Tag Archives: Avei

10 – 51

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With a soft sigh of relief, she pressed the wax seal onto the final envelope, stacked it neatly on the side of her desk with the others, and pushed her chair back. For a long moment, Tellwyrn indulged in a luxurious stretch, arching her back and pressing both fists at the windows behind her. Fifty years and she’d never grown to like all the damned paperwork. Only some days could she even claim to be somewhat used to it.

Without warning, the presence slammed down on her, the sudden proximity of an entity whose very consciousness was enough to make an indentation in reality.

“ARACHNE!”

Grimacing, Tellwyrn straightened up and stared sardonically at the goddess glaring at her from inches away, fists planted on her desk.

“Well, hi there. Won’t you come in.”

“I am not going to indulge your nonsense, Arachne. How dare you allow the Black Wreath to manipulate my paladin? When I sent here here I understood that your unconventional methods could be important to her growth, but there are limits. You cannot have thought that was an acceptable line to cross!”

“Stop it, Avei,” Tellwyrn said flatly, staring at her over the rims of her spectacles. “Just…spare me. You’ve had the whole afternoon to come blazing down here in a fury if you wanted; this is a calculated move, and I’m not going to indulge your nonsense. What is it you really want?”

“Why, I should think it’s obvious,” Kaisa purred from behind her chair, slinking out into view. “Like all unhappy parents, she wants a word with the teacher who dared administer a spanking to her little darling. After all, Arachne, you did promise me I could handle this, no?”

Tellwyrn groaned and slumped back into her chair, covering her eyes with a hand, glasses and all.

“You are stepping into matters better left alone, little fairy,” the goddess growled. “The business of the Pantheon is not fodder for one of your elaborate pranks.”

“Omnu’s balls, don’t say that to her,” Tellwyrn pleaded.

Kaisa laughed softly. “Dear Avei, I understand your worry. Truly, I do. But you chose to trust Trissiny’s education to Arachne, and she has trusted part of it to me. You have my solemn word, at no point has any of this trust been betrayed.” She paced slowly around the desk to join Avei on its other side, ears alert and tail bobbing lightly. “I do love my little jokes—but I am a teacher first and foremost. My great joy has been in the forming of young minds far, far longer than Arachne has been at it. Longer than you have called paladins, in fact. If I choose to allow the Black Wreath to play their little games with my students, it is for one reason only: I deem it in the best interests of my students’ education.”

“The Wreath wants nothing more than to sink their claws into the Hands of the gods,” Avei grated. “You are not to give them what they want!”

“They want that, yes,” Kaisa mused. “Which is why I was careful to supervise and set boundaries; I fear Mr. Mogul would have taken shocking liberties had I not monitored him. But no, the exercise proceeded according to my plan. The paladins have not been turned against their gods; they have only learned to ask piercing questions and to challenge dangerous assumptions. And if you are bothered by this, perhaps it is not you who should be criticizing me, hmmmm?”

“I’ve already heard from Janis, Emilio and Kaisa herself about Trissiny’s demeanor after this morning’s events,” Tellwyrn added. “All indications are that she has managed what I haven’t in eighteen months and your people couldn’t in three years: she got through to the girl.”

“To what end?” Avei snapped. “I didn’t send her here so you could teach her to challenge the gods!”

“You sent her here so I could teach her to think,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “And Kaisa is right about that, too. If thinking results in turning on the gods, that’s something you should think about, rather than complaining at educators. But no, so long as we do our jobs well, it won’t come to that. Based on everything I know, the Pantheon could benefit greatly from criticism and challenge, but knowing the full truth is unlikely to make your own Hands turn against you.”

“Embras Mogul certainly does not agree with that,” Avei said pointedly.

“Embras Mogul,” Tellwyrn replied, steepling her fingers and raising an eyebrow, “is a man of faith. Specifically, a faith which keeps him locked in a very weak position. No matter what cunning their goddess teaches them, the Black Wreath are utterly defined by their obsession with their enemies. If the gods actually did fall, the Wreath would go down soon after, just because they’d have nothing left to cling to. On matters of gods and paladins, I may or may not know as many secrets as Mogul, but I am certainly more objective. And I’m telling you, he hasn’t done nearly the harm he believes he has. Mogul assumes critical thinking by the paladins will bring them ultimately to his point of view because, like all religious people, he is emotionally unable to entertain the prospect that he isn’t right.”

Kaisa giggled; Avei glared at her.

“Critical thinking,” said the kitsune, waving her tail playfully, “is always worth pursuing, for its own sake.”

Avei straightened up to her full height; even in a purely mortal shape as she was now, wearing a crisp Army uniform without insignia, she was well over six feet all and powerfully built besides. The far daintier kitsune was dwarfed in comparison.

“Allow me to make myself clear,” the goddess intoned, her voice suddenly resonating through far more than the air; the fabric of existence around them appeared to pulse with it. In the next moment, she was holding a sword and shield made of pure golden light, with blazing eagle wings fanning out behind her. There wasn’t actually room for them in the office, but they didn’t brush the walls. “My trust is limited and hard-earned, and I have chosen this course for my Hand because I will not take foolish risks with her. Your antics here have eroded my patience for any further tricks, Ekoi Kaisa. If I have any further indication that your actions will harm Trissiny, I will put an immediate and absolute halt to them.”

Again, Kaisa giggled.

Light flared through the office, and suddenly she, too, stood taller than the space should have been able to hold. A corona of pure, pale light shifted and pulsed around her, and the office was filled with the scent of cherry blossoms.

The kitsune’s coiffed hair, the fur of her ears and tail, were all luminous as spun gold. In fact, a whole fan of tails swayed and waved behind her, shifting too rapidly to be counted.

“Dear, Avei,” she said in a fondly indulgent tone, her own voice like the music of galaxies. “Dear, silly little Avei. No. You will not.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn complained. “Can’t you two have your pissing contest somewhere other than my office? Other than my campus, for that matter.”

“Indeed so!” Kaisa said pleasantly. “This is, after all, an institute of learning. Avei, I want you to remember something important, when next you feel an urge to intervene in your paladin’s education.”

The kitsune leaned forward; the goddess shifted back, frowning suspiciously, but Kaisa continued to smile benignly, even as she raised one hand with a single clawed forefinger extended.

And then the fox-woman poked the goddess of war lightly on the nose.

“Boop!”

Her laughter echoed through the office as she swirled in on herself, a brief cyclone of swishing foxtails and golden light, and was gone.

In the aftermath of her passing, Avei’s golden effects had vanished as well, leaving the goddess scowling at empty space in an apparently mortal shape.

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn grumbled. “Would you please not rile her up?”

“Me?” Avei exclaimed, rounding on her.

“Yes, you,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You I expect to have the judgment and self-control to know what powerful fae are like and not push their buttons, nor rise to the bait. Honestly, if this is how you’re going to act, sending Trissiny here for an education was an even better idea than you realized. And speaking of that, I now need to go finish what Kaisa started.” She stood up from the chair, straightening her tunic. “The girl’s had long enough to ponder, I believe. Do me a favor.”

The elf gave the goddess a sardonic look over the tops of her spectacles.

“Butt out.”

Then, with a soft pop, she vanished.

Standing alone in an empty office, the goddess sighed. “This is what happens when I go too long without publicly smiting someone.”


After a year and a half, Trissiny was inured to the horror of hanging suspended over the edge of the mountain and had learned to simply appreciate the views offered by Clarke Tower’s position. The Rock itself blocked the sunrise, but the little outdoor patio at the tower’s “ground” level offered the most amazing view of sunsets she had ever seen. In some ways, it was symbolic of the reversal her life had taken since coming here. In Viridill, you could always see the sun coming up in the distant east, but the mountains hid it by mid-afternoon.

The sun had just vanished below the distant horizon, leaving the plains swathed in reflected crimson and orange, when the door behind her clicked open.

“Here you are,” Ruda said, striding out and kicking it shut behind her. “You missed dinner.”

“Mm.” Trissiny didn’t lift her stare from the empty distance. “Not hungry.”

There was a moment of silence while Ruda stared at her critically, then the pirate sighed, stepped forward, and plunked herself down on the bench next to Trissiny.

“Boots, I can see you’re upset, but come on. You have to fucking eat.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Trissiny said without inflection, not shifting her gaze. “Did some experiments with Professor Rafe this summer; turns out I have the elvish metabolism, or most of it. After nineteen years of regular human-sized meals, he figures I won’t need food for at least five years. Or I could just hold my breath for a month.”

“Oh,” Ruda said, nonplussed. “Huh. That’s…well. That’s pretty nifty.”

“I managed half an hour,” Trissiny said absently. “Without breathing. It feels wrong, though, and it got boring. Breathing is habitual.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty fuckin’ good habit to be in.”

Trissiny continued to stare at nothing, face blank. Ruda, frowning worriedly, studied her for a few moments before speaking again.

“So…you wanna talk about it, or do I need to badger you first?”

“That’s the second time we’ve dealt with the Black Wreath,” Trissiny said softly. “And both times, they played me like a lute.”

“Played all of us, to be fair…”

“I’ve got two and a half more years to be a student. Then, there’ll be no more improbably friendly vampires or kitsune keeping watch. It’ll just be me, out there with them. I’m the hand of Avei. Gabriel’s unprecedented and Toby’s calling is far more nurturing. Me? Striking down the Wreath is a huge part of my purpose in this world. And I…just keep failing.”

“Trissiny…”

“It’s not just failure,” Trissiny continued, a frown slowly forming on her face. “I can learn from failure and do better, next time. It’s what I learn that… I mean, we even had intelligence they couldn’t have guessed at; we had the valkyries feeding us information, we knew in advance what they were about, and they still played me.”

“Well, it’s the Wreath,” Ruda said reasonably. “And let’s face it, Boots, nothing about this is new. They’ve always been sly, and the Hands of Avei have always been badass. Your predecessors managed.”

“My predecessors managed for a while, and almost every one of them died fighting. And that’s okay with me, I’m long past fearing that end. Everybody dies; all I ask is that it’s meaningful. Y’know?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruda said quietly, nodding.

“Yeah.” Finally, Trissiny glanced at her. “You’re as much a woman of action as I am. But it’s not just the Wreath. People keep making the point to me that the world is about connection. That dealing with it is about subtlety. I just can’t… I’m not good at that, Ruda.”

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with your intelligence, Triss.”

“It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s the way I think. What I was trained to be. You were brought up to be clever. Down in the Crawl I experience that…alternate of mine, the one raised by my mother. She was brought up to be clever. I know the capacity’s in me. I just… I have no idea how to reach it. When I look for it, nothing’s there. I can do strategy, I can do tactics, but I can’t do…espionage. Con artistry. I’m a warrior, and you can’t just swing a sword in this world and expect to get anywhere. They…” She paused to swallow heavily. “They trained me wrong. I’m equipped to serve my goddess a hundred years ago. If I keep on now, all I’m going to do is fail her.”

“Trissiny,” Ruda said in alarm, “stop. You are seriously scarin’ me, here. Come on, remember last spring before the hellgate? You told me that whatever happened with my people, we’d be together to deal with it—all of us. Well, same goes. So the world’s about connection? Fine. You’ve got connections, and I think you’re doing a kickass job learning to use them. I mean, c’mon, remember our first week when you tried to straight-up murder a guy for callin’ you a dirty word?”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “In fairness, it was for calling me a dirty word while being a demonblood.”

“Right.” Ruda grinned and jostled her with a shoulder. “So, thoughtless, hotheaded and racist. You can’t deny you’re a much better person now. Hell, you and Gabe are as close as any of us; who woulda pictured that, way back then? You’re going to be okay.”

Trissiny looked at her again, suddenly with a slight smile, and shifted to drape an arm around her roommate’s shoulders.

“Ruda, I love you too, but you can stop comforting me. I’m not having a crisis, I’m thinking.” She heaved a sigh, again frowning out at the horizon, where the last dregs of the sunset were fading. Right behind them, the small fairy lamp above the tower’s back door clicked on. “Like I said, woman of action. I’ve identified a problem and what I want is to solve it, not sit here maundering. I’m just… I’m stuck. I have absolutely no idea what to do, where to turn. How do you learn a whole new set of skills and adjust your personality to accommodate them, all at once? Who can teach that?”

“I get what you mean,” Ruda murmured, nodding. “Not much is worse than being unable to act when you need to.”

“I know it’s possible,” Trissiny said pensively. “It has to be. People change—people gain new aptitudes all the time. But…how?”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re finally asking those questions,” Professor Tellwyrn said warmly.

Both of them jumped up, whirling on her. The elf sat in the other chair on the terrace, positioned just out of view of their bench. She had clearly not come through the door; they hadn’t even heard the customary puff of breath caused by her teleportation.

“Goddammit!” Ruda shouted. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, woman, do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Not strictly, no, but it amuses the hell out of me,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Go on, sit down. The truth is, Trissiny, none of what you’ve been pondering this afternoon is news to me, or most of your teachers, but we’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone isn’t going to listen to a certain idea.”

“Great,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Trissinly,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “if you had the world figured out and needed no help finding your way, what would be the point of getting educated? I’m not condemning you. This is progress, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see it. However,” she added with a sigh, “it also brings us to a point I haven’t been looking forward to. The truth is, this University is not equipped to grant you what you need.”

Trissiny blinked at her.

“You’re quite perceptive,” Tellwyrn continued, “to note that the root of your problem is not simply a set of skills, but a mindset. For most people, I would say the simple awareness of the world’s complexity and a habit of analytical reasoning would be all you need to get yourself in order. You, though, aren’t just working against a certain kind of upbringing: you have the pressure of a deity who wants to do things a certain way on your mind at all times. I’m not saying anything against Avei, here—”

“Yeah, we can pretty much tell when you do that,” Ruda commented.

