10 – 1

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They were calling it a revival.

Last Rock was not the first frontier town to be the site of one of these festivals over the last month; they had occurred elsewhere, at various points around the Great Plains, and reports from those venues had been enticing enough to raise significant interest. By the time the tents started going up on the outskirts of the town, the anticipation had been palpable, among townsfolk and students alike.

The Universal Church’s hand was subtly but universally evident in the event. Colorful tents and pavilions had been raised on the prairie outside Last Rock, housing displays representing nearly every deity affiliated with the Pantheon—only those who had no worshipers or whose cults were secretive had been omitted. Individual faiths were making good use of the exposure, but the mere fact of these displays revealed the Church’s organizational role; several of them did not court attention as a rule, and some of those who did proselytize had been coaxed to put on more ostentatious shows than they ordinarily would, like the demonstration of swordplay being held in the yard outside the Silver Mission.

The Church itself managed to be the center of attention, both in the use of its chapel in town as the organizational hub of the event and in the enormous tent set up as an impromptu theater on the prairie outside. Pure white and larger than any permanent structure in Last Rock, it towered over everything except the chapel’s steeple and the scrolltower; if not for its golden ankh markings it could very well have been taken for a circus tent.

Matters were certainly jovial enough inside. Folding chairs had been set up as impromptu pews in the pattern usually favored by Universal Church chapels, leaving a central aisle running between the main entrance at one end of the long tent and the raised wooden platform at the other. Now, with the main event about to start, it was full nearly to bursting, with both students and townspeople. Though the first to be seated had grouped themselves distantly, the two had blended together convivially, to the point that a casual glance now couldn’t sort them into factions. That, plus the overall festive mood in the air, was a great relief to those who had been worried about the relationship of the town to the University since the hellgate incident.

Despite the general chatter and noise of people having a good time—a fairly restrained good time, since they were after all at a Church event—the atmosphere inside the tent was anticipatory. Most of the attention was fixed on the platform, where the guest of honor stood talking quietly with the local dignitaries who had been invited to watch her speak from chairs set up behind her. Hardly anybody was paying attention to the Sheriff, the mayor, Father Laws or Hiram Taft, whom they had all seen before. It was Bishop Snowe who commanded the attention of the populace, even before she began to actually speak.

Standing in the back, beside the entrance flap, Gabriel leaned over to Trissiny to be heard over the hubbub. “Did she invite you to sit up there on the dais, too?”

“Mm hm,” she murmured, nodding, her eyes on the Bishop.

“How come you’re not?”

“I remembered some of the warnings my teachers gave me,” Trissiny replied. “I’m a symbol as much as a warrior; I stand for something, and represent Avei. Being up there would be a tacit endorsement of whatever she has to say. That doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do, since I don’t yet know what that is.”

He smiled. “I had the same thought, basically. Glad to hear it wasn’t just me.” Gabriel paused, looking around with a faint frown. “Where’s Toby?”

“Not up there,” Trissiny murmured.

He gave her a sour look. “Thanks, detective. I’m in your debt.”

“Ssh,” Juniper hissed. “I think she’s starting.” Fross dropped down to settle in the dryad’s hair, dimming her light, as Bishop Snowe stepped up to the center of the dais and her guests drifted backward to settle themselves in chairs. A hush fell over the tent, rippling outward from the guest of honor to the very back.

The four of them were the only representatives of their class present. Teal and Shaeine were off exploring the revival on their own; Ruda, when asked if she wanted to attend a religious festival, had said “like a mermaid wants a wheelbarrow” and gone to the bar.

“Welcome,” said the Bishop with a broad smile as soon as the murmur of conversation had died down sufficiently. “Thank you all for coming, and for making me welcome. I’ve traveled widely in the last few weeks, but I have to say… I like this town!”

She paused, smiling warmly at the cheers of approbation which followed this comment.

Branwen Snowe was not at all a tall woman; the raised platform was necessary for her to be visible in the back. She was a calm speaker, keeping her hands demurely folded before her, and her voice, though clearly accustomed to public speaking, was even and not prone to dramatic intonation. Nothing about her seemed as if it should command attention, yet she did. Her presence held the audience by virtue of its very calm.

“I’m developing the opinion,” she continued, “that the frontier people represent the highest potential of humanity. There is civilization here, on the very edge of the Golden Sea, because you have made it so.” The Bishop paused, smiling benignly, to let a few more cheers subside. “I know it seems to you like your lives are just life. Everyone feels that way. I want you to consider, though, what it means to live on the frontier, on the edges of society. To lead lives of risk, where the only things you have are what you made, what you earned, where you don’t have the luxury of centuries of built-up structure to fall back upon in a crisis.

“In my conversations with frontier people, I have repeatedly observed a vibrancy that one rarely sees in Tiraas or the other great cities. An appreciation of life, and a sense of meaning. And you know what? This doesn’t surprise me in the least. This, life on the edge, is what it means to be alive. To be, to struggle, to achieve, to create. To stride forth into an uncaring world and make it acknowledge that you are there! It’s to be in the world in a way that leaves a mark, a glowing mark, upon your soul. I’m starting to believe that everyone should spend time out here on the Great Plains, if for no other reason than to connect with the reality that we, the people of this world, are ultimately responsible for our own lives. You could teach lessons to much of humanity on that subject.”

She had to pause longer this time, her broad smile unwavering, for the hollering and cheering to die down again. Into that pause, Fross spoke just loudly enough to be heard by their small group.

“Have you guys noticed she tends to use ‘human’ to mean ‘person?’”

“Yep,” said Juniper, nodding.

“I mean, those words aren’t interchangeable. Other kinds of beings are intelligent.”

Before that could progress into a whole discussion, Bishop Snowe continued with her speech.

“I am the last person you will ever hear suggest that anyone should forsake the gods,” she said solemnly. “However, I very much fear that many have misunderstood just what we should expect from them—and what they expect from us. Too often, people look to the gods as the answerers of prayer, the dispensers of bounty, sources of wisdom. Too often, those hopes prove forlorn, and yet people still cling to them. It is just too temptingly comforting, the idea that someone up there is in charge, taking responsibility for all the befalls us.

“Yet is that really what they would want? Is there a single cult whose theology suggests that mankind should sit back and passively wait for higher powers to provide for our needs?”

