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A note from Alexander Wales

This is the first chapter of seven in this release.

The gods of Aerb were, in some respects, extremely important, but in most others, could be ignored entirely.

Gods were a real pain in the ass when it came to worldbuilding for tabletop games, at least for most of the systems that we’d played. The big problem was that gods had a real presence in the world, namely through clerics and paladins. They, in turn, provided real and true powers that no one could ever contest. That in and of itself wasn’t a huge issue, but it left the question of who these gods were, what their agendas were, why and how they had empowered people, and in general, a whole bunch of baggage that there weren’t all that many ways of filling, given how rigid the rules systems for divine magic typically were. The gods were also important to the characters, and thus had to be invented and defined early on, which I hated. I had, naturally, tried doing it a whole bunch of ways: from the nearly-atheist version where anyone could have clerical powers, even if they didn’t have faith or devotion, to gods-as-managers, always looking over your shoulder and ensuring that you were carrying out their will.

The gods themselves were tricky to do, because they were almost by definition the most important people in whatever setting they were in. That meant that the agendas they set would be of overriding concern for all the lesser players, and in turn, it would all trickle down. This was a problem for worldbuilding specifically because sometimes you just wanted to have a world that ran in a different direction, without concerning itself with matters of the divine, even if there was a cleric in the party (and there was typically a cleric in the party, because they tended to be great healers). If you wanted to cut gods out, or at least make it so that the religious concerns were of the more practical human social variety than the singular-figure-of-enormous-power kind, you needed to make them distant, or aloof, or ineffable, or something so that gods didn’t crowd out all the other fun stuff.

The gods of Aerb went far in the direction of aloofness, but it was a special kind of aloofness that played into their ineffability. Put simply, four of the five gods of Aerb didn’t really give a shit about people, and while they all had their domains, and granted limited powers within those domains to people who were recognizably clerics (and called such by the people of Aerb), their interests in those domains hewed very closely to the status quo.

Invreizen was the god of Ice and Sea, or more precisely, the god of Ice, Sea, Wind, Water, Rain, Clouds, Air, Birds, and Fish. What Invreizen wanted, so far as anyone could tell, was for the ice to be the ice, and the sea to be the sea, and so on through all his domains. Sailors rarely prayed to Invreizen, because why would they? It was the nature of the sea to sink ships, and thus, part of Invreizen’s agenda as well. Invreizen was the god of good weather and bad weather, and so far as he was concerned, weather was based on the fundamentals of high and low pressure systems, moisture and dryness, winds and evaporation and all that stuff. To change the weather would mean to make the weather go against the fundamentals that drove the weather, and thus make the weather unlike itself. Invreizen wouldn’t stand for that.

Where the gods acted, they acted against what they saw as fundamental attacks on the basic nature of their domains. Where the clerics acted, it was in the liminal spaces of definitions, or what they called the dialectics, those places where two aspects of a domain were somehow in tension with one another. A cleric of Invreizen couldn’t cast a spell like create water, a D&D mainstay, but what they could do instead was to heighten certain aspects of water. This was, to be plain, incredibly weak, but each god had enough domains to their name that being a cleric of a god got you access to a wide variety of weak powers. Clerics were still typically at the bottom of the barrel, at least as far as magical might went, but there were a few exceptional rule benders among them, and even a weak cleric could still earn a living, especially with the support of their church, namely because of their deep understanding of the domains, which came with extra senses that couldn’t easily be replicated.

When I’d created Invreizen, he’d been one of seven gods, an attempt to create an extremely broad pantheon. Aerb only had five gods, and I had no idea what had happened to the other two. Sonkrag had been a pretty classical sun god, possibly cut because of his secondary focus on mortal affairs like honor, justice, order, and law. Kennis had been the god of civilization, innovation, books, and metal, and my guess was that he likewise just didn’t make the cut. That left four gods with domains that were more focused on the natural world, and the last of the bunch, Truuk, who was a trickster god, not sprung from the same mold as the others, and the kind of god that people tended not to talk about unless it couldn’t be helped.

(The names of the gods were all Afrikaans. I want to be clear that I wasn’t at the level of being lazy by naming gods using Google Translate: I was at the level of naming gods using Google Translate, and picking Afrikaans because it was alphabetically first.)

The God Botherer quest I’d gotten ages ago could have, for all I was concerned, been put off indefinitely. I had personally named and designed all of the gods of Aerb. I knew their deal. From everything that I had read, they’d barely changed in their translation to Aerb, and that meant that they were, in a word, worthless, except for the fact that they nominated clerics, and on very rare occasions, would intercede in the world.

