Tag Archives: Izara

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“This Ingvar sounds like he’s cruising to get himself digested,” Tellwyrn snorted.

“Perhaps,” the Crow mused in reply. “Perhaps not. Likely not, I think. His manner toward Aspen is not at all the approach I would take… If anything, he appears to be relating toward her as a devout Shaathist toward a young woman who has suddenly become his responsibility.”

“You could print that up in a handsome leather binding under the title How to Get Eaten by a Dryad.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly. “In general, yes. I think that this situation reflects Sheyann’s hard work, and ours. Assuredly Aspen as she was when you placed her in this situation would have responded very poorly indeed to such treatment, but Sheyann reports that she has found success in teaching the dryad some self-awareness and responsibility. Not enough that I would inflict her upon your campus like Juniper, but she is, at least, primed to want to better herself. You of all people know how it is with the young. They act out, on some level, because they need to find where the boundaries are. Ingvar is providing her that. She appears to be taking to it quite well, far better than I could have anticipated.”

“So he’s teaching her Shaathist boundaries.” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Be it now or further down the road, someone’s getting eaten. Meanwhile, we face the question of what to do with this.”

“Yes.”

They stood in the magically fortified chamber deep beneath the University, staring up at the time-frozen form of Aspen locked in mid-transformation.

“This new body,” Tellwyrn mused, “you said it exhibited no signs of transforming?”

“And I studied her carefully with more than just my eyes, yes. Whatever Khadizroth did, it brought her back in a default state.”

“I wonder why you didn’t just do that in the first place.”

“First,” Kuriwa said with faint annoyance, “because stabilizing her emotionally was necessary before that was safe, and we are the beneficiaries of great good fortune that that process had gone far enough to be successful when Ingvar blundered across her. And second, it honestly did not occur to me that such was possible. I’ve added it to the ever-lengthening list of things I intend to discuss with Khadizroth when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Well, we’re procrastinating, here, and we both know it,” Tellwyrn said somewhat brusquely. “I’d advise retreating a couple of steps. Presuming what you just let loose in Viridill is the real and only Aspen and not some kind of clone, this thing might just slump over dead, or it may be savage, mindless, and predatory. And there is absolutely no guessing what Naiya will think of us dispatching it.”

“In the worst case scenario,” Kuriwa said calmly, “you can always re-freeze it, no?”

“Right,” Tellwyrn grumbled, “because this is exactly the kind of nicknack I want cluttering up my basement for all eternity. Stand back.”

She gave no more warning beyond a curt gesture of her hands, and without any visible magical effect, the partially-transformed dryad continued the motion she had been in the middle of, which was a very aggressive step forward.

A low groaning sound echoed from within her snarling face, and she staggered forward another step; neither elf backed up further, Tellwyrn keeping her hands up and ready to cast again. Aspen’s body swayed drunkenly to one side, then slowly toppled forward.

She hit the stone floor and completely collapsed. Five seconds later they were looking down at a pile of sticks and golden aspen leaves, only the spray of grass stalks that had been her hair serving to hint at a humanoid form.

“Well.” Tellwyrn shook her head, and folded her arms. “Well. I suppose that was the absolutely ideal outcome.”

“Yes.”

“I’m always mistrustful when those happen.”

“Yes.”

“Should we check outside and see if the world is ending?”

“We are underground, Arachne. Naiya’s domain is more than plants and animals; if she thought us guilty of slaying one of her daughters, we would be hearing about it already.” Kuriwa shook her head. “No, I believe we can consider this matter satisfactorily concluded. Aspen is, really and truly, safe and free.”

“And,” Tellwyrn drawled, “running around Viridill with some Huntsman, that smirking weasel Darling and Joseph Jenkins, who I rather like. I was hoping to persuade him to attend my school in a few years; I’ll be very put out if you get him eaten, Kuriwa.”

“Someday, Arachne, we’re going to have a conversation which includes no exchange of threats, and both of us will be left with a great yawning void in our hearts.” The Crow turned and stepped toward the room’s only door. “Now, I believe I had better visit Sheyann and inform her of this. She will be rather disappointed that her work was thus interrupted; hopefully she finds this conclusion as satisfactory as we.”

“Kuriwa.”

The Crow paused at the tone of Tellwyrn’s voice and turned back to face her, raising an eyebrow.

The sorceress wore a frown, but it was a pensive and slightly worried expression. “Not to tell you your own business, but I really think you ought to go keep an eye on this group you set loose in Viridill.”

“Oh?”

“The events you describe down there, Khadizroth’s apparent involvement, and especially this hint that he’s answering to the Universal Church now… In the last few days, Justinian has been making hostile noises at my school, to the extent of riling up a continent-wide debate in the newspapers. I have had to seek out advice from gods of the Pantheon with regard to this, the Black Wreath has taken it as an opportunity to strike at his interests by ‘helping’ some of my kids…”

“That is an unsettling prospect.”

“Imperial Intelligence has likewise gotten involved… And the whole time, the big unanswered question has been what the Archpope thinks he can accomplish this way. He poses zero threat to me, and he knows it. Now this. Whatever else he’s done, this has done a bang-up job of fixing the world’s attention here. To the point that I, for one, had no idea anything so interesting as a rash of elemental attacks was taking place in Viridill. I think, Kuriwa, someone competent had better be on site there. Someone who knows to keep an eye out for Justinian’s sneaky fingers.”

“Hmm.” Now frowning herself, Kuriwa nodded slowly. “You raise an extremely valid point, Arachne. Yes, I believe I shall take your advice. Thank you.”

“I suppose wonders never cease.”

“If they did,” said the Crow, turning again to leave, “you would simply make your own. Which is a better prospect for the world than you becoming bored.”

Tellwyrn grinned down at the pile of leaves and twigs that had previously been a dryad’s body as the sound of small wings receded down the corridor behind her. “Said Elder Pot to Professor Kettle. Bah… Now, where does Stew keep the brooms?”


