She hit the water back-first and was instantly submerged, barely having time to remember not to inhale and no chance to twist or reorient her fall into a proper dive. Which might have been for the better; slapping onto the surface of the water that way stung her entire body, but had she sliced in cleanly she would have impacted the bottom in a second. The canal was not all that deep.
While the water closed over her head and she tried to get her legs under her, Trissiny had the stray thought that she’d been using her armor entirely the wrong way all these years. Being able to summon it at will, there had really been no reason to wear it around constantly. Quite apart from the spectacle it made of her, being clad in metal was a bad idea in a variety of situations. Abruptly being tossed in the drink, for example.
Immediately, before she had a chance to begin swimming, Trissiny surged bodily upward, back through the surface and then higher, propelled aloft on a powerful jet of water. It spurted up over the side of the canal to deposit her in the street amid a broad splatter which made several bystanders retreat with yells of protest.
It wasn’t the most graceful way to return to dry land, but Trissiny’s instincts took over and she hit the ground in a roll, smoothly coming upright. Drenched, slightly bruised by the impact, but not significantly the worse for wear. Her next order of business, of course, was to address the source of all this with the dignity befitting her position.
“You donkey!” she roared, charging past Toby (who had evidently seen this coming but wasn’t close enough to intercept her in time) at Schwartz. Still glaring at her, he immediately started conjuring something, to judge by the movements of his hands, but Trissiny manifested a hardlight construct in the shape of a standard Silver Legion shield, attached to her arm in the usual position, and rushed him. Whatever fae work he was casting fizzled on contact with the divine magic, and then she had shoved him back against the wall, and tipped him over.
“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said philosophically from somewhere behind her as Schwartz hit the canal with a loud splash.
In the next moment, he shot back upward, in the same way she had—although with more control, probably because he was casting it on himself this time. At any rate, he remained upright, and actually hopped off the pillar of water which had uplifted him to stand dripping on the sidewalk.
“Yeah, I’m a real piece of work,” Schwartz barked at her, now also sopping wet and not deterred by it. On his shoulder, Meesie was steaming—both in terms of being mad, to judge by her hopping up and down and chittering aggressively while pointing at Trissiny, and literally. “I’m the kind of absolute goon who abandons my long-lost siblings in an elven grove with a bunch of strangers while I rush off on some mission from some god. Oh, wait!” He melodramatically clapped a hand to his forehead. “No, I’m thinking of someone else.”
“Trissiny!” Toby said, frowning reproachfully at her.
“You stay out of this,” she snapped.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.” A new figure approached the group, and in looking up at her Trissiny noticed that they’d generated quite the audience; apparently everyone in the vicinity had paused their own business to watch the altercation unfold. The woman now stepping forward and speaking in a soothing voice had a short sword belted at her waist and kept her graying hair cropped short in one of the Silver Legions’ approved styles, but she wore white robes with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder rather than armor. “Why don’t you kids stop and take a breath before this goes any further? Fighting in the streets with magic is an automatic night in a cell if the Legionaries catch you at it.”
“You are making a spectacle of us, Herschel,” Trissiny stated, turning to glare at him.
“Me!” he shot back, Meesie squealing along in agreement. “Who’s the one clubbing people with divine shields?!”
“You threw me in the canal!” she bellowed.
“You really cannot go throwing people in canals, son,” the intervening priestess said, giving him a look.
“She’s my little sister,” Schwartz informed her, “she’s a practically indestructible Light-wielder, and she’s being a self-centered brat. She’ll be lucky if that’s all she gets thrown in today.”
“While I could watch this all day,” Gabriel interjected loudly, “apparently so can everyone else in town. Come on, guys, listen to the nice lady. It’s gonna be really embarrassing if you two get tossed in jail.”
“Self-centered?” Trissiny retorted in disbelief, ignoring all of them. “I know you aren’t that dense! How is it self-centered not to drag you into ridiculous danger—”
“Do you really think I need you to protect me?” he snapped. “I told you about Athan’Khar. I helped you with the dwarves in Tiraas, and then the conspirators. At what point are you going to start taking me seriously?”
“That isn’t the point!” Trissiny heard her own voice rising in pitch, and seemed strangely unable to control it. “It was my calling, not yours. For me, and…them.” She waved furiously at Gabriel and Toby, who were standing a few wary feet distant. “Have you ever read any of the bardic epics, Herschel? People who follow paladins around die. I am not—”
He suddenly lunged forward and seized her by the shoulder. “I was right there asleep!”