It was that last one we were hoping for. It was a slim hope, but Invreizen’s temple was very close to an errand I had to run, and it seemed like it was worth a shot, at least relative to what it would cost us.

The last time Invreizen had acted was one hundred and twenty-six years prior. Someone had invented something that they called ‘dry water’, and the following month, the edge of the sea had lifted up and then slammed down on his coastal city, killing roughly one hundred and fifty thousand people. Among the gods, and those who followed them, this was known as ‘answering heresy with heresy’, a god’s way of saying, “Oh, you think that water should not behave how it does? Then let’s see how you feel about a gross violation of the behavior of water.” This almost always meant death on a large scale, not because the gods weren’t capable of fine control of their domains, but because ‘fuck everyone in your general vicinity’ was just the way they operated.

Of course, they weren’t monsters. Part of the function clerics served was to use their understanding of the various domains of their god in order to advise on and police ‘godly matters’, which were mostly those areas where something impermissible might happen. For the most part, gods didn’t take drastic action, because for the most part, things obeyed their fundamental natures simply by definition, and virtually all magic that altered that fundamental nature was included within the domain.

Aside from his proximity to our destination, there was another reason we’d chosen to attempt the God Botherer quest. First off, Amaryllis had actually ‘met’ him once, which amounted to little more than a brief conversation at a dinner, which she assured me was more face time with a god than almost anyone got, and was much more impressive than I understood it to be. Second, I was an air mage and a water mage, both of which fell under his broad umbrella, and it was possible (though extremely uncommon) for him to grant boons on the worthy.

The city of Frustbury looked like it was spilling down into the plains from the top of a cliff, with the biggest buildings sitting on the clifftop, and the whole of the city getting smaller and less significant as you descended the gradient. The biggest of those buildings was the Yshuis, the primary residence and place of worship for Invreizen. It was unlike anything that I had seen on Aerb thus far, built at ridiculous fantasy scales that my brain had trouble making sense of. At the top, fifty stories up, protruded three thick, sculpted arms that were themselves a hundred yards long, and they held a glass bowl with a lake’s full of water.

It was ostentatious, and I was pretty sure that on Earth, it would have been impossible to do, since there was nowhere in the glass bowl to hide structural supports. It would also probably never have been allowed to be built, because if the bowl shattered, it would be a complete calamity for the city. Still, it was awe-inspiring, and I could see why it had been built, because as soon as you saw it, you felt something. Because of its position high up on the cliff, the building could be seen from miles away, both out at sea and anywhere in the surrounding countryside.

We made our way through the city, our core group of four: me, Grak, Amaryllis, and Raven. With Blue-in-the-Bottle dead, the situation in Necrolaborem had gotten worse, but it was being handled by the second generation tuung and the Amaryllis clones that she’d left behind, using the systems that we’d put in place. There were also contractors and imperial agents as well, probably thousands of people all told. It was in the back of my mind, but I was hopeful that it wouldn’t take up too much of our attention in the coming two weeks, because we were doing everything in our power to get ready for Fel Seed. That included meeting a god.

Up close, the outside of the Yshuis was just as impressive as I’d expected it to be. The walls were covered in ornamental sculpture, actually covered, every inch, except where there were windows. All I could think of, when looking at it, was the man-hours that it would have taken for all of that to get done, my mind barely taking in the subjects of the sculptures and bas reliefs themselves, which were endless scenes of Invreizen’s domains, everything that he controlled and watched over, all the adjacencies and overlaps, everything at increasingly high levels of specificity. There were barnacles, mollusks, sharks, squid, pretty much every creature of Aerb’s many seas. There were ships of many sizes, seaweed that had been sculpted so that it almost looked like it was in motion. When viewed from a distance, there was a pronounced difference in how the sculptures had been done so that even when you couldn’t see the individual pieces, you could see a picture writ large on the side of this enormous building: it was a map of Aerb, but just of the seas, oceans, rivers, and major lakes, and no attention paid whatsoever to anything like mountains, cliffs, forests, roads, or cities.

I tried not to be awestruck. I had no love for the gods of Aerb, but I could at least respect that they were open about how evil they were, rather than pretending at benevolence. The expected outcome of the meeting with Invreizen was that he would tell us no, or just not say anything and allow his head cleric to tell us no, and the whole trip would have all been for nothing. It was low cost, low risk, and a low expected reward, but the best outcomes were really really good. You couldn’t talk a god into killing Fel Seed but you could potentially talk him into providing a boon, or a distraction, or some information, if you were lucky. Failing that, he had clergy, who were semi-important movers and shakers on Aerb.

