“I have to say I am glad to be back in Last Rock,” Toby said, adjusting the collar of his coat. “Tiraas is miserable in the winter. This is practically a vacation spot.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Gabriel said lightly. “It hardly ever snows in the city!”
“Snow, no,” Toby grumbled. “Just constant, chilling rain, with a weekly splatter of sleet and at least once per winter a serious ice storm, just to remind us that Ouvis still rules the skies.”
“What’s this?” Gabriel grinned broadly. “Mr. Toby the Paladin Caine is actually complaining? I never thought I would see the day! Damn, and me without my diary.”
“It’d be complaining if I were still in Tiraas,” Toby replied, grinning back. “I’m not. Here, I’m appreciating the balmy Great Plains climate. Relatively.”
“Heh… You remember the first time we walked into this building and I wondered if it ever snowed here?” Gabriel craned his neck back, studying the towering face of Helion Hall as they approached it.
“Ah, nostalgia. Were we ever that young?”
“Hey, don’t make fun. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?”
“I dunno,” Toby said, his expression sobering. “We’ve…gotten used to things around here. And yeah, things around here are unpredictable enough to maybe help prepare us for the wide world. I can kinda see where Tellwyrn’s going with all her nonsense, sometimes… Still. This isn’t the world.”
“Man, you’ve always gotta rain on somebody’s parade,” Gabe groused. “Oh, hey, Ruda! How was your—”
Ruda’s short stature and round build were deceptive; she could strike as swiftly as a rattlesnake when she wanted to. Toby was flat on the ground before he even understood that he’d been punched.
“What the fuck?!” Gabriel screeched, wide-eyed.
Toby emitted a soft groan, pressing a hand over his eye, and looked up at Ruda, who stared down at him now with her hands planted on her hips. There was a tense moment before he sighed softly. “Right. Would you rather I’d strung her along?”
“No.” Ruda shook her head. “No, you did the right thing. Or maybe the least wrong thing available to you. But you didn’t have to watch the aftermath of that. I did. I gotta see the living incarnation of backbone reduced to a cringing mess, somebody’s getting punched. Sorry.”
She offered him a hand up, which he accepted, still grimacing. “It’s probably a waste of breath even to say it, but maybe socking people in the head isn’t the best way to work out your problems?”
“I didn’t go around doing it back home,” she said with a grin. “The great thing about the class of 1182 is everyone but me is either basically indestructible or they can heal themselves instantly.”
“Well, you always seem to find workarounds,” Gabriel snapped, “such as when you fucking stabbed me. And not to change the subject, but what the hell is even going on here?!”
“You’re an exciting new kind of clueless, aren’t you, Gabe?” she said wryly.
“I’m not— Don’t stand there smirking at me, you screaming lunatic, you just walked up and punched him!”
“It’s not that bad, Gabe,” Toby said. “Stand back for a minute.” The hand over his eye glowed gently for a moment, Gabriel stepping warily away from the burn of divine energy. “Anyhow… I’m glad you two are getting along better.”
“Hey, yeah. Maybe you should ruin somebody’s vacation more often,” she said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Seems to’ve done some good, anyway. See you boys in class!”
They stood, watching, as Ruda strolled ahead into Helion Hall, whistling.
“That girl is one hundred and eight percent out of her goddamn mind,” Gabriel said wonderingly. “…wait. Wait. By ‘she…’”
“Leave it alone, Gabe.”
“Did something happen with you and Trissiny? Oh, man, that must’ve…”
“Gabriel,” Toby said firmly. “Please. Let it go.”
Gabriel sighed, and they began to move again. “Seriously, though. She can’t just go around punching and stabbing people. I am really starting to wonder if we should be worried about our physical welfare.”
Toby shook his head. “Ruda is…rough. You heard her, though. She doesn’t treat people any worse than they can handle. We are a pretty resilient group, all told. In fact, she’s easily the most physically vulnerable member of our class. Maybe throwing her weight around is a way to compensate.”
“Yeah, that’d be a lot more reassuring if she hadn’t gone and taught me that I’m not impervious to mithril when she, as I keep having to remind people, fucking stabbed me!”
“Well, be reasonable, Gabe. You have that effect on girls.”
“Boy, just because you’re the Hand of Omnu does not mean that I’ll hesitate to kick your ass.”
