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“I’m just so proud of you, little Szaiviss!” the Elder Goddess gushed in a voice of pure sweetness. She made a languid gesture with one graceful arm, and the terrified shadow priestess drifted up from the ground, still too poleaxed by the overwhelming divine presence to struggle, or even protest. Scyllith smiled fondly, twirling one finger and causing Szaiviss to rotate slowly in midair. “And to think, I had all but written you off. Yet here you are! Digging up ancient secrets, consorting with surface elves… What a vicious betrayal you must have been working up to! I’m so proud, little one.”
The light swelled, and with a flash of pure white, Szaiviss was gone.
Kuriwa was fortunately too paralyzed by the pressure upon her mind to be humiliated by the little squeak that emerged from her throat.
“Oh, are you worried for your new companion?” the goddess asked solicitously, turning her full attention upon Kuriwa. “Aren’t you a thoughtful friend! But you needn’t worry yourself, child. I am hardly going to waste such a delightful source of chaos just when she’s finally started to demonstrate a little backbone! Why, given a few more decades and a lucky break or two, young Szaiviss may just work herself up to doing some real damage to my priestesses. I certainly don’t want to miss that.”
She couldn’t respond, could not do anything. The sensation was like being squished under a rockfall. Her thoughts were jagged, sideways things, struggling to function at all under the overwhelming pressure of Scyllith’s sheer personality.
Desperately, in the ragged back of her mind, instinct and habit began to claw together a semblance of control. She was a shaman, a wielder of the fae arts; her mind was her own, and feelings served her. She did not serve them.
And just like that, before she could make any real progress, the pressure lifted.
“Oh! I am sorry.” Scyllith folded her delicate hands before her slender waist, her doll-like face suddenly poised in an expression of sympathetic concern. “Please excuse me, young lady. I am accustomed to keeping order around here largely by pure force of character, and it has been so long since I had the privilege of entertaining a guest. I do hope you were not too discomfited? For an elder shaman of your station, it must be a most unfamiliar experience, to be so aggressively humbled. Well, so long as you are not visiting daddy’s house, of course.”
Her thin lips curled upward in a knowing smile.
Slowly, Kuriwa straightened, correcting her posture and still gathering her thoughts. The jibe was not altogether a surprise, given what this creature was goddess of, and yet it seemed oddly petty. There was a stark incongruity in hearing the architect of all the horrors she had seen during her journey through drow territory making lazy jabs about daddy issues.
“Do let me make it up to you,” Scyllith said earnestly, still smiling. “You have come on a most dire errand, I see! I shall be glad to help you solve your problem, Kuriwa.”
She didn’t bother wondering about the source of the goddess’s knowledge. According to some theories, gods were constructs of pure data; it was a prevailing hypothesis among the high elves intelligentsia that magic itself was the same.
“I do not want your help,” Kuriwa said evenly. The goddess was just standing there. Well, actually, floating; she seemed to prefer trailing her bare feet a few inches above the ground. The lack of overt aggression did not mean Kuriwa was any less cornered, or this situation one whit less hopeless.
“My dear child, of course you don’t,” Scyllith said in a fondly chiding tone. “I see you were rather unsettled by the things you saw while trespassing on my lawn, poor thing. It’s only sense that you’d prefer to have me out of your affairs! Because oh, yes, I am quite capable of peeling your psyche like a banana in the course of one conversation and without using so much as a glimmer of magic. But…may I be honest with you, Kuriwa dear?” She winked playfully. “Been there, done that. Nothing you could suffer here and now would be particularly entertaining, compared to what is going on for miles in all directions. Besides, my young friend, you are overlooking a couple of important facts. You may not want my help, but you assuredly need it. It would take you years, decades, to dig any useful stratagem out of Araneid’s ramshackle old research lab, here—much more time than your poor beleaguered family has left. And somewhat more immediately, I am here. Wouldn’t you rather I be helping you than…shall we say…” Her smile broadened, and it was amazing how much sheer menace she could project solely by making her expression more warm and kind. “…any of the other things I might do to pass the time?”