I’d had a penchant for designing supremely powerful religious organizations into campaign worlds, partly as a counterbalance to the rough wilds I liked to include, partly as mildly antagonistic forces that could contain rogue sects and other complications for the players. There were all kinds of fun things you could do if you had some equivalent to the Catholic Church at the height of its power, like inquisitions, crusades, and conspiracies driven by religious fervor. The religious orders on Aerb were, by comparison, nearly powerless, paling in comparison to the athenaeums, most major countries, and the empire itself. A big problem for them was that their gods were demonstrably apathetic toward the mortal species, and there were few levers that they could press in order to bring the populace around. People still prayed, and occasionally went to temples or churches, but a lot of that was just the normal rhythms of community life.

This city was the heart of Invreizen’s power though, and this building was a representation of him in all his glory, a massively expensive structure that was meant to be beyond compare, as if it were a way of saying, ‘Yes, gods exist in this world, and they are Important, so don’t you go forgetting it’. Of course, if the gods really had been all that important, their clergy might not have felt the need to use awe-inspiring architecture in order to reinforce it.

In the center of the Yshuis was a huge courtyard, with all the building’s elevators running up the inside walls. Three large, vertical aquariums that ran up the sides as well, each of them filled with fish, corals, seaweed, and bright colors that contrasted the grey skies above us. It had a beauty to it, and the walls weren’t smooth, they looked like waves, not just textured, but with rooms bulging out and windows curving. As a work on art, I was there for it. There was something transcendental about the building, and there was something aching about the fact that we didn’t have time to explore and appreciate it. I was sure that whatever team had designed this place, they had left fractal points of interest, details, symmetries, concordances, on and on. It just seemed like that kind of place.

There were lots of people around, divided up into the clergy, who mostly wore shades of blue, and everyone else, who wore the usual riot of styles common through the empire. ‘Clergy’ was a broad role, because it included people who were definitely not clerics, those in charge of various aspects of running the building and organizing the religion. We were guided by one of those clergy, a man in a royal navy suit that had a button flap thing across the front I was sure Amaryllis would know the name of, if I cared enough to ask.

We had the elevator to ourselves, and twice when it stopped on the way to the top, people took one look at us and begged off. It wasn’t likely that they recognized us by sight, but we had the look of rich and important people, decked out in entads and looking like we were ready for war. No one had asked us to remove our weapons, but I wasn’t sure they knew we had weapons, since almost everything offensive was packed away in some kind of extradimensional space or another, ready to be in our hands at a moment’s notice.

We came out in the upper area, just beneath one of the giant arms that held up the fish bowl. I could feel the weight of it above me, a catastrophe waiting to happen, and wondered about the brass balls of the people who had conceived this and made it into reality. Our guide answered a question from Grak that I hadn’t been paying much attention to, and explained that the bowl had been filled over the course of a few years by natural weather, and that keeping it clean was a full-time job. The bowl was filled with fish and other ocean creatures, but they must have done something to the inside of it, because there was no way that it would have stayed as clean as it was even with intervention, and there was a noticeable lack of fish poop on the bottom of it.

Invreizen himself was up there, which I’d have known even if I hadn’t been told, because it would have been hard to explain the fifty-foot long dolphin swimming around in there otherwise. The scale of everything was disorienting, which was probably part of what the architects had in mind.

There were lots of people milling about, most of them (from what I understood) either tourists or self-styled pilgrims, there in order to get a look at a god and maybe, if they were lucky, have some kind of story to tell when they got back home. There was something like Earth-standard religion, in the way that people could see this concrete source of immense and awe-inspiring power and take some solace in the fact that there was some order to the world, someone who was responsible for the way things were. Invreizen had killed people, sure, and sat by while even more died in ways that he clearly could have prevented, but if you had Invreizen, then you could believe that there was some great and grand order, some protector that was there as a guiding hand to make sure that nothing went too far off the rails.

Some of how I saw the gods on Aerb was colored by how I’d seen Christianity on Earth, but I didn’t think that I was making a mistake when the rapturous expressions on the faces looking up at Invreizen seemed similar. It was something I’d seen often enough at church, a giddy excitement about the greatness of god that I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt myself.

“When you speak to him, be very respectful,” said Amaryllis.

“I will be,” I replied. “I can’t promise that my acting will be good enough to fool a god, but I can try.”

“It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll have a chance to speak with Invreizen for any length of time,” said our escort.

