Tag Archives: Schwartz

14 – 32

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 18

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“You okay, Gabe?” Toby asked in a soft voice.

“Fine,” Gabriel said shortly. At that, Trissiny looked over at him as well. He was staring out across the Rail platform with a fixed little frown creasing his forehead. Following an uncomfortable pause, he explained further, still without looking at them. “Just concentrating. There’s a Vidian magic technique to deflect attention, which I haven’t practiced as much as I should’ve, so it takes focus.”

“Ah,” Toby said, nodding. “Good idea.”

Vrin Shai’s Rail station was outside the city proper. Even in an age when mag artillery made stone walls somewhat redundant, the city’s fortifications were practically a sacrament, given which goddess claimed it as a sacred seat. Though Imperial codes required Rail stations to be located in areas with easy access to city streets, there had never been a prospect of the Rail line itself penetrating the outer defenses. Popular rumor was that the Surveyor Corps, when planning the Rail route and station, hadn’t even bothered to ask. Thus, the walls stood proud, and Rail traffic to and from Vrin Shai involved a rather inconvenient trek.

Trissiny had once again left her armor behind; the central temple was of course proud to hold onto it for a while, though Sister Astarian had seemed somewhat bemused at the Hand of Avei’s preference not to wear it. She had, however, smilingly promised to see about removing what remained of the blinding alchemic polish the steward in Calderaas had applied. In civilian clothes, the five of them might have been any mixed bag of travelers, their only distinctive feature being that Darling, Trissiny and Schwartz made an unusual concentration of Stalweiss descent for this part of the country. Still, Gabriel’s precaution was wise. In their short time in the city, the paladins had managed to make public spectacles of themselves several times; it was hardly beyond possibility that someone might recognize them.

And none of them were in the mood for curiosity seekers.

Darling and Schwartz had stepped off to the side to converse in a low tone; the three paladins simply clustered together on the platform, ignoring and being ignored by the other travelers awaiting caravans. Now, the other two turned and approached them again, causing Trissiny and Toby to look up, though Gabriel continued frowning fixedly into the distance.

The Bishop cleared his throat. “So! Mr. Schwartz has just been telling me that I was much too hard on you three.”

Trissiny sighed. “Herschel…”

“Now, hold up,” Darling said, raising a hand. “The fact is, he’s right.”

At that, even Gabriel looked up, his expression becoming quizzical.

“It’s tricky to find the right…perspective, here,” Darling continued, turning his head to gaze abstractly at nothing, much the way Gabriel had just been doing. “In reality, you’re young. Not only are you bound to make mistakes; you’re supposed to. That’s all part of the process. On the other hand, you three have such a huge weight of importance resting on you that everything you do creates waves that’ll end up affecting more people than you can imagine. In short… You can’t afford to be and do the things that you naturally, inevitably have to. And yes, that is wildly unfair, to which I must say, tough luck. That’s life. But, it’s something I should’ve been more mindful of.”

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he met the gaze of each of them in turn before continuing. “You fucked up, kids. You didn’t think carefully enough and created a big damn mess. But I also fucked up by reaming you out when what you needed was advice on how to not repeat that mistake. For that, I apologize.” He nodded deeply, the gesture verging on a bow. For a moment, the three of them could just stare in silent surprise. Schwartz folded his arms, looking satisfied; on his shoulder, Meesie did exactly the same.

“Well…apology accepted,” Trissiny said at last. “It’s not as if you were wrong, anyway. And your advice and help has been appreciated.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darling replied. “We’ve dwelled enough on what you did wrong, so let me offer the opposing perspective: you saw a problem, and you took action. Thanks to you, Calderaas is getting a bunch of new schools. Which…isn’t the kind of outcome the bards sing of; it’s not flashy, it’ll be years before the results start to show and a generation before it really changes things. But that is still important. Not to mention, you reminded some of society’s worst people that their bullshit does have consequences, which is something they need on the regular. Next time do it more carefully, but…” A faint frown of concern appeared on his own face. “Like Herschel just reminded me, what’s important is taking action. You might mess up and cause problems, but that’s nothing compared to the losses that’ll accrue if you never intervene. I really hope I didn’t scare you away from stepping in when you see a need.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Gabriel said.

A bell chimed twice from nearby, where a large clock was displayed above the ticket master’s stand. The woman behind the counter glanced up at it, then leaned over to speak directly into an arcane apparatus enchanted to amplify sound, making her voice resonate through the station. “Caravan from Madouris is inbound, ETA one minute! Travelers departing for Ninkabi, please assemble on Platform Three! Please remember to make space for disembarking passengers before boarding.”

“That’s us,” Toby said unnecessarily, turning to gaze up the line toward the east.

Trissiny stepped over to Schwartz, and he met her with a hug. Meesie hopped down from his shoulder to hers, spreading her tiny arms and pressing her warm little body to Trissiny’s cheek in an embrace of her own.

“Be careful,” he murmured. “I know you can take care of yourself, but…”

“But it’s good advice, anyway,” she replied, pulling back to smile up at him. “You be careful too, Herschel. Listen to Darling and let him do what he does.”

“I know the plan, don’t worry,” he replied, grinning. “I hate to leave you guys right in the middle of your quest…”

“You need to have things ready in Tiraas when we get there, though,” she said, “and remember that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Listen to Darling—and Principia, for that matter—but listen…circumspectly. Senior Guild people are good at this kind of plotting, and neither of those’ll screw you over, but that doesn’t mean you should absorb every thought they try to put in your brain.”

“I’m not a complete idiot, you know,” he said wryly.

“Yeah, neither am I. Doesn’t mean neither of us has ever done anything idiotic.”

Flickers of blue lightning began to arc along the Rail line. The caravan appeared over the horizon before anyone could see it coming, throwing up sparks from the line and blue repulsor charms flaring alight in front of its lead car as it slowed. A whine so high-pitched it barely registered to the human ear sounded, as if physics itself were shrieking in protest at the sight of an object decelerating so fast without destroying itself.

Trissiny and Schwartz separated, Meesie hopping back onto her partner’s shoulder with a forlorn little cheep at his sister, and the other two paladins stepped over to them while the caravan’s doors open and dazed-looking passengers began to emerge.

“Take care of yourself, Schwartz,” Gabriel said, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.

“You, too,” the witch replied with a grin. “Don’t make my sister work too hard to keep you alive.”

“Don’t worry,” said Toby, raising an eyebrow. “Somehow it’s always me who ends up doing that.”

“You’ll be fine,” Darling added from behind them. “If this is a Vesk thing, he’ll strain you to the very edge of your capabilities and no further. You’ll come back smarter and harder, right in time for us to take care of business back home.”

“Any last minute advice?” Gabriel asked him. In the near distance, the ticket master started calling for passengers to board. “You probably know as much about Vesk as any of us, at least.”

“Yeah,” Darling said dryly. “Try to have fun, when you can. I hear tell it’s a riot, living through an actual adventure story—right up until you get to the part that’s meant to make the audience cry.”


Ninkabi was a city of terraces and bridges, and the striking contrast of heights and depths. Built along the last stretch of the N’Kimbi River, it was defined by its geography. In truth, within the Empire flatland cities like Mathenon and Onkawa were the exception, rather than the rule; most followed the model of Vrin Shai, Veilgrad, Calderaas, and Tiraas itself, occupying immense stone features which gave them each a distinctive skyline—and a considerable defensive advantage.

The N’Kimbi had carved out a double canyon over the eons, which itself had been somewhat broken by some long-ago seismic event, resulting in a series of waterfalls which descended from the rocky N’Jendo coast into the sea. Ninkabi occupied both banks of the canyon and the long island in the middle, descending the three tiers which had been re-shaped by mortal hands into regular terraces from the jumble of stone which it had been originally. The canyon walls, too, had been carved into and built outward, until the faces of buildings descended almost to the surface of the river, though the lowest two stories were usually unoccupied due to the annual flooding caused by snowmelt in the Wyrnrange. Numerous stone bridges crisscrossed the canyons, both at the surface levels and between openings along their walls, creating a veritable maze that boats couldn’t pass under during the flood season—not that most would have risked the waterfalls, anyway. Up top, Jendi architecture manifested itself in Omnist-style ziggurats and soaring minarets, the city as bristling with towers as it was rent by deep shadows. Within the shade of the many towers, though, the long central island contained numerous gardens, many with ancient, towering trees which added a lushly organic touch to the city’s angular lines.

The outskirts of the city along the canyon were delineated by high walls, of course; Ninkabi itself had rarely been sacked, but most of N’Jendo’s history had been marked by raids back and forth between the country and the orcs of Athan’Khar to the south, and the human nation of Thakar to the north. Those defenses had been tested innumerable times, over the centuries. Even during the long peace since the Enchanter Wars, Ninkabi had followed the example of Vrin Shai rather than Veilgrad; no suburbs had been allowed to spring up outside the walls. The Thakari were allies now and what dwelled in Athan’Khar never came out anymore, but the horrors lurking there discouraged any risk-taking with defenses.

The Rail station was at the highest point on the central island, at its easternmost edge with the looming Wyrnrange walling off the horizon in that direction, and the setting sun casting the rest of the city in orange and gold as it descended toward the sea on the other side. From this angle, they had an excellent view of Ninkabi’s maze of towers, bridges, and canyons. This, even at a glance, was a city of deep shadows. Now their task was to find the right scoundrel lurking in them.

“But before that,” Trissiny said, when they’d stepped to the edge of the Rail platform, “there’s something I need to do while we’re in the city.”

“Oh?” Toby asked. Gabriel, though, was already nodding.

They had to ask for directions, and it was a bit of a hike; what they sought was situated at the base of the second-to-last cliff on the central island, most of the way along the city. The trip involved descending three layers, where they found that there were both switchbacking stairs at the edges of the cliffs and long ramps which passed through tunnels, to allow horses and vehicles to pass between levels. Between this and the bridges, getting around in Ninkabi involved quite a bit of planning and backtracking; those tunnels had to be long enough that to come out at the base of a cliff, you had to enter almost the whole way back along that terrace, nowhere near the stairs.

Upon descending the first staircase, Gabriel successfully bullied the other two into renting a rickshaw to take them the rest of the way, pointing to the setting sun as evidence that they really ought to hurry this up.

They finally arrived, though, at a kind of amphitheater built right into the base of the cliff. The broad, semicircular space within was calm, deeply shadowed beneath both the cliff itself, the tall round walls which separated it, and overhanging boughs of trees which stretched outward from the gardens planted atop those thick walls.

Against the great wall stood the monument which was the focus of this place, a fountain which rose in tiers almost two stories, pouring water down in levels like a ziggurat. Stairs rose almost to its peak, creating access by which people could set down candles along the multiple rims of each level, where little indentations held them upright even against the water. Right now the candles were sparse, leaving the space dim as they were its only illumination.

This was, technically, a Vidian temple, and was watched over by priests of Vidius, but it was neither Vidians nor the general public who came to this place, as a rule. There were no icons displayed, no decorations anywhere in the space except for the inscription carved along the base of the Fount of the Fallen:

WE ARE STILL HERE

It was one of very few places in the world that the generally irreverent Eserites regarded as sacred.

The three paladins entered through an arch along the northern arc of the outer wall, pausing just inside to look around. Few were present, just the Vidian priests in their three alcoves spaced along the inner curve of the wall, and only two people currently visiting the shrine. A woman with Stalweiss coloring, in an expensive-looking silk gown, sat on the lowest edge of the fountain, trailing her fingers in the water and seeming to speak quietly to no one. Halfway up one of the staircases, a dark-skinned man who might have been local had just finished setting a candle in place and lighting it, and now bowed his head, whispering in prayer.

“Welcome,” a voice greeted them quietly from the alcove just a few feet away. It had a stone counter built in front of it, leaving the priest behind partially walled off like a shopkeeper. Shelves lining the back held row upon row of unlit white candles. Currently occupying the space was a Tiraan woman who stuck out somewhat, due to her expensive-looking and obviously tailored suit.

Gabriel frowned at her. “Are…you a priest of Vidius?”

“Oh, not me,” she said diffidently, waving a hand. “I’m just watching this post for a little bit, as a favor to a friend. I work with the Universal Church.” Gold glittered at her sleeves; her cufflinks alone looked pricey enough to be an affront to Eserite sensibilities. Actually, with her short hair and sharp suit, the woman looked a lot like Teal Falconer, with a darker complexion and more expensive tastes.

Trissiny stepped over to the counter. “May I have a candle, please?”

“Of course,” the woman said politely. “It’s two pennies.”

“You charge for these?” she demanded, frowning.

“This is genuine locally-sourced Jendi beeswax,” the woman in the suit replied with a placid smile. “Those bees worked hard to make these for you, and no telling how many keepers got stung in the process. The candles are hand-made by traditional artisans—no factory products here. Two pennies is exceedingly reasonable, especially considering that even a holy site requires some upkeep.”

Trissiny shook her head ruefully, already reaching into her pocket. “Well, when you put it that way, fair enough.” The woman smiled, accepted the coins and handed over a candle with no further comment, and Trissiny turned back to her friends. “I won’t be long.”

“You take as much time as you need,” Toby said firmly. “There is no rush.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Gabriel added. “Say whatever you need to.”

“Here,” the woman said suddenly, holding out an arcane cigarette lighter to Trissiny. It was as expensive as her suit, crafted of silver with gold embossing and engraved with a stylized V. “There are also matches and lighters for sale here, but you can borrow mine. I don’t recommend using matches anyway; the splashing water doesn’t agree with them.”

“Oh. Thank you very much,” Trissiny said, accepting it. “I’ll bring it right back.”

“Like the boys said, hon, take your time. I’m in no rush, either.”

She headed off to the fountain, and Toby and Gabriel discreetly edged away to stand with their backs to the wall on the other side of the arch. They tried not to stare, but there really wasn’t much else to look at; the woman at the candle stall was also watching Trissiny, wearing a small smile.

Trissiny picked a staircase some distance from the other two Eserites currently at the fountain and climbed, selecting a spot about halfway up. There, she wedged the white candle into one of the slots, lit it with a lighter, and then produced a gold doubloon from inside her sleeve. The paladin kissed the coin before tossing it into the water. Then she paused, bending over her candle, and speaking softly to nothing, like the others.

“His name was Ross,” Gabriel said suddenly, barely above a whisper. Toby looked up at him in surprise. “Evaine collected him. He died protecting Schwartz from wandfire. Trissiny and her other friends were just seconds too late to save him. I think you would’ve liked him, Toby. He didn’t much care for fighting; he was trying to talk his enemy down when she shot him, and he’d been really close to succeeding.” He hesitated, and sighed softly. “Ross was a bard, before apprenticing with the Guild. This whole thing… It’s a constant reminder that can’t be easy for her. I wonder how much of that was deliberate on Vesk’s part.”

“Did…she tell you all this?” Toby asked quietly.

Gabriel shook his head. “Evaine did. She was very impressed. Ross went right to the realm of heroes.”

“Have you told Trissiny?”

“I…no. That’s not exactly an easy thing to bring up, y’know? And I’m really not supposed to be ferrying information between the living and the dead, anyway. There’s a good reason Vidius insists on a solid barrier, there. I was going to tell her and her other Eserite friends anyway, back in Puna Dara, but…” He trailed off, and shook his head again.

“Yeah,” Toby murmured. “Not easy at all. I think she would like to know, though.”

“I’m still wrestling with it. Trissiny is my friend and I want to. But…that would be pretty blatantly playing favorites. If I reassure my own friend about dead loved ones, how do I justify not going around and doing the same for everyone else on the planet? Favorites are something death cannot have.”

“I see the dilemma.” Toby laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing and giving him a very gentle shake. “I’m not sure what the right thing is, there, Gabe. But I’m confident it’ll be what you end up doing.”

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, a little wryly.

The woman in silk had just stood up, turning to go, but she paused with a visible gasp, staring upward. Gabriel and Toby twisted their heads to follow her gaze.

Three stories up, at the edge of the outer wall beneath a tree, stood the blurred but unmistakable shape of a valkyrie, scythe in hand and black wings spread. After a moment, seeing that she’d been noticed, Vestrel stepped backward out of sight of the space below.

“Vidian holy ground,” Toby said thoughtfully. “Hm. Does that just…happen? The way you described events at the temple in Last Rock, I though valkyries had to specifically want to be visible, even there.”

“You know,” Gabriel said, lowering his eyes to frown at nothing, “it occurs to me I’m not actually sure what the rules are about that. It hadn’t seemed important, before, but…maybe I oughta ask Vestrel for a rundown.”

“That might be a good idea. More information is always better than less.”

“Yeah.”

Trissiny, true to her word, didn’t take long. Whatever she had to say to Ross or on his behalf, she was done while the other man on the other stairs was still kneeling. She looked suddenly tired, though more pensive than morose, giving both of them a wan smile while crossing back to the alcove with the lighter in her palm. Toby and Gabriel drifted over to meet her there, all three paladins arriving at about the same time.

“Thanks again,” Trissiny said, handing the lighter back to its owner.

“You are welcome,” the woman replied, inclining her head courteously. “Glad I could help. Now, are you kids about ready to go?”

There was a beat of uncertain silence.

“Excuse me?” Toby asked, frowning. “Go where?”

“Ah, my apologies, I did that in the wrong order. I’m Nell; pleased to meet you.” The woman bowed to each of them in turn, wearing a knowing smile. “We have some friends in common, and I hear tell you’re in town to see Mortimer Agasti and get your hands on one of his treasures. I can help you with that.”

“You said…you work for the Universal Church?” Gabriel asked suspiciously.

“With,” Nell corrected, raising one finger rather like a schoolteacher. “Not for. An easily-missed but very important distinction!”

“And…what’s your stake in this, exactly?” Trissiny demanded.

