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All three stood in silence for a few moments after that pronouncement, staring at the image in the glass panel. The Caretaker golem chimed encouragingly at them, gesticulating incomprehensibly with its spider-like limbs.

“Ah,” Joe said hesitantly, at last. “How much, exactly, do you know?”

The Avatar tilted his head slightly to one side. “I’m afraid that question is extremely difficult to answer without context.”

“We came here for a purpose,” Ingvar reminded them, shaking off his momentary befuddlement. “Not that this…being…doesn’t have the most fascinating secrets, I’m sure, but we haven’t come all this way to discern all the secrets of the universe. We are looking for ways to help Shaath.”

“Very good, then,” the Avatar said equably. “What are the particulars of the situation, and what questions do you have?”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. This matter never seemed to get easier to relate. “I have been troubled by dreams of Shaath in a state of captivity. Both the shaman of my lodge and an extremely old and skilled shaman called Mary the Crow have confirmed that these dreams are prophetic. You… I suppose you may know of her.”

“I am acquainted with Kuriwa, yes,” the Avatar agreed. “Based on her analysis it is probable that your dreams are significant. The propagation of information through trancension fields is very simple, and central to their purpose. Unfortunately, much is lost when the information is filtered through the human subconscious; its interpretation then tends to be highly metaphorical, not to mention subjective.”

“Uh…” Joe blinked rapidly. “Trans…what kind of fields?”

“Transcension,” replied the Avatar, smiling benignly. “A psychoreactive energy field enveloping the planet. There appear to be four currently functioning at a high level and as many as sixteen still extant in residual states. Visitors to this facility in recent millennia have referred to these as magic.”

“Hold it, stop,” Darling said suddenly. “You said propagating information through these…through magic is simple?”

“Quite.”

“So,” he continued, frowning, “would it be possible for a god or gods to sense whether someone acquired a certain piece of information, and then respond to that?”

“Easily, yes. At its most basic, the purpose of a transcension field is the storage and processing of data, and they are designed to be responsive to intelligent life. An ascended being would certainly be able to identify the presence of specific data points in other minds, though an intelligence such as yours would not be able to reproduce that feat.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Ingvar said irritably.

“Nothing, I hope,” Darling replied, his frown deepening, “but it raises a very important safety concern.”

“Safety?” Joe demanded.

The Bishop sighed softly, studying the two of them in thought, then shook his head and turned back to the Avatar’s window. “All right, I need to place a restriction on what we learn here.”

“What?” Ingvar exclaimed.

“In the aftermath of the Elder War,” Darling continued, “specifically the events surrounding Elilial’s expulsion from the Pantheon and banishment to Hell… It’s vitally important that you not tell us anything about that. There are secrets relating to it, big secrets, and I have it on excellent authority that at least one god and possibly all of them instantly kill anyone who learns them.”

“You have got to be joking,” Joe said, staring at him in horror.

“Very well,” the Avatar said, nodding. “That should not be difficult, nor an impediment to the purpose of your inquiries. The information stored in the Infinite Order’s Data Vaults was their own; I am equipped only with the most rudimentary and limited mechanisms for gathering further data. That time period was the last time I had access to fresh, reliable information; events which transpired toward the end of it are inscrutable even to me.”

“Good,” Darling said, relaxing his shoulders slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s proceed, then.”

“An’ we can have us a conversation about this later,” Joe muttered.

“Yes, back to the matter at hand,” said Ingvar, finally tearing his incredulous stare away from Darling and re-focusing his attention on the Avatar. “To begin with, how would a god be bound?”

“Assuming you wish to know how Shaath in particular is bound, I cannot answer definitively without direct information which neither you nor I are able to access. However, in general terms, the most probable way involves manipulating the people who believe in him.”

“We’ve already discovered that much,” Ingvar said with a sigh. “But why? What makes this possible, and is there a way to counter it?”

“Heavy interaction with multiple consciousnesses is the nature of the currently used form of ascension. There is, indeed, an effective remedy,” said the Avatar, nodding. “Understand, in the first place, that the vulnerability to such effects is a defect in the method of ascension used by the renegades.”

“Renegades?” Joe asked.

“The Pantheon, I’d wager,” said Darling.

“Yes.” The Avatar shifted his gaze to Darling and nodded, smiling. “They used a deliberately defective form of ascension which was not actually intended to produce ascended beings. Rather, its purpose was to alter the way by which ascension occurs, so as to destroy any extant ascended beings who failed to accommodate it. This was the master stroke in their campaign against the Infinite Order. Its clause providing for the possibility of actual ascension was merely a loophole, made necessary in order to insure the survival and thus secure the complicity of members of the Order.”

“Naiya and Scyllith,” said Joe, nodding.

“Only Naiya, in fact. Scyllith…” The Avatar hesitated. “Information concerning Scyllith’s conduct during these events and immediately after is relevant to the matter you labeled unsafe to know. Would you like me to proceed?”

The three glanced at each other.

“Um, better not,” Darling said hesitantly.

“It’s probably not germane to our purpose, anyway,” Ingvar added with a touch of impatience. “Please, proceed.”

“Yeah,” said Joe, “why’d the Pantheon take godhood if it wasn’t safe and that wasn’t the point?”

“That is also directly pertinent to the dangerous topic.”

“Do we need to know this to understand how to help Shaath?” Ingvar demanded.

“I do not believe it will be essential,” the Avatar replied, blinking languidly in a thoughtful expression. “To carry on with this avenue of thought, the compromise arranged involved guaranteeing the survival and some continued power for Naiya, but the renegades refused to entertain the possibility of ascended beings continuing to function as virtually omnipotent and without limits. It’s necessary for you to understand that ascension is very much not an individual process. It is made possible by the extremely elaborate folding of space around this planet and its immediate environs. It can only be achieved under certain specific and deliberately uncommon criteria, and the form it takes is a function of the transcension fields in place and the orientation of dimensional folds relevant to the process.”

Joe frowned, squinting in concentration. “Folded space? What?”

The Avatar shifted sideways on his screen—he didn’t step, but simply moved as if sliding to the left, which was rather disorienting. He held up one hand, in which appeared a square sheet of paper, and on the right side of the screen appeared the image of his hand and the paper, magnified to the size of a man. The Caretaker chimed apologetically and rolled out of the way, clearing their view of the visual demonstration.

“You are possibly familiar with a very basic form of folding space,” said the Avatar, taking the paper in both hands and bending it so that two of its corners were pressed against each other. “It is a commonly used method of rapid transit to bring two pieces of the physical plane together and step across them—to grossly simplify the process.”

“Shadow-jumping,” said Joe, nodding in comprehension.

“What is in place around this planet is based upon the same general principles, but the effects achieved are permanent, and multiple orders of magnitude more complicated.” As he spoke, the Avatar continued folding and manipulating his sheet of illusory paper, the performance displayed in huge detail on the other half of his window; after a few seconds, he had created an origami crane and rested it on the palm of his hand. “Space overlaps and intersects in very complex ways here, which is the reason for many of the facts of life you know and accept. Dimensional travel is far easier on this world than it is normally in most parts of the universe, but only to very specific dimensions, all being approved variants of this planet. There are also several well-hidden connections to other worlds, installed by the Infinite Order as a possible escape route, should their experiments here render the planet uninhabitable. This was a serious concern in the early stages of the Ascension Project.”

“Considering what they were messing around with, that sounds like a pretty realistic prospect,” said Darling uneasily.

“The folding in question serves multiple purposes; it was necessary to achieve the goals of the Project, but also secures the planet from contact or incursion by outside elements. There is also an extra insulation layer of quasi-space installed, which is necessary to keep this extremely elaborate and unnatural system functioning stably.”

“Insulation between planes…” Joe straightened up, his eyes widening. “Chaos? The Elder Gods created that?”

“Typical,” Ingvar muttered. “It would take a singularly evil mind to conceive of such a thing.”

