Orfeo’s Trial

The Champion of Deception is sets out to slay a Hydra, but there's more afoot than the Gods let on...

Part 1: A Few Little Lies

Orfeo, Champion of Deception, does not even bother eavesdropping on the Champion of War and her personal skald as he walks away from their camp. It’s extremely unlikely that they have anything interesting to say.

The chain around his wrist trails after him with just the slightest tug—just enough to remind him that Ludia is always holding his leash.

Valka had proved even bigger than he realized, practically a giantess, a head taller than him and much, much stronger. She could probably pick him up with one hand.

Orfeo had politely offered to travel with her; the Champion of War had impolitely declined. She’d even promised to kill him if he interfered with her journey, and her axe seemed to pulse red, just for an instant, at the word kill. They say she used it to execute the traitor who murdered her father. They say she never breaks her word.

Orfeo saw no reason to tarry after that.

It’s not that he’d expected her to welcome him. The Champion of War is notoriously standoffish, and there is no love between their gods even at the best of times—which these, quite evidently, are not. But there was something almost personal about her dislike for him, an edge to her disdain that he hadn’t expected and isn’t quite sure what to make of. At any rate, he hadn’t lied to her—they were traveling the same direction, and he most certainly would appreciate a chance to get to know one of his rivals. Ah well.

After walking for an hour or so, he settles down for lunch in the brush near a crossroads, out of sight of any travelers on the road. He has no idea how quickly Valka and her bard plan on traveling, but avoiding them will be easier from behind than from ahead.

He cloaks himself in shadows, part of the divine powers of illusion that Ludia has set on him to complement and extend his repertoire of deception.

He does not have to wait long before the mismatched pair come into view, Valka’s huge strides eating up the distance while the bard struggles to keep up. They pause at the crossroads to consult a map, the bard makes an impassioned plea that Orfeo cannot hear, Valka shakes her head, and then the two of them head off—not on the main road, but on a side road that will take them to Lethenon by a longer route.

The chain on his arm grows pleasantly warm, and Orfeo smiles.

Sometimes, he reflects, all you have to do is show them the knife.

***

Around midday, a wagon overtakes an old man walking along the road. The man does not stumble or hobble, but his pace is slow, slow enough for a wagon full of wine barrels drawn by a single ox to pass him by.

“Ho!” shouts the wagoneer, a strong, weathered woman the same shape as the barrels in the back of her wagon. “Where are you headed?”

The old man puts one hand to his ear, and the woman repeats the question. Two curly-haired youths peer over the barrels to catch a glimpse of him.

“Oh, just down the road to Tolis,” says the old man. “Used to be able to make it there and back in a day, but…” His shrug seems to encompass his frail legs, the muddy road, the world and the gods who made it.

“Don’t I know it,” says the wagoneer. She eyes the old man carefully before patting the seat next to her. “Climb on up. I’m headed that way myself, and I’d be glad of the company.”

And you’re no threat, she does not say.

The man climbs up beside her, gratefully accepting the strong hand she offers.

“I’m Idaca,” she says. “The two in the back are Teres and Lycurgus.”

The old man nods in greeting, too winded by the climb to say anything.

He rides Idaca’s wagon the rest of the day and makes camp with them at night, telling tales to the children while Idaca cooks and singing old songs after dinner in a creaky baritone.

They drop the old man off in Tolis around midday the next day. Only after they have left him behind do the travelers realize that he never gave his name.

***

That evening, a young nobleman rides up to the Bronze Bull, a squat but well-appointed inn built where the road to Arkmonia meets the road to Lethenon. He tosses a silver coin to the stablehand and hands over the reigns. The boy tucks the coin away quickly and takes the horse without a word.

The nobleman walks into the common room, and the inn goes quiet. They get all sorts of visitors here, but not often ones who smell of rosewater and wear silk breeches. A trio of Amazons eye him with particular distrust. 

The man walks up to the bar, sets five silver coins on the table, and quietly lists his requirements. The barkeep nods, listening intently, his eyes locked on the coins. They have unfamiliar markings on them, but they are certainly silver. In no time at all the nobleman has a seat by the fire, a bottle of very expensive wine, and a hot meal of roast duck and rosemary bread to enjoy while a room is made up to his specifications. The inn’s other visitors are wary at first, but the man shares the wine, pays the troubadour for a night full of song, and buys a round on the house, and all but the Amazons warm to his presence.

