“Well, it doesn’t look much like a tower from here,” Gabriel observed.
In fact, it was a tunnel. An apparently natural one, complete with lichen, dripping water, and a general unpleasant dankness. It was also noticeably cooler than the temple in Vrin Shai had been. Their view of the uncut stone walls was made eerie by the color of the light: there was none inherently present, but Meesie’s fiery red and Ariel’s luminous blue runes cast enough shifting illumination for them to at least see each other’s faces, barely.
“Herschel knows what he’s doing,” Trissiny said, her voice echoing slightly off the stone walls. “And Avei did prompt us in this direction. If we made some kind of mistake…we’ll deal with that.” She trailed off, and none of them pointed out that if they’d made some kind of mistake they could be absolutely anywhere. “I guess for now, all that’s left is to pick a direction.”
“That way,” Toby said, turning and pointing. The tunnel extended into blackness in both directions; he had selected the angle that sloped upward. “We’re obviously underground. If we want a tower, we want to go up.”
“That reasoning’s as sound as any,” Gabriel agreed. “So, uh… Should one of us put up an aura? Because this mood lighting is all very romantic, but I will trip and break my neck if we try to shuffle through this cave with only Meesie and Ariel for light.”
“Your neck is unbreakable,” Ariel replied. “Ingrate.” Meesie squeaked chidingly at him.
“I guess that means me,” Trissiny said dryly. “If we don’t want to risk someone burning out, given we’ve no idea how long this might take.”
“Or we could take it in turns,” Toby suggested.
Schwartz cleared his throat. “If I might?”
While they all turned to stare at him and Meesie cheeped smugly from his shoulder, he held out a hand, palm up. Wind rose in the tunnel, followed by sparks of light, whirling into a vortex suspended above his palm which coalesced into a single glowing orb. It illuminated their surroundings as cleanly as a fairy lamp.
“Rule of thumb,” Schwartz said in a self-satisfied tone. “When the objective is to conserve energy, let the witch do it. My power sources are all external.”
“Nicely done!” Gabriel said, sheathing Ariel and clapping him on the shoulder. “All right, off we go, then. We’re not getting any closer to Vesk’s doohickey by standing around here.”
As it turned out, they almost needn’t have bothered with the light. After a scant few minutes of walking, the tunnel abruptly turned into a paved hallway, with glowing chunks of crystal set into the walls at intervals. Schwartz paused, glancing back at them, and then dismissed his glowing orb. In its absence, the steady gleam of the lamps provided ample light. They did not resemble conventional fairy lamps, which contained glowing elements within a glass housing; these were solid crystals which produced light at a considerable intensity. If anything, they were brighter.
Directly ahead, the corridor ascended steeply in a granite staircase. They all paused just before climbing it, to study the moon-and-stars sigil of Salyrene engraved on the floor at its foot.
“Welp, guess this is the right place after all,” Toby remarked.
Trissiny let out a soft breath of relief. “Whew. Not that I doubted it,” she added hastily at Schwartz’s dry look.
The stairs were a tad steeper than stairs usually ran, but it was not a long climb; in fact, they ascended for scarcely twice their own height before it opened out onto a clean, octagonal chamber, just inside which the four stopped, staring around. Meesie let out a low noise that sounded an awful lot like a whistle of awe.
Much of it was hidden from view by its sheer size and their perspective, but it was obvious at a glance that the entire floor of the chamber was decorated with a Circle of Interaction, set in black marble amid the pinkish polished granite of which most of the room was constructed. Directly in front of them was the lowest circle, complete with the wreath symbol of infernal magic. Above head height the walls had not been carved, and the domed ceiling rose in a staggered mess of stalactites; obviously this chamber had been hewn from an existing natural cave. More of the glowing crystals were set in the stone walls at regular intervals, and scattered artfully among the natural formations above.