Tellwyrn ignored her. “—but it’s a factor that you have to consider. What you need is specific training, and not only that but guidance, in exactly the kind of cunning and underhandedness that you’ve been brought up from the cradle to disdain.”

“What…are you suggesting, Professor?” Trissiny asked warily.

The elf gazed at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then glanced out over the Golden Sea, and nodded to herself. “Well. It’s not something I commonly encourage my students to do, but unique as your situation is, it’s not without precedent. Sometimes, Trissiny, the right thing for a certain student in a certain position is to take a semester off.”

“Off?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What do you mean, off?”

“I mean, off campus,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “Elsewhere. Pretty much the only circumstance in which I’ll endorse the idea is if the student in question needs a particular course of study that the University isn’t able to provide—which is what we’re facing here. There’s a lot of things your professors here can teach you beyond what you learn in their classes, Trissiny, but my own predilection for straightforward methods has left me surrounded by people who simply don’t have the kind of adaptive, underhanded thinking you’re looking for. Quite frankly I do not enjoy the company of such people.”

“What about Professor Ekoi?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Well, yes, she could. Could. And if you can pitch that to her in a way that she’ll go for, I think it’d be a great solution. But Kaisa came here to teach specific things; she has a contract, and takes it seriously. Besides, studying under a kitsune, one on one… Well, take it from me, there’s a lot involved that you wouldn’t think of until you’ve done it. And frankly, you’re entirely the wrong sort of person for that experience.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Ruda protested. “Come on, now, you’re talkin’ about breaking up the team. We have a good thing going here! We’re a group!”

“We won’t always be, though,” Trissiny said softly. “Don’t look at me like that, Ruda; we’ll always be friends, and I’m sure we’ll have a place in each other’s lives. But most of us have specific places we’ll have to go after the University. Once we graduate, it just can’t be the eight of us, roving around as a unit.”

“And,” Tellwyrn added severely, pointing at the paladin, “I said semester, singular. You’re a smart cookie when you want to be, Trissiny; it won’t take you all that long to nudge your mind and your habits in the direction you need, especially if you find the right mentor. I expect to see your ass back on this campus the following autumn.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, her eyes wandering away to the horizon, and her mind clearly beyond that. “I still… I mean, that kind of leaves me right back where I was. Worse, even. I have no idea where to start looking.”

“Nonsense, of course you do,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You’re letting the enormity of the future cloud your thinking. To start with, you can always go back where you came from. Trissiny, have you ever given thought to the fact that the Silver Legions use exclusively weapons and tactics rendered obsolete by modern military enchanting? I assure you, followers of the goddess of war did not give up their ability to wage war effectively just to placate the Empire, or anyone else.”

“What are you getting at?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Look… Narnasia trained you as best she could, toward the best purpose she knew how. She most certainly didn’t tell you everything. In the time she had, there was no way she could have, and she had to pick and prioritize. You, however, are at least the equal of the High Commander, and you outrank everyone else in the Sisterhood. There is nothing they are entitled to keep secret from you. I guarantee if you go back to the Abbey and tell Narnasia what’s on your mind, she’ll have just the thing ready to start you on.”

“Hm,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “I…well. Hum. That’s actually very good to know, thank you, Professor. But…”

“Yes?” Tellwyrn prompted after a moment.

“It’s… Never mind. I’m not sure if it’s a worthwhile idea.”

“Trissiny, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the pattern, but I only get on your case for the dumb comments you make when you think they’re smart. If you’re having a thought that you’re not sure is wise or not, it’s the perfect time to share it with a teacher.”

Trissiny had to smile faintly at that. “Well, it’s… With all I’ve heard about the complexity and connectedness of the world, plus the fact that my schooling at the Sisterhood’s hands is kind of what put me in this position in the first place… It feels almost treasonous to say it, but I can’t help thinking the best thing for me would be to seek some answers elsewhere.”

“That,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod, “is in fact a very perceptive thought, and I’m proud of you for having it. And there, too, you certainly have prospects. Just off the top of my head, according to Admestus’s report on your Veilgrad expedition, you were an absolute hit with the Shadow Hunters. You couldn’t ask for better than they to teach you precisely what you’re looking to learn.”

“Hey, that’s a point,” Trissiny said, brightening up. “Raichlin gave me a book on the Silver Huntresses, which I’ve absolutely loved reading. And they have a huge library.”

“Oh!” Ruda said in sudden excitement. “Boots, remember back in Lor’naris when that Colonel came and got you to finagle his brat daughter into the Silver Legions?”

“Um…yes, Covrin. Jenny, I think. Actually, now you mention it, I meant to check up on her, but it managed to slip my mind. I sort of doubt she lasted all the way through basic…”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruda said impatiently. “Point is, he started by suggesting I have her fostered in Puna Dara, right? Because that’s actually a standing custom. Well, if you gotta break up the unit, where better to go? My mother would love to take you under her wing for a few months, and I bet you’d get along famously with her. She’s a sword-swinging badass like you, and a sly as a bag of foxes to boot. They called her the Sea Devil back in the day. ‘sides, she loves having somebody around to mother!”

“There, see?” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “You do have options. I bet if you give it some time and some thought, you’ll come up with even more than that. Anyhow, though, you’ve got a few more weeks till finals, and a week of break after that. This is not something that needs to be settled right now. Think on it, sleep on it, talk to your classmates.” She stood, brushing off her trousers. “And Trissiny? Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you.”

She vanished with a little puff of displaced air before the paladin could respond.

“You know,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “the thing that surprises me the most, I think… If you’d told me a year ago I would one day give a damn about that, I’d’ve called you a liar.”

Ruda’s laughter rang out over the prairie.


“Well,” Vanessa said, swirling her glass of rum punch idly in one hand, “are you happy?”

“All things considered, I am,” Bradshaw said fervently. “As much of a runaway mess as that was for most parts of it… And regardless of however we may be beholden to that crazy fox now… I’d have paid a great deal more for what she did for us.”

“You know I’m in total agreement,” Vanessa replied with a broad smile. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon just walking up and down the docks. Just walking. But I was talking to him.”

She turned expectantly to face Embras, who was gazing out to sea.

The dockside bar remained lively despite the darkness that had fallen over Puna Dara. The Punaji were a people whose famous zest for life didn’t yield to storm or fog, much less anything so commonplace as nightfall, and besides, open-sided taverns like this did a great deal of business among visiting merchants and other strangers to the city. The pier on which it was built was well-lit, both with modern fairy lamps inside the building and torches lining the rails protecting the pub-goers from a drop into the ocean. Talking, laughing, and singing patrons in varying states of inebriation thronged the pier, while musicians played frantically on a platform near the bar and comely young waitresses in matching sarongs dodged nimbly through the crowd. For once, the warlocks didn’t need to employ any magical effects to go ignored. Besides, if they had, they’d never have been served.

“Well,” Embras drawled at last, “we mustn’t lose sight of the future. The paladins are wary, but we’ve made a start there. Ekoi and Tellwyrn have proved willing to endure and even facilitate our presence, provided we behave accordingly. And more importantly, we’re set up, now, for next semester’s campaign on Falconer and Vadrieny. Even considering all the uncertainty to come…”

He grinned, swiveled in his seat to face them directly, and picked up his glass. “You know what? I do believe I am happy.” Embras lifted his drink. “To the future.”

Both his companions raised their own in reply. “The future!”

In the far distance, at the very rim of the horizon, there came the faintest flicker of light, and a soft growl of thunder that was lost to the noise in the restaurant. Whether they heard it or not, the storm was on its way.

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10 – 34

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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6 – 23

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“Are you sure?” Trissiny demanded. “How can you tell?”

The group backed away as another hammer blow knocked loose a cascade of ice fragments.

“I’m a fairy!” Fross exclaimed. “I know when I’m in the presence of one of Naiya’s daughters!”

“Fuck,” Ruda said emphatically. “For one blessed moment, I thought this was gonna be simple. Dunno why, but I did.”

The monster roared again, smashing the wall with both colossal fists. That entire segment collapsed, and it began forcing its way through the gap.

“Retreat!” Trissiny barked, backing away. “Fross, slow her down!”

“On it!”

“Retreat where?” Ruda demanded, even as she backed up from the creature. Fross zipped back and forth, rapidly building inverted icicles; the columns of ice were only waist-high to the creature, but the pixie was arranging them as an obstacle course in the transformed dryad’s path, forcing her to stop and batter through them. “There’s nowhere to go but back to the nexus!”

“That may work,” said Toby. “We didn’t see any illusion effects in there, right? Maybe if we coax her out of this hall, she’ll revert to herself.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Trissiny, nodding. “All right, slow retreat. Fross, good work; keep her from catching up to us. We don’t want to get too far ahead, let her keep us in view. Gabe, can you fine-tune your wandshots not to damage her? We may need to provoke her to keep following us.”

“I don’t really have that kind of control,” he said.

“I advise against it in any case,” Shaeine added. “If she does not return to herself upon reaching the nexus, we will have to coax her down. Hurting and enraging her will make that vastly more difficult.”

They beat a slow, nervous retreat back to the center of the complex, staying carefully out of Juniper’s reach with the help of Fross’s various ice constructions, while keeping her in view. No taunting proved necessary; the monstrosity kept after them, roaring and lashing out with her various limbs, which was both convenient for their plan, and rather worrisome. Fross, for her part, seemed to get into her task with enthusiasm, making her impediments increasingly elaborate and fanciful in shape as they progressed. Of course, they all ended up in pieces.

The Crawl didn’t try to thwart them, for once. In what seemed like less time than it had taken to get that far into the hallway, they were backing out of it, leaving the mist behind and stepping into the wide-open space of the central nexus. Fross laid off the ice works, zipping back to join the others as they picked up their pace to put some extra distance between themselves and their pursuer.

Roaring, she stomped forward to the edge of the mist, stingers poised to lash out. The students retreated nearly to the center of the chamber.

“Come on, June,” Trissiny muttered, keeping her shield in front of her.

The dryad-monster stomped forward, flaring her breathing sacs. The fog faded behind her, leaving her towering shape framed against a dense white backdrop. Emitting a guttural growl and flexing both stinger-tails, she took another step forward.

“Okaaaay,” said Ruda. “What was Plan B?”

“I’m gonna try something,” said Gabriel, taking a step forward.

“Gabe,” Toby warned.

“It’s okay. Shaeine, can you please be ready to rescue me from my own stupidity if need be?”

“That is my customary practice, yes.”

He grinned at her momentarily before continuing forward at a slow walk.

The monster roared at him; Gabriel didn’t falter. “Hi, Juno,” he said. She stopped, stingers poised menacingly, and bent forward as if to sniff at him.

Keeping his pace slow, he continued on. “I know you don’t like to talk about what’s bothering you. Like I’ve told you before, though, you can. Whatever this is, whatever you’re so afraid of…you don’t need to be. At the very least, you don’t have to face it alone.”

He stopped, finally. The monster took one step forward and leaned down, planting both fists on the ground on either side of him. Her stingers arched over her shoulders, hovering menacingly above his head.

“Gabriel, you are too close,” Shaeine said. “I can’t put a shield around you without burning her.”

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Gabriel said, ignoring the priestess. He slowly raised one hand toward the creature’s face, what there was of one. “There is no reason it will. You are what you choose to be.”

She exhaled sharply, blowing his hair back. He winced; they could smell it from yards away. He did not retreat, though.

“Choose,” Gabriel said quietly, placing his hand against her. “You’re not alone.”

The monster’s roar was almost enough to physically bowl him over at that distance. She seized him by both shoulders and hiked him bodily off the ground, straightening up.

Before anyone could even cry out, a tiny silver point appeared from the creature’s upper chest, just in front of Gabriel’s face.

The monster emitted a guttural wail, dropping Gabe as suddenly as she had picked him up, and staggered backward, incidentally dislodging Ruda from her back. The pirate rolled away, nimbly landing on her feet, as the mutated dryad slumped to her knees, sagging in place.

“What did you do?” Toby shouted.

“Mithril,” Ruda said, retreating from Juniper without taking her gaze away. “Think Triss had the right idea back there. Good for cutting off magic. Hopefully not just hers; it should work on the Crawl’s, even.”

“That’s right through—you could kill her!” Gabriel exclaimed in horror.

“Nah, I’ve stabbed her with it once before. Just shook her up some.”

“You’ve what?”

Juniper’s hulking form was listing markedly to one side now. As they watched in appalled fascination, the green of her mottled skin faded to brown, the brown to gray. Before their eyes, flesh turned to wood and began to crack, as if from age and rot.

“Look at her!” Gabriel shouted. “You bloody maniac, you—”

“Listen!” Shaeine said urgently, cutting him off.

In the silence which followed, a soft noise could be heard from the stilled monster, an apparently sourceless shuffling. Then, its central body shifted and seemed partially to collapse in on itself. Ruda’s rapier was tugged firmly to the side, its jeweled hilt knocking loosed a large chunk of calcified flesh.

“Have we yet been on an adventure when you didn’t stick this thing in somebody?”

The voice, though muffled, was unmistakeable. Gabriel leaped forward, followed swiftly by Toby and Ruda. They had to actually dig into the huge bulk of the body, pulling aside half-rotted chunks of wood, but in only seconds Juniper’s green hair was visible. With remarkably little effort—the husk of the monster now seemed about as sturdy as papier mache—they were carefully pulling her out of the ruins, still with the rapier through the center of her chest. There was no sign of her sundress.

“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked the dryad solicitously. “How do you feel?”

“Impaled,” she grimaced. “It doesn’t feel good. But…thanks, Ruda. That was a pretty awful thing.”

“People underestimate the curative powers of stabbing,” Ruda said with a grin. “Good to see your pretty face again, Juno. I’m gonna want that back, by the way.”

