Tag Archives: Ariel

Bonus #29: Deathspeaker, part 1

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This chapter topic was selected by Kickstarter backer Donát Nagy!

It was not a large meet, but any meet was enough to push Aresk into a rush, even when returning to the camp with an impressive kill—a moment he ordinarily savored as much as possible. Only three clans had gathered, and he had little interest in the Shadowed Wood clan. But the Cold Spray were there…

“And that means Gairan will be there,” Rortosk said in a deliberately bland tone, staring at the banners.

Aresk dropped his deer with less reverence than it deserved, just barely managing not to visibly clench his jaw in embarrassment. “What of it? I mean…I suppose.”

The old hunter grinned broadly, but clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly shake for good measure. “Tell you what. Why don’t you let us finish up here? There’s not much left to do, and we’ve all seen meets before.”

“I do my fair share,” Aresk protested, straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders.

“At this point it’s nothing but chewing the breeze with Rian and that poor fool she’s snared as an apprentice, while everybody admires our kills. I think we can manage it without you, eh?”

“Aye, go check on that father of yours,” Isnek added while the rest of the hunting party grinned agreement. “See to it he doesn’t start any feuds this time.”

Aresk didn’t bother to protest that hadn’t been an actual feud, nor entirely his father’s fault. Unable to fully repress the bounce in his step, he was already backing up toward the camp. “I don’t care what anyone says, Rortosk, sometimes you do have a soul after all.”

He wasn’t backed up so far that Rortosk’s fist failed to collide with his jaw. Aresk staggered backward, tasting blood, which he spat on the ground a moment later. Grinning at Rortosk, he pounded one fist into his opposite palm in acknowledgment of the blow, then finally turned and strode off, followed by the catcalls of the rest of the party. It wasn’t so bad, being the young pup of the group, at least once he got over his own self-consciousness. They never insulted him by taking on his share of the actual work, but as the elder hunter had pointed out, there was little enough to do at this point but unpack, and they did encourage him to live a bit when appropriate. Still, Aresk was looking forward to another youth joining the hunts just so he wasn’t the youngest anymore.

Orcs milled around the camp, both familiar faces and those of visiting sister clans. Many, residents and guests alike, were in regalia in honor of the meet; Aresk nodded politely to everyone he passed, but to those formally dressed he gave a full bow, fist over heart. The respect was earned, in his mind, both for the preservation of their traditions and for sheer perseverance; orcish regalia was not comfortable in a Tsurikura summer. Orcs were a large, solid people, bred for the colder climate of Athan’Khar; the Sifanese archipelago could be scathing at this time of year.

Camp Khashrek was the largest holding of the High Wind clan, and the very name roused bitterness in Aresk, along with the all-but-audible voice of his father growling in the back of his head. Camp, indeed. They still called it that, and it was important, even if reality gave the lie to the name. Tsurikura was not their home, but a place they were allowed to stay by the Sifanese. The clans’ holdings in this land were temporary, stopovers for the time being until they could reclaim their true lands. But a century after the apocalypse, they were not only no closer to returning to Athan’Khar or even avenging themselves against the Tiraan, and the roots they had put down here in Sifan had grown unmistakable and increasingly unlikely to be pulled up in the future.

Now, Khashrek was a town in all but name. More and more of the High Wind had drifted toward it from the outlying camps, to the point that Aresk and his father had both muttered about moving away themselves, to be closer to the wild. Even so, it wasn’t a large town, housing no more than four hundred orcs most of the time—just enough that it wasn’t quite possible to know everyone and their business. Aresk could remember a time, when he was a very small child, when the camp’s name had been at least somewhat borne out in its architecture, when even the homes with solid walls of wood were rough-hewn, insulated only with patches of clay, many having hide roofs. Now they were all permanent structures, with stone foundations and adobe walls, and it had been Aresk’s own traditionalist father who had pushed for this, albeit reluctantly. At least these were proper orcish homes of stone and plaster, accented with timber and bone, still with stretched hides shading their porches and windows but roofed in shingles or thatch. There were also some houses in the Sifanese style, whose construction had been what pushed even that traditionalist faction to act, determined to at least preserve true orcish architecture.

It wasn’t as if the Sifanese were doing it on purpose. That was almost worse; if they were trying to corrupt what was left of Kharsa culture, Aresk could at least have resented it. Orcs were allowed to visit Kiyosan for trade, and he had accompanied his father there a couple of times—enough to learn he had no taste for it, for the way the humans looked at them. The Sifanese were a famously insular people, who didn’t even like having other humans in their country, let alone orcs. They were accustomed to living by the wild dictates of the kitsune, and if the fox-goddesses said that orcs were allowed to settle on Tsurikura, well, shou ga nai. Aresk was reasonably fluent in their language and as much as he deliberately favored Kharsa even in his own head, he got a lot of use out of that phrase.

Even now, passing through Camp Khashrek, the signs were evident. Small yokai shrines in the gardens of some homes, colorful pennants acquired from human traders decorating porches. In the art painted along houses, traditional knotwork and animal spirit depictions were sometimes accompanied by elaborate geometric designs in the Sifanese style. No one was quite outlandish enough to walk around dressed in a kimono, but even among the weapons carried by fellow orcs, there were occasional naginata and katana accompanying their traditional spears and khopesh. Bit by inexorable bit, they were being absorbed by a people who didn’t even want them there.

Today, at least, the omnipresent reminders didn’t manage to sour Aresk’s mood. Without hesitation, he followed the crowd to where it was thickest: the ceremonial grounds along the west edge of Camp Khashrek, where the public amphitheater lay in the shelter of a rocky protrusion which shielded the town from the prevailing winds. The way there was crowded, not just with orcs talking or moving, but with commerce, as people from the two visiting clans had brought goods and High Wind residents had brought out their own, to make an impromptu market along the wide center street. His own hunting party would be joining them soon with their catch. It was clear, though, that the focus of the crowd and most of those present was at the ceremonial grounds. That meant something important was happening there.

That meant Gairan was likely to be there. Aresk straightened his back further, rolling his shoulders, and tried not to chafe at the delay as he had to slow with the crowd to get in. To his left, someone accidentally jostled someone else and was punched in the side of the head; he barely stepped away in time to avoid the first man staggering into him and drawing him into the scuffle. For a moment he resignedly figured there was about to be a brawl and he really would get caught up, but the clumsy orc just nodded to the one he’d bumped, pounding his fist in recognition, and received a nod in return.

The amphitheater was the only structure in Camp Khashrek surrounded by a wall, the town itself being forbidden exterior defenses by Sifanese law. Aresk had been surprised, as a boy, to learn that law was not applied selectively to orcs; Queen Takamatsu forbade fortifications except to her own lords. Each of its three entrances was flanked by two totems, proper orcish ones rather than the yokai shrines that had started going up everywhere else. Passing between the carved faces of animal spirits quieted the crowd, and there was a distinct difference between the festival atmosphere outside in the town and the more solemn one within the grounds.

Aresk stepped to the side as soon as space opened, in the broad half-ring which separated the descending tiers of the amphitheater from the wall, craning his neck to peer around. There was a meeting already in progress, a few figures standing on the stage at the lowest level, but he ignored them at first searching for—his father, as he would claim if anybody asked. But also Gairan. She had to be here somewhere, the crowd was a roughly even blend of all three tribes and she always had to be in the thick of everything…

He had to resign himself to the hopelessness of that, though, as there were far too many people standing and making their way through the various tiers to give him a clear view; all those seated with their backs to the entrances were anonymous from his angle, a lot actually invisible behind others. Aresk let out a short huff of annoyance, and then the scene below finally caught his attention.

There was a human there. Not unheard of; the Sifanese avoided the orcs, but only mostly, and they had some regular visitors who were quite friendly. The other side of their culture being so formal and orderly was that individuals who didn’t fit well in it had few opportunities to get away, and a number of them found the more plain-spoken orcs good company. This one was Punaji, though, and it was odd for one of them to come this far inland. Aresk quite liked the Punaji, for all that their boisterousness could get annoying; they made the Sifanese look like a nation of temple guardians. They were sea people, though, frequent visitors to the ports on Tsurikura’s northwestern coast where the Cold Spray made their homes, and he’d never heard of one being encountered elsewhere. This one had the distinctive black hair—also distinctively uncombed—and one of those long heavy coats they wore, which had to be brutally uncomfortable in the summer heat. Even one of their shortish, curved swords hung at his waist. More than that Aresk couldn’t tell, as the man stood with his back to him, facing Mother Raghann.

Must be important indeed, for a human to be brought into the ceremonial grounds, and welcomed to stand at the speaker’s place in the amphitheater. Aresk couldn’t help some annoyance at the presumption, though Raghann was there along with two other old orcs he recognized as Elders of the Shadowed Wood and Cold Spray clans. Clearly, the man was invited. He shuffled closer to listen, forgetting to search for Gairan and his father.

His timing was fortuitous. The human was doubtless central to whatever this meet had been called to discuss, and the discussion itself seemed not underway yet. Even in solemn quiet, the crowd of orcs filing into the amphitheater were talking softly, many giving their guest suspicious looks, and those on the stage were not yet addressing the assembled. Raghann and the human were talking, the other two Elders in conversation with people on the front row.

Then the human shifted to look around at the gathering crowd, and Aresk took an involuntary step forward, clenching his fists. That was not a Punaji. The man was far too pale, not as much as the city-dwelling Sifanese he had seen in Kiyosan, nor as dark as the suntanned travelers who came by Camp Khashrek. With that strangely tawny complexion, and that sharp, high-bridged nose, he resembled descriptions Aresk had heard of…

“Tiraan?” he grated aloud, beginning to feel his pulse rise in fury.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Aresk rounded on its owner, barely restraining the urge to lash out. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

“You made good time, my son,” Arkhosh said, giving him a firm shake by his grip on Aresk’s shoulder. “I hoped your party would return in time to see at least the outcome of this meeting. You haven’t missed anything of consequence.”

“Father!” Aresk barely managed to lower his voice to a pitch suitable for the reverence owed the ceremonial grounds. “Is that man Tiraan?”

Arkhosh’s eyes shifted past him to stare down at the “guest” on stage with the Elders, his face betraying nothing. Aresk knew the deep well of conviction that motivated his father, but Arkhosh was a respected man in the community, and his role as the public voice of the traditionalist faction demanded composure; he never revealed more than he meant to, at least in public.

“That boy,” Arkhosh said in the same soft tone, “is indeed of the Empire. He is an emissary from the Vidians, a speaker for the dead. And as his visit has the backing of the Queen and one of the kitsune, the Elders have agreed to hear him speak. I cast my own vote in favor of hearing him out. Tiraan or no, remember the courtesy owed a guest of the clan.”

Aresk struggled to control himself. Maybe someday he would master his father’s confident self-restraint, but sometimes—like now—he despaired of it. “We are to sit and listen to Tiraan lies?”

Arkhosh shook him again, still gently enough to be affectionate, but clearly making a point. “No one has seen a Tiraan in a hundred years, my son. This one can do little enough harm on his own, and even if his presence is as worthless as I suspect, it costs us nothing and may profit us to see and hear him. Always seek to know your enemy, as best you can. Come, I want you to sit with me at the front.” He paused, then gave Aresk another jostle. “You are a man, a hunter, and a member of the community. I expect you to control yourself, but speak if you see a need, son.”

“Yes, Father,” Aresk said, squaring his shoulders. It would not be his first time sitting at the lowest levels with his father, whose place there had been well-earned, but this invitation to participate was new, and filled him with such emotion it was all he could do to cling to his own composure as he followed Arkhosh down to the front row. With pride, yes, but also trepidation. The thought of embarrassing himself, or worse, his father… What could he say? Would he know what was right to contribute? Maybe it would be better just to remain silent. But after Arkhosh had specifically asked him to speak at need, would that disappoint him?

Aresk’s equilibrium was not helped by what he found at the bottom level. There was an open space, which Arkhosh had clearly kept for them, and right next to it sat Gairan.

She looked up, and the grin of delight that blossomed on her broad features made several of his organs evidently displace themselves. Gairan wore regalia today, he saw, and it suited her amazingly well. Aresk had always thought her pretty, but over the last several times they had met, he had begun to develop the opinion that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

He was aware that meant he was in real trouble.

“Aresk,” she said as he sat down beside her on the bench, punching his shoulder and setting his chest to an unmanly flutter that he dearly hoped was invisible. “They said you were off hunting! I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you at this meet.”

“You should be so lucky,” he replied in as close to a casually jocular tone as he could manage. Out of respect for the bones and feathers which draped her robes, he had to content himself with jabbing her with an elbow. If he damaged her formal regalia…well, that was all he needed. “And look at you! A shaman in your own right, now!”

“Just as you’re a hunter,” she replied, baring tusks in a broad grin. In the next moment they both fell silent in the awkwardly sudden awareness that as fully recognized adults, it was about time for them each to be looking for a mate…

Sitting on Aresk’s other side, his father made a sound deep in his throat that could have meant anything. It was only Aresk’s deep, personal respect for him that restrained him from punching the older orc right on the ear.

The spirits continued to bless Aresk’s timing, and he was spared having to sit through any more discomfort. On the stage just in front of him, Mother Raghann had stepped over to the back and struck the hanging bronze bell twice with the head of her staff.

She paused for two heartbeats before striking it twice more, and then did the same a third time. By the end, every orc in the ceremonial grounds had fallen silent and either taken a seat or stood against the outer wall; out of respect for a meeting in progress, those who had not entered in time refrained from crowding through the gates.

The old woman turned back to face them, planting her staff against the ground with a soft thump that was plainly heard in the sudden silence.

“We,” she said, her voice no less strong for the faint creak it had acquired over her long years, “the Elders of the High Wind, the Shadowed Wood, and the Cold Spray clans, have called this meet to hear a request from this visitor.” She lifted her staff again to point at the human, who nodded acknowledgment at her. Not the correct thing to do at that moment, but aside from some faint shuffling in the stands, no one commented. It was not exactly fair to expect this Tiraan to be familiar with their etiquette, and his intent was clearly respectful. “This is Gabriel Arquin, from Tiraas.” Several of the respected members of the community who ranked a seat on the front had to turn around and glare upward to silence the ensuing muttering, including Arkhosh. “He is the Chosen of Vidius, and has been brought here with the blessing of our host, Queen Takamatsu, by the Ancient One Kyomi, to bring us a proposal.”

“Vidius has no Chosen,” scoffed a man Aresk did not know, who by his style of dress and skin color was of the Shadowed Wood. To be invited to sit there in the front, he must have been fairly important in his clan.

Gabriel Arquin glanced at Raghann, who just raised her chin slightly, and Arkesh couldn’t quite repress a sneer. Couldn’t the boy speak for himself?

“He does now,” Arquin said in the next moment, clearly figuring out that nobody was going to hold his hand. “I’m the first. I’m sure that must seem strange, coming out of nowhere like this, but let me just tell you it’s giving me a lot more credit than I’ve earned if you think I managed to trick a kitsune.”

All three Elders on the stage smiled at that, and there were a few chuckles of acknowledgment from the crowd.

Arquin drew in a breath, and subtly squared his shoulders—a gesture Aresk might have missed, had he not been peering at the human with a hunter’s intensity. Chosen or not, the boy was nervous. Well, so much the better. Any member of his demented, murdering nation should be, showing his face here. Arquin shifted his left hand to the hilt of his sword, and Aresk’s eyes fixed on that. Not the hand he would use to draw it, but still…

“I’ve come with a proposal,” the human said when the soft amusement faded. “I am not going to make you a promise, because I honestly don’t know if this will work. But I believe it should be tried. I have consulted with my cult and with that of Salyrene about the feasibility of this, and both believe it is…possible. It will require the participation of your clans, however. Not just for your unique, ah…perspective, but because it should be your right to determine whether this proceeds at all.”

“Enough waffling, boy,” a Cold Spray woman in the front row said. “Spit it out. What is it you want to do?”

Arquin shifted again, once more straightening his shoulders, though Aresk was still watching his sword. There was something there… His concentration was broken by the Chosen’s next words, however.

“I want to heal Athan’Khar.”

All respect for the solemnity of the ceremonial grounds was lost in the hubbub that erupted. A lot was general confusion and disbelief, but there was plenty of negatory hissing, as well as the approving stomping of feet. Gairan’s feet were among those exuberantly slammed against the ground, Aresk noted with a pang.

Raghann whipped her staff around and whacked at the bell until there was silence again. Neither she nor the other two Elders looked surprised. Of course, they had cooked this up between them; they wouldn’t have brought this human here unless they knew exactly what this was all about.

“There are indications that the land is beginning to heal naturally,” Arquin said. “The corruption is receding, and by this time the forest seems completely natural for almost a mile south of the river border. Humans don’t go there, obviously, but gnomes have reported on the state of the country. The monsters within Athan’Khar are growing less aggressive, too. It’s been forty years since any crossed the river without specific provocation.”

“What is that?” Aresk demanded suddenly, pointing. His father and Gairan both turned their heads to frown at him.

Arquin turned to him too, blinking. “What’s…what?”

“Your sword,” Aresk said, deliberately not looking at anything but the human. Maybe if he couldn’t actually see the entire crowd staring at him, the self-consciousness wouldn’t crush him bodily… “The one your hand is on. There’s light flickering at the edge of the scabbard. Are you doing magic?”

An unpleasant murmur rose from several directions.

“Oh,” Arquin said hastily, “don’t worry, that’s—”

“Remember where you are, boy,” Arkhosh rumbled. “You don’t tell us not to worry when a Tiraan is doing surreptitious arcane magic at us.”

“If I could explain?” Arquin said, frowning in annoyance. As much as Aresk wanted to take offense on behalf of his father, Arkhosh had interrupted, and this was the first time the human had shown some proper spine. In the next moment he tensed, reflexively reaching for his hunting knife, when Arquin fully drew the sword.

It was not, as he had thought, one of the scimitars the Punaji often carried. The curve of the blade was almost serpentine. Aside from its gleaming cutting edge, the blade itself was black, and lined with symbols which pulsed blue in time with its master’s voice.

“Ariel is a kind of all-purpose magical aid,” the human explained. “In this case, she is translating. I don’t actually speak either Sifanese or Kharsa; the magic lets me communicate.”