It was almost poetic that Kuriwa found herself literally backed against the wall, right beside the ancient data panel. She could neither fight nor flee a creature like this. Couldn’t even bargain; what could she possibly offer? Outwitting a nearly omniscient being was an absurd prospect. Her entire bloodline was counting on her, and now it seemed the only thing she could manage to do was face her surely horrific demise with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Besides,” Scyllith said pleasantly after a pause, “it’s not as if I am offering to aid you out of the goodness of my heart. I might suggest such a thing, were I more hard up for laughs, but I would be most disappointed if you believed it.”
“Why, then?” Kuriwa asked tersely. Playing along seemed like the least futile course of action available to her, albeit by a thin margin.
“Well, there is the fact that you are looking to undo one of Elilial’s pet projects,” Scyllith mused, turning and beginning to drift away around the perimeter of the open space, alongside the blinking lights and panels both steel and mithril of ancient machinery. So she carried on floating in a wide pattern while speaking, very much like any of the mortals Kuriwa had met who liked to pace while they talked. “What she’s done—and oh, yes, I can easily see the structure of that curse—is quite beyond dear little Lil’s innate capacity. I would be up for ruining her day just on general principles, but this? She would have to have used Order equipment to achieve such a thing. My equipment, from one of my citadels, on my world.” A light laugh dispelled the tension that had begun to gather in her voice; Scyllith had a very pretty laugh. “Insult upon injury, isn’t it? Oh, yes, for that presumption I would be pleased to tweak her nose.”
She turned to begin floating back the other way, catching Kuriwa’s eye and bestowing on her a coy smile before shifting her gaze to study the old equipment in passing. “Not that that alone would impel me to exert myself, of course. We had a saying, where I came from: if you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
“I can’t imagine what I might have that you might want,” Kuriwa said warily.
“Oh, not a thing, poppet,” Scyllith assured her. “But there is something you can help me get. A sacrifice you will make to attain that which you need.”
“Sacrifice?” Amazingly, this was starting to look even worse.
“I see what she’s done—it is actually rather ingenious.” The goddess turned again and drifted straight toward Kuriwa, starry eyes now fixed upon the elf, and Kuriwa had to force herself to stand straight and not press herself against the wall at her back. “It’s not a simple curse! Even you could dispel any such thing, given enough time and effort. No, she has actually tweaked the nature of reality itself. It’s tricky, but doable, given access to the right sort of facilities. Such as, for example, the installations in my personal dimension which were instrumental in establishing it and causing my specific field of magic to permeate the space. Making any major changes to the rules of magic would probably be out of her reach, and would set the Pantheon after her if she achieved it. But a subtle, specific, insignificant little tweak? That she can apparently achieve, and get away with.”
“A subtle thing like cursing my bloodline.”
“Kuriwa, dearest, weren’t you listening? You aren’t cursed. This is simply…the way things are, now. It is a rule of magic that you, and your genetic descendants, suffer these very exotic effects! It’s now your nature. Only a line of highly magical creatures like elves could be subjected to such tampering… Ah, yes!” Having stopped right in front of Kuriwa, Scyllith bent forward as if to examine her more closely. “Yes, I see what she did. The little minx definitely got into my equipment. This is a clumsy variant on the very methods I devised to help my pets adapt to my transcension field.”
“You mean, the way demons evolved to make use of infernal magic, instead of being destroyed by it?”
“You latter-day creatures do enjoy applying such quaint labels to concepts,” Scyllith said fondly. “But yes, sure; what’s important is that you understand what I meant. Sylphs fly, hethelaxi go berserk, and Kuriwa’s descendants gradually slip into the nether realm between dimensions. Those are just the rules…now. She tweaked the fundamental structure of magic; to counter it, we must tweak it back. This is something you could never achieve on your own, and something the Pantheon gods would refuse to aid you with, even the very few of them who might be capable. You need me, dearest. And there is an added benefit to this! I should hardly have to tell you that it is incredibly dangerous for Elilial to have figured out this technique. This is surely a small test run, for her. If it works, she has a fantastic new weapon, and on her of all subjects, I have to concur with your Pantheon: Elilial does not need fantastic new weapons. It is actually rather important that we re-work her little trick so that it raps her knuckles instead of emboldening her.”