She paused, this time for dramatic effect, and Juniper said softly, “Mankind. Humanist and sexist.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, folding her arms.

“The gods are guides, not providers,” Snowe continued, “and in our failure to understand that, we have left ourselves wide open for all manner of abuse from other mortals, those who have the least reason to lord themselves over us. Everywhere in the world, you will find those misusing the reality of a society’s need to be governed to exploit those who have placed that trust in them. Everywhere this happens, the situation can exist only because the masses of people have grown complacent, because they think it is their lot to be lower than someone. It starts with a simple failure to take responsibility, to appreciate the gift of struggle.

“Even here,” she said more solemnly yet, “even on the wild frontier, we can do better. Even among the most resilient, most adaptive of people, you will find that complacency. And there is always someone lurking on a high mountain to take advantage of it.”

The stillness in the tent was suddenly absolute.

“The plots of the overweening powerful,” Snowe continued in a quieter voice, “exist only as long as we, the people upon whose backs their palaces are built, accept that their power is above ours. As long as we deem it right and proper that only the strong should be trained to become stronger, rather than the whole of humanity lifted up. As long as we look up at those above us as if they simply belong there, without asking ourselves how they got there, then they shall stay there, and we down here.

“Does it seem right to you?”

“Sounds almost Eserite,” Gabriel whispered.

“Sounds almost treasonous,” Trissiny murmured back. “What is she up to?”

They were not the only ones whispering and muttering in the tent, now. Snowe held her peace for a long moment, watching with a calm yet knowing smile as her audience muttered to each other.

The quiet was broken by Chase Masterson, who leaped to his feet in the middle of a row of seats and shouted “PREACH IT!” before being tackled and dragged back down by Tanq and Natchua.

Nervous laughter and a few more shouts followed, and Bishop Snowe grinned down at them, skillfully keeping herself in sync with the crowd; she began speaking again before the interruptions could get out of hand, swiftly recapturing everyone’s focus.

The students at the back were not attending her as closely now, though.

“I think,” Trissiny said aloud, “it’s a very good thing we didn’t sit on the dais with her.”

“Good,” said Professor Tellwyrn from right behind them. “It’s always a pleasure to see you showing some common sense.”


 

The golem was like a nightmarish combination of a familiar wooden practice dummy and some kind of giant spider. Whirling limbs surrounded it, each bending in multiple places, the segments of its central trunk to which they were attached spinning rapidly. Each was tipped in a flickering orb which spat sparks and tiny arcs of electricity, promising pain to anyone they managed to strike. It hovered on a luminous blue ball at its base, lit by glowing segments at each of its many hinges. The construct whirled, struck, retreated, emitting a reedy hum of arcane magic at use that provided a constant counterpoint to the rapid thwacks and flashes of its contact with its enemy.

Basra pressed forward, her sword flicking out with seemingly impossible speed, the tip clipping another glowing joint on one of the golem’s spider-like limbs. The segments beyond that point immediately detached, falling to lie inert on the ground. With the same motion, she brought her blade around to parry two counterattacks from that side, even as wall of golden light in the shape of a standard Silver Legion shield repelled another onslaught from the other. Even stepping within range of the thing was inviting an electric pummeling from multiple directions.

Yet step in she did, though she didn’t stay there. The swordswoman darted back out, moving with unflagging agility despite how long this fight had dragged on. She danced around the golem, using her superior mobility to keep it off-balance. Despite the fact that it could, in theory, travel faster than any human, it apparently didn’t think well in those terms. She had learned quickly that it didn’t follow her repositioning well, and had kept constantly on the move, circling about the thing, stepping in to engage briefly with its numerous flailing limb, always with a shower of sparks as arcane stunners impacted blade and golden light—and occasionally flesh.

It had been a tense spectacle at first, but with every close engagement, Basra disabled more of the golem’s limbs, shrugging off the few painful blows that slipped through her own defenses. And with every attack she made, it had fewer limbs and landed fewer hits. She was sweating with exertion, but not slowing, and her expression remained focused and oddly blank. It was very much a war of attrition, and against all odds, mortal flesh and blood was holding out against metal and magic. The golem was getting slower; Basra grew only more relentless, sensing victory near.

Finally, it happened: having cleaved more than half of its limbs off, she managed to strike the golem’s central body in the glowing blue joint between its uppermost segment and the one below, causing that entire section to tumble off, its limbs inert.

Having taken out a third of the construct’s remaining offensive power, she made startlingly swift work of the remainder. A golden sphere flashed into being around her, and swiftly began to flicker and spark as it was relentlessly pummeled by multiple limbs, demonstrating why she had not done this from the beginning. The shield would last only seconds under that onslaught, but Basra used them well, pressing forward and delivering devastating strikes to the last of her foe’s central weak points.

In a few more seconds, the golem’s final segment was disarmed and toppled over, just as its last counterattack smashed through her divine shield. Basra winced as she was struck twice by electric prods, but did not cry out or fall. The construct’s last sally was over quickly, leaving her standing alone.

There was barely a second’s pause before cheers erupted from the onlookers.

Most had at least enough restraint not to rush forward—they were a mix of Legion cadets and younger girls being trained at the Abbey, even the most junior of whom had had discipline pounded into them from the moment of their arrival. One young woman in Legion armor did stride forward, however, as did a stately older woman wearing blue robes, followed by a two more in similar attire.

“I have to say, your Grace, that was amazing,” Sister Leraine said earnestly, while Basra accepted a towel handed to her by the Legionnaire and wiped sweat from her face and the back of her neck. “We designed that golem to—well, to be frank, I simply never imagined a human being could move that way!”

“Thank you,” Basra said, a touch brusquely but with a small smile. “For the compliment, and the exercise. I can’t recall the last time I was pressed quite that hard in a duel. Consider me surprised, as well; I thought you were surely exaggerating the capabilities of that thing.”

“And I now feel silly for telling you not to engage it on its highest setting,” Leraine replied, watching as her attendants began reattaching the golem’s pieces. Several bore small dents and scratches from Basra’s sword, but it seemed to have suffered no permanent damage. “It sounds like this has been an instructive session for us all! Not to seem pushy, but are you more interested now?”