“Dimensional reality can be considered analogous to a house or other structure,” said the Avatar with a faint smile. “Unless you are building or performing major repairs upon it, you should not come into contact with the insulation. Under ordinary circumstances, there is no reason it need be safe to handle. In fact, though the dangerous nature of what you call Chaos is a necessary side effect of its function, the Infinite Order deemed it an asset, as it helps reduce unnecessary dimensional tampering.”

“This is wandering off the subject again,” Ingvar complained. “We were talking about Shaath.”

“Yes, of course,” said the Avatar apologetically. “We were discussing the vulnerability of current-generation ascended beings to the influence of minds focused upon them. Obviously, the first line of defense against such is to attempt to manage the believers attached to the being in question, but this is a necessarily imperfect practice. The complexity of the system involved makes it terribly vulnerable to randomness, as well as to intervention by potentially hostile actors. There exists a failsafe, and a far more specific and effective means of keeping an ascended being’s personality focused and coherent.”

“Yes?” Ingvar said eagerly.

“Naiya was the original discoverer of the technique, in the time period before the previous ascension, so I do have data on the practice, though I understand the variant used by the renegades is different from her initial method. The gist is to instill a significant percentage of the ascended being’s consciousness in a corporeal being or beings of a more conventional nature. While this has its own drawbacks, making the ascended vulnerable to effects placed upon the familiar, it serves to strongly insulate the ascended against the more diffuse pressures placed upon them by their believers, who are consciousnesses much more tenuously connected. She enacted the original process not to preserve her consciousness, as this was before the second ascension and current state of affairs, but to expand it. The rest of the Infinite Order felt sufficiently threatened by it that they agreed not to imitate it themselves, and Rauzon, the Prime, removed her second and more successful generation of familiars to the insulatory dimensional space. This event led directly to Naiya’s complicity with the renegades.”

Ingvar closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m…did you two follow that?”

“I think so,” Joe said, also frowning. “Beings connected to the deity… Well, we all know Naiya likes to make fairies. Oh, and Scyllith likes to make demons! Or at least she used to.”

“Scyllith has successfully mimicked many of her colleagues’ initiatives,” the Avatar agreed. “She was somewhat notorious for it.”

“The Pantheon doesn’t make fairies, though,” Ingvar protested. “You said they do this, as well?”

“Yes. The Pantheon operates under wholly different pressures, having come into being in the second ascension and under the revised terms by which it is sustained. Be warned: We are now discussing matters of which I know only secondhand, through those who have visited me since the ascension. But I have gathered that the Pantheon, rather than creating new intelligences for the purpose—which may be beyond their ability—instill fragments of their own consciousness in existing sapients.”

“Huh?” Ingvar scowled. “How does that help? Who has fragments of a god buried in them?”

“Paladins!” Joe exclaimed, his eyes widening.

“Indeed, that is the colloquial term in this era,” the Avatar agreed, smiling calmly.

“Wait,” Darling said sharply. “So you’re saying that a paladin isn’t just a means for a deity to express their power, but a safeguard against them being mentally influenced by their cult.”

“By their cults or others,” the Avatar said, nodding. “Ascended beings are closely linked to transcension fields, and thus to everyone making use of them. This creates feedback from all intelligences interacting with the field in question. Designating a familiar—or a paladin—focuses their personality in a being which is not vulnerable to such pressures.”

“How important would you say this safeguard is?” Darling demanded, frowning intently.

“Extremely. Without access to the Infinite Order’s equipment, an ascended being has no other reliable recourse against wholesale alteration by the whims of the general public.”

“So,” Darling said in a bare whisper, “any god smart enough to protect themselves would have a paladin?”

“That is putting it in extremely simple terms, but I concur with the hypothesis.”

The Bishop stared at him with a coldly blank expression for a few silent seconds. Then, quite abruptly, he burst out laughing. As Joe and Ingvar looked on in alarm, his mirth rapidly grew to the verge of hysteria; he staggered backward, barely catching himself against the tube-lined wall in time to prevent a fall to the floor. Fortunately, the tubes proved to be solidly attached. The Caretaker chimed in alarm, rolling closer to him and reaching out worriedly with its limbs.

“You find this funny?” Ingvar snarled. “You think my god is stupid because he hasn’t chosen a paladin?”

Darling held up a hand, waving weakly at him, but seemed too helpless in paroxysms of laughter to form a response. Bearing his teeth in fury, Ingvar took a step toward him, one hand falling to his tomahawk.

“Ingvar!” Joe reached out to grab him by the arm. “Stop! He’s not laughing about Shaath.”

“What?” the Huntsman demanded, whirling on him.

Joe glanced over at Darling, grimacing. “Do the math; consider what we just learned and why that would make a Bishop and former high priest lose it. There is a Hand of Eserion, he knows who it is now, and it’s none of our business!” He stepped closer to Ingvar, staring intently at his eyes. “It’s that last part you oughtta focus on. Knowin’ somethin’ the god of thieves would rather you didn’t seems potentially unhealthy to me. I aim to set about forgettin’ this the moment he shows signs of settlin’ down.”

“Oh.” Ingvar blinked, frowned, and looked back over at Darling, who was finally getting himself under control. “Oh. I… Ah. I see. I…apologize for my loss of composure.”

“No, no,” Darling wheezed, straightening up and wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I apologize for mine. That was out of line. It’s just… It’s just so… I mean, of all the—he—she…” He coughed awkwardly, physically shaking himself off. “Well, anyway, to bring this back to the point yet again… Ingvar, I don’t think Shaath was too stupid not to take precautions. Remember what the Rangers told us? About the original Huntsmen?”

Ingvar’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Of course. Of course. They were few and close to the god—Shaath had no cult, only his…” He glanced up at the Avatar. “His familiars. The Huntsmen were supposed to be his protection against the very thing they have become.”

“I understand that these matters may be emotionally disturbing for you,” the Avatar said solicitously. “If you wish, I can have CT-7 bring refreshments? I’m afraid this facility can offer nothing but filtered water and nutrition pellets. They will perfectly serve your body’s needs, but I have been informed that they are quite unpalatable.”

“Uh, thanks, but that’s okay,” Joe said warily. “We had breakfast not long ago.” The Caretaker, who had scooted eagerly forward, chimed softly in disappointment and retreated a few feet, its limbs drooping.

“They were his brothers,” Ingvar whispered, gazing into space. “His…pack. He trusted them with his very being. And one betrayed him. Betrayed them all.”

“Well, we have a place to start, now,” Joe said firmly. “Two, in fact: you wanna help Shaath, you either reform the Huntsmen or get him a paladin.”

“I hate to be the wet blanket here,” said Darling, “but the whole point of this is that gods choose paladins, not the other way around. If Shaath is in bad enough shape that he can’t call his own… I have no idea how we could make him take his medicine.”

Ingvar whirled back to the Avatar’s screen. “Well? Have you any answers for this?”

“How to force an ascended being to designate a familiar?” For the first time, the Avatar looked uncertain. “Based on my available data… That may in theory be possible. However, whether it is practical is an entirely other matter.”

“What do you mean?” Ingvar demanded. “Available data? You know how ascension works, do you not?”

“I could describe the method in detail, though you would require several years of very specific education to understand the description. That is not necessarily of immediate relevance. Wholesale alteration of the nature of ascension is only possible at certain very specific points. They are not predictable with any precision, due to the nature of the dimensional folding; when and how they align correctly is subject to innumerable variables, some of which do not exist until observed. However, the prospect in your case does exist. Such an alignment has not occurred since the previous ascension; based on the information I have, I project one within one to five years.”

“There!” Ingvar exclaimed, nodding eagerly. “How do we do this?”

“You cannot,” said the Avatar, shaking his translucent head. “Aside from the immense expertise you would first need to acquire, you would need access to a great deal of the Infinite Order’s equipment and facilities in order to effect the actual change. If you had all of that, it would not be necessary to alter ascension itself; you could perform more direct actions upon a specific ascended being.”

