“Hey there. Feeling better?”
It was brighter, though not abrasively so, the ancient-looking stone hall lit well by a profusion of braziers and wall sconces. The warm glow was that of fire, not fairy lamps or whatever glaring illumination was used in Infinite Order structures. In fact, this resembled the feasting hall of some medieval king, made unusual only by the lack of any windows or doors. The three of them stood with their backs to the long tables, at the base of a dais, on which sat a throne, on which sat Vesk.
“What?” Gabriel choked. “I—we were… I mean, that was… What?”
“I really am sorry about that little trick with the flute,” said the god of bards, and he sounded the more sincere because he seemed subdued, even slightly depressed. Vesk projecting ordinary sincerity would have been just more of his obvious pantomime. “She was never going to let you out of her clutches without inflicting some kind of damage. I’d have forewarned you, but the key to bluffing someone with Scyllith’s skill at reading thoughts is to control what’s known by anyone in her presence.”
“The flute,” Trissiny said aloud, suddenly grabbing at her belt pouch. The Pipe of Calomnar was still there, sticking out slightly. “I blew it.”
“That’s the last thing I remember, too,” Toby agreed, glaring up at Vesk. “What did you do?”
“Short-term memory loss is a fairly common side effect of chaos exposure,” Vesk explained. “One I helped along a little in this case. You’re welcome. That kind of trauma is just not narratively useful, unless your protagonists need to learn to be properly fearful of chaos. You kids haven’t needed that particular lesson since Veilgrad.”
“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.
“What happened,” Vesk replied, straightening up and showing a little more animation in his features, “was that I spent several centuries preparing for this moment. I have sent adventurers on countless quests and personally interceded where I could, all to prime Calomnar so that I could render him at least a little lucid, and inclined to look favorably on his fellow gods and their servants, in a moment where it was needed. Truthfully all this I hadn’t begun to imagine when I started, but the god of chaos is just too good a trump card not to have ready in advance. And the process involved the creation of some great stories along the way. So, win/win!”
He paused, gazing down on them with a slight smile, as if waiting for a response or prompting to continue. All three paladins just stared back, and after a short moment, he resumed speaking.
“It was, as I said, a bluff. Scyllith knew you had the Pipe and that I gave it to you right before sending you down there. Chaos is the one thing she won’t dare face, because all the power in the universe does you no good if everything you try to do has a random effect. So from her perspective, it looked like that was the bluff: that if she tried to harm you, you could summon Calomnar and flip the board on her. Being Scyllith, she was willing to forego her own escape and even gave you the key back, all for the chance to goad you into calling Calomnar down on your own heads while she slithered off back into oblivion, out of his reach. Of course, she had no way of knowing I’d prepared matters so that he would simply bring you safely away.”
Vesk settled back in his throne, grinning at them in self-satisfaction.
“I don’t think it worked that way,” Gabriel said slowly. “She said she had her own plans for escape. And that she’d see us soon.”
“She was really adamant about us saying ‘hi’ to Tellwyrn for her,” Toby added. “That doesn’t sound like the action of somebody who expected us to get mulched by a mad god in a moment.”
Vesk’s grin faded in increments. “Well. How ’bout that. After all, what’s a more classic reversal than the great trickster’s ultimate ploy being turned around on him at the last second?” The god sighed softly and shrugged. “Then again, she could’ve been saving face. It’s hard to say what goes through the mind of a creature like that, but most of what she does is out of a blind compulsion to hurt people. I advise you not to think too hard on anything she told you.”
Suddenly, all three paladins were adamantly not looking in each other’s directions.
“Where are we?” Trissiny asked after a strained pause.
“My rockin’ bachelor pad,” Vesk said, leaning back into the throne again and gesturing at the rather stark hall, which didn’t seem to suit his personal aesthetic in the slightest. “Most gods don’t spend much time on the mortal plane, but hey! Everybody needs a little place to call home. Y’know, unwind, enjoy some privacy, store their collection of incredibly dangerous artifacts… And speaking of which. I believe you have my key?”
