“Go ask Avei,” Gabriel muttered, turning to stare out across the city and the plains beyond. “Why did we think this was a good idea?”
“I have better questions,” Trissiny replied. “What’s your problem with it, and why are you only bringing it up now?”
“Oh, I’m just…I dunno.” He sighed, and hopped down from the stone guardrail—just in time, as the nearby Legionnaire who had been eyeing him finally turned away. This was not the kind of place where standing on the rails was looked on kindly. “Don’t mind me. It is a good idea, but the closer we get to doing it, the more I’m…nervous.”
“Why?” she asked more quietly, stepping up to the rail beside him.
Gabriel shrugged, staring at the horizon. The forest was just visible as a darker line at the edge of the world, and beyond it, a rise of distant mountains deep within Athan’Khar. “It’s Avei. And I’m me.”
“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to her.”
He gave her an irritated look. “I’m being serious, Triss. You never exactly made it a secret that she has a problem with demonbloods.”
“It…was more that I had the problem,” she replied, now staring into the distance as well. “And the problem was my ignorance, not your blood. It’ll be fine, Gabe. You’re a paladin, now.”
“Mm.” His lips twitched in a faint grimace. “Seems not quite right that that makes it acceptable for me to exist.”
Trissiny opened her mouth, then closed it again, failing to find a worthy response to that. Instead she turned to check on the other two.
Schwartz was far from the only person winded by the climb. Vrin Shai was a remarkably vertical city, clambering up the slope of the mountains surrounding it toward its uppermost terrace on which sat the central Temple of Avei, flanked by the main administration buildings of the Silver Legions and the Imperial government. The city had been laid out with defense in mind; there was only one path from the gates to the highest terrace, with the ramps to the next terrace up at alternating ends of each, requiring pilgrims to traverse the entire length and breadth of Vrin Shai to arrive at the temple. It had never been tested against an invading army—none had got past the walls—but had done in plenty of visitors. A plaza was laid out atop the steps leading to the highest level, discreetly lined with stone benches on which over a dozen people were currently resting, watched over by Silver Legionnaires and a few priestesses trained in the healing arts.
There was, consequently, a thriving taxi industry, but Schwartz had refused to hire one when they offered, insisting that he had made this climb before. It wasn’t that he was flabby or even quite as scrawny as he sometimes appeared in his voluminous robes, but as far as physical shape went, he wasn’t on the same level as the three paladins. In truth, Trissiny had been mildly impressed that Gabriel wasn’t also winded when they reached the top.
“Whew!” Schwartz puffed, coming to join them with Toby still hovering solicitously nearby. “Sorry ’bout that. Thanks for waiting, guys, I don’t mean to hold us up.”
“You’re fine, man,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Gave me a chance to procrastinate for a little bit; you know how much I like that. Well, shall we go face the music?”
“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Trissiny said firmly. “This is probably the safest place in the world. Come on, boys. Follow my lead.”
Meesie was not in evidence, having been temporarily dismissed while they were on holy ground. This temple was one of the world’s most sacred places, the historic center of Avei’s entire faith; the sheer concentration of millennia of built-up divine energy was the main reason Schwartz hadn’t been able to rejuvenate himself with a quick fae spell (and Toby’s divine healing did little for simple fatigue, unfortunately). His elemental familiar would have found it extremely uncomfortable.
Gabriel craned his neck back to look warily up at the enormous statue of Avei surmounting the temple, her outstretched sword pointing south toward Athan’Khar—and incidentally extending forth as the only part visible above them as they passed beneath the temple roof.
Being one of the world’s most important temples, there was enough of a crowd to keep them anonymous. Trissiny had neither armor nor sword with her, and Gabriel’s scythe was safely tucked away. Ariel, hanging from his belt, drew a few eyes—in this of all temples there were a good number of people who recognized a rare elven saber when they saw one—but of the four of them Schwartz stood out the most in his Salyrite robes. Pantheon temples did not bar one another’s worshipers, but they were hardly common visitors; he drew several raised eyebrows from the priestesses and Legionnaires in attendance.
Once inside the great sanctuary, Trissiny immediately led them to the side, out of the main path. The layout was identical to the central sanctuary of the Temple of Avei in Tiraas, which had been patterned after this one: a long room running from its broad doors to a great bronze statue of the goddess at its opposite end, with shaded colonnades running along the sides. At the rear of these, doors led deeper into the complex. Silver Legion soldiers stood guard at every entrance, but these were still open areas and they were not challenged upon passing through.