“You call your sword a she?” the Shadowed Wood man from earlier said in a dry tone. There was some gruff laughter from the stands, till Raghann raised her staff menacingly toward the bell.

“She is a talking sword,” Arquin replied flatly, returning the weapon to its sheath. “Her voice is feminine. And she is under strict instructions not to talk here because she’s rude and generally obnoxious.”

Arkhosh patted Aresk’s shoulder, leaning toward him to murmur, “Well spotted, son.”

Aresk could not help straightening his back in pride, and then further when Gairan gave him a warm smile.

“Back to the point, then,” said Takhran, the second-eldest member of the High Wind clan after Raghann. “How is it you propose to heal Athan’Khar? And why would you suddenly decide to do this?”

“The why is simply because it should be done,” Arquin said firmly. “I don’t know that anybody needs a reason beyond that. The how is the complicated part, at least potentially. As I said up front, I’m proposing to try; I can’t be sure how well this would work. Cleansing corruption is fairly straightforward according to several magical disciplines; the problem in Athan’Khar is that the corruption is sentient, and angry.”

“And wouldn’t you be?” someone shouted from the back. Nobody that distant from the position of honor near the stage should have interrupted the meeting, and indeed there was an immediate scuffle as the speaker was pounded by his neighbors. From around the amphitheater, though, several feet were stomped in agreement.

“Absolutely,” said Arquin. “That’s not in question. Justified or not, though, the twisted and enraged state of the spirits in Athan’Khar has to be incredibly painful for them, and I don’t think they should be left in that condition, not if they can be helped. Wouldn’t you want to be?”

“Why now?” Takhran asked.

“There was never a Chosen of Vidius before now,” Gairan said before Arquin could answer. The human turned to her and nodded in respect, giving the young shaman a small smile.

Aresk couldn’t quite put words to the emotion that rose in his throat, but he was not enjoying it.

“The problem, then,” Arquin continued, “is trying to heal a land that actively fights you in the process. My cult has some experience in dealing with angry spirits, and will help in any and every way possible. That won’t be enough, though. There are very few Vidians who aren’t human, relatively speaking, and even if I could get every elf, gnome, and dwarven cleric of the cult to work at this, they still wouldn’t be orcs. Not being immediately attacked by the spirits is not the same as getting them to cooperate. It’s very likely that your shaman are the only people the spirits of Athan’Khar will even listen to. There are many ways the followers of Vidius and Salyrene can facilitate this, and we will do everything we can, but it must be shaman of the clans who take the lead.”

“And your Empire?” Arkhosh demanded. “Are we to believe Tiraas will just sit passively and let Athan’Khar be restored? You suggest we should send our shaman to be exposed to Tiraan assassination in what you acknowledge might be a vain hope!”

There was both hissing and stomping in response; Raghann hefted her staff, but quiet fell again before she could strike the bell.

“First, we have to try,” Arquin answered. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter. But if it does, if we can raise a real prospect of restoring Athan’Khar and returning the clans to their home, it’s very likely the Empire will bend its resources to help.”

That time, Raghann had to sound the bell repeatedly to stifle the uproar, and it took more than a few seconds.

“What do you think, Aresk?” Arkhosh asked quietly, his voice disguised by the noise.

“I don’t trust a Tiraan saying things that are obviously too good to be true,” Aresk answered.

His father’s faint smile said he shared that doubt. “I mean, of him.”

Aresk hesitated, narrowing his eyes, conscious of Gairan watching him from the other side and listening. “He…speaks well, father. Straightforward. The Sifanese hide everything behind formality and the Punaji play about like children. It bothers me, the thought that of the human nations we know it’s the Tiraan who are most like orcs.”

“Don’t judge any clan by one individual, let alone a nation that size,” Arkhosh murmured, “and never judge an individual by what he says when he wants something.”

“Yes, father.”

Silence finally fell again, and they had to cut the conversation short. Arquin had stood still throughout, and Aresk had to respect his composure; even the faint signs of nervousness he’d shown before had melted away. Now, he was simply waiting for quiet so he could continue.

“I gather you don’t know a lot about our history,” the human said at last.

“You presume a lot, boy,” Arkhosh replied, “if you think we care about your history.”

Feet were stomped in agreement, but this time Arquin continued without waiting for order to restore itself. “It matters, here. The last your people knew of the continent, you were rescued by the Silver Legions and then the kitsune brought you here. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Raghann said simply. “Go on.”

Arquin nodded. “If you haven’t followed word from Tiraas after that, you may not know that the Empire tore itself apart after the Enchanter’s Bane was used. That was no great triumph; every human nation reacted with horror at the atrocity of it. Every province rose up in rebellion. Tiraas itself was so beset with riots that the Emperor had to impose martial law, and even that didn’t work. By the time rebel forces had converged on the capital, his own government had collapsed due to the Sisters of Avei fighting Imperial guards for control of the city and the Thieves’ Guild assassinating every official of the civilian government they could reach. No one in the Tiraan Empire is proud of what we did to your people. Even now, it’s remembered as our greatest shame. At the time, it completely broke the Empire.”

The murmuring that rose up was more subdued than before. Aresk sat bolt upright on his bench, trying to digest that. How much of it could be true? Then again, why would the Chosen lie?

The worst part was the realization that if Arquin spoke the truth, the clans had all but condemned themselves by refusing to hear emissaries from Tiraas for the last hundred years. In withdrawing into Tsurikura to rebuild their strength, they would have wasted who knew how many opportunities to return home and try to rebuild already…if this account was right.

“And yet, there is an Empire now,” Arkhosh said with naked skepticism. “Because we have not accepted visitors from Tiraas does not mean we all live under rocks, boy. There is plenty of talk in Sifan about the looming menace of the Tiraan Empire.”

“You’re correct,” Arquin replied. “There is a Tiraan Empire, but it’s not the same one. It was put back together, piece by piece, in the years following the war. It uses as much of the same symbolism and pageantry of the original as it can, because that’s a way for the people in power to stay in power. But structurally? It almost doesn’t compare. The Emperor can’t just do whatever he wants anymore; his power is checked by the noble Houses. The Army itself is constrained by law to consist of one-third levies from House guards, which means they can put a cap on how many forces he has at his disposal. The provincial governments have a great deal more internal sovereignty. The Universal Church is far more powerful, and has a lot of sway with the public—the Archpope can give a sermon and turn a lot of people against the Silver Throne. Tiraas has no navy at all; the Empire relies on treaties with the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans to secure its coasts. And above all, everyone remembers Athan’Khar. The last Imperial dynasty was brought down by the outrage of the public, and Emperor Sharidan doesn’t dare forget that. If anything, he is more vulnerable to being ripped off his throne if he oversteps than the last dynasty were. The idea of waging war on the orcs… It’s laughable, frankly. It would enrage a big swath of the Empire’s citizens, and send most of Sharidan’s political enemies circling like vultures for a chance to take him down.

“There’s another side to that coin,” Arquin continued, raising his voice slightly above the ensuing mutters until they faded. “Sharidan’s very first action as Emperor was to form a treaty with the drow of Tar’naris.”

“No one forms treaties with drow!” exclaimed the Shadowed Wood dignitary who kept finding fault with everything the human said.

“That treaty is real,” said Takhran. “That much, even I have heard.”

“Not all drow are alike,” Arquin agreed. “Not even all Themynrites. Just because nobody can deal diplomatically with the Nathloi doesn’t mean we can’t with Narisians—and I don’t know enough about Sifanese politics to guess, but the lack of a treaty with Nathloss may just mean it hasn’t been tried. Tar’naris and the Empire get along quite well, now. One of my best friends is Narisian, and she’s easily the most rational person I know. The point is, the Narisian Treaty is one of the most popular things the Empire has done in recent years, even though it involves committing Imperial troops to help hold their Scyllithene border. Sharidan has not only proved he’s willing to offer a hand to former enemies; he’s learned there’s a big political advantage in it for him.

“I don’t work for the Imperial government,” Arquin said, once again pressing on despite muttering around him. “I can’t promise anything about what the Silver Throne will do; everything I have to say on that subject is my opinion as an informed citizen. And I certainly didn’t come here to sell the Empire to you. Having grown up in the thing, I think it’s better for its people than either anarchy or warring feudal states, and I think Sharidan Tirasian is reasonable and more inclined to be helpful than he is to be difficult. That’s about the extent of my patriotism. If you’re still too disgusted at the idea of dealing with Tiraas to even try, then…I guess there’s nothing more to talk about, there. But since the Empire did this to your people, if they can be persuaded to foot the bill for cleaning it up, well…that seems fair, to me.”

That earned him a round of exuberant stomping, though Arkhosh quickly retorted, “None of which matters if your whole idea proves to be unworkable in the first place.”

“Yes,” Arquin agreed. “I think involving the Empire would be a bad idea unless we can be certain this is doable.”

“Very well,” Arkhosh replied, “you’ve talked a lot of grand concepts. Heal Athan’Khar, make peace. What, specifically, are you proposing to do? What do you need from us, and what do you offer? The journey to Athan’Khar is a very long one to make on the basis of such limited prospects, Deathspeaker.”

“I’m offering the services of myself and my valkyrie allies to aid in contacting the spirits in whatever way is necessary,” said Arquin. More murmuring swelled up at that; the aid of soul reapers was not a small thing. “I have also secured the assistance of Salyrite scholars to deal with the magic involved. What I propose, in this specific case, is a small team; we are looking to ascertain whether this can be done, remember, not heal the whole of Athan’Khar right away. It’s barely a beginning. To that end, we will need the help of at least one orcish shaman. I would suggest maybe two or three, but you know your business better than I. And as for the trip, I am given to understand that it will only be a journey of a day or two.”

Raghann struck the bell to silence the widespread scoffing that ensued.

“Let us not dismiss anything without thought,” Arkhosh agreed, turning to stare at the crowd. “We have heard some surprising things today. I’m sure the Deathspeaker, who has been so careful not to make promises he can’t keep, would not say such things without reason. How, then,” he asked, turning back to Arquin, “do you propose to reach Athan’Khar from Tsurikura in two days?”

“With my help.”

She had not been there before; she did not appear. It was simply as if she had always been part of the scenery, and everyone only now noticed. The kitsune stood nimbly atop the bell itself, balanced on her toes; she wore a black kimono that matched the color of her ears and tail, with a plain katana and wakizashi thrust through her sash.

Immediately, every orc in the place surged to their feet and then knelt in respect, save the three Elders on the stage. Arquin, who had turned to her without evident surprise, looked rapidly back and forth at the prostrate orcs in bafflement.

“I do not do this to rush you away, honored guests,” Kyomi said with a gracious little smile, inclining her head. “You have been good neighbors and good caretakers for this piece of our realm. The clans of Athan’Khar have been offered welcome in Sifan, and it shall not be rescinded, so long as your good stewardship continues. But it is a painful thing, to be cut off from one’s history, and my sisters and I are pleased to help you in recovering it, if we may.”

She hopped lightly down to the ground, whereupon the Elders bowed deeply to her. After a confused pause, Arquin did likewise.

“So, before committing great effort to this task, I call a band of heroes to see whether it can be done. Raghann, daughter of Aghren, Elder and chief shaman of the High Wind clan, you shall lead it with your wisdom and experience. Gabriel Arquin, who has brought us this chance and presents its best hope, will of course go. As this is a quest for the future of the orcish people, the young should have a place as well. And so two more will join them, a shaman and a hunter. Of the Cold Spray clan, Gairan, daughter of Grensha.”

Aresk thought for certain his heart couldn’t pound any harder or higher in his throat than at that announcement. The kitsune’s very next words proved him wrong.

“And of the High Wind clan, Aresk, son of Arkhosh.”

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14 -27

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“Lil,” Izara said in a supremely even tone, “you are looking well.”

“Why, yes, Iz,” Elilial replied with lurid emphasis, “I am. No thanks to you, of course.”

Izara inclined her head very slightly, folding her hands demurely before her. “I was very sorry to hear of—”

DON’T YOU DARE

Elilial did not speak. Reality rippled outward from her in a shockwave very like the previous disruption which had merged the dimensions, and in it were words, and the full weight of her outrage and derision—and, yes, grief—pressing on the minds of all those present. The mortals without exception stumbled backward from the sudden impact of it, though no physical force had touched them. Izara, by contrast, remained perfectly serene in her bearing, despite the way her clothes and hair were blown back by Elilial’s fury as though she stood momentarily in a high wind.

“Nonetheless,” the love goddess said quietly, “I was. I acknowledge your grudge, and that you aren’t without a point…in a way. But I would not have wished that—”

“Not another word,” Elilial grated. “You’re more a hypocrite than any of them, Izara, and that is truly saying something. If you had a beating heart or a shred of empathy you would have stopped that, at the very, utterly least. More likely would have resisted them with me in the beginning. Or if nothing else, walked away like Themynra did.”

“You were never completely in the wrong, in your beliefs,” Izara said sadly, “but the situation has never for a moment been as simple as you make it out to be. I wish I could make you see that.”

“They’re called principles, Izara,” the other goddess sneered. “I wish I could make you understand that, just because the reality of the concept would probably shatter your consciousness. Trissiny, don’t make me laugh. I am really not in the mood for your slapstick.”

Trissiny had taken two steps forward and had sword and shield up and ready; at being addressed directly, she stopped, not relaxing in the slightest. “Slapstick. I’ve been accused of some wild things, some of them accurately, but that is a first.”

“I’ve never yet personally harmed a Hand of Avei,” Elilial said dryly. “The few who managed to stand before me I sent off with a pat on the head and some motherly advice. They hate that; the outrage is absolutely hysterical. I honestly think you might be the first one willing to share a spot of banter. Eserion and Vesk have really done a number on you, haven’t they?”

“Get back, Trissiny,” Izara ordered. “And don’t you start, either!”

Toby had stepped forward as well, on her other side. Both paladins were still a few steps behind the love goddess, but flanked her in ready stances, staring down the queen of Hell.

“Aw, look how protective they are,” Elilial cooed. “Ready to lay down their fleeting little lives to defend this delicate flower of the Pantheon’s gentility. How utterly precious.”

“It’s all right, children,” Izara insisted softly. “I am not in danger here.”

“Yes, killing a god is not such a simple matter,” Elilial agreed. “Power for power, this waffling little puff of pixie dust doesn’t approach a match for me, or I assure you I’d have snuffed her out without bothering to chitchat. Everything that need be said between us was done eons ago. No, to annihilate a god, you have to get…creative. To sever them from their animating aspect, or simply remove it from the world. Ironically, the Pantheon are far more dangerous to one another than I am—I, at least, care what happens to the people of this planet. Just ask Khar. Oh, but I forgot. I guess you can’t.”

“Mortimer,” Izara said calmly, still holding Elilial’s gaze, “I want you to take the paladins and get back to Ninkabi with all haste.”

“Invulnerable or not, lady, you can’t ask me to leave you here,” Agasti insisted. “Not that. I would far rather—”

“She is stealth and deception incarnate,” Izara interrupted, and for the first time there was an audible strain in her voice. Watching her, Elilial began to smile. “The rest of the Pantheon is not coming—they don’t know this is happening. I can protect you from her for a time, but you must go!”

“Always in such a rush,” Elilial drawled. “Let your boy show off his courage, Izara. After all, how often does the chance for a conversation like this—”

The goddess broke off and physically jumped, stiffening up. Slowly, she turned around, angling her body to finally grant them all a glimpse of the hellgate behind her.

From the barely-visible vortex another figure had emerged, his dark green coat and slightly unkempt black hair ruffling in the breeze caused by air pressure equalizing across the rift. Gabriel was returning his staff to the upright position when Elilial’s burning gaze fell upon him, and he greeted her with an angelic little smile.

“You,” Elilial said flatly, “Did. Not.”

“So! It doesn’t kill gods,” he said. “And now we know.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Gabriel Arquin!”

For all that he had appeared without any of them noticing during the confrontation, Vesk still managed to make an entrance. By the time everyone turned to stare at him, he had already struck a dashing pose and plastered on a big, insouciant grin. It helped that he punctuated his introduction by striking a triumphant chord on his lute.

“You!” barked half a dozen people.

“Me!” Vesk exclaimed happily. “And not a moment too soon, I see! Of course, that goes without saying. A bard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely—”

“I’m gonna punch him,” Trissiny announed, taking a step toward the god.

“Nothing goes without saying with this one,” Elilial added wearily.

“Whoah, now, okay, let’s all settle down,” Vesk interjected in a soothing voice, holding up both hands at them all in a placating gesture. His lute hovered in the air next to him where he’d let go of it. “We’re all one act of careless temper from kicking off entirely the wrong climax for this story. Blood, tears, and suffering, y’all know the drill. But it isn’t time for that yet. Each of these things must happen at the proper moment, otherwise it all goes right to hell.”

“I have found myself wondering, over the years,” Elilial said, glaring down at him, “whether I could begin the process of snuffing you out by getting you into one of your well-trod archetypal narrative paths and them yanking you right out of it by not doing what the story demands next.”

“Worth a try,” he said agreeably, with a little shrug. “Of course, that experiment will probably have to wait. I assume you’d much rather find out who murdered your children, and six other children in the process, not that you care about that.”

“Vesk,” Izara exclaimed.

Elilial shifted without stepping; one moment she stood in front of Gabriel and the hellgate and in the next had seized the goddess of love by the throat and hiked her bodily off the ground. All the paladins and Agasti immediately surged forward, but were just as quickly stopped by a force that was not physical, nor even perceptible, but inexorable all the same. Something was projected by the three gods, some pattern woven right into reality itself, and the mortals present could no more step out of the roles it demanded of them than they could have lifted themselves off the ground by their own hair.

“You do not know,” Elilial whispered, “how treacherous is the ground on which you stand, Vesk. You think you know, but you don’t.”

“Once in a while, antagonists find themselves at common purpose,” Vesk replied, his solemn expression contrasting with the playful strumming of the lute, which he still wasn’t touching. “That secret isn’t mine to keep, Lil, and I’m with Izzy on this matter: despite what you think, there are some lines I don’t care to see crossed, and some offenses that demand to be avenged. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.”