From the center of the Circle diagram, the small innermost ring indicating the point where opposing schools of magic interacted at their most explosive, there rose an octagonal stone plinth. Thrust into this for half the length of its blade was an ornate longsword, its crossguard and pommel golden and in an apparently elven design—unusual, as elves favored curved swords—and a series of runes marking the length of its blade. Surrounding the sword, as if growing from the top of the pedestal itself, was a crystal, transparent by clouded.
“That has to be the most bardic thing I’ve ever seen,” Gabriel remarked. “If there’s not an epic adventure story about a sword thrust into a pedestal and then encased in crystal, there ought to be.”
“Well,” said Trissiny, pacing toward the frozen sword and peering around, “that wasn’t the only way to come in.”
They trailed after her, surveying the edges of the chamber even as they made their way toward the encased blade. In addition to the stairwell from which they had emerged, there were four wide gaps in the walls, each positioned midway between two glyph points on the Circle diagram; each had a statue of Salyrene as she was usually depicted in Pantheon artwork, with the added detail that each statue’s eyes glowed a steady white. The statues seemed to split the hallways, which curved away to either side of every one, their destinations out of sight around the bend.
“Hey, look at this,” Toby called from up ahead. The rest followed him to the opposite side of the chamber from their entry point, where another doorway was blocked by a grille of bars that appeared to be solid gold. The group clustered around, studying this. Beyond it was a tiny chamber, octagonal as this one and lined with benches bearing opulent red velvet cushions.
“Looks like an elevator,” Trissiny observed. “Newfangled devices as we know them, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Salyrene had such things in her Tower thousands of years ago.”
“I’d hesitate to draw conclusions about that,” said Schwartz. “She’s never been shy about borrowing inventions from her followers, and rearranging her Tower would be exactly as difficult for her as thinking.”
“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, stepping forward and placing his fingertips on the metal panel set along the right side of the elevator door. It had Salyrene’s moon sigil set in its top, and below that, a deep slot. “Am I crazy, or does this look to be about the perfect size and shape to fit…” He turned around and pointed at the sword suspended in crystal. “…that?”
They all stared at the sword, then back at the elevator door. Schwartz reached out, gripped the bars with both hands, and gave them a good firm shake, which accomplished precisely nothing. At their stares, he shrugged. “Worth a shot.”
Trissiny prodded experimentally at the slot with her own sword; only its tip penetrated. The leaf-shaped blade widened too much to fit.
“Try Ariel?” Toby suggested.
“Do not stick me in that hole,” Ariel snapped. “It’s a puzzle, obviously. This place is sacred to the goddess of magic; that’s not a tumbler lock. Only the proper sword will open it.”
“Puzzles,” Gabriel grunted, turning and trudging back to the pedestal. “All right, let’s have a look at this, then.”
While the rest watched from a circumspect distance, he paced in a complete circle around the plinth, finding no significant features on any side. Stepping back, he gingerly tapped the crystal with the tip of his scythe. It made an unpleasant ringing sound, but aside from that, nothing happened.
“Well, we finally found one thing that scythe can’t kill,” Toby remarked.
“And isn’t that just a little alarming,” Schwartz murmured. “It cut through time and space itself, not to mention the exterior defenses of this tower.”
“Well, ultimately, people are supposed to be able to get in the tower,” Gabriel said reasonably. “This, though… Obviously we’re expected to do something in particular to get the sword out, and Salyrene doesn’t want us cheating. I guess it makes sense it’s going to be harder to brute-force the puzzles here than in the Crawl.”
“Let’s not try,” Toby said firmly. “As I recall, that approach made the Crawl mad enough to nearly dump us all in a bottomless pit, and it’s just barely conscious. Salyrene doesn’t want us in here in the first place; now that we are, I suggest we refrain from tweaking her nose any more than necessary. Look, this place is for testing adventurers, so obviously there’s a solution. And since nothing’s apparent in here, it’s clearly through one of these doorways.”
“Or all of them,” Schwartz said, his expression eager, and rubbed his hands together. “Well, tallyho, then!”
Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but followed him along with the others through the gap positioned between the divine and fae circles on the diagram. There they all clustered together, studying the statue of the goddess and glancing up and down the two hallways.
“This way,” Toby decided, stepping to their left.
“Any particular reason?” Gabriel asked.
“Extrapolating from the architecture,” Toby said, “these side halls loop around to meet again at the four cardinal points. Each corresponding to one of the schools of magic, which suggests the shape of what we’ll find beyond. If I’m right about that, this direction leads to the divine.”
“Sounds good to me,” Trissiny agreed, and set off in that direction without waiting for further discussion.
Toby was, indeed, right; the curving hall arced all the way around, and right at the point where it was directly behind the elevator another doorway opened up onto a chamber beyond. This was a tall, round space, most of which wasn’t visible from the door because the entrance was about a story below its main floor. Curving staircases wound around from each side of the entrance, and directly before them, set into the wall, was another statue of Salyrene with glowing eyes.
As soon as they stepped into the chamber, this one shifted her gaze to face them and spoke, making Gabriel and Schwartz yelp in surprise.
“Divine magic embodies the principle of order,” the statue said. Though clearly made of stone, her hands and facial features moved as fluidly as flesh while she lectured them in a resonant alto that had an echoing quality very like Ariel’s. “It is associated with serenity, harmony, preservation, and the spirit of law. This form of magic is the gift of the gods of the Pantheon, formed by them from the energy released when the sinister Elder Gods were destroyed for their crimes against the people of this world. Today, the divine is accessible through the auspices of the gods, and wielded by their followers to protect themselves and their fellow mortals against all evils which might assail them. But clerics must be wary, and treat the divine light with the greatest respect. Draw too greedily upon it, and it will burn both body and soul.”
The statue returned to its base position and fell silent.
“…Lady Salyrene?” Trissiny said hesitantly.
“That is not she.” It was impossible to tell if Ariel’s voice was particularly scornful; it had that aspect most of the time anyway. “Your recent encounters with gods may have given you unreasonable expectations; most are not terribly modest in person. Salyrene, in particular, has always been a strutting cockerel. Were you in her presence, you would know. This is clearly an automated enchantment she left behind to greet adventurers.”
“So far, so good,” Gabriel said cheerfully, turning right and beginning to climb the curving steps. “Let’s go see what else she left for us!”
The stairs twisted all the way around the chamber, till they met at the top, opposite the door down below, on a small landing connected to the round platform which filled most of the chamber. This was strewn entirely with wreckage. Fragments of crystal and stone, ranging from fist-sized to bigger than their heads, littered the whole surface. They stopped and stared around at this in mute confusion.
“So,” Schwartz said at last, scratching his head, “it’s…broken? Whatever it is?”
“Well, you did say nobody’s been in here or heard from the goddess in a hundred years,” Gabriel said. “Crap. What now? Should we go try one of the other rooms?”
“Wait,” Toby said suddenly, narrowing his eyes. “Look at those fragments.”
“We’re looking,” Gabe said wryly. “There’s not much else to see.”
“No, look. Whatever this was, it wasn’t wrecked, at least not the way something made of stone and crystal would be. There’s no dust, no tiny chips. These are all…pieces. Irregular in shape, but it looks like the should, theoretically, still fit together.” He turned to face, them, and grinned. “Divine magic embodies the principle of order. Well, what we’ve got here is chaos. To embody the divine, we have to fix it!”
“You mean…rebuild that…whatever it is?” Trissiny said, raising her eyebrows. “Oh. Won’t this be fun.”
“Puzzles,” Gabriel snorted. “Themed puzzles. Tell us again how this place isn’t a dungeon, Schwartz.”
“’I told you so’ loses much of its weight when everybody agreed with you in the first place, Gabe,” Schwartz retorted, grinning and pushing back his sleeves, Meesie cheeping in excitement atop his head. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s build us a thingumajigger!”