Much later, the nobleman sits by the dwindling fire and smokes a pipe. The door slams open, and a massive northern woman walks in with her herald. Both look a bit bedraggled, and as late as it is, all the barkeep has to offer them is cold turkey cuts and the one remaining room. The herald mutters something about sleeping on the floor.

The nobleman nods deferentially to the pair, who ignore him. They made good time, but they do look tired.

In the morning, before the northerners have risen, the nobleman travels onward. He leaves behind the six silver coins—five in the barkeep’s safe and one stored securely in a bolthole in the stable. It will be several days before the coins evaporate, their magic spent. No doubt someone will be blamed for their disappearance, but that is not the nobleman’s problem.

***

A trio of Amazon warriors approach a hidden guard station at the edge of the Arkmonian forest. They stride confidently, aware that they belong here, equally aware that they will be challenged anyway.

An Amazon scout, one of their menfolk, drops out of the trees ahead of them. Surely there are others nearby.

“Back so soon?” asks the scout. “Thought you were going to be gone a few days.”

The leader of the warriors steps forward, one hand on her hip. The Amazons present a united front to outsiders, but their scouting corps and their warriors share a rivalry that is not entirely friendly.

“Change of plans,” says the lead warrior. “We have information that we need to take directly to the Queen. By your leave, of course.”

The scout’s curiosity is plain on his face.

The lead warrior’s expression softens, and she lowers her voice.

“It concerns the Divine Trial,” she says. “Aeona’s champion may be in danger.”

The scout’s eyes go wide, and he steps aside, with a little more deference than before.

“Any news?” asks the lead warrior casually. “What about that hydra that’s been prowling the woods? Don’t want to get in its way.”

“No news there,” says the scout. “It’s still down in the lowlands gorging itself, as of late yesterday. Past the Old Road, nowhere near the city. We’re still under orders to let it be.”

“That’s a load off my mind at least,” says the lead warrior, with grudging respect. “Thanks.”

The scout turns and watches the trio walk away. He’s a trained tracker, and it won’t take him long to realize that there is only one set of footprints. This information will not prove useful.

***

Orfeo crosses the Old Road, whistling to himself.

He’d told Valka the truth, and what had it gotten him? Rebuffed, insulted, threatened. But everyone else had been so helpful, with a free ride and a night at the inn and directions to his quarry. All for the price of a few little lies.

Part 2: The World Through Their Eyes

Orfeo, Champion of Deception, watches from the shadows as the hydra ambles closer to the dead deer Orfeo has, with some difficulty, laid in its path.

Even in a place as big as the Arkmonian Wood, finding the hydra posed no great challenge. Stopping for directions had practically been overkill. The creature is massive, the size of a cottage, with five necks as thick as treetrunks, ten keen eyes, and five sets of snapping jaws, any one of which could easily bite Orfeo in half. He knows not to cut its heads off—but he prefers more indirect methods, in any case.

The hydra plows a path through the forest as wide as a road, its heads snuffling the air, keeping watch in all directions, and nosing about for something it can eat—which is, evidently, pretty much anything. Orfeo has already seen it hunt down a feeble-looking bear and devour a long-dead goat carcass, which gave him the idea for his present tactic.

One of the hydra’s heads scents the dead deer and begins panting excitedly. It groans and strains forward, which catches the other heads’ attentions, and the whole beast takes a few eager steps to bring it within striking range of the carcass.

That deer has enough arsenic stuffed inside it to kill an entire cavalry division, including the horses. Orfeo tries not to think about the messy process of finding the carcass, dosing it, and moving it into the hydra’s path, which had taken him most of a day all told.

The nearest head takes one leg of the carcass in its mouth and drags it closer. Another head takes one of the other legs, and the two start to tug at it. Orfeo holds his breath.

***

Orfeo sits with his mentor Vettorio in an open-air cafe in Ronella, watching the people and discussing their work. They speak just loudly enough to hear one another, and they refer to the Guild only obliquely.

“You know, many people believe that anyone in our line of work must be utterly lacking in empathy,” says Vettorio. “And it’s true some are—no doubt you can think of a few. But they are blunt instruments, suitable only for street-level work. To rise in our organization takes considerable understanding of the human condition. You must understand what lies in other people’s hearts. See the world through their eyes.”

