14 – 16

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“Vesk sent us!” Toby blurted before anything really horrible could unfold.

Salyrene hesitated. Her entire being seemed to still for a moment, freezing in place like a person too startled to move, but accentuated by the iridescent patterns flowing across her skin suddenly stopping, at that moment in a pleasing fractal arrangement of gold and deep green.

Then she smoothly came back to life, her lightwaves flickering into motion and shifting toward orange, while she sighed and made an irritated expression.

“Of course he did. The majority of this intrusion is explained by that alone, but how did you get in here?”

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “we have a divine scythe that, apparently, can cut time and space. Plus we got a hint from Avei. It was Schwartz’s idea!”

The goddess narrowed her eyes slightly at Avei’s name but made no comment on that. “A valkyrie’s scythe doesn’t cut, per se, it kills. Through a very selective application, of course, that can still be used to pierce barriers in a way that doesn’t entirely destroy them, by embodying a mental construct of that which stands in your way and then condemning it to perish. It is the same principle on which the highest applications of infernomancy operate, those only able to be performed by demons.”

“Um…” Gabe drew the long black wand he currently had tucked away in his coat, and extended it to its full scythe form. “It’s not a valkyrie’s scythe, it’s…a divine weapon Vidius made for a paladin. Which is a new development, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, if you’ve been…uh, away.”

Trissiny swatted the back of his head. Gabe just sighed, and nodded.

“You are exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrne said. Her tone, fortunately, was amused, and the arcs of light tracing across her skin had changed to a pleasant gold and pale blue, in smoothly flowing patterns without sharp edges. “Who do you think made those weapons? I assure you, it wasn’t Vidius. I remember that one; it belonged to Yrsa.” The pale glow of her eyes flickered subtly, as if she had glanced in a different direction. “Don’t blame Vestrel for not telling you, it is unlikely she would have recognized it. They look quite different in the hands of a different owner. I expect it will be much more versatile in a human’s grasp.”

“Wow,” Trissiny said softly. “You got a hand-me-down divine weapon?”

Gabriel gave her an annoyed look. “How many Hands of Avei have owned that sword?”

“Not one. We borrow it for a while.”

“That scythe,” Salyrene said dryly, “is many times more powerful than your sword, Trissiny Avelea. In fact, it was only because they were assured that neither such devices nor their owners would ever be on the mortal plane that the rest of the Pantheon declined to raise objection when I crafted them for the valkyries. But it seems that in these latter days, ancient proscriptions are being disregarded left and right. And on that subject, what precisely did Vesk send you here to do?”

They glanced at each other uncertainly, taking a silent vote to decide who would speak.

“He tasked us with collecting the pieces of a key,” Toby said after the momentary pause. “There are four, and the clues we got are that they’re in the hands of the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”

“Maiden.” Salyrene made a wry grimace, but the light dancing on her skin accelerated and took on festive patterns of green and silver. “And how many of these pieces have you gathered thus far?”

“Only the one,” Toby said, producing Gretchen’s Dowry from his pocket and holding it up. “Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had it.”

The little shard of mithril rose from his hands and drifted toward the goddess. She brought her own hands up to either side of it, but did not touch; it simply hung suspended there, within the scope of her grasp. The lights flowing over her faded to a pale white and took on an angular, almost mathematical arrangement.

Gabriel cleared his throat awkwardly after the silence had stretched out for almost a minute. “Do you…recognize it? Uh, my Lady?”

“Infinite Order technology was modular and interchangeable,” she said abruptly. “As any system of technology must be, to serve the needs of a large and advanced society.”

Toby looked uncertainly at the others, getting a series of shrugs in reply. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“It means that rather than every device being individually crafted by artisans, they were built of smaller, identical pieces with standardized attachment points,” Salyrene explained. “So that any person with some basic sense who could get access to replacement parts could repair their gadgets, up to a point. Or even configure new ones. This is an Infinite Order device, a Series 6 T2 circuit. Being mithril, every single one ever made still exists. The vast majority are buried and lost in various places, but even so, this is hardly unique. There are three of these on display in the Royal Museum in Svenheim, over a dozen still in various private collections—either as simple curiosities, or set in jeweled housings as this one recently was. There are even a few in service for something like their original purpose, after particularly resourceful wizards worked out what they did.”

She shifted her gaze from the piece of mithril to look at them again, and even as the patterns limning her accelerated and warmed to bright gold, the key fragment floated back down to where Toby could grasp it again.

“I thought you deserved to know, children, that Vesk is not having you reassemble the pieces of some long-lost artifact. He has set you to build something out of components that, while not common these days, are mostly still lying around. It should go without saying that Vesk could pick up all of these much more easily without having to rely on mortal help.”

“Avei said that last part, too,” Trissiny murmured, wearing a frown.

“What does that thing do, when it’s at home?” Schwartz asked in fascination. Meesie tugged warningly at his hair, but he absently brushed her off while gazing avidly at the mithril object now back in Toby’s hand.

“It is a transcension transistor,” she explained. “Hence T2. Basically it controls the flow of magical energy from a source to another device.”

“But it’s made of mithril!” Trissiny protested. “Wouldn’t it completely block magic?”

“Precisely,” Salyrene said, nodding. “This particular circuit is designed to be hooked into a direct source of truly immense magical power, and link it to a very delicate device which would be immediately destroyed by direct contact with such a source. Specifically, an information-processing machine, which would gather data from the power source or possibly deliver instructions to alter it. Or both. Or something else entirely. Those, or at least of a model that could be linked to your Series 6 T2 circuit, there, are not made of mithril, or at least, not entirely. While the Infinite Order built to last, more delicate materials inevitably come to harm with the passage of time. There are very few compatible units still in existence. And yes, I do have one, myself.”