“If,” she growled, “I dance to your tune.” Her grip tightened on Izara’s throat, and the smaller goddess tilted her chin up slightly in response, still without struggling. All of them were beings well beyond the physical forms they now presented; the evidently mortal drama now playing out between them was a manifestation of something happening on a different level entirely. It was difficult to look at directly and impossible to look away from; pressure was building up from the exposure of human consciousness to something it wasn’t meant to experience. So far, all of the mortals held their ground, weapons and magics at the ready, but no one could make themselves intervene by even so much as a word of objection.

“But it’s such a simple few steps,” Vesk said, smiling, “and you do it so well. Come on, Lily, you have your own reasons for wanting everything to fall into place at the right moment. I’m not holding out on you; there are some things that can’t be rushed, and you know it well. You know the forces that can…inhibit the likes of you and I from doing what we wish. These delightful youngsters are assembling a key for me. A key to the ultimate lock. You know the one.”

Slowly and slightly, Elilial relaxed her fingers on Izara’s neck, though her eyes remained locked on Vesk. “You have finally lost it.”

“You can’t do this, Vesk,” Izara agreed, somewhat hoarsely. “It won’t work.”

“It won’t work the way it did for us,” he agreed. “Weren’t we just discussing timing? There’ll be no apotheosis for the kiddos, don’t you worry. The alignment isn’t here yet; the great doom is still coming. But it’s close. The lock can be opened. And there is much to be gained from the opening, with the right key in hand.”

“You know who will be released if they do that!” Izara said urgently.

“Common cause, indeed,” Elilial added, giving her a grudging sidelong look. “Letting that thing out is absolutely out of the question. We worked too hard and sacrificed too much to make sure the monster couldn’t escape.”

“And so the monster won’t,” Vesk said, bestowing upon them all a placid smile which just begged for a slapping. “Because this must be done now, at the right time. Just before the alignment, when true escape is impossible, when there will be no gods present to provide fuel for the fire. When a few sufficiently gifted mortals—like, say, three paladins—can snatch their treasure from the beast, and yank out the key again before she can escape.”

In the silence which fell, the hellgate whistled ominously.

“Let her go, Lil,” Vesk said softly. “Let them go. Once they do what they need to, I’ll have your answer.”

“Oh, you’ll have it,” she said, narrowing her eyes to blazing slits. “But that does me no good, Vesk. I know very well what your integrity is worth. I will make you a deal, though.” A smile lifted one side of her mouth, and for the first time, Izara struggled weakly, lifting her hands to grasp Elilial’s wrist. “We will consider your champions the collateral. Send them in there with your key. If they survive, you’ll owe me the truth. And if I don’t get the truth, Vesk, I will claim them.”

Trissiny finally managed to emit a growling noise from deep in her throat. It was more than any of the rest of them could do. There was no force upon them, no restraint they could feel; the thing holding them back was subtle, ineffable, and felt almost like their own impulses. They stood, and watched, because in this drama they were the bystanders and could not go against their role.

“You’ve struck down brave Hands of the Pantheon before,” Izara said, her voice slightly strained by the grip on her neck—or rather, by Elilial’s grip on something important in her being which looked, to the mortal eyes watching, like a hand holding her throat. “You, and yours, and it’s never profited you in the long run. More will rise.”

“Exactly. I’m not going to kill them.” Elilial turned her eyes on Izara and grinned broadly. “You are. I will take them back to the domain you cast me into, beyond the reach of your power. And there I will tell them the truth. All of it. Everything you did. To the Infinite Order, to me, to those who worked and fought alongside us, to all the people of this world. To them. And once I’ve done that… I will trust their sense of justice. When that great doom comes and I return to claim what’s mine, it’ll be with three of your own paladins leading my armies. Have we a deal, Vesk?”

He raised his eyebrows, seeming unconcerned by her threats and Izara’s plight. “You’re that confident they would side with you?”

“That’s the ultimate flaw in this whole paladin thing, you know,” Elilial replied in a lightly conversational tone. “You two, at least, have better sense than to raise up and empower beings of pure, incarnate principle. You get by with being inherently sleazy and vague, respectively, and your followers don’t stand to lose much by following your asshole example. Maybe Vidius’s new pet would stick by his master; he seems a charmingly irreverent boy. But Avei’s? Omnu’s? Those raised and trained to honor justice, and life? You know what they will do when they learn the truth.” Slowly, her grin broadened into a vicious snarl, and the hand clutching Izara’s throat tightened. “All these years I have respected that unspoken truce. I could have done this at any time, simply abducted the Pantheon’s best servants beyond its reach and stripped away your lies. But you kept your hands off my daughters, and I showed restraint in return. Now, though? We’ve well and truly moved beyond that, haven’t we?”

“Vesk, no,” Izara rasped. “They aren’t yours to gamble with! They’ll never survive what you’re sending them into, and even if they do—”

“But don’t you see, Iz?” he said with a soft, plaintive sigh. “This is the price that must be paid, the suffering that must be endured. We’ve come to that point in the story. Without a cost incurred, it can’t progress. I have worked so hard, harder than you’ll ever know, to ensure the stakes are as bloodless as I could make them. There’s been no way to save everyone, but the kids have made it so far without paying for their success with the lives of their comrades. We need them all to live a while longer, and so the cost comes in the risk I can’t face for them, and the devil’s bargain they can’t even decline. Just because nobody’s died doesn’t mean there are no stakes. This isn’t that kind of story. Yet.” He turned his focus back to Elilial, and swept a bow, doffing his floppy hat. “We have a deal.”

She held his eyes for a moment, simply to make her point, and then abruptly released both Izara and the world. The indefinable pressure holding everyone in place lifted, and immediately all three paladins charged her.

In the next moment all went bowling over like ninepins. She hadn’t so much as gestured.

“That’s an option, you know,” Elilial said pleasantly, turning to sweep a smug little smile across them. “Let’s say you succeed at the insanity your patron, here, is about to drop you into. Then there are two outcomes: either he keeps his word and I get to learn what I need to drive a stake through the rotten heart of the Pantheon…or he doesn’t, which I would say is about fifty-fifty odds, and I get you. I’m the goddess of cunning, ducklings; this is what I do. Any way it shakes out, I win. But there is, of course, one alternative. If you want to arrange it so that I lose, all you have to do is die.” She grinned broadly down at them. “I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an opportunity. Oh, it won’t be so bad! Paladins automatically get seats in the best part of Vidius’s little hive-mind heaven. And your gods won’t really need their laboriously-trained paladins when that great doom hits in a few years, now, will they?”

“So help me,” Trissiny grated.

“Oh, don’t be boring,” Elilial admonished. “Every Hand of Avei blusters and makes threats she can’t back up. What happened to being your own woman? You were off to such a promising start just a moment ago. Oh, and Gabriel: don’t forget your baggage.”

Stepping over to the hellgate again, she plunged one arm into the vortex momentarily, then pulled it back out with a struggling khelminash demon gripped by her hair. Gabriel actually let go of the scythe to catch the woman as Elilial tossed her in his general direction.

The queen of Hell, meanwhile, lifted one hoof to step back into it, her half-disappeared leg an eerie sight where it vanished into the scarcely perceptible swirl of the new hellgate. “One way or another, kids, I’ll be seeing you soon. And just to show you all what a good sport I am, I will do my part from my end to close this exciting new escape hatch you’ve so thoughtfully provided for me. After all, it’s not as if I need any more help to get my way in the world. Ta ta…for now.”

Ducking her head, she slipped back through.

Behind her, the swirl diminished under the combined stares of Izara and Vesk, until with a final soft puff, it vanished entirely into the air.

There was silence.

“What?” Gabriel said, picking up his scythe and grinning at them. “No hug? It’s not every day a guy comes back from Hell, y’know.”

“I cannot believe,” Toby said, staring at him, “you tried to stab Elilial in the back.”

“That motion could hardly have been described as a stab,” Ariel said. “He poked her. In the butt.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vesk repeated, grinning insanely, “I give you Gabriel Arquin! But, ah, anyway… I suppose you’ll be wanting a few questions answered.”

Trissiny had taken two steps toward Gabriel, sheathing her sword and looking very much as if she did intend to hug him. But at that, she abruptly changed course, crossed the distance to Vesk in three long strides, and punched him hard in the stomach.

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14 – 24

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“You know what that is?” Xyraadi sounded skeptical, and perhaps a little impressed.

“One got onto the mortal plane last year,” Gabe said tersely, staring up at the distant shape. It hissed again; even that far away, the sound was like a vibration in their very bones. “My classmates and I killed it.”

“Really.”

“Well, full disclosure, I was one of the least immediately helpful contributors to that effort. That was before I was a paladin. Mostly we just distracted it until Trissiny brought it down.”

“That is the new Hand of Avei? Yes, that sounds about right. A moment, please.”

He lowered his eyes to watch her as she turned around and held out a hand, palm forward, at the mountain behind them. It rose upward from the ground like a wall without intervening foothills, as if the sheets of obsidian had burst right out of the earth itself; the stone at its base was crumbled and obsidian shards lay everywhere, bristling from fractures in the face of the cliff.

Xyraadi began to glow subtly, not unlike the radiance of a divine aura, though of course her power source was very different. Three overlapping spell circles manifested on the ground around her hooves, more elaborate than any infernomancy he had seen—and in fact, rather beautiful. More than the customary fiery orange, they were in shades of gold, white, and pale green, with an inner ring of some fluid script surrounded by two more geometric designs which oscillated this way and that like a shaken compass trying to find north.

Gabriel looked up again. The nurdrakhaan was questing slowly back and forth as if sniffing the air—definite hunting behavior. Worse, it was drifting steadily lower.

“Um, not to rush you, but if that thing happens to spot us…”

“It won’t happen to,” she said without moving. “It was drawn to the magic.”

“…so what you’re doing there…”

“Will draw it faster, yes. Hopefully it will be worth the danger. If not, we will simply have to shadow-jump away, which also has risks. I judge this to be the lesser—aha!” The shifting outer rings around her had lined up, and the writing of the inner one changed. Xyraadi turned back to him with a smile. “This way!”

She set off at a brisk pace, causing most of her spell circle to collapse, but the middle ring remained, continuing to move subtly as though in response to her steps.

“What’s this way?” he asked helplessly, hurrying along behind.

“A passage under the mountains. The nurdrakhaan is too big to fit into holes, so we will simply have to wait it out. It will sniff around the site, and when it finds there is nothing there to eat, it will leave. I much prefer not to shadow-jump, as I do not know the surroundings and we risk landing in even greater danger, if we don’t end up halfway through a rock.”

“Gotcha. So…that’s a neat little spell, there. It works by…conceptualizing a problem and then blasting it?”

“This one is more complicated than the translation spell, but…yes, that basic principle is applicable at multiple levels. Ah, here it is!”

They had passed into a veritable forest of obsidian shards, ranging from pencil-sized to taller than either of them. The profusion of jagged outcroppings made the perfect camouflage for the triangular opening in the wall, especially as it was shaded by a particularly large spike of black glassy stone. Miscellaneous shards crunched under her hooves; Gabriel stepped more carefully. He tapped the palm of his hand against the point of a shard in passing, but while he felt the jab it seemed there was nothing to this stone that would surpass his hethelax immunity. His shoes were another matter, though, and he placed his feet as best he could so as not to impale their soles.

Then the nurdrakhaan hissed again, much closer, and he practically ran the last few steps. Xyraadi had already vanished into the hole.

They retreated a few yards down the tunnel in pitch blackness, her direction-finding circle having winked out upon entering. Once the entrance had shrunk to a triangle of vague yellowish light, Gabriel drew Ariel, who obligingly ignited all her inscribed runes to bathe the area around them in an arcane glow. A second point of light swirled into being right in front of Xyraadi’s forehead crest, this one a clean white.

“Merde alors,” she muttered, looking up and down the tunnel. “This is not an accidental formation.”

“Hm…I see what you mean,” he agreed, following her gaze. Though there were cracks and craters along every surface and little shards of obsidian littering the ground, the formation itself was too straight to have been wrought by geological accident, its triangular shape perfectly equilateral. “It doesn’t look like it’s seen a lot of use lately, though; hopefully the previous residents aren’t around. I can sense demons, but that trick doesn’t work too well here. Like sensing a needle in a haystack. Full of needles. While it’s on fire.”

She smiled and opened her mouth to answer, and then the nurdrakhaan hissed again. Resonating down the stone tunnel, the sound was deafening. It was clearly very close outside.

There was silence for a few seconds before she spoke again.

“You cannot assume it is abandoned because it looks like this, M. Arquin.” Xyraadi thumped her fist against the wall and it practically shattered, forming a little crater from which broken shards cascaded to the floor. The display was all the more impressive due to how spindly her arms were. “Everything in Hell is changed by the infernal radiation which saturates it. This is the magic of corruption, of destruction. Metal oxidizes away in the very earth, so that what would be veins of it underground are only streams of dust trapped in the rock. Stone itself is very brittle—too much so to build with, which is why most structures are made of bone and hide. It is the nature of the infernal to cause mutation, fast evolution; only living creatures are able to grow resistant to it, never anything inanimate. Only biological matter can be used for construction, clothes, tools…anything.”

The nurdrakhaan hissed again, the sound still loud but altered as if coming from a subtly different direction. Still too close for comfort, though. At the very least it gave Gabriel a momentary pause in which to ponder what she had said.

“That would make the entire world incredibly geologically unstable.”

“Earthquakes are common, yes.”

That was not an encouraging thing to hear while they were in an underground tunnel, but he let that fresh worry pass. “But…how can the continents still match up, after thousands of years? All the landmasses would have broken up…”

She gave an eloquent shrug. “I do not have such answers. Maybe no one does. It is said that Scyllith could control the entirety of the realm with only her presence. Perhaps whatever means she used is still active in her absence; perhaps Elilial has taken it over, or created her own. You are not wrong, the land shifts often. But somehow, in aggregate…not too much. Whatever causes this, I cannot imagine it is accidental.”

Xyraadi pointed and drew a line across the floor behind them from a distance; it began to glow faintly yellow, and scrawls of fluid script like before appeared on each side.

“A barrier?”

“A detection ward. It will tell me if something comes this way—unless it is something also skilled in magic which can hide, so do not become complacent. Never become complacent here. No, raising a barrier is like planting a flag. Everything within miles which can sense magic would flock to answer the challenge.”

“Omnu’s balls,” he muttered. “So, that script… It doesn’t look like the infernal runes I’ve seen in books.”

Xyraadi glanced sidelong at him, her golden eyes gleaming like a cat’s in the low light. “You read many of such books?”

“I’m a paladin, after all. There are some things I’m expected to know.”

The nurdrakhaan hissed again, and both of them cringed.

“It is elvish,” she answered when she could. “I cannot turn my back on my heritage, but I prefer not to associate my life with one bit more of Hell than I can avoid.”

He winced at the surge of guilt, but she wasn’t looking at him, peering straight up the tunnel with her eyes narrowed. “Why do you use infenomancy, then? Uh, if you don’t mind my asking. Feel free to tell me to piss off if at any point something is none of my business.”

Again, an amused smile flickered across her face, seeming to surprise her. “You are a funny paladin, M. Arquin. You remind me more of bards I have known.”

He decided to leave that one alone. “Please, call me Gabriel.”

“Gabriel, then. My people do not have an innate resistance to infernal corruption, like the hethelaxi. Ours is developed, acquired. I preserve my sanity by expending the dark magic from my system.”

“By using it.”

“Exactly. There are powerful rituals that mark the stages of a girl’s passage to adulthood among the khelminash. One converts the subtle, insidious call of the infernal to a more direct form that cannot so easily hide. When I begin to hear the whispers urging me to depraved acts, I know it is time to cast some spells and burn off the power that has built up. Better to keep up a steady use before it gets to that point.”

“Your people sound extremely skilled,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “What are the chances we might be able to get help from some khelminash?”

“Non,” she said firmly. “Terrible idea!”

“Ah. Not nice people—”

The hiss which interrupted him was more distant, and both of them instinctively edged forward.

“Finally, it is leaving,” she muttered. “That was very fast, for as much magic as happened out there I thought it would sniff about for hours. No, Gabriel, my people are as…nice…as anyone, I suppose, and far more so than most in this realm. But they are all, all dedicated to Elilial. Khelminash cities are caste systems designed to support populations of my race, the elites, so that we do not have to work and contribute to the running of our own society. So that we are free to form the backbone of the Dark Lady’s sorcerous forces. Each city is ruled by a few Rhaazke, and various tiers of work are done by khaladesh, hethelaxi, and horogki. Any khelminash we find will be very delighted to meet a paladin of the Pantheon and an exiled traitor. That would go very badly for us.”

He drew in a slow breath, considering which of several ideas to voice first, and suddenly a hiss so loud it made both of them clutch their ears filled the air. The light at the end of the tunnel was muted by a huge shadow, and in the next moment the entire tunnel shook from an impact. The crunch of stone was terrifying; shards of obsidian rained down all over them.

Ariel’s light abruptly winked out. “Gabriel, if that thing hunts by sensing magic, it may be particularly drawn to the arcane. I am going into a dormant state. Please reawaken me manually when the danger has passed.”

“I should have thought of that,” Xyraadi hissed furiously, pounding a fist against her own forehead crest. “Stupid, stupid! I am too out of practice at this…place. The careless die here! We can make no more mistakes!”

Another thunderous hiss blasted down the tunnel, accompanied by a horrible scraping noise from outside.

“We’re in deep shit if it collapses the tunnel,” Gabriel said. “How risky is it to retreat further?”

“Not as bad as taking our chances outside! At least anything we meet in here will be animal, maybe intelligent. There might be fungus but there will be no plants. That is the only upside.”

The mountain shook from impact, so many shards fell outside that the noise was clearly audible. The light at the entrance changed again as it was partially obscured by debris.

“Wait, why the hell are plants worse than animals? I thought you said things here would try to eat us!”

“Everything will try to eat us, Gabriel! Including the plants! At least things with a brain can be intimidated, tricked, maybe reasoned with. A plant will just attack, regardless.”

A thought struck him. “Wait, speaking of animals. Nurdrakhaan aren’t sapient, are they? They one I saw before didn’t react to Vadrieny except by trying to eat her.”

“Vadrieny?” she said incredulously. “If you saw that fiend and survived, it is much more impressive than surviving a nurdrakhaan!”

