8 – 6

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“Will you need anything else? There are further volumes which I can pull for a more in-depth study.”

“No, thank you,” said Ravana, surveying the dozen books already stacked on their table. “The assignment calls for a two-page paper; more material than this will simply swamp us, I think.”

“Very well,” said Crystal, nodding her head. The expressionless mask that formed her face was an eerie contrast to her pleasant voice. “Don’t hesitate to ask at the front desk if you require any help.”

“We won’t, thank you.”

The golem turned and walked back through the stacks toward the front of the library and her customary seat behind its broad desk, leaving the four girls seated around a small table in a reading alcove. As she went, the light emitted from between her joints and the plates of her “skin” cast shifting patterns of illumination on the nearby bookshelves.

It wasn’t dim in the library by any means; there were tall windows and abundant fairy lamps, creating plenty of light to read by. Its architecture, though, trended toward narrow spaces and dark tones, making it feel cozy and even a little gloomy despite the light level. Crystal’s blue-white glow made for a stark contrast.

“She’s amazing,” Maureen breathed, staring after the golem even once she was gone from sight.

“Oh?” Iris said warily. “Uh, that’s… Well, she’s not really my type, but I guess…”

“What?” The gnome blinked at her, then blushed. “Oh, for the— No! Are ye daft? She’s a machine. That’s what I meant; the way she talks an interacts, it’s incredible. There’ve been talking enchantments basically forever, but those were rare, an’ always stuck on static objects; havin’ something that moves around attached to ’em mucked up the old methods, as I understood it. No, she’s a modern golem, but almost like a real person!”

“Is she not a person?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow. “If she can communicate as one, what other measure is there by which to judge her? She certainly appeared as sentient as you or I.”

“You can tell if y’pay attention an’ know what to listen for,” said Maureen. “She uses exactly the same inflection on everything she says, an’ there’s a faint pause, like, after ye speak to ‘er. Somethin’ bein’ processed in there, the machinery finding the right response an’ spittin’ it out. ‘Course, it’s all arcane magic, not really a true machine, but still, it’s far and away beyond any other golem I ever heard of.”

“It seems my question remains valid, then,” said Szith. “Even if she is an artificial creation, is she not a sentient thing?”

Maureen had begun shaking her head before the drow was finished speaking. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

Iris went wide-eyed, turning to stare in the direction Crystal had gone. “You…you don’t suppose…”

“If Tellwyrn had done something like that,” said Ravana with an amused little smile, “I hardly think she would encourage the results to circulate among her students. In any case, I doubt she would have done so to begin with.”

“Aye,” said Maureen, “an’ no matter how reclusive she is, if she’d cracked actual golem sentience, there’d be word of it all over. That’s one of the great unsolveds, y’know? Like mass-producible magic mirrors or automated teleportation.”

“You know, your accent kind of comes and goes,” Iris remarked, frowning. Maureen shrugged, averting her eyes, and pulled one of the books over to herself. She had to stand on her chair to see comfortably over the table, but she was used to long hours on her feet.

“I still don’t feel my question was addressed,” said Szith. “So Crystal is perhaps a bit simple-minded; there are no shortage of biological people in the same state. What truly differentiates her? Your explanation implied a definitive line between speaking enchantments and sentient beings, but you didn’t define it.”

“Well…it’s vague,” Maureen said. “I’ve never spoken with a sentient enchantment till today, but I could tell. Like I said, she processes speech like a machine, sortin’ out what she hears and findin’ the right combination o’ words to reply. Supposedly the older talking enchantments really only started to look sketchy when studied in detail.”

“Is that not what we all do, though?” Szith asked. “Perhaps Crystal does not find her words quite as adroitly, but the end result seems to be the same…”

“In my opinion,” said Ravana, “the difference is one of degree, not of nature. We are all of us nothing but machines, differentiated from an abacus only by a level of complexity. The mind is just a function of the body, after all.”

Szith frowned slightly. “When you put it that way, it sounds rather nihilistic.”

“Oh?” Ravana smiled at her. “Do you know much about the sea goddess Naphthene?”

“I do not.”

“Naphthene has no cult or worshipers,” Ravana said, folding her hands serenely in her lap. “Nor does she want any; she either ignores people who try, or sometimes takes exception to their temerity if they are particularly stubborn. Nonetheless, seafaring cultures revere her, for obvious reasons. No ship sets out to sea without making a small offering to Naphthene, for to omit that step is to reliably court disaster. And yet, storms still happen. Those who have made the requisite sacrifices are still vulnerable. The sea is not a thing to be tamed.”

“She sounds…unjust,” said Szith, her frown deepening.

“Precisely!” Ravana replied. “Unfair, arbitrary, random. And that is the lesson absorbed by a lot of coastal societies: life is simply a matter of luck and fickle fate. What is fascinating, and relevant to our discussion, is how they deal with this worldview. In the west and south, the Tidestrider clans are known to be brutal and, as you say, nihilistic. The Empire has brought them somewhat to heel, but in the old days they rendered that ocean all but impassable, mostly raiding each other, but they would descend in force on anyone else who dared to sail their waters. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, and the few who visited among them described them as a dour and unsmiling folk. On the other hand, in the east and north are the Punaji, who are famously high-spirited and cheerful. And both societies arrived at their value systems from the same starting point: observing the unfairness of life.” She leaned back in her chair, her smile broadening. “There’s an old Punaji proverb I very much like: ‘When nothing means anything, everything means everything.’”

The group fell silent, three of them frowning thoughtfully at the empty space in the center of the table.

“I’m a wee bit flummoxed how we came ’round to this from me admiring the golem,” Maureen said at last.

“Quite so!” Ravana replied, suddenly brisk, and leaned forward to pick up a book. “Now, we have here several volumes on history, adventuring and magic which make reference to Arachne Tellwyrn. I propose that we divide them up; that will give us this evening to skim through and isolate references to her failures and defeats, and then we can pool our notes and compose the actual essay tomorrow in time for Wednesday’s class. Does anyone object if I do the writing myself?”

