Tag Archives: Vesk

15 – 71

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“You surrender?” Trissiny said incredulously after everyone had digested that in silence for a moment. “You can’t just… Why on earth would anyone—”

“Why does anyone surrender, General Avelea?” Elilial interrupted with a sardonically lifted eyebrow, her hands still held in the air as if displaying that she held no weapons made her a whit less dangerous. “You’re supposed to be the military strategist here. Surrender is the appropriate action when you are no longer capable of prosecuting a war. My entire organized force present was just wiped out by pixies, because you Pantheon lackeys can never pass up the chance to heap insult upon injury. Kuriwa and Natchua, vicious little knife-eared monstrosities that they are, just tossed everything that remains of my cult into chaos space. You went and maimed my highest general, Avelea.”

“Oh, by all means, cry about that,” Trissiny retorted.

Elilial’s expression grew more grim. “No. No, about that I will claim no vendetta. Kelvreth unleashed his most destructive power against a mass of people including several he knew I was pledged not to harm, and at least one whose well-being is very dear to me. He’s going to stay blind for the foreseeable future; I will not countenance betrayal, nor my subordinates making mockery of my own oaths. Nor do I enjoy the position of owing Omnu a debt of gratitude for correcting that mistake. But the fact remains…” She bared her teeth in a bitter scowl, fangs glinting in the light of the stained glass windows. “I could kill you all, whatever the valkyrie believes. It’s well within my power. Not, however, without harming those I care about and discarding what remains of my integrity, not to mention calling Naiya down on my head. Congratulations, you mongrel horde of scoundrels and thugs. I have no more assets to wield. It has been eight thousand years of ups and downs, but now as the final reckoning looms over us all, it seems I am finally out of this fight, no matter what I would wish.”

She shrugged, hands still raised.

“So. You have my surrender. May you all choke on it.”

“Well, let me make this easier for you, then,” said Trissiny. “No. You don’t get to stop fighting, you miserable old beast. Form up!”

The assembled fighters began to shift forward, but paused when Elilial cleared her throat loudly, putting on a wry smirk.

“Per the Sisterhood of Avei’s doctrines governing the prosecution of war, any offer of surrender in good faith must be accepted, providing the surrendering party disarms and offers no further violence. A commanding officer who orders an attack upon surrendering enemies is subject to immediate court martial with penalties up to and including execution, circumstances depending. That’s article twelve if you need to look it up, Trissiny.”

“’No one negotiates with demons twice,’” Trissiny quoted back. “Sharai the Hammer, fourth chronicle of the Aveniad.”

“Also,” Gabriel piped up next to her, “’no quarter’ is the standard terms of engagement against demons, both for Sisterhood and every national force.”

Elilial smiled pleasantly. “I’m not a demon.”

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel looked her up and down slowly, grimacing. “You’ll do.”

The goddess’s gaze shifted to the side as if scanning for someone in the crowd, and settled on a point by the far wall, nearer a side door to the sanctuary than the front entrance. “Jonathan Arquin!”

Almost everyone turned in that direction, Gabriel and Natchua rapidly and with shocked expressions.

“Very recently,” Elilial went on, “your son deliberately poked me in the rump. Is this how you raised him to treat women?”

At that, most of the eyes present turned back to Gabriel, who went red and began spluttering.

“I—that was—with my scythe! I wasn’t—I was trying to see if it killed her! If anything I stabbed her in the—”

“In the left cheek,” Elilial said archly. “No one’s aim is that bad, young man. Look at the size of me.”

Ruda burst out laughing.

Over the sound of that, the incongruous notes of a lute being strummed echoed in the vast chamber. Out of the crowd as if he’d been in there from the very beginning sauntered a nondescript-looking man in colorful garments of a style a century out of date, complete with a floppy hat trailing a dyed ostrich feather down his back.

“All right, all right, let’s everybody settle down now,” Vesk said lightly, still producing chords from his lute with languid flicks of his wrist. “I do love me a spot of banter, but there’s a time and a place, after all.”

“You,” Trissiny spat, wheeling Arjen around to glare down at the god of bards. “Get the hell out of here before you cause more trouble. You are barely better than she is!”

“I’d have to look up the particulars of the chain of command, General Avelea, but I’m pretty sure I outrank the hell out of you,” he replied, winking.

“Oh, it’s this guy,” Jacaranda said, buzzing lower to scowl at him. “I don’t like this guy.”

“Nobody likes this guy,” Gabriel agreed.

“Hey, now, that’s just unfair,” Vesk protested. “Bards like me!”

“Ehhhhh.” Teal made a waffling motion with one hand.

“All right, that’s enough byplay.” Suddenly he wasn’t just an oddly-dressed man speaking, but a presence projected through the room with psychic force that commanded instant silence. “An offer of surrender has been made by an avowed enemy of the Pantheon. As no other institution represented here has the prerogative, nor the power, to take a goddess prisoner, it falls to a representative of the Pantheon to negotiate the terms of Elilial’s defeat. Or! I don’t suppose you were planning to surrender unconditionally, Lil?” he added, grinning up at her.

“No one,” the goddess said bitterly, “in all of history, anywhere, has ever enjoyed your sense of humor, Vesk.”

“You know, maybe if you gave your foes a little more credit you wouldn’t be in this situation right now, honey bunch. But fine, straight to business. What terms do you offer?”

Her nostrils flared in annoyance while she glared down at him; Vesk continued to placidly strum major key chords on his lute, meeting her ire with a bland smile. Elilial took several long seconds to consider before answering.

“I offer you three concessions,” she said at last, finally lowering her hands. “A complete cessation of hostilities against the Pantheon and all its agents, by me and all those answerable to me, until after the next ascension cycle. The revelation of my full plans for vengeance against the Pantheon. And…” She hesitated, glancing to one side with a disgruntled frown, then drew in a breath as if steeling herself and redirected her fiery gaze to Vesk. “And…my permanent cessation of hostilities against certain members of the Pantheon who…I will now admit…never wronged me. With my public apology, and acknowledgment of fault.”

A stir had rippled through the crowd at each statement, with the largest at the last, but even so they were quiet little disturbances due to the sheer pressure of divinity pushing all those present into stillness.

Some were more resistant than others.

“This is blithering nonsense,” Trissiny barked.

“I dunno, those sound like pretty tempting terms to me,” Vesk mused. “Better than anyone else has ever gotten out of her, anyway.”

“I mean that we are dealing with the literal personification of cunning who will obviously do anything to get out of the corner she is in! There is no possible scenario in which her word can be trusted. The very minute she’s no longer being stared down by you and all of us, she’ll go right back to what she was doing before!”

Vesk shrugged, still smiling. “Her and what army?”

“You cannot seriously think she needs a standing army to be dangerous,” Gabriel protested.

The god struck a minor chord, followed by a light ascending arpeggio. “Your concerns are heard, and they aren’t invalid.”

“But,” Trissiny said bitterly.

He winked at her. “I am going to invoke divine privilege on this one. She’ll abide by the terms; I will personally guarantee it. If she does not, I will personally be accountable to the rest of the Pantheon. Unlike Elilial, I have no convenient way of evading their attention, and Avei barely needs a reason to kick my ass as it is. Does that satisfy you?”

“What do you think?” she snapped.

“Fair enough,” he chuckled, “let me put it another way: does that meet the threshold whereupon you can acknowledge you’re not going to get anything better?”

“That seems unwise,” Toby interjected, the calm of his voice cutting through the argument. “You are placing yourself in a terribly vulnerable position, dependent on the integrity of someone who famously lacks it.”

“I know what I’m about, son,” Vesk said, grinning. “Appreciate your concern, though. Very well, Lil, if there are no objections, I find your terms—”

“This ascension cycle,” Khadizroth interrupted. “When, and what is it?”

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Gabriel added. “After the cycle is vague, even if we knew when that was. How long after? A century? Five minutes?”

“Explaining the basics of ascension cycles is a necessary component of the second clause,” Elilial answered.

“Okay, sure,” he retorted, “but I assume you won’t do that until we come to terms, which leaves us agreeing to what might as well be a blank timetable. No dice.”

“Boy’s got a point,” Vesk agreed, nodding. “A little disclosure for the sake of establishing terms is going to be necessary, Lily my dear. Now there, Trissiny, you see how you can make actual progress by engaging with the process instead of whining about it?”

“And how much progress can I make by taking that lute away and smashing it over your head?”

He blinked owlishly at her. “None, obviously. What would that accomplish?”

“Won’t know until we try,” she replied, baring her teeth in something that was just barely suggestive enough of a smile to be more unsettling than any simple grimace.

