“Uh.” Schwartz, nonplussed, peered at the sword in his hand, then helplessly over at the others. “We can’t exactly…do that.”
“You’re clearly resourceful enough to have broken in,” Athenos retorted. “Give it a go.”
“Yeah, that’s kinda the thing,” said Gabriel. “The way we got in…doesn’t leave a way out.”
“Your problem, not mine.”
“The tower is here to test adventurers, right?” Trissiny said. “Well, we’re here, and we’re—”
“You were not invited. The goddess has no time for walk-ins.”
“What’s she got to do that’s so very important?” Trissiny retorted. “Listen, our business is important, and this tower of yours is just a means to an end. If you don’t want us tracking mud on the carpets, fine; all we need is to talk to Salyrene.”
“Oh, is that all you need,” the sword replied with ponderous sarcasm. “A personal audience with the goddess of magic, apropos of nothing. I’ll repeat: the Tower is closed. Get lost.”
“Well, I say,” Schwartz grumbled, scowling at the sword now. “Your help would be appreciated, but if it comes down to it, we can just use you to unlock the elevator and proceed. What are you going to do about it?”
“Ahem?” Ariel’s voice cut through the gathering argument, and a moment later she slid free of her scabbard, untouched by Gabriel. The black saber drifted up into the air and did a slow pirouette, her blue runes glowing steadily with arcane magic. “I advise you not to handle a sentient weapon which doesn’t like you. We are far from helpless. The enchantments may vary, but some form of motive charm is standard.” Gabriel plucked her from the air, sliding her back into the sheath while shaking his head.
“What. Is. That.” If anything, Athenos sounded positively enraged now. “You brought another— All right, I have had enough of you clowns.”
“I think we’ve all gotten off on the wrong foot here,” Toby interjected, stepping closer to Schwartz, holding up his hands placatingly and using his most soothing voice. “Everyone, please relax. We know talking swords are made with a lack of empathy; there’s no need to get hostile just because Athenos is a little abrasive. Now, can we start again?”
“Very well,” Athenos said curtly. “Welcome to the Tower of Salyrene, which is not currently accepting visitors. Go away.”
Trissiny rolled her eyes, turning to stare expressively at Gabriel, who shrugged. Meesie clambered halfway down Schwartz’s arm to hiss menacingly at the sword until Schwartz picked her up with his free hand, depositing her on his other shoulder.
“I realize this is something of an imposition,” Toby continued in his calm tone. “It is for us, as well, believe it or not. We really would prefer to be done with our business as quickly as possible and with a minimum of trouble caused for anyone. Especially Salyrene. But I’m afraid we don’t have the option of just leaving. So why don’t we try to meet in the middle, here? If you’re willing to work with us, hopefully we can keep the disruption minimal and be out of your hair. Ah, your…metaphorical hair.”
“And you think it’ll be as simple as that?”
“Well,” Toby pointed out with a smile, “we did get into the place. Surely that shows we have some measure of capability.”
“Ah, yes.” The sword’s voice was suddenly weighted with even greater disdain. “Just like every clod who discovers a gimmick, you imagine yourself to be unique. Let me clue you in, then: people have been breaking in here almost the whole time it has been closed off. Starting eighty-odd years ago with that walking incendiary bomb Tellwyrn and just getting more obnoxiously wacky from there. We had an actual incubus running around in here for who knows how many years. Just last week some screwloose kitsune clawed a hole in the outer barriers and dropped off a transmogrified ex-dryad as if this were some sort of puppy rescue. The fact that Salyrene is not interested in the Tower and its visitors does not, unfortunately, make it inaccessible; it only means her attention is not focused here, and therefore things tend to unfold in a way she absolutely did not intend when originally designing the place. This Tower’s innate magic is more sophisticated than anything else in existence, but it is still no substitute for the active oversight of a goddess. So if I seem wildly unenthused by the prospect of shepherding you clods through here, understand that it’s not a personal judgment. I don’t know you, and even less do I care to. It’s because what you’ve brought me is the very great likelihood of a big, ugly, stupid, pointless, nigh-disastrous waste of everyone’s time!”
A stunned silence fell after his rant came to a close. It was, ironically, Meesie who broke it, with a shrill whistle.
