Helena kept her head down as she limped through the gates of the polis. She wore the guise of a beleaguered traveler, a dark-skinned woman whose corpse she’d left in a snowbank three days past. Her breath made plumes in the unseasonably cold air, and she clutched the stolen deerskin cloak tightly around her shoulders. She’d earned a startled look from the guards at the gate, but they hadn’t stopped her, unlike the bushy-bearded merchant whose wagon was stuck in the ice outside the gate. No matter how pitiable, men weren’t allowed in Setessa.

“On your left.” Phenax waited as she turned and limped toward a squat building built in the shadow of a great oak. The mighty tree bowed almost in half, its leaves still green under a thick coating of ice. Her teeth chattered, and she got a tsk of annoyance from Phenax. “You’re overdoing it. They’ll think you’re some vagabond.”

It’s not acting if I’m actually freezing, she thought back furiously. You’re the one that told me not to take her boots.

“They would have undermined your identity. You’re a traveler from Meletis, you would not have known of the storm until it was upon you. Now stop complaining. It’s time to get to work.”

Helena sucked a breath of the bitingly cold air in to steady her nerves and pushed the door open. Inside the inn was blessedly warm, and smelled heavily of woodsmoke and roast boar. She jerked the door closed behind her and stomped over to the fireplace, where a large pot of soup simmered away, and rubbed her hands together over the flames. A glance around showed that the inn’s main room was full of people taking shelter against the cold. All of them were women and young children.

“You look like some’un dragged you through Nylea’s wood by the nose, woman.”

The voice came from a thickset woman with grey hair and a twisted mass of scar tissue where one of her eyes had once been. Helena had to work to keep a smile off her face as the woman let out a gravelly, grating laugh that would do a minotaur proud. The phrase was one she’d agreed upon with her clones before they’d separated, but she’d spent the days since then terrified that something would go wrong and she’d find herself alone upon arrival.

“You could say that.” Helena let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “I didn’t think I’d need snow gear when I set out from Meletis.”

“Meletis you say?” Her scarred clone leaned forward. “Been a while since we’ve gotten news from the thinkers.”

“Buy me a meal and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“You drive a hard bargain miss.” The doppelganger raised her cane and waved it at a young woman wiping off one of the tables. “Ianthe, get a bowl for my friend here.”

Before long Helena was seated next to the hearth, her sandals steaming from the fire’s heat and a small crowd of Setessans surrounding her as the aged doppelganger slowly extracted carefully prepared tidbits of gossip. Some of the news went over with barely a reaction, but she earned a hearty guffaw when she described the public duels that had become commonplace.

“Go on,” an old woman laughed. “You’re telling me they let Mogis’s fanatics run around axing people in the street so long as they tell people they’re gonna do it first?”

“No!” Helena snapped back, playing up how the insult to her home stung her. “You can only fight people that agree to fight you, and there’s all kinds of rules about it. Hardly anyone dies even.”

“It’s not much of a fight then, iddin’t?” the doppelganger thumped Helena on the shoulder, making some of her soup spill from the bowl.

“What about the winter?” one of the servers asked. “How far does it reach?”

“I ran into the first snows about an hour inside the forest’s borders.” Helena shrugged. “It’s hard to say after that, but it took me almost two weeks before I found my way through to the polis. The storms come fierce and fast, makes navigation all but impossible.”

“So it wasn’t cold where you came from?” This question came from a young, doe-eyed child, one of several that had gathered around to hear her story. At first she’d been disconcerted to see them coming and going, but from what she’d gathered children more or less had free rein in Setessa. Some local superstition meant that the whole city cared for the waifs and orphans that found their way here every year.

The thought of how easy her own childhood could have been disgusted her, but she smiled as she answered the child. “No, it’s spring in Meletis right now. Nylea is fickle that way.”

A low grumble of anger rose from her listeners at the mention of the god’s name. The doppelganger turned and spat into the fire, which told Helena all she needed to know about how the God of the Hunt was regarded right now.

“You know,” she continued thoughtfully. “I’ve heard that Akros has been stuck during midsummer since the schism began. Maybe Nylea had to freeze the seasons altogether to keep winter locked here. Or maybe she just likes Akros right now, I’m no oracle.”

That earned more grumbles, more anger. The doppelganger fed their resentment with muttered curses and barbed reminders of injustices they’d suffered. Helena barely had to do anything, and she busied herself attacking the hearty stew she’d gotten from the innkeeper, only offering comment when a question about the world outside the snowridden forest was directed her way. As she listened, a simple understanding rose to the surface.