It was easier than it looked, in the end. The sprawl and disorder of the fragments was deceptive; once they started sorting them, piecing them back together was surprisingly straightforward. Clearly they had been designed for that purpose. By far the hardest part was the sheer size and weight of them. These were, after all, chunks of stone, some of them pumpkin-sized. As a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle it proved not very challenging, but as a sheer test of strength and resourcefulness it quickly became apparent why this was used as a trial for veteran adventurers.
They had their means of overcoming it, though all of them had to get creative. Schwartz’s magic was the most versatile, both boosting their physical ability to lift and move stone and providing aids in so doing, in the form of powerful bursts of controlled air which provided erratic but serviceable platforms. He also tried to use some seeds which he claimed would have grown into trees and vines that could support them better, but these failed to do anything; apparently the inherent divine magic of the chamber was interfering. Fortunately, they had other resources. Gabriel’s arcane glyphs turned pages from his enchanting book into invaluable levitation devices, and Trissiny was even able to conjure hardlight constructs that served as scaffolding, though they didn’t hold long under pressure.
The structure was an obelisk, apparently carved of white marble with its center hollowed out to leave a stone frame, the interior being filled with crystal. The faces of this were decorated with deeply engraved glyphs and runes which none of them could read. The moment Toby, suspended atop floating glyph-pages with the aid of a sustained windburst from Schwartz, set the capstone in place on top, the entire thing pulsed once with light, and then was suddenly whole. No lines were left to mark where the pieces fit together.
“So…that’s it, then?” Gabriel said uncertainly while Toby hopped to the ground beside him. “Based on how flashy that was, I’d have thought we’d get some kind of…I dunno, announcement. At least a bell ringing or something.”
“Let’s go back to the central chamber and see if anything’s changed,” Trissiny suggested, already leading the way.
They paused at the statue of the goddess, but it seemed she had nothing else to say to them. In the central room, though, something had indeed changed: on the massive Circle diagram, the ankh symbol representing divine magic was glowing with intense golden light. The same illumination filled the ring around it, creeping along both arcs of the outer circle and down the central lines to the stone plinth in the center. In fact, it looked strikingly reminiscent of the spell circle Schwartz had made back in Vrin Shai to get them here.
“Oh! Oh oh oh I see!” Schwartz’s robes fluttered as he rushed toward the pillar, excited as a child. “Let’s go do the infernal chamber next!”
“I’d’ve thought you’d want to see the fae one,” Gabriel commented.
“Well, yes, sure, but look!” Fairly dancing in eagerness, Schwartz pointed at the glowing lines on the ground. “The divine magic travels along here to reach the center, see? The central circle where the sword is, the one that on the Circles of Interaction diagram represents opposing reactions. The explodey kind!”
“So,” Trissiny said, beginning to catch some of his enthusiasm, “we activate the opposite one, it travels up to meet this in the middle…”
“And the force of it shatters the crystal and frees the sword!” Toby finished, grinning.
“And,” Schwartz added, “there’s at least a possibility we can free it with only two schools, which would spare us having to deal with all four trials! Come on, come on!”
He set off through another of the wall portals at a near-run, Meesie clinging to his hair, and almost slipped as he turned to scamper around the corner toward the chamber opposite the one they’d just completed, directly behind the stairwell through which they had first entered.
The entrance was identical to the other one, complete with a statue of Salyrene which came alive and adressed them at their approach.
“Infernal magic embodies the principle of chaos,” she intoned. “It is associated with aggression, destruction, corruption, and mutation. This form of magic was created by Scyllith, one of the last surviving Elder Gods and the goddess of light, beauty, and cruelty. Though limited in its applications, the infernal is unparalleled in effectiveness at the few uses it has, and is accessible to all intelligent beings who understand how to reach out and touch it. But warlocks must be wary, and treat the powers of hellfire with the greatest respect. The slightest mistake or mishandling of the infernal dooms the careless practitioner to a most agonizing, and inescapable, fate.”
