Vesk doubled over very satisfyingly, the breath seemingly driven from him. Even the fact that this was an obvious case of playacting on his part didn’t dull the appreciative smiles it brought from several of those present. Trissiny didn’t smile, simply turning her back on him and resuming what had been her original course.
She didn’t hug Gabriel, after all, but reached out to grab him by both shoulders, and only then drew in a deep breath and blew it out in relief, as if unwilling to believe he was actually there until she had her hands on him.
“Thank the gods, Gabe. Are you…okay?”
“I’m really thirsty,” he said frankly. “You have no idea how dry the air is over there. Yeah, Triss, I’m fine. You guys?”
“We had the easy half of the bargain, don’t forget,” Toby said, smiling as he strode up. He did hug Gabriel, and was hugged back. Trissiny took a step back, smiling at the two of them for the long moment they shared.
Behind them, Izara blinked, a gesture so slow it verged on simply closing her eyes, and a serene smile spread across her thin features. Around her, the air seemed to lighten.
“Oh! Right.” Gabe released Toby and pulled back, turning to the woman who was now surreptitiously trying to hide behind him—which didn’t work well, since she was taller by a few inches. “Are you okay, Xyraadi?”
“I…have been manhandled before, with far less courtesy than that,” she said warily. Her yellow eyes had fixed on Trissiny, taking in the silver armor, and she stood tensed as if prepared to bolt. “It is a very great relief to be out of that place, again. I could have done without a personal audience with the Dark Lady and that creature Vanislaas, but given how quickly it was all over, I think I can forgive you for bringing me there.”
“I beg your pardon,” Agasti interjected, stepping toward them wearing an expression that verged on awed, “but did you say Xyraadi?”
“Ah, yes,” Gabriel said, grinning at them. “Everybody, meet the help Salyrene kindly arranged for us. You remember Xyraadi was mentioned when we were in Vrin Shai? I know we weren’t in there long, but she kept my ass alive the whole time; I would’ve been a sitting duck without her help. Xyraadi, may I present Mortimer Agasti, attorney at law and the only Izarite warlock I’ve ever met. And these are my two best friends! Toby Caine, Hand of Omnu, and Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”
Xyraadi glanced at Agasti and then Toby before her eyes returned to Trissiny, her lips pressed into a frightened line. She managed a terse nod of her crested head and a small noise deep within her throat.
Trissiny stepped forward, meeting her eyes, and held out a gauntleted hand. “Xyraadi? I understand you’ve been an ally of the gods for a very long time. Thank you very much for looking after Gabriel. I truly don’t think I could thank you enough for that.”
“I…” The khelminash swallowed once, nodding again.
“It’s all right,” Trissiny said in a softer voice. “I’m not going to stab you.”
“Well, you can’t blame her for wondering,” Vesk remarked from the sidelines. “I’m fine, by the way, thanks everybody for your concern.”
“You hush,” Izara ordered.
“I have known another Hand of Avei,” Xyraadi said, still tense. “I worked with her toward common cause for several days before she stopped actively trying to kill me. It was three years before she would accept me being on watch when our party camped and refrained from putting divine wards around me as I slept. I had to nearly die saving her life before she consented to speak with me directly.”
“That…sounds about right,” Trissiny said, her hand remaining outstretched and open. “And honestly, that also describes me just a few years ago. Hands of Avei…have to see the world a bit more black and white than it really is. You can’t very well bring the light into a world if you hold too much respect for the darkness. But the world is more complex than it used to be, and I have to appreciate the shades of gray more than the sisters who come before me. I judge you by your actions, Xyraadi, and they mark you a friend.”
Slowly, the demon reached out and placed her slender hand in the paladin’s grip. Trissiny closed her gloved fingers gently around Xyraadi’s and squeezed once, smiling at her, before letting go.
“There truly are wonders in the world,” Xyraadi said, herself sounding awed.
