A city of glistening marble unfolded below Gideon as he reached the top of a hill. Meletis was far bigger than Akros, though both poleis put together would be dwarfed by a single Ravnican district.

Chandra whistled. “It’s pretty.”

It was. At this distance the city of philosophers gleamed like a polished jewel, from the statues of various gods that stood in the center of every square to dozens of ships with colorful sails bobbing in the harbor. For as long as Gideon could remember people had spoken of Meletis as a haven of knowledge, where any question could be answered and the unanswerable ones were argued to death anyway. He hoped that was the case.

“Come on slowpoke,” Chandra had passed him as he surveyed the polis. “There’s a bath with my name on it somewhere down there and I don’t wanna miss it.”

“The bathhouses aren’t going to run away Chandra.”

“They might if I stink any worse when I get there,” she shot back over her shoulder.

Gideon shook his head, unable to hide his smile. After days spent sleeping under trees and avoiding minotaur gangs, the sight of Meletis lifted a weight from his shoulders. A gnawing worry had been in the back of his mind that they’d miss the city somehow and wander for weeks in the wilderness.

The guards standing beside the gate barely looked at the pair of Planeswalkers before waving them through.  Gideon asked where they could find rooms and was directed to a tavern that was a short walk from the main gate.

The tavern turned out to be a squat building with generations worth of additions and extra rooms sprawled out from a central building. Even in the middle of the day the common room was full of merchants and other travelers, including a centaur who was awkwardly crab-stepping around the tables so that he wouldn’t scrape his head on the ceiling.

Gideon paid for a room for a few days and earned a suspicious glare from the broad-shouldered innkeeper when he paid with Ravnican Zibs. They unpacked what little they had in one of the tavern’s medium-sized bedrooms and Chandra disappeared to find a bath.

Gideon settled for dumping a bucket of water over his head before sitting down and caring for his armor. A week in the wilds had left it mud-stained and there was a burr stuck somewhere that had been digging into his side since the second night. He busied himself with the familiar work, letting his mind work through the problems they faced while his body moved automatically.

He was finishing up when Chandra returned, her red hair dark with water and steaming despite the cool day. “How was it?”

“Something feels off.” Chandra frowned. “Not that baths I mean. They’ve really nice.”

Gideon paused from adjusting his sword’s scabbard so it would hang correctly. “How so?”

“Hard to describe.” Her eyebrows crinkled into fuzzy lines of irritation. “Everyone’s really jumpy, you know? Like, when some people learn about my whole bursting-into-flames thing they get really weirded out and can’t stop staring at me, like they think I’m going to ignite at any time and they’re not sure if they want to run or throw me in a lake. Everyone I’ve seen is like that here.”

“You’re sure they aren’t worried about you?” He smiled to take the sting out of the words.

Chandra shook her head, wet curls flopping around. “Trust me. I know when people are scared of me. This is like everyone’s afraid of their neighbors.”

Gideon frowned. “You think this has something to do with Ob Nixilis?”

She shrugged. “No clue. But something’s off. I figure it’s a good place to start.”

“Agreed.” He finished buckling his armor, turning his wrists a few times to make sure the metal would flex correctly. “I’d been planning to speak with the rulers here, but it’ll be better if we can get the lay of the land first.”

On their way out Gideon asked the innkeeper where a good place to get news of recent happenings would be. The man’s close-set eyes darted around nervously before he suggested they try one of the temples, but when Gideon asked for directions the man let out a hearty laugh.

“This is Meletis boy. You’ll be lucky if you can walk for two minutes without bumping into one.”

Sure enough there was a small temple to Heliod on that same street. Its domed roof was open so that the midday sun shone down and illuminated a marble statue of the god, a laurel crown resting on his brow and the sun spear Khrusor raised above his head.

Gideon went to step between the pillars that flanked the entranceway when someone shouted. “No further!”

A young man in the pure white robes of Heliod’s devout rushed out from the back of the room to place himself between the Planeswalkers and Heliod’s statue. He stared at them with wild eyes. “I’ve had enough of you forge-freaks barging in here and trying to burn my home to the ground. Go to the ring if your god wants you to destroy someone’s life. I won’t have it here!”

Gideon looked down at Chandra and mouthed “What did you do?” She shrugged, her face twisted in hurt and confusion.

