In the end, it was unbelievably simple.
They proceeded down the sloping bridge toward the ledge, the door, and the demon, keeping to a walking pace despite Schwartz’s original idea of rushing their foe’s entrenched position. Toby didn’t need to have had Trissiny’s upbringing to see the flaws in that plan, and besides, those fireballs hit hard enough to impair his balance even at a walk.
Another impacted the shield and he hesitated, gritting his teeth. Waves of golden light rippled from the spot, characteristic of an infernal spell striking a divine shield. Contact with matter and arcane energy would simply weaken it, but no matter how tightly woven the shield, touching the infernal would trigger some disruptive effect.
“You all right?” Schwartz asked from right behind him. Toby didn’t need the bracing hand against his spine—it wasn’t as if he was about to fall over—but there was comfort in the tangible reminder that a friend had his back.
“Yep,” he said, eyes narrowed in concentration, and stepped forward again. This time he made it another three paces before another massive fireball exploded against his shield. It was followed swiftly by two more, a veritable volley. The demon grew more aggressive the closer they got.
“Just saying, if you need more juice I do know the conversion charm that’ll let me feed fae energy directly into your shield…”
“Appreciate it,” Toby grunted, stepping again and pausing to weather another blow, “but power isn’t the problem; Omnu isn’t about to run out. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything to treat burnout…”
There came an ominous hesitation.
“Uh…yes, actually, but also no.”
“Do tell,” Toby suggested, making four quick steps and pausing again in time to weather another explosion. Those things weren’t going to break his shield unless he really dawdled, but they hit hard. The combination of their sheer kinetic force and the explosive effect of two opposing schools of magic crossing made the whole shield quaver and gave him unpleasantly physical feedback with each hit.
“I know a spell that’ll numb you to the effect of burnout so you aren’t inhibited by it until it becomes…um, lethally dangerous. So, no, nothing helpful.”
Toby gritted his teeth again, absorbing another blast, and then pressed forward. “Schwartz, why would you even know a spell like that?”
“It’s meant to be an offensive spell! Believe me, nobody does that to someone they like.”
“That doesn’t really answer the question.”
“I, um. I had to really go digging in the archives to find that one. I’m under advice from someone schooled in the arts of war to equip myself against a divine caster.” The conversation and their progress was interrupted by another hit. “…which is a long story, and why don’t we table that for a less under fire sort of occasion?”
“Good idea,” Toby agreed, making sure to file that away for an actual future discussion.
“DIE!” the demon bellowed, this time hurling two fireballs simultaneously.
They both halted, not just because the double impact created a wash of flame to both sides of the shield and caused Toby’s balance to momentarily waver, but because this was the first time the demon had spoken, or demonstrated any intelligence or intent beyond its desire to throw explosions at them.
A pause ensued, in which it panted visibly, slightly hunched. Apparently there was a good reason it didn’t usually chuck two spells at once.
“It can speak,” Schwartz said unnecessarily. This was answered by a series of squeaks from Meesie that, impressively, was clearly sarcastic, which had not been the first time Toby was surprised by the little elemental’s ability to communicate without words.
Unfortunately, Meesie was not the only member of the peanut gallery.
“Well spotted!” Athenos said with clearly forced enthusiasm. “With that keen eye for detail, it’s no wonder you were drawn to the Collegium. I’m sure the odds of you incinerating yourself in an easily avoidable summoning accident before the age of thirty are much less than they appear.”
“How would you like it if I dropped you into this bottomless pit we’re currently crossing over?” Schwartz suggested.
“Based on the last time that happened? I wouldn’t love spending the time down in the Tower’s underbelly. It gets weird down there. On the other hand, it would mean not accompanying you…fine young people…the rest of the way to the top. That’s a thinker, all right.”
“He really is worse than Ariel,” Toby marveled.
