The silence of the ancient cavern hung uncontested for a few seconds.
“I’m with Izara,” Gabriel said at last. “That doesn’t sound like anything you should be doing.”
“It especially doesn’t sound like something we want to be near,” Toby added.
“You also heard me tell Izara that there’s no chance of apotheosis for you lot,” Vesk replied genially. “Understand that there’s no machine which can turn people into gods…”
“You literally just said—”
He pressed on, cutting Trissiny off. “It’s only part of the process, you see. The actual power and most of the work occurs in the overlapping fields of magic itself. The machinery initiates, controls, and guides the transformation. And not only is it too ancient and broken-down to even do that anymore, not only is it half-wrecked after the events of our own ascension, but such a thing can only be done at certain times, and this is not one of those. The necessary alignment is close, but not here yet. I’m not looking to elevate another god or kill an existing one, merely to access information that is found only within the machine. Speaking of which,” he added with a roguish grin, “there is also the fact that if you don’t retrieve that information, Elilial will retrieve you, as agreed. Plus you have no way out of this cavern unless—ahp! Uh uh.”
He held up a hand peremptorily, and Trissiny actually paused in the act of lunging at him with her fist upraised.
“If you’re going to commit slapstick upon the god of bards, Trissiny Avelea, you should be aware of the rhythms of comedy,” Vesk said severely. “You got two clean hits in, establishing the pattern, then shook it up for the third with a more elaborate play on the routine, as is proper. To keep the joke fresh, the next iteration will be a reversal, which I don’t think you’ll find nearly as satisfying.”
She blinked and slowly lowered her fist, looking confused rather than intimidated.
“As I said,” he continued, “I don’t dare go near the thing, especially while it’s on. It’s important for you to understand: this thing is dangerous for gods. That, as much as their overall failure, is why Themynra condemned the Irivoi: having access to it made them an existential threat to all of us in a way that nothing else possibly could be.”
“But this,” Toby whispered, turning to stare across the silent city. Silent for now, with its monstrous inhabitants hiding from the light. “How could anything justify this?”
“Themynra is the goddess of judgment, not justice,” Vesk replied with a fatalistic shrug. “She was always one for embracing harsh necessities even when they were morally unpalatable—and that was before her very personality was imprisoned by her aspect. But the seriousness of allowing Scyllith’s followers out also cannot be overstated. There’s just not time to explain to you the full details of what that would mean. What she is like, and what the drow whose society is built around her are like. You can mull the concept of cruelty as a foundational value all you want, and still not come close to the reality. For a while, Elilial had supporters among the Pantheon; at first, two thirds of the Trinity themselves advocated lightening her punishment. But then she expelled Scyllith back to this plane for us to deal with and that burned every last bridge and the possibility of any future ones. If not for Themynra’s foresight, I have no idea what would have become of the world. You may look upon these horrors and think them excessive, Toby, but realize that it wasn’t the individual offenses that made them necessary, but the combination. The Irivoi were slowly allowing themselves to be corrupted by the Lady of Light, and they had seen fit to grant themselves access to a forbidden godkilling machine. Not even they dared to dream of the damage they could have inflicted, nor how close they were to accidentally doing so.”
Again, there was silence in the shattered temple while they considered that.
“Of course,” Vesk said in a suddenly lighter tone, “it’s not in my nature to employ the stick without the carrot. Do this for me and I will make sure it’s worth your while. At the very least, you deserve to know what all this is about and why I put you to such trouble. Explanations come at the end of the story, but finish this, and they’ll come. And I’ll even go so far as to smooth your way toward your own scouring of the Shire.”
“Our what of the where?” Trissiny asked wearily. Vesk just winked at her.
“Here’s what I’m stuck on,” Gabriel said quietly. “This whole thing has been a damn cakewalk. We’ve been careening around the country, hobnobbing with interesting people and facing what were really very brief and insignificant challenges. Things with some heavy-handed moral lessons, sure, but nothing that put us in actual danger, and that’s beginning to be alarming. People keep saying that a quest from Vesk will test us to our very limits, but I can’t help feeling like we haven’t even approached those. Even that last bit where I went to actual Hell ended up being almost nothing. It was over in less than an hour and I didn’t so much as skin my knees—in fact, we came out of that with a new friend who you yourself said is going to be an asset later on. So…what gives, Vesk? Is this all just wacky hijinks, or are we about to hit the big, dramatic reversal?”
