“You think I can use this thing to shadow-jump?” Gabriel’s tone was dubious, but clearly intrigued, and he held up his scythe while peering at it closely.
“That is not what I said,” Schwartz retorted irritably, his attention on the finishing touches he was placing on the spell array. Suddenly, though, he straightened, frowning at the far wall. “Actually… Now that you’ve said that, I’m almost positive you could. You understand the theory of shadow-jumping?”
“The broad strokes,” Gabriel replied with a shrug. “For obvious reasons, I’ve been reluctant to peer too closely into infernomancy.”
“Well, the infernomancy I can’t really explain anyway, as that’s far out of my field,” Schwartz said, turning toward him with an increasingly animated expression. “But in physical terms, the essence of shadow-jumping is to bring two pieces of reality together, then bore a hole through them and step across.”
“To grossly simplify,” Ariel added.
“Yes, yes,” Schwartz said, “but that is the core of the thing. But think about it, Gabriel! There are arcane means of achieving the connection between two locations; something similar is used for standard teleportation. But the scythe! The exercise you’ve been practicing shows it can cut magic. If you were to create the location merging effect…”
“Then slice a hole between them,” Gabriel continued, eyes widening in mounting excitement, “I could do the same thing without the infernal element!”
“There are drawbacks,” Ariel interjected. “The range of arcane teleportation, unlike shadow-jumping, is limited by the caster’s mana pool. That stipulation would also apply to this theoretical method. Further, the infernal hole-boring, as you put it, is a corrosive process which naturally remedies itself once the magic is no longer being applied due to the inherent ontological inertia of the universe. Slicing a hole with that weapon might create a permanent rift.”
“Well, I’m not saying there aren’t complications,” Schwartz blustered on, “that’s only to be expected when theorizing a new application of magic. But the theory—”
“Ahem,” Trissiny practically shouted. Both boys halted mid-conversation, turning to blink at her. “Can you two theorize some other time? We were trying to accomplish something specific, here.”
“Oh, right,” Gabriel said, again peering at his scythe. “Yes, back on track. If you didn’t mean shadow-jumping, Schwartz, what were you talking about?”
“Ah, yes, well,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat with an abashed glance in Trissiny’s direction. “I quite understand why you thought that’s what I meant, since the method I described was quite functionally similar to shadow-jumping. Hence the confusion. Which only goes to show—”
“Herschel,” Trissiny warned.
“But anyway,” Schwartz said hastily, “that example explains how the scythe changes this equation. What’s significant here is that we’re not doing the very much more difficult work of forming a connection between two physical spots.”
“I thought that was exactly what we’re doing,” said Toby, gesturing to the sprawling spell circle. “Isn’t that the point of all this?”
“Not exactly.” Schwartz turned back to frown at the diagram on the floor, adjusting his glasses. “This invocation should, if it works, create a sympathetic resonance with Salyrene’s Tower, which is so inherently magical that if it even has a physical location it shouldn’t matter. That isn’t all that hard to do; nobody bothers with it because under ordinary circumstances there’s just no way to get in. Admittance to the tower is at Salyrene’s personal invitation only, and the private barriers put up by a god are more than virtually anybody can get through.”
“Unless,” Gabriel said, nodding, “you have a weapon crafted by another god, which can cut basically anything.”
“Except,” Trissiny said skeptically, “I thought the big deal about that scythe wasn’t that it cuts anything, but that it kills anything. Am I the only reason who sees how this could go horribly wrong? Ariel’s right, what you’re talking about is creating permanent holes. That sounds like a great way to get on Salyrene’s bad side.”
“Excuse me, Trissiny, but I guarantee I have foreseen more potential problems than you have,” Schwartz huffed. “Anticipating and countering problems is a basic step in any major spellcasting. In this specific case, however, we have no less an authority than Avei to tell us this will work!”
“It’s not that we doubt you,” Toby said gently, “either of you. But that isn’t what Avei said.”
“She said I knew the way to the door, and that Gabriel had the way to open it. Both those things are pretty obvious, are they not?”
“The scythe I’ll grant you,” Toby agreed. “I can’t conceive of anything else in Gabriel’s possession that could perform the task. Even Ariel is more of a helper than a weapon. But Schwartz, this spell circle of yours… I admittedly only have a basic grasp of ritual casting, but I don’t see Salyrene invoked anywhere on this thing.”