Agasti cleared his throat, catching her attention, and bowed deeply to her. By that point, there was no trace left of the hunch or stiffness which seemed to have plagued him just the day before. “My lady, it is a tremendous honor to make your acquaintance, and one I never imagined I should enjoy. You are a creature of legend, Xyraadi. Legends only told in certain circles, true, but legends nonetheless. Please consider me humbly at your disposal; I shall be only too glad to help you adjust to the world as it is now.”
“You are too kind,” she said, clearly mystified, but placed her hand in his outstretched fingers next. Agasti didn’t offer his grip in the same position as Trissiny’s, but gracefully lifted her hand and brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles.
“There, now, isn’t that just lovely?” Vesk said cheerfully, swaggering over to them with his hovering lute trailing along behind. “New friends and old, united in common whuff!”
Trissiny pivoted and rammed her fist in a precise uppercut into his solar plexus, bending him over again. This time he staggered to one side and his lute fell to the ground with a sad, discordant little plonk.
“I know that’s bound to get old eventually,” Gabriel remarked, “but something tells me it’ll be a while.”
“You two can come out,” Izara said kindly, turning to speak in the direction of the carriage which was parked some yards back down the path. “Elilial is gone, and neither of us the sort of god who smites without reason.”
“It’s quite all right,” Agasti added as Arkady and Kami gingerly poked their heads around from behind the vehicle. “Come, be sociable. The danger has passed.”
“Ah, but there’s always more danger!” Vesk declaimed, straightening. For all that he reacted like any mortal when physically assaulted, he recovered from the hits faster than a person of mere flesh and blood would. “Fortunately, you two won’t be asked to charge into it. Nor you, Mr. Agasti, nor our newest friend Xyraadi, here. Once more, it is time for a parting of paths, as our intrepid heroes proceed on to the next stage of their destiny! A good bit of the reason for this whole trip was introducing you kids to some new faces who’ll be more important later.”
Trissiny turned to him again and he took two circumspect steps to the left, his lute swinging around to hover behind him while plucking an offended little arpeggio.
“I knew it,” Gabriel said gravely. “The real great doom was the friends we made along the way.”
Toby drew in a breath as if to sigh, then grinned at him. “Gods, am I glad you’re okay.”
“But enough of that!” Vesk said more briskly, even as he minced around the group to place himself as far from Trissiny as possible without removing himself from the conversation entirely. “Let’s see the fruits of your labor, champions! How’s my key coming along?”
“You have got some nerve,” Trissiny spat.
“Indeed, you might say that’s my calling card!” Vesk said brightly, flicking a hand in her direction. A small piece of thick paper flew from his fingers, heading right for her face with the speed and precision of a paper glider, causing her to catch it purely by reflex. Trissiny thus found herself holding an actual calling card.
While she stared at this in utter disbelief, the god turned his attention back to the other two paladins, grinning and rubbing his hands together. “Well? Don’t keep a deity in suspense!”
“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it?” Gabriel muttered, but obligingly reached into his pocket. Toby didn’t bother to comment, simply producing the conjoined first two pieces of the key they had gathered.
Vesk reached out with both hands, almost reverently taking the objects from them. Slowly, with a solemnity actively contrasted by Trissiny flinging his card to the ground in disgust, he brought them together. The mithril fragment Gabriel had snagged from the temple wouldn’t have been taken for the teeth of a key on its own. Flat on one end, save for small indentations which caused it to fit neatly into the markings on the side of Gretchen’s Dowry, its other end was an irregular pattern of jagged points and angles, a thin lip of some glossy black material like obsidian emerging to resemble the edge of a serrated blade.
It attached neatly to the others, though, and the thing in the god’s hand did indeed have the aspect of a large, old-fashioned key. The shape was evocative, if the resemblance was not precise. Vesk held it out before them on his outstretched palm.
