Tag Archives: Mortimer Agasti

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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.”

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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 – 26

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In that moment of absolute tension, Gabriel called on every scrap of education he had received thus far. Val Tarvadegh’s coaching kept him still, kept any hint of his thoughts or feelings away from his face—though it would have been presumptuous in the extreme to assume he could stand before the very goddess of cunning and prevent her from knowing the shape of his mind.

Elilial appeared to be ignoring him for the moment, critically studying the scythe in her hands, which he knew was an affectation. Prince Vanislaas, by contrast, stared avidly, his lips bent in a hungry little smile. That was the look of a vulture observing a dying cow’s last breath. Xyraadi was still prostrate on the ground, her face pressed against the now-dead grass from the other world. Ariel, wisely, kept silent.

There was absolutely no winning here, through either power or strategy. Considering who he was dealing with, outsmarting his foes didn’t appear to be an option either. That left…what?

The basics.

Gabriel knew his failings; it had been repeatedly pointed out to him that his self-awareness with regard to his own weakness was one of his greatest strengths. So he channeled better examples, and put on a mask.

The posture exemplified by Professor Ezzaniel, Trissiny and Toby: a martial artist’s bearing, fully upright but not stiff like a soldier’s, a stance that conveyed poise and command, and bless Ezzaniel for so laboriously beating that into him over the last two years. The ineffable, inoffensive arrogance of Ravana Madouri and Sekandar Aldarasi, a subtle positioning of countenance which conveyed absolute self-confidence even when such was wildly inappropriate, without being aggressive. Intuitively he felt that a better choice here than Shaeine’s more serene poise.

“Excuse me.” Gabriel borrowed Tellwyrn’s voice, the tone she used that didn’t bother to be peremptory or commanding, but secured obedience through the simple conviction that she would be obeyed because this fact was as immutable as the downward acceleration of velocity resulting from the pull of gravity. He held out his hand in a gesture that was part Ezzaniel and part Ravana and just a little bit Darling, graceful and commanding and a tad effeminate. “That is mine. Return it, please.”

Prince Vanislaas’s red eyes widened notably, as did his smile. The demon lord actually began dry-rubbing his hands together in visible eagerness for whatever was about to unfold.

Xyraadi quivered.

Elilial looked up from her perusal of the weapon to meet his eyes, and Gabriel had the sudden and deeply incongruous thought that she wasn’t nearly as pretty as she could be, even aside from the horns and red skin and such. Couldn’t a goddess take any form she desired? She had rather hawkish features, a nose that was too long for her face, and despite a rather skimpy leather outfit (with metal spikes and buckles serving no evident purpose) she was much more lanky than curvy. Though of course, standards differed across eras and cultures, to say nothing of individuals. He wondered if there was some significance to her appearance, something he could perhaps use. Unlikely, but he wasn’t too proud to grasp at any straw at this point.

“Salyrene’s work,” she mused after a hesitation, returning her gaze to the scythe and slowly turning it over in her hands. “They’re very adaptive, you see; she is the best at what she does. Yes, this thing has a long memory, much of its shape and nature comes from its first master. But your touch is present, as well, Gabriel Arquin. Such…restraint, it has leaned from you. How odd, considering your reputation.”

She could probably hear his heart pounding. Well, hell, just because the game was over didn’t mean he had to concede. Gabriel cleared his throat loudly, raised his eyebrows in an expression he had seen Shaeine and Ruda both use to great effect, and subtly extended his outstretched hand an inch further in a silent demand.

“You know why Vidius is the god of death?” Elilial asked, now smiling down at him. “A coincidental affiliation that was baked right into his very identity when we seized ascension for ourselves. All due to his association with the valkyries. He won Naiya to our side by sheltering and supporting them. Have you ever found yourself wholly dependent upon someone for your very existence, Gabriel? Even if they are less of a two-faced snake than Vidius, it’s a relationship that tends to provoke…resentment. Have your valkyrie friends ever complained to you about your mutual boss?” One corner of her mouth drew upward in a lopsided smirk. “No? You needn’t answer, young man, I seldom trouble to ask questions unless I already know how they end. There’s a warning in that silence, you know. Everyone complains about their boss… Unless they are too afraid to.”

Gabriel experienced a most peculiar sensation. His mouth moved and words fell out, but unlike the habitual blathering habits which had caused him so much trouble over the years, he felt an almost transcendent state of flow, as if he were truly in control in a way he couldn’t even consciously grasp.

“Yes, yes,” he heard himself say in a bored tone, “and thus the seeds of suspicion are sown between me and my patron, and meanwhile there is no need for you to be insulting, madam. If I’m important enough to manipulate, I’m important enough to deserve better than cheap tricks that even Vesk wouldn’t write into a ballad. My scythe, if you please.”

“Oh, I like him,” Vanislaas breathed, pausing to lick his lips. “Such a shame he has the two-faced one’s favor; I dearly wish his soul could return here. He’d make such a splendid incubus. Elilial, my darling, may we restrain him here?”

“Hush, Van,” she said fondly. “Ignore him, Gabriel. You have nothing to fear from me.” So saying, she lightly tossed the scythe in the air, making its wicked length spin once, and caught it on the haft just below the blade, which ended up pointing skyward. Its long, subtly twisted shaft extended toward Gabriel, ending just barely past the reach of his hand. “My high priest nurtures a…pet theory, if you will, that he can somehow turn you three paladins against your masters by slowly introducing you to the truth. I know your gods better than you and I rather think they’ll just kill you if you learn more than they want you to know, but Embras is a good servant and I am willing to indulge him. Much more to the point, I’ve promised Arachne to bring no harm to her students—and that includes by omission and negligence. And…it seems my Vadrieny does rather like you, for some reason. Altogether, these facts mean you are as safe with me as anyone can be said to be, anywhere. For whatever that may be worth.”

He just met her fiery gaze until she came to a stop, before finally stepping forward and extending his hand to grasp the scythe. He’d half-expected her to exert some petty little power move, like moving it out of his reach or using it to tug him off balance, but she simply waited until he had a firm grip and released the weapon.

“Thank you,” Gabriel said with light dignity from behind the mask of Ravana Madouri, regretting that he hadn’t troubled to get to know the girl better. What little he had picked up of her mannerisms was already fabulously useful; the undeserved poise was very appropriate in this situation.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, and the combination of deliberately casual tone and overtly sly expression was a screaming warning of danger, “the same is not true of your little…friend back there.”

Xyraadi quivered again, not lifting her face out of the dust.

“This is a rare treat,” the dark goddess purred. “It is not every day a traitor wanders right back into my web. I don’t begrudge the odd demon struggling to escape this realm, Gabriel; you can plainly see what a mess it is. If I had my way, nobody would have to live here. But the khelminash are another matter. All the trouble I go to, ensuring they have lives of comfort! And truly, Xyraadi’s existence before she betrayed her kith and kin was luxurious beyond the dreams of most of Hell’s denizens. For that, I only ask diligent service; I don’t think that unfair. Yet, not only did she flee at the first chance, but threw in her lot with the Pantheon!” Elilial’s lips drew wider, baring teeth in an expression that no longer pretended to be a smile. “I suppose one betrayer is attracted to others. But to willingly bend knee to beings who despise you? I am torn between simply destroying the little wretch and compelling her to give me a satisfactory explanation first!”