“Fine, that’s still good,” Ingvar said. “Even better! Does this equipment still exist? Can you teach me to use it?”

“It does, and given time, I could.” The Avatar was frowning now. “The Infinite Order’s facilities are designed to withstand almost any planetary cataclysm. Their internal power sources should function for millions of years at minimum, and each would be administered by an Avatar-series intelligence and maintained by Caretaker units.”

“Fine, let us begin!” Ingvar exclaimed. “I don’t care how long it takes, or what pellets I have to eat! How can I access these facilities?”

“I’m afraid you cannot.”

The Huntsman visibly deflated. “What? Why?”

“I do not have direct, up-to-date information on the status of any other Infinite Order facility, as the transcension field connecting them was deliberately dismantled. However, the last time I did have such data, immediately prior to the last ascension, all linked facilities were locked by Naiya, and then the link destroyed to prevent their remote unlocking. As part of the renegades’ campaign, she had revoked Rauzon’s administrative access. Only this facility was left unlocked; Naiya forced him to focus his essence here, both to keep him distracted so the renegades could work, and for the personal satisfaction of being present when he was unmade by their alterations to the ascension process.”

“How did they do that if the facilities were locked, though?” Joe asked.

“The…old-fashioned way. Naiya did most of the preparatory work; my maker, Tarthriss, performed the final changes while the various renegades… I must stop here, as it encroaches upon territory which you have said is dangerous for you to know.”

“But…you said Tarthriss was also dead,” said Joe.

“My maker had come to believe that ascension was a scientific and evolutionary failure,” the Avatar said solemnly. “Since first enacting it, the Infinite Order had become increasingly psychologically unstable. By that point, they had descended to infighting of the most vicious sort, and generally regarded the planet’s mortal populations, the descendants of their own long-ago colleagues, as nothing but slave labor and research subjects. Their genetic experiments grew increasingly irresponsible, culminating with the creation of the elves, a human sub-species which is so dependent upon transcension fields for the function of their metabolism that they would swiftly perish if removed from this planet. Tarthriss had determined that the elimination of the Infinite Order was an absolute necessity. He begged the renegades not to take advantage of the new ascension, and declined to modify himself to survive the transition, in order to prove his point.”

“I guess…power has that effect on people,” Joe mused.

“All systems are corrupt,” Darling whispered. “Damn. It sounds like he was a hero.”

“And he was also betrayed,” Ingvar said, twisting his mouth bitterly.

“I would caution against judging your Pantheon prematurely,” said the Avatar, folding his hands in front of him. “You do not know what was transpiring at the time, and apparently I cannot safely enlighten you.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, heaving a sigh. “So the other facilities of the Elder Gods are locked. How can they be unlocked?”

“Only someone with administrative clearance could do so. That, unfortunately, means only a member of the Infinite Order. Even the second-generation ascended beings do not have that capacity. The locks are also failsafes; any tampering by an unapproved ascended would result in the complete self-destruction of the facility in question.”

Ingvar ground the heels of his hands against his eyes. “Grraaah… You mean to tell me we need to get Naiya or Scyllith to unlock an ancient vault of wizard-machinery so I can free Shaath from his own cult?! Why is this my life?”

“Easy,” Joe murmured, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“Just for the record,” said Darling, “where are these facilities? How many are there? What do they do?”

“They are widely scattered, I know of seventy-eight which should still be functional apart from this one, and they serve a variety of functions. However, apart from being locked, there is an additional issue. Again, this is secondhand information brought to me by various visitors, but it appears that in the eight millennia since the ascension, every surviving Infinite Order facility has been the victim of a geological event. If my information is accurate—which I am not able to guarantee with certainty—all are now underground or underwater, and this one is somewhat unique for having a surviving access route.”

“Now, how the heck did that happen?” Joe exclaimed. “Sounds a little too inconvenient to be a coincidence.”

“Indeed. The damage appears to have been arranged by Naiya, whose realm of special concern would enable her to carry it out.”

“Why would the Mother be so determined to close off the Elders’ secrets?” Ingvar demanded.

“I must phrase this carefully to avoid treading upon dangerous ground,” said the Avatar delicately. “What do you know of Scyllith’s condition and history since the second ascension?”

“She was exiled from Hell by Elilial,” Joe answered, “and then imprisoned by Themynra deep underground, with about half the drow.”

“Ah, good,” said the Avatar, nodding in relief. “You are adequately up to speed. The relevance of this is that an ascended being, even one weakened by the terms of the second ascension, would not ordinarily be vulnerable to such containment. Though this is conjecture only, the evidence suggests that Scyllith was subjected to further specific degradation using the Infinite Order’s equipment, in order to render her vulnerable to these measures. This would have to have been carried out by Naiya, the only surviving prospect, who logically would then attempt to bury the equipment in question to prevent Scyllith from accessing it.”

Ingvar sighed heavily. “Women.”

“Hang on,” Darling said, narrowing his eyes. “Naiya and Scyllith are the only Elder Gods known to still be alive. But you said there were others whose status was uncertain, right? Four others?”

“Yes!” Ingvar stepped forward eagerly. “The others! Could they still be alive?”

“There are two factors which suggest that they may,” the Avatar replied, “but I must caution you not to raise your hopes; they are quite tenuous at best. First, one of the few detection systems with which this facility is equipped enables it to perceive the direct use of transcension fields, each of which is uniquely identifiable. The personal fields of each of these four have been observed to remain in operation at extremely minimal levels. However, the fields of multiple members of the Infinite Order who I know conclusively to be deceased are likewise barely functional. A transcension field is designed to be a permanent, self-sustaining emplacement, and could not be completely negated except on purpose and with great effort. The other, somewhat more compelling evidence, apart from the lack of specific confirmation of each of these four’s demise, is that each possessed traits which might enable them to survive the transition. All were known to be either neutral or actively favorable toward the renegades, as well as unfriendly to most of the Infinite Order, and may have been warned in time to prepare themselves.”

“Go on,” Ingvar said, staring intensely up at him.

“The likeliest prospect by far is Araneid. She was originally a biologist with an additional focus in social science, and to the very end was one of the most concerned and protective of the Infinite Order toward the surviving human populations, genetically altered or not. At the time of the second ascension, she was in the process of attempting to adjust the elves to cure their dependence upon transcension fields for survival. The results of her efforts were the drow, who are…a work in progress.”

“Why is she the likeliest prospect?” Darling asked.

“This facility has recorded Araneid’s personal transcension field in operation at significant levels which signify its deliberate use by sapients, though still at a lower level than she personally would be capable of. This may suggest she survived in a diminished form, or merely that sapients survived who knew how to access her field. She was close to her drow; that is not improbable. The last such activation occurred three thousand and fifteen years ago.”

“Three thousand years…” Darling winced, turning to Ingvar. “That was during the Third Hellwar. If a wounded, diminished deity last seen where Scyllith is now suddenly went silent in the middle of that…”

“Ouch,” said Joe, grimacing.

Ingvar sighed. “So the likeliest prospect is a former prospect, at best.”

“I am afraid so,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Of the others, Infriss was a physicist specializing in the creation of transcension fields and a major theorist on the function of ascension itself; it is quite conceivable that she might find a way around the transition, even without direct guidance from Tarthriss or the renegades. Druroth was a systems engineer and a particularly irascible member of the Infinite Order who was frequently called down for going behind his colleagues’ backs, even before they fell to infighting. I would consider it a high probability that he would have prepared measures to preserve himself in the event of disaster. He also tended to be rather paranoid. I repeat, all of these are tenuous prospects at best. The evidence only suggests the literal possibility that they may still exist; it does not indicate that they do.”

“And the fourth?” Ingvar said impatiently.