Toby cleared his throat. “I certainly understand—”
“You understand nothing,” Athenos snapped. “You know what? Your buddy there was right. If you choose to unlock the elevator and help yourself to my Tower…fine. There’s really not much I can do to stop you. Oh, there’s a little I can do, but I won’t. My function here is to guide those being tested, even when they are a useless, unwanted pain in organs I am very lucky not to possess. But know this: you’re walking into a danger of which you weren’t forewarned. Nobody is overseeing this place, and it has neither pity nor the capacity to stop. There’s nobody at the top who will grant you a reward for succeeding—if you ever do. Once you ride that elevator to the Tower proper, you can’t come back down. You will be in there until you complete its trials and escape, and escape is the only prize it’ll offer you. So before you decide to charge ahead, I suggest you think very carefully about whether this is a good use of your time. Why are you so sure you’ll succeed, and more importantly, why would you bother?”
“Well,” Gabriel drawled, “as to the second part, we are on a quest mandated by a god of the Pantheon. Granted, it’s just Vesk, but he still counts. And as for the first, we’re paladins.”
“Well, they are,” Schwartz clarified. “I’m simply a witch of the Emerald College, helping out. But these are the hands of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius.”
“Hand of Vidius,” Athenos said scornfully. “If you want to think I’m an idiot, that’s your lookout, but I’ll ask you not to speak to me as if I were an idiot.”
“You’ve been locked up in here for quite a while, haven’t you?” Trissiny asked.
She shrugged. “Well, things are changing out there in the world, but I don’t know how to convince you…”
“You don’t need to,” Ariel cut in, “he is simply being obstreperous now. We are well equipped to discern and examine auras in our proximity, and Gabriel’s is unmistakably that of someone with an exceptionally powerful connection to the divine. Given that he is also obviously, to senses such as ours, a half-demon, logic dictates that this was done at the personal intercession of a god. Therefore, paladin.”
“That conclusion is hardly inevitable,” Athenos huffed. “Still… Fine. Your time and lives are your own to waste. Who knows, if Vesk is the one who sent you here, perhaps you can coax Salyrene to take a personal interest again. That would be a great relief.”
“Very good, then,” Toby said quickly before any more bickering could ensue. “If we’re all on the same page now, we might as well proceed. Schwartz, lead the way!”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Schwartz said, still looking somewhat bemused and holding the sword a bit awkwardly. He turned and crossed the chamber to the elevator, where he paused, holding up Athenos and peering hesitantly at the metal plate with the slot in it. “So, ah… I just…insert…you?”
“If you are perplexed by a simple key-and-lock interface, you are going to have a very hard time climbing this Tower,” Athenos snipped. “I suggest you take a moment to reconsider this course of action.”
“He’s even ruder than Ariel,” Trissiny observed.
“Maybe very slightly,” Gabriel said in a solemn tone.
Schwartz, suddenly scowling, lifted the sword and pressed its tip against the slot in the panel. He had to try a couple of times, being unused to handling blades at all, much less against such a precise target, but once the tip caught, he shoved the sword home in a single motion. Athenos stopped with an audible thunk with about three quarters of his length in the mechanism.
What remained visible of the runes lining his blade flashed blue. Then, as if spreading from contact, so did another set of runes on the metal panel surrounding him, which had not been visible at all moments before. In fact, they appeared to hover half an inch from the surface of the panel. They rotated in a full circle, and the whole slot did likewise, twisting Athenos’s handle and forcing Schwartz to quickly release it. This was an eerie sight, as there was nothing constituting a moving part on that flat piece of metal. As soon as the slot and sword had rotated all the way back to their original position, the bars separating them from the elevator abruptly withdrew—not through any mechanical process, but all dissolving from the top down, each seemingly washed away by a descending sparkle of light.
“Flashy,” Gabriel remarked, raising his eyebrow.
Athenos flickered again as he responded, still stuck in the wall. “You’d better get used to that. The goddess of magic is many things, but ‘subtle’ does not usually rank among them. Once again: as soon as you ascend to the main floor of the tower, you are good and there until it finishes with you. Last chance to reconsider.”
“It isn’t really up for debate,” Schwartz grunted, grabbing Athenos again and tugging the blade free of the wall. “We’ve already established that going back where we came from isn’t a feasible option, and that’s not even considering the divine quest we still have to fulfill. Onward and upward!”
“Hang on,” Trissiny said suddenly as he started to step into the opened elevator. “I have some questions. I wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about this Tower before we go charging headlong into it.”