Kuriwa drew in a deep, slow breath. “I see the sense of what you say. But you were talking about a sacrifice, before the abrupt change of subject.”
“Patience, darling, patience!” Scyllith finally drew back a bit, giggling. “I had to explain to you what is involved: you are asking me to re-write reality and the rules of magic to suit you.”
“I haven’t asked you to do anything,” she said quickly.
The goddess ignored that. “To do this, I will need my own skill, a great deal of the additional power I derive from having control of dear Araneid’s domain…” She casually ran caressing fingertips across the edge of the data panel beside Kuriwa. “And, most immediately, your active cooperation. As deeply rooted as you are in Naiya’s transcension field, your guidance will be necessary in arranging things as we want them to be arranged.”
Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “So… You’re offering me a measure of control over this.”
“Oh, it’s not an offer, my pet,” Scyllith said, blinking languidly. The effect made her dark, luminous eyes seem to flicker like meteors. “It’s just how things have to be. If I wanted to make your life miserable, as Elilial did, then yes, I could just do it. That would be unpredictable, however. I rather doubt Elilial chose the specific form your family’s suffering has taken; it isn’t likely that she even could. Readjusting the effect to achieve specific results all down your bloodline—which, you being an elf, is as much a mental and magical connection as a genetic one—can’t be done without your input. So unless we are in accord as to what we are doing, it won’t get done.”
“And,” she said slowly, “you need me to agree to give up something in the process. You can’t just take it from me.”
“Child, you cannot begin to imagine all the things I could take from you at a whim,” Scyllith promised her in a light, pleasant tone. “In this case, yes: I want something I’ll need you to willingly surrender. And in the end, the fact that you are giving it of your free will makes it all the sweeter. You will hate yourself for this, poppet. Really, that is the dusting of sugar on top that makes the whole cake worth baking.”
“Enough,” Kuriwa snapped. “Spit it out! What do you want?”
“I have a use,” the goddess drawled, “for a powerful high elf of a noble arcane bloodline and a practiced fae legacy. Oh, yes indeed, the wonderful things I could achieve with such a pet on a leash… We will have to work this craft upon all in your family, Kuriwa dear. I demand, in payment, that you give one of them up to me.”
Almost unbidden, power roared through her, forming two handfuls of flame. “Never.”
“Oh, don’t be cliché,” Scyllith said in a bored tone, and just like that, Kuriwa’s magic was snuffed out. She had never experienced such a swift and absolute severing of a spell actively called forth; even the constant presence in the back of her mind of her spirit guides was silenced. The goddess turned again and began drifting off around the room. “If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is tedium. I demand a terrible cost, you make a big show of outrage, the audience yawns. Honestly, child—”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Kuriwa spat. “Do what you want. I will not give you this satisfaction.”
“Oh, you silly little elf,” Scyllith said, giving her a pitying look. “I’ve already won, here. There’s no outcome at this point that doesn’t give me satisfaction. If you refuse my deal, well and good! Your entire family will die, slowly and in unimaginable terror, and you will get to live whatever time you have left in the knowledge that you condemned them to it when you had the option to spare them. Elilial will continue to use her shiny new toy, and I think we both know it’s a safe bet she will inflict it on your surface-dwelling allies for a long time before it ever occurs to her to start harassing me, down here in my hidey-hole. It’s very likely the Pantheon will strike back to take it from her before she ever dreams of trying to so much as inconvenience me. And who knows! I may end up being the one who unmakes her plans, anyway. It’s likely beyond the reach of even your gods, and they have appealed to me for help before. Imagine what a price I could demand for my services from them. Oh, yes, the Pantheon can reap for me a far greater harvest of suffering than you could even imagine. By all means, toddle off back to the surface, explain to all your children why you condemned them to agony and death. I won’t stop you! The passages straight upward lead into what you children now call the Crawl; it’s not exactly an easy clamber, but you’re a big girl.” Drifting to a stop several yards away, she turned back to Kuriwa, spreading her arms and smiling beatifically. “Go on, then. Defy and deprive me. You only postpone me getting what I want, and ensure I get all the more of it in the end. But you won’t be around to watch it happen, nor will be anyone sharing a drop of your blood. So if that’s enough of a victory to satisfy you, child, I guess you know what you should do!”