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but I object to your presumption. We’ve followed you this far, as requesting books from the golem scarcely constitutes effort, but the group has not agreed to pursue this course of action. In frankness, you have not justified it.”

“Uh, yeah,” Iris piped up, her expression worried. “I don’t like the sound of that assignment to pick at each other’s weaknesses, but I really don’t see how starting a fight with Tellwyrn is gonna help us.”

“Very well, it’s a fair concern.” Ravana leaned forward again, folding her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “To begin with, do you believe me when I say that the assignment itself is not meant to be taken at face value?”

The other three girls exchanged glances.

“I dunno,” Iris said doubtfully.

“This project is by no means the first time I have engaged in research about our professor,” said Ravana. “Upon being accepted here I commissioned a detailed analysis of her, the better to know what to expect. While Tellwyrn herself has historically bludgeoned her way through obstacles with sheer magical might, she has an entirely other set of priorities for other people. Particularly students. In fact, she is rather fond of subtle tests of character, of placing obstacles in people’s paths and engineering situations to gauge their moral and mental capabilities. I came prepared to be on the lookout for these; I did not expect to find one so quickly, or for it to be so blatant.”

“Blatant?” Maureen asked.

Ravana grinned faintly. “May I at least assume you have all noticed, as I have, the insanity of the assignment in question? The sheer, emotionally destructive absurdity of it?”

They all nodded, slowly, and she spread her hands. “Arachne Tellwyrn is not someone who does insane, absurd things—at least, not to students or others under her protection. She is someone who likes to carefully feel people out using oblique methods before subjecting them to her bombastic approach to life. I suspect that’s why she is still alive; it has prevented her from picking a fight with someone too close to her level.”

“That makes sense, then,” said Szith, again nodding. “Very well, I can accept your assertion, and thank you for the analysis. I for one would likely have stepped right into the trap otherwise.”

“Ought we to clue the others in?” Maureen asked.

Ravana shrugged. “If you wish. We were assigned our room groups to do this with, however; I don’t think we will be expected to extend our efforts beyond that.”

“Still,” said Szith, “you have yet to explain why you think antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn is a wise academic move.”

Iris nodded emphatically. “I think your exact words were ‘rub her face in it.’ Failing us is the least of what she can do to us, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” Ravana replied with a rueful smile. “Forgive me, I do like to indulge in tiny little melodramas. No, being aggressive with Tellwyrn is probably not a good idea. If nothing else, it would be a metatextual failure; seeing the subtle trap and using it to act brutishly seems self-defeating. No, what I had in mind is a simple message, and if anything a gentle one. Or at least a subtle one.”

“Go on,” said Szith when no one else commented.

Ravana leaned forward to tap one of the books. “Rather than the assigned analysis of each other, I propose that we collaborate on a general essay detailing strategies a group of people can use against a more powerful opponent, with examples—each of which will be an instance of someone overcoming Tellwyrn herself. At no point do I plan to make threats or personal statements. It will be far more oblique, and yet pointed, indicating that we have discerned both the trap and the true nature of the assignment, and that we have identified the real aggressor here.”

Another quiet fell; Ravana smiled beatifically at the others, who looked pensive.

“When you explain it that way,” Szith said finally, “I still think the idea is excessively confrontational. We can surely present a statement without encroaching upon her personal history.”

“Her personal history is public,” Ravana replied, “and I assure you, we will get nowhere with Tellwyrn if we do things by half-measures. Let’s be realistic, ladies; we are under no circumstances going to intimidate her, and I frankly doubt we can even offend her. She simply doesn’t take us that seriously, or personally. This is about not being walked over. The risk is slight, but for that, at least, I am willing to take it.”

Szith nodded at that; Iris and Maureen frowned at each other.

“Or,” Ravana went on mildly, “if you are more comfortable establishing up front that you will always be a victim, we can run with that, too.”


 

Last Rock’s expansion over the summer had been minor, but it was a relatively static town most of the time, and even a minor growth had upended everything. Coming as it did right on the heels of the evacuation and subsequent return, there was more muttering than usual in the town about the students and the disruption they caused, but for the most part, this was overruled. The students were still the biggest source of revenue for local business—or at least, they always had been. Last Rock’s newest additions were beginning to call that into question.

The new Silver Mission stood on the outskirts, close enough to the Rail platform to be immediately visible to arriving travelers. It was a modest building in size, but very much Avenist in its sensibilities, all white marble, domed roofs and with a fence of iron bars topped in spear-like points. Aside from the one assigned priestess, who lived on site, the Mission had few regulars, most of its visitors being the would-be adventurers who passed through the town en route to the Golden Sea. There didn’t seem to be any residents of Last Rock itself who felt the need to call on Avei’s protection.

At least, not so far, though that might change, given the additions to the population brought by the other new addition. The Vidian temple, too, was small, little more than a shrine—but it had come with personnel, and continued to attract more. Three new houses and another inn were under construction on the outskirts of town, the Mayor was busy drawing up plans to extend a couple of the streets, and Sheriff Sanders had been sufficiently pressed to keep order among the new arrivals that he had officially deputized Ox Whippoorwill and another man. Imperial surveyors had visited, and there was even talk of an Imperial Marshal being assigned too the town.

Aside from the clerics and others who had moved in, people continued to pass through, seldom staying long, but all hoping for at least a glimpse of the new paladin—or either of the old ones, for that matter. Tellwyrn had made it sufficiently plain that sightseers were not welcome on campus that few tried that anymore, especially after the newspapers had begun circulating horror stories of tourists teleported to Tidestrider islands, Tar’naris, the Stalrange and other unwholesome vacation spots. Still, even after that and the natural waning of interest over the summer months, the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to designate Last Rock a justification-only destination—meaning tickets there could only be purchased by people who could provide a reason for their trip to the Rail conductor. It wasn’t much of a barrier, only keeping out the particularly stupid and deranged, but it did the trick. Anybody intelligent enough to come up with an excuse to be in Last Rock was intelligent enough not to cause trouble once they got there.