“Well, that’s fine, I’d just as soon have it out.” Grimacing, the dryad shifted around, giving Ruda access to the hilt protruding from between her shoulder blades.

“This might sting a bit,” Ruda warned.

“Less than it did going in I beoww!”

“You really do like to stab people,” Teal said, grinning.

“Hey, guys?” said Fross. “Look.”

The mist had faded from each of the side halls, revealing their shapes—which in all cases were virtually square. They extended no further back than they were wide, and seemed oddly sad, with nothing to reveal but blank stone surfaces.

“That’s almost insulting,” Ruda muttered.

“How so?” Trissiny asked.

“Couldn’t say, really. I just feel generally insulted.”

“Fair enough,” Trissiny replied with a smile.

“Well, I guess this means we officially won,” Gabriel said, letting go of Juniper’s hand and stepping past the group toward the middle of the room. In the precise center of the floor there now sat a small wooden chest.

“Are we sure we’re not still in the Descent?” Ruda demanded, planting her fists on her hips.

“Pretty sure, yeah,” said Fross. “Totally different style and methodology here. I’m equally sure it’s still the Crawl, though.”

Gabriel knelt and raised the lid. “…well, this is kinda disappointing.”

“What’d we get?” Teal asked, looming over his shoulder and craning her neck.

“I think this is for you,” he said, picking up an ebony flute from within the box and handing it to her. It was quite average in size, though carved in the slightly sinuous form of a snake, with another, smaller serpent cast in gold winding about its length.

“Ooh,” she whispered, accepting the instrument and cradling it tenderly before her face.

“Um, don’t blow in that,” Fross said nervously. “That thing is lousy with enchantments, and I can’t even tell what most of them do. It’s old, too. No telling what might happen.”

“We can have Professor Yornhaldt look at it when we’re back topside,” Toby suggested.

“Only one other thing here,” Gabe reported, straightening and holding up the remainder of their winnings. “So, uh, who needs a sword?”


 

After a fairly minimal discussion, they decided to make camp. Everyone was exhausted, hungry, and generally not feeling up to more adventure at the moment, and the only two ways they had out of the complex held the prospect of further trouble. The eighth hall did indeed terminate in a door out of the area, which Fross peeked through and reported opened onto the huge, sloping central cavern of the Crawl. There were no recognizable landmarks; they were either far above or below the level of the Grim Visage. They also had their waystone, of course, but as the portal from Level 2 was the apparent culprit in their current predicament, Trissiny was not alone in mistrusting the welcome they could expect from the demons there.

Fortunately, their shopping from immediately prior to this misadventure had equipped them to settle in if necessary. They improvised a fire by laying down a hearth-sized array of Gabriel’s spell paper inscribed with elemental protection charms, on which they made a puddle of oil of combustion, which Fross then enchanted with a minor time-dilation effect. The resulting campfire was somewhat eerie, shifting very slowly rather than flickering as flames normally did, and producing a peculiar hissing sound rather than crackling cheerfully. It put out heat and light, however. Soon enough, they had arranged their collapsible cook pot over the languid blaze, and set a stew of pork and mushrooms to simmering, while they chewed on unappetizing mushroom bread to stave off hunger.

“I feel kinda bad, though,” Gabriel was saying. “Are you sure nobody else wants it?”

“For the last time, only two of us use swords, and neither of us needs an upgrade,” Ruda said, grinning at him. “You picked it up, you may as well keep it.”

“Don’t try to fight with it, though,” Trissiny said firmly. “I’ve seen you handle a sword in class; you’ll impale yourself. That thing might just be magical enough to do you harm, too.”

“That’s sort of what I meant,” he said with a rueful grin. “Just seems like a waste.”

“Or you could view it as motivation,” Shaeine suggested. “Now you have a reason to learn the sword.”

“Or you could sell it,” said Ruda. “I can tell it’s old, and elvish. Fross says it’s heavily enchanted. Gotta be worth some serious coin.”

“Mm,” he mused, pulling the saber half-out of its sheath to study the blade. “I dunno. That feels…wrong, somehow.”

The leather wrapping the hilt was black, as was its attached scabbard. The blade itself was a single long curve, continuing to form an equally curved handle with only the most minimal crossguard and a heavy, rounded pommel. Its design was, indeed, clearly elven.

“What’s that written on the blade, there?” Toby asked.

“It’s some form of elvish,” Gabriel reported, holding up the sword and squinting at it in the firelight. “I can’t read it.”

“It says ‘Ariel,’” said Teal.

He frowned. “Ariel? What’s that mean?”

“It is a name,” said Shaeine. “A rather popular one among elves until about a millennium ago. I know three women named Yrril, which is the Narisian variant. Not as commonly used these days.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense!” said Fross. “A lot of magic swords have names.”

“I suspect Ariel was the sword’s previous owner,” Shaeine replied. “It would be the equivalent of a sword named Jane. Not inconceivable, but…rather odd.”

“Hmm,” Gabriel mused, sliding the blade back into its sheath and setting it aside. “Well…I might actually show it to Professor Tellwyrn, see what she says. Between the unidentified spells on it and the fact I suck at swords, I’m gonna leave it alone for the time being.”

“I think that’s a very good idea,” Toby said firmly.

“So!” Ruda said. “If we’re all settled in and done beating around the bush, let me pose the obvious question. What the fuck was all that?”

“Do we really need to talk about it?” Gabriel asked after a moment’s strained silence.

“In some cases, I think we do,” said Toby. “Some of the things we saw… I think the base question is, how much of it was true?”

“About a fifty-fifty split in our case,” Gabe replied, looking over at Trissiny. “It started off with some miscellaneous spookiness before it really got hold of us. Then Triss was turned into some kind of alternate universe version of herself, and I got dragged through that mess with Madeleine again.”

“Madeleine?” Teal asked.

“Wait, stop,” said Ruda, grinning hugely. “Alternate universe Trissiny?”

“One in which I was raised by my biological mother, rather than the Sisterhood,” Trissiny said quietly.

“Wh—your mother, that smarmy Eserite elf? Naphthene’s tits, what were you like?”

“A lot like you, actually.”

Ruda barked a laugh. “You poor, abused child.”

“I can see why the Crawl would come up with that,” Teal mused. “Avenists and Eserites are about as opposite as it comes. There’s probably no better way to attack Trissiny.”

“I don’t think it was an attack,” Trissiny said pensively, frowning into the fire.

“Go on,” Toby said after a moment.

She sighed and lifted her gaze. “I’ve been…wondering. The whole time I’ve been at this University it seems I can’t do anything except mess up; I’ve only succeeded in places like the Golden Sea and Sarasio where there’s an enemy to fight. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Ruda said amiably, producing a bottle of whiskey, “you do shit like try to execute classmates and start civil insurrections.”

“….yeah,” Trissiny said with a grimace. “It was Bishop Darling who put the idea in my head that…that maybe the other side of my heritage might have value. I’m an Avenist raised and trained, but I’m also the offspring of a particularly devious thief. Everyone keeps going on about how the old ways don’t work in the new world. Avei herself said the new paladins were being called after such a long time as a break with old traditions, so the gods could prepare us for other ways of thinking. And… Sitting here now, I find I’m feeling grateful for the experience.”

“Grateful?” Gabriel’s eyebrows rose sharply.

Trissiny nodded. “That girl I was…I remember her. Not the details of her life, but what it was like, seeing the world through her eyes. Studying the angles, the complexities, always looking for the less-trod path, the perfect place to put the tiniest pressure to achieve her ends. And…and finding such joy in it. The constant thrill and, and celebration in being challenged and having to survive with nothing but your wits and skills. If that’s what life is like for Eserites… Well, I think I understand them a lot better. And I think that may be exactly the thing I needed to learn. I’m not sure how to incorporate that into my mindset, but…it’s a start. I feel it was important for me.”

“Tellwyrn and Ezzaniel both called the Crawl a teacher,” Teal said, frowning into the fire. “Could this really have all been arranged for our benefit?”

“In some cases more than others,” Gabriel grunted. “I don’t see the educational value in the shit I had to deal with.”

“I have to ask,” said Trissiny, looking up at him, “how did that play out in the real world? I know I wasn’t there to rescue you that time.”

He shrugged, not meeting her gaze. “Madeleine’s bargain-basement diabolism didn’t hold. The hethelax demon broke through the circle and managed to restrain me before I could hurt her. After that… My dad had a little talk with her, and Toby arranged for Church summoners to send the demon back where he came from. I didn’t see her again.” He sighed heavily. “Not even a week later I went back there looking for her, because I’m really not that bright, and her whole house was cleaned out.”

“Not many people want to be on your dad’s bad side,” Toby said with a small smile.

“Well, I don’t think we necessarily need to drag everyone’s deep, dark secrets into the light,” said Ruda. “I for one don’t see a reason to discuss the crap it dumped on me back there.”

“Yeah, it is kind of counterintuitive that you’d be afraid of becoming an accountant.”

Ruda slammed her bottle down. “Fross.”

“Sorry!”

“Really?” Gabriel tilted his head inquisitively. “You’re actually really good with figures. How come—”

“Arquin, after the day we’ve had I barely need an excuse to come over there and fuck you up.”

“Peace, please,” said Shaeine. “This has been extremely trying for all of us. Let us please not make the mistake of taking it out on each other.”

“Anyway,” Ruda said loudly. “With that said, I agree with Toby. There is some stuff we really do need to talk about.”

She looked pointedly at Juniper. One by one, the others swiveled their heads to do the same.

The dryad sighed, slumping slightly. She had been silent up till now, sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees. After being sluiced off with some of Fross’s stored water to get the slime and rotted wood off her, she’d been persuaded to don one of the lightly-enchanted robes they’d acquired as Descent level rewards and been unable to sell. The whole time, she had been uncharacteristically quiet and pliable.

“I’m made of magic,” she said quietly. “I’m a living conduit to my mother’s power. Even if I can’t do much magic, that’s a lot of power. It’s a huge amount. Basically infinite. And…and it can change.” She paused to gulp heavily, still staring at the slow flames. “Dryads… One way or another, that’s how we end up. After hundreds of years, we start getting a little weird. In the head, I mean. And a dryad who’s lost a sense of herself tends to…change.”

“Into creatures like that?” Gabriel asked.

Juniper shrugged, not looking up. “Not necessarily. I don’t even know what that was. Some personification of my worry, I guess. And it’s not just age that does it; we’re not built to handle mental trauma, either. A dryad who lives long enough to go senile, or suffers a bad enough emotional shock… Well. Anything could happen.”

“What kind of anythings can happen?” Ruda asked sharply.

“Cherry…I don’t even know what happened to her, but she became a kind of aquatic monster. She swims up and down rivers, pulling people in and drowning them. She doesn’t even eat them, just wants to watch them die. Sequoia turned into a tree when the mortals she had become friends with were massacred. Some elves built a grove around her so they could protect her until she wakes up, which was nice of them, but…I think if she were going to she would have by now. And that’s nothing compared to what happened to Jacaranda.”

Fross abruptly forgot to keep flying and plunged into the stew pot.

She was out the next second, spluttering and spraying droplets of gravy everywhere. “What? Who? What did you say?”

“Yeah,” Juniper said, nodding. She finally raised her eyes to look at the pixie.

“Wait, you know that one, Fross?” Toby asked.

“J-Jacaranda? That’s the Pixie Queen’s name! It can’t be the same person, she hates dryads!”

“That…could be an argument in favor of it being the same person,” Shaeine said thoughtfully.

“It is,” said Juniper, still watching Fross. “She…well, to make a long story short, she fell in love with someone, and he decided he didn’t want her. She couldn’t cope with that.”

“Wait, the Pixie Queen is a dryad?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“No,” Juniper said wearily. “The Pixie Queen is just one of the things that can happen to a dryad who gets her heart broken. She wanted to always feel loved, and to be distracted from her own thoughts. She wanted it more than she wanted to continue existing, wanted it badly enough to warp her very nature. Like I said, we’re hugely magical. If we lose sight of ourselves…the sky’s the limit. Anything can happen.”

“So, then… Does this make you…my…aunt?” Fross whispered.

Juniper managed a smile at that. “Well, the relationships aren’t exactly biological, y’know? You’re a piece of her aura. Part of her conduit to Naiya. Basically the same thing I am, but smaller, with more structure. So… I guess I’m more your big sister. Is that okay?”

“I…I…” Fross sounded completely overawed. “That’s okay with me.”

“So, I understand your worry about becoming a monster,” Toby said quietly. “How about why you’re worried about it?”

Juniper dropped her gaze again. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? Whatever happens, will happen.”

“No,” he said firmly, then stood and strode across the circle to sit down beside her and drape an arm around her shoulder. “Juniper, I’ve had time to think since Tiraas, and I’ve come to realize I wasn’t being a good friend to you at all. I was hovering around, worrying and generally treating you like some kind of dangerous animal instead of doing what I would for someone I care about. Which means, in this case, a little tough love.”

“Uh, I am not certain this is a good idea,” Trissiny said carefully.

“It’s a good idea,” Ruda insisted. “Juno, hon, we all know you’ve been gnawing at this, and we all know the basics of why. And we’ve left you alone about it, but it’s time to lay some cards on the table. If those are the stakes we’re dealing with… Your issues are everybody’s business. You get that, right?”

“Take all the time you need to get it out,” Toby said gently, rubbing her shoulder. “But we need to talk about this. Tonight.”

Juniper hunched in on herself, tightening her grip on her knees, as if to shut them all out. She leaned against Toby, though. “I… I did something really bad,” she whispered.

“Yeah?” said Ruda. “Why’d you do that?”

“Ruda!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“I’m not just bein’ an ass here. It’s a pertinent question. If you knew it was bad, what was your reason for doing it, Juniper?”