Rarely had she felt so out of control, even of herself. A shaman was nothing if not master of her own emotions, but the sheer helplessness of Kuriwa’s position coupled with the sick horror of what this ancient monstrosity demanded was enough to set her trembling in impotent fury. She managed to refrain from calling up magic again, as that would surely just provoke the creature before her, against which all her own power was as nothing. Her fists had clenched of their own accord, though, hard enough to make her arms quiver.
“If you’re having trouble coming to a decision,” Scyllith said in a kindly tone, “I find it often helpful to consider the perspectives of others. Consider those who will be affected, and ask yourself: wouldn’t any of them willingly sacrifice themselves for the safety of the entire family? Of course, not to tell you your own business,” she added with another mischievous wink, “but personally? I’d nominate any who wouldn’t take that dive to be put on the chopping block.”
If nothing else, there was a valid idea in that, a compromise Kuriwa might be able to live with.
“If I offer myself—”
“No deal,” Scyllith interrupted, and wagged a chiding finger at her, grinning. “Come, now. Surely you didn’t think I would make it that easy? You are not on the bargaining table, child, only your blood.”
“Monster.” The accusation spilled from her lips unbidden, like the fury that had seized her body.
“You say that as if you think it’ll hurt my feelings,” Scyllith replied patronizingly. “People are of two kinds: Victims, and victors. Words like ‘monster’ and ‘evil’ are used by the first group because childish insults are easier than the hard work of elevating themselves into the second.”
Kuriwa closed her eyes, thoughts swirling. Breathing slowly, she reached inward for calm. She needed to be able to think. Needed her emotions to settle enough that she was once again in control of herself. There had to be some way she could steer this—
“No, there isn’t,” Scyllith informed her. “You are an open book, little girl. Really, if you grow tired of using your tongue, you can just think at me. I understand it just as well.”
That explained a few things.
“If you are going to demand—”
“That won’t work, either,” Scyllith said with clear amusement. “I demand nothing; I offer options. You have a choice to make, Kuriwa, and you don’t get to slither out of responsibility for the consequences of either option.”
“You call me responsible for your cruelty?”
“Merely for being in a position where you have to endure it, poppet. What did you think would happen, when you intruded on my realm? What secrets did you expect to find down here that could help you overpower Elilial herself, if not with my help? Please. You may be adept at fooling yourself, little one, but you have no prayer of deceiving me. At no point did you not realize there would be a steep price for the help you need. Now pay it, or don’t. Either way, live with the consequences.”
Either way… Kuriwa made the determination that whatever happened today, at some point, by some means, Scyllith and Elilial would be made to pay for this.
“You and every soul in my domain,” Scyllith said with an audible grin. “Really, I am not taunting you. Try it, please do. My greatest joys in life are laid at my feet by those foolish enough to try to defy me.”
Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes.
Finally, Kuriwa opened her eyes, then blinked, disoriented.
She stood in some kind of upright coffin made of mithril, crystal, and machines. It was against another wall, in a different part of Araneid’s ancient lair.
“Welcome back!” The luminous, floating shape of the goddess of beauty and cruelty drifted into her field of view from around a corner, wearing a benign smile. “I imagine you are rather confused, my pet.”
“What did you do to me?”
“Now, if I have calibrated all this correctly—which I know I have—you recall our explanatory conversation prior to the procedure. What Elilial did, what we had to do to unmake it.” Her smile widened. “What you paid.”
Bracing herself on the edges of the sarcophagus, Kuriwa pushed forward out of its embrace. She felt…not weak, but somehow strained. And disheveled, she noticed; her tunic was askew, and a few locks of black hair had worked free of their braid to hang in her eyes.
“Allow me to anticipate and answer your questions,” Scyllith nattered, hovering aimlessly about the room once more. “Strictly speaking, I did nothing. The memories you have of what we discussed, and what brought you here, are technically fabricated. Oh, they are accurate to the timeline that was! But it is not, anymore. In this world, you offended Elilial just as she was working out a clever use of the technology left in my own former home, and she made you a vicious test case. In this world, it immediately backfired on her. You and your bloodline have been altered…and yet, not. She made it so that you had always been a certain way, and you and I made it so that it was a different way, ensuring that she will come to regret her alterations bitterly. I used a variant of the mechanism by which living things survive adaptation to the infernal.”