“So the transistor establishes a link,” Schwartz murmured, rubbing his chin pensively, while atop his head Meesie clapped a hand over her eyes in frustration. “But also impedes the flow of magic so that the device on the other end isn’t damaged by the intensity of exposure. Fascinating! What sort of magical source could he possibly want to hook this into?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Salyrene replied, her lights fading to red and slowing to a sluggish crawl across her skin. “There are such incredible fonts of magic left in the world—but this one, specifically, would have to be an Infinite Order machine. And while those still exist, they are all sealed off, first by Naiya locking their access portals and then by her attempts to bury the remaining entrances in various disasters. Those she missed before her consciousness became too diffuse to focus on the task, the Pantheon finished burying.”

“There’s one of those facilities in Puna Dara,” Toby objected. “We were actually in there, briefly.”

The goddess gave him an indulgent little smile. “I assure you, Fabrication Plant One was not built at the bottom of a harbor. But what can be buried can be dug up again, given time and enough effort. Right now, the only thing currently accessible to mortals which would be able to make use of that T2 circuit is the main power source of the old spaceport beneath Tiraas. I hope Vesk doesn’t intend to send you in there. I seem to recall the Empire gets tetchy about grubby little fingers leaving prints all over its favorite toys.”

“I may have had a reminder of that recently,” Gabriel said solemnly. “I don’t suppose you might have a theory on what Vesk wants with this key when it’s finished? It sounds like it would enable him to control something with a lot of power, which the gods went to a lot of trouble to lock away.”

“Let me rephrase that,” said Trissiny. “Can he be trusted with this thing? Because if not, I for one will be very comfortable not bothering you any further about this whole business.”

“Vesk,” Salyrene replied, “is every bit as annoying as you have already discovered, and then some. And I trust him more than most of the Pantheon. Yes, he could cause a lot of trouble if he’s collecting what I think he is—but keep in mind, if he just wanted to cause trouble in this manner, nothing is stopping him. He doesn’t need your help to gather these pieces. Whatever he is doing is at least as much about you as about him.”

“He does have…something of a reputation for pointlessly tormenting people,” Toby said slowly. “Especially paladins.”

“When a bard says hero, they mean victim,” Trissiny quoted.

“From the perspective of the paladins, I’m sure it can seem like pointless torment.” Her tone was grave, the lights flowing over her body slow and pale blue now. “The same can be said of this tower. I do have some sympathy for Vesk, for that very reason. Despite the nuisance he can be while you’re dealing with him, if you embrace the trials he throws in your path you will emerge stronger for the journey. Here, this is what you came for.”

Again, she held her hands apart before her, the blue lights cascading over her skin accelerating to a frenzied pace of oscillation as the goddess channeled magic. Streamers of mist coalesced out of the air, spinning together into a tiny cloud between her palms, which spun like a miniature tornado before abruptly dissipating with a puff and a shower of golden sparks, to leave an object slowly rotating in the air.

Gabriel applauded. Trissiny stepped on his foot. Salyrene, smiling, inclined her head toward him.

Toby reached up to grasp the thing that drifted down to his hand. It was a rounded disc of what seemed to be black glass, encircled by a band of mithril which at one point around its circumference extended blunt little prongs. He paused to bow to Salyrene, glanced at the others, and then carefully brought the two pieces together. The disc fit with perfect ease into the shaft, forming an obvious key shape that now was missing only its teeth.

Eight thousand years after its creators and their whole civilization had been wiped out, it still worked perfectly. A soft chirp of acknowledgment sounded from the key, and the black disc within the mithril housing lit up with a red gleam. After two seconds, it went dark again.

“Hmm,” Gabriel murmured, staring at the half-built key in Toby’s hand with his eyes narrowed. “You said…that piece is a kind of information processing device, right? What information is in it right now?”

“None,” Salyrene said simply, spreading her hands in a slight shrug. “It is a blank template, which is what makes it especially valuable. Few enough of those are still extant and functional; most that survive have instructions hard-coded into them. An unused transtate drive is very rare. In fact, I believe that reveals what your remaining two pieces are. Your key now is missing only the interface dock which should be attached to the other end of the transistor to enable it to be plugged into an Infinite Order machine. I suspect the final ‘piece’ will, in fact, be software. Instructions that will program it to do whatever it is Vesk plans to do with that thing.”

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out in a soft sigh. “So…the scoundrel and the monster are left. I wonder which will have which part.”

“Your monster will guard the information component,” said the goddess, and her constant lightshow trended to jagged patterns of red and white while she spoke. “Which means you will be facing some nastiness left behind by the Elder Gods at the end of this journey. I conclude this by process of elimination: of the entities which might possess physical scraps of Infinite Order technology and be described as ‘monsters,’ I can only think of dragons, who as a rule do not hang about in sepulchers. Besides, I can tell you your next stop based on the remaining possibility. In the port city of Ninkabi in N’Jendo lives a man named Mortimer Agasti who owns a Series 6 interface dock…and can quite reasonably be called a scoundrel in the shadows. More than that I won’t give away. He will not be hard to find, once you reach the city.”

“Thank you very much, my Lady,” Toby said gravely, bowing to her again. “Both for the gift, and for the information. It has been immensely helpful.”

“You are welcome,” she replied, inclining her head. “Now, Tobias Caine. My sword, if you please?”

“Oh!” He had thrust Athenos unsheathed through his belt; now Toby tucked the key back into his pocket and pulled the sword loose. Holding it by the blade, he offered it up to her, hilt-first. Athenos, for his part, remained uncharacteristically silent.