“I didn’t,” the dryad said miserably. “I didn’t understand… It was never like…” She paused to swallow painfully. Toby continued gently rubbing her shoulder. “We were apart from everything, you know? Naiya’s favored daughters. We did what we wanted. I always tried to keep in balance with nature, do what I saw other animals do. Only kill to eat, only when I needed to. Most of my sisters did the same, but some… Mostly the older ones… They were weird. They’d hunt for sport, or… Well, some of them had funny hobbies. And that was fine! It didn’t seem like much fun to me, but they were dryads. In the Deep Wild, dryads do whatever they want, and it’s okay. By definition.”

“Just to be clear,” Gabriel said carefully, “we are talking about you eating humans?”

“It was just the one,” Juniper whispered. “Just that one time. He was the first one I’d ever seen. I was curious.”

“Curious?” Teal burst out, then clapped a hand over her mouth, looking abashed.

“Well, see, that’s already not as bad as some of us were thinkin’,” Ruda said lightly. “That’s why I was asking about motivations. You didn’t know better, right? I mean, don’t get me wrong, that was a shitty thing to do and it sure as hell mattered to him, not to mention his family, but you’ve gotta make allowances for the circumstances.”

“I was curious,” Juniper went on, barely above a whisper. “I wanted to know everything. Sample…try everything. See what it all was, how it worked. So…I ate little bits. From each part. And used healing to keep him alive so they all stayed fresh.”

The silence was deafening. Even Fross settled to the ground, stilling her wings.

“How could you do something like that?” Gabriel whispered at last.

Juniper buried her face in her arms.

“Okay,” Ruda said slowly, “that is pretty fucked up. You understand that, right?”

Juniper made a soft whimpering noise.

“I asked you a question,” Ruda said with a bit of an edge to her voice. “I’m not making small talk, here, Juno, we are discussing this.”

“I didn’t know!” Juniper wailed suddenly, raising her head. Tears were pouring down her face. “He was a monster! Humans were just these unnatural creatures that lived out of balance and destroyed things for no good reason. I didn’t know how complicated it all was! How, what, it…” She choked off, swallowed twice, and continued, her voice breaking. “But people are different than animals, and they matter, and I get that now. I shouldn’t have done that, and I can’t go back to thinking he was just a thing. It hurts, and I can’t make it stop, and I’m scared! I don’t want to be a monster!”

“Hey, hey, take it easy,” Ruda said more gently. She stood and went over to sit on Juniper’s other side, leaning against her. “Hon, guilt is a nasty thing. It will fuck you right up if you don’t learn to deal with it.”

“How do you deal?” Juniper sniffled.

“There are many ways,” said Shaeine.

“Personally, I have duty to fall back on,” Ruda said. “I have a job to do. I don’t get to wallow in my bad feelings. If I’ve done something wrong, I do my best to make it right. If that can’t be done… Then I remember I’ve done wrong in the world and make an effort to add some good to it. For my family, my people, everyone who depends on me.”

“That sounds…complicated,” Juniper said, her face falling.

“It is,” Toby agreed. “Any method you settle upon will be. This is not something that can be corrected with a few magic words, Juniper. What you did… The action you describe is abhorrent almost beyond description. But.” He gently placed his fingers under her chin, lifting her face when she tried to hide under her arms again. “The fact is, you do feel this way. You understand, you have the empathy to know it was wrong. And you started feeling this way when you developed that understanding. You really are a kind person at heart, Juniper. I don’t believe you could have done that, had you known what you were doing then. Would you do it now?”

“Never!” she burst out, looking panicked.

“Then it’s time to go forward,” he said firmly. “Backward is only pain. You need to take some responsibility for your own growth. I hate to tell you this, June, but you’ve had an absolutely terrible upbringing.”

“That’s sure as hell true,” Ruda agreed with a grin.

“My mother is a goddess,” the dryad said, frowning. “I’m sure she did right by me.”

Toby sighed. “Did she ever tell you she loves you?”

“What? I don’t… Why does that matter? I know she does. She protects me, after all. You’ve all seen that.”

“Okay,” he said. “But did she ever tell you?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she huffed.

“Juniper,” Teal said gently, “you know we love you, right?”

“I… Well, sure. I love you, too.”

“Right.” Teal nodded, smiling. “But isn’t it so much better to hear it?”

“The thing is,” Toby went on while Juniper frowned in thought, “you were raised with no boundaries. No ethics. You learned to do whatever you wanted, to whoever you wanted… June, that’s a recipe for a person with no moral center who can’t function in the wider world. Honestly, it sounds like your mother didn’t even try to raise you at all, you or any of your sisters. She just…turned you loose.”

“I’ve been proceeding under the assumption that dryad morality is simply alien and inscrutable,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying it, Juniper, when I look back over our interactions, there’s nothing that can’t be explained by you simply being spoiled. I wonder if that might not be why your sisters are so vulnerable to emotional trauma. What reason have any of you had to develop emotional resilience?”

“I’m starting to feel kind of ganged up on,” Juniper muttered sullenly.

“Yes, well, we just learned you tortured somebody to death, Gabriel said sharply, “because you were curious. This is kind of a serious matter.”

“You do have a habit of saying anything you don’t like is unnatural,” Ruda said. “Contributing to the spoiled theory.”

“All right!” Juniper exclaimed. “What do you want from me?”

“What do you want?” Toby asked more quietly.

She paused, blinking in confusion, then frowned. “I… I’m not sure.”

“It doesn’t have to be a big question,” he said. “We’re not settling your whole life or anything. Think in the immediate term. What is it you would like to happen, Juniper?”

“I…” She swallowed again. “I just want to stop feeling so bad, right now. And…and I feel like that’s even worse. Selfish. I should suffer.”

“It’s good that you have a sense of fairness,” said Trissiny, “but inflicting suffering for suffering is rarely constructive. Justice is about everyone getting what they need, not what they deserve. What anybody deserves is often too complex a matter for us mortals to judge.”

Shaeine stood, stepped around the fire and crouched in front of Juniper. “You understand why my healing works for Gabriel when Toby and Trissiny’s does not?”

“Well…yes. Professor Tellwyrn explained that to us in Sarasio.”

The drow nodded. “To call upon Themynra’s attention is to invite her judgment. If it will put your mind at ease, Juniper, we can give you the word of no less than a goddess on the matter of your culpability.”

“It’s…divine magic,” Juniper said nervously. “It’s not good for fairies, even if she…y’know.”

“It will weaken you, yes,” Shaeine said seriously. “But believe me, you will know the difference between that and Themynra’s wrath. I will not impose this upon you, but if you would like to have the clarity, I offer it.”

“I…okay,” the dryad said in a small voice. “I think…yes, please.”

“Give me your hand.”

Gently taking Juniper’s hand in both of her own, Shaeine lit from within, a subtle silver corona forming around her. The dryad winced, staring down at her hand, which was in the center of the brightest part of the glow. It subsided after only a few seconds, however, and Shaeine released her. She pulled her hand back, flexing her fingers experimentally.

“That…tingled. And…and I feel a little weak.”

“But not burned,” Shaeine said with a smile. “Not judged. A full ritual to call upon Themynra’s judgment in detail is another matter; I fear that is beyond a priestess of my relatively low rank and training. But you know, now, that for immediately practical purposes, she does not deem you worthy of being struck down.”

“See?” Ruda said lightly. “All good.”

“It’s a long road forward, but you have friends to help you along it,” Toby added, gently rubbing her shoulder again.

Juniper frowned in thought, staring into the fire for a long moment before lifting her eyes again. Her gaze settled on Trissiny. “Can…can you do that, too?”

Trissiny straightened, a frown crossing her features. “I… That’s not the same thing, Juniper. Avei is a very different goddess than Themynra. The light I call on is subject to the Pantheon’s mandate, not her individual judgment.”

“But Avei is the goddess of justice,” the dryad said, staring intently at her now. “Can you do…like Shaeine said? Ask her judgment?”

“Once again, Avei’s judgment is not like Themynra’s. I can, yes, but it’s not something to be done lightly.”

“In all honesty, I don’t think anything about this is light,” Gabriel noted.

“Would you, Trissiny?” Juniper asked.

“June,” the paladin said, her tone worried now, “what you’re asking for… If Avei passes judgment on you, I will have to carry it out. There are certainly extenuating circumstances, but what you did… This would mean a death sentence in any nation of laws, anywhere.”

“You’re saying you’d kill her?” Ruda said, scowling.

“On the direct command of my goddess, at Juniper’s own request? I wouldn’t have a choice. It’s not just a question of my position beneath her. Avei doesn’t inflict death needlessly; if she deemed it necessary for Juniper to die, I would trust her judgment.”

“That’s kinda fucked up, Boots,” Ruda said. “You know that, right?”

“It is not an unreasonable position,” Shaeine said.

“You said it’s not likely she would demand my death,” Juniper said. “And…that there are extenuating circumstances. Right? You were raised Avenist, you know how Avei thinks. Do you think she’d order that?”

“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny said worriedly. “But I also cannot rule it out. Juniper…think about what you’re asking for.”

“She’s asking for closure,” Toby said quietly. “She wants to take responsibility. I think it’s a very important step.”

“If…I mean…” Juniper sighed, looking down at the ground for a moment before raising her eyes again. A determined expression settled on her face as she met Trissiny’s gaze. “I’d rather not die, obviously. But…if Avei has some punishment for me… I sort of think I would feel better.”

Trissiny stared at her in silence for a few seconds, then sighed heavily. “Juniper…be sure. Whatever the details, you are asking for an outcome that may be very permanent.”

“I’m sure,” the dryad said firmly. “I’m… Nature is balance, Trissiny. I’m out of balance; it hurts me like a lost limb. I’m asking for your help.”

The paladin rose slowly to her feet. “We had best step away from the others, and the fire. Gabriel…keep well back, please.”

Juniper followed her meekly several yards away, leaving the rest of the group sitting in silence around the campfire, watching them closely. At Trissiny’s direction, both of them knelt, facing each other. Trissiny drew her sword, setting the tip against the floor and bowing her head over the hilt.

For more than a minute, they simply knelt there. Juniper glanced uncertainly back at her classmates.

The change was subtle, but abrupt. Trissiny spoke, her voice carrying a resonance that made it seem to fill the huge chamber.

“Priestess, shield the demonblood in Themynra’s light if you do not wish to see him obliterated.”

“Wait, what?” Gabriel squeaked, even as a silver sphere flickered into existence around him.

Trissiny stood, and Avei stood with her.

It was almost like looking at an image through water, the perspective flickering with each shift of the eyes. Trissiny was there, a slim blonde girl in armor, but it was also Avei, a powerfully built woman with her black hair pulled back in a severe tail, towering over them in more ways than the physical. The room was suddenly illuminated as if by the noon sun, but no shadows were cast anywhere.

Juniper stared up at her, eyes so wide they bulged, her mouth clamped down into a thin line.

“You are not mine to judge, daughter of Naiya,” Trissiny and Avei said, their voices resonating in unison rather like Vadrieny’s, but with a power that made the walls vibrate. “You stand apart from the world, from all the laws which govern mortals, shielded from the natural consequences of your actions by the favor of your mother. By inviting my judgment, you ask that this state be changed. If this is your intention, Juniper, be certain. My judgment is not to be gainsaid, once pronounced.”

“I’m certain,” Juniper managed, her voice trembling.

Very slowly, the paladin and goddess nodded, staring down at her. “Naiya is a protective but inattentive mother. You have seen the fates of your sisters who fell from their given state. Once changed beyond recognizability, they were beyond her notice. To strike you down would be to invite her retaliation… But to separate you from her sight is another matter.

“I see in you the capacity for significant virtue or fathomless carnage, dryad. The thing that seems most promising to me is that you have called this upon your own head. You have sought to place yourself in the world of mortals, to walk among them as one of their own. To take responsibility. Know, though, that while your crimes were committed in innocence, they are no less severe for this.

“My judgment, Juniper, is both punishment and aid. I hereby sever you from the unmerited favor of your goddess.”

Golden wings sprang up from behind Trissiny, and a matching pair flared into existence from Juniper, accompanied by a golden corona. The dryad cried out in apparent pain, slumping forward and barely catching herself on her knuckles, short of falling to the floor. The golden light around her faded quickly, leaving her gasping for breath.

“You are alone now, child,” Avei said. “Exactly as alone as all mortals are. You shall have only the connections you build, only the power you earn for yourself. I cannot lessen the magic that animates you, nor change your essential nature, without destroying you utterly. But know this: you are no longer watched over by divine mandate. If you fall, you will not rise again. The creatures of the wild will respect your power, but they will not see in you the will of your mother. You are a powerful fairy, Juniper. But you are no longer, for all intents and purposes, a demigod.

“This is the price of your crime… And the promise of the life you seek to build for yourself. Judgment has been passed.”

The light diminished, quickly but smoothly, leaving the chamber in the same omnipresent dimness that prevailed in the Crawl, lit by the students’ campfire. Trissiny staggered for a second as if dizzy.

Juniper drew in a shuddering breath, tears spilling down her cheeks. She started to rise, but lost her balance, once again barely avoiding a fall.

Trissiny knelt before her and wrapped her arms around the quivering dryad. Juniper’s shoulders began to shake in silent sobs; she clutched the paladin as if Trissiny were the only thing holding her up.

“Soooo,” Ruda said after more than a minute had passed with no sound but Juniper’s quiet weeping. “Who wants stew?”

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Bonus #2: All Those Who Serve

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Years after her battles were all won or lost, Narnasia had learned that glory and victory were nothing at all, compared to watching her girls play in the sun. They darted in and out of the shadows—and there were always shadows in Viridill, where the high altitude kept their skies clear, but the rounded old peaks to all sides, many topped with massive trees, cast unpredictable patches of shade. The air was filled with the warmth of early summer, the smell of baking grass and leaves, the screams and laughter of a dozen teenage girls. They had been playing some kind of game at some point, some variant of tag perhaps, but by now were just chasing each other around for the sheer joy of it. Girls in sleeveless white novice robes dashed this way and that, shrieking and tackling each other, rolling in the grass, bounding up to take off again.

