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Nell just gestured them to go ahead, waving to flag down the waitress. “You’re on your own from here, kids. Don’t worry, it’ll be perfectly fine.”
To judge by his expression before he got it back under control, the demon sent to bring them shared their instinctive unease about this prospect.
The door to the private area of the club was cleverly hidden in an alcove next to the bar, where the apparently natural shape of the cave walls veiled a gap behind a cluster of stalagmites; someone who didn’t know it was there could have stood right next to the aperture and never noticed it, thanks to the dimness of the club floor. Their standoffish revenant guide politely gestured them through, then followed them into the short corridor beyond, which ran behind the bar.
Around a corner, the spooky ambience abruptly vanished; they were now in a wood-paneled hallway with slightly threadbare carpet, lined by doors and terminating in a spiral staircase, with perfectly conventional fairy lamps providing ample light. The demon slipped past them and led the way to the stairs. All three paladins trooped along behind him in silence, single file.
They ascended roughly one story in the circular well, where the staircase terminated in a small foyer which looked for all the world like somebody’s front porch. Against the wall ahead was a door of ornately carved and highly polished wood, complete with a brass knocker. It was lit by a pair of decorative fairy lamps in wrought iron housing. Giving them little time to take in the scene, their guide produced a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and once again diffidently gestured them to proceed.
“Thank you,” Toby said politely as they passed. The demon didn’t acknowledge him.
It was like stepping into the upscale house at which the front door hinted. They arrived in a short entry hall that was visibly richer than Princess Yasmeen’s townhouse back in Calderaas, with marble floors and columns, mahogany paneling and velvet drapes providing an abbreviated glimpse of the sitting room beyond. Their guide glided past them and ducked under the curtains.
“Mr. Agasti, your guests.”
“Thank you, Arkady,” replied a thin voice from out of sight beyond the curtain. “That’ll be all, for now.”
The demon hesitated, glancing inscrutably at them. “Sir, if you would like, I can remain—”
“It’s all right,” Agasti replied in a tone that, while gentle, cut off the protest without effort. “Do me a favor and check on Nell, if you please. I know Kami has everything in hand, but I hate to leave an old friend languishing in the bar like any other punter.”
“…of course, sir,” Arkady said after another pause. He fixed a flat look on the three paladins again, but stepped back past them to the door. Toby once more smiled and nodded, and was again ignored.
“Please, come on in, lady and gentlemen,” Mr. Agasti urged them as soon as the door had shut behind the demon. “Don’t be shy.”
The room beyond seemed to be a combination library, sitting room, and private pub, as they discovered upon stepping through the curtain. Along the right wall was a small bar, behind which stood shelves of bottles. The walls were lined with bookcases, the floor laid out with comfortable chairs and a sofa, all in a matched red leather set. There was also a low table in front of the couch, stands by two of the chairs, and a huge globe in a waist-high setting which allowed it to rotate on two axes. Most strikingly to them was a piece tucked between two bookcases along one wall: a shabby old locking cabinet with a modern disc player on top. Most people would not recognize a Vernis Vault by sight, but this so perfectly matched the arrangement Tellwyrn had in her office that they couldn’t miss the resemblance.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” said Mortimer Agasti, approaching them slowly from the corner armchair from which he had apparently just risen. “The embarrassing truth is that most days, I don’t bother getting out of my bathrobe. There are some meetings, however, for which a man ought to make himself presentable.”
It was strangely difficult to guess at his age. The man walked with a slight stoop and a shuffling gait which suggested advanced years, and his short wiry hair had gone pure white. His brown face was totally unlined, however. In his bearing and the sad little effort at a smile he made, Agasti seemed worn down by an exhaustion that went well beyond the physical. He could have been a well-preserved seventy or a particularly beaten-down fifty. At least, he had clearly made an effort with his appearance, and while his suit was slightly loose on him as though it had been tailored for a more robust man, it was of obviously expensive cut.
“That’s no problem at all,” Gabriel said, for once beating Toby to the pleasantries. “We appreciate you taking time to see us at all, since we did just show up out of nowhere. Sorry to impose on you like this, Mr. Agasti.”
“Please,” the warlock said, raising a hand and managing a slightly more enthusiastic smile, “it’s just Mortimer. Mr. Agasti makes me sound so…old. When you are as legitimately old as I am, every little piece of self-delusion matters. Please, make yourselves comfortable anywhere. I trust Kami took good care of you down in the club? I can have something brought up if you’d like.”
