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The silence hung, a teetering weight that threatened to crush them all when it finally toppled. But only for a moment.
“Child,” Elilial finally said, her voice at once quiet and projecting with an unearthly power that fairly rattled skeletons, “there is a lot going on here that you don’t understand.”
Vadrieny half-turned and lifted one wing to glance over her shoulder at the two elves behind her. “Natchua and Kuriwa did something to piss you off. I’m guessing deliberately.” She turned back, fixing the goddess with her stare and baring her fangs. “I’m also guessing in retaliation for things you did to them. So now you plan to retaliate right back, yet again. I gather you’re not aware that Natchua is Shaeine’s cousin?”
Elilial had opened her mouth to interrupt, but hesitated at that, a flicker of unguarded emotion crossing her face for a bare instant before it closed down again. “In the very broad strokes, sure. It’s the details of—”
“The details are where you drag the truth to be executed by a thousand tiny cuts without saying anything that can be called out as a lie.”
Again, the goddess looked momentarily startled. “What did you say to me?”
“They tell me I was always something of a thug,” Vadrieny growled, flexing her claws. “I get the impression you’re not used to me understanding things, or calling out your bullshit. But I’ve been at a school the last few years, mother—a good one, run by someone who can physically push me around and has zero patience for bullshit in any form except her own. Two years and change, mother, that’s what it took to make a thinker of Vadrieny the brute. And that just makes me wonder why you apparently never tried.”
“Think we should give them some privacy?” Natchua murmured to Kuriwa. The elder gave her a sidelong glance, then returned her attention to the unfolding drama, saying nothing.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Elilial stated, her body language shifting subtly to convey a silent threat, though her tone remained starkly even. “You have never been easy to handle, child, but I did better than anyone else could have. And I will not have the entirety of our relationship casually dismissed by someone who doesn’t even remember it.”
“And whose fault is that?” Vadrieny snarled, snapping her wings once.
Elilial took one step forward, her hoof impacting the marble floor with a sound that echoed through the cathedral. “I am pursuing answers to that right now, child. Whoever interfered with—”
“Oh, someone else is always to blame, aren’t they?” the archdemon spat in disgust. “No responsibility for the one who put us all in that position in the first place.”
“How dare you?” the goddess thundered, taking another step. This one hit the ground hard enough to send cracks radiating out through the marble. “I am the very reason you—”
“YOU ARE THE REASON I DON’T HAVE SISTERS!” Vadrieny screamed back.
Elilial froze, her whole face a mask of shock and rage. The two locked eyes, glaring with an infernal intensity that seemed to hum physically in the air.
“You’re unraveling right in front of us, Lily-chan,” a new voice said far more calmly.
Everyone present looked up at the black shape which floated serenely in through the window Vadrieny had just smashed. She circled down to the floor like a falling leaf, scythe dangling almost casually from one hand.
“Go away, little vulture,” Elilial snapped. “This is family business, and none of yours.”
“The business of death always follows your footsteps, Lily-chan,” Yngrid said lightly as she lit on the ground.
“Desist calling me that,” the goddess exclaimed. “Which one are you, even? I’m fairly certain your master won’t be pleased to find you on this plane.”
“You know why she’s the goddess of cunning?” Yngrid inquired, turning to face the other three and directing a cold shoulder to the deity. “With the ascension, their aspects formed out of whatever concept was foremost in their personal identities. This one started out as a petty thief. She used to break into Naiya’s laboratories, looking for drugs.”
“…drugs,” Kuriwa repeated in a complex tone that hovered between amusement and disbelief.
“Mother caught her, of course,” Ygrid said with a grin. “Every time. And then made her play shogi until she won a game, and let her go. It wasn’t until later when she recommended Lily-chan to Avei’s little resistance group that we realized Naiya had been training her to circumvent Infinite Order security systems.”
“Enough!” Elilial exclaimed, bending forward to reach for Yngrid. “Be silent or be silenced, you little pest!”
In the next moment she had jerked back with an audible gasp, clutching the hand which the valkyrie had just raked with her scythe. The gash it left wasn’t like the marks of Vadrieny’s claws; it blazed with golden light and didn’t close up nearly as quickly.
“Impetuous, violent, aggressive,” Yngrid lectured, wagging the scythe at the goddess. “You are not acting like yourself at all. The Lily I remember would never have confused me with a twenty-year-old boy playing with a hand-me-down weapon. My sisters have reaped scarier things than you. Or did you forget why Rauzon cast us out in the first place?”
“Are you following any of this?” Natchua muttered to Kuriwa.