“Sorry I’m late,” said Basra, arriving in the command tent and helping herself to a position around the map table. “Have I missed anything significant?”

“No, and you’re hardly late, your Grace,” said Colonel Nintaumbi, nodding respectfully to her. “The only development since last night is that our scouts and scryers have confirmed the absence of any further reaction from Athan’Khar; there are no more monsters north of the river, or indeed north of the corrupted region. Scrying is ineffective beyond that point, I’m afraid.”

“My scouts,” Yrril said calmly, “have ventured to the edge of the corruption and found it calm. The denizens of Athan’Khar are howlingly mad, to the last. It is not in their nature to strategize, or lie in wait. It is safe to assume they are not planning another attack.” She had removed her helmet and carried it under one arm; in the light of day, her armor was revealed to be a form-fitting tunic and trousers of some densely woven material overlaid with strategic plates of metal. All of it, as well as the hilt of her saber, had been treated to prevent them shining even in the sunlight.

“That fits,” Basra agreed, nodding. “Our quarrel is with the elementalist currently hiding there, not with the spirits of Athan’Khar. What we faced last night were simply the specimens antagonized by Falaridjad’s stupidity. Where is she?”

“En route to Vrin Shai to be held pending arraignment,” said General Vaumann. “You and your other companions will naturally be called upon to testify, so the proceedings will have to wait until things are somewhat settled here. I did, on your recommendation, have a suicide watch placed on her, though if I may say so she doesn’t seem the type.”

“Good. Thank you.” Basra nodded deeply to her. “The type or not, I want no risk taken of that treasonous imbecile finding an easy way out of her mess.”

“The rest of your party are still resting,” Vaumann added. “After the night you’ve had, no one would blame you if you remained with them. What an interesting group, Captain Syrinx. A bard, a witch, a sole Legionnaire and a priestess of Izara. One might think you were trying to form an old-fashioned adventuring party.”

Colonel Nintaumbi cracked a grin at that; Yrril cocked her head infinitesimally to one side.

Basra drew in a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. “I have a feeling that was rather amusing, General. I may ask you to repeat it sometime when I’m not so fresh from shepherding that gaggle of misfits away from a mostly self-inflicted doom.”

“It’s a date,” Vaumann said with an amused smile.

“In any case,” Nintaumbi said more briskly, “the core of our strategy will rely on magical superiority. General Panissar has sent us two strike teams, and the last scroll I got said four more were requisitioned and on the way. In addition to that, we have no lack of battlemages, both those attached to the units already present and a detachment from the Azure Corps who arrived just an hour ago.”

“We have been assured by our fae specialists,” said General Vaumann, “that while this summoner’s ability to call up elementals at such a long range is impressive and dangerous, maintaining a fine control over them at that range is beyond the realm of possibility. Even if he is a competent general, which we have yet to see evidence for or against, his troops are more like animate weapons. Our objective will be to create controlled chaos on the battlefield and prevent any elementals which arrive from coordinating.”

“Makes sense,” Basra agreed, nodding.

“The Second Legion is going to take a primarily defensive stance,” Vaumann continued. “We’re backed by clerics, and I’ve had them hard at work since yesterday buffing and applying more than the standard blessings to weapons and armor. They’ll make a fine bulwark against anything operating on fae magic. The Imperial Army is going to take a more aggressive stance, using mages, staves and what mag artillery we can get into the field. Yrril’s troops are far more mobile than any of ours; Narisian infantry are quicker even than cavalry, as the Silver Legions have had cause to observe.” She gave Yrril a wry look, receiving a bow and a polite smile in reply. “They’ll form our primary means of controlling the field. The trick here is going to be avoiding any friendly fire incidents; the Legions should be adequately shielded against stray staff shots, and Colonel Nintaumbi is having full suites of grounding and shielding charms issued to the Narisians from the Army’s stores. Beyond that, it’ll be Army hammers and Legion anvils all the way down, with Narisian tongs to put our enemies in just the right spot.”

“Will you have problems fighting in the sun, Yrril?” Basra asked, turning to the drow.

“We have means of dealing with it,” she replied.

“In fact,” Nintaumbi added, “we have reversed variants of the same charms to enable our troops to operate in the dark. We intend to draw up plans for a counter-attack at night. Drow are known to have an advantage in the darkness, but the hope is that human forces moving at night will take them by surprise.”

“As long as this character hides in Athan’Khar,” Basra said grimly, “we’re at a stalemate. Surely you don’t plan to cross the river in force.”

Vaumann shook her head. “The hope is that if we can decisively crush a full complement of whatever he or she fields, it will put our enemy in a more conciliatory frame of mind and we can try diplomacy again.”

Basra grunted. “If he wants Falaridjad, I fully endorse handing her over.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Vaumann said dryly. “Now, with regard to the immediate—”

“General!” A runner dashed up to the tent, saluting as she came to a stop. “Ma’am, we’ve had a… It’s hard to describe. Some people just arrived on our northern flank, insisting on speaking with whoever’s in charge. They got here with some kind of fae fast-travel effect; they say they just crossed the whole province in the last two hours. On foot.”

Nintaumbi frowned deeply; Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“’Some people?’” Vaumann repeated. “Can you offer a little more detail, Corporal?”

“Very little, ma’am, but it’s a weird group. A woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath, a boy about sixteen, a woman who appears to be a dryad, and a man claiming to be the Eserite Bishop.”

“What?” Basra straightened up.

“Did you say a dryad?” Nintaumbi exclaimed. “Are you sure?”

“No…sir,” the Legionnaire said, glancing between him and General Vaumann. “She has green hair and an odd complexion. She’s under-dressed and, um, somewhat lacking in social skills. I was ordered to alert the General, not interrogate them. Ma’am, the Eserite says they have important information about the elemental summoner.”

Vaumann drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Well. This is peculiar enough, and suggestive enough, that I think it’s worth investigating. Any disagreements?”

Yrril shook her head. “I concur.”

“If we’re going to talk to this lot, let’s go to them,” Nintaumbi said firmly. “If that is a dryad, apart from wanting to know what the hell is going on, I don’t want her in the middle of my troops.”

