Tag Archives: Sister Astarian

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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—”


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…”

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14 – 16

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“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—”


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14 – 10

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“You think I can use this thing to shadow-jump?” Gabriel’s tone was dubious, but clearly intrigued, and he held up his scythe while peering at it closely.

“That is not what I said,” Schwartz retorted irritably, his attention on the finishing touches he was placing on the spell array. Suddenly, though, he straightened, frowning at the far wall. “Actually… Now that you’ve said that, I’m almost positive you could. You understand the theory of shadow-jumping?”

“The broad strokes,” Gabriel replied with a shrug. “For obvious reasons, I’ve been reluctant to peer too closely into infernomancy.”

“Well, the infernomancy I can’t really explain anyway, as that’s far out of my field,” Schwartz said, turning toward him with an increasingly animated expression. “But in physical terms, the essence of shadow-jumping is to bring two pieces of reality together, then bore a hole through them and step across.”

“To grossly simplify,” Ariel added.

“Yes, yes,” Schwartz said, “but that is the core of the thing. But think about it, Gabriel! There are arcane means of achieving the connection between two locations; something similar is used for standard teleportation. But the scythe! The exercise you’ve been practicing shows it can cut magic. If you were to create the location merging effect…”

“Then slice a hole between them,” Gabriel continued, eyes widening in mounting excitement, “I could do the same thing without the infernal element!”

“There are drawbacks,” Ariel interjected. “The range of arcane teleportation, unlike shadow-jumping, is limited by the caster’s mana pool. That stipulation would also apply to this theoretical method. Further, the infernal hole-boring, as you put it, is a corrosive process which naturally remedies itself once the magic is no longer being applied due to the inherent ontological inertia of the universe. Slicing a hole with that weapon might create a permanent rift.”

“Well, I’m not saying there aren’t complications,” Schwartz blustered on, “that’s only to be expected when theorizing a new application of magic. But the theory—”

“Ahem,” Trissiny practically shouted. Both boys halted mid-conversation, turning to blink at her. “Can you two theorize some other time? We were trying to accomplish something specific, here.”

“Oh, right,” Gabriel said, again peering at his scythe. “Yes, back on track. If you didn’t mean shadow-jumping, Schwartz, what were you talking about?”

“Ah, yes, well,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat with an abashed glance in Trissiny’s direction. “I quite understand why you thought that’s what I meant, since the method I described was quite functionally similar to shadow-jumping. Hence the confusion. Which only goes to show—”

“Herschel,” Trissiny warned.

“But anyway,” Schwartz said hastily, “that example explains how the scythe changes this equation. What’s significant here is that we’re not doing the very much more difficult work of forming a connection between two physical spots.”

“I thought that was exactly what we’re doing,” said Toby, gesturing to the sprawling spell circle. “Isn’t that the point of all this?”

“Not exactly.” Schwartz turned back to frown at the diagram on the floor, adjusting his glasses. “This invocation should, if it works, create a sympathetic resonance with Salyrene’s Tower, which is so inherently magical that if it even has a physical location it shouldn’t matter. That isn’t all that hard to do; nobody bothers with it because under ordinary circumstances there’s just no way to get in. Admittance to the tower is at Salyrene’s personal invitation only, and the private barriers put up by a god are more than virtually anybody can get through.”

“Unless,” Gabriel said, nodding, “you have a weapon crafted by another god, which can cut basically anything.”

“Except,” Trissiny said skeptically, “I thought the big deal about that scythe wasn’t that it cuts anything, but that it kills anything. Am I the only reason who sees how this could go horribly wrong? Ariel’s right, what you’re talking about is creating permanent holes. That sounds like a great way to get on Salyrene’s bad side.”

“Excuse me, Trissiny, but I guarantee I have foreseen more potential problems than you have,” Schwartz huffed. “Anticipating and countering problems is a basic step in any major spellcasting. In this specific case, however, we have no less an authority than Avei to tell us this will work!”

“It’s not that we doubt you,” Toby said gently, “either of you. But that isn’t what Avei said.”

“She said I knew the way to the door, and that Gabriel had the way to open it. Both those things are pretty obvious, are they not?”

“The scythe I’ll grant you,” Toby agreed. “I can’t conceive of anything else in Gabriel’s possession that could perform the task. Even Ariel is more of a helper than a weapon. But Schwartz, this spell circle of yours… I admittedly only have a basic grasp of ritual casting, but I don’t see Salyrene invoked anywhere on this thing.”

“Ah, yes,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “There’s a reason for that, Toby. The goddess forbids spurious invocation of her name or sigil—which she defines as anything for which she hasn’t given express permission ahead of time, which is everything since nobody’s heard from her in a hundred years. Generally, trying that triggers a swift retaliation. And since we are specifically trying to do something she doesn’t want us to, drawing the goddess’s attention would scuttle the whole shebang! I’m confident this will work provided Salyrene doesn’t notice us doing it. Our cheap tricks are not going to thwart the direct efforts of a major deity.”

“Are you sure you’re all right with this, then?” Trissiny asked, frowning in concern. “This your own goddess we’re talking about.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” he said airily, waving her off. “She’s always encouraged her followers to test boundaries, it’s considered a major virtue within the Collegium. Inventively breaking some absolute magical rule is exactly how at least half the spellcasters invited to the Tower got invited! So, yes, anyway, this circle is pretty big and grandiose, as you can see, but I’m afraid that was necessary. ‘Find Salyrene’s Tower’ is a pretty complex instruction, for magical purposes. Lots of variables in that simple directive that have to be defined. That’s what the major portion of it there, the central rings, are. Then the divine circle around the outer edges serves to isolate the entire working from the powerful ambient divine energy of the temple, so the rest of it can function without interference. And the central one is the real doozy! That bit in the middle will provide the core sympathetic connection that makes the whole thing work, once we power it on.”

The central ring, in fact, was the plainest by far; in it, Schwartz had drawn a standard Circle of Interaction diagram in arcane enchantment chalk, leaving blank the four small rings around the edge which would ordinarily contain the icons signifying the four main schools of magic. His fae spell circle around it was a sprawling work of art which resembled calligraphy, with its flowing lines and spiraling glyphs, all laid out in streams of several kinds of powder he had carefully spread across the floor. The outermost ring was downright spartan by comparison, a simple circle marked by angular glyphs and sigils to invoke and direct divine magic.

“I hate to be critical,” Gabriel said archly, “but this would’ve been a generally less annoying and stressful hour if you had taken two minutes to explain all that before you made us watch you do it and set me and Trissiny to doing magic exercises.”

Trissiny snorted. “What do you mean, you hate to be critical? The gods frown on lies, Gabriel.”

“Ah, yes… Um, sorry about that,” Schwartz said with a rueful grimace, running a hand through his already messy hair. “When the inspiration takes me, I’m afraid I’m prone to getting a mite carried away. Ahem, yes, anyway. The circle’s done, and you know your role. Toby! I wonder if you would take over Trissiny’s role in the exercise we’ve been practicing?”