“Ah, yes,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “There’s a reason for that, Toby. The goddess forbids spurious invocation of her name or sigil—which she defines as anything for which she hasn’t given express permission ahead of time, which is everything since nobody’s heard from her in a hundred years. Generally, trying that triggers a swift retaliation. And since we are specifically trying to do something she doesn’t want us to, drawing the goddess’s attention would scuttle the whole shebang! I’m confident this will work provided Salyrene doesn’t notice us doing it. Our cheap tricks are not going to thwart the direct efforts of a major deity.”
“Are you sure you’re all right with this, then?” Trissiny asked, frowning in concern. “This your own goddess we’re talking about.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” he said airily, waving her off. “She’s always encouraged her followers to test boundaries, it’s considered a major virtue within the Collegium. Inventively breaking some absolute magical rule is exactly how at least half the spellcasters invited to the Tower got invited! So, yes, anyway, this circle is pretty big and grandiose, as you can see, but I’m afraid that was necessary. ‘Find Salyrene’s Tower’ is a pretty complex instruction, for magical purposes. Lots of variables in that simple directive that have to be defined. That’s what the major portion of it there, the central rings, are. Then the divine circle around the outer edges serves to isolate the entire working from the powerful ambient divine energy of the temple, so the rest of it can function without interference. And the central one is the real doozy! That bit in the middle will provide the core sympathetic connection that makes the whole thing work, once we power it on.”
The central ring, in fact, was the plainest by far; in it, Schwartz had drawn a standard Circle of Interaction diagram in arcane enchantment chalk, leaving blank the four small rings around the edge which would ordinarily contain the icons signifying the four main schools of magic. His fae spell circle around it was a sprawling work of art which resembled calligraphy, with its flowing lines and spiraling glyphs, all laid out in streams of several kinds of powder he had carefully spread across the floor. The outermost ring was downright spartan by comparison, a simple circle marked by angular glyphs and sigils to invoke and direct divine magic.
“I hate to be critical,” Gabriel said archly, “but this would’ve been a generally less annoying and stressful hour if you had taken two minutes to explain all that before you made us watch you do it and set me and Trissiny to doing magic exercises.”
Trissiny snorted. “What do you mean, you hate to be critical? The gods frown on lies, Gabriel.”
“Ah, yes… Um, sorry about that,” Schwartz said with a rueful grimace, running a hand through his already messy hair. “When the inspiration takes me, I’m afraid I’m prone to getting a mite carried away. Ahem, yes, anyway. The circle’s done, and you know your role. Toby! I wonder if you would take over Trissiny’s role in the exercise we’ve been practicing?”
“We?” Trissiny muttered.
“Aw, come on, man,” Gabriel groaned. “It’s been working perfectly, almost since the beginning! Once I got the hang of it—”
“I know, I know,” Schwartz said soothingly. “I’m not trying to impugn your performance at all. It’s just… Thoroughness. This is all for naught if the method doesn’t work, I just want to see you try it out with magic from a different divine caster and verify that it occurs the same way. And besides, we’re still waiting for the fourth artifact to be delivered, so it’s not as if we have anything better to do.”
“Herschel,” Trissiny said flatly, “the High Priestess of the central temple of Avei is not a delivery girl. Sister Astarian is doing us a great favor, on little more than our say-so, and some respect from you would be appropriate.”
“Quite right,” he said contritely. “My apologies. I will convey them to her as well when she returns. I fear I was a little caught up when I asked her…”
“Just a little,” Gabriel said with a grin.
“Well, he has a point, anyhow,” Toby said mildly, stepping around the edge of the basement to avoid the spell circle and approach the group. Sister Astarian had conducted them to a rectangular chamber deep in the underlevels of the temple, set up specifically for ritual casting. That meant it was rather warm, as the light came from torches rather than fairy lamps. Most of what would have been used in here was divine magic, which worked better without the presence of arcane enchantments.