“Good thinking,” said Basra. “I’ll come along, if I may. I know the Eserite Bishop quite well; if this is an impostor I’ll be able to alert you.”

“Splendid,” said Vaumann. “Lead the way, Corporal.”

The defenses across the southwestern border of Viridill consisted of a line of fortresses, jointly staffed by the Imperial Army and the Silver Legions, marching between the Tiraan Gulf and the southernmost tip of the Stalrange, where the Viridill hills merged with the younger, craggier mountains. The land stretching between them was heavily patrolled, but the fortresses themselves were not large, serving primarily as platforms for mag artillery. They lacked the space to house the much larger than usual forces being assembled along the border, and as such, most of the troops were currently encamped in tents.

One reason the joint operation had gone so well thus far was that the three commanders of the coalition forces got along very well, sharing, among other things, a preference for leading from the front. They had a command center set up in Fort Naveen, which stood right on the coast, but had preferred to move themselves to the middle of their assembled army during the day.

It was a fairly short walk to the point where their mysterious visitors had arrived, and they saw their destination long before getting there. Imperial troops, both on and off duty, were clustered around the region, craning their necks to see what was up ahead and generally preventing the arriving commanders from doing so. A few bellowed words from Nintaumbi scattered them back to their own business, leaving the visitors guarded only by the Silver Legionnaires who were actually supposed to be present.

They were at a staffed checkpoint, either having gone for it directly or been brought there by the soldiers. Legionnaires saluted General Vaumann upon her arrival, stepping aside to grant, finally, a view of the mysterious party.

They were very much as the runner had described: a youth in a sharp suit, a beardless and uncomfortable-looking individual wearing the ceremonial gear of the Huntsmen of Shaath, a sullen-faced young woman with green hair wearing a black leather duster and clearly nothing underneath (as she couldn’t be bothered to hold it closed), and…

“Bas!” Antonio Darling crowed, throwing wide his arms and beaming at her.

“Antonio, what do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded, stalking toward him and ignoring the Legionnaires who moved to intercept her before being called back by a gesture from Vaumann.

“Straight to the point!” he cried, grinning from ear to ear. “Hah, just like old times. I’ve missed you!”

“I gather this actually is him, then?” Vaumann said dryly.

Basra sighed heavily through her nose. “Antonio, these are General Vaumann, Colonel Nintaumbi, and Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, the joint commanders of the force assembled here. Ladies and gentleman, may I present Bishop Darling, of the Thieves’ Guild and the Universal Church. And the rest of this I am just dying to hear.”

“Of course, of course,” Darling said gaily, gesturing to his companions. “Meet my very good friends, Brother Ingvar of the Huntsmen, Joseph P. Jenkins of Sarasio…”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tugging the brim of his hat.

“…and of course, Aspen, daughter of Naiya.”

The dryad just folded her arms and grunted sullenly.

“She’s had a trying morning,” Darling confided. “Tree spirits aren’t usually much for cross-country running, and then on top of that we made her wear clothes.”

“You didn’t make me do anything,” Aspen snapped. “I agreed to.”

“What she said,” Darling said equably.

“Excuse me,” said Nintaumbi, “But…the Joseph Jenkins?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Jenkins replied.

“What a fascinating story this must be,” said General Vaumann, her eyes roving across the group. “I was told you had information for us?”

“Of course, of course,” said Darling, cheerful as ever. “Might there be someplace a tad more comfortable where we can sit and chat?”

“With the greatest possible respect,” said Nintaumbi, “there are Imperial laws governing dryads.”

“Excuse me?” Aspen exclaimed. “How dare you?”

She stilled instantly when Ingvar took her by the elbow, leaning forward to murmur softly in her ear. The dryad’s expression fell and she lowered her eyes, abashed. Whatever the Huntsman said was too quiet for most of them to hear, though Yrril raised an eyebrow at it.

“I understand your concern,” said Darling, “but Aspen is a friend. We’ll vouch for her.”

“Oh?” Basra folded her arms. “And who’ll vouch for you?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “Oh, come on now, Bas.”

The two Bishops stared at each other for a long moment, then she shook her head. “All right, fine. I cannot say that Bishop Darling doesn’t generally know what he’s doing. If he says Aspen is safe, I’m inclined to believe him.”

“It’s not necessarily that simple,” Nintaumbi said, frowning.

“Perhaps,” Yrril said, “we should consider whether, in an unprecedented situation such as this, codes and regulations are as important as the needs of the moment.”

“I have to agree with that,” said General Vaumann. “Very well; Captain Syrinx, why don’t you escort our very interesting new friends to the command tent? We’ll join you momentarily; I would like a quick word with my fellow commanders.”

“Of course, General,” Basra said with a sigh. “Silly me, hoping I could for a few hours escape the menagerie of oddballs and…adventurers.”

“You do seem to have a knack for finding them, don’t you?” Vaumann agreed.

“I haven’t found a damn one of them,” Basra grumbled, “they keep getting dropped on me. Except Covrin, who I’ll note is the only one who doesn’t add to my headaches. All right, Antonio, bring your friends this way, please. And…try not to touch anything.”


The Universal Church of the Pantheon did not host worship services as such, at least not in the sense that individual cults did. Its smaller chapels, in less-populated areas, often did so, where there were only a few followers of each faith and no space or budget to build a temple for everybody. A Church service tended to be general to the point of generic, lacking the specific flavor of any one deity. The Church’s sanctuaries were built along a plan that encouraged people to sit with their attention focused on a single speaker in the front, as they served as general meeting places in many parts of the Empire and the world, even when not being put to use as houses of worship.

Exactly how much activity the great sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral in Tiraas saw depended very much on the inclinations of whoever was currently Archpope. The sanctuary area was always open, but most often served as a quiet place for prayer and contemplation. Some Archpopes had held prayer meetings multiple times a week, while others did not see fit to call any assembly except in times of great tragedy or celebration.