Xyraadi emitted a shrill little groan, quickly stifled.

Gabriel took two steps to plant himself between her and Elilial, deliberately placing the butt of his scythe against the ground, holding the weapon up but not in an aggressive position. “Or you could do neither, and kindly show us where to find the nearest hellgate.”

Prince Vanislaas giggled. That was somehow much more unsettling than if he had unleashed a sinister laugh like a villain in a play.

“Young man,” Elilial said condescendingly, “I don’t know what made you think this is a negotiation, or that you are a party to it. Move aside, please.”

But it was, he realized as she spoke. A being like Elilial did nothing without a purpose and a plan, and there was no reason for her to make speeches in his presence unless she saw a reason for him to hear her thoughts. Still not losing sight of how out of his depth he was, Gabriel nonetheless concluded it best served his interests here to play along.

“Regardless,” he said firmly, switching to a mask of Trissiny implacably facing down a foe (and immediately thinking Toby doing the same might have been a smarter mask to assume but not willing to weaken his position by waffling), “Xyraadi is a friend and has helped me considerably, not to mention that I’m responsible for her being here. I’m not going to allow you to touch her.”

Elilial took one long stride closer, the dead earth crunching beneath her hoof, and loomed over him. Gabriel realized that his instinct had been right; they were playing roles, now, and Trissiny’s righteous defiance best suited the one in which he’d been cast.

“You can’t possibly imagine you are a threat to me, boy,” the goddess said, her voice just above a whisper and yet projecting powerfully over him. “Why don’t you spare yourself some avoidable grief and move?”

He pitched his own voice low and even, but firm. “You can’t possibly imagine that you’re a threat to the Pantheon, lady. Why don’t you?”

In the subtle but swift widening of her fiery eyes, Gabriel had a sudden warning that he’d gone off-script and was about to pay dearly for it.

Then Vanislaas began laughing. Loud and deep this time, wracked by belly guffaws that almost doubled him over.

“Shut up, Van,” Elilial snapped, cutting her gaze to him. It served to break the tension Gabriel had just created, and he wondered how much of this encounter was proceeding according to a script. Between Vesk and Elilial, nothing would have surprised him at that point. “I give you credit for not brandishing your weapon at me, Gabriel, but that appears to be the full extent of your forethought. Why in the hell, pun intended, should I show any compassion to this backstabbing creature?”

Well, it was a slender opening, but he’d take it. “How can you not? If you’re not going to kill me and you think there’s some strategic merit in influencing me, a show of force here doesn’t gain you anything. It’s not as if your power is in question.” Again, his words tumbled out, but they fell smoothly this time and left him with the sense that some part of him was in control, even if it was calculating too fast for his conscious brain to follow. “You can either play right into the stereotype of you that the Pantheon and the Universal Church try to push, or show a little…nuance. Are you the mad monster, or is there maybe something more going on here? Something it would benefit you to have a paladin wondering about?”

“Hmm,” she murmured, her expression calming, and once again that lopsided smirk tugged at her lips. “There may be something to that, after all. But meet me halfway, Gabriel. If you expect me to suspend my retribution on the one under your protection, it’s only fair that you offer me something in return.”

A sudden realization swept in, and both instinct and strategy prompted him to go with it. “No, I don’t think so.”

Xyraadi emitted a plaintive squeak. Elilial took another step forward, now looming over him with more overt and deliberate menace. “Oh? You are a presumptuous one, aren’t you?”

“And you don’t know when to stop,” he retorted. “You just got me to argue out loud why you’re not such a bad sort after all. Really well done, very crafty. I’m pretty sure I’ve had Eserites tell me about that trick. Fine, that’s your win; congratulations. You’re not extracting further concessions from me on top of it. If anything, maybe I should be asking for a favor now.”

Xyraadi reached feebly to tug at the leg of his trousers in a silent plea. Gabriel didn’t dare acknowledge her in that moment.

“Oh, but isn’t he delightful!” Prince Vanislaas crowed. “Please, Lil, can’t we keep him? He’s a little rough, sure, but the potential!”

“Yes, it’s a funny thing,” Elilial said dryly, ignoring her underling for now. “Spend a few thousand years as the actual goddess of a thing and you get sort of good at it. You do surprise me, though, Gabriel Arquin. Based upon everything I’ve heard of you, I really didn’t expect you to pick up on that. Color me…grudgingly impressed.”

“And that’s really good flattery,” he replied in the same tone. “Just the right hint of condescension to make it backhanded and harder to spot. Got me right in the ego.”

“All right, boy, don’t push your luck,” she said, fortunately in amusement. “Xyraadi, have some damned dignity. Your young friend here at least faces certain destruction with his spine in the vertical position, and now look! He appears to have bluffed his way out of it. There’s a lesson in that, if you have the wit to learn it. Van, how is your work progressing?”

“Splendidly,” the demon lord replied in a self-satisfied tone. “While you were playing verbal footsie over there, I’ve intercepted overtures from dear old Mortimer, directed at young Master Arquin.”

“When did you have time to do that?” Gabriel asked in spite of himself.

“Really, young man,” Vanislaas said, arching a condescending eyebrow. “Not everyone performs magic with grandiose and gratuitous gestures and sparkles. The Elilinist tradition of infernomancy is all about subtlety; it is by definition poor technique if anyone standing nearby even discerns that you are casting, much less what you are casting. Oh, but matters are ever so much more intriguing than we first anticipated, my darling,” he added to Elilial. “I presented my replies as coming from little Xyraadi over there, and my hunch was correct: no one was surprised. But Lil, dearest, it is not just Mortimer, nor even mostly Mortimer, working to extract our young friend. I think you will find this a grand opportunity.”


“Oh, no.”

That was the last thing anyone wanted to hear a goddess say under any circumstances, but especially not when they were in the process of boring a hole into Hell. At Izara’s soft interjection, Toby and Trissiny both stepped up on both sides of her and Agasti strode forward from his position on the sidelines, where his expertise had been rendered somewhat redundant by the presence of a deity to handle their dimensional bridge as it formed.

Izara didn’t look at any of them, seemingly keeping her attention focused on the nascent gate, which at that point was still little more than a shimmer in the air. “Stay back, children. This is more than you’re prepared to handle.”

“We’re far from helpless,” Trissiny said tersely. “Is it demons?”

“Is Gabriel all right?” Toby added.

“Back,” she said with enough of a snap in her voice that both obeyed. “We’ve been tricked. I’ve been tricked. That’s always a risk when one deals with Hell, but this…this is worse than I feared. All of you, be prepared to flee. Do not attempt to fight what’s coming.”

“That gate is still forming,” Agasti objected. “If it’s that dangerous, we can still collapse it. Elilial herself couldn’t rip it open without help from this side.”