Slowly, Toby reached into his pocket. They key was, indeed, still there; he drew it out and held it up, firelight flickering gold across the pale mithril surface. The black jewel at its head had gone dark again.
“Answers first,” he said curtly. “After all this, we want the truth.” Trissiny and Gabriel nodded in firm agreement.
Vesk smiled very thinly for a moment before opening his mouth. “You can’t handle the truth.”
“You SON OF A—”
Gabriel had actually lunged halfway up the steps and swung his scythe down at the god before he was stopped, Vesk deftly catching the tip of the blade against the tip of his own finger.
“Sound and fury,” he said dismissively, “signifying nothing.” With a flick of the wrist he sent Gabriel staggering back down into his place.
“Who do you think you are?” Trissiny snarled, unconsciously gripping the hilt of her sword. “You sent us unprepared into that. And for what?!”
Vesk held up one finger. “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
“We’re just pieces on a game board to you, aren’t we?” Toby stated. “You all but scripted that. Scyllith, Calomnar, the key. You just needed some patsies to do the walking for you. What if something unexpected happened to disrupt your clever plan? Against powers like that, what could we possibly have done? What could we even have attempted, to deal with an Elder Goddess and chaos itself?”
“Do,” advised Vesk, “or do not. There is no try.”
“That is the dumbest thing I ever heard anyone say,” Trissiny spat. “That sounds like what would come out if you fed shrooms to a talking donkey and asked it for the meaning of life!”
“You risked our lives and souls and who knows what on this,” Gabriel snapped, “refused to tell us what we were in for, promised answers at the end of it, and now you’re gonna go back on it? How can you possibly justify this?”
Vesk’s shrug was a dispirited, one-sided jerk of his shoulders, his smile the faintest, bitter twist of his lips. “Justifications only matter to the just.”
For a beat of silence, they all just stared at him.
“Oh, this is beyond pointless,” Trissiny said in disgust. “Maybe Salyrene can make something useful out of that key. Gabe, we may need your scythe. You in the stupid hat: are you going to show us the door, or are we going to make our own?”
“Oh, you want a door?” Vesk levered himself up off the throne, pausing to dust off his pants. “Doors I have. Right this way!”
He stepped around the throne, pausing to beckon them. Trissiny glanced at each of the boys in turn, then snorted loudly and started up the steps, her boots thudding down harder than was strictly necessary. Gabriel followed next, emphatically thunking his staff against the ground with each step.
There was, it turned out, a door in the room, hidden behind the tall throne. Vesk waited for them to catch up, wearing a vague little smile, and then led the way through. Beyond was a narrow corridor with an uncomfortably low ceiling, also lit by torches but paced widely enough that the light in most of it was dim.
Most surprisingly of all, they met someone else coming the other way.
“Hey, guys!” she said, raising a hand in greeting when she drew abreast of Vesk, who had to step to the side to make room. “Long time, no see!”
“Jenny?” Gabriel said incredulously. “From Sarasio?”
“I’m not exactly from Sarasio,” Jenny replied with a grin, reaching up to adjust the goggles perched atop her head. She was even in the same outfit as the last time they had seen her two years ago. “I do kinda miss it! Nice little town. But the story moved on, as they do.”
“You’re a Vesker,” Trissiny said in a tone of resignation.
“Nope,” Jenny said lightly. “Listen, take it easy on the boss, okay? He’s irritating as hell to deal with, I know it better than anybody. But show a little patience and he always makes it worth your while.”
“I thought Joe said you…left,” Toby said, frowning. “It wasn’t exactly clear to me what he meant by that, but he made it sound pretty final.”