“Again,” said Basra, handing the towel back to Jenell Covrin, “I’m not the one you should be speaking to about Legion policy.”

“Of course, of course,” the Salyrite cleric said diplomatically. “I fully understand that. Forgive me, this isn’t a formal negotiation; as a craftswoman, I’m asking you, personally, what you think of my work. You made it sound like you enjoyed the experience.”

“I rather did,” Basra admitted, regarding the golem thoughtfully as the two junior clerics finished wrestling its central section back together and began slotting the remaining limbs into place. “Personally, I might be willing to purchase one of these for my own use. If, that is, I were satisfied that such a thing were legal, which I still am not. Followers of Salyrene demonstrating their enchantments to followers of Avei may enjoy clerical protection from Imperial oversight, but me as a citizen owning a golem specifically engineered to fight is another matter.”

“I have to acknowledge that that’s still somewhat up in the air,” said Leraine, nodding. “Bishop Tross is still working with the Universal Church on this point, solidifying the groundwork before actually approaching the Empire. It would be much easier if we were willing to make war golems for the Tiraan government, but there are serious ethical considerations there. We trust our sisters in Avei’s service much farther than any temporal government.”

“Especially one which has used magical weapons to exterminate entire populations,” Abbess Darnassy said sharply, hobbling forward with her walking stick. “You’ll pardon me for speaking bluntly, sister; I’m old and have little time left for dissembling. I cannot make myself think it was wise even to build this object. Autonomous magical weapons would change the face of war, yes, but into something that had none of the very little virtue war has to begin with.”

“I…am rather surprised to hear a ranking cleric of Avei criticize war,” Leraine said very carefully.

“Our purpose in studying war,” said Basra, sliding her sword back into its sheath, “is to prosecute it as swiftly as possible, with the maximum possible consideration for justice and mercy in the process. The more war is improved, the more it is lessened.”

“Provided,” Narnasia added firmly, “said improvements go toward making combat more efficient, and not more destructive. Sending things like this into battle would be efficient once, until the enemy fielded similar weapons, and even then would be calamitous. After that, the escalation would prove a nightmare.”

Leraine nodded again. “Yes, we are mindful of these concerns. Please, don’t hesitate to share any insights you have, ladies. To be honest, it’s not been firmly decided whether this project is going to continue at all, for exactly the reasons you have mentioned. There are those within our faith who feel the very existence of such enchantments is tempting fate. I am very much interested in getting the opinions of experts on the art of war. That aside, however, I only raised the prospect of providing such golems to your cult as training pieces. Any agreement reached would carry the firm stipulation that they are never to be used in actual battle.”

“Hm,” Narnasia grunted, peering at the now-reassembled golem through narrowed eyes.

“In theory…perhaps,” Basra mused. “This one, though, would do us little good. Much as I’m glad you were impressed, Sister Leraine, dueling is…a parlor trick, really. It’s been centuries since single combat with blades decided any significant conflict. War is carried out by armies.”

“And soldiers,” Narnasia added, “are best trained by other soldiers. I’m all for progress when one is progressing toward a specific, worthwhile goal, but progress for the sake of progress has an alarming tendency to go very badly.”

“I see,” Leraine said thoughtfully. “Well. I did come here to have a discussion, after all. Could we perhaps adjourn to someplace more private to speak in more detail?” She tilted her head, glancing inquisitively around the gymnasium. The windows were dark; though the sky beyond them still bore some traces of sunset, the direct light had long since been blocked out by the surrounding peaks of the Viridill range.

“Yes, quite so,” Narnasia agreed. “In point of fact, sister, I was pleased to accept your invitation. If you’ve time, there are matters occurring in Viridill on which I would like to consult your expertise, as well.”

“Oh?” Leraine raised her eyebrows; behind her, Basra frowned. “By all means, I’ll be glad to be of assistance.”

“I’ve had the novices arrange a sitting room,” said the Abbess, turning to make her way toward the door. “This way, if you please.”

Leraine paused to bow politely to Basra, who nodded back, before following. After pausing to watch them go, her expression blank, Basra turned away to make her own way back toward the opposite exit.

“Captain Syrinx.” Narnasia had paused, looking over her shoulder. “Why don’t you join us? Your input might be valuable.”

“Of course, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly, changing course and stepping after the two older women. For the briefest moment when their backs were again turned and before she had caught up, she permitted a flash of triumph to seize her expression.

Behind, Private Covrin stood alone in the gymnasium as novices and cadets trickled past on all sides, heading off toward dinner and their evening chores. The remaining two Salyrites were engaged in carefully folding their golem back into its coffin-sized traveling case.

She dropped the sweat-stained towel on the floor, staring coldly after the departing Bishop.


 

That it was familiar by now did not lessen the dread.

Ingvar reached for weapons that were not there—he had no bow, no hatchet or knife. He only wanted them for comfort’s sake, anyway. It wasn’t as if there was anything here for him to fight.

Still he plodded onward, through the dense, tangled forest that allowed no ray of moonlight to penetrate. The trees and underbrush looked solid enough to stop a bear, yet he found no impediment in his path. Wherever he stepped, there was a way through. Just as it was every time.

He did not want to see this again.

But he couldn’t stop.

This time, something was obviously wrong, even beyond the omnipresent sense of dread that dogged him. Long streamers of spidersilk began to appear, stretching between the trees. The webs were enormous but misshapen, woven oddly, not at all like the careful work of spiders. Ingvar had the sudden, sourceless thought that the webs were holding the forest together.

He very much feared he would find them at their greatest concentration when he reached the thing he did not want to see again.

But then, suddenly, he was there. The awful sight was before him, as it had been every night for weeks.

Huntsmen could only hope for such an important omen as to be visited by Shaath in their dreams, but…not like this. Ingvar found himself standing before the great wolf, a magnificent beast bigger than an ox. And as with every other time, he found his god bound.

It wasn’t, as he had expected, by the spiderwebs this time, though they festooned the whole glade in which he stood. He had seen Shaath in snares, in chains, his legs caught in massive bear traps, sinking in quicksand, and in perils whose specifics he recalled only as a formless sense of horror. It was the most hideous spectacle a man of faith could conceive, seeing his very god trapped and suffering.

