Tag Archives: Sister Leraine

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The Abbess’s office was rigidly orderly and scrupulously clean, yet there was an indefinable air of comfortable shabbiness about it. Her possessions—books, wall-hung maps, furniture, old weapons, Avenic sigils—were all old and well-used, bearing the marks of long life. The room itself was no larger than it needed to be, small enough to be cozy with Narnasia herself present and two guests on the other side of her desk.

They remained politely quiet as the arthritic old Abbess eased herself into her chair with a soft sigh, then folded her arms on the desk and regarded them shrewdly.

“Sister Leraine,” she said, “how serious were you about making this project of yours an interfaith initiative? If you truly just came here to sell enchantments, now is the time to tell me.”

“I was quite serious,” Leraine said with a small smile, seemingly unperturbed by the Abbess’s direct tone. “Doing business is certainly part of my mandate here, but I meant what I said about the ethical ramifications of this project. The Sisters of Avei are the only possible market for enchantments such as this, which is why we’ve brought you a demonstration in such an early phase.”

“That was an early phase?” Basra demanded, her eyebrows rising.

“Those charms were deceptively simple, in fact,” said Leraine. “The thing does little more than hover and whirl, really. The more difficult work is all part of general advancement in arcane golem craft—getting the device to recognize and respond to sentient interaction. Obviously, combat is one area in which such enchantments can be vigorously tested. But as I was saying, it’s a risky line of study to pursue, as you both pointed out. We are always looking to refine our practice of magic, but must also be mindful of safety. Whether the Sisterhood sees this device as too dangerous to acquire would be a major indication of whether we should refine it further.”

“Mm,” Narnasia murmured, staring piercingly at her. “I must give this some thought and prayer before rendering an opinion. I must say that my initial reaction is largely negative. That device of yours makes me uneasy.”

“I cannot disagree,” Leraine said frankly.

“As you are here, though,” the Abbess continued, “if you are willing to help us with another matter, I would like to consult your cult’s expertise.”

“Oh?” The Salyrite tilted her head. “I’ll be glad to help if I can.”

“None of this is secret,” said Narnasia, glancing over at Basra. “Secrecy isn’t really possible and wouldn’t serve anyone, anyway. Nonetheless, I would prefer that neither of you spread the story too widely just yet. I’d rather manage the situation as well as possible from the outset.”

“Naturally,” said Leraine, her tone openly curious now. Basra simply nodded.

Narnasia sighed softly before continuing. “For the last two weeks, throughout Viridill Province, there have been a series of incidents with elementals.”

Leraine narrowed her eyes. “Elementals? Really? Summoned by whom?”

“That is the troublesome part,” Narnasia replied. “No culprit has been identified, but the incidents have occurred in every part of the region.”

“What makes this a situation?” Basra asked. “There have always been elemental sightings in Viridill.”

“Specifically,” said Narnasia, “in the southernmost regions, along the Athan’Khar border. Sightings, not attacks, and they never make it past the Imperial and Silver Legion defenses there.”

“Attacks?” Leraine said sharply.

“Thus far,” said Narnasia, “there have been no serious injuries, merely some scuffles and property damage. People have the sense to stay away from an elemental, or any kind of fairy, when it appears.”

“Back up,” Basra said rather curtly, ignoring or not noticing the Abbess’s disapproving look. “Again, why is it strange that elementals should be appearing? I thought they were by definition a natural phenomenon.”

Narnasia looked at Sister Leraine, raising an eyebrow.

“They normally don’t inhabit this plane,” Leraine replied, shifting in her seat to face Basra more directly. “Some of the stronger, older elemental spirits have been here long enough to be essentially native, but they come from the elemental planes, Naiya’s realm.”