“I see why you look to Sharai for guidance,” Elilial said, folding her arms. “That girl was not right in the head, even for a Hand of Avei.”

“If we’re going to do this, answer the question,” Trissiny said, rounding on her. Arjen swished his tail irritably at the repeated turning, but complied. “When is this thing, exactly? And before anyone agrees to any terms, you need to establish how long afterward this truce will hold.”

“I can’t tell you exactly,” Elilial replied, “because that is not a thing which can be known with any precision.”

“Guess.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes.

“She’s right about that much,” said Vesk. “Ascension cycles aren’t on a precise timetable. But generally speaking? Within the next two years, most likely.”

“Oh, that’s some truce you’re offering,” Trissiny sneered.

“You are a mayfly mistaking your eyeblink of an existence for the scope of the world, girl,” Elilial snarled. “I have labored toward this end for eight. Thousand. Years. You don’t even have a mental frame of reference for such a span of time; the very fact of your own fleeting perspective renders you incapable of considering what I am offering to give up. That I have to abandon all my plans with such a short span left only goes to show—”

“Yes, yeah, it’s very sad for you,” Gabriel said loudly, “but you’re the one surrendering, so either give us mayflies something worth our time or we may as well resume pincushioning your ass.”

“What is it with you and my ass, boy?” she replied, causing him to scowl and flush faintly.

“Since eight thousand years is such a vast period of time,” said Trissiny, “I’m sure you won’t object to one thousand years. You grant a millennium of guaranteed peace after this alignment, during which you make no preparatory activity on the mortal plane for the resumption of hostilities.”

“That’s right, Trissiny, you reach for those stars,” Elilial drawled. “I’ll give you a century, in which I and mine will do whatever the hell I please that isn’t overtly hostile.”

“Yes, forget the second clause,” said Toby, then nodded to Trissiny when she turned a frown on him. “Let her make preparations on earth; if she can only make them in Hell, that millennium will end with a new Hellwar.”

“Hm. Good point,” Trissiny grunted. “Fine. But as for your timetable—”

Vesk struck a triumphant chord. “Done!”

“What? No!” Arjen blew out an annoyed snort as his rider turned them both to glare down at the god. “You can’t just—”

“Can, did, and still outrank you,” he said cheerfully.

“Does anyone else think this is all kind of slapped-together for a world-altering historic moment?” Fross chimed, darting back and forth in the air above them.

“That is how they usually occur,” said Khadizroth. “Pomp and circumstance are added afterward by the historians. Solemn gravity in real time is most often in service of the insignificant self-indulgence of large egos.”

“You’d know,” Flora and Fauna said in unison. The dragon sighed, then nodded his head once.

“We have an accord, then?” Elilial asked, staring at Vesk.

“Wait,” Trissiny urged him. “Think about what you are—”

“We have an accord!” Vesk said, strumming a few upbeat chords.

“Well, at least he thought it over,” she growled. “Is it too much to ask that I be allowed to finish a sentence?”

“Tell me about it,” Elilial said with sympathy that earned only a glare in response.

“Actually, my dear,” Vesk said smoothly, “I believe it is your turn to tell us some things. We have a deal, after all.”

“Her only disincentive for breaking this deal is that you, someone she already hates, get punished,” Trissiny said in open exasperation. “This won’t hold starting the second she’s out of sight, so why give it that long?”

“Oh, Trissiny, always so dramatic,” Elilial chided. “On the contrary. Outstanding business between Vesk and myself notwithstanding, we have reached accord in the past. Recently, in fact.”

“Yes,” said Toby. “We were there.”

She smiled down at him. “And I will repay good faith with the same in kind. Vesk, insufferable creature though he is, held up his end of the bargain, taking you three off the hook. You should thank him for that.”

“Excuse me,” said Gabriel, “but we did all the damn work!”

“In ordinary circumstances,” Elilial said more loudly, and suddenly with the intangible weight of her personality commanding silence for her words, “a god cannot simply be killed. To do it requires severing the personality from the aspect—and for most aspects any god has taken, there is just no practical way to achieve this. Khar perished because he was tied to a land and a people which were annihilated. Sorash perished because he was stupid enough to place an incredibly powerful individual with a domineering personality in a position from which she could personally defeat him, thus suborning his aspect of conquest. These are incredibly rare circumstances, virtually impossible to predict, much less arrange. The more vague the concept, the more untouchable the god. How would you destroy duality? The wild? Art? How could you even drive a wedge between these things and their patron deities? From the beginning, my revenge against the Pantheon was simply outside the realm of possibility… Except during the ascension cycle.

“It is a byproduct of the way the Elder Gods created this world and the space around it, the way they folded the dimensions over each other, blocked off our solar system from the rest of the galaxy, and applied the fields of energy that we know as magic. Every eight thousand years, approximately, these amorphous factors align for a brief window in which it is possible for one with the right knowledge, equipment, and power to change the nature of godhood. That is how we killed the Elders, and how I planned to wipe all gods from existence.”

Her smile was a cold and vicious thing, laced more heavily by far with bitterness than humor.

“That is what I was building toward, the intricate plan of thousands of years that you cretins and your allies have wrecked in the space of less than five. Changing the rules so that no one gets to be a god.”

A short silence hung.

“No one?” Toby asked at last. “Don’t you mean, just the Pantheon…?”

Elilial snorted derisively. “I regretted having to harm Themynra, but in the end, it would have been for the best. Scyllith’s very existence is an ongoing crime which urgently needs to be expunged. Naiya’s existence is doing no one any favors, least of all herself. And I…” She grimaced, shaking her horned head. “I have nothing but a singular purpose to hold me here on this world. With it accomplished, why would I want to linger? You don’t need gods, any of you. Gods are things imposed on populations that would be better off commanding their own destinies.”

“Wait,” Trissiny said quietly, staring up at her through narrowed eyes. “You are…”

“As for the rest,” Elilial went on, still curling her lip in distaste, “I can’t defend everything I’ve done, nor will I try to justify any of it. As agreed, though, I will admit to certain specific wrongdoings in pursuing my vendetta. The circumstances around the end of the Elder War and our ascension were chaotic, confusing; some were swept up in events they never desired to be a part of. Some were gathered into the Pantheon’s aegis whom I condemned, unfairly, just because of that association, when in truth they only remained out of desperation to survive in new circumstances they never wanted and could not understand. It was… In truth, it was unjust of me to punish fellow victims of the Pantheon’s actions. And so, to Naphthene, Ouvis, Ryneas, and Shaath, and any who follow them… I am, honestly, sorry. You should have been on my side; I should have tried to reach out to you. I swear that I will never again strike out against you for wrongs that were not yours. It may be that nothing I say or do will ever be sufficient to make amends, but I… Will try. That is a promise.”

This time, the stunned silence lingered as if no one dared to challenge it.

“The bargain is made, and your part upheld,” Vesk said at last, and for once his tone was suitably solemn for the occasion. He nodded deeply toward Elilial, the feather in his floppy hat bobbing. “At least, that which you can fulfill here and now. For the rest… I will trust you to keep to your word.”

“Why,” Trissiny hissed, and was ignored.

“And so at last,” Vesk continued, “there is peace between us. An end to this ancient war, witnessed by all those gathered here.”

“And so it is known when the next war will begin,” she replied, her tone grim. “But for now and until that time… Peace. You are satisfied?”

“Never more so,” he said, grinning. “Go in peace, old friend. And hey, who knows? Maybe during the next hundred years we’ll all manage to work out our differences for good!”

Elilial sneered. “Ugh. You have always been such a pain in the ass.”

A thunderclap shook the cathedral, momentary darkness and a flash of blinding light causing everyone to look away, many shouting in protest. Just like that, Elilial was gone.

So, they discovered after a few moments of looking around, was Vesk.

“So! That sure just happened, didn’t it?” Principia Locke called out, striding out of the crowd and then stepping forward in front of them, clapping her hands to capture everyone’s focus before the mutter of renewed conversation could get out of control. “All right, even with the demons gone, there’s still a city in crisis out there and while many of us don’t have talents suited toward humanitarian work, many do, and many others will be able to find a use for any working pair of hands. I won’t keep you from it long, except to say one thing: Avei wants adventurers.”

“Ex…cuse me?” Joe Jenkins asked incredulously.

“They times, they are changing,” Principia said, smiling lopsidedly. “With the times, war changes, and with war, the Legions. The Sisterhood of Avei is offering recruitment for any who call themselves adventurers and are willing to fight for Avei’s cause, and live by…an admittedly relaxed version of her precepts.”

“Lady, are you nuts?” Taka called out. “Adventurer guilds haven’t been a thing for a hundred years.”