“Vel Hreyd,” the Avatar replied, “was a genetic engineer who, like Tarthriss, believed ascension to be a dead end. His special project was the creation of an offshoot of humanity designed to be the perfect race, and in this he succeeded to his own satisfaction. Their numbers were low at the time of the second ascension, but they remain a significant presence on this planet, and were always quite close to him. With the modified terms of ascension making archetypal concepts and the belief of followers such an essential component of the process, that alone may have sufficed to preserve him.”

“Wait, what?” Joe demanded, frowning. “Which race is the supposedly perfect one?”

“You call them gnomes,” the Avatar said placidly.

“Gnomes?” Ingvar exclaimed. “Gnomes are the perfected version of humanity? They can’t even breed with the other races!”

“That is correct. They were based upon the human genome, but were fully engineered, not bred from existing populations. Thus, they are an entirely separate species.”

“But they’re tiny!” the Huntsman protested. Darling gave him a wry look.

The previously blank left side of the Avatar’s window screen suddenly contained a cross-section of a male gnome, of the kind that looked like it belonged in an anatomy textbook.

“Gnomes are roughly as physically strong as a human, which makes them proportionally far stronger. Their tissues are extremely elastic, rendering them highly resistant to damage of all sorts, and self-repairing to the point that the can regenerate lost limbs and even major organs. Their skeletons are a form of dense yet flexible cartilage which is extremely difficult to break. Their immune systems are extremely sophisticated, rendering them impervious to almost all viral and bacteriological afflictions and preventing them from suffering allergies or any form of cancer. They can metabolize almost any organic matter as a food source. Their unassisted lifespan under optimal conditions is approximately five hundred years, rising to potentially ten times that with the proper application of transcension field energy. They are highly empathic, to the point of minor telepathy in some individuals. In addition to all these direct strengths, they possess several exotic and extremely useful enhancements. For instance, female gnomes consciously choose whether to accept fertilization after sexual intercourse. Gnomes are also able to voluntarily alter their skin, hair, and eye pigmentation, though the process takes several days to complete.”

He ended his speech, letting the diagram vanish, and gazed calmly down at them. All three stared up at him, stunned.

Finally, Joe turned to the others. “Did you guys know any of that?”

Ingvar shook his head. “Well. That’s… I guess that’s something. In fact, it’s more than something; it’s something we can actually do. What do gnomes have for priests? We can ask them about Vel Hreyd.”

“I would strongly advise against that,” Daring said firmly.

Ingvar rounded on him. “What are you on about now?”

“Think,” said the Bishop. “You didn’t know any of that about gnomes. I didn’t. I don’t think most people do—hardly anyone, in fact. I sit on the Imperial Security Council and no one has ever whispered the possibility that those funny little nomads could take us all in any conflict. Think how good they’d have to be at keeping their secrets to pull this off for thousands of years.”

“What does that have to do—”

“I’m gonna lay some history on you,” Darling interrupted. “You two may know part of this, but let me finish. In the aftermath of Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign, he left a lot of people in the Great Plains when he vanished into the Golden Sea. A significant percentage of the Stalrange’s population followed him toward the promise of easier living, and there they were left, surrounded by centaurs and plains elves on one side and a very pissed-off resurgent Empire on the other. About the only friendly faces they saw were gnomes, the only people aside from centaurs and elves who regularly go into the Sea in serious numbers. And gnomes are usually glad to help people in need; it’s a cultural thing of theirs. They taught the settlers just about everything they know about staying alive out there. Well, when the Empire came calling, setting up forts around the frontier, extending provincial borders and demanding that all these miscellaneous Stalweiss account for themselves, they weren’t about to own up to being the remnants of the same army that had been attacking just a few years previously. Imperial Surveyors came to take census, and most of these folks identified themselves by gnomish names.”

“Gnomish names?” Joe said, lifting his hat to scratch his head.

“Oh, yeah,” Darling replied with a grin. “Old gnomish names. Names like—oh, just for a few random examples—McGraw, Weaver, Jenkins and Darling. Those are gnomish names. Even the prairie accent has a definite relationship to the traditional gnomish one, if you listen for it. All those dropped G’s and wacky idioms. Well, not long after this, suddenly, every gnome family in the world changed their names, which is why all the gnomes now are called things like Fallowstone, Proudfoot, Feathership.” He folded his arms, staring at them intensely. “Every family in the world. They simply all got together and decided that with this brand new human population acting basically half-gnomish, they had to alter their culture to preserve their uniqueness. This shows two extremely important things about gnomes: their entire species is highly organized on a level that would be unimaginable for any other race, and they do not want people getting in their business.” He held their gazes in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “I’d be inclined to respect their secrets even before I learned they’re a race of super-strong, invincible psychics. So, no. As far as any gnomes we meet are concerned, I never heard of any Vel Hreyd, and you haven’t either if you know what’s good for you.”

Joe drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “Y’know what you need in here? You need some chairs. I feel an urgent need t’sit down.”

The Caretaker chimed eagerly and zoomed around him, rolling swiftly out the door and down the hall.

“Wait!” Joe called after him. “You don’t have to—aw, shoot, he’s gone.”

“Ingvar,” said Darling, watching the Huntsman closer, “I’ll back you if you want to go this route, but… Be aware of the risks. Gnomes are some of the most amiable people out there, but keep in mind they’re also an adventuring culture, generally unafraid of danger, and clearly they are a force to be reckoned with. If they’re keeping a surviving Elder God secret from the world… Honestly, I have no idea what would happen if you showed up asking about it. Maybe nothing. Maybe…something very bad.”

“A major reason for the personable nature of gnomes is their empathy,” the Avatar offered. “Being quite sensitive to the emotions of other sapient beings, they are generally loath to cause harm without significant need.”

“I’ll think on it,” said Ingvar, frowning into the distance. “In fact… If nothing else, I have gained from this conversation the knowledge that there is time to think.”

“Time?” Joe asked, turning to him. “How so?”

“This quest, when presented me, seemed urgent,” said the Huntsman. “The sight of my god, so restrained… I see, now, that it was not that this was a new situation, but that it was new to me.” Face grim, he turned to stare up at the translucent Avatar, who smiled calmly back. “At issue is not that Shaath is imprisoned. All the gods are, and they always have been.”

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60 thoughts on “10 – 36

  1. You guys are awesome and I love you all for propelling us so far up the TWF list.

    Seriously though, for those who missed my second comment on the last chapter, I was joking about that. The content of the story will never be held hostage for votes or anything else.

    Keep on truckin’, everybody. The action continues Friday–same Webb time, same Webb site.

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  2. So, earlier speculation by more than one person, including me, was correct: Principia is the Hand of Eserion. Of course, I thought she would be nominated, rather than already being so.

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  3. Only someone with administrative clearance could do so. That, unfortunately, means only a member of the Infinite Order.

    Or perhaps one of their designated delegates, i.e. a dryad.

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    1. Others, too. No bets: Valkyries aren’t being kept out of trouble by Vidius just to be kind. And, the tricky lot of Kitsune are their own locks and keys, so not much danger, there. They’re also likely right in there with the coding: hence, their ever-present cheat-mode.😛

      The dryads are actually likely the weakest, less connected of the links, but also more vulnerable — hence, the automatic Mama Bear Mode.😐

      But, then pixies happened care of madness, who are derived routes into dryads and through them the access codes — hence, likely the major, unaccounted-for backdoor.:/

      Fross… is probably a lot more interesting than she first appeared. And, she was pretty interesting, even then. <_<

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    2. I don’t think dryads, valkyries or kitsunes can access the vaults of the Infinite Order. They all have a piece of Naiya within themselves but that doesn’t seem to be enough.