“We?” Trissiny muttered.

“Aw, come on, man,” Gabriel groaned. “It’s been working perfectly, almost since the beginning! Once I got the hang of it—”

“I know, I know,” Schwartz said soothingly. “I’m not trying to impugn your performance at all. It’s just… Thoroughness. This is all for naught if the method doesn’t work, I just want to see you try it out with magic from a different divine caster and verify that it occurs the same way. And besides, we’re still waiting for the fourth artifact to be delivered, so it’s not as if we have anything better to do.”

“Herschel,” Trissiny said flatly, “the High Priestess of the central temple of Avei is not a delivery girl. Sister Astarian is doing us a great favor, on little more than our say-so, and some respect from you would be appropriate.”

“Quite right,” he said contritely. “My apologies. I will convey them to her as well when she returns. I fear I was a little caught up when I asked her…”

“Just a little,” Gabriel said with a grin.

“Well, he has a point, anyhow,” Toby said mildly, stepping around the edge of the basement to avoid the spell circle and approach the group. Sister Astarian had conducted them to a rectangular chamber deep in the underlevels of the temple, set up specifically for ritual casting. That meant it was rather warm, as the light came from torches rather than fairy lamps. Most of what would have been used in here was divine magic, which worked better without the presence of arcane enchantments.

Toby began to glow subtly as he drew near the other two, and stopped a few feet away, holding up one hand. Just as Trissiny had been repeatedly doing for the last hour while Schwartz worked, he called up a rectangular pane of golden light in midair. The shield was quite energy efficient, being very simple in shape and not containing enough power to really stand up to much abuse. Even so, there was a reason she and not he had been doing it up till now; Trissiny’s elven metabolism gave her the mana reserves for such constant casting. Toby might have been feeling the first twinges of burnout by that point, had he been the guinea pig.

Gabriel sighed, shrugged, and raised his scythe. He brought the blade down against the shield in a slow and careful gesture; it passed through at the first touch, causing the entire thing to ripple. Their first experiments had instantly demolished Trissiny’s conjured shields, the scythe’s destructive magic simple snuffing out the animating power of whatever it touched. Now, Gabriel began to glow faintly as well, using his own connection to the divine to carefully nudge the scythe’s inherent power. He stubbornly claimed he was not feeling burned out himself, and the others had taken him at his word, excessive stoicism not being one of his faults. It was a very small use of magic, anyway.

Just as it had against the majority of Trissiny’s shields, the scythe cut the pane of divine light like butter, creating a long rent in it. Gabriel drew the blade all the way through and then stepped back, turning to give Schwartz a pointed look with his eyebrows raised.

“That feels weird,” Toby murmured, frowning thoughtfully at his now-bisected divine shield before letting what remained of it wink out.

“Excellent!” Schwartz said, grinning and rubbing his hands together again. “Consistent, reproducible results! I think we have a real plan here, people! Now, Gabe, could I borrow Ariel for a moment?”

“What the hell for?” Gabriel demanded.

“Oh, um, sorry, nothing major,” Schwartz said quickly. “I know she’s valuable, I don’t mean to presume. I’d just like to have someone double-check my spellwork. With all respect, you’re an arcanist, not—”

“No need,” Ariel interrupted, “I can detect it perfectly well from here. Your spellcrafting has a typically fae approach, Mr. Schwartz: needlessly grandiose and complicated to the point of being…poetic. You’ll find your systems would be far more efficient if you didn’t structure them like a conversation with a difficult fairy you are trying to schmooze. Regardless, I discern no actual errors, and the power sources you have in mind for this working should be more than adequate. Provided your underlying assumptions are correct, there is no reason it will not work.”

“Oh. Well. Um.” He blinked twice in rapid succession. “Thank you.”

The three paladins were still grinning merrily at his discomfiture when the basement door opened a moment later. Sister Astarian entered, an iron-bound wooden box cradled before her in both hands. She nudged the door shut with her foot on her way in.

“All right, Mr. Schwartz,” the priestess said calmly, “you specified a potent but contained infernal artifact with a connection to adventurers. I believe this meets your criteria.”

“Ah, yes, thank you, Sister,” he said absently, peering at the box with his head tilted to the side. “Though optimally, I would be able to peruse the available artifacts and select—”

“Herschel!” Trissiny barked.

He broke off and swallowed heavily. “…but clearly we trust your judgment, High Priestess, and very much appreciate the assistance. And, um, I’d like to apologize for my manners. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful…”

“Young man,” she said with an amused little smile, “you are hardly the first preoccupied, bookish spellcaster with whom I have worked. Rest assured, no one in this temple will be shy about telling you so if you give offense.”

“Oh. Well.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “That’s…good. Nonetheless, I’m still sorry.”

“I accept your apology. Now, then.” Astarian knelt to set the box on the floor, and carefully opened its catch, then raised the lid. “Allow me to introduce the demon Xyraadi.”

All four of them clustered around her to gaze at the contents of the box. Sistar Astarian discreetly stepped backward to give them room.

“Wow,” Gabriel commented. “The demon Xyraadi looks remarkably like an uncut ruby the size of both my fists. Has he lost weight?”

“Interesting,” Schwartz breathed. “That’s a soul prison! Never seen one quite so…”

“She,” Astarian corrected. “Xyraadi is a khelminash demon, and by all accounts a uniquely amiable specimen of her kind. She was in service to a Salyrite warlock named Celeste Lavene, an adventuring companion of Trouchelle Dulac, a Hand of Avei who lived six hundred years ago in Glassiere. Interestingly, the remaining accounts make it clear that Xyraadi was Celeste’s companion, not a thrall under her control.” She hesitated before continuing. “Glassian is a nuanced language so rich in innuendo that it’s literally where the word comes from. This was a long time ago and the accounts are secondhand, but several of the terms used to describe Celeste and Xyraadi’s relationship can be translated as ‘lover.’”

“Warlocks,” Trissiny snorted, curling her lip in disgust.

“Elspeth is half khelminash,” Gabriel mused. “Hm. I guess I can see why they might be tolerable to a Hand of Avei. She told me their entire species is female.”

“That doesn’t make any biological sense,” Toby protested.

Sister Astarian cleared her throat delicately. “The khelminash have two biological sexes like humans, but are not very sexually dimorphic. To tell the difference you have to…remove their pants. It’s believed they have only one gender. By all recorded accounts, they look like women, and in heavily gendered languages like Glassian and Tanglish they have all insisted on feminine forms of address. I should warn you, Mr. Arquin, that some sects within Avei’s faith regard them as a particularly vile perversion. You may not wish to voice such observations in mixed company, lest you wade into an argument you weren’t expecting.”

“Thank you very much for the warning,” he said fervently.

“What is significant about Xyraadi,” the priestess continued, “is that after Celeste’s death, the demon requested being placed in that soul prison by the Collegium and given to the Sisterhood, to be called upon again if we ever needed her.”