“A gathering of what can only be called adventurers just beat the single largest demon invasion this world has seen since the Hellwars,” Principia replied. “Just because the Age of Adventures is famously over doesn’t mean a new one can’t start; ages are funny like that. If you just like wandering around by yourself being chased out of towns and side-eyed by police because society has no use for heavily-armed nomadic loners, well, you can go on living that way. What I’m offering it housing, resources, funding, allies, protection, and most importantly, purpose. And one thing to sweeten the deal, which I think will prove very enticing to some of you. Right now, at this one time only, the Sisterhood is offering amnesty. We lack the authority to pardon Imperial crimes, but if you join up with Avei, so long as you toe the line and play by the rules, you’ll receive whatever protection the Sisterhood can grant from any past misdeeds. A clean slate. If you think this opportunity is for you, make your way to the Temple of Avei in Tiraas or the Abbey in Viridill and ask for Lieutenant Locke. They’ll make sure you get to me.”

“Well, that sounds good to me!” said a high-pitched male voice, followed by a giggle, and an elf wearing a somewhat bedraggled pinstriped suit came swaggering to the front of the crowd. “I say, sign me the hell up!”

“You,” Khadizroth said coldly, turning to face him.

“Ah, ah, ah, Mr. K, don’t be like that,” the Jackal chided, wagging a finger in the dragon’s face. “You heard the lady! You of all people should be grateful for the offer of a free pass. Consider me your first convert, Prin my darling!” He turned toward the suddenly blank-faced Principia, grinning and throwing his arms wide. “Why, me and all my most recent group of friends would just love to start over in Avei’s service. Ain’t that right, gang?”

A single beam of pure white light burst out of his forehead, flashing across the room to drill a smoking hole in the marble wall of the sanctuary.

The Jackal’s expression froze in a nearly comical look of puzzlement. He blinked his eyes once, and a strangled gurgle sounded in his throat.

He staggered, slumping to his knees, then toppled over onto one side and lay still.

Directly behind him, Jeremiah Shook slowly slipped his wand back into its holster, then raised both his hands in the air, not otherwise reacting to all the weapons suddenly being leveled at him.

“Now, before anybody gets too excited,” he drawled, “let me just explain that that was the assassin known as the Jackal. He’s the shit who’s been murdering police in this city for the last week, for no reason except he could and he thought it was funny. He was also the last known confederate of Basra Syrinx and the main reason she was able to mislead the Army and what remained of the local cops into attacking the only people who could’ve stopped this whole fucking crisis if they’d been allowed to work together. There are several folks here who can vouch for every part of this. So, with that established, I’ll just pose a question.”

He lowered his hands incrementally, still keeping them up and in view.

“Anybody got a problem with that?”

After a moment’s silence, Joe pushed his way through the crowd, wand up and at the ready. He met Shook’s gaze and held it for a moment, then turned, leveled his wand, and put three more beams through the fallen elf’s head.

The Jackal didn’t so much as twitch.

“Just checkin’,” he said finally, holstering his own wand and turning back to tip his hat at Shook. “I’ve learned you can never be too sure with that guy.”

“No,” said Trissiny, pointedly sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “I should have a problem with that, but goddess help me, I do not. All right, that’s enough drama. We don’t know what the fallout from any of this is going to be, but in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a city practically in ruins out there, and countless people who need our help. Everyone move out.”

The whole group responded to her command, for a wonder. Not without a lot of shuffling and muttering, but everyone turned and began moving toward the door.

Khadizroth the Green paused in his own departure as someone caught and tugged on his sleeve. He turned to meet the eyes of Bishop Darling, who leaned forward and pitched his voice low enough that no one but the elves could have overheard through the muffled hubbub.

“Before we join everybody in doing all the good there is to do out there,” Darling murmured, “how’s about you and I go cause one last piece of trouble that only we can?”

Very slowly, the dragon raised one eyebrow.

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15 – 54

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“How much do you remember?”

Principia paused while taking a slow sip of the tea she’d been handed, narrowing her eyes slightly as she considered Trissiny’s question.

“I…think almost everything?” she finally offered after swallowing. “The whole sequence of events is pretty much intact in my mind, including me making a big levitating spectacle of myself and you reacquainting me with basic sense, Triss. That part has a hazy quality, though, not unlike the first and last time I tried peyote.” She grimaced as if pained and raised the teacup in both hands to partially obscure the lower part of her face. “If you held a wand to my head I couldn’t explain why I thought any of that was a good idea.”

“A sudden glut of raw data has that effect on people,” Mary stated, outwardly calm. After checking Principia’s vitals she had retreated a few paces, so as not to compete with Trissiny and Merry, who were both hovering protectively closer to the younger elf. “Many of the most foolish actions I have ever witnessed resulted from the combination of abundant information and insufficient emotional maturity.”

“Kuriwa, please,” Trissiny said with a soft sigh. “Locke, is there anything of the information you absorbed that you still have?”

“Hm. Like what, specifically?”

Trissiny scowled. “Can’t you for once just answer a question without being difficult?”

“That isn’t really how brains work, Trissiny,” Mary interjected in a gentle tone. “She’s not a machine, even if she was uncomfortably similar to one while under the Mask’s effect. Information recall follows organic pathways; if there is anything still there, she did not acquire it through the normal means, and it will need connections to follow if it is to resurface. Ask specific questions, and we shall see if anything connects.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured, frowning pensively now. “Sorry, Locke.”

“Thank you, Kuriwa,” Principia said, giving her elder a careful sidelong look.

“You are welcome,” Mary said in a tone layered with meaning. Principia heaved a sigh and buried her nose in her tea again.

“While you were in that Archon fugue, you were saying vague things about plans,” Trissiny prompted. “More people you wanted to recruit and things about to happen that required urgent intervention. And you said both those categories applied to something happening in N’Jendo. Ring any bells?”

Principia squinted again, staring into the distance through the steam of her tea. “N’Jendo… Yes. I remember saying that. But the data…damn, I’m coming up blank. Gods, this is a weird feeling. I do recall talking about that and I sure made it sound important, didn’t I? But the reason for it is just gone. I’m sorry, Trissiny, I don’t know.” She lowered her cup, turning her head to look seriously at Trissiny. “I think the information was probably accurate and not something we should just forget about. I don’t have the details anymore, though.”

“N’Jendo’s a big place,” Merry murmured. “That’s not much to go on.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “I have a couple of friends in Ninkabi, but that’s it. Also, we’re on a class assignment for Tellwyrn. Which is not to say I’m firmly opposed to haring off on our own if the needs is sufficient; gods know we’ve done it before. But this time she’ll be really mad. That might have worse consequences for you than anyone, Prin.”

“Oh, Arachne loves to bluster,” Principia said lightly. “She banks on people always taking it seriously because of all the shit she’s blown up over the years. But nah, her dirty little secret is she’s annoyingly reasonable under all the chest-thumping. If she didn’t vaporize me for breaking into your dorm and drugging your friends that one time, she’s probably not gonna.”

“You,” Mary said very evenly, “Did. What.”

Principia grinned at her, and fortunately, that was the moment Toby entered the room, carrying a steaming bowl.

“Good to see you up and about, Lieutenant,” he said pleasantly, stepping right into the clearly tense atmosphere without hesitation and kneeling to offer Principia the bowl. She was sitting upright with the blanket still over her legs, but otherwise hadn’t moved from where she’d been laid after collapsing. “Juniper suggested I bring you a little something to recharge the ol’ crystals. Sorry, I know hot soup is traditional for recuperating, but we’re on a barren mountaintop with travel rations. Best I could do is porridge with dried fruit.”

“Oh, bless you, young Master Caine,” Principia said, setting aside her mug to accept the bowl with a grateful nod. “You are too pure for this world.”

“Nah, just too pure for the people he hangs around with,” Trissiny said, smiling up at Toby.

He winked and backed away a few steps. “Sing out if there’s anything else you need.”

“We will,” she promised, and he nodded, turned, and departed to the open plaza outside.

“So…” Principia paused in blowing across her porridge. “I wasn’t hallucinating, right? I did stick Kuriwa in a cage?” Merry sighed, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.

The Crow’s shoulders tensed up in a tiny gesture that was oddly reminiscent of a bird ruffling its feathers. “Yes, Principia, you did. I had set that aside while the more urgent matter of your well-being was attended to, but I see you are now feeling up to discussing it.”

Principia grinned at her. “Worth it.”

“Seriously?” Trissiny demanded.

“I have deliberately left you at liberty, child,” Kuriwa said ominously, “because you have, I assumed purposefully, kept yourself at a level of activity that falls below the threshold of impacting the course of world events. And so, unlike most of the rest of our extended family, I reasoned that it would harm little to let you work out your various issues on your own. It appears, now, you intend to insert yourself into important matters with no more maturity than you had a century ago. So I suppose I no longer have the luxury of letting you run around unattended.”