Even so, Gabriel’s visits to the Vidian temple were necessarily crowd-pleasing affairs. In just a few short weeks he had perfected the art of nodding, smiling and waving to people without stopping to engage with them. He also usually didn’t go without escort. Toby and Trissiny would have only drawn more attention, Juniper might have created a panic and none of his other classmates were particularly intimidating, but the three privates with whom he roomed often accompanied him into town. Sanders or one of his deputies sometimes shadowed him once there. It was awkward at times, but it worked.

This evening, though, he was alone, which was the point. The sky had long since fallen red, and the sun was only partially visible on the horizon. Now, at the point between day and night, was a sacred time to Vidians; dusk and dawn were favored for their gatherings and rituals. More to the point, certain powers of Vidius granted to certain of his followers were at their peak in these between times.

He walked with a frown of concentration on his face, focusing internally and barely paying enough attention to where he was going to get there intact. By far the biggest threat to his focus was his success; he’d made it all the way to the temple without anyone noticing his presence, and jubilation threatened to wreck it for him. The final stretch of the race was ahead: the temple itself, and the Vidian worshipers gathered there.

The temple was, of course, of two parts. The public area was a roofless stone amphitheater, the materials for which (like the white marble of the Silver Mission) had been brought in by Rail and assembled rapidly with the aid of Wizards’ Guild artisans. The half dozen Vidians who had emigrated to Last Rock for the chance to be near their new paladin were all present, rehearsing a play that was to be performed in a few weeks. Even for those who weren’t professional actors, drama was considered a sacred art to the god of masks, one most of his followers involved themselves in.

Gabriel did not slow or look up at them as he arrived, stepping up onto the stone outer rim of the amphitheater. This was not far from the spot from which he and his classmates had embarked into the Golden Sea almost a year ago, right on the north edge of town. He passed quickly around the edge of the ring, ignoring the performers, none of whom even looked up at him, to reach the half-pyramid positioned at one edge and the door set into it.

Opening the door, for whatever reason, brought attention. Immediately voices were raised behind him, but he swiftly ducked inside, pulling it shut, and then slumped against it, letting out a long breath of relief.

The staircase in which he found himself was well-lit by small fairy lights, descending straight forward without any curves or turns. Gabriel, having regathered his composure, set off down toward the bottom, confident in the door’s ability to protect him from his adoring public. He could still hear them clearly, clamoring outside; the enchantments on it were designed to conduct rather than to muffle sound, so that those below could be aware of anything important happening above. Still, he knew they would respect the barrier, as Vidians respected all barriers. This half of the temple was not entered except on specific business.

Right now, its position was obvious, as the prairie grasses hadn’t yet had time to settle in above the underground complex, leaving a long rectangle of bare earth adjacent to the amphitheater. In time, though, the lower half of the temple would be invisible from above, only the door revealing that such a thing existed. Some temples favored trapdoors, even hidden entrances, as if to deny that they even had a lower half. The facility at Last Rock was not only small, it was simple, and didn’t seem to feel any need for such touches.

At the bottom was a long, narrow room terminating in a shrine to Vidius himself and lined with benches—not an uncommon arrangement for places of worship. Doors to either side led to the apartments of the priest in residence, and…what else Gabriel did not know, never having been invited in. All his conversations and lessons had taken place here, in the chapel.

The priest, Val Tarvadegh, was a lean man in his middle years, whose beakish nose and widow’s peak conspired to make his face rather birdlike in aspect. He was dressed, as always, in the black robes of his office—as was the other person present.

Gabriel paused at the base of the stairs, sizing up the woman. Bronze of skin and black of hair, she was a perfectly average-looking Tiraan like himself and Tarvadegh, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity at seeing her.

“Gabriel!” the priest said, turning to him with a smile. “And here you are, unmolested! How did it go?”

“Brilliant,” he said, a grin breaking across his own features. “I made it the whole way this time! Well…almost. It broke when I got to the door. As you can probably hear,” he added ruefully, glancing behind. Indeed, in the sudden quiet, the excited babble of voices was still dimly audible. “I’m sorry, am I early? I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“Oh, pay no attention to me,” the woman said, rising from her seat on one of the chapel’s benches. “I merely stopped by to see Val; far be it from me to impede our new paladin’s education.”

“Are…you a priestess?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve got this feeling I know you from somewhere.”

“You have possibly noticed me on campus,” she said with a smile. “Afritia Morvana. I’m the new house mother for the Well.”

“Oh! The freshman girls, right. So, what’re they like?”

“If they decide that’s any of your business,” she said placidly, “I’m sure they will inform you.”

“Whoah, point taken.” Gabriel raised his hands in surrender; Tarvadegh grinned, hiding a chuckle behind a cough. “I assure you, madam, your charges are in no danger from me. You can ask anybody how awkward I am with women.”

“Yes, I begin to see that,” she said, her smile widening. “Anyway. I must be off; I’ll see what I ca do about dispersing your fan club, shall I?”

“You are my new favorite person,” he said fervently. Morvana laughed and glided past him up the stairs.

“It’s not uncommon for the deflection to be disrupted by such things as opening doors,” Tarvadegh said as Gabriel approached him. “You are diverting people’s attention from yourself. If you change anything in your environment, they will tend to notice that—and then, in looking around to find what caused it, will quite quickly pierce your deflection. Anything which calls attention to you will unmake it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Gabe said with a grimace. “Is it possible to get around that?”

“To extend it to other objects? Most certainly, yes, even to other people. That is very advanced, though.” Tarvadegh winked. “Crawl before you fly, my friend. You made good progress today.”

“It still takes a lot out of me,” he admitted. “Well…not out of me. It’s not very tiring, and I don’t feel like I’m using much energy. But it’s the concentration. If I let up for a second, poof. There it goes.”

“Yes,” the priest said, nodding. “You mentioned how it doesn’t drain energy; that’s because this is a very passive effect. Unfortunately, that means you can’t just power through it with more magical oomph. It’s a trick of concentration. Once you learn how, and can make it habitual, you’ll find yourself able to do almost anything you normally could while holding the deflection.” He smiled and shrugged. “Till you do, though… It’s a process.”