“Thanks, but we just ate,” Trissiny said, gingerly seating herself on the very edge of one of the chairs.
Agasti nodded, shuffling over to slowly sink down in another. The armchairs were tall and had broad backs; once settled into one he looked positively shrunken. “Well, then. To get the awkward necessities out of the way up front, I should let you know that an old lawyer like myself is better prepared than most for his own demise. Obviously, nothing I’ve left behind will pose a serious threat to any of you, but if my employees come to harm in the course of my untimely death I can guarantee that the fallout will make it all but impossible for your cults to operate in Ninkabi for a decade or so.”
“Um,” Gabriel said, wide-eyed, “I think there’s been a mis—”
“I’m willing to compromise, however,” Agasti continued, his thin voice snuffing out Gabriel’s as effortlessly as it had his own employee’s, by sheer firmness. “The revenants working for me, despite their appearance, are perfectly harmless citizens who are in no way responsible for their current state. If I have your assurance that you will leave them be, I am prepared to ensure that no aggressive action is taken by my estate.”
“We’re not here to harm you!” Toby exclaimed.
“If we were,” Trissiny added, “we wouldn’t have come in and sat down. That just makes it…awkward.”
At that, Agasti cracked a grin of real amusement—a relatively weak one, though it brought more life to his countenance. “Ah? Well, then, forgive me for assuming. It did speak well of you that Nell vouched for your conduct, though frankly I don’t know what she could have done to make you behave any certain way.” Evidently Nell had neglected to clue in her “old friend” as to her real identity. “Please pardon an old scoundrel’s over-caution. I’ve found it a vital habit in every line of work I’ve undertaken.”
“Did…we really give off that impression?” Gabriel asked somewhat plaintively.
“Let’s just say my luck with Pantheon cults, and higher representatives thereof, has been spotty. Besides.” Agasti blinked slowly and leaned back in his chair, his fatigued body language belying the sharp intelligence of his eyes. “Most old shut-ins make a point of falling as far out of touch as they can, but I do subscribe to newspapers from around the continent; staying up on current events gives me something to fill my day. I am very much aware of the hot stories fresh out of Calderaas. So when you three young rascals suddenly manifested out of the blue on my doorstep… Well, that paints a certain picture, doesn’t it?”
Toby actually cringed, while Trissiny sighed and lowered her eyes.
“That, uh…was a very different situation,” Gabriel said, clearly choosing his words with care. “Irina Araadia had worse coming than that…and even so, in hindsight we were more ham-fisted than may have been wise. Seriously, Mr…that is, Mortimer, we didn’t come here to cause you trouble. Nell’s been singing your praises all evening, and while we haven’t known her long, she’s someone I personally would just as soon not disappoint. The truth is, we came here to ask for your help.”
“Oh?” At this, he leaned forward again slightly. “Well, what an interesting bundle of surprises you charming young folks are. And here I’ve assumed these last five years that the mere existence of a Hand of Avei in the world again meant the clock was ticking for me.”
“It’s ticking for all of us,” Trissiny said. “I… Assume you’ve had some run-ins with Avenists, sir.”
“I’m a lawyer, General Avelea,” he said with a soft chuckle. “I’ve lived my life surrounded by Avenists. As a breed, they’re not shy about sharing their opinions with regard to other areas of my life.”
“And by ‘opinions,’ I assume you mean ‘prejudices.’”
“Now, now. Leading the witness.” He wagged a chiding finger at her, but his tone remained amused. “I assure you I have better sense than to up and say that to members of such an admirably forthright faith.”
“Well, as one such member, I’m willing to say it,” she replied frankly. “I have them, too. I won’t lie, I’m having a little trouble politely sitting still in a complex full of actual demons. But I recognize prejudices for what they are. I do now, at least.”
“Well, well,” he mused. “A Hand of Avei who can actually see that the world is complicated. And here I’d thought Laressa was the eternal outlier. If you’ll forgive my curiosity, Ms. Avelea, is there any truth to the rumor that you’ve studied with the Thieves’ Guild? Several of the papers are repeating that one.”
She flicked her wrist, making a coin appear in her hand, and rolled it across her fingers with such a fluid motion that the light glinting off it resembled flowing water. “Fully trained and tagged, in fact.”