This time it was brambles, thorny vines that sprouted from the earth, snaring the great wolf’s limbs and body, tying his muzzle shut and pinning him to the ground. As Ingvar watched in impotent horror, the god thrashed against his bonds, then was swiftly stilled. Blood dripped from dozens of points, staining his fur wherever the thorns pierced him. He twitched again, more weakly, and a faint whine of pain emerged from within is throat.

Ingvar wanted to weep. The god of the wild did not whine.

“What can I do?” he whispered, again reaching for a hatchet that was not there.

“Are you lost, hunter?”

Ingvar whirled; this was new. Never before in this nightmare had someone spoken to him.

A crow sat on a thick strand of spiderweb, regarding him with piercing black eyes. It clicked its beak once and spoke again, in a voice that was not a man’s or a woman’s, that was only barely a voice. “You are only lost if you will not find your way. Follow me, I’ll show you.”


 

He gasped, coming awake drenched in sweat.

Ingvar blinked rapidly, clearing the shadows from his vision. It had to be the middle of the night… And if his previous nights’ adventures were any indication, he wasn’t getting back to sleep any time soon.

This had to stop.

He rose, opening the shield on his oil lamp with shaking fingers to cast some light on his small chamber. Then he hesitated, but only for a moment, before getting himself ready.

He wasn’t going far, not even out of the lodge, and only took the time to bind his chest and dress before stepping out of his room. This late, the lodge was peaceful and calm, not to mention dark; he navigated mostly by memory through the dim halls. He encountered no one on his way down to the basement level, which was unsurprising. There was probably nobody awake except the watchmen at the doors, and the one he was going to see. Ingvar couldn’t have said why he was certain his quarry would be up, but he was. It was as certain as the force that always drove him forward in those accursed dreams.

Hrathvin’s door was open; light and the smell of smoke and incense filtered out around the edges of the bearskin hung over the entrance. Ingvar paused at the door, then squared his shoulders and pushed through.

There was light inside, but not much. It was dim and reddish, coming from the brazier set up in the center of the round chamber. Another doorway, also curtained by a hanging bearskin, was at the opposite end of the room, leading to Hrathvin’s sleeping area.

The old shaman himself sat on the other side of the brazier, staring calmly at him through the haze of smoke that rose from it.

“The dreams again, Ingvar?”

The Huntsman nodded, started to speak, and had to clear his throat before he could. “It was…worse, this time. It’s been getting worse, but gradually. This was something different… Shaman, I can’t make myself believe these are just dreams.”

“Then they probably aren’t,” said Hrathvin calmly. “Through such dreams are we called on spirit hunts, or other quests.”

“It makes no sense, though,” Ingvar protested, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the doorway. “Everything I have done and been through, every step… Shaath has guided me on a long journey to here. For the first time I am useful, I have purpose. I’m advancing Shaath’s agenda, helping the Grandmaster and Brother Andros. And now this? What am I to make of it?” He shrugged desperately. “And even if I throw everything aside to pursue this… How? What can one do with dreams? I see only pain and bondage, nothing that tells me what to do!”

“You said this was different,” said Hrathvin, watching him closely. “Different enough to bring you skittering down here in the middle of the night. Were you by chance told, this time, what to do?”

Ingvar hesitated. “I don’t… There was a crow. It said to follow it… But then I woke up. It’s not as if I can follow a dream after it ends.”

“Crows are interesting omens,” the old shaman said noncommittally. “Sometimes good, often bad. Never dull.”

“I’m at a loss, shaman,” Ingvar said plaintively. “I need guidance.”

“Very well,” said Hrathvin, nodding. “Here is my guidance: You don’t need guidance. You need to get up and quit vacillating. Are you a man or not? You’ve worked harder than most to prove it. Act, Ingvar. If you act wrongly, make amends. No harm you do yourself will be worse than the sins of complacency and indecision.”

Invar stopped cold, staring at him in shock. Shock at himself, not at the shaman’s words.

Well, of course.

“Yes,” Hrathvin said knowingly, “the truth is often pretty simple, once it’s been pointed out to you.”

“This is going to be…difficult,” Ingvar muttered, staring into the brazier, his thoughts already racing ahead.

Hrathvin grunted, then lifted his hand to toss another cloud of herbs onto the flames. “Of course it is. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it.”

“I thank you for the advice, shaman,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to him. “I think I have…a starting point, now.”

The old man chuckled. “Enjoy your wrongness while you’ve the luxury, Huntsman. Someday you’ll be old and respected, and nobody will dare give you a kick in the butt when you need one. That is the beginning of decline.”

It was strange how much calmer Ingvar felt as he left the shaman’s chambers, considering that he still was far from sure what he was supposed to do. He had nothing but the merest inkling of a plan.

But now, at least, he was going to do it. Whatever it was.

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41 thoughts on “10 – 1

  1. …what the hell?!

    This is going to go so wrong. The Universal Church seeding anti-authorian ideas? Manipulating crowds with a rethoric that seems aimed at the empire and disregards non-humans? Is Justinian really preparing for a coup?

    We’ve already seen war golems, now the Sisters are getting some, too? Narnasia might oppose it, but it’s probably not her decision to make. Seeing Basra again is a bad omen anyway.

    Last but not least: Shaath bound in a nightmare, with a crow offering help? Didn’t Justinian come from that cult himself?

    A great doom is coming indeed.

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    1. A crow offering help…my gut says that it’s Mary. Not sure if that is on point, but if there was any one being that could insert itself into a “spirit hunt,” it would be the most powerful shaman in the known world. Plus “I’ll show you the path” is her standard M.O.
      On the other hand, that theory lacks any subtlety, which may or may not mean anything.

      Well, at least we have confirmed which side of the fence Snowe is sitting on.

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    2. I don’t think Justinian was originally Shaath, but early in the story it’s stated multiple times that Shaathists are Justinian’s strongest supporters. This is likely connected.

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  2. Justinian is trying to get rid of Tellwyrn. It’s been said by so many in both the story itself and in the comments section how monumentally flawed it would be for Justinian to take her on headfirst, either by attacking her or her students. So instead… Snowe is sent to turn Last Rock against the University. That “powerful beings on a mountain” analogy wasn’t an analogy at all.