Toby began to glow subtly as he drew near the other two, and stopped a few feet away, holding up one hand. Just as Trissiny had been repeatedly doing for the last hour while Schwartz worked, he called up a rectangular pane of golden light in midair. The shield was quite energy efficient, being very simple in shape and not containing enough power to really stand up to much abuse. Even so, there was a reason she and not he had been doing it up till now; Trissiny’s elven metabolism gave her the mana reserves for such constant casting. Toby might have been feeling the first twinges of burnout by that point, had he been the guinea pig.
Gabriel sighed, shrugged, and raised his scythe. He brought the blade down against the shield in a slow and careful gesture; it passed through at the first touch, causing the entire thing to ripple. Their first experiments had instantly demolished Trissiny’s conjured shields, the scythe’s destructive magic simple snuffing out the animating power of whatever it touched. Now, Gabriel began to glow faintly as well, using his own connection to the divine to carefully nudge the scythe’s inherent power. He stubbornly claimed he was not feeling burned out himself, and the others had taken him at his word, excessive stoicism not being one of his faults. It was a very small use of magic, anyway.
Just as it had against the majority of Trissiny’s shields, the scythe cut the pane of divine light like butter, creating a long rent in it. Gabriel drew the blade all the way through and then stepped back, turning to give Schwartz a pointed look with his eyebrows raised.
“That feels weird,” Toby murmured, frowning thoughtfully at his now-bisected divine shield before letting what remained of it wink out.
“Excellent!” Schwartz said, grinning and rubbing his hands together again. “Consistent, reproducible results! I think we have a real plan here, people! Now, Gabe, could I borrow Ariel for a moment?”
“What the hell for?” Gabriel demanded.
“Oh, um, sorry, nothing major,” Schwartz said quickly. “I know she’s valuable, I don’t mean to presume. I’d just like to have someone double-check my spellwork. With all respect, you’re an arcanist, not—”
“No need,” Ariel interrupted, “I can detect it perfectly well from here. Your spellcrafting has a typically fae approach, Mr. Schwartz: needlessly grandiose and complicated to the point of being…poetic. You’ll find your systems would be far more efficient if you didn’t structure them like a conversation with a difficult fairy you are trying to schmooze. Regardless, I discern no actual errors, and the power sources you have in mind for this working should be more than adequate. Provided your underlying assumptions are correct, there is no reason it will not work.”
“Oh. Well. Um.” He blinked twice in rapid succession. “Thank you.”
The three paladins were still grinning merrily at his discomfiture when the basement door opened a moment later. Sister Astarian entered, an iron-bound wooden box cradled before her in both hands. She nudged the door shut with her foot on her way in.
“All right, Mr. Schwartz,” the priestess said calmly, “you specified a potent but contained infernal artifact with a connection to adventurers. I believe this meets your criteria.”
“Ah, yes, thank you, Sister,” he said absently, peering at the box with his head tilted to the side. “Though optimally, I would be able to peruse the available artifacts and select—”
“Herschel!” Trissiny barked.
He broke off and swallowed heavily. “…but clearly we trust your judgment, High Priestess, and very much appreciate the assistance. And, um, I’d like to apologize for my manners. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful…”
“Young man,” she said with an amused little smile, “you are hardly the first preoccupied, bookish spellcaster with whom I have worked. Rest assured, no one in this temple will be shy about telling you so if you give offense.”
“Oh. Well.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “That’s…good. Nonetheless, I’m still sorry.”
“I accept your apology. Now, then.” Astarian knelt to set the box on the floor, and carefully opened its catch, then raised the lid. “Allow me to introduce the demon Xyraadi.”
All four of them clustered around her to gaze at the contents of the box. Sistar Astarian discreetly stepped backward to give them room.
“Wow,” Gabriel commented. “The demon Xyraadi looks remarkably like an uncut ruby the size of both my fists. Has he lost weight?”
“Interesting,” Schwartz breathed. “That’s a soul prison! Never seen one quite so…”
“She,” Astarian corrected. “Xyraadi is a khelminash demon, and by all accounts a uniquely amiable specimen of her kind. She was in service to a Salyrite warlock named Celeste Lavene, an adventuring companion of Trouchelle Dulac, a Hand of Avei who lived six hundred years ago in Glassiere. Interestingly, the remaining accounts make it clear that Xyraadi was Celeste’s companion, not a thrall under her control.” She hesitated before continuing. “Glassian is a nuanced language so rich in innuendo that it’s literally where the word comes from. This was a long time ago and the accounts are secondhand, but several of the terms used to describe Celeste and Xyraadi’s relationship can be translated as ‘lover.’”
