Hello, fellow mortals, it’s Lead Game Designer, Andrea Davis, providing the introduction this time around. As we’ve shown throughout the story so far, the gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. They’ve chosen champions from among their mortal followers. Each has brought forward an aspect of their god’s domain in an unexpected fashion — you can read about Lysander’s reformation, Neferu’s defiance, Pallas’ nerve, and Orfeo’s resolve.
Today’s story is near and dear to my heart. To be clear: Kelly did the lion’s share of the work to help bring Selena to life. But, together, we made a character that knows herself, and those that oppose her. Selena’s insight is … well, I shouldn’t spoil. Enjoy Chapter 6 in the Trial of the Gods story.
by Kelly Digges and Andrea Davis
Sixteen years ago
A child lies in bed, listening to the shouts of the soldiers-in-training outside the window as they drill with spears. The child can’t see them from the bed, propped up on a mound of pillows. All she can see is the ceiling, as the sunlight through the window crawls across it.
There’s a pile of scrolls by the bed, but reading on her back is exhausting, and the scrolls are not very interesting. Having spent most of the last three months just laying there and listening, the child has stayed busy memorizing every single order given on that field. When the time comes, she’ll be ready.
The beads in the doorway clatter, and someone enters—no, two people. Mother, and someone with a heavier tread. A season in bed has made her adept at telling people apart by their footsteps. The child has many little talents like this, and thinks of them as “cursed skills”—the small things she can only do because her body will not cooperate when she tries to do things other people do.
“Sweetie,” says Mother. “Are you awake?”
The child rises to her elbows and tries to say hello, but the words stick in her throat, and only coughing comes out.
“Please, don’t get up,” says the other voice, gruff but kind. That’s Abderos, one of the healers. “How are we doing today, lad?”
The man looms, smiling. With his white beard and his ample belly, he’s about the furthest thing from intimidating that one can imagine.
“About the same,” says the child quietly.
Abderos purses his lips and nods gravely.
“And you’ve been taking your tinctures and doing your exercises?”
The child nods. The exercises are boring and the tinctures taste terrible, but the child never complains. She will get better. She has to.
“Let’s have a look at you, then,” says Abderos.
Mother holds the child’s hand through the poking and prodding. Abderos asks the child to push each leg against his hands as hard as possible, blow on a feather, all the little tests to see if ravaged muscles are finally recovering.
With Mother’s help, the child sits up after the examination.
“Well?” says the child.
“About the same,” says Abderos, pursing his lips. “I’m sorry. I wish I had better news. The illness itself has passed, and you’re no longer in danger. That’s something to celebrate. And there’s no damage to your nerves that I can find. We just need to find a way to get your strength back.”
The child nods. Gods, this is interminable. And the pity! She hates their pity. Abderos’s little pout, Mother’s sickly smile that’s supposed to be comforting. She doesn’t want their pity. She wants to walk.
“Thank you,” says Mother.
“Of course,” says Abderos, smiling. “Keep doing what you’re doing, lad.”
“Am I going to get better?” asks the child. “Am I going to be able to fight?”
Abderos makes that face again, that pitying, it’s-bad-but-I-don’t-want-to-say-so face. The healer has yet to say whether the child will even walk again, much less fight. He exchanges a glance with the child’s mother.
“I don’t think any of us know right now what you will or won’t be capable of,” he says. “Take your tinctures. Do your exercises. I’m afraid that’s the best thing you can do for the time being.”
The child nods, determined not to cry until he is gone.
Abderos exchanges a few quiet words with the child’s mother, then leaves with a clatter of beads. Mother returns and sits beside the bed, and holds the child’s hands. Mother’s hands are strong and firm from years fighting in the Arkmonian Guard, calloused by spear and sword and shield.
“I know how badly you want to get better,” says her mother. “I know you want to fight. And you know I will do everything I can to support you.”
The child turns away.
“But no matter what happens,” says her mother, “no matter what you can or can’t do, remember that I’m your mother and I love you. No matter what, I’m proud of who you are and what you can do. There’s nothing life can throw at us that will change that. Okay?”
The child rests her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“I love you,” the child sighs.
Mother hugs her tight, then stands.
“Abderos is getting your next dose ready,” she says. “I’ll bring it when it’s finished.”
Then Mother is gone, and the child is alone with her thoughts.