    But what can they really do? They can try to shut the University down. But then Tellwyrn could possibly just forcibly make them evacuate the town so that ONLY the University remains. If they try to actually attack it? The school would level the town. They could try to make the University accept “normal” people as students. That could be disastrous in so many ways, but it would also be hilarious to watch that backfire on Justinian, and probably the whole Empire, as it’s not longer rare powerful individuals being taught to use their skills to the maximum potential, but regular people too. It would be like its own miniature empire, where every member, no matter how mundane and seemingly weak, is clever and powerful enough to wreak havoc. That would be wonderful.

    Seriously, though. WHAT can they do to take away the University? Because Tellwyrn could probably move it straight into the Golden Sea and then… that would again be disaster, because her powerful students, now having a vendetta against those who made them leave the relative safety of Last Rock, could exit anywhere in the central country.

    I don’t know. There are too many possibilities and none of them are very good or creative (on my part) and just. It’s impossible. It has to be.

    And with the addition of war golems being created possibly to add to the Empire’s army, and the likelihood of escalation… The Great Doom is looking more and more like it WILL be some kind of World War. Who knows.

    Also I am very happy Ingvar will be having his own adventure. INGVAR, MY LOVE, MY PRECIOUS WOLF PUP.

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    1. Ingmar is many things, but a pup? Young wolf, sure; not a puplup.🙂

      I wonder how long Shaath has been tied down and warped with bounds for, though…:/ It could well predate Justinian by quite a margin.

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    2. The worst they could do would be to remove the university’s official status as an institute of higher learning and campaign against it. Or perhaps claim that they just want Arachne gone because the university wouldn’t be such a magnet for chaos without her.

      None of those are good ideas. These are things that might work against a normal professor in a normal university and even then it would backfire.
      Going against one university means going against all of them.
      The UU has been a thing for ~50 years, that means we could have 3rd generation students enrolled now. All those powerful, influential people who received their education there are probably going to send their kids there, too. Trying to remove it from existence would be met with quite some resistance.

      Removing Arachne herself wouldn’t change anything but piss her off. The world has a vested interested in keeping her happy and busy with her university because some of them remember what she was like before and that’s something they’d rather avoid.

      The only one with legal authority to make demands of Arachne is the empire and they don’t seem like they’d do Justinian a favour.

      This feels … weird. I’m reminded of the discussions about Basra’s schemes where I couldn’t believe she’d do something so obvious and stupid, because even a child would know better.
      Justinian was described as this magnificent bastard, a scheming spider with a net stretching everywhere. I can’t believe that -this- is his true attack on Arachne.

      But then, something is off about him anyway. He has the (probably constant) attention of several gods but openly plots against them. So either the gods are on his side (why would they?) or he plans to do something very different.

      I can’t explain his actions at all. If I was in his place, with his goals… I’d behave very differently. The last thing I’d do is draw attention to myself or my plans.

      To me, Branwen’s speech is very transparent and potentially dangerous… if someone recorded it and published it back in Tiraas, people might get upset. I don’t know why they take that risk just to fire some shots at Arachne, what’s the reward here? Goading Arachne into action? Doubt that’s that easy.

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      1. Judging by the amount of nobles/royalty in the University, I think there’s been four human ones on screen, we can probably assume there’s a good deal of current Lords and Governors who are loyal to Tellwyrn. Unless Tellwyrn does something extreme akin to 9/11 in America to the Empire or Church, I can’t imagine there being any legal action taken against her University.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My read on the gods not acting against him is they can’t. They’ve constrained themselves.

        We were told by Razzavinax that ““The exact nature of the Archpope’s relationship to the Pantheon is…difficult to tease out. Several of Justinian’s predecessors have engaged in activities that were decidedly against the wishes of the gods. As, certainly, has he. However, he unquestionably enjoys their protection.” So Justy’s actions are hardly unique.

        My theory is that in order to avoid becoming their predecessors, the gods slapped a template of behavior on themselves, and set it to read-only. The current gods grew up in the time of the elder gods, who started as humans, got immortality, went alternatively nuts or senile or both, and became monsters. So the new gods locked their mindsets and programmed themselves so they had to act in a certain, idealized manner – ie. Avei forgiving people who repent, despite being, we have been told several times, not personally inclined to do so. Omnu preaches and practices pacifism and restraint, despite having recently been shown to have quite a temper.

        The gods pledged their powers and protection to the archpope. Now they can’t withdraw them.

        Anyway, that’s my theory.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Small thing first – Jenell Covrin is missing from the tag list.

    On with the thoughts! – Whatever you’re going to get up to here, Branwen, it is no good. And I doubt Tellwyrn or the class of 1182 will be able to take much overt action against it.

    Private Covrin’s revenge plan begins! Whether it works or backfires, we shall surely reap a good story from the telling.

    And Ingvar with a most intriguing vision…. Is this perhaps meant to indicate that Shaath doesn’t actually fall in line with Justinian or his plans? Because if so, that would be huge….

    This book is going to be as much fun as the last one from with all the politicking.

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      1. Razzavinax and Mr. Gold, whatever his name is, are missing too. I think that wordpress might drop less-common tags automatically after a certain population is met. I know they were both those dragons were there at one time.

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      2. @Club
        Two different topics I think – Webb should have full control over chapter tags, which is where Jenell was missing. Webb only has partial control, if that, over the full tag list on the right-hand section of the page – WordPress has limits on how many tags can be used and Webb’s character list is massive, so only the most-used tags are likely to show.

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  4. Typos:

    Though the first to be seated had grouped themselves distantly
    (reflexive pronoun only if they seated themselves, but I don’t have a really good fix)
    The first to seat themselves had grouped distantly

    all the befalls
    all that befalls

    Reactions:

    I echo some other commenters – what the heck does Justinian think he can do to Tellwyrn with this? The only thing I can think of as a direct result is to recruit local agents who can then watch for larger opportunities for trouble. As an indirect result, this may be the obvious feint while something more substantial happens elsewhere. Justinian already has the largest leverage he is likely to get – more than one set of authorities believes (correctly) that one or more of her students opened the latest hellgate. He should make use of that fact as much as possible. I think this is a long game – put a bunch of small problems in the way, insert watchers, and capitalize on opportunities.

    Branwen’s message is getting both clearer and more objectionable. Non-humans are marginalized and people are encouraged to turn away from deities. And in this case, encouraged to tear down the powerful.