“Yes, well,” Schwartz muttered, shuffling along behind while they crossed as much ground as they could during the demon’s momentary lapse, “talking swords are known to be missing the personality centers for empathy and compassion, but there’s also significant holdover from the original personality used as a template. It’s possible Athenos was just made from a bigger jerk than Ariel.”
“I can’t speak for that other arcane can opener you so rudely dragged into my domain, but I can attest that my mortal incarnation was a real piece of work. I retain no memory of that, of course, but his antics have continued to influence events even here. That guy getting used to make a talking sword was not a coincidence, I’m sure.”
Toby braced himself against another explosion; the demon had clearly got its breath back. “How self-aware of you.”
“No, just aware. I am a separate entity, not a piece of him.”
Apparently their foe had its second wind, now; five more impacts struck the shield in quick succession, forcing them once more to stop completely while under the barrage, and then for a few seconds more as the haze of smoke, sparks, and lingering golden flickers around them cleared.
“This thing is really a puzzle,” Schwartz observed when they were able to press forward again. “Usually the magically gifted demon species are the smaller, daintier ones. Even baerzurgs are mostly pretty dumb, with just a few casters per colony. It clearly has incredible mana reserves, though! No warlock could have been casting such potent spells almost continuously for—”
A demonstration of those potent spells interrupted him.
“He,” Toby insisted a moment later, “not it. Come on, Schwartz; we even know he’s sapient, now.”
“Before you get too comfortable up on that high horse,” Athenos interjected, “what makes you so sure it’s a he?”
“Well, look at him!” Toby said shortly.
Actually, the demon looked more like a minotaur than anything: at least eight feet tall, incredibly muscular in build, balancing on enormous hooves and even wearing the traditional hide loincloth. Its horns were long, curved, and pronged like antlers, though, and its head more resembled a dragon’s than a bull’s. And instead of fur, it had lustrous scales in patterns of green and bronze.
“Yes, look at it,” Athenos agreed. “It’s obviously somewhat reptilian in nature. Why would it have breasts? And what makes you think females of its species are smaller and slimmer—or that this one isn’t a smaller, slimmer variant of whatever it is? Projecting your own assumptions onto demons, which come from a plane of pure chaos, is an exceptionally ignorant practice.”
“He sort of has a point,” Schwartz said grudgingly.
Toby just sighed. “Are we close enough yet? I’m not about to burn, Schwartz, but I can feel the strain building…”
A momentary hesitation answered while Schwartz did a quick estimate. “It would be better if we could make it another yard or so. At that point I can be relatively certain.”
“Another yard it is,” Toby replied grimly, stepping forward.
He kept going, this time, dividing his focus to maintain balance while his shield was hammered with a succession of fireballs, while he felt the subtle pulling of his divine magic reacting to the spell Schwartz was forming right behind him. That effect Toby had never particularly noticed before; already the Tower had been strangely educational. Divine magic embodies the principle of order. That was not how any of his teachers had put it, but it made so much sense. As a thing of order, it was predictable and behaved according to natural laws. As another form of energy flared up nearby which it was the nature of the divine to consume and negate, the power glowing around him unthinkingly shifted in its direction. Not enough to destabilize his well-formed shield, but even so, he tightened his focus.
“Okay, this has to be close enough,” Schwartz muttered. “Can you distract him for a second?”
“It,” Athenos corrected cheerfully, and Toby couldn’t even have guessed whether the sword was trying to be accurate or simply annoying. Ariel tended to be both, and so far, Athenos seemed to be basically like Ariel, but more so.
Pushing all that aside, Toby raised his voice and called to the demon, which was only a few yards away, now. The whole time he had been half-prepared for it to charge up the bridge at him, but it was either constrained to stay by the door or preferred to attack at range. Even when he addressed it from this close, it did not move.
“You have to know that’s useless by this point,” he said, projecting his firmest tone. “This is not a contest you are equipped to win. Stop attacking, and let’s talk about how we can all resolve this problem together. It doesn’t have to end in violence.”