“You made us demons?” Kuriwa shouted, lunging forward.
Scyllith flicked a finger and she slammed bodily back into the coffin.
“No, you silly creature. Remember, you had to be awake and compliant for this procedure; would you have consented to become a demon? I said a variant of that mechanism, not the thing itself. There is no hint of infernal taint anywhere in your bloodline. Given how seeped you all are in Naiya’s transcension field, there was no realistic way I could have made that stick. No, this is an older and purer form of the same bio-magical principles from which I designed the properties of the infernal field itself. In short: we have turned corruption into aggression. The psychological influence is minor, and should be evident only in aggregate. I doubt you will be able to discern any difference in personality in the case of any individual, but as a group? Your clan is going to develop something of a prickly reputation among elves. They may find it rather difficult to be in a room together. Not demons; I guess you could saw we made you what you call tauhanwe.” She stopped her aimless floating, turning to Kuriwa with a wide smile. “I dearly wish I could see Elilial’s face, truly I do. Oh, that would be so sweet. She’s created an entire clan of hunter-killers which will stalk her minions across the centuries. Every time she sends demons or warlocks to the material plane, the line of Kuriwa whom she tried to curse will lunge out of the shadows from every direction and claw them to shreds. It’s just so…delicious.”
It actually was, Kuriwa had to admit. That did not lessen the sinking pit that had opened in her heart. As the disorientation of the procedure faded, she had recalled what this salvation had cost her.
“Who?” she whispered.
Scyllith slowly tilted her head to one side, making an inquisitive face.
“Don’t toy with me, you—”
The goddess laughed aloud at her. “Don’t toy with you? Me? Oh, child, you should hear yourself.”
“Damn you, who did you take?”
Grinning, Scyllith raised one graceful finger, and tapped the side of her nose. “It’s a secret.”
Kuriwa could only stare at her.
Abruptly the glowing figure blinked across the space between them, and then Scyllith was right on top of her, clutching the sides of the metal coffin and leering at her face from inches away.
“Do you understand the value of closure, little shaman?” Scyllith crooned. “Of course you do. Ultimately, when things come to an end, a person can make peace with them. In this case? You could go back to whichever of your descendants had just lost a son, or mother, or cousin… You could explain what happened to them all, and hear their reactions. Accept their forgiveness, or bear their grudges. You alone, and your family as a whole, would grieve, and come to grips. And now? You can’t.”
She leaned forward, her doll-like features splitting in a wide grin that made a mockery of her previously gracious demeanor.
“You will never know whose soul you sold for this, Kuriwa. You’ll spend your eternal life among your family, looking around at their faces, knowing that one is missing—missing from your very memories, plucked right out of history when we re-wrote the world to save them all. You will live, forever, with the knowledge of what you did, and that wound will never close. Oh, to a simpleminded or selfish person, this would be the greatest compassion, the thing that let them forget. But you? You, the mother, the shaman, the leader and teacher? You will walk through the endless ages, and for every moment of your existence, a part of you will be constantly screaming in agony.”
Scyllith’s starlit eyes drifted shut, and a shudder wracked her entire frame, her expression momentarily lost in open-mouthed bliss.
“I have my price, shaman. I received the soul I demanded. And you, my darling, have given me so much more than your weight in suffering. You’ve barely begun to feel that pain; you will be paying me from now until the second you perish… And we both know you don’t have it in you to lie down and give up.” Her eyes opened, and she smiled again. Warm, kind, gentle. “Our bargain is concluded, and I am paid well indeed. Do visit me again, poppet. You’re fun.”
Her sudden absence lowered the light in the room. It was all but silent in that cave far below the surface, even the hum of the ancient machinery all around her barely audible to her senses.
For a long time, she could do nothing but stand there, alone.
