They were calling it a revival.
Last Rock was not the first frontier town to be the site of one of these festivals over the last month; they had occurred elsewhere, at various points around the Great Plains, and reports from those venues had been enticing enough to raise significant interest. By the time the tents started going up on the outskirts of the town, the anticipation had been palpable, among townsfolk and students alike.
The Universal Church’s hand was subtly but universally evident in the event. Colorful tents and pavilions had been raised on the prairie outside Last Rock, housing displays representing nearly every deity affiliated with the Pantheon—only those who had no worshipers or whose cults were secretive had been omitted. Individual faiths were making good use of the exposure, but the mere fact of these displays revealed the Church’s organizational role; several of them did not court attention as a rule, and some of those who did proselytize had been coaxed to put on more ostentatious shows than they ordinarily would, like the demonstration of swordplay being held in the yard outside the Silver Mission.
The Church itself managed to be the center of attention, both in the use of its chapel in town as the organizational hub of the event and in the enormous tent set up as an impromptu theater on the prairie outside. Pure white and larger than any permanent structure in Last Rock, it towered over everything except the chapel’s steeple and the scrolltower; if not for its golden ankh markings it could very well have been taken for a circus tent.
Matters were certainly jovial enough inside. Folding chairs had been set up as impromptu pews in the pattern usually favored by Universal Church chapels, leaving a central aisle running between the main entrance at one end of the long tent and the raised wooden platform at the other. Now, with the main event about to start, it was full nearly to bursting, with both students and townspeople. Though the first to be seated had grouped themselves distantly, the two had blended together convivially, to the point that a casual glance now couldn’t sort them into factions. That, plus the overall festive mood in the air, was a great relief to those who had been worried about the relationship of the town to the University since the hellgate incident.
Despite the general chatter and noise of people having a good time—a fairly restrained good time, since they were after all at a Church event—the atmosphere inside the tent was anticipatory. Most of the attention was fixed on the platform, where the guest of honor stood talking quietly with the local dignitaries who had been invited to watch her speak from chairs set up behind her. Hardly anybody was paying attention to the Sheriff, the mayor, Father Laws or Hiram Taft, whom they had all seen before. It was Bishop Snowe who commanded the attention of the populace, even before she began to actually speak.
Standing in the back, beside the entrance flap, Gabriel leaned over to Trissiny to be heard over the hubbub. “Did she invite you to sit up there on the dais, too?”
“Mm hm,” she murmured, nodding, her eyes on the Bishop.
“How come you’re not?”
“I remembered some of the warnings my teachers gave me,” Trissiny replied. “I’m a symbol as much as a warrior; I stand for something, and represent Avei. Being up there would be a tacit endorsement of whatever she has to say. That doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do, since I don’t yet know what that is.”
He smiled. “I had the same thought, basically. Glad to hear it wasn’t just me.” Gabriel paused, looking around with a faint frown. “Where’s Toby?”
“Not up there,” Trissiny murmured.
He gave her a sour look. “Thanks, detective. I’m in your debt.”
“Ssh,” Juniper hissed. “I think she’s starting.” Fross dropped down to settle in the dryad’s hair, dimming her light, as Bishop Snowe stepped up to the center of the dais and her guests drifted backward to settle themselves in chairs. A hush fell over the tent, rippling outward from the guest of honor to the very back.
The four of them were the only representatives of their class present. Teal and Shaeine were off exploring the revival on their own; Ruda, when asked if she wanted to attend a religious festival, had said “like a mermaid wants a wheelbarrow” and gone to the bar.
“Welcome,” said the Bishop with a broad smile as soon as the murmur of conversation had died down sufficiently. “Thank you all for coming, and for making me welcome. I’ve traveled widely in the last few weeks, but I have to say… I like this town!”
She paused, smiling warmly at the cheers of approbation which followed this comment.