Justinian’s presence before the public was carefully measured, as was everything he did. Prayer meetings at the Grand Cathedral were regular but not frequent; he sponsored smaller services once a week on average, conducted by a rotating roster of clerics, but himself led a sermon only on a monthly basis. It served to keep him present and memorable in the minds of the public, while always keeping the appetites of the faithful whetted for more of their Archpope’s sparing attention.

This was his first public address since the beginning of the newspaper-driven controversy surrounding the University at Last Rock, and his Holiness was playing to a bigger crowd even than usual; the Grand Cathedral was packed to the point that Holy Legionaries had finally stopped more people from entering, so many were standing along the walls. Thus far, his sermon had been fairly typical, but when he shifted to the topic everyone most wanted to hear about, the hundreds present stilled so fully that their collectively indrawn breath was plainly audible.

“I know that many of you have been concerned with reports from Last Rock,” the Archpope stated, gazing out across the crowd with a solemn frown, his hands resting on the edges of his pulpit. “The matter has been argued over so much in recent days that I think this issue has become somewhat muddied. At its core, it seems to me that this is a controversy over nothing less than the role of adventurers in our society. Whether they are still part of the modern world… Whether they should be.

“It speaks well of our people, I think, that so many have opinions on this, and care enough to discuss them. We were once an adventuring society; wandering heroes have done much to shape our history, and the destinies of nations…and Empires. This is a question of who we once were, who we shall become, and who we are. A society will only flourish while its members care about such questions.”

He paused, then smiled with a careful touch of ruefulness. “If you hoped to hear me endorse or rebuke Arachne Tellwyrn for teaching a generation of young adventurers to follow the old ways, I must disappoint you. It is important for an Archpope, more even than most spiritual leaders, to remember his or her place, and to cultivate a measure of humility. I am here to intercede, to mediate—not to direct.

“This, though, I will say: it is my fervent hope that in the days to come, while this matter is discussed and debated, you will all remember the importance of solidarity.” He raised his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling kindly down on the assembled faithful. “Everything that brings us together here is rooted in the concepts of togetherness, and oneness. We are many nations under one Empire. We are many faiths under one Church. Even the very gods we follow have led the way and set this example: they are many deities, gathered in one Pantheon. It is a universal truth that people are stronger together than when they are split asunder. Please, remember this as you contemplate the role of adventurers, of this University, of any matter that engenders strong feeling. Anyone who would divide you from one another seeks only to control or destroy; look to those who bring togetherness. Only together do we continue to grow toward the bright destiny to which the gods have called us.”

“I am glad to hear you say so.”

Gasps rose all around as her voice echoed through the cathedral. She appeared at the opposite end of the central aisle from the Archpope behind his pulpit, just inside the great open doors without having passed the Holy Legionaries guarding them.

She was a young woman rather shorter than average and not much to look at—but she was also a towering figure, her head brushing the peaked roof high above, and her presence filling the vast chamber. Her voice was soft and unprepossessing, yet powerful enough to echo through the ears and souls of every person present as if she stood right beside them. Nothing changed upon her arrival, and it it was as if the cathedral were filled with brilliant sunlight, with the smell of flowers…or at least, the sense of such things.

Izara paced slowly forward, smiling calmly to the left and right as she came. Shocked worshipers belatedly fell to their knees as she passed, as did the armored Legionaries posted throughout the sanctuary.

“The Pantheon have talked about this among ourselves,” said the goddess as she strolled forward. “The nature of the world today, the needs of our people. And, specifically, the University at Last Rock, its students and graduates. Its…eccentric…founder and leader.” She shook her head, slowly, and it was as if sunbeams shifted throughout the room, the scents of different flowers changing rapidly as though carried on playful currents of wind. “Arachne Tellwyrn… What a difficult individual. We have long observed her, and dealt with her. We know her faults, and they are many.

“But we know her virtues as well, and those are also many. Ultimately… Arachne is someone we know, and who knows us. Someone who cares for the world and the people in it, though her unique way of being can obscure that fact. She has earned a measure of trust.”

Izara continued forward, having crossed most of the sanctuary by now; the Archpope had stepped around from behind his pulpit to meet her. He did not kneel, but bowed to the goddess, and held that uncomfortable position as she came.

“Your Archpope has spoken truly. This question is one of adventurers, of heroes, of whether they are necessary, and what form they should take. I have discussed this with my brothers and sisters, and this I will tell you: we were once adventurers, and heroes. Taking up the mantle of godhood was necessary in those dark times. It is a fate I would not wish upon anyone for whom I cared, but it was what had to be done.

“And that is all a hero is: someone who does what is necessary. You may think, when you hear the word, of rangers and wizards, rogues and bards, embarking on a quest for gold and glory. It applies just as well to the man who rushes into a burning building to rescue a child. To the woman who seeks a public office to represent the needs of common people who have been too long ignored. To a priest who prays for you, and with you, and helps you through your darkest hours, no matter how exhausted he may be in his own soul. Heroes are all around you.”

The goddess reached the end of the great chamber and turned to face them, her back to the Archpope and pulpit. She was far too short to obscure the crowd’s view of the dais; her awesome, towering presence blotted out everything but herself.

“One thing a hero must be is prepared, and that means there must be those dedicated to preparing them. Perhaps someday, this shall be a peaceful world. A world where all of nature is in harmony, where no wars rage and no diseases ravage. A world in which every government and every church has no aim except the well-being of those who look to them.” Slowly, mournfully, Izara shook her head again. “It is not such a world yet. And in addition to those mundane problems that have always plagued humanity, it is a world complicated by magic and still haunted by surviving memories of the bitter times that gave birth to the Pantheon. I will say this to you: it is not time for the age of heroes to end. Not yet.

“They must change, though. The old ways don’t work in the new world. No one understands this better than we. My sisters and brothers called no paladins for three decades while we considered the state of the world, and those called since have each been of a new pattern, selected to address new needs. A new kind of hero is needed.”