The combination of his uncharacteristic physical aggression and the non sequitur brought her up short. He was gripping her shoulders hard—not enough to hurt, as her muscles were about an order of magnitude harder than his, but enough that his own arms quivered slightly with the strain. Before she could decide how to react, he slumped, lowering his head between his arms to stare down at the cobbles. Meesie, having fallen silent, clung to his collar with three limbs, using the other to soothingly pat Schwartz’s cheek. She stared up at Trissiny, who thought the little elemental’s rodent-like face looked inexplicably accusing.
Schwartz drew in a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering torrent before raising his head to look at her again. His glasses were askew, which he didn’t seem to notice. What with the water pouring out of his hair and down his face, it was impossible to tell if there were tears in his eyes, but his expression implied them.
“The whole time, Triss. Just…knocked out like a bag of rice. I woke up later and it was all done. Me, who could have tossed Ildrin and all the rest of them around the room with wind and fire if I… He was only there to look after me, anyway.” He stopped, swallowed loudly, and straightened up somewhat. Not releasing her, but restoring some of the iron in his spine. “I know you blame yourself for Ross. Maybe you could have done something different and he’d still be alive; maybe not. There’s no telling, now, and no point in wondering about it. But the whole situation only existed because of me.”
Before she consciously decided to do anything, she was hugging him. It was only another surprised moment before he wrapped his thin arms around her in kind. They were both on the tall side, but Schwartz more so; her cheek rested neatly against his shoulder. After a pause, Meesie carefully clambered over and patted Trissiny’s face, squeaking very softly.
“I’m still mad at you,” he muttered into her hair.
She sighed. “Fine, you can be mad. I just…want you to be safe.”
Apparently this was a less entertaining show; at any rate, the spectators were drifting away now. She could just see past Schwartz’s neck where Toby and the priestess were talking to a pair of Silver Legionnaires, likely summoned to deal with the disturbance. Gabriel had wandered over to the canal wall and was leaning against it, scribbling in a little black journal with a pencil and studiously not looking at them.
Schwartz’s lean chest swelled in a sigh, and he pulled back enough to meet her eyes, finally nudging his glasses back into place. “I don’t want to be safe, Trissiny. Safety’s all well and good up to a point, but if you’re too safe, you’ll never do or be anything. And even so, perfect safety is nonsense; anything might happen, the world is that huge and chaotic. I refuse to be one of those people who gives up every ounce of freedom and purpose for a security that isn’t even real.”
“You have to draw the line somewhere, though,” she protested. “Herschel, following me around… I mean, it would be one thing if this was any of your business. But it’s just some stupid nonsense Vesk cooked up because he’s bored.”
He peered at her face for a long moment. “You’ve never lost anyone before, have you?”
She managed, mostly, not to flinch. That was just a little too close to what Vidius had said only minutes before, on top of being true.
“Because,” Schwartz continued, “you’re reminding me a lot of how I was for a while after Dad died. Lucky for me, I had Mom to chew me out when I started trying to coddle her and Melody.”
“Trissiny,” he said gently, squeezing her upper arms again, “everyone is going to die. No exceptions. Even immortals only last until something happens to them. You can’t stop that. And…you can’t hate it. It’s just part of life. You have to appreciate being alive, and having the people you love, while it’s all there. Take it from me, if you try to keep everybody tucked away safely in a box, you’ll either stifle them or lose them.”
She finally let her arms fall, and backed away from him. Not to retreat, though; with a heavy sigh, Trissiny paced slowly over to the canal wall and slumped her back against it the way Gabe was a few yards away. It came up to mid-chest on her, tall enough that flipping Schwartz over it had taken some doing.
“I’m sorry I never got to know him,” she said quietly, staring across the street. People were passing by, now; nothing still going on here was too out of the ordinary, aside from the two of them being drenched.
Schwartz came to lean against the wall next to her. After a pause, he actually chuckled softly, earning a confused look.
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just… I don’t think you would’ve liked him much. Oh, he would have liked you, though. Dad was always drawn to the sort of people he tended to irritate. And he made it work for him, often as not. He wore Mom down, anyway. You know what’s odd?” he added, giving her a thoughtful look. “I can see both him and Principia in your face, now I know to look for ’em. But…not a shred of either in your personality. The really weird thing is you remind me a lot of my mother.”