Setessa had been put through hell for the choices its leaders had made at the start of the schism. Her people were angry, bitter at the lot they’d been given. But they were also cut off from the rest of the world, and that bitterness had nothing to do but fester aimlessly. What if she could nudge it in the right direction? That would be interesting.


Anax was a problem. Helena had come to Akros intent on influencing the its King; but while her guise as the prophet Sophia had earned her a place at the periphery of the royal court, the king and queen themselves remained an elusive pair. Phenax had described the king as rash and easily manipulated, but that same bullheadedness her god had mocked acted as a shield against her manipulations. No matter what form she took he had never spared her more than a passing glance. It seemed that the king listened only to a close circle of advisors. Each of them was a veteran that the king had known for decades, and Helena didn’t trust herself to impersonate someone who had that much history with her target.

She laced her fingers behind her head and stared at the wall of the tiny room that had been allotted to her and the doppelganger impersonating Irene. They had been welcomed with open arms, but it grew more obvious by the day that their hosts’ courtesy only extended so far.

Helena rose sharply. “I’m going out,” she announced.

The doppelganger rose and dusted off her skirts, then shifted into a nondescript form with medium-brown hair and began changing into one of the servant’s uniforms they’d smuggled out of the Kolophon’s laundry room yesterday. Helena glanced at the form her clone had chosen, and morphed into a form that would be equally forgettable without looking uncanny if they were seen together. Hair black and curly, chest just a little bigger, a slight stoop to her back and a handful of age lines around her mouth.  The other servant’s uniform completed the picture.

As she changed the doppelganger stripped the sheets from the bed and left with them balled up in her arms.

Not for the first time Helena wondered how the clones saw her. Did they look up to her as their creator, or merely see her as a fellow being of transient identity? Perhaps most disturbingly, if they shared her memories as they seemed to, did each doppelganger believe itself the true Helena? She looked down at her hands and chuckled. Perhaps she was merely another pawn in her own game. For all she knew the true Helena had left Theros far behind.

It was a question to which she would never receive an answer. Only madness lay in dwelling on it for too long. She retrieved a broom from the corner and left, ambling around the palace with the air of a maid dragging her feet between tasks. It only took a few minutes before a youngish officer waylaid her and set her to work cleaning his room. Then she helped carry the midday meal up from the kitchens, joined two other servants washing dishes for an hour, and otherwise blended into the background.

She kept her ears open the whole time, listening to the servants gossip, eavesdropping on a pair of captains as they bickered over a game of Iroas’s Domain and lingering around a troop of hoplites as they celebrated killing a giant. Several times she passed her clone in the halls, though they didn’t stop to talk. That was the secret of all this. If either Sophia or Irene was seen without the other it would raise suspicions, but as long as they were both out and wearing different faces no one would think twice about their empty room.

She was sweeping the stairs up to the skyguard’s tower when footsteps descending the platform above made her ears prick up. Skyguards roamed the furthest afield from the Kolophon, which made them the best source of news from outside Akros’s borders. Most of them were young and boastful, more than happy to share tales of their exploits with a pretty maiden.

The feet that descended into her view were clad not in the strapped sandals of the Akroan army, but delicate red slippers and a heavy golden ring around each ankle. Helena looked up and squeaked. “Queen Cymede! What are you doing here? ” Helena’s surprise was real, but she let herself blather on as if she had no filter at all. “I mean, of course you can be up here if you want, My Lady, it’s your palace after all. I was just surprised, is all. Let me get out of your way.”

The Queen of Akros raised an eyebrow. She was not a tall woman, but from two steps up she towered over Helena. “I appreciate the help keeping my house in order, but isn’t this work a bit beneath you, Sophia?”

Helena blinked. “Your majesty?”

“No need for that,” the queen said. “It’s just the two of us here, and I am well aware of your true nature.”

That was a statement loaded with thorns. Did Cymede mean that she knew Helena was a servant of Phenax, or merely that she was the prophet that had come to the city some days ago? Outright denial would be beyond foolish, but revealing too much or too little could be equally fatal.

“You caught me, majesty.” Helena dropped her gaze, the picture of a contrite youth. “I wasn’t trying to deceive you.”

“I would hope not, otherwise you picked a poor spot to hope to encounter me.” Queen Cymede waved her hand to indicate the cramped stairwell they were in. “Now tell me, why in Keranos’s name would you spend your days in a maid’s outfit, being ordered around by anyone who wants to?”

“It’s a bit embarrassing.” Helena’s voice quavered, a bit more obviously than she’d intended. “You’ve been nothing but kind to me, and I don’t wish to be ungrateful, but . . . how do I phrase this? There are times when I get sick of being a prophet, sick of people hanging on my every word like it’s made of gold. I just . . . needed to be normal for a bit. Does that make any sense?”