Branwen Snowe was not at all a tall woman; the raised platform was necessary for her to be visible in the back. She was a calm speaker, keeping her hands demurely folded before her, and her voice, though clearly accustomed to public speaking, was even and not prone to dramatic intonation. Nothing about her seemed as if it should command attention, yet she did. Her presence held the audience by virtue of its very calm.
“I’m developing the opinion,” she continued, “that the frontier people represent the highest potential of humanity. There is civilization here, on the very edge of the Golden Sea, because you have made it so.” The Bishop paused, smiling benignly, to let a few more cheers subside. “I know it seems to you like your lives are just life. Everyone feels that way. I want you to consider, though, what it means to live on the frontier, on the edges of society. To lead lives of risk, where the only things you have are what you made, what you earned, where you don’t have the luxury of centuries of built-up structure to fall back upon in a crisis.
“In my conversations with frontier people, I have repeatedly observed a vibrancy that one rarely sees in Tiraas or the other great cities. An appreciation of life, and a sense of meaning. And you know what? This doesn’t surprise me in the least. This, life on the edge, is what it means to be alive. To be, to struggle, to achieve, to create. To stride forth into an uncaring world and make it acknowledge that you are there! It’s to be in the world in a way that leaves a mark, a glowing mark, upon your soul. I’m starting to believe that everyone should spend time out here on the Great Plains, if for no other reason than to connect with the reality that we, the people of this world, are ultimately responsible for our own lives. You could teach lessons to much of humanity on that subject.”
She had to pause longer this time, her broad smile unwavering, for the hollering and cheering to die down again. Into that pause, Fross spoke just loudly enough to be heard by their small group.
“Have you guys noticed she tends to use ‘human’ to mean ‘person?’”
“Yep,” said Juniper, nodding.
“I mean, those words aren’t interchangeable. Other kinds of beings are intelligent.”
Before that could progress into a whole discussion, Bishop Snowe continued with her speech.
“I am the last person you will ever hear suggest that anyone should forsake the gods,” she said solemnly. “However, I very much fear that many have misunderstood just what we should expect from them—and what they expect from us. Too often, people look to the gods as the answerers of prayer, the dispensers of bounty, sources of wisdom. Too often, those hopes prove forlorn, and yet people still cling to them. It is just too temptingly comforting, the idea that someone up there is in charge, taking responsibility for all the befalls us.
“Yet is that really what they would want? Is there a single cult whose theology suggests that mankind should sit back and passively wait for higher powers to provide for our needs?”
She paused, this time for dramatic effect, and Juniper said softly, “Mankind. Humanist and sexist.”
“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, folding her arms.
“The gods are guides, not providers,” Snowe continued, “and in our failure to understand that, we have left ourselves wide open for all manner of abuse from other mortals, those who have the least reason to lord themselves over us. Everywhere in the world, you will find those misusing the reality of a society’s need to be governed to exploit those who have placed that trust in them. Everywhere this happens, the situation can exist only because the masses of people have grown complacent, because they think it is their lot to be lower than someone. It starts with a simple failure to take responsibility, to appreciate the gift of struggle.
“Even here,” she said more solemnly yet, “even on the wild frontier, we can do better. Even among the most resilient, most adaptive of people, you will find that complacency. And there is always someone lurking on a high mountain to take advantage of it.”
The stillness in the tent was suddenly absolute.
“The plots of the overweening powerful,” Snowe continued in a quieter voice, “exist only as long as we, the people upon whose backs their palaces are built, accept that their power is above ours. As long as we deem it right and proper that only the strong should be trained to become stronger, rather than the whole of humanity lifted up. As long as we look up at those above us as if they simply belong there, without asking ourselves how they got there, then they shall stay there, and we down here.
“Does it seem right to you?”
“Sounds almost Eserite,” Gabriel whispered.
“Sounds almost treasonous,” Trissiny murmured back. “What is she up to?”
They were not the only ones whispering and muttering in the tent, now. Snowe held her peace for a long moment, watching with a calm yet knowing smile as her audience muttered to each other.