    As far as the Basra episode, I saw three results:
    1) Basra has managed to mostly satisfy Narnasia, which means Basra is on her way back at some point. (How this was accomplished is a big mystery.)
    2) War golems may be Basra’s way of modernizing the Silver Legions. This will somewhat conflict with Prin’s ideas.
    3) Jenell is still keeping her enemies closer.

    The Ingvar episode is… odd. I am wondering just how much of the bound deity imagery is real. It occurs to me that we haven’t actually seen Shaath, like we have seen Omnu, Izara, Vesk, Avei, Eserion, Vidius, and Elilial. So it is theoretically possible that Shaath is bound in some real way. And if someone bound a god whose high-level followers were all male, they might make the mistake of saying “and you can’t tell any man about it” without realizing that leaves a loophole. Also, the Shadow Hunters claim to be followers of Shaath but have gone a very different way; perhaps Shaath has been perverted somehow. So, Ingvar goes on a spirit quest to find his god, perhaps aided by a certain Mary the Crow.

    All of the gods who have called paladins so far have done so from minority subpopulations (homosexual, half-elf, and half-demon), perhaps we are seeing the next Hand of Shaath here – it would certainly continue the theme (transsexual). As a follow-up thought to that, that sort of deliberate inclusiveness sometimes bothers people, and the same people are likely to respond well to Branwen’s message. This could provoke a shift from the individual cults to the Universal Church.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. i’m not trying to upset anyone by pointing this out, so take this as a gentle note: your statement about a “loophole” within a statement about “not telling any man about it” to refer to ingvar, whose maleness isn’t negated by his transness, is pretty alarming to have to read, considering that especially in its corollary form (trans women aren’t women because our transness negates our femaleness) it’s one of the foundational bases for the widespread murder and abuse of trans bodies the whole western world over.

      it’s frustrating because your point about ingvar’s potential selection as a hand of shaath and the ramifications involved is an interesting one and something i’d be down to see explored, but tying it to those preceding implications leaves a sour, awful taste in my mouth instead. i’m kind of tired of swallowing the implied threat of my death that comes in those words and pretending it’s not actually present simply because people don’t really think i exist yet …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The ‘Ingvar not really being a man’ loophole is just that, tara- a loophole. It’s about whether you can his gender physically or mentally. It should be considered mentally, that’s what matters, but I think it wouldn’t be too wrong for Shaath to consider him a woman if that’s what it takes to escape imprisonment.

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      2. I am reasonably confident, after his posting record here over the last year and a half, that Unmaker meant no threat or insult by that. However, I did have a similar reaction to the phrasing. I’m only now weighing in because I just got back from work, and while I do check on the comments there, I’m not about to log into my WordPress account from a public computer.

        This kind of thing is a real hurdle to social progress in general. It’s one thing to fight back against bigots and get laws changed, but it’s harder, if anything, to overcome all these unconscious attitudes and habits that we all inherit from the culture, and continue to spread, generally without meaning any harm. It’s why, I think, we still have racial issues in the USA decades after the Civil Rights Act, why the Supreme Court decision upholding marriage equality didn’t erase homophobia and won’t any time soon, and why the issues surrounding trans people are absolutely not going to be fully settled once they finally gain full legal protection. There’ll always be bigots, sure, but those at least make themselves a target for resistance. The ingrained bad habits of speech and thought that all of us carry will always take a lot longer to overcome. It’s not like you can legislate a change in culture.

        I’ve got some fantastic regular commenters on this serial, which is a point of pride for me; those of you who regularly chime in are in general among the most kind and insightful people I’ve met on the internet. I know nobody means any harm, and I’m very glad that I’ve never had to delete comments here, much less block anyone from posting.

        In that vein, everybody please continue to be respectful of each other. I love the discussions below each chapter and want it to be a place where everyone feels safe and comfortable participating. I appreciate Tara taking such a calm tone in pointing out that one flub, and as I said above, Unmaker has more than earned the benefit of the doubt around here. All I’d ask is that when someone says “hey, not cool,” they be listened to and acknowledge rather than argued against.

        I’m really not worried. You all do me proud. Keep it up, gang.

        Like

      3. OK, you might also consider this offensive to you too, but whatever.

        Try substituting ‘no straight man’ in there. Because whatever you consider Ingvar, straight is a rather hard sell. Still, gotta respect the guy for rising so far on pure merit, which is what he had to have done.

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      4. “you might also consider this offensive to you too, but whatever.”

        This turn of phrase doesn’t indicate that you’re taking someone’s perspective seriously. Please try to be respectful of others, at least on my blog.

        With regard to your point, sexuality and gender identity, while intertwined, hardly have a one-to-one relationship. A transgender person may be straight, gay, or any other possible permutation. Nothing about Ingvar’s sexuality has been mentioned in the story, except very obliquely in Andro’s inner monologue that (per Shaathist custom) he wouldn’t be able to marry.

        Like

      5. for the record, i agree with webb’s response here and i don’t particularly feel like setting myself up to be a lightning rod for testing the boundaries of that policy. it’s not a fun place to find yourself, especially when you’re not a troll and haven’t set out to do anything of the kind in the first place. i don’t bring up such concerns lightly or without trust; this is the internet, so i’d just leave, if it were otherwise.

        it was a jarring moment of implicit dismissal from a place i’d expect more clarity and consideration from, normally, hence why i made sure to point it out as politely but directly – and explain why it was a problem startling enough to me to deserve such a response, too – as i possibly could.

        if i thought unmaker had realized or understood the impact of his phrasing – i look forward to his comments, they’re engaging and keep me invested almost as much as the story itself does, and i’ve read every single one of them to date – i’d have not tried explaining my reaction at all; some things are simply best not engaged with, if they’re not actively in front of you being a threat to your safety when they happen.

        but unmaker’s earned enough trust with his comments that i don’t believe that’s true of him at all. i’d rather tell him there’s a problem with what he’s saying than not – that would just be dismissing him as too callous to understand, and he deserves more respect from me than that.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Thank you for the second post on this thread tara.

        I personally have no problems with any of the LGBT spectrum and have had friends that self-identified as lesbians and gays. What I haven’t had is much time with trans people, so I still make mistakes in how say things. I meant no harm and I apologize if I came off that way. I will try to frame my comments more carefully in the future.

