Her first order of business was to find a tenable position. Right here, Trissiny was surrounded by this maze of decayed greenery, in which anything could hide—and ambush her. Turning in a slow circle and raising her eyes, she followed the line where the walls connected to the vaulted ceiling. There was no sign of any sort of door from this angle, but she did discover that she wasn’t in the center of the room.
The floor appeared to be flat stone where she was standing, but even a casual glance around revealed that it was far from even. Trissiny scraped at the dirt with her boot in the nearest spot where it seemed to rise upward, and found the variance in the terrain to be nothing but piled loam, with a layer of leaves and occasional mushrooms atop, seemingly arranged to shore up the root systems of whatever trees were nearby. In fact, now that she looked, the “hills” were subtle rises around a stump or tree, none growing more than a foot off the ground at most.
So there would be no high ground to speak of. And climbing one of these trees for a better view was a bad idea; with their roots sprawling over a stone floor instead of digging into the earth, she could very well tip one over. Especially wearing armor.
The next best option was to limit her chances of being flanked, so Trissiny turned and headed for the closest wall. This necessitated a circuitous course through a lot of blind obstacles, between the trees and the hanging moss. She kept both sword and shield at the ready, and kept her eyes in constant motion.
Tiny little flickers of motion kept catching the corner of her eye. Nothing she could identify once she looked directly, which quickly began to wear on her nerves. The Guild had taught her to watch for that and trust her instincts; unless you were congenitally paranoid, according to Style, having the feeling that you were being followed or stalked usually meant that you were being followed and stalked. This forested room was a whole different game from the streets of Tiraas, though. Those little flashes might have been insects, lizards, birds, any number of things that belonged among trees. But any such mundane creatures would be readily seen and not hide when looked at.
It did not help that the constant chatter of animals all around both obscured any possible sounds of someone creeping up on her and emphasized the incongruity in her surroundings. She could hear a profusion of animals in all direction and see not a single one.
Trissiny made sure to regularly turn and look behind her as she moved.
She reached the wall in relatively short order, though, which brought a little relief; at least it meant there was one direction from which she wouldn’t be ambushed. Craning her neck, Trissiny studied the surface all the way up to its ceiling, then knelt to prod at the floor where dirt and old leaves had drifted up against it. This was surely a cathedral-sized room, and appeared to be roughly square. There was light, but no windows or visible lamps. The wall itself appeared to be of the same huge granite blocks as Salyrene’s Tower.
Which wasn’t really a surprise; apparently the Tower hadn’t seen fit to let them choose their own trials. And apparently, it didn’t want her having help.
Well, her next decision was just a coin toss. After glancing back and forth, Trissiny went left, not for any particular reason. If there was an exit, it would surely be along the wall, and by following the wall she would come to it eventually.
At least, that was what logic told her. Another little voice told her there was no way it was going to be that easy.
She took a moment before starting out to memorize the nearest tree; fortunately they were all of unique, contorted shapes which made this prospect a little easier. That way, if there were shenanigans afoot which meant the exit wasn’t on the outer wall, she would know when she got back to this point. As she progressed, Trissiny kept glancing at those same little flicks of motion as they happened, still with no result, and making sure to check behind herself. The noise, the sense of being hunted, they all bore down with an almost physical weight. She was prepared to handle greater stress than this, thanks to moving meditation techniques from the Abbey.
How closely was this “trial” tailored to her, specifically? Trissiny chewed on that question while progressing steadily along the wall. This definitely put her well out of her element, but if the Tower was trying to crack her through psychological pressure, it had picked the wrong woman.
When she caught one, it came as a surprise to them both. At a distinct twitch of movement only a few feet distant, Trissiny whirled, snapping her blade up to point at the threat. Caught in the act of slipping back into hiding, it paused, quivering, and then stood up.
It was…a mushroom. Just under two feet tall, a thin stalk with a broad cap, shuffling on stubby little legs and with spindly arms and no face that she could see. It seemed to quaver indecisively for a moment, then suddenly hopped up and down in apparent excitement, waving its appendages.