She paused, her eyes moving across the kneeling crowd, then smiled. “I trust Arachne to teach a new generation how to fill that need. Remember what your Archpope has told you today: it is togetherness that will save us all. Arachne cannot do this alone, and should not be expected to. I agree with the criticism of some that she ought not be the sole arbiter of what youths become powerful and successful, but that does not mean she should be condemned for stepping up to fill a need. More must rise. It is up to you to shape the destiny of your world, and to decide what kind of life you will leave for your children. Love one another always, and you will find the heroes among you who are needed.”

The goddess smiled, and everyone present felt suddenly alive as never before, giddily joyful and yet solemn. Then, just as quickly, her expression sobered.

“On a personal note, I would clarify that Branwen Snowe does not speak for me, or my faith. Remember love, my friends. Care for each other as yourselves.”

And she was gone.

The stillness left by her absence was stunning; the hundreds of souls kneeling in the Cathedral stared, awestruck, at the place where the goddess had stood.

Archpope Justinian, fittingly, was the first to recover his poise.

“We have been blessed beyond measure,” he said, his normally controlled voice slightly rough with emotion. He stepped back behind the pulpit, gazing fervently down upon his people. “Remember this day, my friends; it is only rarely, and never for nothing, that the gods speak to us in person. Remember what you have been told. Love one another as yourselves. Each of you must carry this forward in your hearts, and decide what it means for your lives. For now, I believe a prayer of thanks for this blessing is called for.”

Somewhat shakily, the parishoners rose to slide back into pews, following along as the Archpope led them in a devotion of gratitude and humility before their gods. All the while, he remained a living picture of perfect serenity.

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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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The Temple of Izara at N’Tali Falls was considered one of the wonders of the world, and certainly one of its most beautiful sights. The temple itself was not large, and not particularly impressive architecturally, being a small complex of domes and colonnades in a blended Omnist/Avenist style, with a single obelisk rising from its central courtyard. It was its location that gave it such appeal.

On the western edge of the Wyrnrange, a miles-long ridge spouted a veritable forest of springs and tiny rivers, which tumbled down its craggy slopes in a series of narrow falls, collecting in various ledges and running toward a series of larger waterfalls, growing progressively mightier as more and more of them met, until they all poured down from a single narrow outcropping in five great cataracts to a lake far below. The famous temple sat on an island right at the brink of one of these, its several outbuildings reached by arched stone bridges crossing the falls.

Framed above and below by falling water, the temple had further added to its beauty through its glorious gardens. Its roses alone were nearly the stuff of fable, encouraged by fae arts to thrive throughout the chain of little islands. Decorative trees had also been cultivated, the courtyards and small steppe gardens bristling with dogwoods, crimson maples, blossoming apple and cherry trees, and even several rare mimosas—one of which had produced a sapling donated to the Abbey at Virdill, in which a young Trissiny Avelea had climbed as a child. Verdant mosses overlaid the rounded rocks on which the temple complex sat, and the languid fronds of willow trees trailed over the water from the river’s banks.

It also had the distinction of being one of very few temples of any faith which had never been sacked or raided. That was due not merely to the consideration often extended the inoffensive priests of Izara, but to the fact that the temple was damnably hard to get to. It was easily and often admired from the three villages perched around the shores of the lake below, but the only paths up there were steep and too narrow for even a donkey. As such, while the clerics within would minister to any visitor just as any of their order did, the N’Tali Temple was used primarily as a place of training, meditation, and study for the Izarite clergy.

That fact made it somewhat convenient that visitors were few and passersby nonexistent. An awful lot of people suspected the private rites of Izara’s faith to be a lot more salacious than they were. N’Tali’s inaccessibility was likely the only reason the clerics in residence found any time to pray.

Which was not to say it was devoid of visitors. Some people were less inconvenienced by obstacles than others.

Only a handful of priests were present in the central domed sanctuary, most sitting or kneeling in prayer, and all looked up in surprise and interest when an unfamiliar figure came strolling casually in. Only two of them straightened further, their expressions even more startled; the rest were apparently not prepared to recognize Arachne Tellwyrn by description alone.

One of these happened to be the priest currently in charge, a lean man of local Western complexion in his early middle years. He rose smoothly from his seat beside the indoor fountain which formed the centerpiece of the chamber (Izara did not approve of statues or depictions of herself) and glided swiftly toward her.

“Nice place,” Tellwyrn commented, coming to a stop halfway toward the fountain and peering critically around, her hands planted on her hips. “I commend you on your skill at preservation. I’ve not been here in…damn, nearly two hundred years. It hardly looks different. Somebody finally touched up the mosaics, I see.”

She fell silent, watching with a faintly puzzled frown as the priest approached her wordlessly. Her frown deepened and she leaned subtly backward when he did not stop or slow, but neither backed away nor resisted when the man finally wrapped his arms around her in a hug.

“Excuse you?” she said in disbelief, scowling at his ear from inches away.

“Welcome,” the priest replied quietly, still holding her. “Welcome to our home. This is a place of rest; you can be assured we will tend to any of your needs we are able. You’re safe here.”

“I’m safe everywhere,” she said irritably, arms dangling at her sides. “I’m Arachne goddamn Tellwyrn, you twit. Get off me.”

The priest sighed softly, but slowly drew back, holding her gently by the shoulders and gazing into her eyes. “No one is more or less important than anyone else in Izara’s eyes; her people will do whatever we can to assuage anyone’s pain. My name is Taraue; I have the honor of leading this temple for now. And I want you to know, however it may feel sometimes, that you are loved.”

“Hi, Taraue,” she said curtly, directing a pointed look to one of his hands on her left shoulder. “All the way off, if you please.”

He complied, lowering his arms and stepping backward out of her space, to fold his hands before him and gaze seriously at her. “How may we aid you? We can speak here, or in privacy, whichever you prefer. I will be glad to accommodate your needs.”

“Uh huh,” she said, again looking around the temple. “Well, I don’t actually want to talk to you, no offense. It’s just that the boss lady doesn’t make herself easy to approach. Let the record show that any desperate measures necessary to do so are on her head alone.”