“Now, why is it Teal and not this one who claims me as a patron?” Vesk complained. “I swear, that girl has just about exhausted my patience. You’re more of a bard in spirit than she’s ever been, Arquin, and you don’t even try!”
“Yeah, but I don’t play an instrument,” Gabriel quipped without smiling. “What is guarding that machine, Vesk?”
“What is it that scares the other gods so much?” Trissiny added. “Even Elilial. I suspect, all of them but you, the one notably lacking sense.”
“Explanations come at the end of the story,” Vesk repeated with a vague little smile.
“Why?” Toby pressed.
The god’s shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Understand that I fully believe you can handle what’s down there, otherwise I wouldn’t risk the wrath of the Trinity by sending you—or the fate of the world at such a pivotal time by potentially depriving it of paladins. You can do this. But I’m not going to tell you what’s waiting down there because if I do, you won’t go.”
Trissiny’s sword cleared her scabbard with a soft rasp. “Hey, Gabe. Can I avoid the reversal of the running joke by suddenly, wildly escalating it?”
“I feel like a little build-up would help,” he said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “Try kicking him in the nuts before you go for a flesh wound.”
“At the last moment before the descent into darkness and the final confrontation,” Vesk intoned, “you shall have a gift from a mysterious stranger which will serve you only in the last extremity of desperation.”
“You’re at lot more strange than mysterious,” Trissiny sneered.
“And we’ve already had that,” Toby pointed out. “Salyrene gave us the bottle with Xyraadi in it. Does that really work more than once per story?”
“That didn’t count,” Vesk said peevishly. “The timing was all wrong, that plot device is for the final climax, not the third-arc escalation. Honestly, that meddling peacock! Who does she think she is? Do I tell her how to pull rabbits out of hats?”
“The thing I resent most,” Trissiny said to the others, “is that he’s making us listen to this in a sealed-off tomb of horrors where I can’t just walk away from him.”
“That can’t have been an accident,” Toby said dryly.
“It’s good banter, kids. I was a little worried at first, but you bicker pretty well even without the rest of your classmates. Behold!” Sounding eerily reminiscent of Professor Rafe, he produced a flute seemingly from thin air and held it out toward Trissiny, reverently extended on both hands. “The Pipe of Calomnar!”
All three of them took two steps back.
“I am not touching that thing,” Trissiny stated.
“Calm yourselves, the Mad Hallows are all perfectly inert unless used,” Vesk assured her. “It’s safe to carry, and carrying it is all I’m asking you to do. In fact, as a favor, would you give this to Arachne first chance you get?”
“You want to give Tellwyrn a chaos artifact?” Toby exclaimed. “How can you possibly think that’s a good idea?”
“Simple: she’s already got the other two.”
“What?!” Trissiny screeched.
“And more importantly, she is the first owner of either the Book of Chaos or the Mask of Calomnar who has held onto them for decades and refrained from using them. There is officially nobody in all of history I trust as custodian of the Mad Hallows but Arachne. Please give her the Pipe, Trissiny. And, hey, if in the near future you find yourself in such a situation that invoking the presence of Calomnar happens to seem like a winning move, well, I guess that’s your business.”
“I hate you,” Trissiny informed him.
“Then my work here is done,” he said serenely.
“He keeps saying Mad Hallows,” Gabriel said. “Is that a thing? I’ve never heard of that.”
“It’s really old-fashioned,” Toby replied. “I’ve only seen it in really old stories. Mostly the boring ones the monks wouldn’t let me read until after my calling and then made me. I always thought it had fallen out of use because none of those things were even real.”
“The way I was taught, there were five of them,” Trissiny added. “Oh, give it here, if it’ll get us out of this faster.”
“That’s the spirit,” Vesk said as she gingerly took the flute from him, grimacing.
“Why her, though?” Gabriel asked.
“You were just saying you don’t play an instrument,” Toby said with grim amusement. “She does.”