“Is she going to explain every kind of magic as we come to it?” Gabriel wondered aloud. “You’ve gotta figure anybody ending up here of all places would already know this stuff.”
“Well, we aren’t supposed to be here,” Toby pointed out.
“And we already know this stuff,” he replied. “How the heck would anybody even get in here, invited or not, without knowing a lot about magic?”
“Oh, you know a lot about magic, do you?” Schwartz asked, grinning as he brushed past Gabriel up the curving stairs. “Got nothing more to learn from the very goddess of magic herself, have you? Must be nice.”
“All right, point taken,” Gabe muttered, following.
Atop this platform were four stone gargoyles. They were hideous things, apparently carved from black marble, but didn’t appear particularly magical at first glance.
“Okay,” Toby said, frowning at them. “So, the last one was about order, and we had to repair something that was broken. This one’s chaos, and there are unbroken statues. So maybe we just…smash them?”
“There is absolutely no way it’s that easy,” Gabriel said skeptically.
As if he’d invoked the magic words, a roaring nose erupted from the gargoyles, and each of their eyes burst alight with seething orange flame. The statues began moving, and unlike those of Salyrene, these did so with a horrible grinding of stone on stone. Their movements, furthermore, were clearly aggressive, rounding on the four intruders and baring fangs and claws.
“Called it!” Gabriel shouted even as the three boys backpedaled frantically toward the stairs.
Trissiny, however, did not retreat. Instead light flared up around her, coalescing into her silver armor, shield, and the sword already in her hands. “Now this is my kind of trial!”
“What in the blazes did that steward polish this with?” she was asking incredulously a few minutes later as they made their way back toward the central chamber again. “Look at me, I’m practically glowing.”
“I believe that’s a light-refracting alchemical polish,” Schwartz replied, experimentally poking at an un-scuffed patch on her breastplate. She had picked up only a few scratches, leaving the rest of her armor to gleam blindingly wherever the faintest light touched it. Altogether that had not been one of their more significant battles, though Gabriel’s scythe had proved far more efficacious than Trissiny’s sword. Though slow and not smart, the gargoyles were made of stone, and there was a limit to how much damage she could physically inflict. His weapon, on the other hand, destroyed the magic animating them as neatly as it did everything else. The whole thing was over in seconds, before she had a chance to get properly beaten upon, as she was now complaining.
“I think he’s right,” Gabriel agreed, not bothering to hide his amused grin. “See, it actually creates a molecule-thin protective layer over the metal that catches and magnifies any light that hits it.”
“Look at this!” she exclaimed, waving her arms and sending reflections cascading along the walls. “I’m not wrong, am I? Isn’t this just a little excessive?”
“Well, yeah,” Schwartz agreed, “that stuff is intended for jewelry. Enough to coat a suit of armor must’ve cost a blooming fortune.”
“And I thought I was so clever for leaving it behind,” she growled.
They emerged into the broad octagonal chamber, and slowed. As expected, the infernal symbol now glowed a burning orange, projecting its radiance along the circle to the sides and forward to meet the divine beam from opposite. Indeed, there was a cascade of sparks and the odd crackle of lightning wreathing the central pillar now. In fact, there were visible cracks in the crystal which housed the sword. Not large ones, though, and no sign of them growing.
“Bollocks,” Schwartz said feelingly, then suddenly grinned and rubbed his hands together in that way he’d taken to doing lately. Atop his head, Meesie repeated the gesture, squeaking in eagerness. “All right, then! Fae next!”
“Whatever you say,” Gabriel replied airily, following him across the room to another curving corridor. Trissiny fell to the back of the column, still grumbling to herself about her improbably glossy armor. Such showiness was not appropriate to Avenist sensibilities; she would have to find time to scuff herself up good and proper before any Legionnaires or priestesses had a chance to see her.