“This…isn’t exactly on topic,” Gabriel said a little hesitantly, “and may not even be pleasant for me to know, but I have to ask. Lady Salyrene, do you know where Ariel came from?”

Holding Athenos in one hand, the sword looking almost comically small given the size of her current incarnation, Salyrene turned an indulgent smile on Gabriel, her shifting skin taking on shimmering patterns of green and blue. Then, with a soft puff of light, Athenos vanished from view, leaving her hands empty once more.

“I am not in the habit of indulging idle curiosity, Gabriel Arquin, but I do like an enchanter who seeks knowledge even when he knows it won’t make him happy. Far too many people, even magic users who ought to know better, only want to hear what will please them. And indeed, your sword should come with a warning: so long as you carry her, you should try to avoid high elves.”

“That…shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, blinking. “Nobody ever sees high elves. I didn’t believe they really existed until very recently. Uh, might I ask why?”

“Ariel is a Qestraceel original,” Salyrene explained. “Before human wizards learned the vile secret of making talking swords, or at least a clumsy and bastardized version of it, the art was created by the high elves as the most severe punishment they will inflict for any crime. The Magisters of Qestraceel are able to perform the process correctly on a single try. When they judge someone deserving of the ultimate punishment, that individual is executed and their spirit made a template for a talking sword, which then serves the Magisters in whatever capacity they require. It must be a truly legendary tale that explains how Ariel came to be lost in the Crawl, but unfortunately, the long period of dormancy without a user’s aura to power her would have purged her long-term memory. By the law of the high elves, Gabriel Arquin, all such swords are the permanent property of the Magistry, and may never be sold, traded, given, or even loaned. If a high elf sees you with that sword, they will try to confiscate her.”

He lowered a hand to grasp Ariel’s hilt. She, like Athenos, remained conspicuously silent in Salyrene’s presence. “Thank you for the warning. Then…she was made from someone truly…awful.”

“You can’t assume that,” Trissiny said quietly. “Sometimes people do truly awful things in extenuating circumstances. Sometimes innocent people are condemned to terrible punishments by a flawed justice system. If Ariel doesn’t remember and you can’t exactly ask a high elf…better to leave the past buried.”

“Wise words,” Salyrene agreed, nodding to Trissiny. “And you, Herschel Schwartz? I am rather pleased at the opportunity to speak with you. Have you nothing you wish to ask me?”

“Oh,” he squeaked, sounding eerily reminiscent of Meesie. “Me? Oh, I’m just…along. I’m not a paladin, uh, obviously. I’m helping Triss and the boys, that’s all.”

“You do have a knack for stumbling into matters above your head,” Salyrene agreed. “If Vesk is involved in this affair, that alone tells me your presence here is no coincidence. Yes, young man, I am aware of you. I have been since you swore vengeance in my name while striking down a foe with an impressive display of magical skill for such a young witch.”

All three paladins’ heads swiveled to stare at him in shock.

“Hershel!” Trissiny croaked.

“Oh,” he groaned, clapping a hand over his eyes and nearly dislodging his glasses. Meesie, still sitting in his hair, threw her tiny arms wide and squeaked a despairing complaint at the ceiling. “That was… It was the dwarf, Trissiny, the one who was hunting you and the other apprentices. He threatened my family.”

“The little piece of crap had it coming,” the goddess of magic opined, folding her arms and the abstract lights running across her flaring bright orange. “Had you been forced to make good on that threat, Herschel Schwartz, I would have backed you. And then, by necessity, delivered a lesson. I have made it clear that I don’t appreciate being casually invoked, and there must be consequences for that kind of defiance.”

“Thank you, may Lady,” Schwartz said weakly, “for your forbearance.”

She smiled. “Thank you for not forcing me to exercise it, young witch. One hates to have to come down upon such a promising talent. Now, we are both here. How do you like my Tower?”

He hesitated, fussing with his glasses, and Meesie hopped down to his shoulder where she stood up and patted his cheek, chittering an urgent message.

“I…understand the lesson of that trial,” Schwartz said finally, raising his eyes to the goddess again.

“Makes one of us,” Gabriel muttered.

“The point,” Schwartz continued, “is that sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do. To…act against your nature. And…sometimes it’s all going to go to hell anyway, but you still have to do it. Because failing to act at all, just because you don’t like the options…that’s the ultimate sin. It’s the same as choosing defeat.”

“Well done,” she said, nodding.

“And,” he continued, visibly stiffening his spine. Meesie actually punched his face, ineffectually, emitting a long squeal; Schwartz plucked her off his shoulder and held her out in one fist. “And, I think Vesk sent us in here, knowing that specific lesson would be taught to this specific group, because he wanted to deliver that message to you.”

The room perceptibly darkened. Slowly, the patterns of light shifting across Salyrene’s skin began to creep toward a halt, shifting into blue, and then a deeper indigo.

Meesie turned to face Trissiny, still clutched in Schwartz’s grip, and squealed indignantly while pointing at his face.

“I know, Meesie,” she said with a sigh, reaching out to take the little elemental from him. Meesie darted up her arm to rest on her shoulder, where she chattered furiously at Schwartz.

“My Lady,” the witch continued, staring pleadingly up at his goddess, “we’ve missed you. What’s happening out there… It’s amazing. The enchantments that have been developed in the last century, and the way they’ve changed society, the very face of the world… It’s the great fulfillment of the promise magic has always held! Life is so much better in every way… And yes, of course, there are hazards and drawbacks, there’s just no avoiding that, but the progress. It has to be seen to be believed. This is an age of wonders, an age of magic, and you are missing it!”