It hissed again, and then the tunnel shook so hard the beast had clearly rammed its head against the mountainside. Clearly, this was no time for that conversation.

“Just answer the question!”

“Yes, it is an animal and a very stupid one! All that muscle and a brain the size of a squirrel’s. Why?”

“It’s like you said,” he replied, already laying out his book of enchanting paper, spell chalk and vials of dust. “An animal can be tricked. If it likes arcane magic, I’ll give it arcane magic.”

Xyraadi loomed over his shoulder, watching while he worked. Gabriel scrawled glyphs and diagrams as quickly as he could without sacrificing accuracy, hurried on by the hissing. At least the thing had stopped headbutting the mountainside, at least for now, but the way the shadows kept passing back and forth across the tunnel entrance suggested it was pacing in midair outside, clearly not about to go anywhere.

Fortunately, none of what he was doing was particularly complex; the bulk of this was simple levitation, directional charms, and pretty illusions. The only chancy part came when he had to attach a power crystal, which meant both affixing it to the proper piece of the paper he was using with twists of copper wire—delicate work when the very air kept shaking around them—and designing the entire rest of the enchantment he was crafting to sustain the presence of such an unnecessarily powerful magic source without overcharging and going up in smoke. He laid it out with as much power as he dared risk; there was no point in this if the bait wasn’t juicy enough to be tempting.

“I fancy that I know a little bit about arcane magic,” Xyraadi said, “but I recognize absolutely none of that. Still, I refuse to believe this little toy poses any real threat to that beast.”

Gabriel had to brace himself against the wall with one hand while a long steady grinding happened as the nurdrakhaan apparently swiped its entire side against the mountain face above them, vibrating the whole tunnel. With his other hand, though, he held up his just-complete paper glider, marked by patterns of spell chalk and adhesive enchanting dust all connected to a central power crystal that was really way too potent for this task.

“The times,” he said, “have changed.”

He hurled the glider forward, and the moment it left his fingers it burst alight. In the confines of the tunnel its glare was almost too blinding to appreciate the prettiness of it—though Gabe couldn’t take credit for the design, which he had taken straight from an enchanting trade magazine. The illusion took the form of a large bird made of blue light, scintillating in shades of violet and white. It immediately soared off down the tunnel, swerved out through the opening, and vanished.

“What?” Xyraadi exclaimed.

The hiss that followed started as crushingly loud as any they’d heard, but it also faded rapidly as the nurdrakhaan soared away at top speed, still hissing.

Xyraadi was staring up the tunnel with her mouth slightly agape. After a second, she turned her incredulous expression on Gabriel. “That’s…that’s it?”

“I’m a little surprised that worked,” he admitted. “I never succeed with the first thing I try.”

“What was that?! Did you summon a…a phoenix or something? Did you have a phoenix in a soul prison in that coat?!”

“Whoah, no, nothing like that! It was just a bit of levitation and illusion with some guidance charms. And,” he added, grinning, “a really excessive power source. I figured if that thing goes to magic and especially likes the smell of the arcane, it would chase the glowing, fast-moving thing that smelled interesting. That’s what a particularly dumb predator will naturally tend to do. Like a dog chasing a carriage; it has no idea what it’ll do if it actually catches one, it’s just instinct.”

“…how long will your birdie keep it away?”

“Well, as long as it keeps following, I guess. It’s not going to catch it; that thing has hardly any mass and a whole order of magnitude more power than it needs. That charm is designed for festivals, they’re used to accompany fireworks displays. It will naturally do aerobatics around other objects in the sky while avoiding any midair impact, including with the nurdrakhaan, and it’s quicker and more nimble. I charmed it to keep heading west.”

For another long moment, she continued staring at him. Then, to his surprise, she grinned broadly. Khelminash, it seemed, had pronounced fangs.

“Ah, it is almost like old times. One only feels alive when death waits around the next bend, no?”

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, blinking. “You were part of a real classic adventuring party.”

“What, and you are not? Every paladin is an adventurer, by definition.”

“Uh. I think…you are gonna have some serious acclimating to do, when we get back to the mortal plane. A lot has changed in six hundred years.”

“Eh.” Again, she shrugged, a fabulously expressive gesture which somehow contained more nuances than he could even begin to tease out. “It was like that for me, the first time I came to your realm. I am nothing if not flexible. Now, come, we had best make haste. It will not be long before something else comes to investigate all the magic which has been happening here.”

He followed in silence back to the entrance, which fortunately had not collapsed, though the nurdrakhaan had done a number on it. The tunnel’s mouth was half-buried in fallen fragments of jagged obsidian, making a pile which looked like it would slice to ribbons any fool who dared try to shift it.

Xyraadi did just that, anyway, after cautioning Gabriel to turn away. It seemed she was not inclined toward subtlety by that point, to judge by the explosion she used to blast the path clear.

“Won’t that thing have bought us some time?” he asked, following her back out into the sullen light. She sky was yellowish and smoke-colored; he couldn’t actually see the sun. If there even was a sun here. “That racket had to be audible from miles around. Surely nothing else would want a piece of the nurdrakhaan.”

“They would starve to death if it were so simple,” she said rather brusquely, trotting toward the temple. The poor grasses and wildflowers lay blackened and dead from infernal exposure by now, but at least the nurdrakhaan hadn’t destroyed the edifice itself. “They hiss and express their presence like that to catch prey, Gabriel. You must not think anything here is like it is in your world; the infernal taint alters everything biological. Among other things, it prompts unreasoning aggression. Only sapient demons will flee or hide from danger, and even so, only those taught to from childhood. Animals will respond to a threat, any threat, by attacking. Nurdrakhaan eat very well, indeed.”

“You know what?” he said philosophically. “I don’t think I like it here.”

Xyraadi gave him a truly indescribable look. “Welcome to Hell, Gabriel. Everything here wants to eat everything else. Every meal is a battle, and every creature is well-equipped to fight. On your world there are carnivores and herbivores; here, only predators, some of which eat plants. The chief thing that distinguishes sapient beings is their means of coping with this place. They are either fanatically devoted to Elilial who protects and supports them, or obsessed with escaping to the mortal plane.”

“You’re saying there’s nothing and nobody here who even might help us?”

“Only, perhaps, a ghost that your god has consigned here, and there is little enough they could do. They either get captured by my people or other spellcasting demons and used as power sources, or impress Prince Vanislaas and become his children. Lucky us, we do not need much help. The big problem before us is that we cannot leave from this spot. This is where your warlock waits, across the barrier, and he is our only chance of getting out again.”

They had arrived back at the spot on the temple lawn where he had first summoned her, approximately. It was hard to tell, with as much damage as the vegetation had suffered, but the size and shape of the disc of mortal land still made for a good reference point. Gabriel drew his scythe and Ariel, turning in a circle to look around. Not much had changed; he could see the damage the nurdrakhaan had made in the cliff face nearby, but the surrounding forest of spike-trees and giant carnivorous mushrooms were still there, as were the ruins of the ikthroi settlement around the temple grounds.

“And that,” he said, “means we’re sitting ducks. We have to hold this ground, and other creatures coming… Well, it’s a matter of when, not if. Right?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Worse, the magic I will have to do… Well, any magic will bring attention. I must try to reach across the barrier and achieve communication with your warlock friend. That work will draw very specific trouble. Intelligent demons, trained in magic.”

“Khelminash?”

“If we are very unfortunate,” she said grimly. “I cannot say how near a khelminash city might be. This is the continent where Tiraas is on your world, yes?”

“This spot in particular is in N’Jendo.”

“I don’t even know what that is. I have never been to this part of the world before, on either side of the barrier. And if I had… After six hundred years, I would not know where the closest khelminash city might be.”

“Okay. Since keeping our heads down isn’t going to be possible anyway, I’m going to wake Ariel up. She can help in a fight and she’s good with magic.”

“A wise plan,” she agreed, even as he channeled an arcane spark into Ariel’s runes in just the way she had taught him previously.

“Ah, good, we are not currently being digested. You continue to surprise, Gabriel.”

“Missed you too,” he said. “Here’s the situation: Xyraadi needs to reach across the dimensional divide to make contact with Mortimer, and we need to keep hostile demons off her, because we know damn well they’ll come.”

“Of course they will. Your scythe will prove immensely valuable, provided our next foes are not also zeppelin-sized. The nice thing about being stranded in Hell is that the mindless destruction for which you are best equipped is actually the correct course of action against most of the troubles likely to assail us.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. Xyraadi, any idea how long this will take?”

“None,” she said, already sitting cross-legged on the ground, which looked rather peculiar with her hooves and digitigrade lower legs. She held out her hands to either side, and more of her modified infernal circles began to blossom into being, decorated with incongruously lovely elvish script. “It is very much situational; a person can do this for months before catching the attention of anyone on the other side. This is a better scenario than most, since there is a powerful warlock in this space just across the barrier who is hopefully already looking for us in turn. But much is uncertain.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll…keep watch, then.”

Xyraadi closed her eyes, and the magic around her continued to form.

“Think I should try setting out wards?” he muttered.

“I wouldn’t,” Ariel advised. “We’ve already seen that using arcane magic here draws attention. It will happen anyway, it seems, but there’s no use hastening the arrival of enemies. Let the khelminash take advantage of as much time as we can buy her. By the way, how did you get rid of the nurdrakhaan?”

“Oh, that. I taught it to play fetch.”

“…Gabriel, if it has escaped your notice, I am not one of your wisecracking student adventurer friends, nor one of your smirking Vidian cleric colleagues. I am certainly not your lack-witted dryad bedmate. Your sense of humor is entirely wasted on me.”

“That’s exactly what makes it funny, partner.”

“Shadow-jumping!” Ariel suddenly said in a louder tone. “Something is—”

She was cut off by Xyraadi, who leaped straight up from her meditative posture, allowing her careful spell circles to collapse in a tangle of sparks and smoke. “Run! Run, now!”

“Ah, ah, ah. Stay a while, and let us talk, yes?”

Gabe whirled, planting his feet by instinct in a stance Professor Ezzaniel had drilled into him: feet braced, scythe upraised behind him ready to swing, Ariel held in guard position in front. Scythe-and-saber wasn’t exactly a traditional combat form, but both Ezzaniel and Trissiny had been pleased to help him work out some basic positions and moves. The golden shield he threw up around himself sparked and hissed constantly against the ambient infernal power, and he immediately regretted it—but held on, since dropping it just as suddenly would convey weakness which could be a deadly mistake here. Still, that was going to strain his capacity for divine magic very quickly. It also meant Xyraadi couldn’t get too close.

He stared at the being which had appeared in front of him, and the being stared back.

By skin tone and general facial features, the creature might have been a drow; it was as black as the obsidian mountains, slender of build and delicate of face. In fact, Gabe could not at a glance assign a gender to the intruder, in part because of the combination of flowing white robes and padded crimson longcoat of odd cut which obscured the lines of his or her body. Unlike a drow, however, the new arrival had rounded humanlike ears and long hair as black as their skin. It was the eyes which were most striking: pure, featureless red eyes, just like a red dragon’s.

“Hello,” he said after a mutually contemplative pause, finally letting his shield down. Val Tarvadegh’s voice whispered in the back of his memory, priceless coaching on social rhythms telling him the timing to make it seem like a deliberate conciliatory gesture and not a loss of face. “That is a really nice coat.”

“Why, thank you!” the unidentified demon said with a broad smile. They had perfectly white, even, apparently human teeth. “And the same to you, my young friend. You must have quite the story to tell! How ever have you managed to bring yourself and a temple of Izara here? And…is that…”

They leaned to the side, peering past him, and Gabriel fought down the urge to shift and try to block the view. That would seem not only hostile, but childishly petulant. Both instinct and training warned him that any display of weakness here could be lethal.

“Why, it is!” the demon said, still smiling in evident delight. “Little Xyraadi, come home after all these years, yes? I cannot imagine why you are not long dead, child, much less what made you think returning here was a good idea.”

Gabriel shifted his head enough to bring Xyraadi into his peripheral vision without letting the other demon shift out of it. She was standing stock-still, not casting any spells, and staring with extremely obvious terror. That was not a good sign.

“A very nice coat,” he repeated pointedly. “Given the general resource scarcity in Hell, shall I assume this is someone important? Or at least rich?”

She swallowed convulsively before answering in a very small voice. “This is Prince Vanislaas.”

“Ah,” Gabriel said, turning his full attention back on the Prince and forcing a pleasant little smile. Shit. Shit. “What a lovely surprise, I never expected to have the honor. I believe we have an acquaintance in common, your Highness. Do you recall Malivette Dufresne?”

“Truly, the delicious surprises just keep coming today,” Vanislaas purred, pacing slowly forward. Gabriel just barely repressed the urge to retreat, and did not lower either of his weapons. “What a charming young lady! I so rarely have such well-bred visitors. How is dear Vette getting along? She’ll have graduated from the University by now, yes?”

“Some time ago,” Gabriel agreed politely, shifting his heels, and subtly raising his scythe higher. At that, the demon finally halted his approach, smirking. “I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with her at length, but I believe she is quite well.”

“And what a courteous young man you are,” Vanislaas remarked. “Half…hethelax, yes? Yet fully mortal. And somehow, here. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t that a valkyrie’s scythe?”

Gabriel was spared having to respond by Xyraadi letting out a wail and hurling herself to the ground. He started to turn again to see what had happened, but something tugged insistently on his scythe. Tightening his grip, he twisted, finding it inextricably stuck, and managed to pivot without letting go to put himself in a position from which he could see both demons and also whatever else had seized his weapon.

The next moment, he sort of wished he hadn’t.

“His name is Gabriel Arquin,” Elilial said with a coy little smile, shifting her fingers on the haft of the scythe just below its blade, “and I am just dying to hear him explain all this.”

And with that, she yanked the scythe out of his hand.

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14 – 23

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“What?!” Trissiny exploded in pure disbelief. “How?! Why did—”

“Wait,” Agasti interrupted her, straightening up and snatching his cane out of the earth. “Something is—”

His infernal spell circle abruptly collapsed, with all the violence for which that school of magic was famous. The glowing lines, already burned into the ground, began exploding like a series of embedded firecrackers, hurling ash and clumps of sod in all directions and causing Agasti himself to stagger, being caught in the middle of it. Both revenants surged protectively toward him, but Toby was both closer and faster, snatching the warlock and hauling him bodily out of the radius as the circle continued to disintegrate.

“It’s still going on!” Agasti gasped even before getting his feet back under him. “The instability is not confined to the circle. No more holding back, we need divine magic. Now! As much as you can!”

Trissiny needed no further urging, and her armor, sword, and shield coalesced around her out of pure light. Her aura flared into being, wings and all, pushing outward with an intensity that it rarely showed. Toby’s effort, by comparison, was muted. The glow sprang up around him as well, but for all that it pushed outward nearly as far as Trissiny’s, it was without the same ferocity. His contribution didn’t compare at all to the divine nova he had sometimes unleashed at Omnu’s bidding.

Smoke rose from both of them, accompanied by a harsh buzzing in the air, as their channeled power annihilated loose infernal magic from the vicinity. Agasti retreated with a nimbleness that would have been unbelievable when they had first seen him the night before, muttering and gesticulating rapidly with his cane. He charred another spell circle in the ground a few yards distant, then swiftly moved on to cast another while the first formed a smoky vortex above it, channeling infernal radiation into its center to be contained. The warlock carried on laying down grounding circles as quickly as he could, while his two revenant companions hovered protectively near him, unable to approach the paladins due to the light.

Between the three of them, they were making headway against the energy bleeding out of that transposed patch of Hell, but that unfortunately was not the worst of their problems.

The distortion rising from the ground around the circle was at first glance easy to mistake for heat waves in the sun, at least until it began spreading outward and reached the paladins. Their divine light did nothing at all to disrupt it, but the reverse was not true. Trissiny stumbled as if struck, her aura flickering, and Toby’s was momentarily snuffed out entirely by the disorientation.

When it reached the first of Agasti’s grounding circles, the entire glyph disintegrated in a cluster of minor explosions just the way his original spell circle had.

Worst of all, where the slow-moving wave crept past, it changed the ground from the mundane meadow to the heat-blasted stone of the hellscape on the other side. Bit by bit, the patch of hellscape was growing, the dimensional swap expanding one foot at a time.

“This is not a side effect!” Agasti shouted, retreating further. “Someone on the other side is pushing this out. They must have been watching the site for an opportunity. Get ready to fight, I have no idea what’s going to come through!”

It was a very peculiar sight, the surrounding hills and mountainside being erased by what seemed to be a flat plateau. As the effect expanded, structures began to appear, towers and fences seemingly made from gigantic bones encircling the temple site. None of that commanded their attention, however, as the demons shimmered into being starting when the growing circle had stretched only a few yards out. More and more came as it spread; though the five of them, revenants included, had not been shifted into Hell when the dimensional ripple washed over them, the beings on the other side had evidently been preparing for exactly this.

Trissiny, ever the tactician, immediately charged at one of the figures standing in a glowing glyph carved into the ground and chanting with his hands upraised. A guard of five demons surrounding him surged to meet her, and proved no match; they actually burst into flames on contact with her aura, and she only bothered to dispatch the one which was bodily in her way before ramming her sword to its hilt in the chest of the summoner. At no point had he paused in his working, and died as his flesh burned away and dissolved into charcoal from the spot where she impaled him.

That drew the attention of the others. The creatures surrounded them by the dozens, brandishing weapons made of bone and in a few cases hurling balls of explosive fire. They were a little bigger than human-sized on average, covered in chitinous scales and plates of natural armor, and wearing nothing but hide loincloths. The entire throng was clearly standing by, ready for battle, with casters positioned evenly around the circle where the temple had stood, chanting and obviously causing the dimensional effect to continue expanding.

Nearly a dozen converged on Trissiny, doing nothing but slowing her as she pivoted and tried to make for the next caster. For all their preparedness, this group was clearly not ready to contend with something like a paladin. Agasti, doubtless the first to discern the pattern, felled two more casters in rapid succession with precise shadowbolts, but then had to defend himself from a massed counter-attack with waves of fire and kinetic force. His efforts were supported by blasts of lightning; Kami had retrieved a battlestaff from the carriage and Arakady drew two wands from within his coat, both stepping up beside their patron to fire arcane destruction into all who threatened him.