As before, they were greeted by the resident statue of Salyrene upon arriving in the fae chamber.
“Fae magic embodies the principle of organic growth,” she informed them. “It is associated with empathy, creativity, rejuvenation, and nature. This form of magic was created by Naiya, one of the last Elder Gods and the matron of the wild. Ordinarily, fae magic is not directly accessible to mortals, but is touched through the auspices of fairies, beings of magic also of Naiya’s creation. Whether by making use of fae-blessed objects or by establishing relationships with fae beings, the practitioner’s craft is a matter of forming connections, and nurturing them. But witches must be wary, and treat the wild magic with the greatest respect. Fairies are unpredictable, fickle, and often vengeful; to deal with them risks carnage as much as it promises blessing.”
“Well put,” Schwartz said approvingly, already bounding up the stairs toward the top of the platform.
Fittingly, this one was covered in trees, a collection of stumps and leafy branches, with the odd boulder arranged beneath them and a thick carpet of moss covering the stone platform itself. Hefty mushrooms sprouted here and there, both from the lush surface of the moss and from the various wooden surfaces. Trees, ferns, and rocks were arranged in a rough horseshoe shape, opening toward the landing on which the staircases terminated, with a pool in the center.
“Hey, look!” Gabriel said, grinning and pointing at a large blue mushroom sprouting from the roots of a tree. It had the distinct conical cap studded with refracting crystalline growths identifying it as a glittershroom.
“No,” Trissiny said flatly.
As if in response to her voice, life burst into evidence all over the display. Dozens of tiny creatures were suddenly everywhere, poking their heads out of hiding places beneath leaves and behind rocks. They filled the air with a cheery cacophony of chirps, whistles, and croaks. Birds, lizards, fish, and frogs were all in evidence. Except…
“Okay, so here’s a question,” Gabriel said, tilting his head to one side. “Why are there birds in the water and fishes in the trees?”
“Something tells me that has to do with what makes this a puzzle and not just a cute diorama,” said Toby.
“Yow!” Gabriel had experimentally reached out toward a fish flopping about on top of a tree stump, and it hissed and sank all its impressive teeth into his finger. “What the fuck! You little— It bit me! I’m bleeding!”
“You’ll live,” Trissiny said dryly.
“I am a god damned hethelax half-demon,” he snapped, shaking his affronted finger and glaring at the unrepentant fish. “I’m supposed to be impervious!”
“Not to fairies, you aren’t,” Schwartz said with a smile, and stepped over to kneel beside the stump, gazing at the little fish. “Come on, guys, I see the test. We have to help all these little fellas back to their proper habitats.”
Trissiny slowly extended her hand toward a colorful songbird which was fully underwater and emitting a stream of bubbles. She immediately pulled it back when the creature began thrashing so violently it sprayed water in all directions. “I don’t think they want help.”
“Fae magic is about empathy, about connections,” Toby said, now grinning. “We have to coax them. Just gotta be gentle, and make them understand we mean them well.”
Trissiny stared at him, then around at the shrieking, splashing, scrabbling zoo before them. “…how about I go wait in the sword chamber? Or get a head start on the arcane trial?”
Gabriel patted her on the pauldron with his bitten hand. “Come on, Triss, take off your gauntlets and try being nice. Looks like we’ve got a lot of friends to make.”
Trissiny made a go of it, but to the surprise of no one, least of all herself, she was ultimately the least productive during that trial. This was in large part because the entire thing annoyed her and, according to Schwartz, the little creatures they were supposed to be helping could sense that agitation. Ultimately, she managed to fish a bird out of the pond, stroking it with a fingertip until it stopped flailing, and set it gently in a ready-made nest half-hidden in the fork between two branches. That experience brought a genuine and unguarded smile to her face, especially when the bird cheeped ather in obvious gratitude as she retreated. Her only other contribution, however, involved being bitten right on the web between her thumb and forefinger by a particularly snap-jawed fish, and hurling it violently into the pond. After that, Schwartz banished her to the landing.