The door she sought was in a rotunda where several halls met—in fact, very similar to the door which led to the art gallery in the Tiraas temple, which she had forcibly opened last year with Teal. Here, the bronze doors towered eight feet high, wrought in a depiction of a long-ago Hand of Avei in battle against orcs. They were guarded by four Legionnaires at attention. A priestess in white was speaking with a well-dressed woman in front of them; both paused their conversation to look up in surprise at the four as they approached.
“Excuse me,” Trissiny said politely. “We need to enter the inner sanctuary.”
The priestess narrowed her eyes, looked Trissiny up and down, then glanced quickly across the three boys accompanying her. “I’m sorry, but the inner sanctuary—being one of the holiest places in existence—is not open to the public.”
“It’s open to me,” she replied with a small smile. “I’m Trissiny Avelea.”
All four Legionnaires, though already at attention, stiffened slightly; the rich-looking woman with the priestess gasped, her eyes widening. The cleric, however, just made a disapproving face.
“You’re Trissiny Avelea,” she said with barely-concealed disdain. “Young woman, no one in this temple will find that amusing. Now, if you have need of guidance, I can find a sister to help you.”
“Be so good as to find Sister Astarian,” Trissiny said. “She knows me.”
“The High Priestess is no more available to wandering supplicants than is the inner sanctuary,” the woman said in mounting expasperation.
One of the Legionnaires behind her cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Sister—”
“As you were,” the priestess snapped without glancing back.
At the sudden change in Trissiny’s expression, the woman in the expensive dress began edging circumspectly away.
“I believe,” Trissiny said in a much cooler tone, “a supplicant does have the right to request an audience with the High Priestess of the temple. She is not obligated to grant it, but the request is to be conveyed. Any of these soldiers can do so; tradition dictates that the doors may be guarded by as few as two soldiers.”
“You are well read,” the priestess said in annoyance, “but nonetheless, you don’t get to walk into the central temple of the Sisterhood of Avei off the street and make demands.”
“Sister, she is correct,” the soldier interjected. “I will personally notify—”
“As you were, Sergeant,” the priestess repeated, now turning to give her a flat look.
And that was the limit of Trissiny’s tolerance.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “you may want to shield your eyes.”
All three of them stepped back while the priestess turned to scowl at her again. “Now, look here—”
The light that erupted from her was blinding in that enclosed space. It receded quickly—far from completely, leaving her aglow, but diminishing enough to ease the burden on everyone’s eyes and enable them to see her golden wings, stretching nearly to the walls on either side of the rotunda.
Gaping, the priestess stumbled backward, nearly running into the woman wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was now trying very hard not to look smug. Trissiny stepped forward, forcing the woman to retreat right up against the doors and remaining just close enough to be uncomfortable without becoming too aggressive.
“Visitors to this temple are to be greeted and treated with respect,” she stated, wings of light still fully extended behind her. “If insane, they should be handled as gently as possible. If aggressive, they should be neutralized with the minimum possible force. In all other circumstances, they should be accommodated as much as is reasonable, and addressed courteously when they can be accommodated no further. While you stand in this temple, wearing that robe, you represent the goddess. There is no circumstance in which you should speak to a supplicant in that manner. Do I make myself clear, Sister?”
“Yes, ma’am. General. My apologies,” the priestess said, nearly stammering.
Trissiny remained silent, and held eye contact. The silence drew out excruciatingly, filled with the faint sound of divine magic, a harmonic tone like both a bell and a flute which hovered at the edge of hearing.
“My sincere apologies,” the priestess repeated, swallowing.
Finally, Trissiny nodded to her, and allowed the wings and the light to fade; with them went the subtle music of the divine, leaving the sound of strained breathing suddenly very audible.
“The door, then?” she said calmly, still standing just a touch too close.
Before the woman could reply, the doors were pulled open from within, revealing a stately woman with iron-gray hair tied up in a severe bun. Azora Astarian wore no mark of office aside from the uniform of a Sister of Avei and former Legionnaire: the white robe, with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder, and a belt from which hung her sword, a plain Legion-issue weapon with no decorative touches to call attention to it. In theory, the High Priestess of such an important temple occupied a place of tremendous honor in the hierarchy of the Sisterhood; in practice, she was as practical a woman as many who ranked highly in Avei’s service, and had never sought any particular recognition for herself.