In the sudden furor, none of them even noticed that Toby was simply standing, surrounded by a shimmering glow, and staring.

“So. This is your doing.” The air was filled with screams and spellfire; no one heard his soft voice.

The light that erupted from the Hand of Omnu was nothing like the steady expansion of the halo which had heralded his divine nova in the past. It burst out in a violent shockwave, the force of it knocking every demon in the vicinity to the ground, most shrieking in pain and several catching fire. It did not have the pure intensity of Omnu’s nova, either; that would simply have incinerated them.

But Toby wasn’t done.

Arkady and Kami had also fallen at the first impact, and now Agasti seized each of them by one arm and in a swift swell of shadow, all three vanished. Trissiny had been rocked slightly by the force of the divine spell Toby unleashed, but it did not hit here with anything like the impact it inflicted on their attackers. She pivoted on one heel to face him, then froze. Toby wasn’t looking at her; she could not tell where he was looking. His eyes were completely obscured, emitting a golden glow with an intensity like the sun’s.

The demons were already rallying, even despite their obvious pain at the haze of divine energy now covering the site. At least the expansion of the piece of Hell had stopped, every remaining caster having been felled by the blow. In fact, it began to retreat again, the blasted ground giving way to tallgrass and wildflowers which were already wilted by their momentary trip to Hell.

Before any could launch another coordinated attack, shapes appeared in the air around them. Scythes, hovering unassisted, seven of them. Barely had they manifested before they began moving.

Trissiny hurled herself flat to the ground, covering her head with her shield and leaving her defensive aura alight, but none of the blades struck her. Instead, directed with uncanny aim, they swept through the horde. Wherever a demon was cut, it instantly exploded, leaving nothing but ash upon the wind.

It was over in seconds.

Trissiny raised her head warily. Smoke and ashes drifted on the air around them; Toby’s aura flickered as the circle walling off this patch from its home dimension passed back over him in shrinking. It did not dissipate this time, though. The golden scythes now drifted slowly around them, tumbling end over end as they orbited the Hand of Omnu. They had cut down even the bone structures, leaving only shattered and charred fragments to vanish back into Hell as the circle shrank.

The very air sang, filled with a tone like distant bells.

“I understand it now,” Toby said expressionlessly. His voice resonated almost like Ariel’s, as if there were a second, deeper voice speaking in unison. “It’s so simple, I don’t know why I struggled with it for so long. Omnu is life. Omnu is peace. Omnu is paradox. Omnu’s real path is navigating the tension between opposites. Because the truth is as Avei has always taught it. As Vidius has known. There is only one true peace…and it is the opposite of life.”

Trissiny stood, leaving her sword and shield lying on the charred ground behind her. The original patch of Hell remained, a hardened circle of ground where the temple had been, but the dimensional ripple seemed to be fully dispelled now. She strode right up to Toby, pulling off her silver gauntlets and also letting them drop.

She took her fellow paladin’s face in both hands. He was standing like one of the stone figures of Salyrene, staring with empty glowing eyes at some nothing in the infinite distance. He did not resist, however, as she tugged his head gently down to face her.

“Toby,” Trissiny whispered, “stop.”

It was like staring into a furnace. There was nothing behind his eyes but the light. Not a flicker of expression or acknowledgment on his features.

She squeezed lightly, shifting her hands to slowly brush her thumbs across his eyes. Enough mortal reflex remained despite whatever trance he was in that they closed, cutting out the light which blazed onto her own face.

“Please, stop.”

Trissiny changed her grip again, releasing his face and pulling him closer. She wrapped an arm around his back and tugged his head down to rest it against her shoulder.

The distant music of the Light faded. Golden scythes dissolved into sparks and swirls of unfocused energy. The glow which hung over the whole scene like fog dissipated, giving way to simple, wholesome sunlight.

With its passing, Toby seemed to come back to life. His breath caught, came unevenly in little bursts for a moment, and then faltered entirely into shuddering gasps. Weakly, he clutched at Trissiny, and she just held onto him, holding him up even as his legs failed.


“You did this on purpose,” Ariel accused as soon as things settled down somewhat.

Gabriel took his time before bothering to reply, turning in a circle to make sure there were no more enemies waiting. A few had lunged at him before being swept away in that ripple their chanters were creating; the four who had jumped the wand now lay dead nearby, three little more than skeletons decorated with parchment-like scraps of old skin, all that the scythe had left of them. The fourth was more well-preserved, having been impaled through the heart by Ariel, whom he now plucked from the air. They had spent quite a bit of time on the charms that enabled her to float and fight independently; this wasn’t the field test he would have preferred, but at least it had worked.

When the demons began vanishing and an expanding patch of real-world ground appeared in their stead, he had immediately realized what they were doing and what it probably meant for the mortal plane. Gabriel had failed to think of any countermeasure in time, but fortunately, it proved moot; in only moments, the circle had shrunk right back to its original boundaries, and not only was every last demon gone, most of their bone structures had been shattered. Bless Toby and his holy nova.

The less uplifting news was that with no control over whatever magic the demons had used to create that effect, he and his friends were still stuck on opposite sides of the dimensional divide. Which was good for them, but his own situation was less cheery.

“I’m morbidly curious how you came to that conclusion,” Gabriel finally answered, sliding Ariel back into her sheath and turning another slow revolution to take a more careful look at his surroundings. The geography sort of mirrored that of the real world; there was a towering mountain range to the east, but unlike the Wyrnrange this appeared to be entirely made of gigantic shards of obsidian, and the fires of volcanic eruptions flickered in their heights. Gabe wasn’t well-versed in geology but he had a feeling that wasn’t right; then again, there was no reason to assume the basics of mortal life were applicable here. For example, the forest which spread to the north and south of the flat area in which he stood consisted of trees that seemed to be entirely thorns, some people-sized (and slowly oscillating as if seeking prey) and swaying tree-sized mushrooms whose conical caps contained giant, tooth-lined mouths. As he watched, one snapped at something flying past.

“Because you were just announcing your awareness that something terrible was going to go wrong with that entire enterprise, because you are generally reckless, and because you have a stubbornly self-sacrificing tendency that invariably makes you place yourself between your friends and danger. Whether or not that suits the strategic needs of the situation.”

“Well, I guess you’ve got my number,” he said lightly. “All right, immediate practicalities. After the Crawl I’ve started carrying stores of food, water, and potions in my bottomless pockets, so I can survive for a while. I’ve always heard there’s not even any water in Hell.”

“There is, but it is not plentiful and you would not be advised to drink it. Nor is the food safe. You are extremely resistant to infernal radiation, between your hethelax blood and the divine magic granted by Vidius, but surviving here is not a long-term prospect. We need to return to our own plane posthaste.”

“Easier said than done,” he murmured. Demons were constantly trying to escape from Hell, and at a glance he could already see why. If it were that easy, it would happen a lot more often. “Okay…let’s see what we’ve got to work with. Apparently these guys have been building their little nest around the temple site to try to cross over if anything happened to the dimensional phenomenon merging that spot. They sure were well-prepared. Do you know what species this is?”

“Ikthroi,” she said as he bent over the most well-preserved dead demon. Apparently when they died in Hell they didn’t dissolve into charcoal. “Sapient, slightly larger and significantly stronger than the human norm, possessing an inherent but quite minimal capacity for infernomancy. During the Hellwars these were by far the largest contingent of Elilial’s ground forces, but sightings of them have diminished markedly in the centuries since. None have crossed any hellgate since well before the Enchanter Wars. Either they fell from Elilial’s favor or their population was culled for some reason, we have no data on this in our realm.”

“I’m impressed you knew even that much, considering how long you were collecting dust in the Crawl.”

“Then I suppose we are very fortunate at least one of us listens in Tellwyrn’s history class. I see no way this can help us now, however. That was all I know of them, and it hardly prepares us to glean useful information from this settlement.”

“Well, don’t worry, we’ll get out of this yet.”

“Your blind optimism is beginning to grate.”

“Relax,” he said, grinning in spite of himself, and reached into one of the inner pockets of his coat. “We’re here working for Vesk, remember? Nothing we’ll be tested with is any worse than we can overcome.”

“We. Are. In. Hell!” Ariel sounded openly angry for the first time he could remember. “Vesk has no power here! Vidius has no power here! None of the rules apply, Gabriel; it’s just you and me and whatever you’ve brought with you. To the extent that Vesk’s stupid quest still makes a difference to us, the pattern thus far established only raises the risk that we will encounter Elilial herself! I assure you, she will be far less cordial than the gods you have met to date. A paladin isolated and vulnerable in her domain is exactly the kind of opportunity to hurt the Pantheon she rarely happens across.”

“Okay, you’re not without a point, there,” he said more soberly, withdrawing the bottle Toby had given him. “Still, remember that I wasn’t totally unprepared for this.”

“Desperate as we are I hate to naysay, but do think about what you’re proposing to do. Whoever’s in that bottle is going to be stranded in Hell right along with us.”

“Ariel, how could somebody be in the bottle?” he exclaimed. “You’re an arcane assistant, you should have better sense than that. More likely the bottle is a physical representation of some active spell. Salyrene said to open it when the need was greatest, and that help would come.”

“Oh, of course, you know best. The vivid proof of that is all around us.”

“I get no respect,” he muttered, and pulled the stopper.

The bottle instantly unfolded itself like a peeled banana, its glass surface vanishing to leave him holding a chunk of crimson crystal. The most confusing part of this experience was that the crystal was significantly larger than the bottle had been. The thing itself he recognized, having seen it quite recently.

“Of course, on the other hand,” Gabriel acknowledged, hefting the huge rough-cut ruby, “I suppose someone could be in the bottle.”

“Isn’t that the same crystal Schwartz used alongside me in his portal ritual?”

“I’m pretty sure. Aside from looking familiar, that would be just the narrative touch Salyrene would throw in if she was trying to steal Vesk’s thunder, like she said. I guess filching an artifact out of Avei’s vaults was just icing on the cake,” he added, remembering the acerbic comments both goddesses had made about each other. “What kind of demon did Sister Astarian say this was? And the name… I remember it starts with a Z.”

“Xyraadi, and it is probably spelled with an X, the demonic language being gratuitously absurd even in translation. She is a khelminash demon. I am forced to admit that this actually represents excellent help. They are extremely sophisticated infernomancers, and Xyraadi will not only be able to guide us through this dimension, she is one of few demons to have permanently escaped it in the past. Let us hope she isn’t terribly grumpy after being in that thing for six hundred years. I can attest that one is not at one’s best after a long period of time spent magically inert in a dank hole.”

“Perfect,” he said in satisfaction. Gabriel braced his feet and raised the ruby up above his head in one hand, where it glinted sullenly in the diffuse light. With the other, he planted the butt of his staff against the ground, leaning on it in a dramatic pose. “Xyraadi, ally of the gods, you are called upon again! Come forth in our hour of need!”

Something thankfully in the distance screamed. A gust of wind surged up, ruffling his coat and carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

“Please tell me this is inappropriately-timed humor,” Ariel said flatly.

“Well, what the hell do I know about soul prisons?” he snorted, lowering his hand. “How am I supposed to get her out of there?”

“Step one, ask the talking sword. Step two, break it.”

“…wait, really? That won’t hurt her?”

“Her physical body can’t be locked in a crystal any more than yours can, Gabriel. It’s like the bottle, a complex spell effect given physical form so that even a magically untalented boob can make use of it, at need. Just shatter the crystal, the suspension effect will dissolve, and she will be restored to her proper form. At least, assuming the Topaz College followed its standard practices, and those have not deviated too severely in six centuries.”

“You know what they say about assuming,” he muttered, but knelt to place the soul prison on the ground, then hefted his scythe.

“Not with that!” Ariel barked. “You know what that thing does! She’s hardly any use to us dead.”

“Hm, good thinking,” he agreed, shrinking the scythe down to its wand form and putting it away. “That makes the leverage a bit trickier, but still doable.”

“Oh, look,” Ariel said sourly as he knelt again, raising her over the crystal. “I even brought it on myself this time.”

A saber wasn’t the ideal tool for breaking rocks; at the blow, the prison bounced away sideways. He did succeed in cracking it, however, and apparently that was all it took.

The crack spread, emitting white light, and with a disproportionately violent bang the crystal exploded. Gabriel staggered back, throwing up an arm over his eyes, but there were no fragments. Just a shower of sparks and a tremendous billow of smoke, which quickly drifted away in the breeze.

When it was gone, standing where the ruby had landed, there was a demon.

She had emerged with her back to him, and her head twisted this way and that as she peered about, causing the waves of purplish hair cascading down her spine to shift and shimmer. The demon wore a surprisingly modest dress, in deep green cloth with wide sleeves and blue embroidery at its hems; it fell to ankle level, revealing cloven hooves and the swaying tip of a prehensile tail. She was taller than he, quite slender of build. For some reason, the sight of her put Gabriel in mind of a gazelle, despite the deep crimson color of her skin.

“Quoi?” she sputtered in a low alto. “Qu’est-ce que— Non. Non non non! Je suis encore en Enfer!? Pourquoi? Qui a fait ça?!”

She whirled around, catching herself at the sight of him, and Gabriel again took a wary step back. He carefully kept Ariel lowered, the sword not in a threatening posture. For a moment, he and the demon studied each other. Like Elspeth, she had a bony crest rising from her forehead and making her hair almost invisible from the front. Her eyes were yellow, rather like a wolf’s. Aside from that and the red skin, her fine, narrow features would not have looked out of place on most of the people he’d known growing up in Tiraas.

“Vous,” she said finally. “C’est de votre faute, n’est-ce pas?”

“Uh…” Gabriel subtly extended Ariel out to the side, causing the demon to step warily back, but he tilted his head toward the sword. “That…doesn’t sound like demonic to me. In fact, I would swear I’ve heard something like that before…”

“It’s Glassian,” she replied. “Remember, that was the country in which she lived and served a Hand of Avei’s party.”

“Tanglais?” The demon’s golden eyes had locked onto Ariel when the sword spoke, then widened in comprehension and respect. Drawing in a deep breath, she straightened her back and inclined her head to Gabriel. “Excusez-moi. Je m’appelle Xyraadi.”

He swallowed, then nodded back. “Um… Hello. Uh, jama pell Gabriel Arquin.”

Xyraadi wrinkled her nose at him, her upper lip curling in a pained expression.

“If you ever meet someone actually from Glassiere,” Ariel suggested, “don’t do that.”

“No respect whatsoever,” he groused. “From anyone! Ever!”

Xyraadi cleared her throat, and held up one hand toward him, palm forward. “Un moment, s’il vous plait.”

She took two mincing steps back on her dainty hooves and closed her eyes, raising both hands with the palms extended to the sides. Flickering lights rose in a circle around her.

“Okay,” Gabriel muttered, edging away, “I know this may be a crazy thing to be saying considering I deliberately called her here, and besides she was trusted enough by the Sisterhood to be sealed away in case they needed her again and a demon would have to be unbelievably virtuous for that to happen… But she is a demon and we’re in Hell and she’s immediately casting something. Am I wrong to feel nervous?”

“No,” Ariel replied, “but make decisions with your intellect, not your feelings. That was modern Glassian, Gabriel. After six hundred years a language will drift till it is nearly unrecognizable, unless its primary speakers are elves. This suggests her fluency is due to a magical effect. Given the circumstances, I suspect she is enabling herself to communicate with us.”

“You can do that?” he asked, fascinated. “Using infernal magic?”

“I can,” Xyraadi said suddenly, opening her eyes and lowering her hands. “The infernomancy involved would kill you even if you managed to learn it, Gabriel Arquin. The craft of my people is built around the embodiment and objectification of problems as constructs, which are then attacked, corroded, corrupted—that at which the infernal excels. In this case, the language barrier.”

“That’s absolutely amazing,” he said sincerely. “Nobody on the mortal plane can do anything that sophisticated with infernomancy!”

“In theory, they could,” she replied, allowing herself a pleased smile, “but they would be dead from exposure long before amassing the necessary skill.”

“Why Glassian, though?” he asked. “I mean, if you suddenly pop up in Hell itself…”

“Let me pose to you a hypothetical question, M. Arquin,” Xyraadi countered with a wry twist of her mouth. “Let us say that you are conversant in two languages. One is the tongue constructed by the goddess of cruelty, deliberately designed to be difficult and unpleasant, both to speak and to hear. The other is a tongue of poetry, which when spoken sounds like singing even when you are complaining about your taxes. To which would you prefer to default?”

“Well, I guess I can’t argue with that.”

“Wonderful,” she said, smiling thinly. “Then, if I have satisfied your curiosity, M. Arquin, perhaps you will do me the courtesy of indulging mine. I am most eager to learn why you have brought me here!”

He reared back at her suddenly strident tone, raising his free hand. “I’m sorry! Genuinely, I am. I didn’t want to come here myself, but, ah… This is a bit of a story.”

“Ah?” Xyraadi folded her arms and pursed her lips. “Then be so good as to proceed, before something comes to eat us.”

“…how likely is that?”

“It is not likely,” she said flatly. “It is certain. That is how things are in Hell. Perhaps, if I understand what is going on, I will be able to help when it does!”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Fair enough. The short version, then. I suppose I should start by telling you I’m the half-demon Hand of Vidius…”

Khelminash had no eyebrows, save for bony ridges above their eyes which did not move. Xyraadi managed to look incredulous regardless, but the expression faded as he recounted, as efficiently as possible, his journey with the others on Vesk’s instructions, finishing with their current predicament. When he trailed to a stop, she was silent for a moment, digesting it.

“So they really did keep me,” she murmured at last. “I more than half expected the Sisterhood to throw my soul chamber into the Azure Sea the first chance they got. How long was I locked away?”

Gabriel drew in a breath, bracing himself. “Six hundred years.”

She flinched. Only slightly, but it was enough to make him wince in sympathy. Xyraadi turned, staring out toward the west where the horizon was lost in a yellowish smoggy haze.

“Then everyone I ever knew is long dead.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“Ah, well,” she said with forced lightness, lifting one shoulder in a peculiar half-shrug. “Everyone I loved was already dead, that was why I asked to be put in the crystal. The rest, I will not miss. More immediately!” Xyraadi turned back to him, now smiling with more sincerity. “I have excellent news, M. Arquin! It seems you may not have irrevocably doomed us both.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” he said sincerely. “I love it when I haven’t irrevocably doomed something. I’ve learned to really appreciate those occasions when they come along.”