“It would be easier if you’d hush,” the shaman hissed back.
“This kind of ambush is well beyond Natchua’s extremely limited intellect,” the goddess sneered, still cradling her hand. The cut was healing, gradually but visibly, though it continued to blaze with loose divine magic. “My own daughter, Kuriwa? Even Scyllith would be impressed by the sadistic streak you’ve developed.”
“Imagine,” Kuriwa replied evenly, “to have offended the vast swath of people you have and still assume I am behind every measure of retribution levered against you. Flattery will not spare you my further vengeance, you hateful old thing.”
“She didn’t bring us,” Vadrieny agreed.
“I brought them,” a new voice added, its owner popping into existence alongside the others with no further fanfare.
“What next?” Elilial exclaimed. “Who do you…”
She trailed off into silence, staring quizzically down at the new arrival, who was covered from crown to toes in a suit of gnarled, glossy black armor that looked like demon chitin; it clung close enough to display a very feminine figure, also adding segmented links to protect her tail and cover its tip in an oversized stinger, though it left her spiny wings bare.
Then it faded, seeming to melt back into her milky skin to reveal her true features, and the grim stare she leveled up at the goddess.
Natchua gasped. “Mel?! You were supposed to go somewhere safe!”
“I couldn’t, though,” Melaxyna said, giving her an apologetic little smile before resuming her flat glare at Elilial. “I’ve remembered some things, in the course of trying to dissuade you from this idiot, lunatic crusade of yours. Making yourself the enemy of a deity is every bit as bad an idea as I kept trying to persuade you, Natchua. And it forced me to recall the days when I, as nothing but a feeble mortal woman and then a disembodied spirit, spat in the faces of Izara, Avei, and Vidius in that order, for no better reason than that they were fucking wrong. And I had to ask: when did I become such a pitiful coward?”
“Is that so much worse than a pitiful ingrate?” Elilial retorted. “Everything you have, everything you are, is thanks to me! You should be dead, but because of my generosity, you survive to pursue your revenge. I even granted you freedom to do so in your own manner, when it would have been so very easy to keep you and all of your brethren on a tight leash. Most of my advisors and generals continually urge me to do just that, and yet…”
“And yet,” said Vadrieny, “your generosity always takes the form of using someone else as a disposable tool in your own schemes.”
“You were supposed to be better!” Melaxyna shouted before the goddess could respond. “All your talk about standing up to the gods and their injustice, and what are you? For millennia you’ve cut a swath of destruction across the mortal plane, slaughtering who knows how many innocents in the name of your glorious revenge. You’ve not even tried to alleviate the suffering of all the demons—that is, the people who are native to your own home, because they’re ever so much more useful in their current state! The Pantheon are murdering, hypocritical tyrants, but you are not different. If you can’t clear even that bar, you and your whole rebellion are just pointless. And you’ve never even really tried.”
“I will tolerate a lot from my last daughter,” Elilial breathed, her soft voice at odds with the oppressive darkness which coalesced in the dome above her. Smoky night descended on the cathedral’s open space, leaving her towering form a stark shadow limned by the faintest haze of hellfire and her luminous eyes blazing high above. “But not from a recalcitrant creature of my own creation with delusions of significance. I hope you enjoyed your little outburst, Melaxyna. It was your last.”
“Then fucking do it!” Melaxyna spat, flaring her wings aggressively. “That’s the other thing I learned from Natchua: you don’t need to be a god to wound a god, you just need to hit unexpectedly at the right moment, and be willing to face the consequences. It seems like you would’ve known that, when you were fighting the Elder Gods! Well, you may have forgotten, but I haven’t. Do your worst. I am done bending my neck to gods that just betray me.”
“Before you do your worst,” Vadrieny said evenly, moving to plant herself between Elilial and Melaxyna, “I will warn you once: you don’t touch anyone here, unless you want to find out exactly how much damage I can do to you. Maybe I can’t finish you off, but I swear I will never stop until I either find a way or you do it to me.”
The darkness receded somewhat, and the shape of Elilial’s burning eyes shifted, hinting at consternation. “Vadrieny… No matter what you do to me, I will never harm you. You have to believe that.”
Vadrieny snorted, and then faded, flames and claws receding to nothing.
Teal Falconer adjusted the lapels of her suit and the Talisman of Absolution pinned there. “Yeah, she doesn’t wanna talk to you anymore. But let me just add a point of argument: Vadrieny was wrong about one thing. We do have sisters. Heral and Nahil don’t replace anyone who’s lost, but they have the advantage of a mother who requires them to do their familial duty without spending their lives like pennies at a carnival.”