“Sounds like my lightworking class,” Gabriel muttered.

“Depending on what you’re working, yes, it can be similar. Come, have a seat.” Tarvadegh suited the words with action, sitting down on a bench and pointing to the one across from him. “How have you been doing with your masks?”

Gabriel sighed heavily, slumping down onto the padded surface. “I just… I don’t know, Val. This is the thing that most makes me think Vidius made a mistake.”

“Perhaps he did,” Tarvadegh said mildly, earning a startled look. “I think it’s unlikely, however. Gods have insight beyond our imagining, and access to undreamable amounts of information. I’ve mentioned this before, Gabriel, but the masks are not something made up by Vidian theology; rather something codified by it. We have different facets of ourselves to display to different people, at different times. This practice is nothing more than becoming conscious of the effect and making use of it.”

“It feels like lying.”

“It can be,” the priest said, nodding, “if you are unethical or careless. But if so, that is not a true mask, in the sense that we use the term. It is a true aspect of yourself, one that you possess naturally, and are simply taking control of, putting to better use.”

“It’s just… I’ve always been a bit of a…a buffoon. I’m the guy who says the thing we’re all thinking but everyone else was too polite. The least Vidian person in the room, in other words. All of this, now…” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing myself.”

Tarvadegh tilted his head to one side. “That’s interesting, you hadn’t mentioned that before.”

“Sorry…”

“No, no! These things are not meant to be done all at once, Gabriel; we’ll figure it out. For now, what you just said makes me think I have been trying to start you off too far ahead. It was always my assumption that a demonblood would have learned to play it very safe to get along in society. How does one do that without being…extremely circumspect?”

Gabriel sighed again and leaned back against the wall behind him. “One does it by hiding behind one’s soldier dad and monk friend when one accidentally sparks off a problem. You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head for me, though. If I couldn’t manage to suss all this out when it was arguably a matter of life and death, how’m I supposed to figure it out now?”

“Well, now you have the benefit of teaching,” Tarvadegh said with a smile. “Let’s go back to a much more basic thing, then, the different masks that I know you have. You are not the same person exactly with your father as with, say, your classmate Trissiny, correct?”

Gabriel blinked. “Hm. Actually… Maybe I’d have gotten along better with Trissiny from the start if I’d been a little less relaxed and kept my mouth shut. See, this is what I mean. The more you talk about these masks as a normal thing that everyone has, the more I just realize how I’ve been screwing up my whole life by not doing this.”

“So perhaps you’re a much more forthright person than most,” Tarvadegh said, grinning now. “But I guarantee, Gabriel, you have some different shades. Let me try a more pointed example. You don’t behave the same when talking with Toby as you do when in Juniper’s arms, right?”

Gabe averted his eyes, flushing.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” said Tarvadegh. “But are you beginning to see my point?”

“Kinda hard not to, with that image dropped into my head,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then it’s something for you to think about. And perhaps this will help you out socially. Everyone does not need to hear the first thought that crosses your mind, nor to see your feelings written on your face. In fact, sometimes it is kinder to spare them that. The Narisians have a philosophy that I have enjoyed reading—”

He broke off mid-sentence and both of them turned toward the stairwell. Above, there suddenly came the sound of screaming.

Both men were on their feet in a heartbeat, Gabriel pushing ahead to dash up the stairs. He withdrew the black wand Vidius had given him as he went, grabbing Ariel’s hilt with his left hand, and pushed the door latch down with his fist when he reached it.

He emerged onto the amphitheater in the gathering darkness in time to see the last of the assembled Vidians fleeing back into the town, a couple still shrieking in panic. Gabriel gave them little more than a glance, his attention fixed on the thing that had set them to running. They were fortunate that there was someone in their number who knew what they were looking at, otherwise somebody might have made a very severe mistake.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“Hi,” Gabriel replied in a much more wary tone. The dryad was of a slimmer build than Juniper, less voluptuous, her skin a pale gold that was nearly white and her hair a much lighter shade of green, but she was still excruciatingly lovely. Also, she was completely nude. “Are you lost, miss?”

“Nope!” she said, pointing over his head at the slope of the mountain. “This is where I was going to! Last Rock, just like the name says. I made really good time! Well, the Golden Sea helped me a bit. My name’s Aspen!”

“Hi, Aspen,” he said warily. He didn’t point the wand at her, but kept it out, and his hand on the sword. “I’m Gabriel. You realize it’s kind of a problem for you to be here, right? Dryads aren’t supposed to be in human settlements.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said lightly, striding toward him, “I don’t care about that. So, do you live here? Did you know my sister?”

“Juniper? Sure, I know her. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“Good.” Aspen stopped barely beyond arm’s reach, still smiling, but with something intent and distinctly predatory in her gaze now. “Do you know what killed her?”

Gabriel blinked. “I… What? Killed her? Juniper’s not dead. I talked with her just a few—”

“Now, see, that’s gonna be a problem,” Aspen interrupted, taking one more step closer. He fought the urge to back away; he was still framed in the door, with Tarvadegh behind him. “Our mother felt it when she was snuffed out. You’re just lucky it’s me you’re talking to and not her, but I’m still gonna start getting annoyed if you lie to me. It sure does seem like you know something about this, Gabriel, so let’s try the truth this time.” The smile vanished from her face. “What happened to my sister?”

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said carefully. “If you want to talk to Juniper…in fact, that’s probably the best thing, now that I think of it. If you could just stay right here for a bit, I’ll go and get—”

He saw her lunge and tried to jerk backward away from her, but not fast enough. Aspen grabbed his neck with one hand, squeezing just hard enough to hold him. He reflexively brought up the wand, but just as quickly pointed it elsewhere; the situation wasn’t nearly so bad that he couldn’t make it a thousand times worse by shooting a dryad.

“I told you, I don’t like lying,” Aspen said coldly. “And I don’t like being tricked. So no, I will not wait here while you run away, or go fetch someone to get me like they got Juniper. Now you get one more chance to tell me the truth, Gabriel, and then I’m just gonna kill you and go find someone else.”