“Yeah…that was something that needed to happen,” she said. “And speaking of which, I’m sorry I haven’t got time to stay and catch up, guys. But you have your own exposition to get to, and time waits for none of us. You take care, okay? Hopefully we can sit down and chat sometime before this great doom thing kicks off. Or maybe after. It’s always best to plan on surviving, that’s my policy. Till then, cheers!”
“Uh, bye, then,” Gabriel said somewhat belatedly as she squeezed past them. Vesk, having remained uncharacteristically silent through this exchange, was already moving off up the corridor again.
“Who exactly is she?” Toby asked, after Jenny had vanished up the darkened corridor behind.
“Jenny Everywhere is less a who than a what,” Vesk replied without turning or slowing. “I don’t say that to be disparaging! Seriously, she’s one of my favorite people. A good assistant, a magnificent living plot device, and pretty good company to boot. But she’s also not a person in the same sense that you are, or that I am, which of course are two very different senses. After we got rid of the Infinite Order—well, most of them—naturally one of the first things I did was start to root around in their archives, checking out all the literature they’d recorded, and…there she was. A specter haunting a surprisingly diverse set of stories.”
“So, she’s an Elder God creation,” Trissiny said grimly.
“Older,” said Vesk. “Altogether less sinister, and never terribly interesting to them. That’s a big part of what made me think she deserved a chance to be in the world, after all. But anyway, you wanted doors. Here they are!”
The corridor opened onto another grand hall, similar in dimensions to the throne room but longer and better-lit, with apparently modern fairy lamps both affixed to the walls and hanging from the ceiling in large iron chandeliers. A strip of crimson carpet ran down the center of the room, and lining both sides into the distance marched a series of apparently identical structures, each consisting of a square metal doorframe whose opening swirled with pale light, mounted atop a mechanical structure of inscrutable purpose, each with a single glowing Infinite Order control panel affixed to the side of the frame. The only apparent variation in them was that some few seemed to lack power, as they had no light effect in their main portals.
Vesk sauntered out into the room, pausing to spread his hands and twirl around before facing them with a wide grin. “Well? What do you think?”
“You absolute lunatic,” Gabriel breathed, aghast.
“What am I looking at, here?” Trissiny demanded.
“Doors,” Toby whispered. “There was one in the fabrication plant under Puna Dara.”
“Doors to where?”
“To alternate universes,” Gabriel explained, still staring around in horror. “The Elder Gods used these to spy on other worlds and steal technology from them. That is exactly as dangerous as it sounds, so they destroyed each one after using it. But Heilo, the god who made them, liked to make extra ones and hide them away. These, his hobby doors, go to universes where the favorite stories of the Elder Gods, mostly fictional realms created on the old world, are real.”
Trissiny’s eyes slowly widened as they panned around the room, drinking in the implications. There were dozens of these doors, at least; the hall was long enough that perspective made them hard to count as they marched toward its opposite end. “You absolute lunatic.”
“Oh, give me a little credit,” Vesk said dismissively.
“The hell you say!” Gabriel barked.
“I haven’t opened any of these,” Vesk continued. “What a disaster that would cause. The really good ones I haven’t even powered on to look through; way too risky, even for my blood. There are things in the Cosmere that would notice if they were being watched, some of which might be able to pry a gateway open from the other side. I certainly don’t want crazy nonsense like Comstock tears or the Subtle Knife ripping holes in our reality. No, don’t worry. While I’ll admit to some personal interest in watching worlds of story, I’ve been collecting these largely to make sure they were secreted away where nobody would ever find and open them. It’s not impossible that some are still out there, truly forgotten, but of every door whose existence I was able to find recorded, I have all but one. And the last is…fairly safe, for the moment, now that Fabrication Plant One is buried again and its Avatar on total lockdown.”
“Then what’s the point?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not just destroy them?”
“As a reminder.” Slowly, Vesk turned around again, but this time without showmanship, simply shuffling in a circle to sweep his gaze across his collection of dimensional gates. “As a warning. Because I hate them.” He came to a stop in profile to the paladins, glaring at one gate in particular with every evidence of deeply felt loathing. “Because I. Hate. These. Stories.”