        Please note:
        —I referred to Ingvar as male except for the text in quotes (high-level followers were all male; his god).
        —The text in quotes is by a hypothetical character who I state is making a mistake.
        —I brought up the idea that he could be the Hand of Shaath.

        My statement was simply intended as factual – Ingvar’s gender identity is male, but he is biologically female. TGAB is a story with magic and that sort of general loophole is extremely common in magical myth, and I don’t mean just for gender. The lead ringwraith learned the problem with a gender-based loophole “no man can kill me” the hard way, but there are also examples like Macbeth and his immunity to “man of woman born” which had little to do with gender despite the language (Macduff was delivered by c-section, not born). There are many gender-based examples in the TV Tropes article and many more general examples in the related articles about twisted prophecies and loophole wording. That’s the sort of thing I was thinking of.

        As commentary on Webb’s comments on enacting social change, some of the ways to actually change someone’s mind are not intuitive. The debunking guide (https://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf) is one of the better summaries I have found because in addition to being authoritative, it is relatively clear and concise, with a practical bent. One of the techniques that they mentioned is self-affirmation (p. 4 second half, also references 12 and 13), i.e. make people feel good about thinking correctly. tara’s second post on this thread accomplished that for me.

        Like

  5. this is going to go some “interesting” places very quickly. oh god! (literally!)

    i can’t stop thinking about what tellwyrn and yornhaldt discussed at the end of the last book; that an apotheosis is imminent. that instead of a god dying, a new god will be born? is that what that means?

    and, of course, what does that mean, in the context of the book’s title, and therefore its position on the nature of gods?

    and how do justinian’s plans for god-killing and suchlike tie into all this? especially since his endgame, in fact, is apotheosis – ostensibly for all mankind, even! i wonder if that’s mechanically possible by the rules of the universe to hand. my initial response to that plan was “he’s obviously lying”, since that’s a common ploy of the megalomaniacal and ambitious in high fantasy, but the more we see of him, the more that desire seems, well, sincere.

    which, along with his comments to ravoud regarding being certain darling would be on his side if darling only knew what he knows (and his continued favor and protection from those gods that would give such a thing, which as has been noted before, even in this same post, is a little strange considering their attention towards him doubtless means they know something of his actual plan), not to mention how cleverly he hid the clues pointing to the obvious location of belosiphon’s skull, raises the question of what he knows that we don’t.

    and more pertinently perhaps what he knows that tellwyrn does not.

    Like

    1. the other thing that keeps rattling around in my head and that i mentioned to vikarmic earlier is the ramifications of grip’s “meeting” with the marshal, in that it will be telling whether and how we see the ramifications of the thieves’ guild challenging imperial intelligence so directly, and that this is both a reminder the guild is hardly a trifling force but as much an actively impressive deity cult in its own right and also a demonstration of precisely the sort of tactics webs aka alan vandro, whatever his other failings (and as i see it, there’s plenty), felt very justified in objecting to and actively conspiring against.

      so that’ll go places too, i’m sure.

      Like

      1. Well Imperial Intelligence flatly stated they weren’t afraid of the Thieves’ Guild, a response to that was inevitable.
        Can’t have Authoritative organisations going around saying you aren’t a concern when you use intimidation and information control that much as an organisation yourself, especially when one of the tenets of your organisation is humbling the mighty😀

        Like

      2. @Ed: My contention was that the ability to inspire fear is arguably a form of authority, and by setting out to demand fear from every other organization and individual player, and being eager to enforce that demand via torture and (presumably) murder, the Guild is setting itself up as the very sort of power its doctrine demands that it should be toppling. At least it is if Grip’s actions are representative, and she certainly seems to think they are. So I agree with Tara — this is the kind of thing, though not the exact thing, that probably inspired Webs’ rebellion, and it shows that he’s not without a point, whatever his other flaws.

        (And honestly, I think we-the-readers could use a reminder that Imperial Intelligence, and the Imperial government in general, are supposed to be competent and powerful. Intelligence in particular has had a pretty bad couple of weeks in the story! Granted, at least partly due to literal divine intervention in one case, but still: if they keep losing face without some explanation of what’s taking up their time offscreen, it’ll be hard to take them seriously.)

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      3. My point was more that Imp Int completely dismissed the Thieves Guild as being of any concern at all which runs completely counter to the tenets of their cult, that cannot stand.
        How individuals within the cult are going about addressing that however is open to interpretation, though other than kidnapping\murder\torture I have no idea how the Thieves Guild could address the dismissive attitude of Imp Int (a shadowy organisation within it’s own right) also I’m definitely not able to scheme at a level that could find other avenues of embarrassing Imp Int.

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      4. It wasn’t Imperial Intelligence that said they weren’t afraid, it was the marshal. Vex kept quiet, he knows better.

        Grip stated that her actions were only aimed at the marshal (in retribution of trying to kill Principia), not at the empire itself.

        Like

  6. Interesting point I just realized on the theory that Arachne is a goddess incarnate. Back in Arc six, with the crawl, it is stated that sometimes the drow that come into the upper level of the Crawl with the bar go and stare at the statue of Arachne. The spider goddess was a drow goddess. It seems likely Arachne may be the goddess reincarnated in mortal form, and looks just like the drow goddess.

    Like

    1. This is my favourite theory within the story.🙂

      What we know is this: Roughly 8000 years ago an elder goddess vanished, she wasn’t killed. She used to rule over the drow and had a spider theme. She was replaced by Themynra shortly after. At the same time Elilial kicked Scyllith out of Hell and banished her underground, where she has ruled part of the drow ever since.
      A little bit over 3000 years ago the first recorded incident involving Arachne occured. We know she teamed up with Elilial to kick Scyllith around, probably by burning down one entire drow city. From some comments Elilial made we can infer that Arachne showed her true abilities (devious scheming on top of nigh unstoppable magic) during that event.
      Afterwards Arachne wandered seemingly aimlessly around until she ran into the elves of what is now the Sarasio grove. She was wearing rags skillfully stitched together into a robe and not much else, spoke elvish with a weird dialect, didn’t know anything about the world or the names of things in it, not to mention manners or customs.
      Kuriwa immediately recognized her by her name. Arachne demonstrated arcane magic fitting for an archmage, all without tools or preparation.