“Please, calm down,” he said hoarsely around the constriction of his throat. She only squeezed harder.

“Last chance. Spit it out, before—”

A sound like howling wind rose up around them, though there wasn’t a breeze. A peculiar tinge grew in the air above the amphitheater, as if everything were seen through a haze of fog, but the distance was not obscured. Aspen stopped, staring around in surprise.

Then the figures appeared.

Seven of them, lining the edges of the amphitheater in a semicircle. They were watery and indistinct, but there were several obvious features they had in common. Each was garbed in black, had enormous black wings, and each carried a scythe in her right hand.

Aspen gasped, releasing Gabriel and stumbling backward. One of the shadowy figures followed, stepping forward until she was only two yards from the dryad.

The valkyrie transferred her scythe to her left hand, reached forward with her right, and then very slowly wagged one finger back and forth in front of Aspen’s face.

The dryad swallowed once, convulsively, then whirled and fled back into the prairie. In moments she was lost among the tallgrass.

As abruptly as it had come, the haze faded, the seven reapers vanishing along with it, leaving Gabriel and Tarvadegh standing alone in the doorway, suddenly conscious of raised voices and movement in the town.

“Well,” Gabe said, shaking himself off. “Um…can you talk to the Sheriff, please? I think I’d better go find Juniper. And Professor Tellwyrn,” he added.

“Good plan,” said Tarvadegh, nodding. “Oh, and Gabriel, for future reference…”

“Yes?”

“Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”

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41 thoughts on “8 – 6

  1. Thanks for all the votes on TWF over the weekend; our position is, for the moment, secured!

    Also, thanks to the coolness of LurkerPerson, TGaB’s TVTropes page now has a WMG entry! A place for everyone to post and discuss their theories, questions and debates about the many unrevealed mysteries and unresolved conflicts of this world. I’m looking forward to seeing that take shape.

    This would also be an excellent time for donations, if you’re in a hurry to be secure in the knowledge of a Friday chapter. I need to materialize a student loan payment somehow; I’m presently not certain how that’s going to occur.

    Ah, well, it’ll all come out in the wash. See you Wednesday!

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    1. as i said to vikarmic after reading this chapter, “i see why ravana is webb’s favorite now”.

      it only just occurred to me that things are going to get entertaining if weaver ever returns to campus, what with the other reapers/valkyries being (metaphysically, not literally) close enough by gabe to stop by for a visit like that.

      poor last rock and its disrupted equilibrium. small towns don’t take to that sort of thing well, even if they aren’t predisposed to distrusting it.

      still a valid statement: OH NO, ASPEN.

      Like

      1. it’s also interesting to me that the vidian priest hasn’t clocked that gabe’s foot-in-mouth manner isn’t, itself, a mask that he’s been cautioned – by vidius himself, in fact, if i recall correctly – against allowing himself to assume is his only default setting, rather than a tool he’s used to protect himself and cover for his self-loathing and depression all along, and that he can thus use as a tool for his benefit in ways that don’t tie into self-negation. i’m not surprised gabe hasn’t, because gabe doesn’t really want to think about himself that fairly, but.

        i mean, i’m sure both of them will figure that out soon enough. it’s just interesting to note how familiar tarvadegh isn’t with gabe, as of yet.

        Like

    1. well, Divine magic cancels out Fae, so there’s that, plus the Valkyries seem to be the grim reapers of TGaB. Maybe they would be the one thing able to kill a Dryad without causing any kind of reprisal?

      Like

      1. Well, killing a dryad isn’t all that difficult, anyone with a wand could do it… the problem is Naiya’s reaction to any attack on her daughters. You don’t need to be a scary angel of death to kill one.

        Are valkyries responsible for the souls who do not go to heaven? Or are they so disconnected from the world and life that Naiya can’t touch them, making them one of the very few entities that can kill a dryad without reprisal?

        How does Aspen even know about them? They aren’t exactly common knowledge in human society, so what would a dryad who spent most of her life in the Deep Wild know? Did she recognize a stronger predator? Had a bad feeling about this?

        Like

      2. Grim Reapers also seem to live in that weird twilight world that Mary walked Darling’s gang through, so it’s hard to say how much they would be affected by Naiya in the first place – if she’s working on the standard plane they may be intangible entirely, if she’s throwing Fae magic at them on that plane they’re Divine and that cancels out her magic. Of course, I’m sure nothing wants to pick a fight with Naiya but that’s definitely not a fight dryads (especially since they seem to respect intimidation and high-level predators, both of which are parts of the Grim Reaper presence in spades) want to pick.

        Also if one Grim Reaper is basically equivalent to a dryad in that it’s a high-level magical being under the direct eye of a god, seven seems like a force strong enough to neutralize basically any reasonable threat.

        Like

      3. @Daemion Dryads are actually fairly difficult to kill; hitting one is like hitting a tree. You’d need a very powerful wand to kill one, and avoid being killed in the process. But yeah, given their status in the world, they’re relatively easy to kill.

        Like

      4. Have you ever seen what lightning does to a tree? ^^

        Hit a dryad with a wand from a distance and she’ll be dead. No one would ever do that though because Naiya would intervene and someone in the story said, “It doesn’t take”, implying that dryads either get reborn back home or can regenerate from nearly anything.

        Like

  2. Hrm… Vastrel…. good name for a Valkyrie. I like that Gabe knew that those were present already, and even more that he kept a very level head throughout that encounter.

    I also /very/ much like the glimpse into Vidian theology here.The mask thing is very true, pretty much across the board. Especially with famous types, the more well known a person is, the better it is that they have a mask that they can use in public, even if it’s just one with a bit more patience than they would usually display. Also, I am totally a Vidian at this point, since I most identify with them out of the various cults we’ve seen, just from this glimpse into their tenets. Might visit Izarite temples some too, but I’m /just/ insecure enough that visits to a place like that would probably be beneficial…

    Like

  3. Fun thing is that I only realized what Aspen where doing here during this chapter, and not when Aspen showed up but during the previous part in the library, I don’t really know how that passed my attaention up until now🙂

    Like

  4. More thorough review later, first impression now:

    Aspen is displaying a lot more intelligence and wariness than the stereotypical dryad has. She is still acting badly, but note that:

    1) She was smart enough to recognize that if Gabriel got away he could possibly bring whatever “killed” Juniper down on her and stop that possibility.
    2) She was afraid of the reapers. Previously, we haven’t seen dryads be afraid of _anything_.