“Finally, a note of circumspection,” Athenos said with the first approval he’d shown any of them. “Congratulations. You are now my favorite adventurer in at least the last century.”
Trissiny bit back her first retort, which was to the effect that his personal opinion was of no interest to her. If Athenos functioned more or less the same as Ariel, nothing was going to rectify his uncooperative attitude and snapping back at him wouldn’t even hurt his feelings. Still, there was no point, and definitely no good in getting in the habit. Gabriel was grinning at her as if following this entire line of thought, which earned a wry grimace from her in reply.
Instead she moved on to her actual concerns. “First of all, I want to know exactly how this Tower works—”
“Then I hope you have several decades to spare for the relevant education, and have brought someone willing to explain it all.”
Trissiny gritted her teeth, ignoring Gabe’s silent laughter, and pressed on. “Not the details of how the magic works, I’m just curious about the broad strokes. If Salyrene is not here, and not paying attention to what happens in the Tower, how is it supposed to test people? You strongly implied the trials are still working.”
“The Tower of Salyrene is a thing more of magic than of substance. Its function is to test adventurers. Obviously, this works better with its creator overseeing the tests, but it does not stop working simply because she is absent. You lot solved a Circle of Interaction puzzle to get this far; dare I hope that, unlike my last intruder, you at least understand the basics of magical theory enough to know what I mean by ‘subjective physics?’”
Trissiny nodded. “Yes, magic is a process of imposing subjectivity on physical reality so it can be altered by thoughts.”
“Close…enough,” Athenos said with only slight disdain. Which, given the way he’d acted so far, bore out his claim to like Trissiny the most of all of them. “Therefore, the Tower of Salyrene is a structure entirely of purpose. Subjectively, it determines what the most appropriate test is for whoever is in it, and provides that. So, to head off what I expect your next question will be, no I do not know how you will be tested. To be clear, I wouldn’t help you cheat anyway, but the truth is that I literally cannot. We will find out what your tests are when they begin.”
“That sounds…far-fetched,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Are you sure Salyrene is actually absent and not just…sulking?”
“Sulking.” The sword’s tone was utterly flat. “A goddess of the Pantheon.”
“That was literally the word Avei used,” Gabe replied with a little grin.
“If your theory is that she’s actually here,” Schwartz said, frowning reproachfully, “maybe keeping thoughts like that to yourself might be a good idea.” Meesie nodded, adding a chirp of agreement.
Gabriel cleared his throat and hurried on. “What I mean is, you’re talking about analyzing people based on practically no data, determining the extremely vague concept of their needs, devising an entire trial system for each on the fly… I was willing to accept that idea if there was a goddess specifically doing it, but you want me to believe this Tower has that process automated? It really stretches my credulity.”
“Actually,” Schwartz replied, adjusting his glasses with his free hand, “what you’re talking about would be fairly simple to set up given a sufficient quantity and mastery of fae magic; these kinds of intuitive functions are arguably its primary advantage over the other three schools, Circle negation effects notwithstanding. And if there is one place in all the world where there’s sufficient magic…this is it.”
“That thing in the Crawl that gave visions,” Toby added, “seems to have done more or less the same, albeit maybe not to the same extent. So we know the theory works.”
“Hm,” Gabriel grunted, looking unconvinced, but he nodded at Trissiny and offered no further comment.
“So, based on that,” she said slowly, “as you said, the Tower is actually more dangerous without Salyrene’s oversight.”
“The Tower is…not exactly dangerous,” Athenos admitted grudgingly. “I…enhanced the facts somewhat for effect, previously. It is definitely more chaotic, and intruders have been able to take advantage of that. The incubus I mentioned caused no end of trouble in precisely that way; without Salyrene’s personal attention, there exists the prospect of such foreign dangers arising. But the Tower itself is designed to be explicitly safe. For one, all your biological needs will be suspended while you are in here.”
“I say, that’s handy,” Schwartz chimed in. “And I was just starting to notice that myself! I haven’t felt even slightly hungry or tired since we arrived.”
“And I haven’t needed to pee,” Gabriel added. “I was a little worried about that. Guess it’s Horsebutt’s tomb all over again.”
“Heshenaad,” Toby corrected, then grinned at Gabriel’s scowl.
“Furthermore,” Athenos continued with mounting annoyance, “part of the Tower’s innate systems are designed to protect adventurers from any injury which may occur in the course of testing. In this place, Salyrene’s will trumps all other laws, including those of the other gods. Should you be lethally or debilitatingly maimed, either by a test or more likely through your own clumsiness, a time-reversal effect ordinarily available only to Scions of Vemnesthis will restore you to a point before it occurred with your memory intact. In this way, you not only survive your errors, but learn from them. The Tower is, ultimately, an enormous teaching device.”
“Well, yay for more education,” Gabriel commented. “You mentioned you had Tellwyrn come through here? You might like to know that she runs a University now.”
“…and isn’t that just the icing on the cake,” Athenos said in pure disgust. “Someone needs to notify Avei that there is no justice in the world.”
“Anyway,” Trissiny said loudly, “that sort of brings me around to my other question. What happened to the other people who’ve broken in here while Salyrene wasn’t running it?”
“That depends on the individuals. As I said, they climbed the Tower. All of them managed it…eventually. In the old days, the goddess would sometimes evict someone if they proved particularly dense or their conduct became personally objectionable to her, but now? All the Tower knows is to test, and try, and keep doing so until its subject has passed all their allotted trials and is allowed to leave.”
“So they all did succeed, in the end?” Toby asked in unfeigned interest. “I suppose that’s a positive sign. How long does it take, on average?”
“Again, it depends. I have had idiots stuck in here for literally years.”
“But you said a dryad was dropped off here last week,” said Schwartz, “and also that no one’s there now. She managed it that fast?”
“Years is an outlier,” Athenos acknowledged. “It is more likely to be a matter of hours or days, in most cases. And…the dryad proved a far more adept adventurer than I’d have expected based on her initial foray. The Tower did go easy on her; it was mostly a succession of logic puzzles and very basic Circle of Interaction effects. I suppose there is a hidden advantage for the ignorant and/or stupid, as the Tower does not test people beyond their capacity.”
“Can you offer at least a guess as to what kind of tests we’ll be facing?” Toby asked.
“That is not one of my functions,” Athenos replied, audibly smug. “I will warn you not to expect the daffy dryad treatment. For three paladins and a witch, this is not going to be easy.”
“Great,” Gabriel muttered.
“At this point, I think we’re just procrastinating,” Trissiny said, “and his ominous portents of doom aren’t helping. Unless someone else has any immediately relevant questions?”
“In fact, I rather think you’re right,” Schwartz agreed. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we get finished. So! Onward and upward, for real this time!”
He led the way into the elevator, Meesie squeaking a charge and pointing forward from atop his head. The others followed with a bit more reluctance, especially after having listened to Athenos’s dire predictions, but as had already been established, it wasn’t as if they could do anything else.
No sooner had Toby, the last in line, stepped inside than the metal bars re-materialized with the same glittery effect in reverse. It was crowded with four of them in there, but by unspoken agreement they all stood clustered together, nobody taking a seat on the padded benches provided.
“Hey, there’s no roof,” Gabriel commented, and they all looked up. Indeed, the elevator shaft stretched upward for an unknowable distance. It was far enough, at least, that they could see nothing but light at the top.
Then the elevator lurched once, making Schwartz and Gabe stumble, and began smoothly rising.
It accelerated rapidly as it went, enough that the passage of the stone walls outside was a little alarming; given the cage-like construction of the elevator, they could probably have reached through to touch them, and at that speed had a fingertip sanded off for their trouble. The trip was made even more unnerving by the fact that those walls were decorated with glowing patterns in orange, gold, blue, and green. They must have been arranged in static positions along the stone shaft, but when viewed at speed they formed smoothly shifting images evocative of the four schools of magic. Flickering flames, uncurling vines, exploding stars and shimmering figures all were features, most passing by so quickly they were barely-understood afterimages almost as soon as they appeared.
“You weren’t kidding,” Gabriel muttered, barely audible with the hum of their passing. “Flashy stuff everywhere.”
“You have hardly seen everywhere,” Athenos replied dryly.
The elevator began to slow, just as the distant light above them started growing in intensity. Its speed had diminished to a smooth crawl by the time the upper borders of the vehicle passed what turned out to be an open gap in the floor of the chamber above. Or would have, had they remained attached; in actuality, the cage walls clicked against a thin lip of the portal above and were pushed downward as they rose. When the elevator finally came to a stop, it was with its metal floor perfectly level with the floor of the tower, leaving only its partial ring of padded benches standing up around them.
This, finally, was clearly a tower. The chamber in which they now stood was vast, and octagonal in shape. There was nothing in the center except the little platform on which they stood, and a broad Circle of Interaction diagram spreading around them, laid into the gray stone floor in black marble. Somewhat ominously, they were standing right in the middle of the innermost circle, where the destructive forces of opposing schools of magic met with the most explosive effect.
The height of the tower was truly impossible to guess. All around them was relative dimness; there was no visible source of the light, but it was enough to make their immediate surroundings visible. Above, however, the empty tower stretched away into darkness, its entire length crossed by bridges set at varying angles. They vanished into the blackness no less than ten stories above, with no hint at how much further it stretched.
Closer at hand, spiraling staircases climbed the outer walls to a balcony which ringed the inner space about two stories up. The four doors which branched off from this, each corresponding to one of the four points on the Circle diagram, were large enough to be clearly visible from their position.
Directly in front of them was another statue of Salyrene, depicting her exactly as those down below had. This one, however, showed her only from the waist up, and even so was tall enough that the smooth crown of her head nearly met the balcony above. With her glowing eyes fixed right upon their point of arrival, that was the most unnerving thing of all.
Once again, the silence was broken by a tiny, shrill whistle of awe.
“You said it, Meesie,” Gabriel agreed.
“And now, here you are.” There was something vaguely menacing about the smugness in Athenos’s tone. Even dangling from Schwartz’s limp arm, the sword’s flickering runes managed to convey leering satisfaction. “Best of luck to you, heroes. I expect you shall need every bit you can grasp.”
“You,” Trissiny ordered, “be quiet. When we have questions, we’ll ask them. Otherwise, if you’re not going to make yourself useful, at least refrain from being a pest.”
“Oh, of course. Far be it from me to disrupt your trials. This is, after all, my very purpose in life.”
“When you referred to climbing the tower,” Gabriel said, craning his neck back to peer into the climbing abyss of darkness above, “did you mean…all the way?”
“What you seek is at the top,” Athenos confirmed. “Each trial you pass will grant you another level of ascent.”
“This,” Gabriel said slowly, “is gonna take a while.”
Toby sighed, and rolled his shoulders. “Well, I gather at a glance that it starts about the same way that puzzle down below did. Four doors, four schools. Shall we pick one and get started?”
“The divine would be that way,” Trissiny said, pointing at the arched doorway just visible about Salyrene’s stone head. On the floor directly in front of them, there was indeed the circle marked by the ankh symbol. “Start there, again? At minimum, that seems most likely to be a trial that won’t punish us too much.”
“It’s as good a place to begin as any,” Schwartz agreed, Meesie nodding eagerly.
“All right, then,” Trissiny said, and stepped forward between two of the benches and off the elevator platform.
Whatever hit was like the impact of a stone wall, if she’d fallen on it from a great height. Blinding white light exploded in her eyes, and then she was slammed onto her back on the ground.
Onto…soft, crunching leaves, piled upon dirt.
Trissiny rolled to her feet, grunting in pain at the lingering soreness this antagonized, but not allowing herself to slow. She was now standing in a forest.
Stone walls rose all around in the near distance, and there were even windows in them. Above stretched the vault of an arched ceiling. These features were not what leapt out at the eye, however. All around her stood a profusion of trees—twisted things covered with dark, gnarled bark, mostly leafless and covered with climbing vines, streamers of hanging moss decorating their bare branches. A profusion of mushrooms sprang up from around their base, some reaching waist-high on her, and most in poisonously vivid colors which contrasted sharply with the overall gloom. What leaves there were seemed to be on the ground, dried out as if they had fallen long ago.
And it was loud. Trissiny couldn’t identify half the animals she heard; the profusion of crickets, birds, chatters and whoops and the occasional distant scream made an overall din that was all the more unsettling because she couldn’t actually see any of the creatures making the noise.
Oh, wait, no, there was a pair of glowing eyes watching her from the shadows in the roots of the closest tree.
Altogether, this scene was so disturbingly ominous she had to conclude it had been deliberately designed to be.
And she was alone. There was no sign, anywhere, of her companions.
Trissiny sighed and drew her sword. “Typical.”