“Ah…” Taraue frowned faintly in confusion. “If you are seeking High Priestess Delaine, she can be found in the temple in Tiraas.”

“You’re either adorable or deliberately playing coy,” she said distractedly, turning in a slow circle and gazing abstractly into the distance all around. “I’m going to ignore that for the moment. I suggest everybody hold onto their butts.”

“Hold on—” He broke off as Tellwyrn peremptorily held up a finger before his face, closing her eyes in concentration. For several long seconds, she simply stood there, still and silent. Taraue glanced questioningly at the priestess who had tentatively approached them; she shrugged helplessly.

Then, quite suddenly, the light changed, the temperature rose sharply, and everyone’s ears popped from a very abrupt increase in air pressure.

For a few moments, there was nothing but shouts of dismay and disoriented stumbling about from the priests, most clutching their heads. Through it all, Tellwyrn stood calmly, opening her eyes and gazing around with a self-satisfied little smile while they regained their equilibrium, only to have it snatched away again at the sight visible through the wide archways opening onto the temple grounds.

Gone was the moisture in the air, the roar of the falls, the faint mist of the mountains drifting inside. Even the interior fountain had fallen still. Also gone were the views of the mountain waterfalls, and the expansive vista on the other side of the forests of N’Jendo stretching away to the west, far below. Now, there was only a featureless expanse of sand extending in all directions beneath a scorching, cloudless sky, illuminated by a lurid red sunset.

The N’Tali Temple now sat in the middle of a desert.

“Wh—” Taraue’s equanimity was well and truly disrupted now. “What—how did you—Why?”

He broke off suddenly, eyes widening, as she laid the blade of her gold-hilted saber against his throat.

“That’s just the opening act, of course,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Gods can’t just come running every time I make a pest of myself, or they’d never find time for all that aimless sitting around contemplating infinity which I am pretty sure occupies most of their day. Say, Taraue, did you know that when a person is beheaded, the brain survives for up to two minutes?”

He emitted a soft wheeze, seemingly afraid even to swallow.

“Of course, dismemberment on that scale is more than virtually any healer can fix,” she continued with the same lightly conversational tone. “But for a deity, that’s nothing at all. Why, I bet even if—”

The saber suddenly and soundlessly vanished from her hand. Taraue took the opportunity to stumble backward, clutching at his throat.

Tellwyrn turned slowly to face the figure which had appeared behind her.

“Arachne,” the goddess said, “put my temple back where it was, please.”

“Aww,” Tellwyrn said, smirking and folding her arms. “You mean a great and mighty goddess of the Pantheon can’t handle that herself?”

“Yes,” Izara said evenly, “but I would like for you to do it.”

The goddess of love, in human form, was a short, gawkish young woman who would not have earned a second look if passed in the street, or possibly even a first one. Standing barely as tall as Tellwyrn’s chin and with a skinny, bony frame almost devoid of curvature, she had narrow features, rather protuberant blue eyes and a nose far too large for her face, surmounted by a mane of dirty blond hair that was too frizzy to be properly contained by her loose ponytail.

“Well, all right,” Tellwyrn said at last, smiling faintly. “I suppose that’s entirely fair. Hang tight.”

This time, she didn’t close her eyes, simply gazing without focus into the distance; the momennt of concentration stretched out longer, though, punctuated by continuing cries of alarm from throughout the temple complex.

The transition back was far smoother, however. There was barely a flicker of passage, no alarming jolt, and everyone arrived without even another disturbance of the inner ears. In fact, every soul on the grounds experienced an apparently sourceless sensation of calm and even faint euphoria upon the restoration of the temple’s famous mountain views and coolly humid atmosphere.

The fountain began splashing again; it sounded almost relieved.

“There, you see?” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “You can lend a hand when you want!”

“Only because you never think of the other people affected by your antics,” Izara said severely, folding her arms. “I am only still here because I assume you’ll simply throw another cosmic tantrum if I depart without hearing you out.”

“As I was telling Vesk just the other day,” the Professor replied cheerfully, “I like this new state of affairs. It’s so much easier and quicker to get you turkeys down off your pedestals when I don’t need to care if you like me.”

The look Izara gave her was too sad even to be reproachful. She turned her head, addressing her priest with a warm smile. “Taraue, would you kindly send messengers to the villages below? I imagine that spectacle was rather alarming for them. The people should be reassured that all is well.”

“At once, lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her before backing a few steps away and turning to gently take the arm of a nearby priest and lead him toward the far door. Three remaining clerics were left in the sanctuary, all on their knees in the presence of their goddess, but all watching the unfolding confrontation with keen interest and, in at least two cases, expressions of very un-Izarite asperity for the elf.

“Your boy is causing trouble, Izara,” Tellwyrn said, the jocularity gone from her own expression.

“It was just a hug, Arachne,” Izara said wryly. “My clerics do not customarily place their hands on another person without permission, but you cannot bring the kind of inner pain you are accustomed to ignoring into the presence of an empath without inciting a deep and instinctive need to comfort you.”

“Do not yank my threads,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You know very well who I’m talking about, and what I’m talking about. Make this any more difficult than it needs to be and I’m going to get less playful.”

The goddess gave no reaction to the threat. “Yes, Arachne, but you know very well how the covenant that established the Universal Church works. Whatever lingering sympathies a sitting Archpope may feel, he or she belongs to every faith and none. If you wish to complain about Justinian’s behavior, it would be more fitting to speak with Avei, Omnu,or Vidius. Of course,” she added rather archly, raising an eyebrow that was too bushy for her face, “you’d find it a lot harder to bully them, wouldn’t you?”

“You really think I went to all this trouble to talk about politics with you, of all people?” Tellwyrn shot back. “A rather troubling pattern is emerging. Quite apart from Justinian’s puppet-mastering, I have Branwen Snowe serving as the mouthpiece and gloves for his current scheme. And since you apparently managed not to notice, your current Bishop is a ham-fisted, manipulative egotist. As was her predecessor, since we’re discussing him anyway. Where the hell do you find these people?”