A short silence fell at that, all five of them staring down at the scarlet crystal with varying degrees of bemusement.

“I always thought…” Trissiny trailed off, shook her head, then started again. “Mother Narny was very firm about demons. She made certain to warn me that their infernal corruption drove them to aggression…”

“She was correct, that is a known effect of infernal magic,” Sister Astarian said firmly, placing a comforting hand on Trissiny’s shoulder. “It occurs in every species corrupted by it, even plants. Narnasia’s teachings do, as you seem to be suspecting, lack some nuance, but for good reason. She isn’t wrong. Demons are individuals with the power to make choices, but they are inundated with magic that twists their minds to viciousness. Yes, there are known individuals who have worked with humanity, even with Hands of the Pantheon. But for every demon who has truly labored to overcome their nature there have been ten who feigned it in order to spread corruption. That’s a favorite tactic of the sshitherosz, in fact. Narnasia’s work involves training and educating young women, and failing to warn the young and idealistic against demons is as good as offering them up on silver platters. Still.” She squeezed Trissiny’s shoulder, giving her a strangely sad little smile. “You’re not a child anymore, Trissiny, and the complexity of the world shouldn’t be hidden from you. I have been an advocate of Avei’s faith for over sixty years, and I can tell you that the Sisterhood’s greatest and most pervasive flaw is a tendency to impose black and white where there should be shades of gray.”

Trissiny nodded mutely, her expression troubled, but reached up to gently squeeze the priestess’s hand.

“Good gods,” Gabriel said suddenly, frowning at the soul crystal. “She’s not conscious in there, is she?”

“Doubtful,” Ariel replied. “That is Salyrite work. If one must dabble in infernomancy—a contention I will accept only for the sake of argument—the greatest benefit of the Topaz College, as opposed to the Black Wreath or Scyllithene shadow priestesses, is that they eschew needless sadism. To imprison a sapient being in an inanimate object and leave them able to think and sense their surroundings would be staggeringly cruel.”

“Ariel,” Toby said quietly, “you’re a sapient being imprisoned in an inanimate object.”

“Your empathy, as usual, is excessive and misplaced,” the sword informed him, her eerily resonant voice without inflection. “I am not a biologically grown sapience like you, but a constructed intelligence roughly based upon one. This housing is my natural habitat and comfortable for me. If you put my personality in a human body, I would be disastrously unable to function in your society. Are you familiar with the elvish term anth’auwa?”

“I am,” Schwartz said in a suddenly grim tone. “Well. Thank you very much, High Priestess. This artifact, I think, is exactly what we need.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said, nodding to him. “What is next, then?”

“Well, with this, I believe we’re pretty much done!” Schwartz said. “Ah, this is safe to handle, right?”

“Fully contained, with no infernal leakage,” Sister Astarian said mildly. “You did specify that, Mr. Schwartz.”

“Ah, yes, quite, quite. I don’t mean to doubt your thoroughness, Sister, I simply like to exercise my own. It’s an important habit to cultivate when one works with magic.” He bent and, with great care, picked up the crystal from its box. The stone glinted dully in the torchlight; it had no glow, no hidden motion in its depths, nothing to indicate it was magical in nature. Schwartz, though, had recognized it at a glance, so its properties must have been apparent to those properly attuned.

He stepped to one side, cradling Xyraadi’s prison before himself, and cleared his throat. “All right! For the first step, I need a Light-wielder to activate the outer circle. Trissiny?”

“Or I could give it a go,” Gabriel offered. “No offense to anybody, but I have the most casting experience among the three of us.”

“And Trissiny has the greatest mana reserves,” Ariel retorted. “Neither of which is a significant factor here, as a divinely imbued monkey could activate a stabilized containment ward.”

“You’re unusually talkative today, Ariel,” Toby observed, kneeling by the outer circle and touching one of its most prominent sigils with his fingers. A subtle glow rose around him, then shifted to the circle. Light traveled smoothly around its circumference till it covered the entire design, at which point it emitted a soft pulse and faded. There was no longer an active glow, but the diagram itself now gleamed in the torchlight as if it were metallic gold embossed on the floor.

“Splendid, Toby, thank you!” said Schwartz. “And now, step two. Gabriel, hold her for a moment, would you?”

“Uh…” Gabriel accepted the soul prison purely by reflex when Schwartz thrust it at him. He carried it far less casually, holding it away from his body and watching the crystal uncertainly, as if it might suddenly pick this moment to explode after spending six hundred years inert in a vault.

Schwartz stepped carefully across the golden barrier, positioning his feet in empty space where they did not touch the powder diagrams he had drawn of the broad fae circle, and closed his eyes. Whatever he did was inscrutable from without, accompanied by no spoken words nor so much as a finger gesture, but after a pause of only a few seconds, the diagram burst into flame.

Gabriel yelled and almost dropped Xyraadi’s prison; Trissiny surged forward, stopped only by Toby grabbing her before she crossed into the circle. Schwartz did not react at all, and indeed the swift-burning fire didn’t seem to touch him. It raced around the diagram in a matter of seconds, incinerating the entire thing to leave the design scrawled upon the floor in black ash, faintly smoking. As soon as that was done and the last sparks had gone out, Schwartz opened his eyes, grinned, and clapped his hands once.

The ash seemed to melt into the stone floor, leaving behind the same pattern traced in subtly luminous green and violet. A faint breeze rose in the room, seeming to circle the spell diagram and carrying a pleasant herbal scent. The torches flickered slightly, but held against the gentle movement of air.

“Is witchcraft always that extravagant?” Trissiny asked, straightening up and adjusting her coat.

“Well, that’s a large question,” Schwartz said seriously, turning to her. “One of the hallmarks of mastery in any of the schools of magic is the ability to achieve effects with a minimum of display. Like how arcane teleportation creates a distinctive whining noise and blue visual effect, but Gabriel told me that it’s instant and silent when Tellwyrn does it. But anyway! This is baked in, now, so you can all come forward. Stepping on the diagrams will not damage them, and we’ll all need to be in the circle anyway.”

So saying, he snapped his fingers and Meesie appeared on his shoulder in a puff of sparks and smoke. The little elemental sat bolt upright, letting out a single salutatory squeak, then bounced up onto Schwartz’s head and peered around, whiskers twitching inquisitively.

“Is she okay here?” Gabriel asked, gingerly stepping forward and holding out the soul prison to Schwartz. “I thought the temple would be a problem for her…”

“That’s the purpose of the outer ring,” Schwartz explained, accepting the crystal. “It isolates this space from the temple’s ambient magic, so as to enable complex work in the inner space without having to compensate for Circle of Interaction effects. I’d never have been able to whip up a significant fae working in here without it. But yes, Meesie will be fine so long as we stay within the circle!” Meesie hopped down to his shoulder and squeaked affirmatively at Gabriel, nodding her little head. “Now, then! For the last step…”

He took the crystal back from Gabriel, to the latter’s clear relief, then stepped toward the center of the spell circle. Schwartz knelt and very carefully set Xyraadi’s prison upon the small ring marking the bottom of the Circle of Interaction diagram, the one which signified infernal magic. At its contact, the lines of that circle began to glow a fiery orange, the color bleeding outward along the markings in both directions till it tinged the spots which would represent fae and arcane energy.