It was getting very close to time for afternoon drill. She really ought to put a stop to this, call them to order… But they were just so happy. So alive. Indulgent it might be, but she was indulging herself as much as them.

Narnasia leaned with both hands on her cane, braced against the ancient stonework in front of her, soaking it all up. The sun did her bones a world of good, soothing the ache that tended to accumulate in her joints, but the happiness of the novices was just as therapeutic to the spirit as the sun was to the flesh.

“Okay, all right!” shouted a gangly blonde, waving her arms. “Everybody back to barracks to wash up, or we’re gonna be late.”

They were a far from homogenous group, in temperament as much as description. Several immediately came to a stop—or picked themselves up off the grass—and began moving toward the novice barracks. Mostly, Narnasia noted, the orphans who had been raised in the Abbey and some of the boarders who’d been there longest. From others came groans, shouted imprecations (mild enough that she didn’t feel the need to intervene) and one loud, wet raspberry.

“Yes, I know, your life is so hard,” said Trissiny, the older girl calling them to order, with an easy smile. “You can complain all about it all the way there and back. Just get it out of your systems before Sister Zanouri is—”

She broke off, pivoting on one foot to hook the younger girl who tried to leap on her back by the arms. Half a second later, Trissiny had Mafi, a short thirteen-year-old with an olive Tiraan complexion, in a headlock.

“No fair!” Mafi shouted, struggling impotently.

“You can have it one of two ways,” Trissiny said, holding her without apparent effort. “Either ambush people from behind, or talk about fairness. Can’t do both, squirt.”

“Thug! Tyrant!”

“Yup, and I sleep with one eye open.” She finally released the younger girl, giving her a playful swat on the rear to shoo her in the direction the others were drifting off. “All right, barracks! Nobody wants to be late for drill; you all remember what happened last time.”

More groans and razzes rang out, but the girls were all moving now. They were a mixed lot, these dozen. A core of five them had always lived in the Abbey; they had grown up together and shared the surname Avelea, which made them sisters in every way that mattered. Others rotated in and out of the ranks with each year, few staying more than a handful of months, though some returned on a seasonal basis. They were a mix, some the well-trained daughters of particularly devout Avenists who viewed a stint in the barracks a vital part of their upbringing, and some just the opposite, troublesome girls sent here to benefit from the Sisterhood’s famous discipline—often as a last resort.

Narnasia’s smile widened as she watched Trissiny chivvying them along. She was the oldest of the Abbey-raised in this lot, just a year off from being able to enlist in the Silver Legions. Not all Aveleas did, but there had never been a question about Trissiny. The faith was her life, its discipline as natural to her as breathing. She was a skilled fighter and in the last year, since the previously eldest sister in her barrack had grown and left, had slipped into the role of leader with effortless success. That girl would be an officer by the time she was twenty.

She leaned one-handed on her cane, lifting her other arm to beckon. Trissiny glanced at her, then made a final round of shooing gestures and paused to make sure her squadmates were moving in the right direction before turning and trotting over to Narnasia.

“Mother Narny,” she said with a respectful bow and a bright smile.

“How’re your squad faring, Trissy?” she asked, then chided herself inwardly at the brief grimace that flickered across the girl’s face. At the mature age of fifteen, she had decided the childhood nickname no longer suited her and insisted on its retirement. She was too polite to make an issue of it, which was largely why Narnasia accommodated her—when she remembered. She was too old to quickly discard the habits of a decade and a half.

“We’re having a really good few weeks,” Trissiny replied, her normal good cheer quickly returning. “It still takes a while to get Mafi and a couple of the others moving, especially in the mornings, but they’re good girls once they decide to be.”

“Good. I think you’ve earned a little extra responsibility.”

Trissiny straightened slightly, her expression growing serious. “We’d be honored. What’d you have in mind?” One could always tell the Abbey-raised girls from the boarders by whether they regarded extra responsibility as a privilege or a punishment.

“Just a little thing for now. Since the weather’s holding, I believe we’ll move dinner to the lawn this evening. What do you think?”

“That sounds grand!”

“Good. Your barrack is in charge of setting up tables. Everything needs to be ready by five.”

“Consider it done!” Trissiny swelled with pride and snapped off a salute—a little too exuberant for regulations, but she wasn’t an inducted Legionnaire, and Narnasia wasn’t foolish enough to punish a child’s eagerness to please. “We won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t, Trissyyynnny.” She caught herself, barely, and the girl’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Best get after your squad. You don’t want to disappoint Sister Zanouri.”

“No, I don’t,” she said seriously, stepping back. “I prefer my nose un-bitten-off.”

“You mind that attitude, child!” Narnasia leveled a finger at her, barely managing to keep her face straight. “That’s a full Sister you’re speaking of, one who could be out serving with the Legions but stays here to see to your education.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Trissiny replied, making an effort at an abashed expression. “She’s only done that once.”

“Brat!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Grinning now, Trissiny bowed again before turning to flee after the rest of her squad. Watching her go, Narnasia let the smile spill back over her features.

Having favorites was an absolutely terrible practice, both in raising children and in training soldiers. She had to be content with the self-discipline not to let it show in her actions, however. When the Goddess sent her a true golden child, well, she was too human to be truly objective. Ah, it was going to be a hard thing when her Trissy left, and the time was coming all too fast. But that was the way it was. Girls grew up, and women had to create their own lives.

She turned and walked back into the shade of the Abbey, slowly so that her arthritic legs supported her without the need for her cane. It was simple pride that made her do it, the same reason she refused to call on the healing light to soothe her aches except when she was alone in her chambers, but Narnasia Darnassy had served her Goddess with distinction, ran a well-ordered Abbey and had raised a fine crop of girls. She was entitled to a little pride.


 

Important as discipline was, a good commander didn’t forget morale. Besides, however they had been raised, teenagers were not soldiers, and a treat now and then was a healthy part of their upbringing. The picnic had proved quite a success; the conversation over dinner was louder and happier than that which usually rang out in the mess hall, but didn’t cross the line into raucousness. Some of the girls present might have pushed it toward that if left to their devices, but they were surrounded by better influences that kept them in check. Avenist discipline could bend when the situation allowed, but it did not break.

The Abbey’s current population—at least those not tending to guard posts or other duties during the dinner hour—fit at four long rows of tables. The folding tables set up on the lawn were more narrow than those in the mess hall, forcing their occupants into a greater than usual intimacy, but no one complained; personal space was always at a premium in the Abbey. There were the girls in training, several barracks of youngsters boarding at the Abbey, and about twice their number in cadets, adult women undergoing their basic training as Legionnaires. The Legion currently stationed in Viridill, the Third, was most encamped around the area, but two squads of full Legionnaires were present, positioned in the Abbey to look after their trainees. The cadets treated them with appropriate respect; the Abbey girls kept shooting them awed and envious glances. Between the various guests and trainees, the mix of priestesses and retired soldiers who ran the Abbey itself were a small minority.

There were no men present, though some few were attached to the Abbey in various capacities. It was a delicate line to walk; Narnasia had no patience for sexism of any kind and didn’t tolerate it in her Abbey, but she also had to manage the practical considerations of a campus full of teenage and twenty-something women. With an even blend of men and women, there was rarely a problem. When it was just women, men were of course a non-issue. A large group of women and a handful of men, however, resulted in all manner of competitive nonsense that undermined everything she was trying to teach these girls. It was tricky to ensure that male Avenists were shown adequate respect while still keeping them isolated for the sake of the students. It didn’t help that Avei’s faith tended to attract misandrists, though Narnasia took great pains not to employ any of those.

Still, tonight she put aside such headaches, eating slowly and letting the babble of conversation wash over her. As much of her attention went to looking around as to her dinner. Barrack Four had outdone themselves; they had taken the time to pull out the sturdy benches from the dining hall rather than inflict the Abbey’s stock of notoriously unreliable folding stools on the diners. The tables were impressively even, despite the inevitable small dips and fluctuations in the lawn’s terrain. Lanterns were hung carefully from the branches of ancient trees that twisted overhead, above head height but low enough they weren’t going to set the foliage afire. That was an impressively thoughtful touch; it saved space on the narrow tables, which of course was at a premium to begin with. Narnasia wondered whose idea that had been. Likely Trissiny, though she was wary of giving her golden child too much credit. That was a slippery trap.

Already the lamps were necessary, despite the early hour. To the southwest, through a gap in the surrounding mountains, they could see a rolling expanse of foothills still glowing in the late daylight, but the peaks sheltering the Abbey itself had already cast their deep shadows across the grounds.

Some commanding officers arranged their mess with themselves and their command staff at a head table. Narnasia much preferred to be amid her troops, to be part of them. Her seat was at an outer corner of one table, from which she could see the whole group. The ate, talked, laughed, and enjoyed themselves. Not all were so outgoing, but she saw no overtly unhappy faces.

Arrogance was a character flaw, one she tried vigorously to expunge, but looking over the women who answered to her, Narnasia again allowed herself to enjoy a rush of pride. However long she had left on this world, she would leave it confident she had done well by her duty. Who could ask more out of life?

Her musings, and everyone else’s talk, were interrupted by a sudden blaze of golden light.

Burning against the darkening sky, the eagle sigil of Avei hung suspended a dozen feet from the ground at the end of the long table arrangement. Stunned silence fell, but held for mere seconds before there came a scramble of benches being pushed back. Not everyone present knew what the sign meant; there couldn’t have been more than a few who had seen this in person. Even the Abbess hadn’t. But those educated by the Sisterhood recognized it, and surged to their feet to stand at attention. The Legionnaires and priestesses were first upright, saluting, followed by a smattering of the Abbey girls who had grown up with Avenist traditions, several of them looking shocked almost to the point of terror. The other students and trainees straggled to their feet, clearly uncertain what was happening, but following the example of their peers and superiors.

Narnasia was one of the last to rise, and not due to any sloth on her part. Rare and precious as this event was, her joints simply did not suffer leaping about; even once upright, she had to lean upon her cane, which didn’t adhere to regulations for standing at attention, but the Goddess would surely forgive her.

In a short span of moments, every woman present was upright, the enlisted saluting and all facing the glowing golden eagle, their expressions a blend of awe, reverence, fear and exultation.

The sigil pulsed once, trailing a curtain of light to the ground below it, which coalesced into a figure nine feet tall. There were several soft cries, quickly silenced, as the last of the younger groups finally realized what was happening.

Avei, in human form, was a strikingly beautiful woman, in a way that was impossible not to notice even when one knew how little value she and her cult placed on looks. She wore Legionnaire armor in the etched silver that had distinguished her paladins in the days when she still had them. A crested helmet concealed her black hair and partially obscured her face, but those blue eyes swept piercingly over the assemblage, causing more than one person to quail. She carried no shield, but had a traditional leaf-bladed short sword buckled at her waist, and a lance in her right hand, its butt resting on the earth.

There was near silence. The presence of divine magic in truly awesome quantity caused a faint but constant hum at the edge of hearing; it was a soothing, pleasant sound that filled the listeners with energy and calm. Even Narnasia’s aches ebbed away in the goddess’s presence. She knew that when they chose, the gods could project such a force of sheer personality that anyone gazing upon them could be driven to their knees, incoherent with awe. It was a good sign that Avei did not choose to unleash so much of her essence here, boding well for her intentions.

“The world is changing.” Her voice was deep, powerful, and echoed among them as though emerging from every part of the air. “Humanity regularly does what has once deemed impossible, or at least rare. Justice remains constant, but the nature of war has changed swiftly, and even we who should know best have struggled to adapt. As humankind have elevated themselves, the gods have grown more distant. We have watched you to see what came of all this progress.”

She paused, and slowly panned her gaze around the entire assembly. “We are concerned.”

Avei let this hang ominously for a moment before continuing. “The changes wracking the world are without precedent. The quiet of the gods in the last few years, the dwindling of our cults and the absence of paladins, has not been because we have left you to your fate, but because the times demand that we act carefully. As the world changes, the faithful must change with it, and even the Pantheon must adapt to properly care for our people. We have watched, in these latter days, and judged. We have considered deeply, planned accordingly, and made decisions. Now, the time has come for new action.

“In Tiraas, a Hand of Omnu has been called.”

The faintest stir rustled across the women present. One did not shift about and mutter to one’s neighbors in the presence of a goddess, but the implications of this announcement were too enormous, and too easily seen, to be ignored; quite a few reacted physically before they could restrain themselves. Narnasia especially saw immediately where this was going. Her heart tightened in her chest; her grip tightened on the head of her cane, hard enough that it would have seriously hurt her arthritic hands if not for the constant glow of divine light.

“Others will follow,” Avei declared. “Many have said that the age of paladins has ended, and they were right—but only because the nature of paladins needed to change. In addition to a period of observation and introspection among the gods, a clean break was needed. Now, a new age begins, one that will be led again by Hands of the Pantheon, by all the gods who have summoned paladins to their bidding, and in the years to come, by some who have never done so before. We serve the world according to its needs, just as you serve me. Now, the call goes out.”

She fixed her stare at a point near the middle of the assembly.

“Trissiny Avelea. Stand forward.”

Narnasia felt every muscle in her body tightened into unbidden rigidness. It saved her, barely, from screaming.

No.

Trissiny gaped at the goddess, completely poleaxed. She made an erratic, whole-body twitch before apparently remembering how her limbs worked; even then, the girl stumbled as she stepped out of line. Swallowing visibly, she walked slowly toward the deity, past the lines of silent, staring women. Her body struggled between disciplined posture and an obvious desire to curl up into invisibility. Though she didn’t hurry by any means, in moments she stood within reach of the towering deity’s arms. One knee buckled momentarily, then stiffened. Avenists were not required to kneel to anyone, but few people could stand that close to the goddess of war without feeling a powerful urge to show some kind of obeisance.