      There are quite a few things that I’d like to know about all of this:

      1. If all the elder gods used to be human, too… doesn’t that mean that the spider goddess had a human avatar?
      2. Why is Arachne a wood elf? How did she came to be? Was she created on the spot? Was she possessed? Reincarnation? Why did she lose all her knowledge? Or did she?
      3. What’s her connection to the spider goddess, if she’s a seperate entity?
      4. How and where did she learn to use arcane magic to such a degree that she can take on an archdemon without breaking a sweat?
      5. Arachne had a quest she pursued for 3000 years. It involved her talking to all the gods and eventually she spoke to each god and received a negative response. What was this quest about? Doesn’t that mean the gods know exactly who and what she is?

      The drow coming up to look at the statue in the Crawl are most likely not worshipping their old goddess from 8 millenia ago, they are looking upon the archmage who rained fire upon their underground city a long time ago. If Arachne was the goddess herself in some form then I don’t think she was a wood elf before.

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      1. 1. The elder gods were not all necessarily human. It was said that the majority of current gods were once human, and I assume the same goes for the elder gods.

        As for the drow looking at the statue, they later came out of the Crawl wanting to discuss something with Arachne, but she killed them before they said anything. I haven’t quite gotten to that part, I just remember from my first read through, but if I recall correctly, they wanted to warn her or make a deal about something.It makes me doubtful they hate her for razing their city if they wanted to talk to her.

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      2. Can you point to a single non-human god we’ve seen in the story so far? Aside from the already dead orc-god?

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      3. There aren’t any on screen non-human gods, but I’m very confident there was a line somewhere saying “almost all the gods were human”. That would mean there’s a couple gods who aren’t.

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  7. So many interesting things here! I don’t think Bishop Snowe’s move here is explicitly directed at Last Rock per se, even if it is here; it’s mentioned in a few places that it’s part of a broader effort. My guess is that this isn’t part of Justinian’s move against Arachne so much as the next step in his original propaganda effort: Snowe seems like she’s hitting the same themes as she was in the newspaper columns, only harder and more overtly. The fact that she’s focused on humans isn’t really a surprise to me either — the Universal Church and the Pantheon have both been focused on humans for a long time, since the other races either have their own gods, their own innate powers or both. Looks like Gabe and Trissiny are learning discretion, though, which is pretty cool.

    Salyrite clerics! Nice to learn more about these guys; I’ve been curious. Apparently they’re arcanists as well as divine casters, and involved in some pretty advanced research, including pseudo-AI. I think I like ’em. 😀 Also nice to see Narnasia again — wonder if she and Trissiny will get a chance to catch up? Hopefully without Basra creepering around.

    I think Ingvar got the big reveal this chapter, and what a reveal it was. How literal that vision is, and why him, are questions I’m very curious about — Hrathvin implied that there was something Ingvar could do immediately, or stop hesitating about, but for the life of me I can’t remember anything like that (though it’s been a while since we’ve seen him onscreen). Seems like whatever it is, the Crow or her lineage are probably involved, though…unless the crow is a divine symbol I’m forgetting about?

    As always, the ride ahead looks to be fantastic, and I’m strapping myself in with glee.

    Like

  8. One thing that’s been puzzling me about the Universal Church: just who exactly makes up its hierarchy, and who are its parishioners?

    We have Justinian at the top, though I don’t think we know how he got there, and what, if any, cult he was once a member of. We then have the Bishops who are the next highest rank we’ve seen, who by definition are priests from individual cults–and who seem to primarily answer to their cult head (see, e.g., the banishment of Basra Syrinx). Who else makes up this church? Are the lower level priests also members of individual cults? The “Holy Summoners”? Do its parishioners also belong to individual gods’ cults? We see Trissiny (early Trissiny, anyway) seem to at times lump the Pantheon gods together in terms of what respect they are due, etc., but on an individual level I don’t think she thinks much of Eserion or Shaath. I wonder how many folks prefer to go “Yay Pantheon” vs. picking out a particular member or two to follow.

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    1. I think Justinian came from the cult of Shaath.

      For the rest… I’d have to speculate. I don’t think everyone in the church is a priest, they are bound to have more paperpushers than anything else.

      Like

      1. We know they have paper pushers, and now they have armed guards/soldiers as well. But what are the paper pushers pushing paper about? What are the guards guarding? We hear from various folks about how powerful the Church is, and given that individual cults exist for (most?) members of the Pantheon, and that for humans divine magic comes from a relationship with a particular god, I have a hard time picturing how it actually works. It’s expensive to have churches all over the empire, to employ people to run them, to hire soldiers and zeppelins, to put on PR events. Where does the money come from?

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      2. When have we ever heard that the church is powerful?

        It has a lot of political and social influence because the church consists of the various cults of the gods. All the priests working there probably come from those cults.
        Each cult sends a few people to the church (similiar to the bishops) and they work there.

        Their job is it to facilitate communication between the various cults, to prevent misunderstanding and accidents and so on.

        They are probably financed through a budget they get from the cults. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Empire financed part of it, too. Or if they made concessions. The church probably doesn’t pay taxes and got the land for their buildings cheap or for free.

        The guards are fairly new, prior to the story the church had no soldiers of any kind. If a building or person needed guarding, they probably asked one of the more martial cults for help (for example, the Izarite temple is being guarded by Sisters of Avei).

        As for the bureaucratic side of things… I’m sure they simply hired qualified people if they couldn’t get the personnel from the cults directly. Anyone who can read and write could get a job in data entry.😉

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  9. So DD Webb, I know a couple of updates ago, you said you were at about a 900,000 word count. Now that we’re officially done with Book 9, do you have a more accurate count?

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    1. Not without actually loading all 242 chapters and running a wordcount on each, which I honestly can’t imagine being bored or motivated enough to do.

      Based on my rough guestimates of average chapter length (most between four and five thousand words) it’s in the neighborhood of a million now.

      Not as long as Worm, but we’re in the first half of year two, out of four. It’ll be a lot bigger than that before it’s done.

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      1. I can understand why you’d want to avoid doing an official count, yeah.

        That said, great job. It’s an excellent story.

        Like

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