“Ocarinas aren’t flutes,” Trissiny grunted, carefully stowing the chaos artifact in her largest belt pouch next to her libram. Fortunately it was smaller than most modern flutes and managed to fit, though its mouthpiece protruded slightly from under the flap once she buckled it again. “And the last thing I intend to do is play it.”
“Road to hell, Trissiny,” Vesk said smugly. “Now listen good, kids. Once you reach the machine, you must find a slot this key will fit in. There should be only one. Insert and turn it, and then wait. When the data jewel turns green, it will have absorbed all the information I require to finish this. Here’s the catch: once that key is turned, everything down there will begin to wake up. Everything. You just have to hold out until it’s finished.”
“Hold out,” Gabriel grunted. “Could you possibly have found a less ominous way to put that?”
“Gabe, my boy, every word I choose is perfectly selected and arranged to convey precisely the impression I intend.”
Gabriel sighed. “I was afraid of that.”
It seemed he had brought them directly to the temple for more reasons than the view. The tunnel leading to the ancient Infinite Order facility began beneath the ruined temple of Themynra itself, which was both oddly fitting and a relief to learn as it meant they didn’t have to pass through any dreadcrawler-infested alleys to reach their destination. Vesk assured them that the huge spiders did not enter the tunnel, and would not be encountered once they passed inside.
That was one of those reassurances that was a relief at first, but grew unsettling as they pondered the implications.
At least it was a small reprieve to be away from Vesk again, as Trissiny pointed out while they descended into darkness. The first thing they did was provide their own light, but that much, at least, was easy. Trissiny lit up her own aura and took the lead; since she had much deeper mana reserves, that was the most logical disposition of their energy. Gabriel came along at the end, Ariel hovering beside him with her blue runes glowing. The interplay of blue and golden light made for a surprisingly pretty effect.
Which was good, because there wasn’t much else to see for the first hour. For a while after passing through the aperture in the temple’s sub-level, there was intermittent evidence of drow stonework, signs that at some point, someone had cared enough to make part of the trip aesthetically pleasing. It tapered off quickly, though, and most of the journey was through natural subterranean corridors, with occasional sections clearly carved out of living rock, but in a perfunctory fashion more reminiscent of mine shafts than elven masonry.
The best thing about the tunnel was that it was a tunnel, and not a labyrinth; there were no branching passages, at least none large enough for a person to fit through. Cracks in the walls were not infrequent, some sizable, and in several places they crossed streams or had to step through cold pools of standing water. Some of the crevices they passed emitted notable streams of wind, and occasionally there would be the distant sound of dripping water or the whistle of air.
The air itself was clammy and often stale, but at least it remained comfortably breathable no matter how far they descended. It wasn’t even always a descent; the tunnel was only straight in a general sense, dipping up and down and veering this way and that. There was really no way to tell how deep they were, and wouldn’t have been even had the dips and twists of their course not gradually confused any sense of direction they had. Sure, they had started from a drow city, but it wasn’t exactly clear how deep Irivoss lay. Vesk had said they were not far from Veilgrad; if this tunnel were passing through the Stalrange it could be well above sea level for all they knew.
Most of the passage was conducted in silence. They made some abortive conversation early on in the journey, but it trailed off quickly. By and large, they spoke only to give warning or offer help upon encountering obstructions and hazards in the rough path. It was a quiet without awkwardness; the three were quite comfortable with each other’s company.
After passing through uncut stone for such a long period that Gabriel had wondered out loud if they’d somehow become lost, evidence of the presence of drow suddenly reappeared, just at the very end of the journey. The mouth of the tunnel was carved again, where the original passage appeared to have terminated against a stone wall and had to be dug out. A very thick stone wall: they passed through nearly a hundred yards of precisely cut corridor, this one actually embellished with decorative flourishes which denoted its importance. At the very end, there was elvish script engraved in the wall at chest level. Trissiny said it looked close enough to the elvish language she knew that it would probably be legible to a modern elf—it hardly changed at all over time, certainly nowhere near as fast as human languages—but she wasn’t literate in elvish and couldn’t make anything of it.