Schwartz turned his head to whisper something to Meesie, who raised one twitching ear to listen. Then, with an approving cheep, she scampered down his extended arm toward the floor below. He smoothly shifted his hand till it was above the fae ring, and the little elemental hopped down to sit in the middle of the small circle there. Immediately, green light rose around her, stretching outward as before; it reached all the way to the divine circle on top of the diagram, pushing back the orange light of the infernal icon till the two colors switched at a subtly wavering barrier halfway between them.

“Ah, I see,” Gabriel said, nodding. “And you wanted an infernal artifact because there’s no warlock in the group to provide one.”

“Just so!” Schwartz said with clear satisfaction, straightening up to survey his unfolding handiwork with his fists braced on his hips. “This should suffice, though of course we could get a better leverage from sympathetic principles if the infernal artifact were in some way associated with this group. Four adventurers, four schools of magic, and so on. But the only way I could think of to arrange that would be for Gabriel to donate a body part, which seemed, you know, excessive for the purpose.”

“If that was all you wanted,” said Ariel, “you could have extracted a vial of blood. That is the most commonly used biological substance in spellcraft anyway, and the loss of a few ounces would not have affected him unduly.”

“Yeah, well, what’s done is done,” Gabriel said quickly while Trissiny and Toby grinned at him. “The High Priestess went all the way down to the vaults for this, let’s not waste her hard work.”

“It isn’t that far from here,” Astarian said, smiling blandly. “And I enjoy having an excuse to examine the artifacts.”

“What exactly did you have in mind for the last two, Schwartz?” Gabriel asked, stubbornly ignoring Trissiny’s open laughter.

“Swords!” Schwartz said brightly. “Ariel is strongly associated with you and an arcane construct of great significance, not to mention a long history. If you would, kindly place her on the arcane circle.”

Gabriel frowned slightly, but stepped forward, drawing Ariel from her sheath. “…so, lying across it? There’s no other way that I can see, but she won’t fit inside the ring the way Meesie and Xyraadi do.”

“Yes, in fact, containing her within the ring may be significant to the structure of the spell circle,” Schwartz said seriously, “so I compensated for that. Simply balance her on her tip and she should remain upright.”

“Okay,” Gabriel said dubiously, bending to do as directed. He gingerly removed his fingers, keeping his hand at the ready as if to grab Ariel before she fell, but the saber remained standing on her tip. Blue light stretched out across the diagram from her, pushing back the orange of the infernal and meeting the green of the fae on the yet-unused divine ring.

“For the record,” she said, the runes lining her blade flickering visibly now that she was out of the scabbard, “I can do this myself. I presume the holding effect was enacted to restrain the other sword, which has no such features.”

“And I guess that’s my cue,” said Trissiny. Light coalesced out of the air, condensing into her outstretched hand and forming a shape which glowed too brightly to look at directly. It swiftly faded, however, leaving her holding the battered-looking short sword of the Hands of Avei. She stepped across the spell circles, joining the others at the innermost ring, and knelt to carefully balance the sword on its tip in the last marked spot.

When she pulled her hand back, the sword remained upright just as Ariel had, and a golden glow stretched out from the circle in which it rested, pushing back the fae and arcane light of its neighbors.

“Okay,” Toby said from a few feet away, the only one of them still outside the circle. “Is it done, then? Was something else supposed to happen?”

“It worked,” Schwartz breathed. “Okay, there’s no visible effect, but… Can you guys detect anything? It’s gonna be hard for Gabriel to do his part if I’m the only one who can sense it.”

“I feel a kind of…pressure,” Trissiny replied, stepping back from the central circle and narrowing her eyes at the space above it. “Hard to describe. There’s definitely something there.”

“I feel it,” Gabriel said, also staring at that spot. “Pushing on me with every kind of magic. Divine, arcane, infernal… I can’t actually feel fae effects, but I assume that’s part of it, as well. So this is what it’s like to brush Salyrene’s domain. Pretty much as uncomfortable as I would’ve expected.”

“You’re up, then,” Schwartz said, edging backward and nervously clasping his hands in front of himself.

Gabriel stepped toward the inner circle, raising his scythe. He hesitated, peering narrowly at the apparent nothing which hovered over the Circle glyph, then slowly extended the weapon with both hands on its haft for guidance. Again, a faint glow of divine light swelled into being around them, extending along the scythe.

Schwartz actually made a hissing gasp of pure excitement when the tip of the blade penetrated the air, vanishing from view onto the other side.

Gabriel slowly drew it downward, and the rent extended till he finally stopped a few inches from the floor. Once made, it seemed to take on a life of its own, the sides creeping outward as though pulled. Only a vague discoloration in the air delineated its borders; through the narrow gap, darkness was all that could be seen.

“Amazing,” Sister Astarian whispered.

“Are we absolutely sure that goes to Salyrene’s Tower?” Trissiny asked, frowning. “It doesn’t look like much of anything.”

“As certain as I could be of any part of this,” Schwartz assured her. “As I said, Trissiny, we are acting on instructions from your goddess.”

“The trick with gods,” she replied, “is being careful that you’re interpreting their instructions correctly.”

“Schwartz, I think I see a flaw in this plan,” Gabriel added, stepping back and pointing at the ring of artifacts below the portal he had just cut. “Xyraadi can stay here, obviously, but the rest of these things are kind of important. I don’t feature hopping through a magic doohickey into gods know where and leaving them behind.”

“I quite concur,” Ariel said in her eerily dry tone. Meesie straightened up on her haunches, pointing at Schwartz and squeaking a tiny tirade of agreement.

“You know, I don’t so much mind having the particulars of my methods second-guessed,” Schwartz said irritably, “but I rather resent the implication that I lack basic common sense. I assure you, this was accounted for. Those four sources of magic are anchoring the portal; as they are removed, it will become weaker, and once the last is withdrawn it will begin to collapse. We’ll take Meesie, Ariel and Trissiny’s sword through, leaving Xyraadi to hold it open. The soul prison should suffice plenty long enough for us to get in. Then, once Sister Astarian removes the crystal, it will start to collapse. Without the power sources anchoring this spot to the Tower, it will become a hole between nothing and nothing—which itself is nothing. Disrupting the outer ward will erase it finally, as the Temple’s ambient magic will finish the job. The divine works chiefly on the principle of order; that’s why it is so useful for sealing rifts. I am sorry to stick you with the clean-up, Sister,” he added, turning to Sister Astarian with a rueful little bow. “I couldn’t figure a way around that.”