“That’s not exactly fair,” Izara said calmly. “Justinian was never ham-fisted. My clerics are chiefly interested in getting about the business of tending to those in need of love; the necessary political posts related to the Universal Church end up going to those who are interested in political advancement—who not coincidentally are those whose presence in my temples is not considered essential. You are aware of all of this, Arachne, and making me recite common knowledge is a tired old conversational gambit. I can tell you really have been hanging around with Vesk lately.”

“I’m telling him you said that.”

“I’ll tell him myself before you see him again. Right now, I find I have about as much patience as you have for dissembling. What is it you expect me to do, Arachne? Justinian answers to the Pantheon as a whole, now; I could speak to him, but I can’t command him on my own. And if you wanted me to carry messages either to him or to the other gods, you are too intelligent to think the way you chose to approach me would gain my cooperation.”

“Regardless,” Tellwyrn said curtly, “everywhere I turn, it seems I have a rogue Izarite making mean-spirited advances against my University.”

“Really? You have only turned in two directions?”

“You know my faults quite well,” the elf barreled on. “I’m sure you could make quite the speech about them. You should also know, therefore, that I’ve done nothing to deserve this. If it were just me, I could sit back and enjoy the luxury I have of not giving a flying damn what Justinian or Snowe say about anything. They are creeping toward being a threat to my kids, however, and that I will simply not allow.” She folded her arms, glaring at the goddess over her spectacles. “Now that I have your attention, Izara, this is what I want from you: prevent this from turning into a situation where I have to put a stop to these machinations myself. Use those subtler, gentler methods you are so justly proud of. I don’t mind acknowledging that I frankly suck at them. If I have to shut Justinian down, the shockwaves will ripple across the world and hurt a lot of people.”

“So long as he is Archpope,” Izara said quietly, “your preferred methods will not even touch him.”

“And if you think my preferred methods are brutal,” Tellwyrn countered, “you don’t want to see me forced into methods that I don’t prefer. I’m not suggesting you should tell him to back off; I doubt it would be worthwhile to talk to him at all, even for you. A simple public statement from you would put a complete halt to all of this, however. The aggression is coming from an Izarite Bishop and a—fine, formerly—Izarite Archpope. All it would take is a few words from you that you don’t approve of this behavior, and their credibility would vanish instantly.”

The goddess shook her head, a rueful little smile flickering across her features. “Vesk put you up to this, didn’t he?”

“I thought you didn’t like my usual methods? Well, here’s me, trying a—for want of a better term—Vesker approach. You gonna help, or you’d rather I just fall back on blasting assholes to smithereens if they provoke me?”

“Have you given the slightest thought, Arachne, to what would happen if I said the words that would damage the credibility of the Archpope and my Bishop?” Izara asked almost plaintively. “Talk about something that would send shockwaves.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied seriously. “But those would be shockwaves of a much lesser severity…and you’re avoiding the important point. I’m right. This kind of underhanded, aggressive politicking is not Izarite, and it’s not appropriate behavior for the Universal Church or its leadership. This is a blatant attempt to use me as a scapegoat for simple political gain. I’ll be frank: I am asking you to damage his credibility in order to secure my own interests, but it remains true that he deserves and needs to lose it if this is how he’s going to behave. Otherwise, he’ll just keep doing this, the Church will suffer, all the cults will suffer, and whether or not he achieves whatever goal it is he’s ultimately after, he will step on a whole lot of faces along the way. The Archpope is supposed to be a mediator between faiths, not some kind of religious demagogue or mastermind.”

Izara sighed. “That may be… But you are definitely blinded by your own stake in this. The thing I have always admired most about you is your awareness of your own flaws, Arachne; please don’t lose that.” She held up a hand to forestall the argument Tellwyrn opened her mouth to deliver. “I will consider what you’ve said, I promise you. I will also speak with the others of the Pantheon. On a matter as complicated and potentially dangerous as this, I will not swear any action beyond that. Does that satisfy you?”

“For the moment, I suppose,” Tellwyrn said with a disgruntled grimace. “That doesn’t mean this is over. If nothing is done, and I have to keep revisiting the issue…”

“Yes, yes,” Izara said with a sigh. “I’ll have that conversation to look forward to. As I told you before, Arachne, if you ever decide to accept my help in addressing your own teetering tower of personal issues, you have only to speak your request. I really wish you would take me up on it…but of course, I wouldn’t force you even if I could. Barring either of those eventualities, farewell.”

“Just a moment,” Tellwyrn said sharply. “Give me back my sword.”

“The one you were just holding at the throat of the most innocent man with whom you’ve spoken in a week?” Izara said dryly.

“That’s not giving Alaric his due, you know.”

“What makes you think you deserve to have it back?”

“It wasn’t a request, Izara.”

That was finally too much for one of the watching priestesses. “Speak to her with respect!” she burst out, surging to her feet and glaring at the elf, stopping only when Izara gave her a kind smile and a forestalling gesture.

“I can only assume that was directed at you,” Tellwyrn remarked, her gaze still fixed on the goddess.

Izara sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’ll find it back at your home. Which is where you should take yourself now, please. Good-bye, Arachne. Call me when you’re ready to accept the help you actually need.”

And then, with no fanfare or production, she was gone.

Professor Tellwyrn paused to snort disdainfully before vanishing herself with a soft pop.


The wind, for once in this place, was gentle. The sun-baked desert stretched out below, but this tiny outcropping high in the Dwarnskolds was cool and touched by a mild breeze. He hadn’t even needed to use magic to protect the site—which was fortunate, as his particular brand of magic was less than helpful for manipulating weather. Nonetheless, infernal charms hung within the structure he had raised, ready to throw up protections against the fickle wind should they be needed. Not great protections, but they would hopefully do.