The drow had ended their tunnel at a vast cavern, and apparently had come out halfway up a steep wall. Descending from the opening was a piled-up hill of gravel and loose scree, where there had apparently not been time (or perhaps merely not inclination) to construct proper stairs. It descended haphazardly for a good ten yards to the floor of the chamber, whose walls were lost to the distance and darkness; the actual ceiling was beyond the reach of their light, too, though Trissiny’s glow illuminated the lowest tips of stalactites, some truly colossal.
Before and below them, in the middle of the apparently natural chamber, lay a wrecked building of metal that clearly did not belong there. It wasn’t large, consisting of two domes connected by a narrow section, one of them closest to the cavern’s entrance and with a door almost directly facing it.
The silence was disturbed by a multiple constant drips and trickles of water, echoing through the ancient shadows, their sources invisible.
“I guess we’re here,” Gabriel said unnecessarily. “So, uh…what would you say is the best way down this?”
“Carefully,” Toby suggested.
“Not too carefully,” Trissiny disagreed, stepping out onto the hillside. “Look how loose this is. Best bet is a controlled fall, I think. Like so.”
She crouched, bracing herself with one hand against the rubble and the other outstretched for balance, and slid smoothly down. Apart from some wobbling on the way, she made it without falling, and at the base straightened up, brushing her glove off.
Toby remained upright, flexing his knees and managing to make his slide look effortless. Behind him, Gabriel almost immediately lost his footing and somehow spun completely around in his tumble down the rocks, landing head-first on the cavern floor.
“Show of hands!” he said cheerfully, clambering back to his feet. “Who saw that coming?”
Toby smiled wryly and brushed loose rock dust off his coat, but none of them were in a joking mood. The door of the ancient facility now lay only a few yards ahead.
They came to a stop before it, staring. The aperture was flanked by two transparent tubes, or had been; one still flickered faintly with purple light, while the other lay scattered about in shattered fragments. The door itself was open, half of it protruding from the walls at a drunken angle with the other not in evidence. It was more obvious from higher up, but somehow the entire structure had been twisted at its midsection, slightly but noticeably, and this frontmost dome, door and all, sat at an angle. It surrounding walls were scarred and in a couple of places, rent all the way through.
Finally Trissiny stepped up onto the structure’s entry, her boots ringing on its floor, and touched the metal wall. “This is mithril.”
“Every Infinite Order facility I’ve seen was,” Gabriel agreed, nodding.
“But…it’s torn.” She turned back to face them, wide-eyed. “What can tear mithril?”
“Nothing,” he said. “The Avatar under the grove in Viridill told me mithril is impervious to any known physical force. He claimed the Infinite Order structures buried in the world’s surface will survive even after the sun explodes.”
“And yet,” she whispered, turning again to stare at a jagged gouge in the side of the dome not far from the entrance.
“It’s not a question of strength against strength, I suspect,” said Toby, stepping up beside her. “If mithril physically cannot be damaged… Then whatever happened here put all physical laws in abeyance.”
“I guess apotheosis isn’t a gentle process,” Gabriel added, joining them on the lip of the abandoned facility.
“I think you’d better take point, Gabe,” said Trissiny.
“You’re the one with the shield!” he retorted.
She shook her head. “I don’t believe anything in here is going to jump out and attack us, at least not until we turn that key. Vesk would have warned us if so.”
“That’s giving Vesk more credit than I think he’s earned,” Toby muttered.
“It’s more that you know the most about Elder God stuff,” she continued, looking seriously at Gabriel. “I’ve never even been in one of these places before, and Toby didn’t go with you to actually ask the elves and that Avatar about them. From this point on, you’re the most likely to have any idea what anything we encounter means.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a sigh, patting her on the pauldron and stepping forward, Ariel drifting silently alongside him. “Onward to glory, or whatever.”
There were no lights within, just the glows they brought with them and the constant drip of water. In fact, it was louder in here, both because of the echo and because it seemed to be dripping in multiple places inside the dome. Trissiny’s golden glow revealed multiple tears and punctures in the arched roof, some of which clearly admitted the running water they now heard.
“I don’t get it,” she muttered as they stepped carefully across the floor, which in addition to being tilted was notably wet. “Apparently this place has only been abandoned for eight millennia or so. Don’t stalagmites take millions of years to form?”