She had darkened completely, now. The last deep blue had faded, leaving no light upon her form. Salyrene closed her luminous eyes, plunging them back into the dimness of the Tower.

“It is not a small thing,” she whispered at long last, “to lose someone you love. A friend, a family member…someone bonded to you through hardship and endlessly long, shared experience. Not for anyone is it a small thing… But especially not for a being like me, so defined and constrained by the concepts I embody. Take someone precious from a god, and you have taken away a piece of their very being.”

“I think,” Toby said, equally softly, “it’s that way for everyone.”

“Trust me, there is a difference. I know because of how acute the losses were, after our ascension, compared to before. We had been at war with gods; we had all lost loved ones. Many, many times. But once we became gods, to have those we cared for stripped from us… Even when they were not destroyed, only separated. That pain came to define many of us, deeply.

“First it was Naphthene and Ouvis. They are only considered part of the Pantheon today because neither cared enough for what we thought to insist on being left off the roster. That was a painful rejection, from faithful companions so repulsed by what we had had to do that they couldn’t stand the very sight of us any longer. Then, Themynra, for all that she left on gentler terms. Wise, careful Themynra; had we not all been reeling so from the loss, the very fact that her conscience compelled her from the group would have warned us to change our path. And then…Khar, right after her. It was the same way. He understood so much about the hearts of people. There was a moment, then, when the warning was clear. When the Pantheon might have turned out to be something very different.

“And then came Elilial’s betrayal.” She opened her eyes, again bathing them in white light. None of them, even Meesie, dared make a sound. “Thousands of years of religion have twisted the narrative, inevitably. I will tell you the truth: Elilial was beloved to us as any of our number, and she only followed her conscience. What she did… She believed, earnestly, that it was right. But there was too much anger in her to simply walk away, as the others had. No, she had to turn and strike back. I can’t say whether it was purely lashing out in rage or she actually thought we had to be stopped from becoming what we were… But being under attack was something we knew very well. By turning on us that way, she sealed her fate, and our own.”

Salyrene shook her head slowly. Her skin, still unlit, somehow darkened further, all the highlights fading from it as if she were transitioning into a blackness that annihilated any light which dared to touch her, leaving only those glowing eyes in a moving silhouette.

“You likely don’t appreciate the truth of what Khar gave to us over the long centuries that followed. How a god, and a faith, can come to be defined by its opposition. Your Sisterhood, Trissiny Avelea, is the best example imaginable. Avei taught them justice and strategy, but by their opposition, Sorash and Shaath taught them ferocity and hard-heartedness. But Khar, and his orcs, taught them honor. In all the years that Athan’Khar and Viridill fought back and forth across that border, there was respect between them. When the Empire unleashed Magnan’s weapon… Every unit of the Silver Legions in the field, independently and without orders, turned on the Imperial legions, joined ranks with the remaining orcs, and pushed the Tiraan forces all the way out of Viridill. Given enough time, a respected enemy can become the closest friend you have.

“And I…” Her whole shape flickered, wavered, as though she were about to blow away. Even her eyes dimmed. “I lost a friend more precious to me than any. Khar was such a good soul. A teacher, a source of wisdom and comfort to all of us. Always testing and pushing at us, asking hard questions and forcing us to acknowledge our flaws and failures… But always with care, and with a smile, and the offer of a helping hand when it was needed. And then he was gone. Truly, this time, utterly gone.”

She lowered her head to gaze down at her own palms.

“Slain, by my own Hand.”

The silence crushed the very idea of speaking up. From most of them, anyway.

“And what do you think Khar would say about you hiding in this tower for a hundred years?” Gabriel asked.

Toby threw his head back to stare at the ceiling. Schwartz turned to glare incredulously at Gabriel. Trissiny just shoved the leather palms of her gauntlets against her eyes.

“I am sorry,” Gabriel said sincerely when Salyrene’s luminous gaze fixed upon him. “Truly. If you feel the need to smite me or something for saying it… Well, you have to do what you have to, I guess. But Schwartz is right, my Lady. You’re killing yourself, hiding away like this. There’s a new age of enchantment unfolding out there, and the world needs your guidance more than it ever has. Your followers miss you. The other gods miss you. Avei mentioned it, and I’m pretty sure Schwartz is also right about Vesk setting this up at least partly to get your attention. It’s…it’s a whole question, whether Magnan’s crimes were your fault, I wouldn’t know how to even begin answering that. But whether it is or not, you can’t just hide like this. It’s bad for the world and it’s bad for you.”

She stared down at him; he gazed earnestly back, as long as he could, before finally lowering his eyes.

“You are, indeed, exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrene finally said. “A good heart, a keen mind, and a tongue that is always one step ahead of both.”

“Wow, is that on the nose,” he muttered.

“I suspect you are doing exactly as you were meant,” she said, now with a small smile. The light crept back into her while she spoke, that eerie blackness fading away fully until flickers of luminous design began to appear on her skin again. “Knowing Vidius and the trend of his thoughts over the last few centuries, you are just what I would expect him to call as a paladin: someone who offends and agitates people in a manner they cannot condemn. But this is all ancient history, now, and you all have your quest to return to. Unless the four of you would like to climb my Tower?”

“Thank you very much for the offer but I think we will pass,” Trissiny said firmly.

Salyrene smiled in open amusement, golden sparks dancing across her skin. “Very well. Since I perceive you neglected to arrange your own exit, I will convey you back to the point from which you started.”

“That’s extremely kind, my Lady,” said Schwartz. “And, um… I’m very sorry if we—”

“There is nothing for which you should apologize to me,” she said, glancing between him and Gabriel. “Any of you. And now, your path.”