“I thought Naiya’s realm was the Deep Wild…”

“That,” said Leraine, nodding, “and a few other, similar places. The elemental planes can be summoned from, but not accessed directly; why remains an open question. We don’t know the exact nature of Naiya’s relationship to those planes, or what goes on in them. It’s not even certain that they are naturally occurring dimensions, or how many there are. I consider it notable that the only two Elder Goddesses to survive the Pantheon’s rise had dimensional fallbacks to rely upon, though Scyllith subsequently lost her hold on Hell. But yes, an elemental would only be on the mortal plane if someone called it here. You said the damage has been minor,” she said, turning back to the Abbess. “These are smaller spirits, then?”

“Small and easily banished,” Narnasia replied. “However, that is not the disturbing part. Basra, in the cupboard to your left are several rolled maps. One of those on top is bound with a braided red leather thong. Would you please bring that over here and lay it out on the desk?”

Basra nodded to her, and stood to open the cupboard in question. She swiftly extracted the indicated map and rolled it out flat with an expert touch, while Narnasia placed inkwells, pens and books on its edges to hold it flat.

“I have begun marking the incidents here, after the third day of them occurring,” she said, pointing to several notations on the map of Viridill Province. “They’ve not happened every day since, but regularly enough. Note that they are concentrated neither in population centers or in isolated areas, as one might expect. Disruptions here, here and there along roads, and all along the river. Then, most disturbingly, these two back-to-back events. A wind elemental harassed several farmhands here, near the eastern border, not far from a Silver Legion outpost. Legionnaires and priestesses were dispatched from there to contain it. Then, while they were away dealing with that, a fire elemental ignited a blaze in the outpost itself. Small and easily contained, but that is not the point.”

“Disrupting supply and communications chains,” Basra said, her eyes narrowing. “Diverting troops before attacking fortifications. These are military tactics.”

“You’re right,” Leraine said, visibly alarmed. “That is deeply disturbing. Elementals do not think along those lines; if they are doing anything so sophisticated, someone is directing them. But…who would try to attack Viridill? And with such minor forces?”

“That’s what I intend to learn,” Narnasia said, settling back in her chair with a faint wince. “The situation here with regard to elemental magic is complicated by Viridill’s history. This land has been the center of Avei’s faith since its founding; temples, shrines and hallowed ground are everywhere. Large swaths of the country are simply inaccessible to all but the most powerful fairies. On other areas, however, we have more than the usual number of practicing witches in the population, enough that various small fae crafts have become part of the local rural culture. Only Salyrene’s cult,” she said, nodding respectfully to the Sister, “did more to shelter victims of the witch hunts decades ago.”

“And that because the Sisterhood was only interested in protecting female victims,” Basra added, folding her arms. Narnasia gave her a sharp look, but did not rise to the bait.

“What does the governor say about this?” Leraine asked quickly.

“Governor Tamshinaar chooses to defer to the Sisterhood on this matter,” Narnasia replied, again ignoring Basra’s faint smirk. “As it stands, this amounts to a series of nuisances, which is why I prefer to address it myself if possible. If the situation grows more serious, I may be forced to contact the High Commander and the Universal Church.”

“No reason to trouble the Empire with this,” Basra said gravely.

It was no secret that the Imperial Governor of Viridill Province was a figurehead. The Imperial Army in the region was entirely concentrated along the Athan’Khar border in the south, and answerable directly to Tiraas, not the local government. Viridill was administered by the Sisterhood of Avei, patrolled by the Silver Legions, and funded by the tithes of Avenists the world over. The land was not precisely holy, but its association with Avei and her faith was ancient. Few kingdoms throughout history had attempted to take it by force, and only one Tiraan Emperor. The example made of him had dissuaded any subsequent attempts. The province’s inclusion in the Empire was a historically complicated matter, but the Silver Throne mostly left Viridill to tend to its own affairs.

“This is the reason I raise the topic with the two of you,” Narnasia said, giving Basra a final warning look. “If we are to deal with the problem before having to involve higher authorities, I need, first of all, magical expertise pertaining to fairies and the fae arts. I’m afraid the Sisterhood is lacking this.”