Orfeo nods. He looks bored, half-listening. In fact he is bored, terribly bored, at yet another of Vettorio’s didactic lectures about the philosophy of deception. But he is fully listening, well aware that a lecture can swiftly become a test, and tests in the Guild can prove deadly.

“Take that man, for instance,” says Vettorio, without gesturing or even looking at the man in question. “In the purple cloak. See him?”

Orfeo scans the crowd and picks the man out. He is impeccably dressed, but he does not carry himself like nobility. A high-ranking servant, probably. Orfeo studies the man for as long as he dares, then nods, prepared to answer the inevitable quiz about the man’s height, his features, his bearing, his route.

“What’s he feeling?” asks Vettorio. “No, don’t look at him, you’ve seen enough.”

“Feeling?” asks Orfeo, keeping his eyes off the man. He does not furrow his brow, but the question is bizarre.

“Yes. His mood. His desires.” Vettorio studies Orfeo’s face intently. “You may look again, if you need to, but keep it quick.”

Orfeo does look, briefly. The man is only walking, but his strides are long and quick, his direction sure.

“He’s… in a hurry,” Orfeo says slowly.

“Is that a feeling?”

“Urgency, then,” says Orfeo. “He needs to get somewhere.”

“Why?” asks Vettorio. “Is he running late?”

Orfeo thinks back to the way the man held himself. Upright bearing, good posture. Hurrying, yes, but not moving with unseemly haste, not drawing attention to himself, not glancing at the clocktower. He wore a shoulder-bag at his side, one arm curled around it to steady it, to… to protect it.

“He’s worried about whatever he’s carrying,” says Orfeo finally. “It’s valuable. He wants to get where he’s going before something happens to it.”

“A keen assessment,” says Vettorio. “I concur. Shall we test our theory?”

Vettorio gestures, and a bodyguard appears at his side, seemingly from nowhere. Vettorio whispers a few words in her ear, and she departs as quickly as she arrived.

“We’ll keep talking for a while,” says Vettorio. “When we get home, we shall see what your empathy has gained us…”

***

One of the other heads swings low over the carcass and snuffles at it. Then that head shakes and growls and shoves the carcass away, tearing one of the legs off and pulling the other free of the hungriest head’s jaws. That head snarls, but the most alert head sniffs at the carcass again. Now the other heads sniff too, aware now that something is amiss.

One by one, the hydra’s heads turn away from the poisoned deer, and the creature moves on through the woods.

Orfeo stalks after it, his long knife in hand. The knife now seems entirely inadequate to the task at hand.

Orfeo gains ground as it stops to gorge itself on another long-forgotten carcass, this one more to its liking. The same two hungriest heads fight over whatever horrid thing they’re eating, but the others are alert and watchful. Difficult beasts to sneak up on, hydras. But Ludia’s magic is with him even here, muffling his footsteps and drawing shadows around him, and he should be able to—

One of the hydra’s heads sniffs the air, swings from side to side, and stares right at him.

Well, crap.

The heads curl toward him one by one in a cascade of scaly flesh as the thing’s ponderous body turns itself around. Orfeo reflects, as he faces down five heads and one tail all at once, that there’s really no such thing as being “behind” a hydra.

He ducks behind a tree, trying to cloak himself in shadows once more.

The hydra sniffs loudly and roars at him with all five heads. It can’t charge him, not until it finishes turning around, but that hardly matters. Even if he can get close enough to attack one head, the others will be all over him. Unless…

Orfeo sheaths his knife and clambers up the tree.

Part 3: An Intriguing Prize

Orfeo is almost to the top of the tree when the hydra starts to knock it over. One head slams into the trunk with a tremendous crack, and the tree shudders and lists.

He times his moment as best he can and jumps into the tangle of writhing necks and snapping jaws. One set of teeth misses him by inches as he slams onto a scaly neck just behind another of the hydra’s heads and grabs on to the bony ridges above its eyes. That head tries to shake him off.

What do you see? he wonders. Are you five, sharing one body? Or one, with heads no different from my arms and legs? Or something in between? He realizes, unpleasantly, that he doesn’t even know whether the heads have brains in them. That would have been good to look up sometime before now, as he clings to one of those maybe-brainless heads and tries not to die.