She gestured languidly with one hand, and another swirling vortex like the portals out of those trial rooms sprang into being at her side. This time, it widened like the rent Schwartz and Gabriel had made in reality to get to the Tower in the first place, its boundaries peeling back from the center to leave a gap surrounded by the whirl of energy. Also like the one Schwartz had made, there was only inscrutable darkness in the center.

“Well, hey!” Gabe said cheerfully, turning to Trissiny. “This is familiar. You wanna go first?”

This time, though, nobody went first; the portal came to them. Salyrene smiled, flicked her fingers, and a most confusing scene ensued; it wasn’t clear from looking whether the portal moved toward them or suddenly swelled to encompass the entire available space. Whatever it was, the effect only lasted a split second before the blackness swallowed them all and then receded, and then they were back in Vrin Shai.

Not quite back where they had started, however. Rather than the basement spell chamber beneath the temple, Salyrene had deposited them on the wide plaza at the very top of the city’s stairs, in front of the great temple and in full view of a stream of pilgrims making their way in and back out.

Also, she had come with them.

The abrupt arrival of four people, one in silver armor and still with a fiery (but cute) elemental on her shoulder, captured everyone’s attention. The ensuing appearance of a twelve-foot-tall luminous goddess was heralded by screams and a significant percent of the onlookers trying to flee, or simply falling to their knees.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said, gazing around them while the Silver Legionnaires and attendant priestesses tried to restore some order, apparently less discomifted by the manifestation in their midst. “This is one of those things that’s going to have implications, isn’t it.”

“In truth,” Salyrene replied, making no effort to moderate her voice, “this is the first time in all these thousands of years I have done such a thing. To appear, in person, uninvited, at another god of the Pantheon’s most sacred citadel is, at best, presumptuous and rude. Perhaps Avei should keep this in mind the next time she has an urge to deposit a handful of paladins in my own innermost sanctuary. Speaking of stepping on the prerogatives of other deities, however, I have one last thing for you, children.”

As before, she held apart her hands and conjured something from luminous mist. Also as before, it drifted downward toward Toby, whom the goddess seemed to have identified as the keeper of artifacts within their group. This one was a bottle of twisted, polished green glass which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight, an incongruously ordinary cork sealing its mouth.

“If I know Vesk, which I assure you I do,” Salyrene said while Toby carefully plucked the bottle out of the air, “there will come a moment in your adventure when all seems lost, when all the powers and skills at your disposal are not equal to the danger before you, and your salvation can only come at the sudden intervention of an unexpected ally. He can’t resist that one, it’s a classic. This time, I am not going to let him have the satisfaction. Here is your plot device, heroes. When you are completely out of options—and not before—take the stopper from that bottle, and your help will emerge.”

Holding it carefully in both hands, Toby bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, my Lady. You have been very gracious and aided us tremendously. We will not forget your kindness.”

She just gave him an enigmatic little smile. Then, her expression sobering, the towering goddess tilted her head back to gaze up at the giant statue of Avei which loomed over them all.

And smirked.

“Hmp,” she grunted, and exploded into a million motes of multicolored light, which drifted out like pollen on the breeze before fading away.

Slowly, Gabriel turned from the others to face the murmuring throng now staring at them. “Sooo… Who else is in favor of getting indoors? Like, quickly?”


Sister Astarian, blessedly, was as efficient as ever. Barely did they step inside the temple before she intercepted and whisked the group away out of the public eye.

“You’ve been gone almost exactly two days,” she explained while leading them through its passages. “I’m told that time tends to be highly subjective in places like…well, that. In any case, your timing is impeccable; you have a visitor whom I think you will want to meet.”

“Oh?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “A vistor, as in someone who’s not normally attached to the Temple? I’m surprised anyone would come looking for us here.”

“Actually,” Astarian replied, giving her a sidelong glance, “quite a few people have come asking after you; this is the first who in my opinion has any claim on your time. I’ve begun getting reports of your visit to Calderaas. You kids really do like to make waves, don’t you?”

“For the record,” said Gabriel from behind them, “Salyrene showing up here was not our idea. Frankly, even if she’d forewarned us, I can’t imagine how we might have stopped her.”

“Wait,” said Schwartz, who now had Meesie back on his own shoulder. “What did you do in Calderaas?”

“Oh, nothing that will ever have any consequences,” Gabriel said lightly. Toby heaved a sigh.

“Here we are,” Sister Astarian said, coming to a stop before a wooden door, which she pushed open without knocking and gestured them through. “If I acted incorrectly by bringing you to him, don’t hesitate to say so.”

They clustered inside, which was somewhat difficult as Trissiny had stopped in surprise just past the threshold. The room was an office or small study, lined with laden bookshelves and featuring comfortable couches and a heavy desk. At their entrance, its occupant turned from a shelf on the far wall, closing the book he’d been reading and giving them a broad grin.

“Why, there they are! And here I had begun to think I’d been tucked away to be forgotten.”

“Bishop Darling?” Gabriel said, blinking.

“Sweet,” Trissing added in disbelief, “what are you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Looking for you lost little ducklings, of course.” He carefully tucked the book back into place and strolled around the desk toward them. “You made quite the impression in Calderaas, kids. And then vanished so suddenly! I confess I was at a loss for a bit there, but then you were thoughtful enough to flash your wings at a minor noblewoman and a politically minded junior priestess, thus ensuring that everybody in the world who even might be curious as to your whereabouts would be able to find you in the time it takes to send one telescroll and ride one Rail line.”