“I’m sorry,” Gideon said. “I think there’s been some misunderstanding. Why would anyone want to burn your temple?” Now that he looked there were scorch marks on the stone walls.

“I don’t know!” The priest screamed, his face red and flushed. “Ask Purphoros. I’m not the one setting stuff on fire, he is!”

“But . . .” Confusion brought Gideon’s thoughts to a halt. This treatment had almost made sense after Chandra had incinerated a Cyclops, but she hadn’t used any fire in Meletis. The air at his back was barely even warm. “We aren’t followers of Purphoros.”

“I’m not that stupid!” The young priest grabbed a long brass candleholder and leveled it at Gideon like a makeshift spear. “Out! Get Out!”

Gideon backed away from the thrusting candles and onto the street, his hands held up to show he wouldn’t reach for his sword. The priest kept the spear leveled at them until they rounded the next corner. Something the priest had said nagged at him, so he asked a passing triton for directions to the ring. Eventually they found their way to a large crowd occupying the center of a public square, surrounded by huge buildings that passers-by had told him were part of a school.  Statues of various gods overlooked the crowd. Chandra took one look at the throng and climbed onto the pedestal of a statue to see over their heads.

“Gids, you gotta see this.”

Gideon stood next to the statue and craned his neck to get a decent look over the crowd.

Growing up, Gideon had heard dozens of stories of Meletis. Some praised the knowledge and ingenuity on display there, the marvels of architecture that Akros could only dream of. Others derided it as a city of bloated and lazy thinkers who wouldn’t last a day in the wilds.

None of them mentioned armed combat in the streets.

The crowd had formed as a ring around two combatants. A tall, thin triton armed with a two-pronged spear leapt and spun around a graceful woman armed with a shield and a short sword.

Cheers rang out as the triton deflected the sword with a twirl of his spear and used his momentum to stab at his opponent’s feet. She countered by dropping low and caught its barbed points on her shield. The triton leapt back from a quick slash, and they resumed circling.

Gideon clapped the woman next him on the shoulder. He had to yell to make himself heard over the crowd. “Who’s fighting?”

“Argyros,” the dark-skinned woman shouted back.  “High Priestess of Pharika and the best damn healer in the Polis. The fish is Thrasios, champion of Thassa.”

Gideon arched an eyebrow. What was a healer doing in a fighting ring?

The woman, Argyros, parried a jab from the spear and rushed forward, getting inside Thrasios’s reach. He leapt back and somersaulted out of her range. Sunlight glinted on his scales and Gideon sucked in a breath. The triton was blindfolded.

Despite the handicap Thrasios was untouched while Argyros bled from a cut on her leg. He was using the spear’s range to keep out of his opponent’s reach. It could work, Gideon realized as the triton drove Argyros back with a series of fast thrusts. Sooner or later blood loss would take hold. If Thrasios was truly skilled enough to avoid injury for a few minutes the fight would be over.

“Yeah!” Chandra whooped. “Kick his head in lady!”

Argyros blocked another thrust and struck back with her sword only for Thrasios to backpedal out of her reach. They repeated the cycle like a dance, Thrasios retreating around the ring of onlookers again and again while Argyros pursued, her sword always a hair too short.

Gideon saw what was coming a second before it happened. Thrasios spun away from the sword once more, but this time his feet landed in the blood that had spilled from Argyros’s wound. For a split second he lost his balance. Just a second. It was enough.

As soon as the triton slipped Argyros charged and closed the distance Thrasios had maintained so carefully. There was a flurry of blows back and forth, the clang of metal upon metal and the fighter’s grunts of exertion audible as the onlookers held their breath.

Then the two fighters separated. Despite being taken by surprise Thrasios only sported two wounds, a gash on the back of his spear hand and deeper cut on his upper leg. Argyros bled from both arms now, and she sported a large knot next to her eye where the butt of Thrasios’s spear had slammed into her head. They circled each other once more, both wounded and wary.

Thrasios’s spear fell to the ground with a clang.

The triton wavered where he stood, then simply crumpled to the ground. From where he stood Gideon couldn’t see if he was breathing. Argyros hooked the fallen spear with her sword and slid it away from her foe. She looked down at him for several seconds, then walked over to him and placed the tip of her sword on his throat.

“Have you anything to say?”

“I surrender.” Thrasios’s voice was weak. “I was wrong to say the Pantheon should never change. All things must come to an end in time.”

“Good.” Argyros sheathed her sword and turned to face the crowd. “Break it up you lot! Let the healers through. Demas! Bring my bag.”

Several disciples of Pharika descended on the pair, wrapping wounds and applying poultices while the onlookers slowly drifted away, most muttering darkly about what they’d just seen. Argyros herself administered some kind of potion to her fallen foe, after which two of the healers carried him away on a stretcher.

“What do’ya think that was all about?” Chandra’s face was flushed with excitement.

Gideon could only shake his head. “I don’t have the faintest idea.”

“Huh.” Chandra wrinkled her nose. “Let’s go talk to her.” With that she hopped down off the plinth and plunged into the luster of healers surrounding Argyros. One of them let out a loud yelp and stumbled away holding his ribs.

Gideon smiled and followed her.

Up close Argyros was a middle-aged woman with olive skin and a wistful smile. She let one of her followers tie off a bandage around her arm, then waved the rest of them away and turned to face the two planeswalkers. “You have questions.”

“Your blade,” Gideon said. “It was poisoned.”

“Of course.” She locked eyes with him, daring him to challenge her. “You disapprove.”

“I do.” His jaw clenched. “It’s dishonorable.”

“Was it?” She smiled. “Would it be dishonorable to use fire to sear the stumps of a hydra’s neck? To stuff your ears with wax before facing a siren?”

“What? No.” Gideon frowned with confusion. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“If taking advantage of the weaknesses in a monster’s physiology is not dishonorable and yet doing the same with poison somehow is, then where does the distinction lie? The difference cannot be sapience, as Hyllus the Elder was able to hold and document several written conversations with a captured harpy before he was devoured. Nor can it be that the dishonor resides in exploiting your own species’ weaknesses, for I am no more a triton than Thrasios is human.” She smiled, the expression calm yet remarkably predatory. “Or could it be that you dislike the idea of someone using poison against you and wish to construct a framework that discourages its use in an arena you might find yourself competing in?”

Gideon rocked back in surprise. Eventually he settled for a muttered. “I’m immune.”

She threw her head back and laughed. “A declaration I’d be happy to put to the test some time. More to your point however, Thrasios knew my weapons were poisoned before the match started. He agreed to it when he challenged me.”

“Why’d he do that?” Chandra flopped onto a nearby bench and propped her feet up on its arm. “Seems pretty dumb.”

“For the same reason he fought blindfolded. He wanted to defeat me utterly, with no room for the gossipmongers to claim that I would have prevailed had I not been forced to hold back.”

Chandra snorted. “How does him wearing a blindfold stop you from holding back?”

“Gaze of the gorgon dear.” Argyros tapped the side of her head with two fingers. “One of many blessings from my goddess, though one that is problematic in a public fight. The blindfold was a compromise we came up with so he could have his unrestricted fight without risking those who came to witness our clash. It’s also well known enough to tell me you are both newly come to Meletis.” She winked at Gideon. “Akroan, if I don’t miss my guess.”

“Not for many years. I’ve been traveling.”

“I don’t doubt it. Your companion however . . .” She shook her head. “You will forgive me for saying, but I cannot imagine where one such as yourself would call home.”

“I get that a lot.” Chandra shot a glance at Gideon. “I’m from . . . far away. Across the sea.”

It was the story they’d agreed on to deflect questions about her red hair, but Argyros grew visibly intrigued. “Across the sea you say? There are a great many people who would wish to know what the lands there are like. The cartographers alone would keep you busy for years if you let them.”

“I’m not . . . good with . . . maps and stuff. That’s what cartographers do, right?” Chandra stared at Gideon with the desperation of someone drowning inches from shore.

He coughed awkwardly. “If you don’t mind me asking, why were you and Thrasios fighting, Lady Argyros? We arrived after the duel had begun.”

“What else?” For the first time Argyros slumped a little, her proud shoulders bowing under an unseen weight. “My thesis was that change is an essential part of existence for all things, and that to exclude the gods from such a statement is madness. He argued that the essence of divinity is fixed, that it might fluctuate under extreme circumstances but would always return to what he called ‘its essential form.’ Things escalated, as they so often do these days.”

“So you fought. Over philosophy?” Gideon couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of his voice.

“It’s all too common now. Once a duel like the one you just witnessed would have been unthinkable, but much has changed since the Schism.”

“What’s a schism?” Chandra asked.

“It’s what we’ve been calling the war amongst the gods. I suppose the name itself hasn’t spread much beyond the walls of the polis. It’s a useful lesson on the limitations of language.”

“Wait,” Gideon interrupted. “War? You’re saying the pantheon is at war with itself.”

“You don’t know?” Argyros blinked. “How?”

“Like I said, we’ve been in the wilds for a long time. I haven’t seen the walls of Akros since I was a child. We saw the gods fighting in Nyx from time to time, but war? I assumed we were seeing isolated conflicts.”

Argyros went still, regarding Gideon with her dark eyes. Uncertainty clawed at his insides. What had happened to his home? Theros felt rotten, a shadow of the plane he remembered.

Finally Argyros stood and handed her sword to one of her assistants, who handled it with the same ginger care one would an ill-tempered cobra. “Come with me. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Chandra shrugged and hopped to her feet, chatting with the older woman as they followed her into one of the nearby buildings. To Gideon’s surprise it wasn’t a temple of Pharika, but rather a school adorned with the imagery of Ephara. Argyros led them to a small courtyard where a slim woman sat hunched over a sketchbook.

Argyros stopped at the entranceway. “Excuse me. I’ve brought visitors.”

“Join me, please.” The woman’s voice was quiet, yet it carried with the clarity of an expert orator. She laid her quill down and set the sketchbook aside.

“This is Perisophia.”  Argyros said. “Leader of the Twelve and one of the foremost philosophers in the polis.” The philosopher, Perisophia, rose and crossed her arms across her chest in a gesture of greeting.

“A pleasure.” Gideon stepped forward and clapped Perisophia on the shoulder. “I’m Gideon and this is Chandra.” The pyromancer waved. “We’re travelers, newly arrived to Meletis. I’d been planning to seek an audience with yourself and the rest of the twelve, but I admit I have no idea why Argyros brought us to meet you.”

“Gideon. Chandra.” Perisophia said their names slowly, like she was savoring an exotic fruit. “You bear unusual names, travelers.”

“We’re from far away. People here seem to have an easier time pronouncing my name as Kytheon.”

“What is easy is rarely correct,” She said. “To keep this conversation from descending into the muddled realm of confusion it seems wise to clarify why we have been brought together. Argyros, if you please.”

The healer shrugged. “They didn’t know about the war in Nyx. For something that important I didn’t trust myself not to warp the tale and twist what I told them to favor Pharika’s image. Better for both of us to give them our own accountings and let them make up their own minds.”

Perisophia favored the other woman with a coy smile.

“Alright, fine. The big one had already gotten mad at me for using poison in the duel. Odds are they wouldn’t believe me anyway, and you’re the only person I trust to put their own agenda aside and not bias them one way or the other.”

That seemed to satisfy the philosopher, who clasped her hands behind her back and walked to one of the courtyard’s low windows. “And yourself, master Gideon? Why would you seek audience with the twelve?”

“It can wait,” he said. “Our mission is urgent, but planning a battle before you know the terrain is folly, if you’ll excuse the metaphor.”

For a long time Perisophia was silent, wisps of her hair playing about in the afternoon breeze.

“They say it is best to start at the beginning of a tale, but in this case it is difficult to discern where exactly that beginning is. Some would say this war began when Purphoros challenged Heliod for the throne of Nyx once more. Others would claim that challenge to be the inevitable result of Heliod’s heavy-handed rule. Personally I find myself inclined to believe it began when the questioner first walked into a temple and asked us to reexamine what a God should be, but even that had its roots in the Silence, and on and on. Some determinists would claim that there was a single instigating incident at the beginning of time which was the cause of all things, though taking that stance would make my current task impossible.

“What I can say for certain is that one day Purphoros attacked Heliod, and for the first time other Gods joined the fray. The destruction was indescribable, though limited to the realm of Nyx. That first battle raged for days unabated and it wasn’t until more than a week had passed that oracles were able to seek answers from their gods. By that time explanations had fragmented, twisted in one direction or another to suit the whims of those giving them. Some branded Heliod a coward for wielding the traitor’s blade against his own kin; others decried Purphoros for attacking the natural order.”

“When was this?”

“Two full moons past. No night has passed since then without battle in the heavens.”

“What are the sides in this war?”

“You have the mind of a soldier.” Perisophia smiled. “In truth, the answer to that question changes every night. Erebos and Kruphix have stayed out of the fight so far, though rumors abound that the Lord of the Dead is poised to strike Setessa. While Nylea and Thassa have each sided with both of their brothers at different times, both are currently aligned with Heliod. Iroas has been steadfastly on the Sun god’s side, which means Mogis has not strayed from the god of the Forge. Ephara has consistently sided with Heliod each night, though I believe it would be more accurate to say she stands against Purphoros. And of course Phenax has taken every opportunity to sabotage and betray all involved. You begin to see how difficult the question you posed is?”

Gideon smiled. “It helps, nonetheless.”

“Being informed often does.”

“What about Freaky?” Chandra blushed. “Snake lady. The one we saw that first night by the shore.”

“She means Pharika.” Gideon looked at Argyros, who’d taken a seat at the edge of the courtyard.

“My lady believes Heliod is no longer capable of ruling the pantheon. The wheel must turn, and he has held it in place for far too long.”

Gideon looked at the two women, each servants of gods on opposite sides of this war. And yet they were barely ten feet apart, both completely at ease. He could only admire their composure.

“Wait a sec,” Chandra broke in. “That’s what you were fighting Thrasios about. When you beat him he had to say something about change being inevitable.”

Argyros nodded, but it was Perisophia who answered.

“Meletis is a special place. Akros may belong to Iroas and Setessa to Karametra, but Meletis is home to all the gods. You may have heard the saying ‘a temple on every street’ used to describe this polis. While not true in the absolute sense, there are more places of worship here than anywhere else on Theros.  Every god is worshipped here. To change that by force or dogma would destroy Meletis.”

“What does that have to do with duels in the square?” Gideon asked.

“This war poses a threat to Meletis unlike any other.” Perisophia let out a heavy sigh. “If the citizens were to divide themselves as the pantheon has done it would spark a civil war. Even now we teeter all too close to that edge. At first the Twelve sought to restrict any conflicts to the debate halls, but it quickly became apparent that violence in some form was inevitable. Rather than encourage the nightly ransacking of temples and homes we established a means by which people could settle their disputes in the open, before witnesses from the polis. So far the practice has kept bloodshed to a minimum.”

“Sure it has.” Chandra let out a bark of laughter. “But you don’t like it.”

“In this case,” the philosopher said. “I don’t need to like it. It is my duty to keep my people safe. Allowing duels under tightly supervised rules helps make that happen. Holding out for a perfect solution with an adequate one available is folly.”

The courtyard grew quiet. Gideon could only admire Perisophia’s quiet resolve. She was nothing like the rulers of Akros he remembered, and while he’d half expected a chorus of droning bureaucrats that hid behind forms and regulations it was obvious this philosopher had a will of steel.

Chandra sneezed abruptly, breaking the silence. When both women looked at her she flushed and scuffed her boot on the floor.

“So, like. This is nice and all, but we didn’t actually come here to talk about the gods.”

“By all means.” Perisophia bowed her head slightly. “The floor is yours.”

“So we’re looking for this demon that challenged Gideon to a duel, but he also kinda wants to destroy the world. The demon, I mean, not Gids. That would be weird. But anyway, demon. We fought him once before and he really didn’t take it well. He kinda swore eternal revenge and, uh . . .” Chandra floundered, and the two Meletisans looked more lost than when she’d started. “Gideon? Take this one please.”

Gideon patted her on the back and stepped forward. “Two years ago we fought against a demon by the name of Ob Nixilis. With the help of three other mages we defeated him, but he escaped in the end. Last week I received a written challenge from him, threatening to bring ruin to Theros unless I defeat him.”

“May I see this challenge?” Perisophia held out her hand.

Gideon drew the folded paper from his pocket and handed it to her. She read it carefully, her finger lingering on the spiky letters

“Fascinating.” The philosopher handed the letter back to Gideon. “The writer speaks not of a threat to Meletis or one of the other poleis, but to Theros. His wording suggests that he not only subscribes to the many-worlds theorem, but that he is able to travel between them. This demon of yours is either mad, or a being of immense power.”

“Or both.” Gideon folded the paper again and tucked it away. “More importantly, I was hoping that you might have some insight into his timeframe. He claims to have launched his attack three months from a week ago. If there was anything that occurred around that time it could tell us where he is.”

Argyros shook her head. “Three months ago the city was recovering from the aftereffects of the sleep plague. I was buried in patients of all sorts until well after the time your letter points to.”

Perisophia picked up her sketchbook and flipped back several pages. “My own tale is much of the same, unfortunately. There has been far too much turmoil in recent times to isolate a specific instance. But I would caution against your current methodology. A simple lie could send you to the far edges of the world for no reward.”

Gideon felt his heart sink. “Do you have a better solution?”

“Perhaps. I will spread word of your quest throughout the city and contact the oracles. If anyone has seen this demon you will soon know. In the mean time, I would suggest you seek out the seers of Keranos. They alone might be able to tell you not where the demon is, but where he will be.”

“Thank you. Truly.”

“You are most welcome.” Perisophia closed her sketchbook and gestured towards the doorway. “I’m afraid I must bid you farewell. My students will be arriving soon. Come see me two days from now, shortly before sunset. Until then, good hunting.”

Chandra rushed out of the courtyard with an aborted half-wave to the philosopher. Gideon bowed and went to follow her, but stopped as he got to the doorway.

“One last question. We stopped at a temple to Heliod this morning, but the priest there tried to drive us out with a candlestick. He assumed that we were agents of Purphoros, but I don’t know why.”

The corners of Perisophia’s mouth turned up slightly. “The lands you come from must be strange indeed, if iron is not a sign of the God of the Forge.”

Gideon looked down at his gleaming breastplate and chuckled.

*  *  *



Helena leaned out of the wagon and got her first glimpse of the best soldiers in Theros.

The Akroan encampment hunkered down in the rocky wasteland, tents and a handful of small huts sheltered from the harsh winds by a ridge that jutted up from the ground next to the road. A single small cookfire burned in the center of the camp with three soldiers crouched around it. They were grizzled, callous men. One had a mass of scars where his ear had once been. Another was gnawing on some kind of biscuit.

“Lady Sophia.” Her keeper laid a hand on her arm. “Stay inside the wagon, please.”

Helena stamped out a flash of irritation and returned to her seat. Irene’s presence had been a necessary evil to get this far. Though she’d been able to visit three other planes in the weeks since she’d met Lord Nixilis, every time she’d returned to Theros she’d been inevitably drawn back to Meletis. Ob Nixilis had assured her that she’d learn to circumvent such handicaps with time but that was time she hadn’t yet been able to invest.

And so she’d found herself here, having called in every favor she’d earned as Sophia to cross the wilds between poleis. Faking the vision that had convinced the elders to grant this trip their blessing had been the hardest part, but even now she still wasn’t free.

The flap at the back of the wagon opened abruptly, revealing an older soldier with a gray-touched beard poking out from underneath his captain’s helmet. He took in the interior with a single glance. His dark eyes paused on the two women for a heartbeat before he dismissed them and swept under the benches.

Helena bowed at the waist. “Lord Timoteus.”

“You’re the prophet.”

“And you are far indeed from the throne, prince of Akros.”

His gaze turned hard. “Let me be clear witch. I don’t like your presence here. It is my duty to allow you passage, but no more. Cause no trouble. You are not to mingle with the Alamon. The caravan leaves at dawn tomorrow. You will be on it. Am I clear?”

Helena kept her expression carefully neutral. “You will not find yourself exiled for much longer. A storm is coming, and will sweep all before it.”

“Understood my lord.” Irene clapped a hand over Helena’s mouth. “I’ll make sure she stays put.”

The prince of Akros jerked the flap closed, plunging the wagon into darkness once more.

“Why’d you do that?” There was barely any fire left in Irene’s voice. “Can’t you let anyone go without spouting off something so dire?”

“These are dire times Irene.” Helena allowed herself a small smile. “I am only a conduit for the visions. I don’t make the future.”

*  *  *

“She’s asleep.”

Helena’s eyes snapped open. The inside of the wagon was cloaked in blackness, and Irene’s quiet breathing was audible over the distant crackle of flames. Helena rose on the balls of her feet and padded her way to the back of the wagon.

Exiting without rocking the vehicle proved tricky, but she’d long ago worked out how to lower herself to the ground and slowly ease her weight off the back step. Once she was sure her caretaker wouldn’t wake Helena crouched in the shadows next to the cart and morphed her features into those of Irene. There was a slight crunch as her nose twisted into the twice-broken crook that marred Irene’s face, then she rose and strode towards the fire.

She found Timoteus hunched over a bowl of soup, glaring out into the darkness with unbroken intensity as the spoon rose and fell. He spared a single glance back as she approached and grunted. “It’s you.”

“Yes my lord.” Helena clasped her hands behind her back. It was the kind of meek gesture that came naturally to Irene.

“Shouldn’t you be with the girl?”

“She sleeps like the dead when she visits Nyx. There’s no trouble she can get up to.”

Timoteus grunted. “Some protector.”

Helena shrugged. “If she isn’t safe surrounded by a phalanx of Akroans my presence won’t change anything.”

Timoteus grunted again.

Minutes passed—a constant buzz of crickets the only sound. Timoteus seemed perfectly content to scan the darkness for any approaching threat. For her part Helena was content to wait, slowly stretching out the cramps she’d acquired after a week stuck in the wagon.

“How’d she know my name?” The prince turned captain hadn’t moved, but there was something more than gruff apathy in his voice for the first time.

“Her visions, I suspect. She sees all manner of things in her dreams.” Helena lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Sometimes even things that haven’t yet come to pass.”

“And that’s why you’re traveling to Akros, these visions.” Timoteus spat the last word like a curse.

“She didn’t share the full details, but yes. The elders at our temple decided it wouldn’t be safe for her in Meletis.”

“They couldn’t send the whelp to Setessa?” He let out a bark of laughter. “No, the god-touched girl wants to come here.”

“Oh.” Helena sucked in a breath, the perfect picture of surprise.

“Whatever it is spit it out woman.”

She swallowed. “You don’t know?”

“Know what?” The captain’s voice was tight with frustration. Helena knew that tone well. She’d spent years bringing people to the brink where emotion overrode logic.

“It’s Setessa,” she babbled. “Word only reached us a few days before we left the polis, but the Setessan council pledged the city to follow Karametra’s course in the war.”

“So? They’ve always loved the god of grain. How’s that important . . .” his voice trailed off, and Helena saw the wheels turning beneath his stony features.

Karametra had shocked the pantheon when she’d taken up arms alongside Purphoros. Timoteus was a prince of Akros, and from the bull emblazoned on his shield he served Iroas, and therefore Heliod, as fervently as the rest of his polis. If Setessa had followed their own patron goddess to join Purphoros’s rebellion . . .

“It was a slaughter,” she whispered. “Hundreds of Heliod’s faithful were driven into the wilds. From what I heard not one in ten made it to Meletis. The last to arrive spoke of human sacrifices, dark offerings to Mogis made in broad daylight.”

Timoteus rose abruptly and stormed off, disappearing into the largest tent without a word to her.

The best lies were always were always steeped in truth.

Helena smiled. The man had such pride, built like armor over some old injury that had never truly healed. It made him so predictable. She tucked the knife she’d taken from an empty plate by the fire into the back of her dress and returned to the wagon.

Irene jerked awake when the blade plunged into her throat, but Phenax’s guidance had not failed her this time, and the woman was unable even to cry out as her lifeblood drained away. Irene thrashed weakly, but with her pupil holding her down there was little she could do. Helena savored the terror that welled up in her keeper’s eyes when she saw her own face in the darkness, but soon the horror faded and those confused, accusing eyes misted over.

“That was reckless.” Phenax’s voice was unmistakably displeased.

Helena managed to keep her ensuing laughed inside her head. Watch. Watch what I can do!

The spell she cast was complicated, long and outlandish. To be expected, given its source. Even though this was the third time she’d cast it she didn’t fully understand how it worked. Not yet anyway.

When she was finished a shadowed form rose from the floor of the wagon, taking on form and substance as the wagon slowly settled to accommodate the added weight. A sense of vertigo swept over Helena as Irene stepped over her own corpse to stand face to face with Helena. Then the moment passed and she mouthed Hello me.

A silent grin split the doppelganger’s face, then Irene’s features melted away and reformed into the youthful beauty of Sophia.

As they snuck the body out of the wagon and hid it in the tall grass next to the road, Helena had to stop and calm herself. Despite the danger she was buzzing with excitement, and she knew if she wasn’t careful she’d cry out and ruin everything. There were still some details to work out, but one thing was certain.

She was free.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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