“Trissiny,” she said with a warm smile. “I hope all is well; unexpected visits from paladins are often dire portents.”
“I’m sorry to descend on you without warning, Sister,” Trissiny replied, smiling back. “Don’t worry, there’s no emergency. Our business is merely unexpected, not dire.”
“That’s a relief.” Astarian shifted her eyes to the other cleric, her expression cooling noticeably. “Thank you, Sister. You may go.”
“High Priestess,” the younger woman replied in a somewhat shaken tone, inclining her head, “I was—”
“You may go,” Astarian repeated. The woman hesitated, bowed, then turned and hustled away. The visitor with whom she’d been talking had already fled, leaving Trissiny and her companions alone in the rotunda with the Legionnaires, who were still holding admirable composure.
“Who was that?” Trissiny asked disapprovingly, glancing after the departing priestess.
“An advancement-minded bootlicker,” Sister Astarian replied with a distasteful grimace. “Her work gets done and she causes a minimum of trouble, though the girl prioritizes doing favors for well-connected supplicants above accomplishing anything useful. She’ll be Bishop one day, mark my words. And who are your friends?”
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry,” Trissiny said hastily. “Everyone, this is Sister Azora Astarian, the High Priestess in command of this temple. Sister, may I present Tobias Caine, Gabriel Arquin, and Herschel Schwartz.”
“Ah! An honor, gentlemen. Welcome,” Astarian said with grave courtesy, bowing to each of them. She showed no less respect to Schwartz, whose name obviously carried far less weight than those of either paladin.
“Thank you very much, Sister,” Toby said with equal politeness. “We’re sorry to intrude so suddenly.”
“You are always welcome here,” Astarian replied with firm kindness. She stepped back and aside, gesturing them in. “Please.”
“Thank you,” Trissiny said, and nodded to the sergeant before following, the boys trailing after her.
Toby had moved to the head of the group, and now placed a hand gently on Trissiny’s back as Sister Astarian led them within. “That,” he murmured, “was a much better look on you than holding people’s faces in punchbowls.”
Schwartz was walking close enough to overhear and did a double-take, eyes widening. Trissiny just sighed through her nose and continued walking. Behind them, the Legionnaires pulled the doors shut, enclosing them in the inner sanctuary.
It was similar in layout to the main one, though more compact. The long corridor was lined with weapons, each displayed in an obviously custom-designed wooden mount affixed to the wall, small pillars forming arched alcoves to created a unique space for every one. They were an idiosyncratic lot, from spears, staves and warhammers, to crossbows, Shaathist-looking longbows, spiked iron knuckles, a bullwhip, even an orcish ak-tra. These were personal weapons owned by past Hands of Avei, tools of war each woman had used in addition to the sacred ones provided by the goddess.
At its end, the corridor opened into a round, domed space, encircled by flowing water which was fed by small fountains around its walls. In the center stood another statue of Avei. It was a marked contrast from the proud bronze statue in the main sanctuary, which depicted the goddess in an almost arrogant pose, chin up and sword aimed forward. This one, made of dark marble which contrasted with the white stone of the temple, showed her with her head bowed in contemplation, hands clasped behind her.
Toby and Trissiny both slowed, turning their heads to peer at an incongruous object among the weapon displays: a battered old leather-bound libram, its cover marked with the sunburst sigil of Omnu. The placard identified it as having belonged to Laressa of Anteraas.
“Don’t,” Ariel’s voice advised behind them, and both turned in time to catch Gabriel swiftly withdrawing his fingers from the namesake warhammer of Sharai the Hammer. Its haft was nearly as long as he was tall.
“What brings you to seek the inner sanctuary, Trissiny?” Astarian inquired when they joined her before the statue of Avei.
“It’s a bit of a story,” Trissiny explained, “and we are trying to keep it from becoming more of one, if possible. The short version is that we are on a divinely mandated quest. From Vesk.”
“Uh oh,” Astarian said dourly.
“Yeah,” Trissiny replied in the same tone. “Our movements have been directed by him personally, and brought us here. We are at a bit of an impasse, and wish to consult the goddess about our next move. I don’t lightly call upon her in person, but I think that is the pattern of this venture in particular. Vesk sent us on it personally, Vidius has already put in a direct appearance, and now we have reason to think Salyrene will become involved.”