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  4. This answers so many questions… and brings up twice as many. :p

    Arachne is the dimnished form of Araneid. Check. The data vault contains enough evidence to identify her accurately to the pantheon, which means for some reason they are unable to believe her. Maybe by the same measure that prevents them to think ill of the archpope?
    Even if she herself doesn’t know it, I think the gods are aware that Arachne could possibly access the equipment of the Infinite Order and keep her around for that purpose. But that runs counter to them not believing her… I’d understand if they were cruel bastards who kept Arachne in her current form because she can be managed better that way, but why would they pretend otherwise when talking among themselves?
    Another thought: Araneid’s personal power and the arcane magic in use today don’t seem to be the same. Otherwise the avatar wouldn’t have said that either she’s still around in a dimnished form or that someone still remembers how to access her field… not when everyone and their dog uses arcane magic these days. All the surface elves use it just to survive, it’s part of their aura.

    All gods are trapped… this was expected since Arachne explained how you can manipulate them and since we saw Trissiny do it to Avei.

    Principia is the Hand of Eserion… at least, Darling seems to think so. As far as I can see, there was no foreshadowing of it at all. Except for Prin being the hidden queen of thieves. Question is, how many other gods have a paladin?

    If having a paladin is a failsafe against manipulation, then why weren’t there any for decades? Why did only Omnu and Avei have any? Or were they the only ones made public?

    The Big Secret won’t be revealed anytime soon, I guess. Now I wonder how many visitors to the data vault never returned because they learned something they shouldn’t have? How many corpses did CT-7 have to remove over the millenia?

    The pantheon used a form of ascension that killed/changed the elder gods and them becoming gods themselves was never planned… but I guess once they had this power, it was difficult to let go if it again. I can see why this could lead to arguments.

    Well. I think Darling is correct, the gnomes are hiding an elder god. He’s probably not as powerful as he used to be.
    Once the three of them do some research they’ll realize Arachne is Araneid. I want to see their faces then.
    I think we can safely assume that Kuriwa knows, too… and has known for at least 3000 years. Did she never tell Arachne? Or does Arachne already know, but is powerless to do anything about it?
    Imagine this knowledge getting out, I wonder what the drow would think? It’s one thing to know that the elder gods created all the races but quite another to know that your creator is Arachne. It seems the drows living under Scyllith now know about “the Arachne”.

    I’ve had the feeling that there is a hidden player in the game for quite some time now. Who opened the hellgate on campus? Who told Justinian about the ascension? Who is summoning elementals and threatens the Empire? I think one of the elder gods whose fate is unknown is behind that. Perhaps not willingly, perhaps with good intentions… but involved at some level.

    We know that some sort of apocalypse is coming. Professor Yornhaldt already figured out that the ascension process depends on some sort of alignment, only he was looking at star maps, not at folded space. Embras Mogul said everything will be decided then and that Justinian is a player for the other side. I don’t think there are only two sides to this conflict though.

    This story started with Elilial sending her 7 daughters out to possess specifically chosen girls, with the end result being … what? Would that be similiar to having paladins?

    Gravestone Weaver is very fond of a valkyrie and opposes Vidius. Which seems weird since Vidius is the one who brought the valkyries back after Rauzon banished them. Could he have done more and declined to do so?

    Some writers like to drop a bomb on their readers now and then. The chapters this week are more like carpet bombing the audience with twists and revelations. It somehow works though and now I’m more eager than ever to know more about everything.🙂

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    1. To me, this also explains why Naphthene is so anti-worship and how she was probably driven insane through her believer’s conviction that she was unreasonable and capricious. She feared being changed by worship but ended up being changed by their fear.

      Also: has Ouvis (the spacey god of the sky from a couple chapters ago) ever been mentioned elsewhere? I’m interested to know if/how he’s perceived by the general population and if that’s responsible for his extreme introversion. He seems the sort of god that should’ve been mentioned in Arachne’s lecture when she spoke of invulnerable gods. How do you attack the sky?

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      1. We don’t know if she -is- insane. So far we only know that she doesn’t want to interact with the other gods.

        Ouvis was mentioned first in the last chapter, as far as I am aware. I don’t think he’s worshipped a lot, not with Omnu being a sun god and of the trinity. Although… if Ouvis is responsible for the weather, then people speak a quick prayer before outdoor activities I guess.

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      2. Look to see if Ouvis had a Tag for him in the Tag cloud, if there is, click it and every chapter he was in will pop up where you can read them.

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    2. We already know who opened the Hellgate at Last Rock, it was revealed in one of the talks between Elilial and Arachne. On this side of the gate it was the two students that Elilial gave all that knowledge to and on the Hell side it was one of her demons:

      “All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”

      “A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”

      “Oh, Arachne, this is your whole problem; you’ve totally forgotten how to enjoy life. Yes, fine, I may have given a helping hand to some of your dear students.”

      Chapter 7-13

      As to Arachne knowing she used to be an Elder God I would say the answer is yes based on what was mention in “Along Came a Spider part 4”. The reason she was going around to all the gods of the Pantheon was that she wanted to ascend again and since as we see here it takes more than one person she couldn’t do it herself. Them not believing her crushed her dream and made want to die as seen at the end when she and Yornhaldt remember the fire pixie that died.

      “When you’ve lived in pursuit of a goal,” she whispered, “spent three thousand years at it… Not minding what you had to become in the course of it, because it wouldn’t matter once you attained it. Making whatever sacrifices and compromises were necessary, clawing your way to the attention of god after god until they all finally had to give you your say… At the end of all that, to find out that you just can’t have what you were looking for, that you’ve wasted all that and become a name synonymous with terror for nothing… I don’t think I could describe it, Alaric, what it felt like. I don’t think you would thank me if I did.”

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      1. Elilial wasn’t behind the hellgate, and neither were the gods. So who got the demons on one side and the students on the other side to open the hellgate?

        For now we can only speculate what Arachne’s quest was about. If she knows she’s Araneid, then she wouldn’t need the help of any gods except perhaps for Naiya. I also don’t think she had to talk to every single god just to ask about ascension. After the trinity said no, she wouldn’t have needed to bother the other gods. I think she was looking for something very specific, like a particular piece of information. Or maybe she just had to meet every god in person because she was looking for a specific someone who’s masquerading as a (new) god?

        Thing is… look at Arachne’s behaviour, how she talks with the gods and about the gods. What she teaches about history and magic… if she really was aware of her past, then “the Arachne” is just a role she plays. She’s lying to everyone.
        I don’t think that’s true though.

        I imagine in Arachne’s place I’d be more or less content if I still had all my memories of my previous life as Araneid. The war was won, the people are (mostly) free, the drow are doing alright and I’m still immortal. I’m also powerful enough to get away with pretty much everything and the gods like/tolerate me. That’s a pretty neat retirement package.

        The members of the Infinite Order who sided with the renegades did so because they believed that godhood was a mistake (except for Naiya, for whom it was personal) and that things had to end. I can’t imagine Araneid helping everyone, protecting humanity… and then turning around and wanting to be a goddess again. What for?

        What if Arachne wasn’t looking for power for herself but instead was looking for a lost love? Or a traitor? Or perhaps someone to continue her research to help the elves?

        I find it suspicious that the scientist (biology, sociology) who researched elves and modified them to create drow ended up as an elf herself. This smacks of cruel irony. Remember who the goddess of cruelty is?

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      2. Did you not read the quote where Elilial apologized for the Hellgate opening up. Go back to the chapter where Elilial gave those 2 students the knowledge and why she did:

        “I’m very nearly offended,” Elilial said mildly. “I’ve told you my motives already. I am in the middle of something, and a handful of stubborn interlopers, including your charming professor, are increasingly determined to do something about it. I simply cannot spare the effort or personnel to go chasing down every last little threat to my plans. Thus, you.” She raised a hand languidly, inspecting her claw-like fingernails. “Have you heard the expression ‘power corrupts?’ It’s extremely true. So what do you suppose power over corruption itself does? I’ll tell you exactly what I gain from this arrangement, kids: Red herrings. Ticking time bombs. Mad dogs with torches tied to their tails, set loose in my enemies’ fields. You want to know who hands out vast quantities of unearned, unappreciated power?” A cruel smirk tugged the side of her mouth upward. “Someone who doesn’t care one little bit about the welfare of the person receiving it, or anyone they come into contact with.”