“Please don’t apologize, Mr. Schwartz,” she replied, smiling. “That’s what this chamber is for, after all. In fact, I’m very glad to have been part of this, however peripherally. I rarely find a pretext to survey the treasures locked below the temple, or exercise my knowledge of demonology.” Her eyes shifted to Trissiny, and her smile broadened, accompanied by a respectful bow of her head. “As one who has grown up and served Avei after the Age of Adventures was long held to be over, it has been the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy to have even one short brush with a heroic venture.”

“We couldn’t have managed this without your help, sister,” Trissiny replied warmly.

“We had best be about it expeditiously, though,” Schwartz added. “As I said, it’ll stay stable enough for us to get through once we start removing the anchors, but the less dawdling, the safer.”

“Right,” Gabriel said dryly. “So! Who’s first?”

A round of mute stares passed between them.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Trissiny grunted, stepping forward and snatching up her sword. “Be well, Sister Astarian.”

“Goddess watch over you, Trissiny.”

The Hand of Avei gave the High Priestess a final nod, then stepped through the rent in space, vanishing into the darkness beyond.

“Off we go, then!” Schwartz crowed, bending to offer Meesie a hand. She bounded onto it, squeaking in excitement, and scampered up to his shoulder even as he turned sideways to slip through the portal after Trissiny. Gabriel followed, sheathing Ariel awkwardly with the one hand not holding his Scythe before he stepped in.

“If I could make a request, Sister,” Toby said, hesitating at the entrance to the portal.


“When you put Xyraadi’s prison back in its box, would you please include a message? If she ever is released, I’d like her to know what happened here, and that we are grateful for her aid.”

“I’ll see it done myself,” she assured him with a warm smile.

Toby nodded. “Thank you for everything, Sister.” The portal had already begun to narrow; he turned and slipped through before it could close any further.

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14 – 9

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“Go ask Avei,” Gabriel muttered, turning to stare out across the city and the plains beyond. “Why did we think this was a good idea?”

“I have better questions,” Trissiny replied. “What’s your problem with it, and why are you only bringing it up now?”

“Oh, I’m just…I dunno.” He sighed, and hopped down from the stone guardrail—just in time, as the nearby Legionnaire who had been eyeing him finally turned away. This was not the kind of place where standing on the rails was looked on kindly. “Don’t mind me. It is a good idea, but the closer we get to doing it, the more I’m…nervous.”

“Why?” she asked more quietly, stepping up to the rail beside him.

Gabriel shrugged, staring at the horizon. The forest was just visible as a darker line at the edge of the world, and beyond it, a rise of distant mountains deep within Athan’Khar. “It’s Avei. And I’m me.”

“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk to her.”

He gave her an irritated look. “I’m being serious, Triss. You never exactly made it a secret that she has a problem with demonbloods.”

“It…was more that I had the problem,” she replied, now staring into the distance as well. “And the problem was my ignorance, not your blood. It’ll be fine, Gabe. You’re a paladin, now.”

“Mm.” His lips twitched in a faint grimace. “Seems not quite right that that makes it acceptable for me to exist.”

Trissiny opened her mouth, then closed it again, failing to find a worthy response to that. Instead she turned to check on the other two.

Schwartz was far from the only person winded by the climb. Vrin Shai was a remarkably vertical city, clambering up the slope of the mountains surrounding it toward its uppermost terrace on which sat the central Temple of Avei, flanked by the main administration buildings of the Silver Legions and the Imperial government. The city had been laid out with defense in mind; there was only one path from the gates to the highest terrace, with the ramps to the next terrace up at alternating ends of each, requiring pilgrims to traverse the entire length and breadth of Vrin Shai to arrive at the temple. It had never been tested against an invading army—none had got past the walls—but had done in plenty of visitors. A plaza was laid out atop the steps leading to the highest level, discreetly lined with stone benches on which over a dozen people were currently resting, watched over by Silver Legionnaires and a few priestesses trained in the healing arts.

There was, consequently, a thriving taxi industry, but Schwartz had refused to hire one when they offered, insisting that he had made this climb before. It wasn’t that he was flabby or even quite as scrawny as he sometimes appeared in his voluminous robes, but as far as physical shape went, he wasn’t on the same level as the three paladins. In truth, Trissiny had been mildly impressed that Gabriel wasn’t also winded when they reached the top.

“Whew!” Schwartz puffed, coming to join them with Toby still hovering solicitously nearby. “Sorry ’bout that. Thanks for waiting, guys, I don’t mean to hold us up.”

“You’re fine, man,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Gave me a chance to procrastinate for a little bit; you know how much I like that. Well, shall we go face the music?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen,” Trissiny said firmly. “This is probably the safest place in the world. Come on, boys. Follow my lead.”

Meesie was not in evidence, having been temporarily dismissed while they were on holy ground. This temple was one of the world’s most sacred places, the historic center of Avei’s entire faith; the sheer concentration of millennia of built-up divine energy was the main reason Schwartz hadn’t been able to rejuvenate himself with a quick fae spell (and Toby’s divine healing did little for simple fatigue, unfortunately). His elemental familiar would have found it extremely uncomfortable.

Gabriel craned his neck back to look warily up at the enormous statue of Avei surmounting the temple, her outstretched sword pointing south toward Athan’Khar—and incidentally extending forth as the only part visible above them as they passed beneath the temple roof.

Being one of the world’s most important temples, there was enough of a crowd to keep them anonymous. Trissiny had neither armor nor sword with her, and Gabriel’s scythe was safely tucked away. Ariel, hanging from his belt, drew a few eyes—in this of all temples there were a good number of people who recognized a rare elven saber when they saw one—but of the four of them Schwartz stood out the most in his Salyrite robes. Pantheon temples did not bar one another’s worshipers, but they were hardly common visitors; he drew several raised eyebrows from the priestesses and Legionnaires in attendance.

Once inside the great sanctuary, Trissiny immediately led them to the side, out of the main path. The layout was identical to the central sanctuary of the Temple of Avei in Tiraas, which had been patterned after this one: a long room running from its broad doors to a great bronze statue of the goddess at its opposite end, with shaded colonnades running along the sides. At the rear of these, doors led deeper into the complex. Silver Legion soldiers stood guard at every entrance, but these were still open areas and they were not challenged upon passing through.

The door she sought was in a rotunda where several halls met—in fact, very similar to the door which led to the art gallery in the Tiraas temple, which she had forcibly opened last year with Teal. Here, the bronze doors towered eight feet high, wrought in a depiction of a long-ago Hand of Avei in battle against orcs. They were guarded by four Legionnaires at attention. A priestess in white was speaking with a well-dressed woman in front of them; both paused their conversation to look up in surprise at the four as they approached.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said politely. “We need to enter the inner sanctuary.”

The priestess narrowed her eyes, looked Trissiny up and down, then glanced quickly across the three boys accompanying her. “I’m sorry, but the inner sanctuary—being one of the holiest places in existence—is not open to the public.”

“It’s open to me,” she replied with a small smile. “I’m Trissiny Avelea.”

All four Legionnaires, though already at attention, stiffened slightly; the rich-looking woman with the priestess gasped, her eyes widening. The cleric, however, just made a disapproving face.