“That I should live to see such times,” Agasti murmured. “Well, then! I apologize once more for being a suspicious old goat. Occupational hazard, I’m afraid. Do please tell me how I can be of service, and I don’t just ask because I’m flummoxed what three paladins could possibly want from me.”
“Well…” Toby glanced at the others, and getting two encouraging nods, took over. “We are on a quest. Yes, an actual quest, from an actual god—but it’s just Vesk and so far indications are that it’s in keeping with his established pattern of sending paladins on quests just to give them something to do. So this venture does have Pantheon backing, but please don’t feel pressured; we’re not yet convinced how important any of it is.”
“Wise to be cautious,” Agasti said approvingly, leaning forward even more. He seemed to be slowly but surely recovering some of his vital force right before their eyes. “For a fellow like me with, shall we say, classical sensibilities, I confess I find that even more interesting than if you were out to save the world or some such. At least, now that I know my own life is not actually on the line. Please, continue.”
“The short version is, we’re assembling pieces of a key.” Toby reached into his pocket and produced what they had so far, holding it up to the light. “All Vesk told us at first is that there were four parts and some vague hints as to where they might be. We’ve had more detailed information from Salyrene recently, who had the second piece. She revealed that the fragments are all pieces of Infinite—that is, Elder God technology, probably made at least partly of mithril. And that you had the next piece. It would go on the end there, see, where the slots are? Clearly, this doesn’t look quite like anybody’s front gate key, but the resemblance is strong enough that it would probably look like the teeth.”
Agasti leaned forward to stare at the key with narrowed eyes, but did not reach out to touch it. As Toby finished, he shifted to rest his back against the chair again, frowning. “To be honest, the mithril does more to give it away than the shape; it would never have occurred to me to think of that thing as the teeth of a key, though I suppose that description fits. You don’t find mithril doodads in just any souvenir shop, though. Well, my young friends, as you have at least partially guessed, I have good news and bad news.”
“That means the bad news is really bad,” Trissiny said fatalistically. “Nobody tries to soften it that way, otherwise.”
“Smart girl,” Agasti agreed, grinning. “You know, young lady, you remind me of someone… But I digress. The good news is, of course, that I do recognize your description, I know exactly what you are looking for, and it was one of my most prized possessions for many a year. The bad is that I no longer have it.”
“I see,” said Toby, tucking the key away again. “Do you know where it is?”
“And that’s the worse news,” the old man said gravely. “Yes, I know where it is. But I can’t tell you.”
“And…why is that?” Trissiny asked.
“The attorney’s old bugaboo,” he replied. “It’s a question of confidentiality. To be frank, I don’t mind revealing my own secrets, if it’s an affair of interest to the gods directly. I have few enough left, and it’s always a relief to unburden oneself, don’t you think? But I have to protect the secrets of others, and that’s an altogether more serious matter, to me.”
“So…one of your law clients has the key fragment?” Gabriel asked.
Agasti shook his head. “This isn’t one of those things you can get around through simple tricks, Mr. Arquin. You are Mr. Arquin, right? I’m reasonably sure of the descriptions…”
“Oh. Sorry, I guess we failed to introduce ourselves, didn’t we?” Gabriel grinned cheerfully. “Anyway, it’s just Gabe. Mr. Arquin makes me sound all respectable, and there’ll be no end of trouble if I start getting a big head. Just ask Trissiny.”
“Duly noted, Gabe. But as I was saying, I’m not the doorman of a labyrinth and this isn’t a riddle. The confidences with which I am entrusted are of the utmost importance to me, and they are not to be circumvented by a game of twenty questions.”
Trissiny leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “And yet, you’re still talking to us. I can’t help thinking a lawyer who had nothing more to say would have dissolved into empty platitudes and apologies by now.”
“Never underestimate a lawyer’s ability or willingness to waste your time, young lady,” Agasti said with a grin. “But you’re correct, I am every bit as interested in helping you as I indicated. It becomes a little more complicated now, that’s all. To proceed, you will simply have to get the go ahead from the client whose secrets I am obliged to protect. In most cases, I would not even tell you who they are… But you are paladins, you are on a quest from an actual god of the Pantheon, and as this affair pertains to my magical rather than legal expertise, I don’t face disbarment for taking a slight liberty. The mithril piece you need I lost in the course of doing work for my cult.”
