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Better Than An Absent God

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Everyone around Merineth is deep into discussions of strategy: how best to evacuate prisoners, to shut down the anti-magic field, to take down the golem that may be the connection powering the Wall. Merineth stands silently in the middle of it all, already assigned her task, trying to steady and center herself before battle. It feels like an unbelievable luxury, preparation, when all of her recent life has felt like one headlong screaming rush between disasters.

Her gaze keeps drifting, with inevitable fascination, back to Gwinna.

Elliwick still feels like an impossibility, the originator of all the scary stories Merineth and Bas would whisper to each other at night, and though she's been told Elliwick is somewhere in the room, Merineth has yet to see her. Gwinna, on the other hand, is very evidently real, with her mane of faintly-glowing white hair and her bow slung across her back. Merineth feels tongue-tied and baffled and keeps thinking, absurdly, A primary source for Dyr is in this room.

Gwinna has been talking with her lanky tiefling companion and a silver-haired gnome paladin; now she nods, apparently at the end of some discussion, and she happens to glance up and catch Merineth staring. Merineth's face heats. To her elation and horror, Gwinna tilts her head, beckoning Merineth over.

"You're the one who wanted to know if Dyr was a paladin earlier," Gwinna says, by way of greeting, when Merineth is close enough. Merineth's face goes even hotter; she manages a nod. Gwinna smiles. "You volunteered to guard the bags of holding during prisoner evacuation?"

"That's right," Merineth says. She's proud of her voice for not shaking too hard. "I don't ... sneak. And I can take a few hits before I go down."

Gwinna's head tilts. "Are you a paladin?"

Merineth blinks. "No! No. I, um." She fumbles, trying to figure out why Gwinna would ask. "I do have some magic, I think, I've been trying a few clerical spells and they've worked, but my magic isn't strong enough for it to be a huge advantage for me to be outside the anti-magic field, if you think someone else would be better --"

"What's your clerical domain?" Gwinna interrupts. It doesn't appear she wasn't listening to what Merineth said, only that she was uninterested and is guiding Merineth back onto her conversational path. Merineth blinks.

"Light," she says. "I think."

"Hmm." Gwinna leans her shoulder against the wall and looks Merineth over consideringly. "You and your companions seem to understand that the gods aren't among us these days, so asking who your god is seems a little foolish. But most clerics get the strength of their power from faith in something. Pelor?"

Dyr, Merineth thinks. The word doesn't rise in her throat, not only because Gwinna's reaction to this might be mortifying, but because she's not sure it's true. Worlds ago when Merineth joined the Wall Guard, she did it because she'd grown up on stories of the Planar Heroes banding together, and she'd wanted to feel something like that herself. Now the Wall Guard feels like something that happened to another person who shares her name, who felt cheerful camaraderie for her fellow cadets and thought that this was what having found your people was like. Now Merineth is aware that when she bleeds she's bleeding out four other people too, that camaraderie and connection are two entirely different beasts, that liking someone and caring for them don't have as much to do with one another as she used to think.

Besides, her companions are brimming with magic, some of them, enough to spill out into Merineth and put words of light and healing on her lips and hands where before she couldn't do the simplest cantrip. A lifetime of loving the idea of Dyr couldn't do that for her.

"Them," Merineth says. "My --" Companions is accurate but insufficient. Colleagues is only true in the weirdest YOKBOT sense. Friends is laughably wrong. "Family," Merineth finds herself saying.

"Much better than an absent god," Gwinna murmurs, with a wry twist to her mouth. She's still regarding Merineth thoughtfully. "Dyr was a cleric of Pelor," she says. "Unshakably. She respected paladins, but she had her hands in the dirt -- much more interested in using her spells to heal than to look flashy. Bolster specific people over consecrating someplace as holy ground, if you understand the distinction."

"I think so," Merineth breathes. She has a funny feeling in her chest, and bizarrely it has less to do with the first-hand specifics of Dyr that she's hearing than the way Gwinna's saying them, with knowing fond reminiscence. For the first time she realizes how stupid her question has always been, was Dyr a paladin, as though that alone would give her any real insight. "What was she like?" Merineth whispers.

Gwinna looks briefly surprised. "I knew her most of her life," she says, "so Dyr was many things. Brave the whole time -- sometimes stupidly, when we were young. She rushed in without thinking whenever she felt something was right, and taught us to do the same, not always with good consequences. We all survived it, though, and so did the planes, more or less. She learned to be measured when she was Empress, but she still wasn't always good at the big picture when she cared so much about all the small things. That's what we were for -- Tsadok, Skjaldi, Asmun, Elliwick. Me." This whole time, she's still giving Merineth a considering look. "Why are you curious about Dyr specifically?"

"Well, she --" Merineth fumbles. All her reasons sound childish and silly. "I admired her growing up. I admired all the Planar Heroes, but most of you sound like legends." Gwinna chuckles ruefully, and Merineth feels encouraged. "She seemed like a real person. And I was good with a sword as a kid, and she was a warrior queen, and I wanted to be like her." She stops, embarrassed. "That must sound ridiculous."

"Not really." Gwinna looks around the room. "We only managed to evacuate people in the Material Plane to the new safe zone, and be noticed by enough people to have the clout to try forming the Empire, because Warret was there to broadcast us. Just like Tarraw's doing with your revolution -- I saw the screens in Washara." She turns back to Merineth. "She's noticed you, which means you're all more like us than you were probably planning to be."

"Oh," Merineth says in a small voice.

"I don't know how much Dyr would have liked you if you'd met," Gwinna says. "She was always uncomfortable with too much admiration. But I do know that she'd respect you for what you're trying to do here."

Merineth can't help it; her eyes well up with tears. She stares up at the ceiling, struggling to calm herself, trying to take in this thing that is more than she ever expected, and much more than any of them deserve.

By the time she's collected herself, Gwinna has slipped from her side, and is in the middle of the room, calling the troops to order. Merineth dashes a hand across her eyes, squares her shoulders, and prepares herself for what's to come.