Selena’s Trial, Part 1: Where You Belong
Selena, Champion of Nature, follows the farm-woman named Iphis back to her farmstead. Iphis is the first person Selena has spoken to for days. The champion travels alone—with no one to watch out for, no one to distract her, no one who might accidentally aid her in her divine quest and invalidate her trial.
But the champion of a god cannot live in solitude forever. Iphis found her on the road and begged for her help, telling her of a missing child and a vicious beast. Trial or no, Selena cannot turn the woman away.
The farm-woman leads Selena the front room of the house, a vase shattered on the ground.
“My daughter,” says Iphis, gulping back tears. “Anteia. She’s six. She was alone in the house, mending clothes. We were out in the fields. We heard her shriek—”
Selena examines the wreckage. The vase was lovely, likely a prized possession.
“And you think an animal did this?”
“Yes,” says Iphis. “There’s a lion, a great beast near the size of an ox, that’s been spotted in the hills. Took one of our sheep already. Now it’s taken her.”
“This doesn’t look like an animal attack,” she says. “Could someone have taken her?”
“There’s no one here who would do such a thing,” says Iphis. “And no bandits on the roads, not for years. I’m telling you, it has to be that lion.”
Selena examines the tracks around the entrance, but they’re a mess, children and adults and sheep and oxen all muddled up. There is nothing in the mix that looks like a lion’s paws.
“Alright,” says Selena. “I’ll look for her.”
“I’m… I’m sure it’s too late,” says Iphis. “But we’d like to know what happened. And you must slay that beast before it takes anyone else.”
Selena nods, but says nothing.
Not far from the house she picks up a trail, the fresh prints of small feet heading out into the forest. They’re fainter than a deer’s tracks, pressed into the ground only by the weight of a child, but she’s able to follow them away from the farm, into the hills.
Well up into the hills, the strides lengthen. The child must have broken into a run. Torn shrubs, trampled leaves, a lost sandal—and a paw print the size of a dinner plate.
“Good gods,” breathes Selena. She strings her bow and quickens her pace, moving as fast as she can without losing the trail.
The lion followed the girl, its enormous prints swallowing her little ones, each of its massive strides making ten of hers. She slipped through a thicket, but the lion bounded right over it, and crashed through the next.
The girl’s trail stops at a tall oak tree, the bark of its trunk shredded by claws whose marks reach higher than Selena’s head. The lion’s tracks have trampled all around the tree, prowling in circles, then away…
Selena looks up and sees a small girl huddled high in the branches.
“Are you Anteia?” she asks.
The girl nods. Her face is caked in dirt and streaked with tears.
“I’m Selena. Your mother asked me to look for you. Will you come down?”
“Is it gone?” asks Anteia in a small voice.
“For now,” says Selena. “Come down, and we can leave before it comes back.”
“I can’t,” sobs Anteia.
Selena is about to reassure the girl, to say that any tree you can climb up is a tree you can climb down, when she realizes that the shredded bottom portion of the trunk has no branches at all.
“Jump down,” she says instead. “I’ll catch you.”
With some coaxing, Anteia jumps down into Selena’s arms. She grips Selena tightly, so Selena carries her back the way they both came, with the girl in one arm and her bow in the other.
“You have big arms,” Anteia says quietly.
“I’m an archer,” says Selena, smiling. “It takes a lot of muscle to draw a bow.”
Anteia nods and falls silent again.
“How did you get up that tree, anyway?” asks Selena.
“It had little branches,” says Anteia. “I thought they might break when the lion tried to climb up.”
“That was quick thinking,” says Selena.
“Sometimes I climb trees with my brothers, and they—”
“Sh!” says Selena sharply, and the girl falls silent.
The lion stands on the path ahead of them. It’s not the size of an ox, but it is a massive beast, lean and maned. Anteia begins to shake.
“Get onto my back,” whispers Selena. “I won’t let it hurt you.”
She helps the girl climb around to her back and begins walking sideways, trying to put herself between the lion and the village. The lion watches her the whole time.
“Kill it kill it kill it,” whispers Anteia in her ear. The girl’s voice is shaking, her tears hot on Selena’s neck. “Please kill it. It’s so scary. Please.”
Selena reaches back into her quiver and feels for an arrow with slightly stiffer fletching than the others. She nocks and draws, shifting her balance to compensate for the small child on her back.
She lets fly, and the blunt-headed arrow hums across the intervening distance and smacks into the lion’s forehead. The beast yowls and flinches away.
“Go on, get away!” yells Selena. “Go! Back where you belong!”
Reluctantly, growling, the lion turns and bounds back up into the hills, away from human settlement.
Selena sets Anteia on the ground and takes her hand, and the two of them walk back toward the village in silence.