“…caplings?” she said aloud. Yes, these were the little fae monsters from the Crawl, the ones on Level 1 of the descent. Creatures suitable to stock a dungeon, but of the absolute minimum possible threat level. Trissiny groped inside her own brain for what she knew of them, which was little; her class had discussed the caplings only briefly, as Juniper’s presence had made them automatically honored guests among the fungal fairies and they hadn’t had to do anything about them at all. Suddenly, she had a new appreciation for the Crawl’s aggravating insistence on learning lessons and doing things the hard way.
The capling tilted its head back, and a gap in its upper stalk opened, clearly a mouth of sorts. That was right, Juniper had said the hunted in packs, so it would eat like an animal rather than absorbing nutrients like a mushroom. But then the little creature emitted a long, undulating whoop unlike any of the squeaky shroom-people she remembered from the Crawl, and Trissiny instinctively raised her shield.
She did not recognize what animal was supposed to make that noise; it sounded more at home in some kind of jungle than any landscape with which she was familiar. But she had been hearing it off and on ever since arriving in this room. Trissiny straightened, lowering her shield at the lack of any aggression from the capling, and looking around with new eyes.
The mushrooms…they were everywhere. From tiny specimens barely bigger than her thumb to growths even larger than the capling in front of her, they clustered around the trees, sprouting from gaps in the root systems and the tops of stumps. If caplings hid among them, if they were the source of all those invisible animal noises…
Before she could digest the implications of this, the capling reached up, sticking a tiny hand into the fleshy frills at the base of its cap, and withdrew something which glowed brightly. Trissiny didn’t get a good look before the little fairy chucked the object right at her.
“Hey!” Trissiny ducked behind her shield again, and the projectile bounced off it with a thunk. “What the—”
The whooping sound came again, but rapidly diminishing in volume. She peeked out from behind the shield, just in time to see the capling’s shape vanishing among the trees.
She perked up at the voice—one she actually recognized. “Gabriel!”
Immediately, Trissiny cringed at her own impetuousness. It seemed she was being tested under fae terms, and fairies were known to be tricksome creatures, as she had just been vividly reminded. But in the next moment he came crashing out of the underbrush nearby, grinning at her with his divine weapon in one hand, diminished to its wand form, and Ariel in the other. “Oh, thank the gods, I thought I was alone in here.”
“Me, too,” she said, smiling back and lowering her own weapons. “I take it that means you haven’t seen the others?”
“Not hide nor hair,” he said, coming up to her, slightly out of breath. “I only just heard you shouting. Speaking of, why? What happened?”
“Oh, right.” She glanced past him in the direction in which the fairy had gone. “I encountered one of the residents. I think they’re what’s making all these animal noises, and the little flickers of motion you barely catch at the corner of your eye.”
“I hadn’t seen anything like that,” he said, turning to follow her gaze and therefore missing the wry look she gave him. Well, after all, Gabriel had had neither Avenist nor Eserite training; she supposed his cursory Vidian education wouldn’t have focused on alertness to movement in his vicinity. “In fact, I was wondering about that. It sounds like we’re in some kind of damn jungle, but I can’t see anything but plants. You think they’re some kind of…wait, what did you see?”
“Plants,” she said significantly, “and mushrooms.”
Gabriel turned back to stare blankly at her. “What? Aren’t mushrooms plants?”
He had the temerity to give her an impish grin. “I’m kidding. You think the mushrooms are making all these hoots and hollers?”
“Just the ones that are actually caplings, I suspect.”
His eyes narrowed. “Caplings…? Oh, you mean those mushroom creatures from the Crawl that Juniper liked so much?”
“I caught one moving,” she said, nodding. “It made that shriek like a bird or monkey or whatever it and threw something at me.”
“Huh.” Still squinting, Gabriel shifted his gaze to the left in that was she’d noticed him doing when he was wrestling with one of his enchanting problems. “They can mimic animal sounds? The ones in the Crawl didn’t. Did Juniper tell us they could do that?”
“Not that I remember, but I just saw it happen,” she said, suddenly distracted by recollection, and knelt. “Move your foot, please.”
When he shifted his boot to the side, the glow re-emerged. There, pressed into the loam by his footprint, was a jagged shard of crystal little bigger than her forefinger, a sickly yellow-green in color and glowing intensely. Trissiny sheathed her sword and carefully picked it up, straightening and holding the object up between them.