“Behold,” he said softly. “Once upon a time, a collection of interlocking bits and pieces such as might have been cluttering up anybody’s junk drawer. In this era, a rare assemblage of ancient and precious relics. But so it is with the passage of time, which elevates all trash to treasure—in the eyes of the archaeologists, if nothing else. To us…to you…this means more than you can possibly imagine.”
“I can think of precious few things you might do with that,” Izara said quietly, “none of them wise.”
“Ah, but dear sister,” he said, giving her a roguish grin and wink and closing his fingers around the key. “How often am I wise, yet how often am I right? In my experience, there is very little connection between those two qualities.”
She just shook her head. “I’ve learned to trust you, Vesk. I dearly hope you know what you are doing.”
“Especially since you as good as sold us to Elilial to do it,” Toby added, staring flatly at the god of bards.
“Here, since you’ve appointed yourself keeper of the artifact,” Vesk said with a less than subtle note of mockery now in his solemnity, handing the key back to Toby. “Now say your goodbyes, kids, we’ve got a long way to go, and this last leg of the journey you’ll have to make without any sidekicks. Though, frankly, you could have kept some of them along for a little bit longer. Honestly, Trissiny, what’s the big idea, scaring off the comedy relief I found for you? Without the Jenkins brothers, Gabe’s had to pick up that slack, and he has his own character development to—”
Trissiny strode swiftly through the center of the group, aiming another jab with her right fist at his midsection. Vesk reflexively ducked and retreated, bending his body to evade the blow and in the process bringing his head down and forward, which put it right within range of her other hand. He evaded the feint, but she slapped him upside the noggin with her shield.
Nobody paid the god the slightest attention as he rolled on the ground, clutching his skull and groaning melodramatically. Agasti turned to the still-nervous Xyraadi, bowing courteously to her again.
“My dear, I realize you are something of a fish out of water; rest assured I will not allow you to go without aid or shelter so long as I have it to offer. I believe you’ll find my home quite comfortable, if you would do me the honor of accepting my hospitality. Indeed, I very much look forward to the conversations we shall have in the days to come!”
“Mr. Agasti is a trusted friend,” Gabriel assured her when she turned her eyes questioningly to him. “I’m really sorry to just yank you back and then dump you like this, but believe me, you’ll be just fine with him. I don’t know how long this quest is going to keep us occupied, or what’s coming next, but I’ll do my best to come see you as soon as I can, okay?”
“Ah…well. I appreciate that very much. And I shall be glad to accept your offer, M. Agasti,” the demon said, inclining her head toward Mortimer. She then looked past him at the carriage, where the two revenants had emerged fully, but so far declined to approach any closer to the gods. “But perhaps the farewells are premature; it seems none of us is going anywhere quickly. In all the confusion your horses have run off.”
There was a momentary pause. Vesk, still slumped on the ground, grinned hugely and opened his mouth, but closed it when fixed by a glare from Izara.
“Also,” Gabriel said solemnly, “Mortimer has lots and lots of books. That’ll help you a bunch. You’ve, uh, got a lot to catch up on.”
Instantaneous travel by the auspices of a god wasn’t very much like being teleported around by Tellwyrn. There was less sensation, and not even the noise of displaced air. Vesk’s method was also a whole level more sophisticated, given how he arranged them mid-transit. The four of them had vanished from the sunny hillside below the Wyrnrange after saying their farewells to the others, and reappeared in darkness, in what seemed to be a ruined temple. It was hard to tell as they couldn’t see beyond the tiny island of firelight in which they found themselves, and anyway were more distracted by the fire and their own positions. They were seated on fallen hunks of masonry surrounding the flames, as if they’d been there for hours in conversation. Even their eyes were already adjusted to the light.
“I really hate it when people do that,” Toby said with uncharacteristically open annoyance. “I think yours is even worse than the way Tellwyrn does it.”
“Not at all!” Vesk said cheerfully from across the low flames. The fire looked to have been burning for quite a while, and was on the verge of sputtering out. “I can attest that I moved you through space, not unlike what you call shadow-jumping. Arachne’s method is a whole other kettle of fish. Tell me, have you covered the great quandry of teleportation in Yornhaldt’s class yet?”