The quiet was broken by Chase Masterson, who leaped to his feet in the middle of a row of seats and shouted “PREACH IT!” before being tackled and dragged back down by Tanq and Natchua.
Nervous laughter and a few more shouts followed, and Bishop Snowe grinned down at them, skillfully keeping herself in sync with the crowd; she began speaking again before the interruptions could get out of hand, swiftly recapturing everyone’s focus.
The students at the back were not attending her as closely now, though.
“I think,” Trissiny said aloud, “it’s a very good thing we didn’t sit on the dais with her.”
“Good,” said Professor Tellwyrn from right behind them. “It’s always a pleasure to see you showing some common sense.”
The golem was like a nightmarish combination of a familiar wooden practice dummy and some kind of giant spider. Whirling limbs surrounded it, each bending in multiple places, the segments of its central trunk to which they were attached spinning rapidly. Each was tipped in a flickering orb which spat sparks and tiny arcs of electricity, promising pain to anyone they managed to strike. It hovered on a luminous blue ball at its base, lit by glowing segments at each of its many hinges. The construct whirled, struck, retreated, emitting a reedy hum of arcane magic at use that provided a constant counterpoint to the rapid thwacks and flashes of its contact with its enemy.
Basra pressed forward, her sword flicking out with seemingly impossible speed, the tip clipping another glowing joint on one of the golem’s spider-like limbs. The segments beyond that point immediately detached, falling to lie inert on the ground. With the same motion, she brought her blade around to parry two counterattacks from that side, even as wall of golden light in the shape of a standard Silver Legion shield repelled another onslaught from the other. Even stepping within range of the thing was inviting an electric pummeling from multiple directions.
Yet step in she did, though she didn’t stay there. The swordswoman darted back out, moving with unflagging agility despite how long this fight had dragged on. She danced around the golem, using her superior mobility to keep it off-balance. Despite the fact that it could, in theory, travel faster than any human, it apparently didn’t think well in those terms. She had learned quickly that it didn’t follow her repositioning well, and had kept constantly on the move, circling about the thing, stepping in to engage briefly with its numerous flailing limb, always with a shower of sparks as arcane stunners impacted blade and golden light—and occasionally flesh.
It had been a tense spectacle at first, but with every close engagement, Basra disabled more of the golem’s limbs, shrugging off the few painful blows that slipped through her own defenses. And with every attack she made, it had fewer limbs and landed fewer hits. She was sweating with exertion, but not slowing, and her expression remained focused and oddly blank. It was very much a war of attrition, and against all odds, mortal flesh and blood was holding out against metal and magic. The golem was getting slower; Basra grew only more relentless, sensing victory near.
Finally, it happened: having cleaved more than half of its limbs off, she managed to strike the golem’s central body in the glowing blue joint between its uppermost segment and the one below, causing that entire section to tumble off, its limbs inert.
Having taken out a third of the construct’s remaining offensive power, she made startlingly swift work of the remainder. A golden sphere flashed into being around her, and swiftly began to flicker and spark as it was relentlessly pummeled by multiple limbs, demonstrating why she had not done this from the beginning. The shield would last only seconds under that onslaught, but Basra used them well, pressing forward and delivering devastating strikes to the last of her foe’s central weak points.
In a few more seconds, the golem’s final segment was disarmed and toppled over, just as its last counterattack smashed through her divine shield. Basra winced as she was struck twice by electric prods, but did not cry out or fall. The construct’s last sally was over quickly, leaving her standing alone.
There was barely a second’s pause before cheers erupted from the onlookers.
Most had at least enough restraint not to rush forward—they were a mix of Legion cadets and younger girls being trained at the Abbey, even the most junior of whom had had discipline pounded into them from the moment of their arrival. One young woman in Legion armor did stride forward, however, as did a stately older woman wearing blue robes, followed by a two more in similar attire.