“You’re Trissiny Avelea,” she said with barely-concealed disdain. “Young woman, no one in this temple will find that amusing. Now, if you have need of guidance, I can find a sister to help you.”

“Be so good as to find Sister Astarian,” Trissiny said. “She knows me.”

“The High Priestess is no more available to wandering supplicants than is the inner sanctuary,” the woman said in mounting expasperation.

One of the Legionnaires behind her cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Sister—”

“As you were,” the priestess snapped without glancing back.

At the sudden change in Trissiny’s expression, the woman in the expensive dress began edging circumspectly away.

“I believe,” Trissiny said in a much cooler tone, “a supplicant does have the right to request an audience with the High Priestess of the temple. She is not obligated to grant it, but the request is to be conveyed. Any of these soldiers can do so; tradition dictates that the doors may be guarded by as few as two soldiers.”

“You are well read,” the priestess said in annoyance, “but nonetheless, you don’t get to walk into the central temple of the Sisterhood of Avei off the street and make demands.”

“Sister, she is correct,” the soldier interjected. “I will personally notify—”

“As you were, Sergeant,” the priestess repeated, now turning to give her a flat look.

And that was the limit of Trissiny’s tolerance.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you may want to shield your eyes.”

All three of them stepped back while the priestess turned to scowl at her again. “Now, look here—”

The light that erupted from her was blinding in that enclosed space. It receded quickly—far from completely, leaving her aglow, but diminishing enough to ease the burden on everyone’s eyes and enable them to see her golden wings, stretching nearly to the walls on either side of the rotunda.

Gaping, the priestess stumbled backward, nearly running into the woman wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was now trying very hard not to look smug. Trissiny stepped forward, forcing the woman to retreat right up against the doors and remaining just close enough to be uncomfortable without becoming too aggressive.

“Visitors to this temple are to be greeted and treated with respect,” she stated, wings of light still fully extended behind her. “If insane, they should be handled as gently as possible. If aggressive, they should be neutralized with the minimum possible force. In all other circumstances, they should be accommodated as much as is reasonable, and addressed courteously when they can be accommodated no further. While you stand in this temple, wearing that robe, you represent the goddess. There is no circumstance in which you should speak to a supplicant in that manner. Do I make myself clear, Sister?”

“Yes, ma’am. General. My apologies,” the priestess said, nearly stammering.

Trissiny remained silent, and held eye contact. The silence drew out excruciatingly, filled with the faint sound of divine magic, a harmonic tone like both a bell and a flute which hovered at the edge of hearing.

“My sincere apologies,” the priestess repeated, swallowing.

Finally, Trissiny nodded to her, and allowed the wings and the light to fade; with them went the subtle music of the divine, leaving the sound of strained breathing suddenly very audible.

“The door, then?” she said calmly, still standing just a touch too close.

Before the woman could reply, the doors were pulled open from within, revealing a stately woman with iron-gray hair tied up in a severe bun. Azora Astarian wore no mark of office aside from the uniform of a Sister of Avei and former Legionnaire: the white robe, with a golden eagle pin at the shoulder, and a belt from which hung her sword, a plain Legion-issue weapon with no decorative touches to call attention to it. In theory, the High Priestess of such an important temple occupied a place of tremendous honor in the hierarchy of the Sisterhood; in practice, she was as practical a woman as many who ranked highly in Avei’s service, and had never sought any particular recognition for herself.

“Trissiny,” she said with a warm smile. “I hope all is well; unexpected visits from paladins are often dire portents.”

“I’m sorry to descend on you without warning, Sister,” Trissiny replied, smiling back. “Don’t worry, there’s no emergency. Our business is merely unexpected, not dire.”

“That’s a relief.” Astarian shifted her eyes to the other cleric, her expression cooling noticeably. “Thank you, Sister. You may go.”

“High Priestess,” the younger woman replied in a somewhat shaken tone, inclining her head, “I was—”

“You may go,” Astarian repeated. The woman hesitated, bowed, then turned and hustled away. The visitor with whom she’d been talking had already fled, leaving Trissiny and her companions alone in the rotunda with the Legionnaires, who were still holding admirable composure.

“Who was that?” Trissiny asked disapprovingly, glancing after the departing priestess.

“An advancement-minded bootlicker,” Sister Astarian replied with a distasteful grimace. “Her work gets done and she causes a minimum of trouble, though the girl prioritizes doing favors for well-connected supplicants above accomplishing anything useful. She’ll be Bishop one day, mark my words. And who are your friends?”

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry,” Trissiny said hastily. “Everyone, this is Sister Azora Astarian, the High Priestess in command of this temple. Sister, may I present Tobias Caine, Gabriel Arquin, and Herschel Schwartz.”

“Ah! An honor, gentlemen. Welcome,” Astarian said with grave courtesy, bowing to each of them. She showed no less respect to Schwartz, whose name obviously carried far less weight than those of either paladin.

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Toby said with equal politeness. “We’re sorry to intrude so suddenly.”

“You are always welcome here,” Astarian replied with firm kindness. She stepped back and aside, gesturing them in. “Please.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, and nodded to the sergeant before following, the boys trailing after her.

Toby had moved to the head of the group, and now placed a hand gently on Trissiny’s back as Sister Astarian led them within. “That,” he murmured, “was a much better look on you than holding people’s faces in punchbowls.”

Schwartz was walking close enough to overhear and did a double-take, eyes widening. Trissiny just sighed through her nose and continued walking. Behind them, the Legionnaires pulled the doors shut, enclosing them in the inner sanctuary.

It was similar in layout to the main one, though more compact. The long corridor was lined with weapons, each displayed in an obviously custom-designed wooden mount affixed to the wall, small pillars forming arched alcoves to created a unique space for every one. They were an idiosyncratic lot, from spears, staves and warhammers, to crossbows, Shaathist-looking longbows, spiked iron knuckles, a bullwhip, even an orcish ak-tra. These were personal weapons owned by past Hands of Avei, tools of war each woman had used in addition to the sacred ones provided by the goddess.

At its end, the corridor opened into a round, domed space, encircled by flowing water which was fed by small fountains around its walls. In the center stood another statue of Avei. It was a marked contrast from the proud bronze statue in the main sanctuary, which depicted the goddess in an almost arrogant pose, chin up and sword aimed forward. This one, made of dark marble which contrasted with the white stone of the temple, showed her with her head bowed in contemplation, hands clasped behind her.

Toby and Trissiny both slowed, turning their heads to peer at an incongruous object among the weapon displays: a battered old leather-bound libram, its cover marked with the sunburst sigil of Omnu. The placard identified it as having belonged to Laressa of Anteraas.

“Don’t,” Ariel’s voice advised behind them, and both turned in time to catch Gabriel swiftly withdrawing his fingers from the namesake warhammer of Sharai the Hammer. Its haft was nearly as long as he was tall.

“What brings you to seek the inner sanctuary, Trissiny?” Astarian inquired when they joined her before the statue of Avei.