“Personally?” She shrugged, still with that bland smile. “I gain nothing from it, save the satisfaction of being involved. It’s been a long time since paladins were active in the world and longer still since they were on an honest-to-gods quest. Even if it is just Vesk trying to weave himself a shiny new fairy tale. There’s no way I’d pass up the chance to gawk at this from up close!”

“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Toby, “are you Vidian or Eserite?”

“Neither,” Nell replied pleasantly. “What I am is well-informed and connected. I know everybody interesting and everything important in Ninkabi. More to the point, I know Mortimer, and that means I can help you get what you want. You should be aware that he sees nobody. No visitors, no petitioners, no nothing. I’m one of very few acquaintances for whom he’ll break that rule. If you want to get a chance to present your case to the man himself without kicking up a ruckus that’ll upset Ninkabi even more than you did Calderaas, you’ll be needing to have me along.”

“You are awfully well-informed,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “How could you possibly know who we needed to talk to? That name was only mentioned—” She broke off, eyes widening again, and glanced down at the lighter, which the woman was still holding in one hand, positioned so its engraved V was facing them.

“Ah, ah, now. A little discretion, please! I’m sure you three understand not wanting to make spectacles of yourselves. It’s just Nell, to my friends.”

Verniselle winked at them, and tucked the lighter away in the breast pocket of her tailored coat.

“We very much appreciate your help…Nell,” Toby said carefully. “Your guidance would be more than welcome.”

“Oh, please don’t start being all formal,” she said, lightly punching him on the shoulder. “Trust me, where we’re going, that’ll only draw exactly the attention you don’t want. All right, kids, if we’re all done here, let’s head out. You’ve got good timing; we should reach Mortimer’s place a bit after dark, if we selectively dawdle. It’ll be open but not too busy yet. Thisaway!”

The goddess of money, merchants and bankers turned and strolled off through the nearest arch, casually flipping a platinum coin that would have bought a lower-end enchanted carriage. There was nothing for the three paladins to do but follow.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 17

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

Like many Eserites, Antonio Darling had a broad dramatic streak; he had also, apparently, had some Vesker training, to judge by his ability to project his voice at a furniture-rattling volume without seeming to strain it.

“What did you guys do?” Schwartz demanded, in perfect unison with Meesie, who squeaked unintelligibly but with precisely the same cadence.

Sister Astarian, who had slipped into the office behind them, now discreetly shut the door and then took Schwartz gently by the elbow. The priestess led him over to a corner of the room, where she leaned close and spoke in a low voice. His eyes progressively widened as she explained.

Meanwhile, Darling was just getting started. “What you kids did matters less than what you didn’t. Look, I’m the last guy you’re going to hear complain about someone standing up to power on behalf of the little guy, but these things have to be done strategically. You boys I can’t speak for and are not my business, but I know for a fact that Thorn has been specifically trained to plan ahead before launching an operation like that! Have you given the slightest thought to what would unfold after you waltzed out of that party?”

“A lot, in fact,” Toby said after a brief pause in which Trissiny seemingly failed to dig up a response. “At the time I accepted the reasoning we were given…but I’m not going to argue with any criticism. That was an awful thing to do to anyone, for any reason.”

“Mr. Caine,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms, “I think this conversation will go better if we’re all up front. I do not give a gently used fuck about Lady What’s-Her-Butt. The way the whole affair was described to me, it sounds like the real tragedy is that nobody finished drowning the wretched cow. I am here for entirely practical reasons, pertaining to the unholy mess you kids have unleashed.”

“Now, hold on,” Trissiny protested finally. “That was a sanctioned Guild operation! Underboss Velvet not only cleared the whole thing but participated and led it. If you’re going to take this up with anyone—”

“Oh, you’d better believe I have had words with Velvet,” Sweet barked, and began to pace up and down in front of the room’s desk. “The Calderaan chapter is hers to run as she likes—within reason! And anything involving fucking paladins is pushing the bounds of reason to the point that requires some additional thought, which in this case no one gave. But sure, Thorn, that’s as good a place to start as any. Let me just catch you up on events as they’ve been unfolding while you were off partying with the gods, beginning with Velvet and her crew.”

He stopped pacing and hopped onto the desk itself, where he began swinging his legs in an almost childlike motion while he continued, thumping his heels against the wood in an annoyingly arhythmic manner. “You see, kids, at issue here is the widespread furor that ensues when the Hand of Avei publicly does the most classically Eserite thing imaginable, with a full Thieves’ Guild backup. That sets people talking, raises issues both theological and political, and is generally a big ol’ boot to the bee’s nest. The operation, as far as it goes, was fine and a splendid success from a Guild perspective; Velvet unleashed the greatest terror she could get her hands on to nix a particularly glaring case of corruption and scare those responsible back into their holes for a little while. Rah rah, hip hip hooray, victory for the good guys, and so on. But the Guild also has to deal with the fallout of Trissiny’s involvement, and here’s the thing about that: Cardassa Araadia is a noblewoman herself and an Underboss in the most politically intricate city in the Empire. She knew damn well what she was doing, and she up and did it anyway. That is the kind of recklessness Boss Tricks can’t let pass without delivering, at bare minimum, a fierce chewing out.”

“Not to pour water on all this, but I still don’t see how that part is our fault,” Gabriel said. Unlike the others, he had seated himself in one of the room’s comfortable chairs and was lounging back at apparent ease. “Are we Velvet’s keepers?”

Darling glanced at him, the Bishop’s expression betraying nothing. “Patience, kiddo, we’re just getting started. Now, Velvet and Tricks butting heads would ordinarily not be more than a passing tension, but then your old buddy Webs decided to get involved! You do remember Webs, don’t you, Thorn?”

“Oh, no,” Schwartz muttered from the other side of the room. Sister Astarian stood nearby, listening with her hands folded, their brief conversation evidently finished.

“I’m almost afraid to ask, but…” Toby turned to Trissiny, raising his eyebrows. “Who is Webs?”

“A veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild,” she said, her own eyes widening in dawning horror. “He’s… The kindest way to put it is that he’s a theological purist. He doesn’t much approve of how Tricks runs things.”

Darling thunked both his feet hard against the desk. “And oh, he was just waiting for an excuse like this! He’s just barely begun agitating, so there’s no tell how far he’s going to push this, or even how far he can. Velvet is loudly on the record thinking Webs is a perpetually inebriated turd golem, so he’s not going to find an ally there. But the sequence of events involved, from one limited perspective, Velvet achieving a smashing victory against the nobles of Calderaas and Tricks calling her down for it, and Webs has a lovingly-nurtured network of people who listen to him, including a number who really ought to know better.”

“Hence the tag, I suppose,” Gabriel observed.

“Quite,” Darling said acidly. “And while we’re talking about rifts being rent in cults, Sister Astarian, I wonder if you would be good enough to take over for the next bit? I’m sure you are far more up to date on Avenist business, even despite my recent shouting match on this subject with Bishop Syrinx.”

Schwartz cringed; Meesie hissed, puffing up like an angry cat.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Astarian said, her calm demeanor a stark contrast to Darling’s barely-restrained ire. “One way or another, Trissiny, I had meant to speak of this with you before you left again. The repercussions within the Sisterhood are far more serious than it sounds like they were with the Guild. As the Bishop said, you acted in a very clearly Eserite fashion, with Eserite support, in public. This story has only begun to circulate, but already I have heard from some within both the Sisterhood and the Legion who feel…betrayed.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in an unusually small voice.

“Make no mistake,” Astarian continued, wearing a gentle expression now, “this will cost you some support within the cult, but it is not all bad. Some of that was support you didn’t need. There are elements within the Sisterhood who have been offended by your Silver Mission initiative, for example.”

“What?” Trissiny straightened up, frowning. “Why?”

“Simple bigotry,” Sister Astarian replied, shaking her head and permitting a faint scowl to flicker across her face. “Oh, they’ll all pretty it up with just the right touch of disingenuous eloquence, but that’s all it comes down to: people with small minds upset by the inclusion of others. I have even heard complaints about your public revelation last year that you are a half-elf. As I said, the worst of the grumbling is of the sort which deserves to be silenced with a heavy boot. But, and this is important, not all of it. You have ardent support within the Sisterhood, as well, and it is from those quarters that I have heard the most shock and disappointment.”

“I see,” Trissiny said quietly, and began chewing her lower lip.

“A cult,” said Darling, “is like a vase, or a nation, or anything else in the world: if you strike a sharp blow to something which had cracks to begin with, it just might shatter. This is something any paladin should think about before they abruptly upend everyone’s expectations, no matter how good the cause.”

“Sound advice,” Toby murmured.

“Thank you, Sister,” Darling said, standing to bow courteously to Astarian, who inclined her head in return. He straightened and turned a baleful look back on the three paladins. “But we’re still just getting started, here. The next big backlash to this has come from Tar’naris.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the— Why would the drow care about anything we do?”

“You were probably not aware of this,” Darling explained, “it isn’t common knowledge. But the Thieves’ Guild has been working closely with House Awarrion and Queen Arkasia’s government to crush the trade in human slaves that still exists there. It’s slow and delicate work, due to the complex politics of the city, and our own minimal ability to act. The Queen and Matriarch Ashaele don’t want the Guild establishing a permanent presence there, and they definitely don’t want their young people—or anyone else—being tempted away from Themynra to join Pantheon cults. Especially ours. So our presence is small and carefully supervised. In essence, human Eserites are scary monsters the Queen can use to terrorize her non-compliant nobles with, when they do things she doesn’t like—such as buying and selling Imperial citizens. It works because she doesn’t overdo it. So guess what immediately happened when the hot news out of Calderaas was of Pantheon paladins and a bunch of Guild thieves busting into a noble’s own sanctuary and torturing her in front of all her friends!”

“Oh, shit,” Gabriel whispered.

“Well said!” Darling snapped. “The short version is that Tricks has pulled all our people out of Tar’naris until we get the all clear to return. Matriarch Ashaele is scrambling to get this under control, Arkasia is seriously reconsidering dealing with us at all, and the other Narisian Houses are exerting pressure on them both to back off. So, congratulations! The slave trade lives another day.”

Toby covered his eyes with both hands.

“But hey!” With a broad grin that failed to touch his eyes, Darling threw up his hands in a melodramatic shrug. “The news isn’t all bad! You kids have yourself a brand new ally, to judge by the fuss Ravana Madouri has started kicking up.”

“Ravana?” Trissiny croaked. “What is she doing?”

“To start with the backstory, she is doing, in a word, populism. In fact, Duchess Madouri has been working pretty closely with the Guild over the last year, to clean out the nest of corruption her father’s regime left behind. An awful lot of the law enforcement in Tiraan Province was in his pocket; she had to resort to desperate measures to drain that swamp. Namely, us.”

“I’d be careful,” Trissiny warned. “Ravana and I aren’t close or anything, but we’ve had enough conversations that… Well, don’t relax around her.”

“Thank you, Thorn,” Darling said with withering sarcasm, “but the Guild somehow managed to function for a few thousand years before you came along. Tricks is not fool enough to jump into bed with a creature like Madouri, no matter how hard she’s working to win over her population. This is a real good time to be a citizen of Madouris or the surrounding country, though. The little Duchess has cut taxes overall, invested in infrastructure and public amenities like school and hospitals, and launched a series of banking initiatives to finance loans for businesses at very favorable interest rates.”

“Uh, hold up,” Gabriel said, raising a hand. “Now, I’m no economicist or nothin’, but I think I see a problem there. How’s she doing all that and cutting taxes at the same time?”

“No, you’re quite right,” Darling agreed, “she’s ramped up expenditures and reduced her income; that can’t go on forever. In her particular case, though, it can go on for a good while. House Madouri has always been rich, what with its lands being around the Imperial capital. Right now it’s richer than it has ever been; her father squeezed the bloody life out of that province for decades, and Ravana has swelled her treasury even further by charging most of his old cronies with corruption and seizing their assets. What she is doing is betting on the long-term prosperity of her province by investing heavily. It’s a gamble that the revenue will raise her back into the black before she spends all her savings. A pretty good gamble, in fact! Fortunes in Tiraan Province are already increasing all around, and Falconer Industries is a tremendous asset for Madouris. And, of course, all of these programs have made her incredibly popular, which brings me back around to my original point. Ravana has spent this summer buying up every newspaper in Madouris, as well as hiring bards, Vidian actors, and some less aboveboard rumor-mongers, and been working to improve her image through those and other outlets. She’d be merely popular if all she did was make life easier for her people; she’s actively keeping them entertained while also running a primitive but pretty effective propaganda machine. That girl is a goddamn hero in that province right now.”

Toby had narrowed his eyes while he listened, and now interjected. “I’ve only heard of national governments doing things like that. Is it common practice for nobles as well?”

“No,” Darling said emphatically. “Nobles only regard other nobles as worth considering, and deal with each other directly. They have a built-in contempt for the people whose work actually supports them. But House Madouri’s name is mud, thanks to the old Duke, and Ravana has no allies of her own rank. She’s making her people her political ally, and her so-called peers have been sneering and laughing at her desperation all year. I’m starting to have a feeling she’ll have the last laugh. All this is relevant to you, though, because in the last few days, that little propaganda outlet has started working overtime to prop up the three paladins of the Pantheon as heroes of the common people.”

“What?” Trissiny practically shrieked.

“Oh, yes,” Darling said with a peculiar kind of grim relish. “The brave and selfless heroes who struck down the corrupt nobles—in fact, the vilest and most corrupt aristocrats in all the Empire! Oh, her papers and bards are milking it. To the point that she’s already drawn the outrage of every House in Calderaas; as I was leaving the city the hot new gossip was House Araadia complaining publicly about House Madouri’s insults. If Ravana doesn’t back off she’s gonna wind up in a feud with the Sultana.”

“But…why would she do that?” Gabriel, despite his almost plaintive tone, was frowning in the pensive manner he did when wrestling with a challenging mental problem. He turned to his classmates. “I’ve never had any indication that Ravana liked us all that much. Certainly not enough to…”

“Don’t look for personal feeling in the schemes of nobles,” Darling advised. “Look for advantage. I can see two obvious reasons: One, this ‘champions of the common man’ narrative dovetails beautifully with her established strategy of courting her populace rather than her fellow nobles, and if she’s willing to push it far enough to actually annoy other Houses it’s a hint that her ambitions may extend beyond restoring House Madouri’s name and prestige. And two, she has plans for you three, and wants you to no only be in an advantageous political position with a wide base of support, but be kindly disposed toward her. This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway because I’ve recently learned not to assume you three jackasses possess an iota of political sense between you: this reflects upon you. You’ve already put yourself on the bad side of a lot of Houses, and Ravana is putting you even deeper in.”

“We didn’t tell her to do that!” Toby exclaimed.

“It’s adorable how you think that matters,” Darling said dryly. “And that, by the way, is the biggest and broadest change you’ve just wrought. Listen, kids: the nobility know exactly what trash they are. Oh, they’ll go on about their privileges and rights and how the demands of their position require certain…you know what, I’m not even gonna bother summarizing the excuses. The point is, they’ll deny it, but they know. It is not an accident that they try to hide their shenanigans from the public eye and put on pretty faces when the likes of paladins are passing by. I don’t think you realize the magnitude of what you just changed. For all of history, a paladin was a wandering force of nature that most people would never encounter. If you were an aristocrat with something to hide, you almost always had warning they were coming, and a modicum of assurance that as long as you kept your worst impulses in check in front of them, they wouldn’t bother with you while there were demons and zombies and whatnot demanding their attention. And then you three came along.”

He hopped back down from the desk and began pacing again, his characteristic poise buried by obvious agitation. All five of them watched him in silence, not even Meesie making a peep.

“Now?” Darling continued. “Now you’ve changed the rules. Now it turns out that paladins might pop up absolutely anywhere, and stick their swords into absolutely anything. Do you have any idea how much the average aristocrat gets up that to would demand a stabbing from the Hand of Avei if they ever had to worry about encountering her? Fucking most of it. And now, suddenly, they actually have to worry about that.”

He stopped, turned, and glared at them. “Do you have even the faintest idea what you’ve done?”

“Um,” Gabriel offered weakly after a short pause, but Darling pushed on before he could say anything more.

“The Guild chapter in Calderaas has the physical means, the personal motivation and a divine mandate to paint the walls of their city with every drop of noble blood therein. Did you read any significance into the fact that they haven’t? It is because, children, the defining trait of being noble is that when someone stabs you, you can delegate the bleeding to a lot of bystanders! Put pressure on the nobility, and they’ll complain over their expensive wine while a whole bunch of peasants get crushed.”

Trissiny had to clear her throat before she could speak. “Princess Yasmeen thought a lot of those nobles would be interested in courting my—that is, the Sisterhood’s favor, after that.”

“Smart woman, that one,” Darling said flatly. “She sure played you three like a goddamn banjo. Yes, she’s absolutely right, some of them will do that. Others will double down, either to dare you to do something about it, or test your willingness and ability to intervene. Others will… Who the hell even knows? There are hundreds of aristocrats in the Empire, and you just introduced a whole world of uncertainty into all their lives. How they react to it will vary enormously by individual. The one constant is that whatever they do, it’s going to affect tens of thousands of people. People will be raised up by suddenly benevolent nobles, or ground down by vengeful ones. You don’t fucking know. You just rolled the dice will countless lives.”

The sudden silence hung over the room with a tangible weight. Only Toby was able to meet Darling’s accusing stare. After a few moments, Schwartz opened his mouth to speak, but the Bishop chose that instant to start again.

“So! To sum up: nascent schisms brewing in at least two and possibly as many as four major cults, the Narisian slave trade reinvigorated, the three of you trapped in an unwilling political alliance with a devious teenage megalomaniac, and vastly unknowable repercussions for uncountable throngs of citizens…and that’s after only three days. The stone you dropped has just barely fallen beneath the surface; there’s absolutely no telling how far the ripples will spread, or what’ll be kicked up when it finally hits the bottom. And that, my dear kids, is why you think carefully before you SHOVE PEOPLE INTO PUNCHBOWLS!”