“Sure,” I said. I stared up at the big bowl of water, watching the god idly swim around. If I looked closely, I could just barely see holes in the palm of one hand holding up the bowl, which must have been either access or piping, with water or personnel being carried down through a hollow arm. I was extremely interested in the logistics of this absurd work of art, but in a way, it felt like trying to figure out how a magic trick was done. My eyes kept going back to Invreizen. He wasn’t quite a dolphin, because he had a more rounded nose, and the tail was slightly different.

I froze for a moment as my brain made the connection, and it was noticeable enough that Amaryllis shifted her stance slightly, preparing herself to take some drastic action.

“So,” I said, my eyes not leaving the god’s form. “When you become a cleric of Invreizen, you might say that you’re called to serve a higher porpoise?”

I grinned at him, and Amaryllis shot me a scowl. I was pretty sure she was going to stab me in the stomach the next time we had a quiet moment together.

“Ah, yes,” our escort said. He looked at Amaryllis, then back to me. “I was told that you would only be here for a few hours? Is there anything that we can help you with in that time, if Invreizen elects not to take company?”

“Help how?” I asked.

“With information, perhaps?” he asked.

“Ah, no,” I replied. “We’ve done our own research, and Raven here is the best librarian that the world has ever known.”

“Most likely fifth best,” Raven replied. “But likely the best living. I don’t have enough information about the goblins to say for certain whether they might have someone better. Regardless, there’s unlikely to be any information you could share I don’t already know, and I’ve personally been in attendance at conversations with all five gods.”

“All … five?” asked our escort. Visiting all four gods wasn’t too uncommon, if you had the time and money to do it, and if you visited often enough, then eventually you might get something approaching a conversation with one. The fifth god was special though, not a part of the normal worship of god botherers, not with any stable base of clerics, not with a city built around him, and not even what you’d call the same type of being as the other four, save that they claimed him as one of their own. It was considered best practice not to say his name.

Raven only nodded, and the subject was dropped. Our escort looked like he wanted nothing to do with us, and I didn’t think that was because of the porpoise pun.

“Fewer people than I thought, actually,” I finally said, looking at the crowds that stood on the ring, most of them staring up at the bowl. I was really hoping that we didn’t have to wait for hours for this all to come to nothing.

“The fee is calculated,” said our escort, seeming happy to have something to contribute. “We try our best to make sure that on normal days, there are only as many people as you see now, enough that it doesn’t feel too crowded. On holy days, the fees are lowered, so that more might come, though Invreizen rarely makes his presence known at those times, save at a distance, or through his domains.”

I said nothing, because what I was thinking was that this was all probably precisely calculated to make the church as much money as it possibly could. Given Invreizen was, at best, extremely negligent about mortals, it all seemed like kind of a rip off. There was a better case to be made for him if you considered the works of his clerics to be his doing as well, but they didn’t exclusively work in his service; they had their own goals that were more closely aligned to that of mortals in general. In a lot of ways, Invreizen and the others were closer to Great Old Ones who mortals made their own deals with, hoping not to suffer for it.

I was watching Invreizen when he transitioned, changing from an oversized porpoise into an oversized octopus in an instant. Normally if entads did something like that, there was some kind of effect, a melding, a shimmering, something, but with him it was sheer discontinuity, like it had happened in the gap between two frames of a movie, albeit in a way that didn’t even slightly disturb the water he was in or fish he was swimming around with. The octopus swam to the edge of the huge bowl, next to one of the immense arms, heaved itself up, then began crawling its way down the forearm, wrapping its tentacles around the beautifully sculpted muscles.

“It looks like you’re in luck,” said our escort, smiling a bit. That smile faded when the octopus reached the roof and began slowly and deliberately moving our way.

When Invreizen reached us, he changed form again, this time to something humanoid, one of the aquatic species with webbed feet and hands. He was much smaller, and it occurred to me that if he really was like the gods I’d designed, then he was a cheater, because he should have been a regular-sized porpoise, or a regular-sized octopus. My second thought was that perhaps Aerb had creatures like that in its expansive oceans, propped up by magic and special adaptations. The merman he’d chosen was tall, probably an exemplar of the species, but not unreasonable.

“Juniper Smith,” he said, then gave me a low bow.

I stared at him, and Amaryllis yanked at my arm, pulling me down to my knees, prostrate in front of the god. In response, Invreizen bowed lower, until his nose was pressed against the floor.

I stood up, despite Amaryllis giving me every signal at her disposal that I shouldn’t. When I did, Invreizen got to his feet.

Around us was silence.

The silence stretched on for what seemed like too long, and I got the distinct impression that he was waiting on me, though I had no idea what for.

“Water you waiting for?” I thought but didn’t say.