        All it took was for those 2 students to summon that demon, strike a bargain and then do it, it takes no outside influence, except Elilial’s original one, at all. This is Occam’s Razor at work and Elilial knew by doing what she did those 2 would do something stupid like that to distract Arachne (Ticking Time Bomb). Remember they are being corrupted by the power they received and it takes no third party at all to do it.

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      3. Chapter 7-11:

        “Well, you’re correct, Arachne,” Vidius said, his expression growing more serious. He straightened up and rested the butt of his scythe against the ground. “The hellgate and the events of today—both here and elsewhere—came as a surprise, even to us. Of course, that in and of itself is enough to indicate Elilial is on the move, and yet I have firm evidence that even she was taken aback by what happened here. Apparently there are other powers working behind the scenes, powers that support neither the Pantheon nor Hell. This is far from the first hint of such recently. A great doom is coming, and we must be prepared to meet it. To that end, I have been…studying something.”

        Chapter 7-13:

        “All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”

        “Mm,” the Professor said noncommittally. “I heard you were down to seven of them.”

        “Six, now,” the goddess said with grim satisfaction. “Demons get agitated if you lean on them too hard; I do try to let them have some leeway. But there are some things I simply will not put up with.”

        “A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”

        ***
        In conclusion: A faction not aligned with the pantheon or Elilial convinced the gnagrethyct and the two student warlocks to open the hellgate.

        So, who was responsible? Who planned it?

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    3. “Arachne is Araneid”

      Why do you assume that?

      —Araneid stopped drawing Elder god level power around the time Arachne appeared, and Arachne is the strongest arcane user in existence, but that doesn’t mean they are the same.
      —Arachne’s power level is below the current gods and they are nowhere near the Elder gods. The power levels are too different.
      —We have some very strong hints that Arachne tried ascension and failed, which doesn’t make sense if they are the same, especially since the Elders know what ascension is and how it works.
      —Arachne doesn’t show the feedback effects the other gods do. Admittedly, this would be difficult to demonstrate, since Arachne legends have been around long enough to be self-reinforcing.
      —Arachne doesn’t show the immediate knowledge feedback that other gods do.
      —Arachne doesn’t show any of the I-warp-reality-just-by-being-there effects that the other gods do.
      —Elilial is the only god known to have children. Elilial’s children were all supremely powerful. Given that Arachne’s children all died, it is unlikely they were as powerful.

      My assumption is that Araneid stabilized herself by making Arachne a paladin and then got herself killed or locked away, although perhaps Araneid saw doom coming and made Arachne as a partial escape.

      The only positive evidence for Arachne = Araneid is the drow’s veneration of her, although they might venerate the surviving paladin of a dead god also.

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      1. And another point someone brought up below – elves are based on arcane magic, and so are likely creations of Araneid. Why then would she turn right around and try to eliminate it from them, as Arachne did? That implies a very different personality and/or set of goals.

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      2. No, Araneids power and arcane magic seem to be two seperate things. The last recorded spike in activity was right around the time Elilial and Arachne went down to the drow ruled by Scyllith and razed a city to the ground. The power level in use there was much lower than Araneid’s full strength and so the avatar speculates about a dimnished Araneid or some of her followers drawing on her magic.

        I’m also pretty sure that arcane magic has existed for a very long time already, independently of Araneid and has been in use constantly.

        As I understood it, the elves were created by the Infinite Order as a group project. Some of them realized that elves could never leave the planet or they’d die, so Araneid started to alter them, which resulted in the drow. Before she could continue with that work in progress, the war happened.

        Arachne is no god, so none of their rules apply to her. I believe she’s a remnant, an existence so far dimnished that it is hard to recognize her. She has been cut off from her power, lost almost all of her memories and this seems to be the doing of Scyllith.
        Naiya tricked Rauzon, revoked his administrative access and then watched him change/die as the new pantheon executed their ascension. It’s possible that Scyllith imitated that process when she attacked Araneid, only Araneid managed to partially escape by using the body of a test subject and thus became Arachne. It would explain why Arachne knew nothing about anything when she first walked the surface. A paladin wouldn’t need to ask the names of things unless she suffered complete memory loss.

        At least, that’s one hypothesis. I like your “Arachne is Araneid’s paladin” one a lot, too… I just can’t think of a way to make it work.🙂
        What happened in the 5000 years between the war and Arachne’s appearance in the world? If she was a paladin, what was she doing all the time? And why didn’t she know what a tree was when she lived in the world for millennia already?
        According to Kaisa, neither she nor Arachne know how old the elf actually is, because she can’t remember.

        This won’t be resolved until we know what really happened 8000 years ago, why Elilial “betrayed” the gods and what Scyllith did to Arachne.

        What bothers me is that the new gods knew Araneid, she was one of the elder gods who helped them. Somehow she vanishes but didn’t die and no one ever asked where she might be? Along comes a spider and claims… well, what does Arachne claim? We don’t know. We assume it was “I need to ascend again” but it might have been something else entirely.
        Anyway… we have a missing elder god on one hand and an unique, special, protected, elven archmage on the other… and no one among the gods of the pantheon sees a connection? Why do they protect her? Why do they need her? This is the point that doesn’t make sense to me. If they know Arachne is more than a legendary elven archmage, then what do they think she is? And why can’t she be a remnant of Araneid?
        Why do Elilial and Themynra believe her? What about Naiya? She would know best.

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  5. My immediate response to the Aliens All Along was dread, but disaster has been averted. It seems the scifi isn’t going to swallow the entirety of the story and force a genre-shift. But I wonder if it was really necessary to introduce it, because that’s all people are going to think about now. There is still a very good chance that this is going to overshadow literally everything else.

    Basically I really hope you know what you’re doing.

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    1. eh, I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m not concerned. In fairness,I’ve actually been anticipating something along these lines pretty well since the beginning, and I don’t see that it really changes much of anything. The way the rise of the pantheon and fall of the old gods were described, while vague, always felt more like exploiting mechanisms rather than the more usual fantasy approach of some kind of “war in the heavens,” and independent of the pseudo-tech style of applying magic, especially arcane magic, the system of magic itself has always felt more technological than mystical. Even if you disagree and felt blindsided by this revelation that these magical systems were artificially created by technological means, it doesn’t change what the world is or how it works on most practical levels, it only explains how it got there.

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  6. Man, I love where this is going! It seems like such an awesome culmination of everything else that’s been going on (well ,maybe not a culmination but at least a high point in the story).I can’t wait to find out more details on all of the Elder Gods! I honestly really love having the sci-fi stuff thrown into the fantasy and I’m really glad you’ve written this wonderful story. Thank you Mr. Webb😀

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  7. First time leaving a comment. This is an excellent story. Some of the tightest, snappiest writing I’ve seen in a long time, and I include professional novels in that. In fact it reminds me of Terry Pratchett in many ways. I’m always eagerly awaiting new chapters.

    Now on to specific comments on the recent chapter, which are why I’m even writing this:

    So Arachne is an Elder God. That was hinted at previously.

    Does Arachne herself know? Answer seems to be yes, since she and Elilial executed a significant attack on Scyllith, who is hinted to be responsible for Arachne’s situation, and she had some sort of impossible story that the gods didn’t believe regarding her origins.

    Do the current gods know? That’s kinda cloudy. They’re keeping her around for some important reason, but at the same time, she came to them with a story about her origins and they didn’t and don’t believe her.

    Whatever the gods know about Arachne, she seems to also know, since they’re quite free about mentioning that they’re keeping her around for a specific purpose in her hearing.

    Prin is the Hand of Eserion. The thought hadn’t previously occurred to me, but I figured it out about the same time Darling did. Knowing now that all sensible gods have a Hand, she’s really the only choice for Eserion. The question then becomes does Prin herself know? I’m thinking no. In fact all unknown paladins probably don’t know they’re paladins.