They kept silent, just watching him. Vesk made himself easy to take for granted, with all his nonsense, but in his expression of real anger there came the mute reminder that he was, after all, a god. A being whose presence was inherently alarming when he was in this kind of mood.
“Do you have any idea how long people have lived on this planet?” he asked almost plaintively. “We can’t say for certain, because the ascension cycles aren’t exactly the same length every time. They’re all similar, though, within a margin of error. It’s been eight thousand years since the last; that’s roughly the period. There were three ascension cycles during the Infinite Order’s right. That rounds to about twenty-four thousand years. Twenty-four thousand. Can you even imagine such a period of time? Your own history barely reaches eight—and that’s more than twice as much recorded human history as there was in total when the I.O. originally left Old Earth. Twenty! Four! Thousand! Years! And do you know what we have to show for it?”
He whirled back to face them, flinging his arms wide to encompass the row of gateways. His expression now looked positively anguished.
“This shit right here! One teeny-tiny little slice of fiction, from just a couple of incestuously intertwined genres, produced over a period of a few decades on a world none of us will ever see, by a culture that’s been extinct longer than any of us even have a mental frame of reference to imagine. And this, this was what they did, for twenty-four millennia! I hate these stories so. Fucking. Much.”
“…they’re that bad, huh,” Gabriel prompted warily. Trissiny stomped on his foot.
“They’re not even bad,” Vesk answered, suddenly sounding exhausted. “Well, on a case by case basis. Some are truly exquisite. That last gate that I haven’t collected leads to such a clusterfuck of narrative incompetence I can’t even… Well, that was Scyllith’s personal favorite, if that tells you anything. No, it’s not the quality of them; that’s not the point. It’s what it means when a mere handful of stories are canonized into some sort of sick, pointless dogma.
“Twenty-four thousand years,” he repeated mournfully, “and these are the only stories recorded, the few from before that time. Twenty-four thousand years! All those stories!” Vesk’s voice rose in a pitch of agony; he squeezed his eyes shut and actually ripped off his floppy hat, hurling it away in agitation. “Gone! The hopes, the dreams and ambitions, of countless generations. Who were their heroes? What were their values? What tales comforted them in their oppression? What music did they create, what art? We will never know, because the Infinite fucking Order only wanted to hear their same few stories over and over again!
“When I was a mortal, I got to see a play put on. Oh, they called it a play; it was a re-enactment of the Lord of the Rings. The entire goddamned thing, put on to scale! The players, all those thousands of them, were the result of generations of genetic manipulation and selective breeding, all taking place over centuries to produce the requisite stock for one ridiculous play. They raised an island chain out of what’s now the Grand Mere to re-create Middle Earth. And then, when it was over, the fuckers ritually executed the entire cast and sunk the bastard right back to the bottom of the sea. Saints and archons above, the luckiest person involved in that was Tolkien himself for being dead so long before it ever happened. The sheer horror of it probably would have killed him! And that wasn’t even the first time.” He started pacing up and down in mounting fury, and the three paladins slowly edged back into the doorway. “Do you know why orcs exist as a race on this world? For another fucking production like that! Scyllith wanted to see a scale recreation of the Reign of Chaos saga and Meynherem wanted… I don’t even know what the hell he wanted from her, and it’s not like it matters at this point. At least they weren’t so successful at eliminating all the players that time. Because those damn omnipotent creeps just couldn’t let go of their fucking bedtime stories from eons ago!”
Vesk stopped pacing, and drew in a breath as if to calm himself. To judge by the force with which he blew it back out again, it didn’t work.
“That was the Infinite Order for you. Everything was impossibly grandiose in scale and most of it in service to the most ridiculous bullshit imaginable. And let’s be honest, stuff like that was far from the worst they did. But it’s what sticks most in my mind, because for all their flaws, that was the one fixation that I think reveals the most about what went wrong with the Elder Gods.”