“No, the fact that I’m ten times the martial artist you are is what’ll make you hesitate.”
“My point stands.”
When they entered Tellwyrn’s classroom, the rest of their class were already assembled. Juniper waved and called a hello, as did Fross, rushing over to buzz affectionately around their heads. Teal and Shaeine were whispering with their heads together. Trissiny, sitting next to Ruda, glanced up at their entrance and immediately averted her gaze, staring stonily at the lectern in front.
Tellwyrn, uncharacteristically, was already there, flipping idly through a book. She looked up as Toby and Gabriel found their seats. “Well. Look who finally decided to join us. I guess we can get started, then!”
“Oh, come on, we’re not even late,” Gabriel protested. “It’s not time for class to start yet!”
“Whether you approach it from a philosophical, scientific or any other standpoint, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that time is relative,” Tellwyrn intoned. “If you’re the last to arrive, you are by definition late.”
“By that argument, you were late to every class last semester!”
“I’m in charge,” she said with a grin. “If I’m late, everybody is, and thus by the principle of relativity, everyone is on time. Anyhow! Welcome back, kids. Despite my belief that pampering is a counterproductive approach to education, over the last fifty years I’ve learned to accept the fact that students on their first day back from vacation are simply not going to perform at their best. As such, this will be a homework-free class, and I won’t even ask you to take notes. What we’re about to discuss will be interesting enough, if I have the measure of all of you, to hold your attention; you’ll need to keep it in mind but it’s nothing I’ll be testing you on.
“Last semester we covered, in brief, the history of the Tiraan Empire, chiefly as a series of examples of the various principles of governance and sociology in action. We will be broadening our scope this semester to look at the progress of nations and societies as a whole. The beginning of this study, because it impacts everything that comes after, is the effective beginning of recorded history: the origin of the gods. Miss Falconer, while I appreciate the restraint of young lovers who don’t paw at each other in my class, having your demon send sub-sonic messages is extremely distracting for those of us with elven ears and arcane senses.”
“Sorry,” Teal croaked, flushing with mortification. Gabriel winced sympathetically; Ruda failed at repressing a snicker.
“Some of you will take or have taken divinity electives, but those are not a requirement for graduation here, so I’m not going to assume you have an equal grounding in theological history,” Tellwyrn continued. “The origins of the Pantheon explain, from a certain point of view, almost everything about the modern world. While our gods are far, far from perfect—don’t start, Avelea—you can be assured that they beat the alternative by a vast margin. The Elder Gods were…simply monstrous. Of them, Naiya was by far the most benign, and she is simply icily amoral and completely without mercy. She is rational and consistent, though; it is possible and in fact rather simple to avoid getting on her bad side. Naiya doesn’t intervene directly to help people, but her influence on the world is not actively harmful to intelligent life. Of the rest of her generation, not one were so…genial. The Elder Gods regarded the sentient races as livestock; the only reason they didn’t capriciously wipe all of them out was that the relatively few who exercised a fair degree of forethought shepherded mortal populations in exactly the way we manage herds of sheep and cattle today, and for most of the same reasons.
“My point is, you will find me to be critical of the gods where they deserve it, but I am here to tell you: it could be a hell of a lot worse.”
She paused, pointlessly adjusting her spectacles, while the students stared at her in silence. Personally aggravating as Tellwyrn tended to be, she did know how to hold an audience’s attention.
“And so, our inquiry begins with a deceptively simple question.” The Professor spread her hands, smiling. “What is a god?”
Several of them glanced at each other speculatively; Toby carefully kept his thoughts to himself. Trissiny raised her hand.
“Avelea, are you thinking of reciting Church doctrine in my class again? And if so, what makes you think it’ll go any differently than every other time?”
Scowling, Trissiny put her hand down.
“It was a rhetorical question anyway,” Tellwyrn said. “A god is at the intersection of three things: personality, power, and concept. The first two are extremely basic. We know that gods are individuals—in fact, we know that all of the current Pantheon were once mortals, most of them human. Power is equally obvious. Less commonly understood, but of arguably greater importance, is their meaning. Izara is the goddess of love, Vesk the god of music, Verniselle the goddess of money, we all know this. But while the common worshiper is content to regard these as jobs, or hobbies, or at best a sacred calling, the truth is that these concepts are absolutely integral to what makes a god. Pound for pound, there have been demons, dragons, archmages and several other individuals who could rival a lesser god for power. The gods, however, are more than who they are and how strong they are. It is what they are that makes them so enduring and so potent. They are diffuse yet discrete incarnations of ideas, and this is what firmly roots them in existence. Fross, is that more of your customary fluttering about or do you have a question?”