Gabriel straightened up, seemingly ignoring the question, and turned on his seat to peer into the darkness around them. The shapes of scarred and pitted columns rose from the stone floor all around, barely visible where the fire illuminated them. Beyond that was nothing but fathomless blackness. “Did you hear something moving?”
“I wasn’t aware teleportation had any great quandries,” Toby answered the god. “I thought the method was pretty well ironed out by this point.”
“Oh, I don’t mean method,” Vesk replied airily, “I mean the ethical quandry. This is the reason wood elves generally refused to be teleported, by the way. See, in arcane teleportation, a person or thing is dissolved at one point and reappears at another. But! Here’s the unanswerable question: was that person moved, or destroyed and then re-created?”
Silence answered him. Then Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh.
“I might’ve known you’d find a way to ruin even that.”
“And she just ‘ports people around whenever she feels like it,” Toby huffed. “Usually doesn’t even ask. She’s even an elf!”
“Well, you have to understand Arachne’s mindset,” Vesk chuckled. “She’s never had much patience for philosophical dilemmas. Everybody comes out the other end with their memories and personality as intact and unchanged as their bodies, so why bother mulling pointless questions? Stuff like that is the lion’s share of why Arachne has never fit in with the other elves.”
“Also it’s pretty much a bogus question,” Gabriel said distractedly, still peering about at the surrounding dark. “Since you can’t break the teleport spell into its component parts. You can’t use it to just disappear someone without an exit point, or duplicate them. You have to move the subject from one point to another. Okay, I know I heard something out there.”
“Where are we?” Trissiny demanded.
“Uncomfortably close to Veilgrad, as the mole burrows,” Vesk said, leaning forward so that the firelight cast dramatic shadows over his face and causing her to roll her eyes. “Welcome, my children, to the lost city of Irivoss.”
Toby frowned. “Where?”
“There are, as you know, three Themynrite drow cities upon this continent,” Vesk explained, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Tar’naris, Akhvaris, and the unnamed city. Yes, I know its name, but nobody on the surface needs to; for purposes of this discussion, that’s an apt demonstration of my point. Each Themynrite city is an island, deprived of contact with its sister cities. All are fully devoted to Themynra’s sacred charge: to form a living, fighting barrier between Scyllith’s deep drow and the surface world. Existing in isolation as they do, they have developed no overarching Themynrite culture, and each has created its own way of expressing her will. The Narisians, like the Nathloi over in Sifan, have raided the surface for slaves and supplies, and have been amenable to peaceful trade and, much more recently, alliance. Tiraas’s firepower helping hold back the deep drow is an unprecedented development, and while that treaty is young, other human nations are eyeing it as a potential example. Queen Takamatsu is very interested in its implications. The Akhvari, by contrast, regard themselves as under a kind of sacred quarantine. They have consented to speak, briefly, with Imperial ambassadors at their borders, but they permit no one to cross, conduct no trade, and have never attempted to come out for any reason. And of course, the drow of the third city regard themselves as a kind of cleansing flame. Anything which approaches their borders from either direction is met with unreasoning violence. It’s funny, isn’t it? So many different ways for the commands of one goddess to be observed. But you see, kids, there are three Themynrite cities here now. At one time, on this continent, there were five.”
He paused, likely just for effect, and in that moment there came a soft rustle, practically impossible to discern above the faint crackling of the fire. Then it came again, louder, and clearly from the darkness beyond them. Trissiny and Gabriel both drew weapons, shifting on their seats to peer around.