“It’s a bit of a story,” Trissiny explained, “and we are trying to keep it from becoming more of one, if possible. The short version is that we are on a divinely mandated quest. From Vesk.”

“Uh oh,” Astarian said dourly.

“Yeah,” Trissiny replied in the same tone. “Our movements have been directed by him personally, and brought us here. We are at a bit of an impasse, and wish to consult the goddess about our next move. I don’t lightly call upon her in person, but I think that is the pattern of this venture in particular. Vesk sent us on it personally, Vidius has already put in a direct appearance, and now we have reason to think Salyrene will become involved.”

“I see,” Sister Astarian said, frowning in thought and nodding her head slowly. “Well. You are right, business of Vesk’s is unlikely to mean anything terribly important is brewing. Still, it does sound like you’re being directed to seek out the gods. I can well imagine Vesk wanting to arrange that, in particular. Let me ask you, Trissiny, is the matter on which you want to consult Avei in any way secret?”

“I don’t…think so,” Trissiny replied with some confusing, turning to glance at the others.

“I bring it up,” Astarian explained, “because this is a truly rare event. Most followers of the goddess—of any of the gods, for that matter—will go their entire lives without being in the presence of their deity. If it is an imposition upon your quest I of course won’t ask, but if it’s not, might I have several of the senior priestesses and Legionnaires present? It would be a great honor for all, and a tremendous benefit to morale.”

“I can’t see any harm in it,” Toby said in response to Trissiny’s questioning look. “We’ve been given no reason to suspect our mission is secret or sensitive. She is your goddess, though, Triss; I’ll trust your judgment.”

“Uh, scuze me?” Gabriel said, raising one finger. “Sorry, Sister, could we have a moment alone?”

“Gabe, I trust Sister Astarian without reservation,” Trissiny interjected quickly.

“And if you have an objection, Mr. Arquin, you’ll find I’m hard to offend,” Astarian added with a smile. “I also know that paladin business is none of mine unless I’m invited to participate. Please, speak your mind.”

“Well…okay, then,” he said a little hesitantly. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to be rude. Triss, you remember Tellwyrn’s lectures about the gods, and how their nature can work against them, particularly if invoked by their own paladins?”

“Tellwyrn is hardly what I’d call a theologian,” Trissiny said skeptically.

“Yeah,” he replied, “and that’s exactly why I’m inclined to listen to her about the gods. She knows all of them, personally, and isn’t terribly impressed with most. Plus, there was that whole business with Avei and Juniper in the Crawl, remember? We know that the way we call on them can affect how they manifest.”

“What are you driving at, Gabe?” Toby asked.

“Just that the manner in which you call on Avei is likely to determine the manner in which she replies. A formal invocation in front of a solemn audience might very well make the difference between a reasonable person we can have a conversation with, and a fifteen-foot-tall being of light who speaks solely in grandiloquent pronouncements. I think, in this case, we want the first one.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“He has rather a point, there,” Schwartz admitted. “Theology isn’t my strong suit, either, but that much is sort of basic.”

“It is…uncomfortable to acknowledge,” Sister Astarian added with some reluctance, “but yes, Mr. Arquin is correct about the principles involved. When the gods grant someone the privilege of calling on them, exercising that privilege becomes somewhat inherently coercive. It is an expression of great trust between deity and paladin. And the absolute last thing I wish is to intrude upon that trust.”

“I really hope that isn’t too much of a disappointment, Sister,” Trissiny said.

“On the contrary, Trissiny,” Astarian said, smiling again, “it’s a needful reminder. We are all called to serve; the gods are not put there for our amusement. Well! It sounds, then, as if you have need of the sanctuary and some privacy. I will see that you’re not disturbed until you are done.”

“Thank you very much,” Trissiny said warmly.

They waited until the priestess had retreated and closed the sanctuary door behind her.

“Sooo,” Gabriel said, tucking his hands in his pockets. “Full disclosure, I barely know how my own religion works, and apparently my god signed me on specifically not to care. So, uh, I’ll do my best but…”

“You don’t need to do anything, Gabe,” Trissiny said with an amused smile, patting him on the arm as she passed him on the way to the statue. Then she hesitated. “Actually… Just try to be respectful, okay?”

“I can do skittish and tongue-tied. Will that work?”

“That’ll be very authentic,” Toby said solemnly.

“It certainly beats the alternative,” Ariel added.

“Right then,” Schwartz said, clearing his throat. “Is there, uh…someplace I should stand?”

“Actually, guys, it would help if you’re just quiet,” Trissiny said, kneeling before the statue. “This isn’t very formal or ceremonial, but it is very personal. It’s not something I’m used to performing in front of an audience.”

“Mum’s the word,” Gabriel promised. “Oh, uh, wait. Is ‘mum’ a gendered—”

“Gabe.” Toby placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hush.”

Quiet fell, the peace of the sanctuary augmented by the soft sound of water. Trissiny remained on one knee before the statue, making a harmonious contrast to its contemplative pose. Nearby, Toby and Schwartz both fell easily into a kind of standing meditation; they came from different traditions, but both emphasized the ability to still the mind, and each instinctively recognized a situation in which that was important. Gabriel, at least, managed to be quiet. He stood rigidly to the side, both hands jammed into his pockets, his shoulders tight with tension.

He was the first to react when Trissiny moved, twitching once as she started to rise.

“Did it work?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“I don’t…know,” she murmured, a frown falling on her face even as she opened her eyes. “Avenism isn’t a very mystical tradition, Gabe. I just…felt something was…finished?”

“That’s a very good sign!” Schwartz added brightly. “In fact, you have a good instinct, if you’re not accustomed to recognizing that. Learning to identify that subtle sense is an important and often difficult step in mastering the—eep!”

“At ease, Mr. Schwartz,” said a warmly amused contralto voice.

All turned, Trissiny with the most grace, to find themselves in the presence of a goddess. Avei, at the moment, was making even less of a production than Vidius had; both, in their recent appearances, had simply presented themselves as people without the overwhelming aura of power their presence could carry, but she didn’t even have his dramatic props. She was a tall and broad-shouldered, in a simple Imperial Army uniform, with her black hair pulled back in a regulation ponytail. The most physically striking thing about Avei in person, at least in this form, was that she was a vividly beautiful woman. As was inevitable, to eyes raised in a culture which had based its ideal of beauty upon her.

“You came,” Trissiny said, somewhat surprised in spite of herself.

“You do have the prerogative to call on me,” Avei replied, stepping forward to stand in front of her. “Which is not to say I indulge every such request, but your assessment was correct, Trissiny. I don’t consider this a frivolous invocation. And yes, I already know of your quest—and the dilemma you face.”

“It’s a presumptuous thing to ask, I know,” Trissiny said quickly, bowing. “Obviously, Salyrene doesn’t want intruders into her sacred tower. If this is something you cannot or would rather not help with, I understand that completely.”

The goddess gave her a wry smile, tinged with fondness. “You really don’t care for Vesk’s little project, do you, Trissiny?”