“I have to say, your Grace, that was amazing,” Sister Leraine said earnestly, while Basra accepted a towel handed to her by the Legionnaire and wiped sweat from her face and the back of her neck. “We designed that golem to—well, to be frank, I simply never imagined a human being could move that way!”
“Thank you,” Basra said, a touch brusquely but with a small smile. “For the compliment, and the exercise. I can’t recall the last time I was pressed quite that hard in a duel. Consider me surprised, as well; I thought you were surely exaggerating the capabilities of that thing.”
“And I now feel silly for telling you not to engage it on its highest setting,” Leraine replied, watching as her attendants began reattaching the golem’s pieces. Several bore small dents and scratches from Basra’s sword, but it seemed to have suffered no permanent damage. “It sounds like this has been an instructive session for us all! Not to seem pushy, but are you more interested now?”
“Again,” said Basra, handing the towel back to Jenell Covrin, “I’m not the one you should be speaking to about Legion policy.”
“Of course, of course,” the Salyrite cleric said diplomatically. “I fully understand that. Forgive me, this isn’t a formal negotiation; as a craftswoman, I’m asking you, personally, what you think of my work. You made it sound like you enjoyed the experience.”
“I rather did,” Basra admitted, regarding the golem thoughtfully as the two junior clerics finished wrestling its central section back together and began slotting the remaining limbs into place. “Personally, I might be willing to purchase one of these for my own use. If, that is, I were satisfied that such a thing were legal, which I still am not. Followers of Salyrene demonstrating their enchantments to followers of Avei may enjoy clerical protection from Imperial oversight, but me as a citizen owning a golem specifically engineered to fight is another matter.”
“I have to acknowledge that that’s still somewhat up in the air,” said Leraine, nodding. “Bishop Tross is still working with the Universal Church on this point, solidifying the groundwork before actually approaching the Empire. It would be much easier if we were willing to make war golems for the Tiraan government, but there are serious ethical considerations there. We trust our sisters in Avei’s service much farther than any temporal government.”
“Especially one which has used magical weapons to exterminate entire populations,” Abbess Darnassy said sharply, hobbling forward with her walking stick. “You’ll pardon me for speaking bluntly, sister; I’m old and have little time left for dissembling. I cannot make myself think it was wise even to build this object. Autonomous magical weapons would change the face of war, yes, but into something that had none of the very little virtue war has to begin with.”
“I…am rather surprised to hear a ranking cleric of Avei criticize war,” Leraine said very carefully.
“Our purpose in studying war,” said Basra, sliding her sword back into its sheath, “is to prosecute it as swiftly as possible, with the maximum possible consideration for justice and mercy in the process. The more war is improved, the more it is lessened.”
“Provided,” Narnasia added firmly, “said improvements go toward making combat more efficient, and not more destructive. Sending things like this into battle would be efficient once, until the enemy fielded similar weapons, and even then would be calamitous. After that, the escalation would prove a nightmare.”
Leraine nodded again. “Yes, we are mindful of these concerns. Please, don’t hesitate to share any insights you have, ladies. To be honest, it’s not been firmly decided whether this project is going to continue at all, for exactly the reasons you have mentioned. There are those within our faith who feel the very existence of such enchantments is tempting fate. I am very much interested in getting the opinions of experts on the art of war. That aside, however, I only raised the prospect of providing such golems to your cult as training pieces. Any agreement reached would carry the firm stipulation that they are never to be used in actual battle.”
“Hm,” Narnasia grunted, peering at the now-reassembled golem through narrowed eyes.
“In theory…perhaps,” Basra mused. “This one, though, would do us little good. Much as I’m glad you were impressed, Sister Leraine, dueling is…a parlor trick, really. It’s been centuries since single combat with blades decided any significant conflict. War is carried out by armies.”
“And soldiers,” Narnasia added, “are best trained by other soldiers. I’m all for progress when one is progressing toward a specific, worthwhile goal, but progress for the sake of progress has an alarming tendency to go very badly.”