“Yessir,” Trissiny croaked.

“Trissiny,” Schwartz said abruptly, “I need to talk with you, in private.”

“We’re sort of in the middle of something, Mr. Schwartz,” Darling said pointedly.

“Yes, your Grace, I know.” Schwartz met his eyes for a moment before turning back to Trissiny. “It’s important. Something I realized in the Tower, but I thought it could wait for… But from what you’ve just said, it had better not wait any longer. Uh, Sister, is there some place we could…?”

“This whole corridor is lined with offices like this one,” she said. “There’s another empty one just next door. I’ll show you.”

“Thank you,” he said politely, following her to the door. Trissiny looked at him, then back at Darling, who was staring flatly at her. “This won’t take long, I hope,” Schwartz added, pausing while Astarian stepped out into the hall.

“I…okay. I’ll be right back,” she said to the Bishop. “Don’t yell at them too much, this is mostly my fault.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” he said sourly, “however belated. Like I said, these two aren’t my problem.”

She made no response, just shutting the door behind her.

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly into the ensuing silence, “I realize we’re…well, you just said it. But since you’re here and all, your Grace, d’you mind if we pick your brain a little bit about…you know, all this?”

“The last thing I’m going to do is discourage you from asking questions or wanting to understand,” Darling said with a sigh, folding his arms and leaning back against the desk. “Go right ahead, I’ll answer whatever I can.”

“What have you heard from our cults?” Gabriel asked. “Is it…as bad as with the Guild and the Sisterhood?”

“I didn’t know how serious it was with the Sisterhood until just now,” Darling pointed out. “I don’t exactly have a direct line into Avenist business. What I know came from Bishop Syrinx, who is a tangled skein of schemes and rage on her best day. So I can’t tell you anything authoritative, except the very broad strokes.”

“The very broad strokes would be appreciated,” Toby said quietly. “You’re right, we should have given more thought to this.”

“Well, I’m aware that you are on a divine mission right now,” Darling said with a sigh. “It’s possible I’ve been harder on you than is entirely fair. But to be honest, I’d rather be unfair than risk you doing more shit like this in the future. If the point is made, though, perhaps I should refrain from chewing on Trissiny any further. This is an old complaint, though,” he added bitterly. “First it was Lor’naris, and then she and a bunch of other apprentices took it into their heads to intervene between the Sisterhood and the Collegium… But I digress. I rather suspect you two have less to worry about than Trissiny does. Particularly from your cults’ respective leadership. Toby, you’re probably fine. The stories out of Calderaas emphasize that you were there using the gentlest methods possible, and even if you had gotten violent, the Dawn Council is far too holy to stir themselves over mere politics.”

“Oh, how I wish that were true,” Toby said with a sigh, “but your point is taken. And appreciated.”

“Lady Gwenfaer,” Darling added to Gabriel, “has such a twisty brain I doubt anybody knows how she truly feels about anything—possibly not even herself. She’ll find a way to make all this work to her advantage, but I can’t predict what she might say to you about it. Vidians, fittingly enough, come in two basic types: you’ve got the actors, death priests, the folks running small country temples… You know, the salt-of-the-earth sort. Those are generally some of the most laid-back and approachable people out there. And then there are the career clerics, the ones who get themselves knee-deep into politics, and are as disparate and irascible a lot as the nobility. They’ll do whatever their individual situations mandate, which will be…unpredictable.”

“Hm,” Gabriel murmured. “What would you suggest if I, say, needed to quell the plotting and infighting in the cult, and generally bring them all to heel?”

“Pick a faction and commit,” Darling said immediately. “Do not try to take on the whole cult, they’ll eat you alive. Before launching yourself into a political battle, you need a base of support and sources of advice. I recommend you familiarize yourself with the various sects within the cult and decide which is least objectionable to you.”

“I’ve just had an idea,” Gabriel said, frowning pensively. “That thing Ravana is doing—”

Muffled by the intervening wall but still loud and clear, they abruptly heard Trissiny’s voice raised in a wordless scream of pure fury. A second later, a heavy thump resounded from the left wall of the room, making the books on that side shift slightly.

The three of them lost a moment in shocked stares, then both paladins bolted for the door. Darling followed them at a more circumspect pace. Sister Astarian was not in evidence outside, apparently having returned to her own duties after showing Trissiny and Schwartz to the other room.

Toby moved ahead in the hall and was the one to wrench open the door. He and Gabriel piled into the entrance, Darling (who was taller than either) peeking over their heads from behind.

Trissiny and Schwartz were face-to-face barely a foot apart; her sword was buried half its length into the desk along the wall behind her.

“Are you okay?” Toby demanded.

“Fine!” Trissiny barked, not looking at him. “Shut the door!”

“Uh,” Gabriel offered, “if there’s anything we can—”

“SHUT IT!”

They did.


“How could you not tell me?” Trissiny demanded in an agonized voice as soon as Toby had closed them in again.

“I should have,” Schwartz agreed immediately, nodding. “I really should, and I’m embarrassed it took the Tower of Salyrene to make me see that. But please understand—all this started with Abbess Narnasia warning me to plan carefully before acting, and then Principia doing the same, and finally Jenell herself demanding I butt out and let her handle Basra… And, well, I didn’t realize I’d let it all turn into procrastination. Hanging back, researching and trying to come up with something clever instead of…of doing what was necessary.”

“Oh, Goddess. Jenell.” Trissiny turned from him, pressing her gauntleted hands over her face. “I did this to her. Her father asked me to get her into the cadet program, and I pulled strings…”

“Don’t do that,” he said quickly, Meesie squeaking emphatic agreement. “You got her into the Legion, that is all. Nobody’s responsible for Basra but Basra.”

“And I knew she was messed up in the head,” she whispered. “Anth’auwa, the word is. Even Rouvad knew.”

“She did, did she.” Schwartz’s voice was suddenly a lot less warm.

“Goddess. She thinks she has Basra under control. I had my doubts about that, but I trusted… No, I didn’t even trust, I let her take responsibility for it. What was I thinking? That woman is such a vicious thing not a Sister under Avei’s banner would be surprised about this. I’m not surprised!” Her laugh held no mirth at all, only bitterness and the raw edge of hysteria. “Hell, this all makes more sense now that I know! Why have we tolerated this?”

“Life’s never as simple as just taking out the bad people,” Schwartz said quietly. “We all just…do the best we can. There are compromises that have to be made, and everybody makes mistakes. Look…whoever has some responsibility for this, and that’s a lot of us, that’s something to be dealt with…I dunno, in prayer, I guess. What matters right now is action, Trissiny. I said the Tower was what made me start thinking clearly about this, but what Darling just said in there has changed the whole issue. Apparently what you did in Calderaas rocked the whole Sisterhood back on its heels. If you suddenly show up in Tiraas and just stick your sword in the Bishop…”

“Oh, Goddess,” she groaned. “You’re right. This is terrible timing. But Herschel, we can’t let this go on any longer, you understand? I met Jenell Covrin, she’s a mean rich girl right out of a trashy novel. She is not a match for Basra Syrinx; that woman’s had plenty of time to work her tentacles into Covrin’s brain. She’s not going to take Syrinx down, whatever she thinks. And knowing all this, I will not tolerate that woman representing Avei’s faith any longer!”

“So…what do you want to do, then?” he asked helplessly. “I will support whatever it is. But I’m way out of my depth, Triss. If you think the right thing is to take her down and hope the Sisterhood survives it, I’ll back you up.”

Trissiny stood, staring at the wall, for a long moment. At least, she looked up at him again. “We’re both being blind. This isn’t our strong suit, Herschel, but we’ve got a resource we can use, here. Come on.”

She grabbed her sword and wrenched it out of the wood with a single yank. He followed her back out into the hall, and through the door into the other study. Toby and Gabriel had sunk into chairs; Darling was perched on the desk again, but stood upon their entry.

“Sweet, I need your help,” Trissiny said as soon as she’d shut the door.

“Saints and ministers of grace preserve us,” he groaned. “What the hell now, Thorn?”

“You’ve just finished emphatically making the point that I am terrible at politics, and I believe you. It’s important to know your own faults, after all. Well, I need to do something that’s going to have major political implications. I need guidance.”

He was watching her with pure wariness. “What, exactly, are you trying to do?”

“I am going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”

Gabriel and Toby both straightened up. Darling didn’t flicker so much as an eyelid.

“Why?” he asked quietly.

“Because I’ve just learned exactly how much of a monster she is,” Trissiny replied, meeting his gaze. “I had no idea it was this bad. She needs to go. The Sisterhood cannot have her in that position any longer. But…after the mess I’ve made already, if I just go in wings blazing and cut her down, there really will be a schism.”

“Have you considered not doing that?” he suggested evenly. “At least until you clean up after your last political mistake? Basra being a seriously warped piece of work isn’t news to anybody, but she’s been Bishop for years and the world hasn’t ended.”

“That option is not on the table,” Trissiny replied. “She goes. If you’re not going to help, then…I guess I’ll have to do my best and let the chips fall wherever they do. But I could really use your advice, Sweet.”

“You sure can,” he said, his shoulders shifting in a quiet sigh, and turned his head to gaze into the distance beyond the room’s wall. “For example, you just blurted all that to somebody who has gone out of his way to protect Basra’s political position, and needs her to stay in it.”

Her breath caught. “…why?” Meesie shrieked in fury and Schwartz had to grab her to prevent a tiny elemental attack on the Bishop.

Sweet looked at Trissiny again, his expression inscrutable. “Because she is the only other person in the Universal Church who knows what a piece of work the Archpope is, and has a willingness to keep him in check. Ah, what a tangled life I lead, having to be loyal to so many factions who only aren’t at each other’s throats because I’m standing between them… Stop making that face, Trissiny, of course I’ll help you. Ethics aside, this changes the whole equation. If Basra has fucked up badly enough to enrage her own paladin to this degree, she’s now a political liability to everyone who currently considers her an asset. And I’m just one of many people who’ll sleep better knowing she’s off the streets. I’ll be glad to have her off what’s left of my conscience, no matter what it ends up costing. All right, then.”

The Bishop rubbed his chin, now staring past them at the door, his eyes already distant. “Objective: take down the Bishop of Avei, in a way that doesn’t finish toppling the already-precarious Sisterhood of Avei or the Thieves’ Guild. Hmm…okay. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with…”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 16

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“Vesk sent us!” Toby blurted before anything really horrible could unfold.

Salyrene hesitated. Her entire being seemed to still for a moment, freezing in place like a person too startled to move, but accentuated by the iridescent patterns flowing across her skin suddenly stopping, at that moment in a pleasing fractal arrangement of gold and deep green.

Then she smoothly came back to life, her lightwaves flickering into motion and shifting toward orange, while she sighed and made an irritated expression.

“Of course he did. The majority of this intrusion is explained by that alone, but how did you get in here?”

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “we have a divine scythe that, apparently, can cut time and space. Plus we got a hint from Avei. It was Schwartz’s idea!”

The goddess narrowed her eyes slightly at Avei’s name but made no comment on that. “A valkyrie’s scythe doesn’t cut, per se, it kills. Through a very selective application, of course, that can still be used to pierce barriers in a way that doesn’t entirely destroy them, by embodying a mental construct of that which stands in your way and then condemning it to perish. It is the same principle on which the highest applications of infernomancy operate, those only able to be performed by demons.”

“Um…” Gabe drew the long black wand he currently had tucked away in his coat, and extended it to its full scythe form. “It’s not a valkyrie’s scythe, it’s…a divine weapon Vidius made for a paladin. Which is a new development, I’m not surprised you haven’t heard, if you’ve been…uh, away.”

Trissiny swatted the back of his head. Gabe just sighed, and nodded.

“You are exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrne said. Her tone, fortunately, was amused, and the arcs of light tracing across her skin had changed to a pleasant gold and pale blue, in smoothly flowing patterns without sharp edges. “Who do you think made those weapons? I assure you, it wasn’t Vidius. I remember that one; it belonged to Yrsa.” The pale glow of her eyes flickered subtly, as if she had glanced in a different direction. “Don’t blame Vestrel for not telling you, it is unlikely she would have recognized it. They look quite different in the hands of a different owner. I expect it will be much more versatile in a human’s grasp.”

“Wow,” Trissiny said softly. “You got a hand-me-down divine weapon?”

Gabriel gave her an annoyed look. “How many Hands of Avei have owned that sword?”

“Not one. We borrow it for a while.”

“That scythe,” Salyrene said dryly, “is many times more powerful than your sword, Trissiny Avelea. In fact, it was only because they were assured that neither such devices nor their owners would ever be on the mortal plane that the rest of the Pantheon declined to raise objection when I crafted them for the valkyries. But it seems that in these latter days, ancient proscriptions are being disregarded left and right. And on that subject, what precisely did Vesk send you here to do?”

They glanced at each other uncertainly, taking a silent vote to decide who would speak.

“He tasked us with collecting the pieces of a key,” Toby said after the momentary pause. “There are four, and the clues we got are that they’re in the hands of the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”

“Maiden.” Salyrene made a wry grimace, but the light dancing on her skin accelerated and took on festive patterns of green and silver. “And how many of these pieces have you gathered thus far?”

“Only the one,” Toby said, producing Gretchen’s Dowry from his pocket and holding it up. “Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had it.”

The little shard of mithril rose from his hands and drifted toward the goddess. She brought her own hands up to either side of it, but did not touch; it simply hung suspended there, within the scope of her grasp. The lights flowing over her faded to a pale white and took on an angular, almost mathematical arrangement.

Gabriel cleared his throat awkwardly after the silence had stretched out for almost a minute. “Do you…recognize it? Uh, my Lady?”

“Infinite Order technology was modular and interchangeable,” she said abruptly. “As any system of technology must be, to serve the needs of a large and advanced society.”

Toby looked uncertainly at the others, getting a series of shrugs in reply. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“It means that rather than every device being individually crafted by artisans, they were built of smaller, identical pieces with standardized attachment points,” Salyrene explained. “So that any person with some basic sense who could get access to replacement parts could repair their gadgets, up to a point. Or even configure new ones. This is an Infinite Order device, a Series 6 T2 circuit. Being mithril, every single one ever made still exists. The vast majority are buried and lost in various places, but even so, this is hardly unique. There are three of these on display in the Royal Museum in Svenheim, over a dozen still in various private collections—either as simple curiosities, or set in jeweled housings as this one recently was. There are even a few in service for something like their original purpose, after particularly resourceful wizards worked out what they did.”

She shifted her gaze from the piece of mithril to look at them again, and even as the patterns limning her accelerated and warmed to bright gold, the key fragment floated back down to where Toby could grasp it again.

“I thought you deserved to know, children, that Vesk is not having you reassemble the pieces of some long-lost artifact. He has set you to build something out of components that, while not common these days, are mostly still lying around. It should go without saying that Vesk could pick up all of these much more easily without having to rely on mortal help.”

“Avei said that last part, too,” Trissiny murmured, wearing a frown.

“What does that thing do, when it’s at home?” Schwartz asked in fascination. Meesie tugged warningly at his hair, but he absently brushed her off while gazing avidly at the mithril object now back in Toby’s hand.

“It is a transcension transistor,” she explained. “Hence T2. Basically it controls the flow of magical energy from a source to another device.”

“But it’s made of mithril!” Trissiny protested. “Wouldn’t it completely block magic?”

“Precisely,” Salyrene said, nodding. “This particular circuit is designed to be hooked into a direct source of truly immense magical power, and link it to a very delicate device which would be immediately destroyed by direct contact with such a source. Specifically, an information-processing machine, which would gather data from the power source or possibly deliver instructions to alter it. Or both. Or something else entirely. Those, or at least of a model that could be linked to your Series 6 T2 circuit, there, are not made of mithril, or at least, not entirely. While the Infinite Order built to last, more delicate materials inevitably come to harm with the passage of time. There are very few compatible units still in existence. And yes, I do have one, myself.”

“So the transistor establishes a link,” Schwartz murmured, rubbing his chin pensively, while atop his head Meesie clapped a hand over her eyes in frustration. “But also impedes the flow of magic so that the device on the other end isn’t damaged by the intensity of exposure. Fascinating! What sort of magical source could he possibly want to hook this into?”

“That’s an excellent question,” Salyrene replied, her lights fading to red and slowing to a sluggish crawl across her skin. “There are such incredible fonts of magic left in the world—but this one, specifically, would have to be an Infinite Order machine. And while those still exist, they are all sealed off, first by Naiya locking their access portals and then by her attempts to bury the remaining entrances in various disasters. Those she missed before her consciousness became too diffuse to focus on the task, the Pantheon finished burying.”

“There’s one of those facilities in Puna Dara,” Toby objected. “We were actually in there, briefly.”

The goddess gave him an indulgent little smile. “I assure you, Fabrication Plant One was not built at the bottom of a harbor. But what can be buried can be dug up again, given time and enough effort. Right now, the only thing currently accessible to mortals which would be able to make use of that T2 circuit is the main power source of the old spaceport beneath Tiraas. I hope Vesk doesn’t intend to send you in there. I seem to recall the Empire gets tetchy about grubby little fingers leaving prints all over its favorite toys.”

“I may have had a reminder of that recently,” Gabriel said solemnly. “I don’t suppose you might have a theory on what Vesk wants with this key when it’s finished? It sounds like it would enable him to control something with a lot of power, which the gods went to a lot of trouble to lock away.”

“Let me rephrase that,” said Trissiny. “Can he be trusted with this thing? Because if not, I for one will be very comfortable not bothering you any further about this whole business.”