“I see,” Sister Astarian said, frowning in thought and nodding her head slowly. “Well. You are right, business of Vesk’s is unlikely to mean anything terribly important is brewing. Still, it does sound like you’re being directed to seek out the gods. I can well imagine Vesk wanting to arrange that, in particular. Let me ask you, Trissiny, is the matter on which you want to consult Avei in any way secret?”
“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny replied with some confusing, turning to glance at the others.
“I bring it up,” Astarian explained, “because this is a truly rare event. Most followers of the goddess—of any of the gods, for that matter—will go their entire lives without being in the presence of their deity. If it is an imposition upon your quest I of course won’t ask, but if it’s not, might I have several of the senior priestesses and Legionnaires present? It would be a great honor for all, and a tremendous benefit to morale.”
“I can’t see any harm in it,” Toby said in response to Trissiny’s questioning look. “We’ve been given no reason to suspect our mission is secret or sensitive. She is your goddess, though, Triss; I’ll trust your judgment.”
“Uh, scuze me?” Gabriel said, raising one finger. “Sorry, Sister, could we have a moment alone?”
“Gabe, I trust Sister Astarian without reservation,” Trissiny interjected quickly.
“And if you have an objection, Mr. Arquin, you’ll find I’m hard to offend,” Astarian added with a smile. “I also know that paladin business is none of mine unless I’m invited to participate. Please, speak your mind.”
“Well…okay, then,” he said a little hesitantly. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to be rude. Triss, you remember Tellwyrn’s lectures about the gods, and how their nature can work against them, particularly if invoked by their own paladins?”
“Tellwyrn is hardly what I’d call a theologian,” Trissiny said skeptically.
“Yeah,” he replied, “and that’s exactly why I’m inclined to listen to her about the gods. She knows all of them, personally, and isn’t terribly impressed with most. Plus, there was that whole business with Avei and Juniper in the Crawl, remember? We know that the way we call on them can affect how they manifest.”
“What are you driving at, Gabe?” Toby asked.
“Just that the manner in which you call on Avei is likely to determine the manner in which she replies. A formal invocation in front of a solemn audience might very well make the difference between a reasonable person we can have a conversation with, and a fifteen-foot-tall being of light who speaks solely in grandiloquent pronouncements. I think, in this case, we want the first one.”
“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.
“He has rather a point, there,” Schwartz admitted. “Theology isn’t my strong suit, either, but that much is sort of basic.”
“It is…uncomfortable to acknowledge,” Sister Astarian added with some reluctance, “but yes, Mr. Arquin is correct about the principles involved. When the gods grant someone the privilege of calling on them, exercising that privilege becomes somewhat inherently coercive. It is an expression of great trust between deity and paladin. And the absolute last thing I wish is to intrude upon that trust.”
“I really hope that isn’t too much of a disappointment, Sister,” Trissiny said.
“On the contrary, Trissiny,” Astarian said, smiling again, “it’s a needful reminder. We are all called to serve; the gods are not put there for our amusement. Well! It sounds, then, as if you have need of the sanctuary and some privacy. I will see that you’re not disturbed until you are done.”
“Thank you very much,” Trissiny said warmly.
They waited until the priestess had retreated and closed the sanctuary door behind her.
“Sooo,” Gabriel said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Full disclosure, I barely know how my own religion works, and apparently my god signed me on specifically not to care. So, uh, I’ll do my best but…”
“You don’t need to do anything, Gabe,” Trissiny said with an amused smile, patting him on the arm as she passed him on the way to the statue. Then she hesitated. “Actually… Just try to be respectful, okay?”
“I can do skittish and tongue-tied. Will that work?”
“That’ll be very authentic,” Toby said solemnly.
“It certainly beats the alternative,” Ariel added.
“Right then,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat. “Is there, uh…someplace I should stand?”
“Actually, guys, it would help if you’re just quiet,” Trissiny said, kneeling before the statue. “This isn’t very formal or ceremonial, but it is very personal. It’s not something I’m used to performing in front of an audience.”
“Mum’s the word,” Gabriel promised. “Oh, uh, wait. Is ‘mum’ a gendered—”
“Gabe.” Toby placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hush.”
Quiet fell, the peace of the sanctuary augmented by the soft sound of water. Trissiny remained on one knee before the statue, making a harmonious contrast to its contemplative pose. Nearby, Toby and Schwartz both fell easily into a kind of standing meditation; they came from different traditions, but both emphasized the ability to still the mind, and each instinctively recognized a situation in which that was important. Gabriel, at least, managed to be quiet. He stood rigidly to the side, both hands jammed into his pockets, his shoulders tight with tension.