He and Toby, unsurprisingly, were having a whale of a time playing with the cute little animals. Even Gabriel seemed to get in on the fun of it, though he collected quite the assortment of bites and peck wounds on his fingers in the process. Meesie was surprisingly helpful, considering that she was a shrill and energetic creature made of fire who was slightly larger than any of the woodland creatures they were trying to help. These clearly were not natural woodland creatures, though, and responded quite positively to the little elemental.
Still, it took longer by far than piecing the obelisk back together had; more of them than otherwise either ran or attacked when approached, and required a fair amount of gentle crooning to calm them enough to be helped back where they belonged. When it was done, though, it was just as sudden as with the other trials. Toby gently deposited the last tree-bound fish back in its pond, and as if a switch had been flipped, the entire thing went silent. Every tiny creature hid away, and stillness descended upon the whole scene.
“Finally,” Trissiny snorted, already stalking down the stairs.
She ignored the snickering behind her, leading the way back across the central chamber and to a gap on the other side. They all glanced at the sword display in passing; the fae symbol was alight in radiant green, now, but didn’t seem to be doing much to the spot where divine and infernal energies were still burning uselessly against the crystal. Running low on patience with this entire business, she didn’t slow until they had wound their way through the passages to the other side of the complex, the last side chamber, and one more talking statue of Salyrene.
“Arcane magic embodies the principle of intellect,” it said when they had all clustered around. “It is associated with mathematics, independence, amorality, and progress. This form of magic is…of mysterious origin. The arcane is readily available to all, and can be harnessed and exercised by any who know the basic method. It has no inherent risk or drawback, inflicting no direct harm on its user as a cost of its power, though the power of the arcane is limited by what a practitioner can gather, shape, and deploy—a capacity which must be gradually exercised over time to improve. But mages must be wary, and treat the luminous science with the greatest respect. Mortals are often their own greatest tormentors, and hubris inflicts its own punishment. That which expands the power of the mind promises great advancement, and the prospect of a stunning fall.”
“Is it just me, or was that more ominous than the one about infernal magic?” Gabriel asked while they edged past the statue up the stairs.
“The luminous science,” Schwartz mused. “I like that! Never heard it called that before. I’ll have to remember it for my friends in the Sapphire College.”
“Well, you’re already the first Salyrite in a century to see this place,” said Toby. “Don’t gloat too much, Schwartz; that’s how you lose friends.”
“Ironically,” the witch said with a sigh, “lately most of my friends are thieves, bards, soldiers, priests…”
“Sounds like a well-balanced team!” Gabriel said cheerfully, stopping as they arrived at the top of the platform. “You’re shaping up into quite the classic adventurer!”
“Please don’t encourage him,” Trissiny groaned. “More to the point, what is all this now?”
This was a sweeping array of glowing, colored glass balls suspended in the air. It formed a wall encircling nearly the whole platform, leaving only an opening for them to enter from the landing. Nothing visible was holding the balls up, but they were arranged in a perfectly neat grid. In contrast to that orderly structure, their colors seemed to be distributed without pattern; some were red and some blue, roughly half and half, but they were an apparently random assortment.
Gabriel stepped forward, raising a finger.
“Why is your first impulse always to poke something?” Trissiny demanded.
He paused to grin at her over his shoulder. “Hasn’t led us wrong yet.” And with that, he tapped a blue bead.
It didn’t move, but instantly changed color to red—as did the four beads directly above, below, and to either side of it. Or rather, three of them; the one which had already been red switched to blue. Gabriel withdrew his hand, frowning.
“OH!” Schwartz actually hopped up off the ground in excitement. “I know what this is! I saw an enchanted children’s toy like this in Tiraas. You touch one to change the color, and it changes the ones around it as well. You have to keep doing that in the right pattern to get the whole thing one solid color!”
“You saw a children’s toy,” Toby said slowly, “like this.”