“Is there a reason you wanted to sea me?” I didn’t ask him.

“It seems a little bit fishy that you know my name,” I didn’t reply.

(Look, a lot of blame for these thoughts can be laid squarely at Amaryllis’ feet, because she’d had us spend three hours in a meeting trying to think up Fel Seed puns, in case one of them was the key to this whole ordeal and could give us victory in some way by figuring it out ahead of time. It started out fun, but by the time we’d gotten twenty minutes in, I was ready to be done, and by the time the meeting finished, it felt like I’d gone through a whole character arc.)

“We have been watching you with great interest,” he finally said.

There was some commotion about that, because everyone who’d been on the ring with us had come to hear what Invreizen had to say (though the building was big enough that people were still making their way over). Most of them had probably been expecting the god to talk in slightly cryptic language, or to wax rhapsodic about some aspect of one of his domains, which he often did. They most likely weren’t expecting this to be about me personally.

“You sent your clerics to watch me?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “I speak of communication between myself and the other gods.”

There were more murmurs about that. The gods didn’t openly admit to communication very often, as they lived in a state of rather frosty diplomacy (especially frosty in Invreizen’s case (har har)).

“You think that I’m the next Uther?” I asked. I was a little on edge. He could kill in the blink of an eye, with no possible defense against it, given that I was mostly made of water. In the past, people who thought that I was Uther reincarnated had a habit of trying to kill me, with only a few exceptions. Maybe it just felt that way, because I dealt a lot more with the people trying to kill me than the people who were trying to stay out of my way.

“We do not know what you are,” replied Invreizen. “You are a hole in the order of the world, a force which we cannot account for.”

“In what sense?” I asked.

“I am the ultimate master of my domains,” replied Invreizen.

“Okay,” I said, when it was clear he wasn’t going to continue. “And?”

“Where you go, the water does not speak,” said Invreizen. “Where you go, the water continues along on its own, with no shepherd to guide it if it goes astray.”

“Uh,” I said. Fucking cryptic god bullshit. “You’re saying that your powers … don’t work on me?”

He nodded, slowly.

“Well, look,” I said. “That’s not anything that I did, and so long as the water is still water, so long as it fulfills its water essence, so long as I’m not interfering with it being water, that’s not a problem, right?”

“There is no way to answer any heresy,” replied Invreizen. “There is no way to even tell that heresy has been committed.”

“Well, I haven’t,” I said, feeling a little worried. “I’ve been using water like water, same with ice, with the seas, with all of your domains. I’m not a heretic.”

“My brothers and sisters report the same,” said Invreizen. “We can tell where you are by paying attention to where we are deaf, dumb, and blind.”

I waited. It sounded like an accusation to my ears, but it obviously wasn’t anything that I had done. More to the point, it was pretty obviously Dungeon Master interference, either directly, or through some mechanism he controlled. Was it important for some future plot point that I be invisible to the gods? Or was it just to stop them from helping me? If I was hearing Invreizen right, then it was impossible for me to get smacked down by the angry hand of a god, which seemed like a boon, but … well, let’s just say that I always looked gift horses in their mouths where the Dungeon Master seemed to be involved.

Our conversation felt incredibly awkward, because I was trying my best to interpret what he said, and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t speaking out of turn. Unfortunately, someone took the silence as their moment to interject.

“Your worship,” said a man who was standing near me, dressed in clerical blues. “Is communion with other gods —”

Invreizen raised his hand, a very casual gesture, and the man’s water was blasted backward, out of his body. The desiccated corpse fell to the ground with a sound like dry twigs, and then the screaming started from the people around us, which I muted out with vibration magic. It was only because of multithreading that I was able to do that and keep my focus on the god.

It was undeniably frightening, not just that Invreizen could do something like that, and would do something like that, but that he had done it. It took the intellectual understanding of his abilities and disposition into the realm of the real and concrete. From what he’d said, he couldn’t do the same to me, but I had no clue whether that extended to my companions, and obviously there were levers to use against me, like my basic desire for other people not to die.

“Amaryllis,” I said calmly. “Bottle him, please.”

Amaryllis hesitated, maybe worried that it would put her in danger, but she moved all the same once she saw that no one else was moving to ensure the dead man’s soul wouldn’t wind up in the hells. Bottling him was basic decency, but it also wouldn’t do for the infernals to get a hold of this conversation. I glanced nervously at the people near us who were still holding their big, bulky recording devices and worried a bit about how far and wide this conversation would reach. I should probably have been muting the whole thing right from the start, but that had seemed presumptuous. Better late than never though, and I layered the effect of restricting the conversation to just the two of us on top of locking out the screams of panic, which were now dying out.