He was the first to react when Trissiny moved, twitching once as she started to rise.
“Did it work?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“I don’t…know,” she murmured, a frown falling on her face even as she opened her eyes. “Avenism isn’t a very mystical tradition, Gabe. I just…felt something was…finished?”
“That’s a very good sign!” Schwartz added brightly. “In fact, you have a good instinct, if you’re not accustomed to recognizing that. Learning to identify that subtle sense is an important and often difficult step in mastering the—eep!”
“At ease, Mr. Schwartz,” said a warmly amused contralto voice.
All turned, Trissiny with the most grace, to find themselves in the presence of a goddess. Avei, at the moment, was making even less of a production than Vidius had; both, in their recent appearances, had simply presented themselves as people without the overwhelming aura of power their presence could carry, but she didn’t even have his dramatic props. She was a tall and broad-shouldered, in a simple Imperial Army uniform, with her black hair pulled back in a regulation ponytail. The most physically striking thing about Avei in person, at least in this form, was that she was a vividly beautiful woman. As was inevitable, to eyes raised in a culture which had based its ideal of beauty upon her.
“You came,” Trissiny said, somewhat surprised in spite of herself.
“You do have the prerogative to call on me,” Avei replied, stepping forward to stand in front of her. “Which is not to say I indulge every such request, but your assessment was correct, Trissiny. I don’t consider this a frivolous invocation. And yes, I already know of your quest—and the dilemma you face.”
“It’s a presumptuous thing to ask, I know,” Trissiny said quickly, bowing. “Obviously, Salyrene doesn’t want intruders into her sacred tower. If this is something you cannot or would rather not help with, I understand that completely.”
The goddess gave her a wry smile, tinged with fondness. “You really don’t care for Vesk’s little project, do you, Trissiny?”
“I don’t care for being manipulated,” Trissiny replied, her expression darkening. “Nor do I see the point in anything Vesk does.”
“Yet, you went to study the very art of manipulation, among other things, with the Eserites,” Avei observed. “And while Vesk’s personality is every bit as annoying as you have noted, he is a god. He sees and knows things beyond your imagination. You would be well advised to learn from him while you have the opportunity.” She paused to look at each of the four in turn, her expression betraying nothing. “Everything Vesk is sending you to find, he could acquire far more easily without involving mortal agents. His key is not the point—or at best, only part of it. This is one of those journeys which is more important than its destination.”
“One hears about those,” Gabriel murmured. “Honestly, I never thought that old saw made much sense.”
Avei glanced at him again, briefly, before continuing. “In truth, I am strongly inclined to encourage this, and will be glad to help. As a rule, intruding upon the private domains of the gods is a thing I advise you not to do, but this…is a unique case. Salyrene is personally to blame for the entire state of the world today, and I grow weary of her sulking.”
“That’s…I…” Schwartz trailed off as the goddess’s attention turned to him, and swallowed heavily. “…thank you.”
“Everything you need, you already have,” Avei said. “I will not do more than prompt you in the right direction—solving the riddle for you would invalidate the exercise, not to mention that me prying open a door to my errant sister’s tower personally would ignite a conflict the world truly does not need. But guidance is all you require. Mr. Schwartz, you need only guide your party to the door; you will know where to find it, as you always have. Mr. Arquin, you have the means to open it.” She paused, wearing a knowing little smile, to glance over them again. “Any questions?”
“What’s wrong with the world?” Gabriel asked, staring at her with a frown.
“Is that a serious question?” Avei asked dryly.
“You said Salyrene is to blame it,” he said, narrowing his eyes infinitesimally. “That’s an interesting word, blame. The world is better right now by just about every measurable standard. There’s more food, more wealth, more peace. And most of that comes from uses of magic. Salyrene’s domain. So what’s your problem with that, exactly?”
“Gabe,” Toby warned.
“You have taken an interest in the history of the Infinite Order, have you not?” Avei said calmly to Gabriel.
He hesitated before replying in a warier tone. “Yes. Is that wrong?”
“Not in and of itself,” she replied. “Anything you should not know is beyond your ability to learn, anyway. No, Gabriel, perhaps you should pursue that interest. Look into what drove the Infinite Order to leave their world, and come to this one. These things of which you speak so highly have a price. One this world has not had to pay in eight thousand years. One we gave up everything to prevent it having to pay. Nothing is free, young man. Every moment that life becomes easier, a bill is being tallied up. Were I you, I might look into returning some of those gifts before payment is demanded.”