“Vesk,” Salyrene replied, “is every bit as annoying as you have already discovered, and then some. And I trust him more than most of the Pantheon. Yes, he could cause a lot of trouble if he’s collecting what I think he is—but keep in mind, if he just wanted to cause trouble in this manner, nothing is stopping him. He doesn’t need your help to gather these pieces. Whatever he is doing is at least as much about you as about him.”

“He does have…something of a reputation for pointlessly tormenting people,” Toby said slowly. “Especially paladins.”

“When a bard says hero, they mean victim,” Trissiny quoted.

“From the perspective of the paladins, I’m sure it can seem like pointless torment.” Her tone was grave, the lights flowing over her body slow and pale blue now. “The same can be said of this tower. I do have some sympathy for Vesk, for that very reason. Despite the nuisance he can be while you’re dealing with him, if you embrace the trials he throws in your path you will emerge stronger for the journey. Here, this is what you came for.”

Again, she held her hands apart before her, the blue lights cascading over her skin accelerating to a frenzied pace of oscillation as the goddess channeled magic. Streamers of mist coalesced out of the air, spinning together into a tiny cloud between her palms, which spun like a miniature tornado before abruptly dissipating with a puff and a shower of golden sparks, to leave an object slowly rotating in the air.

Gabriel applauded. Trissiny stepped on his foot. Salyrene, smiling, inclined her head toward him.

Toby reached up to grasp the thing that drifted down to his hand. It was a rounded disc of what seemed to be black glass, encircled by a band of mithril which at one point around its circumference extended blunt little prongs. He paused to bow to Salyrene, glanced at the others, and then carefully brought the two pieces together. The disc fit with perfect ease into the shaft, forming an obvious key shape that now was missing only its teeth.

Eight thousand years after its creators and their whole civilization had been wiped out, it still worked perfectly. A soft chirp of acknowledgment sounded from the key, and the black disc within the mithril housing lit up with a red gleam. After two seconds, it went dark again.

“Hmm,” Gabriel murmured, staring at the half-built key in Toby’s hand with his eyes narrowed. “You said…that piece is a kind of information processing device, right? What information is in it right now?”

“None,” Salyrene said simply, spreading her hands in a slight shrug. “It is a blank template, which is what makes it especially valuable. Few enough of those are still extant and functional; most that survive have instructions hard-coded into them. An unused transtate drive is very rare. In fact, I believe that reveals what your remaining two pieces are. Your key now is missing only the interface dock which should be attached to the other end of the transistor to enable it to be plugged into an Infinite Order machine. I suspect the final ‘piece’ will, in fact, be software. Instructions that will program it to do whatever it is Vesk plans to do with that thing.”

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out in a soft sigh. “So…the scoundrel and the monster are left. I wonder which will have which part.”

“Your monster will guard the information component,” said the goddess, and her constant lightshow trended to jagged patterns of red and white while she spoke. “Which means you will be facing some nastiness left behind by the Elder Gods at the end of this journey. I conclude this by process of elimination: of the entities which might possess physical scraps of Infinite Order technology and be described as ‘monsters,’ I can only think of dragons, who as a rule do not hang about in sepulchers. Besides, I can tell you your next stop based on the remaining possibility. In the port city of Ninkabi in N’Jendo lives a man named Mortimer Agasti who owns a Series 6 interface dock…and can quite reasonably be called a scoundrel in the shadows. More than that I won’t give away. He will not be hard to find, once you reach the city.”

“Thank you very much, my Lady,” Toby said gravely, bowing to her again. “Both for the gift, and for the information. It has been immensely helpful.”

“You are welcome,” she replied, inclining her head. “Now, Tobias Caine. My sword, if you please?”

“Oh!” He had thrust Athenos unsheathed through his belt; now Toby tucked the key back into his pocket and pulled the sword loose. Holding it by the blade, he offered it up to her, hilt-first. Athenos, for his part, remained uncharacteristically silent.

“This…isn’t exactly on topic,” Gabriel said a little hesitantly, “and may not even be pleasant for me to know, but I have to ask. Lady Salyrene, do you know where Ariel came from?”

Holding Athenos in one hand, the sword looking almost comically small given the size of her current incarnation, Salyrene turned an indulgent smile on Gabriel, her shifting skin taking on shimmering patterns of green and blue. Then, with a soft puff of light, Athenos vanished from view, leaving her hands empty once more.

“I am not in the habit of indulging idle curiosity, Gabriel Arquin, but I do like an enchanter who seeks knowledge even when he knows it won’t make him happy. Far too many people, even magic users who ought to know better, only want to hear what will please them. And indeed, your sword should come with a warning: so long as you carry her, you should try to avoid high elves.”

“That…shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, blinking. “Nobody ever sees high elves. I didn’t believe they really existed until very recently. Uh, might I ask why?”

“Ariel is a Qestraceel original,” Salyrene explained. “Before human wizards learned the vile secret of making talking swords, or at least a clumsy and bastardized version of it, the art was created by the high elves as the most severe punishment they will inflict for any crime. The Magisters of Qestraceel are able to perform the process correctly on a single try. When they judge someone deserving of the ultimate punishment, that individual is executed and their spirit made a template for a talking sword, which then serves the Magisters in whatever capacity they require. It must be a truly legendary tale that explains how Ariel came to be lost in the Crawl, but unfortunately, the long period of dormancy without a user’s aura to power her would have purged her long-term memory. By the law of the high elves, Gabriel Arquin, all such swords are the permanent property of the Magistry, and may never be sold, traded, given, or even loaned. If a high elf sees you with that sword, they will try to confiscate her.”

He lowered a hand to grasp Ariel’s hilt. She, like Athenos, remained conspicuously silent in Salyrene’s presence. “Thank you for the warning. Then…she was made from someone truly…awful.”

“You can’t assume that,” Trissiny said quietly. “Sometimes people do truly awful things in extenuating circumstances. Sometimes innocent people are condemned to terrible punishments by a flawed justice system. If Ariel doesn’t remember and you can’t exactly ask a high elf…better to leave the past buried.”

“Wise words,” Salyrene agreed, nodding to Trissiny. “And you, Herschel Schwartz? I am rather pleased at the opportunity to speak with you. Have you nothing you wish to ask me?”

“Oh,” he squeaked, sounding eerily reminiscent of Meesie. “Me? Oh, I’m just…along. I’m not a paladin, uh, obviously. I’m helping Triss and the boys, that’s all.”

“You do have a knack for stumbling into matters above your head,” Salyrene agreed. “If Vesk is involved in this affair, that alone tells me your presence here is no coincidence. Yes, young man, I am aware of you. I have been since you swore vengeance in my name while striking down a foe with an impressive display of magical skill for such a young witch.”

All three paladins’ heads swiveled to stare at him in shock.

“Hershel!” Trissiny croaked.

“Oh,” he groaned, clapping a hand over his eyes and nearly dislodging his glasses. Meesie, still sitting in his hair, threw her tiny arms wide and squeaked a despairing complaint at the ceiling. “That was… It was the dwarf, Trissiny, the one who was hunting you and the other apprentices. He threatened my family.”

“The little piece of crap had it coming,” the goddess of magic opined, folding her arms and the abstract lights running across her flaring bright orange. “Had you been forced to make good on that threat, Herschel Schwartz, I would have backed you. And then, by necessity, delivered a lesson. I have made it clear that I don’t appreciate being casually invoked, and there must be consequences for that kind of defiance.”

“Thank you, may Lady,” Schwartz said weakly, “for your forbearance.”

She smiled. “Thank you for not forcing me to exercise it, young witch. One hates to have to come down upon such a promising talent. Now, we are both here. How do you like my Tower?”

He hesitated, fussing with his glasses, and Meesie hopped down to his shoulder where she stood up and patted his cheek, chittering an urgent message.

“I…understand the lesson of that trial,” Schwartz said finally, raising his eyes to the goddess again.

“Makes one of us,” Gabriel muttered.

“The point,” Schwartz continued, “is that sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do. To…act against your nature. And…sometimes it’s all going to go to hell anyway, but you still have to do it. Because failing to act at all, just because you don’t like the options…that’s the ultimate sin. It’s the same as choosing defeat.”

“Well done,” she said, nodding.

“And,” he continued, visibly stiffening his spine. Meesie actually punched his face, ineffectually, emitting a long squeal; Schwartz plucked her off his shoulder and held her out in one fist. “And, I think Vesk sent us in here, knowing that specific lesson would be taught to this specific group, because he wanted to deliver that message to you.”

The room perceptibly darkened. Slowly, the patterns of light shifting across Salyrene’s skin began to creep toward a halt, shifting into blue, and then a deeper indigo.

Meesie turned to face Trissiny, still clutched in Schwartz’s grip, and squealed indignantly while pointing at his face.

“I know, Meesie,” she said with a sigh, reaching out to take the little elemental from him. Meesie darted up her arm to rest on her shoulder, where she chattered furiously at Schwartz.

“My Lady,” the witch continued, staring pleadingly up at his goddess, “we’ve missed you. What’s happening out there… It’s amazing. The enchantments that have been developed in the last century, and the way they’ve changed society, the very face of the world… It’s the great fulfillment of the promise magic has always held! Life is so much better in every way… And yes, of course, there are hazards and drawbacks, there’s just no avoiding that, but the progress. It has to be seen to be believed. This is an age of wonders, an age of magic, and you are missing it!”

She had darkened completely, now. The last deep blue had faded, leaving no light upon her form. Salyrene closed her luminous eyes, plunging them back into the dimness of the Tower.

“It is not a small thing,” she whispered at long last, “to lose someone you love. A friend, a family member…someone bonded to you through hardship and endlessly long, shared experience. Not for anyone is it a small thing… But especially not for a being like me, so defined and constrained by the concepts I embody. Take someone precious from a god, and you have taken away a piece of their very being.”

“I think,” Toby said, equally softly, “it’s that way for everyone.”

“Trust me, there is a difference. I know because of how acute the losses were, after our ascension, compared to before. We had been at war with gods; we had all lost loved ones. Many, many times. But once we became gods, to have those we cared for stripped from us… Even when they were not destroyed, only separated. That pain came to define many of us, deeply.

“First it was Naphthene and Ouvis. They are only considered part of the Pantheon today because neither cared enough for what we thought to insist on being left off the roster. That was a painful rejection, from faithful companions so repulsed by what we had had to do that they couldn’t stand the very sight of us any longer. Then, Themynra, for all that she left on gentler terms. Wise, careful Themynra; had we not all been reeling so from the loss, the very fact that her conscience compelled her from the group would have warned us to change our path. And then…Khar, right after her. It was the same way. He understood so much about the hearts of people. There was a moment, then, when the warning was clear. When the Pantheon might have turned out to be something very different.

“And then came Elilial’s betrayal.” She opened her eyes, again bathing them in white light. None of them, even Meesie, dared make a sound. “Thousands of years of religion have twisted the narrative, inevitably. I will tell you the truth: Elilial was beloved to us as any of our number, and she only followed her conscience. What she did… She believed, earnestly, that it was right. But there was too much anger in her to simply walk away, as the others had. No, she had to turn and strike back. I can’t say whether it was purely lashing out in rage or she actually thought we had to be stopped from becoming what we were… But being under attack was something we knew very well. By turning on us that way, she sealed her fate, and our own.”

Salyrene shook her head slowly. Her skin, still unlit, somehow darkened further, all the highlights fading from it as if she were transitioning into a blackness that annihilated any light which dared to touch her, leaving only those glowing eyes in a moving silhouette.

“You likely don’t appreciate the truth of what Khar gave to us over the long centuries that followed. How a god, and a faith, can come to be defined by its opposition. Your Sisterhood, Trissiny Avelea, is the best example imaginable. Avei taught them justice and strategy, but by their opposition, Sorash and Shaath taught them ferocity and hard-heartedness. But Khar, and his orcs, taught them honor. In all the years that Athan’Khar and Viridill fought back and forth across that border, there was respect between them. When the Empire unleashed Magnan’s weapon… Every unit of the Silver Legions in the field, independently and without orders, turned on the Imperial legions, joined ranks with the remaining orcs, and pushed the Tiraan forces all the way out of Viridill. Given enough time, a respected enemy can become the closest friend you have.

“And I…” Her whole shape flickered, wavered, as though she were about to blow away. Even her eyes dimmed. “I lost a friend more precious to me than any. Khar was such a good soul. A teacher, a source of wisdom and comfort to all of us. Always testing and pushing at us, asking hard questions and forcing us to acknowledge our flaws and failures… But always with care, and with a smile, and the offer of a helping hand when it was needed. And then he was gone. Truly, this time, utterly gone.”

She lowered her head to gaze down at her own palms.

“Slain, by my own Hand.”

The silence crushed the very idea of speaking up. From most of them, anyway.

“And what do you think Khar would say about you hiding in this tower for a hundred years?” Gabriel asked.

Toby threw his head back to stare at the ceiling. Schwartz turned to glare incredulously at Gabriel. Trissiny just shoved the leather palms of her gauntlets against her eyes.

“I am sorry,” Gabriel said sincerely when Salyrene’s luminous gaze fixed upon him. “Truly. If you feel the need to smite me or something for saying it… Well, you have to do what you have to, I guess. But Schwartz is right, my Lady. You’re killing yourself, hiding away like this. There’s a new age of enchantment unfolding out there, and the world needs your guidance more than it ever has. Your followers miss you. The other gods miss you. Avei mentioned it, and I’m pretty sure Schwartz is also right about Vesk setting this up at least partly to get your attention. It’s…it’s a whole question, whether Magnan’s crimes were your fault, I wouldn’t know how to even begin answering that. But whether it is or not, you can’t just hide like this. It’s bad for the world and it’s bad for you.”

She stared down at him; he gazed earnestly back, as long as he could, before finally lowering his eyes.

“You are, indeed, exactly as you were described to me, Gabriel Arquin,” Salyrene finally said. “A good heart, a keen mind, and a tongue that is always one step ahead of both.”

“Wow, is that on the nose,” he muttered.

“I suspect you are doing exactly as you were meant,” she said, now with a small smile. The light crept back into her while she spoke, that eerie blackness fading away fully until flickers of luminous design began to appear on her skin again. “Knowing Vidius and the trend of his thoughts over the last few centuries, you are just what I would expect him to call as a paladin: someone who offends and agitates people in a manner they cannot condemn. But this is all ancient history, now, and you all have your quest to return to. Unless the four of you would like to climb my Tower?”

“Thank you very much for the offer but I think we will pass,” Trissiny said firmly.

Salyrene smiled in open amusement, golden sparks dancing across her skin. “Very well. Since I perceive you neglected to arrange your own exit, I will convey you back to the point from which you started.”

“That’s extremely kind, my Lady,” said Schwartz. “And, um… I’m very sorry if we—”

“There is nothing for which you should apologize to me,” she said, glancing between him and Gabriel. “Any of you. And now, your path.”

She gestured languidly with one hand, and another swirling vortex like the portals out of those trial rooms sprang into being at her side. This time, it widened like the rent Schwartz and Gabriel had made in reality to get to the Tower in the first place, its boundaries peeling back from the center to leave a gap surrounded by the whirl of energy. Also like the one Schwartz had made, there was only inscrutable darkness in the center.

“Well, hey!” Gabe said cheerfully, turning to Trissiny. “This is familiar. You wanna go first?”

This time, though, nobody went first; the portal came to them. Salyrene smiled, flicked her fingers, and a most confusing scene ensued; it wasn’t clear from looking whether the portal moved toward them or suddenly swelled to encompass the entire available space. Whatever it was, the effect only lasted a split second before the blackness swallowed them all and then receded, and then they were back in Vrin Shai.

Not quite back where they had started, however. Rather than the basement spell chamber beneath the temple, Salyrene had deposited them on the wide plaza at the very top of the city’s stairs, in front of the great temple and in full view of a stream of pilgrims making their way in and back out.

Also, she had come with them.

The abrupt arrival of four people, one in silver armor and still with a fiery (but cute) elemental on her shoulder, captured everyone’s attention. The ensuing appearance of a twelve-foot-tall luminous goddess was heralded by screams and a significant percent of the onlookers trying to flee, or simply falling to their knees.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said, gazing around them while the Silver Legionnaires and attendant priestesses tried to restore some order, apparently less discomifted by the manifestation in their midst. “This is one of those things that’s going to have implications, isn’t it.”

“In truth,” Salyrene replied, making no effort to moderate her voice, “this is the first time in all these thousands of years I have done such a thing. To appear, in person, uninvited, at another god of the Pantheon’s most sacred citadel is, at best, presumptuous and rude. Perhaps Avei should keep this in mind the next time she has an urge to deposit a handful of paladins in my own innermost sanctuary. Speaking of stepping on the prerogatives of other deities, however, I have one last thing for you, children.”

As before, she held apart her hands and conjured something from luminous mist. Also as before, it drifted downward toward Toby, whom the goddess seemed to have identified as the keeper of artifacts within their group. This one was a bottle of twisted, polished green glass which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight, an incongruously ordinary cork sealing its mouth.

“If I know Vesk, which I assure you I do,” Salyrene said while Toby carefully plucked the bottle out of the air, “there will come a moment in your adventure when all seems lost, when all the powers and skills at your disposal are not equal to the danger before you, and your salvation can only come at the sudden intervention of an unexpected ally. He can’t resist that one, it’s a classic. This time, I am not going to let him have the satisfaction. Here is your plot device, heroes. When you are completely out of options—and not before—take the stopper from that bottle, and your help will emerge.”

Holding it carefully in both hands, Toby bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, my Lady. You have been very gracious and aided us tremendously. We will not forget your kindness.”

She just gave him an enigmatic little smile. Then, her expression sobering, the towering goddess tilted her head back to gaze up at the giant statue of Avei which loomed over them all.

And smirked.

“Hmp,” she grunted, and exploded into a million motes of multicolored light, which drifted out like pollen on the breeze before fading away.