“What can I do to allay your concerns?” I asked Invreizen.

“There is no need for you to do anything,” he replied. “By your nature you have nothing to worry about.”

“Call it empathy then,” I said. “I’d like it better if the gods weren’t fretting about me. Is there anything that I can do or say? Some promise you’d like me to keep?”

“I would like to see you, as deeply as I can,” he replied.

“Very well,” I said, after a moment’s thought to what that might mean.

He changed, all at once, with the same utter lack of transition. It should have at least caused a little pop from displaced air, but there wasn’t even that. One moment he was an oversized merman, the next he was a creature I had never seen before, and which very possibly didn’t exist on Aerb at all. He had three mouths and eighteen different eyes of all different shapes and sizes, some of them mounted on tentacles, others set into what passed for his face. It was an utter Cronenberg nightmare creature, asymmetrical and ugly, so much so that I wondered whether it had been selected for exactly that purpose.

Invreizen looked at me, and through the Crown of Eyes, I did too.

There was a point to having all those different eyes, and it must have been in order to get as full a picture of me as was possible. My guess was that he’d taken eye designs from every sea creature, living or extinct, as well as some that were theoretical, biological apparatuses from sea birds, and from other creatures where they fell within his domains. I didn’t get access to anything that wasn’t a proper eye, or at least an eye within a degree of reasonableness, but it was still a lot.

Invreizen could see the magic all around me, and see straight through my armor and clothing. He could see hidden patterns on my skin, anatomical stripes and whorls that I’d known existed but never seen on a person except in crude line diagrams, Kraissl’s lines, Langer’s lines, Blaschko’s lines, hidden variations that came from the migrations of embryonic cells as I’d grown up. I could see my organs, and the structure of my bones, the flow of my blood, the food working its way through my digestive system, the saliva coating my teeth inside my mouth, the ridges of my brain. I could see the magic that infused much of my body, and the color of my soul. I could even see into my soul itself, through Invreizen’s eyes, and I thought to warn him about looking at the meme there, but if a god could be brought low by a meme … well I had to imagine that if it were possible, it would have already happened.

There was something else he saw though, beyond the totality of my earthly existence, and into the metaphysical. There was something on me, almost too bright to look at with whatever biological or magical instrumentation he was staring at it with, bright enough that he seemed to go blind in whatever eye was staring at the metaphysical nexus.

And then, unexpectedly, he was finished, back to a different form, this one a humanoid creature of water with a mouth and vocal tract visible inside the water, the only solid, organic parts of him. He no longer had eyes for me to see through.

At almost the same moment, at first through the Crown of Eyes, I realized that I was seeing things through a new but familiar perspective, the world as an abstract, metaphorical piece of art.

The locus was standing beside me.

As seen through her eyes, Invreizen was distinctly lacking in grandeur. He was large, true, but rather than any of the awe-inspiring or larger-than-life forms he’d taken so far, he was a fish, one that lay on the ground, breathing heavily with dull eyes. There was no respect in how she saw him, nothing like acknowledgement of his status as a deity.

He gave her a bow, and she dipped her head in response.

“One should not be surprised by the impossibility of a locus,” said Invreizen.

I watched the two of them watching each other. Neither had a body language that I spoke, and through the doe’s eyes, all I could get was a sense of her disdain toward him. From him, in this water form that had only the mechanisms necessary to make mouth noises, it was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was her interpretation that made me think of him as a dull and uninspiring fish.

“When did your blindness to me start?” I asked Invreizen. “When did the gods first notice it?”

“Not long ago,” he replied. “No more than a moon, though it wasn’t obvious, at first.”

“I see,” I replied. “Then it was probably the locus, protecting me.”

“That is now the inescapable conclusion,” replied Invreizen. “It is mollifying, as a locus can be killed.”

“I don’t think that it would ever need to come to that,” I said, though I had no idea whether anything the locus had done would rise to the level of heresy in the eyes of the god. Certainly the locus was capable of manipulating lots of natural materials, but surely — well, I couldn’t be sure, not without consulting a gaggle of clerics, or Raven’s supply of books from the past and future. I had looked into the nature of the locus, but there had been very little written on their interactions with the gods, only some notes about the perceived similarities between the two entities. There was, apparently, a metaphysical link between us, one visible through some kind of eye that Invreizen had been able to make.

“There is nothing more to discuss,” he said, turning away from me. “The source of the confusion is now clear, though no less confusing for it, and if there is a threat, it is in some capacity known.”