Vesk gave no sign of noticing, just continuing with his tale. “The first was lost ages and ages ago. Closer to the Elder Wars than to today, in a period before anything modern human records touch. Only the gods and the elves of Qestraceel remember Rakhivar at all. Their defenses faltered under the onslaught. The Scyllithenes broke through, routed the Rakhavi, and breached the surface. The Pantheon were forced to intervene directly—in fact, it was our last act of cooperation with Naiya, and pretty much the last time she was coherent enough to have a conversation with anyone, at least until Arachne began poking at her more recently. The whole city was flooded with lava and buried, the passage permanently sealed off.”
“Why not just collapse all the tunnels, then?” Gabriel asked, still peering around at the blackness at the edge of the firelight. There were no more skittering noises, for now. “Put a stop to that once and for all…”
“Come on, Gabe, don’t you think elves who live deep underground know how to dig? If all the tunnels were closed off, they’d just bore their own, and then they might pop up anywhere at all. No, there are paths left theoretically open, which is much easier than tunneling even if the Themynrites block them off. And yes, after eight thousand years, they could probably have gotten out faster if they had devoted themselves to excavating, but you have to understand how Scyllithenes think. Doing lots and lots of hard work is just plain not on the table, not when the alternative is committing horrific violence against those they see as enemies. So obsessive are they on this point that no major incursions of deep drow have ever tunneled all the way to the surface, at least not under their own power. That’s an excellent example of why they cannot be allowed to have access to the surface kingdoms.
“And that brings us to the fall of Irivoss,” Vesk continued, staring solemnly into the last dim flickers of flame. He had obviously conjured the fire here, wood and all; there was no fuel for it in this place. “The Irivoi were even more amenable to surface contact than the Narisians, and less inherently predatory about it. They had a great influence on the culture that would become the Stalweiss. Humans used to come to them, offering their strength and skill in combat against the deep drow in exchange for wisdom, divine and in rare cases arcane magics, and metalwork far beyond their own technology. The drow kept their mortal visitors at arm’s length…at first. Time passed, familiarity grew, and eventually it came to be that the primitive humans were a downright common sight in Irivoss. And this, in turn, fostered doubt. Very reasonable questions of the sort that the drow priestesses could not allow. Why must we bleed and struggle to protect these humans, who are so much physically stronger? What makes us truly better than the Scyllithene? Can we not take what we need from those above and below us? Would it really be so terrible if they were allowed to meet? Why should we care what happens to the surface world?”
“Okay, what is that?” Gabriel asked somewhat shrilly, getting to his feet. The other two did likewise, turning to stare out into the black. The rustling noises were intermittent still, but clearly came from all sides now.
“These questions rise in every Themynrite city, of course,” Vesk continued, ignoring them, “and are suppressed. But in Irivoss, the suppression…failed. Eventually the unthinkable and unacceptable occurred: complete penetration from both sides. The slightest trickle of deep drow sneaking through to the surface, and humans journeying beyond the lower gates to learn from the Scyllithenes. The Irivoi had failed in their sacred charge. And so, Themynra commanded them to die. Those still loyal and obedient, she ordered to end themselves and their entire society.
“And so they did.” Finally, the god stood up and turned to look outward, as the three of them already had, raising both his hands. “Let me introduce you.”
Light bloomed, clean, white light. It rose first from crystals embedded in the pillars of the temple above them, rising to illuminate the ruined splendor. Then it spread outward, ancient magics long dormant coming to life again at the god’s will, and crystals began to gleam throughout the city. They illuminated the ruin of crushed and fallen structures as well as the majesty of beautiful stonework still standing, rising and spreading ever outward until they revealed the shape of lost Irivoss, its half-moon arc around the black surface of a subterranean lake. The temple appeared to be at the highest point of the city, overlooking it all and built right against the wall of its massive cavern.
None of them appreciated the view.
The spiders were everywhere. They had clearly been creeping closer ever since the intruders had arrived, and were not arrayed just beyond what had been the rim of the firelight. Ranging from the size of wolves to a few specimens bigger than oxen, their carapaces glistened and sparkled in the sudden illumination, apparently encrusted with gems.