“Warlocks,” Trissiny snorted, curling her lip in disgust.
“Elspeth is half khelminash,” Gabriel mused. “Hm. I guess I can see why they might be tolerable to a Hand of Avei. She told me their entire species is female.”
“That doesn’t make any biological sense,” Toby protested.
Sister Astarian cleared her throat delicately. “The khelminash have two biological sexes like humans, but are not very sexually dimorphic. To tell the difference you have to…remove their pants. It’s believed they have only one gender. By all recorded accounts, they look like women, and in heavily gendered languages like Glassian and Tanglish they have all insisted on feminine forms of address. I should warn you, Mr. Arquin, that some sects within Avei’s faith regard them as a particularly vile perversion. You may not wish to voice such observations in mixed company, lest you wade into an argument you weren’t expecting.”
“Thank you very much for the warning,” he said fervently.
“What is significant about Xyraadi,” the priestess continued, “is that after Celeste’s death, the demon requested being placed in that soul prison by the Collegium and given to the Sisterhood, to be called upon again if we ever needed her.”
A short silence fell at that, all five of them staring down at the scarlet crystal with varying degrees of bemusement.
“I always thought…” Trissiny trailed off, shook her head, then started again. “Mother Narny was very firm about demons. She made certain to warn me that their infernal corruption drove them to aggression…”
“She was correct, that is a known effect of infernal magic,” Sister Astarian said firmly, placing a comforting hand on Trissiny’s shoulder. “It occurs in every species corrupted by it, even plants. Narnasia’s teachings do, as you seem to be suspecting, lack some nuance, but for good reason. She isn’t wrong. Demons are individuals with the power to make choices, but they are inundated with magic that twists their minds to viciousness. Yes, there are known individuals who have worked with humanity, even with Hands of the Pantheon. But for every demon who has truly labored to overcome their nature there have been ten who feigned it in order to spread corruption. That’s a favorite tactic of the sshitherosz, in fact. Narnasia’s work involves training and educating young women, and failing to warn the young and idealistic against demons is as good as offering them up on silver platters. Still.” She squeezed Trissiny’s shoulder, giving her a strangely sad little smile. “You’re not a child anymore, Trissiny, and the complexity of the world shouldn’t be hidden from you. I have been an advocate of Avei’s faith for over sixty years, and I can tell you that the Sisterhood’s greatest and most pervasive flaw is a tendency to impose black and white where there should be shades of gray.”
Trissiny nodded mutely, her expression troubled, but reached up to gently squeeze the priestess’s hand.
“Good gods,” Gabriel said suddenly, frowning at the soul crystal. “She’s not conscious in there, is she?”
“Doubtful,” Ariel replied. “That is Salyrite work. If one must dabble in infernomancy—a contention I will accept only for the sake of argument—the greatest benefit of the Topaz College, as opposed to the Black Wreath or Scyllithene shadow priestesses, is that they eschew needless sadism. To imprison a sapient being in an inanimate object and leave them able to think and sense their surroundings would be staggeringly cruel.”
“Ariel,” Toby said quietly, “you’re a sapient being imprisoned in an inanimate object.”
“Your empathy, as usual, is excessive and misplaced,” the sword informed him, her eerily resonant voice without inflection. “I am not a biologically grown sapience like you, but a constructed intelligence roughly based upon one. This housing is my natural habitat and comfortable for me. If you put my personality in a human body, I would be disastrously unable to function in your society. Are you familiar with the elvish term anth’auwa?”
“I am,” Schwartz said in a suddenly grim tone. “Well. Thank you very much, High Priestess. This artifact, I think, is exactly what we need.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said, nodding to him. “What is next, then?”
“Well, with this, I believe we’re pretty much done!” Schwartz said. “Ah, this is safe to handle, right?”
“Fully contained, with no infernal leakage,” Sister Astarian said mildly. “You did specify that, Mr. Schwartz.”