Leraine was nodding before she finished speaking. “I will be glad to lend a hand, Abbess. Neither of the attendants I brought for the demonstration are witches, but there are several Salyrites in the province whom I trust, and who practice fairy arts. I can consult with them. I assume, at this juncture, that you would rather I not involve our central cult?”

“I’ll defer to your judgment on that point, of course,” Narnasia said diplomatically. “Any help you care to offer is appreciated. The other issue is more mundane, but more complicated. I cannot believe, considering their history, that any of Viridill’s witches are responsible for something this absurd, but nonetheless, they must be investigated. Circumspectly.”

“The purges were over a generation ago,” Basra pointed out. “Many of those living in the province now are the children or grandchildren of the original refugees. Who knows what they think of anything? Growing up under a religion’s influence can cause people to bitterly hate the cult in question, in the wrong circumstances.”

“Indeed,” said Narnasia, momentarily tightening her mouth. “Finding the attacker will require a very specific set of skills. It calls for someone clever and relentless, with experience in interfaith cooperation and the political skills to do all this without antagonizing the general populace or Viridill’s resident magic users. Captain Syrinx, you are uniquely qualified to take the lead in this investigation.”

Basra’s face remained even, almost impassive. “Of course, I am glad to serve in any way I can.”

“Of course,” Narnasia said, equally expressionlessly. “I will have a page deliver what documents I have on the matter to your quarters.”

“There is no need to trouble your staff, Abbess,” Basra said smoothly. “My aide can do any fetching and carrying. It’ll be good for her to have work; I’m afraid she is being wasted out here.”

“I’ve several times had that thought myself,” Narnasia noted. “As soon as we have a witch on hand to assist you, you can begin.”

“In that case,” said Leraine, rising from her seat and bowing, “I will proceed immediately to the temple and summon help. The, ah, individual I have in mind is a man. I trust that won’t be a problem?”

“Whyever would it?” Narnasia asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Despite what you may have heard,” said Basra wryly, “no sensible Avenist objects to men who are well-behaved.”

“Of course,” Leraine said with a small smile. “Thank you for your trust in this, Abbess Darnassy. After all the Silver Legions have done to defend our temples, and others, it’s an honor to be able to help in return.”

“And I thank you for your willingness to do so, sister,” Narnasia replied. “I shall look forward to working with you further.”

Basra rose as well, and held the door open for Leraine. The Salyrite paused in it to bow again to the two Avenists, then strode out in search of her two aides. Basra glanced back at the Abbess once, then made to follow.

“A moment, Captain Syrinx. Shut the door, if you would.”

Raising her eyebrows, she did so, turning back to Narnasia.

“It is impossible not to notice,” the Abbess said, staring penetratingly at the Bishop, “that this situation is practically tailored to someone of your very specific skill set. As you are here for the specific purpose of proving your reliability…”

“I have had cause to wonder how you expected me to prove that, collecting dust in this abbey,” Basra replied calmly, folding her arms.

“Really? You have trouble seeing why dealing with novices and paperwork demonstrates an even keel? I hadn’t thought you so short-sighted, Basra. In any case, such a perfect opportunity for you to redeem yourself falling out of the blue like this is…curious.”

“I could take that for an accusation, Abbess,” Basra said flatly.

Narnasia slowly shook her head, her eyes remaining locked on her guest’s. “I don’t suspect you of engineering this, don’t worry about that. I can’t begin to imagine how you even could, and I do credit you with enough intelligence not to do something so overtly treasonous. However, this is almost certainly the work of some outside agent, of which you know quite a few. Tell me frankly, Basra: do you think anyone could be carrying out these attacks in order to expedite your return to Tiraas?”