Yes. Yes, of course Mother loves her child no matter what. Of course Mother will be proud of her child, even as a scribe or a healer or a clerk.
But I want to fight!
The exercises are boring. Little motions, straining against miniscule resistance. Flexing a foot against a blanket. Lifting a pound or two of weight. And the rest of the time, awash in blankets and pillows, not even holding themself up. The child is making no progress. Gaining no strength. Being told not to push harder.
To the bleakest hell with that. With all of that, and the rest of it too.
The child shoves aside the pillows, puts her hands palm-down on the bed, and pushes. She grunts and swears. By the time she is sitting upright, she is sweating and breathing hard. She can see out into the yard, where the young cadets of the Arkmonian guard are still training.
Good! Good. That’s enough for now. That’s plenty.
She swings her legs down off the bed. The soles of her feet touch the ground.
Yes! Yes, I can do this!
“Aeona, grant me strength,” she mutters.
She grabs at the windowsill and pulls herself forward. Then she’s standing, really standing, both feet on the floor. Her legs are shaking. Her arms are shaking. But she’s standing.
Lift one foot. Swing it forward. Set it down. A step. One step.
Then her legs will no longer take her weight. She holds herself up on the windowsill for as long as she can, tries to fall backward onto the bed, and fails, collapsing to the floor in a heap.
She lies there for a moment, and then she begins to laugh. When her mother rushes into the room to help her she is still laughing, through the tears of pain and exertion.
It’s a start.
Eleven years ago
Her breath comes in ragged gasps, and a dull ache spreads through her chest, but she keeps running. She is dressed like the other girls when they run, with a short skirt and a wrap around her chest, even though there is not much to cover just yet.
She runs. The illness is long behind her, her body largely recovered. But she still can’t exert herself as well as the other young people. Applicants to the Guard have to be able to run three miles in three-tenths of an hour. She’s still nowhere close.
The trail leads around the walls of Agrodor, a little more than three full miles. She runs it every evening. The sun has nearly set and the air beneath the forest canopy has grown cool, but she is sweating.
Keep pushing. Keep running. Step, then step, then step.
Selena’s vision starts to go gray, then black, and finally her legs give out. She sinks to the ground, gasping for breath, tears streaming down her face.
Get up, damn it. Get up!
No use. She’s not even halfway around the city, but she’s spent.
Then strong hands help her up, and someone presses a skin of water to her lips.
“You alright there, boy?”
She shakes her head.
“I’m not… a boy…” she gasps.
“My mistake,” says the stranger.
Selena’s vision clears, and she sees a stocky woman, perhaps 40, dressed in leather armor. The woman crouches next to her and looks her up and down as Selena takes another gulp of water.
“You’ve been to see the apothecary about it?”
“About which?” asks Selena. “Being weak? Or being a girl?”
“About being a boy,” says the stranger. “They’ve got tinctures you can take for that.”
“Every week,” says Selena. “Had to prove I was strong enough first.”
“And how’s that going?”
“So far?” says Selena. “I can’t stomach it. It all comes back up.”
“Every week?” asks the stranger.
“But you still take it? Every week?”
“Mm-hm,” says Selena. She is already tired of this conversation.
“Why?” asks the stranger.
“Same reason I keep running,” she says, voice still raspy. “Maybe I can’t do it. Maybe my body won’t let me. But there’s only one way to find out.”
Selena stands up, hands back the waterskin, and wipes her mouth.
“Thanks for the water.”
The stranger stands too, nearly a head shorter. Selena resists the urge to slouch.
“Hey,” says the stranger. “What’s your name?”
That much, the people of Agrodor will gladly grant her, and she is thankful for it. She is Selena, even if she may never be Selena of the Arkmonian Guard.
The stranger nods.
Selena wants to keep running, but the woman is her elder, with a military bearing that demands respect. No sense offending her. Even if she is nosy and imperious.
“And you?” asks Selena obligingly.
“Orythia of the Arkmonian Guard.”
Selena’s jaw drops.
Orythia isn’t just of the Arkmonian Guard. She is the Guard. Selena knows her name, but has never seen her up close. Damn it, of all the times!
The older woman laughs.
“Is it that surprising?”
“No!” says Selena. “I mean, yes, it’s surprising, because I didn’t expect the leader of the Arkmonian Guard to hand me a waterskin today.”
Or find me flopping around the forest like a fish out of water. Or ask probing questions about my medical history.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Same thing you are,” says Orythia. “More or less. I like to run the perimeter sometimes. To keep myself in condition, and to see if I find anything out of place.”
Selena draws a deep, shuddering breath.
“Do I qualify?” she asks, smiling weakly.
“I’d say you do,” says Orythia, and she does not smile. “I want to show you something, if you’ll humor me.”
“Uh, sure,” says Selena. “I mean, of course. Ma’am.”
Orythia laughs again and walks down the path, gesturing for Selena to follow. Selena’s legs are longer, but Orythia’s pace is relentless.
“I’ve heard of you, you know,” says Orythia. “They say you want to be in the Guard more than anyone.”
Selena flushes and wishes she could sink into the earth.
“Mm-hm,” says Orythia. “You know, you don’t have to be a woman to get into the Guard. It’s just that most of our applicants are—”
“I know that!” snaps Selena, her face hot. “That’s not why I—”
“Okay, okay,” says Orythia. “Just making sure.”
Selena walks behind Orythia in silence, glad that the older Amazon cannot see her expression.
“Anyway,” says Orythia, “they say you’re our most zealous aspirant in years. But you had some kind of illness when you were younger, right?”
“Yes,” said Selena. Gods, she’s a sob story. “I couldn’t walk for half a year, when I was ten.”
“And here you are running,” says Orythia. “What, five years later? That’s impressive as hell.”
“You were going to say, ‘That’s impressive as hell, but,’” says Selena. She can’t keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Orythia turns to look at her.
“I wasn’t,” says Orythia. “But since you mention it… well, impressive as it is, I did still find you gasping on the ground. So you’ve still got a ways to go, that’s all.”
“I can do it,” says Selena. “I will do it.”
“Mm,” says Orythia.
“Where are we going, ma’am?” asks Selena. “As you point out, I’ve got a lot of training to do.”
“You’ll see,” says Orythia. Selena follows her in sullen silence.
Selena hears it before she sees it, an intermittent twang, thock drifting through the wood. Then they round a bend in the path, and the trees part to reveal a small archery range.
Half a dozen young people are practicing with bows while a dour woman with her white hair gathered in a tight bun oversees them. These are not her fellow aspirants of the Guard, but future members of the Scouts’ Corps, the Guard’s much-maligned sister organization. Their “little sisters,” her friends sometimes say, although of course like the Guard they are not all women.
Orythia walks into the clearing, but Selena stops at the edge. Orythia stops, turns, and looks at her expectantly.
Selena tries to keep the fury from showing on her face. She feels it crawl up her cheeks and past her temples, prickling her scalp.
“I get it,” she says. “You’re saying I don’t belong in the Guard. That I should go join the Scouts.”
For the first time, Orythia looks angry.
“I said nothing of the sort.”
A few of the young archers glance at the confrontation brewing at the edge of their field, but a sharp word from the instructor puts their eyes back on the targets.
“What else could you possibly be saying?” hisses Selena. She’s crying now, desperate to be anywhere else.
“I bet a lot of people have told you what you couldn’t do,” says Orythia.
“Ever since your sickness, right? And even before, when they thought you were a boy. I bet a lot of people—healers, trainers, maybe even your parents—have told you to blunt your expectations. To prepare to fail. To settle for something less than your highest ambition. Right?”
“And you didn’t listen,” says Orythia. “They said you wouldn’t walk again, I know that much. You proved them wrong. They said you wouldn’t run. You proved them wrong again. You’re here to show everyone who doubted you that you can be whatever you want to be. Tell me I’m off the mark.”
“No,” says Selena. “You’re right.”
“You’ve trained hard,” says Orythia. “Like I said, I’m impressed that you can run at all, much less run halfway around the city. But here’s the hard truth: Right now, every single member of my Guard could outrun you, from the new recruits to the old-timers three times your age. Four times, in at least one case. Are you still getting faster? How about your endurance?”
“Faster, yes,” says Selena. “Endurance… no. Not for a while now. But I can’t give up, I just can’t. I have to keep pushing.”
“Do you want to join the Guard to do what the Guard does?” asks Orythia. “Or do you want to qualify for the Guard to prove to everyone that you can?”
That gives Selena pause.