Principia’s grin sharpened until it looked painful. “Even more worth it.”

“Enough!” Trissiny exclaimed. “For the love of—just stop it, both of you.”

“Young woman,” Kuriwa began.

“Don’t you ‘young woman’ me!” Trissiny barked, pointing imperiously at her. “Based on my conversations with every single one of them so far, Kuriwa, I may be your only descendant who actually likes you! Consider that before you decide to try shoving your beak up my nose. I know how you’re accustomed to relating you kin, so let me assure you up front that if you try to push me around I will not hesitate to bring Avei into it in person. Principia knows the error she made. We have established that she wasn’t in her right mind when she briefly inconvenienced you. You’re fine now, so drop it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold you to the same standard of behavior you ham-fistedly demand of the rest of your family. And you!”

Principia had opened her mouth to speak around a smug smile, but now visibly quailed as Trissiny turned on her.

“What the hell is your problem?” Trissiny shouted. “I do not care how affronted your free-spirited sensibilities are by being lectured, why would you try to pick a fight with someone who can wring you like a dishcloth? Do you want her to smack you around like she does Zanzayed? We just established that you weren’t on her list of people who needed that treatment, and there you go, campaigning for it! Locke, if I hadn’t just seen you clowning around with that mask you made such a production about being too dangerous to touch, I’d have assumed you were smarter than that. And yet, here we are!”

They both stared at her, blinking. Merry held herself rigidly still, hardly breathing.

“Honestly,” Trissiny said, rubbing her face with both hands. “You’re a pair of immortals; I am twenty years old. Why am I the adult in this room?”

“You,” Principia said at last, “are starting to sound eerily like my mother. It is…really disturbing.”

“Eat your porridge,” Trissiny snapped. “I can tell you one difference between us: Lanaera told me most of your arguments were her fault, because she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood. All the problems in our relationship are your doing, Principia.”

Principia hesitated with a spoonful of porridge almost to her mouth, staring at her. “…she said that?”

Trissiny sighed deeply. “Corporal, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Oh, hey, I just remembered,” Merry muttered, standing upright, “I urgently needed to talk to, uh, one of those weirdos outside about…I dunno, I’ll think of something.”

The room was quiet while she hustled out, and then for a few more seconds thereafter.

“I hate to admit it,” Kuriwa said at last, “but I begin to suspect she gets that level head from the human side.”

“Anton was good people,” Principia agreed after swallowing a bite of porridge. “He deserved better friends than me.”

“Young Herschel impresses me favorably, as well,” the Crow agreed with a faint smile.

Trissiny shook her head and shifted, adjusting her seat to draw her knees up to her chest and wrap her arms around them. “What is Avei’s strategy?”

Principia paused with another spoonful almost to her mouth, staring at her. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t get cute,” Trissiny ordered. “When you were high on Mask, you said you were acting in accordance with your orders, and with Avei’s strategy. I know nothing of this. What is it?”

“Ah.” She lowered the spoon back to the bowl, glancing sidelong at Kuriwa. “That…was an exaggeration. The orders are Avei’s; the strategy is mine. It’s part of that thing I told you about when we met at Last Rock. On the mountainside, remember?”

“The part you said was classified,” Trissiny said. “Even to me.”

“And as I told you then, I would rather bring you into the loop,” Principia said frankly. “Not just because I don’t care for keeping secrets from you; I think that you specifically would be an important asset to the whole thing. If for no other reason than because I would really like to verify with Avei that I’m doing what she wants. I can’t see any other way to go about the task she set for me, and it’s been my assumption that this is why she wanted me in the Legions in the first place, but… It’s not like we’re on first name terms. I get my orders from Rouvad, who in her warmest and kindest moments deigns to tolerate me and has made no secret that she resents Avei shoving me down her throat.” She grimaced, ducking her head to stare at her porridge. “It’s not like I’m generally very big on authority, as you well know. But…this is important. I wish I could be sure I was doing it right.”

Trissiny watched her in silence for a few more seconds. Principia met her eyes, then sighed and went back to eating.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said at last, “would you please give us a few minutes?”

The Crow rose smoothly, nodding at her. “I think it for the best. Call for me if there is anything I can do to help.”

She departed in silence, leaving Trissiny and Principia to study each other.

“I’m not directly in your chain of command,” Trissiny said, “and there are formalities—not to mention political implications—that would come up if I were to officially countermand the High Commander’s orders and insert myself into a classified program. But it’s just us in this room, and we both understand how Eserion’s mindset can complement Avei’s, when necessary. If you think I can help, Prin, tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay.” She set the spoon back in the half-eaten bowl, and turned to set it on the ground next to her cooling tea. “It’s like this.”


She finished her sandwich first. It was a really good sandwich, some of the best food she’d been able to get since arriving in this city—fresh and hot, with juicy meat and vegetables on warm flatbread, not at all like the kind of stuff she found behind buildings. So she made sure to savor it before setting to work, even if this wasn’t the best place for eating. The smell alone spoiled the experience a little bit. Well, she still had money; after handing over the gold coin for the sandwich she’d gotten some silver and bronze ones back. There would be other good food. She was loath to take her eyes off the thing after stumbling across another one, so there she sat, balefully watching it until she had licked the last of the grease from her fingers.

Then, finally, she rose from her seat on an old barrel, stretched, picked up her stick, and went to work beating to pieces and scattering the rancid structure of old bones, flesh, and magic that had been concealed behind a currently shuttered factory.

“Found another one, did you?”

She spun, raising the stick. She recognized that voice. Grinning insufferably at her, the man in the floppy had stepped out of the shadows into the relatively lighter shadows nearby, where the blue sky peeked through the gap between buildings high above.

“You know they’re just going to make more, don’t you?” Vesk said condescendingly. “There are far more capable heroes than you working on this—you ran into a couple, I understand. Well, antiheroes, anyway. These things are going up faster than they can tear them down. At best you’re amusing yourself.”

She threw the stick at him. He didn’t flinch when it bounced off his head. It didn’t even disturb his stupid hat.

“I take it I’m still not forgiven, then,” he said solemnly. “Seriously, I am sorry for the presumption, but you wouldn’t have fared a lot better left out there in the howling wilderness where I found you. Why didn’t you go to the Omnist temple like I suggested? You definitely wouldn’t be scrounging for food; Omnists love feeding people.”

She drew back her lips, opened her jaws, and made a rough hissing noise from the back of her throat, like an angry cat.

“The gods aren’t all like me and Salyrene, you know,” he remarked. “You have to be trying pretty hard to make Omnists hurt you. Hell, most people can’t try hard enough. They’re almost insufferably nice.”

She blasted him with a shadowbolt. He swatted it aside.

“I hope you don’t think you’re spiting me with this stubbornness,” the god said frankly. “I get what I want either way. You’re not gonna work your way out of the ‘mysterious stranger’ role in the time it’ll take events to wash over this city no matter what you do. I was hoping to position you as ‘strange, mute charity case’ for your sake, because I thought you could do with a spot of good luck, but I can work with ‘crazy street person’ just as well.”

She concentrated, gathering power in the form of motes of light out of the air around her. When it was sufficiently formed, she thrust her hands forward and the arcane bolt tore across the alley, filling it with blue light.

He caught that one, then had the audacity to bounce it in his palm like a luminous ball. “The nearest Omnist temple is less than a block from here, due west. That’s down toward the next lower steppe of the city, if you’re disoriented. You don’t even have to do anything; just show up looking like that and they’ll make sure you get a meal, a bath, something clean to wear and a bed if you want it. They can even set you up with work, and work is important for a lot more than making wages. Never underestimate the value of a purpose. But then,” he added, looking past her at the destroyed altar, “maybe you’ve figured that part out on your own.”

Gritting her teeth, she ignited a golden shield of divine light around herself and charged forward to body-slam him.

She bounced right off, staggering for balance, and the god casually tossed her own ball of arcane energy back at her. It impacted the shield in a loud shower of sparks which extinguished both.

“Really?” Vesk asked sardonically. “We can literally do this all day, kiddo. One of us can, at least. Nobody’s gonna be impressed with your Every Salyrite Apprentice Ever package of basic spells—they just prove you don’t know enough of any one type of magic to be actually scary. For heaven’s sake, don’t do any of that at the local police. They are very short on sense of humor at the moment.”

She regained her footing and hissed at him again.