He paused again, and heaved another deep breath.
“And what’s so close to going wrong with us.”
The three of them exchanged a few wary looks.
“Uh,” Gabriel said very carefully, “are you…”
“No, I’m not going to stage a play with thousands of custom-bred expendable extras,” Vesk said irritably. “Even if you think I would do such an asshat thing—and after the ringer I’ve put you though, I won’t take that personally—there’s no audience or infrastructure for such nonsense now, thankfully. Avei would wear my ass for a boot if I even suggested it, and more power to her. It’s just… Well, let me back up.”
He began pacing again, though this time his expression was introspective.
“Before they designed what we now think of as godhood, the Infinite Order lost a few people to their earliest ascension process. Which, ironically, was the best one. Oh, they weren’t accidents and they didn’t kill anybody; they just discovered that a being which has transcended all physical boundaries is left with a completely different set of motivations than those they started with, which it seems don’t included faffing around to do mad science or rule planets. They managed some brief communications with the very first ascended before they just…lost interest. Floated off to explore the universe. Hell, who wouldn’t? So, given what they were trying to do and what their own prejudices were, the I.O. redesigned their method to apply limitations. To impose structures on future ascended and make sure they would retain the same basic personalities and motivations as they had in life. Ironically, it was a variation of the same change we later used to kill the bastards off, which tells you something about how smart a thing it was to do in the first place.”
“Gods,” Trissiny whispered. In context, that could have been taken a number of different ways, but Vesk just nodded at her in understanding.
“And that’s it, at the heart of the matter,” Vesk said quietly. “The unwillingness to change became the inability to change. I complain about stories, about how a few introverted scientists wouldn’t let go of the old tales that brought them comfort in their youth even after they came to enormous power. But in the end…that’s everything. They would not let go. Couldn’t move on. They were prisoners of their own ideas. And we gods, today, are likewise chained.”
He stopped in his pacing, turning to them, and shrugged. “That’s the first part of the answers I promised you. I’m not honestly sure how much you can do with all that, but thanks for listening to me vent. What you care about, of course, is the world now and how all this affects your lives directly. So keeping in mind that gods are, by their very nature, constrained… Don’cha just love Archpope Justinian?”
They blinked at him vacantly in the silence which followed. Vesk just regarded them with a beaming smile.
“Gwha?” Gabriel burbled at last.
“Great guy, Justinian,” Vesk continued idly. “A real stand-up fellow. Why, I can’t think of a single thing about him that I would change! He’s just…perfect. And that…seems a little odd, y’know? I have never in all my long existence felt uncritically positive about anything or anyone. But hey, I’m sure it’s fine! Cos, y’see, when I stop and think about Justinian himself I’m just sure it’s nothing, because he’s such a great Archpope.”
“…oh, holy shit,” Trissiny whispered. “He didn’t.”
“Of course he did,” Toby grated. “He would.”
“But how?” Gabriel protested.
“Someone was in that facility,” Trissiny said slowly, “just a few years before us. There’s no reason to go in there unless…you want to mess around with the machinery that created the gods.”
Toby held up the key again. “And now…there’s a record of what happened.”
“Yep,” Vesk said laconically. “That’s a real useful key for that reason alone. But you’ll be happy to know I didn’t risk your lives just for that. Let me pitch a scenario for you guys, the backdrop of a potentially rollicking good story. Let’s say, on one hand, you’ve got three classic young heroes. Brave, selfless, just flawed enough to be interesting, and so on. Chosen by the very gods and living in a time when great things are set in motion. An oncoming great doom, so to speak. It’s all very prototypical, see what I mean?”
“Right, right, you’ve made your point,” Gabriel said impatiently.