Izara shook her head, still staring at the distortion before them, which was beginning to take an upright ovoid shape. It was as if heat waves had been captured and formed into a pillar which was being pulled apart at its center to create an opening. “Gabriel is still in there. If we abandon him now, there is no telling when or if we might be able to try again. Not to mention what might be done to him in retaliation if we retreat from this. Some risks…have to be taken.”

The hellgate finished forming with alarming suddenness, emitting a blast of hot, sulfurous-smelling air and a telltale prickle across the skin as loose infernal radiation bled out. The aperture itself remained scarcely visible; if anything, its borders became harder to perceive as they were stretched wide to create a proper door. There wasn’t even a view into whatever lay on the other side. Light was not one of the things which innately traveled through a hellgate, all part of the same dimensional effect that made them difficult to scry through.

Then a figure stepped out, and all of them save Izara retreated further. It was not Gabriel.

She emerged one leg first, as though striding across a threshold, and appeared almost to have to clamber through the low opening, straightening up finally as she crossed fully into the mortal plane. Once there, though, Elilial raised her horned head up to its full height, staring down her nose at the more diminutive love goddess before her.

“Well, well, well,” purred the queen of Hell, and the fiery blaze of her eyes did not conceal the vengeful hunger in them. “Look what we have here.”

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14 – 25

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“Sorry,” he said, rather weakly, as he straightened up under his own power again.

Trissiny carefully released him, drawing back to give Toby a look of concern. “Don’t be sorry. You’re always propping everybody else up; you’re allowed to need a hug once in a while. But, Toby, what you were just saying…”

He found himself avoiding her eyes. “I don’t…”

“We need to talk about that,” she interrupted, her tone firm but not aggressive. “But not right this minute. Right now we need to figure out how to get Gabriel back.”

“You saw what happened,” he said, voice climbing in frustration. “How are we supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to try.”

“Try what? Trissiny, dimensional barriers are not something you can bull through with sheer determination!”

She took another step back, now frowning at him reproachfully. “Toby.”

“Everybody all right?” Fortunately, Agasti chose that moment to return. He strode up to them, straight-backed and alert, tapping his cane against the ground with every step but clearly not leaning on it. Behind and to either side came his two revenant companions, both still with weapons out and peering warily around. “Good, very good. I’m sorry to have ducked out on you, but I had to get Arkady and Kami out of that light show. You accomplished what you needed to, though, and that’s what matters.”

“What are you talking about?” Toby snapped. “We lost Gabriel!”

“Yes,” Agasti said evenly, nodding, “but you prevented that dimensional inversion from spreading, thwarted a demon invasion, and annihilated the infernal corruption that was seeping through before it could poison anybody. None of those are small things; in aggregation I believe they qualify as a pretty big deal. But you’re right, Gabriel is now on the other side, and that must be addressed before any of us can rest on our laurels. Arkady, fire up the carriage, if you please.”

“We can’t leave!” Trissiny burst out.

“There is a difference between surrender and tactical retreat, General Avelea, you know that well. I told you that this site is under surveillance; Izara’s cult obviously has little in the way of forces to deploy, but they will already be contacting the Sisterhood and likely the Empire about this mess. I would rather Arkady and Kami were out of the area when that occurs, and Ninkabi is farther than I can safely shadow-jump these days. You had better remain on site to settle everyone down when they get here.” He hesitated, then gripped the crystal head of his cane harder and nodded decisively. “I’ll be relying on your protection, because I plan to commit a capital offense in the next few minutes. It will take long enough that I expect the reinforcements to catch me quite red-handed.”

“Mortimer, no!” Kami exclaimed.

“A capital offense?” Toby asked more soberly. “Surely you’re not planning to… What are you talking about?”

“A hellgate.” Trissiny was staring at Agasti, who nodded at her again. “To get Gabriel back from the other dimension, we need to open a door between them.”

“You can’t!” Arkady insisted. “Mortimer, the law isn’t best pleased with you already. If you do this of all bloody things…”

“Arkady, the boy is in Hell,” Agasti said sharply. “Trust me, I don’t plan to throw myself to the headsman; there are extenuating circumstances aplenty, I’ll have the backing of three paladins and I do know a thing or two about weaseling around Imperial prosecutors, as you may recall. But right now we’ve a paladin to rescue and no time to argue. The situation forces me to act now and make plans later, which is hardly optimal, but that’s what the situation is and bemoaning it will change nothing. Now take Kami back to the club, I don’t want you two anywhere near this.”

“Hellgates have to be opened from both sides,” said Trissiny, “that’s why demons aren’t constantly making new ones. How do you plan to get around that? Do you have a contact in Hell who can do it?”

“Several, but none I would trust with or near a nascent gate,” Agasti admitted. “What we have is Gabriel. He’s still right on this spot, just on a different plane of existence.”

“Gabriel isn’t a warlock,” Toby objected.

“He’s an enchanter,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes pensively. “He has Ariel, a scythe which we already know can carve holes in reality, and whatever aid he can summon with Salyrene’s bottle.”

“So, not optimal,” Agasti agreed, “but far from hopeless. First, I will need to contact him…”

Toby had turned to stare again at the empty patch of blasted reddish stone where the temple—and Gabriel—had been minutes ago, but after Agasti’s voice trailed off, he shifted his attention back to the warlock, frowning impatiently. In the next moment, his frown deepened, now in real worry. Agasti was not moving at all. In fact, he didn’t appear to be breathing.

Neither, Toby immediately discovered, was Trissiny. She stood as if immobilized in ice, as did the two demons. The nearby birds and insects had already been silenced by the presence of so many demons, but he realized now that even the grass, wilted as it was by its brief trip to Hell, was completely solidified, disturbed by neither wind nor gravity. In fact, there was no wind, either.

The whole world appeared to have abruptly stopped.

“Godhood has its privileges,” said the voice from behind him just before he could begin to panic. Toby whirled, and found himself facing Izara, who wasn’t even looking at him, but studying the others whom she had just immobilized. “Even Vemnesthis doesn’t try to enforce his rules on me. Please don’t be distracted by the theatricality of this, Toby; it was simply necessary. This conversation will take more time than you have to spare, and it needs to happen now.”

“What conversation?” he demanded, forgetting to speak with proper respect. He felt entirely thrown from his equilibrium, and somehow frayed. Toby’s whole life was about control, serenity, and balance, and at that moment he felt as if every one of those things had been stripped from him, leaving him blindly reacting to events in exactly the way his teachers had all stressed that he should never do. Still worse, there was a significant and undeniable part of him which reveled in the freedom, even despite the pain of losing Gabriel.

Izara finally turned her attention on him fully, and her expression was unreadable. Nothing about her seemed particularly divine, apart from having apparently suspended them in time; she was just a somewhat gawkish young woman with frizzy hair. If he hadn’t seen her the night before Toby would probably not have recognized her at all.

“You never have learned to find a middle road,” she said after a thoughtful pause.

He bit back his first response, and then his second. Whatever conversation she meant, the goddess was right about one thing: he did not have time for it. “Gabriel is trapped in Hell right now. Can you help us bring him back?”

“Of course I can.” She tilted her head minutely to one side. “But why would I?”

Toby gaped in disbelief. “…he’s a paladin.”

“Not mine,” Izara shrugged.

“What is wrong with you?!” he exploded.

“That’s a large question,” she replied, showing no sign of offense at his outburst. “Let’s stick to what’s wrong with you, for efficiency’s sake. You have just learned an extremely wrong lesson, and now stand a hair’s breadth from committing to it, with disastrous results for you, those you care about, and the world at large.”

“Then why are you here lecturing me and not Omnu?” he shot back, practically tasting his pulse pounding on the back of his tongue. Toby felt heady, even a little dizzy, but still there was that strange exuberance.

Izara, for her part, finally reacted, pressing her lips together in a grimace of annoyance. “Because Omnu needs someone to slap some sense into him, which unfortunately I can’t. I’ll just have to settle for you.”

“This is ridiculous,” Toby exclaimed. “My best friend is in Hell waiting for someone to rescue him—”

“I assure you, Gabriel Arquin is not sitting around waiting on anybody,” she said archly. “I would hope you of all people would know him better than that. On the other hand, just a moment ago it sounded like you were about ready to give up on him.”

Toby felt that inexplicable sensation rising, the strange fusion of fury and uncertainty that had so thrown him off his keel but felt so satisfying. For just a moment, he was so tempted to just punch her that his arm actually twitched.

It was hard to say which did more to shock him back into a semblance of self-control: the sheer horrible depravity of striking someone just out of his own ill temper, or the incredible stupidity of trying that on a goddess. Instead, his years of training finally began to resurface, and he breathed. In, out, three times each, until the emotion began to ebb, the clarity to resurface.

“What are you doing?” he asked at last, narrowing his eyes.

Izara blinked at him, languidly, like a pleased cat. “What does it seem like I am doing?”

“It seems like you are deliberately trying to make me angry. And I can see no reason for you to do that.”

“Better,” she said with a slow nod of approval. “Drifting closer to old bad habits, but still an improvement over the terrible new ones you were on the cusp of developing.”

He breathed. In, out. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“You really wanted to slap me just then, didn’t you?” she countered, smiling. “But you didn’t.”

“I would like to think I’m neither a complete monster nor an imbecile. I hope that isn’t too arrogant a thing to claim.”

“I’m glad to see you controlling your urges, Tobias, but have you considered that maybe smacking me would have been the right thing to do?”

He stared at her. “…no.”

“Really, even after such a display of heartlessness?” The goddess smiled a little more widely. “Does the idea shock you so much?”

“I am a pacifist,” he said firmly. “And you are the goddess of love. It’s just a little incongruous to hear you talk about hitting people being the right thing!”

“Well, that’s the core of all this, Toby,” she said. “Neither of us is a pacifist.”

Izara let that hang for a moment while he stared, just wearing that mysterious little smile. Only when he finally drew breath to speak again did she continue, cutting him off.

“The nuances of my followers’ doctrine tend to be above the heads of laypeople. More than most other cults, probably even more than the Eserites or the Wreath, Izarites have stereotypes applied which preclude people from really understanding what they believe. Yes, my people assiduously avoid violence—in no small part because we have the Avenists and Eserites and Vidians and Shaathists and even, yes, the Omnists, to take up arms for us at need. In that circumstance, our efforts are better bent toward increasing the love in the world than fighting for it. But some of the incidents I most bitterly regret have come from the doctrine of love urging or even forcing my followers to become passive victims of violence. And as for love itself… If you love someone, Toby, you place their needs above your own. And in many relationships, there comes a time when the thing someone most needs is a swift kick in the ass. Metaphorically, of course. Usually.”

He shut his mouth, belatedly becoming aware that it was open. “But I…”

“Now, there is a pacifist tradition in Omnism,” she continued. “Such as the Sunset Way sect which produced Chang Zhi. There are others, though, and have been many others which have fallen from practice over the centuries. You, Toby, were raised by the most common sect of your faith on this continent. So common are the Cultivators that many in the Empire don’t actually know there are other interpretations of Omnist doctrine which are considered legitimate.” Again she tilted her head, back the other way this time. “Adeche N’tombu was a Cultivator. I assume I don’t need to remind you how his career as Hand of Omnu was spent?”

“Omnu,” Toby said stubbornly, “is a god of peace.”

“Peace can mean a lot of different things, several of them mutually exclusive. We were talking of pacifism. You have a very poor grasp of what that means, Tobias Caine. Of what it is, and what it is not. The truth is, you don’t even know any pacifists. Who are your colleagues, your examples? Teal Falconer? That girl is a walking disaster—not because she harbors an archdemon, but because she refuses to control it. She relies on her drow princess to smooth her way, and on her demon counterpart to terrorize anyone who defies her. There is no strategy in it, no plan. She isn’t a pacifist, she’s just averse to conflict.” Izara folded her hands, gazing intently at him. “Just like you.”

“You—those are two terms for the same thing! Why even split that hair?”

“Conflict aversion is a personality trait. Pacifism, like any ism, is political. It is a belief about what the world should be, and an attempt to make it so. To hold a belief is to disrespect the choices of others, for it demands that you impose your will on creation. It requires discipline, sacrifice, courage, and above all, strategy. Toby, the best guidance you have ever received was in your first martial arts class at Arachne’s school. Emilio Ezzaniel is one of the deadliest men alive; has he ever seemed to you a violent person?”

“That’s… I mean, that’s not unfamiliar. A lot of martial artists can be described that way. The great ones, anyhow.”

“And have you not seen the significance of that? Ezzaniel explained the true nature of peace to you that day: that it exists when those who hate to fight are better able to fight than those who love to. And you brushed him off.”

“I listen to Professor Ezzaniel,” Toby protested, hearing the defensiveness in his own voice and hating it. The creeping euphoria had all faded from him now, leaving him only off-balance and unfocused, confused.

“The greatest pacifist paladin of recent times,” Izara said softly, “was not Chang Zhi, who never accomplished much but to try to lead by example. No, that was Laressa of Anteraas, who once overthrew a corrupt governor by arranging to have his enforcers beat her bloody in a public square while she distributed famine relief supplies to the poor. It took conviction, courage, and a great willingness to suffer for her to go through with that—but more importantly, it took significant cunning to meticulously arrange all the pieces of that drama and ensure they would collide at exactly the right moment. Its result was a popular revolt and overthrow of her enemy the next day, leaving her in a position to guide Veilgrad into a more peaceful era.”

He couldn’t find anything to say. Izara watched him for a moment, then continued.

“You’re not a pacifist, Toby. You have no plan, no strategy. You just hate it when people fight and try to stop them when you see it happening. What does that accomplish? Teal has her archdemon; you have your holy nova. The pressure builds up, caused by stumbling from one crisis to the next, until in your incompetence you’ve backed yourself into a corner from which your only possible action is a huge explosion of power.”

Toby sat down in the grass, no longer able to look her in the eye. She just pressed inexorably on.

“You know the answer you need; it’s in your training. The Sun Style is all about redirecting your enemy’s own force to control his movements. Avenist battle doctrine is about defeating an enemy by controlling their options, and holds that the highest strategic victory is to prevent an enemy from going to war in the first place. The great game of Houses that your friends Shaeine and Ravana have learned from the cradle is about control of a much more intricate variety, but even in the ruthlessness you saw from the nobles of Calderaas, there was an underlying ethic of subtlety above force. The Vidian doctrine of masks is all about control of the self, extended outward to control the external forces which act upon the self. The Eserites and Punaji seek to restrain those who would harm them through intimidation and fear—to control others with only the specter of violence, so that they can commit as little actual violence as possible. Even Arachne keeps the Empire and the other great powers of this world off her back with strategic acts of grandiose disruption punctuating a general policy of carefully not rocking the boat. Control, control, control! Every person or faction or philosophy you have encountered which has an actual impact on the world does so by the same maxim your trainers in the Sun Style hammered into you from your earliest practice: control the encounter. You’ve been so close, Toby. In Puna Dara you seemed to grasp it more closely than ever yet.” Finally she hesitated, as if to draw breath, then shook her head. “But today you came so close to throwing it all away. Control, Toby. Grief, pain, and fear are real, and valid, but you must control them. Otherwise, they will control you.”

Slowly, he lifted his head to stare plaintively up at her. “…why is it you? Why is every other god coming to…” Toby had to stop and swallow against a painful lump in his throat. “Why won’t he ever talk to me?”

Izara heaved a sigh, then stepped over to sink down into the withered grass beside him. There, she leaned comfortingly against his shoulder. There was still no discernible aura of power about her; it might have been any slightly-built young woman pressed to his side. Somehow, that mundane warmth seemed much more comforting.

“Because he needs a swift kick in the ass,” she said wearily, “and I can’t give it to him. Oh, not because he’s a more powerful god than I am, or because he is and has always been a stubborn old ox, though both those things are true. The truth… The truth is, Toby, we are vulnerable in a way, more to our followers than to our enemies. I think it’s a fine thing that godhood comes with strictures and limitations. I remember the Elder Gods, and what absolute power with no restraints does to people. But we end up being shaped by the belief of those who act in our name. Omnu can’t change. I can smack him upside the head to my heart’s content, but it won’t accomplish anything. He wouldn’t even be annoyed more than a moment later, he’s always been a forgiving sort. Omnu is paradox, Toby, and it’s not entirely his fault. In life he was always vague, standoffish and mystical, and between the solidification of those traits and their enshrinement in doctrine, you’re left with a god whose idea of communication is sending you warm feelings.”

“I don’t understand what you’re telling me,” he said weakly.

“That divine nova of yours?” Izara rested her head on his shoulder. “It really is Omnu’s power; you simply can’t channel that much sheer divine magic unassisted, you’d incinerate yourself. But that he sends it to you in those extreme moments… It’s not so simple as him having a plan, Toby. It’s more that he reacts when you have a need. You are the kick in the pants he needs. Please don’t think I don’t care about you, because I do. Truly, I do. But in you, I see a real chance for my old friend to…wake up. And Vidius is not the only one of us who is growing concerned with the way things are. I have been reminded, recently, how I myself have allowed individuals to rise within my cult whom I would have disdained to be in a room with in my own mortal days.”

Toby stared up at Trissiny, standing frozen in time before him. Really studying her, in a way he rarely did anymore. It was funny, how quickly one could grow to take people for granted, once one was used to having them around. He remembered Trissiny in their earliest days at the University, the uncertainty and vulnerability she had displayed, the bluster with which she covered it, the rigid and frankly bigoted shades to the conviction that powered her. Now, in armor again, he could still see the contrast. She stood square and tall, but without any of the tension and stiffness she used to carry. Her expression was intent and pensive as she listened to Mortimer, but underneath the focus there was calm, totally unlike her borderline fanaticism of just two years ago. It was all right there, subtle but so plain when he really looked, even when she was suspended like a sculpture.

Trissiny had grown so much. They all had. Gabriel and Fross were practically different people. Juniper was in the grip of so many transitions it was hard to say how she might end up. He wasn’t sure whether he had only recently come to detect the care and compassion in Ruda, or the warmth and humor in Shaeine, or whether they had themselves grown more comfortable in those traits. Even Teal, despite Izara’s criticism, was slowly evolving into her own woman despite the pressures upon her.

Could he say the same? Had he really changed? Looking back, Toby found, to his shame, that he could see little that was new in himself except his ever-growing uncertainty.

Izara was right: he did nothing but react. Without a plan, and without focus, just constantly wandering about trying to be a calming presence wherever he was. He knew without self-aggrandizement that he had had a positive influence on his friends. But to the world at large? What could he really achieve by just being the nice guy? How many people could that help?

Chang Zhi was spoken of with tremendous reverence within Omnu’s faith, as perhaps the perfect spiritual role model. When he pressed himself, though, Toby couldn’t come up with anything of significance that she had actually accomplished.

“I’m such an idiot,” he said aloud. Without recrimination or angst; it was just an observation.

“You’re no more of one than someone your age should expect to be,” Izara replied, a note of humor lightening her voice.

“I don’t…know…what to do with this.”

“I would recommend following the examples of your friends. Trissiny has looked beyond the boundaries of her original faith for valuable perspective. Gabriel is becoming, if anything, a specialist in versatility. The truth is, Toby, that the traditions which raised you have let you down. It’s not that they are without value, but such limited perspectives may not work in the world anymore.”

Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you. That’s really good advice. Do you really think I can…” For that matter, what was it she was asking of him, exactly? “…save Omnu from himself?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say he needs to be saved, any more than you do. As his paladin, you are a focus for his personality; your growth can only benefit him as well. But simply as a man, you are very much like Omnu was in mortality. Kind, warm, gentle…a little bit bland and aloof. I just want you to be the best person you can, Toby. Hence…all of this.” She waved a hand at the frozen scene around them. “I’m not in the habit of such insistent interventions, but you came right up to the edge of a terrible precipice. The potential loss was more than I could bear to think of.”

“I see your point.” Toby nodded, then carefully gathered himself and stood, gently dislodging her. He turned to offer the goddess a hand up. “Thank you, Lady Izara, for all of this.”

“Please don’t be so formal,” she chided gently, even as she took his arm to rise. “I never have learned to enjoy being called Lady.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to compromise, then. I don’t think I can bring myself to call you Izzy.”

She grinned at him, and then suddenly the air moved again.

“…which will be the trickiest initial part, as—oh!” Agasti’s voice cut off mid-explanation for the second time to Toby’s ears, though it was the first to everyone else’s. He, Trissiny, and the two revenants both turned to Izara in surprise.

“Please,” she said, raising both hands, “no genuflections or other time-wasters. In theory, the Pantheon aren’t meant to intercede and solve mortal problems in person, but for this sheer concentration of paladins, extenuating circumstances, and backlash from one of my own projects, I have decided an exception is in order. Now, let’s get our young friend back here before he meets something he is truly not prepared for.”

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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 – 21

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Nell just gestured them to go ahead, waving to flag down the waitress. “You’re on your own from here, kids. Don’t worry, it’ll be perfectly fine.”

To judge by his expression before he got it back under control, the demon sent to bring them shared their instinctive unease about this prospect.

The door to the private area of the club was cleverly hidden in an alcove next to the bar, where the apparently natural shape of the cave walls veiled a gap behind a cluster of stalagmites; someone who didn’t know it was there could have stood right next to the aperture and never noticed it, thanks to the dimness of the club floor. Their standoffish revenant guide politely gestured them through, then followed them into the short corridor beyond, which ran behind the bar.

Around a corner, the spooky ambience abruptly vanished; they were now in a wood-paneled hallway with slightly threadbare carpet, lined by doors and terminating in a spiral staircase, with perfectly conventional fairy lamps providing ample light. The demon slipped past them and led the way to the stairs. All three paladins trooped along behind him in silence, single file.

They ascended roughly one story in the circular well, where the staircase terminated in a small foyer which looked for all the world like somebody’s front porch. Against the wall ahead was a door of ornately carved and highly polished wood, complete with a brass knocker. It was lit by a pair of decorative fairy lamps in wrought iron housing. Giving them little time to take in the scene, their guide produced a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and once again diffidently gestured them to proceed.

“Thank you,” Toby said politely as they passed. The demon didn’t acknowledge him.

It was like stepping into the upscale house at which the front door hinted. They arrived in a short entry hall that was visibly richer than Princess Yasmeen’s townhouse back in Calderaas, with marble floors and columns, mahogany paneling and velvet drapes providing an abbreviated glimpse of the sitting room beyond. Their guide glided past them and ducked under the curtains.

“Mr. Agasti, your guests.”

“Thank you, Arkady,” replied a thin voice from out of sight beyond the curtain. “That’ll be all, for now.”

The demon hesitated, glancing inscrutably at them. “Sir, if you would like, I can remain—”

“It’s all right,” Agasti replied in a tone that, while gentle, cut off the protest without effort. “Do me a favor and check on Nell, if you please. I know Kami has everything in hand, but I hate to leave an old friend languishing in the bar like any other punter.”

“…of course, sir,” Arkady said after another pause. He fixed a flat look on the three paladins again, but stepped back past them to the door. Toby once more smiled and nodded, and was again ignored.

“Please, come on in, lady and gentlemen,” Mr. Agasti urged them as soon as the door had shut behind the demon. “Don’t be shy.”

The room beyond seemed to be a combination library, sitting room, and private pub, as they discovered upon stepping through the curtain. Along the right wall was a small bar, behind which stood shelves of bottles. The walls were lined with bookcases, the floor laid out with comfortable chairs and a sofa, all in a matched red leather set. There was also a low table in front of the couch, stands by two of the chairs, and a huge globe in a waist-high setting which allowed it to rotate on two axes. Most strikingly to them was a piece tucked between two bookcases along one wall: a shabby old locking cabinet with a modern disc player on top. Most people would not recognize a Vernis Vault by sight, but this so perfectly matched the arrangement Tellwyrn had in her office that they couldn’t miss the resemblance.

“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” said Mortimer Agasti, approaching them slowly from the corner armchair from which he had apparently just risen. “The embarrassing truth is that most days, I don’t bother getting out of my bathrobe. There are some meetings, however, for which a man ought to make himself presentable.”

It was strangely difficult to guess at his age. The man walked with a slight stoop and a shuffling gait which suggested advanced years, and his short wiry hair had gone pure white. His brown face was totally unlined, however. In his bearing and the sad little effort at a smile he made, Agasti seemed worn down by an exhaustion that went well beyond the physical. He could have been a well-preserved seventy or a particularly beaten-down fifty. At least, he had clearly made an effort with his appearance, and while his suit was slightly loose on him as though it had been tailored for a more robust man, it was of obviously expensive cut.

“That’s no problem at all,” Gabriel said, for once beating Toby to the pleasantries. “We appreciate you taking time to see us at all, since we did just show up out of nowhere. Sorry to impose on you like this, Mr. Agasti.”

“Please,” the warlock said, raising a hand and managing a slightly more enthusiastic smile, “it’s just Mortimer. Mr. Agasti makes me sound so…old. When you are as legitimately old as I am, every little piece of self-delusion matters. Please, make yourselves comfortable anywhere. I trust Kami took good care of you down in the club? I can have something brought up if you’d like.”

“Thanks, but we just ate,” Trissiny said, gingerly seating herself on the very edge of one of the chairs.

Agasti nodded, shuffling over to slowly sink down in another. The armchairs were tall and had broad backs; once settled into one he looked positively shrunken. “Well, then. To get the awkward necessities out of the way up front, I should let you know that an old lawyer like myself is better prepared than most for his own demise. Obviously, nothing I’ve left behind will pose a serious threat to any of you, but if my employees come to harm in the course of my untimely death I can guarantee that the fallout will make it all but impossible for your cults to operate in Ninkabi for a decade or so.”

“Um,” Gabriel said, wide-eyed, “I think there’s been a mis—”

“I’m willing to compromise, however,” Agasti continued, his thin voice snuffing out Gabriel’s as effortlessly as it had his own employee’s, by sheer firmness. “The revenants working for me, despite their appearance, are perfectly harmless citizens who are in no way responsible for their current state. If I have your assurance that you will leave them be, I am prepared to ensure that no aggressive action is taken by my estate.”

“We’re not here to harm you!” Toby exclaimed.

“If we were,” Trissiny added, “we wouldn’t have come in and sat down. That just makes it…awkward.”

At that, Agasti cracked a grin of real amusement—a relatively weak one, though it brought more life to his countenance. “Ah? Well, then, forgive me for assuming. It did speak well of you that Nell vouched for your conduct, though frankly I don’t know what she could have done to make you behave any certain way.” Evidently Nell had neglected to clue in her “old friend” as to her real identity. “Please pardon an old scoundrel’s over-caution. I’ve found it a vital habit in every line of work I’ve undertaken.”

“Did…we really give off that impression?” Gabriel asked somewhat plaintively.

“Let’s just say my luck with Pantheon cults, and higher representatives thereof, has been spotty. Besides.” Agasti blinked slowly and leaned back in his chair, his fatigued body language belying the sharp intelligence of his eyes. “Most old shut-ins make a point of falling as far out of touch as they can, but I do subscribe to newspapers from around the continent; staying up on current events gives me something to fill my day. I am very much aware of the hot stories fresh out of Calderaas. So when you three young rascals suddenly manifested out of the blue on my doorstep… Well, that paints a certain picture, doesn’t it?”

Toby actually cringed, while Trissiny sighed and lowered her eyes.

“That, uh…was a very different situation,” Gabriel said, clearly choosing his words with care. “Irina Araadia had worse coming than that…and even so, in hindsight we were more ham-fisted than may have been wise. Seriously, Mr…that is, Mortimer, we didn’t come here to cause you trouble. Nell’s been singing your praises all evening, and while we haven’t known her long, she’s someone I personally would just as soon not disappoint. The truth is, we came here to ask for your help.”

“Oh?” At this, he leaned forward again slightly. “Well, what an interesting bundle of surprises you charming young folks are. And here I’ve assumed these last five years that the mere existence of a Hand of Avei in the world again meant the clock was ticking for me.”

“It’s ticking for all of us,” Trissiny said. “I… Assume you’ve had some run-ins with Avenists, sir.”

“I’m a lawyer, General Avelea,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I’ve lived my life surrounded by Avenists. As a breed, they’re not shy about sharing their opinions with regard to other areas of my life.”

“And by ‘opinions,’ I assume you mean ‘prejudices.’”

“Now, now. Leading the witness.” He wagged a chiding finger at her, but his tone remained amused. “I assure you I have better sense than to up and say that to members of such an admirably forthright faith.”

“Well, as one such member, I’m willing to say it,” she replied frankly. “I have them, too. I won’t lie, I’m having a little trouble politely sitting still in a complex full of actual demons. But I recognize prejudices for what they are. I do now, at least.”

“Well, well,” he mused. “A Hand of Avei who can actually see that the world is complicated. And here I’d thought Laressa was the eternal outlier. If you’ll forgive my curiosity, Ms. Avelea, is there any truth to the rumor that you’ve studied with the Thieves’ Guild? Several of the papers are repeating that one.”

She flicked her wrist, making a coin appear in her hand, and rolled it across her fingers with such a fluid motion that the light glinting off it resembled flowing water. “Fully trained and tagged, in fact.”

“That I should live to see such times,” Agasti murmured. “Well, then! I apologize once more for being a suspicious old goat. Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. Do please tell me how I can be of service, and I don’t just ask because I’m flummoxed what three paladins could possibly want from me.”

“Well…” Toby glanced at the others, and getting two encouraging nods, took over. “We are on a quest. Yes, an actual quest, from an actual god—but it’s just Vesk and so far indications are that it’s in keeping with his established pattern of sending paladins on quests just to give them something to do. So this venture does have Pantheon backing, but please don’t feel pressured; we’re not yet convinced how important any of it is.”

“Wise to be cautious,” Agasti said approvingly, leaning forward even more. He seemed to be slowly but surely recovering some of his vital force right before their eyes. “For a fellow like me with, shall we say, classical sensibilities, I confess I find that even more interesting than if you were out to save the world or some such. At least, now that I know my own life is not actually on the line. Please, continue.”

“The short version is, we’re assembling pieces of a key.” Toby reached into his pocket and produced what they had so far, holding it up to the light. “All Vesk told us at first is that there were four parts and some vague hints as to where they might be. We’ve had more detailed information from Salyrene recently, who had the second piece. She revealed that the fragments are all pieces of Infinite—that is, Elder God technology, probably made at least partly of mithril. And that you had the next piece. It would go on the end there, see, where the slots are? Clearly, this doesn’t look quite like anybody’s front gate key, but the resemblance is strong enough that it would probably look like the teeth.”

Agasti leaned forward to stare at the key with narrowed eyes, but did not reach out to touch it. As Toby finished, he shifted to rest his back against the chair again, frowning. “To be honest, the mithril does more to give it away than the shape; it would never have occurred to me to think of that thing as the teeth of a key, though I suppose that description fits. You don’t find mithril doodads in just any souvenir shop, though. Well, my young friends, as you have at least partially guessed, I have good news and bad news.”

“That means the bad news is really bad,” Trissiny said fatalistically. “Nobody tries to soften it that way, otherwise.”

“Smart girl,” Agasti agreed, grinning. “You know, young lady, you remind me of someone… But I digress. The good news is, of course, that I do recognize your description, I know exactly what you are looking for, and it was one of my most prized possessions for many a year. The bad is that I no longer have it.”

“I see,” said Toby, tucking the key away again. “Do you know where it is?”

“And that’s the worse news,” the old man said gravely. “Yes, I know where it is. But I can’t tell you.”

“And…why is that?” Trissiny asked.

“The attorney’s old bugaboo,” he replied. “It’s a question of confidentiality. To be frank, I don’t mind revealing my own secrets, if it’s an affair of interest to the gods directly. I have few enough left, and it’s always a relief to unburden oneself, don’t you think? But I have to protect the secrets of others, and that’s an altogether more serious matter, to me.”

“So…one of your law clients has the key fragment?” Gabriel asked.

Agasti shook his head. “This isn’t one of those things you can get around through simple tricks, Mr. Arquin. You are Mr. Arquin, right? I’m reasonably sure of the descriptions…”

“Oh. Sorry, I guess we failed to introduce ourselves, didn’t we?” Gabriel grinned cheerfully. “Anyway, it’s just Gabe. Mr. Arquin makes me sound all respectable, and there’ll be no end of trouble if I start getting a big head. Just ask Trissiny.”

“Duly noted, Gabe. But as I was saying, I’m not the doorman of a labyrinth and this isn’t a riddle. The confidences with which I am entrusted are of the utmost importance to me, and they are not to be circumvented by a game of twenty questions.”

Trissiny leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “And yet, you’re still talking to us. I can’t help thinking a lawyer who had nothing more to say would have dissolved into empty platitudes and apologies by now.”

“Never underestimate a lawyer’s ability or willingness to waste your time, young lady,” Agasti said with a grin. “But you’re correct, I am every bit as interested in helping you as I indicated. It becomes a little more complicated now, that’s all. To proceed, you will simply have to get the go ahead from the client whose secrets I am obliged to protect. In most cases, I would not even tell you who they are… But you are paladins, you are on a quest from an actual god of the Pantheon, and as this affair pertains to my magical rather than legal expertise, I don’t face disbarment for taking a slight liberty. The mithril piece you need I lost in the course of doing work for my cult.”

“I…see,” Trissiny said slowly. “Well, that does clear things up; I was worried for a second there. It’s a little ironic we have to go back to the Collegium now, but Salyrene herself signed off on this, so I doubt they’ll be excessively difficult about it.”

Agasti tilted his head minutely to the side, putting on a bland little smile. “The Collegium? Now, why would you assume that is my cult?”

She blinked. “…you’re right, that was a pretty bold assumption on my part. I meant no offense.”

“I am not offended,” he said, still smiling. “It’s not as if I don’t follow your logic, after all. An old warlock, not at odds with the Pantheon, to whom else would he pray but Salyrene? And yet, the Collegium is considered a religion only because its patron is a member of the Pantheon. They call it a Collegium for a reason, after all; Salyrites are more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than providing comfort and spiritual understanding. No, I’m afraid this business doesn’t involve them. It does go to the highest levels of Izara’s faith, however. You will have to seek the approval of no less a person than the High Priestess.”

Trissiny stared at him, seemingly unaware that her mouth had fallen open. Toby simply looked intrigued. It was Gabriel who spoke, with customary tact.

“You’re an Izarite?!”

“Is there some reason I should not be?” Agasti asked mildly.

Trissiny finally shut her mouth. “…we were recently told that a religion, ultimately, consists of a problem and a solution. That a true faith postulates what the core problem of existence is, and then provides a way to address it.”

“I’ve heard that theory!” Agasti replied, nodding. “Back in my university days, I attended a fascinating lecture series on theology; the speaker devoted a whole hour to the idea. Yes, Ms. Avelea, that is a very good way to look at it, though not the approach to which I am personally accustomed. But to take that tack… I suppose you could say that in my view, the fundamental problem of existence is brokenness. And the glue that holds people together, both within themselves and in the bonds between them, is love. Look closely at every force, every philosophy or idea, which prevents people from either turning on each other or falling apart individually, and you’ll find that ultimately, it boils down to love.”

Silence fell, the three of them digesting this while Mr. Agasti simply regarded them with a knowing little smile. In the quiet, the very faint ticking of a clock could be heard, having gone previously unnoticed underneath the conversation.

“So…I guess it’s off to Tiraas, then,” Trissiny said at last. “The good news is we can probably get an audience with the High Priestess…”

“A-hem?” They all looked over at Gabriel, who was suddenly grinning. “I bet we can expedite that a bit. Let me just run downstairs and grab Nell—”

There came a knock at the front door.

“Aaaand ten doubloons says that’s my idea being preempted,” he muttered.

“No bet,” Toby replied.

Mr. Agasti raised his voice. “Yes?”

Rather than a verbal answer, there came a click and the soft whine of hinges, followed by footsteps on the marble floor of the entry hall. And then, Nell’s grinning face poking through the velvet curtains.

“Morty!”

“Nell, you smirking reprobate, how do you keep looking younger every time I see you?” he complained.

“Cheating,” she said cryptically, stepping the rest of the way in. “I hope I’m not interrupting you guys, but a mutual acquaintance just popped in downstairs and I figured we should combine all this into one conversation, so as to cut down on all the catching up and explanations later. Kids, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, kids.”

Another woman had followed her through the curtains, apparently young and homely almost to the point of looking weird. She was short, bony as a bundle of twigs, with buggy eyes and practically no lips, and unruly blonde hair that frizzed defiantly against the rough ponytail into which she had gathered it.

At her entrance, Agasti went wide-eyed and shot to his feet.

“Now, Mortimer, none of that,” Izara ordered with a smile, quickly gliding across the room toward him. “If you even think about kneeling I shall be very cross with you. Please, sit back down, you should know I’m no great fan of ceremony.”

“M-my Lady,” he whispered, his voice rough with awe.

But unspoken agreement, the three paladins rose and retreated, to give them some space. Gabriel leaned close to Nell, who was watching the scene with a broad grin. “By any chance, did Vesk send her? Because, you know… The timing. It was practically comedic.”

“Are you under the impression that Veskers are the only people in the world who know anything about rhythm?” she retorted, also pitching her voice low enough not to interrupt the other two, who were caught up in a soft conversation of their own. “Kid, critters like us have means at our disposal you can scarcely imagine. When I said I like I keep in circulation, I didn’t mean the way you would; right now I am doing business, in person, in a hundred different cities. Izzy’s not usually one to pop up in the flesh, any more than most of the ol’ family are, but for this? No, it’s not a coincidence she chose the perfect moment.”

“Well, this is good, though,” Trissiny murmured. “If the pattern we’ve seen so far holds out, this means we’ll be getting a nice long lecture on her personal philosophy. The fact that the thought annoys me so much probably means I need to hear it.”

“Oh, Trissiny,” Izara said in a fond tone, looking over at them. “Love doesn’t require any explanation. Please, all of you, sit back down. You, too, Nell, there’s no point in anybody looming around uncomfortably, now that we’re all here.”

She herself perched on the arm of Agasti’s chair, having gently urged him back into it, and kept a hand on his shoulder. The old man’s eyes glinted with unshed tears, and his awed expression had not faded, but he recovered enough of his aplomb to give Nell a wry look.

“And to think,” he said, “I thought you were exaggerating when you claimed you knew everyone.”

“Oh, I was,” she replied earnestly. “But I do know some surprising people, and that claim keeps giving me perfect opportunities to make this smug expression I’m making right now. It just feels so good on my face!”

“In any case,” Izara continued, shaking her head, “I know what you are seeking, and what you need from Mortimer. There is no need to bother Delaine with this; I am quite willing to authorize you to know what has happened. In fact, the intervention of paladins in the affair may do a great deal to rectify certain old mistakes.” She squeezed Agasti’s shoulder affectionately. “To begin… Do all three of you know what a shatterstone is?”

Gabriel raised his hand. “Nope.”

“They’re magical artifacts the Izarites use to defend their temples,” Trissiny explained, tilting her face in his direction but keeping her eyes on Izara. “Purely defensive and reactive. If you do any hostile magic at or even near a shatterstone, it lets out a pulse that neutralizes any non-Izarite casters in the vicinity. Those things have knocked out dragons. Exactly how they work and are made is one of the greatest secrets of that cult, which…really explains why Mr. Agasti was reluctant to go into detail about this.”

“They are an unfortunate necessity,” Izara said sadly, “not a high secret, Trissiny. It would be better if such things weren’t needed at all…but the world isn’t so obliging. And so, the shatterstones are necessary, as is the secrecy surrounding them. And to cut a long story short, Mortimer is one of the specialists who made them for my temples.”

Trissiny straightened up. “Are you telling me those things are made with infernomancy?”

“It would be more accurate to say that I made them with infernomancy,” Agasti replied, looking up at his goddess and getting an encouraging nod. “The real secret of shatterstones is this: there is no secret. There’s no specific formula or pattern. They have fallen into hostile hands in the past, but no attempt to reverse-enchant them has succeeded, because no two are alike. Shatterstones are made by trusted members of the cult from all four branches of magic, and most incorporate all four schools, and some shadow magic besides. But even within the efforts of each individual craftsman, the stones are not identical. A shatterstone is an individual work of art. The challenge is to create one in a new way each time—to achieve the specific, predictable effects they must have through a unique working. Thus, they can never be countered or anticipated. A hostile spellcaster who obtained one would find it no help at all in getting around the defenses of another temple. Thus, Izara’s sacred grounds remain protected, without any blood needing to be shed. And the constant arms race of new tactics and weapons passes them by.”

“That is actually brilliant, militarily speaking,” Trissiny marveled.

Toby, though, frowned. “Now, my source for this is Gabriel, so take it with a pinch of salt…”

“Hey!”

“…but I thought that standardization was very important for any complex, permanent magical working. Don’t they have a tendency to go wrong if you’re constantly improvising?”

“They do,” Izara said quietly, shifting to drape her arm around Agasti’s shoulders. The warlock sighed heavily, lowering his eyes. “That brings us to the problem before you.”

“That Elder God trinket you’re looking for?” Agasti raised his gaze again, his expression now resolute. “It’s designed to help control the flow of powerful magics. I used it in my work to craft shatterstones, in a secure and sacred location far from the city where I did my work on behalf of the goddess. But the last time… The last time, I made a mistake. The piece you need is still in that hidden temple, but after that last disaster, I barely got out of there with my own life. I’m afraid the entire thing went right straight to Hell.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Oh,” said Gabriel, his eyes widening. “Oh, gods. That’s not a euphemism, is it.”

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