Avilla wasn’t the only one collecting her own followers, of course. Cerise was teaching witchcraft to Tina’s childhood friend Beri, and she’d picked up a couple of other novices as well. She’d also more or less taken over Corinna’s band of warrior dryads, and she’d been continuing our experiments with powering up the nature spirits by pouring mana into their land.
“You’re going to love all the benefits you get out of the deal,” she told me. “It’s working just like we thought. I feed magic from my amulet into their land, and it makes them stronger. Then they do their thing, and it makes me stronger too.”
“Their thing?” I asked.
She grinned at me. “You’ll see. Pelagia is going to hold a revel for you, to get things going with her grove. It’s heady stuff, the way they practically worship you when they’re showing their appreciation.”
“I’m not a god,” I pointed out.
“Not yet. This is going to make both of us demigods, though, and I bet we don’t stop there. What are the odds we can get our hands on some of Idun’s apples before this war ends?”
“Speaking of which, I noticed a substantial change in your life force,” Elin put in. “I don’t think you’re as mortal as you were when you left. Do you have any idea what could have caused that?”
“Huh. Interesting. Well, it turns out that Gaea grows magic bananas that work a lot like the golden apples in Asgard.”
“What’s a banana?” Tina asked curiously.
“Wait, you stole some?” Cerise exclaimed. “I want one!”
“A kind of fruit that doesn’t grow in Europe,” I told Tina. “And no, I didn’t steal any. I didn’t even know what they were, until Mara gave me one.”
Everyone looked a bit startled at that.
“She must really like you,” Tina observed.
I shrugged. “She’s kind of a mess. I think she’s interested, but her family problems are as bad as it gets. Her mother’s holding her immortality hostage, the brothers she grew up with are a bunch of rapists, and she’s so desperate for her father’s approval that she’ll happily help him murder everyone in Europe.”
Cerise and Avilla exchanged a speculative look.
“We were wondering if it was something like that,” Avilla said. “But, her own brother?”
“More than one of them,” I corrected. “Gaea set things up so that would happen on purpose. I’m not sure if she’s just a cruel bitch, or if there’s some devious purpose to it all. Either way, Mara’s a long way from being over it.”
“We have to help her,” Tina declared.
“I’d like to,” Avilla agreed. “But I’m not sure it’s wise. There’s not much to be done for people who aren’t right in the head, and she’s very powerful. If she ever has a breakdown, or just has a bad day and lashes out, people could die.”
Elin sighed. “I agree with you, Avilla. She’s a risk, and an added complication to what is already a quite complicated situation. But can we really turn her away, if she comes to us for help? If she has really endured such a horror, and come out of it unbroken, I can’t help but feel sympathy for her.”
“Sounds like we’re moving on to the heavy subjects,” Cerise said. “Good timing, because I’m completely stuffed. How about we take this discussion to the ritual chamber?”
“It has the best wards,” Avilla agreed.
It was also isolated and soundproof, so we’d be able to keep anyone from overhearing us. If there was anywhere we could make plans without being spied on, it was there.
“So, what all do we need to talk about?” I asked once the doors were safely sealed.
“Can you tell us more about how the mission went?” Avilla said. “I didn’t dare ask before, but it should be safe to talk here.”
I shrugged. “I planted the device. If it worked right the andregi won’t have any more sleeping warriors to wake, so they’ll stop getting reinforcements any day now. There were a couple of complications, though.”
I went on to describe Brand’s disastrous raid on the Halls of Slumber, and my own encounter with Mara. Elin still seemed a little miffed about that, but Cerise and Tina were all smiles.
“Do you think we can make an ally of her?” Avilla sked.
“Definitely. She’s pretty attached to her father’s side of the family, so I don’t think she’s going to turn on them. But on a personal level she’s desperate for companionship, and I think we connected. Besides, she’s already asked for my help with something that’s pretty important to her. It seems she’s about to have a little sister, and she’s trying to find some way to keep the poor girl from growing up the way she did.”
That required more explanation, of course. By the time I’d finished the tale Elin had reluctantly come around to lobbying in Mara’s favor.
“This will, however, be quite dangerous,” she observed. “If Gaea is pregnant she will likely avoid battle, and stealing a child from her would not be easy. I don’t know how we could hide the girl for any length of time.”
“Hiding isn’t going to work,” I said. “The only way we survive getting involved in this, is if Gaea dies before Ragnarok is over.”