“Like what?” he retorted.
“Gabriel,” Trissiny said sharply, frowning at him.
“This hostility is about more than ancient knowledge, isn’t it?” Avei suggested.
He met her gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “I spoke out of turn.”
“The time to regret that was before opening your mouth,” the goddess said. “Rest assured, I don’t find you threatening. Please speak your mind, Gabriel.”
“I guess I’m a little uncertain on the concept of justice,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “I met another half-demon in Tiraas, named Elspeth. She told me about trying to come to you for protection, and being burned. Physically, right where she stood, just for trying to pray. To you. Which part of that is just?”
“None of it,” Avei said, nodding her head deeply. “That was a grave injustice, as have been many incidents like it. It’s injustice I am tremendously pleased that Trissiny has begun taking steps to correct. The Silver Missions are a start; shifting the attitudes of a whole society is the work of lifetimes. But that is why we need you, Gabriel. We are…what we are. In some ways, we are fixed in place; in some ways, we are terribly vulnerable to the very belief people place in us. Paladins provide us a way to correct course when we have gone wrong.”
She stepped toward him, and he stiffened further, making an abortive backward movement as if to retreat. In the end, though, he stood his ground. Avei simply reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Standing that close, she was taller than he, but only but a few inches.
“I applaud courage,” she said in a much gentler tone. “It’s an admirable thing, that you are willing to speak painful truths to great power. But be wise, Gabriel. Lashing out at a deity is not…strategic. A just cause is worthless if it is guided only to defeat.”
“I…see,” he said, then bowed his head. “Thank you. For the advice.”
“You are welcome.” Avei stepped back, lowering her hand, then turned to smile at her own paladin. “You are all doing rather well in this. And Trissiny… I am extremely proud of you.”
With a final nod to them, she turned and strode away up the corridor toward the bronze doors. Rather than opening them, she was simply no longer there when she reached them.
It took a few moments of silence for the tension to ebb enough.
“Gabriel, really,” Trissiny said in exasperation. “What was the one thing I asked you to do?”
“This is why people stab you,” Ariel said. “You understand that, right?”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Gabriel held up a chiding finger again. “People fucking stab me. I think I was safe, there. A goddess would never do something so undignified.”
“If anyone could provoke her to, it’s you,” Trissiny snapped.
“Hey, when you guys are done bickering, I think Herschel has an idea,” Toby said mildly.
They turned to find that Schwartz, indeed, was pacing up and down, muttering to himself. “Already know, and always have… Oh, gods, of course, it’s so obvious. How could I not have seen that? And having to pester an actual deity just to jog my fool memory! Augh, how humiliating.” He pressed both hands to his temples, grimacing as if in pain.
“Herschel?” Trissiny said uncertainly.
“Yes!” He turned to her, lowering his hands and suddenly looking so animated she instinctively stepped backward. “Trissiny! We need a warlock!”
“A warlock?” she replied incredulously. “Herschel, this is Vrin Shai. Even the Topaz College doesn’t have a presence here!”
“No, no, what am I saying? Of course not a warlock,” he grumbled, turning and beginning to pace again. “That’s just borrowing trouble, not to mention making the whole affair more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, I see…don’t have enough skilled casters to take that approach anyway, all we need is to build an array of…” He trailed off, then turned and pointed quickly at each of them in turn, lips moving as if he were counting something.
“Are you…okay?” Gabriel inquired.
“Yes!” Schwartz suddenly whirled and dashed away toward the door.
“Hey,” Gabriel called after him, “I’m pretty sure there’s no running in Avei’s inner sanctuary!”
Ignoring him, Schwartz reached the doors, grabbed both handles, and hauled them open with no further ceremony. “Sister! Ah, there you are!”
Sister Astarian was, indeed, waiting right outside, and had turned to face the doors at their sudden opening, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “Here I am. Your efforts were successful?”
“Oh, yes, quite,” Schwartz said distractedly. “But anyway, sister, this is an ancient and very important temple, yes? So you must have vaults?”
Her brows lowered again in puzzlement. “Of course. Some very old, containing all manner of… Well, what is it you are looking for, exactly?”
“Perfect! Perfect!” Grinning in evident delight, Schwartz eagerly rubbed his hands together. “Where do you keep all your most dangerous and evil artifacts?”