“Why didn’t you kill it?” asks Anteia finally, when they’re almost back to the village. “Isn’t that what all those arrows are for?”
“Sometimes,” says Selena. “But sometimes you just have to send a message. Lions eat wild animals, Anteia. They stay away from towns. They only attack people when something’s gone wrong. When they’re too injured or sick to catch their usual prey, or when people have hunted it all.” She crouches to look Anteia in the eye. “Or when a little girl goes running off into the hills on her own, away from all the grown-ups and oxen who could scare the lion away.”
Anteia’s face turns red.
“You broke your mother’s vase,” says Selena. “And you knew she’d be angry. So you ran away.”
“You’re going to tell her!” says Anteia, breaking into sobs.
Selena pulls her close.
“No,” she says. “I’m not. She thinks the lion came all the way down from the hills just to take you away, and she’ll be very relieved when she learns that I got there before it could gobble you up.”
Anteia pulls back, eyes wide, and forgets to cry for a moment.
“Of course,” Selena goes on, “if she thinks that, she’ll tell other people too. Wouldn’t surprise me if they organize a hunt. Good thing, too—can’t have a lion coming down from the hills and snatching children away. I’d bet that lion will be dead within the week.”
“But… but it didn’t snatch me away,” says Anteia. “It stayed up in the hills. It was just that I—”
“That’s right,” says Selena. “So if you tell your mother what really happened, you’ll save that animal’s life. And like I said, she’ll be relieved to have you back, especially when I tell her that there really was a lion. Maybe she’ll be so relieved you won’t even get into trouble. That part’s up to her. But whether you tell her what really happened… that’s up to you.”
Anteia falls silent, and Selena waits.
“I’ll tell her,” says Anteia.
Selena stands up and takes her hand again, and leads the child home.
Selena’s Trial, Part 2: That Which Dwells Within
Selena steps carefully through the shattered city of Logophon. Towers of black glass loom, their faces broken. Were they always made of glass, shattered by explosive force? Or were they turned to glass in some arcane cataclysm?
Her footfalls are quiet, but their faint echoes haunt her passage. She does not know what happened here, or whether the infamous mage Antemion was to blame, but she knows that this city is dead. She can hear nothing besides herself—no calling birds, no scurrying rats, not even a breath of wind. Still, she strings her bow and nocks an arrow, carrying it low but ready to draw and fire.
Then she sees it, squatting among the blasted shards of the city, the only structure still intact: the Hall of Antemion. She walks toward it with trepidation in her heart. She has slain cyclops and catoblepas, driven away hydras and subdued charging bulls. All of those were frightening, all of them were difficult, but they were also straightforward. Slay the beast, defend the city, win the day. This time she has no idea what to expect.
You will enter Antemion’s Hall of Mirrors and face that which dwells within, the God of Magic had told her. Discerning its nature is part of the test. Defeat it and return safely.
The entry to the hall is a dark portal, a blackness that discloses nothing. She takes a deep breath and steps inside.
The darkness is all consuming. And cold. Gods, it’s cold.
She steels herself and takes another step into the darkness, one hand outstretched. She can see her hand, somehow. Her footsteps echo within a vast space, its floor smooth and flat, its walls too distant to guess at. Whatever this place is, it is not within the confines of the ugly structure she saw in Logophon.
Other footfalls reach her ears, coming from up ahead. Not echoes, she’s certain, for they have echoes of their own. Selena does not know how visible she is, but she is careful to keep her footsteps measured, to give no sign that she can hear whatever has joined her in this cold emptiness. She keeps her arrow nocked and listens.
Then she sees it, finally. Her footsteps falter.
It’s her. Her reflection. Her pensive expression, her hair, her traveling clothes, her bow, an arrow nocked. A perfect image—but wrong, somehow, in a way she can’t quantify.
Antemion’s Hall of Mirrors. Selena can see no mirror, no surface, but then, what else is there in here to reflect? Selena transfers bow and arrow to one hand. She reaches out with the other, and her reflection reaches too.
Wrong wrong wrong, her brain pulses at her, and she yanks her hand back before she knows what she is doing. The reflection pulls back as well, looking wary and disturbed, one hand still raised as though to ward off a blow. Then she finally sees it.
It’s the wrong hand.
Not a reflection. A double. An illusion, perhaps. Or maybe something worse. The hair on the back of her neck stands up, and she sees her distress reflected in her double’s eyes. That’s why it looks wrong—she only ever sees herself in mirror image. This Selena would look right to anyone else. But not to her.