“What the capling threw at you?” he said.
She nodded, frowning at the crystal. “It didn’t throw hard, but look at this thing. Could put somebody’s eye out… I’m not sensing any divine or infernal magic from it. Can you?”
“Nope,” he replied, “nor any arcane enchantment. Ariel?”
“I detect no direct magical presence, which is telling,” the sword replied. “If it had even fae magic, at least one of the three of us—most likely myself—would be able to discern it by the effect that made on the energies of the other schools. It appears to be magically inert, yet it is glowing.”
“Could be a purely physical reaction,” Trissiny suggested, now lightly bouncing the crystal on her palm. “There are things in nature that glow.”
“It is also not radioactive, if that is your concern.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Of course you don’t,” Ariel said with a touch more condescension than usual. “More likely, it is part of the inherent magic of the tower, which will not register to my magical senses so long as we are within its grasp as it constitutes a part of the baseline of our existence.”
“And that means,” Gabriel said slowly, “it’s probably necessary to solve this puzzle.”
“Puzzle?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows, then turned and looked expressively around at the twisted little forest.
“Yes, puzzle,” he insisted. “Think about it, we’ve already established that’s how the Tower likes to test people.”
“One of those puzzles in the entry chamber was a pure combat test,” she pointed out.
“Sure, but it’s one you and I smashed through with basically no effort, and I note that we’re the ones stuck in this particular room. Do you really think the Tower’s going to give us problems to solve that we’ve already proven we’re good at? Athenos made it sound like us being paladins meant we were gonna get the hard stuff.”
She frowned. “Oh, great.”
“Yep,” Gabriel said, nodding. “So yeah, puzzle. We’re locked in a room, and supposed to do…something. It involves caplings and that crystal.”
She sighed and slung her shield onto her shoulder by its strap, then shifted the shard to her left hand to keep her sword hand free. If they weren’t going to be fighting, the shield wouldn’t be as necessary, but Trissiny generally felt better when she had swift access to her sword. “All right, well… We haven’t seen enough pieces of this puzzle yet to even guess how to solve it, so I guess we’d better keep looking. I was following the wall; that’s where the door is most likely to be, and something tells me when we find the door, we’ll find the heart of the puzzle.”
“I already feel more at ease,” Gabriel said with an annoying grin. “If all this hullabaloo is just caplings playing some kind of game, that’s a lot less dangerous than half the stuff I was imagining.”
“I didn’t come here to play games,” Trissiny grunted, stalking off along the wall. “Come on.”
“Well, wherever they are, I hope they’re having more fun than we are,” Schwartz said sourly, then cringed as another colossal fireball impacted the rock behind them.
For a moment, Toby’s glow brightened by reflex, creating a tingling sensation in them both as it burned away the wash of infernal magic which came with those balls of fire, then he deliberately dampened it down enough to create no visible shine above the rocky barrier. Likewise, Schwartz reached up to grab Meesie and place a finger over her mouth, stifling her outraged squeals. She could easily have squirmed free of his grip, but seemed to get the message, laying her tiny ears back in displeasure but not struggling.
The crackle of flames slowly receded from the rock; those explosions left little fires everywhere, which burned for a few seconds with no visible fuel. Both held themselves still and silent, hardly daring to breathe. After a few heartbeats, there came a powerful snort from across the chasm, followed by the rhythmic stomp of massive hooves as the demon resumed its pacing.
Schwartz let out a sigh and slid down to sit with his back against the wall. “Okay. Obviously, we’re meant to get past that thing.”
“It’s a demon, not a thing,” Toby said quietly, squatting on his heels.
Schwartz scowled in annoyance. “You know what I mean. Look, I’m just vocalizing the situation in detail; it’s a problem-solving method that works for me. Feel free to contribute, but not to nitpick.”
“Fair,” Toby agreed with the ghost of a smile.
“We’re in a square chamber,” Schwartz mused, letting his eyes wander around the high stone walls and vaulted ceiling for a moment. “Obviously part of Salyrene’s Tower.”
“I thought I made it clear you wouldn’t be permitted to leave the Tower until you passed all the challenges it arranged for you,” Athenos interjected.