I wanted to ask whether he wasn’t curious about the locus being here, outside her domain, or, if he could see the way I extended the domain, whether he wanted to ask questions about why her domain surrounded me. I kept my mouth shut though, because there was still a dead man not far from us.

Ask for gold from him, said the call of the gold.

What the actual fuck, I thought back. I am not going to risk my life to beg for gold that he wouldn’t even give me.

Do it now, replied the call of the gold. Trade on your relationship with the locus.

Fuck you, man, first off, no way that works, second, that’s a betrayal of the locus. I was getting more upset the more I ‘talked’ to the call. Of all the fucking things that it could have asked for, this was one of the most irritating.

Invreizen began striding across the ring, past his clerics and supplicants, whose pleas and questions he wasn’t even pretending he was going to answer.

You need me, said the call of the gold.

I grit my teeth, trying my best to keep my face perfectly expressionless. Most of the attention was on Invreizen, but some fraction of the crowd we’d attracted had decided that I was the one to watch. The mood was decidedly muted, given the corpse that was now being put onto a stretcher, but almost everyone who would make this kind of trip was well-apprised of the temperaments of gods.

“Invreizen,” I called, striding toward the god, raising my voice to be heard but trying to keep my tone professional. “There’s another matter.”

“Oh?” he asked, turning toward me. He altered his form again, this time to become a tall, well-muscled woman with gills at her neck, some kind of hybrid of species, I was guessing. He — she, rather — was completely nude.

“We’re going against Fel Seed,” I said. “We need resources.”

I made sure to tamp down with vibration magic, but there were limits on how much could be done, and if there were another vibration mage, they’d have all sorts of ways to boost the signal back up so they could listen in. I wasn’t good enough to stop every avenue of attack. It was much harder to constrain his side of things so that only I could hear it, and though I was trying, I didn’t think I was doing a good enough job.

“If you know anything at all about the gods, then you know that our hands do not move lightly, especially not for elements outside our domains.” He seemed on more sure footing now than he had at the start, still with a bit of deference, but aimed at the locus, rather than at me. I wasn’t sure whether he was viewing me as merely a cleric or what, but he seemed to think that he’d solved whatever puzzle I had posed. It was clear that his mind changing wasn’t to my benefit.

“In Fel Seed’s zone, there’s a dimensional tunnel, one that leads to another world, which threatens to overrun our own,” I said. “Fel Seed is guarding against invasion, after a sort, but he doesn’t have our mutual interests at heart. The tunnel is a pathway to a world filled with heresies, and likewise, an avenue for those heresies to spill out into Aerb. Not long ago, we found the remains of a soldier who had made it through.”

He watched me for a moment. “You’re telling the truth,” he said.

“Yes,” I nodded. Technically. I wasn’t willing to lie to him, but I was willing to stretch the truth a bit. Earth was a place of heresy, so far as I understood it, if only for the complete lack of magic. “Please,” I said. “We need something, whatever you can offer.”

Gold, said the call of the gold. Or something that can be sold for gold.

I didn’t respond to that. I would have been happier with a boon, personally, or maybe one of us being made into a cleric, which was pure upside and had some nice overlap with my existing magics.

“You are far from the first to suggest that there is some heresy that must be met by action,” he said.

“You said yourself that I’m telling the truth,” I replied. I didn’t know how he thought he knew that. I was a mage of two of his domains, and thus fell more under his dominion than a normal human, but if I was somehow under the protection of the locus, then I didn’t know how that helped him.

“The truth can be as mercurial as water,” said Invreizen.

“You have resources at your command,” I said. “The least you could do is confirm for yourself whether or not there’s anything to what I have to say.”

“I’ve already done that,” he replied.

“You’ve looked into the zone with your godly vision?” I asked. “And?”

“There are truths that are not truths, and truths that mortal minds are not to know,” said Invreizen, giving me a sagely nod of the head, as though that were wise.

Push him on the matter of financial assistance.

“You have clerics,” I said. “At your word, we could have their assistance. You have money that we could use in order to finally defeat Fel Seed and secure the tunnel.” I had no idea how to outright ask for gold, and I was worried that Invreizen would decide, on a whim, to simply kill me, which I had no defense against except (apparently) the locus, who was still standing beside me, and whose domain followed me around.

“Matters of the church are left to the church,” replied Invreizen.

Threaten to go into p-space and alter the fundamental definitions of his domains, said the call of the gold.

