8 – 25

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“Uh, yeah,” Juniper said, nonplussed. “We were all there when you got it.”

“No, I mean…” Gabriel let out an irritated sigh and nudged the sword with his hand. “Hey, c’mon. You’re embarrassing me.”

“He’s talking to his sword,” Fross stage whispered.

“If you’re certain this is a good idea.”

The voice was feminine, oddly resonant and actually rather pleasant, but it made everyone at the table lean back in surprise. Gabriel smiled smugly for a second, then his expression faded into awkwardness.

“So,” he drawled, “yeah. Belated introductions. Ariel, everyone. Everyone, Ariel.”

“I’m already quite well acquainted with them all.”

“That sword talks,” Juniper said, staring at it.

“And there’s that razor intellect for which you are so well known.”

“Hey!” Gabriel snapped, grabbing the hilt. “Be nice to my friends!”

“Of course. My apologies.”

“Yes, she talks,” he added, scowling, “and sometimes she’s kind of a jerk. She’s smart, though, and helpful.”

“How long, exactly, has this been going on?” Trissiny asked, staring at Ariel.

He sighed. “Presumably, she’s always been able to talk. I didn’t learn about this until after the battle this spring.”

“How long after?” she asked sharply.

Gabriel winced. “It, uh… The day everyone left campus. That’s when she started… Well, in fact, she sort of began lecturing me.”

“Surely you’re not going to contend that some lecturing was not needed.”

“That long?” Trissiny exclaimed, staring at him. “All summer?”

“It’s not like…” Gabe sighed again, planting an elbow on the table and leaning his forehead into his hand. “Okay, this is going to sound pretty dumb.”

“That’s okay!” Fross said reassuringly. “It’s never stopped you before!”

“Even the pixie is doing it,” Ariel commented. “You are truly the designated comic relief in this group.”

“Hush,” he said irritably. “Look, I wasn’t trying to keep this secret, okay? It’s just that… When I first found out, I sort of… Needed time to process. We talked a good bit, alone, and she helped me a lot with my magic. I mean, both my enchanting and getting to handle the divine. And the longer it went on, the harder it was to think of a reason to bring it up. I just… It wasn’t supposed to be secret or anything, it just turned into a vicious cycle where I couldn’t think of a way to say ‘hey, my sword can talk!’”

“There’s a method I like to use in situations like this,” Ruda said. “I’d say ‘hey, my sword can talk!’”

“Thank you, Ruda.”

“You got it, Arquin. Always here for ya.”

“She…helps you with magic?” Toby asked, peering quizzically at the sword.

“In fact, that is my primary gift,” Ariel said. “I require energy from the aura of a user to be fully active. Gabriel has a great deal of magic in his, but for most of the period after retrieving me from the Crawl—to which, I note, you have brought me back and which I will thank you never to do again—I did not choose to speak up because the power around him as predominantly infernal in nature. I would rather not have that gunking up my metaphysical works, as it were.”

“Wow,” Ruda commented. “Once you get her going, she really gets going.”

“Gabriel does not recall my first actual help to him, as he was in a hethelax fit at the time. It was during the battle of the hellgate; I altered the method by which his infernal aura manifested in berserking, allowing him to remain lucid and make conscious use of that power. I must say he did quite well with that, once it was done.”

“You enchanted him?” Fross exclaimed, aghast. “That’s incredibly dangerous! You could have killed him, or much, much worse!”

“Nonsense. Enchantment of sentient beings is dangerous because of the principle of recursive subjectivity, which does not apply to me. I am not a person; I do not have the psychology of a sentient being, and do not perform subjective mental processes. That is why I cannot do magic on my own, even when fully charged as I am now by long exposure to a powerful partner’s aura. I was able to make tweaks to Gabriel’s infernal power without risking damage to him precisely because I can apply spell effects using his own energy without being subjected to the irrational whims of his subconscious mind. This is what makes me a priceless aid to any spellcaster.”

“And so modest!” Ruda said cheerfully.

“So…you changed your berserking?” Teal asked, frowning at Gabriel. “You don’t lose control anymore?”

“Actually, no; she says it was just for the one time,” he replied.

“And we will not be doing that again,” Ariel added firmly. “That was a crisis. Meddling with infernal power under any circumstances is a last desperate resort to be employed only in the lack of any other options.”

“Well, she does seem to have sense,” Trissiny said with grudging approval.

“As Gabriel is an arcanist who now possesses a considerable wellspring of divine energy, dealing with the infernal at all is off the table.”

“Gabriel is the one making the decisions in this partnership,” he said sharply.

“Of course, but Gabriel does, thankfully, possess the rudimentary common sense to follow excellent advice when he hears it, which is why this partnership has been largely successful despite his lack of inherent wisdom.”

“I like this sword!” Ruda cackled.

“You want her?” Gabriel asked sourly.

“I would be wasted on a non-magic user,” Ariel said with clear disdain. “As I was saying, making deliberate use of infernal power is most unwise. In fact, I believe we may be able to access his new divine powers to cut off the berserking effect entirely, though he has been reluctant to experiment.”

“That would be some of that wisdom you say I don’t have,” Gabriel snapped. “All right, that’s my thing on the table. Who’s next?”


 

“There really wasn’t much more to it, after that,” Merry said, her eyes on the steaming teacup she held in both hands. “The magistrate really chewed me up one side and down the other… But in an odd way, I think he had a soft spot for cases like mine. Anyhow, he didn’t throw the book at me; once he got done explaining what a dumbass I was, he made a pretty serious pitch for the Legions. The actual sentence for the trouble I caused would’ve just been a couple months in a cell, but he seemed to think this was what I needed to get over some of my more silly ideas. By the time he was done talking, I couldn’t really argue, so…here I am.”

She shrugged, took a sip of tea and set the cup down again. “I was gonna go off and save the world, you know? Or at least a village or something. Glory and riches, maybe a handsome prince, and generally not get stuck grinding myself down to a numb little lump of coal in pointless, menial jobs the way both my parents did. I was a stupid fucking child, is all.” She finally raised her eyes to look at them. “And…that was the last time I really liked myself. Here… It’s all about keeping my head down, doing the work, not making waves. Honestly, on a twisted level I’ve been enjoying being put upon by Syrinx. That was… There’s something noble about having an enemy who’s actually evil.”

“Words like ‘evil’ are tricky,” Principia said quietly. “I’d be careful about throwing that around. Most enemies are just people who have their reasons.”