Narnasia clutched her cane, actively trying to snap it now. The sturdy hardwood was in no danger from her aged arms, but it served as an outlet.

No, no, no, not her. Not her!

“There is a hard road ahead,” Avei said more quietly but still audible to everyone present. “The call I lay upon you is an honor, but it is also a heavy burden, and will exact a steep price, more painful than you can yet appreciate. In my thousands of years guarding the world, I have summoned many of the bravest and best to my service. Some have refused the call, and not one of them did I condemn. It is a lonely thing and a hard one, to give up your own life for the sake of others. Do not doubt that I ask anything else of you. Do not answer this call out of any desire for glory, or any expectation for your own happiness. Answer it only if you desire to serve. That you will serve is the only thing I can promise. What say you, Trissiny? Will you be my Hand in this world?”

NO! Narnasia screamed silently.

Trissiny gulped. “I—I’m not…ready. I’m not worthy.”

Avei smiled at her, and her expression was both gentle and achingly sad. “No one is ready, child. No one can be. And I would not call upon anyone so arrogant as to believe herself worthy. If you doubt yourself, Trissiny, do not doubt me. I have chosen carefully, I promise you. The only question is whether you are willing.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders and set her face. Slowly, she sank to one knee, bowing her head. “I will serve however you think I best can.”

“So be it.”

The three words rang across the Abbey grounds, echoing in the luminous background noise of the goddess’s aura. Above and between the two figures, light flashed and coalesced into two shapes, a sword and a shield. Both were clearly ancient, and battered from long use. They floated slowly downward to hover at chest height.

Narnasia glared at them. She had seen those weapons before.

“Rise, then, and take the tools of your calling.”

Trissiny rose slowly; almost hesitantly, she reached out, first threading her left forearm through the shield’s grips. Then, finally, she grasped the sword by its handle.

The change was instant and without fanfare. One moment the girl stood diminutive before her goddess, a slim and somewhat gangly figure in a short robe. In the next she stood tall, sword and shield in hand, clad in the silver armor that so many present had only seen in paintings.

“We have a long road to travel together,” said Avei solemnly. “You will face countless battles and many hardships, but you will never do so alone. This new world will learn to respect you, Trissiny Avelea. Hand of Avei.”

Trissiny’s own aura flared into existence, and eagle wings of golden light stretched from her back, blazing with the intensity of the sun. The light swelled until no one could stand to look, then faded just as suddenly, leaving her standing alone in the dusk, only a faint gleam of divine favor limning her sword and shield. In the dimness that followed, Avei was gone, even more abruptly than she had arrived.

The newly minted Hand of Avei stared into space where the goddess had stood. Despite her armor, despite everything, she looked bemused and lost.

Then, quite suddenly, she was mobbed by a rush of women from each of the tables. The air was filled with cheers, praises, and shouted questions, mixing into an unintelligible jumble and overridden only by the shrieks of Barrack Four, who were the first away from their seats and managed to cluster around their squad leader before everyone else dogpiled her.

“ENOUGH!”

Old and thin her voice might be, but Narnasia Darnassy had commanded troops in her day, and could still seize and hold the attention of a battalion at need. Silence fell as she stepped forward—slowly, as her joints demanded, but not so slowly as her pride asked. She limped and relied on her cane, making her way between the tables as quickly as her legs would permit, unwilling to leave Trissiny alone for a second longer than necessary.

“Mother Narny,” the girl said desperately as she drew close, “I don’t… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

Narnasia struggled as she had rarely struggled with anything to smile, but for Trissiny’s sake, she did it. “When you need to do something, child, you will be told. That is one of the advantages you have, now. For now, you only have to be.”

Trissiny carefully sheathed her new sword at the scabbard hanging from her belt and slung the shield over her back, then stepped forward, arms outstretched.

Narnasia met her half way, gathering the girl into an embrace. She squeezed as hard as her thin arms could, ignoring the way the armor pinched and dug at her.

“I am just so proud of you,” she whispered fiercely into Trissiny’s hair. With her expression momentarily hidden, she allowed it to relax, permitted the tiniest sliver of the agony she felt to show through. She wanted to weep.

She did not, of course.

Discipline.


 

In the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, she limped doggedly through the winding paths between tombstones and mausoleums behind the Abbey. The moon had already vanished behind the mountains and there were no torches, but the faint starlight of the mountains was enough. Despite the darkness, despite the betrayal of her aging body, she had walked this path many times. She hardly needed to see.

The tomb occupied pride of place, facing a little cul-de-sac which itself encircled a bronze statue of the woman interred here. Narnasia only glanced up at this; it was only dimly visible in the darkness, anyway. She limped past it, making a beeline for the tomb itself. In her haste, she actually stumbled the last few steps, dropping her cane and throwing up both hands to catch herself against the broad stone door. There she stood, leaning against it, finally, finally letting the tears come.

It was far too dark to make out the words, but she could feel their indentation under her hands. She knew that name better than her own.

Here lay Jasmine Darnassy, the last Hand of Avei. Dead these twenty years, and as everyone had believed, truly the last. The Age of Adventures, the era of paladins, was over. There would be no more brave, brilliant women hurled into the thick of the carnage, set to face struggles that no one could hope to survive for long even with the full aid of a goddess. Narnasia had allowed herself to believe, and take comfort in the hope, that no more mothers would ever have to lay their girls to rest this way.

Now it was all starting again. And the first lamb laid on the altar was another beautiful, amazing young woman she regarded as her daughter.

There was a saying among their cult, fully endorsed by history: No Hand of Avei ever died in bed.

“Why?” she rasped, letting her head hang and the sobs come. “Haven’t I given you enough? What more do you want from me? I have never asked anything of you. Is it too much that I be left with someone to love?”

She drew back a fist and slammed it into the stone. That, needless to say, was agonizing, spikes of white-hot pain roaring up her entire arm, her hand throbbing unbelievably. Narnasia was falling before she realized it.

Strong hands caught her, then gently and with the utmost care pulled her upright, held her steady. It was light, now… And the pain that had so undone her seconds ago had already receded.

She heaved a deep sigh, closing her eyes, then turned. When she lifted her head and opened them, Avei was regarding her with an expression of weary sorrow. She was human-sized, now, scarcely taller than Narnasia would be if she could still fully straighten her spine. She didn’t glow, per se, but it was lighter around her, bright enough to see clearly.

“You’ve given everything,” Avei said quietly. “You have done all I ever asked, and done more than I would have required. Willingly, even eagerly. I have had soldiers as valuable as you, Narnasia, but none more so.”

For a devout, lifelong Avenist to hear such praise directly from her goddess—in fact, to be personally visited by Avei at all—was all the dream she would once have wished for. Now, all she could feel was bitterness.

“If I’ve earned any favor from you,” she whispered, “don’t take my Trissy. She deserves so much better.”

The goddess actually hung her head for a moment. “…she does. As do you. As has every brave woman who has followed me into an early grave, and all those left to mourn them.”

“Then it’s just business as usual,” Narnasia said, the bitterness of it clawing at her from the inside. “A world full of paladins again. More meat for the grinder.”

“I know your pain,” Avei said quietly. “You may not believe it, but I do. Jasmine was my daughter, too. I shared your pride in her, your love for her, and the agony that I couldn’t protect her in the end. Everything you’ve suffered, Narnasia, I have suffered. And not only the once, but for every Hand I have lost. Every single soldier who has fallen in my name. Every Legionnaire, every loyal trooper of the hundreds of nations that have lived in the last eight thousand years. They serve, they suffer, and they die, and they never do so alone. I’m there at the end to mourn each one. Every. One.” Narnasia couldn’t look away; there were tears sparkling in Avei’s eyes. “And each time, I call forth more, knowing it will only end in more loss and bereavement… Because that is the meaning of duty. We fight because someone has to, even knowing the fate of all those who serve. Every time I think I can’t possibly bear to go through this once more, I remember every soldier who has fallen in my name, and I have to go on. They didn’t quit. How can I?”

“I’m sorry,” Narnasia whispered. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I… I shouldn’t have dared to speak to you like that.”

“You hurt, sister. And you have every right to.” The goddess shook her head, gently leading the Abbess over to a stone bench and helping her to sit. “The day I no longer care about your pain is the day you should find a new faith.”

Narnasia leaned back against the bench, closing her eyes. “…how do we go on?”

“How do old soldiers do anything?” Avei sat down next to her and slumped forward, planting her elbows on her knees. “We’ve forgotten how to do anything else.”

The Abbess nodded. There was silence for a while.

“I only wish I could take the burden from her,” she whispered at last. “I wish I could have suffered instead of my Jasmine, too. Let them have the glory and me the pain. But… I know very well why you called them and never me. Jasmine, Trissiny… They’re special. I couldn’t have done justice to that duty. Jas did her title proud.”

“She did,” Avei said, nodding.

“Trissiny will, too.”

“I have no doubt of it.”

She heaved a sigh. “Forgive an old woman’s hysterics. How, then, can I help her? Whatever time I have left, I’ll do anything I can. I wasn’t there to support Jas; I’m not leaving my Trissy to face this alone.”

“She’ll never be alone.” Avei straightened, gazing up at the bronze statue of Jasmine Darnassy. “As I said before, the world is changing. Paladins have to change, too. I won’t make you any promises, but I have…plans. I have hope. I’m holding to a chance that we won’t lose this one so easily.”

“I’ve never told her,” Narnasia whispered. “About her blood. I’ve gone back and forth on it… To this day I don’t know whether it was right or wrong. I just wanted her to have as normal a life as she could, but… I suppose that’s not a consideration anymore.”

“You have some time, still, to make a decision,” said the goddess. “Three years.”

“Three?” She had expected to have Trissiny to herself for one more year at most. Girls raised in Avenist temples could join the Legions at sixteen.

“Three,” Avei said firmly. “At eighteen, she will be old enough for the next stage of her education. She will go then to the University at Last Rock.”

Even in the goddess’s radiant presence, Narnasia’s body ached at the speed with which she sat bolt upright. “Tellwyrn?!”

“Arachne,” Avei said, her expression grim. “Believe me, I know her faults; they are numerous and deep. I also know her virtues, however, and I think my cult has become too eager to discount those. Trissiny already owes everything to her kindness.”

“But…why Tellwyrn?”

“You have raised up a fine soldier, Narnasia. But do you know how many fine soldiers I have?”

“…all of them?”

“Exactly.” Avei nodded. “Trissiny is destined to be more, and Arachne can teach her that. She lives in a gray, meaningless world of nihilistic complexities with no moral compass whatsoever. Somewhere between that and the stark, black and white ethics you have instilled in Trissiny is the balance she will need to do her duty in the world that is taking shape around us.”

“What could I have done differently?” In spite of herself, Narnasia bristled. “I raised her in the faith. I’ve taught her your principles.”

“This may be a very painful thing for you to learn,” Avei said wearily, “but even the gods are not perfect. I am not content with sacrificing my most prized warriors like chess pieces. I want Trissiny to have a chance. Don’t you?”

Narnasia could make no reply to that.

“To do this, she will need more resources than my Hands have had in the past. It’s a new world, and a new type of paladin will be needed to uphold justice in it.” She turned her head to stare directly into Narnasia’s eyes. “We may yet lose her. But it will not be because we failed to arm her with everything she needs.”

The Abbess drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…three more years, then. There’s so much left to teach her… Suddenly it doesn’t seem like enough time.”

“You’ll have my help. Together we will send her off prepared.”

“All right…” Steeling herself, she nodded firmly. “All right. I’ll do as you ask.” Narnasia rolled her shoulders, feeling the old aches, but also the old determination of her younger self. She would not send her Trissy off with anything less than everything she had to offer.

“How may I serve?”

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Darling couldn’t help noticing that he had never noticed this place before.

Positioned in the Steppes, an upscale mercantile district which had been formed into a series of terraces rather than flowing with the gradual slope of the ground as most of Tiraas did (hence the name), it was a little over a quarter of the way downhill from Imperial Square in the opposite direction from his own home. He had been here many times, both as Sweet and on the more aboveboard business of the Church, and knew it well, yet the Elysium was an unknown sight to him. From the outside, it could have been any upscale tea room or winery (the very wealthy did not loaf about in bars or pubs, at least not where their friends were likely to see), with an understated sign bearing its name and nothing else to distinguish its modest facade. This was exactly the sort of place that should have caught his interest many times before.

Of course, there were enchantments that could conceal a place from those who were not invited, or who were not looking for it specifically, or based upon any number of other variables. They were complex and expensive spells, though, which raised questions about what was hidden behind them and who would bother to place them there. Luckily he knew who he was here to meet, which answered several such questions, but he could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t being told everything.

He paid close attention to this feeling. It had saved his life repeatedly.

Thus, he loitered for over a minute on the sidewalk, studying the plain stone construction, the tastefully gilded sign—and wondering what “Elysium” meant, aside from sounding vaguely elvish—the wrought iron bars on its curtained windows and bordering the stone staircase descending to its subterranean entrance, which was lit only by a single fairy lamp.

He was already uncomfortable, dressed as he was in a simple but expensive suit, with his hair styled in the Bishop’s well-groomed coif rather than Sweet’s slicked-back look. Lurking between identities set off a dissonance in his mind that only exacerbated his general unease, but given who he was here to meet and how little he knew of what to expect, this was the best he could do.

With a sigh, he descended the stairs. At the bottom was a clean little nook containing an elegant stone bench and the entrance. The Elysium’s door was of redwood, polished to near luminosity, offset by clouded glass panels and a brass handle. Darling rolled his neck, straightened his shoulders, double-checked his aloof smile (in place and operating normally), then pulled the door open and strode in as though he owned the place.