Rocky protrusions rose from the floor around them, none more than knee-high; they grew higher along one nearby patch of wall, nearly reaching the ceiling.
“Big ones, sure,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But this is just… I mean, anywhere you’ve got dripping water with a high mineral content, you’re going to get limestone formations. I’ve seen stuff like this crusted around sewer grates back in Tiraas. At least, in our neighborhood,” he added, grinning at Toby. “In ritzy districts where they have ornamental ironwork, everything stays miraculously clean.”
“Yeah, and that’s another thing,” Toby added. “The limestone crust in Tiraan sewers glows in the dark. Something to do with the rainwater passing through an atmosphere charged by all the arcane byproducts of the factory antennae. If the stuff absorbs magic that way, best to step very carefully. There’s no telling what kind of loose magic will be haunting a place like this.”
“I don’t think any of us were planning on going dancing in here,” Trissiny pointed out, “but good advice, regardless.”
Most of the floor was clear of stone formations, at least, the tiny stalagmites only managing to take root against metal protrusions where upthrust bits of the floor allowed small pools to form. Whatever had rent the mithril long ago didn’t leave it vulnerable to rust, and the three of them simply had to watch their footing due to the tilt and the rivulets of water streaming across the floor. The lack of anything to trip over meant they could watch where they were heading instead of having to watch their feet.
There didn’t seem much to see within the dome itself, but directly across from it loomed two apertures into the narrow section of the building behind. On the wall between them loomed a structure which grew more clear as they approached with their light.
At one point, it had evidently been some manner of reception desk, a semicircle of flat counter ringing the area behind. Spaced along it were screens, none active and most completely shattered, though there was one that was merely cracked. More screens and inscrutable columns of machinery rose from the wall behind, originally far more orderly in design than the haphazard work of the Rust such as Gabriel and Toby had seen in Puna Dara, though now it was half-encrusted in streamers of limestone, due to the gaping hole in the ceiling through which the majority of the water appeared to be dripping.
In the middle of the space, twisted and half-crumpled by some mighty blow, slumped what had once been a roughly cylindrical shape on wheels, now effectively glued to the floor by the stone deposits beginning to climb its body. At the front of its domed head was a flat panel which glinted in Trissiny’s glow, though it was no longer lit from within. Metal arms extended from it in all directions, clutching multiple points along the desk and the machinery behind. In fact, upon closer inspection, the thing appeared to be bodily holding the entire structure together against whatever force had buckled this entire building.
Set atop the desk, positioned just off-center so it did not block the view of the broken machine from the door, was a metal plaque which had apparently not come with the building. Though not tarnished, it was not mithril; in fact, it was hard to tell exactly given the color of the light with them, but it looked like it might have been gold. Water dripped almost directly on it, and its sides and base were encrusted in lips of mineral buildup, affixing it to the crazily tilted top of the desk.
Though the words engraved on its surface were in letters they recognized, the message was inscrutable.
FIDELIS AD FINEM
REQUIESCAT IN PACE
“Look at this,” Trissiny said, reaching out to touch the plaque.
“I can’t read it either, Triss,” said Gabriel. “It’s in Esperanto.”
“Not that,” she said. “Look closely. See the stone around the rim? It’s all jagged here. It looks like…”
“It looks,” Toby finished when she trailed off, “like it completely covered the plaque, but someone chipped it away to reveal the message.”
They clustered around and stared at the engraved metal in silence, surrounded by ancient death, the constant drip of water, and the white noise of their own thoughts.
“Someone else has been in here,” Gabriel finally said, unnecessarily. “Recently.”
“How long ago would you say this was done?” Trissiny wondered aloud.
“Well, I’m not a detective or a geologist,” Gabe replied. “But at a guess… A few years, decades at the most? Look how much water is dripping everywhere, and there’s none built up on the letters where it was cleared off.”
“Within our lifetimes, at least,” Toby murmured.
Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Vesk didn’t mention anything about that. Do you think it’s because he’s holding back on us, or because he didn’t know?”
“What I think is I can’t decide which of those options is scarier,” Gabriel said frankly. “Come on, there’s nothing else to see here. I bet what we’re after is in the other end of this structure.”