He sighed. “Well, I’ve told you where the temple is. Or… There’s another of these altars about half a block to the south. The alleys made for a deliberately obfuscatory path, but as long as you know the requisite elementary fae magic to go with your other novice tricks, you’ll be able to follow your nose to it now you’ve already encountered two of them.”

The god hesitated, then shook his head and turned to go. “Just be careful. These Tide idiots are trying to avoid direct conflict, but I wouldn’t swear you’re a match for one in your present state. I brought you here because you’ve got every potential for a great destiny. If you just end up getting killed, I will actually feel bad.”

He actually walked away down the alley instead of just disappearing like last time. She shot him in the back with another shadowbolt. It did nothing, of course, but it was satisfying.


Trissiny gazed at the far wall in silence for long moments after Principia stopped talking.

“That,” she finally said, “might work.”

“Well, I thought so,” the elf said petulantly, finishing off the last of her now-cool tea before setting the cup back down next to the empty porridge bowl. “I mean, acknowledging my bias, I could definitely see it working. It’d be nice to have some confirmation, though. I wouldn’t put it past Avei to upbraid me for failing to read her mind. That may be a little paranoid of me, but I’ve not had the best experience within the Sisterhood so far.”

“I will ask her,” Trissiny promised with a fleeting little smile. “Orders aside, I see why you would want to keep that under wraps as long as possible. The whole idea sits right in that sweet spot of being bonkers enough that nobody but you would have come up with it, but plausible enough to others will undoubtedly try as soon as the idea gets out.”

“Yeah, well, I suspect it’ll be out sooner than later,” Principia said, frowning. “Maybe sooner than I’m ready. I know we’re within Shaeine’s earshot, and there is absolutely no way Kuriwa’s not actively listening. She comprehends the concept ‘none of my business’ as well as a horse understands trigonometry.”

“And you were wanting to gather people from N’Jendo and Veilgrad, as well as here, and throw them into some unfolding disaster,” Trissiny murmured. “It makes a lot more sense now.”

Principia blinked. “Wait, Veilgrad? Really?”

“I take it you don’t recall that, either.”

“Now that you mention it, I recall saying the name, but… Veilgrad is full of Shaathists and werewolves. The place is basically a giant miscellany of things that bump in the night. I can see it being a prospect but I wouldn’t wanna go there without a good and specific lead, which no, I don’t have.”

“I know some people there, too, but same problem applies. That’s there, we’re here, and I’m not sure how eager I am to learn what Tellwyrn would do if I went that far afield. She once threatened to chain me and Gabe together at the wrist. I’ve only come to understand how serious she was in hindsight.”

“You could do worse,” Principia said with a sly quirk of her lips.

Trissiny turned a flat stare on her. “We are not that close yet, Locke.”

“Yes’m,” the elf said solemnly.

Trissiny shook her head, and then turned again to stare at the wall, eyes narrowed in thought.

Principia watched her in silence for more than a full minute before suddenly speaking.

“I knew Sabah Aldarasi.”

Trissiny blinked in surprise and turned back to her. “The Hand of Avei who was killed by the Enchanter’s Bane? The way I was taught, that was a big part of the reason Viridill turned on the Empire after it was fired.”

“Yeah,” Principia whispered, herself gazing off into the distance now. “Her, and Sarsamon Tirasian. I knew him as Sarsa, dumbass wannabe adventurer from southern Calderaas. We were kind of a team for a while, there, just as what would become the Enchanter Wars was getting started. That’s incidentally also how I met Arachne, a bit later. Of course, far as we knew, it was just the latest occurrence of the orcs going on one of their crusades across the borders, and some shenanigans in the background where Magnan had a bug up his butt about fae magic and was leaning on both the Emperor and the Archpope to crack down on witches. Chaotic times, but eh…I’d seen worse. The whole world didn’t go nuts until that idiot fired off the Bane. And quite accidentally killed my friend.”

“So,” Trissiny said very quietly, staring at her, “when you heard I’d been called as the new Hand of Avei…”

“Look, I won’t say any part of my judgment at any step of that entire process was sound,” Principia said, wincing. “But that particular moment… Yeah, haring off to Viridill to plow through Abbess Narnasia was a uniquely unwise thing to try. That just triggered something in me I had made myself forget was there.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

“I abandoned them too.” Principia’s expression was completely hollow, eyes far away. “After Sabah… You’ve never been around a Hand of Avei without being one, you can’t know what it’s like. Even if your grasp of history warns you that there’s always a bigger fish, that they always end up meeting something they can’t defeat in the end… A paladin is an inspiring presence. You believe they can do anything, no matter how stupid you know that is. You want to be the best version of yourself you can be to help them, if they welcome you into their circle.”

Trissiny kept silent as if afraid to distract her as the elf carried on in an uncharacteristically haunted voice.

“That was new, to me. And then, boom. She was dead. Just so much fucking dust. Sarsa was a wreck—those two were the kind of irrationally in love that mostly only happens in great adventure stories. Slap slap kiss, it was all very amusing and sweet until it turned into a tragedy. The others… And, well, the whole world started falling apart. The Empire was falling into civil war, three major cults were actively trying to tear down the Universal Church, the Collegium was collapsing as different kinds of magic users started slaughtering each other. Viridill full of orc refugees. It was a time when heroes were desperately needed. Sabah made me believe I could be something truly great. And suddenly she was gone, and I needed to step up. For my friends’ sake, if not the world’s.”

Her shoulders hunched as if she wanted to collapse in on herself.

“So, naturally, I fucked off to Onkawa to get some sun.”

“You’re not a coward,” Trissiny said quietly.

“Don’t—”

“I’d like to think you know by now I don’t do platitudes. I am very well acquainted with your faults, Locke, and cowardice isn’t one.”

“Of course it is,” Principia said bitterly. “I’m not afraid of pain or death, but my own feelings? Oh, that I just can’t face. Onkawa didn’t exactly work out either, shit was going down in every corner of the world and I immediately ended up neck-deep in Black Wreath nonsense, but at least that had nothing to do with me. There was nobody I cared about involved; it was damn well therapeutic.”

They were silent again for another minute. Trissiny just watched her, waiting.

“The only way I knew how to relate to people was the only safe way I managed with my mother and everyone else in the grove,” Principia whispered at last. “Long as I made enough of a pest of myself that nobody wanted me around…well, that was always how it ended up anyway, and I felt better when it was on my terms. I kept moving, didn’t keep any friends around for very long. The Guild is well set up for that kind of lifestyle. Then fucking Sabah came along and ruined everything. I never did manage to completely straighten myself out again after that.”

She glanced up at Trissiny again and then dropped her gaze immediately, avoiding her eyes.

“Part of it…that one child support con, the whole reason you exist… Well, I thought it would be good to have a child. And then I did and it was terrifying beyond the capacity of words to express. You can’t run from that; you can’t just leave them behind. To love someone that way means you will be shattered, completely broken down to your core, if you lose them.”

Principia paused, swallowed heavily, and spoke in a ragged breath.

“So…I got it out of the way, instead of waiting for it to happen to me. Thank the gods Arachne was around, or… I’m just so goddamned sorry, Trissiny. I chickened out, that was all there was to it. What it means to be truly connected to people… The vulnerability is horrifying.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding once. “I wouldn’t want to live without it, though. Without people to love… What’s the point?”

“I get it, finally,” Principia said with a deep sigh. “My squad… Omnu’s balls, I’m amazed I’ve kept them alive this long. Between Syrinx and dragons and whatever else, it’s been a whole series of incredibly close shaves. And it’s just not gonna work forever. Soldiers die, that’s what they do, and I am going to lose some of those girls way too soon. I mean, I could live with Nandi kicking it, she’s been around forever and still hasn’t gotten over her own lost mate, but the others? They’re just kids. Brave, smart…the kind of heroic dumbshits I was supposed to be if I hadn’t run away instead.”

Drawing in a deep breath, she threw her head back to gaze up at the ceiling.

“What I do not get is why it’s such a relief. Both them, and you. Making peace with what it’s going to mean when someone else is taken from me and deliberately sticking by them anyway. I feel like I could piss myself from terror every moment I’m awake, and yet… I think I like it better this way. Is that normal?”

“Yes, Prin,” Trissiny said, smiling, “you ridiculous two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old child, that is normal.”

Principia lowered her head to meet her daughter’s eyes.

“That’s fucked up.”

Trissiny blinked once, and then began laughing so hard she fell over.

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15 – 30

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Dawn came early in the mountains. They had set out from the old Order of the Light station at the first graying of the sky, and so arrived in the ancient, battle-scarred courtyard below the Great Tree just as the first orange light was peeking between the crags to the east.

The group proceeded in silent single file across the pitted ground until they reached a point as near the center of the space as could be reckoned at a glance. They were unaccompanied by animal companions this time, Sniff and F’thaan being back at the camp under Principia’s supervision. Without speaking, they moved smoothly into place, arranging themselves in a circle facing one another. There was silence save for the soft whisper of wind through the Tree’s branches for a moment, and then Gabriel drew in a deep breath, clearly to steady himself.

“Okay,” he said, his voice not quite nervous but just short of certainty. “This was my idea, after all, so I guess I’ll take point in guiding it…but that shouldn’t be a factor for much longer. We’re all equals in this circle, that’s the point. So… We know why we’re here. This started with Teal, but I want to reiterate that while I do hope this helps her…this is for all of us. We’ve all got our… That is, this is about the group.” He hesitated for two beats, unconsciously rubbing his palms against his coat. “This is a Vidian ceremony, or at least, is built on one. Truth is, only one of us here is Vidian and I’m, like, only technically. I’ve been getting the impression Vidius wants me as specifically a kind of anti-priest, which is…neither here nor there. Point is, this is not a ceremony for any one faith. It’s something that occurred to me because it has specific relevance to the issues that have been raised before us. This, I believe, is something we can all benefit from, so long as we make it our own.”

He gained poise as he spoke, straightening his spine and ceasing to hesitate and second-guess his words. “The Doctrine of Masks, like all great religious dogmas, is a very specific way of interpreting a universal observation about life. None of us here observe the Doctrine and several of you might not even be aware of it. We all wear masks, in a way, and we’re here to confront that fact and even make it work for us, but not to embrace Vidian practice exactly. We have all spent the night in contemplation, as I asked. By now, I’m confident that all of you have found the answers I asked you to bring forward. I have, for my part. If you’re less confident about whatever you’ve come up with, I’ll tell you this up front: it is enough. All of you are plenty smart in the ways that matter, and all of us know each other well enough by now to make of this what it needs to be. We will be borrowing from many sources of both power and wisdom, and so we’ll begin by making them ours. It’s dawn, a time of transition, a boundary between two states. To begin, we will define this space, for the duration we need it, as ours. Each of you has something to invoke, to set our ritual space apart. Before the sun rises further, I will begin.”

Gabriel took one step backward, drawing his gnarled black wand from within his coat; in his hand it extended to its full length, the scythe’s blade gleaming sullenly in the dim light, while its knotted haft seemed almost to be cast from shadow. He raised the weapon in both hands.

“By the blade of death itself, I cleave this space from the world. This spot, for as long as we need it, is ours.”

He swept the scythe in a wide arc through the middle of the circle, a mostly symbolic gesture that had an immediate reflection in the physical world. A line of shadow ripped across the ground around the eight students, forming into a ring enclosing them together. It was almost invisible upon the ground, but where the dim light cast shadows upon the ground from the many rocks and roots protruding, they changed angle, as though the light inside that circle had been rotated a few degrees.

Gabriel stepped silently back into line, and there was a momentary pause.

Then Toby stepped forward, hands folded at his waist.

“I ask Omnu’s light upon this place. By the shift in shadow, of Vidius’s own rank in the Pantheon, I will the light only to heal and to calm. None here are to be burned, or judged.”

Golden light descended upon them. Though the sun was only just coming up in the east, scintillating beams of sunlight streamed down from within the leaves of the Great Tree high above. Toby lifted his face to smile up at them, then stepped back into place.

“Uh, scuze me for speaking out of turn here,” Ruda said, sounding uncharacteristically nervous herself, “but is that supposed to happen? I’d like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on paladin shit by now and I had zero idea you two could do that.”

“Actually, that was…a surprise,” Toby admitted.

“Yeah, I was thinking this was gonna be just a ceremonial invocation,” Gabriel agreed. “This…I dunno. It’s not what I would’ve expected, but it feels right.”

“This is an extraordinarily sacred place,” Shaeine said quietly, “and we are each connected to considerable powers through the web of magic. Surprises should not, perhaps, be surprising.”

“Trust your feelings,” Juniper added in just as soft a tone. “We’re safe here. You’ll know if something is wrong. And in fact, let that be my invocation.” She took a step forward into the circle, raising one hand toward the light beaming down from the tree. “Though severed from Naiya by my own crimes, I am still a daughter of nature, and a being animated by fae magic. The magic of emotion, and intuition. I call upon the trust and wisdom within each of us, within this place, and within reality itself. Let us know balance in what we do here.”

Small flowers popped up right out of the rocky ground, in a neat ring around their feet just inside the subtle rim of shadow.

Fross fluttered forward as she stepped back. “I don’t…really know what I am. Pixies don’t work the way I do. How I seem to convert fae magic to arcane just by existing, that’s…that’s never been explained to my satisfaction. But right now, I’m seeing a parallel to this situation here, so that is the invocation I want to offer you all. Building on Juniper’s blessing, I call on whatever it is that animates the arcane to add its gifts. From whatever peace of mind we’re given, let’s also draw comprehension and reason, to apply to whatever happens. I invoke my gift of arcane intellect on behalf of my friends!”

As she returned to her position, a faint tracery of blue lines shimmered into being across the pitted stone, forming a geometric pattern of intricate mathematical perfection linking them all together.

Ruda stepped forward next, drawing in a steadying breath of her own. “Okay, well, I’m out of my fucking element here. Magic I understand as something predictable and useful, but there’s some serious spookery going on that I do not get. But it doesn’t feel wrong. It comes from you guys, and hell, I trust you. Hardly anyone else in the world, but if my life and my soul are in the hands of the people here, I’m fine with it. So that’s what I bring to this apparently sacred space we’re apparently carving out.” She drew her sword, the mithril blade hissing gently in the quiet, and strode all the way forward till she could rest it point down in the very center of the circle. “By the unfair, unreasoning, bullshit wrath of the sea, by the blade that cuts magic itself, I claim this spot as ours. None are welcome to interfere.”

She withdrew her hand, and the rapier remained there, perfectly balanced on its tip, even as she backed slowly away to resume her position.

“Did you…know it was going to do that?” Trissiny asked.

“Hell, I know nothing,” Ruda muttered. “It felt right, is all. So, there we are.”

Trissiny nodded, then took a step forward into the circle. “None of the provinces of the particular gods I serve seem relevant to us here, but…there is a universal virtue that’s necessary to everything both Avei and Eserion seek to accomplish. Necessary to everyone, really. I know what we’re doing will involve looking within ourselves, finding and confronting some realities, and having done a bit of that I can tell you it’s harder and more frightening than anything I’ve faced that put my life in physical danger. So, that is what I wish for us. What I invoke, and share with all of you, my friends. Whatever comes next, while we are together in this space, I wish you courage.”

By that point they were accustomed to the occasional sight of the golden eagle wings that flared into being behind her, but this time there were eight pairs, flanking each of the. Only for a startled moment, and then they faded. But gold continued to drift down, accompanying Omnu’s sunbeams; shimmering, intangible feathers of light that drifted like falling leaves from the tree, fading out of being as they touched the ground.

Gabriel made an aborted noise in his throat and pressed his lips together firmly.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said incredulously, “are you laughing?”

“I’m sorry!” he protested. “It’s just… Fross, with giant golden eagle wings. That image is gonna be burned into my memory forever.”

“Okay, I’m actually sort of sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Fross agreed.

Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh, but by the time it had finished even she was forced to smile.

Shaeine glided forward a step, folding her hands in the same position Toby had. “My goddess, I think, is specifically relevant here, more so than I am personally. My House trains diplomats, but I think that between us… We are past the point of needing negotiation. I know and trust each of you like…” She hesitated, then swallowed heavily. “…like family. With Themynra’s permission, and by her grace, I ask the gift of judgment, to build upon what Juniper and Fross have already invoked. Whatever we hear, whatever we learn and discover, let us think carefully and seek to understand before reacting.”

Silver mist thickened out of the air, drifting on the ground around them—specifically, concentrated around the tiny flowers, and glittering softly above the blue geometric pattern of the circle.

As Shaeine stepped back into place, Teal took a step forward. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then opened them.

“This will be for us, not just me,” she said quietly, and the fire subsumed her eyes, her hair, spreading from behind her as fiery wings. Claws and talons formed, lifting her almost a full foot higher off the ground. The harmonic chorus of Vadrieny’s voice was somber and incongruously gentle. “I feel we have little to offer of our own, but our gifts may build on what you have already invoked, all of you. Music is harmony, mathematics, emotion, passion, precision… All of it, all of life viewed from every angle. We lend our support to the peace and augmentation you have wished upon this space, to the barrier separating it out, and to the warning that any who mean us harm should not dare encroach. To all of you, to us, to this space, we offer our song.”

She closed her eyes, and hummed a single long note in her throat. The sounds around them were faint, only the distant sea of air and leaves, but a strangely harmonious quality descended upon them as Vadrieny softly lent her voice. The difference it made was barely comprehensible to mortal senses, but it could be felt. She slowly trailed off, her voice fading into silence, and by the end it was impossible to spot the exact point at which Vadrieny herself stopped humming and the music of the wind and earth took over.

As she stepped back into place and withdrew, leaving Teal behind, the silence was no longer silent. For a few long seconds, the whole group simply stood there, listening to inaudible harmonies surrounding them.

“I have the strangest feeling,” Fross finally said quietly. “Like…we’ve set into motion something super important, that we can’t fully understand.”

“I feel the same,” Shaeine agreed. “And that we must stay in motion. It is too late to stop.”

“It’s dangerous to do some things halfway,” said Gabriel, nodding. “But that’s the first half, done, and wherever this is going… Well, now’s the time to go there. This started with Teal, with the fundamental truth about bards, and the utility of masks. It expanded to Shaeine, and the discomfort between the expectations of her culture and how groups of people operate outside it. This…is all about masks. We’re borrowing from Vidian forms, as I said, but what we do here will be for us, by us, and it will be ours. We have a lot to learn from our faiths, but we won’t be defined by any one system.” He glanced at Trissiny and cracked a smile. “There’s an old saying about systems that comes to mind.”

She grinned back. After a momentary pause, Gabriel’s expression sobered and he continued, slowly looking around the group at each of them in turn.

“In our vigil last night, I asked you all to contemplate masks. Specifically, the one you wear which has the most use, the most potential, to be a gift offered to others. A Vesker bard plays a role in life in order to control the story they are in, but all that sets them apart is the skill and consciousness with which they do it. We’re all playing a role, wearing a mask; we wear many of them, in fact, in different situations. This ritual is one of sharing. It…is a great intimacy. Masks will be removed here, exposing true faces beneath. More than that, masks will be offered. Each of us will put forth into the circle the mask we wear most powerfully. In this way we not only make ourselves vulnerable, but we grant that power to each other to use. We will each share our strength eight ways.”

He paused before finishing in a quieter tone. “I love you all. I trust you with this…with the ability to hurt me. And I’m honored as hell that you’re all willingly here, doing the same.”

All of them smiled broadly. Even Shaeine, whose reddish eyes seemed to glitter in the drifting golden light.


So far, Principia was having a fairly quiet morning. The two Order of the Light guides were still asleep in their own improvised quarters, and the animals were very well behaved—or at least, Sniff was well-behaved, and F’thaan was asleep. By far the worst of her inconveniences was Merry and her pointed comments about Prin not getting the nap she had promised to.

The corporal was just gearing up for another of those when suddenly the elf, the protobird and the hellhound all snapped upright in unison, alert and watchful as deer which had scented a wolf.

“What?” she demanded, unconsciously reaching for her sword. “What is it?”

“Have you given much thought to the ramifications of this scheme of yours, Locke?” a new voice asked.

Merry whirled, then froze, her eyes widening. He was an oddly-dressed man in a truly ridiculous hat, otherwise physically nondescript, but she remembered him well from their previous encounter, brief as it was. Vesk winked cheekily at her in passing but did not slow, sauntering forward to stand next to Principia and stare across the distance at the Great Tree and the shattered fortress spread around its base.

The elf seemed to consider his question carefully before answering, one hand gently smoothing down Sniff’s crest of feathers. F’thaan huddled at her feet, staring up at the god in clear uncertainty whether he should be afraid.

“I give thought to everything I do,” Principia said at last. “But that wasn’t a sincere question, was it? You’re just opening the dialogue so you can talk at me.”

“Well, hey, you do know your theology!” Vesk chuckled, slapping her on the shoulder.

“I get by. What I don’t know is why you are here right now, but none of the possibilities aren’t terrifying. I remember what happened the last time.”

“I was okay with that,” Merry offered tremulously. “I mean, sure, we almost died half a dozen times, but it got us results.”

“See?” Vesk cocked a thumb over his shoulder at her. “She gets it. I’m gonna break character a bit and answer your question, my dear Keys. I’m here because a god is in truth a slave to their core concept. Because a motley collection of attractive and heavily-armed youths have just gathered up a big handful of every string tied to every magical force at work in the world and are fixing to yank on it until reality itself stretches so far that they can tear a piece off. And notably, because fully half of them are individuals I have personally sought out and designated my own protagonists in the big story playing out in the world right now. I’m here, to an extent, because somebody needs to apply a guiding hand to that so the result is something useful to them and not just a giant backlash that upends everybody’s applecart. But ultimately? I am here because I really don’t have a choice.”

“I see, she said sarcastically,” she said warily. “So…how come you are here, and not there? Nothing I’m doing is nearly as interesting as that.”

“Oh, that’s a very self-contained scene,” he explained. “It’s all very intimate; can’t have interlopers, it would throw off the whole dynamic. Nah, I can keep a weather eye on things from this close, and this way I’m not interfering in their business. Plus, this way I can indulge in some of my favorite pastimes! Y’know, light expository dialogue, perhaps a soupcon of character development. Specifically it allows me to ask that piercing question, which contains the hidden answer you’ll need to tell you what you will have to do in the aftermath of what’s about to happen thanks to those kids.”

He turned his head to regard her seriously.

“Do you realize, Principia Locke, what you are doing?”

“Okay, I’ll play along,” she said, subtly leaning away from him. “But not without spoiling the rhetorical game you’re playing by pointing it out. I still have to be me. What, Lord Vesk, am I doing?”

“You are building a bonfire that’s going to burn the world before it peters out,” he said in a much softer tone, turning back to gaze at the distant ruins. “Your actions here and in the days just ahead will gather the kindling and stack the wood, all so you can ignite a new Age of Adventures. And what those precious little bastards are about to do is strike a god damn spark.”


It was Teal who spoke first, after drawing in a steadying breath. “Well. This began with me, and with my own…bloody intransigence, that you all finally called me out for. It’s okay,” she added hastily when Toby and Juniper both opened their mouths to protest. “You were right, and I’m glad you did. I’ve been fighting with this for… Well, for my whole life. And while we were keeping vigil last night, I really focused on why. And I think, finally, I’ve sorted it out.

“Everything I have ever done in life has been a struggle between being myself, and hiding myself. From the very beginning, I think that’s why I was drawn to bards. In every story, the bard’s personality is both their armor and weapon. Gods, how I wanted that. My parents always wanted me to express who I was, but at the same time, there were always expectations… And then, there was Vadrieny, and the stakes suddenly became life or death. We… Well, I could retreat into myself and not be alone anymore. I needed less from others; she never needed others. We could be loved, alone together, and the world outside was nothing but expectations and rules. We managed. Without her own memories, she adopted my goals, and so we still loved the idea of the bard, wanted to be that. It’s just… Well, in our situation, adopting an oversized personality would have been a lethally bad idea.”

She turned her head to smile warmly at Shaeine. “And then there was her. All of you guys, don’t get me wrong, but mostly…her. Another person with whom to be vulnerable, and yet safe. Where there were no expectations, just us together. And… I realize, now, how I let us all slip into that rut. It was just so easy to let the few people we truly trusted give us roles to fulfill. We stopped trying to control our own life, let Tellwyrn and Ashaele tell us who to be. But…not Shaeine.”

Teal shifted to gaze directly at her mate, voice dropping to a whisper. “For all the strength you’ve given to me, to us, my love… Our love, I cherish the most that you were finally willing to stand up to me. Because I know how you hate to cause me pain, but you were willing anyway when I needed it. All of you,” she added, sweeping her gaze around the circle. “This is where we’ve come to after taking the night to try to parse it all. I don’t have answers, but thanks to you, I’ve faced the questions. I thank you for making me confront this. I don’t know where we are going next, but I realize, now, how we got here. And that is what I give you.”

She raised both hands to the sides of her face, pantomiming grasping the edges of a mask as Gabriel had instructed them all the night before. “This has become a crutch and a weakness for me, but it also enabled Vadrieny and I to survive when nothing else would have. I can’t depend on it any longer, but used the right way at the right time, there is great value in being able to project back at people whatever they expect to see. I take it off now, and give that value to you: the Mask of Mirrors.”

Teal moved her hands forward from her face, and there was a flash. She actually jumped, several of them gasped, and Ruda muttered a curse. Teal was holding an actual, physical mask, a simple oblong bowl shape with holes for the eyes and mouth. The entire thing was chrome, polished to such a gloss that it reflected in perfect detail like an actual mirror.