“Question!” the pixie exclaimed, darting back and forth above her desk. “I’ve been dying to know this but none of the books have anything but speculation, but I’m sure you have some insights because you’ve been around practically forever and everyone knows you’ve gotten closer to more gods than basically anyone, but I didn’t want to interrupt another class with the unrelated question, so, yeah! How does this happen? What makes a god become a god?”
“That was a good question once we finally got to it,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “I’m afraid I don’t know.”
Fross came to an abrupt stop in midair, then actually began to fall before catching herself. “But…but…”
“Nobody does,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “Well, nobody aside from the gods, and they aren’t talking. Apotheosis remains a great mystery. As I said, we know the Pantheon and its few unaligned deities of the same generation were once mortal. The two surviving Elders likewise were, so we can assume that most if not all of their generation were the same—”
“Wait!” Juniper interrupted. “Wait, what? Are you seriously claiming that Naiya was once human?”
“Juniper, have you ever given any thought to why you and your sisters look so human?”
The dryad gaped at her.
Tellwyrn shook her head. “Yes, I assure you, Naiya began life as a human, an unfathomably long time ago. As did Scyllith.”
“How do you know that?” Teal asked.
“As Fross mentioned, I’ve had contact with a lot of deities. All of them, to my knowledge. And yes, that includes closer brushes with Scyllith than I’d wish on anyone. To bring this back to my original point, exactly how this came to be is not known. The Pantheon all rose at the same time; whatever mechanism they found to achieve this, they subsequently buried and expunged from history.”
“Well, that pretty much makes sense, considering what they did with it,” Gabriel noted. “They’d have to be worried about the next generation doing to them what they did to the Elders.”
“You are flirting with blasphemy,” Trissiny warned.
“He’s quite correct, though, despite his continuing inability to raise his hand before speaking,” Tellwyrn said. “Whatever the Pantheon did when they ascended seems to have changed the rules. Previously, the Elder Gods acted with basically no constraint. Now, gods are both defined and to an extent bound by the concepts they represent. There are no gods who just exist; each is the god or goddess of something. The Elders are, individually, more powerful than any of the Pantheon, but also more limited in their actions, more diffuse. Their essence is spread more broadly, impeding their ability to exercise that power.”
“In what way?” asked Shaeine.
“Well, let’s take a modern example,” said Tellwyrn, smiling. “Who are the most powerful gods of the current generation? Yes, Mr. Caine?”
“The Trinity,” Toby said, lowering his hand. “Omnu, Avei and Vidius.”
“Correct. And why are they so much stronger than their compatriots? Arquin?”
“Based on what you were just telling us,” Gabriel said slowly, “Each of those three is tied to multiple concepts.”
“Excellent!” Tellwyrn’s smile blossomed into a grin. “Very good, you’ve just sussed out something that most priests of most faiths are reluctant to acknowledge. Yes, the majority of gods are linked to a single identifying idea, but the Trinity are another matter. Omnu, the god of life, the sun and agriculture. Vidius, god of death and duality. Avei, goddess of war, justice and women. Also significant is that each of their alignments is a broad and deep one; each of those concepts is something that inevitably pops up everywhere and impacts almost everyone. Worth noting is that Scyllith is much the same: she is goddess of light, beauty and cruelty.”
“What you suggest,” said Shaeine, “is that power, for gods, is fundamentally tied to breadth of application.”
“Precisely,” said Tellwyrn, nodding. “Let’s consider Avei as an example. She is the patron of war, justice and women. Straightforward concepts yes?”
“For the record, ‘patron’ is an explicitly sexist—”
“Trissiny, if you can’t make it through this discussion without being an obnoxious pedant, I can and will seal your lips for the duration of the class. Anyway, consider each of Avei’s areas of influence. What, exactly, is war?”
She raised an eyebrow, watching them in silence while they glanced at each other.
“The…resolution of conflict through violence on a large organized scale,” Shaeine said finally.