“I don’t care for being manipulated,” Trissiny replied, her expression darkening. “Nor do I see the point in anything Vesk does.”

“Yet, you went to study the very art of manipulation, among other things, with the Eserites,” Avei observed. “And while Vesk’s personality is every bit as annoying as you have noted, he is a god. He sees and knows things beyond your imagination. You would be well advised to learn from him while you have the opportunity.” She paused to look at each of the four in turn, her expression betraying nothing. “Everything Vesk is sending you to find, he could acquire far more easily without involving mortal agents. His key is not the point—or at best, only part of it. This is one of those journeys which is more important than its destination.”

“One hears about those,” Gabriel murmured. “Honestly, I never thought that old saw made much sense.”

Avei glanced at him again, briefly, before continuing. “In truth, I am strongly inclined to encourage this, and will be glad to help. As a rule, intruding upon the private domains of the gods is a thing I advise you not to do, but this…is a unique case. Salyrene is personally to blame for the entire state of the world today, and I grow weary of her sulking.”

“That’s…I…” Schwartz trailed off as the goddess’s attention turned to him, and swallowed heavily. “…thank you.”

“Everything you need, you already have,” Avei said. “I will not do more than prompt you in the right direction—solving the riddle for you would invalidate the exercise, not to mention that me prying open a door to my errant sister’s tower personally would ignite a conflict the world truly does not need. But guidance is all you require. Mr. Schwartz, you need only guide your party to the door; you will know where to find it, as you always have. Mr. Arquin, you have the means to open it.” She paused, wearing a knowing little smile, to glance over them again. “Any questions?”

“What’s wrong with the world?” Gabriel asked, staring at her with a frown.

“Is that a serious question?” Avei asked dryly.

“You said Salyrene is to blame it,” he said, narrowing his eyes infinitesimally. “That’s an interesting word, blame. The world is better right now by just about every measurable standard. There’s more food, more wealth, more peace. And most of that comes from uses of magic. Salyrene’s domain. So what’s your problem with that, exactly?”

“Gabe,” Toby warned.

“You have taken an interest in the history of the Infinite Order, have you not?” Avei said calmly to Gabriel.

He hesitated before replying in a warier tone. “Yes. Is that wrong?”

“Not in and of itself,” she replied. “Anything you should not know is beyond your ability to learn, anyway. No, Gabriel, perhaps you should pursue that interest. Look into what drove the Infinite Order to leave their world, and come to this one. These things of which you speak so highly have a price. One this world has not had to pay in eight thousand years. One we gave up everything to prevent it having to pay. Nothing is free, young man. Every moment that life becomes easier, a bill is being tallied up. Were I you, I might look into returning some of those gifts before payment is demanded.”

“Like what?” he retorted.

“Gabriel,” Trissiny said sharply, frowning at him.

“This hostility is about more than ancient knowledge, isn’t it?” Avei suggested.

He met her gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “I spoke out of turn.”

“The time to regret that was before opening your mouth,” the goddess said. “Rest assured, I don’t find you threatening. Please speak your mind, Gabriel.”

“I guess I’m a little uncertain on the concept of justice,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “I met another half-demon in Tiraas, named Elspeth. She told me about trying to come to you for protection, and being burned. Physically, right where she stood, just for trying to pray. To you. Which part of that is just?”

“None of it,” Avei said, nodding her head deeply. “That was a grave injustice, as have been many incidents like it. It’s injustice I am tremendously pleased that Trissiny has begun taking steps to correct. The Silver Missions are a start; shifting the attitudes of a whole society is the work of lifetimes. But that is why we need you, Gabriel. We are…what we are. In some ways, we are fixed in place; in some ways, we are terribly vulnerable to the very belief people place in us. Paladins provide us a way to correct course when we have gone wrong.”

She stepped toward him, and he stiffened further, making an abortive backward movement as if to retreat. In the end, though, he stood his ground. Avei simply reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Standing that close, she was taller than he, but only but a few inches.

“I applaud courage,” she said in a much gentler tone. “It’s an admirable thing, that you are willing to speak painful truths to great power. But be wise, Gabriel. Lashing out at a deity is not…strategic. A just cause is worthless if it is guided only to defeat.”

“I…see,” he said, then bowed his head. “Thank you. For the advice.”

“You are welcome.” Avei stepped back, lowering her hand, then turned to smile at her own paladin. “You are all doing rather well in this. And Trissiny… I am extremely proud of you.”

With a final nod to them, she turned and strode away up the corridor toward the bronze doors. Rather than opening them, she was simply no longer there when she reached them.

It took a few moments of silence for the tension to ebb enough.

“Gabriel, really,” Trissiny said in exasperation. “What was the one thing I asked you to do?”

“This is why people stab you,” Ariel said. “You understand that, right?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Gabriel held up a chiding finger again. “People fucking stab me. I think I was safe, there. A goddess would never do something so undignified.”

“If anyone could provoke her to, it’s you,” Trissiny snapped.

“Hey, when you guys are done bickering, I think Herschel has an idea,” Toby said mildly.

They turned to find that Schwartz, indeed, was pacing up and down, muttering to himself. “Already know, and always have… Oh, gods, of course, it’s so obvious. How could I not have seen that? And having to pester an actual deity just to jog my fool memory! Augh, how humiliating.” He pressed both hands to his temples, grimacing as if in pain.

“Herschel?” Trissiny said uncertainly.

“Yes!” He turned to her, lowering his hands and suddenly looking so animated she instinctively stepped backward. “Trissiny! We need a warlock!”

“A warlock?” she replied incredulously. “Herschel, this is Vrin Shai. Even the Topaz College doesn’t have a presence here!”

“No, no, what am I saying? Of course not a warlock,” he grumbled, turning and beginning to pace again. “That’s just borrowing trouble, not to mention making the whole affair more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, I see…don’t have enough skilled casters to take that approach anyway, all we need is to build an array of…” He trailed off, then turned and pointed quickly at each of them in turn, lips moving as if he were counting something.

“Are you…okay?” Gabriel inquired.

“Yes!” Schwartz suddenly whirled and dashed away toward the door.

“Hey,” Gabriel called after him, “I’m pretty sure there’s no running in Avei’s inner sanctuary!”

Ignoring him, Schwartz reached the doors, grabbed both handles, and hauled them open with no further ceremony. “Sister! Ah, there you are!”

Sister Astarian was, indeed, waiting right outside, and had turned to face the doors at their sudden opening, her eyebrows rising in surprise. “Here I am. Your efforts were successful?”

“Oh, yes, quite,” Schwartz said distractedly. “But anyway, sister, this is an ancient and very important temple, yes? So you must have vaults?”

Her brows lowered again in puzzlement. “Of course. Some very old, containing all manner of… Well, what is it you are looking for, exactly?”

“Perfect! Perfect!” Grinning in evident delight, Schwartz eagerly rubbed his hands together. “Where do you keep all your most dangerous and evil artifacts?”

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