Slowly, Gabriel turned from the others to face the murmuring throng now staring at them. “Sooo… Who else is in favor of getting indoors? Like, quickly?”


Sister Astarian, blessedly, was as efficient as ever. Barely did they step inside the temple before she intercepted and whisked the group away out of the public eye.

“You’ve been gone almost exactly two days,” she explained while leading them through its passages. “I’m told that time tends to be highly subjective in places like…well, that. In any case, your timing is impeccable; you have a visitor whom I think you will want to meet.”

“Oh?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “A vistor, as in someone who’s not normally attached to the Temple? I’m surprised anyone would come looking for us here.”

“Actually,” Astarian replied, giving her a sidelong glance, “quite a few people have come asking after you; this is the first who in my opinion has any claim on your time. I’ve begun getting reports of your visit to Calderaas. You kids really do like to make waves, don’t you?”

“For the record,” said Gabriel from behind them, “Salyrene showing up here was not our idea. Frankly, even if she’d forewarned us, I can’t imagine how we might have stopped her.”

“Wait,” said Schwartz, who now had Meesie back on his own shoulder. “What did you do in Calderaas?”

“Oh, nothing that will ever have any consequences,” Gabriel said lightly. Toby heaved a sigh.

“Here we are,” Sister Astarian said, coming to a stop before a wooden door, which she pushed open without knocking and gestured them through. “If I acted incorrectly by bringing you to him, don’t hesitate to say so.”

They clustered inside, which was somewhat difficult as Trissiny had stopped in surprise just past the threshold. The room was an office or small study, lined with laden bookshelves and featuring comfortable couches and a heavy desk. At their entrance, its occupant turned from a shelf on the far wall, closing the book he’d been reading and giving them a broad grin.

“Why, there they are! And here I had begun to think I’d been tucked away to be forgotten.”

“Bishop Darling?” Gabriel said, blinking.

“Sweet,” Trissing added in disbelief, “what are you doing in Vrin Shai?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Looking for you lost little ducklings, of course.” He carefully tucked the book back into place and strolled around the desk toward them. “You made quite the impression in Calderaas, kids. And then vanished so suddenly! I confess I was at a loss for a bit there, but then you were thoughtful enough to flash your wings at a minor noblewoman and a politically minded junior priestess, thus ensuring that everybody in the world who even might be curious as to your whereabouts would be able to find you in the time it takes to send one telescroll and ride one Rail line.”

“Ah,” she said with some chagrin. “About that…”

“Yes, about that,” Sweet said, putting on a placid smile that instantly made her hackles rise. “Thorn, we all want to crash a high society party and waterboard the hostess in her own punchbowl. But we don’t actually do this, Thorn. Do you know why?”

“Well, I—”

“Because YOU ARE ABOUT TO!”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 15

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

In the end, it was unbelievably simple.

They proceeded down the sloping bridge toward the ledge, the door, and the demon, keeping to a walking pace despite Schwartz’s original idea of rushing their foe’s entrenched position. Toby didn’t need to have had Trissiny’s upbringing to see the flaws in that plan, and besides, those fireballs hit hard enough to impair his balance even at a walk.

Another impacted the shield and he hesitated, gritting his teeth. Waves of golden light rippled from the spot, characteristic of an infernal spell striking a divine shield. Contact with matter and arcane energy would simply weaken it, but no matter how tightly woven the shield, touching the infernal would trigger some disruptive effect.

“You all right?” Schwartz asked from right behind him. Toby didn’t need the bracing hand against his spine—it wasn’t as if he was about to fall over—but there was comfort in the tangible reminder that a friend had his back.

“Yep,” he said, eyes narrowed in concentration, and stepped forward again. This time he made it another three paces before another massive fireball exploded against his shield. It was followed swiftly by two more, a veritable volley. The demon grew more aggressive the closer they got.

“Just saying, if you need more juice I do know the conversion charm that’ll let me feed fae energy directly into your shield…”

“Appreciate it,” Toby grunted, stepping again and pausing to weather another blow, “but power isn’t the problem; Omnu isn’t about to run out. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything to treat burnout…”

There came an ominous hesitation.

“Uh…yes, actually, but also no.”

“Do tell,” Toby suggested, making four quick steps and pausing again in time to weather another explosion. Those things weren’t going to break his shield unless he really dawdled, but they hit hard. The combination of their sheer kinetic force and the explosive effect of two opposing schools of magic crossing made the whole shield quaver and gave him unpleasantly physical feedback with each hit.

“I know a spell that’ll numb you to the effect of burnout so you aren’t inhibited by it until it becomes…um, lethally dangerous. So, no, nothing helpful.”

Toby gritted his teeth again, absorbing another blast, and then pressed forward. “Schwartz, why would you even know a spell like that?”

“It’s meant to be an offensive spell! Believe me, nobody does that to someone they like.”

“That doesn’t really answer the question.”

“I, um. I had to really go digging in the archives to find that one. I’m under advice from someone schooled in the arts of war to equip myself against a divine caster.” The conversation and their progress was interrupted by another hit. “…which is a long story, and why don’t we table that for a less under fire sort of occasion?”

“Good idea,” Toby agreed, making sure to file that away for an actual future discussion.

“DIE!” the demon bellowed, this time hurling two fireballs simultaneously.

They both halted, not just because the double impact created a wash of flame to both sides of the shield and caused Toby’s balance to momentarily waver, but because this was the first time the demon had spoken, or demonstrated any intelligence or intent beyond its desire to throw explosions at them.

A pause ensued, in which it panted visibly, slightly hunched. Apparently there was a good reason it didn’t usually chuck two spells at once.

“It can speak,” Schwartz said unnecessarily. This was answered by a series of squeaks from Meesie that, impressively, was clearly sarcastic, which had not been the first time Toby was surprised by the little elemental’s ability to communicate without words.

Unfortunately, Meesie was not the only member of the peanut gallery.

“Well spotted!” Athenos said with clearly forced enthusiasm. “With that keen eye for detail, it’s no wonder you were drawn to the Collegium. I’m sure the odds of you incinerating yourself in an easily avoidable summoning accident before the age of thirty are much less than they appear.”

“How would you like it if I dropped you into this bottomless pit we’re currently crossing over?” Schwartz suggested.

“Based on the last time that happened? I wouldn’t love spending the time down in the Tower’s underbelly. It gets weird down there. On the other hand, it would mean not accompanying you…fine young people…the rest of the way to the top. That’s a thinker, all right.”

“He really is worse than Ariel,” Toby marveled.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz muttered, shuffling along behind while they crossed as much ground as they could during the demon’s momentary lapse, “talking swords are known to be missing the personality centers for empathy and compassion, but there’s also significant holdover from the original personality used as a template. It’s possible Athenos was just made from a bigger jerk than Ariel.”

“I can’t speak for that other arcane can opener you so rudely dragged into my domain, but I can attest that my mortal incarnation was a real piece of work. I retain no memory of that, of course, but his antics have continued to influence events even here. That guy getting used to make a talking sword was not a coincidence, I’m sure.”

Toby braced himself against another explosion; the demon had clearly got its breath back. “How self-aware of you.”

“No, just aware. I am a separate entity, not a piece of him.”

Apparently their foe had its second wind, now; five more impacts struck the shield in quick succession, forcing them once more to stop completely while under the barrage, and then for a few seconds more as the haze of smoke, sparks, and lingering golden flickers around them cleared.

“This thing is really a puzzle,” Schwartz observed when they were able to press forward again. “Usually the magically gifted demon species are the smaller, daintier ones. Even baerzurgs are mostly pretty dumb, with just a few casters per colony. It clearly has incredible mana reserves, though! No warlock could have been casting such potent spells almost continuously for—”

A demonstration of those potent spells interrupted him.

“He,” Toby insisted a moment later, “not it. Come on, Schwartz; we even know he’s sapient, now.”

“Before you get too comfortable up on that high horse,” Athenos interjected, “what makes you so sure it’s a he?”

“Well, look at him!” Toby said shortly.

Actually, the demon looked more like a minotaur than anything: at least eight feet tall, incredibly muscular in build, balancing on enormous hooves and even wearing the traditional hide loincloth. Its horns were long, curved, and pronged like antlers, though, and its head more resembled a dragon’s than a bull’s. And instead of fur, it had lustrous scales in patterns of green and bronze.

“Yes, look at it,” Athenos agreed. “It’s obviously somewhat reptilian in nature. Why would it have breasts? And what makes you think females of its species are smaller and slimmer—or that this one isn’t a smaller, slimmer variant of whatever it is? Projecting your own assumptions onto demons, which come from a plane of pure chaos, is an exceptionally ignorant practice.”

“He sort of has a point,” Schwartz said grudgingly.

Toby just sighed. “Are we close enough yet? I’m not about to burn, Schwartz, but I can feel the strain building…”

A momentary hesitation answered while Schwartz did a quick estimate. “It would be better if we could make it another yard or so. At that point I can be relatively certain.”

“Another yard it is,” Toby replied grimly, stepping forward.

He kept going, this time, dividing his focus to maintain balance while his shield was hammered with a succession of fireballs, while he felt the subtle pulling of his divine magic reacting to the spell Schwartz was forming right behind him. That effect Toby had never particularly noticed before; already the Tower had been strangely educational. Divine magic embodies the principle of order. That was not how any of his teachers had put it, but it made so much sense. As a thing of order, it was predictable and behaved according to natural laws. As another form of energy flared up nearby which it was the nature of the divine to consume and negate, the power glowing around him unthinkingly shifted in its direction. Not enough to destabilize his well-formed shield, but even so, he tightened his focus.

“Okay, this has to be close enough,” Schwartz muttered. “Can you distract him for a second?”

“It,” Athenos corrected cheerfully, and Toby couldn’t even have guessed whether the sword was trying to be accurate or simply annoying. Ariel tended to be both, and so far, Athenos seemed to be basically like Ariel, but more so.

Pushing all that aside, Toby raised his voice and called to the demon, which was only a few yards away, now. The whole time he had been half-prepared for it to charge up the bridge at him, but it was either constrained to stay by the door or preferred to attack at range. Even when he addressed it from this close, it did not move.

“You have to know that’s useless by this point,” he said, projecting his firmest tone. “This is not a contest you are equipped to win. Stop attacking, and let’s talk about how we can all resolve this problem together. It doesn’t have to end in violence.”

Of course, he realized his mistake instantly: demons were creatures defined by infernal magic, by its seething, clawing imperative to destroy. It compelled them to ceaseless, senseless, unrelenting aggression. Some had means of coping with or sublimating the urge—the Rhaazke through Elilial’s grace, the Vanislaads by channeling what would otherwise be bloodlust into compulsive mischief, the hethelaxi through their berserk state. For more of them than otherwise, though, the expression of infernal nature was very simple.

They wanted it to end in violence. Whether they could win was simply not a factor.

Even so, Toby couldn’t help hoping that he could resolve this challenge peacefully. Even knowing that his plea had been a cover for Schwartz’s sneak attack. Even despite his strong suspicion that Schwartz had been right in that this was a test of character, not of magic. None of this was straining either of their magical capabilities, but it was forcing them both into exactly the thing they were both most disinclined toward, the thing the infernal itself most infamously expressed: direct aggression.

“YOU WILL DIE!” the demon howled, raising its hands overhead and beginning to conjure something much nastier than those fireballs, to judge by the way streaks of shadow and fire began to coalesce in the space between them.

“What a splendidly single-minded chap,” Athenos observed lightly. “Not to be pedantic, but so far we’ve no compelling reason to believe it is sapient. A moderately sophisticated golem can parrot simple ideas like that.”

Toby was spared having to either answer that or deal with whatever the demon was about to hurl at them by Schwartz deploying what he had been working on.

What he flung over the side of the bridge looked for all the world like a desiccated leaf; Toby wasn’t enough of a botanist to recognize the kind, but it was one of those which ended in a sharp tip, the reason for which became clear a second later. A gust of pure, fae-impelled wind rose from nowhere, caught the leaf, and directed it with far more precision than any wind actually blew fallen leaves. It shot as straight and true as an arrow, striking the demon straight on the broad target of its chest and imbedding itself up to half its length in the creature’s flesh. Obviously, leaves would not penetrate those glossy scales under normal circumstances, but what was fae cleaved through what was infernal like a red-hot ax through water, leaving behind steam and bubbles as the destruction continued even after its passing.

Steam and bubbles were exactly what arose, to Toby’s horror. Actually, the gout of what rose from the wound was more like smoke, a dark and acrid jet of gas as if the demon were a balloon filled with something noxious which Schwartz’s improvised weapon had just punctured. The bubbles were worse, though. The scales around the puncture point warped, then black liquid began to seethe out from that spot, as whatever the beast was made of boiled.

“Schwartz,” Toby gasped in protest.

“Oh, dear,” Schwartz muttered, peeking over his shoulder. The golden shield discolored their view of what was happening, but left the picture all too vivid for comfort. “I…may have overdone it a tad.”

“A tad,” Toby snapped over Meesie’s shrill agreement.

The demon, obviously, had lost concentration on what it was conjuring, and clawed frantically at its chest, where tendrils of dark magic were spreading visibly outward from the puncture wound. Its bellowing was familiar to them by now, but it had risen two octaves in pitch, the over-the-top rage changed to unmistakable pain.

“No, no, that’s not right at all,” Schwartz protested frantically. “It’s—there’s no way the reaction should be that extreme! I had to spitball it a little because I don’t know that demon species particularly but by the simple quantity of the infernal magic it was casting that spell should have just…just disrupted it!”

“Appears to be well and truly disrupted,” Athenos replied. “Good job.”

“But that’s too much!” Schwartz exclaimed. “I—I didn’t mean for that— Wait, was this it? Did I just fail the magic test?”

“The Tower’s tests can be fairly brutal, but they are brutally fair. You had no means of gauging the quantity of magic needed that accurately, therefore the Tower would not have expected you to. Clearly, this is not that kind of test.”

The demon—their victim—threw its head back to howl in gut-wrenching agony. Now, green light blazed from the wound in its chest, then tracked along the dark veins which had streaked out all along its scales. With sickening clarity, Toby recognized the pattern it made. It was like the spreading of roots through the ground—or like the spreading of cracks in a shell that was just about to shatter.

“PLEASE,” the demon wailed, its booming voice purely piteous now. “PLEASE, NOT LIKE THIS!”

“Oh, gods,” Schwartz whispered.

“Uh oh,” said Athenos. “You may want to pour a little more oomph into that shield—”

“NOT…LIKE…”

The explosion, blessedly, was nothing like what you’d expect from a living being inside which a bomb had gone off. The substance of the demon simply disintegrated, vanishing into dust and mist, which was sprayed outward by the shockwave of sheer magic which blasted forth. Despite Athenos’s warning, it caused barely a ripple on Toby’s shield, the divine magic being quite unimpressed by the fae. What erupted from the demon’s form was not bone and viscera, but life. For an instant there was the luminous green afterimage of a tree swirling outward from amid the eruption. Then light coalesced into form, and the tree was there.

It stood tall, held off the ground by a root system which managed to be reminiscent of the erstwhile demon’s thick legs and somewhat stumpier tail. Branches spread outward from the point in what had been its chest, the central fork in nearly exactly the spot where the initial wound had been struck, rising to a canopy of pale, fluffy leaves. Even the branches unsettlingly suggested the outline of spread arms and an upraised head.

Softly, the leaves began to fall in the silence.

After a moment, Toby dropped the shield. For a time, they could only stare. Even Meesie was silent.

“But,” Schwartz said feebly, at last. “B-but that…that wasn’t what…”

Toby stepped forward, crossing the remainder of the bridge at an even pace. He came right up to the tree, reaching up to rest his hand on its bark. It was smooth, papery, like a willow, though a warm golden-brown in color. Embedded in its trunk was a disc of glowing crystal, an odd yellow-green.

“I thought we’d have time,” he said aloud, to no one in particular. “The plan was to subdue the demon. I thought we could…figure something out. Find a way not to kill him.”

“I…tried,” Schwartz whispered, finally stepping onto the ledge right behind him. “I don’t understand why that… Toby, that spell was barely a nuisance. It’s an Emerald College standard against demons, used to disrupt casters. It…stings them, makes their spells fizzle. And that’s the more delicate, magic-using demons! Baerzurgs or hethelaxi don’t even notice it. Why would…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Schwartz,” Toby said quietly. “It was a good plan. As far as you knew, it would have worked. This is just…the Tower.”

“Seems to have gone better than it might, even,” Athenos offered. “If that thing was that overly sensitive to hostile schools of magic, just think what could have happened if you’d hit it with a divine spell. They’d be scraping you two out of cracks in the ceiling. Probably using me, given my luck.”

Toby whirled and grabbed. He had learned and drilled techniques for disarming opponents who were actively trying to kill him; twisting a magic sword out of the limp grasp of a spell-shocked witch didn’t even count as effort.

“Why?!” he demanded, holding Athenos up before his face as if by staring into the sword’s hilt he could make it feel the weight of his fury. “What was the point of that?!”

“If you are asking me to explain the Tower’s decisions, I really cannot help you. That is not an evasion; I would do so if I could. Explaining is my whole function. Understand, the Tower is the construct designed to discern what you need to be tested on and devise trials to do so; I am a construct of far, far lesser sophistication. Basic human emotions are often more than I can parse. I will say,” Athenos added in a more pensive tone, “I fail to grasp the utility of any of that. Especially that last bit, with the pleading. That little touch seemed…quite unnecessarily cruel.”

Slowly, Toby lowered the blade, meeting Schwartz’s eyes. Meesie, still silent, was leaning her entire weight into the witch’s cheek, rubbing her head comfortingly against him like an affectionate cat.

Schwartz blinked, cleared his throat, and adjusted his glasses, clearly grasping for some semblance of poise. “Ahem. Ah…well. I guess…what’s done is done. Let’s just get this damned thing open and get out of here.”