Schwartz ignored him. “All of this is very obviously themed. Black volcanic rock, erratic growth, the general evidence of destruction. Even the air is orange, to say nothing of the giant flipping demon. This is clearly an infernal test.”
Toby nodded in agreement. “Also, take note of the way these rock outcroppings are arranged around the floor up here. We encountered something that looked very similar in the Crawl, though that one was full of hellboars. The arrangements are obviously artificial, since no volcano put them here. Their seeming randomness lays out a perfect obstacle course for a fight to range across the area, just enough obstructions to make it interesting.”
“I’m starting to see the shape of it,” Schwartz murmured, frowning deeply, “and what I see troubles me.”
“Me, too,” Toby said, matching his frown. “I don’t care for being pushed into battle.”
“No, I mean…it’s too simple,” the witch said. “Too obvious. This is a test, a trial, right? In the chamber down below, we had to think critically and…well, laterally. If everything points at it being a straightforward fight, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that as soon as we try that, the real hammer will come down. Do you have anything to add?” he asked, holding Athenos up.
The sword’s runes flickered blue, looking faded and sickly in the faint, reddish mist which hung over the room. “It’s good that you are thinking outside the box, so to speak. I’m not here to solve your problems for you, however. Good luck.”
“Why are you here, exactly?” Toby asked pointedly.
“As you discovered in the vault below, I serve as a key to access new areas of the Tower, and to explain its nature and functions as such questions become relevant. At my own discretion, I may provide assistance with…certain challenges. But I’m certainly not going to tell you how to solve the very first one you are dropped into. I’m not a member of your party, boys, keep that in mind. I’m an impartial observer representing the interests of the Tower and its goddess.”
“And what does it mean,” Schwartz demanded, “that you’re with us and not with Trissiny or Gabriel?”
“All trials are individualized. I have never seen this one before, and likely wouldn’t recognize whatever they are facing, either. Rarely does the Tower repeat itself with a new adventurer. It means, in short, that they are there, and not here.”
“That’s immensely helpful, thank you,” Schwartz grunted.
Toby edged over to the jagged barrier of igneous rock behind which they were huddled and very carefully raised his head to peek over the top.
The two of them had been deposited in different spots, but both were on the upper floor of the room and had quickly found one another; there wasn’t anything else up here except the erratic maze of rough black stone set up atop the Tower’s floor of much paler granite. This floor, however, only covered about half the space. Past the barrier in front of them, which blocked off most of the drop, was a chasm whose bottom they hadn’t been able to peer into. There was only one bridge of rough obsidian extending down to the lower level, itself an outcropping of rock rather than another smooth floor. The door out of the room was positioned on that, and pacing back and forth in front of it was a demon.
“Do you happen to know what species it is?” Schwartz asked.
“He is of a species I don’t recognize,” Toby replied, slipping back down. The brute hadn’t spotted him this time, fortunately; every time it had caught sight of either of them, it had hurled pumpkin-sized fireballs that exploded and strewed patches of persistent flame in all directions, not to mention a general haze of infernal magic. “He’s built a lot like a baerzurg, but clearly not one of those.”
“Looks more like a minotaur to me,” Schwartz opined, turning and poking his head up over the barrier. “Albeit with scales instead of fur, and those horns are much larger than—”
He broke off and hurled himself flat, Toby doing likewise, and a second later another fireball sailed past overhead. This one missed their improvised parapet entirely, arcing above them to impact the far wall.
“Smooth,” Athenos commented. “Your grasp of strategy is truly a wonder to behold. Hey—get this thing off me!”
Meesie had scampered down Schwartz’s arm and begun biting furiously at the sword’s leather grip. Schwartz looked down at them for a moment, then gently laid Athenos on the ground, careful not to disturb the elemental who was still going at it with all her teeth and claws. “Sorry, I’m not here to solve your problems for you. What do you think, Toby?”
“Well, it’s not like we can just rush the bridge,” Toby said with a sigh. “If we had Trissiny, or Gabe’s scythe… Maybe that’s the thing. The challenge could be that we have to link up with them before we can solve it.”
“In that case, they and therefore we have a problem,” said Schwartz. “The magic sword which serves as a key to this place is in here with us. All right, Meesie, enough. I think you’ve made your point.”
She looked up, whiskers twitching. Then with a tiny snort and a final swat of her tail to Athenos’s pommel, the glowing rat turned and scampered up Schwartz’s robes, reaching her customary perch on his shoulder in seconds. There, she looked superciliously down at Athenos and gave him one last derisive squeak.
“Silly me,” the sword said irritably, “for thinking the last imbecile who got in here was the greatest headache I could ever possibly have to endure.”
“Yeah, you’ll want to avoid tempting the fates that way,” Toby replied with a faint smile which faded almost immediately. “Well, if we have to get down there but can’t… What if we bring the demon up here?”
“Oh, I get it,” Trissiny said with a heavy sigh.
They stood before the obvious door out of the chamber, an enormous stone portal in a metal frame. Across the dividing line where its two halves met was a round panel made to house a large piece of crystal. They knew that because a few of the shards were still stuck around its edges, the same color and material as the glowing piece she had retrieved from the capling.
“So they have the pieces,” Gabriel mused, holding up their fragment as if by putting it in front of the disc he could figure out where it would fit in the finished whole. “We have to first get them from the caplings, and then reassemble it, and…I guess that’ll open the door. That’s honestly more straightforward than I was expecting.”
“In what twisted fantasy world is that going to be straightforward?” she demanded in exasperation, turning to gesticulate at the forest behind them. “We’ve got to find every one of the little…”
Trissiny trailed off, and Gabriel turned to follow her gaze. Suddenly, they were not alone.
Three caplings stood at the edge of the cleared area around the door, lurking hesitantly in the shadows of trees.
“Uh, hi there,” Gabriel said, and held up the piece of crystal. “I don’t suppose you guys would be interested in handing over…”
He broke off as all three suddenly bounded out into the open. Trissiny raised her sword, but the caplings weren’t attacking. In fact, two jumped up and down, emitting a mismatched pair of birdcalls. The one in the middle, however, waved its arms frantically overhead.
The two paladins looked at each other in confusion, and then back at the fairy.
Apparently growing frustrated, it made beckoning motions at them.
“You…want us to follow?” Gabriel said, taking a step forward. Immediately, though, the capling reversed it gestures, waving at him to stay back. It turned to point at one of its fellows and made a loud croaking noise like a frog. The other capling reached into the frills of its own cap and pulled out another crystal shard.
Trissiny started to step toward it, but before she could get more than one pace the capling tossed the shard in a shining arc; the one which had been waving at Gabriel had to hop into the air to catch it, but then it did a little celebratory dance, waving the crystal piece overhead.
“Okay, whatever else you can say about that,” Gabriel said, grinning broadly, “look me in the eye and say that’s not the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen.”
“Remember Fross’s first solstice party?”
“…you’ve just always gotta be right, don’t you. Smartass.”
The middle capling, meanwhile, turned and tossed the shard to the third one, which missed its catch and had to dive to retrieve it from the fallen leaves. The capling which had had that shard in the first place dashed for it as well, but was too far away, and number three got the prize and bounced back upright, whooping like a crane in triumph.
Then the one in the middle once again turned back to Gabriel and began waving its tiny arms again while the other two chased each other around the nearest stump.
“Oh, you want the…no, sorry,” Trissiny said. “We need those to wait don’t you dare—GABRIEL!”
Grinning, he tossed the shard. It was a gentle throw, which the capling caught without difficulty and immediately began rolling around on the ground in celebration.
“Have you lost your mind!?” Trissiny shouted. “We have to collect those things! How are we going to do that if you give them back to the—ow!”
Another shard struck her on the temple and she whirled, raising her blade. The caplings just continued to dance about, making their miscellaneous animal calls and apparently having a blast. One threw the shard back to Gabriel, who immediately tossed it to a different one, now grinning widely.
“I figured it out!” he said, turning to her.
“Do not say what I think you’re about to say,” she warned.
“Aw, c’mon, it’ll be fun.”
“I hate fun.”
“Trissiny, I used to think you were born with a stick up your ass,” he said, playfully punching her armored shoulder. “I’ve come to realize, though, you work hard to keep it there. Well, it won’t kill you to un-clench for a little while.”
“You’re proposing that we stop and play catch with a bunch of annoying little fairies?” she snapped.
“Some combination of catch and keep-away, I’m not real clear on the rules. But that’s exactly the point, don’t you get it?” The smile faded, and he turned to face her fully, his expression growing serious. “The Tower hasn’t given us an easy test, just like you thought. It’s exactly what Vidius told me I should be doing more of: screwing around.”
“He didn’t tell me to do that!”
“Well, I’m telling you now.” He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “This is a trial, a test. It’s making us do something that’s hard for us…hard, but important. Trissiny, when was the last time you played tag?”
“I can’t believe you—”
“I’m serious. When?”
To her surprise, the expression in his eyes was serious.
“When I was fifteen,” she found herself replying in spite of herself. “Actually…it was the day Avei called me. Right before that, at the Abbey, the girls were scuffling on the lawn. I used to…”
Gabriel smiled again, but more gently, and gave her a little shake. “Hell, I used to do nothing but goof around. That was before I had actual responsibilities, though. I get it, Triss, believe me I do. But maybe… Maybe we got in too much of a hurry to grow up, and did it too far, or too fast.”
“Gabriel, this is beyond asinine,” she protested. “I’m not going to run around engaging in playground games with a bunch of caplings.”
At that, his impish grin returned. “You are if you wanna get out of here. C’mon, Triss, pick up the crystal. Looks like you’re it.”
“Okay, this isn’t working,” Toby called, ducking behind another pillar of rock while fireballs pounded the area in front of him. “We’ve tried taunting, pleading, reasoning, formal challenging… He’s not biting the bait. Have you got any other ideas?”
Schwartz stood a few yards distant behind another large chunk of stone, near one of the traps he’d laid on the ground. They had peppered the entire area with fae circles, sigils, and objects, ready to be triggered against the demon once they got it to chase them into the maze—which it had steadfastly refused to do, simply remaining on its platform and answering any challenge with a barrage of explosive fireballs.
“Schwartz?” Toby prompted as the last explosions petered out and the witch continued staring into space. “Are you okay? Were you hit?”
Meesie sat upright, patting Schwartz’s cheek, but she pointed at Toby and squeaked imperiously.
“I believe,” said Athenos, currently in Toby’s hand, “the insufferable little rat wants you to let him think.”
“We’re wrong,” Schwartz said suddenly, his eyes snapping into focus and meeting Toby’s. “We’re going about this all wrong.”
“Yes, so I gathered,” Toby said wryly. “Have you a better idea? Because aside from forcing him into a trap—”
“We need to attack.”
“Schwartz,” he said patiently, “we decided that’s exactly the thing we don’t need to do, remember? It’s an obvious trap.”
“That’s not the trap.” Schwartz turned to him, shaking his head. “I get it now. The trap is…all this. Us. The Tower challenges us, Toby. We’re supposed to…to test our boundaries, to learn and grow. Think about it: you and I would naturally try to do anything but charge the giant demon in a brute force attack. You always want to seek the peaceful solution to any conflict, and I approach problems like…well, like problems. I’m inclined to fall back on cleverness and tricks rather than…”
“Rather than suicidal charges,” Toby exclaimed. “Good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we can’t reason with that demon—which I don’t truly believe, anyway. We would have to get down the bridge—”
“We haven’t tested those fireballs directly against one of your divine shields.”
“…and then deal with the demon himself.”
“You’re a master martial artist, and we both specialize in forms of magic which would be incredibly harmful to it. Toby… This is it. This is the test. Sometimes we don’t get to handle things the way we want to. Sometimes you just have to fight.”
Toby shook his head stubbornly. “There is always a better way than that. Always.”
“No, there’s not,” Schwartz retorted. “Believe me, I sympathize, but it’s true. Sometimes there just plain isn’t. The most terrifying creature I ever met wasn’t a giant fire-throwing demon, and it wasn’t an amalgamation of undead souls left in Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. It was a smart, skillful, highly professional woman who cares for nothing but herself and simply cannot be reasoned with. And I’ve spent months letting her run amok because I’ve been trying to build up a clever ploy to deal with her rather than…dealing.”
“Toby, don’t you see?” Schwartz said, and his voice was suddenly filled with the strangest mix of desperation and bone-deep weariness. “This is exactly the same mistake you and I keep making. The demon isn’t the challenge, here. We are.”