Deep down, what is this really about? Is it just about proving everyone wrong?
“I want to fight for Agrodor,” says Selena. “Like my mother did, before she retired. And I’ve wanted it since before I was sick. She fought to protect me when I couldn’t, and I want to do the same. I want to fight for everyone who can’t.”
“Good,” says Orythia. “Next question: If you join the Guard, I’ll be your commander. Do you trust me?”
Selena weighs this. She has never met this woman before today. But she trusts, this day and every day, that Orythia’s Guard will keep her safe, within Agrodor and throughout the forest.
“I do,” says Selena. “I have to.”
“That’s right,” says Orythia. “So trust me. And don’t assume you know what I’m saying until I’ve said it. Understood?”
Selena nods, chin held high.
“Understood,” she says.
“Good,” says Orythia. “Come on.”
The woman with the white bun watches them as they walk onto the range.
“General Kalamnestra,” says Orythia. “Permission to enter the range?”
“General Orythia,” says the head of the Scouts with icy formality. “Granted. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Just training,” says Orythia. “Some of us like to know how to use a bow too, you know.”
“Of course,” says Kalamnestra in the same cold, clipped tone. “Stow the equipment properly when you’re done.”
Orythia nods and leads Selena to the far end of the archers’ side of the range.
“No love lost between the Guard and the Scouts,” says Orythia.
The older woman selects a bow from the temporary rack at the edge of the range.
“We’ll start you out with a fifteen-pound draw,” she says. “Good beginner weight. And… twenty paces distant, to start.”
“Isn’t… isn’t the bow a coward’s weapon?” asks Selena, dropping her voice so the archers won’t hear. “I trust you, it’s just… that’s what people say.”
“If you hear anybody in the Guard say that, tell them to come say it to me,” replies Orythia. “That’s just bravado, and it’s stupid. The bow is the weapon of someone who wants to hit something more than a spear’s throw away, that’s all.”
Selena ignores the glances of the other young archers as Orythia shows her where to put her feet, how to nock the arrow and rest it on her left hand, how to pull the arrow back to the corner of her mouth so the sinew rests on her nose. She ignores the chill gaze of the Scout general, ignores even her own shame and misgiving about picking up a coward’s weapon in the first place. She trusts the general.
She looses her first arrow, and it hits the target low and to the left with a gentle thock.
It’s a start.
By the time they’re done, Orythia has moved the target further away twice, and Selena is able to hit it consistently, and get the arrow within the second ring about half the time.
The work is harder than she realized. It doesn’t wear her out like running, but her right arm will be sore in the morning.
“I think that’s enough for today,” says Orythia. “Your raw strength is decent and your control is good. You could be a very good archer, if you work at it.”
Orythia puts a firm hand on Selena’s shoulder.
“You can’t run three miles,” says the general, “and maybe that’s just how it is. But if you can work your way up to a thirty-pound pull and a four-out-of-five hit rate at sixty paces or so… maybe running three miles won’t matter so much.”
Selena tries to fix those numbers in her head. Thirty-pound, four-out-of-five, sixty paces. Are they important?
“I don’t understand,” she says. “You have to run three miles to get into the Guard. Don’t you?”
Without answering, Orythia shows her how to put the bow away—unstring the sinew, roll it and wrap it. She walks back toward the city, and Selena follows without question. Orythia has earned that much.
As they walk back into the city, Orythia speaks at last.
“To get into the Guard, you have to prove that you’re willing and able to defend Agrodor and its people to your dying breath. You’re willing, beyond any doubt, and that’s a rarer quality than you might realize. But ability… that can mean a lot of different things. And you will not meet your potential, or be able to do what you are so clearly eager to do, if you bash yourself to pieces trying to meet your toughest obstacles head-on. You’re smarter than that. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and good eyes in that head. You need to find your own way to fight in the Guard. Understand?”
“I understand,” says Selena. “Thank you.”
Ten years ago
By the silver light of the moon, Selena nocks, draws, and looses, again and again and again. Thock, thock, thock, thock.
Her target is at sixty-five paces—ambitious, especially in the dark. Her draw weight is thirty pounds. Four of her five arrows have hit their mark.