“I have a feeling that makes a certain twisted, backwards kind of sense, and I can’t really articulate why.”
“…I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have just disappeared like that. I knew if I told you, you’d want to come, and I am still not quite ready to sign on for that…”
“Well, I suggest you start getting used to it,” he replied bluntly. “Haven’t you ever read a bardic epic? Even paladins never worked alone. You can always use some magical support. And Trissiny, I am just as disinclined to sit back and watch you get killed as the other way ’round. You can watch my back, and I’ll watch yours. But you will not ditch me while you try to run off and get killed by yourself.”
“I am hardly trying to get killed,” she retorted.
He just leveled a finger at her; Meesie scampered down his arm to perch on his wrist and mimicked the gesture, squeaking severely. “Pull that crap again and I will turn you into a toad. I don’t care what Avei does to me.”
“Can you actually do that?” Toby asked, strolling up to them.
“Ah, well, technically—”
“Technically,” Gabriel said from Schwartz’s other side, “transfiguration via fae magic is a lot easier than an arcane baleful polymorph, if the caster is willing to deal with the kind of especially nasty fairies who traffic in curses. Don’t make threats you’ve got better sense than to back up, Schwartz. Also, hi! How’ve you been?”
“Uh…hi, guys,” Schwartz said belatedly, wincing. “Toby, Gabe, Ariel, Vestrel.” Meesie squeaked cheerfully, waving.
“And Meesie, of course,” Gabriel said gravely. “So, our girl here ditched you in a grove? Dirty pool, Trissiny.”
“You don’t match us, Gabriel,” she said, leaning forward to glare at him around Schwartz. “Speaking of dirty pools. How’d you like to go for a swim?”
He just grinned. “Seriously, though. How did you find us this fast? We got help from a god to get here; you showing up first would be impressively quick travel even if you knew where we were going to be. Even we didn’t know that an hour ago.”
“Ah, well, as to that,” Schwartz said, grinning and brushing water out of his hair with his hands, “you can thank the Imperial Rail Service for the speed. But as for how I knew where to be, I also got help from a god. Specifically, Vesk in the grove. He told me the exact location and time you’d be turning up.”
“Of course he bloody did,” Trissiny growled.
“He made a point of adding that he doesn’t usually give out such specific instructions, but since I was a plot device here and not one of the protagonists, he could make an exception.” Schwartz frowned. “I felt that was an unnecessarily condescending addendum, personally.”
“So I guess you’ll be joining our little adventure, then?” Toby said, smiling.
“Now, hold on just a minute,” Trissiny began.
Gabriel cleared his throat loudly. “You will need his help. Remember?”
She slapped a hand over her eyes, groaning.
“I guess that’s settled, then,” Schwartz said with distinct smugness. “So! Ah…what are we doing, exactly?”
It was a little early for lunch, but they decided to seek out an inn mostly to have a calmer setting in which to catch up. The choice of inn was all on Gabriel; there was no way he was going to pass up the opportunity to hang out in what had been a famous adventurer hangout when there had been enough adventurers about to keep it in business. So widely known had been the Fallen Arms back in the day that even now it survived on tourist doubloons, thanks to its long history.
Like most of the buildings in Vrin Shai, it was of white granite with marble accents, the stones ancient and pitted as some forgotten temple—as were the heavy oaken tables and chairs. Its walls were almost invisible, buried beneath centuries of accumulated battle trophies which had given the place its name. Weapons and banners, mostly, taken from Vrin Shai’s enemies—and thus, the majority were orcish or Narisian, with a smattering of Jendi and Tiraan. None of them were younger than a hundred years in age; the Enchanter Wars had been the last time Viridill had had to defend its borders.
Schwartz had been able to remove the water from their clothes and hair and return it to the canal, fortunately. Trissiny had made him double-check that there was no lingering damage to the items she was carrying. Just the folding utility knife Shaeine had given her and Kuriwa’s ocarina; everything else was easily replaceable. His own reagents and paraphernalia, of course, were secured against elemental effects such as water to begin with.
Trissiny had washed her face and hands before eating, but resolved to make a proper bath a high priority before pursuing their adventure any further. In the meantime, she did her best to ignore the slight stiffness of her clothes and the faint smell clinging to her hair. Vrin Shai had excellent civil engineers, but there was simply no chance the contents of a city canal were just water, and apparently even Schwartz’s cleansing magic was imperfect.