I stood there, trying to think about how to speak what the call of the gold was asking me to speak. I could see the connection between p-space, the Platonic Realm of Thoughts and Ideas, and the definitional reality of the gods, but it wasn’t something that I had any concrete knowledge of, it was just a hunch. Threatening Invreizen would have been bad enough, but to do it with what might have been a paper sword … that would be insanity. The payoff could have been huge, even if I’d be making a very powerful enemy, but to actually do it —

Now, or lose the power forever. The locus will protect you. He has no recourse.

I needed gold magic. I needed it, it was the only way I could see that we could get through Fel Seed without it being grossly reckless. But this, if this wasn’t the line, then I didn’t know where the line would ever be. It wasn’t just the threat, it was the dependence on the locus to ensure that I couldn’t be eliminated, and the locus and I were — almost, kind of, friends, I guessed. Even if we weren’t, she didn’t deserve being used like that.

“Nevermind,” I said. “Forget that I asked.”

I was hoping that it was an idle threat, that I would get a second chance, but no, I felt the power leave me almost at once, the extra senses fading away.

Achievement Unlocked: Gold Standards

Quest Completed: God Botherer - You have made it through a conversation with a god without getting yourself obliterated, albeit at some minor cost. This text should not be taken as an implication that you can’t still screw it up somehow.

I breathed out a bit, then when Invreizen seemed to have no response, I walked away as quickly as I could.

“Fuck,” I said as I walked away. “Fuck fuck.”

“Gold magic?” asked Amaryllis, taking up a place at my side as I moved. On the other side was the locus, who was attracting considerable attention. People probably didn’t know or understand what it was, but they knew that it was some kind of magic.

“Gold magic is gone,” I replied.

“Okay,” she said. “I’d wondered.”

“We’ll talk more later,” I said. “Somewhere safer.”

We had, at some point, lost our escort. Maybe he didn’t think it was safe to stick around, or maybe he thought that escorting us was more of a hazard than he was getting paid for, but he was nowhere to be seen, and we were left to descend down the elevator on our own. The locus looked as though she was debating getting into the elevator car with us, but after a moment, she elected to evaporate instead, with us in spirit only.

“What happened?” Amaryllis asked, once we were seated on the train. We had a cabin for just the four of us, small enough that we could all sit within range of Grak’s built-in wards.

“Raven,” I said. “Do the definitions used by the gods live, in some sense, in p-space?”

“Uh,” she replied. “I don’t think it ever came up, or if it did, then I wasn’t privy to it. Is that … true?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I had a hunch that it was. The call of the gold wanted me to threaten Invreizen with something like that, I don’t know if it had some special understanding, or if it was just using my guess, but — I probably would have done it, but the only protection I had was the locus.”

“You understand that we weren’t privy to most of what was said?” asked Amaryllis. “You muted it.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Way, way too hard to do it any other way. I’m not yet a comprehensive audio system.”

I had to explain what had passed between Invreizen and myself for them, which took some time.

“Not a tragedy then,” said Grak, the first to give his input after a moment of silence.

“Were you not listening?” I asked. “Gold magic is gone. It’s a huge setback.”

“Of all the ways that it might have failed us, to fail in defense of a friend was good,” said Grak.

I blinked at him. “I guess,” I said.

“Far better than to have the issue pressed when we were in Fel Seed’s zone,” said Amaryllis.

“Or while you were in the middle of a long flight,” said Raven.

“It does throw a wrench in the works though,” I said. I was feeling a little bit warm. I hadn’t expected anyone to congratulate me for doing what seemed like the right thing.

“It does,” nodded Amaryllis. “But it’s nothing that cripples us, not as far as our near-term plans go. I’ll put a halt to liquidation, and we’ll have to be cautious about the threats that have been waiting in the wings. Best to not reveal that you’ve lost the power, because I worry that we’ll have dragons on us if they know.”

“I doubt it,” said Raven. “The dragons left Uther alone, once he proved their equal.”

“If he kills a dragon, shame on Uther, if he kills a second dragon, shame on the dragon?” I asked.

“Something like that,” she said, giving me a little smile. “At least, so far as I understand dragons.”

“Am I right that we got essentially nothing from that meeting?” I asked. “Maybe a little insight into the ways in which the locus is similar to a god, but that’s nothing that I haven’t read about in textbooks. That the locus has been offering me protection … good to know, I guess, but it means that the locus is a lot more powerful than I’d thought, or at least godlike in unknown ways.”

“No hints on what you might need in order to further resolve the locus’ situation?” asked Amaryllis.

“There’s one thing I haven’t tried,” I said. “But that’s going to have to wait until after we get back.”

“Our plans haven’t changed?” asked Amaryllis.

“So far as I’m concerned, the god was a distraction,” I replied. “The real work lies ahead of us.”

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Alexander Wales

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