They all stared at me in shocked silence for a long moment.
“Can you kill a goddess, Daniel?” Tina asked timidly.
“Not by myself,” I admitted. “But I’m sure the Aesir will be doing everything they can to take her down. What we need to do is watch, make preparations, and be ready to strike when the opportunity presents itself. Cerise, Elin, who worships Gaea these days?”
“Mostly just her children,” Cerise said. “Goblins, trolls, hags and ape men.”
“So far as I am aware there are no human cults who honor her,” Elin agreed. “Nor do the elves or dwarves pay her homage. She has rejected all but the most primitive worshippers for ages now.”
“That’s good. The andregi live in Skogheim. What about the rest of those races?”
Cerise stretched out across the collection of pillows and blankets that covered the floor of the ritual chamber, and put her head in Avilla’s lap. “Most of them live here on Midgard, but I think I’ve heard something about goblins in Jotunheim before. Elin?”
The delicate faerie settled herself on a pile of pillows beside me, and frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe you are correct. Hags live in the wilder swamps and woods of Europe, while goblins and trolls inhabit the mountains. Goblin tribes are also found in the mountains of Jotunheim, and possibly the jungles of Skogheim. They’re hardy creatures, and very difficult to eradicate.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” Tina asked her.
“Many things,” Elin replied.
“If you say so. Here, let me take this down for you while you smart people talk.” Tina started working on Elin’s hair, removing the ornaments that were woven into her hairdo and brushing it out.
“Thank you, dear. Daniel, are you relying on the Julian hypothesis of divine power here? Because I must caution you that no firm link has ever been demonstrated between a god’s power and the number of his worshipers.”
“No, it’s not that simple,” I said. “Gods don’t get their power from worshippers. But I know a little bit about why it’s so hard to kill a god, beyond just the fact that they’re powerful. A church is one of the things that they use to anchor themselves to this plane of existence, and a goddess who doesn’t have one anymore is a lot easier for the other gods to kill.”
Cerise chuckled. “That’s one way to get the job done. Tina, these are serious secrets of the gods here, so don’t ever talk about them outside this room. Alright?”
“My lips are sealed,” the catgirl replied.
“Good. We’d need to make sure her sons die too, and scour Skogheim clean of ape men somehow. I don’t know how we’d pull that off.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “But once again, the Aesir are already working on it. I’m not sure what Brand was really doing there, but I don’t think it was as simple as a botched raid. He had some kind of magic device implanted under his skin, and the more I think about it the more convinced I am that he let himself get captured.”
Elin nodded thoughtfully. “Odin is known as a crafty god. It would be quite in character for him to rely on some form of subterfuge to eliminate the threat of the andregi, or to somehow neutralize Gaea.”
“I don’t think even Odin can just ‘neutralize’ an elder goddess,” Avilla commented. “But that raid has given us a more immediate complication to deal with. Daniel, Prince Caspar seems to be dead. He led most of Kozalin’s best knights through the Dark Portal on that raid, and only a handful of them returned.”
“Oh. So, who’s in charge of the city now?” I asked.
“That’s the problem. Pelagia tells me there’s no one in the city with enough support to take over, and with the king besieged again he’s in no position to enforce a decree. There are four dukes in town, all of about the same standing, and they spent most of the afternoon arguing with each other about what to do next. The Conclave isn’t likely to take orders from any of them, and neither will what’s left of the church.”
“Great. What about the city government?”
“The mayor died in the devourer attack, along with most of the city council. With all the chaos of the earthquake and invasion they haven’t managed to replace them, so for now each guild and district is running itself.”
“I hear there are some rabble-rousers working the refugee shelters too,” Cerise said. “Blaming the nobles for the food shortage, and getting the young men all worked up. I’m not sure who they’re working for, but I bet there’s some kind of uprising coming.”
“The prince was also the one responsible for treating with the faerie,” Elin pointed out. “The Summer Queen won’t deign to meet with a man who isn’t royalty, so without him to carry on the negotiations there’s scant hope of aid from that quarter.”
I sighed. “So what you’re telling me is, Kozalin is about to fall apart?”
They all nodded.
“Perhaps a miracle will occur, and all the city’s factions will come together under a single banner,” Elin said. “But the chances of that are slim. The nobles will not follow a wizard, the wizards will not follow a noble, the commoners are restive and the church serves only the gods. Without a royal to unite the city’s factions, I fear Kozalin will soon descend into chaos.”