“I…see,” Trissiny said slowly. “Well, that does clear things up; I was worried for a second there. It’s a little ironic we have to go back to the Collegium now, but Salyrene herself signed off on this, so I doubt they’ll be excessively difficult about it.”
Agasti tilted his head minutely to the side, putting on a bland little smile. “The Collegium? Now, why would you assume that is my cult?”
She blinked. “…you’re right, that was a pretty bold assumption on my part. I meant no offense.”
“I am not offended,” he said, still smiling. “It’s not as if I don’t follow your logic, after all. An old warlock, not at odds with the Pantheon, to whom else would he pray but Salyrene? And yet, the Collegium is considered a religion only because its patron is a member of the Pantheon. They call it a Collegium for a reason, after all; Salyrites are more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than providing comfort and spiritual understanding. No, I’m afraid this business doesn’t involve them. It does go to the highest levels of Izara’s faith, however. You will have to seek the approval of no less a person than the High Priestess.”
Trissiny stared at him, seemingly unaware that her mouth had fallen open. Toby simply looked intrigued. It was Gabriel who spoke, with customary tact.
“You’re an Izarite?!”
“Is there some reason I should not be?” Agasti asked mildly.
Trissiny finally shut her mouth. “…we were recently told that a religion, ultimately, consists of a problem and a solution. That a true faith postulates what the core problem of existence is, and then provides a way to address it.”
“I’ve heard that theory!” Agasti replied, nodding. “Back in my university days, I attended a fascinating lecture series on theology; the speaker devoted a whole hour to the idea. Yes, Ms. Avelea, that is a very good way to look at it, though not the approach to which I am personally accustomed. But to take that tack… I suppose you could say that in my view, the fundamental problem of existence is brokenness. And the glue that holds people together, both within themselves and in the bonds between them, is love. Look closely at every force, every philosophy or idea, which prevents people from either turning on each other or falling apart individually, and you’ll find that ultimately, it boils down to love.”
Silence fell, the three of them digesting this while Mr. Agasti simply regarded them with a knowing little smile. In the quiet, the very faint ticking of a clock could be heard, having gone previously unnoticed underneath the conversation.
“So…I guess it’s off to Tiraas, then,” Trissiny said at last. “The good news is we can probably get an audience with the High Priestess…”
“A-hem?” They all looked over at Gabriel, who was suddenly grinning. “I bet we can expedite that a bit. Let me just run downstairs and grab Nell—”
There came a knock at the front door.
“Aaaand ten doubloons says that’s my idea being preempted,” he muttered.
“No bet,” Toby replied.
Mr. Agasti raised his voice. “Yes?”
Rather than a verbal answer, there came a click and the soft whine of hinges, followed by footsteps on the marble floor of the entry hall. And then, Nell’s grinning face poking through the velvet curtains.
“Nell, you smirking reprobate, how do you keep looking younger every time I see you?” he complained.
“Cheating,” she said cryptically, stepping the rest of the way in. “I hope I’m not interrupting you guys, but a mutual acquaintance just popped in downstairs and I figured we should combine all this into one conversation, so as to cut down on all the catching up and explanations later. Kids, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, kids.”
Another woman had followed her through the curtains, apparently young and homely almost to the point of looking weird. She was short, bony as a bundle of twigs, with buggy eyes and practically no lips, and unruly blonde hair that frizzed defiantly against the rough ponytail into which she had gathered it.
At her entrance, Agasti went wide-eyed and shot to his feet.
“Now, Mortimer, none of that,” Izara ordered with a smile, quickly gliding across the room toward him. “If you even think about kneeling I shall be very cross with you. Please, sit back down, you should know I’m no great fan of ceremony.”
“M-my Lady,” he whispered, his voice rough with awe.
But unspoken agreement, the three paladins rose and retreated, to give them some space. Gabriel leaned close to Nell, who was watching the scene with a broad grin. “By any chance, did Vesk send her? Because, you know… The timing. It was practically comedic.”
“Are you under the impression that Veskers are the only people in the world who know anything about rhythm?” she retorted, also pitching her voice low enough not to interrupt the other two, who were caught up in a soft conversation of their own. “Kid, critters like us have means at our disposal you can scarcely imagine. When I said I like I keep in circulation, I didn’t mean the way you would; right now I am doing business, in person, in a hundred different cities. Izzy’s not usually one to pop up in the flesh, any more than most of the ol’ family are, but for this? No, it’s not a coincidence she chose the perfect moment.”