Her father’s house had always felt lonely and too quiet, ever since her mother had died. Part of Kuriwa felt guilty for leaving him to wander its halls alone, but she could not make a life in Qestraceel. Now, tonight of all nights, even as close to him as she sat in the little aquatic solarium, the dark and quiet house felt lonelier than it ever had.
“Am…” She paused, swallowed heavily. The silence had stretched out for long minutes after he heard her account of the Underworld. “Am I… That is, I’ve been trying every idea I had. Anything that might be a hint to what she changed. Are you sure I am the only elf ever born with black hair? Every one of my descendants has it, and I cannot think that is coincidence…”
“We have been over this many times, Av—Kuriwa,” he replied with a soft sigh, catching on her name but correcting himself more smoothly than he ever had, that she could recall. “It is a harmless mutation. Anomalous hair and eye colors have occurred in the past, a consequence of the arcane saturation in our society. Most of our people undergo genetic procedures to correct it, but your mother insisted you be allowed to grow to adulthood before making that decision for yourself. And then…you decided. And I gather the woodkin feel differently about changing what nature has decreed.”
Mutely, she nodded, staring at the floor.
With amazing tenderness, given the way their relationship had gone in the last few centuries, he reached out to brush her dark hair back behind her ear. “Maybe it is something she changed, my daughter. If she truly did re-write reality itself… There is just too much unknown. I have never heard of any spellcraft or technology that could do such a thing.”
“You don’t recall me coming here, to ask for help with Elilial’s curse?”
“I do,” he said, shaking his head, “but not as you describe it. You were here only weeks ago, and spoke of a lifelong pattern of aggression among your bloodline, that you had only finally come to think had an external cause after your descendants numbered enough that the pattern was clear. There was nothing about Elilial. If you truly remember what you describe, daughter… A curse that causes the mind to sink into void space is unthinkably cruel. Nothing that afflicts you now is anything nearly so terrible.”
She heard the unspoken offer in his voice: forgiveness. The assurance that she had done well.
“No,” Kuriwa whispered aloud, squeezing her eyes shut. “I can’t—” Her voice broke, and she choked on a sob. “Oh, father, I made the wrong choice.”
He was suddenly on the seat alongside her, wrapping both arms around her and pulling her close. She sank into her father’s embrace for what felt like the first time since she was a little girl, just letting him rock her.
At least he believed her, outlandish story and all. She and her father disagreed on virtually everything that mattered in life, but when it came down to it, he respected her enough to trust her account of events more than his own understanding of what the world should be like. This was a cruel way to learn it, but it was something she was deeply grateful to know.
“You made the choice you could, Kuriwa,” he murmured into her hair. “There was no good choice. Life is…that way, sometimes. Things are taken from us, and nothing given back. Suffering has no inherent meaning, except that which we give it. Take time to grieve, daughter, but don’t forget to look forward.” He squeezed her harder, pressing a kiss to her temple. “You are the only child I have, Kuriwa, and it shames me how little I have supported you. These are our bloodline…our legacy. You and your family will have every support I can give you from this moment on, I swear it.”
She leaned against him, letting the tears spill without fighting them. They stayed that way for a long time.
“Meaning,” Kuriwa whispered at last. “I don’t know what meaning to give this.”
“The wound is fresh. You will find a way forward, child, I know that much. You’ve never lacked an ability to find your path, even when everyone insisted there was not one ahead of you.”
“I have to…to…” She blinked moisture away from her lashes, staring sightlessly past his shoulder at the fish and kelp outside. “I must give something back, for what I’ve taken away.”
“Don’t forget that you did this for them.”
“I can’t forget any of it. I am…a matriarch, now. I’ll watch over them. Over all of them, even if they don’t care for my presence. I have to…to do something. I have to do something forever. It’s the only semblance of peace I will ever have.”
“I love you,” he said simply. It was sweet, and sharp, like the first taste of tangy fruit to an unprepared tongue. A jolt of joy that was nearly pain. Kuriwa closed her eyes again, relaxing into him.
Her world might have been rearranged by the living force of cruelty, but within it, she still lived. There was still love. And now, she and her family…most of her family…would live on.
“And someday,” she whispered in a breath barely loud enough even for herself to hear, “she will pay.”