Of course, he realized his mistake instantly: demons were creatures defined by infernal magic, by its seething, clawing imperative to destroy. It compelled them to ceaseless, senseless, unrelenting aggression. Some had means of coping with or sublimating the urge—the Rhaazke through Elilial’s grace, the Vanislaads by channeling what would otherwise be bloodlust into compulsive mischief, the hethelaxi through their berserk state. For more of them than otherwise, though, the expression of infernal nature was very simple.
They wanted it to end in violence. Whether they could win was simply not a factor.
Even so, Toby couldn’t help hoping that he could resolve this challenge peacefully. Even knowing that his plea had been a cover for Schwartz’s sneak attack. Even despite his strong suspicion that Schwartz had been right in that this was a test of character, not of magic. None of this was straining either of their magical capabilities, but it was forcing them both into exactly the thing they were both most disinclined toward, the thing the infernal itself most infamously expressed: direct aggression.
“YOU WILL DIE!” the demon howled, raising its hands overhead and beginning to conjure something much nastier than those fireballs, to judge by the way streaks of shadow and fire began to coalesce in the space between them.
“What a splendidly single-minded chap,” Athenos observed lightly. “Not to be pedantic, but so far we’ve no compelling reason to believe it is sapient. A moderately sophisticated golem can parrot simple ideas like that.”
Toby was spared having to either answer that or deal with whatever the demon was about to hurl at them by Schwartz deploying what he had been working on.
What he flung over the side of the bridge looked for all the world like a desiccated leaf; Toby wasn’t enough of a botanist to recognize the kind, but it was one of those which ended in a sharp tip, the reason for which became clear a second later. A gust of pure, fae-impelled wind rose from nowhere, caught the leaf, and directed it with far more precision than any wind actually blew fallen leaves. It shot as straight and true as an arrow, striking the demon straight on the broad target of its chest and imbedding itself up to half its length in the creature’s flesh. Obviously, leaves would not penetrate those glossy scales under normal circumstances, but what was fae cleaved through what was infernal like a red-hot ax through water, leaving behind steam and bubbles as the destruction continued even after its passing.
Steam and bubbles were exactly what arose, to Toby’s horror. Actually, the gout of what rose from the wound was more like smoke, a dark and acrid jet of gas as if the demon were a balloon filled with something noxious which Schwartz’s improvised weapon had just punctured. The bubbles were worse, though. The scales around the puncture point warped, then black liquid began to seethe out from that spot, as whatever the beast was made of boiled.
“Schwartz,” Toby gasped in protest.
“Oh, dear,” Schwartz muttered, peeking over his shoulder. The golden shield discolored their view of what was happening, but left the picture all too vivid for comfort. “I…may have overdone it a tad.”
“A tad,” Toby snapped over Meesie’s shrill agreement.
The demon, obviously, had lost concentration on what it was conjuring, and clawed frantically at its chest, where tendrils of dark magic were spreading visibly outward from the puncture wound. Its bellowing was familiar to them by now, but it had risen two octaves in pitch, the over-the-top rage changed to unmistakable pain.
“No, no, that’s not right at all,” Schwartz protested frantically. “It’s—there’s no way the reaction should be that extreme! I had to spitball it a little because I don’t know that demon species particularly but by the simple quantity of the infernal magic it was casting that spell should have just…just disrupted it!”
“Appears to be well and truly disrupted,” Athenos replied. “Good job.”
“But that’s too much!” Schwartz exclaimed. “I—I didn’t mean for that— Wait, was this it? Did I just fail the magic test?”
“The Tower’s tests can be fairly brutal, but they are brutally fair. You had no means of gauging the quantity of magic needed that accurately, therefore the Tower would not have expected you to. Clearly, this is not that kind of test.”
The demon—their victim—threw its head back to howl in gut-wrenching agony. Now, green light blazed from the wound in its chest, then tracked along the dark veins which had streaked out all along its scales. With sickening clarity, Toby recognized the pattern it made. It was like the spreading of roots through the ground—or like the spreading of cracks in a shell that was just about to shatter.