The queen’s face was as inscrutable as a sphinx’s. When she finally spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper.  “More than you imagine, child.”

Helena bit her lip to hold in a sigh of relief. Had she really just gotten away with that?

It was only after Helena let out a breath and went back to sweeping the step that she realized Queen Cymede hadn’t moved. She still stood a few steps up the staircase, watching Helena with guarded eyes.

“Majesty, have I offended you?”

“Offended?” The Queen tilted her head to the side. “Why would you say that?”

“Well . . . I . . .” Helena stammered, as if struggling to put words to her feelings. It would be better for the queen to decide what she had meant. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Mhm.” The queen crossed her arms behind her back and turned to look out the tower’s window. The morning sun made the gold draped around her neck shine like fire. “No, you have not offended me. If you had you’d be in prison already, not standing here talking to me. What you must understand, Sophia, is that you are an outsider here. Akros does not stand on a crossroads of the world like Meletis does. We are a small city in the grand scheme of things, though mighty beyond our stature. Trust here is earned through a lifetime of deeds, while you are both young and unproven.”

“That’s—” Helena gritted her teeth against the unfairness of it all. That’s the whole point of shapeshifting, you harlot. She let that bitterness shine through in her words. “So am I to be an outcast all my life? Never trusted, always to be watched from the distance?”

“Of course not.” It was hard to tell, but she thought the Queen smiled. “As I said, you are young. Only a few years older than when our recruits join the army. You have plenty of time ahead of you to forge whatever legacy you wish. Trust is not built in a day, but you can start anytime you want. “

“And if I want to start now?” Helena waited a few breaths before adding a grudging, “Majesty.”

“Ah, to be young again.” The Queen was definitely smiling now, though she hid it a moment later. “Explain to me exactly why you came to my city, why you would leave behind a promising future in one of Meletis’s greatest temples.”

“The letter—”

“I’ve read the letter.” Queen Cymede snapped. “I want to hear it from you.”

Helena drew in a breath to answer. She’d been planning this conversation for weeks, what to say when she finally gained the ear of Akros’s royalty. How exactly to twist the details of her ‘vision’ to goad the city of warriors to war on an unprecedented level. It would be so simple. Like setting spark to tinder.

And yet, she hesitated. Cymede suspected her. Gods only knew how, but the queen had seen right through Helena’s act, spotted her and called her out by name while she was pretending to be a lowly servant, of all things. If she’d done that, would she be able to see through all of Helena’s forms? If she tipped her hand too far here, Cymede would see the pattern of events subtly pushing her polis toward war, and she would fight those schemes with every scrap of tenacity she possessed. Did Helena dare to risk that?

Belatedly, Helena realized that she’d let the silence stretch out awkwardly, damningly. Cymede stood waiting, looking down on her with those infuriatingly calm eyes. She needed to say something, anything to break the silence.

“I had . . . a vision. I saw Meletis in flames, the temple I called home torn down and cast to rubble. It . . . it terrified me.”

“So you fled, like a coward.”

“No!” Helena let out a shaky sigh. “Maybe a bit. I was glad to be sent away, I won’t lie. In their own way I think the elders were trying to buy time by sending me here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because . . .” Helena bit her lip. Damnit. I can’t risk it. “I saw myself burn with the temple. Maybe they were just trying to save their youngest pupil, but you know what they say about Keranos’s prophecies. They always come true, unchanging if unexpected. And this one can’t come to pass if I’m on the other side of the world.”

“Those fools.” The queen scowled, an expression so fierce Helena half-expected lighting to strike the tower. “They should know better. They do know better.”

“That isn’t my place to say, Majesty.”

“No, it is mine.” Queen Cymede descended to stand next to Helena and rested her hand on her shoulder. “Knowing one’s fate isn’t easy.  The best advice I can give you is to live every day such that you’ll have no regrets when your time comes.”

Their eyes met, then the queen nodded once and swept past her down the stairs.

“Oh, and Sophia?” The queen turned back to face Helena, and her gaze turned icy hard. “I won’t stop you from pretending to be a servant, but if you do, make sure you are keeping my house in order.” With that she was gone, leaving Helena clutching her broom to her chest and trembling.

“What was that?” Helena jumped when Phenax’s voice broke into her thoughts. “You’re getting soft.”

She was on to me. I had to change tack.

“Did you seriously think you could dance a tapestry of lies before gods and kings alike without anyone suspecting you?” Phenax snickered. “I didn’t raise you to be that great a fool.”

Make fun of me later.  Helena rubbed her temples furiously. Warn the doppelganger for me? It’s going to look suspicious if Sophia’s caretaker isn’t looking for her. I just hope Cymede hasn’t caught on that there’s two of us.