Basra frowned, her eyes shifting to the side in thought. After a moment, she shook her head. “I can’t see it. I’ve my share of friends and allies, yes. Several might be motivated to arrange for my return. A few could be reckless enough to do something as ham-fisted as interfering with Avenist operations. I can imagine no points of overlap between those two groups, however. I can promise you this,” she added, a scowl falling over her face. “If anyone has set all this up for that or any reason pertaining to me, this will be the last time they even consider butting into the Sisterhood’s business.”

“Very well,” Narnasia said, nodding. “I’ll assemble some reports for Private Covrin to bring you. Thank you, Captain.”

“Ma’am,” Basra said respectfully, giving the Abbess a half-bow, before turning and leaving the office.

Out in the hall, she stalked back toward her own chambers, not noticing the three novices who turned and fled at the sight of her expression. Basra’s eyes narrowed to slits, focused on a point miles away, in Tiraas.

“Antonio.”


 

Full dark had fallen over the prairie by the time they left the tent. Professor Tellwyrn had let them stay until Bishop Snowe was wrapping up her speech before hustling the two of them out into the night, waving Juniper and Fross back when they started to follow. She led them around the corner of the huge big top, ignoring curious looks from those outside, the two puzzled paladins trailing after her.

“Where are we going?” Gabriel demanded. “What’s the big idea?”

“Kids,” the Professor said with a sigh. “When I teleport you around, you complain. When I let you walk, you complain, and also it takes forever. Sometimes I think I just can’t win with you lot.”

“You’re the one who decided to go into teaching,” he muttered.

“I think the revival’s organizers are using that for administration,” Trissiny said, noting the smaller tent toward which Tellwyrn was leading them. It had been set up amid the tallgrass off to the side of the big one, positioned so that it wasn’t visible from the town. Nobody except the revival’s staff had any reason to come around here, and indeed, no one was in evidence now.

“They were,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “I’m borrowing it. C’mon, in you go.”

She held open the flap, gesturing them through.

“Hey, guys,” Toby said, waving as they arrived. The other person present hopped up from his seat on a trunk, doffing his hat politely.

“There you are,” Gabriel said to Toby. “Hi, Joe! What’re you two doing hiding out here?”

“I am eagerly awaiting the answer to that question,” Joe said, giving Tellwyrn an inquisitive look as she let the flap fall closed behind her.

“All right, all right, settle down,” Tellwyrn said as if she were addressing an unruly classroom instead of four people. “Now, I’ve had the story from Mr. Jenkins, here, of why you lot scrolled him to come from Tiraas. Despite your assignment in Veilgrad being over, you seem to be pursuing the matter.”

“Joe!” Gabriel protested.

Joe blinked twice. “I, uh… Was I not s’posed to tell her?”

“I’m pretty sure hiding it from her wouldn’t be a great idea,” Trissiny said, giving Gabriel a look.

“And also wouldn’t work,” Toby added with a grin.

“Now, I’m the last person to discourage a sense of responsibility in my students,” Tellwyrn said more loudly, folding her arms. “I’m glad you care about the city and its fate as more than an academic exercise. However, I think the lot of you—and yes, that includes you, Joseph—could stand to be reminded of your proper perspective. Yes, you are paladins and have a duty. However, that duty is principally here, to your education. Your patrons—goddammit, Trissiny, I’m not going to quibble semantics so wipe that look off your face—have sent you here for the purpose of opening your minds and getting you some real-world experience in relative safety before sending you off to a lifetime of battles. Your job is to focus on that. And you,” she added severely, pointing at Joe, “I will thank not to encourage them.”

He swallowed, anxiously turning his hat over and over in his hands. “I will keep that firmly in mind, ma—erm, Professor.”

“Do you at least understand why we would be seriously concerned about this?” Trissiny said sharply.

“Sure,” Tellwyrn said. “However, again, you lack perspective. First of all, the fact that Archpope Justinian is manipulating events to his own advantage isn’t, in and of itself, necessarily significant.”