“PLEASE,” the demon wailed, its booming voice purely piteous now. “PLEASE, NOT LIKE THIS!”
“Oh, gods,” Schwartz whispered.
“Uh oh,” said Athenos. “You may want to pour a little more oomph into that shield—”
The explosion, blessedly, was nothing like what you’d expect from a living being inside which a bomb had gone off. The substance of the demon simply disintegrated, vanishing into dust and mist, which was sprayed outward by the shockwave of sheer magic which blasted forth. Despite Athenos’s warning, it caused barely a ripple on Toby’s shield, the divine magic being quite unimpressed by the fae. What erupted from the demon’s form was not bone and viscera, but life. For an instant there was the luminous green afterimage of a tree swirling outward from amid the eruption. Then light coalesced into form, and the tree was there.
It stood tall, held off the ground by a root system which managed to be reminiscent of the erstwhile demon’s thick legs and somewhat stumpier tail. Branches spread outward from the point in what had been its chest, the central fork in nearly exactly the spot where the initial wound had been struck, rising to a canopy of pale, fluffy leaves. Even the branches unsettlingly suggested the outline of spread arms and an upraised head.
Softly, the leaves began to fall in the silence.
After a moment, Toby dropped the shield. For a time, they could only stare. Even Meesie was silent.
“But,” Schwartz said feebly, at last. “B-but that…that wasn’t what…”
Toby stepped forward, crossing the remainder of the bridge at an even pace. He came right up to the tree, reaching up to rest his hand on its bark. It was smooth, papery, like a willow, though a warm golden-brown in color. Embedded in its trunk was a disc of glowing crystal, an odd yellow-green.
“I thought we’d have time,” he said aloud, to no one in particular. “The plan was to subdue the demon. I thought we could…figure something out. Find a way not to kill him.”
“I…tried,” Schwartz whispered, finally stepping onto the ledge right behind him. “I don’t understand why that… Toby, that spell was barely a nuisance. It’s an Emerald College standard against demons, used to disrupt casters. It…stings them, makes their spells fizzle. And that’s the more delicate, magic-using demons! Baerzurgs or hethelaxi don’t even notice it. Why would…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Schwartz,” Toby said quietly. “It was a good plan. As far as you knew, it would have worked. This is just…the Tower.”
“Seems to have gone better than it might, even,” Athenos offered. “If that thing was that overly sensitive to hostile schools of magic, just think what could have happened if you’d hit it with a divine spell. They’d be scraping you two out of cracks in the ceiling. Probably using me, given my luck.”
Toby whirled and grabbed. He had learned and drilled techniques for disarming opponents who were actively trying to kill him; twisting a magic sword out of the limp grasp of a spell-shocked witch didn’t even count as effort.
“Why?!” he demanded, holding Athenos up before his face as if by staring into the sword’s hilt he could make it feel the weight of his fury. “What was the point of that?!”
“If you are asking me to explain the Tower’s decisions, I really cannot help you. That is not an evasion; I would do so if I could. Explaining is my whole function. Understand, the Tower is the construct designed to discern what you need to be tested on and devise trials to do so; I am a construct of far, far lesser sophistication. Basic human emotions are often more than I can parse. I will say,” Athenos added in a more pensive tone, “I fail to grasp the utility of any of that. Especially that last bit, with the pleading. That little touch seemed…quite unnecessarily cruel.”
Slowly, Toby lowered the blade, meeting Schwartz’s eyes. Meesie, still silent, was leaning her entire weight into the witch’s cheek, rubbing her head comfortingly against him like an affectionate cat.
Schwartz blinked, cleared his throat, and adjusted his glasses, clearly grasping for some semblance of poise. “Ahem. Ah…well. I guess…what’s done is done. Let’s just get this damned thing open and get out of here.”