“Do I look like your oracle, girl?”

It was a request, she thought hastily.  Not a demand.

Phenax’s presence vanished. Or so it seemed. She could never quite be sure. Helena threw her broom to the ground and stormed off, muttering the blackest curses the sailors had ever taught her.


Helena was sleeping when Erebos fell from Nyx. She was ripped from her dreams by the titanic coils of his whip crushing trees and buildings alike beneath its weight. Confused and disoriented, she staggered to her window and beheld the god of the dead. When she had spoken to him in the cave, Erebos had been a shadow, a suggestion, a whisper in the darkness. Now he knelt above and in and around the city, his horizon-spanning form so vast it defied her ability to explain. Even broken and pierced with divine arrows, there was a terrible majesty to him, a simple, wordless magnetism that called her to him. The next thing she knew she was staggering downstairs and dashing out into the snow without even her coat on.

She looked up and stared in openmouthed wonder when Erebos surged to his feet and smote the horizon with his whip. She cried out alongside hundreds of others when he unleashed a cloud of death into the sky. Then the god shrank, going from a horizon-spanning titan to a mere giant in the blink of an eye. The endless pull he held on her lessened, but Helena found herself running, following countless others united by the simple need to stand before divinity and witness it. It was foolish, some corner of her mind knew, but above all she wanted, needed to blend in. So she ran. Toward Erebos. Toward the God she owed her very life. Toward the winter shrine.

There she saw him speak with a pilgrim, standing alone on the snowcovered hill. His voice was a whisper, but it played across her bones like thunder. The whole city heard when he charged the woman with hunting down a demon and destroying it. That demon? Helena thought to Phenax, but cut herself off when Erebos locked eyes with his chosen one and poured darkness, death, power into her. That power should have killed her. Helena knew that instantly. And yet the grey-clad pilgrim only staggered beneath the onslaught of death, then turned to face two—men? children?—who had emerged from the cave in the hillside. Some quiet words passed between them, lost in the wind before they reached Helena’s ears.

The gathered crowd took in a collective breath, and only then Helena realized that Erebos was gone, though she couldn’t say when he vanished. The spell had been broken, but everyone around her seemed to be in a stupor. Helena forced her sluggish mind to turn. There was something, something desperately important. She could feel it, just out of her reach. Stupid awe-inducing gods, she just needed a moment to think properly, and . . .

That was it. It had been staring her in the face. A sign from the gods, just gifted to her. And they’d been considerate enough not to interpret it for her. As Erebos’s chosen one descended the hill toward them, Helena found her voice.

“Erebos,” she cried out, her voice faint and plaintive in the still night. “He’s blessed us, given us a champion to avenge Nylea’s cruelty!” She cupped her hands to her mouth and bellowed. “Hail! Champion of the Dead!”

A few voices shouted at her to be quiet, but more took up the call. Setessa had been beaten and abused by the very gods they called their own. They wanted something to put their hope in, and most of them leapt at the chance Helena was giving them. The first voices to take up the call were undoubtedly her dopplegangers, drawn from across the polis just as she had been. But it mattered little. More and more raised their voices in thunderous approval as the champion and one of the other spirits—where had the other gone—walked through the throng, even the proudest of Setessan warriors tripping over themselves to get out of the woman’s way. She was shorter than expected, Helena realized as the champion came closer. She was a few fingers shorter than Helena’s current form, which had been chosen more to be nondescript than anything else.

For an idle moment she wondered why Erebos would choose this woman, of all people. Then her gaze swept over Helena, her eyes lingering on her for just a moment, and the false cheers died in Helena’s mouth. There was such contempt in the woman’s eyes, such utter distain for everyone and everything around her that Helena knew with absolute certainty that the champion could kill everyone in the clearing. This woman had seen death. So much death that one world could not hold it all. Helena had no idea how she knew that, but it felt right.

The champion glided past, and the moment was gone. Helena waited until the dead warrior had passed through the crowd, then shrugged and went back to work. A deadly stoic was fine. She could spin whatever myth she wanted in the divine warrior’s silence, and by the time anyone contradicted her the rumors would be too deeply set to fully ignore.

That was the true power of symbols. They could mean whatever you needed them to mean. All it took was a little nudge.


The foreigners’ quarter wasn’t what Helena had been expecting. She’d heard rumors that it was the worst part of the Kolophon, but despite the occasional shack thrown up in an alleyway here or there it was far cleaner than the docksides of Meletis. Even the lowliest beggars had somewhere to rest their heads, and there were far fewer of them here than back home. She wondered if Akros was that much better at taking care of its people, or if they just weren’t above imprisoning those who couldn’t pull their weight.