They ensconced themselves in a distant corner table for privacy’s sake; luckily, the place was not yet crowded at this hour. The waiter had been clearly fascinated by Meesie, but professional enough not to make a scene about her. Over tea and sandwiches, the three paladins caught Schwartz up on their adventure thus far, such as it was.
“And then we got out, and you know what happened next,” Gabriel finished, pausing to sip at the strong spiced tea.
“Fascinating,” Schwartz said, studying the piece of mithril Toby had handed him.
“Can you make anything of that?” Trissiny asked.
“Not heads nor tails, I’m afraid,” he admitted, offering it back to Toby. “I’ve rarely seen mithril up close. Princess Yasmeen was right, of course; a worked piece like that is obviously Elder God work. It’s not one of the forms the dwarves make.”
“Yes, she said they couldn’t reproduce the fine detail on it,” Toby agreed, carefully tucking Gretchen’s Dowry away.
“I don’t think it’s so much a question of detail as form,” Schwartz mused. “You understand I have only accumulated speculation to go on; the process of forging mithril is a closely guarded secret. But the things the dwarves make are not only simple, they are specific. It’s widely believed that whatever method they use, it creates only a few predetermined shapes with a minimum of variation. Mostly weapons, armor, and simple tools.”
“I love this guy,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “He knows the most interesting things about the most random subjects.”
“Well, the fact remains, we’re effectively stopped,” Trissiny said dismissively. “We were just dumped out here. Unless Schwartz happens to know where the next key fragment is, we’ll just have to wait for another clue. Probably delivered by a mysterious hooded stranger who comes staggering in out of a driving storm, bleeding.”
“I knew you liked adventure stories,” Gabriel said, grinning and pointing a fork at her—which was the first thing he’d used it for. “Who woulda thunk! Trissiny Avelea knows her cliches.”
“Only the ones everyone knows,” she snorted. “The thing about adventure stories is they are silly. Those details tend to jump out.”
“Um, actually,” Schwartz said hesitantly, “I think I may know where your next piece is.”
They all turned to stare incredulously at him.
“Oh, let me guess,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Vesk told you.”
“Ah, well, no. Actually he didn’t tell me a thing beyond where and when to intercept you—this is the first I’ve heard of the details of your quest, but… Ahem, well, it does remind me of something. Have any of you heard of Salyrene’s Tower?”
Trissiny and Toby frowned at each other; Gabriel blinked, glancing at each of them in turn. “She has a tower?”
“I will take that as a no,” Schwartz replied with a small grin. “And yes, she has… Or did.”
“The maiden in the tower,” Toby said slowly. “You think the maiden is Salyrene?”
“Well, it did sort of jump out at me,” Schwartz replied. “I mean, you’ve encountered two gods so far, and come to the sacred city of a third. Vesk went to the trouble of sending me to meet you, and sent a message that you’d need my help. And only a Salyrite or Vesker or possibly Nemitite would be likely to know of Salyrene’s Tower in this day and age. Actually,” he amended, “a Nemitite would be a bit of a long shot, but it never pays to dismiss them from consideration when the subject is knowledge; they have something of a mandate—”
“Herschel,” Trissiny interrupted.
“Ah—yes, right, sorry. Well, you may know that the Collegium is really more of an academic institution than a proper cult. Actually, four loosely connected ones. Followers of Salyrene have our rituals and traditions, of course, but we’re more about the practice of magic than dogma or spirituality. Places which are actually sacred to the goddess are rare, and the Tower is easily the main one. According to some accounts, it is actually where she lives. Not Salyrite accounts, of course; we know very well the gods have no need of physical habitation. But the point is, it’s that strongly associated with her. Salyrene’s Tower is the only place you can go and be assured of the opportunity to meet her.”
“Well, great!” said Gabriel. “Where is it, and how do we get in?”
“That’s the thing,” Schwartz replied, frowning. “You sort of…don’t.”
“Well, that’s disappointing,” Trissiny said insincerely, lounging back in her chair.
“You see,” Schwartz explained, “during the Age of Adventures, the Tower was a testing ground. People who the goddess deemed worthy, according to criteria only known to herself, were sent there to face trials. Those who overcame them were given gifts to aid them in their future battles; the specifics depended on the individual.”