“Are you kidding?” Gabriel burst out, barely beating Trissiny to the punch. “He might just as well have bombed Veilgrad with that—”

“Did he unleash the power of the skull?” Tellwyrn interrupted, glaring at him. “Or did he simply make use of an event already transpiring to further his goals? Do you have any way to know?” She paused, slowly dragging her gaze across them, before continuing. “Understand that the Archpope is, above all else, a politician. His job is to keep balance between the various member cults of the Universal Church. He is, ultimately, a power broker. Manipulation is a central part of his job. This is not to say that he isn’t necessarily into something he shouldn’t be, but the fact that he’s being clearly a weasel is not necessarily cause for concern. If a sitting Archpope had gone bad, the gods would surely be the first to know. And you lot would be their likely first line of defense. If you weren’t told by them to stick your noses in, that’s your first indication that you should think about leaving it well enough alone.

“Furthermore and perhaps more significantly,” she added, her expression growing darker, “there is the fact that you were directed to follow up this lead by the Black Wreath. Honestly, kids, when you find yourself doing what they tell you to do, you have screwed up at some point.”

“Now, hang on,” Joe protested. “It ain’t like I’m in the Black Wreath.”

“I’ve never suspected that for a moment, Joseph,” she said more calmly to him. “That’s not the point. The Wreath are even more manipulative than the Archpope, by a wide margin. Much of their best work is done without dirtying their own hands. Can you not see the advantage to the Wreath in setting paladins of the Trinity against the Church itself?”

She paused to let that sink in before continuing. “And now, we have a Universal Church bishop putting on a big show in town, and you three, of all people, are being awfully standoffish about it. Caine doesn’t even bother to show up, and Arquin and Avelea, neither of you the poster children for forethought and restraint, are suspicious enough of her to keep a safe distance.”

“What’s that mean, of all people?” Gabriel asked, sounding affronted. “I don’t have much of a history with the Church, if you’ll recall. Not a good one, anyway.”

“On the other hand,” said Trissiny with a suspiciously straight face, “Bishop Snowe is remarkably pretty, and remarkably buxom.”

Gabriel stared at her in shock, then whirled to glare at Toby, who had burst out laughing. Joe glanced rapidly between them, looking uncertain.

“I’ll consider my point made,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of satisfaction. “For your information, I have my own reasons to be suspicious of both Justinian and Snowe. I most certainly will not discourage you from gathering information and thinking about all of this. Always, always think. You three keep in mind your situation and your responsibilities, however. If your gods decide you need to cut short your schooling and go tend to something else… Well, we’ll address that when it happens. Since it hasn’t, you keep your minds where they belong and don’t go butting into religious politics that don’t concern you directly. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Gabriel said resignedly; Trissiny and Toby nodded.

“That’s all, basically,” Tellwyrn said more calmly. “Just think fully before committing yourselves to any action. Don’t insert yourselves into situations you don’t understand. Keep your minds on the present, and you’ll do fine.”

“That’s excellent advice for all occasions!” Branwen Snowe said brightly, pushing in through the tent flap.

Joe shot back to his feet, Toby doing the same. Trissiny and Gabriel turned to stare at her in surprise.

“This is a private conversation,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Or was until very recently.”

“Of course,” the Bishop replied, smiling serenely at her. “I’ll try not to intrude too much. I just couldn’t leave town without making sure you had taken no offense at my sermon.”

“Bet you could’ve,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“I understand,” Snowe continued, still in perfect calm and with a pleasant smile, “how some of my remarks might have been construed as directed at you. I just want to assure you, Professor, that I hold you in the highest—”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “you seem to have mistaken yourself for someone whose opinion matters. It’s a not-uncommon side effect of sudden fame. I am not offended by anything you said any more than I concern myself in general with it. Good night.”

“Well, what a relief that is,” Snowe replied, cool as ever, though Joe and the paladins were all looking increasingly wary and edging away from the two of them. “It would be a shame to sour you on the subject of—”

“Snowe, when I want to talk to the hand up your ass I’ll go to Tiraas and see him in person. Now go away.”