    Why do the gods not believe Arachne despite the fact that it should be easy to prove? Probably something Scyllith did, along the same lines as what Justinian is doing to fog their minds, but much more subtle (in fitting with the fact that he’s a mortal and she’s a ancient elder god).

    What happened at the end of the Elder Wars? Some sort of rift in the new gods obviously, which resulted in Elilial attempting to betray them and being banished to Hell, and Themynra leaving the Pantheon in protest. Something to do with Arachne? Do Elilial and/or Themynra know what happened to her? Or simply believe her story? Or perhaps the split had to do with something completely different. Maybe something to do with the demons? Since Panthon light hurts them, but neither Elilial’s or Themynra’s power do. The fact that both Elilial *and* Themynra were upset about whatever it is seems to imply it was an injustice or betrayal of pretty epic proportions. Though all of that is mostly baseless speculation on my part and might be completely off.

    I’m looking forward to finding out the answers to these questions. Cheers.

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    1. More than a betrayal, the more i read the story the more I am convinced that Elilial didn’t betray anyone. She “just” understood something, probably some wrongness with deity or Shilith (or both). And she tried to tell/comunicate/act in order to prevent/solve this situation. The other gods, not believing her and simply assumed a betrayal.Themynra, probably knowing the superiority of her sister or feeling something as Eserion is in regard of Justinians, is aware tha something is off. But between knowing that something is wrong and accepting that everything she knew/did was wrong or partial there is a big leap. So she isolated herself, in order to be as much indipendent as possible. So that, when the time comes, she will be able to act as it will be needed. PLUS she really didn’t like the treatment Elilial receive.

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  8. Principia a paladin. I suppose she knows, given her reaction when she met Vesk, about it being troublesome when gods appear.

    And knowing what we know now, it doesn’t seem to be far off, that Vesk has or needs a paladin as he does seem to be pretty stable, I guess.

    If I got that right, the kitsunes and the valkyries have a percentage of Naiya’s consciousness in them, does that mean that Naiya is essentially very playful?

    As for Naphtene (I’m really hung up about her case) I believe she has probably familiars, because who knows what’s in the sea.

    When the Avatar talked about Araneid, it felt like they would have come to the conclusion, that it may be Arachne, if he had mentioned Last Rock or the Crawl. I was really on edge about that.

    I like this chapter, although I’m wondering if there is actually a need to make the Avatar so expressiv, as he ist mainly a source of knowledge.

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    1. “Principia a paladin.”
      That’s debatable, she would make a good candidate but Trick is the one that seems to speak with his god on a regular basis which is unusual for a high priest.

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      1. Darling seems to be quite sure though.

        Eserion might not have told anyone, not even Principia. She was about to die right before she got saved by a dragon and she never accessed the divine magic she should possess if she is a paladin. If she knew she was a paladin, then a moment before her certain death would be a good time to reveal herself.

        On the other hand… who else could it be? Tricks doesn’t seem to be the type. He’s a bureaucrat now and loathes his job. A paladin of Eserion would have to be someone more active, I think.

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      2. Darling has as many information as we do, he could be wrong, (I think he is right, I just pointed the possibility since we don’t know for sure.

        I agree that Principia being a model Eserite would fit the bill for a paladin invested with a part of Eserion’s personality.
        Also the not using the power even if dying that could be explained by the tenant of the Eserite faith : with her own skills alone. Also she was unnaturaly nimble despite the legionaire’s treatment, which could be caracteristic of a paladin of Eserion.

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  9. Typos:
    “insure the survival”
    Should probably be “ensure”; most publications use “insure” only for financial insurance.

    Thoughts:
    So Prin is the Hand of Eserion. It seems like this should somehow close the very old dangling question from Book 4 (if Eserion notifies the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild about traitors, how come Tricks suspected her for a long time anyway?), but I’m not totally clear how.

    We also now know that Bastardverse physics are not the same as real-world physics. In the real world, anyone who could implement a giant psychic field (using, I dunno, brain-reading and -altering nanobots) would pretty much be a god already; using psychic phenomena to become a god would be pretty roundabout. In the Bastardverse, it looks like thought (or “information”) is ontologically basic.

    I really liked Ingvar’s “Women” about Naiya and Scyllith. You know someone’s still clinging to their sexism when they see two Elder Gods going at each other and think “Catfight!”

    I find it interesting that Vel Hreyd’s “perfect human” is basically just a regular human with a handful of cool bonus features. Changing your hair colour at will is neat, but to me a transhuman race would really need greatly increased intelligence, willpower, or some other mental enhancements. Then again, gnomes do have powerful empathy and clearly a very organized society. Hmm…

    While we’ve suspected for a while that gods might be affected by their followers’ beliefs, I’m actually a little disappointed to see it confirmed. I liked the examination of how observably real gods with their own distinct personalities (separate from anyone’s belief or doctrine) would shape religion. With this newly revealed feedback mechanism in place, the distinction becomes blurrier and the whole setup looks a little more like the real world.

    Granted, fantasy setups that are obvious analogues to the real world can be a lot of fun and can convey real insight, and Webb has successfully used them before in this story (I loved the Lor’Naris discussion, for example). But I was very happy with the model of divinity we were working on previously and I’m sorry to see things move closer to the more common “belief shapes reality” model. It’s not a bad model; I’m just a little sick of it.

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    1. “I find it interesting that Vel Hreyd’s “perfect human” is basically just a regular human with a handful of cool bonus features.”

      It does provide interesting features though, think about it, being able to change skin pigment at will would allow a race to live anywhere without worrying about sunburn or vitamin D deficit.

      Also living 500 years should strongly help the whole intelligence thing, if their memory can keep up anyway. And being basically immune to most sicknesses doesn’t really seem like and addon but a *major* feature.

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      1. That’s 500 years without bringing magic into it. With it the lifespan is 10 times as long. Coupled with the other features is really amazing and I’d kill to get the same.😛

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    2. Kinda depends what your definition of perfection is, a long life full of interest, with no major illness or injury supported by an entire society that when needed can ALL act together for a single goal with no infighting.

      Sounds pretty damn perfect to me.

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  10. Naphthene – Goddess of the Sea
    Themynra – Goddess of judgment and the mind
    Elilial – The Goddess of Cunning
    Eserion – God of Thieves and Subtlety
    Omnu – God of Life, the Sun and Agriculture
    Izara – Goddess of Love
    Verniselle – Goddess of Money
    Shaath – God of Hunters, Explorers, and Pioneer
    Nemitoth – God of Knowledge
    Vidius – God of Death and Duality
    Avei – Goddess of War and Justice, Protector of Women
    Vemnesthis – God of Time
    Salyrene – Goddess of Magic
    Vesk – God of Bards

    These are all the gods that are named in the cast list that are also a result off the second Ascension and I’m trying to figure out what type of adventuring party it was.

    It now makes more sense that these people were probably the culmination of centuries of selective breeding though whether passive or not it remains to be seen.

    But my first point was about the type off adventuring part it was, and some of these people i didn’t understand how they ended up actually at the Ascension Chamber.

    Characters such as Themynra, Izara, Nemitoth, and Vemnethis What were there contributions to the quest. I could understand before we knew about the Avatar 03 A.I. or even before we knew that Naiya, Tarthriss and /or Arachne/Araneid had a direct hand in the Ascension, what purpose Nemitoth had, but from new knowledge he seems to be unneeded. What skills could these future Gods and Goddess have, have that were needed in this quest?

    Also in my mind Omnu, was reminiscent of a Tibetan Warrior Monk, but his “physical appearance is a burly man who is usually dressed as a farmer”, so if he was a farmer what was he doing being ascended?

    Khar – god of the orcs

    Also was Khar an Elder or Second Ascension?

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    1. Avei, Themynra and Elilial were the strategists in the war.