He strode over to the door, pointedly not looking at the magical tree he had created even as he had to step around it. The door was quite simple in design, the only impressive thing about it being its dimensions. There were no visible hinges, but the two stone panels were marked by a line down the center. Straddling this, at chest height, was a metal panel with a round indentation the size of a dinner plate.

Schwartz frowned at the door, then tried to tug at every part of it into which he could get his fingers, first the crack and then the edges of the panel. Nothing made the slightest impression on it. Toby stood back by the tree, watching him and feeling vaguely…disconnected. It seemed there ought to be something more helpful or at least productive he could be doing. But Schartz didn’t seem to want help as much as he wanted to be distracted from his thoughts, and Toby, for the moment, just wanted to stand there and try to come to grips with his own.

“Augh!” Schwartz suddenly roared, making Meesie jump nearly off his shoulder in fright. The witch pounded both his fists against the door in pure frustration. “What the hell now? There’s no lock, not even a latch. What more do you want from us?!”

“Uh, Schwartz?” Toby said carefully. He reached up to grasp the crystal disc lodged in the tree’s trunk, finding to his surprise that it came free as smoothly as if it had been carefully laid there with a jeweler’s precision; he’d expected to have to wrestle it loose from the wood. He held up the glowing plate of crystal. “Is it just me, or does this look to be about the same size as that indentation, there?”


Stepping into the swirling portal was a daunting prospect, but it wasn’t as if any of them had anywhere else to go. Contact with the door was nothing like stepping through a door, though—or through a magic portal, for that matter. The sensation was exactly the same as that which had taken them all into those testing chambers: impact, vertigo, the sense of falling, and then suddenly new surroundings.

Or, rather, old ones.

All four stood in the central chamber of Salyrene’s Tower, blinking in confusion in the dimness. It was quiet and cool as before, with the vast space soaring up above them, crossed by bridges, and the huge statue of the goddess herself directly in front, the broad Circle of Interaction diagram inlaid into the floor in black marble spreading out. They stood on the platform that had been the elevator which brought them here, and Trissiny had just put her first foot outside it.

The four of them froze, turning, to stare wide-eyed at each other.

Then Schwartz crossed the platform in two long strides and wrapped his arms around Trissiny. Without hesitation she hugged him right back. They stood that way in silence while Meesie cooed softly, leaning over to gently pat both of their faces.

Gabriel let out a small sigh, stepping over to lay a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Hey. You okay?”

Slowly, Toby nodded, then shook his head, then closed his eyes and shrugged. “I’m…not hurt. Neither of us are. But that was… Gabe, this Tower has a sadistic streak. How about you? Are you guys…?”

“We’re fine,” Gabriel said quickly, though if anything he looked more alarmed than he had a moment before. “We had to do something…annoyingly counterintuitive to get out of that room, but I dunno if I’d say sadistic. What the hell did it do to you?”

“Can we not?” Schwartz’s voice was slightly muffled by Trissiny’s hair, but he lifted his head and spoke more clearly. “Please? It’s over, I would much rather leave it at that.”

“I don’t know if we can not, is the thing,” Trissiny said, pulling back from him with a soft sigh. “Supposedly we’re here to be tested. We’ve just discovered this Tower won’t hesitate to rip us apart or sort us into arbitrary groups, or… Who even knows what rules it plays by, if any. I think we’d better compare notes, while the opportunity exists. No telling when it suddenly won’t again.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Toby said reluctantly. “Sorry, Schwartz, but she’s right. This isn’t over. If anything, that was just the very first round. Better safe than…even sorrier. The thing that most strongly jumps out at me about what we just experienced was that it was completely pointless.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said emphatically, nodding at him. “Pointless is exactly the word I would choose. I don’t even know what the Tower is meant to be testing with that…that…”

“What jumps out at me,” Gabriel said with a frown, “is that we all landed back here at the same time. Did you guys have to deal with a forest full of caplings?”

“Caplings?” Schwartz exclaimed. “If only! I would kill to—” He cut himself off abruptly, going pale as a sheet, and Trissiny looked up at him in concern. Meesie cheeped softly, burrowing her face into his hair.

“That’s what I thought,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Different rooms, different tasks, otherwise why split us up? It’s pretty hard to believe that we’d all finish them at exactly the same instant. So…?”

“I believe,” said Athenos, “I told you specifically that in this Tower, Salyrene’s will trumps all competing influences—even those of Vemnesthis. I’m quite certain I mentioned that in particular.”

“You!” Trissiny barked, leveling a finger at the sword and not seeming to make note of the fact that he was in Toby’s hand now rather than Schwartz’s. “Explain that! What was the point of…any of it?!”

“As I was just informing your marginally less tedious friends,” Athenos said in a particularly long-suffering tone, “I do not and cannot know. The Tower yields different trials for different heroes. It is unusual that you would be snatched off the platform for a preliminary test before even reaching any of the lowest doors—unusual, but not without precedent. I cannot explain why the Tower thought that necessary, much less why it chose those particular…events. Though I don’t disagree with your assessment; the specific purpose of what we just experienced eludes me. I am as hesitant as you ought to be to guess what is in store for you next.”

Light blazed through the dimness, and they whirled to confront its source. The giant statue of Salyrene had opened its eyes, and they gleamed white, as had the smaller statues below. Given its size, those lights were like a sunrise in the shadowed chamber.

“My Tower is built to teach,” the statue said. Its voice was the same as its smaller counterparts, though as with the eyes, much larger. It was not deafening, though; it simply filled the wide open space with an almost tangible presence. “This, children, is a place of learning. As with all tests in such places, these are meant both to impart lessons and to gauge how well you have learned them. But there is more, much more, to learning than testing. You, in particular, needed a little preparatory study before embarking on the true series of trials. The Tower composed a short lesson for you, for each of you, on the necessity of trying solutions which are outside your normal mode of acting. Things, specifically, that you are reluctant to do on your own.”

“Oi!” Gabriel shouted, stepping forward and brandishing a finger at the talking statue. “Just where the hell do you get off?”

“Gabriel!” Trissiny hissed. “Do not chew out goddesses! How many times in an average week do you want to get smote?”

“Oh, let me vent,” he snorted. “It’s just another jabbering automaton, like those little ones down in the entrance puzzle and that freaking pest.” He actually drew Ariel and whirled to point with her at Athenos.

“Oh, really?”

It had been the statue which spoke, and Gabriel’s eyes suddenly went wide. Slowly, he turned back around to face her.

The statue spread her arms, and…changed. It was a most disorienting thing to behold: at the same time the goddess appeared to expand till her presence filled every iota of space in the Tower, even as she physically shrank from the enormous size of the statue to one barely twice as tall as Gabriel. Hovering in the air above them, arms extended and legs gracefully poised like a dancer, her shape emitted a blinding flash.

Light pulsed out from her in visible waves like ripples in a pool, and she changed. The sense of her awesome, enormous presence vanished, causing all of them to suddenly start breathing again and then notice that they had momentarily stopped. At the same time, the stone exterior melted away, leaving her mostly bare skin an inky black, crisscrossed by constantly shifting patterns of multicolored light. Slowly, she drifted down to alight gently on her toes upon the stone floor before them.

Salyrene was, unsurprisingly, quite beautiful when she took mortal form—in the sense that a woman might be attractive, not to mention the highly aesthetic effect of the light-on-darkness that was her outer skin. Her clothing was a sheer diaphanous robe which, in truth, seemed little more than strips of cloth that concealed little and flowed about her as if underwater, seemingly woven from sunlight and cobwebs. She had no hair, her skull smooth and perfectly round. Though of course nothing of her ethnic descent (if such things even still mattered to an ascended being) could be determined from her skin, Salyrene had the broad nose and lips of a Westerner.

Right at that moment, those features were set in an imperious stare.

“So! What, exactly, do you kids think you are doing in here?”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

14 – 13

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

Her first order of business was to find a tenable position. Right here, Trissiny was surrounded by this maze of decayed greenery, in which anything could hide—and ambush her. Turning in a slow circle and raising her eyes, she followed the line where the walls connected to the vaulted ceiling. There was no sign of any sort of door from this angle, but she did discover that she wasn’t in the center of the room.

The floor appeared to be flat stone where she was standing, but even a casual glance around revealed that it was far from even. Trissiny scraped at the dirt with her boot in the nearest spot where it seemed to rise upward, and found the variance in the terrain to be nothing but piled loam, with a layer of leaves and occasional mushrooms atop, seemingly arranged to shore up the root systems of whatever trees were nearby. In fact, now that she looked, the “hills” were subtle rises around a stump or tree, none growing more than a foot off the ground at most.

So there would be no high ground to speak of. And climbing one of these trees for a better view was a bad idea; with their roots sprawling over a stone floor instead of digging into the earth, she could very well tip one over. Especially wearing armor.

The next best option was to limit her chances of being flanked, so Trissiny turned and headed for the closest wall. This necessitated a circuitous course through a lot of blind obstacles, between the trees and the hanging moss. She kept both sword and shield at the ready, and kept her eyes in constant motion.

Tiny little flickers of motion kept catching the corner of her eye. Nothing she could identify once she looked directly, which quickly began to wear on her nerves. The Guild had taught her to watch for that and trust her instincts; unless you were congenitally paranoid, according to Style, having the feeling that you were being followed or stalked usually meant that you were being followed and stalked. This forested room was a whole different game from the streets of Tiraas, though. Those little flashes might have been insects, lizards, birds, any number of things that belonged among trees. But any such mundane creatures would be readily seen and not hide when looked at.

It did not help that the constant chatter of animals all around both obscured any possible sounds of someone creeping up on her and emphasized the incongruity in her surroundings. She could hear a profusion of animals in all direction and see not a single one.

Trissiny made sure to regularly turn and look behind her as she moved.

She reached the wall in relatively short order, though, which brought a little relief; at least it meant there was one direction from which she wouldn’t be ambushed. Craning her neck, Trissiny studied the surface all the way up to its ceiling, then knelt to prod at the floor where dirt and old leaves had drifted up against it. This was surely a cathedral-sized room, and appeared to be roughly square. There was light, but no windows or visible lamps. The wall itself appeared to be of the same huge granite blocks as Salyrene’s Tower.

Which wasn’t really a surprise; apparently the Tower hadn’t seen fit to let them choose their own trials. And apparently, it didn’t want her having help.

Well, her next decision was just a coin toss. After glancing back and forth, Trissiny went left, not for any particular reason. If there was an exit, it would surely be along the wall, and by following the wall she would come to it eventually.

At least, that was what logic told her. Another little voice told her there was no way it was going to be that easy.

She took a moment before starting out to memorize the nearest tree; fortunately they were all of unique, contorted shapes which made this prospect a little easier. That way, if there were shenanigans afoot which meant the exit wasn’t on the outer wall, she would know when she got back to this point. As she progressed, Trissiny kept glancing at those same little flicks of motion as they happened, still with no result, and making sure to check behind herself. The noise, the sense of being hunted, they all bore down with an almost physical weight. She was prepared to handle greater stress than this, thanks to moving meditation techniques from the Abbey.

How closely was this “trial” tailored to her, specifically? Trissiny chewed on that question while progressing steadily along the wall. This definitely put her well out of her element, but if the Tower was trying to crack her through psychological pressure, it had picked the wrong woman.

When she caught one, it came as a surprise to them both. At a distinct twitch of movement only a few feet distant, Trissiny whirled, snapping her blade up to point at the threat. Caught in the act of slipping back into hiding, it paused, quivering, and then stood up.

It was…a mushroom. Just under two feet tall, a thin stalk with a broad cap, shuffling on stubby little legs and with spindly arms and no face that she could see. It seemed to quaver indecisively for a moment, then suddenly hopped up and down in apparent excitement, waving its appendages.

“…caplings?” she said aloud. Yes, these were the little fae monsters from the Crawl, the ones on Level 1 of the descent. Creatures suitable to stock a dungeon, but of the absolute minimum possible threat level. Trissiny groped inside her own brain for what she knew of them, which was little; her class had discussed the caplings only briefly, as Juniper’s presence had made them automatically honored guests among the fungal fairies and they hadn’t had to do anything about them at all. Suddenly, she had a new appreciation for the Crawl’s aggravating insistence on learning lessons and doing things the hard way.

The capling tilted its head back, and a gap in its upper stalk opened, clearly a mouth of sorts. That was right, Juniper had said the hunted in packs, so it would eat like an animal rather than absorbing nutrients like a mushroom. But then the little creature emitted a long, undulating whoop unlike any of the squeaky shroom-people she remembered from the Crawl, and Trissiny instinctively raised her shield.

She did not recognize what animal was supposed to make that noise; it sounded more at home in some kind of jungle than any landscape with which she was familiar. But she had been hearing it off and on ever since arriving in this room. Trissiny straightened, lowering her shield at the lack of any aggression from the capling, and looking around with new eyes.

The mushrooms…they were everywhere. From tiny specimens barely bigger than her thumb to growths even larger than the capling in front of her, they clustered around the trees, sprouting from gaps in the root systems and the tops of stumps. If caplings hid among them, if they were the source of all those invisible animal noises…

Before she could digest the implications of this, the capling reached up, sticking a tiny hand into the fleshy frills at the base of its cap, and withdrew something which glowed brightly. Trissiny didn’t get a good look before the little fairy chucked the object right at her.

“Hey!” Trissiny ducked behind her shield again, and the projectile bounced off it with a thunk. “What the—”

The whooping sound came again, but rapidly diminishing in volume. She peeked out from behind the shield, just in time to see the capling’s shape vanishing among the trees.

“Trissiny?”

She perked up at the voice—one she actually recognized. “Gabriel!”

Immediately, Trissiny cringed at her own impetuousness. It seemed she was being tested under fae terms, and fairies were known to be tricksome creatures, as she had just been vividly reminded. But in the next moment he came crashing out of the underbrush nearby, grinning at her with his divine weapon in one hand, diminished to its wand form, and Ariel in the other. “Oh, thank the gods, I thought I was alone in here.”

“Me, too,” she said, smiling back and lowering her own weapons. “I take it that means you haven’t seen the others?”

“Not hide nor hair,” he said, coming up to her, slightly out of breath. “I only just heard you shouting. Speaking of, why? What happened?”

“Oh, right.” She glanced past him in the direction in which the fairy had gone. “I encountered one of the residents. I think they’re what’s making all these animal noises, and the little flickers of motion you barely catch at the corner of your eye.”

“I hadn’t seen anything like that,” he said, turning to follow her gaze and therefore missing the wry look she gave him. Well, after all, Gabriel had had neither Avenist nor Eserite training; she supposed his cursory Vidian education wouldn’t have focused on alertness to movement in his vicinity. “In fact, I was wondering about that. It sounds like we’re in some kind of damn jungle, but I can’t see anything but plants. You think they’re some kind of…wait, what did you see?”

“Plants,” she said significantly, “and mushrooms.”

Gabriel turned back to stare blankly at her. “What? Aren’t mushrooms plants?”

“Gabriel.”

He had the temerity to give her an impish grin. “I’m kidding. You think the mushrooms are making all these hoots and hollers?”

“Just the ones that are actually caplings, I suspect.”

His eyes narrowed. “Caplings…? Oh, you mean those mushroom creatures from the Crawl that Juniper liked so much?”

“I caught one moving,” she said, nodding. “It made that shriek like a bird or monkey or whatever it and threw something at me.”

“Huh.” Still squinting, Gabriel shifted his gaze to the left in that was she’d noticed him doing when he was wrestling with one of his enchanting problems. “They can mimic animal sounds? The ones in the Crawl didn’t. Did Juniper tell us they could do that?”

“Not that I remember, but I just saw it happen,” she said, suddenly distracted by recollection, and knelt. “Move your foot, please.”

When he shifted his boot to the side, the glow re-emerged. There, pressed into the loam by his footprint, was a jagged shard of crystal little bigger than her forefinger, a sickly yellow-green in color and glowing intensely. Trissiny sheathed her sword and carefully picked it up, straightening and holding the object up between them.

“What the capling threw at you?” he said.

She nodded, frowning at the crystal. “It didn’t throw hard, but look at this thing. Could put somebody’s eye out… I’m not sensing any divine or infernal magic from it. Can you?”

“Nope,” he replied, “nor any arcane enchantment. Ariel?”

“I detect no direct magical presence, which is telling,” the sword replied. “If it had even fae magic, at least one of the three of us—most likely myself—would be able to discern it by the effect that made on the energies of the other schools. It appears to be magically inert, yet it is glowing.”

“Could be a purely physical reaction,” Trissiny suggested, now lightly bouncing the crystal on her palm. “There are things in nature that glow.”

“It is also not radioactive, if that is your concern.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“Of course you don’t,” Ariel said with a touch more condescension than usual. “More likely, it is part of the inherent magic of the tower, which will not register to my magical senses so long as we are within its grasp as it constitutes a part of the baseline of our existence.”

“And that means,” Gabriel said slowly, “it’s probably necessary to solve this puzzle.”

“Puzzle?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows, then turned and looked expressively around at the twisted little forest.

“Yes, puzzle,” he insisted. “Think about it, we’ve already established that’s how the Tower likes to test people.”

“One of those puzzles in the entry chamber was a pure combat test,” she pointed out.

“Sure, but it’s one you and I smashed through with basically no effort, and I note that we’re the ones stuck in this particular room. Do you really think the Tower’s going to give us problems to solve that we’ve already proven we’re good at? Athenos made it sound like us being paladins meant we were gonna get the hard stuff.”

She frowned. “Oh, great.”

“Yep,” Gabriel said, nodding. “So yeah, puzzle. We’re locked in a room, and supposed to do…something. It involves caplings and that crystal.”