He strode over to the door, pointedly not looking at the magical tree he had created even as he had to step around it. The door was quite simple in design, the only impressive thing about it being its dimensions. There were no visible hinges, but the two stone panels were marked by a line down the center. Straddling this, at chest height, was a metal panel with a round indentation the size of a dinner plate.
Schwartz frowned at the door, then tried to tug at every part of it into which he could get his fingers, first the crack and then the edges of the panel. Nothing made the slightest impression on it. Toby stood back by the tree, watching him and feeling vaguely…disconnected. It seemed there ought to be something more helpful or at least productive he could be doing. But Schartz didn’t seem to want help as much as he wanted to be distracted from his thoughts, and Toby, for the moment, just wanted to stand there and try to come to grips with his own.
“Augh!” Schwartz suddenly roared, making Meesie jump nearly off his shoulder in fright. The witch pounded both his fists against the door in pure frustration. “What the hell now? There’s no lock, not even a latch. What more do you want from us?!”
“Uh, Schwartz?” Toby said carefully. He reached up to grasp the crystal disc lodged in the tree’s trunk, finding to his surprise that it came free as smoothly as if it had been carefully laid there with a jeweler’s precision; he’d expected to have to wrestle it loose from the wood. He held up the glowing plate of crystal. “Is it just me, or does this look to be about the same size as that indentation, there?”
Stepping into the swirling portal was a daunting prospect, but it wasn’t as if any of them had anywhere else to go. Contact with the door was nothing like stepping through a door, though—or through a magic portal, for that matter. The sensation was exactly the same as that which had taken them all into those testing chambers: impact, vertigo, the sense of falling, and then suddenly new surroundings.
Or, rather, old ones.
All four stood in the central chamber of Salyrene’s Tower, blinking in confusion in the dimness. It was quiet and cool as before, with the vast space soaring up above them, crossed by bridges, and the huge statue of the goddess herself directly in front, the broad Circle of Interaction diagram inlaid into the floor in black marble spreading out. They stood on the platform that had been the elevator which brought them here, and Trissiny had just put her first foot outside it.
The four of them froze, turning, to stare wide-eyed at each other.
Then Schwartz crossed the platform in two long strides and wrapped his arms around Trissiny. Without hesitation she hugged him right back. They stood that way in silence while Meesie cooed softly, leaning over to gently pat both of their faces.
Gabriel let out a small sigh, stepping over to lay a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Hey. You okay?”
Slowly, Toby nodded, then shook his head, then closed his eyes and shrugged. “I’m…not hurt. Neither of us are. But that was… Gabe, this Tower has a sadistic streak. How about you? Are you guys…?”
“We’re fine,” Gabriel said quickly, though if anything he looked more alarmed than he had a moment before. “We had to do something…annoyingly counterintuitive to get out of that room, but I dunno if I’d say sadistic. What the hell did it do to you?”
“Can we not?” Schwartz’s voice was slightly muffled by Trissiny’s hair, but he lifted his head and spoke more clearly. “Please? It’s over, I would much rather leave it at that.”
“I don’t know if we can not, is the thing,” Trissiny said, pulling back from him with a soft sigh. “Supposedly we’re here to be tested. We’ve just discovered this Tower won’t hesitate to rip us apart or sort us into arbitrary groups, or… Who even knows what rules it plays by, if any. I think we’d better compare notes, while the opportunity exists. No telling when it suddenly won’t again.”
“I kind of have to agree,” Toby said reluctantly. “Sorry, Schwartz, but she’s right. This isn’t over. If anything, that was just the very first round. Better safe than…even sorrier. The thing that most strongly jumps out at me about what we just experienced was that it was completely pointless.”
“Yes,” Trissiny said emphatically, nodding at him. “Pointless is exactly the word I would choose. I don’t even know what the Tower is meant to be testing with that…that…”
“What jumps out at me,” Gabriel said with a frown, “is that we all landed back here at the same time. Did you guys have to deal with a forest full of caplings?”