They chose the doorway on the right side, just because it was uphill and therefore probably less flooded. That turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, as there was no water dripping in the corridor beyond. The walls and floor buckled and warped, making footing tricky, but not excessively so. Doors lined the left side of the corridor, some intact but most partially broken or missing entirely to reveal the rooms which had lined the building’s thin central section. Though they paused and glanced into these, none proved interesting enough to merit further investigation; all were either empty or half-filled with debris of surprisingly mundane appearance, mostly the wreckage of ancient furniture, tables and chairs clearly not of mithril and thus rusted away to scraps in the damp air.
Halfway down the hall, the major twist of the building occurred, creating a tricky patch of floor they had to jump across as it was torn completely open to reveal a four-foot drop to the rocks below, lined with rims of jagged metal. Beyond that, though, the building evened out completely. Apparently whatever cataclysm had struck here had consumed only the front half. Past the breaking point, there wasn’t even any dripping water. The doors were all closed and didn’t respond to Trissiny’s attempt to open one.
They did not wait around to spend excessive time on that, though, by unspoken consensus. All shared Gabriel’s theory: whatever they were here to see lay in the final chamber, a dome slightly smaller than the wrecked entry.
Fittingly, that door was open.
The room beyond was completely lined with enigmatic machinery, all dark and silent now, arrangements of screens and metal protrusions which meant nothing to any of them. More strikingly, though, the last chamber was filled with a profusion of fungus. Mushrooms formed a veritable carpet, some specimens rising to chest height lining the walls, and a crawling coating of lichen obscured more of the old equipment than was exposed to light, leaving only its shape revealed, slightly blunted by the fuzz. Though there was no visible barrier of any kind, the growths stopped abruptly at the open doors into the hallways beyond.
“Great,” Trissiny grunted, standing just inside and staring around. “How much of this do you reckon we’ll have to clean off before we find what we’re looking for? My guess is all of it.”
“My guess is none of it,” said Toby, stepping past her. “Look at this.”
He led the way toward a spot on the rear left arc of the rounded wall, where there was a gap in the fungus. In fact, it was obvious upon approach that it had been meticulously cleared away from a specific area. Particularly thick stands of conical mushrooms rose to either side, but there was a gently sloping disc of crystal set into the floor next to the wall which had obviously had the interlopers deliberately removed. Tiny mushrooms had begun to sprout around its base again, but the disc itself, easily large enough for one person to stand on, was clear.
On the wall behind it was a single panel with a single slot, scraped free of lichen. The bluish fuzzy growth had begun to creep back over it, but so far was only extending a thin coat past its boundaries. The panel remained mostly clean.
“I knew it,” Gabriel said fatalistically. “Our mysterious predecessor was after the same thing we are. I wonder if they got it? That’s the big question.”
“Not necessary,” Trissiny replied. “Look, the key won’t fit into that. I don’t think this is the machine we’re looking for…”
“Not if you think of it as a key,” said Toby, producing the combined key from inside his coat. “But it’s not one, is it? Just happens to look like one. The shaft is too thick to stick it in like that’s a lock, but it looks to me like it would fit the teeth just…about…”
He raised the key toward the panel held upright, parallel to the wall, and pressed the jagged black edge of what had been the last piece they gathered against the slot. Vertically, it was the right length, but it didn’t fit. Not only did the teeth not want to slide in, but the rounded head of the key—the “data jewel” Salyrene had given them—protruded and blocked it from lying flat against the wall.
“There, see?” said Trissiny. “Now, let’s see if anything else looks—”
“Hang on,” Gabriel objected. “Turn it the other way, Toby.”
He was already moving it, swiveling the key to point down instead of up. In that position, the teeth sank neatly into the slot, connecting with a satisfying little click to whatever met them on the inside. The shaft of the key extended, in that position, just past the edge of the protruding panel, allowing the wider head of the data jewel to rest against the lichen lining the rest of the wall.
As soon as it was in place, a red light rose into being in the black, glassy surface of the key’s head. Then it turned blue, and began to pulse slowly.
“Then again,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “sometimes I’m wrong.”