“By the gods,” she breathes, and her duplicate says it too, in perfect time, almost too quiet to hear. And so does someone to her left, and someone to her right, and—
Selena whirls and sees them. A multitude of Selenas, stretching off in every direction. Whichever way she turns, they turn with her—some facing her, some facing away, alternating. But not mirrored. When she looks one way, they look the other. Every one of them carries her bow in her left hand, the way Selena does. She’s face to face with herself, with a thousand more of her looking on. She shudders.
Slowly, carefully, she reaches out again toward the closest Selena, her palm opposite its reflection. She presses her hand against the other—and it is not the hard, unyielding surface of a mirror, but a warm, flesh-and-blood hand. She moves her hand to the side and clasps the reflection’s hand—her hand, every line and scar the same. Then she reaches past the hand, very slowly, and rests her hand on her duplicate’s shoulder, as its hand reaches to rest on hers, warm and solid and very, very real. Behind her duplicate she sees that the Selenas are paired, facing each other, hands on each other’s shoulders in just the same way, one Selena in each pair peering around its counterpart to look curiously at her. She pulls her hand back.
There’s nothing in here. Just her. Her and her and her and her and her. Face that which dwells within, Elyrian had said. But he had also said defeat it. What defeat? What it? Here she is, facing herself a thousand times, yet she is certain that there is more to the test than this. She studies the closest duplicate, the line of her jaw, the curve of her throat.
—the storyteller finishes the tale of Timonax, who was lonely and wished for his reflection to become real, only to fall hopelessly in love with his duplicate. The Guard trainees drift away in twos and threes.
“I don’t get that story,” admits Selena, as she and her friend Iola walk back to the Guard training barracks together. Iola is radiant in the moonlight, and Selena slouches self-consciously beside her, even though they are alone, and there is no one there to compare them.
“You don’t?” giggles Iola. “What, you wouldn’t at least want to kiss yourself? Just to see what it was like?”
“Ew, no,” says Selena. “Who’d want to kiss me?”
“Hmm,” says Iola. Just hmm, and a sudden sly smile that shines brighter than the moon—
Selena turns her body to one side (a thousand times) and slides past the nearest duplicate (a thousand times), their faces (faces faces faces) uncomfortably close. The next duplicate, the one facing the same way as her, turns the same way (a thousandfold) and slides away (a thousandfold) as a new duplicate (gods, so many!) steps forward to face her. If it were a dance, its precision would shame the gods, every single one of a thousand pairs of feet stepping in time…
Selena blinks in surprise, then frowns at the clueless look on her duplicate’s face. She backs up, watches her duplicate get farther away until it nudges up against the next, just as her own back presses against the one behind her. She whirls to one side and stops… and one set of footsteps stops ever so slightly out of time.
She weaves quietly through the crowd of reflections, turning so they can pass, stalking closer and closer to the out-of-step sound. Then she sees another Selena weaving toward her, bow in hand, expression serious, just like all the rest, and she knows in her gut this one is different. This one is wrong.
Selena raises her bow, and a thousand Selenas raise theirs too, each pointing at another Selena who looks just the same. A thousand bow-strings creak as she draws back. Or are they all the same bow-string? The expression on her duplicate’s face is the same as hers—just as determined, just as scared. Its arrow aims for her heart.
What if she’s wrong? Is this one different? Or is it just her, like all the others? She is pointing an arrow at her own heart, and she knows she will strike true.
Selena looks her duplicate in the eye, and in one moment of perfect clarity, she knows that this is the false reflection.
She exhales and lets fly.
Selena’s Trial, Part 3: One More Outrage
Selena lets her arrow fly as her duplicate—her false duplicate, her enemy—does the same. Selena’s arrow shatters the duplicate’s in midair and keeps flying. Around her, a thousand arrows strike true, and a thousand flesh-and-blood Selenas grunt in pain and fall to the smooth floor, her own arrow sticking from every lifeless breast. If she had picked the wrong target—but she did not.
Selena’s arrow, her true arrow, strikes—not through her duplicate’s chest, but through the surface of a mirror. Her duplicate’s eyes flash with blue-green light, and then her reflection flies apart. Cracks shoot through the whole room, floor to ceiling, as pieces fall away. The other Selenas’ bodies fly apart too, all of them, until she is alone again, breathing heavily, on the verge of tears. The room is still dark, the floor smooth, but now she can see gaping chasms and walls of black, jagged glass in the gloom around her.
There is the slightest sound behind her, and she whirls, another arrow already nocked.
The thing still wears her face, but it has dropped all pretense of imitation. Its misshapen body glows with sickly light, its movements unnaturally swift, its limbs moving with horrifying, boneless flexibility. It holds her bow, but the bow is part of it, the string a tendon stretched between two hideously long fingers. It staggers forward on clawed limbs, their number changing as it grows and absorbs them at will.