“Well, this is good, though,” Trissiny murmured. “If the pattern we’ve seen so far holds out, this means we’ll be getting a nice long lecture on her personal philosophy. The fact that the thought annoys me so much probably means I need to hear it.”
“Oh, Trissiny,” Izara said in a fond tone, looking over at them. “Love doesn’t require any explanation. Please, all of you, sit back down. You, too, Nell, there’s no point in anybody looming around uncomfortably, now that we’re all here.”
She herself perched on the arm of Agasti’s chair, having gently urged him back into it, and kept a hand on his shoulder. The old man’s eyes glinted with unshed tears, and his awed expression had not faded, but he recovered enough of his aplomb to give Nell a wry look.
“And to think,” he said, “I thought you were exaggerating when you claimed you knew everyone.”
“Oh, I was,” she replied earnestly. “But I do know some surprising people, and that claim keeps giving me perfect opportunities to make this smug expression I’m making right now. It just feels so good on my face!”
“In any case,” Izara continued, shaking her head, “I know what you are seeking, and what you need from Mortimer. There is no need to bother Delaine with this; I am quite willing to authorize you to know what has happened. In fact, the intervention of paladins in the affair may do a great deal to rectify certain old mistakes.” She squeezed Agasti’s shoulder affectionately. “To begin… Do all three of you know what a shatterstone is?”
Gabriel raised his hand. “Nope.”
“They’re magical artifacts the Izarites use to defend their temples,” Trissiny explained, tilting her face in his direction but keeping her eyes on Izara. “Purely defensive and reactive. If you do any hostile magic at or even near a shatterstone, it lets out a pulse that neutralizes any non-Izarite casters in the vicinity. Those things have knocked out dragons. Exactly how they work and are made is one of the greatest secrets of that cult, which…really explains why Mr. Agasti was reluctant to go into detail about this.”
“They are an unfortunate necessity,” Izara said sadly, “not a high secret, Trissiny. It would be better if such things weren’t needed at all…but the world isn’t so obliging. And so, the shatterstones are necessary, as is the secrecy surrounding them. And to cut a long story short, Mortimer is one of the specialists who made them for my temples.”
Trissiny straightened up. “Are you telling me those things are made with infernomancy?”
“It would be more accurate to say that I made them with infernomancy,” Agasti replied, looking up at his goddess and getting an encouraging nod. “The real secret of shatterstones is this: there is no secret. There’s no specific formula or pattern. They have fallen into hostile hands in the past, but no attempt to reverse-enchant them has succeeded, because no two are alike. Shatterstones are made by trusted members of the cult from all four branches of magic, and most incorporate all four schools, and some shadow magic besides. But even within the efforts of each individual craftsman, the stones are not identical. A shatterstone is an individual work of art. The challenge is to create one in a new way each time—to achieve the specific, predictable effects they must have through a unique working. Thus, they can never be countered or anticipated. A hostile spellcaster who obtained one would find it no help at all in getting around the defenses of another temple. Thus, Izara’s sacred grounds remain protected, without any blood needing to be shed. And the constant arms race of new tactics and weapons passes them by.”
“That is actually brilliant, militarily speaking,” Trissiny marveled.
Toby, though, frowned. “Now, my source for this is Gabriel, so take it with a pinch of salt…”
“…but I thought that standardization was very important for any complex, permanent magical working. Don’t they have a tendency to go wrong if you’re constantly improvising?”
“They do,” Izara said quietly, shifting to drape her arm around Agasti’s shoulders. The warlock sighed heavily, lowering his eyes. “That brings us to the problem before you.”
“That Elder God trinket you’re looking for?” Agasti raised his gaze again, his expression now resolute. “It’s designed to help control the flow of powerful magics. I used it in my work to craft shatterstones, in a secure and sacred location far from the city where I did my work on behalf of the goddess. But the last time… The last time, I made a mistake. The piece you need is still in that hidden temple, but after that last disaster, I barely got out of there with my own life. I’m afraid the entire thing went right straight to Hell.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Oh,” said Gabriel, his eyes widening. “Oh, gods. That’s not a euphemism, is it.”