The bow had appeared on her doorstep a few days after her conversation with Orythia. It was carved from a single thin piece of yew, about as tall as Selena. Bundled with it were several sinews, a maintenance kit, and three pages of explicit care instructions written in a cramped hand on expensive parchment. It represents a significant investment in her. Her mother never asked her where it came from, which Selena assumes means she already knew.
She’d grown stronger, practicing with the bow, than she had in her endurance drills. She learned to run without pushing past her limits, to give her body time to heal and grow. The tinctures from the apothecary stay down now, and Selena is pleased with the results.
She trains by moonlight, slipping out of the city by a secret way, because she doesn’t want to discuss her archery with the Scout trainees or her fellow Guard aspirants. She just wants to train. It’s not the safest, being outside the walls after dark, but her mother knows she’s out here.
Selena nocks and draws, arrow at the corner of her mouth, sinew pressed against her nose. She exhales and looses the arrow.
Thwunk, as the arrow sails wide of the target and lands in the wooden backing.
“Four out of five,” says a voice behind her. “Not bad.”
Selena exhales sharply but keeps herself from jumping.
“General Orythia,” she says, without turning.
The older woman walks around next to her and sizes her up.
“You’ve gotten taller,” she says. “You’ll want a new bow soon, I expect.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Selena. “I’ve asked for one for the Aeonaphoria.”
Amazons honor Aeona, the Goddess of Nature, every year at the harvest, and children are given gifts to prepare them for the coming year. After this year’s Aeonaphoria, Selena will no longer be considered a child.
“Hmph,” says Orythia. “Just in time to stow it away for the winter? That doesn’t sound right.”
She looks Selena up and down again.
“You done growing?”
“Not sure, ma’am,” says Selena. “But I think so.”
Orythia grunts, and Selena goes back to training.
Thock. Thock. Thock. Thock.
Selena nocks the next arrow, but does not draw.
“May I ask you something?”
“They say truth is told by moonlight,” says Orythia. “Let fly.”
“Why are you doing all this?”
“I told you last year,” says Orythia. “I need people who want to be in the Guard. You want it more than anyone, and as far as I can tell, you want it for the right reasons.”
“That sounds a bit like pity. Ma’am.”
Orythia stares at her.
“Child,” she says, “if I pitied you, I wouldn’t have brought you here that day I found you in the woods. I’d have gathered you up and carried you home to your mommy. And I would never, ever have hinted to you that you might be in the Guard someday. Because you wouldn’t.”
“Then… why?” asks Selena, arrow still nocked. “We don’t get things just because we want them. And no matter how badly I want it, I still can’t run as fast or as far as the others. I’m never going to be as good with a spear. I don’t have the endurance. Why not just carry me home and forget about me? Was it a favor for my mother?”
“On the contrary,” she says. “Your mother asked me not to get your hopes up.”
“Don’t be mad at her, kid,” says Orythia. “She’s trying to protect you the way she always has, and you’re old enough now that she can’t, not really. Part of growing up, if you’re lucky, is watching your parents try to figure out what to do as their wee little baby slowly turns into a thinking person who wants to go out and get hurt a lot worse than skinning their knee. Some handle it better than others, and your mother’s handled it better than most. Better than I did, frankly.”
“Fine,” says Selena. “Really, then. Why?”
“The Guard needs all kinds of different people,” says Orythia. “If I only took the strongest, the swiftest, the proudest… well, then that’s all I’d have. One way of fighting, one way of thinking, one way of seeing. One group of exceptional people who might lose sight of all the ways their city has nurtured them, and all the different ways they might be called on to defend it. I need people who can see things for what they are. I need people who’ve been helpless in their lives. I need… leaders, frankly.”
“Leaders?” says Selena.
“You heard me,” says Orythia. “Take the shot.”
Draw. Arrow at the mouth, sinew on the nose. Loose.
“Not bad, kid. Not bad at all.”
Two years ago
“Guards! Form up, spears ready!” yells Orythia.
Selena ignores the order as her fellow members of the Arkmonian Guard rush past her. Her place is here, on the hillside outside the city wall, overlooking the battle. General Orythia was clear about that.
Then, in the light of a quarter moon, she sees it crash through the trees: a cyclops three times her height, wielding a club that looks to have begun the day as a living tree. Its thick hide is peppered with arrows from the Scouts, but now it’s past their perimeter and threatening the city itself. General Orythia, still spry, fights from the second rank of soldiers, bellowing commands.