She arched one eyebrow superciliously as a collective indrawing of breath sounded from the others present. Natchua let out a low whistle.
Elilial’s expression reverted straight to fury, and the oppressive darkness gathered in intensity once more. “Teal,” she hissed. “Of all those from whom I would expect a little gratitude.”
“Thank you for the puppy,” Teal said solemnly. “I love him. And especially, thank you for bringing my Shaeine back to me. With that established, you are being a colossal prick right now, and playing the guilt card when I’ve literally just caught you about to murder one of my friends and another of my friends’ annoying grandmother is a really cheap move.”
With ponderous speed, the giant shape of the goddess bent forward through the looming darkness, bringing her face down closer to peer at Teal through narrowed eyes as if seeing her for the first time.
“You,” Elilial said slowly, “are sassing me.”
“Would you rather go back to the clawing?” Teal asked wryly. “Because that’s not off the table.”
“You,” Elilial repeated. “Sweet little Teal, the perennially passive, who makes a full-time career of taking Vesk’s name in vain. All these years you’ve idolized bards while never living up to the trope, and now this… This is the moment you pick to start acting like one?!”
Teal tucked her thumbs into her pockets, shifting to a cocky, lopsided stance, and grinned. “Well what, I ask you, is more bardic than being a pain in the villain’s ass at the most inconvenient possible moment?”
Elilial straightened back up far more quickly. “I have just about had enough of you mortals and your nonsense. I won’t see any harm done to my daughters, but—”
“Don’t even finish that threat,” Yngrid said scornfully. “There’s nothing you can do to me, and Vadrieny and I can hurt you enough to put a stop to whatever else you might try. You’ve lost this one, Lil.”
“Honestly,” Natchua added, “flying into such a rage over people rightly pointing out what an asshole you are. Your options here are to back the fuck off or embarrass yourself with more sheer pettiness.”
“Begone, creature,” Kuriwa said with withering disdain. “You are beaten. Take it with some grace, for once.”
“Well, if I am so beaten,” Elilial hissed from within her cloud of pitch darkness, glaring fiery rage down at them, “I will just have to deliver a last lesson to several of you on why I am not to be trifled with by presumptuous ticks.”
A single ray of light pierced the darkness, a scintillating beam that shimmered with every hue of the rainbow within a fierce glow of pure white, and impacted the goddess square in the face. It erupted in a cloud of sparkling glitter which banished her unnatural darkness as neatly as if someone had flipped the switch on a fairy lamp.
Elilial staggered backward, actually coughing and waving sparkling clouds away from her face, causing the million tiny motes of light to swirl around her. She was now covered from her horns to her waist in a glimmering coating of pixie dust.
“REALLY?” the goddess roared in sheer exasperation.
“Hey, is this her?” inquired a new voice, belonging to the creature which had just zipped in through the broken window and now hovered in midair right in front of Elilial. Garbed in a resplendent gown of pastel hues, she might have passed for an elf, if not for her exceptionally long ears, purple hair, and the buzzing dragonfly wings which held her aloft. “Sure looks like her. Are we fighting her, or what?”
“Oh, I also rounded up some more help,” Melaxyna said innocently.
“Uh, actually,” Natchua answered, “I think we’re mostly just telling her off at this point.”
“Oh, well, okay then,” the fairy said agreeably, then buzzed closer to Elilial’s face, leveling an accusing finger at her. “Hey, you, are those your demons out there? What’s the big idea with that? Have you seen the mess they made? This is a city, you jackass! People live here!”
Elilial blinked once, then snorted loudly, causing a puff of glitter to shoot out from her face. She snapped her fingers and abruptly the mess coating her vanished. “What the hell are you supposed to be?”
“My friends call me Jackie,” the fairy said haughtily, “but to you, I’m the fuckin’ Pixie Queen. I don’t know what you’re eeeeyaaaaugh what is that?!”
She suddenly buzzed away from Elilial, circling higher in the dome and pointing a finger at Yngrid.
“It’s okay!” Melaxyna called. “She’s on our side!”
“Actually, Jacaranda,” Yngrid added, “I’m your older sister.”
“The nuts you are!”
“It’s a long story,” the valkyrie said soothingly. “I’ll explain it when we have more time.”
“ENOUGH!” Elilial shouted. “What is with you people!? I am the goddamn goddess of hellfire, and I can’t even finish a sentence in here!”