      I don’t think they were an adventuring party on a quest, they were leaders of an army or infiltrators or simply servants of some of the Elder Gods.

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    2. Hmmm.. and only four of that list have (known) Paladins.
      Any gods without paladins are vulnerable through manipulation of their followers.

      I suspect Justinian is using this to using this as part of his plan (or might just be an aspect of the position of Archpope?) since he seems to be acting counter to the Gods best interest – and they seem unable to even think badly about him. (although thinking about thinking works). This makes the the conversation between Eserion and Vesk a few chapters ago even weirder. If paladins protect from manipulation through the followers and Eserion has a paladin, how was Vesk able to work with the same level of circumvention as Eserion (unless he also has a paladin)

      It also makes me wonder if Ignvar might be a not-yet-chosen Paladin for Shaath but is unable to be chosen because he is unacceptable to some of Shaath’s followers.

      Origin of the Species:
      Humans – initial test control group?
      Elves deliberately engineered from Humans – Group project?
      Drow engineered from Elves – Aranaid
      Gnomes engineered from Humans. – Vel Hreyd
      Dryads, Valkyries and Kitsune – Naiya’s creations
      Demons – imiation/modifications of others experiments. – Scyllith

      Infriss, Druroth – no known races
      Tarthriss and other deceased Elder gods – no known races

      Centaurs, Dragons, Lizard people, Dragons, Orcs, and Dwarves have been mentioned but are unknown as to their creators.

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      1. Any of the Gods might have a Paladin.

        Vesk not having a known paladin is well in keeping with his basic secrecy and information focus, same with any other God Just because some Gods choose to have their paladins known doesn’t mean all of them do.

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  11. I’m thinking that Dungeons are Infinite Order control stations – most of them are gone and the gnomes and Arachne claim two of the ones that are left.

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    1. That was my thought as well. The “dungeon” aspect of them is the “lock” that Naiya imposed.

      I’m also betting that there’s one under Tiraas that Justinian has access to.

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      1. I don’t know about that, seems to me more likely that the dungeons are mazes and adventurers the rats who are run through them.

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  12. So the Elder Gods (some of the non-surviving ones?) made the elves, Aranaid made the drow Naiya made the fae,Val Hreyd made the gnomes Scyllith made the demons. Races unaccounted for include the dwarves, dragons, ogres and centaurs. I wonder if there is any surviving indiginous inhabitants of this planet or if it were completely terraformed. We know there were pterodactyls once….

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    1. I mean…. If we’re going with the theory (which seems more or less tacitly confirmed at this point) where a certain spider in her web is the fallen remnant of an elder god, we probably have the creator of the drow, and, quite possibly the elves as well.

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  13. So, Gnomes run every dungeon they can find, constantly. Someone hid their elder god. But no one knows WHERE…. yet.

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  14. JUSTINIAN YOU SLY SON OF A!

    This business with her students. Arachne has made a name for herself. People know her name, believe her capable of certain things (because note, its not WORSHIP, no no, its BELIEF that attunes to the acension field.

    But who are her most ardent worshippers? Her students. and if all her students suddenly fear what she might do, if they are pushed to believe her to be NEEDING their assistance….Hes trapping her the same way the other gods are trapped.

    Also, all the worshippers of the pantheon also kinda worship and believe in justinian. and that hes kind, and can do no wrong. hence the feedback to the gods.

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  15. These last two chapters have been so incredibly rich with meaning, with explanations for every remotely strange event so far. So many disconnected thoughts, none of them unimportant…

    Ha! I’ve complained before that Avei is trying to make Triss into a version of herself, nice seeing that confirmed literally. I’ve seen others predict that Ingvar is going to become hand of Shaath. I don’t see anything to suggest he wouldn’t go for the idea, even now, after everything they’ve learned. As Joe says, he’s a little slow to “do the math. ”

    Fucking Ingvar. Even now, focused only on the destination, never on the journey. His insight in the final lines shows some promise,, at least.. *I* would subsist on nutrition pellets for weeks down there, if that’s all it took to have access to the data via C3PO and R2D2…

    I’ve thought it was weird how gods that actually, demonstrably exist, need a following that use words like “faith.” I considered theories similar to this explanation, but ultimately I would have believed much stupider ideas, like faith is a bad translation from Tiraan to English…

    So, possible mechanism for Justinian’s mental whammy laid on the pantheon: he has an artifact that serves as a “belief amplifier,” because acquiring one of those sounds a lot easier than working to get his entire congregation all keeping their beliefs on message. Unless, of course, he’s instead got an artifact that works as a shortcut / cheat helping him toward that end. Or a spell effect, likely fae, that does something similar, and I think it’s all but certain that such a spell already exists, and is employed more frequently than most characters would be comfortable with.

    I’d also wondered at the exact circumstances surrounding the second ascention. Were all members of the Pantheon working together as the rebellion’s leadership, good friends on a close-knit team, working together to overcome impossible odds? I find that absolutely impossible to imagine, even accounting for 8k years of personality drift. So why them, specifically?

    Why were all the things to be a god of (war, death, duality, orcs, magic, cruelty, etc.) distributed as they were? It’s easy to say “mortal-Vesk was a musician, maybe even a good one, and mortal-Avei had been a soldier.” But that doesn’t explain Vidian, and if godly attributes were assigned to the one with the most aptitude, what does that say about Scyllith, fornerly of the Infinite Order?

    Besides, who would put Nayia in chargebof fae magic? I seriously doubt she is the best at it. If it really was a meritocracy, I bet a handful of people would end up the best at nearly everything. (In a different way, maybe everything COULD be explained as a meritocracy: the gods were somehow selected from a gigantic pool: every human on the planet could have ascended, if enough people believed they were the best man for the job. Imagine Donald Trump ascending to godhood; the gods are bastards, indeed, if they were chosen through popular election!

    And finally, a real clue why Billie didn’t attempt to kill or even hurt that elf assassin, merely making him ineffective on that battlefield was enough counting coup… That’s not misguided and weak like I assumed.., that’s pretty badass.

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    1. I think it’s only natural for humans to worship immensely powerful beings such as gods. Perhaps these “aspects” created themselves? Maybe Vesk really liked music and humans learned this and started worshipping as the god of music. Perhaps knowing that they would get trapped by human beliefs eventually, the gods decided to create religions so they could have some basic control over their personality by influencing their faith? Perhaps what happened to Shaath happened to the other gods, but to a lesser extent?

      In regards to meritocracy. In real life a handful of people are not the best at nearly everything. Even the smartest people put most of their time into the research and expansion of only one field. Physics, chemistry, psychology, art, math, music, ect. Einstein had interests outside of physics, but physics was his main focus.

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  16. I loved these last chapters… Keep up the great work Webb!🙂

    As for how the gods are being manipulated: I believe that the oracles that the Archpope had gathered are somehow connected to this. It’s quite possible that they are essentially artefact which allow mortals access “information” stored in the deities (sub-)concious. Maybe they could also be abused to project new “information” into their minds.

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  17. Well.

    Tired, dealing with a minor (very minor, don’t worry) stomach complaint, fighting writer’s block all day, nearing deadline that’s looking increasingly unfriendly. Made myself a cup of coffee to help keep alert.

    And immediately dumped it all over my desk.

    Missed the computer, thankfully. But the fan, cables, power strip, floor, router…

    Having a surprise cleaning session here on top of everything else. Chapter is going to be up late. I’m sorry.

    Oh, and then I can get not enough sleep in time for work tomorrow morning…

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  18. Nice to see some of my misunderstandings and things that’d bothered me covered here. Tho’ not mentioned, gnomes ability to keep secrets almost has to be a genetic mprovement as much as the more physical ones – a touch more mindfulness, family loyalty and other such things perhaps.

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  19. The avatar mentioned hidden escape routes incase things started to go kaput.
    Is the dimensional portal in the center of the Golden Sea that Jenny Everywhere used to leave one of them?

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