“Ah, yes, quite, quite. I don’t mean to doubt your thoroughness, Sister, I simply like to exercise my own. It’s an important habit to cultivate when one works with magic.” He bent and, with great care, picked up the crystal from its box. The stone glinted dully in the torchlight; it had no glow, no hidden motion in its depths, nothing to indicate it was magical in nature. Schwartz, though, had recognized it at a glance, so its properties must have been apparent to those properly attuned.
He stepped to one side, cradling Xyraadi’s prison before himself, and cleared his throat. “All right! For the first step, I need a Light-wielder to activate the outer circle. Trissiny?”
“Or I could give it a go,” Gabriel offered. “No offense to anybody, but I have the most casting experience among the three of us.”
“And Trissiny has the greatest mana reserves,” Ariel retorted. “Neither of which is a significant factor here, as a divinely imbued monkey could activate a stabilized containment ward.”
“You’re unusually talkative today, Ariel,” Toby observed, kneeling by the outer circle and touching one of its most prominent sigils with his fingers. A subtle glow rose around him, then shifted to the circle. Light traveled smoothly around its circumference till it covered the entire design, at which point it emitted a soft pulse and faded. There was no longer an active glow, but the diagram itself now gleamed in the torchlight as if it were metallic gold embossed on the floor.
“Splendid, Toby, thank you!” said Schwartz. “And now, step two. Gabriel, hold her for a moment, would you?”
“Uh…” Gabriel accepted the soul prison purely by reflex when Schwartz thrust it at him. He carried it far less casually, holding it away from his body and watching the crystal uncertainly, as if it might suddenly pick this moment to explode after spending six hundred years inert in a vault.
Schwartz stepped carefully across the golden barrier, positioning his feet in empty space where they did not touch the powder diagrams he had drawn of the broad fae circle, and closed his eyes. Whatever he did was inscrutable from without, accompanied by no spoken words nor so much as a finger gesture, but after a pause of only a few seconds, the diagram burst into flame.
Gabriel yelled and almost dropped Xyraadi’s prison; Trissiny surged forward, stopped only by Toby grabbing her before she crossed into the circle. Schwartz did not react at all, and indeed the swift-burning fire didn’t seem to touch him. It raced around the diagram in a matter of seconds, incinerating the entire thing to leave the design scrawled upon the floor in black ash, faintly smoking. As soon as that was done and the last sparks had gone out, Schwartz opened his eyes, grinned, and clapped his hands once.
The ash seemed to melt into the stone floor, leaving behind the same pattern traced in subtly luminous green and violet. A faint breeze rose in the room, seeming to circle the spell diagram and carrying a pleasant herbal scent. The torches flickered slightly, but held against the gentle movement of air.
“Is witchcraft always that extravagant?” Trissiny asked, straightening up and adjusting her coat.
“Well, that’s a large question,” Schwartz said seriously, turning to her. “One of the hallmarks of mastery in any of the schools of magic is the ability to achieve effects with a minimum of display. Like how arcane teleportation creates a distinctive whining noise and blue visual effect, but Gabriel told me that it’s instant and silent when Tellwyrn does it. But anyway! This is baked in, now, so you can all come forward. Stepping on the diagrams will not damage them, and we’ll all need to be in the circle anyway.”
So saying, he snapped his fingers and Meesie appeared on his shoulder in a puff of sparks and smoke. The little elemental sat bolt upright, letting out a single salutatory squeak, then bounced up onto Schwartz’s head and peered around, whiskers twitching inquisitively.
“Is she okay here?” Gabriel asked, gingerly stepping forward and holding out the soul prison to Schwartz. “I thought the temple would be a problem for her…”
“That’s the purpose of the outer ring,” Schwartz explained, accepting the crystal. “It isolates this space from the temple’s ambient magic, so as to enable complex work in the inner space without having to compensate for Circle of Interaction effects. I’d never have been able to whip up a significant fae working in here without it. But yes, Meesie will be fine so long as we stay within the circle!” Meesie hopped down to his shoulder and squeaked affirmatively at Gabriel, nodding her little head. “Now, then! For the last step…”
He took the crystal back from Gabriel, to the latter’s clear relief, then stepped toward the center of the spell circle. Schwartz knelt and very carefully set Xyraadi’s prison upon the small ring marking the bottom of the Circle of Interaction diagram, the one which signified infernal magic. At its contact, the lines of that circle began to glow a fiery orange, the color bleeding outward along the markings in both directions till it tinged the spots which would represent fae and arcane energy.