    So far, the impression we have of dryads is that they bull forward without restraint or thought of the response to their actions, but Aspen was contradicting that stereotype. Maybe the stereotype was wrong to start out with, or maybe she is something special.

    OK, one more point. The point has been made before that the entire Pantheon has less overall power than Naiya. Dryads are Naiya’s favored children. So why is Aspen afraid of the servants of a lesser god, i.e. the lesser powers of a lesser power?

    Like

    1. Are you sure about the entire pantheon having less power than Naiya? They killed several elder gods before they became gods themselves, it seems weird that Naiya is stronger than their combined divine might.

      Vidius is the god of death, so I’d be careful with calling him a lesser god. His domain exists everywhere in the world, especially in nature.

      Like

    2. I don’t think the entire pantheon is weaker than Naiya, but any one god is. It was seven reapers and a paladin versus one Dryad though, and Vidius is one of the strongest pantheon gods, so the fight wasn’t exactly fair.

      Like

      1. A bit of my interpretation, but close:

        https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/epilogue-volume-2/
        Sheyann:
        “Naiya’s power dwarfs hers [Avei’s], by a wide margin.”

        https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/5-1/
        Arachne:
        “The Elders are, individually, more powerful than any of the Pantheon.”

        https://tiraas.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/4-3/
        Elilial:
        “To see through my fog of war, to alter those exquisitely designed spells so perfectly that neither my warlocks nor my demons, on either side of the dimensional barrier, saw anything… No one god could have done such a thing. If not the whole Pantheon in concert… Well. I will find out who it was. They will suffer unimaginably for this.”
        Arachne:
        “That kind of power and subtlety… An Elder could have done it unaided.”
        (the implication is that it takes several gods to match one Elder)

        Those statements are clear enough – each individual is significantly less than an Elder and it at least takes several together to match one. I thought there was a flat statement somewhere about the relative power of the whole Pantheon versus Naiya but I can’t find it easily.

        Like

    3. I feel like that relative power analysis leaves out something important: an agent of one god challenged another on the grounds of the second god’s temple. Vidius had the home turf advantage. It was a place of his power. (Especially since the conflict happened on the threshold between the upper and lower temples, and boundaries have power in his faith).

      Like

      1. Oh, you noticed that, too? He wasn’t just on the treshold, it was also dusk – between day and night.

        I don’t think the valkyries could have appeared outside of the temple though.

        Like

  5. Typos:

    an interacts
    and interacts

    are no shortage
    are no shortage
    (the noun is shortage, which is singular, despite it referring to a plural noun)

    assigned too the town
    assigned to the town

    Reactions:

    Holy crap, Vidians have an SEP field (Somebody Else’s Problem) available! That can be dangerously powerful – see Douglas Adams for various uses.

    “Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”
    That seems a bit sexist, but in my experience he’s right (note: I am male). We need an Avenist and a Thymenrite on this debate!

    So, more information on AI in this world. Apparently I was wrong on the state of development, but Crystal still exhibits control logic far beyond anything we have (versatility and pattern recognition, not individual problem-solving ability). That golem does seem to be well on its way to specialized AI at a minimum and possible towards general AI. Hmmm… the more arcane magic Fross learns the more intelligent she gets, and she is self-directing her intelligence growth. And Crystal is arguably one of the most complex arcane magical creations of all and she is developing self-directed intelligence. If that’s the pattern, arcane devices in general and perhaps arcane magic as a whole may self-boot into sapience. That would be a serious problem given how much the modern world relies on arcane magic. For now, I think that’s a low-probability supposition as to the upcoming doom, but the implications are interesting. The frustrating thing is, now that we know about Arachne’s background, she should know far more than most, but she seems at least slightly puzzled by Crystal’s increasing abilities.

    The commentary on the state of magical AI also has interesting implications for Ariel. Given that she certainly seems fully self-directed and sapient, is she therefore a bound soul? Does she know that? And form that matter, has Gabriel told his compatriots about her? That would seem to be a rather sensible step.

    Ravana continues to impress, but once again, I wonder if she aims that dangerous intelligence at the right targets all the time.

    Nice to see more world-building, in the form of Vidian construction and theology. It is amusing that their temples are reached through what would be considered the backdrop of the stage, I am sure there is some statement they are making there.

    Hey, did Aspen get the whole set of reapers? I presume there are a limited number. In any case, let’s hope Aspen learns a little lesson about indiscriminately attacking people from this. Or at least enough to ask questions first. Are you a Hand? High priest? Dragon? Are you on the 0-20 list? No? Good, I can threaten you now. Which reminds me of a hilarious little Pratchett dialog where a highwayman stopped a coach and then proceeded to ask questions about its occupants. Any wizards in there? Witches? Werewolves? No, good I can rob you. (Note: the highwayman learned a new question to ask that day.)

    Like

    1. That seems a bit sexist, but in my experience he’s right (note: I am male). We need an Avenist and a Thymenrite on this debate!

      It’s honestly kind of inappropriate to say that to anyone when they’re legitimately worked up over something genuinely worth being concerned about (e.g. one’s sister coming up dead on the divine mom-dar), but a character like Gabriel is more likely to take a wrongfooted approach in that context towards a woman than a man. Especially so in cases where one or both parties is operating under incomplete information–which is to say, when he has information that makes her wrong to be so aggressive, as in this case, or else in a case where the woman might have a good reason to be concerned that he isn’t aware of. In a conflict with another man, guys like that are quicker to try to identify and resolve the information discrepancy, or else skip directly to outright aggression; with a woman, they tend to be reluctant to act aggressive, but also have difficulty extrapolating her information state well enough to reason with her. Hence: “calm down”, which is an awful thing to say to someone who has every reason to believe their sister is dead!

      Like

    2. I agree with Hoarous; my personal advice would be “never tell anyone to calm down.” Making it about women is sexist, but it’s also something of an aphorism, hence its use.

      It harkens back to my previous query about preachiness. In the interests of telling a story that feels truthful, there is some soft bigotry here and there in TGaB that’s made my uncomfortable to right. Things like characters saying “bitch,” which is a word I’ve personally tried to excise from my vocabulary, but my characters say it because…they would.

      I could make a world that’s a feminist utopia where harassment culture is not even a thing, or a world where sexism only exists in the mouths of monstrous people who receive a swift comeuppance. But I don’t feel that would be honest. A lot of sexism, and other forms of bigotry, is exactly the kind of thing seen here from Tarvadegh; little, subtle things, spoken by people who mean no harm.

      That’s exactly why it’s so hard to root out of actual society. In the story… It’s there because that is what feels truthful to me. I’m not necessarily comfortable with it, though.

      Like

      1. “never tell anyone to calm down”

        I am going to agree specifically but not generally. The general disagreement is: I have been calmed down by others and calmed down people under very stressful circumstances where it was the right thing to do. The specific agreement is: telling them to calm down is not how you do it. That might work if they were already close and trusted you, but it is still not the right way to do it.

        Personally speaking, I make stupid statements and do stupid things when I am really upset and I appreciate when someone takes the time to settle me. More generally, unless the person trying is _really_ good at it, they already have to be in my circle of trust for that to work, otherwise I tend to get more upset.

        Summing up, I think _getting_ Aspen to calm down was the right thing to do, but there was basically no way he could have done it (so he shouldn’t have tried) and _telling_ her to calm down was basically guaranteed to backfire.

        Like

      2. It’s specifically relevant to women because they are sensitive to being patronized by men..i.e. treated like they are like children who are ruled by emotions rather than rational thought.

        Like

    3. I really think you’ve hit on something interesting with the self directed intelligence. There seems to be a pretty strong link with arcane magic, e.g. Fross becoming a smarter pixie, Crystal gaining increasing sentience with time, which should also have some connection with Arachne the spider goddess/high priestess?.

      I wonder if that’s how the Pantheon originally ascended, and if the arcane is the key? Get smarter and smarter until they ascend to godhood?

      Like

  6. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

    Well that implies some interesting things about Ariel, who thus far has displayed a fair degree of naturalism in her speech and interactions. I wasn’t reading her with a critical eye towards that though.

    Like

    1. I don’t think Ariel is a constructed intelligence, it seems more likely that she used to be alive and her soul was bound into the sword. Probably more than just a little bit.

      Arachne is at least dimly aware of the dangers but Crystal is so interesting, she can’t bring herself to dismantling her. And now that Weaver left, she does need a competent librarian.

      Like

      1. Yeah, precisely–she seems to have too much personality to be the kind of thing that Maureen talks about. So maybe she’s one of the soul-fragment enchantments mentioned… or maybe something else entirely, perhaps an actual transformed person, or something of divine or otherwise otherworldly origin? We don’t have enough information to say for sure.

        The question of it being dangerous is interesting though. I mean, the students don’t seem overly fussed about it, beyond “what if she’s made of dead people”–Maureen is basically making the Chinese Room argument, while Ravana is supporting consciousness as an emergent property of a complex information processing system, classic weak AI vs strong AI. But Tellwyrn herself… perhaps her concern is simply for allowing an experimental prototype to run beyond its design parameters, but then again, some of the things she said in Juniper’s bonus chapter seem to imply she has knowledge of the technological progression of human societies beyond the point observable in the current setting. So perhaps her understanding of the principles of enchanted AI, and of whatever risks it entails, come from entirely beyond that reference point for “modern” technology.

        Like

      2. Arachne is at least aware of the existence of different worlds and I am fairly sure she has looked there for answers to her lifelong quest, too. That doesn’t mean she’s familiar with concepts like microelectronics or nano-tech, but she knows about nuclear fission and fusion. She probably knows about guns and (chemical) explosives, too. AI as a concept… I don’t know. Not in technological terms I think.

        What she did here casually would be a revolution for our AI research. Crystal started out like this:

        ***
        The golem she had set to observe the scrying array had taken detailed notes, which she had just finished analyzing. … Crystal was unimaginatively named (well, she was a prototype, no point getting too attached); her form was little more than a set of large, faceted white stones suspended in a cloud of pure arcane energy. Gold-embossed sigils carved into her primary center of mass collected and suspended both her physical form and the free-floating energy that powered her, as well as holding the spells that governed her behavior. … The question was a test; Arachne had come to the same conclusion, but Crystal was a work-in-progress and it paid to check up on her reasoning abilities.
        ***

        That is already beyond amazing. Reasoning abilities? Holy crap, that’s like the holy grail of AIs. We can only simulate it with pattern recognition, filters and programmed responses. If the programmer didn’t think of a certain scenario, then the software can’t respond. It can’t apply reason and treat it as a similiar scenario, we have to apply a filter that simplifies a scenario into 10 points and if the current one clocks in with 8 out of 10, then we can tell the software to accept it as the same as the programmed one. Which is so far from actual reasoning it might as well be something else entirely.

        ***
        “Crystal, pull the reference material on temporal magic and Vankstadt’s notes on experimental scrying methods. Cross-reference them for…”

        Crystal let the silence stretch on for a moment before gently prompting her. “For what, Professor?”

        Tellwyrn snapped her wandering attention back to the present. “For any points of mutual applicability, I suppose. Anything that might be relevant to time scrying.”
        ***

        Did Arachne give Crystal the ability to be tactful and gentle? Or did that develop on its own? Because that could top the reasoning abilities.

        From there we go to this:

        ***
        Crystal drifted disjointedly from the trunk, reassembling her various parts back into a semi-coherent shape. She was a bit more cohesive than before, floating chunks of quartz operating in a tighter formation and the cloud of pure magical energy which sustained her more solidly resembling a physical shape, rather than a puff of mist. From one side of her form hung an obvious arm, the elbow nothing but a glowing patch of empty space between alabaster bones etched with runes, but an elaborate gauntlet of gold, studded with gems, gave her a functioning hand.

        “How can I help you, Professor?” the arcane golem intoned.

        “I’m going to need you to take down a letter,” Tellwyrn said, returning to her seat and slumping down into it. “No, actually, I’m going to give you some general instructions and you sort it out into a letter. Contact my solicitor’s office in Tiraas; I need some favors called in. I want investigators, information brokers… Check my files for a list of essential ingredients used by diabolists in…let’s call it target selection. Finding the names of demons, sending them to the correct places with proper instructions. Cull it down to the rarest and most expensive, send that list to the lawyers, my banker and the thief-catcher I keep on retainer. I want to know who’s been buying and selling that stuff in the last year. I want a map formed of where it’s moved to and from, and wherever that map intersects one of the attack sites for the girls like Teal, I want a list of everyone who ever had anything to do with them. Time is of the essence; I want this scrolled out tonight.”

        “That will take time and considerable investment, Professor,” Crystal noted. “Tracking illicit channels carries the risk of drawing attention back to you, the surcharges for these activities will be enormous, and even the fee for sending such an involved set of instructions via telescroll will be considerable.”

        “And?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

        “You asked me to prompt you, Professor, when you seemed to be making large and/or reckless expenditures without considering the consequences.”

        “Yes, all right, fine,” she said, “but this time it’s necessary. Like an idiot I’ve been relying on magic and my own sleuthing to follow spell traces and people. This century, this new era, it’s all about systems, about structure. I need to think like a bureaucrat, not an adventurer. The Black Wreath may have gone to ground, but the stuff this took to accomplish has to have left a paper trail. If nothing else, the Thieves’ Guild will have records.”

        “You also asked me to prompt you, Professor, if you seemed about to do something rashly aggressive. Please do not attempt to steal from the Thieves’ Guild.”

        “Oh, nonsense, there’s not even a point. Eserion and I go way back, he’ll do me a favor. Even if not, they can be bought off.”

        “Very well, Professor. Do you need anything else before I begin?”

        Arachne sighed heavily, closing her eyes. “…I’ve taken a side, Crystal. Almost fifty years I’ve managed to put it off, but everything’s going to hell and this University can’t fight off the whole world. Letting the Empire plant those boys here is tantamount to mooning Justinian.” She shook her head. “Seems like I ought to be worried, but I can’t make myself regret it. The Empire is politicians; they’re predictable up to a point. It’s not like I could have aligned us with the Church or any of its component cults. Gods and their followers might up and do any damn thing at all.”

        “Is there anything I can do to help?” Crystal asked gently after a moment. Tellwryn shot her a sharp look. That was both more initiative and more personality than she had designed the golem to have. Maybe keeping the thing around and continuing to tinker was a bad idea; she’d intended to scrap Crystal at the experimental stage days ago and start the next model from scratch. It was just so interesting, though, the way she was developing. Plus, Tellwyrn hadn’t had such a competent secretary in decades.
        ***

        At this point Crystal is already more competent than most people. Perfect memory, near instant reasoning ability and a budding personality…
        … and Arachne is considering that keeping her around is maybe a bad idea.

        Next appearance:

        ***
        At first glance, she resembled a slim woman in elaborate armor, if the armor in question were banded in gold, embossed with arcane runes and inset with pale blue crystals. It didn’t add the bulk that armor would have, though, but outlined her own slight frame, a metal suit of skin. From the gaps at the joints, muted blue light streamed out, occasional puffs of mist emerging when she moved. Her face was an eerily lifelike but expressionless steel mask, its eyes empty holes opening onto an intense blue glow.
        ***

        Either Arachne can’t stop tinkering with her golem or the golem is adding new parts to herself. I hope it’s Arachne, the other option could result in a lot of trouble.

        It seems that Crystal hasn’t received any visible upgrades since then although a face capable of expressing emotions would be the next step and that usually ends up in uncanny valley so I can see why Arachne stopped there.

        The true question here is… can Crystal learn? Can she modify herself, her way of thinking? Can she develop emotions? Attachments? Is she bound by some fundamental rules or could she change those herself?

        People often make stupid mistakes because they don’t consider the consequences. While Arachne isn’t perfect (surprisingly so considering her past) she has founded the university pretty much because of that. It would be out of character for her to create a golem that could eventually run wild.

        Like

      3. Nice comprehensive review of Crystal’s history there. Based on that, I am upgrading my idea of Crystal to “self-modifying general AI”. As you pointed out, it already exceeds some humans in some complex problem solving areas. When it starts having its own overall directives and goals, watch out – that’s the only warning sign of a runaway intelligence process we haven’t seen yet. There may still be hard limits in this world as to how far a runaway process can get in mental and physical capabilities, which would limit how far a runaway process could go, but considering the powers of the various deities running around, those limits are pretty damn close to “existential threat to anything less than a deity.”

        Like

      4. I am not so sure about Crystal, because we do not know if she has the ability to change herself beyond absorbing more information. If it is all down to Arachne tinkering with her, then she poses little danger… unless there really is something special about arcane energies. Although I’m sure most wizards would have noticed it if they got smarter as their power increased.

        Maybe it only applies to objects… but what about Fross? She clearly became more intelligent as her arcane potential increased but she was sentient before that, too.

        Like

  7. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to cut back on my donations. My company just decided to charge me 150 a month for a tool that I’ve been using for half a year now without cost and My budget is getting pretty tight. I’m really sorry man. I’ll do weekly donations now when I have the cash to spare but after this month I’ll be dropping my support down to $50 a month on patreon. Sorry man

    Like

  8. the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to > forced to ?

    —-

    Gabriel’s luck with meeting unusual women, most of them actively trying to kill him at one point or the other, never ceases to amaze me.
    Now it’s quite unfortunate Aspen ran. I wonder if Juniper has a mean to trace her, despite “losing” her connection to her mom. Theory is that actively “pinging” someone else in the dryad network would unconceal her, so Avei’s modification probably prevents that.

    Like

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