It was a pub, though its target clientele would probably have disdained the word. A more expensively appointed space he had rarely seen outside of the mansions of the rich; everything was dark-stained wood, with accents of marble and gilt, with silken tablecloths and draperies, surmounted by a chandelier of actual crystal, which glowed without benefit of candles. The room was tall, easily a story and a half, but neither broad nor deep. Tables were scattered widely enough that those sitting at them would have relative privacy. A bench lined the wall adjacent to the street above, a long bar lined the other immediately to his right, and at the rear of the room a short flight of steps rose to an elevated nook containing a lavishly-appointed booth, at which his “date” for the evening waited.

Darling didn’t immediately fix his eyes upon her, however, first taking stock of the room’s other inhabitants. The Elysium was sparsely inhabited at the moment. Closest to the door was a woman in an Imperial Army uniform, sitting at the bar; she glanced up at him when he entered, then returned to nursing her drink, clearly dismissing him as unimportant. She was also, he noted, quite pretty: tall and strongly built, with black hair drawn back in a severe ponytail which cascaded down her back in an avalanche of curls. Women could and did serve in the Imperial Army—the Empire’s goddess of war being also the protector of women, there was no discrimination by sex among the armed forces. Most women who wanted to be soldiers joined the Silver Legions, though. Still, this wasn’t the first female Imperial soldier he’d ever seen. The Legions didn’t take everyone who applied, and besides, there were always the patriotic, the irreligious, and various other outliers.

Like the soldier, the bar’s other denizens gave him barely a glance before returning to their own business. In the corner opposite the door, a burly blonde man dressed as a laborer and a slim man in the black coat of a Church priest were hunched over a game of chess; they ignored him entirely. A young couple was canoodling in another corner. He made a point not to stare. The mix of people in here made little sense to Darling—from the rich trappings and extravagant magical security, not to mention the company he was to keep this evening, he’d have expected lords and ladies, high priests, possibly even the better class of criminals. Soldiers, preachers, farmers…the list of incongruities continued to grow.

He nodded respectfully toward the alcove at the back and moved forward to approach it.

“Evening, Antonio! Punaji Sunrise, right?”

Darling blinked in surprise, turning to look at the bartender, who had been hidden behind the soldier from his position at the door. This was a face he knew very well: lean, swarthy, with shaggy black hair and perpetual mirth lurking about the eyes. On the bar before him was a drink, a layered confection of different liqueurs and syrups that cost far too much and took far too long to make, which was exactly why Darling habitually ordered it. The man pushed it gently toward him.

For a moment, his mind went blank at the sheer enormity of the implications. Then, the pieces snapped into place, and he cast another swift glance about the room. The soldier, the farmer, the dark man…of course. No wonder he’d never seen this place before. None of them looked up to acknowledge him, but the woman took a contemplative sip of her whiskey on the rocks as his eyes slid across her. Realization did nothing to lessen his unease—if anything, it did the opposite.

Then he was back in character, the interlude having taken a sliver of a second that few humans could have noticed and the bar’s occupants surely had. “You remembered!” he said cheerfully, stepping over to collect his drink. “Should I be flattered, or concerned at the prescription?”

“Prescription, bah,” the bartender waved him away, grinning. “Worst you’ll get from that thing is a sugar rush. Best go on, your date’s waiting.”

“Aren’t they always,” he said vaguely, tilting the Sunrise toward him in toast, then turning to resume his course.

He ascended the steps carefully to the alcove. Quentin Vex sat above, at one side of the table, but Darling ignored him for the moment; it would not have done at all to greet him first. Instead, he bowed deeply to the person who had asked him here.

“Your Majesty.”

Empress Eleanora Sultana Tirasian was, needless to say, a strikingly beautiful woman. She was also a crafty and formidable individual who was known to have little regard for looks—her own, anyway. The reality was, however, that one did not marry onto the Imperial throne without being something of a showpiece. She certainly was that: waves of sable hair, deep mahogany skin, black eyes that glinted like daggers. She was tall and fell right into the combination of “slender yet curvy” that occurred so often in cheap novels and so rarely in biology. Indeed, she might have suited the (so called) Avenic ideal perfectly, except that she lacked the strong build of a woman who worked and/or fought for a living. Eleanora was a noblewoman and born politician; she had never run two steps in her life, nor lifted anything heavier than a wine bottle.

“Bishop,” she replied coolly, not inclining her head in return. There was probably no one in the world to whom she would bow. “Please, join us.”

“My thanks, Majesty,” he said, then set his drink on the table. Taking one of the gilded chairs by its back, he slid it around and seated himself at the side of the table, opposite Lord Vex, rather than directly before her as indicated. She raised an eyebrow and even the normally-somnolent Vex straightened slightly at this flagrant breach of protocol, but the hell he was putting his back to that room full of…them.

Eleanora flicked her eyes once to the main floor of the bar, then smiled very faintly. Darling took this for a sign of understanding; she was far too savvy to accidentally betray her thoughts with careless gestures.

“How may I be of service, your Majesty?” he asked once seated.

For a moment she just looked at him. There was a stillness about her, a piercing intelligence in her gaze, that threatened to ruffle his equilibrium. As both Sweet and the Bishop he was accustomed to the presence of dangerous people and rarely met anyone who penetrated his calm. Something about her, though… Eleanora had certainly not become Empress because of her looks.

“I am in need of a priest,” she said finally.

“I am flattered,” he replied. “And somewhat perplexed, I confess. Surely you could have your pick of the services of any priest in the Empire?”

“I have,” she said dryly, “and it is to my great fortune that my pick of priests is available to me, as I think you know that many are not.” This was skating close to the dangerous topic of the rivalry between Church and Throne, a subject he was eager to avoid in this of all company, but she went smoothly on. “The gods are fond of reminding us that no degree of mortal power entitles any human being to a greater stake of their attention, but the reality is as you see it here. For the leaders of the Empire, certain little courtesies are extended, to our great gratitude. One such is access to this…sanctuary.”

Again, she glanced past him to the bar area, and he did likewise. The barman winked.

“Here,” the Empress continued, “we are effectively outside the world and its concerns. Its bloody neverending politics. Here I can forget for a moment about being Empress, you can relax the tension that leading the multiplicitous existence you do must cause. Neither of us need pretend that we don’t all know exactly the nature of my relationship with the man I call husband.” She leaned forward slightly, holding his gaze. “I can approach you as a woman with a spiritual problem, seeking help from a cleric who happens to be the leading expert in this topic.”

“All right, then,” he said slowly. “Is there…something you would like me to steal?”

The corners of her eyes crinkled very slightly in amusement, but she quickly mastered her expression and spoke a single name. “Elilial.”

“Ah,” he said ruefully. “I’m afraid I was never one for kidnapping, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Vex cleared his throat. “I believe I warned your Majesty that the Bishop fancies himself…amusing.”

“He is,” the Empress said, not taking her eyes off Darling, “but I would prefer that we be serious now.”

“My sincere apologies, your Majesty.” He bowed to her from his seat.

“She was in my home,” she said, and from beneath her iron self-control there whispered hints of ferocity, barely contained. “She shared a bed with the man I think of as a brother. We talked, shared meals, even games.” The Empress clenched her jaw momentarily. “I once let her rub my shoulders. She was remarkably good at that.”

Darling put on and held his very best sympathetically attentive face. In truth, this was a situation he had little idea how to handle.

“Among the theologians who have studied Elilial extensively,” Eleanora went on, “most are so heavily wedded to Church dogma that every other word from them is a sermon in miniature. But Lord Vex tells me that you are something of an expert on her movements as well. More importantly, he suggests that you see her as an individual, not an…incarnation.”

“You know what invaded your home,” he said softly. “You want to understand who.”

“Precisely.”

Something tingled at the back of Darling’s neck, a sensation with which he was well acquainted: risk, and opportunity. “What, then, would your Majesty like to know?”

“First of all…how did you come to devote such time and study to Elilial?” Apparently she wasn’t one to come right to the point, but then, few politicians were. “It seems a peculiar hobby for an acolyte of the god of thieves.”

“On the contrary,” he said smoothly, simply running with it, “the cults of Elilial and Eserion have many similarities. Sometimes I am tempted to conclude that ours are the only faiths which inherently value subtlety.”

Below, one of the chess players—the thin man in the dark coat—cleared his throat. Darling carefully did not betray himself by glancing at him.

“As for why… I have often thought that the Church’s approach to warning people against Elilial’s schemes has done more harm than good. So much effort putting into portraying her as the destroyer, the deceiver, playing up her relationship to the demonic plane without ever mentioning how that is happenstance caused by the Pantheon and not her own choice. It warns the faithful and the casual away from seeking her out, yes—well, most of them—but leaves people frighteningly vulnerable to her when she does choose to move among us.”

“How so?”

“She’s a thief,” he said, warming to his subject. “A con artist, a trickster. All theatrics and misdirection, someone who plays as many parts as the job requires. You could say that from a certain perspective, I empathize with her. More to the point, I understand the broad strokes of how she operates, and why telling people that she’s some kind of slavering monster is the worst possible thing we can do. The Black Wreath is older than the Empire by a wide margin, older than the Church, and while it’s damnably difficult to track their movements, we know they’ve never suffered from a lack of membership. That’s because Elilial, when she wants to be, is just so bloody nice.”

“Nice,” Eleanora said flatly.

“I think, Majesty, that you are in a position to know that better than most, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She held his gaze silently for a moment, then glanced to one side in thought, and nodded slowly.

“And so we shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “People meet this fearsome Queen of Demons, and find her warm, charming, rather funny, in fact. It throws everything the Church has taught them about her into question. That, by association, throws all the Church’s teachings into question. Thus, she gets one fingernail into their minds, and knows exactly how to work that until she has a loyal convert, willing to die for her.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes slightly. “Funny?”

“People are always so surprised when I say that,” he said wryly. “Yes, she has quite the sense of humor. Was that not apparent when you met her?”

“I didn’t merely ‘meet’ her, I knew her well for several months, or so I thought.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “And yes…she did, in fact, have a sardonic wit that Sharidan and I both enjoyed. In hindsight, I’ve been second-guessing everything I remember about her in light of what I now know.”

“Don’t do that,” he advised, “it’s a trap. You are, by reputation, both perceptive and clever when it comes to people. Elilial is certainly sly enough to use that against you, but that doesn’t mean everything she said or did was a deception. Encouraging you to think it was gives her a kind of invisibility. If nobody believes what they know about her, they don’t really know anything, do they?”

She kept her gaze to the side, frowning slightly in contemplation. Vex sipped at his own wineglass, staying silent. Darling sat, not reaching for his Punaji Sunrise, allowing the Empress to think.

“How certain are you of the things you know? Why is it you know better, as you believe, than most of the Church’s theologians?”

“Simple scholarship, your Majesty,” he said modestly, refusing to back down from her intent stare once she returned it to him. “There are over eight thousand years worth of materials about Elilial’s movements to sift through, much of it muddled by simple time or tainted by the agendas of millennia of history. Not to mention that some incarnations of the Black Wreath have been quite adept at spreading misinformation. I simply hired a bunch of university and seminary students to sort through the information there was and single out the bits that met a good historian’s standards of believability. Thirty of them, for over two years…there really was a lot of material. In the end, only the tiniest amount could be considered reliable. That tiny amount was merely the work of another couple of years for me to study through, and the picture it painted of our girl was remarkably consistent.”

“Our girl?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“Forgive me,” he said contritely. “If one spends enough time studying somebody’s life, one tends to feel oddly attached. No matter how horrifying the subject matter may be.”

“Hm.” Whatever she thought of that, her face gave nothing away. “She had ample opportunity to harm Sharidan, myself, and many of those closest to us. As far as we can tell, she did not.”

“That is consistent,” he said, nodding. “Historically speaking, she only harms people in particular and for specific reasons. If anything, I’d say she’s more careful about collateral damage than some gods of the Pantheon.”

“Really. Regard for others?”

He leaned back in his chair slightly, frowning in thought. “No…and yes, but no. It’s wasteful, inelegant. A good con artist uses only the lightest touch and leaves as little trace as possible. A good kneecapper relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force; you have to beat a few people down now and again to establish that you can and will, but nobody could do business if everybody were constantly attacking each other. It becomes…a code of honor, so to speak, a set of best practices that all good scoundrels follow, irrespective of any affiliations or moral leanings they may have. In time, that can be internalized to the point that causing unnecessary pain is troubling to the spirit, like a twinge of conscience. Not true compassion, but…” He groped silently for the word. “An ethic of restraint.”

“Again, you speak of her as you would a member of your Guild.”

“I think she’d do very well in the Guild. This business of infiltrating an organization in human guise… The recent events in the Palace are not the first time she’s done this. I’d be totally unsurprised to learn she has been a member of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

Below, the bartender laughed aloud, but did not look up from wiping the glass he was working on. The soldier shot him an irritated look.

“To move this back to my original concern…how likely do you think it that she left some trap behind, some delayed way of harming my family?”

“Not very likely at all. At least, that would be wildly out of character.” He drew in a breath slowly, looking down at the table. “Your Majesty, I’m not certain how to phrase this with any delicacy…”

“Then don’t concern yourself with delicacy,” she said firmly. “I’ll neither break nor demand your execution if you ruffle my feathers.”

“Very well,” he said gravely, keeping amusement hidden only through a truly heroic effort. “Everything in the histories suggests that Elilial’s attachments are quite real, at least to her. She’s been known to discreetly watch over people with whom she has formed relationships through deception, giving assistance when they need it years after their part in her schemes is over, sometimes avenging them when necessary.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “You suggest she is truly a caring person, deep down.”