Schwartz turned his head to whisper something to Meesie, who raised one twitching ear to listen. Then, with an approving cheep, she scampered down his extended arm toward the floor below. He smoothly shifted his hand till it was above the fae ring, and the little elemental hopped down to sit in the middle of the small circle there. Immediately, green light rose around her, stretching outward as before; it reached all the way to the divine circle on top of the diagram, pushing back the orange light of the infernal icon till the two colors switched at a subtly wavering barrier halfway between them.
“Ah, I see,” Gabriel said, nodding. “And you wanted an infernal artifact because there’s no warlock in the group to provide one.”
“Just so!” Schwartz said with clear satisfaction, straightening up to survey his unfolding handiwork with his fists braced on his hips. “This should suffice, though of course we could get a better leverage from sympathetic principles if the infernal artifact were in some way associated with this group. Four adventurers, four schools of magic, and so on. But the only way I could think of to arrange that would be for Gabriel to donate a body part, which seemed, you know, excessive for the purpose.”
“If that was all you wanted,” said Ariel, “you could have extracted a vial of blood. That is the most commonly used biological substance in spellcraft anyway, and the loss of a few ounces would not have affected him unduly.”
“Yeah, well, what’s done is done,” Gabriel said quickly while Trissiny and Toby grinned at him. “The High Priestess went all the way down to the vaults for this, let’s not waste her hard work.”
“It isn’t that far from here,” Astarian said, smiling blandly. “And I enjoy having an excuse to examine the artifacts.”
“What exactly did you have in mind for the last two, Schwartz?” Gabriel asked, stubbornly ignoring Trissiny’s open laughter.
“Swords!” Schwartz said brightly. “Ariel is strongly associated with you and an arcane construct of great significance, not to mention a long history. If you would, kindly place her on the arcane circle.”
Gabriel frowned slightly, but stepped forward, drawing Ariel from her sheath. “…so, lying across it? There’s no other way that I can see, but she won’t fit inside the ring the way Meesie and Xyraadi do.”
“Yes, in fact, containing her within the ring may be significant to the structure of the spell circle,” Schwartz said seriously, “so I compensated for that. Simply balance her on her tip and she should remain upright.”
“Okay,” Gabriel said dubiously, bending to do as directed. He gingerly removed his fingers, keeping his hand at the ready as if to grab Ariel before she fell, but the saber remained standing on her tip. Blue light stretched out across the diagram from her, pushing back the orange of the infernal and meeting the green of the fae on the yet-unused divine ring.
“For the record,” she said, the runes lining her blade flickering visibly now that she was out of the scabbard, “I can do this myself. I presume the holding effect was enacted to restrain the other sword, which has no such features.”
“And I guess that’s my cue,” said Trissiny. Light coalesced out of the air, condensing into her outstretched hand and forming a shape which glowed too brightly to look at directly. It swiftly faded, however, leaving her holding the battered-looking short sword of the Hands of Avei. She stepped across the spell circles, joining the others at the innermost ring, and knelt to carefully balance the sword on its tip in the last marked spot.
When she pulled her hand back, the sword remained upright just as Ariel had, and a golden glow stretched out from the circle in which it rested, pushing back the fae and arcane light of its neighbors.
“Okay,” Toby said from a few feet away, the only one of them still outside the circle. “Is it done, then? Was something else supposed to happen?”
“It worked,” Schwartz breathed. “Okay, there’s no visible effect, but… Can you guys detect anything? It’s gonna be hard for Gabriel to do his part if I’m the only one who can sense it.”
“I feel a kind of…pressure,” Trissiny replied, stepping back from the central circle and narrowing her eyes at the space above it. “Hard to describe. There’s definitely something there.”
“I feel it,” Gabriel said, also staring at that spot. “Pushing on me with every kind of magic. Divine, arcane, infernal… I can’t actually feel fae effects, but I assume that’s part of it, as well. So this is what it’s like to brush Salyrene’s domain. Pretty much as uncomfortable as I would’ve expected.”
“You’re up, then,” Schwartz said, edging backward and nervously clasping his hands in front of himself.