“Ah,” she said with some chagrin. “About that…”

“Yes, about that,” Sweet said, putting on a placid smile that instantly made her hackles rise. “Thorn, we all want to crash a high society party and waterboard the hostess in her own punchbowl. But we don’t actually do this, Thorn. Do you know why?”

“Well, I—”

“Because YOU ARE ABOUT TO!”

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52 thoughts on “14 – 16

    1. Big Brother:

      I opposed Trissiny’s waterboarding decision when she did it, and it’s definitely a terrible idea.

      But if Sweet thinks he can “discipline” a paladin of Avei, his Guild is going to need a new Bishop.

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      1. Yes, but ‘disciplining’ isn’t required in Trissiny’s case (or in the case of the others). If anything, it requires an explanation of why what they did was wrong and how; and contrition will do the rest.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This isn’t Bishop Darling disciplining the Hand of Avei. This is Sweet disciplining Thorn, a new member of the Thieves Guild.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Big Brother:

        Trissiny is the one who gets to decide when she is the Hand of Avei and when she is Thorn. We’ve already seen that she has strong negative feelings about the “disciplinary” system of the Thieves’ Guild, and she doesn’t trust or respect Darling as an authority figure.

        If her old Abbess wanted to show and discipline her, she’d probably accept it. But Trissiny doesn’t think the Eserites have moral authority, and she’s too powerful for them to employ their usual bullying tactics.

        I have to admit that I am sick of Eserites getting away with everything because no one has the courage to stand up to them or call them out. I absolutely don’t support Trissiny’s waterboarding tendencies, but if the Eserites keep playing games, she should remind them why people fear the Hand of Avei.

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      4. @Dylan: but Trissiny doesn’t get to decide when she’s the Hand of Avei and when she’s Thorn. Being an Eserite isn’t just ‘now I’m acting for the Guild’, it’s an actual religion. They don’t have many doctrines and according to Tellwyrn not much moral code but it’s still a religion. She doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist, she can interpret Eserion’s doctrine however she likes and can learn when to let things go, but she’s still always a Guild member. Just like you’ve been saying in previous chapters that Toby has to commit to being a pacifist, Trissiny has to commit to being in the Guild. She can’t just decide that she’s no longer in the Guild because she doesn’t want their discipline.

        I’d also disagree that she wouldn’t accept their discipline; she’s very dedicated to upholding Eserite beliefs where she can, even if her Avenist ones will presumably always matter more to her. Eserion, Tricks and Style likely wouldn’t let her into their Guild if she wasn’t going to be a genuine Guild member anyway. We’ve proof that she considers Eserion’s religion her own now, as well – it was in this book when she was talking to Gabriel about forgiveness, she said ‘in my religion…my first religion’ thereby confirming that she does view the Guild’s ways as her own moral code.

        And on a personality front Triss is all about discipline, she’s got absolutely no problem with being told where she went wrong and where she can do better. She didn’t approve of Style beating up Tallie, for obvious reasons, but there’s no way Sweet would or could attack her. He’s likely going to yell at her for a while, which honestly? Could rub Triss up the wrong way, but if she thinks about it for a while she’ll recognise her mistakes, and that’s the whole point of the exercise.

        It’s not likely she wouldn’t listen just because it’s Sweet. You’re right that she doesn’t trust him, but I don’t know if you could still say she doesn’t respect him. They haven’t spoken on page since the end of Book 10, but there they seemed at least polite towards each other, and she trusted or respected him enough to go to him for help. Triss’s initial antagonism towards him was mostly because of her distrust of Eserites in general, which is completely gone now because she considers herself one. To add to that she seemed perfectly happy if surprised at finding him in the Temple of Avei here. So while she shouldn’t trust him it’s unlikely she no longer respects him.

        In regards to another comment you made about Avei and Eserion, I’d disagree that they’re barely on speaking terms – they seemed pretty okay at Trissiny’s guild graduation ceremony thing, and the very fact that Trissiny’s both Thorn and the Hand of Avei means they both know that their ideas of justice aren’t completely incompatible. On top of that, Trissiny’s induction into the Guild came at the specific condition she get no special treatment for being the Hand of Avei, which means she gets Guild discipline if they feel it’s necessary. I can see Eserion and Avei collaborating on something like this.

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      5. Dylan, disagree. She gets to decide which she’s acting as, and she was clearly acting as Paladin, but that was after visiting the guild hall, and being clearly identified as a member of the Guild. at this point, everything she does is both If the snot nosed punch bowl lady is paying Protection, and complained to the Guild about one of their members roughing her up, it doesn’t matter if she’s acting as paladin at the time.

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      6. Ash:

        This is the inherent problem with being a member of two cults. There are inevitable conflicts between Avei’s religion and Eserion’s, just as there must be between any two systems of belief.

        Trissiny can’t commit to both systems absolutely, since sooner or later there will be contradictions. One has to take priority. Since she’s a paladin of Avei, not Eserion, she has committed to serving Avei even though she honors and respects Eserion.

        If the Eserites are free to discipline the Hand of Avei, then the Hand of Avei isn’t free to rein in the Eserites when they do things that go against Avei’s idea of justice. Ultimately, the will of Avei counts for more than the will of Eserion, or Trissiny can’t be a paladin.

        With regards to how Avei and Eserion get along:

        You make good points, but I’m not sure. There’s a lot of hostility between Aveists and Eserites, and they’re not noted for working well together. Avei and Eserion were polite at Trissiny’s graduation, but both of them are mature enough to avoid arguments at an inappropriate time.

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      7. I’ll Word of God this one. I’m pretty sure this has been touched upon in the story, but it’s a huge story and I don’t remember exactly where.