“But!” Vesk held up one finger. “On the other hand. Say you’ve got a man with a mysterious past, who had stumbled upon a great injustice. A lie and an abuse of power, woven into the very fabric of creation itself—into the very natures of the gods. Suppose this man sets out to correct that abuse by any means necessary, and the path on which it takes him will test his conviction to its very limits, force him into compromises and painful actions that teeter on the very brink of villainy.”
Trissiny narrowed her eyes. “You’re not saying—”
“I’m not done,” Vesk interrupted. “All that’s just backdrop: here is the important question. In this hypothetical story I’m describing, of those two options, which is the protagonist?”
Toby frowned at him, then turned to the others. “…I don’t get it.”
“He’s a god,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Vesk. “He’s constrained by his nature. He is, specifically, the god of stories.”
“And so,” Trissiny whispered, “it matters very much to him who is the protagonist in whatever story is unfolding. Because he can’t root for the villain. Can you?”
“Oh, I’ve rooted for a lot of villains over the years,” Vesk said with a sigh. “Just…no antagonists. Ask Teal to explain the difference if it’s unclear; she may as well make herself useful for something. You get it, though, Trissiny. I sent you three on the classic hero’s journey. You have faced challenge after challenge, each of which taught you a ham-fisted lesson. You’ve rescued a princess…well, after a fashion…scaled a tower of trials, hobnobbed with scurrilous underworld types who turned out to have hearts of gold, confronted the very face of evil itself… And at the end, you descended deep into the darkness, into the lair of the monster, only to find that the true monsters were lurking within your own hearts.”
Gabriel lowered his eyes; Toby’s fists clenched at his sides.
After a moment’s pause, Trissiny wrapped one arm around each of them and pulled both boys against her sides, squeezing reassuringly.
“These things may seem arbitrary and frankly pointless to you,” Vesk said solemnly. “But to me? They describe the very shape of reality. The three of you had the potential to be protagonists, but hell, so does your entire social circle. I made you heroes. In a very specific and arbitrary way, yes. But for my purposes, it’s what counts. And for your purposes, it means that in the confrontation which is inevitably coming, you may find yourself facing off with someone who has gone to great care to lay his groundwork, and at that crucial moment, thanks to this bullshit quest of mine, will find one specific patch of it missing. And the proof that it matters is that now, when I contemplate the prospect of you kids putting one over on everyone’s favorite Archpope… I can say with all honesty that I’m rooting for you.”
“Scyllith said there was a secret,” Toby said, staring intently at him, even as he slipped an arm around Trissiny’s shoulders. “One that the field of divine magic itself would kill anyone who learned it. Something to do with how the gods ascended.”
“Obviously, that’s a pointless question, since if there was such a thing I wouldn’t confirm it,” Vesk said, nodding emphatically. “In the purely theoretical instance that some such thing were true, though, I’d advise you to be very careful what you poke your nose into. Your three—well, four, I guess—personal patrons would try to protect you, and there would be several among the Pantheon who would bitterly resent such a provision existing and gladly work to thwart it, but…gods are gods. As you’ve just been told in some considerable detail, we can’t always do what we’d want.”
“But,” Gabriel said slowly, “some of you try to work around it.”
“A person operating under a disadvantage is no less a person,” Vesk said with an amiable shrug, grinning lopsidedly at them. “Sometimes it’s handicap and hardship that does the most to motivate us. In any story, what the hero can’t do is much more interesting than what they can.”
Toby held up the key, bouncing it once on his palm and looking over at the other two. Both of them nodded at him. Nodding back, he hefted it and lightly tossed the key to the god of bards, who snagged it deftly out of the air.
“Pleasure doin’ business,” Vesk said cheerily. “Now then! We’re not quite done here—after all, a good story would be cruelly diminished without a satisfying denouement. I believe I did promise to aid you with your scouring of the Shire.”
“Uh huh,” Trissiny said in a dry tone. “And are you going to bother explaining what that means now?”
Vesk grinned delightedly, positively bouncing on the balls of his feet in barely-restrained excitement. “Oh, trust me, Trissiny. I think you will like this.”