schwartz said flatly, then raised his hand. A blast of concentrated wind rose out of nowhere and shoved her right into the canal.