        Avenists generally think poorly of Eserites, whom they regard as lawless, cruel, and barely better than the Black Wreath. Eserites are generally rather fond of Avenists, who they consider allies and important parts of a justice system that’s meant to protect people from abuse–but, being a system, flawed and sometimes in need of correction, which they provide. It’s a very unbalanced relationship.

        Avei and Eserion get along perfectly well. They aren’t the closest of friends, due to simple differences in personality, but they were colleagues and allies long before either was a religious figurehead. There’s a long history of fondness and respect there, and both firmly regard each other as being on the same side.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I seriously doubt there is gonna be any punishment or discipline from the guild. Now having to deal with the significant backlash taken by the entire noble caste of the fucking empire is another matter entirely. Nobles in this world aren’t just rich pretentious people, they have far reaching power and authority. They don’t like getting slapped around and a feudal society won’t work if the leaders are seen as powerless by the people beneath them.

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    3. I’m not so sure discipline is in order. Didn’t that mission already have tacit approval from a fairly high ranking Guild boss? If that wasn’t in the interests of the guild, the boss would have said something at the time. Not to mention, as her direct superior in the guild, punishment would fall on the boss first.

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    1. Curious. For some reason I read it more like “People like me, we don’t get to do it, because you tend to beat us to the punch (and the bowl).”

      But if Trissany and associates are about to crash another high socity party, whose migth it be? Will she get to dunk a dragon into a bowl of fruity spirits at their own party?

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  1. My first impression of Salyrene all those chapters ago was not positive… but I think she more than redeemed herself here. I quite like her, showoff and all. 😉

    I don’t know what the assembled device will do but my best guess is it will re-program und undo whatever Justinian did to hide from the eyes of the gods. Vesk could do that himself, I guess… but he is either constrained by his nature or by the archpope’s shenenigans and thus has to use a roundabout way. And since he’s at it already, he’s trying to get something else out of it, too. Namely Salyrene’s return, lessons for the paladins and a damn good story his bards can tell.

    I love the details about the ascension, the other gods, Khar’s background (previously we only knew him as the god of the orcs) and Elilial’s betrayal. Good stuff.

    I hope Sweet will explain why and how Triss fucked up but I can’t really see a way for him to punish her unless she agrees to the punishment voluntarily.

    Minor detail but kind of important… Gabe is running around with Yrsa’s scythe, which was never supposed to be used by anyone but her and certainly not in this dimension. This will probably come up again later.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, punishment may not be a problem. I’m sure Avei knows and she and Eserion must have hashed some arrangement out for this kind of incident.

      Which probably should also worry Prin.

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      1. Euodiachlor:

        Avei and Eserion do not generally agree on matters of justice and punishment. They’re barely on speaking terms.

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      2. Dylan, so far I’ve seen nothing that would hint at them not being on speaking terms. Instead they seem to get along rather well.

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  2. I imagine this will be good, something like a phalanx of reporters taking pictures and shouting a barrage of uncomfortable questions. That may not be it, but I do imagine it will be a teaching experience to echo their class trip to Tiraas, and a reiteration of the lesson on the principle of unintended consequences: I.E. it is almost always best to use the least disruptive action possible to achieve a goal, because the more disruptive your action is the more disruptive and hard to predict the consequences from it will be.

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  3. So 3 things:

    I don’t know how I feel about Darling “lecturing” Trissiny (and Co?) about what they should’ve and could’ve done in Calderaas, for a variety of reasons. Either way it’ll be interesting to see how that’ll turn out.

    I’ve decided that my new favourite trope is when a character is implied to be bad/awful in personality but in reality turns out to be much more sympathetic and likeable than previously suggested 😊
    I am eager to see what Salyrene will do in the future 🔮

    Lastly, just noticed that Salyrene revealed the existence of the space port to Schwartz! I wonder if that was intentional or just something unavoidable… Can’t see how it would play into the Basra Syrinx Revenge Plan™, or anything else for that matter, but you never know when it comes to the gods.

    Amazing chapter as usual! 👍🏽❤️

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  4. Not a frequent commenter, but I’ll just like to say I really enjoyed this arc. TGAB has been so good recently. Thank you!

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  5. Interesting revelation about Themynra leaving the Pantheon before Elilial did her thing. According to Shaeine, Themynra refused to join the Pantheon because of the treatment of Elilial, but I guess even Gods would need to present their actions in the best light.

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  6. Great chapter. I’m happy to finally meet Salyrene. And thank you for not making Schwartz her paladin immediately. As much as I’m kind of rooting for everyone to end up as paladins in the end (Naphthene making Ruda a paladin and telling her to fuck right off is an amusing thought), it would be too easy for it to just be handed out so quickly.

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  7. It was nice to see the author avoid the temptation to make S a paladin too and give him the Tower sword.

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    1. Not that it might not happen later. But I liked that the timing didn’t fall into the obvious.

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      1. Hah! That’s a great idea! But is Salyrene really ready to ask Herschel to be her pal’? I didn’t see her as the type to jump into a decision like that, but she does make a surprising spontaneous decision there at the end.

        Follow this idea further, and maybe the endgame includes every god calling a paladin. Or nearly every god. Who would Elilial choose? My guess is she’d ask Darling first (who declines) and then Flora and Fauna (who accept).

        Can a god be another god’s paladin? I was imagining what kind of person Napthene would choose, and for some reason my brain is suggesting Naiya. Real insight, or sleep deprived delusion? You can be the judge.

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      2. Elilial has a paladin substitute. The Demon Princesses counted the same way the Kitsune and Dryads do for Narya if I understood the explanation Ingvar and Sweet got.

        Which leaves Teal and Vadrieny holding that ball.