Gabriel stepped toward the inner circle, raising his scythe. He hesitated, peering narrowly at the apparent nothing which hovered over the Circle glyph, then slowly extended the weapon with both hands on its haft for guidance. Again, a faint glow of divine light swelled into being around them, extending along the scythe.
Schwartz actually made a hissing gasp of pure excitement when the tip of the blade penetrated the air, vanishing from view onto the other side.
Gabriel slowly drew it downward, and the rent extended till he finally stopped a few inches from the floor. Once made, it seemed to take on a life of its own, the sides creeping outward as though pulled. Only a vague discoloration in the air delineated its borders; through the narrow gap, darkness was all that could be seen.
“Amazing,” Sister Astarian whispered.
“Are we absolutely sure that goes to Salyrene’s Tower?” Trissiny asked, frowning. “It doesn’t look like much of anything.”
“As certain as I could be of any part of this,” Schwartz assured her. “As I said, Trissiny, we are acting on instructions from your goddess.”
“The trick with gods,” she replied, “is being careful that you’re interpreting their instructions correctly.”
“Schwartz, I think I see a flaw in this plan,” Gabriel added, stepping back and pointing at the ring of artifacts below the portal he had just cut. “Xyraadi can stay here, obviously, but the rest of these things are kind of important. I don’t feature hopping through a magic doohickey into gods know where and leaving them behind.”
“I quite concur,” Ariel said in her eerily dry tone. Meesie straightened up on her haunches, pointing at Schwartz and squeaking a tiny tirade of agreement.
“You know, I don’t so much mind having the particulars of my methods second-guessed,” Schwartz said irritably, “but I rather resent the implication that I lack basic common sense. I assure you, this was accounted for. Those four sources of magic are anchoring the portal; as they are removed, it will become weaker, and once the last is withdrawn it will begin to collapse. We’ll take Meesie, Ariel and Trissiny’s sword through, leaving Xyraadi to hold it open. The soul prison should suffice plenty long enough for us to get in. Then, once Sister Astarian removes the crystal, it will start to collapse. Without the power sources anchoring this spot to the Tower, it will become a hole between nothing and nothing—which itself is nothing. Disrupting the outer ward will erase it finally, as the Temple’s ambient magic will finish the job. The divine works chiefly on the principle of order; that’s why it is so useful for sealing rifts. I am sorry to stick you with the clean-up, Sister,” he added, turning to Sister Astarian with a rueful little bow. “I couldn’t figure a way around that.”
“Please don’t apologize, Mr. Schwartz,” she replied, smiling. “That’s what this chamber is for, after all. In fact, I’m very glad to have been part of this, however peripherally. I rarely find a pretext to survey the treasures locked below the temple, or exercise my knowledge of demonology.” Her eyes shifted to Trissiny, and her smile broadened, accompanied by a respectful bow of her head. “As one who has grown up and served Avei after the Age of Adventures was long held to be over, it has been the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy to have even one short brush with a heroic venture.”
“We couldn’t have managed this without your help, sister,” Trissiny replied warmly.
“We had best be about it expeditiously, though,” Schwartz added. “As I said, it’ll stay stable enough for us to get through once we start removing the anchors, but the less dawdling, the safer.”
“Right,” Gabriel said dryly. “So! Who’s first?”
A round of mute stares passed between them.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Trissiny grunted, stepping forward and snatching up her sword. “Be well, Sister Astarian.”
“Goddess watch over you, Trissiny.”
The Hand of Avei gave the High Priestess a final nod, then stepped through the rent in space, vanishing into the darkness beyond.
“Off we go, then!” Schwartz crowed, bending to offer Meesie a hand. She bounded onto it, squeaking in excitement, and scampered up to his shoulder even as he turned sideways to slip through the portal after Trissiny. Gabriel followed, sheathing Ariel awkwardly with the one hand not holding his Scythe before he stepped in.
“If I could make a request, Sister,” Toby said, hesitating at the entrance to the portal.
“When you put Xyraadi’s prison back in its box, would you please include a message? If she ever is released, I’d like her to know what happened here, and that we are grateful for her aid.”
“I’ll see it done myself,” she assured him with a warm smile.
Toby nodded. “Thank you for everything, Sister.” The portal had already begun to narrow; he turned and slipped through before it could close any further.