Her expression grew amused, but she continued. “Getting out of Hell means passing through a hellgate. This is usually not possible, because they are typically heavily guarded on this side and always on the other. If one wishes to cross over, one must usually make a new hellgate.”

“That tends to make people on the other side pretty mad,” he noted.

“Indeed, that is a drawback,” she agreed solemnly. “Another is that this cannot be done unilaterally from either side. However! By your account, you are in league with a powerful warlock, who should be waiting in roughly this physical place, right across the dimensional barrier. And now, you have another powerful warlock right here.” She spread her skirts and crossed her hooves in a graceful curtsy. “If I may be forgiven for boasting.”

“If you can actually do that, I think you’re entitled to boast a little,” he said fervently. “But doesn’t that require coordinating across the dimensional barrier?”

“Ah, yes,” Xyraadi said, nodding and looking more pensive. It was peculiar, trying to read her face; her eyes and lips seemed quite expressive, but the lack of movable eyebrows made her countenance oddly opaque. “That is tricky. But not insurmountable.”

“Well, if nothing else,” he said, drawing the wand from within his coat, “I have a—”

A sound split the air, a terrible sound seared into his memory. It was like a hiss, if a hiss was a bellow; a strangely subtle noise which occurred only on the very edges of hearing, and yet was powerful enough to make the ground vibrate.

“Ah,” Xyraadi said ruefully, “it took longer than I expected. And we pay for that reprieve now, for it is even worse than I feared.”

A shape appeared high overhead from the sulfurous clouds roiling above the obsidian volcanoes, a languidly undulating silhouette in the murk that resembled an eel. It was a small shadow, but Gabriel knew from experience that that only meant it was far away. He remembered very well how big they were.

“Aw, man,” he groaned, staring up at the nurdrakhaan. “I hate those things.”

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14 – 22

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If the ability to evade questions was a characteristic of a good lawyer, Mortimer Agasti must have been a very good one indeed.

Not that he was anything less than a perfectly gracious host. Agasti put them up in his own apartment for the night; it proved quite luxurious, though there were only two guest rooms and Toby and Gabriel had to share. The warlock was most apologetic about this until they reassured him that this was their customary arrangement back in Last Rock.

At some point while no one was looking, Verniselle and Izara both absented themselves without fanfare or farewell, in the customarily inscrutable manner of deities. None of the paladins enlightened Agasti as to his friend Nell’s true nature, since obviously she would have herself had she ever intended to. From then on, aside from the revenant Arkady, it was just them and Agasti.

Over a sumptuous dinner, over dessert and tea afterward, at breakfast the next day and then during the long carriage ride to the north and east out of Ninkabi, he kept up a vivacious conversation with them, somehow constantly turning any query into his own history back upon them. Their quest thus far, as Vesk had ordained it, was related by the time dinner was done, with Agasti sharing an insightful back-and-forth with them about the nuances of the various gods and cults they’d encountered over tea afterward. He kept up his inquiries after that into the next day, though. Never pressing and always retreating politely at the first sign of hesitation, but just as constantly deflecting any subject from himself and back to them. Over the passing hours they ended up describing a lot of life in Last Rock, relating stories of their various adventures under Tellwyrn’s tutelage, and even reminiscing about their respective upbringings in Tiraas and Viridill.

As the hours drifted by in pleasant talk, even Trissiny began to forget her initial wariness. Agasti himself seemed to be growing younger right in front of them; energy began to fill his voice and movements, his steps lost their shuffle, and even his posture straightened up. It was as if the man were drawing a new enthusiasm for life simply from their presence.

“It seems to me that there is a running theme to your quest thus far,” Agasti said as the carriage rumbled through the hilly N’Jendo countryside, drawing steadily closer to the Wyrnrage. It was a particularly bright day, sunny and warm now that the sun had finally climbed above the mountains, and they were constantly serenaded by birds and cicadas. They had long since left the Imperial highways and were now traveling along an ancient dirt track riddled with potholes and clumps of hardy weeds, perilous enough to jeopardize a wagon wheel. Agasti’s carriage, however, was an exquisite Falconer custom job, whose interior was rather like riding in a mobile opera box; it also had the very best shock absorption enchantments on the market, and they might as well have been gliding for all the difference the road’s condition made. “Now, ordinarily, that’s exactly the kind of thing I caution young folks against; the mind always wants to see patterns, often where there are none, and you must guard against that tendency or end up fooling yourself. You kids are working for Vesk, though, and there’s nothing a bard loves like a theme.”

“Actually, I’d picked up on several possible themes to this,” Gabriel said lightly, “but I’m curious which one stuck out in your mind, Mortimer.”

“I had the opposite impression,” Trissiny grunted. “The more I learn of this business the more it seems like Vesk is aimlessly yanking our chain. Especially since Salyrene clued us in about the real nature of that key.”

“And yet, here you still are,” Toby said in his mild tone, giving her a smile.

“…there’s a lot to be learned from this,” Trissiny replied, almost grudgingly. “I’ve made way too many mistakes in life to pass up a chance at education. No matter how annoying it is.”

“You generally seem too hard on yourself, Trissiny,” Agasti said. “Don’t be afraid to give yourself credit where it’s earned. You acknowledge your prejudices and work to overcome them, and that isn’t a small thing, not at all. Far too many people go their entire lives never once admitting to themselves that they have prejudices. The mark of a fool is that he thinks he understands himself and his life. But yes, Gabriel, I did pick out one theme in particular: you keep meeting gods. Meeting them, and gaining insight into their thoughts.”

“Which has been a priceless opportunity, of course,” Toby said, nodding. “You think that’s what Vesk intended?”

“I know a bit about the structure of stories,” Agasti replied with a mischievous grin. “You’re closing in on your third piece of four, which would make this, say, the opening of the third act. The themes of this story are established by now, but I strongly suspect you won’t find out what Vesk was actually after until the very end. Take heart, though; I firmly believe you will learn that truth eventually. A deity who thinks in stories won’t be able to resist explaining everything once you reach the denouement.”

“Third act, hm,” Gabriel murmured, gazing out the window at the passing countryside, his expression suddenly a dour contrast to the sunshine. “That means the really painful part is coming up soon.”

“You also know a bit about stories, I see,” Agasti said. “Remember the one really comforting thing about working for Vesk: in a story, the heroes have to reach the end. In real life, anything might happen and the world always has something lying in wait to crush you, but in a story? Vesk will test you to the very limit of your capabilities, but no farther.”

“That’s actually more of a comfort than you make it sound,” Trissiny said dryly. “Capabilities are there to be tested.”

“And expanded,” Agasti replied with an approving nod. “Returning to the theme: you already represent an unprecedented unity among the cults. In past ages, various different paladins would be at each other’s throats when the crossed paths more often than they worked together.”

“Someone mentioned that to us,” Toby noted.

“Also worth noting is the unusual branching out of skills that has begun,” Agasti continued. “The Hand of Avei, a trained and fully accredited member of the Thieves’ Guild. The Hand of Vidius, also an arcane enchanter.”

“Not much of one, yet,” Gabriel demurred.

“And you have been studying for what, two years? Skills like that take time to build, Gabriel. And your companion, there, will be a great help in progressing them.”

“I have already,” Ariel stated. “He has been a far less hopeless pupil than I first assessed. I aspire to eventually make a reasonably competent enchanter of him, presuming he does not get killed first. For a supposedly invulnerable man, that prospect keeps looming larger.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabe sighed.

“I don’t wish to be presumptuous,” Agasti said seriously, “but may I offer a suggestion?”

“We’d be glad of your advice,” Toby replied. “You’ve been extremely insightful so far.” The others nodded agreement.

“I think,” Agasti said in a pensive tone, “it would suit you to take advantage of the opportunities the gods have given, and develop your skills beyond what is normally expected of your divine role. Trissiny has made an admirable start in that direction. There is further you could go, however,” he continued, turning his face to her directly. “For example: as a half-elf, you have a much higher capacity for magic than the average human. Have you done much to leverage that?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” she said slowly. “I know the basic healing and shielding I was taught at the Abbey, and had some additional study with Professor Harklund at Last Rock. I’ve gotten pretty good at making hardlight constructs… Mostly, though, I’ve focused on skills that use my hands and my brain.”

He nodded. “You already have a suite of abilities that an enemy would not expect, and that is an advantage. Don’t overlook your magic, however; the divine is more versatile than ninety percent of its users give it credit for. Those shields, for example, can be an offensive measure as much as a defensive one if you use them with some creativity.”

“Now, that we’ve seen in action,” Gabriel said eagerly. “Shaeine is crazy good with shields, to the point she’s as much a long-range fighter as a healer in our team. Oh, and she also has this trick where she can touch someone on the forehead and put them to sleep.”

“Ah, yes,” Agasti said, nodding again. “That’s another thing: mind magic is the province of the divine. For the most part, that is a highly specialized discipline, used for either mental healing or unimaginable cruelty, but there are a number of simple tricks that are very handy in a variety of circumstances. That sleep spell, for example.”

“But that’s Themynrite technique, isn’t it?” Trissiny objected.

“It would be more accurate to say there is a Themynrite technique for it,” Agasti replied. “Similar spells are also widely used by the Citrine College and the Order of Light; I have also heard it rumored that the shadow priestesses of Scyllith know that trick. And it is only one example.”

“Why is that, I wonder?” Toby mused. “That mind magic is divine, I mean. I don’t really see a correlation.”

“Why, the divine is all about order,” Agasti said with a smile. “And minds… The truth is, most of the contents of our own minds are invisible to us. We are aware of our thoughts, yes, but not of the underlying processes by which those thoughts are created. Most of a person’s mind is inscrutable and not meant to be consciously contacted. If you poke your own perception into someone else’s brain, what you find will either seem like nonsense or possibly damage your own sanity. It is by imposing order that one influences the deeper workings of the mind. Building barriers and structures to channel energies, create patterns out of chaos.”

“That sounds like a quick way to completely destroy someone’s sanity,” Toby said, eyes wide.

“It is definitely a thing one should not attempt without considerable training,” Agasti agreed firmly. “But as I said, there are things you can do with mind magic that are not very intrusive—like, for example, put someone to sleep.”

“Shaeine also knows some diagnostic magic,” Trissiny mused. “I’ve seen her check a person’s mental and physical condition…”

The carriage veered slightly, leaving the road to park beside it, and came to a halt.

“Ah,” Agasti said briskly. “Here we are, then. Out we go!”

They clambered out into the sunshine, and the old man was not the only one who moved stiffly after that long confinement; it had been a good two hours’ drive from Ninkabi. Both the revenants who had accompanied them stepped out of the driver’s compartment, moving smoothly and without hesitation. Evidently there were benefits to the lack of a mortal body.

Patchy stands of trees covered the rolling foothills of the Wyrnrange on this side, casting intermittent shade. They had come to the very foot of the mountains, or one long outcropping of them at least; the entire West sloped down from the Wyrnrange to the sea, and N’Jendo was mostly rocky country where steppes and jagged peaks cropped up all the way to the coast, and beyond it in the form of islands. Here there was a little glade, tucked into the shadow of a mountain and braced between two steep hills, each crowned with trees. In the shade between them sat a disused temple.

It was of a style common to old-fashioned Avenist and Izarite architecture, a round structure of granite with a domed roof, braced by columns. The temple was obviously abandoned, the path up to its doors overgrown, the doors themselves hanging open and one listing crazily off its hinges. What had once been a garden out front was now a wild tangle of bushes, flowers, and small trees, and climbing vines had covered half the structure. For all that, though, it seemed to be in good repair, the broken door notwithstanding. The stone was not broken or even cracked, at least not visibly.

“We won’t be disturbed here,” Agasti said, planting his walking stick in front of himself and leaning on it with both hands. He did not appear to need the support; his spine was fully straight, now, making him look much taller than he had the night before. The stick was topped by a crystal sphere in which white light slowly swirled, now shadowed by his grip. “When I had to abandon the temple, the goddess placed a protection over it. Any living thing which does not already know of its existence will overlook it, and others in the vicinity will be encouraged to turn elsewhere. Even animals won’t approach.”

“It all seems so peaceful,” Gabriel said, taking a step forward.

“No closer!” Agasti said sharply, and he froze. The warlock continued in a more moderate tone. “Allow me to explain. The magical working over which I lost control was a channeling of divine and infernal energies together into a pattern. My mistake caused the nascent shatterstone to explode half-made, unleashing its full effect—which, being unfinished, was not at all what it was meant to be. I had unfortunately succeeded all too well in creating a balance between those two types of energy, and when I hastily removed myself from the equation, they continued to draw until it stabilized.”

“But infernal magic is drawn from the caster,” Trissiny said, frowning. “It didn’t sap you dry?”

Agasti shook his head. “It switched to the purest source in my absence, drawing power from Hell directly through the network of divine channels I had created.”

“So…” Toby unconsciously fell into a braced stance. “You created a hellgate?”

“Nothing so straightforward, I’m afraid,” said Agasti, staring at the old temple. “A hellgate is simple enough; I could have informed the Sisterhood or the Empire to come lock down the site and accepted whatever punishment they imposed for my carelessness. No, this is something…unprecedented. I do not fully understand what transpired, much less how—obviously, or I would have prevented it—but the result was a merging. In this place, the mortal and infernal planes are somehow layered onto each other. That temple exists in both, simultaneously.”

Silence fell; even the singing of the cicadas was distant. Apparently the insects were not inclined to approach this place. Arkady came to stand behind Agasti’s shoulder, folding his hands behind his back, while Kami continued unpacking a picnic lunch from the carriage.

“Then why isn’t the whole area crawling with demons?” Trissiny asked finally. “No offense, Mortimer, but that seems hard to credit. I don’t even sense any infernal magic; if what you say is true, this whole area should be blazing with it.”

“Oh, you would sense it and worse if you drew too close,” Agasti said, his shoulders heaving in a small sigh. “I spent as much time as I dared nosing around the site to try to understand what I had done. As best I can tell… This event is somehow frozen in the middle of the process of creating a hellgate.”

“I get it,” Gabriel said, nodding slowly with his eyes fixed on the temple. “Just like shadow-jumping, or any dimensional portal. There are two basic steps to the process: create a link between two locations, and then bore a hole across it.”

“Precisely,” said Agasti. “What seems to have made the difference is the equipment I was using. The power is flowing through that piece of Elder God machinery, and through some twist of fate fell into perfect balance and created a stable loop. The gate does not form, nor do the energies dissipate.”

“So what happens if we remove it?” Trissiny demanded.

Agasti shook his head again. “I must admit that the possibilities are endless. Nothing in the lore I have studied even hints at an event like this happening before. The likelihoods, however, are only two. Either the hellgate will finish forming, or the rift will collapse without forming at all.”

“We’ll get the gate, won’t we,” Toby said quietly. “Thanks to Vesk and his story.”

“That still doesn’t explain the lack of demons,” Gabriel said, turning to Agasti. “They usually want out of Hell like rats want off a sinking ship. Or did Izara’s concealment apply in that dimension, too?”

“That would only have drawn Elilial’s direct attention, and then who knows what might have unfolded,” Agasti said with a wince. “This place isn’t as unwatched as it appears, but the eyes on it are scrying from safe distances; I presume the same is true on the other side. It is difficult to approach for reasons beyond Izara’s intervention. As a consequence of the transposition of both forms of energy into the wrong domains, this site resists the approach of any source of divine magic. Theoretically, the reverse should be true on the other side: anything infernal would be unable to draw near. The fact that none have bears out that theory; since everything in Hell is saturated with infernal magic, there is nothing magically neutral which could enter the space. It really is the most fascinating phenomenon,” he added morosely. “I have often wished I could study such an event without the taint of guilt I feel for having so corrupted a piece of the gods’ creation.”

“Wait,” Trissiny said, turning to him. “If nothing divine can approach, how are we going to get in?”

“The three of you do practically radiate with divine magic, it’s true,” Agasti agreed. “I have a theory, however.”

“Oh, good,” Ariel commented. “A theory. About this singular and completely enigmatic phenomenon which you now propose to prod with a pitchfork.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel snapped. “Go on, Mortimer.”

“The nature of this entire phenomenon is balance,” the warlock explained. “It is divine and infernal, kept in balance so they do not explode. Adding power of either kind should theoretically cause one to annihilate the other, but this thing is stable and resistant to interference; if it could have been disrupted from the other side, it would have by now. This has sat here for nearly three years, and if there is one thing the forces of Hell do to perfection it is disrupt. That gives us some leeway. In most infernal workings the slightest misstep is, by definition, disaster, but this one will actively seek to uphold its own balance, which means that small errors on our part should not destabilize it completely.”

“At least, not till we yank out the linchpin holding it all together,” Gabriel interjected.

Agasti nodded. “I have thoughts about that, too, but first things first. An infernal working by me, accompanying a divine presence, will hopefully enable that presence to enter the radius without triggering the backlash. So long as your divine presence is balanced with infernal…escort, so to speak, you should be able to enter.”

“Balance,” Trissiny muttered. “Okay, I get it. What’s this backlash you’re referring to?”

“This is a temple of Izara, after all,” Agasti said with a grimace. “Or was. A priest attempted to join me in cleansing it; his presence at the border of the event caused, well… It was most peculiar. The effect was confined to the boundary, as if it were a shield, but it was clearly the explosive reaction of divine and infernal magic coming into uncontrolled contact. After some probing, he tried to force his way in, and that’s how we discovered the intensity of the reaction increases the more force is applied to it. Balance, as we have discussed.”

“Brute force is rarely the best solution to any problem,” said Toby.

“That will get you in,” Agasti continued, his hands tightening on the head of his cane. “At least one of you; I have my doubts whether I can safely muster enough infernal power to counter the presence of two paladins, much less three. And…I think it will have to be Gabriel.”