One of the other heads lunges to bite him, but the head he’s clinging to is thrashing around, and the other head’s teeth sink into its neck somewhere behind him. The head he’s on hisses and snaps at the other, which hisses back, and then the confrontation ends. That’s… interesting.

He reaches inside the hydra head’s mind with Ludia’s magic. He senses a dim awareness, perhaps, of the other heads, their movement in space. But this head cannot see through their eyes, cannot hear whatever dim desires pass through what passes for their minds.

How fortunate.

Orfeo presses his hands against the bucking creature’s temples and prays to Ludia for strength. He could not cloud five minds at once, could not make the whole hydra see or think something that wasn’t true. But one… Yes. That he can do.

Enemies, he thinks at it. The others are enemies, predators, thieves. That one bit you! They aren’t attacking the annoying little creature on your back. They’re attacking you. They’ll kill you. Stop them!

The head’s eyes glow purple. It seizes one of the other heads by the neck and sinks needle-sharp teeth into its throat, shaking and growling until that head goes limp. The others rear back and hiss and roar, but none of them will attack it back. They see the truth—that it is they, that they are it—and so they hesitate.

Orfeo’s new ally does not hesitate. One by one, with Orfeo still hanging on to its neck, it mauls the other heads, snaps their necks, bites ragged holes in their throats until they stop moving and sag to the ground. The heads are not cleanly severed, and can’t grow back.

Orfeo draws his knife and lifts the spell. He lets the hydra head see, just for a moment, what it has done. It lets loose a keening wail, followed by a roar, and moves to smash him against a tree.

He sinks its knife into its eyeball and shoves it deep, piercing the brain—there is a brain in there, he can feel it—and twisting. The hydra hisses and writhes, and Orfeo leaps off. He lands smoothly on his feet as the last head crashes to the ground behind him and the hydra’s body falls limply to the ground.

Orfeo glances at the sun.

He still has time for another stop, if he hurries.

***

The Champion of War has already descended into the Cave of Lethenon when he arrives, cloaked again in shadows. Valka’s herald, Oddi, sings to himself, practicing a ballad about a glorious victory she hasn’t even won yet. Fraud.

There are two kinds of bards in the world, Orfeo reflects. There are keen observers of the human condition who are exceptionally difficult to fool… and then there are the ones who just like the sound of their own voices.

Orfeo slips past the bard and into the cave. Ludia’s blessing pierces the all-consuming darkness. As he descends, the cave’s natural rock formations are criss-crossed by huge golden chains that run from floor to ceiling. Orfeo has never seen anything like them, save in a few old paintings.

He finds the Champion of War locked in battle with a shadowy cat-thing, flailing at it uselessly with that much-vaunted axe of hers. She’s stumbling backward against the rocks and chains, already wounded, and Orfeo realizes that he might be witnessing her end. The thought should cheer him—she is his rival, after all, and this trial was designed by his own god—but he feels only pity.

Then some idea lights up Valka’s eyes, and before Orfeo can guess what it is, she slashes her axe clean through one of the golden chains. The ground lurches, and by the time Orfeo has found his footing again, Valka has freed the other end of a length of chain and looped it around the cat-thing’s neck.

He watches as she strangles it and butchers it, its hide coming loose in her hand as a cloak of diaphanous shadow. Even his sight, enhanced by Ludia, cannot see through it. An intriguing prize, made all the more intriguing by the fact that Ludia herself assigned this trial.

Orfeo hides as Valka limps back to the surface. He examines the chains and the beast’s body, then follows her.

He listens from the cave mouth as the bard explains the supposed history of this place, about chains that bind the world together and some unlikely-sounding collaboration between Ludia, Thaeriel, and Elyrian.

Why would Ludia send Valka, an enemy, here, to this place? Why give her a trial that itself contained all the tools to defeat it? Why show her that her axe can cut even that which the gods have bound? Why let her walk away with a cloak that will hide her even from Ludia’s champion?

Orfeo does not know why Ludia wanted Valka to see this, or whether she wanted Orfeo to see it too. Whatever game his god his playing, she has not seen fit to share it with him.

He looks down at the chain around his wrist, which binds him to Ludia’s will. He looks at the cloak, a void that can stymie even Ludia’s mastery of shadows. Whatever the game, Ludia is not the only one playing.

In the shadows of the cave, Orfeo smiles.

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