“No, you’re the goddess of cunning,” Yngrid said more soberly, “and like I said, you are doing a very poor job of that right now. You don’t act at all like yourself, Lily.”
“What part of this perfidy is out of character?” Kuriwa sneered.
“All of it,” the valkyrie replied. “The shouting, the magical theatrics. She was always so composed, always pointedly pleasant even to her foes. Playful, and fond as a bard of wisecracks. Not to downplay the very real enmity here, but… She is not well. Not at all.”
“Want me to zap her again?” Jacaranda offered.
“Better to take the opportunity to finish her off,” Natchua added.
“You think it’s so easy to kill a god, you arrogant speck?” Elilial spat.
“It’s not,” said Yngrid. “Destroying a god means severing them from whatever empowers their aspect. Exactly how to do that depends on the aspect; speaking as the resident expert on death, even I wouldn’t know where to begin killing cunning.”
“But if, as you say, she is trapped in a pattern of behavior that is anything but cunning,” Kuriwa said softly, “perhaps this is an opportunity.”
“Oh, just try it, Kuriwa,” the goddess hissed. “I would love nothing more.”
“Does seem odd she’s letting us talk at her instead of attacking or retreating,” Melaxyna murmured. “You’re right. Something is wrong here.”
“I’m not the only one standing here talking,” Elilial retorted, spreading her arms wide. “Well? Since my dear offspring is so adamant that I not destroy you, the ball is in your court. Care to try your luck, any of you? Or am I not the only one who needs to cease posturing and walk away?”
The cathedral’s doors burst open, and the first thing that came through was the towering shape of a woman in silver armor astride a barrel-chested horse.
“Oh, yes,” Melaxyna said pleasantly. “When I said I gathered more help, I wasn’t talking about the fairy.”
Trissiny rode her steed straight toward the confrontation at the center of the open space. Ninkabi’s cathedral was laid out in a circular, open plan unlike the long rows of benches common in Tiraan churches; there was ample room for the crowd of people who followed her in to spread out, quickly positioning themselves to cover almost half the chamber. They had all come: students, enforcers, hunters, wolves, elves, miscellaneous adventurers, and now a sizable contingent of Imperial soldiers, local police, the members of three strike teams, and even a smattering of hastily-armed citizens of Ninkabi.
“If I heard that offer right,” Trissiny called, her voice ringing through the chamber as she stood at the head of her army, “I will take you up on it.”
“Of course you would,” Elilial replied with heavy condescension.
“Even gods cannot flit between the planes willy-nilly,” said Yngrid. “Hell is sealed; she requires a gate to escape there. I don’t know what keeps her in this corporal form, aside from possible simple stubbornness, but as long as she holds it…”
“One does not simply slay a goddess,” said Khadizroth the Green, stepping up alongside Trissiny. “But with a sufficient force, one can perhaps…”
“Beat the living hell out of her?” the paladin finished with a grim smile.
He quirked one corner of his lips in agreement. “At least until she has had enough.”
Elilial clenched her fingers into fists, setting her face in a snarl of barely-contained rage. Again, the darkness gathered, like a storm cloud forming in the cathedral’s dome, this time accompanied by an unsettling sound like claws across the fabric of reality just outside the range of hearing, a noise that was more sensation than noise. Within the blackness, her glaring eyes blazed with increasing intensity until they were too bright to face directly.
Khadizroth shifted aside as Gabriel and Toby moved up alongside Trissiny, both mounted; Roiyary stood as placid as a daisy against the sheer weight of evil pressing down on them, while Whisper pranced and pawed, eager to charge. Golden light rose from all three paladins, expanding until it pressed the darkness back.
Behind them, weapons and spells were readied, wolves bared teeth, and over a hundred mortals positioned themselves to have the clearest line of fire at the dark goddess. Not one person moved to retreat.
Then, unexpected, it all began to fade.
The darkness receded, the fiery light of Elilial’s gaze dimmed, and even her clenched posture slowly relaxed while it became more visible out of the disappearing shadows. Trissiny narrowed her eyes in suspicion, not relaxing in turn, but the goddess just continued to draw down her display of menace until there was nothing left of it.
Just the towering form of the Queen of Demons, staring down at her would-be attackers with a slight frown of contemplation, her horned head tilted quizzically to one side.
Then, just as suddenly, she smiled, and shifted her arms.
A stir of preparation rippled through those assembled as shields ignited and weapons were raised further, but still Elilial did not attack.
In fact, moving with deliberate slowness, she raised both her hands into the air alongside her head.
“All right,” said Elilial. “I surrender.”