        Elilial has already asked Sweet and he asked for a rain check.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Awesome chapter! I love Salyrene, she’s so different from what I was expecting. Maybe because she’s talking to paladins she seems to like and not dragged to Izara’s unnecessary meeting to discuss Tellwyrn?

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  9. Well, I was kind of looking forward to them tackling the Tower trials, but I guess if this book is supposed to follow their quest, we can’t spend that much time on one key piece retrieval. (sort of like how I was figuring out how we could get through all the levels of the Crawl, but then the story bypassed it in a pretty good manner)

    Also love how the “children” have now encountered 4 gods in person in the last couple of days (Vesk, Vidius, Avei, Salyrene), and some of them also met Eserion back in Pun Dara.

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  10. Wait, how much griping is Sweet entitled to here? Why is Trissiny not going to tell him to take it up with Velvet, the Underboss of Calderaas who approved and endorsed the whole thing? If Trissiny had bullied Velvet into complaince, that’s one thing, but this wasn’t her going off half-cocked in the capital again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Now that you mention it, there’s no reason why the Underboss in Calderaas wasn’t/isn’t going to be also spoken to. Sweet’s pretty thorough. I wonder if the system that is the Guild is about to break down…

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    2. I think the three amigos main mistake was failing to inform their respective cults, bishops, or the universal church before causing such a shit storm and then proceeding to falling off the face of the earth immediately afterwards again after failing to give anyone a heads up.

      It is most likely that he is here as a representative of the Universal Church rather than a high ranking member of the Thief’s Guild.

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  11. This chapter (and other recent chapters) seems like strong evidence that cliffhangers generate comments from readers. Of course they would, shove a burning question in our minds with no way to answer it immediately except speculating wildly, and wild speculation is what we’ll do. I very much appreciate the Word of Webb to help direct the discussion away from misunderstandings. That’s where the comment section of certain other stories we all follow become worthless IMO, misunderstandings get repeated to the point where a huge chunk of the readership seriously believe them. Not that there’s a whole lot an author can do when there’s 300 comments every week, but I think a few Words of Webb here and there could help steer speculation away from the obviously wrong.

    Personally, I really prefer the cliffhanger-less chapters that end on a more complete, more satisfying note, like so many episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender that end on a lighthearted joke or a moment of peaceful camaraderie. I think those chapters are so much more artful. Higher art. Cliffhangers aren’t inherently artless or anything — I can always pretend a chapter ended without one, that way everyone gets the story they want to read — they just tend to steer the discussion toward whatever’s left hanging, when IMO there is so much more interesting stuff than that! I’m certain I’m in the minority in this though, telling cliffhangers to get off my lawn.

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    1. Even without cliffhangers we’d have so much to speculate about… but the format of comments for each chapter doesn’t work well for grappling overarching plot points or ongoing changes to a character.

      I think the lack of comments stems more from the nature of this serial. There’s less action and less traditionally awesome/funny moments than in other webserials, mostly due to the aversion of tropes in this story. That doesn’t mean TGaB isn’t awesome or funny, it certainly is and more so than most other serials but it operates on another level. There aren’t many punchy oneliners and most jokes only make sense in context, which you can’t explain well to other people who haven’t read the story.

      Webb created an incredible, wonderful, complex world with multiple story lines and an entire horde of characters. Maybe there’s an information overload for readers and because there are so many things to talk about, people can’t choose?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m with you in regards to cliffhangers. It’s kind of cheap tactic to keep people interested in the story. Why not compel people to keep following by having a compelling story and well developed characters rather than just so they can find out that little bit that should have been included instead of being prematurely cut off.

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  12. This quest is getting more and more interesting…

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of magical “electronics”. Similar to this mithril interface, if you have a material that conducts magic poorly, you can make a slide potentiometer to regulate the strength of your wand’s blasts, for the most basic example.

    What about magic capacitance and induction then? Do those exist? There must be DM and AM (Direct Magic/Alternating Magic). Can you build a magical circuit with magical logic gates? Magic gates? Is each one effectively an A.I., so you would get to use way more exotic logic than AND and OR and NAND and so on?

    That’s where *I* would start investigating, if I wanted to build a smarter golem. I really hope that’s how Crystal’s brain works!

    Also, does Tellwyrn or anybody keep a Faraday cage ready to teleport around them in battle as a cheap way to counter lightning attacks?

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    1. If I remember correctly, wands are made out of (enchanted) wood mainly because it doesn’t conduct electricity/magic well. From that (and the technology mentioned in their cars) I’d speculate that they are at least at a technological level compared to our 1920s.

      Overall though, they are beyond that already simply because they can go different routes. They have clean cars and factories and magic gives them access to technologies we don’t have in our world today.

      Crystal’s brain is mostly based on an Infinite Order AI template so it stands to reason that there’s at least some advanced Earth tech/science involved. What Arachne then added to it is anyone’s guess.

      I have no idea how you go from an advanced computer to a sapient AI unless it really is as simple as adding more and more complexity to it and then allow it to adapt and change itself like a brain creating neurons.

      The Faraday cage wouldn’t be all that useful. It would limit mobility, be cumbersome and entirely predictable. Lightning wands may be the most common weapon these days but they are far from the only ranged arms in play. The cage would do nothing to stop an enchanter wand or a fireball, for example.
      There are protection charms people can wear beneath their clothes as a counter to wand shots, those seem to be superior even with their limited lifetime and (probably) high cost.

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      1. I was thinking more like you bring out the cage just for that moment you need it, then you return it to the pocket dimension it lives in, so you’re only stuck there momentarily. You could even automate the process by integrating it with your danger sense because anything is possible.

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