She’d come out here in the dead of night in the hopes of finding a new perspective. Phenax had once described Akros as a city of hounds, trained from birth to be loyal beyond all logic and so dull you could sharpen a sword on their skulls. He’d painted the city of warriors as her easiest challenge, a lie that had proven all the more spiteful because it was easy to believe.

She’d thought she’d finally cracked it when she’d discovered King Anax had been a fervent follower of Purphoros before the schism. However, not only had the king publicly renounced his god when religious tensions started to cause problems, he’d driven an entire caste of spellcasters out of the polis for refusing to do the same. It seemed he’d earned a fanatical degree of devotion from his warriors in return. Akros was united, and she had neither the time nor the resources to drive wedges into that unity.

Nor would anyone listen to her. With her shapeshifting limited under the queen’s watchful gaze, Helena had been stuck as a foreigner. She wasn’t mistreated, but neither was she listened to. And once again she was short on time to earn that trust.

She wanted nothing more than to disappear into anonymity, but until she figured out how Queen Cymede had identified her, she didn’t dare use a new face around the palace. With a wry chuckle, she’d had to admit that being an avatar of deception had been much easier when she didn’t have an end goal.

Helena trailed her fingers along the cold stone of a shrine to Iroas. It wasn’t much, just a statue of a bull set into an alcove with a few arrowheads and other small offerings scattered at its feet. There was even the faint smell of incense lingering in the air, despite the late hour.

What was it like, she wondered, to pray to a god and never know if they heard you? The very idea seemed ridiculous to her, and yet the entire polis seemed obsessed with their precious war-god. Did that make them foolish, or stubborn? Maybe they were so terrified of losing his blessing that they kept praying in the blind hope that he would notice them amidst countless others.

Whatever that quality was, could others recognize it? She’d never met a liar her equal, but rogues certainly had ways to pick each other out of a crowd. Helena picked up one of the arrowheads and examined it.  Did the same hold true for earnest, good-hearted suckers? It seemed far-fetched, but plausible.

One does not become a thief in a day, nor a liar, nor, it would seem, a “good person.” Perhaps that was what the Queen had referred to. Helena stood out for being foreign, certainly. But that applied to her mannerisms as well as her face—a troublesome thought. In the future, she’d have to be far more careful about how she presented herself. For now though, the best lie is one which you believe yourself. She didn’t need the monarchs of Akros to believe her, she only needed them to believe an earnest, kindhearted sucker.

Phenax, are you listening?

There was no response. Either her god’s attention was turned elsewhere in world, or he was watching to see what she’d do in his absence. She’d always suspected that Phenax spied on her when she thought she was alone, though she’d never been able to prove it one way or another.

When you’ve got a minute then.

She tossed the arrowhead into the sewer and left the shrine, humming the tune of a sea shanty under her breath to pass the time while she wandered. More than once she passed tight-ranked patrols of Akroan soldiers guarding the main streets. There was no goal or destination to her exploration. She let whim guide her, following interesting smells and scraps of conversation in a random path around the roughshod district. The dirt-stained rags that she wore earned glares and the occasional kick when she strayed too close, but it was much preferable to the beating she’d receive if they saw her trying to hide from them.

She left one such squad behind at the foreigner’s gate when Phenax’s voice slithered through her mind. “On your right. The middle bar is loose.”

A glance showed that there was a small drain cut into the base of the city’s wall, a small half-circle just wide enough to allow rainwater and other waste to drain out of the Kolophon. Thick bronze bars kept anything bigger than a housecat from passing through it, but when she knelt and grasped the central bar she found that it lifted up, not out as she’d expected. Someone had cunningly chiseled a shaft into the stone above the drain, so that the bar could be lifted up into the stone without feeling loose when shaken. The resulting gap was only enough to slip a small crate through, but with a few quick shifts Helena was outside the city, with no one the wiser.

She lowered the bar back into place, taking care to make sure it didn’t clink against the stone. Smuggler’s route?

“Crime finds a way.” Phenax chuckled darkly. “Always.”

Did you look to see what I’m thinking?

“You’re in luck. There’s one less than two hours from here.”

Such a tease, Helena thought. You’ll ruin the surprise.

“Does my oracle want to know where to go, or should I let her blunder around until Heliod rises?”

Helena bowed her head, her fingers twined together in a rough visage of the god’s mask. I overstepped my bounds. Please forgive your servant’s unspeakable arrogance.

Only the crickets answered her, so she shrugged and set out away from the city. Phenax would guide her path, or he wouldn’t. The choice was outside of her control, so there was no reason to worry about it.

After an hour and a half had gone by in near-total silence, Helena tilted her head back and directed another thought toward Phenax.

I’m walking directly into the camp of an Akroan soldier with no explanation, in the dead of night. That’s probably stupid of me. This time she got only a thunderclap in reply, though there wasn’t a cloud in the night sky.  Wrong god, she thought. Anyway, I hope his dreams have been nightmarish.

The lack of an answer didn’t bother her. If Phenax had truly been ignoring her then she’d be smarter to worry about minotaurs hiding in the long grass than waking her quarry. And if he was listening, then all would be well.

No sooner had the thought crossed Helena’s mind than she tripped and fell facefirst into the dirt. She scrambled to her feet, hand reaching for a knife that wasn’t there and her foot aching from whatever she’d kicked. Only when the grass shifted and a mumbled voice rose up from a few feet away did she realize that she was all but lying on top of an armor-clad soldier, and she’d just kicked him straight in the cuirass.

Crouching down, Helena moved the folds of his blanket aside and peered at his face in the dim light. The man was shaking, drenched in a cold sweat. She flicked him on the nose once to make sure he didn’t react, then she grabbed his pack and unbuckled it. Inside were a dozen or so scrolls, each bound with wax seals. Most had seals of undyed white with various patterns of stars, probably denoting military ranks that she didn’t care about. But one: a tightly bound scroll of goathide, capped on both ends with polished hardwood and sealed with a deep green oak leaf.

Looks Setessan to me. She slid her thumbnail under the seal and popped it open, then slowly unrolled the scroll and read it over. Let’s see. Signed by Authorosa of the Setessan Council. Expresses shock over the division of her city’s matron deities, uncertainty and strife among the people. Pity, this must have been written before Nylea decided to freeze the forest. Says the whole situation stinks of a trap and worries some external force might be behind the current chaos, warns King Anax to guard against similar dangers, requests Queen Cymede to ask Keranos about anyone interfering with the pantheon. That won’t do at all. Now, how to fix this?

As she used her magic to pull ink from the scroll she felt an intangible force weigh on her. You’re back. That was well done with the messanger.

“Of course.” Phenax replied. “It was I who did it after all.”

Don’t break him too badly. Helena glanced over at the trembling soldier, trapped within some endless nightmare. There can’t be any suspicion when he delivers these.

“The worst won’t hit him for a week or so.” Phenax said. “By the time his mind unravels his part in this will be long forgotten. Now turn your attention back to that scroll. I want to see what angle you take.”

At first I wanted to have them accuse Anax of some atrocity, a crime so heinous he’d demand the deaths of whoever was behind it, but now I’m not so sure.

“You’re worried he’d see through it.”

I’m certain he would. You don’t get to be king by being a senseless meathead, and there’s nothing to stop him from simply burning the scroll. No one in Akros would hear of the slander, and he has no reason to care what Setessans are saying about him. She put her finger to the paper and began to write. Besides, there’s no need to trick an Akroan into fighting. All you have to do is ask.

As she finished the short missive Phenax grew quiet, his voice losing most of the bone-shaking power it usually had. “A challenge of honor, to be fought between the pillars by two monarchs and set to determine both cities’ allegiance in the schism? Bold, very bold.”

It wouldn’t be a masterstroke if it weren’t. Helena dried the ink with a wave of her hand, then tightly rerolled the scroll and sealed it once again with magic.

“You overestimate Anax’s pride, I think. Akros has never sent forces beyond their mountains for more than a raid here or there. Nobody in the city is mad enough to send their entire army and their king all the way to the Plateau of Four Winds.”

They will if their victory is guaranteed. Helena placed the scroll back in the messenger’s bag, then knelt and prostrated herself. Oh mighty Phenax, I humbly request that you provide such divine signs and visitation that the royal farts think Iroas personally blessed this hairbrained scheme of mine.

“You are hardly humble.” The dark voice actually chuckled. “Our timing will have to be precise, while both Iroas and Keranos are so occupied they take no notice of what I do.”

Fortunately, I think I know someone who can arrange that. Helena stretched, sending a series of pops down her neck. Put me in touch with the Meletis clones?

 *  *  *

At dusk the next evening, Helena was back in her guise as Sophia the prophet, looking out over Akros as it went from a tableau of glistening white marble to a deep labyrinth of blazing oranges and yellows. Just as the transformation was complete the titanic, star-infused form of Iroas appeared in the night sky. The God of War reared back, hooves flashing in the dying sunlight as he thrust his javelin toward the horizon. Toward Setessa, Toward the Plateau of Four Winds. Toward Glory. Toward Death. A roar rose up from the city, wordless and guttural.

“One down.” Phenax’s voice sounded oddly split, as if he were both standing next to her and in the sky above her. “But do you trust the other poleis to fall in line so easily? Akros has always been the quickest to anger.”

That’s not my problem. Helena turned her face to the wind, basking in the sun’s fading glow. My part in this farce is done. Akros marches to war in three days. If the others fail, then at least I have done my part.

Phenax didn’t reply, but Helena could no longer feel the weight of her god’s attention.


Rumor had much in common with wildfire. Helena scowled at the tub of dishes she was busy scrubbing clean. In fact the two were far closer than she wished. Both were powerful, undeniably so. All it had taken was a spark, and speculation raged through Setessa. Mere hours after Erebos’s spectacular appearance she’d had hundreds of warriors ready to march off into the snow after “their” champion.

But that power was uncontrollable, and ever came back to bite she who first lit the spark. All her work had come to a rather spectacular end when two of the most crazed zealots had decided that they must be unkillable thanks to Erebos’s blessing and demonstrated that fact by running each other through, determined to rise again as eternal warriors. Needless to say they hadn’t, and the corpses of two teenage girls had forcibly cooled down her ragtag army of hotheads. The anger and resentment she’d built still smoldered under the surface, but there was just enough uncertainty that no one was willing to act.

And she needed them to act. She brooded as she furiously chipped at the thick layer of . . . something that crusted the bottom of a pot. Not two hours after her plan had blown up she’d gotten news from Phenax. The clones sent to Akros had succeeded. King Anax marched for the Plateau of Four Winds, expecting some pointless challenge of honor from Setessa’s leaders. That left a day or two at most for her to mobilize Setessa, if everything was to happen as planned.

She leaned back and wiped her brow, stretching muscles that were cramped and stiff after hours hunched over. She could always attempt the same trick that had worked in Akros, forging a formal challenge to present to Anthousa in the hopes of goading her into declaring war. It could work, and would cost her nothing even if the Setessan council proved wiser than their Akroan counterparts. But the idea of copying another’s work irked her, even if that other had her mind and her will. This was her test, her challenge, her glory to be seized. She, Helena, would find a solution.

She wrestled with the problem for hours, busying herself with menial labor while her mind spun in wheels, weighing the options of assassination, political intrigue, public revolt, and more. The list was long, for hers had been a creative teacher. By the time she’d left every pot and spoon in her host’s kitchen was gleaming, and the last details of her plan were falling into place in her mind.

She nodded a sleepy greeting to the cook on her way outside and looked up at the sky. It was hard to tell with all the branches overhead, but if she had to guess there were just over two hours until dawn. This was when people’s defenses were at their lowest. When guards could barely keep their eyes open and only the most obsessive cooks had woken.

Phenax, she whispered in her mind. Are you there? Time is short.

“I’ve told you, I won’t be granting your quest a divine mandate this time.” There was a slight edge to the silkyness of his voice. “My siblings already suspect too much.”

I wouldn’t dare impose on you. All I ask is that you let four of the clones know that I need them.

“What are you planning, little snake?”

The end. She laced her fingers behind her head and ambled off toward the city gates. Of the beginning, for now.

“I am not yours to order around, girl!” Phenax snapped. “You will remember.”

Then kill me. Helena set her jaw, refusing to let the weight of this gamble show on her tired washerwoman’s face. Visit some terrible curse upon me, warp my flesh and make me some ravenous beast. It matters not. My life is yours, to use or dispose of as you see fit.

Only silence returned her declaration. Was it calculating? Stunned? Tempted? Much depended on the nature of that silence. It was time for her greatest gamble.

If I haven’t brought Setessa to its knees by sundown, then I ask you to visit your worst vengeance upon me.

“You will have your day, my Helena.” Phenax’s voice was a tender croon now. “Do not blame me for what fate befalls you should you fail.”

Helena nodded once. It was no less than she’d expected.

The dopplegangers met her in the splintered ruins of a home crushed beneath Erebos’s whip. One wore the gold armbands of a harvest priestess, another the toothless grin of an elderly beggar. The last two were armed as warriors and bore the leonin sigil of one of Setessa’s towers on their shields. She outlined their tasks in as few words as possible, and they separated.

The priestess left first, headed back toward the heart of the polis with its temples and manors. The beggar let out a hacking cough, then shook herself and morphed into a voluptuous maiden. She rummaged through the smashed kitchen for a bottle of wine, splashed half of it over her now ill-fitting dress and swayed off toward the main gate, humming drunkenly as she went.

The soldiers marched off together, exiting through the back wall of the house and working their way toward a secluded grove that lay in the shadow of the city’s walls. Their job was to take the places of those poor dead fools, turn the morbidity of it all around with tangible proof of Erebos’s blessing. Nothing like a pair of genuine resurrections to cheer people up.

Helena waited for a hundred heartbeats, then struck off to steal the clothes they would need for today’s game. For it was a game, and no less of one for its terrible stakes. All the world was merely a board, mortals and gods alike merely tiles upon it.

 *  *  *

There were few forms more troublesome to take than that of a child. Helena tried to avoid doing so whenever she could, but sometimes there was simply no other tool for the job. There was a certain degree of coordination that vanished when she shrank below a certain size, but now she tiptoed through the Halls of Plenty in a six-year old’s body, stumbling below the notice of the important people around her simply because she wasn’t worth noticing. Politicians make terrible babysitters.

There was a certain verdant beauty to the home of Setessa’s Council, lavish gardens and stately trees preserved under the seemingly perpetual frost. The mightiest and oldest trees were incorporated into the building, their spreading branches acting as supports for the roof. Helena crunched on some pomegranate seeds she’d been gifted by the cook, the picture of a blissful child while she roamed the halls.

Her path was far from random however. She’d scouted the palace out within a week of coming to Setessa, and now she worked her meandering path ever closer to a certain office, tucked away next to the library on the second floor.

The door was open. As she approached she saw the big oaken desk that took up most of the room, and the burly oak of a woman sitting behind it. Authorosa, Hero of Setessa and head of its council. Helena wondered which of those titles had come first.

“Hello little one.” The broad-shouldered woman leaned forward over her desk to look at Helena. “How did you find your way in here?”

Instead of answering Helena reached out and grabbed Authorosa’s nose with her stubby fingers. “Are you Authorna?” it was a plausible enough way for a child to mispronounce the hero’s name.

“That I am.”

“My momma said you were a great hero.”

“Did she now?” Setessa’s leader laughed, and picked Helena up with a hand that would probably put some bears’ paws to shame and set her on the desk. “You’ll have to thank her for me. What is your name, little bear?”

“Sybil!” she pronounced it with the heavy emphasis of someone still getting the hang of their esses.

“It’s nice to meet you Sybil.” Authorosa leaned down to look her in the eye. “Do you know where you mother is?”

Helena hesitated, just long enough to make forced tears to well up in her eyes, then she whipped the dagger from her belt and lunged for the leader of Setessa.

She’d caught the famed warrior off-guard, and the blade bit flesh and dug deeper. Authorosa grunted heavily and staggered back, a dark red stain growing across her tunic. Helena pushed herself off the desk and stabbed again, though this time she could only attack the woman’s waist-thick legs and leave a red gash across one of her thighs.

Authorosa bellowed with pain, and her fist blurred across to knock the blade from Helena’s hands and send it flying out through the door.

Helena charged, her tiny hands balled into fists as she punched and scratched and headbutted the massive woman. A few of her punches landed near the cut on Authorosa’s leg, but other than that she doubted she was causing her much pain.

“Enough!” Authorosa grabbed Helena’s collar and lifted her off the floor in one motion, holding her out so that Helena’s flailing punches couldn’t even connect. Soft green light lit the room, and for a moment the air smelled of fresh pine needles as glowing vines twined around Authorosa’s stomach and leg, sealing the wounds close.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to,” Helena wailed, shielding her head with both hands, though no blows had fallen on her yet. “They made me do it!”

“Who did?” Authorosa carried Helena out of the study and retrieved the knife. “Tell me.”

“The man! The man who took momma!”

“I see.” Authorosa inspected the knife, noting its razor-sharp edge and the bull’s-head pommel.

Three guards rattled into view, swords drawn. One had their breastplate hanging off them by a single buckle.

Authorosa held up the dagger, which was slowly dripping blood onto the floor. “Sweep the caravan outside the gates. Find which man this knife belongs to, and bring him to me. Now.”

They left at a run, though Helena heard more armored feet running up from behind her. She couldn’t exactly turn around, held aloft as she was by the hero’s massive hand.

Authorosa’s voice was little more than a low rumble. “Describe the man who gave you that knife.”

“Big,” she blurted out. “Not as big as you I guess. He’s got this funny beard, and his shirt’s always orange.”

Authorosa’s hard gaze softened, only ever so slightly. She stepped back into her office and placed Helena on the desk. “I will help your mother if I can. Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t know!” Helena drew her knees up to her chest. “I haven’t seen her since they took me from home. They said they’d hurt her if I didn’t do what they said.”

“And where is your home, little bear?”

Helena sniffed and wiped here eyes. “The quarter. Akros.”

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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