“Um…based on this basic principle, yes. It was, I’d say, several orders of magnitude less expansive.”
“A logic puzzle. Well, that suits the arcane, I suppose.” Trissiny drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, turning to sweep her gaze around the long wall of glowing beads. “This…is gonna take a while.”
“All right, let’s divide this up into quadrants,” Toby said, stepping over to one side of the wall. “Everybody pick a spot and get to work.”
“Which color are we trying to turn them?” Gabriel asked.
“Blue, I should think,” said Schwartz. “It is traditionally associated with the arcane. And not just traditionally; arcane spell effects tend to be blue unless specifically modified to be otherwise.”
“Then we have a plan,” Trissiny said, taking a spot next to Toby. “Let’s not waste any time.”
It did, in fact, take them even longer than the fae test, but oddly she found it much less onerous. Schwartz, Toby, and Gabriel carried on joshing and playfully bickering to pass the time while they tapped beads, but she fell silent, losing herself in the work. She found it to be unexpectedly meditative. It was simple, rational, orderly. So unlike all the messy problems that came from dealing with people. As the minutes passed, Trissiny found herself slipping into a state familiar to her from martial arts practice, a kind of serene focus that activated every part of her mind while soothing away the irritation that had been growing, what with one thing and another, ever since they’d arrived here.
Privately, she resolved to herself to find one of those toys next time she was in a major city.
The trickiest part turned out to be where their respective regions of space abutted; merging their individual fields of blue involved some backtracking and blurring of the borders before they could correct the discrepancies that sprang up when two patterns ran into each other. There was no sun, of course, and none of them owned a pocketwatch, so they couldn’t gauge precisely how much time had passed, but Trissiny estimated it was close to an hour. By the end, when Gabriel and Schwartz were working on the last piece near the bottom of the wall between their individual regions, the boys had grown quieter and downright irritable. Well, not Toby, of course, but the other two did not come from a meditative tradition as he and Trissiny had.
“Thank the flipping gods,” Gabriel groaned as the last four beads switched colors, creating an unbroken wall of blue. “I was about ready to—”
He broke off, eyes widening, at the unmistakable sound of an explosion from the central chamber, slightly muffled by distance and the intervening walls.
“Hopefully,” said Schwartz a little nervously, “that’s a good thing? That is pretty much what we wanted, after all.”
“Well, we’re not going to find out standing here,” Trissiny said briskly, picking up her shield and starting down the steps.
It was, indeed, exactly what they had hoped. They’d missed the explosion, but that was probably for the best; it had thoroughly pulverized the crystal. Pale shards of it littered the entire chamber, strewn across the floor and quite a few lodged in cracks in the walls. Gabriel whistled, flicking one of these with a fingertip.
In the center, atop the pedestal, the sword now stood unprotected. All four of them approached and gathered around it, gazing with a blind of uncertainty and suspicion.
“Well,” Toby said finally, “I doubt it’s a trap. That doesn’t seem in Salyrene’s character. Schwartz, she’s your goddess, after all. Would you like to do the honors?”
“Suppose I may as well,” he agreed, “as the only non-pacifist here who hasn’t already got a sword. Here we go!”
He grabbed the hilt, paused to take a breath, and pulled. It came cleanly out with a soft rasp of steel against stone, leaving him holding the weapon and grinning. Its long blade was marked by runes embossed in some black material almost all the way to its spaded tip.
Schwartz had just opened his mouth to speak when the runes along the sword began to flicker blue, and a resonant, masculine voice emerged.
“Welcome, adventurers, to the Tower of Salyrene. Here the worthy come to be tried, tested, and if not found wanting, rewarded. I am Athenos, a servant of the Tower, and guide to heroes throughout their trials within.” There came a short pause, and then the sword continued, in a much less sententious tone. “Now, I don’t know how you reprobates got in here, but kindly return me to my pedestal and sod off back wherever you came from. We’re closed.”