Selena looses an arrow at the monstrous thing, but it twists out of the way.
“Too sssslow,” it hisses. It splits her face with a ghastly grin and fires back. She twists to take the arrow in her left shoulder, and gasps in pain as it strikes flesh.
Chittering with satisfaction, the twisted reflection halts its charge and skitters to one side like a crab, pulling another arrow from within itself. Gods, what now? It’s too fast, she’s too slow, and now she’s wounded as well.
There is a chasm behind the monster, a jagged blackness cut through the floor. She has no time to think, only to act. Selena drops her bow and lunges at the thing with all her strength. She slams into it, and it topples backward, over the edge, with a scrabbling of mercurial limbs. Selena manages to catch the lip of the chasm with one hand. She grunts with the effort as the thing’s twining fingers catch hold of her ankle.
Selena looks down to see her own face looking up at her, her own body dangling above the darkness.
“Sssslow,” the thing growls. “Brrrroken. Weeeeaaaak.”
“Go to hell,” she gasps. She kicks it in the face, its talons digging into her flesh. She keeps kicking, until at last its grip loosens and it falls into the dark, screaming in her voice long after it is lost from sight. The scream ends in a distant sound like breaking glass, and the arrow in Selena’s shoulder vanishes.
Selena pulls herself most of the way up with her right hand, then grits her teeth and flexes the muscles of her left shoulder. She cries out in pain, echoing in the emptiness, but manages to pull her body up over the edge and back onto the smooth glass floor of the chamber. There is an exit now, a blinding light the shape of the door on the outside of the hall. Selena lays there for a moment, breathing, trying to banish the image of the horrible thing from her mind.
Then she rises, collects her bow, and staggers for the exit. She emerges into the broken, lifeless city of Logophon, finds a fallen column, and sits heavily. She is steeling herself to clean and bandage her wound when there is a rush of wind and a sound like rustling leaves.
Selena looks up to see a woman standing before her with glowing green eyes and faun’s ears.
“Aeona!” she gasps, and tries to rise, but the god of nature holds out a hand.
“Sit,” says Aeona. “I will heal you.”
Aeona gestures, and Selena feels the flesh of her shoulder knit back together. The blood on her skin dries, flakes, and blows away on a sudden breeze.
“Thank you,” says Selena, and for a moment champion and god look out over the ruined city.
Aeona sighs, a very human sound.
“I am sorry you had to face that,” she says.
Selena shrugs, her left shoulder still stiff.
“It was a trial,” she says. “I expected it would be difficult.”
“Difficult, yes,” says Aeona, her voice full of sudden fury. “But Elyrean need not have tormented you with that ancient monstrosity. It is one more outrage for which I owe him vengeance.”
Selena turns, disturbed at her god’s venomous tone.
“Do you hate him so?” she asks quietly. “In the stories, you often work together. As siblings… and as friends.”
Aeona gestures to the half-shattered black glass towers that slump at strange angles around them.
“Do you know what happened here?”
Selena shakes her head.
“This was once a thriving city,” says Aeona. “A place of learning and of peace, ruled by the benevolent wizard-king Antemion. But then Elyrian made Antemion a demigod.”
“A demigod?” says Selena. “Antemion was Elyrian’s proxy in the Demigods’ War?”
“Mmm,” says Aeona. “So you know that much, at least. Yes. Over a thousand years ago, the gods cut out a portion of our power and set it upon mortal champions.” She glances over at Selena. “Not merely blessed, like you, but infused with a part of our divinity. The demigods. It was our last hope for peaceful coexistence, but the demigods themselves chose war.”
“Was this place destroyed in the war?” asks Selena.
“After a fashion,” replies Aeona. “When the armies marched, Antemion could not bring himself to rouse his peaceful people to battle. Instead, with the power of Elyrian upon him, he sought to create new life. A new species, to fight the war for him.”
“That’s horrible,” says Selena.
“Yes,” hisses Aeona. “The life he created was a mockery.” She pauses, the weight of thousands of years seeming to settle on her. “When at last he had perfected his unnatural creation, he sought to multiply it in his Hall of Mirrors. The result was a disaster that turned the towers to glass, trapped the abomination in an endless reflection, and killed every last one of Antemion’s beloved, peace-loving people.”
Aeona looks down at Selena, her eyes as wild as a winter storm.
“It is true that Elyrian and I were friends,” she continues. “There is magic in the natural world, in its elegance and simplicity. He once understood that, and we created wonders together.”
The Goddess of Nature holds out her hand, and a rose blooms in her palm. It blossoms, thrives, withers, and dies, all in the space of moments.
“But those days are long past. The god of magic is our enemy, my champion. Do not trust him.”
Selena nods, but says nothing.