“I see,” Leraine said thoughtfully. “Well. I did come here to have a discussion, after all. Could we perhaps adjourn to someplace more private to speak in more detail?” She tilted her head, glancing inquisitively around the gymnasium. The windows were dark; though the sky beyond them still bore some traces of sunset, the direct light had long since been blocked out by the surrounding peaks of the Viridill range.
“Yes, quite so,” Narnasia agreed. “In point of fact, sister, I was pleased to accept your invitation. If you’ve time, there are matters occurring in Viridill on which I would like to consult your expertise, as well.”
“Oh?” Leraine raised her eyebrows; behind her, Basra frowned. “By all means, I’ll be glad to be of assistance.”
“I’ve had the novices arrange a sitting room,” said the Abbess, turning to make her way toward the door. “This way, if you please.”
Leraine paused to bow politely to Basra, who nodded back, before following. After pausing to watch them go, her expression blank, Basra turned away to make her own way back toward the opposite exit.
“Captain Syrinx.” Narnasia had paused, looking over her shoulder. “Why don’t you join us? Your input might be valuable.”
“Of course, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly, changing course and stepping after the two older women. For the briefest moment when their backs were again turned and before she had caught up, she permitted a flash of triumph to seize her expression.
Behind, Private Covrin stood alone in the gymnasium as novices and cadets trickled past on all sides, heading off toward dinner and their evening chores. The remaining two Salyrites were engaged in carefully folding their golem back into its coffin-sized traveling case.
She dropped the sweat-stained towel on the floor, staring coldly after the departing Bishop.
That it was familiar by now did not lessen the dread.
Ingvar reached for weapons that were not there—he had no bow, no hatchet or knife. He only wanted them for comfort’s sake, anyway. It wasn’t as if there was anything here for him to fight.
Still he plodded onward, through the dense, tangled forest that allowed no ray of moonlight to penetrate. The trees and underbrush looked solid enough to stop a bear, yet he found no impediment in his path. Wherever he stepped, there was a way through. Just as it was every time.
He did not want to see this again.
But he couldn’t stop.
This time, something was obviously wrong, even beyond the omnipresent sense of dread that dogged him. Long streamers of spidersilk began to appear, stretching between the trees. The webs were enormous but misshapen, woven oddly, not at all like the careful work of spiders. Ingvar had the sudden, sourceless thought that the webs were holding the forest together.
He very much feared he would find them at their greatest concentration when he reached the thing he did not want to see again.
But then, suddenly, he was there. The awful sight was before him, as it had been every night for weeks.
Huntsmen could only hope for such an important omen as to be visited by Shaath in their dreams, but…not like this. Ingvar found himself standing before the great wolf, a magnificent beast bigger than an ox. And as with every other time, he found his god bound.
It wasn’t, as he had expected, by the spiderwebs this time, though they festooned the whole glade in which he stood. He had seen Shaath in snares, in chains, his legs caught in massive bear traps, sinking in quicksand, and in perils whose specifics he recalled only as a formless sense of horror. It was the most hideous spectacle a man of faith could conceive, seeing his very god trapped and suffering.
This time it was brambles, thorny vines that sprouted from the earth, snaring the great wolf’s limbs and body, tying his muzzle shut and pinning him to the ground. As Ingvar watched in impotent horror, the god thrashed against his bonds, then was swiftly stilled. Blood dripped from dozens of points, staining his fur wherever the thorns pierced him. He twitched again, more weakly, and a faint whine of pain emerged from within is throat.
Ingvar wanted to weep. The god of the wild did not whine.
“What can I do?” he whispered, again reaching for a hatchet that was not there.
“Are you lost, hunter?”
Ingvar whirled; this was new. Never before in this nightmare had someone spoken to him.
A crow sat on a thick strand of spiderweb, regarding him with piercing black eyes. It clicked its beak once and spoke again, in a voice that was not a man’s or a woman’s, that was only barely a voice. “You are only lost if you will not find your way. Follow me, I’ll show you.”