As the light rose, they swiftly retreated. A veritable tide of them hurried back down the sides of the temple and those thronging the ruined streets scuttled away into the shelter of buildings, tunnels, and alleys.
“Veth’na alaue,” Trissiny whispered.
“Dreadcrawlers do not enjoy light,” Vesk said with a casual shrug. “That and the fact that they’re rubbish at digging are the saving graces of this whole mess. They can’t get to the surface, and wouldn’t if they could. It was humans and dwarves who collapsed the tunnels and did their best to bury and forget the entrance to Irivoss after the priestesses did this to their people. Now, nobody on the surface even remembers this city, and so much the better. The dreadcrawlers, you see, are only sort of alive. There was necromancy involved in their creation; they’re basically walking husks, made almost entirely of chitin with very few squishy parts, and exceedingly durable against physical damage. Practically immune to magic, as well. They’re also as immortal as the drow they once were, and don’t strictly need to eat. They can eat, and will eagerly do so, but that’s only part of their breeding cycle. Given meat to polish off, they’ll make more dreadcrawlers.
“And still, the Scyllithenes have not collapsed their end of the tunnel. They still keep trying to attack Irivoss. It’s been four millennia and that always ends badly for them. But they can’t pass up having something to fight.”
“Themynra,” Toby whispered, aghast, “did that? To her own people?”
Now, in the rekindled light, they could see that the entire city practically sparkled with enormous spider webs.
“A lot of surprising things happened in the Third Hellwar,” Vesk mused, gazing out across the ruin of Irivoss. “One of which was Arachne popping up. I doubt she’s mentioned this to you—she doesn’t like to talk about it—but she and Elilial handed Scyllith the last and greatest spanking that old bag ever received, the most crushing defeat she’d suffered since Lil cast her into the Underworld in the first place. Ever since, she has been…remarkably quiet. Her own consciousness even more scattered and unfocused than Naiya’s, and her drow completely deprived of unifying agency. They’re just widespread colonies of maniacal murderers these days, without a singular purpose. You can’t imagine the reprieve this has been for the Themynrites. Before that… Rakhivar wasn’t the first or last city to fall. Themynra wasn’t winning. Honestly, I sometimes wondered if Scyllith wasn’t trying all that hard to break out—if she was just having too much fun slowly crushing the upper drow, one city at a time, to actually campaign for her own freedom. That was exactly the kind of thing she used to do, back when she was loose. Even the other Elder Gods didn’t want her around, and they were vicious megalomaniacs at their very best.”
He turned and paced forward, along the half-fallen colonnade of the main temple space, till he came to the top of a wide flight of stairs leading down into the spider-infested city. Silently, they followed him.
“And this is what godhood means,” Vesk said, staring emptily across the ancient ruin. “Compromises made with countless lives. Responsibilities no one could possibly uphold, weighed against fates too terrible to be imagined and costs no one should have to pay. It would make anyone detached after thousands of years, but the very thing that prevents us from becoming the monsters that power makes of everyone leaves us vulnerable to…subtler influences. We gods are fixed, in what we are. We can make decisions, up to a point, but at our core? We are cause and effect. Rules, unalterable and absolute. And so you know my bias, when I say that slamming a door in Scyllith’s face was well worth the atrocity done to these people. That is how terrible she was, in her heyday. And how unable I am to even entertain the idea that I might be wrong.”
Abruptly, he turned to face them.
“You’re desperate, by now, to know what the point of all this is. Why I sent you on this damn fool quest, what that key unlocks. It is a key to the possibility of change, my heroes. You see, the last and worst thing the Irivoi did, that caused Themynra to give up on them? They reopened a tunnel to the ancient Infinite Order machine which struck down the old gods and raised the new ones. I can’t even approach it; none of my brethren can. And for the longest time, I never doubted that that was a good thing. We have way too much power as it is without being tempted by the prospect of more. But things…have changed. If the Pantheon is going to survive the changes that are coming, I need you to take that key to that terrible contraption… And turn it back on.”