“Ah, but is it? Why must it be organized, or large? As our resident pacifists can tell you, even threats are by many standards considered acts of violence—but by other standards, not. The Avenists themselves hold a doctrine that war is any situation where two or more parties are in conflict. This should, in theory, expand the role of their goddess to almost everything… Yet while that extremely liberal definition would encompass all diplomacy and argument, the Sisters of Avei seem to concern themselves largely with violent conflict, leaving other forms of resolution to less martial gods.
“What about justice, then? Again, it seems straightforward on the surface, but when you begin to analyze it, justice is such a culturally dependent concept that it may mean completely different things in different societies. Even among peoples who share a basic idea of what is just, the application of those principles is so often complex that…well, lawyers exist. It takes highly educated people to sort out the mess that ensues from attempting to apply this apparently simple idea to everyday life.”
“But women?” Gabriel said. “I mean, it doesn’t get much more obvious than that.”
“Oh?” Tellwyrn tilted her head. “Have you ever given any thought to the question of what is a woman?”
“Every night,” he said, grinning.
“Gabe,” Ruda said, “just because we all know you do it doesn’t mean we wanna hear about it.”
“In fact,” Tellwyrn continued, “that’s another issue about which the cult of Avei are, themselves, divided. Trans women can become priestesses in the Sisterhood, but only biological females are permitted to join the Silver Legions.”
“Nevermind, Arquin. You can learn about that later when Trissiny’s yelling at you.”
“I wasn’t going to yell at him!”
“I bet you’re never going to yell at anyone,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “You set out to calmly and reasonably explain your point of view, and it’s always a surprise when you find yourself yelling. Sound right?”
“Why did I come back to this campus?” Trissiny muttered, hunching in her seat.
“In the case of Avei,” Tellwyrn continued, “in addition to the conflicts inherent in her fundamental concepts, there are actual workarounds. For example, if you find yourself having personally offended the goddess of war, you can very easily get her off your case through simple penitence. And I do mean sincere penitence. If you are authentically sorry for whatever you did to cheese her off, and devote yourself to making amends and living a better life, her personal pursuit of you will simply, instantly, cease. The Sisters have made significant efforts over the centuries to suppress this fact, as in fact have the Church and many of the other cults, because a lot of gods share the same quirk. This isn’t a total avoidance of consequence, mind you; the Sisters themselves can hold a grudge like you wouldn’t believe.”
Everyone turned to look at Trissiny, who shrugged after a moment. “Well, she’s not wrong.”
“The point,” said Tellwyrn, “is that such sudden and predictable forgiveness is uncharacteristic of Avei’s general personality. It reveals that when the first and third traits of a god come into conflict, concept triumphs over individuality.”
There was silence for a moment while the students contemplated this, and Tellwyrn let them.
“So—” Gabriel snapped his mouth shut and raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Arquin?” Tellwyrn said sweetly.
“You make it sound…mechanistic. Like the gods have, I dunno, counterspells.”
“That’s an oversimplification, but it works as a metaphor. It’s nothing so clean or convenient, but the reality is that the gods are constrained by the very thing that makes them what they are. If you’re clever, and particularly ballsy, you can use that against them. People have. Be aware, though, that trying and failing to manipulate a god is a recipe for the most apocalyptic smackdown a person can receive. Honestly, in most cases, it’s better to deal frankly with them. With the exceptions of such as Scyllith and Elilial, or sometimes Shaath and Eserion, so long as your intentions are good and your efforts consistent and sincere, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and probably not cause you trouble you don’t deserve.”
“So…who would you say is the most dangerous of them?” Gabriel asked, clearly quite interested.
“I do hope, Arquin, you aren’t thinking of some kind of revolt against heaven. Half-demons have tried that before. It has never gone well.”
“No, I… I was just curious. I mean, you’re kind of the expert, and it sounds like what we’ve been thinking of divine power all wrong. You basically just told us that Avei’s rage has a kill switch.”
“A what?” Trissiny exclaimed.
“It’s something modern enchanted appliances tend to have,” Teal explained. “Flip a switch, shut down the device.”