She sighed and slung her shield onto her shoulder by its strap, then shifted the shard to her left hand to keep her sword hand free. If they weren’t going to be fighting, the shield wouldn’t be as necessary, but Trissiny generally felt better when she had swift access to her sword. “All right, well… We haven’t seen enough pieces of this puzzle yet to even guess how to solve it, so I guess we’d better keep looking. I was following the wall; that’s where the door is most likely to be, and something tells me when we find the door, we’ll find the heart of the puzzle.”

“I already feel more at ease,” Gabriel said with an annoying grin. “If all this hullabaloo is just caplings playing some kind of game, that’s a lot less dangerous than half the stuff I was imagining.”

“I didn’t come here to play games,” Trissiny grunted, stalking off along the wall. “Come on.”


“Well, wherever they are, I hope they’re having more fun than we are,” Schwartz said sourly, then cringed as another colossal fireball impacted the rock behind them.

For a moment, Toby’s glow brightened by reflex, creating a tingling sensation in them both as it burned away the wash of infernal magic which came with those balls of fire, then he deliberately dampened it down enough to create no visible shine above the rocky barrier. Likewise, Schwartz reached up to grab Meesie and place a finger over her mouth, stifling her outraged squeals. She could easily have squirmed free of his grip, but seemed to get the message, laying her tiny ears back in displeasure but not struggling.

The crackle of flames slowly receded from the rock; those explosions left little fires everywhere, which burned for a few seconds with no visible fuel. Both held themselves still and silent, hardly daring to breathe. After a few heartbeats, there came a powerful snort from across the chasm, followed by the rhythmic stomp of massive hooves as the demon resumed its pacing.

Schwartz let out a sigh and slid down to sit with his back against the wall. “Okay. Obviously, we’re meant to get past that thing.”

“It’s a demon, not a thing,” Toby said quietly, squatting on his heels.

Schwartz scowled in annoyance. “You know what I mean. Look, I’m just vocalizing the situation in detail; it’s a problem-solving method that works for me. Feel free to contribute, but not to nitpick.”

“Fair,” Toby agreed with the ghost of a smile.

“We’re in a square chamber,” Schwartz mused, letting his eyes wander around the high stone walls and vaulted ceiling for a moment. “Obviously part of Salyrene’s Tower.”

“I thought I made it clear you wouldn’t be permitted to leave the Tower until you passed all the challenges it arranged for you,” Athenos interjected.

Schwartz ignored him. “All of this is very obviously themed. Black volcanic rock, erratic growth, the general evidence of destruction. Even the air is orange, to say nothing of the giant flipping demon. This is clearly an infernal test.”

Toby nodded in agreement. “Also, take note of the way these rock outcroppings are arranged around the floor up here. We encountered something that looked very similar in the Crawl, though that one was full of hellboars. The arrangements are obviously artificial, since no volcano put them here. Their seeming randomness lays out a perfect obstacle course for a fight to range across the area, just enough obstructions to make it interesting.”

“I’m starting to see the shape of it,” Schwartz murmured, frowning deeply, “and what I see troubles me.”

“Me, too,” Toby said, matching his frown. “I don’t care for being pushed into battle.”

“No, I mean…it’s too simple,” the witch said. “Too obvious. This is a test, a trial, right? In the chamber down below, we had to think critically and…well, laterally. If everything points at it being a straightforward fight, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that as soon as we try that, the real hammer will come down. Do you have anything to add?” he asked, holding Athenos up.

The sword’s runes flickered blue, looking faded and sickly in the faint, reddish mist which hung over the room. “It’s good that you are thinking outside the box, so to speak. I’m not here to solve your problems for you, however. Good luck.”

“Why are you here, exactly?” Toby asked pointedly.

“As you discovered in the vault below, I serve as a key to access new areas of the Tower, and to explain its nature and functions as such questions become relevant. At my own discretion, I may provide assistance with…certain challenges. But I’m certainly not going to tell you how to solve the very first one you are dropped into. I’m not a member of your party, boys, keep that in mind. I’m an impartial observer representing the interests of the Tower and its goddess.”

“And what does it mean,” Schwartz demanded, “that you’re with us and not with Trissiny or Gabriel?”

“All trials are individualized. I have never seen this one before, and likely wouldn’t recognize whatever they are facing, either. Rarely does the Tower repeat itself with a new adventurer. It means, in short, that they are there, and not here.”

“That’s immensely helpful, thank you,” Schwartz grunted.

Toby edged over to the jagged barrier of igneous rock behind which they were huddled and very carefully raised his head to peek over the top.

The two of them had been deposited in different spots, but both were on the upper floor of the room and had quickly found one another; there wasn’t anything else up here except the erratic maze of rough black stone set up atop the Tower’s floor of much paler granite. This floor, however, only covered about half the space. Past the barrier in front of them, which blocked off most of the drop, was a chasm whose bottom they hadn’t been able to peer into. There was only one bridge of rough obsidian extending down to the lower level, itself an outcropping of rock rather than another smooth floor. The door out of the room was positioned on that, and pacing back and forth in front of it was a demon.

“Do you happen to know what species it is?” Schwartz asked.

“He is of a species I don’t recognize,” Toby replied, slipping back down. The brute hadn’t spotted him this time, fortunately; every time it had caught sight of either of them, it had hurled pumpkin-sized fireballs that exploded and strewed patches of persistent flame in all directions, not to mention a general haze of infernal magic. “He’s built a lot like a baerzurg, but clearly not one of those.”

“Looks more like a minotaur to me,” Schwartz opined, turning and poking his head up over the barrier. “Albeit with scales instead of fur, and those horns are much larger than—”

He broke off and hurled himself flat, Toby doing likewise, and a second later another fireball sailed past overhead. This one missed their improvised parapet entirely, arcing above them to impact the far wall.

“Smooth,” Athenos commented. “Your grasp of strategy is truly a wonder to behold. Hey—get this thing off me!”

Meesie had scampered down Schwartz’s arm and begun biting furiously at the sword’s leather grip. Schwartz looked down at them for a moment, then gently laid Athenos on the ground, careful not to disturb the elemental who was still going at it with all her teeth and claws. “Sorry, I’m not here to solve your problems for you. What do you think, Toby?”

“Well, it’s not like we can just rush the bridge,” Toby said with a sigh. “If we had Trissiny, or Gabe’s scythe… Maybe that’s the thing. The challenge could be that we have to link up with them before we can solve it.”

“In that case, they and therefore we have a problem,” said Schwartz. “The magic sword which serves as a key to this place is in here with us. All right, Meesie, enough. I think you’ve made your point.”

She looked up, whiskers twitching. Then with a tiny snort and a final swat of her tail to Athenos’s pommel, the glowing rat turned and scampered up Schwartz’s robes, reaching her customary perch on his shoulder in seconds. There, she looked superciliously down at Athenos and gave him one last derisive squeak.

“Silly me,” the sword said irritably, “for thinking the last imbecile who got in here was the greatest headache I could ever possibly have to endure.”

“Yeah, you’ll want to avoid tempting the fates that way,” Toby replied with a faint smile which faded almost immediately. “Well, if we have to get down there but can’t… What if we bring the demon up here?”


“Oh, I get it,” Trissiny said with a heavy sigh.

They stood before the obvious door out of the chamber, an enormous stone portal in a metal frame. Across the dividing line where its two halves met was a round panel made to house a large piece of crystal. They knew that because a few of the shards were still stuck around its edges, the same color and material as the glowing piece she had retrieved from the capling.

“So they have the pieces,” Gabriel mused, holding up their fragment as if by putting it in front of the disc he could figure out where it would fit in the finished whole. “We have to first get them from the caplings, and then reassemble it, and…I guess that’ll open the door. That’s honestly more straightforward than I was expecting.”

“In what twisted fantasy world is that going to be straightforward?” she demanded in exasperation, turning to gesticulate at the forest behind them. “We’ve got to find every one of the little…”

Trissiny trailed off, and Gabriel turned to follow her gaze. Suddenly, they were not alone.

Three caplings stood at the edge of the cleared area around the door, lurking hesitantly in the shadows of trees.

“Uh, hi there,” Gabriel said, and held up the piece of crystal. “I don’t suppose you guys would be interested in handing over…”

He broke off as all three suddenly bounded out into the open. Trissiny raised her sword, but the caplings weren’t attacking. In fact, two jumped up and down, emitting a mismatched pair of birdcalls. The one in the middle, however, waved its arms frantically overhead.

The two paladins looked at each other in confusion, and then back at the fairy.

Apparently growing frustrated, it made beckoning motions at them.

“You…want us to follow?” Gabriel said, taking a step forward. Immediately, though, the capling reversed it gestures, waving at him to stay back. It turned to point at one of its fellows and made a loud croaking noise like a frog. The other capling reached into the frills of its own cap and pulled out another crystal shard.

Trissiny started to step toward it, but before she could get more than one pace the capling tossed the shard in a shining arc; the one which had been waving at Gabriel had to hop into the air to catch it, but then it did a little celebratory dance, waving the crystal piece overhead.

“Okay, whatever else you can say about that,” Gabriel said, grinning broadly, “look me in the eye and say that’s not the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen.”

“Remember Fross’s first solstice party?”

“…you’ve just always gotta be right, don’t you. Smartass.”

The middle capling, meanwhile, turned and tossed the shard to the third one, which missed its catch and had to dive to retrieve it from the fallen leaves. The capling which had had that shard in the first place dashed for it as well, but was too far away, and number three got the prize and bounced back upright, whooping like a crane in triumph.

Then the one in the middle once again turned back to Gabriel and began waving its tiny arms again while the other two chased each other around the nearest stump.

“Oh, you want the…no, sorry,” Trissiny said. “We need those to wait don’t you dare—GABRIEL!”

Grinning, he tossed the shard. It was a gentle throw, which the capling caught without difficulty and immediately began rolling around on the ground in celebration.

“Have you lost your mind!?” Trissiny shouted. “We have to collect those things! How are we going to do that if you give them back to the—ow!”

Another shard struck her on the temple and she whirled, raising her blade. The caplings just continued to dance about, making their miscellaneous animal calls and apparently having a blast. One threw the shard back to Gabriel, who immediately tossed it to a different one, now grinning widely.

“I figured it out!” he said, turning to her.

“Do not say what I think you’re about to say,” she warned.

“Aw, c’mon, it’ll be fun.”

“I hate fun.”

“Trissiny, I used to think you were born with a stick up your ass,” he said, playfully punching her armored shoulder. “I’ve come to realize, though, you work hard to keep it there. Well, it won’t kill you to un-clench for a little while.”

“You’re proposing that we stop and play catch with a bunch of annoying little fairies?” she snapped.

“Some combination of catch and keep-away, I’m not real clear on the rules. But that’s exactly the point, don’t you get it?” The smile faded, and he turned to face her fully, his expression growing serious. “The Tower hasn’t given us an easy test, just like you thought. It’s exactly what Vidius told me I should be doing more of: screwing around.”

“He didn’t tell me to do that!”

“Well, I’m telling you now.” He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “This is a trial, a test. It’s making us do something that’s hard for us…hard, but important. Trissiny, when was the last time you played tag?”

“I can’t believe you—”

“I’m serious. When?”

To her surprise, the expression in his eyes was serious.

“When I was fifteen,” she found herself replying in spite of herself. “Actually…it was the day Avei called me. Right before that, at the Abbey, the girls were scuffling on the lawn. I used to…”

Gabriel smiled again, but more gently, and gave her a little shake. “Hell, I used to do nothing but goof around. That was before I had actual responsibilities, though. I get it, Triss, believe me I do. But maybe… Maybe we got in too much of a hurry to grow up, and did it too far, or too fast.”

“Gabriel, this is beyond asinine,” she protested. “I’m not going to run around engaging in playground games with a bunch of caplings.”

At that, his impish grin returned. “You are if you wanna get out of here. C’mon, Triss, pick up the crystal. Looks like you’re it.”


“Okay, this isn’t working,” Toby called, ducking behind another pillar of rock while fireballs pounded the area in front of him. “We’ve tried taunting, pleading, reasoning, formal challenging… He’s not biting the bait. Have you got any other ideas?”

Schwartz stood a few yards distant behind another large chunk of stone, near one of the traps he’d laid on the ground. They had peppered the entire area with fae circles, sigils, and objects, ready to be triggered against the demon once they got it to chase them into the maze—which it had steadfastly refused to do, simply remaining on its platform and answering any challenge with a barrage of explosive fireballs.

“Schwartz?” Toby prompted as the last explosions petered out and the witch continued staring into space. “Are you okay? Were you hit?”

Meesie sat upright, patting Schwartz’s cheek, but she pointed at Toby and squeaked imperiously.

“I believe,” said Athenos, currently in Toby’s hand, “the insufferable little rat wants you to let him think.”

“We’re wrong,” Schwartz said suddenly, his eyes snapping into focus and meeting Toby’s. “We’re going about this all wrong.”

“Yes, so I gathered,” Toby said wryly. “Have you a better idea? Because aside from forcing him into a trap—”

“We need to attack.”

“Schwartz,” he said patiently, “we decided that’s exactly the thing we don’t need to do, remember? It’s an obvious trap.”

“That’s not the trap.” Schwartz turned to him, shaking his head. “I get it now. The trap is…all this. Us. The Tower challenges us, Toby. We’re supposed to…to test our boundaries, to learn and grow. Think about it: you and I would naturally try to do anything but charge the giant demon in a brute force attack. You always want to seek the peaceful solution to any conflict, and I approach problems like…well, like problems. I’m inclined to fall back on cleverness and tricks rather than…”

“Rather than suicidal charges,” Toby exclaimed. “Good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we can’t reason with that demon—which I don’t truly believe, anyway. We would have to get down the bridge—”

“We haven’t tested those fireballs directly against one of your divine shields.”

“…and then deal with the demon himself.”

“You’re a master martial artist, and we both specialize in forms of magic which would be incredibly harmful to it. Toby… This is it. This is the test. Sometimes we don’t get to handle things the way we want to. Sometimes you just have to fight.”

Toby shook his head stubbornly. “There is always a better way than that. Always.”

“No, there’s not,” Schwartz retorted. “Believe me, I sympathize, but it’s true. Sometimes there just plain isn’t. The most terrifying creature I ever met wasn’t a giant fire-throwing demon, and it wasn’t an amalgamation of undead souls left in Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. It was a smart, skillful, highly professional woman who cares for nothing but herself and simply cannot be reasoned with. And I’ve spent months letting her run amok because I’ve been trying to build up a clever ploy to deal with her rather than…dealing.”

“I don’t—”

“Toby, don’t you see?” Schwartz said, and his voice was suddenly filled with the strangest mix of desperation and bone-deep weariness. “This is exactly the same mistake you and I keep making. The demon isn’t the challenge, here. We are.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

14 – 12

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

“Uh.” Schwartz, nonplussed, peered at the sword in his hand, then helplessly over at the others. “We can’t exactly…do that.”

“You’re clearly resourceful enough to have broken in,” Athenos retorted. “Give it a go.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda the thing,” said Gabriel. “The way we got in…doesn’t leave a way out.”

“Your problem, not mine.”

“The tower is here to test adventurers, right?” Trissiny said. “Well, we’re here, and we’re—”

“You were not invited. The goddess has no time for walk-ins.”

“What’s she got to do that’s so very important?” Trissiny retorted. “Listen, our business is important, and this tower of yours is just a means to an end. If you don’t want us tracking mud on the carpets, fine; all we need is to talk to Salyrene.”

“Oh, is that all you need,” the sword replied with ponderous sarcasm. “A personal audience with the goddess of magic, apropos of nothing. I’ll repeat: the Tower is closed. Get lost.”

“Well, I say,” Schwartz grumbled, scowling at the sword now. “Your help would be appreciated, but if it comes down to it, we can just use you to unlock the elevator and proceed. What are you going to do about it?”

“Ahem?” Ariel’s voice cut through the gathering argument, and a moment later she slid free of her scabbard, untouched by Gabriel. The black saber drifted up into the air and did a slow pirouette, her blue runes glowing steadily with arcane magic. “I advise you not to handle a sentient weapon which doesn’t like you. We are far from helpless. The enchantments may vary, but some form of motive charm is standard.” Gabriel plucked her from the air, sliding her back into the sheath while shaking his head.

“What. Is. That.” If anything, Athenos sounded positively enraged now. “You brought another— All right, I have had enough of you clowns.”

“I think we’ve all gotten off on the wrong foot here,” Toby interjected, stepping closer to Schwartz, holding up his hands placatingly and using his most soothing voice. “Everyone, please relax. We know talking swords are made with a lack of empathy; there’s no need to get hostile just because Athenos is a little abrasive. Now, can we start again?”

“Very well,” Athenos said curtly. “Welcome to the Tower of Salyrene, which is not currently accepting visitors. Go away.”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, turning to stare expressively at Gabriel, who shrugged. Meesie clambered halfway down Schwartz’s arm to hiss menacingly at the sword until Schwartz picked her up with his free hand, depositing her on his other shoulder.

“I realize this is something of an imposition,” Toby continued in his calm tone. “It is for us, as well, believe it or not. We really would prefer to be done with our business as quickly as possible and with a minimum of trouble caused for anyone. Especially Salyrene. But I’m afraid we don’t have the option of just leaving. So why don’t we try to meet in the middle, here? If you’re willing to work with us, hopefully we can keep the disruption minimal and be out of your hair. Ah, your…metaphorical hair.”

“And you think it’ll be as simple as that?”

“Well,” Toby pointed out with a smile, “we did get into the place. Surely that shows we have some measure of capability.”