“Point of order,” Gabe said, raising one hand. “If you’re counting on my bloodline to balance this out, there’s no magic in hethelax heritage.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Agasti replied. “There is incredible magic in hethelax heritage, it is simply not in a form you can wield to your own ends. But that bloodline insulates you from infernal power, that is its entire point. The most potent demonic magic is that which grants resistance to infernal corruption, and this is the reason holy summoning as a field even exists: none of those magics can be extricated from their sources, only used as they are. The defenses of such as the Rhaazke, the Vanislaad and the hethelaxi are inimitable and inseparable from the beings imbued with them. Since your specific demon bloodline, Gabriel, is prone to preserve balance and protect you from corruption, I think it will be a help. But that is the lesser consideration. I believe the key to pulling out the key fragment is your scythe.”

“I’m getting good mileage from this thing lately,” Gabe said agreeably, pulling the wand from inside his coat and extending it to full scythe form. “I suspect you’re right, now you mention it. We already know it can cut dimensional barriers.”

“Which makes even more sense, now that we know it originally belonged to a valkyrie,” Trissiny added. “They can slice Vanislaads right out of this dimension with those weapons.”

“It will be a matter of examining the original working, what remains of it,” Agasti said, “and severing very specific flows of magic. I believe if you are properly informed, and careful, you should be able to collapse the event in the direction we want, causing it to disintegrate and separate the two dimensions again. I will provide the most detailed instructions I can, and your sword will be most helpful; she was made specifically to serve as a guide and assistant in complex magical workings.”

“Just for perspective,” Ariel said, “you are proposing to send a frankly mediocre enchanting student to perform surgery with a farm implement while straddling a nascent dimensional rift.”

“That was a little melodramatic, but not strictly wrong,” Trissiny added. “Let me just point out that not doing this is an option on the table. Right now that thing is stable. Would it be so terrible to leave it that way? I think we’ve established that Vesk doesn’t actually need his trinket, and I’m not sure that our character development or whatever is worth taking risks with Gabe’s life and a potential new hellgate.”

“She’s right,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Gabriel now. “Gabe… This is going to go badly, I know it. It’s like you said, this is the part of the story where the disaster falls.”

“And how many times are we going to find ourselves on the cusp of an unpredictable disaster and be able to predict it?” Gabriel countered. “Guys, this is what paladins are for: taking risks, and righting wrongs. Who knows how long that thing can remain balanced? Vesk and his key aside, this seems like exactly the sort of business we were called to address. Yes, it’s dangerous and we could all die. None of us signed up without knowing that.”

Trissiny bit her lip, saying nothing. Toby heaved a sigh, then reached into his own pocket and withdrew the twisted glass bottle Salyrene had given him. “All right. If you are going into that thing, you’re taking this with you.”

“Hey, I’m the one with the magic scythe and the talking sword and the invincible demon blood,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Don’t you think I should leave some advantages for the rest of you?”

“Take the bottle,” Toby snapped, pushing it against his chest until Gabriel obeyed. “It’s just basic sense, Gabe. If something—when something goes wrong, you’ll need to be the one with access to additional support.”

“I confess I am having second thoughts about this, myself,” Agasti said worriedly. “I hadn’t dwelled on it, but as you say, Vesk’s hand on these affairs is ominous. If this were a story…”

“If it were a story,” Gabriel interrupted while tucking the bottle away in his pocket, “a paladin wouldn’t hesitate to head into danger, not if it meant banishing evil from the world. So, since I am terrified shitless myself here and holding on by a thread, let’s please stop jabbering about that and get down to the practicalities.”

“Once again, Gabe,” Trissiny said, “you don’t have to—”

“We’re all protagonists here,” he interrupted. “You keep that in mind. Just because I’ll be the one going into danger doesn’t mean you two don’t have a part to play. We can’t back down, guys, not now. If there’s going to be a disaster, let it be in this peaceful little backwater that nobody knows about so we can learn the lesson now. Otherwise, you know damn well it’ll happen when something major is hanging in the balance.”

“We’re not going to be working for Vesk forever,” she pointed out. “Don’t get too used to working on story logic, and definitely don’t try to apply it to the future!”

“But we’re going to be paladins, and we’re going to make mistakes. As people keep reminding me, learning from your mistakes is how you get better at…anything.” He managed a smile, almost successfully hiding the nerves preying on him, and turned to the warlock. “So, Mortimer, what’s the plan?”


The plan involved a great deal of tense waiting, from their side.

Agasti sat cross-legged in the center of a sprawling ritual circle, his cane driven into the ground in front of him and his eyes fixed on the orb at its head. Flickers of flame extended forward from the subtly glowing glyphs and lines surrounding him, outlining the path into the temple Gabriel had taken. Unlike arcane and fae circles, which were inscribed with charged materials, he had simply burned the pattern right into the ground.

Both revenants hung back, at the warlock’s orders, hovering about the carriage. They clearly didn’t like leaving him alone, but he had insisted that the proximity of more demons would imperil the extremely delicate balance he and Gabriel had to maintain.

Toby kept a balance of his own standing upright with his hands folded behind him, gazing blank-faced at the temple. It was an aspect that might have appeared callous and disinterested to an observer who did not recognize meditative practice in action. Trissiny, who was also schooled in meditation, preferred to pace.

“Do you sense anything?” she asked, her course bringing her up behind Toby.

He shook his head mutely.

“…he’ll be fine,” she said to herself. “Gabe’s resourceful. It’s not like a hellgate would suck him in, if it turns into that. The backlash of infernal energy wouldn’t hurt him, anyway.”

“He’s doing well,” Agasti said suddenly, not looking up from the crystal ball before him. “Careful, little cuts. Clearly he’s used to doing precision work. The sword is causing me to have to exert a little extra effort…”

“The sword?” Trissiny rounded on him. “What’s wrong? Does he need help?”

“No, no,” the warlock said tersely. “Ariel’s helping him detect the flows of infernal magic, he can’t see them directly. The infernal is reacting to her own arcane emissions. Very minor variables, nothing I can’t compensate for.”

She drew in a deep breath, nodded, and resumed pacing.

“I think I see what he meant,” Toby said suddenly. His voice was very quiet, almost a whisper, but Trissiny instantly turned and came back to rejoin him. “About us having a part to play in this.”

“Yeah, I feel real useful out here,” she muttered.

“Story logic,” he said, eyes still fixed on the temple in which Gabriel was carefully making incisions in reality. “As people, we contribute nothing to this. As characters…”

“I refuse to understand Vesk’s perspective on this, Toby. It’s insultingly nonsensical.”

“There’s nobody in the world who matters more to me,” Toby said quietly. “The way of peace discourages attachments. Not forbids; Omnu is a god of life and warmth, too, and people can’t live without having bonds. But… I grew up an orphan, trained as a monk, became a paladin. It’s a lonely path. The monks tried to separate me from Gabe, too, but I put my foot down.”

“Good,” she said. “You both needed that friendship.”

“I see it clearly now, suddenly,” he whispered. “Somehow in all the trouble we’ve gotten into, I’ve never had to just stand here and watch Gabriel risk his life. It’s like looking at this relationship from the outside. I don’t know what would happen to me if something broke that bond.”

“If this really were a story,” she said nervously, “you should really not be talking like that. It’s just tempting fate. Aggressively.”

“I was already thinking it,” he said with a minute shrug. “Damage done, narratively speaking. Gods, I’m already tired of thinking that way, I can’t wait to be out from under Vesk’s thumb.”

“I hear that,” she replied fervently.

“The realization just made me wonder,” he said softly. “If what we’re risking out here is what Gabriel means to us… What is he to you?”

The wind picked up faintly, hardly enough to disturb her hair; just the slightest whisper of breath, as if to emphasize the silence which fell. There was nothing said for a time, and they both stared at the temple, waiting.

“My conscience,” she said suddenly in the quiet, and Toby finally broke his poise, turning to her with a look of surprise.

“Wait,” Agasti said, frowning. “Something is wrong.”

“Here it is,” Trissiny growled, extending her arm.

Toby grabbed her wrist. “Don’t! Summoning your sword is divine magic, you could upset the whole thing.”

She bared her teeth in a snarl at the unfairness of it all, but nodded.

“Gabriel, cease that,” Agasti said urgently. “Get out of there, please, there’s an additional influence at work.”

“Influence?” Trissiny asked sharply.

“Gabriel!” The warlock’s frown deepened, and finally he lifted his eyes from the crystal. “I’m not getting through, the connection is fraying. GABRIEL!” He finally raised his voice, shouting at the temple. “GET BACK HERE!”

“What is happening?” Trissiny demanded.

“Someone else is trying to intervene,” Agasti snapped, “from the other side. He is on the very cusp of disentangling the dimensions, but— There’s no time, call to him!”

“GABRIEL!” Toby roared, projecting powerfully from the diaphragm.

Trissiny actually charged forward, ignoring Agasti’s warning. As she came abreast of the place where the fire-tracks from the spell circle petered out, however, her divine shield flared alight unbidden, sparking and putting off a corona as if it were under attack from all sides. Trissiny herself slammed to a stop, staggering backward.

Gabe appeared in the temple’s broken door, his coat flaring behind him as he pelted full tilt toward them. Barely had he crossed the threshold, however, when the entire world flipped.

From a mortal perspective, it was a powerfully confusing thing to behold. That one fragment of creation changed in a way that called to mind a thing being turned upside-down, or backward, or perhaps inside-out. What actually moved, however, didn’t move at all physically, but simply transposed itself with a piece of…something else. Just being close enough to observe it brought waves of vertigo.

But whatever the phenomenon, the result was obvious. When the effect collapsed, the dimensions had re-aligned, but instead of the meadow and the temple, they were now staring at a patch of hard reddish stone, marred by outcroppings of jagged obsidian. The mortal and infernal planes had separated, all right, but in that place where they had been merged, each piece was now on the wrong side.


He skidded to a stop, tucking the mithril fragment into his pocket and raising the scythe in his other hand. Beyond the little meadow, where the world had once been, there was now a blasted scape of stone, thorns, and towers of what looked like bone. The sky was a sulfurous yellow, and the air, notably hotter than even the Jendi summer afternoon, stank of brimstone.

More immediately, standing all around the circle in which the forsaken temple stood, were demons. Dozens of them, all staring hungrily at him.

The Hand of Vidius braced his feet, hefted his scythe, and readied himself for whatever came next.

“Well, I’ve Arquin’d myself good and proper this time.”

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14 – 15

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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—”

“NOT…LIKE…”

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.

“Oh, really?”

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?”

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14 – 14

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Sheathing her sword, Trissiny bent and picked up the shard that last capling had just hurled at her. “Gabriel, you’re being ridiculous. How can you know what these creatures are thinking? There’s no way…”

“Here’s the thing about puzzles,” he said, still grinning. “You have to try things to work out the solution. It’s sort of a given, going in, that the first few things you try aren’t going to work.”

“Uh huh,” she said skeptically. “And if we lose pieces? We need these to open the thingy and get out of here.”

He shrugged, that infuriatingly placid smile not faltering. “We’ve got nothing to lose but time. We’re in an enclosed space, here; nothing’s leaving the room until we get the door open. Worst case scenario, we play some tag with the caplings and then have to try something else.”

She tilted her head back to stare plaintively at the ceiling.

“By the same logic,” Ariel pointed out, “you could try something else in the first place. This room is entirely filled with living biological matter, which your scythe can reduce to decomposed fragments.”

“I’m not murdering the caplings,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Mass murder is not the solution, Ariel. Ever.”

“Just to be sure you have noticed, Tobias is not here.”

“Wow, is that not the point.”

“Well,” Trissiny mused aloud, “we could still just take the pieces from…” Her voice petered out as her eyes fell on the little mushroom-person who was still hopping up and down, emitting birdlike calls and waving its scrawny arms, and she physically flinched. “Oh, what the hell.”

The capling squealed in pure delight when she tossed the crystal shard in a gentle arc, hopping to intercept; in its eagerness, it hit the shard with its conical head, causing it to bounce away, but immediately on landing the fairy scrabbled after it, scooping up the glowing prize and vanishing around a tree trunk with a triumphant shriek.

The other two, likewise, dived away into the mushrooms and moss which constituted the underbrush, leaving the two of them alone by the door.

Trissiny turned and gave Gabriel her best, most pointed look. “Great. Well, now what?”

“Come on, I thought you said you’d played tag before,” he chided her. “It’s no fun if you just stand there.” He crept toward the trees on his toes, then suddenly lunged past the nearest trunk to duck his head around behind it. “Boo!”

Shrieking and yelping in delight, a capling burst out around the other side of the trunk and pelted a crystal shard at Gabriel’s back, where it bounced off his coat. Immediately, another one burst to life from a nearby stand of large mushrooms and skittered by, snatching it up and darting off along the wall emitting a series of whoops like a monkey. Gabriel, laughing, dashed after it.

“This is asinine,” Trissiny protested.

“I tend to agree,” Ariel’s voice replied from some distance away in the trees. “Keep in mind that this is clearly a fae-aligned room, and also a test of character administered by an automated construct devised by a goddess not noted for her excellent judgment where character is concerned. That it is clearly asinine does not necessarily mean anything is amiss.”

Her echoing voice seemed to waver and move as Gabriel traced a path through the trees ahead. Now he popped out again from behind a stump as tall as he was to give Trissiny a sardonic look. “Try not to have fun, Triss. I’d hate it if you started bleeding internally or something.”

“You are asinine,” she snapped.

“I love how you say that like you’re pointing out something we don’t all know,” he retorted cheerfully, then charged off in the direction of a scuffling sound.

Heaving another sigh, she strode reluctantly into the trees after him, muttering all the while. “I’m just saying, we don’t have to kill the little things. I bet a good scare would make them give up the…”

Something bounced off the back of her head and she whirled. A reddish capling with a flat, white-spotted mushroom cap made a noise that was too much like a laugh to be a coincidence and dived away into the shadows beneath a moss-laden branch.

Scowling, Trissiny bent and picked up the shard it had flung at her. “Playing tag with jagged pieces of crystal. Somebody doesn’t have to worry about vulnerable organs, I see. If the girls back at the Abbey had done something this foolish I’d’ve—”

The red and white capling poked its head out of the moss and made a rude noise at her.

“Oh, you little pest!” Trissiny surged after it, arm upraised to throw the shard, and it skittered away again, whooping. She ducked through the hanging moss and slid to a stop in the loam, looking around; there was no sign of her tormentor. However, while she was peering about for it, she caught another capling rising stealthily out of a waist-high stand of mushrooms, arm upraised and ready to throw another shard. Acting on reflex, Trissiny beaned it right on its cap with the shard in her hand. “Gotcha!”

It staggered out of the mushrooms, spun in a full circle on its heal, and flopped onto its back, letting the shard tumble free from its grip.

“Oh, Vesk would love you,” Trissiny said, ignoring a distant shout from Gabriel which was followed by a long crashing noise that sounded like a smaller tree being felled. She frowned, the capling continued to lie there, unmoving. Did they have vulnerable organs? Those crystals really did have sharp edges, and she realized with a measure of guilt that she’d thrown a lot harder than they had been so far. “Hey,” she said uncertainly, stepping forward. “Are you okay?”

The capling didn’t move, even when she nudged it with her boot. “Oh, no,” Trissiny muttered, kneeling to carefully prod at its cap with her fingertips, looking for a damaged spot where the piece might have hit. Her healing, never her strongest suit, was absolutely useless here; divine light was not at all healthy for fairies.

Suddenly the capling rolled over, snatched up both the pieces of crystal, and dashed off into the trees, whooping triumphantly.

“That does it!” she barked, charging after. “You actually worried me, you little menace!”

The capling unwisely picked a straight route through the trees; given that her legs were longer than it was tall, Trissiny outpaced it in seconds, and scooped the little fae up bodily with both hands. “Hah! Who’s clever now?”

It raised its hands in apparent surrender, one shard clutched in each, and then very lightly tossed one of them. She shut her eyes instinctively, but the shard bounced off her forehead, not even hard enough to leave a mark. If it has wanted to put her eye out at that range, with a double handful of sharp crystal, it certainly could have.

“Mm hm, that’s one,” she said wryly, while the shard fell to lie on the dead leaves around her feet. “Now come on, cough it up.”

The capling held up the remaining shard before her face, atop its palm, and she noted for the first time up close that its “hands” were little fleshy pads ringed by six stubby, opposable digits. Before she could do anything, though, it suddenly tossed the shard over her shoulder and made a gargling noise like a turkey.

Trissiny turned around just in time to see another capling scuttling off into the trees, holding aloft the shard.

“You little booger,” she said, and her captive gobbled at her again. She started to drop it, but thinking better of that, turned and gently set it down atop a large tree root—taking care to snatch up the fallen shard before it could reach it again. “I guess this round’s a draw,” she said, holding up the glowing fragment of crystal.

Her erstwhile opponent hopped up and down and made a shrill whoop that she only recognized as the call of a peacock because there happened to have been one in the botanical gardens in Tiraas from which she’d once stolen a mimosa blossom. Then it hopped down and scurried away, still cawing.

Trissiny felt she ought to be soundly annoyed by that whole episode, but found herself grinning, much to her own surprise.

“All right,” she called, turning in a slow circle in search of more signs of movement, “who’s next?”

On cue, Gabriel came crashing through a stand of mushrooms, none of which were sentient, fortunately. Before Trissiny could say anything, he tossed her an insane grin and then a shard of glowing crystal. Her reflexes were amply sharp enough to snatch it out of the air, since she saw it coming.

“Really, Gabe?” she snorted.

“Is that all you’ve got?” he shot back, holding up a fist with several jagged crystal tips protruding through his fingers. “Man, Trissiny. I’m still not clear on what the rules are for this game, but I think we can safely determine that you suck at it.”

“How the—you were gone for a minute and a half!”

“I was gone for a minute and a half, screwing around.” He winked. “I have it on good authority that that’s my greatest strength.”

“Well, isn’t this handy,” she said ominously, taking a step toward him. “And here I was just asking who was next.”

He fled, cackling nearly as obnoxiously as the caplings. Trissiny got five paces after him before instinct and a flash in her peripheral vision made her twist and snatch another crystal that was flying at her. She stuck out her tongue at the capling who had thrown it, earning a truly bizarre trumpeting noise in response, and immediately flung the shard at another one which was trying to creep up on her from an oblique angle barely within her field of view.

“Can I just point out,” she shouted to the room at large, “I’m the only one here with eyeballs and no hethelax invulnerability? Go easy, for heaven’s sake!”