“For your information, Trissiny, half-elves have a lifespan in the centuries if not millennia, and dental reconstruction is mostly beyond even the best healers, so you really shouldn’t grind your teeth.” Tellwyrn grinned wickedly at her for a moment before continuing. “And yes, Arquin, your question is significant; the nature of gods calls into question the nature of their power. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider Avei the most dangerous enemy by a wide margin. Nor Elilial…or even Scyllith. She is stronger than the younger gods, but also more heavily bound; Scyllith is all but helpless to act except through the agency of her cultists, who are trapped in an environment where the goddess of light is at an explicit disadvantage. No, if I had to nominate one god I really wouldn’t want mad at me, I’d pick Eserion.”
“Um, which one is that?” Juniper asked.
“The god of thieves,” said Fross. “I’m not sure I understand why, though.”
“It helps to have a basic grasp of Eserite theology,” Tellwyrn explained. “Unlike nearly every other deity, the main thrust of Eserion’s teaching is self-reliance. He doesn’t so much grant power to his followers as teach them how to cultivate and maximize their own skills. As such, he appears, at face value, to be among the weakest of gods. He doesn’t go for showy displays of force. For exactly that reason, though, Eserion doesn’t have the same built-in weaknesses that many gods suffer; he’s not constrained by much, and what power he has is entirely under his own agency. You can’t play alignment tricks with him. You can’t even exploit the Circles of Interaction against his followers, who, unlike every other priestly order, won’t come at you with divine magic. That leads into the primary issue here: Eserion is heavily bound up in the lives of his cultists, mostly leaving them alone as a point of principle, but able to follow and interact with them individually on a level that other, more widely active gods seldom bother with. You irk Eserion, and you’ve made an enemy of the Thieves’ Guild. That is very, very unwise thing to do.”
“The Guild isn’t nearly as threatening as you make them sound,” Trissiny said disdainfully.
“Spoken like an Avenist,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “What you don’t realize about your cult’s rivalry with the Eserites is that only the Sisters take it seriously; the Guild thinks it’s all a grand game. Think about it: these are people who cultivate and hone their skills as a point of divine command, who have no moral codes to speak of, whose chief doctrinal obligation is to forcibly inflict humility upon the mighty. There are thousands of them, they are everywhere, and beating them on a small scale only convinces them that you need to be brought down. Even the Black Wreath mind their manners around the Guild.”
“That…actually makes a lot of sense,” Teal said slowly. “Eserion is widely described as a trickster god. It stands to reason he’d find a way to game the system.”
“Just so,” Tellwyrn agreed, nodding. “To consider the question another way, if we are thinking in terms of how a god can be outmaneuvered or brought low, I would have to say that only Naiya and Naphthene are truly indestructible. Gods, like anything else which lives, can die… But not without being severed from the concepts which sustain them, or having those concepts themselves destroyed. If you try to attack life or the ocean…well, you’re not going to win that. If those two ever wear out and die, it’ll be long after everything else has.”
There was a momentary shifting in seats before Gabriel asked the question suddenly on everyone’s mind.
“How, exactly, do you kill a god?”
“Is that a general ‘you?’” Tellwyrn asked wryly.
“…if that helps you, sure.”
She shook her head. “It depends on the god. In all honesty, that’s a question that doesn’t have an explicit answer. The god of the orcs was destroyed because he was so connected to the land of Athan’Khar that when the land was distorted beyond recognition, he had nothing left to sustain him. A number of deities have been felled over the course of history, though the Church has managed to suppress most of the accounts. Some were like Khar, unmoored by the loss of whatever granted them permanence. In fact, most local or tribal deities are extinct at this point, and even some who were aligned to broader concepts have fallen. Sometimes by having their alignment deliberately destroyed, but the majority simply by their relatively limited philosophies simply falling out of favor, their worship drying up. Virtually all the gods active today are rooted in something that is nigh-universal in the experience of sentient life.”
Tellwyrn paused, twisting her lips to one side as though unwilling to continue, but continue she did. “And then, as you meant to ask, there are those who were personally brought down by powerful entities who set out to do exactly that. Mostly by rival gods…sometimes by comparatively lesser powers. All I can tell you about that is, again…it depends on the god. There’s not a single, reliable godslaying technique; if you are ever in a situation where you must destroy a deity in order to preserve your own being, you will either find a way to do so, or in all probability you won’t. They don’t fall easily. It takes a great deal of power, will and ingenuity to bring it about, but in the end much of it comes down to the caprice of fate.
“Don’t try it,” she added firmly.
Only silence answered her.