“Ah, yes.” The sword’s voice was suddenly weighted with even greater disdain. “Just like every clod who discovers a gimmick, you imagine yourself to be unique. Let me clue you in, then: people have been breaking in here almost the whole time it has been closed off. Starting eighty-odd years ago with that walking incendiary bomb Tellwyrn and just getting more obnoxiously wacky from there. We had an actual incubus running around in here for who knows how many years. Just last week some screwloose kitsune clawed a hole in the outer barriers and dropped off a transmogrified ex-dryad as if this were some sort of puppy rescue. The fact that Salyrene is not interested in the Tower and its visitors does not, unfortunately, make it inaccessible; it only means her attention is not focused here, and therefore things tend to unfold in a way she absolutely did not intend when originally designing the place. This Tower’s innate magic is more sophisticated than anything else in existence, but it is still no substitute for the active oversight of a goddess. So if I seem wildly unenthused by the prospect of shepherding you clods through here, understand that it’s not a personal judgment. I don’t know you, and even less do I care to. It’s because what you’ve brought me is the very great likelihood of a big, ugly, stupid, pointless, nigh-disastrous waste of everyone’s time!”

A stunned silence fell after his rant came to a close. It was, ironically, Meesie who broke it, with a shrill whistle.

Toby cleared his throat. “I certainly understand—”

“You understand nothing,” Athenos snapped. “You know what? Your buddy there was right. If you choose to unlock the elevator and help yourself to my Tower…fine. There’s really not much I can do to stop you. Oh, there’s a little I can do, but I won’t. My function here is to guide those being tested, even when they are a useless, unwanted pain in organs I am very lucky not to possess. But know this: you’re walking into a danger of which you weren’t forewarned. Nobody is overseeing this place, and it has neither pity nor the capacity to stop. There’s nobody at the top who will grant you a reward for succeeding—if you ever do. Once you ride that elevator to the Tower proper, you can’t come back down. You will be in there until you complete its trials and escape, and escape is the only prize it’ll offer you. So before you decide to charge ahead, I suggest you think very carefully about whether this is a good use of your time. Why are you so sure you’ll succeed, and more importantly, why would you bother?”

“Well,” Gabriel drawled, “as to the second part, we are on a quest mandated by a god of the Pantheon. Granted, it’s just Vesk, but he still counts. And as for the first, we’re paladins.”

“Well, they are,” Schwartz clarified. “I’m simply a witch of the Emerald College, helping out. But these are the hands of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius.”

“Hand of Vidius,” Athenos said scornfully. “If you want to think I’m an idiot, that’s your lookout, but I’ll ask you not to speak to me as if I were an idiot.”

“You’ve been locked up in here for quite a while, haven’t you?” Trissiny asked.

“Obviously.”

She shrugged. “Well, things are changing out there in the world, but I don’t know how to convince you…”

“You don’t need to,” Ariel cut in, “he is simply being obstreperous now. We are well equipped to discern and examine auras in our proximity, and Gabriel’s is unmistakably that of someone with an exceptionally powerful connection to the divine. Given that he is also obviously, to senses such as ours, a half-demon, logic dictates that this was done at the personal intercession of a god. Therefore, paladin.”

“That conclusion is hardly inevitable,” Athenos huffed. “Still… Fine. Your time and lives are your own to waste. Who knows, if Vesk is the one who sent you here, perhaps you can coax Salyrene to take a personal interest again. That would be a great relief.”

“Very good, then,” Toby said quickly before any more bickering could ensue. “If we’re all on the same page now, we might as well proceed. Schwartz, lead the way!”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Schwartz said, still looking somewhat bemused and holding the sword a bit awkwardly. He turned and crossed the chamber to the elevator, where he paused, holding up Athenos and peering hesitantly at the metal plate with the slot in it. “So, ah… I just…insert…you?”

“If you are perplexed by a simple key-and-lock interface, you are going to have a very hard time climbing this Tower,” Athenos snipped. “I suggest you take a moment to reconsider this course of action.”

“He’s even ruder than Ariel,” Trissiny observed.

“Maybe very slightly,” Gabriel said in a solemn tone.

Schwartz, suddenly scowling, lifted the sword and pressed its tip against the slot in the panel. He had to try a couple of times, being unused to handling blades at all, much less against such a precise target, but once the tip caught, he shoved the sword home in a single motion. Athenos stopped with an audible thunk with about three quarters of his length in the mechanism.

What remained visible of the runes lining his blade flashed blue. Then, as if spreading from contact, so did another set of runes on the metal panel surrounding him, which had not been visible at all moments before. In fact, they appeared to hover half an inch from the surface of the panel. They rotated in a full circle, and the whole slot did likewise, twisting Athenos’s handle and forcing Schwartz to quickly release it. This was an eerie sight, as there was nothing constituting a moving part on that flat piece of metal. As soon as the slot and sword had rotated all the way back to their original position, the bars separating them from the elevator abruptly withdrew—not through any mechanical process, but all dissolving from the top down, each seemingly washed away by a descending sparkle of light.

“Flashy,” Gabriel remarked, raising his eyebrow.

Athenos flickered again as he responded, still stuck in the wall. “You’d better get used to that. The goddess of magic is many things, but ‘subtle’ does not usually rank among them. Once again: as soon as you ascend to the main floor of the tower, you are good and there until it finishes with you. Last chance to reconsider.”

“It isn’t really up for debate,” Schwartz grunted, grabbing Athenos again and tugging the blade free of the wall. “We’ve already established that going back where we came from isn’t a feasible option, and that’s not even considering the divine quest we still have to fulfill. Onward and upward!”

“Hang on,” Trissiny said suddenly as he started to step into the opened elevator. “I have some questions. I wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about this Tower before we go charging headlong into it.”

“Finally, a note of circumspection,” Athenos said with the first approval he’d shown any of them. “Congratulations. You are now my favorite adventurer in at least the last century.”

Trissiny bit back her first retort, which was to the effect that his personal opinion was of no interest to her. If Athenos functioned more or less the same as Ariel, nothing was going to rectify his uncooperative attitude and snapping back at him wouldn’t even hurt his feelings. Still, there was no point, and definitely no good in getting in the habit. Gabriel was grinning at her as if following this entire line of thought, which earned a wry grimace from her in reply.

Instead she moved on to her actual concerns. “First of all, I want to know exactly how this Tower works—”

“Then I hope you have several decades to spare for the relevant education, and have brought someone willing to explain it all.”

Trissiny gritted her teeth, ignoring Gabe’s silent laughter, and pressed on. “Not the details of how the magic works, I’m just curious about the broad strokes. If Salyrene is not here, and not paying attention to what happens in the Tower, how is it supposed to test people? You strongly implied the trials are still working.”

“The Tower of Salyrene is a thing more of magic than of substance. Its function is to test adventurers. Obviously, this works better with its creator overseeing the tests, but it does not stop working simply because she is absent. You lot solved a Circle of Interaction puzzle to get this far; dare I hope that, unlike my last intruder, you at least understand the basics of magical theory enough to know what I mean by ‘subjective physics?’”

Trissiny nodded. “Yes, magic is a process of imposing subjectivity on physical reality so it can be altered by thoughts.”

“Close…enough,” Athenos said with only slight disdain. Which, given the way he’d acted so far, bore out his claim to like Trissiny the most of all of them. “Therefore, the Tower of Salyrene is a structure entirely of purpose. Subjectively, it determines what the most appropriate test is for whoever is in it, and provides that. So, to head off what I expect your next question will be, no I do not know how you will be tested. To be clear, I wouldn’t help you cheat anyway, but the truth is that I literally cannot. We will find out what your tests are when they begin.”

“That sounds…far-fetched,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Are you sure Salyrene is actually absent and not just…sulking?”

“Sulking.” The sword’s tone was utterly flat. “A goddess of the Pantheon.”

“That was literally the word Avei used,” Gabe replied with a little grin.

“If your theory is that she’s actually here,” Schwartz said, frowning reproachfully, “maybe keeping thoughts like that to yourself might be a good idea.” Meesie nodded, adding a chirp of agreement.

Gabriel cleared his throat and hurried on. “What I mean is, you’re talking about analyzing people based on practically no data, determining the extremely vague concept of their needs, devising an entire trial system for each on the fly… I was willing to accept that idea if there was a goddess specifically doing it, but you want me to believe this Tower has that process automated? It really stretches my credulity.”

“Actually,” Schwartz replied, adjusting his glasses with his free hand, “what you’re talking about would be fairly simple to set up given a sufficient quantity and mastery of fae magic; these kinds of intuitive functions are arguably its primary advantage over the other three schools, Circle negation effects notwithstanding. And if there is one place in all the world where there’s sufficient magic…this is it.”

“That thing in the Crawl that gave visions,” Toby added, “seems to have done more or less the same, albeit maybe not to the same extent. So we know the theory works.”

“Hm,” Gabriel grunted, looking unconvinced, but he nodded at Trissiny and offered no further comment.

“So, based on that,” she said slowly, “as you said, the Tower is actually more dangerous without Salyrene’s oversight.”

“The Tower is…not exactly dangerous,” Athenos admitted grudgingly. “I…enhanced the facts somewhat for effect, previously. It is definitely more chaotic, and intruders have been able to take advantage of that. The incubus I mentioned caused no end of trouble in precisely that way; without Salyrene’s personal attention, there exists the prospect of such foreign dangers arising. But the Tower itself is designed to be explicitly safe. For one, all your biological needs will be suspended while you are in here.”

“I say, that’s handy,” Schwartz chimed in. “And I was just starting to notice that myself! I haven’t felt even slightly hungry or tired since we arrived.”

“And I haven’t needed to pee,” Gabriel added. “I was a little worried about that. Guess it’s Horsebutt’s tomb all over again.”

“Heshenaad,” Toby corrected, then grinned at Gabriel’s scowl.

“Furthermore,” Athenos continued with mounting annoyance, “part of the Tower’s innate systems are designed to protect adventurers from any injury which may occur in the course of testing. In this place, Salyrene’s will trumps all other laws, including those of the other gods. Should you be lethally or debilitatingly maimed, either by a test or more likely through your own clumsiness, a time-reversal effect ordinarily available only to Scions of Vemnesthis will restore you to a point before it occurred with your memory intact. In this way, you not only survive your errors, but learn from them. The Tower is, ultimately, an enormous teaching device.”

“Well, yay for more education,” Gabriel commented. “You mentioned you had Tellwyrn come through here? You might like to know that she runs a University now.”

“…and isn’t that just the icing on the cake,” Athenos said in pure disgust. “Someone needs to notify Avei that there is no justice in the world.”

“Anyway,” Trissiny said loudly, “that sort of brings me around to my other question. What happened to the other people who’ve broken in here while Salyrene wasn’t running it?”

“That depends on the individuals. As I said, they climbed the Tower. All of them managed it…eventually. In the old days, the goddess would sometimes evict someone if they proved particularly dense or their conduct became personally objectionable to her, but now? All the Tower knows is to test, and try, and keep doing so until its subject has passed all their allotted trials and is allowed to leave.”

“So they all did succeed, in the end?” Toby asked in unfeigned interest. “I suppose that’s a positive sign. How long does it take, on average?”

“Again, it depends. I have had idiots stuck in here for literally years.”

“But you said a dryad was dropped off here last week,” said Schwartz, “and also that no one’s there now. She managed it that fast?”

“Years is an outlier,” Athenos acknowledged. “It is more likely to be a matter of hours or days, in most cases. And…the dryad proved a far more adept adventurer than I’d have expected based on her initial foray. The Tower did go easy on her; it was mostly a succession of logic puzzles and very basic Circle of Interaction effects. I suppose there is a hidden advantage for the ignorant and/or stupid, as the Tower does not test people beyond their capacity.”

“Can you offer at least a guess as to what kind of tests we’ll be facing?” Toby asked.

“That is not one of my functions,” Athenos replied, audibly smug. “I will warn you not to expect the daffy dryad treatment. For three paladins and a witch, this is not going to be easy.”

“Great,” Gabriel muttered.

“At this point, I think we’re just procrastinating,” Trissiny said, “and his ominous portents of doom aren’t helping. Unless someone else has any immediately relevant questions?”

“In fact, I rather think you’re right,” Schwartz agreed. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we get finished. So! Onward and upward, for real this time!”

He led the way into the elevator, Meesie squeaking a charge and pointing forward from atop his head. The others followed with a bit more reluctance, especially after having listened to Athenos’s dire predictions, but as had already been established, it wasn’t as if they could do anything else.

No sooner had Toby, the last in line, stepped inside than the metal bars re-materialized with the same glittery effect in reverse. It was crowded with four of them in there, but by unspoken agreement they all stood clustered together, nobody taking a seat on the padded benches provided.

“Hey, there’s no roof,” Gabriel commented, and they all looked up. Indeed, the elevator shaft stretched upward for an unknowable distance. It was far enough, at least, that they could see nothing but light at the top.

Then the elevator lurched once, making Schwartz and Gabe stumble, and began smoothly rising.

It accelerated rapidly as it went, enough that the passage of the stone walls outside was a little alarming; given the cage-like construction of the elevator, they could probably have reached through to touch them, and at that speed had a fingertip sanded off for their trouble. The trip was made even more unnerving by the fact that those walls were decorated with glowing patterns in orange, gold, blue, and green. They must have been arranged in static positions along the stone shaft, but when viewed at speed they formed smoothly shifting images evocative of the four schools of magic. Flickering flames, uncurling vines, exploding stars and shimmering figures all were features, most passing by so quickly they were barely-understood afterimages almost as soon as they appeared.

“You weren’t kidding,” Gabriel muttered, barely audible with the hum of their passing. “Flashy stuff everywhere.”

“You have hardly seen everywhere,” Athenos replied dryly.

The elevator began to slow, just as the distant light above them started growing in intensity. Its speed had diminished to a smooth crawl by the time the upper borders of the vehicle passed what turned out to be an open gap in the floor of the chamber above. Or would have, had they remained attached; in actuality, the cage walls clicked against a thin lip of the portal above and were pushed downward as they rose. When the elevator finally came to a stop, it was with its metal floor perfectly level with the floor of the tower, leaving only its partial ring of padded benches standing up around them.

This, finally, was clearly a tower. The chamber in which they now stood was vast, and octagonal in shape. There was nothing in the center except the little platform on which they stood, and a broad Circle of Interaction diagram spreading around them, laid into the gray stone floor in black marble. Somewhat ominously, they were standing right in the middle of the innermost circle, where the destructive forces of opposing schools of magic met with the most explosive effect.

The height of the tower was truly impossible to guess. All around them was relative dimness; there was no visible source of the light, but it was enough to make their immediate surroundings visible. Above, however, the empty tower stretched away into darkness, its entire length crossed by bridges set at varying angles. They vanished into the blackness no less than ten stories above, with no hint at how much further it stretched.

Closer at hand, spiraling staircases climbed the outer walls to a balcony which ringed the inner space about two stories up. The four doors which branched off from this, each corresponding to one of the four points on the Circle diagram, were large enough to be clearly visible from their position.

Directly in front of them was another statue of Salyrene, depicting her exactly as those down below had. This one, however, showed her only from the waist up, and even so was tall enough that the smooth crown of her head nearly met the balcony above. With her glowing eyes fixed right upon their point of arrival, that was the most unnerving thing of all.

Once again, the silence was broken by a tiny, shrill whistle of awe.

“You said it, Meesie,” Gabriel agreed.

“And now, here you are.” There was something vaguely menacing about the smugness in Athenos’s tone. Even dangling from Schwartz’s limp arm, the sword’s flickering runes managed to convey leering satisfaction. “Best of luck to you, heroes. I expect you shall need every bit you can grasp.”

“You,” Trissiny ordered, “be quiet. When we have questions, we’ll ask them. Otherwise, if you’re not going to make yourself useful, at least refrain from being a pest.”

“Oh, of course. Far be it from me to disrupt your trials. This is, after all, my very purpose in life.”

“When you referred to climbing the tower,” Gabriel said, craning his neck back to peer into the climbing abyss of darkness above, “did you mean…all the way?”

“What you seek is at the top,” Athenos confirmed. “Each trial you pass will grant you another level of ascent.”

“This,” Gabriel said slowly, “is gonna take a while.”

Toby sighed, and rolled his shoulders. “Well, I gather at a glance that it starts about the same way that puzzle down below did. Four doors, four schools. Shall we pick one and get started?”

“The divine would be that way,” Trissiny said, pointing at the arched doorway just visible about Salyrene’s stone head. On the floor directly in front of them, there was indeed the circle marked by the ankh symbol. “Start there, again? At minimum, that seems most likely to be a trial that won’t punish us too much.”

“It’s as good a place to begin as any,” Schwartz agreed, Meesie nodding eagerly.

“All right, then,” Trissiny said, and stepped forward between two of the benches and off the elevator platform.

Whatever hit was like the impact of a stone wall, if she’d fallen on it from a great height. Blinding white light exploded in her eyes, and then she was slammed onto her back on the ground.

Onto…soft, crunching leaves, piled upon dirt.

Trissiny rolled to her feet, grunting in pain at the lingering soreness this antagonized, but not allowing herself to slow. She was now standing in a forest.

No…a room.

Stone walls rose all around in the near distance, and there were even windows in them. Above stretched the vault of an arched ceiling. These features were not what leapt out at the eye, however. All around her stood a profusion of trees—twisted things covered with dark, gnarled bark, mostly leafless and covered with climbing vines, streamers of hanging moss decorating their bare branches. A profusion of mushrooms sprang up from around their base, some reaching waist-high on her, and most in poisonously vivid colors which contrasted sharply with the overall gloom. What leaves there were seemed to be on the ground, dried out as if they had fallen long ago.

And it was loud. Trissiny couldn’t identify half the animals she heard; the profusion of crickets, birds, chatters and whoops and the occasional distant scream made an overall din that was all the more unsettling because she couldn’t actually see any of the creatures making the noise.

Oh, wait, no, there was a pair of glowing eyes watching her from the shadows in the roots of the closest tree.

Altogether, this scene was so disturbingly ominous she had to conclude it had been deliberately designed to be.

And she was alone. There was no sign, anywhere, of her companions.

Trissiny sighed and drew her sword. “Typical.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >