Tag Archives: Toby

15 – 1

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“You’d be welcome, if you wanna come along,” Toby promised.

“Nah, I need to get a head start on my research project; Yornhaldt and Tellwyrn both signed off on it, but with the clear understanding they expected to see me buckling down to the work.” Raolo grinned and leaned in to kiss Toby’s cheek, squeezing his hand. “Sides, it’s been close to a year since your whole group was together again. You guys go catch up; we’ll have plenty of time.”

“All right. I’ll come by and keep you company while you work tonight,” the paladin replied, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“It’s a date.” Raolo took two steps back, stretching their clasped arms out between them, before finally releasing Toby’s hand and turning to go skipping off back up the path through the center of the mostly-constructed new research campus toward the old gates. Toby was still smiling when he turned back around to face the rest of the newly-minted junior class.

“Aww,” Juniper, Teal, and Fross cooed in unison.

Ruda’s commentary, as usual, was less saccharine. “Has anybody else noticed our social circle is disproportionately queer?”

Trissiny sighed. “Ruda.”

“What? I’m serious! This makes two thirds of the full-blooded humans in our year. The species can’t possibly be this gay; even the elves would outbreed us!”

“Three individuals is not a statistically useful sample size, Ruda,” Fross said severely. “I realize you’re not a mathematics major but I would expect you to know that much.”

“Guys, relax,” Toby interjected, still smiling. “It’s just us here. If anything, I’d be offended if Ruda thought I was too fragile to face the rough side of her tongue.”

“See?” Grinning, Ruda punched him on the shoulder. “Paladin boy gets it!”

“Hey, as long as Ruda can have her fun without fucking stabbing someone, I say leave her to it.”

“You’re just tetchy because you’re the only one who ever gets stabbed, Arquin.”

“Oh, shoot,” Juniper said suddenly, pressing a hand to one of the pouches hanging from her belt. “I forgot to bring my money purse…”

“It’s okay, June, we’ll spot you,” said Trissiny.

“No, that’s all right, this is an opportunity. Sniff!”

Juniper knelt and the dog-sized creature which had been pacing silently alongside her chirped, skittering around in front to meet her gaze. He was covered in feathers and generally bird-shaped, albeit with a long, flat head filled with jagged teeth and a serpentine tail which ended in a colorful spray of plumes. His wings were clearly arms despite the pinions which flared outward from the wrist joint; they had already observed Sniff’s ability to pick up objects in his little clawed fingers. Now the crest of feathers atop his head stood upright in attention.

“Go back to the bedroom,” Juniper instructed slowly and clearly, staring into the creature’s eyes, “and get my money bag. Okay? You understand?”

Sniff made his croaking little chirp again, bobbed his head once, then stepped around her and dashed off back up the path into the campus.

F’thaan growled, taking a few steps after him, but Shaeine snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground by her feet. The little hellhound immediately scampered over to lie down beside her.

“It’s good for him to have tasks,” the dryad said, straightening and watching him go. “Part of where I went wrong with Jack was treating him like a pet. A druid’s familiar is meant to be helpful. I guess now we’ll find out if he knows what my money bag is… If not, I may need to owe somebody for drinks.”

“We’ll spot you, don’t worry,” Teal assured her with a smile.

“Well, since we’re talking about it now,” said Ruda, “what the fuck is that thing?”

“Sniff is not a thing,” Juniper replied, turning a frown on her. “He’s my companion.”

“Okay, point taken, but what is he?”

“He kind of resembles a sylph,” Trissiny mused.

“Sniff is a proto-bird!” Fross chimed. “I assume you found him in the Golden Sea, Juniper? That’s the most common place to find extinct species. You guys remember the smilodon we met on our first expedition? But yeah, I dunno his exact species; this school doesn’t have a lot of material on the subject in the library. You’ve gotta go to Svenheim for a university with an actual department of paleontology. Proto-birds are the general group of species that evolved into modern birds.”

“Yeah, I found Sniff in the Sea,” Juniper said. “Out by the edge of it, but still. I was performing a sunrise ritual Sheyann taught me how to incorporate into shamanic practice, and…there he was. It seemed kinda like fate.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna press you or anything,” said Gabriel, patting her shoulder, “but it’s obvious you had a busy summer.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” Juniper said, smiling at him and unconsciously reaching up to touch the sunburst pendant resting on her upper chest, bound by a golden chain around her neck. Her entire appearance had undergone a change since the spring. In addition to her green hair being now combed back and bound in a single severe braid, the dryad’s customary sundresses had been traded in for dyed garments of traditional wood elven style which both covered a lot more skin and hugged her figure more closely. They had to have been made specially for her, as no elves had a frame as generously curvy as Juniper’s. She was also wearing a heavily laden tool belt rather like Trissiny’s, bristling with pouches of both shamanic reagents and mundane supplies. And, in its own leather holster, an Omnist libram whose cover glittered with the same golden sunburst sigil she now wore around her neck. Another sunburst hung, along with a string of prayer beads, from the tie holding the end of her long braid together. “After…you know, what happened at Puna Dara… Well, it was clear to me I needed some source of calm and focus, like you guys have. I mean, Toby, Trissiny, Shaeine. It may be all different religions but you’re all centered in a way I suddenly realized I was missing. Druidic traditions are great but they don’t exactly provide that. And, well… Themynrite worship seems pretty drow-exclusive, and no offense, Trissiny, but it didn’t seem to me like Avei was offering what I needed.”

“No offense is taken,” Trissiny assured her. “I think that was a good call, Juniper. Avei fills a crucial need, but…” Her eyes caught Gabriel’s, and she smiled. “Everybody does not have the same problem.”

“And so the dryad is an Omnist now,” Ruda chuckled. “Ain’t life a show?”

“I’m proud of you,” Toby said, also patting Juniper’s back. “And not because you picked my religion, Juno, but because you’re working on yourself. I hope you find what you need in Omnu, but remember: if you don’t, you’re allowed to keep looking. It’s a lot more important to me that you be happy than that you follow my own faith.”

“You’re a good friend,” she replied with a smile. “And a good monk.”

They had no sooner resumed their way down the mountain staircase toward Last Rock than Gabriel abruptly slowed. “Heads up. Vestrel says we’ve got company coming.”

“There’s usually some kinda company coming and going, it ain’t like this is a cloistered campus,” Ruda replied. “What’s got Spooky’s feathers in a ruffle?”

“Don’t call her that,” Gabriel said with a long-suffering sigh.

“I see them, too,” Shaeine interjected, and the rest all turned to her in surprise at the wintry undertone in her normally serene voice. Beside her, F’thaan growled, picking up on her mood. “Vestrel is right to be concerned. Trissiny, you should perhaps step to the front.”

It took only moments longer for the pair coming up the mountain to ascend within range of non-elven eyes, Shaeine’s vision being mostly adapted to sunlight after two years on the surface. The bronze Legion armor was evident as soon as the two were in view, and it wasn’t long afterward that at least one of the oncoming Legionnaires was personally identifiable.

“Well, hidey-ho, kids!” Principia Locke called, waving broadly as she and her companion came up the stairs toward them. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“We are supposed to be here,” Trissiny said pointedly. “And just because classes are out for the day does not mean I’m going to drop everything to spend time with you. Have you forgotten your last visit to this University? Because nobody else has.”

“Well, Trissiny, I’m always glad to see you,” Principia said with a grin, coming to a stop in front of them and a few steps down. Beside her, Merry came to attention, saluting. “And I hope we have a chance to catch up while I’m in town. But, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this, the sun does not rise and set on your golden head. We’re here to see Professor Tellwyrn. Legion business.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes slightly. “I don’t think I saw a salute, Lieutenant.”

“You’re out of uniform, General,” Principia replied with unruffled calm.

At that, Trissiny cracked a faint smile of her own. She did have her sword buckled on over a casual leather longcoat, but no other indicators of her rank. “Well, she’s right, as it happens. At ease, Corporal Lang.”

“I’ve developed a policy of not taking risks when Locke starts getting shirty with people who can kill us, ma’am,” Merry said, relaxing a bit.

“I guess we know who’s the brains in this operation, then,” said Gabriel.

“Is there something you’d like to tell me about, Locke?” Trissiny asked.

“Yes,” Principia said with clear emphasis, meeting her eyes directly. “In my personal and professional opinion, you should be fully briefed and involved. But the High Commander’s regard for my opinion runs pretty thin these days, especially after our little game of tag with Syrinx this summer, and until she says otherwise our business remains classified.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

Principia cleared her throat and shifted, nodding politely to Shaeine. “Ms. Awarrion, I’m very glad to see you up and well. You weren’t at Puna Dara with the others, so I missed the chance to apologize—”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but matters are not that simple,” Shaeine interrupted tonelessly. Beside her, Teal stuck her hands in her coat pockets, fixing Principia with an extremely level stare. “I am on this campus in my capacity as a representative of House Awarrion and Tar’naris. If you wish to offer amends for any slights given, you will have to take it up with my mother. Excuse me.”

She turned and resumed walking down the mountainside, Teal following her after giving Principia a last lingering stare. F’thaan growled at the two Legionnaires before trotting off after them. Slowly, the rest of the students began filing past after their classmates, Ruda with a dark chuckle and a wink at Principia.

“…that’s a trap, isn’t it,” Principia mused aloud, half-turned to watch Shaeine’s back retreating down the staircase.

“Yep,” replied Trissiny, the last of the juniors still present. “I suggest you don’t go within a mile of Tar’naris unless you want to spend some time in a spider box. Ashaele is about as forgiving as any drow matriarch. And I am assuredly not going to expend what little political capital I have to rescue you from the consequences of your own nonsense.”

Principia turned back to her, grinning. “Appreciate the concern, kiddo, but that’s one thing I will never ask you to do. Trust me, I got by just fine for centuries without having anybody to watch over me.”

“That’s right, keep calling me funny little pet names,” Trissiny grunted, finally turning to follow the rest of her friends toward the town. “Way to rebuild those bridges, Locke. Have fun getting immolated, which I assume you know is what’s going to happen the instant Tellwyrn finds you on her campus again.”

“Relax, Thorn, you know my tag. I always have a way in!”

“Your funeral.”

“Will you send flowers?” Principia called after her. Trissiny, now several yards down the path, didn’t turn or respond. For a moment, the elf stood watching her go, then turned back to meet her companion’s eyes. “Oh, shut up, Lang.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Merry replied innocently.

“Well, could you think it a little more quietly?”

“Don’t think I can, LT. C’mon, let’s go get you immolated. I don’t wanna miss that.”

She lay awake—normal enough for the late afternoon, though he slept deeply beside her. He was always a deep sleeper, especially after sex. Two months ago she had found it an annoying habit, but had begun to find charm in it. That warned her that it was probably past time to go.

Fortunately, she had what she needed, now.

Natchua turned her head to watch him breathe for a long moment. He lay on his side, facing her, mouth hanging open and making a raspy noise with each breath that wasn’t quite a snore. As always, he had thrown an arm over her waist. In the beginning, it had been to paw sleepily at her breasts while drifting off, but more and more, lately, it seemed he just like to hold her close.

Definitely past time to go. And a layered irony that after all her snooping and needling all summer, the tiny piece of information that had been her whole purpose in coming to Mathenon had slipped from his lips in the last few mumbled words before he faded into sleep. Well, that had been the whole reason she had let this entanglement become so intimate. Information could be effectively sealed away from all scrying by the Church and the Empire and still be carelessly spilled by a man in his lover’s arms; every spy in history understood that basic fact.

She had the name, and he was asleep. There was no reason to still be lying there, except that it was comforting… And yes, that just served to emphasize how necessary it was to get out and put all this behind her before she got in any deeper.

Natchua slipped out from under his arm, freezing when he stirred and shifted. He didn’t wake, though, and she dressed in swift silence, the grace of an elf more than a match for a sleeping human’s senses. That should have been the very end of it.

Still, she hesitated.

On impulse, she stepped back to the bed and leaned over Jonathan, bending to lay a last kiss against his temple. Inches away, however, she paused. Foolish risk; the touch of her lips had a way of making him wake and reach for her. But the thought of just ending it like this, with nothing but a silent disappearance, sent a pang through her.

That was the final warning. Natchua straightened up, backing away from the bed, then turned and slipped in total silence out of Jonathan Arquin’s apartment, and life.

Long past time.

“What are you humming?” Ingvar asked.

“I don’t know!” Aspen said cheerfully, actually dancing a few steps. One of the elven groves they had visited had introduced her to dancing, and already her fondness for it bordered on passion. All it took now was a few bars of music to set her off. “Just going along with the music. It’s pretty!”

“Music?” Ingvar raised his head, paying more careful attention. There was no threat to be found in the forest; birds and squirrels were active and loud in the trees all around them, signifying a lack of nearby predators or disturbances. Those, plus the sound of wind whispering among the leaves, were all he could hear. “What music?”

“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I forget my ears are so much better than yours,” she said with an impish smirk.

“I’m sure,” he replied dryly. “Perhaps I could hear better if there weren’t another source of music so much closer at hand?”

Aspen made a face at him and he ruffled her hair. In the momentary silence, though, he could barely make out the thin notes of a flute.

“Hm,” Ingvar murmured, turning to look in that direction. The forest was just the way he liked them: too thick to see that far. Very thick, in fact; to judge by the concentration of underbrush, these woods were overdue for a burning. “I wonder who would be out playing a flute in the middle of the woods in N’Jendo, and why?”

“Because it’s pretty,” she explained slowly, as if he were being obtuse. “What more reason does anybody need for making music?”

“You really have taken to some of these mortal art forms, haven’t you?”

“My upbringing kinda missed out on…all of them,” she agreed. “C’mon, let’s go visit whoever’s playing.”

“Perhaps they would rather be left alone,” he suggested, even as he followed her in the direction of the notes. “Many who venture this deep into the forests don’t seek company. We’re out here for exactly that reason, remember?”

“Well, if they don’t want company, we can always leave ’em alone,” she said reasonably. “But I bet they do! Anybody who fills the forest with pretty music has to be nice.”

It was amazing how naive she could be, for a creature who predated the Enchanter Wars and could pick up a grizzly bear with one hand. Ingvar offered no further argument; he found that Aspen learned about people more quickly when allowed to interact with them, and immediately grew bored when he tried to lecture her. By and large, it was a good enough way to proceed. Obviously they couldn’t enter any actual towns, save the elven groves and scattered Ranger enclaves where she was a celebrity rather than a feared monster. Encountering isolated individuals who would not be enthused to meet a dryad was probably good for her, overall.

Reddish light filtered through the trees from the west; the shadow of the Wyrnrange in the east had already gone fully dark. It was about time to be looking for a campsite anyway. Hopefully whoever was playing that flute would be willing to share. If not, they would have to keep looking and probably risk traveling after dark. On his own, Ingvar would have been more perturbed at the prospect, but these woods held nothing that would challenge a dryad. Actually, they were too far below the mountains for cougars, and the small local black bears probably wouldn’t get aggressive with a human anyway. Still, traveling with Aspen had started to spoil him a little.

They found a stream before they found the music, and in fact followed the path it cut through the ground uphill to a flat stretch of rock that jutted over the water, upon which no trees grew. It had been cleared of underbrush and a fire built near its center. Upon a fallen log next to the fire sat the music maker.

It was an elf. He had black hair. Ingvar narrowed his eyes, studying him.

“Oh, that’s a weird flute,” Aspen blurted out.

The elf was apparently unsurprised by their appearance—but then, he had doubtless heard them coming for the last half mile, even with his music. He lowered the little potato-shaped instrument from his lips to grin at the.

“It’s called an ocarina! Bit of a family tradition, you might say. Well, then!” He looked back and for between them a few times. “I’ve gotta say, you two aren’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ingvar asked warily.

“It’s a funny thing, how you can have absolutely no idea what’s coming and still be surprised at the form it takes,” the elf said cheerfully. “Any shaman my age has to get used to the effect. The spirits told me that this is where I needed to come, that there was someone I needed to meet, and that I’d need to guide them to the next stage of their quest. But a dryad and a Huntsman of Shaath? That is a new one. Regardless, be welcome at my fire, daughter of Naiya, Brother of the Wolf. Consider the hospitality of my camp yours, as the hospitality of the forest is for all of us. My name is Rainwood.”

“Hey, thanks!” Aspen said brightly, trotting right up to him like a domestic horse and stretching out next to the flames with a pleased sigh.

Ingvar followed more judiciously, pausing to bow to the elf. “Our thanks, Rainwood.” It felt lacking; clearly the shaman’s welcome had been some manner of formal benediction, but it was one Ingvar had never heard. No great surprise, really. One could never tell how old an elf might be, and after their various visits with grove Elders he had grown almost accustomed to anachronistic etiquette. As long as the intent was clearly polite, he had found, showing courtesy in return never went amiss.

“So!” Rainwood tucked away his ocarina and tossed another piece of wood from the stack next to him on the fire. “I’m sure you two will have plenty of questions, and so do I. Let’s talk about quests, adventures, and the long road ahead of us.”

“Now that we stand upon the cusp of fruition,” Melaxyna intoned, “I feel I should state yet again, mistress, that this is surely one of the dumbest, most hare-brained—”

“Thank you, Mel, for sharing your opinion with me,” Natchua said flatly. “Double-check the spell circle.”

“Oh, come on, how many times—”

“Just do it!”

The succubus rolled her eyes, but obeyed, which was pretty much the pattern with her. Natchua had not found it necessary to impose discipline on her reluctant familiar, which she thought was for the best. Melaxyna already had a low opinion of every part of her plans, and adding tension to their relationship could only make it worse. So far, she followed orders without any funny business, and given the tendency of Vanislaad demons to creatively reinterpret instructions to their masters’ detriment, Natchua was quite content to endure backtalk if it meant Melaxyna actually did what she wanted her to do.

“It’s perfect,” the demon reported moments later, after pacing a full lap around the summoning circle, head bent to examine it closely. “And I’m sorry for jabbing at you about it.”

Natchua turned to her in surprise. “You’re sorry?”

“About that last bit,” the succubus clarified. “Precision and attention to detail are always vitally important in infernomancy, it’s a good idea to have me double-check your work, and I shouldn’t have downplayed that. I was not apologizing for my commentary on this dumb, pointless step in your hysterically asinine master plan.”

“Thanks, your approval means the world to me.”

“You know, kid, if you just wanted to fool around with that silver fox, I’m the last person in the world you need to justify it to with some grandiose plot.”

“I promise you, Mel, I will never justify anything I do for your benefit.”

“I kinda like that about you,” Melaxyna admitted.

Natchua turned back to the circle. “No more reason to wait then.” Raising both hands, she deftly channeled infernal power into the precise points on the circle, causing orange light to spread across the chalk lines on the floor and the five power crystals spaced around it to begin glowing. “You are summoned, HESTHRI!”

At the demon’s name, the infernal runes spelling it out in multiple places around the circle’s edge burst into flame.

“This whole thing has got to be the silliest use of infernal magic I have ever seen,” Melaxyna muttered. “And I once watched a guy burn down his house trying to curse rats out of the walls.” This time, Natchua ignored her.

A pillar of smoky light rose from the center of the floor, oscillating slowly. Within it, wisps of shadow coalesced into a humanoid figure, then solidified fully, and the light melted away. The circle itself continued to glow, though at a much dimmer intensity, with the only significant light sources being the power crystals and the still-flickering runes that spelled out Hesthri’s name.

Within, a hethelax demon spun rapidly about in confusion, spitting a few obscenities in demonic.

Natchua studied her with a more personal curiosity than she had expected to feel when this moment finally came. Yes…she could actually sort of see it. Hethelax demons were not generally held up as attractive specimens, not when there were the likes of Vanislaads and khelminash to which to compare them. The armor plating on their limbs made their elbows and knees permanently flexed, giving them a hunched posture like an ape’s. Additionally the scales and chitin protecting the forehead and cheekbones made a hethelax seem to be perpetually scowling. With this one, though, she could see how he had found her desirable. Her features were fine, if rather angular, and even her bent posture did not hide a quite fetching figure, which was well-displayed by a diaphonous garment in brown gauzy fabric not unlike a sundress in cut.

Hesthri’s eyes fixed on Natchua, and she switched smoothly to elvish in what was presumably the Scyllithene dialect.

“In a circle you can bend yourself and your own asshole chew upon until you can taste—”

“Tanglish,” Natchua interrupted in that language. “I understand your confusion, but no. You are in the Tiraan Empire, and won’t be meeting many drow apart from myself.”

At that, the hethelax hesitated, narrowing her golden eyes suspiciously. She answered in the same language, though. “Tiraas? Really?”

“The Empire,” Natchua repeated. “This is Mathenon, rather a long way from the capital.”

“Very well, then. Why in the Dark Lady’s name am I in Tiraas? You are overstepping your bounds, warlock. I am a servant of Princess Ixaavni, who does not take kindly to having her belongings tampered with. Send me back, or learn to fear her displeasure!”

“Well, this must be the one, all right,” Melaxyna drawled. “I never heard of a freshly-summoned demon being anything but delighted to be out of Hell.”

“Have you ever heard of this Ixaavni?” Natchua asked her.

The succubus shrugged. “Nope. That’s a khelminash name, though, and in the khelminash caste system hethelaxi are two steps above domestic livestock. Look, she’s got no tools, armor, or weapons, which means she’s not assigned any special use. I’d be amazed if this Princess gives half a shit about her going missing.”

“What about it, Hesthri?” Natchua inquired pleasantly. “Are you of any importance to your dear Princess?”

“She has no idea who I am and won’t miss me,” Hesthri replied immediately, and then scowled. “Oh, you conniving little twat. A truth compulsion ward built into a hethelax summons? Who does that?”

“My name is Natchua,” she said, folding her arms, “and I’ve called you here for a good and specific purpose.”

“I don’t care in the slightest, but I guess I’m not going anywhere until I hear you out, am I?”

“Very perceptive, Hesthri. I will explain in more detail in due time, but here’s the short version: I intend to punish Elilial herself for her overreaching, and toward that end I require the aid of trustworthy demons.”

Hesthri stared at her.

“No questions?” Natchua prompted lightly.

The hethelax turned to face Melaxyna and wordlessly pointed one finger at Natchua.

“I know,” the succubus said sympathetically. “Believe me, I know.”

“Okay, skipping the obvious,” Hesthri said with a heavy sigh. “If you want to kill yourself, fine, go nuts. But why me? If you think I am a trustworthy demon for this purpose, you’re even stupider than you already sound, and that’s really saying something. I am not going to join some demented crusade that’s only going to kill everyone involved. Even if I was, what good is one hethelax? You know we have no magic, right?”

“As I keep explaining to Melaxyna, here,” Natchua replied, “power is nothing. Trust is everything. You’re right, Elilial is far beyond me, and any force I could possibly conjure up. What matters is the situation. A great doom is coming, an important alignment at which the Dark Lady desperately needs everything to go her way. And yet, in the last handful of years, she has been handed a string of crushing defeats on the mortal plane. The Black Wreath has been viciously culled and is now on the run, and six of the seven of her own archdemons have been destroyed, right when she planned upon having their help. When the time comes, I will strike. It will be at a moment when all that is needed is one little thing to tip the balance. In that moment, it won’t matter what forces I have gathered, only that I can rely upon them to do what must be done, without being chivied, manipulated, or compelled by me.”

“Uh huh,” Hesthri said, manifestly unimpressed. “I still don’t care, though. I’m not your girl, warlock.”

“When you’ve been brought fully up to speed on the situation in the mortal world, you may feel differently,” Natchua said with a smile. “Of course, the important factor in this is your son.”

All expression immediately left Hesthri’s face. The demon stared at her, rigidly immobile and silent.

“That tense pause will be you struggling while under a truth compulsion to say you have no son, or some such,” Natchua stated, and couldn’t help but smirk at the twitch of Hesthri’s left eye in response. “Relax; I intend him no harm. Gabriel is…a friend of mine. Not a close one, but his well-being does matter to me. More important to you is the situation in which he finds himself. If you want to protect your son, you will help me bring down—”

She broke off, inwardly cursing herself. The sounds outside the basement door would have been inaudible to a human, but there was no such excuse for her elven senses. She had simply become wrapped up in the summoning and conversation, and missed the noise of feet on the stairs outside until too late.

“Melaxyna!” she barked, whirling. “The door!”

The succubus spun on command and got two steps toward it before the heavy door swung open and he stepped in, aiming a wand at them.

Everyone froze.

Jonathan Arquin’s eyes met Hesthri’s, then Natchua’s, and the blood drained from his face.

Hesthri emitted a little squeak totally unlike her previously defiant tone.

“Ooooh,” Melaxyna cooed, her tail beginning to wave behind her like a pleased cat’s. “Awk-warrrrrd.”

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14 – 33

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Things looked more optimistic back outside. Imperial Square was still riled up, and the re-appearance of the armored and bloodied Hand of Avei with her mixed escort only stirred the pot further. Trissiny and company ignored the increasingly curious crowds, heading straight for the area in front of the Temple of Avei, where a ring of Silver Legionnaires and Imperial troops had appeared. Both parted before Trissiny without argument, as most of the women accompanying her were also in Legion armor, though a few gave sidelong looks at the three Guild enforcers.

“Toby,” Trissiny said in relief, immediately striding to his side.

He was sitting on the temple steps between Gabriel and a priestess who was in the process of cleaning blood off her hands, a nearby Legionnaire holding a bowl of water for her. Toby looked up and waved at Trissiny, chewing on a bite of the meat pie in his hand. “Triss! Don’t worry, clean bill of health here. How’d it go?”

“You do not have a clean bill of anything,” the priestess said severely. “Shut mouth, open mouth, insert food! He will be fine, General,” she added in a more moderate tone to Trissiny. “It was very fortunately just tissue damage, goddess be thanked. He wouldn’t be up already if I’d needed to stitch any organs. The light can mend flesh, but there is no quick cure for blood loss. He is to eat well and not exert himself for at least two days.”

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Trissiny said fervently.

“I can follow directions, you know,” Toby remarked. “Even without Trissiny’s help.”

“Then you are a rare jewel among men,” the sister replied sardonically.

Gabriel unconvincingly hid a laugh beneath a cough. “Anyway. What’s the news? I don’t see a certain someone in chains…”

Trissiny sighed, casting a sharp look back at the looming edifice of the Grand Cathedral. “No…and apparently you won’t in the near future. The Archpope really dug his heels in to uphold sanctuary for Syrinx. I wasn’t expecting that. And frankly, I don’t know why it was that important to him.”

“You have to consider just what kind of creature Syrinx is,” said Principia. Her squad had, without orders, arranged themselves in a loose inner ring inside the existing circle of soldiers, further separating the group from the crowd outside. The three enforcers had inserted themselves in the circle surprisingly seamlessly. “So much of what she’s gotten away with has been due to playing various forces against each other, with the trade-off of having to rein in her behavior—at least in public. Now? Justinian is the only one protecting her, which means he can keep her on a much shorter leash. There’s nowhere else for her to turn if he chooses to cut her loose. And with the cat out of the bag, she no longer has to hide her ugly streak. Politics aside, he just gained an extremely lethal weapon with its limiters removed. We’d better all expect to see some more considerable damage caused by that woman before someone finally manages to put her down.”

“I don’t know what’s been happening here,” the priestess of Avei interjected, frowning, “but that is the Bishop of the Sisterhood you’re talking about, Lieutenant.”

“Not anymore, she’s not,” Trissiny said sharply.

“She’s the one who made that gash you just mended, Sister,” Gabriel added.

“Should this conversation perhaps be held in a less public setting?” Corporal Shahai suggested.

“The hell with that! At exactly what point are you all going to be done covering for that woman?” Covrin snapped, clenching her fists.

“Easy,” Trissiny soothed. “Discretion is a good habit to be in, Corporal, but in this case Covrin has an excellent point. This entire debacle has unfolded because so many people were willing to protect Syrinx’s secrets. I don’t propose to indulge her any further.”

“What, exactly, did she do?” the priestess asked uncertainly.

“Exactly the same shit everyone’s always known she was up to,” Covrin replied, curling her lip, “but everyone was too chicken to say anything about.”

“All relevant details will be public soon enough, Sister, I’ve made sure of that,” Trissiny interrupted before the priestess could call Jenell down for insubordinate conduct. The paladin put herself physically between them, catching Covrin’s eyes. “For now, there’s the question of what you want to do next. This kind of thing can mess up a career in the Legions, but I’m sure we can straighten it out. If that’s what you want. It’s up to you where you go from here, Covrin. You’ve done more than enough and the Sisterhood has no call to ask you for more. And…I owe you an apology—”

“No, you don’t,” Covrin said adamantly, shaking her head. “Is this about you helping get me into the Legions in the first place? Then I have no quarrel with you, General Avelea. You didn’t do any of this, and you’re the one who came here to straighten it out as soon as you knew. In the entire damn Sisterhood you and Locke are the only people who’ve tried to help me. Thanks for trying, Locke,” she added, turning to Principia. “It wouldn’t have worked, back then, just made me more of a target. But you tried, and I’ll remember that.”

Grip and Shahai both turned speculative looks on Principia, who just nodded back to Jenell. “I’d like to think I could’ve helped, but…hell, you may be right.”

“Then the choice is yours, Covrin,” said Trissiny. “What is it you want to do next?”

She hesitated a bare second before squaring her shoulders and answering. “I…want out. I’m so done with this whole cult. Basra was an open secret, and it keeps sticking out in my mind that the only two people who’ve tried to do anything about her are the only two Eserites in the entire Sisterhood. I am done with this bullshit. I quit.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said calmly, nodding. “Here’s the problem: I’ve checked, and according to Legion regulations this situation isn’t grounds for an honorable discharge, so—”

“Are you serious?!” Jenell exploded, clenching her fists again. “After all that—”

“Kid.” Grip turned fully around and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let her talk.”

Trissiny acknowledged the enforcer only with a fleeting glance. “…so I’m going to have to go in there and spend some time pulling strings and yelling at people. I have never actually tried to circumvent procedures like this before, so I honestly don’t know how long this is going to take. Meanwhile, Covrin, I’m afraid we’ll need to stash you somewhere. Legion SOP would be to detain you while the situation is sorted out, since even acting on my orders you were technically wildly insubordinate to a superior. I’m assuming you would prefer not to spend any time in a cell?”

Jenell folded her arms. “You assume right.”

“I figured,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a grin. “We did prepare for that, fortunately.”

“Very conveniently,” Gabriel piped up, “we are within spitting distance of the central temples of Omnu and Vidius, as well. I’ve had my people on standby to discreetly take in guests. Not that the Omnists wouldn’t be excellent hosts, I’m sure,” he added, lighly patting Toby’s shoulder, “but if there’s a chance of Legionnaires trying to fetch you before Triss can put a stop to it, you want to be among the Vidians. They can smile pleasantly and make Avenists chase their tails basically forever. Ah, no offense to…everyone present, it occurs to me.”

“Offended would be if that were untrue,” said the priestess, giving him a sidelong look. “As it is, the reminder is just annoying.”

“I doubt it’ll come to that,” Principia added to Jenell, “but it hurts nothing to be prepared. Shahai, Avelea—any insight into regulations that would help, here?”

Ephanie and Nandi exchanged a look. “The General’s correct about the regs,” Ephanie said after a pause for thought. “But…there’s necessarily some leeway in interpretation on some points.”

“I am aware of some precedents,” Nandi added, “which could be made applicable here, with a little creativity.”

“Good. I want you two to accompany and assist General Avelea. The fewer bridges burned, the better,” she added to Trissiny.

“Good thinking, Locke.”

“Do you expect a lot of trouble with this?” Toby inquired. “It seems both reason and justice are on your side, here. Surely the High Commander will agree.”

“The High Commander,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “is the head of a military chain of command, and has had people going around and over her head all day. Her first reaction when I showed her Covrin’s files of evidence on Syrinx was anger at Covrin for hoarding that instead of trying to prosecute it through the system. That’s why I opted to carry out our sting operation without informing her, and she’s not going to be pleased about that. Don’t worry, I will straighten this out, it just may take some doing. All right, Covrin, I know you don’t know Gabriel well but I can attest you’re safer with him than basically anywhere. I’ll get this done as quickly as I can.”

“I appreciate it, Avelea,” Covrin said, her tone much more subdued than previously. “All of it. Everything.”

“So!” Gabe said brightly, looking around. “That’s settled. Now, who wants to loan the Hand of Omnu a shirt?”

The afternoon had worn on by the time Trissiny, far more tired and introspective, crossed the main sanctuary toward the front doors of the temple again. She ignored the whispers that followed her; at least no one dared try to approach her directly. Walking around in bloodstained armor doubtless helped with that. A point came where it was hopeless to try to avoid attention, and one had to settle for managing the impression one made.

To her surprise, Toby was waiting near the front doors. More surprising than his presence was his attire; he had acquired a set of Cultivator formal robes, such as he’d worn at that disastrous party in Calderaas. It was no great mystery where, since the temple of Omnu was right across the Square. Still, even as impressive a figure as he made in those stately garments, it looked almost peculiar. Toby was so much more Toby in the casual, working-class shirts and trousers he preferred.

“You look weary,” he said with a smile as she approached, “but not upset. Is that a good sign?”

“As good as I could have reasonably hoped for,” she agreed, and they fell into step together, exiting the temple. “Everything is…arranged.”

“How bad was it?” he asked quietly.

Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just glad it all happened behind closed doors. Rouvad means well and does her best, but…” She hesitated; they were stepping down from the front stairs of the city now, into the noise of Imperial Square, and the pair of them still made a visual impression that seemed to discourage people from coming closer, despite all the unabashed staring. Still, she pitched her voice a little lower. “It would be very unhealthy for the Sisterhood if the Hand of Avei publicly expressed a lack of faith in the High Commander.”

“Yet you feel it,” he murmured.

“This is not a time for soldiers,” Trissiny all but whispered. “Rigidity and over-reliance on systems are what allowed Syrinx to flourish. What allow Justinian to work his tentacles through the whole Empire. Rouvad is a good woman and a good leader, but she exemplifies those failings, and our…conversation…made it clear that she isn’t about to change.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry.” Trissiny threaded her arm through one of his, still gazing ahead even as he looked at her in surprise. “I know it’s a little late now to bring it up, but I am so sorry, Toby. You never owed me anything. It should have been your choice who to tell, and when. No one is entitled to be in your business like that without your consent.”

“It’s okay, Triss,” he said, squeezing her arm. “Honestly, I should have been more open with you. With a lot of people. Not that I don’t agree with your point, in principle, and I’d never tell anyone else how to live their lives, but for me? Keeping silent was never a reasoned decision, just nerves and cowardice. Better to have it done with. Still, I appreciate it. So… Does this mean we’re going to talk about the other thing she dragged into the light?”

Trissiny heaved a soft sigh. “I don’t…see how any good would come of it.”

Again, he gave her a gentle squeeze. “Maybe not. You still need to talk with him.”

“Toby…no, I don’t. You heard Vesk; it would be a mistake to dwell on anything that creature told us. And ours is a solitary path. You know it isn’t always going to be like this, the three of us working together. Paladins live short, dangerous, isolated lives.”

“Who’s to say?” he mused. “Things are changing. This new way works, Trissiny. It works in the world as it is now. I think it would be a mistake to try to judge yourself against the Hands of Avei of ages past. They weren’t equipped to deal with the modern world. To be brutally honest, I’ve read the histories and the Aveniad and it doesn’t seem like a good half of them were mentally equipped for the world they actually lived in.”

Her laugh was somewhat bitter, but still amused. Toby smiled and bumped her gently before continuing.

“That aside, you can’t leave something like that just…hanging. Take it from me. You’ve got to talk this out with him, one way or the other.”

“I…will think about it.”


“I’ll think about it.”

He sighed. “Okay. Just actually do think about it, and don’t say that simply to stall. Promise me that?”

“All right, you old nursemaid, I promise,” she said, jostling him right back.

“Oh, and Schwartz turned up,” he said with a grin. “I actually feel sort of bad; he tried to join us outside the temple but the soldiers wouldn’t let him through.”

“What? Oh, Hershel.” Trissiny covered her eyes with her free hand. “He could’ve just yelled!”

“Herschel? Yell? When people are conducting delicate healing and then having serious discussions? He would never. He caught up with us at the temple, though, and Covrin was glad to see him. I hate to sound mercenary,” he went on more solemnly, “but was it worth butting heads with Rouvad and possibly damaging your relationship? Surely Covrin would have been okay…”

“I wasn’t trained intensively as a priestess,” Trissiny said, “but I was educated in the basics. One of the matters that often comes down to Avenist clerics to handle is helping victims of abuse. One of the first things you do with such a victim is give her back her power. Give her choices to make, even small ones, and then see to it that what she says, goes. Covrin has been horribly failed and in fact betrayed by the Sisterhood. I can’t have it impose on her any further.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Good. Well, that sort of comes to the reason I came to meet you. Covrin’s not at the temple anymore.”

She came to a halt; they were more than halfway across the Square at that point. “What? Where? Is she all right?”

“If anything, I think she’s even safer,” Toby said dryly. “She carried on making decisions as soon as you were gone. You might actually get a kick out of this…”

“Thanks, Denise,” Grip said, depositing a stack of coins on the counter and handing one of the sweet rolls to Jenell. “Keep the change.”

“You know, you really don’t have to keep buttering me up, Tessa,” Denise replied with a smile. “Randy’s crap wasn’t entirely your fault, and you’re already one of my best customers even without tips!”

“Lady, nothing I do is to appease my guilty conscience,” the enforcer said flippantly, already backing out of the enclosed pastry stand. “Don’t have one. You just keep making the best shit in town and I’ll keep coming back. Deal?”

“See you next time, then,” the baker said, waving as the two women ducked back out into the falling twilight. The fairy lamps had just come on while they were under the little stand’s awning, adding a clean glow to the dimness.

“You seem so…nice,” Jenell said, staring at Grip and not yet taking a bite of her sweet roll.

“Yeah? You seem so…surprised.”

“Well, the way everyone reacted when you offered to, y’know, take me in… It seemed like even the other enforcers were scared of you.”

“Nah, Duster’s a pal of mine and Ninetails is a particular kind of crazy that makes her pretty much impervious to my charms.” Grip took a bite of her roll, ambling down the street in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and Jenell finally did likewise. They chewed in silence for a bit before the older woman swallowed and continued. “An enforcer works through fear. The entire Guild does, even those who walk a subtler path than I do. That’s the point of us, to give the bastards something to be afraid of so they stay in line. The most important thing about using fear as a weapon is not to do so indiscriminately. Mad dogs get put down. People have to know that you’re dangerous, but they also have to know that you’re only dangerous under specific conditions, and that you won’t come after ’em unless they make it necessary. That’s the entire point, kiddo. We exercise fear to get results, not because it’s fun to scare people.”

Jenell nodded seriously, chewing away at her treat with a pensive frown. “I hope this isn’t gonna cause you trouble.”

“I love trouble,” Grip said frankly.

“I mean…of the serious kind. Until General Avelea gets the Sisterhood squared away…”

“That’s Thorn to you, apprentice. And as for the Sisterhood, Farzida Rouvad can kiss my ass. I almost wish I’d be getting the chance to tell her so myself, but if I know my girl, by the time Thorn is through applying her boot up and down that temple every living soul within will know the score. Nah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s probably sorted out by now, and even if there are snags, it’ll be fine.”

“Seems like a delicate line to walk,” Jenell murmured. “A lot of the things you say, I can imagine Basra saying.”

“I believe that,” Grip agreed, nodding. “I’ve known people like Syrinx. You’ll know more of them, if you stick with this. The difference is that you’ll be able to deal with them in the future. I’ll be frank, kid, you fucked up in multiple directions with that one. You should have let Keys help you—she’s twice as smart as Syrinx on her worst day. You should’ve leveraged that witch boy you’re so fond of, or your acquaintanceship with Thorn’s fellow apprentices. Trying to finish Syrinx yourself was a mistake, and even if that weren’t true, the way you went about it was doomed if Thorn hadn’t intervened.”

“Well, what the hell would—”

“Peace, child, I am still talking.” Jenell subsided immediately under Grip’s level stare. “Everything you did wrong was a matter of technique. And technique, Jenell, I can teach you. Technique I wouldn’t expect you to have known without that training. What matters is what was already inside you: the spirit, the will to stare your own tormentor in the face and say ‘fuck you, this ends with one of us destroyed.’ That you have to have to begin with. You’ve got it, girl. If you can just shut up and learn, I will turn you into a force that will scour the Basra Syrinxes of the world away like the grime they are and not even chip your fucking nails.”

Jenell nodded again, seeming unable to find words. Her expression conveyed it all, a blend of resolution and eager ferocity that made Grip smile.

“But there has to be a difference,” the enforcer went on, “between us and them. Syrinx hurt whoever she had to, to get whatever she wanted. We hurt people as well—badly, at times. The how and the why are hugely important, or we’re nothing but another group of monsters. You understand why we hurt people?”

Jenell hesitated, opened her mouth, then closed it again. She glanced sidelong at Grip to find the enforcer watching her closely. “I… No, never mind.”

“You looked like you were about to say something, there.”

“It’s… Probably not the right answer.”

“Jenell, it’s your first day as an apprentice. Your first hour. In a couple weeks I’ll start expecting you to know right answers. Right now I want to hear what you think.”

Jenell stared ahead, a glare at some unseen enemy descending over her features, but she nodded. “We hurt people, because some people just need to be hurt.”

The silence stretched out, until she nervously snuck another peek at Grip. To her surprise, the other woman was regarding her with an inscrutable little smile, her sweet bun dangling forgotten from her hand.

“Kid,” Grip said, patting Jenell firmly on the shoulder, “this is gonna work out.”

They continued on into the lights and shadows of the city, soon vanishing from view amid the press of people, machinery and magic that was Tiraas. Behind, outside Denise’s pastry stand, another figure chuckled, watching the pair fade with distance.

“Well, I’m glad somebody gets to walk away with a happy ending,” Vesk said aloud, turning back around with a grin and a wink. “But don’t you worry, I’ve seen to it the benefits will keep racking up. Oh, I didn’t help much with the paladins’ little gambit back there. Sure, the whole plan was mine, but for a fella like me, that was nothing. The tricky part was making Trissiny think she’d thought it up, but that girl needs the boost in confidence when it comes to her scheming skills. The only thing preventing her from being as crafty as her mother is her belief that she’s not. As for the rest? Sure, Darling could’ve arranged for all those Bishops to be present at that inconspicuous little prayer service, but I did it without expending any of his political capital—and he’s gonna need that in the coming days. I also tipped off a few reporters to be in the audience, more importantly. Between that and my own bards, the story that’s already spreading will be shaped by careful hands. By this time next week, they’ll be calling her Trissiny the Uniter, and all the political damage she did to her cult in Calderaas will be mended, and then some. The Sisterhood may have lost its Bishop to a painful scandal, but they’ve gained a hero—one who’s revered by far more than their own cult. And you all know how much I love a hero!”

“Oi.” Denise emerged from within the stall, wearing a grim expression and tapping a rolling pin against her palm. “Look, you’re not hurting me any, but I am trying to run a business here. I can’t have a guy in a doofy hat talking to himself in front of it. If you’re not gonna buy anything, clear off.”

Vesk looked over at her, blinking, then turned back the way he was facing.

“And what of all the faces we’ve met in passing? Like Denise the pastry chef, here. Or the Jenkins brothers, the feuding families of Sarasio? Ansheh in the Golden Sea, Lars Grusser the mayor of Veilgrad? Was Brother Ingvar always fated to become a hero in his own right, or did he wander too close to the web and get snared? Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But straying across the paths of the real Big Damn Heroes can be just the thing that elevates today’s bit character to the next episode’s protagonist. Who knows what our very own Denise might be called upon to do tomorrow? Heroism loves a humble beginning!”

“Hey,” Denise insisted. “If you need a place to stay the night, I can point you to an Omnist shelter. Or do I need to yell for the police?”

He winked at her. “But that, of course, is another story.”

With that, Vesk turned and sauntered away down the street in the opposite direction from Grip and Jenell, whistling an optimistic tune that hadn’t been heard aloud in some thirty thousand years.

Denise watched suspiciously to make sure he was leaving, then snorted, shook her head, and went back into her pastry stand. “This damn town…”

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14 – 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t—”

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

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a great relief.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

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

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

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

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14 – 31

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“Hey there. Feeling better?”

It was brighter, though not abrasively so, the ancient-looking stone hall lit well by a profusion of braziers and wall sconces. The warm glow was that of fire, not fairy lamps or whatever glaring illumination was used in Infinite Order structures. In fact, this resembled the feasting hall of some medieval king, made unusual only by the lack of any windows or doors. The three of them stood with their backs to the long tables, at the base of a dais, on which sat a throne, on which sat Vesk.

“What?” Gabriel choked. “I—we were… I mean, that was… What?”

“I really am sorry about that little trick with the flute,” said the god of bards, and he sounded the more sincere because he seemed subdued, even slightly depressed. Vesk projecting ordinary sincerity would have been just more of his obvious pantomime. “She was never going to let you out of her clutches without inflicting some kind of damage. I’d have forewarned you, but the key to bluffing someone with Scyllith’s skill at reading thoughts is to control what’s known by anyone in her presence.”

“The flute,” Trissiny said aloud, suddenly grabbing at her belt pouch. The Pipe of Calomnar was still there, sticking out slightly. “I blew it.”

“That’s the last thing I remember, too,” Toby agreed, glaring up at Vesk. “What did you do?”

“Short-term memory loss is a fairly common side effect of chaos exposure,” Vesk explained. “One I helped along a little in this case. You’re welcome. That kind of trauma is just not narratively useful, unless your protagonists need to learn to be properly fearful of chaos. You kids haven’t needed that particular lesson since Veilgrad.”

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“What happened,” Vesk replied, straightening up and showing a little more animation in his features, “was that I spent several centuries preparing for this moment. I have sent adventurers on countless quests and personally interceded where I could, all to prime Calomnar so that I could render him at least a little lucid, and inclined to look favorably on his fellow gods and their servants, in a moment where it was needed. Truthfully all this I hadn’t begun to imagine when I started, but the god of chaos is just too good a trump card not to have ready in advance. And the process involved the creation of some great stories along the way. So, win/win!”

He paused, gazing down on them with a slight smile, as if waiting for a response or prompting to continue. All three paladins just stared back, and after a short moment, he resumed speaking.

“It was, as I said, a bluff. Scyllith knew you had the Pipe and that I gave it to you right before sending you down there. Chaos is the one thing she won’t dare face, because all the power in the universe does you no good if everything you try to do has a random effect. So from her perspective, it looked like that was the bluff: that if she tried to harm you, you could summon Calomnar and flip the board on her. Being Scyllith, she was willing to forego her own escape and even gave you the key back, all for the chance to goad you into calling Calomnar down on your own heads while she slithered off back into oblivion, out of his reach. Of course, she had no way of knowing I’d prepared matters so that he would simply bring you safely away.”

Vesk settled back in his throne, grinning at them in self-satisfaction.

“I don’t think it worked that way,” Gabriel said slowly. “She said she had her own plans for escape. And that she’d see us soon.”

“She was really adamant about us saying ‘hi’ to Tellwyrn for her,” Toby added. “That doesn’t sound like the action of somebody who expected us to get mulched by a mad god in a moment.”

Vesk’s grin faded in increments. “Well. How ’bout that. After all, what’s a more classic reversal than the great trickster’s ultimate ploy being turned around on him at the last second?” The god sighed softly and shrugged. “Then again, she could’ve been saving face. It’s hard to say what goes through the mind of a creature like that, but most of what she does is out of a blind compulsion to hurt people. I advise you not to think too hard on anything she told you.”

Suddenly, all three paladins were adamantly not looking in each other’s directions.

“Where are we?” Trissiny asked after a strained pause.

“My rockin’ bachelor pad,” Vesk said, leaning back into the throne again and gesturing at the rather stark hall, which didn’t seem to suit his personal aesthetic in the slightest. “Most gods don’t spend much time on the mortal plane, but hey! Everybody needs a little place to call home. Y’know, unwind, enjoy some privacy, store their collection of incredibly dangerous artifacts… And speaking of which. I believe you have my key?”

Slowly, Toby reached into his pocket. They key was, indeed, still there; he drew it out and held it up, firelight flickering gold across the pale mithril surface. The black jewel at its head had gone dark again.

“Answers first,” he said curtly. “After all this, we want the truth.” Trissiny and Gabriel nodded in firm agreement.

Vesk smiled very thinly for a moment before opening his mouth. “You can’t handle the truth.”

“You SON OF A—”

Gabriel had actually lunged halfway up the steps and swung his scythe down at the god before he was stopped, Vesk deftly catching the tip of the blade against the tip of his own finger.

“Sound and fury,” he said dismissively, “signifying nothing.” With a flick of the wrist he sent Gabriel staggering back down into his place.

“Who do you think you are?” Trissiny snarled, unconsciously gripping the hilt of her sword. “You sent us unprepared into that. And for what?!”

Vesk held up one finger. “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

“We’re just pieces on a game board to you, aren’t we?” Toby stated. “You all but scripted that. Scyllith, Calomnar, the key. You just needed some patsies to do the walking for you. What if something unexpected happened to disrupt your clever plan? Against powers like that, what could we possibly have done? What could we even have attempted, to deal with an Elder Goddess and chaos itself?”

“Do,” advised Vesk, “or do not. There is no try.”

“That is the dumbest thing I ever heard anyone say,” Trissiny spat. “That sounds like what would come out if you fed shrooms to a talking donkey and asked it for the meaning of life!”

“You risked our lives and souls and who knows what on this,” Gabriel snapped, “refused to tell us what we were in for, promised answers at the end of it, and now you’re gonna go back on it? How can you possibly justify this?”

Vesk’s shrug was a dispirited, one-sided jerk of his shoulders, his smile the faintest, bitter twist of his lips. “Justifications only matter to the just.”

For a beat of silence, they all just stared at him.

“Oh, this is beyond pointless,” Trissiny said in disgust. “Maybe Salyrene can make something useful out of that key. Gabe, we may need your scythe. You in the stupid hat: are you going to show us the door, or are we going to make our own?”

“Oh, you want a door?” Vesk levered himself up off the throne, pausing to dust off his pants. “Doors I have. Right this way!”

He stepped around the throne, pausing to beckon them. Trissiny glanced at each of the boys in turn, then snorted loudly and started up the steps, her boots thudding down harder than was strictly necessary. Gabriel followed next, emphatically thunking his staff against the ground with each step.

There was, it turned out, a door in the room, hidden behind the tall throne. Vesk waited for them to catch up, wearing a vague little smile, and then led the way through. Beyond was a narrow corridor with an uncomfortably low ceiling, also lit by torches but paced widely enough that the light in most of it was dim.

Most surprisingly of all, they met someone else coming the other way.

“Hey, guys!” she said, raising a hand in greeting when she drew abreast of Vesk, who had to step to the side to make room. “Long time, no see!”

“Jenny?” Gabriel said incredulously. “From Sarasio?”

“I’m not exactly from Sarasio,” Jenny replied with a grin, reaching up to adjust the goggles perched atop her head. She was even in the same outfit as the last time they had seen her two years ago. “I do kinda miss it! Nice little town. But the story moved on, as they do.”

“You’re a Vesker,” Trissiny said in a tone of resignation.

“Nope,” Jenny said lightly. “Listen, take it easy on the boss, okay? He’s irritating as hell to deal with, I know it better than anybody. But show a little patience and he always makes it worth your while.”

“I thought Joe said you…left,” Toby said, frowning. “It wasn’t exactly clear to me what he meant by that, but he made it sound pretty final.”

“Yeah…that was something that needed to happen,” she said. “And speaking of which, I’m sorry I haven’t got time to stay and catch up, guys. But you have your own exposition to get to, and time waits for none of us. You take care, okay? Hopefully we can sit down and chat sometime before this great doom thing kicks off. Or maybe after. It’s always best to plan on surviving, that’s my policy. Till then, cheers!”

“Uh, bye, then,” Gabriel said somewhat belatedly as she squeezed past them. Vesk, having remained uncharacteristically silent through this exchange, was already moving off up the corridor again.

“Who exactly is she?” Toby asked, after Jenny had vanished up the darkened corridor behind.

“Jenny Everywhere is less a who than a what,” Vesk replied without turning or slowing. “I don’t say that to be disparaging! Seriously, she’s one of my favorite people. A good assistant, a magnificent living plot device, and pretty good company to boot. But she’s also not a person in the same sense that you are, or that I am, which of course are two very different senses. After we got rid of the Infinite Order—well, most of them—naturally one of the first things I did was start to root around in their archives, checking out all the literature they’d recorded, and…there she was. A specter haunting a surprisingly diverse set of stories.”

“So, she’s an Elder God creation,” Trissiny said grimly.

“Older,” said Vesk. “Altogether less sinister, and never terribly interesting to them. That’s a big part of what made me think she deserved a chance to be in the world, after all. But anyway, you wanted doors. Here they are!”

The corridor opened onto another grand hall, similar in dimensions to the throne room but longer and better-lit, with apparently modern fairy lamps both affixed to the walls and hanging from the ceiling in large iron chandeliers. A strip of crimson carpet ran down the center of the room, and lining both sides into the distance marched a series of apparently identical structures, each consisting of a square metal doorframe whose opening swirled with pale light, mounted atop a mechanical structure of inscrutable purpose, each with a single glowing Infinite Order control panel affixed to the side of the frame. The only apparent variation in them was that some few seemed to lack power, as they had no light effect in their main portals.

Vesk sauntered out into the room, pausing to spread his hands and twirl around before facing them with a wide grin. “Well? What do you think?”

“You absolute lunatic,” Gabriel breathed, aghast.

“What am I looking at, here?” Trissiny demanded.

“Doors,” Toby whispered. “There was one in the fabrication plant under Puna Dara.”

“Doors to where?”

“To alternate universes,” Gabriel explained, still staring around in horror. “The Elder Gods used these to spy on other worlds and steal technology from them. That is exactly as dangerous as it sounds, so they destroyed each one after using it. But Heilo, the god who made them, liked to make extra ones and hide them away. These, his hobby doors, go to universes where the favorite stories of the Elder Gods, mostly fictional realms created on the old world, are real.”

Trissiny’s eyes slowly widened as they panned around the room, drinking in the implications. There were dozens of these doors, at least; the hall was long enough that perspective made them hard to count as they marched toward its opposite end. “You absolute lunatic.”

“Oh, give me a little credit,” Vesk said dismissively.

“The hell you say!” Gabriel barked.

“I haven’t opened any of these,” Vesk continued. “What a disaster that would cause. The really good ones I haven’t even powered on to look through; way too risky, even for my blood. There are things in the Cosmere that would notice if they were being watched, some of which might be able to pry a gateway open from the other side. I certainly don’t want crazy nonsense like Comstock tears or the Subtle Knife ripping holes in our reality. No, don’t worry. While I’ll admit to some personal interest in watching worlds of story, I’ve been collecting these largely to make sure they were secreted away where nobody would ever find and open them. It’s not impossible that some are still out there, truly forgotten, but of every door whose existence I was able to find recorded, I have all but one. And the last is…fairly safe, for the moment, now that Fabrication Plant One is buried again and its Avatar on total lockdown.”

“Then what’s the point?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not just destroy them?”

“As a reminder.” Slowly, Vesk turned around again, but this time without showmanship, simply shuffling in a circle to sweep his gaze across his collection of dimensional gates. “As a warning. Because I hate them.” He came to a stop in profile to the paladins, glaring at one gate in particular with every evidence of deeply felt loathing. “Because I. Hate. These. Stories.”

They kept silent, just watching him. Vesk made himself easy to take for granted, with all his nonsense, but in his expression of real anger there came the mute reminder that he was, after all, a god. A being whose presence was inherently alarming when he was in this kind of mood.

“Do you have any idea how long people have lived on this planet?” he asked almost plaintively. “We can’t say for certain, because the ascension cycles aren’t exactly the same length every time. They’re all similar, though, within a margin of error. It’s been eight thousand years since the last; that’s roughly the period. There were three ascension cycles during the Infinite Order’s right. That rounds to about twenty-four thousand years. Twenty-four thousand. Can you even imagine such a period of time? Your own history barely reaches eight—and that’s more than twice as much recorded human history as there was in total when the I.O. originally left Old Earth. Twenty! Four! Thousand! Years! And do you know what we have to show for it?”

He whirled back to face them, flinging his arms wide to encompass the row of gateways. His expression now looked positively anguished.

“This shit right here! One teeny-tiny little slice of fiction, from just a couple of incestuously intertwined genres, produced over a period of a few decades on a world none of us will ever see, by a culture that’s been extinct longer than any of us even have a mental frame of reference to imagine. And this, this was what they did, for twenty-four millennia! I hate these stories so. Fucking. Much.”

“…they’re that bad, huh,” Gabriel prompted warily. Trissiny stomped on his foot.

“They’re not even bad,” Vesk answered, suddenly sounding exhausted. “Well, on a case by case basis. Some are truly exquisite. That last gate that I haven’t collected leads to such a clusterfuck of narrative incompetence I can’t even… Well, that was Scyllith’s personal favorite, if that tells you anything. No, it’s not the quality of them; that’s not the point. It’s what it means when a mere handful of stories are canonized into some sort of sick, pointless dogma.

“Twenty-four thousand years,” he repeated mournfully, “and these are the only stories recorded, the few from before that time. Twenty-four thousand years! All those stories!” Vesk’s voice rose in a pitch of agony; he squeezed his eyes shut and actually ripped off his floppy hat, hurling it away in agitation. “Gone! The hopes, the dreams and ambitions, of countless generations. Who were their heroes? What were their values? What tales comforted them in their oppression? What music did they create, what art? We will never know, because the Infinite fucking Order only wanted to hear their same few stories over and over again!

“When I was a mortal, I got to see a play put on. Oh, they called it a play; it was a re-enactment of the Lord of the Rings. The entire goddamned thing, put on to scale! The players, all those thousands of them, were the result of generations of genetic manipulation and selective breeding, all taking place over centuries to produce the requisite stock for one ridiculous play. They raised an island chain out of what’s now the Grand Mere to re-create Middle Earth. And then, when it was over, the fuckers ritually executed the entire cast and sunk the bastard right back to the bottom of the sea. Saints and archons above, the luckiest person involved in that was Tolkien himself for being dead so long before it ever happened. The sheer horror of it probably would have killed him! And that wasn’t even the first time.” He started pacing up and down in mounting fury, and the three paladins slowly edged back into the doorway. “Do you know why orcs exist as a race on this world? For another fucking production like that! Scyllith wanted to see a scale recreation of the Reign of Chaos saga and Meynherem wanted… I don’t even know what the hell he wanted from her, and it’s not like it matters at this point. At least they weren’t so successful at eliminating all the players that time. Because those damn omnipotent creeps just couldn’t let go of their fucking bedtime stories from eons ago!”

Vesk stopped pacing, and drew in a breath as if to calm himself. To judge by the force with which he blew it back out again, it didn’t work.

“That was the Infinite Order for you. Everything was impossibly grandiose in scale and most of it in service to the most ridiculous bullshit imaginable. And let’s be honest, stuff like that was far from the worst they did. But it’s what sticks most in my mind, because for all their flaws, that was the one fixation that I think reveals the most about what went wrong with the Elder Gods.”

He paused again, and heaved another deep breath.

“And what’s so close to going wrong with us.”

The three of them exchanged a few wary looks.

“Uh,” Gabriel said very carefully, “are you…”

“No, I’m not going to stage a play with thousands of custom-bred expendable extras,” Vesk said irritably. “Even if you think I would do such an asshat thing—and after the ringer I’ve put you though, I won’t take that personally—there’s no audience or infrastructure for such nonsense now, thankfully. Avei would wear my ass for a boot if I even suggested it, and more power to her. It’s just… Well, let me back up.”

He began pacing again, though this time his expression was introspective.

“Before they designed what we now think of as godhood, the Infinite Order lost a few people to their earliest ascension process. Which, ironically, was the best one. Oh, they weren’t accidents and they didn’t kill anybody; they just discovered that a being which has transcended all physical boundaries is left with a completely different set of motivations than those they started with, which it seems don’t included faffing around to do mad science or rule planets. They managed some brief communications with the very first ascended before they just…lost interest. Floated off to explore the universe. Hell, who wouldn’t? So, given what they were trying to do and what their own prejudices were, the I.O. redesigned their method to apply limitations. To impose structures on future ascended and make sure they would retain the same basic personalities and motivations as they had in life. Ironically, it was a variation of the same change we later used to kill the bastards off, which tells you something about how smart a thing it was to do in the first place.”

“Gods,” Trissiny whispered. In context, that could have been taken a number of different ways, but Vesk just nodded at her in understanding.

“And that’s it, at the heart of the matter,” Vesk said quietly. “The unwillingness to change became the inability to change. I complain about stories, about how a few introverted scientists wouldn’t let go of the old tales that brought them comfort in their youth even after they came to enormous power. But in the end…that’s everything. They would not let go. Couldn’t move on. They were prisoners of their own ideas. And we gods, today, are likewise chained.”

He stopped in his pacing, turning to them, and shrugged. “That’s the first part of the answers I promised you. I’m not honestly sure how much you can do with all that, but thanks for listening to me vent. What you care about, of course, is the world now and how all this affects your lives directly. So keeping in mind that gods are, by their very nature, constrained… Don’cha just love Archpope Justinian?”

They blinked at him vacantly in the silence which followed. Vesk just regarded them with a beaming smile.

“Gwha?” Gabriel burbled at last.

“Great guy, Justinian,” Vesk continued idly. “A real stand-up fellow. Why, I can’t think of a single thing about him that I would change! He’s just…perfect. And that…seems a little odd, y’know? I have never in all my long existence felt uncritically positive about anything or anyone. But hey, I’m sure it’s fine! Cos, y’see, when I stop and think about Justinian himself I’m just sure it’s nothing, because he’s such a great Archpope.”

“…oh, holy shit,” Trissiny whispered. “He didn’t.”

“Of course he did,” Toby grated. “He would.”

“But how?” Gabriel protested.

“Someone was in that facility,” Trissiny said slowly, “just a few years before us. There’s no reason to go in there unless…you want to mess around with the machinery that created the gods.”

Toby held up the key again. “And now…there’s a record of what happened.”

“Yep,” Vesk said laconically. “That’s a real useful key for that reason alone. But you’ll be happy to know I didn’t risk your lives just for that. Let me pitch a scenario for you guys, the backdrop of a potentially rollicking good story. Let’s say, on one hand, you’ve got three classic young heroes. Brave, selfless, just flawed enough to be interesting, and so on. Chosen by the very gods and living in a time when great things are set in motion. An oncoming great doom, so to speak. It’s all very prototypical, see what I mean?”

“Right, right, you’ve made your point,” Gabriel said impatiently.

“But!” Vesk held up one finger. “On the other hand. Say you’ve got a man with a mysterious past, who had stumbled upon a great injustice. A lie and an abuse of power, woven into the very fabric of creation itself—into the very natures of the gods. Suppose this man sets out to correct that abuse by any means necessary, and the path on which it takes him will test his conviction to its very limits, force him into compromises and painful actions that teeter on the very brink of villainy.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes. “You’re not saying—”

“I’m not done,” Vesk interrupted. “All that’s just backdrop: here is the important question. In this hypothetical story I’m describing, of those two options, which is the protagonist?”

Toby frowned at him, then turned to the others. “…I don’t get it.”

“He’s a god,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Vesk. “He’s constrained by his nature. He is, specifically, the god of stories.”

“And so,” Trissiny whispered, “it matters very much to him who is the protagonist in whatever story is unfolding. Because he can’t root for the villain. Can you?”

“Oh, I’ve rooted for a lot of villains over the years,” Vesk said with a sigh. “Just…no antagonists. Ask Teal to explain the difference if it’s unclear; she may as well make herself useful for something. You get it, though, Trissiny. I sent you three on the classic hero’s journey. You have faced challenge after challenge, each of which taught you a ham-fisted lesson. You’ve rescued a princess…well, after a fashion…scaled a tower of trials, hobnobbed with scurrilous underworld types who turned out to have hearts of gold, confronted the very face of evil itself… And at the end, you descended deep into the darkness, into the lair of the monster, only to find that the true monsters were lurking within your own hearts.”

Gabriel lowered his eyes; Toby’s fists clenched at his sides.

After a moment’s pause, Trissiny wrapped one arm around each of them and pulled both boys against her sides, squeezing reassuringly.

“These things may seem arbitrary and frankly pointless to you,” Vesk said solemnly. “But to me? They describe the very shape of reality. The three of you had the potential to be protagonists, but hell, so does your entire social circle. I made you heroes. In a very specific and arbitrary way, yes. But for my purposes, it’s what counts. And for your purposes, it means that in the confrontation which is inevitably coming, you may find yourself facing off with someone who has gone to great care to lay his groundwork, and at that crucial moment, thanks to this bullshit quest of mine, will find one specific patch of it missing. And the proof that it matters is that now, when I contemplate the prospect of you kids putting one over on everyone’s favorite Archpope… I can say with all honesty that I’m rooting for you.”

“Scyllith said there was a secret,” Toby said, staring intently at him, even as he slipped an arm around Trissiny’s shoulders. “One that the field of divine magic itself would kill anyone who learned it. Something to do with how the gods ascended.”

“Obviously, that’s a pointless question, since if there was such a thing I wouldn’t confirm it,” Vesk said, nodding emphatically. “In the purely theoretical instance that some such thing were true, though, I’d advise you to be very careful what you poke your nose into. Your three—well, four, I guess—personal patrons would try to protect you, and there would be several among the Pantheon who would bitterly resent such a provision existing and gladly work to thwart it, but…gods are gods. As you’ve just been told in some considerable detail, we can’t always do what we’d want.”

“But,” Gabriel said slowly, “some of you try to work around it.”

“A person operating under a disadvantage is no less a person,” Vesk said with an amiable shrug, grinning lopsidedly at them. “Sometimes it’s handicap and hardship that does the most to motivate us. In any story, what the hero can’t do is much more interesting than what they can.”

Toby held up the key, bouncing it once on his palm and looking over at the other two. Both of them nodded at him. Nodding back, he hefted it and lightly tossed the key to the god of bards, who snagged it deftly out of the air.

“Pleasure doin’ business,” Vesk said cheerily. “Now then! We’re not quite done here—after all, a good story would be cruelly diminished without a satisfying denouement. I believe I did promise to aid you with your scouring of the Shire.”

“Uh huh,” Trissiny said in a dry tone. “And are you going to bother explaining what that means now?”

Vesk grinned delightedly, positively bouncing on the balls of his feet in barely-restrained excitement. “Oh, trust me, Trissiny. I think you will like this.”

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14 – 30

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Even that silence did not long survive in the presence of Gabriel Arquin.

“So, uh…what are you doing here?”

The other two turned incredulous stares on him, at which he spread his hands infinitesimally at his sides in an almost-shrug.

The woman made of light—Scyllith, if she was to be believed—blinked her starry eyes languidly, still appearing somewhat confused. “Here? Where are we, children? There are several points where I…” She closed her eyes entirely, the tiniest frown appearing on her doll-like face.

“Seems like an Elder Goddess would understand where she was, if nothing else,” Trissiny said skeptically.

“Goddess!” At that, Scyllith opened her eyes again, once more breaking into a chime of pleasantly musical laughter. “Oh, if you only knew. Some of my colleagues would fly into an absolute rage if you called them gods. I’d like to think I am more easygoing, personally. Let me guess: Avei and her renegades threw themselves into the label.”

“That was a very long time ago,” Toby said quietly.

“To you, I suppose it truly was,” she agreed with a solicitous nod.

“So, what happened with that?” Gabriel inquired.

“Gabe!” Trissiny hissed.

“Well, how often do we get the chance to ask someone who was there and isn’t in the Pantheon?” he replied. “I don’t think it’s disloyal to acknowledge they have an agenda that colors what they tell us. We’ve seen pretty firm proof of that in the last week!”

“You don’t engage with a manipulator and give her the chance to work a tendril into your head!”

“In this case, I think we kind of have to.”

“You’re both right, you know,” Scyllith said kindly, smiling at them. “You would be wise to listen to Trissiny’s caution, Gabriel; she has a solid grasp of how manipulative people operate, and how to avoid being snared by them. On the other hand, it’s not as if you have a choice this time, is it? After all, you have to keep me busy until your phasedrive finishes downloading the facility’s records.” While the three of them froze, she half-turned to look at the key, still inserted into that slot on the wall and pulsing blue. “That’s likely to take a few minutes, at least. It’s a significant amount of data, being harvested directly from the transcension matrix, and the systems responsible for organizing that data were damaged in…well, that little kerfuffle between your renegade friends and the Infinite Order. In the meantime, here we are!” Turning back to them, she spread her delicate arms to both sides and bowed, smiling benignly. “I am glad to put a few things into perspective for you.”

“Awfully accommodating of you,” Gabriel noted.

“Now, Gabriel,” she said in a tone of very gentle reproof, “you should always show consideration toward people who are in no position to threaten or influence you in the slightest way. It’s basic maturity, not to mention good manners—which, as my mother used to tell me, are miniature morals. Let’s see…” She began to drift off the crystal plate, floating serenely above the mushrooms with her feet dangling a foot off the floor. Wherever the glow emanating from her touched the fungus underfoot, they changed, taking on more subtly graceful shapes and patterns of bioluminescence. Scyllith floated slowly across the floor as if pacing in thought, leaving a trail of odd beauty in her wake. “I think what you children most need to understand is that an ascended being…a god…” She turned toward them with an indulgent little smile in passing. “…is not simply a more powerful person. It is a fundamentally different type of intelligence. When we have conversations like this—just as when you talk to members of your Pantheon—some of the experience is due to an active effort by the ascended to be more approachable, and some to your mind reorganizing information into a form it can process. But the very nature of my senses is different from yours, Trissiny dear, which is why I may be momentarily confused in a situation like this. I, you see, am a creature of magic, and magic is a system of data processing. Really, its entire purpose comes down to taking an idea, like your glowing shields or a wizard’s fireball, and performing the vast calculations necessary to turn that into a physical reality, using the energies inherent in the material universe. Merely the act of concentrating my being into one spot like this imposes limits on me. But it also gives me great clarity, for which I thank you!”

Again, she paused and turned directly to them, bowing courteously. All three just stared warily back.

“Now that I have my land legs, so to speak,” Scyllith continued lightly, drifting back toward the crystal platform, “I see what all this is about. Please forgive my earlier befuddlement, children. The flows of magic are whimsical, today! And certain individuals went to a lot of trouble to prevent me from pulling my consciousness together. About the only thing that can overcome that, temporarily, is to activate a transcension field editor keyed specifically to my access credentials. I’ve been bounced between a few of those over the last few…years, I think…and it’s rather disorienting.”

“Temporarily?” Trissiny asked in a deliberately neutral tone.

“Oh, yes, dear,” Scyllith answered, giving her a warm smile. “Of course, once that phasedrive…I’m sorry, that key is removed, the editor will power back down, and with it everything that’s holding my mind together.” Floating up onto the disc again, she placed herself deliberately between them and they key, and smiled kindly at them in silence for a few seconds.

They all stared back, tense and keenly aware that no power at their disposal would help if she decided to do worse than talk. Not to mention the question of how to get the key back when it was time…

“I’m afraid, Gabriel, this means I can’t answer your question,” Scyllith continued at last, offering him a rueful smile. “I’m just so enjoying our chat—it’s so rare that I have the opportunity to meet such charming young people!—and I would just hate for it to be cut short by your abrupt deaths. Oh, please, relax!” she added, laughing softly when they all visibly tensed again. “I’m not going to harm you! Why ever would I? No, I just mean there is a mechanism built right into the transcension field you know as divine magic which would instantly kill any mortal who learns certain facts about those events. There are ways that could be circumvented, of course, but I’m afraid I’m in no position to offer you my protection, and it would take simply too long to teach you the method yourselves. If you’re interested, you might ask Elilial. I’ll bet you anything she’s shielded her little helpers from the effect.”

“The gods wouldn’t do such a…” Trissiny trailed off, and Scyllith turned an indulgent smile upon her.

“I think you know very well, Trissiny, that they aren’t so purely good as you were taught in your childhood. But I earnestly urge you not to take my word on something like this. Obviously, I’m simply not credible! No, you really ought to ask your patrons. It’s one thing not to bring up the topic; they’ll find it rather more difficult to lie to your faces about it.”

“…thanks for the tip,” Gabriel said warily. Scyllith nodded graciously to him.

“But my point, children, is that I can see such details as easily as you see me before you—and more accurately, since what you’re seeing is not quite what is happening. Magic is data, and the data is visible and intelligible to a being like myself. The structure of thoughts, likewise! So yes, children, I’m well aware by now of Vesk and his charming meddling. I know what he wants that key for, which is certainly more than he’s told you. I know all about that flute you’re hiding, Trissiny, and I do hope you have better sense than to call on Calomnar for help no matter how severe your peril. I also,” she added, her smile beginning to fade away for the first time, “know that you are students of my own dearest Arachne. It’s so good of you to visit me, children; you can’t imagine how relieved I am to learn that she is not only alive and well, but thriving. Actually contributing to the world! It makes me so proud, to learn how she’s grown! Do give her my love when you see her next. Promise me?”

Toby glanced at the other two. “Well, that’s—”

“Promise.” The word rippled across them with a tangible psychic force. All across the room, spots of light blossomed on a random smattering of mushrooms.

“…sure,” Toby said, staring. “We’ll tell her you said hello.”

“Thank you ever so, Tobias,” Scyllith replied, turning upon him a smile which was all gentle kindness and sincere gratitude. “Do you mind if I call you Toby? I’ve never been one for needless formality.”


“The way I heard it,” Gabriel interjected, “Tellwyrn and Elilial handed you quite a setback the last time you saw them.”

“Gabe,” Trissiny warned.

“Oh, pish tosh,” Scyllith said airily, waving one graceful hand. “You simply cannot go through life bearing grudges, Gabriel, it’ll drive you mad and gain you nothing. Oh, yes, Elilial and my Arachne caused me no end of trouble! But that’s done, and all is well.”

“Even though you’re trapped underground unless someone puts a key in that machine?”

“Gabe,” Trissiny said more insistently.

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” Scyllith gently remonstrated. “I could work myself into a tizzy about Arachne’s betrayal, or Elilial’s frankly gratuitous assistance in it. Or Elilial ousting me from my own domain in the first place. Or little Themynra going to such lengths simply to irritate and inconvenience me. Can you imagine? How bored must a person be to do something like that? Then, there’s the way your Pantheon—ah, but I forget. That could be dangerous for you to know, children, please excuse me. If I were inclined to keep inventory of offenses against me, I’d be rather more irked at Naiya for going to such effort to lock me out of the Order’s systems—or the Order itself for various offenses which were why I helped the renegades topple them in the first place. But there is just no point in that. You win some, you lose some! That has always been my philosophy, going all the way back to before we left the old world to create a better future. Everyone was in such an absolute uproar about the changing climate scorching human life off the planet. Me, I planted oranges and mangoes in my yard in Toronto. Life is what you make of it, children.”

“Well, that seems very…enlightened,” Gabriel said carefully.

“I’ve met a few people I would describe as enlightened,” she said with an amused grin. “Honestly, I found them all insufferably pretentious. It’s simple common sense, isn’t it? There’s really only one truth of intelligent life, children: what you have the power to do. Everything else—your justice, your peace…whatever it is Gabriel’s religion does, it doesn’t seem very clear, does it? All these values and philosophies are things humans impose on reality to make sense of it, missing the greater point that reality makes perfect sense on its own, it is simply that human consciousness isn’t prepared to understand most of it.”

“So your own philosophy is simple nihilism, then,” Trissiny retorted. “Of course, just by having a philosophy you negate your own point.”

“And for someone who knows better than to listen to a manipulator, you’re awfully willing to engage me in a philosophical debate,” Scyllith replied, then laughed gently. “Oh, don’t worry, dear, I’m not making fun of you. There’s a lesson in that, if you’re open to it. But let me turn that point around on you: everyone has a philosophy, simply because philosophy is the unavoidable byproduct of human consciousness meeting existence. You need these ideas in order to function in a universe which is vast, doesn’t care about you and seems designed to be mostly inimical to your life. And so, what good is all your philosophy unless you have the power to make something real of it?” She spread her arms gracefully, thin shoulders rising in a little shrug. “You can be as high-minded as you wish, so long as you acknowledge that the exercise does nothing but make you feel better about yourself. Without power, your beliefs are nothing, and you are nothing. With power, all creation and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge you is, itself, nothing. Power is the only significance the wee infinitesimal speck of a mortal consciousness can ever have.

“It takes a…a god, in your parlance, to have true significance, to defy reality itself. But you can bring all the meaning and satisfaction to your life that your limited mind will ever need by having power over other mortals. Power is the only value which fully justifies itself, no philosophy needed. If you are able to do something to someone, then you are entitled to, period. Any other belief is a construct requiring—again—power to put into effect. So no, children, to bring this back around to where it started, I bear no grudges. Everyone who has wronged me fully justified the act by pulling it off. Nursing a vendetta over my defeats is pointless, churlish, and worst of all, weak. Gloating in my victories, likewise! There is only the next struggle, the obstacle in front of you and whether you have the power to overcome it. Any other way to live is just an exhausting exercise in confusing yourself. And, hey! If it makes you feel better to live that way, you absolutely should. As long as you have the power to do so, it is your perfect right!”

She folded her delicate hands in front of herself, smiling beatifically at them.

“I have a feeling I’d find all that a lot more disturbing if it made sense to me,” Toby said slowly.

“Ah, yes, you have your own philosophies,” Scyllith replied with a light laugh. “Omnists! Really, you can’t imagine how much I enjoy that.”

He blinked. “Enjoy?”

“Oh, of course! I have always been a lover of irony. Imagine! A major world religion, spawned from the half-understood Zen/Sufi/Taoist/Jedi goulash concocted by my own semi-literate gardener. Why, it’s the most splendid thing I’ve ever heard! I couldn’t have created anything more hysterical if I’d tried!”

“I’m not sure what you mean to accomplish by insulting me,” Toby said, raising an eyebrow. “If you can read thoughts so easily, you surely know I’m not that easy to get a rise out of.”

“Ah, yes, I must ask your pardon again,” she replied, nodding. “I tend to forget that limited creatures like you can’t read thoughts. You’re stuck using empathy to discern the minds of other people—surely the most broken tool biology has ever devised for any purpose. No, Toby, I’m not interested in insulting or getting a rise out of you. Really, what would I gain? I thought we were simply having a pleasant conversation. You know, while we wait on your download. Long, long ago, I passed many a relaxed hour with colleagues, in the aftermath of all the hard work, waiting for the code to compile. This is all so pleasantly nostalgic for me!”

Behind her, only slightly obscured by her glowing form, the key’s head continued to pulse blue.

“I do hope you’re not offended that I monopolize the conversation,” Scyllith added with every appearance of real concern. “It isn’t that you have nothing interesting to say, children! Why, the adventures you’ve had in such short lives already—truly remarkable! But it’s all laid out before me like text on a screen, you see, which is ever so much faster a way to learn than by asking you a lot of annoying questions. What interesting things your memories reveal about the world. Imagine, my little Arachne managed to poke and prod Naiya into some semblance of paying attention, even for just a moment. Incredible! I always knew her power to be annoying had the capacity to change the world. Poor Naiya, though,” she said with a regretful sigh. “It got to be difficult to respect her, long before the end. As brilliant a mind as any among us, and yet she let herself be reduced to the capacity of a groundskeeper. Always so concerned with repairing the ecosystem and cleaning up the planet after our colleagues’ experiments got out of hand—which they inevitably did. If anything, you would think I would be her favorite colleague, since at least I had the courtesy to take my dangerous research to another plane of existence where it didn’t mess up her precious ecosystem. You know,” she added confidentially, “we were all supposed to leave behind every attachment and everything that identified us with the old world, when we came here. That was the agreement. Of course, not a one of us truly followed through on that, and it wasn’t all that long before even the pretense of it in public broke down. Poor Naiya, though. I think she never did get over what happened to her original country. That was a shame, of course. They were such nice people. So polite! But sadly, as it turns out, the ocean doesn’t stop rising if you apologize to it.”

She laughed, and it was as warm and kind and pleasant sound as any of them had ever heard, the kind of laugh that made everyone instinctively want to join in. Now, all three of them shuffled a few inches backward. It was chillingly eerie, the discordance of hearing such good-natured amusement over the apparent drowning of an entire nation. For all her apparent friendliness, it was a glimpse at the inherent cruelty of her aspect that commanded intimidated silence.

From most people, anyway.

“Kind of an asshole, aren’t you?” Gabriel observed.

Toby closed his eyes; Trissiny pressed a hand to her forehead.

“Aw, Gabriel,” Scyllith cooed, “that’s why you’re my favorite, you know. There’s always one person in every room who says what everyone is thinking, but hasn’t the gumption to voice aloud. That was always my role, back in the day. Don’t ever let them silence you, Gabriel. Every chorus of ‘think before you speak’ is a spurt of pure jealousy from someone who lacks the courage to speak at all.”

“Mm,” he grunted skeptically.

“Thinking before speaking,” Toby said quietly, “is the same as thinking before doing anything, which is always important. Words have weight.”

“A noble sentiment,” Scyllith said in a light tone, “born of a barely more than medieval grasp of psychology. If you thought before doing anything, Toby, you would never do anything. Most of the wonderful structure of the human mind, painstakingly assembled out of billions of years of evolution, serves the purpose of enabling you to act without pausing to consider the ramifications of everything, which is the only way you have time to act at all. Instinct, stereotype, intuition, analogy, emotion, pattern recognition… The mechanisms of the mind that cause you to misunderstand so much of the truth of reality are the only thing that kept your ancestors alive long enough to reproduce! And even so, you are not wholly wrong. Words can have a great impact. Have you ever paused to consider how much harm you have inadvertently done by opening your mouth—or failing to?”

“That criticism,” said Trissiny, “applies less to Toby than to basically anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Even a cursory glimpse at your memory shows that isn’t true, Trissiny,” Scyllith said kindly. “What of your Bishop Darling, or Shaeine? The motivations are very nearly opposite, but they have in common careful, purposeful control which young Tobias, unfortunately, lacks. It’s a real irony that she is the one to speak up in your defense, Toby,” she added, turning back to him with a warm smile, “the very person your carelessness has probably hurt the most. Why ever didn’t you tell her the rejection wasn’t personal? Even after all this time? All you had to do was say that you’re not interested in women, and you could have spared your friend so much pain. But your own privacy was just more important, wasn’t it?”

The silence that fell was like the blow of a hammer, Toby and Trissiny both gaping as if the very breath was driven right from them.

“You utter bitch,” Gabriel hissed, withdrawing his wand from his coat and extending it to full scythe form.

“Now, that is exceedingly inconsiderate, Gabriel,” Scyllith said in a tone of compassionate reproof. “You know how such gendered terms offend Trissiny. Honestly, the sheer disrespect both you boys show her is shocking. Now she has to wonder how much you really respect her principles, if all it takes for you to throw aside the pretense is a moment of anger. You see, children, this is what I was talking about. It’s nothing but trouble, letting these things fester; you should never be afraid to speak your truth! Why, Trissiny—”

Trissiny ripped out her sword and burst alight with divine energy. “Shut your slithering mouth!”

“Come, you’re better than that,” Scyllith said gently. “Embracing a moment of pain to gain a longer-term benefit is the whole nature of courage, something you don’t lack in the slightest! Really, what is the worst that could happen if you told Gabriel how you really feel about him? He’s not Toby; I do hope you’re not thinking it would end up the same way.”

“I—that’s not—I don’t—” Trissiny had gone white, sword upraised as if prepared to strike, but she seemed frozen in place.

“After all, don’t many of the great romances involve paladins? The fact they’re considered tragedies simply isn’t worth dwelling on, Trissiny. Everything ends; if you only started things on the basis of how they might end up, you would never take a risk or accomplish anything of note. Embrace it! Life is pain, anyway; take what pleasure you can before it all goes to hell. Listen to someone who’s been there!”

“Enough!” A staff of golden light coalesced in Toby’s hands. “It’s not hard to see what you’re doing. Be silent—”

Her warm, chiming laughter drowned out the rest of his sentence.

“Oh, Toby,” Scyllith said, fondly chiding. “What I’m doing is the lesser concern, here. What are you doing? Don’t you know better than to threaten and posture at a being who knows you pose them no threat at all? It merely makes you look ridiculous. Tell me, do you still have chihuahuas? They were these yappy little rats—”

She casually raised one slender arm to slap aside Gabriel’s scythe as he swung it at her head. A scream as of tearing metal resounded through the room, accompanied by a shockwave which knocked over a swath of mushrooms, and he stumbled back, barely keeping his grip on the weapon.

“Now, let’s have none of that,” Scyllith said indulgently. “Truly, Gabriel, that’s a magnificent weapon, and has a lot of history! If you force me to break it, it’ll be a real shame and we’ll both feel bad.”

“Just shut it!” he snarled, leveling the scythe at her and discharging a blast of black light.

She caught it. Scyllith held up the suspended beam of dark energy in her hand, turning it this way and that to examine it with detached curiosity, then tossed it aside with a flick of her wrist. Where it impacted the wall, a long stretch of mushrooms and lichen shriveled and disintegrated into dust.

“I don’t know what you’re so worried about, young man,” she said mildly. “Really, I do not. It’s not that I’m awfully surprised at how poorly your friends are taking some simple, constructive criticism; this is hardly the first time I’ve been around young people. I know how volatile it can be, having all those feelings. But honestly, Gabriel, what could I possibly say in correction to you? Everything you do is just so…” Slowly, her smile stretched, growing gradually ever wider until she was grinning at him in a truly disturbing rictus, her mouth stretching farther toward the edges of her stylized features than human lips could. “So wonderful. Just be you, Gabriel Arquin. I could not be more delighted at everything you do if I’d planned it myself.”

The pause which followed was pierced by a tiny chirping noise. On the wall behind her, the head of the key turned green.

“Ding!” Scyllith said cheerfully, glancing back at it. “The toast is done! What a shame—we were having such a lovely chat. But now you’ll have to fetch your key back to Vesk and consign little old me back to muddled oblivion. Ah, well, such is life. Step on up and claim your prize, children.”

All three glared at her, weapons upraised. As one, they took a single step forward, bringing themselves just out of range of her, surrounding the goddess in a three-point formation. There they hesitated.

“Well? Don’t be shy!” Scyllith’s grin widened even further, till it seemed in danger of actually splitting her head in half. “After all, only one of us has forever.”

The silent standoff held for another moment. Gabriel eased to the side, as if he might rush past her to the key, but she just turned her gaze directly on him, that unsettling rictus still in place on her features.

Then Trissiny straightened, shoving her blade back into its sheath. “I knew it. I knew that divine ass wouldn’t give us something we wouldn’t immediately need to use.”

“I really cannot overemphasize,” Scyllith cautioned while Trissiny withdrew the Pipe of Calomnar from her belt pouch, “how strongly I don’t recommend that, Trissiny. Come, just grasp your key. Pull it out of the machine and send me back. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“If there’s a time for kicking the board, this is it,” Gabriel said tensely.

“It’s the one thing she fears,” Toby added. Neither took their eyes off Scyllith, who was watching Trissiny with that wild, avid smile.

The Hand of Avei held the Elder Goddess’s gaze as she raised the flute to her lips and blew.

What came out wasn’t a sound. It hurt the ears, all right, but it was not a vibration in the air, but more of one through the soul.

And Scyllith started laughing. In the same way as before, at first, with a kind and pleasant tone, but this time it quickly escalated until she was practically screeching in hysteria.

All around them, the first beginnings of the unraveling of reality began to appear as the chaotic presence Trissiny had just summoned turned its attention upon them. The light shifted, flickering as if shadows were being cast by things not there. The mushrooms started to change, some growing and others merely altering shape.

“I had a little bet with myself, you see!” Scyllith informed them, still chuckling. “I was so, so certain that nothing I could possibly say would make you desperate enough or reckless enough to blow that flute. But it’s like I said—you can’t win them all! Ah, you children really are a delight. Here you go.”

She reached behind herself and plucked the key out of the wall. Immediately, the half-covered screens and machinery to either side of its panel went dark, and the light began slowly to fade from the crystal disc beneath her.

Scyllith’s own form began to dim, to grow subtly indistinct, as if her coherent essence were dissipating.

“Don’t you worry about little old me, children,” she said pleasantly, and tossed the key to Toby. “It was so very kind of you to give me the prospect of escaping my bonds, but really not necessary! I have my own arrangements. We’ll chat again soon, my dears. Now, remember, give my love to Arachne! You did promise.”

She fixed her glittering eyes on Toby, even as the rest of her body faded from existence, and finally the facade of warmth and kindness faded entirely. Her gaze and voice were ice cold in the last seconds before they vanished.

“I will hold you to it.”

The lights around the panel went dark, as did the crystal disc. The last of the ancient machines fell silent, and Scyllith’s presence was gone, dissipated back into whatever unfocused state she had been in before.

Their own situation did not markedly improve, though. The increasing intrusion of chaos made itself known, Calomnar’s approach heralded by an escalating breakdown of the very order of reality. The three of them clustered together, Toby clutching the key, but it was difficult to move; a quality akin to the helplessness of nightmares hung over the darkened facility, as if they were struggling to slog through molasses while some faceless monster pursued.

It was brighter, now, intermittently, sourceless light filling the room with a sickly greenish intensity, which apparently just served as a medium for the shadows of tentacles and claws which flexed and writhed along the walls. The mushrooms continued to twist and grow and transform all around them; now, some began to moan. They had voices like children. Along the stretches of the ancient facility’s walls and floor where Gabriel’s misdirected scythe blast had annihilated the covering fungus, rust spread across the incorruptible mithril.

And then, with a sudden onslaught of enormous psychic pressure that seemed to crush their very minds into the farthest corners of the room, the chaos-tainted god Calomnar arrived in person.

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14 – 29

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The silence of the ancient cavern hung uncontested for a few seconds.

“I’m with Izara,” Gabriel said at last. “That doesn’t sound like anything you should be doing.”

“It especially doesn’t sound like something we want to be near,” Toby added.

“You also heard me tell Izara that there’s no chance of apotheosis for you lot,” Vesk replied genially. “Understand that there’s no machine which can turn people into gods…”

“You literally just said—”

He pressed on, cutting Trissiny off. “It’s only part of the process, you see. The actual power and most of the work occurs in the overlapping fields of magic itself. The machinery initiates, controls, and guides the transformation. And not only is it too ancient and broken-down to even do that anymore, not only is it half-wrecked after the events of our own ascension, but such a thing can only be done at certain times, and this is not one of those. The necessary alignment is close, but not here yet. I’m not looking to elevate another god or kill an existing one, merely to access information that is found only within the machine. Speaking of which,” he added with a roguish grin, “there is also the fact that if you don’t retrieve that information, Elilial will retrieve you, as agreed. Plus you have no way out of this cavern unless—ahp! Uh uh.”

He held up a hand peremptorily, and Trissiny actually paused in the act of lunging at him with her fist upraised.

“If you’re going to commit slapstick upon the god of bards, Trissiny Avelea, you should be aware of the rhythms of comedy,” Vesk said severely. “You got two clean hits in, establishing the pattern, then shook it up for the third with a more elaborate play on the routine, as is proper. To keep the joke fresh, the next iteration will be a reversal, which I don’t think you’ll find nearly as satisfying.”

She blinked and slowly lowered her fist, looking confused rather than intimidated.

“As I said,” he continued, “I don’t dare go near the thing, especially while it’s on. It’s important for you to understand: this thing is dangerous for gods. That, as much as their overall failure, is why Themynra condemned the Irivoi: having access to it made them an existential threat to all of us in a way that nothing else possibly could be.”

“But this,” Toby whispered, turning to stare across the silent city. Silent for now, with its monstrous inhabitants hiding from the light. “How could anything justify this?”

“Themynra is the goddess of judgment, not justice,” Vesk replied with a fatalistic shrug. “She was always one for embracing harsh necessities even when they were morally unpalatable—and that was before her very personality was imprisoned by her aspect. But the seriousness of allowing Scyllith’s followers out also cannot be overstated. There’s just not time to explain to you the full details of what that would mean. What she is like, and what the drow whose society is built around her are like. You can mull the concept of cruelty as a foundational value all you want, and still not come close to the reality. For a while, Elilial had supporters among the Pantheon; at first, two thirds of the Trinity themselves advocated lightening her punishment. But then she expelled Scyllith back to this plane for us to deal with and that burned every last bridge and the possibility of any future ones. If not for Themynra’s foresight, I have no idea what would have become of the world. You may look upon these horrors and think them excessive, Toby, but realize that it wasn’t the individual offenses that made them necessary, but the combination. The Irivoi were slowly allowing themselves to be corrupted by the Lady of Light, and they had seen fit to grant themselves access to a forbidden godkilling machine. Not even they dared to dream of the damage they could have inflicted, nor how close they were to accidentally doing so.”

Again, there was silence in the shattered temple while they considered that.

“Of course,” Vesk said in a suddenly lighter tone, “it’s not in my nature to employ the stick without the carrot. Do this for me and I will make sure it’s worth your while. At the very least, you deserve to know what all this is about and why I put you to such trouble. Explanations come at the end of the story, but finish this, and they’ll come. And I’ll even go so far as to smooth your way toward your own scouring of the Shire.”

“Our what of the where?” Trissiny asked wearily. Vesk just winked at her.

“Here’s what I’m stuck on,” Gabriel said quietly. “This whole thing has been a damn cakewalk. We’ve been careening around the country, hobnobbing with interesting people and facing what were really very brief and insignificant challenges. Things with some heavy-handed moral lessons, sure, but nothing that put us in actual danger, and that’s beginning to be alarming. People keep saying that a quest from Vesk will test us to our very limits, but I can’t help feeling like we haven’t even approached those. Even that last bit where I went to actual Hell ended up being almost nothing. It was over in less than an hour and I didn’t so much as skin my knees—in fact, we came out of that with a new friend who you yourself said is going to be an asset later on. So…what gives, Vesk? Is this all just wacky hijinks, or are we about to hit the big, dramatic reversal?”

“Now, why is it Teal and not this one who claims me as a patron?” Vesk complained. “I swear, that girl has just about exhausted my patience. You’re more of a bard in spirit than she’s ever been, Arquin, and you don’t even try!”

“Yeah, but I don’t play an instrument,” Gabriel quipped without smiling. “What is guarding that machine, Vesk?”

“What is it that scares the other gods so much?” Trissiny added. “Even Elilial. I suspect, all of them but you, the one notably lacking sense.”

“Explanations come at the end of the story,” Vesk repeated with a vague little smile.

“Why?” Toby pressed.

The god’s shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Understand that I fully believe you can handle what’s down there, otherwise I wouldn’t risk the wrath of the Trinity by sending you—or the fate of the world at such a pivotal time by potentially depriving it of paladins. You can do this. But I’m not going to tell you what’s waiting down there because if I do, you won’t go.”

Trissiny’s sword cleared her scabbard with a soft rasp. “Hey, Gabe. Can I avoid the reversal of the running joke by suddenly, wildly escalating it?”

“I feel like a little build-up would help,” he said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “Try kicking him in the nuts before you go for a flesh wound.”

“At the last moment before the descent into darkness and the final confrontation,” Vesk intoned, “you shall have a gift from a mysterious stranger which will serve you only in the last extremity of desperation.”

“You’re at lot more strange than mysterious,” Trissiny sneered.

“And we’ve already had that,” Toby pointed out. “Salyrene gave us the bottle with Xyraadi in it. Does that really work more than once per story?”

“That didn’t count,” Vesk said peevishly. “The timing was all wrong, that plot device is for the final climax, not the third-arc escalation. Honestly, that meddling peacock! Who does she think she is? Do I tell her how to pull rabbits out of hats?”

“The thing I resent most,” Trissiny said to the others, “is that he’s making us listen to this in a sealed-off tomb of horrors where I can’t just walk away from him.”

“That can’t have been an accident,” Toby said dryly.

“It’s good banter, kids. I was a little worried at first, but you bicker pretty well even without the rest of your classmates. Behold!” Sounding eerily reminiscent of Professor Rafe, he produced a flute seemingly from thin air and held it out toward Trissiny, reverently extended on both hands. “The Pipe of Calomnar!”

All three of them took two steps back.

“I am not touching that thing,” Trissiny stated.

“Calm yourselves, the Mad Hallows are all perfectly inert unless used,” Vesk assured her. “It’s safe to carry, and carrying it is all I’m asking you to do. In fact, as a favor, would you give this to Arachne first chance you get?”

“You want to give Tellwyrn a chaos artifact?” Toby exclaimed. “How can you possibly think that’s a good idea?”

“Simple: she’s already got the other two.”

“What?!” Trissiny screeched.

“And more importantly, she is the first owner of either the Book of Chaos or the Mask of Calomnar who has held onto them for decades and refrained from using them. There is officially nobody in all of history I trust as custodian of the Mad Hallows but Arachne. Please give her the Pipe, Trissiny. And, hey, if in the near future you find yourself in such a situation that invoking the presence of Calomnar happens to seem like a winning move, well, I guess that’s your business.”

“I hate you,” Trissiny informed him.

“Then my work here is done,” he said serenely.

“He keeps saying Mad Hallows,” Gabriel said. “Is that a thing? I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s really old-fashioned,” Toby replied. “I’ve only seen it in really old stories. Mostly the boring ones the monks wouldn’t let me read until after my calling and then made me. I always thought it had fallen out of use because none of those things were even real.”

“The way I was taught, there were five of them,” Trissiny added. “Oh, give it here, if it’ll get us out of this faster.”

“That’s the spirit,” Vesk said as she gingerly took the flute from him, grimacing.

“Why her, though?” Gabriel asked.

“You were just saying you don’t play an instrument,” Toby said with grim amusement. “She does.”

“Ocarinas aren’t flutes,” Trissiny grunted, carefully stowing the chaos artifact in her largest belt pouch next to her libram. Fortunately it was smaller than most modern flutes and managed to fit, though its mouthpiece protruded slightly from under the flap once she buckled it again. “And the last thing I intend to do is play it.”

“Road to hell, Trissiny,” Vesk said smugly. “Now listen good, kids. Once you reach the machine, you must find a slot this key will fit in. There should be only one. Insert and turn it, and then wait. When the data jewel turns green, it will have absorbed all the information I require to finish this. Here’s the catch: once that key is turned, everything down there will begin to wake up. Everything. You just have to hold out until it’s finished.”

“Hold out,” Gabriel grunted. “Could you possibly have found a less ominous way to put that?”

“Gabe, my boy, every word I choose is perfectly selected and arranged to convey precisely the impression I intend.”

Gabriel sighed. “I was afraid of that.”

It seemed he had brought them directly to the temple for more reasons than the view. The tunnel leading to the ancient Infinite Order facility began beneath the ruined temple of Themynra itself, which was both oddly fitting and a relief to learn as it meant they didn’t have to pass through any dreadcrawler-infested alleys to reach their destination. Vesk assured them that the huge spiders did not enter the tunnel, and would not be encountered once they passed inside.

That was one of those reassurances that was a relief at first, but grew unsettling as they pondered the implications.

At least it was a small reprieve to be away from Vesk again, as Trissiny pointed out while they descended into darkness. The first thing they did was provide their own light, but that much, at least, was easy. Trissiny lit up her own aura and took the lead; since she had much deeper mana reserves, that was the most logical disposition of their energy. Gabriel came along at the end, Ariel hovering beside him with her blue runes glowing. The interplay of blue and golden light made for a surprisingly pretty effect.

Which was good, because there wasn’t much else to see for the first hour. For a while after passing through the aperture in the temple’s sub-level, there was intermittent evidence of drow stonework, signs that at some point, someone had cared enough to make part of the trip aesthetically pleasing. It tapered off quickly, though, and most of the journey was through natural subterranean corridors, with occasional sections clearly carved out of living rock, but in a perfunctory fashion more reminiscent of mine shafts than elven masonry.

The best thing about the tunnel was that it was a tunnel, and not a labyrinth; there were no branching passages, at least none large enough for a person to fit through. Cracks in the walls were not infrequent, some sizable, and in several places they crossed streams or had to step through cold pools of standing water. Some of the crevices they passed emitted notable streams of wind, and occasionally there would be the distant sound of dripping water or the whistle of air.

The air itself was clammy and often stale, but at least it remained comfortably breathable no matter how far they descended. It wasn’t even always a descent; the tunnel was only straight in a general sense, dipping up and down and veering this way and that. There was really no way to tell how deep they were, and wouldn’t have been even had the dips and twists of their course not gradually confused any sense of direction they had. Sure, they had started from a drow city, but it wasn’t exactly clear how deep Irivoss lay. Vesk had said they were not far from Veilgrad; if this tunnel were passing through the Stalrange it could be well above sea level for all they knew.

Most of the passage was conducted in silence. They made some abortive conversation early on in the journey, but it trailed off quickly. By and large, they spoke only to give warning or offer help upon encountering obstructions and hazards in the rough path. It was a quiet without awkwardness; the three were quite comfortable with each other’s company.

After passing through uncut stone for such a long period that Gabriel had wondered out loud if they’d somehow become lost, evidence of the presence of drow suddenly reappeared, just at the very end of the journey. The mouth of the tunnel was carved again, where the original passage appeared to have terminated against a stone wall and had to be dug out. A very thick stone wall: they passed through nearly a hundred yards of precisely cut corridor, this one actually embellished with decorative flourishes which denoted its importance. At the very end, there was elvish script engraved in the wall at chest level. Trissiny said it looked close enough to the elvish language she knew that it would probably be legible to a modern elf—it hardly changed at all over time, certainly nowhere near as fast as human languages—but she wasn’t literate in elvish and couldn’t make anything of it.

The drow had ended their tunnel at a vast cavern, and apparently had come out halfway up a steep wall. Descending from the opening was a piled-up hill of gravel and loose scree, where there had apparently not been time (or perhaps merely not inclination) to construct proper stairs. It descended haphazardly for a good ten yards to the floor of the chamber, whose walls were lost to the distance and darkness; the actual ceiling was beyond the reach of their light, too, though Trissiny’s glow illuminated the lowest tips of stalactites, some truly colossal.

Before and below them, in the middle of the apparently natural chamber, lay a wrecked building of metal that clearly did not belong there. It wasn’t large, consisting of two domes connected by a narrow section, one of them closest to the cavern’s entrance and with a door almost directly facing it.

The silence was disturbed by a multiple constant drips and trickles of water, echoing through the ancient shadows, their sources invisible.

“I guess we’re here,” Gabriel said unnecessarily. “So, uh…what would you say is the best way down this?”

“Carefully,” Toby suggested.

“Not too carefully,” Trissiny disagreed, stepping out onto the hillside. “Look how loose this is. Best bet is a controlled fall, I think. Like so.”

She crouched, bracing herself with one hand against the rubble and the other outstretched for balance, and slid smoothly down. Apart from some wobbling on the way, she made it without falling, and at the base straightened up, brushing her glove off.

Toby remained upright, flexing his knees and managing to make his slide look effortless. Behind him, Gabriel almost immediately lost his footing and somehow spun completely around in his tumble down the rocks, landing head-first on the cavern floor.

“Show of hands!” he said cheerfully, clambering back to his feet. “Who saw that coming?”

Toby smiled wryly and brushed loose rock dust off his coat, but none of them were in a joking mood. The door of the ancient facility now lay only a few yards ahead.

They came to a stop before it, staring. The aperture was flanked by two transparent tubes, or had been; one still flickered faintly with purple light, while the other lay scattered about in shattered fragments. The door itself was open, half of it protruding from the walls at a drunken angle with the other not in evidence. It was more obvious from higher up, but somehow the entire structure had been twisted at its midsection, slightly but noticeably, and this frontmost dome, door and all, sat at an angle. It surrounding walls were scarred and in a couple of places, rent all the way through.

Finally Trissiny stepped up onto the structure’s entry, her boots ringing on its floor, and touched the metal wall. “This is mithril.”

“Every Infinite Order facility I’ve seen was,” Gabriel agreed, nodding.

“But…it’s torn.” She turned back to face them, wide-eyed. “What can tear mithril?”

“Nothing,” he said. “The Avatar under the grove in Viridill told me mithril is impervious to any known physical force. He claimed the Infinite Order structures buried in the world’s surface will survive even after the sun explodes.”

“And yet,” she whispered, turning again to stare at a jagged gouge in the side of the dome not far from the entrance.

“It’s not a question of strength against strength, I suspect,” said Toby, stepping up beside her. “If mithril physically cannot be damaged… Then whatever happened here put all physical laws in abeyance.”

“I guess apotheosis isn’t a gentle process,” Gabriel added, joining them on the lip of the abandoned facility.

“I think you’d better take point, Gabe,” said Trissiny.

“You’re the one with the shield!” he retorted.

She shook her head. “I don’t believe anything in here is going to jump out and attack us, at least not until we turn that key. Vesk would have warned us if so.”

“That’s giving Vesk more credit than I think he’s earned,” Toby muttered.

“It’s more that you know the most about Elder God stuff,” she continued, looking seriously at Gabriel. “I’ve never even been in one of these places before, and Toby didn’t go with you to actually ask the elves and that Avatar about them. From this point on, you’re the most likely to have any idea what anything we encounter means.”

“Fair enough,” he said with a sigh, patting her on the pauldron and stepping forward, Ariel drifting silently alongside him. “Onward to glory, or whatever.”

There were no lights within, just the glows they brought with them and the constant drip of water. In fact, it was louder in here, both because of the echo and because it seemed to be dripping in multiple places inside the dome. Trissiny’s golden glow revealed multiple tears and punctures in the arched roof, some of which clearly admitted the running water they now heard.

“I don’t get it,” she muttered as they stepped carefully across the floor, which in addition to being tilted was notably wet. “Apparently this place has only been abandoned for eight millennia or so. Don’t stalagmites take millions of years to form?”

Rocky protrusions rose from the floor around them, none more than knee-high; they grew higher along one nearby patch of wall, nearly reaching the ceiling.

“Big ones, sure,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But this is just… I mean, anywhere you’ve got dripping water with a high mineral content, you’re going to get limestone formations. I’ve seen stuff like this crusted around sewer grates back in Tiraas. At least, in our neighborhood,” he added, grinning at Toby. “In ritzy districts where they have ornamental ironwork, everything stays miraculously clean.”

“Yeah, and that’s another thing,” Toby added. “The limestone crust in Tiraan sewers glows in the dark. Something to do with the rainwater passing through an atmosphere charged by all the arcane byproducts of the factory antennae. If the stuff absorbs magic that way, best to step very carefully. There’s no telling what kind of loose magic will be haunting a place like this.”

“I don’t think any of us were planning on going dancing in here,” Trissiny pointed out, “but good advice, regardless.”

Most of the floor was clear of stone formations, at least, the tiny stalagmites only managing to take root against metal protrusions where upthrust bits of the floor allowed small pools to form. Whatever had rent the mithril long ago didn’t leave it vulnerable to rust, and the three of them simply had to watch their footing due to the tilt and the rivulets of water streaming across the floor. The lack of anything to trip over meant they could watch where they were heading instead of having to watch their feet.

There didn’t seem much to see within the dome itself, but directly across from it loomed two apertures into the narrow section of the building behind. On the wall between them loomed a structure which grew more clear as they approached with their light.

At one point, it had evidently been some manner of reception desk, a semicircle of flat counter ringing the area behind. Spaced along it were screens, none active and most completely shattered, though there was one that was merely cracked. More screens and inscrutable columns of machinery rose from the wall behind, originally far more orderly in design than the haphazard work of the Rust such as Gabriel and Toby had seen in Puna Dara, though now it was half-encrusted in streamers of limestone, due to the gaping hole in the ceiling through which the majority of the water appeared to be dripping.

In the middle of the space, twisted and half-crumpled by some mighty blow, slumped what had once been a roughly cylindrical shape on wheels, now effectively glued to the floor by the stone deposits beginning to climb its body. At the front of its domed head was a flat panel which glinted in Trissiny’s glow, though it was no longer lit from within. Metal arms extended from it in all directions, clutching multiple points along the desk and the machinery behind. In fact, upon closer inspection, the thing appeared to be bodily holding the entire structure together against whatever force had buckled this entire building.

Set atop the desk, positioned just off-center so it did not block the view of the broken machine from the door, was a metal plaque which had apparently not come with the building. Though not tarnished, it was not mithril; in fact, it was hard to tell exactly given the color of the light with them, but it looked like it might have been gold. Water dripped almost directly on it, and its sides and base were encrusted in lips of mineral buildup, affixing it to the crazily tilted top of the desk.

Though the words engraved on its surface were in letters they recognized, the message was inscrutable.




“Look at this,” Trissiny said, reaching out to touch the plaque.

“I can’t read it either, Triss,” said Gabriel. “It’s in Esperanto.”

“Not that,” she said. “Look closely. See the stone around the rim? It’s all jagged here. It looks like…”

“It looks,” Toby finished when she trailed off, “like it completely covered the plaque, but someone chipped it away to reveal the message.”

They clustered around and stared at the engraved metal in silence, surrounded by ancient death, the constant drip of water, and the white noise of their own thoughts.

“Someone else has been in here,” Gabriel finally said, unnecessarily. “Recently.”

“How long ago would you say this was done?” Trissiny wondered aloud.

“Well, I’m not a detective or a geologist,” Gabe replied. “But at a guess… A few years, decades at the most? Look how much water is dripping everywhere, and there’s none built up on the letters where it was cleared off.”

“Within our lifetimes, at least,” Toby murmured.

Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Vesk didn’t mention anything about that. Do you think it’s because he’s holding back on us, or because he didn’t know?”

“What I think is I can’t decide which of those options is scarier,” Gabriel said frankly. “Come on, there’s nothing else to see here. I bet what we’re after is in the other end of this structure.”

They chose the doorway on the right side, just because it was uphill and therefore probably less flooded. That turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, as there was no water dripping in the corridor beyond. The walls and floor buckled and warped, making footing tricky, but not excessively so. Doors lined the left side of the corridor, some intact but most partially broken or missing entirely to reveal the rooms which had lined the building’s thin central section. Though they paused and glanced into these, none proved interesting enough to merit further investigation; all were either empty or half-filled with debris of surprisingly mundane appearance, mostly the wreckage of ancient furniture, tables and chairs clearly not of mithril and thus rusted away to scraps in the damp air.

Halfway down the hall, the major twist of the building occurred, creating a tricky patch of floor they had to jump across as it was torn completely open to reveal a four-foot drop to the rocks below, lined with rims of jagged metal. Beyond that, though, the building evened out completely. Apparently whatever cataclysm had struck here had consumed only the front half. Past the breaking point, there wasn’t even any dripping water. The doors were all closed and didn’t respond to Trissiny’s attempt to open one.

They did not wait around to spend excessive time on that, though, by unspoken consensus. All shared Gabriel’s theory: whatever they were here to see lay in the final chamber, a dome slightly smaller than the wrecked entry.

Fittingly, that door was open.

The room beyond was completely lined with enigmatic machinery, all dark and silent now, arrangements of screens and metal protrusions which meant nothing to any of them. More strikingly, though, the last chamber was filled with a profusion of fungus. Mushrooms formed a veritable carpet, some specimens rising to chest height lining the walls, and a crawling coating of lichen obscured more of the old equipment than was exposed to light, leaving only its shape revealed, slightly blunted by the fuzz. Though there was no visible barrier of any kind, the growths stopped abruptly at the open doors into the hallways beyond.

“Great,” Trissiny grunted, standing just inside and staring around. “How much of this do you reckon we’ll have to clean off before we find what we’re looking for? My guess is all of it.”

“My guess is none of it,” said Toby, stepping past her. “Look at this.”

He led the way toward a spot on the rear left arc of the rounded wall, where there was a gap in the fungus. In fact, it was obvious upon approach that it had been meticulously cleared away from a specific area. Particularly thick stands of conical mushrooms rose to either side, but there was a gently sloping disc of crystal set into the floor next to the wall which had obviously had the interlopers deliberately removed. Tiny mushrooms had begun to sprout around its base again, but the disc itself, easily large enough for one person to stand on, was clear.

On the wall behind it was a single panel with a single slot, scraped free of lichen. The bluish fuzzy growth had begun to creep back over it, but so far was only extending a thin coat past its boundaries. The panel remained mostly clean.

“I knew it,” Gabriel said fatalistically. “Our mysterious predecessor was after the same thing we are. I wonder if they got it? That’s the big question.”

“Not necessary,” Trissiny replied. “Look, the key won’t fit into that. I don’t think this is the machine we’re looking for…”

“Not if you think of it as a key,” said Toby, producing the combined key from inside his coat. “But it’s not one, is it? Just happens to look like one. The shaft is too thick to stick it in like that’s a lock, but it looks to me like it would fit the teeth just…about…”

He raised the key toward the panel held upright, parallel to the wall, and pressed the jagged black edge of what had been the last piece they gathered against the slot. Vertically, it was the right length, but it didn’t fit. Not only did the teeth not want to slide in, but the rounded head of the key—the “data jewel” Salyrene had given them—protruded and blocked it from lying flat against the wall.

“There, see?” said Trissiny. “Now, let’s see if anything else looks—”

“Hang on,” Gabriel objected. “Turn it the other way, Toby.”

He was already moving it, swiveling the key to point down instead of up. In that position, the teeth sank neatly into the slot, connecting with a satisfying little click to whatever met them on the inside. The shaft of the key extended, in that position, just past the edge of the protruding panel, allowing the wider head of the data jewel to rest against the lichen lining the rest of the wall.

As soon as it was in place, a red light rose into being in the black, glassy surface of the key’s head. Then it turned blue, and began to pulse slowly.

“Then again,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “sometimes I’m wrong.”

“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, stepping back. The crystal disc on the floor, on which Toby was still standing, had begun to glow a clean white.

Screens flickered to life on either side of the panel, producing nothing but light as whatever they depicted was obscured by a thick coat of lichen. A low hum, reminiscent of powerful arcane magic at work, rose from the wall itself.

“Uh, Avatar?” Gabriel said hesitantly. There was no answer.

“Maybe you should get off that,” Trissiny suggested urgently. Toby, nodding agreement, stepped down and away from the crystal panel, just before it began to emit what looked like white mist.

“Wait,” Gabe muttered, “he said there was something called a sub-OS… Uh, Computer! Dialect English, north… Damn, it was north something. Emerian? Armenian? Twentieth century, I remember that—”

“Gabriel, don’t shout half-remembered tidbits at the ancient thinking machines,” Trissiny exclaimed in exasperation. “Gods know what you’re saying!”

“Guys,” Toby said loudly, and unnecessarily. They had all seen it, and backed up further, crushing mushrooms underfoot.

Light and mist streamed upward, rapidly thickening as if to take on physical shape. In fact, that quickly proved to be exactly the shape. The amorphous fog coalesced in a rough pillar rising from the crystal disc, at first glowing intensely. The illumination steadily receded, though, as if the light were being withdrawn into the column and contributing to its shape. It finally stabilized, the projection revealed fully—pure white and still faintly luminous, but not blindingly so.

It was a woman, sort of.

In fact, it looked more like a doll. Roughly human height, though it was hard to be certain as she hovered a foot off the ground, she was unnaturally slim. Not bony, though; her limbs and graceful neck, and the lines of her torso, were all curved in a way that deliberately suggested femininity. Her head was just slightly too large for her body, but not jarringly. In fact, there was an aesthetic quality to it which was quite pleasing. For all intents and purposes the figure appeared nude, though it was not physically detailed enough to be explicit.

Actually, she was quite beautiful, though more as a work of visual art than as a woman.

There was a brief pause, and then light blossomed again behind the creature’s smooth head, forming into a slowly rotating ring of glyphs that backlit her like a halo.

And finally, her eyes opened.

They were a little large in her lean face, like an elf’s, and black with a jewel-like quality, devoid of whites or irises. It seemed as if a galaxy of stars swirled in the depths of each. She blinked once, then smiled at them, and there was a warmth and kindness in the expression which was instantly soothing.

“Oh…oh, my,” she said in what was easily the loveliest voice any of them had ever heard. It was at once breathy and deep, layered in a way that only the most skilled of actors and orators ever achieved. “How long has it been? Am I… Oh, but forgive me, children. Was it you who woke me? You have my thanks.”

“You’re…welcome,” Toby said hesitantly. “Um, sorry, we weren’t expecting…?”

“Why come to this forsaken place?” she inquired musically, blinking those amazing eyes once more. “Is this still…? Please, your pardon. I am so…unfocused. It’s been so long since my mind was…all in one place. It is almost disorienting, to be oriented again.”

The three of them glanced at each other. Trissiny rested one hand on the hilt of her sword; Gabriel very pointedly did not reach for his own divine weapon, currently tucked inside his coat in wand form. Whatever this creature was, she now stood between them and the key, which continued to pulse blue on the panel behind her.

“So, it’s nice to meet you, ma’am,” Gabriel said after a pause. “Excuse my asking, but…what kind of fairy are you?”

“A fairy!” She laughed, and it was like listening to music. Raised in mirth, her voice was even more beautiful. Pleasant, comforting, and chime of welcome joy in that forgotten place. “Oh, what charming young people you are. A fairy! I have been called many things, but that is a first!”

“Uh, sorry,” he said quickly. “No offense was meant! It’s just that I don’t sense any magic from you, and that’s the only kind I—”

“Gabe,” Trissiny said warningly.

“Oh, yes. Yes, of course,” the glowing woman said kindly, nodding her head toward them. The halo illuminating it from behind did not move along with the gesture. “I am sorry, it’s just that I’m only now putting the pieces back together, as it were. This really is very confusing, but I shall have myself straightened out quite soon, I’m sure. Please excuse my little lapse in manners, children. It is such a very great pleasure to meet you all. You may call me Scyllith.”

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14 – 28

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Vesk doubled over very satisfyingly, the breath seemingly driven from him. Even the fact that this was an obvious case of playacting on his part didn’t dull the appreciative smiles it brought from several of those present. Trissiny didn’t smile, simply turning her back on him and resuming what had been her original course.

She didn’t hug Gabriel, after all, but reached out to grab him by both shoulders, and only then drew in a deep breath and blew it out in relief, as if unwilling to believe he was actually there until she had her hands on him.

“Thank the gods, Gabe. Are you…okay?”

“I’m really thirsty,” he said frankly. “You have no idea how dry the air is over there. Yeah, Triss, I’m fine. You guys?”

“We had the easy half of the bargain, don’t forget,” Toby said, smiling as he strode up. He did hug Gabriel, and was hugged back. Trissiny took a step back, smiling at the two of them for the long moment they shared.

Behind them, Izara blinked, a gesture so slow it verged on simply closing her eyes, and a serene smile spread across her thin features. Around her, the air seemed to lighten.

“Oh! Right.” Gabe released Toby and pulled back, turning to the woman who was now surreptitiously trying to hide behind him—which didn’t work well, since she was taller by a few inches. “Are you okay, Xyraadi?”

“I…have been manhandled before, with far less courtesy than that,” she said warily. Her yellow eyes had fixed on Trissiny, taking in the silver armor, and she stood tensed as if prepared to bolt. “It is a very great relief to be out of that place, again. I could have done without a personal audience with the Dark Lady and that creature Vanislaas, but given how quickly it was all over, I think I can forgive you for bringing me there.”

“I beg your pardon,” Agasti interjected, stepping toward them wearing an expression that verged on awed, “but did you say Xyraadi?”

“Ah, yes,” Gabriel said, grinning at them. “Everybody, meet the help Salyrene kindly arranged for us. You remember Xyraadi was mentioned when we were in Vrin Shai? I know we weren’t in there long, but she kept my ass alive the whole time; I would’ve been a sitting duck without her help. Xyraadi, may I present Mortimer Agasti, attorney at law and the only Izarite warlock I’ve ever met. And these are my two best friends! Toby Caine, Hand of Omnu, and Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”

Xyraadi glanced at Agasti and then Toby before her eyes returned to Trissiny, her lips pressed into a frightened line. She managed a terse nod of her crested head and a small noise deep within her throat.

Trissiny stepped forward, meeting her eyes, and held out a gauntleted hand. “Xyraadi? I understand you’ve been an ally of the gods for a very long time. Thank you very much for looking after Gabriel. I truly don’t think I could thank you enough for that.”

“I…” The khelminash swallowed once, nodding again.

“It’s all right,” Trissiny said in a softer voice. “I’m not going to stab you.”

“Well, you can’t blame her for wondering,” Vesk remarked from the sidelines. “I’m fine, by the way, thanks everybody for your concern.”

“You hush,” Izara ordered.

“I have known another Hand of Avei,” Xyraadi said, still tense. “I worked with her toward common cause for several days before she stopped actively trying to kill me. It was three years before she would accept me being on watch when our party camped and refrained from putting divine wards around me as I slept. I had to nearly die saving her life before she consented to speak with me directly.”

“That…sounds about right,” Trissiny said, her hand remaining outstretched and open. “And honestly, that also describes me just a few years ago. Hands of Avei…have to see the world a bit more black and white than it really is. You can’t very well bring the light into a world if you hold too much respect for the darkness. But the world is more complex than it used to be, and I have to appreciate the shades of gray more than the sisters who come before me. I judge you by your actions, Xyraadi, and they mark you a friend.”

Slowly, the demon reached out and placed her slender hand in the paladin’s grip. Trissiny closed her gloved fingers gently around Xyraadi’s and squeezed once, smiling at her, before letting go.

“There truly are wonders in the world,” Xyraadi said, herself sounding awed.

Agasti cleared his throat, catching her attention, and bowed deeply to her. By that point, there was no trace left of the hunch or stiffness which seemed to have plagued him just the day before. “My lady, it is a tremendous honor to make your acquaintance, and one I never imagined I should enjoy. You are a creature of legend, Xyraadi. Legends only told in certain circles, true, but legends nonetheless. Please consider me humbly at your disposal; I shall be only too glad to help you adjust to the world as it is now.”

“You are too kind,” she said, clearly mystified, but placed her hand in his outstretched fingers next. Agasti didn’t offer his grip in the same position as Trissiny’s, but gracefully lifted her hand and brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles.

“There, now, isn’t that just lovely?” Vesk said cheerfully, swaggering over to them with his hovering lute trailing along behind. “New friends and old, united in common whuff!”

Trissiny pivoted and rammed her fist in a precise uppercut into his solar plexus, bending him over again. This time he staggered to one side and his lute fell to the ground with a sad, discordant little plonk.

“I know that’s bound to get old eventually,” Gabriel remarked, “but something tells me it’ll be a while.”

“You two can come out,” Izara said kindly, turning to speak in the direction of the carriage which was parked some yards back down the path. “Elilial is gone, and neither of us the sort of god who smites without reason.”

“It’s quite all right,” Agasti added as Arkady and Kami gingerly poked their heads around from behind the vehicle. “Come, be sociable. The danger has passed.”

“Ah, but there’s always more danger!” Vesk declaimed, straightening. For all that he reacted like any mortal when physically assaulted, he recovered from the hits faster than a person of mere flesh and blood would. “Fortunately, you two won’t be asked to charge into it. Nor you, Mr. Agasti, nor our newest friend Xyraadi, here. Once more, it is time for a parting of paths, as our intrepid heroes proceed on to the next stage of their destiny! A good bit of the reason for this whole trip was introducing you kids to some new faces who’ll be more important later.”

Trissiny turned to him again and he took two circumspect steps to the left, his lute swinging around to hover behind him while plucking an offended little arpeggio.

“I knew it,” Gabriel said gravely. “The real great doom was the friends we made along the way.”

Toby drew in a breath as if to sigh, then grinned at him. “Gods, am I glad you’re okay.”

“But enough of that!” Vesk said more briskly, even as he minced around the group to place himself as far from Trissiny as possible without removing himself from the conversation entirely. “Let’s see the fruits of your labor, champions! How’s my key coming along?”

“You have got some nerve,” Trissiny spat.

“Indeed, you might say that’s my calling card!” Vesk said brightly, flicking a hand in her direction. A small piece of thick paper flew from his fingers, heading right for her face with the speed and precision of a paper glider, causing her to catch it purely by reflex. Trissiny thus found herself holding an actual calling card.

While she stared at this in utter disbelief, the god turned his attention back to the other two paladins, grinning and rubbing his hands together. “Well? Don’t keep a deity in suspense!”

“Oh, so it’s only okay when you do it?” Gabriel muttered, but obligingly reached into his pocket. Toby didn’t bother to comment, simply producing the conjoined first two pieces of the key they had gathered.

Vesk reached out with both hands, almost reverently taking the objects from them. Slowly, with a solemnity actively contrasted by Trissiny flinging his card to the ground in disgust, he brought them together. The mithril fragment Gabriel had snagged from the temple wouldn’t have been taken for the teeth of a key on its own. Flat on one end, save for small indentations which caused it to fit neatly into the markings on the side of Gretchen’s Dowry, its other end was an irregular pattern of jagged points and angles, a thin lip of some glossy black material like obsidian emerging to resemble the edge of a serrated blade.

It attached neatly to the others, though, and the thing in the god’s hand did indeed have the aspect of a large, old-fashioned key. The shape was evocative, if the resemblance was not precise. Vesk held it out before them on his outstretched palm.

“Behold,” he said softly. “Once upon a time, a collection of interlocking bits and pieces such as might have been cluttering up anybody’s junk drawer. In this era, a rare assemblage of ancient and precious relics. But so it is with the passage of time, which elevates all trash to treasure—in the eyes of the archaeologists, if nothing else. To us…to you…this means more than you can possibly imagine.”

“I can think of precious few things you might do with that,” Izara said quietly, “none of them wise.”

“Ah, but dear sister,” he said, giving her a roguish grin and wink and closing his fingers around the key. “How often am I wise, yet how often am I right? In my experience, there is very little connection between those two qualities.”

She just shook her head. “I’ve learned to trust you, Vesk. I dearly hope you know what you are doing.”

“Especially since you as good as sold us to Elilial to do it,” Toby added, staring flatly at the god of bards.

“Here, since you’ve appointed yourself keeper of the artifact,” Vesk said with a less than subtle note of mockery now in his solemnity, handing the key back to Toby. “Now say your goodbyes, kids, we’ve got a long way to go, and this last leg of the journey you’ll have to make without any sidekicks. Though, frankly, you could have kept some of them along for a little bit longer. Honestly, Trissiny, what’s the big idea, scaring off the comedy relief I found for you? Without the Jenkins brothers, Gabe’s had to pick up that slack, and he has his own character development to—”

Trissiny strode swiftly through the center of the group, aiming another jab with her right fist at his midsection. Vesk reflexively ducked and retreated, bending his body to evade the blow and in the process bringing his head down and forward, which put it right within range of her other hand. He evaded the feint, but she slapped him upside the noggin with her shield.

Nobody paid the god the slightest attention as he rolled on the ground, clutching his skull and groaning melodramatically. Agasti turned to the still-nervous Xyraadi, bowing courteously to her again.

“My dear, I realize you are something of a fish out of water; rest assured I will not allow you to go without aid or shelter so long as I have it to offer. I believe you’ll find my home quite comfortable, if you would do me the honor of accepting my hospitality. Indeed, I very much look forward to the conversations we shall have in the days to come!”

“Mr. Agasti is a trusted friend,” Gabriel assured her when she turned her eyes questioningly to him. “I’m really sorry to just yank you back and then dump you like this, but believe me, you’ll be just fine with him. I don’t know how long this quest is going to keep us occupied, or what’s coming next, but I’ll do my best to come see you as soon as I can, okay?”

“Ah…well. I appreciate that very much. And I shall be glad to accept your offer, M. Agasti,” the demon said, inclining her head toward Mortimer. She then looked past him at the carriage, where the two revenants had emerged fully, but so far declined to approach any closer to the gods. “But perhaps the farewells are premature; it seems none of us is going anywhere quickly. In all the confusion your horses have run off.”

There was a momentary pause. Vesk, still slumped on the ground, grinned hugely and opened his mouth, but closed it when fixed by a glare from Izara.

“Also,” Gabriel said solemnly, “Mortimer has lots and lots of books. That’ll help you a bunch. You’ve, uh, got a lot to catch up on.”

Instantaneous travel by the auspices of a god wasn’t very much like being teleported around by Tellwyrn. There was less sensation, and not even the noise of displaced air. Vesk’s method was also a whole level more sophisticated, given how he arranged them mid-transit. The four of them had vanished from the sunny hillside below the Wyrnrange after saying their farewells to the others, and reappeared in darkness, in what seemed to be a ruined temple. It was hard to tell as they couldn’t see beyond the tiny island of firelight in which they found themselves, and anyway were more distracted by the fire and their own positions. They were seated on fallen hunks of masonry surrounding the flames, as if they’d been there for hours in conversation. Even their eyes were already adjusted to the light.

“I really hate it when people do that,” Toby said with uncharacteristically open annoyance. “I think yours is even worse than the way Tellwyrn does it.”

“Not at all!” Vesk said cheerfully from across the low flames. The fire looked to have been burning for quite a while, and was on the verge of sputtering out. “I can attest that I moved you through space, not unlike what you call shadow-jumping. Arachne’s method is a whole other kettle of fish. Tell me, have you covered the great quandry of teleportation in Yornhaldt’s class yet?”

Gabriel straightened up, seemingly ignoring the question, and turned on his seat to peer into the darkness around them. The shapes of scarred and pitted columns rose from the stone floor all around, barely visible where the fire illuminated them. Beyond that was nothing but fathomless blackness. “Did you hear something moving?”

“I wasn’t aware teleportation had any great quandries,” Toby answered the god. “I thought the method was pretty well ironed out by this point.”

“Oh, I don’t mean method,” Vesk replied airily, “I mean the ethical quandry. This is the reason wood elves generally refused to be teleported, by the way. See, in arcane teleportation, a person or thing is dissolved at one point and reappears at another. But! Here’s the unanswerable question: was that person moved, or destroyed and then re-created?”

Silence answered him. Then Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh.

“I might’ve known you’d find a way to ruin even that.”

“And she just ‘ports people around whenever she feels like it,” Toby huffed. “Usually doesn’t even ask. She’s even an elf!”

“Well, you have to understand Arachne’s mindset,” Vesk chuckled. “She’s never had much patience for philosophical dilemmas. Everybody comes out the other end with their memories and personality as intact and unchanged as their bodies, so why bother mulling pointless questions? Stuff like that is the lion’s share of why Arachne has never fit in with the other elves.”

“Also it’s pretty much a bogus question,” Gabriel said distractedly, still peering about at the surrounding dark. “Since you can’t break the teleport spell into its component parts. You can’t use it to just disappear someone without an exit point, or duplicate them. You have to move the subject from one point to another. Okay, I know I heard something out there.”

“Where are we?” Trissiny demanded.

“Uncomfortably close to Veilgrad, as the mole burrows,” Vesk said, leaning forward so that the firelight cast dramatic shadows over his face and causing her to roll her eyes. “Welcome, my children, to the lost city of Irivoss.”

Toby frowned. “Where?”

“There are, as you know, three Themynrite drow cities upon this continent,” Vesk explained, his voice echoing in the darkness. “Tar’naris, Akhvaris, and the unnamed city. Yes, I know its name, but nobody on the surface needs to; for purposes of this discussion, that’s an apt demonstration of my point. Each Themynrite city is an island, deprived of contact with its sister cities. All are fully devoted to Themynra’s sacred charge: to form a living, fighting barrier between Scyllith’s deep drow and the surface world. Existing in isolation as they do, they have developed no overarching Themynrite culture, and each has created its own way of expressing her will. The Narisians, like the Nathloi over in Sifan, have raided the surface for slaves and supplies, and have been amenable to peaceful trade and, much more recently, alliance. Tiraas’s firepower helping hold back the deep drow is an unprecedented development, and while that treaty is young, other human nations are eyeing it as a potential example. Queen Takamatsu is very interested in its implications. The Akhvari, by contrast, regard themselves as under a kind of sacred quarantine. They have consented to speak, briefly, with Imperial ambassadors at their borders, but they permit no one to cross, conduct no trade, and have never attempted to come out for any reason. And of course, the drow of the third city regard themselves as a kind of cleansing flame. Anything which approaches their borders from either direction is met with unreasoning violence. It’s funny, isn’t it? So many different ways for the commands of one goddess to be observed. But you see, kids, there are three Themynrite cities here now. At one time, on this continent, there were five.”

He paused, likely just for effect, and in that moment there came a soft rustle, practically impossible to discern above the faint crackling of the fire. Then it came again, louder, and clearly from the darkness beyond them. Trissiny and Gabriel both drew weapons, shifting on their seats to peer around.

Vesk gave no sign of noticing, just continuing with his tale. “The first was lost ages and ages ago. Closer to the Elder Wars than to today, in a period before anything modern human records touch. Only the gods and the elves of Qestraceel remember Rakhivar at all. Their defenses faltered under the onslaught. The Scyllithenes broke through, routed the Rakhavi, and breached the surface. The Pantheon were forced to intervene directly—in fact, it was our last act of cooperation with Naiya, and pretty much the last time she was coherent enough to have a conversation with anyone, at least until Arachne began poking at her more recently. The whole city was flooded with lava and buried, the passage permanently sealed off.”

“Why not just collapse all the tunnels, then?” Gabriel asked, still peering around at the blackness at the edge of the firelight. There were no more skittering noises, for now. “Put a stop to that once and for all…”

“Come on, Gabe, don’t you think elves who live deep underground know how to dig? If all the tunnels were closed off, they’d just bore their own, and then they might pop up anywhere at all. No, there are paths left theoretically open, which is much easier than tunneling even if the Themynrites block them off. And yes, after eight thousand years, they could probably have gotten out faster if they had devoted themselves to excavating, but you have to understand how Scyllithenes think. Doing lots and lots of hard work is just plain not on the table, not when the alternative is committing horrific violence against those they see as enemies. So obsessive are they on this point that no major incursions of deep drow have ever tunneled all the way to the surface, at least not under their own power. That’s an excellent example of why they cannot be allowed to have access to the surface kingdoms.

“And that brings us to the fall of Irivoss,” Vesk continued, staring solemnly into the last dim flickers of flame. He had obviously conjured the fire here, wood and all; there was no fuel for it in this place. “The Irivoi were even more amenable to surface contact than the Narisians, and less inherently predatory about it. They had a great influence on the culture that would become the Stalweiss. Humans used to come to them, offering their strength and skill in combat against the deep drow in exchange for wisdom, divine and in rare cases arcane magics, and metalwork far beyond their own technology. The drow kept their mortal visitors at arm’s length…at first. Time passed, familiarity grew, and eventually it came to be that the primitive humans were a downright common sight in Irivoss. And this, in turn, fostered doubt. Very reasonable questions of the sort that the drow priestesses could not allow. Why must we bleed and struggle to protect these humans, who are so much physically stronger? What makes us truly better than the Scyllithene? Can we not take what we need from those above and below us? Would it really be so terrible if they were allowed to meet? Why should we care what happens to the surface world?”

“Okay, what is that?” Gabriel asked somewhat shrilly, getting to his feet. The other two did likewise, turning to stare out into the black. The rustling noises were intermittent still, but clearly came from all sides now.

“These questions rise in every Themynrite city, of course,” Vesk continued, ignoring them, “and are suppressed. But in Irivoss, the suppression…failed. Eventually the unthinkable and unacceptable occurred: complete penetration from both sides. The slightest trickle of deep drow sneaking through to the surface, and humans journeying beyond the lower gates to learn from the Scyllithenes. The Irivoi had failed in their sacred charge. And so, Themynra commanded them to die. Those still loyal and obedient, she ordered to end themselves and their entire society.

“And so they did.” Finally, the god stood up and turned to look outward, as the three of them already had, raising both his hands. “Let me introduce you.”

Light bloomed, clean, white light. It rose first from crystals embedded in the pillars of the temple above them, rising to illuminate the ruined splendor. Then it spread outward, ancient magics long dormant coming to life again at the god’s will, and crystals began to gleam throughout the city. They illuminated the ruin of crushed and fallen structures as well as the majesty of beautiful stonework still standing, rising and spreading ever outward until they revealed the shape of lost Irivoss, its half-moon arc around the black surface of a subterranean lake. The temple appeared to be at the highest point of the city, overlooking it all and built right against the wall of its massive cavern.

None of them appreciated the view.

The spiders were everywhere. They had clearly been creeping closer ever since the intruders had arrived, and were not arrayed just beyond what had been the rim of the firelight. Ranging from the size of wolves to a few specimens bigger than oxen, their carapaces glistened and sparkled in the sudden illumination, apparently encrusted with gems.

As the light rose, they swiftly retreated. A veritable tide of them hurried back down the sides of the temple and those thronging the ruined streets scuttled away into the shelter of buildings, tunnels, and alleys.

“Veth’na alaue,” Trissiny whispered.

“Dreadcrawlers do not enjoy light,” Vesk said with a casual shrug. “That and the fact that they’re rubbish at digging are the saving graces of this whole mess. They can’t get to the surface, and wouldn’t if they could. It was humans and dwarves who collapsed the tunnels and did their best to bury and forget the entrance to Irivoss after the priestesses did this to their people. Now, nobody on the surface even remembers this city, and so much the better. The dreadcrawlers, you see, are only sort of alive. There was necromancy involved in their creation; they’re basically walking husks, made almost entirely of chitin with very few squishy parts, and exceedingly durable against physical damage. Practically immune to magic, as well. They’re also as immortal as the drow they once were, and don’t strictly need to eat. They can eat, and will eagerly do so, but that’s only part of their breeding cycle. Given meat to polish off, they’ll make more dreadcrawlers.

“And still, the Scyllithenes have not collapsed their end of the tunnel. They still keep trying to attack Irivoss. It’s been four millennia and that always ends badly for them. But they can’t pass up having something to fight.”

“Themynra,” Toby whispered, aghast, “did that? To her own people?”

Now, in the rekindled light, they could see that the entire city practically sparkled with enormous spider webs.

“A lot of surprising things happened in the Third Hellwar,” Vesk mused, gazing out across the ruin of Irivoss. “One of which was Arachne popping up. I doubt she’s mentioned this to you—she doesn’t like to talk about it—but she and Elilial handed Scyllith the last and greatest spanking that old bag ever received, the most crushing defeat she’d suffered since Lil cast her into the Underworld in the first place. Ever since, she has been…remarkably quiet. Her own consciousness even more scattered and unfocused than Naiya’s, and her drow completely deprived of unifying agency. They’re just widespread colonies of maniacal murderers these days, without a singular purpose. You can’t imagine the reprieve this has been for the Themynrites. Before that… Rakhivar wasn’t the first or last city to fall. Themynra wasn’t winning. Honestly, I sometimes wondered if Scyllith wasn’t trying all that hard to break out—if she was just having too much fun slowly crushing the upper drow, one city at a time, to actually campaign for her own freedom. That was exactly the kind of thing she used to do, back when she was loose. Even the other Elder Gods didn’t want her around, and they were vicious megalomaniacs at their very best.”

He turned and paced forward, along the half-fallen colonnade of the main temple space, till he came to the top of a wide flight of stairs leading down into the spider-infested city. Silently, they followed him.

“And this is what godhood means,” Vesk said, staring emptily across the ancient ruin. “Compromises made with countless lives. Responsibilities no one could possibly uphold, weighed against fates too terrible to be imagined and costs no one should have to pay. It would make anyone detached after thousands of years, but the very thing that prevents us from becoming the monsters that power makes of everyone leaves us vulnerable to…subtler influences. We gods are fixed, in what we are. We can make decisions, up to a point, but at our core? We are cause and effect. Rules, unalterable and absolute. And so you know my bias, when I say that slamming a door in Scyllith’s face was well worth the atrocity done to these people. That is how terrible she was, in her heyday. And how unable I am to even entertain the idea that I might be wrong.”

Abruptly, he turned to face them.

“You’re desperate, by now, to know what the point of all this is. Why I sent you on this damn fool quest, what that key unlocks. It is a key to the possibility of change, my heroes. You see, the last and worst thing the Irivoi did, that caused Themynra to give up on them? They reopened a tunnel to the ancient Infinite Order machine which struck down the old gods and raised the new ones. I can’t even approach it; none of my brethren can. And for the longest time, I never doubted that that was a good thing. We have way too much power as it is without being tempted by the prospect of more. But things…have changed. If the Pantheon is going to survive the changes that are coming, I need you to take that key to that terrible contraption… And turn it back on.”

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