“And this one?” Merry asked flatly, turning to stare at her.

Principia grinned. “No, I think you’re right. She actually is pretty evil. Just…general advice. I’m the boss now, I have to say stuff like that.”

“Well, apparently I’m still a stupid child at heart,” Merry said with an answering smile, “so maybe I have to listen to it.”

“I sort of get where you’re coming from.” Farah shifted in her seat when they all turned to look at her, but continued. “I was an acolyte at a Nemitite temple, and…I really loved it. I felt called to it. Honestly, after my enlistment is over, I think I’ll probably go back there. But… I was studying under Aleesa Asherad, who was the first victim of the priest killer last year.” She lowered her eyes. “You can’t imagine what that was like. Aleesa was one of the best people I ever knew. Intelligent, but also wise, and such a good teacher… It completely shattered us, all of us. It was like the whole temple lost its heart. And I…” She gulped, grimacing. “Well, I had a crush on this guy, and I tried to, uh, turn to him for comfort and got rejected. That was the excuse I used to leave the temple… But the truth was, I was just afraid. It was supposed to have been a safe place. How could something like that just happen? I…felt weak, and helpless, and didn’t want to anymore. I actually tried to join the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You what?” Casey exclaimed in surprise.

Farah smiled bitterly. “Yeah, well, who’s less afraid than the Eserites, after all?”

“Eserites feel fear the same as anyone else,” Principia noted. “We just turn it into motivation.”

“Is that doctrine?” Farah asked curiously. “Because Bishop Darling said almost exactly the same thing.”

“So you went to Darling?” Principia asked.

“Yeah… He paid for a really good shrine for Aleesa at the Temple of Vidius. I don’t even know why, but it made me think of him. He, uh, was very tactful, but he rather strongly suggested I was not a good fit for the Guild. But he did point me at the Legion.” She gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “And you know something, he was absolutely right. I…like this. I don’t plan to spend my whole life at it, like I said, but… I don’t feel afraid anymore. I feel strong. I know there are things in the world that I can’t begin to fight, but the Legion’s taught me how to stand up and fight, win or lose, if it needs to be done. I already got what I needed from my enlistment, and I’m very willing to give my all to Avei in exchange.”

She stopped, staring fiercely around at them. Merry raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, but the others smiled back.

“Well,” Principia said after a moment. “I guess that leads us to the ones we’re all really curious about.”


 

“It was at the battle,” Toby said, staring down at his folded hands. “At the worst part. I didn’t know where anyone was, I thought Triss had been killed… I was alone, demons were coming at me, and…I snapped. I was so angry. I let it out at them with sheer divine magic.”

“With the greatest of respect to your pacifism, Toby,” Shaeine said with a gentle smile, “I cannot think of a more understandable reaction in that situation.”

“It’s not that,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s… I felt the light blaze up in me, in a way I’ve never felt it before. So much… It seemed like it filled the whole sky. Like once I called on it, I wasn’t even in control anymore. Just for a moment, though. And when it faded…they were gone. All of them. Dozens, just…vaporized. Reduced to ashes.” He closed his eyes. “In two seconds I destroyed dozens of sentient beings.”

Gabriel reached over to place a hand on his shoulder.

“I know you guys have been worried about me,” Toby continued, opening his eyes again, but still looking downward. “In class, I have not been doing well making things out of light. It’s just… I can’t stop seeing that. My power, used to kill and destroy. Ever since, I’ve felt this…loathing. When I try to touch the light, part of me runs away from it. I don’t know what to do.”

“Have you spoken to Omnu about this?” Trissiny asked quietly.

“Of course,” he said, looking up at her. “It’s… I don’t know how it is with you and Avei, but under most circumstances, Omnu doesn’t communicate with me in words. That requires a ritual, which requires a sacred space… Well, generally, I can feel him there, and he’s a kind of emotional presence. When he wants to express something, it’s just these washes of feeling through my mind. It’s very…well, it’s beautiful, generally. But with this… All I get from him is comfort. Calm. A sense that it’ll be all right. And I don’t know how he can think that. I feel awful, because it’s so stupidly selfish to make such demands of one’s god, but it’s like…he won’t offer me what I need.”

“Gods, as a rule,” said Shaeine, “when they offer help or communication at all, do offer what we need. When what they give is in conflict with our expectations, it is not generally they who are wrong.”

“I’ve thought of that, too,” Toby said, grimacing. “I just feel…stuck.”

“Toby,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown, “did you feel burned at all, when you flared up at the demons?”

“No,” he said, frowning in response. “In fact, I thought that was odd. It was a huge amount of power. It should have burned me, at least a little.”

“It should have utterly incinerated you,” she said. Toby blinked at her in surprise. “I know that spell, Toby, though I’ve never heard of an Omnist cleric of any kind using it. The divine nova is… Well, you know what it is, you were there. Had you done that in a crowd of people rather than demons, it would have healed everything any of them suffered, right down to any scars they had. Two Hands of Avei have died doing that.”

“Died?” he whispered.

“It has to do with the nature of our faith, and of Avei’s support,” she said seriously. “It’s more power than any mortal can safely channel. Avei’s power is granted to us as a weapon, but only in proportions that mortals can bear. To call on her as…as magical artillery, that’s a tremendously serious thing. She has not forbidden it, but given us doctrines warning against such reliance on sheer firepower, and imposed a steep price if it is to be called upon. Only a Hand or a high priestess even has the right to make that request, and she knows, in so doing, that she is offering her life in exchange for calling down the goddess’s wrath upon her enemies.”

“Boots, I know it’s been a while since I’ve made fun of you for it,” Ruda commented, “but I feel it’s appropriate here to state that your religion is fucked up.”

Trissiny glanced at her and sighed before turning her attention back to Toby. “The point is, it’s not just Avenists who have used that spell. Salyrite clerics have also managed it, but Salyrene has different rules. She simply won’t do it under the majority of circumstances, but when she does, it’s using her clerics as a focal point while also protecting them. They always came away unharmed.”

“So…” Toby frowned deeply. “Wait. You’re saying…”

“I am saying,” she replied, “you did not kill those demons. Omnu did.”

There was quiet around the table for a long moment. The sounds of talk, laughter and clattering dishes from the Visage’s other patrons washed over them, leaving no impression.

“That can’t be,” Toby whispered. “Omnu is peace. Omnu is life.”

“They were demons,” Teal said quietly.

Toby shook his head stubbornly. “That shouldn’t matter! Omnu has used his power to defend against demons, but that kind of aggression…”

“What, exactly, is involved in getting an actual conversation with Omnu?” Gabriel asked, tilting his head.

“Well… The ritual itself isn’t too hard. It just needs to be performed at a major temple. It’d have to be the one in Tiraas, there aren’t any others of sufficient importance to the faith on this continent. I would have to have the use of the main sanctuary to myself for a few hours. I really hate to create that kind of imposition to others of the faith…”

“Honestly, man, I think you really need to do that,” Gabriel said seriously. “Aside from the fact that this is bothering you… Even not being Omnist, I get where you’re coming from. This looks like weird behavior from him. If you’re gonna be his Hand in this world, you need to understand what he’s doing, especially when he’s using you to do it.”

“I suspect that monks at the temple will not begrudge you its use,” Shaeine added.

“For what it may be worth,” said Trissiny, “different rules apply to demons. Against demonic forces, ‘no quarter’ is considered acceptable terms of engagement for both the Silver Legions and most mortal armies.”

“Yes, yes,” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “Grr, smite, stab…”

“Knock it off,” Trissiny said curtly. “The reality is you generally can’t take demons prisoner. They are psychologically incapable of behaving, for one thing; in the rare event they will even try to surrender, they don’t stay that way for long. They’ll attack the moment they get a chance, and often before there’s a reasonable chance; it’s like they just can’t stand not fighting. Also, mortal forces simply cannot properly care for them. It takes a warlock to keep a demon on the mortal plane in anything like good shape, and most warlocks banish their familiars back to the infernal plane when not using them precisely because it’s difficult. Our healing is lethal to them; many species can’t even eat the food in this dimension. There are two which are known to be allergic to water. Killing them is not only the sole possible response, it’s generally the only mercy we can offer their kind.”

“That may all be true,” Gabriel muttered, “but it still has disturbing overtones.”

“I never claimed it didn’t,” Trissiny said grimly. “It’s not as if we long for combat with demons, Gabe. If Avei’s forces had our way, they would just stay in their realm, where they belong.”

“That’s…actually sort of good to know,” Teal said quietly. She fell silent when the others turned to look at her, but Shaeine squeezed her hand encouragingly. “It…I… From the same battle… I gave Vadrieny full freedom to fight. However she needed to.”

“Oh,” said Fross. “Ouch.”

“Yeah,” Teal said glumly. “It… Well, it was a hell of a thing. Pun not intended. She… One guy actually tried to surrender. He was dead before he finished getting the word out. I mean, I understand war, but that’s…y’know…murder. I had to watch it from very close.”

“Teal,” Trissiny said quietly, “based on what Vadrieny knew of the hellgate, she has intact general knowledge of demons?”

“Yeah, I see where this is going,” Teal said, “and yes…she’s said sort of what you did, that demons can’t be trusted to surrender. I… Well, I wasn’t sure how much credence to give that. She didn’t explain it in detail the way you did, and… She’s been pretty offended that I have a hard time with it. It’s hard having a relationship like this, see? We can’t lie or keep secrets. It’s very intimate, but it’s really dicey when there’s any kind of intractable conflict.”

“Can I make a suggestion?” Trissiny asked.

“Um,” Ruda said pointedly.

“Please,” said Teal, nodding at Trissiny. “I respect your opinion.”

Trissiny nodded in return. “Well, I’m sorry to have to say it, Teal, but in this case, my opinion is that you haven’t been very fair toward Vadrieny.”

“…okay, that’s not what I was expecting to hear,” Gabriel admitted.

“I don’t mean just this, the difference of opinion about the demons,” Trissiny went on. “From what she said to me, that night on the lawn… Vadrieny has gone to great lengths and bent over backward to accommodate you and your way of thinking, which is inherently alien to her. And really, that makes perfect sense, considering you have to live on this plane, in mortal society. But…have you done anything to tend to her needs?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Teal said a little stiffly.

“I’m not talking about demonic stuff,” Trissiny said quickly. “Obviously, no, it’s best not to get her involved in anything like that. But Teal…she’s a warrior. I know how you feel about violence, but take it from someone who knows… If you have the skill and the inclination to fight, sometimes the best way you can express your care for the people you love is to defend them. And let’s face it, we all lead interesting lives. We can all do with some defending from time to time.”

“What are you suggesting?” Teal asked.

Trissiny smiled. “Well… You’ve been practicing with us, learning to use martial arts to fight without inflicting harm. When we’ve fought in our various adventures, Vadrieny has always been careful not to hurt anyone…I mean, before the hellgate, anyway. Isn’t there grounds for a compromise, there?”

“You want to train the archdemon?” Gabriel asked, his eyebrows shooting upward.

Trissiny shrugged. “I’m actually not sure how… I mean, she could seriously hurt someone. But… What if we taught her to fight, too? I’ve seen her fight, it’s all slashing and screeching. I’ve had the thought more than once that she doesn’t retain much of your muscle memory.”

“Boy, is that the truth,” Teal said, grimacing.

“I think this is actually a really good idea,” said Toby, looking more animated. “It’s a way to let Vadrieny be herself without bringing her into conflict with the demands of mortal life. And that can only be good. She deserves to be appreciated and accepted, too, and to be able to express her own nature.”

“Yeah, but how?” Ruda asked. “Boots had the right of it. Training in any kind of martial arts involves some inevitable injuries. In her case, that would almost certainly make someone extremely dead.”

“Um.” Juniper raised a hand timidly. “I could spar with her?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“That would sort of help me, too,” the dryad went on. “I don’t have anybody I can safely spar with, for the same reason. I watch you guys practicing, and I really get the feeling all my exercises aren’t giving me the same level of experience you get. Also, Professor Ezzaniel kind of harps on that.”

“That leaves us with the same question of how, though,” said Fross. “Sure, you’re in no danger from any kind of demon, but… If she so much as touches you, poof.”

“A countermeasure could be arranged,” Ariel chimed in. “At issue is that Vadrieny’s physical form is a manifestation of infernal magic and would be nullified by contact with the dryad. I’ve not heard of this specific measure being exercised to protect a demon—I’m sure I needn’t explain why—but there is a precedent of using the Circles of Interaction to do similar, preventing the annihilation effect without actually augmenting the power being protected. It’s difficult magic, though, and as I said, there are no standing measures to use it specifically for the infernal…”

“Bet you anything Tellwyrn could work something up,” Gabriel mused.

“She probably would, too,” Ruda added. “It’s explicitly for educational purposes, right? If nothing else, we could go to Ezzaniel first. Bet he’d be fuckin’ delighted to be able to get these two into the ring. He’ll pitch the idea hard.”

“Guys,” Teal said quietly, tears glistening in her eyes despite her broad smile, “thank you. So much. From both of us.”


 

“I had a bad feeling about it from the beginning,” Casey said, shaking her head. For all the difficult nature of her story, she seemed totally calm. “I mean… That night. Even when she was offering to sponsor me, I was seeing her running Andy through. He was seventeen, and no threat to her, and she just put a sword in him and grinned like she was having the time of her damn life. All three of the other Bishops, being sane people, ripped into her over that, and she shrugged it off like they were being melodramatic or something. Yeah, I knew going in that Basra had something truly rotten in her core, but she was offering me a way out. The Church had my family; the Empire had managed to get custody of us kids, but… Everything was up in the air and it was looking very likely that everyone I ever knew was going to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, at least. As a Legionnaire, I could gain some credibility, save myself, and maybe work toward getting some of the others out.” She shrugged. “I guess with my upbringing, I’m sort of predisposed to be willing to make deals with devils. Basra Syrinx just might be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever had to contend with, though.”

“Well,” Merry said after a short silence, “that really puts things in perspective for us, I guess. It’s just, it’s a hell of a thing, Elwick. You get that, right? Nobody expects to find they’ve been bunking with a warlock.”

“I am not a warlock,” Casey said firmly. “The Wreath does not teach kids to use infernal magic; they go to great lengths in legacy families to keep the young ones away from it. I know what it feels like—that’s how I warned Basra that night in her house when the Wreath attacked—but that’s it. Nothing proactive until you’re old enough to have self-control, and then they teach slowly. The point of a good infernal education is to ensure you can do everything safely before moving on to the next thing. Children would just kill themselves; it’s a path that doesn’t allow for mistakes. Honestly, the Black Wreath are just about the only people who do handle the infernal professionally. Even the Strike Corps, even the Church’s holy summoners, have a lot of attrition from accidents. The Wreath can’t afford to be so sloppy.”

“See, this is leading into the thing I think we’re all concerned about,” Principia said. “I am still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. Szaravid is still a Nemitite at heart. Are you still Wreath, Elwick?”

Casey drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking specifically about that very thing. What I keep coming back to is that this experience, Basra aside, has been the best thing for me. I grew up with one religion; I’ve spent the last few months surrounded by what could be considered the opposite religion. I’ve heard them both rail against the evils of each other, and heard the absolute sincerity in it. In this position, I can kind of see where both have points, and where both are wrong.” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could ever be Wreath again. I’ve just got too many questions. It wasn’t all bad; Elilial’s ways are all about cleverness, and let’s face it, if it wasn’t for that I’d be as deep in Syrinx’s thrall as poor Covrin is right now. But there’s a strength, a sincerity to Avenism… It’s hard to put into words. Hearing the priestesses talk about justice, though, I have no trouble understanding why people believe. I don’t know what I am, girls, but I’m gonna figure that out. And I’m pretty sure no religion owns all the answers.”

There was quiet at the table while they digested that. After a few long moments, Ephanie cleared her throat.

“Well… Unless you have more to say, Elwick?” Casey shook her head. “Right, then. That’s about as good a segue as I could ask for. Well, I was raised in an Avenist temple, obviously. Joined the Legions at sixteen. I was a Lieutenant upon being dishonorably discharged.”

“What’d you do?” Farah asked, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Um. Sorry. I just…”

“It’s okay,” Ephanie said with a bitter little smile. “To answer the question, I fell in love.”

“They kick you out for that?” Merry asked.

“Pretty sure it’s the circumstances,” said Principia. “Which we’ll find out, if you’ll all shut up.”

“Thanks, Sarge,” Ephanie said wryly. “I… Okay, I’m not going to go into the details of my courtship, that’s not really germane. But yes, he was a Huntsman of Shaath. Quite aside from the insult this was to the Sisters…” She trailed off, lowering her eyes and frowning.

“It’s okay,” Principia said after a moment. “I was serious before, Avelea, we do all need to have this out, but you take what time you need.”

“Women are like pets to them,” Ephanie continued after a moment. “Just…exactly like that. Expected to be decorative, and useful. Women offer and receive affection, but… We aren’t equals. Not truly people. As a Huntsman’s wife, I was subordinate. Expected to be obedient. To kneel at his feet, do whatever he ordered…be patted on the head when I pleased him and whipped with a belt if I didn’t.” She swallowed heavily, painfully. “And I loved it. Everything about it felt so right to me. It was like I was only just discovering who I was. A pet. I loved it so much I was willing to turn my back on everything I had been raised to honor. It was…who I was. Am.”

“Okay,” Merry said. “That is seriously—”

“Everyone at this table,” Principia interrupted, “should think very carefully before passing judgment on anyone else.”

“That…is completely correct,” Merry said, flushing. “Sorry, Ephanie. I will be shutting up now.”

Ephanie shrugged, still wearing that dark little smile. “Well, I can’t say you’re wrong. It’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?”

“Humans,” Principia said, shaking her head.

“Excuse me,” Casey said, “what was that just now about making judgments?”

“Well, I’m sorry, but human cultures have this thing about sexuality that still boggles my mind after two centuries,” Principia replied. “Some people are submissive by nature. I don’t get why that is such a challenging thing for Avenists to wrap their heads around when they’re all up in arms about how women shouldn’t be judged if they happen to be gay.”

“In the end, that was exactly the problem,” Ephanie said, nodding. “Some people are submissive. I… Well. The problem is, according to Shaathist doctrine, all women are. And that is a lie. It started to fall apart for me, almost immediately. Being alone with Feldren, I could truly enjoy the way our relationship was, but all those other women there… They’re constantly trying to bring in women, you know. Not just because Huntsmen aspire to have multiple wives and they need that gender imbalance, but because women leave. Because most women just are not designed that way. It’s not hugely unusual—a lot of women get by just fine in the cult of Shaath—but it is most definitely not intrinsic. Girls raised in the cult are just… If they don’t naturally fit the mold, they have every spark of life beaten out of them so they’ll be good, dutiful wives some day. That, or they run. It got to the point where I couldn’t get away from it. Even alone with my husband…the reality of what I was doing was there. By being there, by allowing myself to be this trophy, the tamed Legionnaire they held up as an example to all the others, I was complicit. I couldn’t live with myself that way.”

She sighed deeply. “And, in the end, I figured out that my own marriage was totally imbalanced. He never… It was so important to me. To give myself over to someone so completely. It was a huge intimacy, a huge gift… And Feldren never truly appreciated it. To him, that was just what a woman was; there was no inherent significance in it. He loved me, sort of, but the way one loves a prized possession. I wasn’t his partner… Not even his lover, not truly. I was deeply valuable to him because having won me, he proved his manhood beyond what most Huntsmen could ever hope.”

Ephanie paused to take a sip of her mostly cooled tea. “Well. Getting out wasn’t terribly difficult. I went to a temple of Avei, spilled the whole thing out to the head priestess. She didn’t even lecture me; Avenists are big on responsibility, and making it known you understand exactly how you screwed up goes a long way toward getting back in their good graces. Anyhow, religious incompatibility is grounds for unilateral divorce under both Universal Church doctrine and Imperial law. I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself, but the priestess took me back to the main Temple, arranged a sit-down with the High Commander, and got me re-enlisted. My record is wiped out—the black mark of my leaving is gone, but I also have to start at the bottom of the ranks. And let’s face it, even with me officially forgiven, it’s going to be a very hard road, earning back the trust of the Legions after what I did. But…if they’re willing to have me, I’m willing to do it. So…here I am. A little sadder, a little wiser, and moving on.”

She turned to meet Casey’s eyes. “And I entirely understand what you were talking about, Elwick. Having been through two opposing cults, I see now why Avei’s teachings are important, in a way I never did, having taken them for granted growing up. But I also see how the Sisterhood is not right about everything. For all their talk about women being free to make choices, they come down hard on any choice that doesn’t fit their worldview. It’s…an interesting place to be. I’m not sure where or how I’m going to end up, honestly. But for now, I’m here, and I feel like I’m…sort of okay.”

“We’re all here,” Principia said firmly. “And we’re in this together. And for my part, knowing where all of you come from, who you are… Hell, you’ve more than earned my trust.”

“Likewise,” said Merry, then grinned. “And I can’t help noticing that we do have an interesting selection of skills and backgrounds, here. Not every Squad One is anything impressive, but girls, I do believe we can make that list.”

“Oh, we will,” Principia said, grinning. “I absolutely guarantee it.”


 

“It’s just…all my fault,” Juniper sniffled. “I ruin everything.”

Jack, for a wonder, was nuzzling affectionately after, rather than lunging (again) for the mushrooms or trying to escape. She held the jackalope close, running her fingers through his thick fur.

“I am concerned, Juniper,” said Shaeine gently, “that your feelings of guilt are leading you to blame yourself for everything.”

“Shouldn’t I be blamed?” Juniper said miserably. “I killed that poor guy for the stupidest possible reason, and now I’ve destroyed my own sister because I was dumb and careless and thought I could do something I couldn’t. I’m such a—”

“Stop it,” Trissiny said firmly. “June, Mother Narny used to tell me, ‘guilt asks who made the mess; responsibility asks who’s going to clean it up.’ I think that’s very good advice, which you should consider, here.”

“But I feel so awful,” Juniper whispered.

“Your sister’s hurting,” Gabriel said, reaching over to squeeze her hand, then jerking back when Jack twitched forward as if about to lunge. “But Triss is right. Look, we’re your friends, okay? When you hurt, we’re right here with you. We’ll do whatever we can. But…don’t make the pain your whole world, all right?”

“Learn the lesson,” Shaeine said, nodding. “Do not repeat your mistake. Let yourself heal, and go on to do better.”

The dryad sighed. “How, though?”

“Ain’t gonna be done in one conversation,” Ruda said. “Arquin’s right, doll; you’ve got us. Your’e not in this alone. And I’ll tell you somethin’ else, Aspen is gonna be fine.”

“How?” Juniper demanded. “How is she possibly going to be fine?”

“Because Tellwyrn is working on that.” Ruda grinned. “Let’s be honest, here. Arachne Tellwyrn is a stubborn, crotchety, pushy, disagreeable, vindictive, conniving old goat who has the social skills of a dragon with diarrhea and three toothaches, but she is fucking good at what she does. More to the point, underneath all the bitchiness, the old bag cares. It doesn’t come out all that often, but we’ve all seen by now how hard she works to take care of people who need it. There’s real love buried somewhere in that cranky little package, not to mention more power than anybody could possibly know what to do with. If she’s on this, then Aspen couldn’t possibly be in better hands.”

Several of them wore smiles by the time Ruda came to the end of her speech. Finally, Juniper managed a watery one herself.

“So,” she said, looking around at them. “Are we okay, then?”

“Well,” said Toby, leaning his arms on the table and smiling, “guys, I have to apologize, but I’m about to say something paladiny. Ruda, try not to laugh.”

“I make you no promises, Caine.”

“Life isn’t about being okay,” he said more seriously. “Much of the time…you just can’t. The world is full of suffering, and unpredictability, and a lot of getting by means coping with the bad. Life, in the end, is about knowing how to be okay, and working toward it.” A warm smile bloomed on his face. “And in the end, we’ve got each other. We’ve all got our supports outside this group. We will be okay, somehow, and for now, that’s enough.”

“Aw,” Fross gushed. “That was really paladiny.”

“Thanks,” Toby said, grinning up at her.

“Even though that’s not a word.”

“Is now!” Gabe said cheerfully. “I appreciate the example, Toby. I need to work on being more paladiny.”

“Work on being less demony, and you will be halfway there.”

“Do you wanna go back in the sheath?”

“Yes, please. I’ve been sitting in a puddle of some kind of mushroom-derived alcohol for half an hour. For the love of all gods past and present, wipe me off before putting me away.”

“Well, that’s that sorted, then!” Ruda said brightly, brandishing her bottle of rum as if in a toast. “On to the fun part of the evening! Who wants pork and mushroom stew?”

Everybody groaned.

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34 thoughts on “8 – 25

  1. Chapter is a good bit longer than usual, and also up two hours early, a rare combination! But I got started early, and I saw no sense in making everyone wait. Also, I wanna go to bed.

    This is one I’ve been looking forward to, for several reasons. Really, though, the thing that sticks most in my mind is what I had planned for the Sisterhood of Avei in this story. It was always my intention to discuss both why feminism is important, and how it tends to go badly wrong. In keeping with my policy that in the story, as in real life, no organization should be 100% laudable or deplorable, it was important to me that Avei’s cult show both. Some of the revelations here make me feel like I’ve successfully done that.

    Or, then again, maybe I’m just tooting my own horn. That would hardly be without precedent.

    Also, this is the 200th post on this blog! Holy crap, part of me can’t believe I’ve kept this damn thing going this long.

    Anyhow, if we get funded, see you Friday, or if not, have a good weekend and we’ll finish up Book 8 on Monday!

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    1. I quite agree, you have hit the spot with the cult of Avei. Quote of the month goes to Ephanie, “For all their talk about women being free to make choices, they come down hard on any choice that doesn’t fit their worldview.” I might actually cite that one on occasion.

      On the writing side, I like the way you intertwined the storytime of each group, and at the end, both groups come out looking quite a lot more solid than before. I’m looking forward to the next book!

      That being said, being a gamer and thus perhaps somewhat biased on the party mechanics front, it seems to me that Ruda is going to need a defensive upgrade. It already showed in the hellgate fight, but with Gabriel and Teal/Vadrieny getting major offensive power, the group now has tough hard-hitters, and while the role of strategist is definitely a fit for Ruda, it doesn’t really strike me as fitting with her personality to stay at the back *all* the time, as she is going to have to, since the challenges for our sophomore party are going to have to be more dangerous to keep up with the power creep. Curious to see how that’ll go.
      On a slightly related note, I am very, very excited about interaction between the Freshmen and the Sophomores, especially Ravanna and Ruda – these two playing some game with each other would be awesome.

      Another thing I’ve just noticed are the different organizational forms of the various players we’re following – Darling and his band of followers is very much a one-man show, especially since the pieces he is playing with are somewhat volatile – the headhunters, his adventurers including the crow, Basra and so on. Meanwhile, the sophomore class is quite democratic-anarchic with big decisions being made by the group as a whole, and no designated leader. The Freshmen and the Legionnaires fall somewhere in-between, with Ravanna being the leader among equals, and the military hierarchy putting Principia technically in charge of things, but at the same time with Prin’s lack of experience in military matters, she is going to listen to Ephanie a lot on that front.
      Can’t help but think that this is not coincidence, but at the same time, it all makes perfect sense in terms of personalities involved, so I’ll be keeping an eye on that.

      Anyhow, good work as always!

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      1. Ruda+Dangerous experimental alchemy+copious amounts of alcohol. Or something like that. I imagine she would gain some kind of upgrade by the interaction of her curse with alchemy or similar things.

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    2. I love this chapter. It’s not just that I finally got the answers to some burning questions or that I approve of good communication, it’s that I’ve been holding back comments since the first time the Huntsmen were introduced as a religion, waiting for a good opportunity.

      As Ephanie explained so eloquently, neither doctrine is 100% right. In fact, they mirror our culture and its misconceptions and prejudices. I love how Ephanie explained submission because that part is so perfect. It also means I don’t have to.🙂

      Both cults more or less enforce certain roles on genders. Avei teaches women that they are strong and in control, Shaath teaches the same to men. Anything deviating from that is seen as weakness. Which is a huge problem once you realize that there isn’t really a place for submissive men among the Huntsmen, even if they are exceptional trackers and warriors. The same applies to the Sisters, being submissive (especially to a man) is seen as a weakness, a flaw.

      I often say that generalization is the first step to getting things wrong. While groups of people are usually the same everywhere you go, individuals are all a little different from each other. Any doctrine or lecture that starts with “all (wo)men” is bound to be wrong, unless we’re talking about biological facts and even that is starting to change as our definition of (wo)man changes.

      Submission isn’t weakness. It takes considerable strength to let go and completely trust someone else with essentially your life. It isn’t totally passive either, a submissive dedicates their life to serving their partner, they don’t just kneel there and go, “What now?”.
      It can also be a way to better yourself because it gives you a reason to be better, support for everything you do, encouragement when you need it etc.
      Of course, to which degree this goes depends on the couple, every relationship is different after all. There is no universal recipe to do it right and “right” is being defined by what works best for the couple, even if it looks strange, silly or extreme to outside observers.

      What I found is that those relationships tend to be healthier and more stable because communication is an integral part of everything. Dealing with the actual needs of everyone involved shows you quickly if a relationship is going to work out. I’m not saying it’s perfect because people can still screw up badly but usually the foundation is more robust.

      Anyway, my point is that sweeping generalizations tend to be wrong and that both our and the culture in Tiraas has trouble dealing with anything outside the norm. We live in a time where the media tells us what to think before we even got a chance to ask questions and many people just accept that and don’t dig deeper. That leads “Hollywood truths”. We believe things are a certain way because that’s how they are presented.

      The Sisters of Avei are an army and that means they are off duty at times. What they do in that time, in private, shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. Oh, I’m sure there are fraternisation regulations and things like that but I honestly doubt there are only singles in legions. Each legion has close to 2000 legionnaires, there are 12 active legions or so… plus all the support personal, cadets etc… this represents a significant slice of the population and I don’t believe even for a moment that they aren’t involved with each other or outside partners.
      Which means that there should be room for submissive legionnaires, if they can find the right partner. What they do in private shouldn’t matter when it comes to their jobs. Ah well. Should.

      For the Huntsmen it’s even worse. While Avei’s doctrine is severely flawed (but could be fixed to some degree), theirs is inherently wrong. Trying to adapt it to reality would destroy it. Their faith has no room for non-submissive women and trying to force the issue results in their bad reputation with women. They also have no room for submissive men at all. That runs counter to their dogma.

      At the core, both religions are based on gender. Avei is more or less for women, Shaath is pretty much just for men. Male avenists are probably a tiny minority and I have trouble imagining unattached women in Shaath’s faith (although we might have seen one the first time Darling visited the lodge).
      This seems like a poor design choice to me. Avei pretty much excludes half of the population while Shaath empowers one half while reducing the other to non-people. Societies can’t function with only one gender though, you always need both (biologically speaking). Of course, this guarantees neither cult could ever “win” against the other in the long run, making it a brilliant design for keeping the balance. You know, if you ignore the costs for the mortals having to live in this system.
      If the gods planned it to work this way then they really are bastards.

      I like Juniper’s progress with her pet. She still has a long way to go though. She needs to get more comfortable wearing clothes and dealing with human culture. I’d also start training her with a weapon. She might be insanely strong and durable but most people don’t know that. At first glance she’s just a beautiful woman and that doesn’t look dangerous. There won’t always be someone around who knows she’s a dryad and telling everyone and explaining what that means takes time. Not to mention someone has to believe it first. So carrying a sword or wand would solve a lot of problems, showing that she can defend herself. This is true for Teal as well, at least in less civilized areas. Weapons shouldn’t be necessary in Tiraas itself.

      Gabriel’s new berserker state wasn’t permanent … too bad, it was a mostly good change. Of course, Gabe said it himself, he can’t do permanent enchantments yet and Ariel can only work with his talents. Now that he has a divine shield and immunity to divine energies he should get hurt less often, so he shouldn’t go berserk much anymore. Provided he won’t get angry either.

      Now, if this was a campaign and the class was my adventuring party, then I would look into upgrading Ruda. Give her throwing knives, add magic items that make her more nimble and/or absorb damage. Maybe look into short range teleportation or stealth to allow her to close into melee distance or something to increase her movement speed. But this isn’t necessary. Combat isn’t the solution, she’s a princess and has other tools in her arsenal. Even the dragons realized that personal power doesn’t amount to much these days.

      Toby definitely needs an upgrade but it seems the story is already presenting one to him… if he can work out his differences with Omnu.

      Everyone else is okay and/or was mentioned in the chapter already.

      I”d love to see the career of Archmage Fross though. If arcane power is stored in the aura and grows in strength the more it is used, then a pixie mage who never sleeps and never stops learning is on the short track to success already. She also has another shortcut, she could absorb other pixies either for personal or arcane power. Morals and ethics of it aside, she could use that to grow in physical size, which might it easier for her to interact with humans.
      Her disadvantage is that she can’t wear magic items, she can only store them in her aura. That means she doesn’t have access to even the most basic shield enchantments and would need to enchant herself… which as mentioned in this chapter, is dicey at best and highly likely to go horribly wrong. Well, again… that’s a combat situation and not as relevant in current society. I could see Fross doing well as professor in a few decades though.

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      1. Well said, and thanks for adding your thoughts. I always do my best to portray truth and reality in this fantasy, odd as that may sound, and I’m often uncertain how well I’ve done; it’s good to hear from people in the know whether I’ve got something right.

        And you hit upon a couple of things that will occur in the very last book of the story.😉 Long wait there, I’m afraid, but I think that’ll make it all the better when the time comes.

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      2. You’re welcome.🙂

        I’d prefer if I didn’t always forget words in my longer posts though. Wish I could edit them.😉

        I think it is because of the realistic elements in your fantasy that this story works so well. There’s always something I can relate to, be it politics, relationship trouble or academic pursuits. Or in this case, Ephanie’s experiences.

        I don’t mind waiting at all. Re-reading the story and speculating about it is lots of fun even (or especially) when I’m wrong. I need to be wrong more often, if I can predict how the story develops it’s only half as entertaining.

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      3. “At first glance she’s just a beautiful woman and that doesn’t look dangerous.”
        Yep. If I were playing that character and wanted the intimidation effect, I would give her a big two-handed sword. Any time someone made a comment about it, she could wave it around like a piece of paper as a nice visual demonstration.

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      4. I don’t want to agree with your take on Shaathist philosophy. I do want to think it could be modified to bring it in line with modern moral understanding, without damaging its fundamental values. The problem, however, is that most of what we know about it comes from non-Shaathists non-academically discussing what they think Shaathism is about. Or else it’s from someone like Ephanie, who has first hand experience with it, but is even more certain to show a negative bias. I also suspect hers was not a typical experience. Having that kind of turnover doesn’t sound sustainable, and it’s certainly not a wise investment of resources.

        Then again, in real life I know this dude who’s a total piece of shit, but he’s kinda good looking, so every time I see him out at a bar or somewhere he’s got a new chick on his arm. But like clockwork, she’ll figure out who he really is and she’ll dump him, and he’ll go out and meet another girl who will need a bit of time to get to know and be repulsed by him… And it’s been going for years like this!

        Either way, the whole forced extreme submission thing that’s commonly associated with Shaathist wives seems to clash with some other values. Does Andros have wives, or is he allowed to as a bishop? I don’t recall anything specific one way or another. He seems like the guy who might take the good bits from his religion while discarding all the rest.

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      5. Andros has several wives who love him and wear his collar. It seems he is a good man, too. That came up when Darling had Flora and Fauna investigate his fellow bishops.

        Perhaps it helps if you think of submissive and dominant as orientations similiar to hetero and gay.

        To make that kind of relationship work, you need a matching partner. I honestly doubt that most Huntsmen are dominant, I guess most of them are just playing a role. Which means they are probably going to screw up in thousand little ways. They pretend.
        And similiar to a gay man pretending to be straight, marrying a woman and living a lie, it’s not going to work out. Because something very important to both is missing. Sure, maybe they soldier on and pretend, keep the facade up for religious reasons or for their kids. But they won’t be very happy.

        Shaath says that all men are superior to all women (as far as we know anyway). That’s two lies right there. Even ignoring the fact that only a minority of the population has dominant/submissive tendencies, it ignores a full subset on either side.
        That means if you grow in a shaathist community and during puberty realize that you are different… then you can either pretend or leave your faith (and your family). I think Chase Masterson is such a case. For all his misogyny he seems awfully fascinated with strong women to the point where he’s a total brat who can’t resist teasing them.
        The girls probably don’t get that choice, they are forced into a submissive role no matter what and their only way out is running away… which might be difficult for them. Parallels can be found in the treatment of women in fundamentalist/orthodox muslim families/societies.

        I think Ephanie is more an exception than the norm. The sad thing is, she was happy and in love… but her husband didn’t treat her right. Because he didn’t see her as equal. It’s difficult to submit, to give up some or all your rights, to exchange your freedom for control… if you don’t have rights or freedom to begin with.
        She was presented as an example, as evidence that Shaath is right… when she knew it was all a lie.

        To make this religion work with modern moral understanding, you’d first have to let everyone go who isn’t male/dominant or female/submissive and then only allow those in. Yeah, they’d be severely reduced in number, experience a lot of trouble with each new generation and quickly fade into obscurity.

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  2. Typo:

    the power around him as predominantly infernal in nature
    the power around him [was] predominantly infernal in nature

    I’d need to think to adequately convey my feelings as to the completeness of this chapter. I’ll just say I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to another soonish!

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  3. Casey mentions making deal with devils… and here I thought there is no such thing in her world. When Teal spotted her parents she said “Talk of the demon”… and devils have never been mentioned by anyone in the story so far. The closest to the classic devil would be the djinns who can’t affect the world but can talk you into making mistakes.

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      1. Haha, that’ll teach me to make statements before fact checking.🙂

        So that’s what I just did, it was used nine times so far.

        1-10: “devil music”, 2-10: by a demon describing himself, 2-11: “Speak of the devil.”, 2-15: “devilkin” as description for Gabriel and Vadrieny, 4-3 and Bonus #1: “Anjal the Sea Devil”, 5-2: “devilishly fast”, 5-13: “devilkin” again as description for halfbloods and 6-10: “devil’s mark” as description for infernal corruption.

        So my excuse here is that it didn’t come up often enough to register compare to all that talk about demons.😉

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      2. And here I thought it was a subclass, e.g. the sapient ones, like the daedra/dremora distinction in the Elder Scrolls.

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  4. Typos:

    Your’e
    You’re

    (I just learned how adaptive modern spell checkers are. After I said to ignore the word ‘paladiny’, when the spell checker got to “more paladiny” it suggested ‘paladinier’. I smiled and accepted it. Good spell checker, smart spell checker.)

    Reactions:

    Good talk, everyone. Other commenters said some things I was thinking about the Avenist/Shaathist sects, so I won’t repeat them.

    Hey, yeah, let’s show the archdemon how to counter the standard best defense against her! There’s no way that won’t backfire if when the knowledge gets out!

    “And the longer it went on, the harder it was to think of a reason to bring it up.”
    Been there, done that, bought the extreme discomfort.

    Ariel is a puzzle. Taking away the subconscious of a person would leave something that was a broken human. Ariel is apparently not, despite being based on a human model. Ariel is apparently fully sapient without despite being an incomplete and despite the fact that “modern” spell casting still can’t do that (although Crystal is close, if not there). This brings up even more questions than were raised in 8-6.

    Ariel isn’t just pragmatic and blunt, she’s an ass and a snob. That’s fine as long as she’s a useful ass – I am glad Gabriel said “Gabriel is the one making the decisions in this partnership.”

    All right, good reason for Toby to be afraid of the light. Apparently the issue of homosexuality wasn’t discussed. Not that it was immediately germane or combat-related, but still.

    Aw, Ruda is sweet on Arachne! In her own profane, insulting way.

    A comment I forgot to make last chapter: since Ruda’s immunity to intoxication is deific, then if there is such a thing as arcane intoxication, it might interfere with the deific effect, sort of like the demonic blood temporarily overwhelmed the deific blessing (more circle of interaction effects).

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    1. Maybe Arachne could set it up as some sort of arena, so the protection is only in effect in that specific area – that way demons couldn’t use it against dryads. Well, it’s not like there are any other archdemons left and none of the demons introduced so far rely on a spell effect to manifest, so this would purely be something of use to Vadrieny.

      I re-read the chapter again and noticed that no one asked Ariel about her origins. They flat out accepted a talking sword and never questioned her motives or anything. Of course, if it was truly dangerous then Vidius or Arachne would do something about it… but I still wanna know where she came from. It would give us insights into magical constructs like Crystal, too.

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    2. re:Ruda. Given that Ruda is a known bullshitter – remember her story about her sword – I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t heard the real explanation for her immunity to drinking yet. The story she gave could be true in this universe, but it’s also the kind of story she would really enjoy making up.

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  5. So I’ve just been rereading and I realized–Ami Talaari, the girl who was the bait in Basra’s trap, used to bully Gabe in grade school. Wonder if we’ll be seeing more of her soon.

    A dryad sparring with an archdemon! That sounds like it’ll be exciting. Have they ever actually tested yet that Juniper touching Vadrieny would snuff out her form?

    So communication between Omnu and his Hand is actually a bit more involved than just praying. That’s interesting. We do know that Toby is apparently able to receive instructions like, for example, “stay behind at the hellgate” with sufficient clarity sans ritual; also, either Avei works differently, or “make friends, and also listen to what the Themynrite priestess says” is likewise within reach. Or perhaps an instruction is different from an actual conversation? Looking forward to learning more, in any case.

    A stray thought–I wonder how many times Gabe embarrassed himself swearing by Omnu’s balls in Toby’s earshot back when Toby was first called?

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      1. She’s sounded vaguely familiar since we met her, but I couldn’t put my finger on why until she popped out at me again on reread. I’m now considerably more inclined to be suspicious of her, since a character showing up twice in completely unrelated contexts is rarely accidental in fiction😉

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    1. Wait… Ami and Gabe know each other? When did that come up? Was that something he mentioned when making smalltalk with Toby? I can’t recall Ami at all, I thought she was a completely new character.

      Would you have a link or chapter please?🙂

      The communication seems to depend a lot on the gods. Avei materialized or appeared as vision for Trissiny, so they could have a conversation. Maybe Omnu doesn’t do that? The order to stay back at the hellgate was more like something only they could hear, with no way to respond.
      When the paladins want to talk to their gods they can only pray and hope that their god will show up or speak to them directly instead of just transmitting feelings. I guess.

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      1. It was in Toby’s bonus chapter! She was Toby’s illustrative example in the “why are you making out with that jerk / because he’s stupidly hot, ok” conversation.

        Yeah, I’m betting we’re going to get more details on deity/hand communication as and when it becomes relevant. I wonder how Vidius does it? So far we’ve seen him chasing down Gabe at random places in the empire while incarnated, but that was before he was even called.

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      2. Haha, I remember now.

        “Okay, you know how Ami Talaari is a mean, sneaky, backstabbing bully?”

        “Um, yes? Speaking as one of her favorite targets, I have managed to notice that.”

        “Uh huh. And you know how she’s pretty and has got the most amazing boobs of any girl in our year?”

        “…well, yeah.”

        Ami sounds like Basra light… but seeing that Basra didn’t hire her directly this is probably just a coincidence. An easter egg for attentive readers.😉

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      3. Personally, I’m disinclined to trust coincidences in fiction–not until the last act ends and the curtain falls! Until then, Miss Talaari is suspect in my eye.

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    2. one figure from gabe and toby’s past popping up like this is potentially a coincidence – except webb’s already noted madeleine’s gonna show up again soon, too, somewhere in the comments to one of these things, so now i’m set to wondering similarly.

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  6. Hey, guys, looks like no Friday chapter this week. It’s a few hours yet till deadline, but we’re well short of the donation goal and I’m wiped out, so I’m going to bed. If somehow it gets met in the next few hours I’ll post the chapter at some point tomorrow. Otherwise, see you Monday!

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