“I am not sure I’d go that far,” he hedged. “No… My perception has always been that she’s a lonely person. Her only real peers are the gods she turned against, and who cast her into Hell for it. She’s down there with nothing but demons for company most of the time. All things considered I have a hard time seeing her as particularly soft-hearted, but able to form real attachments? Maybe even desperate to do so? That I have no trouble believing.”

“Then…with regard to my family…”

“I am not sure how much of the story I know,” he admitted, “but from the basics that I do… If there were any hostility, any animosity there, you’d know already. If she behaved toward you and yours with affection, that affection is likely to be sincere. Oh, she’ll use you in her schemes like she does everyone else, and I know I needn’t tell you how these schemes in particular could well kick the very Empire right out from under us all. But on a personal level? No, I don’t believe your family has anything to fear from Elilial. If anything…should you ever find yourself in truly desperate straits, you might find yourself with a very unexpected protector.”

There was silence. In the stillness of the chamber, the very soft voices of the two in the other corner were almost intrusive; the echo of a chess piece being set down seemed to reverberate.

“That should be encouraging,” Eleanora said at last, “but if anything, I find myself more disturbed.”

“I know what you mean,” Darling said with perfect sincerity. “This is why I am always careful to study Elilial and her people from a safe distance. Reading old stories, rather than interviewing those of the Wreath we’ve managed to capture. It’s terrifying, how easily she can suck you in.”

“We still have no Imperial heir, nor any sign of one forthcoming,” she said abruptly. “The court physicians are positive that the problem is not with Sharidan. But then, they say that about each of the women in his harem, as well, and it defies reason that someone hasn’t ended up with child by now. He’s quite energetic. You will repeat that to no one.”

“Repeat what? Your pardon, Majesty, I’m a trifle deaf on this side.”

“Good. Elilial has twice hinted broadly that she is now carrying his child. Once to his face, once to three hapless soldiers who, luckily for them, had no idea what she was talking about. Is there any chance she is lying?”

“Of course. Lying is the better part of what she does. I fancy myself probably most likely of those outside the Wreath itself to give credit to Elilial’s better traits, but even I won’t try to present her as anything less than a compulsive deceiver. Before the Fall, she was simply the goddess of cunning. The other gods didn’t turn their backs on her then, and that’s when they counted her an ally.”

“But on the other hand…”

“On the other hand, yes, she has birthed several demigods that we know of. One of whom is currently attending classes in Last Rock.”

The Empress’s mouth twisted in dislike, a curiously strong reaction, but she simply went on: “Could she have been responsible for the childlessness of the other women in the Palace?”

“It does seem consistent with her apparent scheme, but… I’m sorry, your Majesty, I’m glad to share my insights into what Elilial is likely to do, based on what she’s done in the past, but as to what she can do…nobody can really help you. The one thing we know she is very good at is concealing her movements, a trait which extends to members of the Wreath. Just as priests of Omnu have that calming aura, and Izarite clerics get the uncanny ability to discern someone’s emotional needs, invested followers of Elilial gain the gift of hiding their movements. Even from the gods.”

There were no fewer than three small sounds of activity from the floor below. He reflexively froze for a moment.

“Which, obviously, makes any other powers they possess…particularly unknowable.”

“Just so, your Majesty.”

“You have been very helpful, Bishop Darling,” the Empress said, leaning back in her seat. “Not that my mind is put at ease, but I feel I can worry constructively rather than generally, now.”

“I do what I can,” he said modestly.

“Well, that is another question,” she said in a mild tone that instantly made his hackles rise. “Rather like Elilial, it is a curious conundrum…what you can do, and what you are likely to do.”

“I beg your pardon?” he said politely. His mind was racing at the shift of mood. Vex, still silent, was watching him fixedly through half-lidded eyes. Eleanora’s attention was less subtle, and there was a hint of a satisfied smile hovering about her mouth that he didn’t like at all.

“Tell me, are you acquainted with Bishop Syrinx?”

“We have spoken in passing,” he said, tilting his head to the side in a gesture of innocent curiosity. “I can’t say I know her well.”

“She is possibly the worst Avenist I’ve ever met,” Eleanora went on conversationally, not even flinching when the soldier set her whiskey glass down hard on the bar. “Vindictive, underhanded, and altogether a better politician than a priest. But if I do say so, she makes an excellent Bishop.”

“I begin to wonder if I should feel offended.”

“There is an interesting layer to the power struggle in this city, you see. Not just between the Throne and the Church, but between the Church and the disparate faiths it is supposed to collect under its aegis. So many of their doctrines contradict one another outright that the Archpopes have always been forced to dance a very delicate line, keeping a unified doctrinal front.”

Darling nodded pleasantly, refusing to glance at the door. He knew this, she knew he knew it; everyone who was a player in this game, or even just a somewhat educated cleric, knew it. She was giving a monologue, like a villain in a novel. This was not a good sign; Eleanora Tirasian was clever enough and ruthless enough to make an excellent villain. Vex, even less encouragingly, had begun to smile. Both of them had a theatrical streak.

“This results in things like the Bishops,” the Empress went on, still in that conversational tone. “By and large, they are a consistent bunch. Crafty, better at rising through the ranks of religious hierarchies than at practicing any actual faith. I imagine their respective High Priests were just as glad to get rid of them, and they make excellent pawns for Justinian. And then there is you.”

“I’ll have you know I fit in splendidly with my colleagues,” he said mildly. “I get along with everyone.”

“I know you do, Sweet. You are everybody’s friend.” Her eyes bored into him; he refused to react to the use of his tag. “This city is just lousy with people who owe you favors, or simply like you enough to do you favors, which has been the secret of your success. And that is what makes you stand out among your fellow Bishops. You are actually a really good priest of Eserion.”

“You’re going to make me blush!”

“It may just be that Eserion’s cult is an inherently unusual one,” she went on, ignoring him. “Where most of the gods direct their followers to some beneficial end, or what they believe to be one, disciples of the god of thieves are sent to go out and steal things. So I have to wonder… Why would the Guild send their once high priest to the Church?” She folded her hands primly on the table and smiled pleasantly at him. “What, exactly, are you supposed to steal?”

Darling made a show of glancing back and forth, then leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?”

Still smiling, she raised an eyebrow.

He grinned. “Everything. Every damn thing, down to Justinian’s fuzzy slippers. It’ll be the heist of the millennium.”

“I believe I asked you to be serious.”

“So you did, and so I was. And then you attempted to maneuver an avowed thief into a corner. I’m curious, your Majesty, what response you expected that to get.”

“There is a question here, Darling, about loyalty. I am intrigued by you on a number of levels, but it is hardly possible for me to take any action with regard to you before I know with whom you stand. Is it the Empire? The Church? Your god, or the gods in general?”

“This I know about gods,” he said, picking up his untouched drink. The layers had begun to blend into each other after long minutes sitting idle. “I am fully aware of and grateful for their gifts to us. But gods, like people, are individuals, with their own personalities and agendas. They are people, however fundamentally different. And like any other group of people, they can be a right bunch of bastards.”

Her eyebrows climbed at that, and a deathly silence fell over the room. Darling raised his glass to her in toast and focused his attention, reaching for that inner glow deep inside himself.

They were not encouraged to draw on it; thieves had little use for it. But Eserion, for good or ill, was a god of the Pantheon, and he and his followers were therefore entitled to certain benefits—including the healing light. Channeled through his hand, it caught the liquid in the glass, blazing from each of the slightly-muddied layers of the drink and causing it to glow like a stained glass fairy lamp.

“Those who have my loyalty know it. Those who would have my loyalty can earn it, in the usual ways. To them, and to you, your Majesty…good health.” He smiled at her, sipped his drink, and turned to look once out at the bar. It was a look he’d had ample occasion to practice on Guild business: not quite a challenging look, but more than simple acknowledgment. It was a look that said “Yeah, I see you, what of it?”

The gods were looking back at him, and most were smiling. The exception was Avei, who had swiveled around on her barstool to give him a look of weary disdain. Eserion, behind the bar, laughed aloud as he added a splash of whiskey to her glass. In the corner, Izara’s eyes twinkled merrily, brightly enough to be visible from across the room; beside her, Vesk, the god of bards, lifted his hands and patted them together lightly in a silent ovation. Both the chess players were staring at him now, Omnu with a gentle smile, Vidius wearing a grin of wry humor.

The Empress, when he turned back to her, looked decidedly less amused. “And I am left to wonder, still, at the exact nature of your apparently considerable interest in, and sympathy for, a certain goddess of cunning.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “so that’s it, then.”

“I have the Black Wreath running rampant in my Empire and in my city,” she went on, “more so than we had previously imagined. Aside from recent shenanigans in the Palace itself, an entire cell of them recently popped up in a little flyspeck town, with a suicide summoner and dwarven technology that we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, Arachne bloody Tellwyrn demolished them before any useful questions could be asked, but the fact remains: they’re growing bolder, and stronger, at the same time their mistress is up to something well beyond her usual antics. This, obviously, is not acceptable.”

“Obviously,” he said dryly. “But if you’ll pardon my narcissism, what does it have to do with me?”

“Imperial Intelligence are the best in the world at what they do,” she said, absently patting Vex’s wrist, as one might acknowledge a favored pet, “but they face certain stark limits against the Wreath. To say nothing of the inherent challenges of chasing after diabolists and dark priests, we have no effective counter to Elilial’s gift of stealth. The Church doesn’t either, and while they are better equipped to contend with demons, they lack any personnel with the skill Lord Vex’s people have in this kind of skullduggery. Besides, I obviously cannot trust Justinian or any of his lackeys.”

“What, you don’t think I’m his lackey?”

“I don’t know whose lackey you are, if anyone’s,” she said evenly. “And that is where you may be exactly what we need. You said yourself that the Thieves’ Guild is very like the Black Wreath in its operations and general outlook.”

“The Guild is not going to start a war with the Wreath.”

“For innumerable reasons, obviously, no. But a man whose loyalties are stretched multiple ways to begin with provides deniability to all his putative masters.”

“Ahh,” he nodded, smiling, “now I see. If I were to go chasing after the Wreath, they wouldn’t know against whom to retaliate. Very clever. Quite elegant, really.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Of course, I’m absolutely not going to do it, but I do appreciate the merits of the idea.”

“I think you mistake my intentions,” she said with a smile. “You spent what had to have been most of your earnings in your first years as Bishop, not to mention the years in question, on a colossal research project just to build up a working understanding of Elilial’s psychology. Strange behavior, for a thief.”

“What, a man can’t have hobbies?”

“No. People like you…and like me…do not have hobbies, we have obsessions. One singular obsession for each of us, really, which fills our lives and colors every activity we undertake. You are an information man, Sweet, a connection man. You wanted to know the Black Lady’s ways for a reason.” Her smile widened a fraction of an inch. “You’re hunting her.”

“Or perhaps,” he offered, swirling his glass idly, “I’m looking to join her. She does run a most admirable outfit. Perhaps I already have.”

“And what would you do if you had? Wage war on the gods? Overthrow the Empire? No, Darling, she has nothing you want. You want the chase. We are talking about the single most challenging prey that has ever existed. I think if you ever manage to catch her, you’ll find yourself at a loss.”

“You presume to know me well, your Majesty.”

“Indeed so. And perhaps I am wrong.” Still she kept that smile, but her eyes burned with intensity. “I am not threatening you, nor will I ever. I’m not asking you to do anything. I am extending an offer.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“How is it the organized criminals always put it in the novels?” she mused. “You’ve done me a favor today. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position to do you a favor. Especially if it leads to progress in uprooting the Black Wreath from my city.”

Darling matched her smile. “Your Majesty has a fertile and eloquent imagination.”

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “But my offer stands. Whatever aid I may lend you, should you need it in hunting the Wreath.” With that, she stood. Vex and Darling did likewise, as protocol demanded. On their feet, she was shorter than he, though not by much. Whereas most women of her breeding and upbringing would never miss a chance to look up at a man through their lashes, Eleanora tilted her head to gaze at him directly. “And, of course, should you decide that your loyalty lies against the Empire…I will not bother to threaten you then, either. You are a most valued subject, Antonio Darling.”

“There are not words in our inadequate mortal language for my appreciation at your acknowledgment, your Majesty,” he replied, bowing deeply.

“Thank you for your time, Bishop.”

He took the dismissal for what it was, backed up a step, and descended the stairs.

The gods were all watching him.

He nodded to Eserion, and then tipped Avei a wink. For just a moment he thought something very bad was about to happen to him, but Izara let out a peal of delighted laughter from across the room, and the goddess of war wordlessly turned her back on him. He didn’t breathe again until he was back outside, and not deeply until he had climbed the stone steps and stood safely on the streets of Tiraas. Already, the tense atmosphere within the Elysium was starting to fade like a dream.

Darling wondered, as he started walking, whether he would still be able to see the sign if he turned around. He didn’t check. His mind was already furiously at work, teasing apart the details of that conversation.

None of this made sense. The Empress had as much as accused him of having divided loyalties, offered her support, and then dismissed him. Vex, too, by implication. Those actions were totally self-contradictory. Why? One didn’t just baldly come out with such details right in front of the person one suspected of double-dealing, especially if one intended to secure that person’s aid. Traitorous people could be incredibly useful, but only if you knew they were traitorous and they didn’t know you knew. This disarming honesty…this was no way to play the game.

Unless…

Darling frowned as he walked, letting his feet carrying him home by sheer muscle memory.

Unless the game was not going in your favor, in which case the best move available was sometimes to introduce a little chaos. Forcibly change the board, realign the players, knock a few pieces out of place. It might improve your position, or might not. It was a gambit for when no sensible actions could lead to victory.

The Wreath, the gods, Elilial, Tellwyrn, the Church, the cults within the church…all swirled around and within the Empire, nipping at it from all directions. And, he now realized, the Empire, or at least its Empress, believed it was losing.

Interesting.

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