Four craggy arms of glossy obsidian had been grown incongruously from the golden-brown native stone of the mountain, arching toward each other to meet in the middle and with a painted paper lantern hanging from their intersection. At this time of day it added no light to speak of; it was merely there for decoration, like most of the other touches in place. A folding paper screen in the traditional Sifanese style stood along the rear opening of the impromptu gazebo (firmly secured to the ground, of course), leaving it an unobstructed view of the sprawling desert below. Three hefty pots were arranged artfully around the perimeter of the space, each containing a cherry tree, young and none as tall as a grown man, but all dusted with lovely pink blossoms which bobbed in the light wind.

Embras Mogul sat at one of the two chairs arranged on either side of the table he had placed in the center of the sheltered spot, humming softly to himself as he carefully placed tiny objects in precise locations around it. He had a whole bag of mismatched little game pieces in one hand, using the other to arrange them just so on the board.

“I’m afraid the pots don’t match.”

Mogul rose smoothly to his feet, depositing the bad on the chair and bowing deeply to the slender figure which had stepped out from behind one of the obsidian columns.

“Welcome, dear lady! I apologize for my paltry hospitality. Yes, indeed, each of them came from a different city—there are not so many portable blooming sakura trees in the Tiraan Empire, unfortunately. Getting them to blossom at this time of year, much less to flourish while being moved around, requires some considerable skill in the fae arts, I understand. Individuals with the requisite talents are necessarily somewhat dangerous for my people to approach.”

“Ah, but no hospitality is poor which is arranged at such effort,” Ekoi Kaisa said with a sly little smile. “You honor me.”

“It is you who honor me by accepting my sadly belated invitation,” he said gallantly, stepping around behind the table and holding the other chair out for her. Kaisa paced forward and seated herself daintily, curling her tail out of the way. Only once she was settled did Embras resume his own seat, whisking his bag of game pieces aside. “I am very relieved you opted to do so, madam. I fear I have been sadly remiss as it is; thank you kindly for allowing me the chance to amend my error.”

“Well, you are a courteous one, aren’t you?” she said, her smile growing subtly more vulpine. “I had more than half expected this conversation to begin with a reminder that laying hands upon a high priest would invite the wrath of his goddess.”

“Your pardon, Ekoi-sensei, but having already misstepped so badly, I would not dream of belittling your intelligence by pointing out the obvious.”

Kaisa laughed, softly but in apparently sincere delight. “And so nimble with your tongue! Very well, I am curious. In what way do you imagine you have offended me?”

“Why, simply by failing to welcome you to our realm,” he said with an easy smile. “Far be it from me to criticize Professor Tellwyrn, but her admirable forthrightness does have its downsides, does it not? I fear no one has taken the time to acquaint you fully with the situation into which you’ve been suddenly included.”

“Ah, Arachne,” Kaisa said with a fond little smile. “Such an apparently brutish creature on the surface, but I do believe she is one of the most interesting individuals I have met in all my long years.”

“For that, I shall take your word,” he replied. “I’m afraid I’ve not had the pleasure of the lady’s acquaintance.”

“You might not survive the pleasure. She is less susceptible than I to flattery, and assuredly not intimidated by Elilial’s ire. So, you wish to…bring me up to speed, is that it?” She tilted her head quizzically, one tufted ear twitching. “And I am to simply…accept your assessment of this so very complicated situation which you believe I do not understand.”

“Ah,” he said ruefully, “it seems I’ve put my foot in my mouth again. My humblest apologies, Professor; a clever old goat like myself is far too quick to think himself smart, usually at exactly the worst moment. No, indeed, I don’t imagine that you lack understanding—of Tiraas, or of anything. I can hardly dream how much a person must learn in the course of a life as long and interesting as yours.”

He made a sweeping gesture over the round table, whose top was painted in an exquisitely detailed map of the continent, now festooned with various little carved pieces.

“I am certain you are quite familiar with everything immediately concerning your position here,” Embras began, setting a tiny pair of golden spectacles atop the dot marking Last Rock, where it was surrounded by a hodgepodge of other bits and bobs, the largest being a small sunburst, a golden eagle, and a black scythe. “However, as you surely know better than most, events in one place very often feel the pull of those transpiring elsewhere, especially in this ever-more-connected world of ours. In particular, the machinations of those in great centers of power exert a pull on all they survey, and indeed upon things they never trouble to imagine.”

He carefully placed an upright silver ankh by the star-marked city of Tiraas, where it completed a little tableau. A cluster of tiny bishop pieces, like those from a chess set but smaller, were positioned around the ankh; a second cluster of more varied pieces stood next to this one, centered upon a silver gryphon.

“Then, too,” he continued, placing another small bishop on Veilgrad, “there are independent players—one never knows what unknown elements might up and do, but there are always a few whose actions have specific relevance to one’s own activities.” With a small flourish, he added two more bishops, this time to Vrin Shai. “In fact, I’m quite certain you know a few details about this game that I do not; at least, one hopes so. It would hardly be any fun otherwise. Regardless, whatever you may think of my trustworthiness—and you are surely not so unwise as to be unwary—be assured I am under no illusions that you cannot sniff out any lie I tell you. And that would bring your annoyance down upon me, which is an outcome I would rather avoid.”

“Indeed,” she said pleasantly. “That is rather the point of this exchange, is it not?”

“Quite so!” he said, beaming. “So, no, honored lady, I do not presume to lecture you about the state of the world. You were wiser beyond my highest ambitions when my grandparents were yet unconceived, and will be even more so when I am long dust. Rather than an attempt to educate you, I am offering a courtesy. You are here, you are involved, you are surely a greatly interesting element which will enliven this game considerably. And, sadly, I fear no one has troubled to extend to you the polite, and obvious, question.”

Embras held out his hand and uncurled his fingers, revealing a tiny carved jade figurine of a fox. He smiled disarmingly at the kitsune.

“Would you like to play?”


Tellwyrn shut the door of her office behind her and paced forward, stopping right in front of her desk. She planted her fists on her hips and shook her head slowly, staring down at the gold-hilted saber driven half the length of its blade into the desktop.

“Bitch.”

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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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