“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, stepping back. The crystal disc on the floor, on which Toby was still standing, had begun to glow a clean white.
Screens flickered to life on either side of the panel, producing nothing but light as whatever they depicted was obscured by a thick coat of lichen. A low hum, reminiscent of powerful arcane magic at work, rose from the wall itself.
“Uh, Avatar?” Gabriel said hesitantly. There was no answer.
“Maybe you should get off that,” Trissiny suggested urgently. Toby, nodding agreement, stepped down and away from the crystal panel, just before it began to emit what looked like white mist.
“Wait,” Gabe muttered, “he said there was something called a sub-OS… Uh, Computer! Dialect English, north… Damn, it was north something. Emerian? Armenian? Twentieth century, I remember that—”
“Gabriel, don’t shout half-remembered tidbits at the ancient thinking machines,” Trissiny exclaimed in exasperation. “Gods know what you’re saying!”
“Guys,” Toby said loudly, and unnecessarily. They had all seen it, and backed up further, crushing mushrooms underfoot.
Light and mist streamed upward, rapidly thickening as if to take on physical shape. In fact, that quickly proved to be exactly the shape. The amorphous fog coalesced in a rough pillar rising from the crystal disc, at first glowing intensely. The illumination steadily receded, though, as if the light were being withdrawn into the column and contributing to its shape. It finally stabilized, the projection revealed fully—pure white and still faintly luminous, but not blindingly so.
It was a woman, sort of.
In fact, it looked more like a doll. Roughly human height, though it was hard to be certain as she hovered a foot off the ground, she was unnaturally slim. Not bony, though; her limbs and graceful neck, and the lines of her torso, were all curved in a way that deliberately suggested femininity. Her head was just slightly too large for her body, but not jarringly. In fact, there was an aesthetic quality to it which was quite pleasing. For all intents and purposes the figure appeared nude, though it was not physically detailed enough to be explicit.
Actually, she was quite beautiful, though more as a work of visual art than as a woman.
There was a brief pause, and then light blossomed again behind the creature’s smooth head, forming into a slowly rotating ring of glyphs that backlit her like a halo.
And finally, her eyes opened.
They were a little large in her lean face, like an elf’s, and black with a jewel-like quality, devoid of whites or irises. It seemed as if a galaxy of stars swirled in the depths of each. She blinked once, then smiled at them, and there was a warmth and kindness in the expression which was instantly soothing.
“Oh…oh, my,” she said in what was easily the loveliest voice any of them had ever heard. It was at once breathy and deep, layered in a way that only the most skilled of actors and orators ever achieved. “How long has it been? Am I… Oh, but forgive me, children. Was it you who woke me? You have my thanks.”
“You’re…welcome,” Toby said hesitantly. “Um, sorry, we weren’t expecting…?”
“Why come to this forsaken place?” she inquired musically, blinking those amazing eyes once more. “Is this still…? Please, your pardon. I am so…unfocused. It’s been so long since my mind was…all in one place. It is almost disorienting, to be oriented again.”
The three of them glanced at each other. Trissiny rested one hand on the hilt of her sword; Gabriel very pointedly did not reach for his own divine weapon, currently tucked inside his coat in wand form. Whatever this creature was, she now stood between them and the key, which continued to pulse blue on the panel behind her.
“So, it’s nice to meet you, ma’am,” Gabriel said after a pause. “Excuse my asking, but…what kind of fairy are you?”
“A fairy!” She laughed, and it was like listening to music. Raised in mirth, her voice was even more beautiful. Pleasant, comforting, and chime of welcome joy in that forgotten place. “Oh, what charming young people you are. A fairy! I have been called many things, but that is a first!”
“Uh, sorry,” he said quickly. “No offense was meant! It’s just that I don’t sense any magic from you, and that’s the only kind I—”
“Gabe,” Trissiny said warningly.
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course,” the glowing woman said kindly, nodding her head toward them. The halo illuminating it from behind did not move along with the gesture. “I am sorry, it’s just that I’m only now putting the pieces back together, as it were. This really is very confusing, but I shall have myself straightened out quite soon, I’m sure. Please excuse my little lapse in manners, children. It is such a very great pleasure to meet you all. You may call me Scyllith.”