“So it’s a dungeon,” said Gabriel. “Guess I understand why the Empire and the gnomes didn’t gobble that one up, if it’s sacred to a goddess.”
“It’s not a dungeon,” Schwartz protested. “It’s a magical structure where elite adventurers and heroes were challenged by trials tailored to them and rewarded with great… Okay, I see what you mean. But still. This isn’t the Crawl with better management we’re talking about here.”
“You said we can’t get in?” Toby prompted. “We are three paladins and a Salyrite, after all. If anyone can…”
“Yes, well, there’s a reason three paladins haven’t heard of it,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “Back in the day, they definitely would have; quite a few paladins went through it. Nobody’s been in the Tower, or even seen it, since the Enchanter Wars. Salyrene herself has not directly spoken to anyone since then. Nor has she called a Hand. That whole affair with Magnan… The goddess obviously took it very hard.”
“If by ‘that affair’ you mean the continent-spanning war he started,” Trissiny said flatly, “and the complete annihilation of Athan’Khar… Yeah, I can see how that might weigh on her conscience just a little.”
“Magnan the Enchanter was a somewhat more complex figure than popular memory claims,” Schwartz said, frowning pensively. “I don’t mean to downplay what he did wrong, but his offenses tend to overshadow his contributions. He created almost the entire field of enchanting as it exists today.”
“That’s true,” Gabriel agreed. “The inks and dusts we use that make enchanting something people can do without actually being wizards, that was all Magnan. Didn’t he also create the first assembly line?”
“He made something we now recognize as the precursor thereof,” Schwartz replied, “though the concept certainly didn’t exist back then.”
“Back when the Tower was open,” Toby said, gently steering the conversation back on course again, “how did people get in?”
“Well…not deliberately,” Schwartz admitted. “In many cases, not voluntarily. Salyrene picked people to be tested and brought them there. It’s thought that she mostly did so at the request of other gods; she herself never had much interest in adventurers, except the magic users. So…you see our dilemma.”
“It wouldn’t even need to be a physical place, then,” Gabriel mused. “Or if it is, it could be literally anywhere. Could be on the moon, or under the ocean… That explains something I was wondering about. It seemed odd to me that Salyrene’s sacred citadel would be in Vrin Shai. The gods may not need living quarters but they can be a little territorial.”
“And again,” Trissiny said pointedly, “we are stuck. If you can only get into Salyrene’s Tower by invitation and she no longer gives them out, that is that.”
“Now, remember who sent us here,” Gabriel cautioned. “Think in story terms, Triss. In real life, yes, sometimes things are pointless or impossible, because life is often pointless and impossible. But in a story, everything is purposeful. And so long as we’re running an errand for Vesk, we are effectively in a story. We’ve already seen him arranging things for us to make it so. In a story, obstacles are there to be overcome. C’mon, in Calderaas we practically showed up and got handed what we wanted in exchange for showing off how badass we are. It only stands to reason the trials are going to start getting a little more trial-y. But they are trials that can be overcome. That’ll be the whole point of ’em.”
“Trial-y?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.
“That’s a word now,” he said solemnly. “I have spoken.”
“Well, what’s your idea, then?” she snorted. “How do we shake the goddess of magic out of her century-long funk and get into her secret sanctuary so we can abscond with one of her treasures for Vesk?”
“You are deliberately making that sound more impossible than it is,” Gabriel accused.
“No, I’m making it sound exactly as impossible as it is!”
Schwartz cleared his throat. “Actually… I have an idea about that. Gabe pretty much hit the nail on the head there, I think.”
“Of course, of course,” Gabriel continued in the same sage tone as before. “I am very smart. And obviously, I know exactly what you’re talking about, but why don’t you explain it to these two yokels?” Toby reached over and stuffed a hunk of bread in his mouth.
“Herschel,” Trissiny said severely, “I am trying to think up an excuse to drop this whole business. I need you to be a little less on top of things.” Meesie hopped onto her shoulder and reached forward to place a tiny paw over her lips, squeaking reprovingly.
“Why don’t you tell us your idea, Schwartz?” Toby suggested, unable to repress an amused smile.
“Well,” Schwartz said almost awkwardly, “we are here in Vrin Shai, and we do have Trissiny along. And you said that Vidius strongly implied the Trinity are in favor of this quest, right?” Shrugging, he looked around the table at each of them. “So…why don’t we go ask Avei?”