The thing bellows in rage and rushes toward the soldiers, its single eye glinting in the moonlight. The Guard swarm and flank it, harrying with their spears. Cyclops have thick necks and lousy peripheral vision, so this is the standard tactic—stab it as the opportunity arises, keep it occupied, and try to stay alive until it retreats, someone lands a telling blow, or the thing goes down under a hundred pin-pricks. Unfortunately, that one big eye also gives them excellent night vision, so the Guard usually has to fight them in the dark.
The cyclops tries to look in every direction at once, swinging its head and its club wildly. They’ve got it off-balance and confused, but this tactic is still risky and dangerous. The tree-trunk club connects, sending a soldier flying out of the clearing with a shattered scream. Selena waits and watches, looking for her shot at its only true weak point.
The thing is maybe fifty paces distant, a reasonable shot for most archers in sunlight. Its eye is bigger than her head, nearly the size of a practice target, so that’s easy. It’s dark, sure, but Selena’s used to that, and the cyclops’s eyeshine makes it easy. If only it would hold still!
Then she sees her chance.
“General!” yells Selena. “Withdraw! I can make the shot, but I need you to withdraw!”
It’s risky, the exact opposite of their combat doctrine. Give a cyclops time to think and room to run, and it can smash through any line of soldiers and probably the city wall. From right up close—that’s the way to do the long, bloody work of taking one down.
Unless you can hit it in the eye and save everyone a lot of trouble.
Orythia’s head whips around, and she catches Selena’s eye—across the battlefield, in the moonlight, from the hillside. Selena nods firmly, and Orythia nods back.
“Fall back!” yells Orythia. “Give it some space!”
The ranks of Amazons withdraw, and the cyclops lurches forward.
Selena nocks and draws. Arrow at the corner, sinew on the nose. She whistles very loudly across a battlefield suddenly gone quiet, and then she looses.
The cyclops turns its head to find the source of the sound. Selena’s arrow meets its eye right at the pupil.
The creature screams in pain, clutches at its face, and staggers backward.
“Charge!” yells Orythia, and she and two dozen other soldiers rush in with spears to finish off the blinded beast.
They make short work of it, and a ragged cheer erupts among the soldiers.
Other soldiers of the Guard pile wood around the thing, preparing to burn its loathsome carcass before any of the local wildlife try to eat it. Selena has to stay away from that—the smoke aggravates her lungs—so she helps shuttle wounded to the healer’s house for as long as she’s able. When her endurance flags, she sits on the hillside again and watches her sisters and brothers work.
Orythia walks up and sits next to her.
“Feels wrong, watching the young and hearty work so hard,” says the general. “Doesn’t it?”
“Always does,” says Selena. “You were in the thick of it earlier, though.”
“We all do our part,” says Orythia. “If I had a thousand healthy young people, I still might’ve lost half a dozen of them taking down a cyclops. Don’t feel bad for letting them do the heavy lifting when you’re the one who killed the damn thing. Nice shot, by the way.”
“Thanks,” says Selena. “And thank you for trusting me to take it.”
“Like I told you back when you were training,” says Orythia. “I need people who can see the big picture and understand when the usual tactics aren’t the best tactics. Real leaders. I’m not gonna last forever, you know.”
Selena stares at her, stunned at the implication.
“Sweet Aeona!” yells Orythia, massaging a leg cramp. “Especially not if I keep rushing in there like that. Help me up, will you?”
Selena offers the general her hand, smiling.
In the dark of night, Selena’s eyes snap open. She heard something. Didn’t she?
She sits up and looks around the barracks, lit by the light of a full moon. No one else seems to be awake. Maybe she imagined it. She lies down again.
“Selena,” says a woman’s voice.
Selena sits bolt upright.
“Come to me,” says the voice. It sounds like the rustle of leaves through trees, beautiful and gentle, and she knows with certainty that it means her no harm.
Selena is immediately suspicious. There are plenty of creatures in the forest that radiate otherworldly trustworthiness right up until they’re stealing your face or drowning you in the river.
“Selena,” says the voice. “Aeona calls you.”
Well. That’s different. Few creatures would dare claim to act in the name of the Goddess of Nature. Still. Can’t be too careful.
Selena slips out of her night clothes, straps her armor on, and grabs her bow.
A hand catches hers. Iola, in the next bunk over.