“Of course,” the Bishop said wryly, then turned to the others and inclined her head deeply. “Well, however briefly, it has been a great pleasure to meet all of you. Yourself included, Mr. Jenkins; your adventures are already the stuff of legend! Toby, Trissiny, Gabriel, I dearly hope you will visit me next time you are in—”

Once again she broke off mid-sentence, this time because Tellwyrn was suddenly holding a saber against her neck.

“Professor!” Toby exclaimed, aghast.

“Archpope Justinian,” Tellwyrn said to Snowe in deadly calm. “Imperial law enforcement. Your legions of adoring fans. Izara. These are just some of the people who will not do jack shit to me if I take your head off your shoulders right now in front of three paladins. Annoying me is one thing, girl. You will not interfere with my students.”

“That is going too far, even for you,” Trissiny snapped, her hand falling to the hilt of her own sword.

Bishop Snowe neither moved nor altered her expression except to raise an eyebrow. “But hardly out of character, now is it?”

“I was going to let you cling to the bit of privacy,” Tellwyrn said coldly, “but no, you had to get clever. Kids, I’m sure you are all aware that Izarite clergy are known for their ability to sense the desires and emotional needs of others. This one has an additional gift: the ability to reach out through that sense, to influence those desires, and subtly nudge people’s feelings and perceptions in a direction of her choosing. It’s actually not uncommon in natural empaths who go into Izara’s service, but the Izarite cult itself are very leery of the idea. They don’t encourage such behavior; it’s all but taboo. Regardless, I suggest you be very mindful of your feelings in the presence of Branwen Snowe.”

“Can…she do that to…a whole crowd?” Gabriel asked, unconsciously stroking Ariel’s hilt.

“Why go against her cult’s wishes?” Trissiny added, frowning.

“What am I, her biographer?” Tellwyrn exclaimed in annoyance. “I know the effect when I see it done right in front of me. And neither that nor any other magical manipulation is going to be imposed upon my students, unless the person doing the imposing has a death wish. Is everyone present explicitly clear on that point?”

“Someday, Arachne,” Snowe said very evenly, “you are going to meet something you cannot simply bully your way through.”

“Oh, most assuredly,” Tellwyrn said with an unpleasant grin. “But you are not that thing, buttercup.”

“You really are one of the more profoundly unhappy people with whom I have ever been in close proximity,” the Bishop said, very slowly taking a step back, away from the sword. Tellwyrn led the blade fall to her side, watching her go. Branwen nodded briefly to the rest of them. “It was a pleasure to meet you all. Blessings upon you.”

She turned, lifted the tent flap, and slipped silently out.

After a moment of contemplating the closed flap, Tellwyrn twirled her saber and made a motion as if sheathing it at her waist; the blade vanished from her hand. “Education is everywhere, kids. Always look for the lesson in any experience. All right, enjoy the rest of the festival. I guess I can count on you three not to get converted, if anyone. Avelea, you may want to rein in November; she was making a scene down at the Silver Mission again a few minutes ago.”

With no more fanfare or farewell, she vanished, only the faintest pop of displaced air marking her departure.

Gabriel sighed, still staring at the tent flap. “Never fails. I meet a really attractive woman who’s just my type and she turns out to be kind of evil.”

“Not to mention too old for you,” Trissiny said dryly.

“So!” He turned to the confused-looking Joe, grinning broadly. “Joe, how come you don’t visit more often?”

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10 – 1

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They were calling it a revival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How come you’re not?”

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

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

“Not up there,” Trissiny murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” said Juniper, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted, folding her arms.

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

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

The stillness in the tent was suddenly absolute.

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

“Does it seem right to you?”

“Sounds almost Eserite,” Gabriel whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

He did not want to see this again.

But he couldn’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you lost, hunter?”

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

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


 

He gasped, coming awake drenched in sweat.

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

This had to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

“The dreams again, Ingvar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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