“Maybe they are!” Gabe called from off to her left, hidden by the forest. “Maybe that’s why you’re lagging behind.”

“I’m gonna lag your behind!”

“I have no idea what that means but it’s somehow the must unsettling thing I’ve ever heard.”

“You disappoint me, Trissiny,” his sidekick added. “I was counting on you to be a wet blanket, as usual. Now he’s going to try to solve all his problems by playing tag.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” they belted in unison.

Trissiny chased off after him, trying to follow his laughter as he moved away, and not quite managing to keep up. She’d always been more than his match in agility, but Gabriel had grown more nimble thanks to Professor Ezzaniel’s efforts and their various adventures, and no matter how used she was to moving in armor it was inevitably somewhat cumbersome in close quarters like these. Before she even caught a glimpse of his coat through the woods—or maybe she did, it was the perfect color to be excellent camouflage in here—another capling reared up, its hand upraised with a crystal shard whose glow cut through the shadows.

They were, she soon decided, actually taking it easy on her; three times she caught sight of Gabriel being pelted with shards hard enough to make him yelp in protest, though biologically speaking it couldn’t possibly have hurt. To her, though, the caplings tossed them relatively softly, and either telescrolled their movements so she had ample time to react or hit her from behind, with no threat to the eyes. Was this sensitivity some inherent characteristic of caplings? It seemed more likely it was one of the Tower’s safety features at work, though she had already resolved to do some research on these little creatures anyway when she had the chance. Just from sheer curiosity, and also because this was the second time she’d encountered them in dungeons.

It was to her own amazement that she discovered that some of the laughter echoing through the chamber was her own.

Trissiny, following a flicker of movement from ahead, hesitated in the shadow of a tree, listening to rustling from its other side, then lunged out to ambush the crystal-bearing capling she’d been tracking. Unfortunately, she discovered two things: that she had emerged again into the clearing around the door, and that Gabriel had had the same idea from the other side of that tree. Trissiny didn’t have enough reaction time for a proper wrestling throw, luckily for him, but managed to turn what would have been a head-on collision into an awkward sidestep.

And then Gabriel, with a deftness she knew for a fact he couldn’t have achieved had he been trying, tangled one of his legs through hers in the act of trying to evade her, and sent them both crashing to the ground.

Surprisingly, they were both still laughing when they landed.

“And still in the lead!” he chortled, scraping up his collection of shards where he’d just dropped half of them among the leaves. “You’ve got, what, three?”

“It’s a good thing you’re so bad at everything,” she snipped back, unable to suppress her own grin. “You’re a terribly ungracious winner, Gabe.”

“Oh, hey,” he said in surprised, lifting his eyes from her. “I guess…that means we won.”

They were fully surrounded by caplings, now; once the whole tribe was out in the open, there were over a dozen of them. More than half were carrying shards, but instead of throwing them, they now clustered around, carefully depositing the fragments in the pile Gabriel had just accidentally made.

Trissiny spied the little red-and-white-capped one from before and patted it gently with her gauntlet, earning a series of songbird-like chirps in response.

“That was officially the best test ever,” Gabe announced while the caplings, their business apparently done, turned and vanished back into the fungal undergrowth.

“I don’t understand anything that just happened here,” Ariel complained. “What was the point of that? You accomplished nothing, learned nothing, and demonstrated no skills of any kind. Salyrene’s Tower is supposed to test the strength and intellect of magic users. No one even did any magic!”

Gabriel and Trissiny shared a look, both still grinning.

“Ariel,” she said in a deliberately pompous tone, “some things…are just beyond comprehension.”

“So, I should take that as an admission that you are just as baffled as I?”

“Maybe, but at least I got my heartbeat up and worked some muscle.”

“I have never had one of your squishy biological experiences, thankfully. Without exception they sound utterly revolting.”

“Okay, enough,” Gabriel said, patting her hilt. “If you’re just gonna grouse, be silent.”

“Ah, yes. Far be it from me to trespass on your turf.” Having had the last word, though, she at least stopped talking.

Gabriel and Trissiny shuffled onto the cleared stone surface near the door, carefully depositing all the crystal pieces between them, and began the process of fitting them back together. This proved a challenge mostly because they were meant to form a rounded disc-like shape, to judge by the indentation in the door panel, which did not want to sit upright on a flat surface. After a couple of failed attempts to get the pieces to sit still, they settled for starting to arrange them on the floor in roughly the correct position, but with some inches between them.

“So how are we going to get this thing together when we’ve figured out all the right places?” Trissiny asked. “I think it’s gonna be too big to fit in our hands…”

“Solving the problem in front of us before worrying about the next one has worked so far,” he said glibly. “I say we stick with that. So, uh, Triss… I was just wondering about something.”

“Just one thing?” she asked with a chuckle. “You’re doing better than I am, then.” She glanced up at him, and then hesitated in her sorting efforts, finding his expression more serious than she’d expected.

“Most of what I know about Eserites comes from Val Tarvadegh’s crash courses on Pantheon theology,” he said, now wearing a faint frown. “So, I’m just gonna assume it’s, shall we say, incomplete, when not actually tainted by a Vidian perspective.”

“A Vidian perspective, as I understand it, isn’t a whole lot different from an Eserite one…”

“Yeah, that’s…the thing. He sort of mentioned that. Okay, so, I’m really not trying to start any shit, here, but…you seem to not like playing games all that much. Or, at least, to not want to. It seemed like you had fun just now, once you got into it?”

Trissiny looked up at him again, raising an eyebrow.

“Val always said…” Gabe hesitated, then tried again. “He made it sound like Eserites were inherently playful. Like…they viewed everything as a game. As a kind of…cult-wide attitude.”

“It’s more than an attitude,” she said softly, again lowering her eyes to the shards she was trying to organize. He had paused in the work, but she kept at it, not mentioning that. “It’s doctrine. Life is struggle, and life is a game. The more serious the matter is, the more important it is to approach it as a game. Too much tension stiffens up the mind, makes you slow and clumsy, leads you into mistakes. The game never stops; if you stop playing, you start losing.”

There was silence. After a moment, he began moving crystal pieces again, saying nothing.

“And you’re having trouble reconciling the two,” Trissiny said at last, in a dry tone. “Has it occurred to you that maybe I’m just not a very good Eserite?”

“Uh, no. I can’t really conceive of you not being good at something. At least not something you care enough about to make an effort.”

She glanced up again in surprise, finding an unexpected warmth rushing to her cheeks. Fortunately, he was looking down at the crystals now.

“Gabe, do you remember when we played chess in Sarasio?”

“Yeah, and you kicked my ass.”

“Because you let me win.”

“I did not let you—”

“Come on, we went over that at the time, I saw what you were doing. You kept your mind on the broader situation instead of a specific game, used the first two to learn my strategies so you could counter them. That was my first actual hint that you’re smarter than you tended to act back then.”

“Aw, shucks,” he gushed, giving her a broad grin.

She rolled her eyes at him. “My point is, you didn’t see me shouting and whooping over the chessboard, did you?”

“No, but now that you’ve put that image in my head, I feel like I really missed out.”

“There’s more than one way to enjoy a game, Gabe. Sometimes just losing yourself in the flow is the most satisfying thing there is. No running or laughing involved.”

He looked up again, this time catching her gaze. “You know, I’ve never seen you running and laughing before today. You really should do it more often, Trissiny. It’s a good look on you.”

She lowered her eyes again. “…I know. I just… Part of me thinks doing anything for myself, just for fun, is…a waste of Avei’s resources. So much depends on me.”

“That sounds like a quick way to drive yourself completely insane.”

“Thank you.”

“I mean it, you’re still hu—you’re just as much a person as anybody, Triss. We all need some things just for ourselves. Just to function.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” she said with a sigh. “Being a hu—person, I have my flaws, too. One is that I’m not great at taking care of myself, emotionally.”

He didn’t seem to know what to say to that, and she didn’t look up again. For some inexplicable reason, she felt nervous about learning what look was on his face at that moment.

“So, on that subject,” he said after a pause, “I’ve been meaning to pick your brain about Eserite ideas, anyway.”

“Oh?”

“Having to do with what Vidius wants. The lion’s share of that seems to be cleaning house within his cult, which… I mean, the only success at all I’ve had at that involved scaring the pants off a bunch of them at the temple in Last Rock. But that was one serious priestess and then a gaggle of random followers; if I’m gonna deal with the real movers and shakers, I think I need to improve my game. Uh, considerably. Lady Gwenfaer struck me as the kind of person who has six plans in place to win any conversation before it happens.”

“How do you win a conversation?”

“That was a question I wouldn’t even have thought to ask before I met Gwenfaer. I assure you, it’s doable. She’s good at it. Me? Not so much.”

“I’m gonna stop you there, Gabe,” she said, also stopping work to look up at him seriously. “Bad idea. Fear is a volatile tool.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied in the same tone, also stilling his hands. “That’s why I wanted to ask you for advice before trying to just run off and do stuff. I know that’s a good part of how the Guild operates…”

“And you aren’t the Guild,” she said matter-of-factly. “Rule number one: do not frighten people and then give them a target. Fear transmutes itself to anger under even the slightest pressure; as soon as someone identifies the thing that’s scared them, they’ll either run from it or attack it. You can’t always predict which. The Guild gets away with this because it is formless. The Thieves’ Guild is ancient, and it’s everywhere. You can strike down one thief, and then you’ll have a dozen more after you. By now, the whole world knows better than to do that. And even so, people take swings at us all the time, mostly when they’re too spooked to think straight. You are in the opposite situation with the Vidians, Gabe. You’re one person, and they are a whole, vast network of clever operators sustaining a web you’ve barely glimpsed. The moment they decide you’re a threat to their interests, you’ll find yourself completely surrounded by hostile actors who are better than you at sly maneuvering. That’s a lethal position to be in.”

“Well, that’s good and fucking discouraging,” he muttered.

“With that said,” she continued, now wearing a faint smile, “I think you have a good idea, asking for Eserite insight. I don’t recommend trying to scare the Vidians straight, but there’s still some general practice you can learn from the Guild that can help you deal with them.”

He leaned forward, his whole face lighting up eagerly. “Such as? I’m all ears!”

She couldn’t help grinning along with his enthusiasm. “Well, some basic enforcer strategy, first of all. You always want to give your mark an out.”

“An…out?”

“A way out of the pressured situation you’re placing them in. You never, ever back somebody into a corner with no escape. A cornered animal immediately becomes ten times as dangerous, and people are the most dangerous animals to begin with.”

“Huh…what if the whole point is that you don’t want them to escape? You’re just trying to…take them out?”

“In that case, you do it before they see you coming. Enforcers have a certain reputation for theatricality, and there’s a reason for that: the Guild teaches it almost as much as Vidians and Veskers. Coercing people is more about creating the proper manipulation than actually applying force, and coercing people into compliance is the core of an enforcer’s job. But that also serves to disguise the fact that Guild street soldiers are also trained to hit hard and fast, and be gone before anybody realizes what’s happened. That idea also exists in Avenist doctrine: if you mean to destroy someone, do so before they have a chance to react. Ideally, before they ever learn you plan to attack them.”

“Hm,” he mused, frowning off to the side now.

“So, when you want to make someone do something, you create a situation around them. Yourself as the threatening force moving them in a certain direction, walls and situational barriers to limit what they can do, and—and this is most important—the out, which is the thing you want from them. Give them a means of escaping you that makes them do whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do.”

He frowned deeper. “That sounds like a really complicated way to tell somebody ‘gimme your money or I’ll stab you.’”

“That’s one example of the principle in action,” she agreed, nodding. “The Rogue’s Classic, they call it. Understanding the theory is important, though, if you plan to deal with sly people—like Vidian clerics, for example—and get them to do anything more complex than hand over their purses. And in fact, there’s a lot of prep work involved if you do it right. The best practice is to make sure your mark’s out not only lets them escape you, but benefits them.”

“…benefits?”

“Yep,” she said, nodding again. “Give them a way to actually profit from complying with you, and you’ve created a useful contact that you can leverage in the future. Even if the process involved terrorizing them a little, it’s amazing how positively people will view you if you do the job right. Just force someone to do what you want or suffer the consequences, though, and all you’ve created is a person who knows not to cross you. Which…is useful, but a lot less so in the long run.”

“Okay,” he said, grinning, “this is great stuff. I think I wanna have a longer conversation about this, but maybe someplace more comfortable when we have more time.”

“We seem to have nothing but time, here,” she said with a sigh, “but point taken. I think this thing is… Well, I’m pretty sure I can see where they all go. Now, how are we gonna get it back together?”

They both looked down at the array of crystal shards in silence. Laid out as they were, the shape of the finished disc was apparent, but its rounded surface made it impossible to balance in its complete shape.

“Hmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Okay, I think we can do this with just our hands; we’ve got four, after all. You gather pieces together from that end and I’ll do it from this end, and we’ll meet in the middle.”

“That’s about the only thing I can think to try,” she agreed, “unless you brought some glue.”

“Please do not try to reassemble magical artifacts with glue,” Ariel interjected.

“Thank you, Ariel, for the input,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Ready?”

It was less awkward and worked better than she’d hoped, perhaps because the Tower didn’t intend this part to be a real trial. That only raised more questions—as Ariel had pointed out, chasing caplings around hadn’t seemed like much of a test of anything, especially since they hadn’t had to use any magic. Why would the goddess of magic’s personal dungeon care about their ability to relax and play with fairies? Regardless, once they managed to shove the pieces into a mostly together-ish shape, the fragments abruptly snapped into their full combined form as if drawn magnetically. Just like the crystal obelisk down below, a flash of light coursed over the finished product, and then it was whole, with no remaining cracks or anything to suggest it had ever been broken.

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel said cheerfully, getting to his feet with the completed disc in his hands. It was about the size and shape of two dinner plates stuck together, glowing uniformly in a sickly shade of yellowish green. “Looks like we’ve won this round! And now, for the finishing touch.”

Trissiny also stood, coming to hover by his shoulder while he stepped over to the door and carefully pushed the completed crystal disc into the space in its center. Unsurprisingly, it fit perfectly.

With a suddenness that made Gabriel jump and lose his grip on the disc, the stone double doors slid apart, both halves receding into the walls on either side. Fortunately, the disc stuck in its housing and wasn’t dropped in the process; with the door fully open, half of it still stuck out of the door frame on the left.

Beyond was a swirling vortex of light suspended amid inky blackness.

“Uh huh,” Gabriel said skeptically. “And we’re to just…step into that, are we.”

“It’s a portal,” she said with a shrug. “They’re often depicted that way. The swirling effect is caused by equalizing—”

“Yes, I remember the hellgate,” he said, sighing. “I guess in the tower of magic, what swirls is shiny nonsense rather than clouds. So! You wanna go first?”

He turned to her with an impish grin, but Trissiny was staring ahead, blank-faced. Not at the portal, but at nothing.

“I keep having to learn the same lessons,” she whispered. “It’s been almost two years since I had the epiphany that I’m allowed to make mistakes, and thinking I wasn’t only goaded me into worse ones. I figured out I needed subtler methods to deal with the problems of this century, so I went to the Guild… And I learned how to be even more of a brute than I was, just…more efficiently. I just… It’s the same thing over and over. Even when I try to become better, somehow I keep falling right back into the same… What’s wrong with me, Gabe?”

To his credit, he didn’t try to answer that question. Instead, after a momentary pause, he carefully wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“Back there, when Ariel was talking about killing all the caplings,” he said quietly, “you seemed like you were about to agree, but then you hesitated, and suddenly threw the crystal piece to one. I had this weird thought at the time which I dismissed, because it’s not like I can know what you’re thinking… But to play a hunch. Were you remembering that night at Last Rock where we…you know?”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “It all comes back to that, doesn’t it. Don’t answer, of course it does. I tried to murder somebody for…for… Of course it comes back to that. There are things you simply don’t…get past.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. “And that’s why you keep having to learn the same lesson.”

At that, she finally looked up at him, her eyebrows drawing together.

“Triss, take it from somebody who’s made an art form of messing up in life: you have to let it go. When you fuck up, find the lesson in it, and don’t do that again. You can’t carry the weight of it. That does literally nothing except wear you down. So we were two dumb, angry, ignorant, crappy people, and one night that all came to a head and somebody nearly died. We’ve both grown. We’re not those people anymore.” He squeezed her, hard enough she could feel the comforting pressure even through her armor. “We’ve both forgiven each other. Trissiny, you have to forgive yourself for that.”

“No,” she said instantly, shaking her head in denial. “No, that’s not—no, I don’t, Gabe. Don’t pretend we were the same. You were stupid and rude and generally needed a kick in the teeth, but you weren’t out to kill someone just for being stupid and rude and… Don’t you get it? Mistakes are one thing. I cannot be that way. If I ever give up being…horrified, and ashamed of that, I’ll—”

“You’ll be able to grow past it,” he interrupted, pulling her closer and leaning his head against hers. “Toby’s always telling me that it’s carrying a grudge that takes effort; forgiveness is the easiest thing in the world, as soon as you stop convincing yourself it’s not. You forgave me, didn’t you?”

“It…wasn’t all that hard, really.”

“Uh huh, then here’s a harder one. Have you forgiven Principia?”

She sighed again, heavily, and finally leaned into him, letting her cheek rest against his shoulder. “I know. We have the same doctrine in my religion. My first one, I mean. Forgiveness is for the person forgiving, not the one forgiven. It’s about letting go of the burden. But when I’m both, I don’t have to—”

“Yes, you do,” he insisted. “It’s like you were just saying. Life’s a game; if you tense up and take it too seriously, you’re not playing anymore, and you start to lose. Let it go, Trissiny. The girl who took a sword to me that night was a self-righteous, ignorant bigot. You are not, any more than I’m the same depressed, resentful little shit who was screaming curses in your face. Tellwyrn was right to make us get used to each other instead of handing down a real punishment. If we’d both gotten what we deserved, we wouldn’t have been able to grow past that. Now we have. You are one of my best friends in the world, and it kills me to watch you torture yourself. Please…just let it go.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to form a reply to that, and found it cut off by an unexpected little gasp. Then another.

Gabriel pulled her around, wrapping both arms around her, and just held her in silence while she shuddered with quiet sobs. They stood framed between the twisted trees and the swirling portal, not moving to step through just yet. There was time.

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