He gasped, coming awake drenched in sweat.
Ingvar blinked rapidly, clearing the shadows from his vision. It had to be the middle of the night… And if his previous nights’ adventures were any indication, he wasn’t getting back to sleep any time soon.
This had to stop.
He rose, opening the shield on his oil lamp with shaking fingers to cast some light on his small chamber. Then he hesitated, but only for a moment, before getting himself ready.
He wasn’t going far, not even out of the lodge, and only took the time to bind his chest and dress before stepping out of his room. This late, the lodge was peaceful and calm, not to mention dark; he navigated mostly by memory through the dim halls. He encountered no one on his way down to the basement level, which was unsurprising. There was probably nobody awake except the watchmen at the doors, and the one he was going to see. Ingvar couldn’t have said why he was certain his quarry would be up, but he was. It was as certain as the force that always drove him forward in those accursed dreams.
Hrathvin’s door was open; light and the smell of smoke and incense filtered out around the edges of the bearskin hung over the entrance. Ingvar paused at the door, then squared his shoulders and pushed through.
There was light inside, but not much. It was dim and reddish, coming from the brazier set up in the center of the round chamber. Another doorway, also curtained by a hanging bearskin, was at the opposite end of the room, leading to Hrathvin’s sleeping area.
The old shaman himself sat on the other side of the brazier, staring calmly at him through the haze of smoke that rose from it.
“The dreams again, Ingvar?”
The Huntsman nodded, started to speak, and had to clear his throat before he could. “It was…worse, this time. It’s been getting worse, but gradually. This was something different… Shaman, I can’t make myself believe these are just dreams.”
“Then they probably aren’t,” said Hrathvin calmly. “Through such dreams are we called on spirit hunts, or other quests.”
“It makes no sense, though,” Ingvar protested, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the doorway. “Everything I have done and been through, every step… Shaath has guided me on a long journey to here. For the first time I am useful, I have purpose. I’m advancing Shaath’s agenda, helping the Grandmaster and Brother Andros. And now this? What am I to make of it?” He shrugged desperately. “And even if I throw everything aside to pursue this… How? What can one do with dreams? I see only pain and bondage, nothing that tells me what to do!”
“You said this was different,” said Hrathvin, watching him closely. “Different enough to bring you skittering down here in the middle of the night. Were you by chance told, this time, what to do?”
Ingvar hesitated. “I don’t… There was a crow. It said to follow it… But then I woke up. It’s not as if I can follow a dream after it ends.”
“Crows are interesting omens,” the old shaman said noncommittally. “Sometimes good, often bad. Never dull.”
“I’m at a loss, shaman,” Ingvar said plaintively. “I need guidance.”
“Very well,” said Hrathvin, nodding. “Here is my guidance: You don’t need guidance. You need to get up and quit vacillating. Are you a man or not? You’ve worked harder than most to prove it. Act, Ingvar. If you act wrongly, make amends. No harm you do yourself will be worse than the sins of complacency and indecision.”
Invar stopped cold, staring at him in shock. Shock at himself, not at the shaman’s words.
Well, of course.
“Yes,” Hrathvin said knowingly, “the truth is often pretty simple, once it’s been pointed out to you.”
“This is going to be…difficult,” Ingvar muttered, staring into the brazier, his thoughts already racing ahead.
Hrathvin grunted, then lifted his hand to toss another cloud of herbs onto the flames. “Of course it is. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it.”
“I thank you for the advice, shaman,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to him. “I think I have…a starting point, now.”
The old man chuckled. “Enjoy your wrongness while you’ve the luxury, Huntsman. Someday you’ll be old and respected, and nobody will dare give you a kick in the butt when you need one. That is the beginning of decline.”
It was strange how much calmer Ingvar felt as he left the shaman’s chambers, considering that he still was far from sure what he was supposed to do. He had nothing but the merest inkling of a plan.
But now, at least, he was going to do it. Whatever it was.