“Caplings?” Schwartz exclaimed. “If only! I would kill to—” He cut himself off abruptly, going pale as a sheet, and Trissiny looked up at him in concern. Meesie cheeped softly, burrowing her face into his hair.
“That’s what I thought,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Different rooms, different tasks, otherwise why split us up? It’s pretty hard to believe that we’d all finish them at exactly the same instant. So…?”
“I believe,” said Athenos, “I told you specifically that in this Tower, Salyrene’s will trumps all competing influences—even those of Vemnesthis. I’m quite certain I mentioned that in particular.”
“You!” Trissiny barked, leveling a finger at the sword and not seeming to make note of the fact that he was in Toby’s hand now rather than Schwartz’s. “Explain that! What was the point of…any of it?!”
“As I was just informing your marginally less tedious friends,” Athenos said in a particularly long-suffering tone, “I do not and cannot know. The Tower yields different trials for different heroes. It is unusual that you would be snatched off the platform for a preliminary test before even reaching any of the lowest doors—unusual, but not without precedent. I cannot explain why the Tower thought that necessary, much less why it chose those particular…events. Though I don’t disagree with your assessment; the specific purpose of what we just experienced eludes me. I am as hesitant as you ought to be to guess what is in store for you next.”
Light blazed through the dimness, and they whirled to confront its source. The giant statue of Salyrene had opened its eyes, and they gleamed white, as had the smaller statues below. Given its size, those lights were like a sunrise in the shadowed chamber.
“My Tower is built to teach,” the statue said. Its voice was the same as its smaller counterparts, though as with the eyes, much larger. It was not deafening, though; it simply filled the wide open space with an almost tangible presence. “This, children, is a place of learning. As with all tests in such places, these are meant both to impart lessons and to gauge how well you have learned them. But there is more, much more, to learning than testing. You, in particular, needed a little preparatory study before embarking on the true series of trials. The Tower composed a short lesson for you, for each of you, on the necessity of trying solutions which are outside your normal mode of acting. Things, specifically, that you are reluctant to do on your own.”
“Oi!” Gabriel shouted, stepping forward and brandishing a finger at the talking statue. “Just where the hell do you get off?”
“Gabriel!” Trissiny hissed. “Do not chew out goddesses! How many times in an average week do you want to get smote?”
“Oh, let me vent,” he snorted. “It’s just another jabbering automaton, like those little ones down in the entrance puzzle and that freaking pest.” He actually drew Ariel and whirled to point with her at Athenos.
It had been the statue which spoke, and Gabriel’s eyes suddenly went wide. Slowly, he turned back around to face her.
The statue spread her arms, and…changed. It was a most disorienting thing to behold: at the same time the goddess appeared to expand till her presence filled every iota of space in the Tower, even as she physically shrank from the enormous size of the statue to one barely twice as tall as Gabriel. Hovering in the air above them, arms extended and legs gracefully poised like a dancer, her shape emitted a blinding flash.
Light pulsed out from her in visible waves like ripples in a pool, and she changed. The sense of her awesome, enormous presence vanished, causing all of them to suddenly start breathing again and then notice that they had momentarily stopped. At the same time, the stone exterior melted away, leaving her mostly bare skin an inky black, crisscrossed by constantly shifting patterns of multicolored light. Slowly, she drifted down to alight gently on her toes upon the stone floor before them.
Salyrene was, unsurprisingly, quite beautiful when she took mortal form—in the sense that a woman might be attractive, not to mention the highly aesthetic effect of the light-on-darkness that was her outer skin. Her clothing was a sheer diaphanous robe which, in truth, seemed little more than strips of cloth that concealed little and flowed about her as if underwater, seemingly woven from sunlight and cobwebs. She had no hair, her skull smooth and perfectly round. Though of course nothing of her ethnic descent (if such things even still mattered to an ascended being) could be determined from her skin, Salyrene had the broad nose and lips of a Westerner.
Right at that moment, those features were set in an imperious stare.
“So! What, exactly, do you kids think you are doing in here?”