“Everything alright?” whispers Iola.
“Yeah,” Selena whispers back. “Just need some air.”
Iola’s hand squeezes hers and withdraws.
Selena climbs out the window of the barracks. The moon is bright, nearly as bright as daylight.
“Outside the walls,” says the voice. “Come to the hillside.”
Selena rolls her eyes.
“Of course,” she mutters. “Fine. But if I get eaten or drowned or turned inside out, I will be very displeased.”
Selena slips out of the city through her old secret ways, past the night guards and the closed gates. She passes the archery range with a twinge of nostalgia—how long has it been since she practiced by moonlight? At last, the hill where she slew the cyclops looms before her.
She crests the hill. At its top, silhouetted by the moon, is a massive gray wolf. The wolf stands, alert but not aggressive, waiting for her.
The wolf does not speak, but she can tell the voice belongs to it.
“Selena of the Arkmonian Guard,” says the voice. It is her name, her true name, and it seems to permeate her body.
Selena’s doubts fall away, and she kneels.
“Lady Aeona,” she breathes.
“Rise,” says the voice, speaking now through the air to her ears.
Selena looks up and sees what can only be Aeona standing in place of the wolf. The goddess is no taller than her, but fearsome in aspect. Antlers and vines curl around her head. Her mouth smiles, but it is a hungry smile, the sort of smile that hides sharp teeth set within gaping jaws. Her eyes shine like a cat’s in the dark.
Selena stands, but she takes a step back down the slope of the hill, to stay below her goddess. She has many questions, but she does not speak them.
“Whom do you serve?” asks Aeona.
Selena’s brow furrows.
“I serve General Orythia,” she says at last. “Through her, I serve my sisters and brothers in the Guard. Through them, I serve my city and my people.”
“And through them?” asks Aeona.
“I… don’t know,” says Selena. “I never thought about it.”
“Your people,” says Aeona, “are the stewards of the forest. Through it, you serve nature. And through Nature… you serve me.”
“Of course,” says Selena. “What service do you wish?”
“I have cause to appoint a champion,” says Aeona. “A mortal to represent me in a contest of the gods.”
Selena’s eyes widen.
“Why me?” she asks.
“Nature is smarter than people give it credit for,” says Aeona. “Beasts are not stupid. Not even trees are mindless. Every living thing knows what it needs to survive. And it seeks those things relentlessly, with a purpose that can far exceed the meanderings of most so-called thinking beings. Do you see?”
“I see, but I don’t understand. What does that have to do with me?”
“You know what you need to survive,” says Aeona. “You have pursued it relentlessly, with both the drive of a beast and the cunning of a thinking being. That is what I need.”
“I am driven,” says Selena, “and I suppose I am cunning. But… my body is weak, Lady Aeona. I do not wish to fail you. You might want to consider—”
“I do not consider,” says Aeona.
“Then…” Selena falters, and in that moment she feels like a child again—weak and uncertain in the presence of her elders. “Then can you… fix me?”
Aeona’s face softens.
“I will bless you and strengthen you,” says Aeona, “as I would any mortal who served as my champion. But fix you?”
Aeona’s hand brushes her cheek with the softness of a night breeze.
“There is nothing to fix.”
Selena’s eyes fill with tears, and she nods.
“You are not broken,” Aeona continues. “You are Selena, and I have chosen you as you are.”
Selena clasps her goddess’s hand.
“Then I will be your champion.”
Together, they vanish into the moonlight.
An intro and an outro? Please forgive me.
Selena is transgender, as am I. It was important for the story to authentically represent this character, and to do so in a way that didn’t overwhelm the story. Selena’s gender is a part of who she is, but it isn’t everything. She is, primarily, someone who sees the situation for what it truly is.
Kelly and I had a discussion which has been posted on the Immutable YouTube channel. In the “Storytelling Masterclass“, Kelly discusses his experiences about telling stories through and around strategy card games. We go in depth about Lysander, Neferu, and Pallas, and I encourage you to check it out.
Next time, we will meet the Champion of War.
Thanks for being a part of this.
Andrea Davis is the Lead Game Designer on Gods Unchained. An award-winning designer and producer, Andrea has helped to create digital trading card games since 1998. Find them on Twitter at @andrea2s1, or on the Gods Unchained Discord as Seeker.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.