“Uh, whoah,” Teal said nervously. “I didn’t know it would make an actual… Gabe?”

“That…wasn’t supposed to…” He scratched the top of his head, squinting in puzzlement. “It’s a ceremony, all of this was supposed to be kind of metaphorical.”

“Yeah, so, here’s a theory,” said Ruda. “Maybe when you bring together a bunch of people intimately connected to a bunch of the major metaphysical powers of the world, have ’em improvise a ritual to magically define a sacred space right on top of one of the most already sacred spaces in the world and then have ’em do a ceremony they barely understand… Shit goes down.”

All of them were silent for a moment, staring at the light glittering across the Mask of Mirrors as Teal shifted it this way and that in her hands.

“Here’s what I can tell at a glance:” Fross said at last. “That thing is lousy with magic and I can’t tell at all what any of it does. Also, this part bothers me a little that I can’t articulate exactly why, but I’m not bothered. This feels okay. Is anybody else getting the same?”

There was a round of nods and murmurs of agreement.

“We are operating under a stack of blessings to judgment, intellect, and intuition,” Toby added. “I think if we were in danger, we would know. What I feel is that we should proceed.”

“Here,” Teal said softly. Holding up the Mask of Mirrors, she stepped forward two paces, turned its surface to face her, and then slowly released it, as though hanging it on a wall.

The mask remained in position when she let go. Teal stepped back into the line, and the Mask of Mirrors began a slow orbit, gliding in a continuous circle around Ruda’s sword as if to gaze at each of them in turn.

“Huh,” Juniper said in sheer wonder. “How’d you know it would do that?”

Teal shrugged. “It just felt right.”

“Well, then.” Trissiny stepped forward next. “I don’t even know what powers are operating here, but after last night I believe I know what I need to do. In a way…last night was kind of a point of closure for me. I know I’ve been apart from this group a lot lately, sorting out my own stuff, and while meditating on that I came to a surprising conclusion.”

She hesitated, then shook her head, smiling ruefully. “It’s the strangest thing. Going off on my own was what enabled me to find some truths I desperately needed. To grow in ways that were long overdue. It’s while I’ve been with you guys that I feel I’ve failed the most. Not because you were holding me back or anything—quite the opposite. Maybe because…because you were there to catch me when I fell.” Her eyes met Gabriel’s across the circle. “You have all seen me at my worst. And yet, I’m still welcome here. You’ve both backed me up and stood up to me when I needed it. I had friends, when I went to the Guild in Tiraas, this is true. People who helped me learn and supported me as I did them. It’s you who’ve come to define… Not who I am, but I think, the potential of who I could…who I want to be.”

Trissiny raised her hands as Teal had done, taking a deep breath and preparing to grasp the edges of a mask that did not yet exist. “My delusion was always the assumption that Avei was one thing, and Eserion something opposite. It’s more than those two; they aren’t even poles on one continuum. Life is vague, chaotic…there’s value in structures and systems, but we cannot be defined by them. The truth will not be handed to you. It must be hunted down, and it hides in surprising places. None of you are me; I know a bit about your personal journeys, by now. My answers won’t help you. But my means of finding them can. That is what I surrender, to offer my friends: the will and the method to seek out your own truth. The Mask of the Huntress.”

She pulled her hands away, the light flared in the circle, and Trissiny was holding a second mask. This one was identical to Teal’s in shape, but seemed to be carved of ebony. The right half of its face was marked with a silver eagle’s wing, just like the traditional tattoos worn by the Silver Huntresses of old. Trissiny held it up, hesitated, then released her fingers.

The Mask of the Huntress floated forward in the air to join the Mask of Mirrors, and began orbiting opposite it.

Gabriel blew out a short breath. “Man, this is all getting more real than I was planning on… Okay, here goes.” He stepped forward as Trissiny moved back into line. “I relate hard to a lot of what Trissiny just said. You guys…you’ve all see me do some pretty dumb stuff. I feel like you pretty much know what my foibles are by now so it’s not really worth reciting the list. If you really wanna hear the list I’m sure Ruda has it written down somewhere.” He paused, grinning, then let the expression of amusement subside quickly. “I fail a lot, even now. I’m not done growing, not by a long shot. The single most important thing I’ve learned is…to learn. Nobody has all the answers, or even most of them. Vidius himself told me that screwing around is my greatest strength, and I think I finally understand what he meant. You have to try things. Sometimes you’ll succeed, and gain a new trick. Sometimes you’ll fail, and get hurt, and gain a lesson. I couldn’t actually say which I think is the more valuable.”

He raised his hands to his face, taking a breath to steel himself. “Since this all started with talk about bards and archetypes, I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot. I remember some of the names people have called me over the years—including several of you lot—and something I picked up from a half-demon shopkeeper I met in Tiraas about fortune-telling: a tarot deck is just a list of archetypes, and a spread of cards doesn’t tell the future, it tells a story. That’s why the first card is the Fool, the ignorant kid who starts every great story not being worth a damn, but has the potential to grow into a hero. That’s the most valuable trait I have, and the one I want to share with you all:” He pulled, the air flashed, and he was holding up a third mask. “The Mask of the Fool.”

It was a little larger than the other two, due to its upper half being carved in the semblance of a multi-pointed jester’s hat. The rest was plain white ceramic, different from the previous two only in that its mouth was turned upward in a big smile.

Upon being released, it joined the other two in their slow circle, all three adjusting to be an equal distance apart.

“I think I like the way Fross put it,” Ruda said after a momentary pause. “I’m bothered that I’m not bothered. Yeah, this all feels weirdly correct, but… We are obviously fucking around with high-quality mojo that we weren’t expecting and don’t even slightly understand, and it’s doing some incredibly vivid shit that’s… I don’t even know what to make of this. Should we consider that maybe we ought to be more concerned than we are? I mean, Fross’s addition to that invocation was explicitly encouragement to trust our intellect.”

“It’s always wise to be wary of unknown magic,” Trissiny agreed, “but not every rule applies in every situation. This has a major fae component, it’s highly personal to us, and it is happening in one of the magically safest and most neutral spots in the world. At the moment, my intellect tells me to trust my feelings.”

“Yeah, I can see your point,” Ruda said, though she still frowned.

“Be mindful of what Yornhaldt and Ekoi have taught us,” Shaeine added. “In ritual magic, it is often far more dangerous not to finish what you start. In the interests of that, if no one objects, I would like to offer my contribution.”

The drow stepped forward one pace into the circle, again folding her hands at her waist, but unusually she inhaled a long deep breath, which was closer to a loss of composure than she usually betrayed in public.

“I hope that you will forgive my arrogance in saying this, but I feel that my journey at the University has been of a fundamentally different type than any of yours. I have found great joy in the privilege of watching you all grow into the people you will be, but for my part, I was assiduously trained and molded into the person I was to become long before we met. Not perfect by any means, and most certainly with a great deal to learn. But my path has been the least transformative of any of ours, I believe. I am a creature of Tar’naris, and would not—cannot—change that.”

She paused, lowering her eyes for a moment, then raised them again resolutely.

“Instead…I have been increasingly forced to face the limits of my perspective, even as I have become ever more committed to them. To be Narisian in an isolated society is a very different matter than to be Narisian in a wider, connected world. My people are grappling with this truth, and we must find answers as a society. Perhaps I can help with that, but I cannot presume to determine the solution Tar’naris as a whole will embrace. I only know what I feel I must do. And… And I am increasingly pained by the barriers between us. I need those; they are a central part of my identity. But the walls that define social roles, to me, are immutable and not for me to determine alone. Yet while I am outside my home city, they are not how things work. Not how people exist together. I am deeply grateful to all of you, to Gabriel, for this ceremony, for the half-measure it offers. To protect my identity as I must, while opening myself at least a little, as I so desperately want to.”

She met Teal’s eyes, the human smiling warmly with her eyes practically glowing with love. Shaeine raised her hands to touch the sides of her face, taking another long breath.

“I offer this mask to you all, partly in the hope that it may serve you. Because you all do tend to wear your hearts pinned to your robes, and some of you in particular might be better off with a bit of reserve to hide behind. But mostly, I do this to finally be able to remove it, and be…among you. One of the mess that is us.”

The change was the most dramatic yet, not just because she conjured a featureless gray mask out of thin air just by moving her hands, but because lowering it transformed her entire face. Suddenly, Shaeine was grinning at them, her features alight with joy, tears glistening unshed in her eyes.

“By the goddess, it feels good to say this. I love you. Each of you wonderful, ridiculous, brilliant, blithering idiots. I’d shed the last drop of my blood for the sake of any one of you, and I’m not just saying that because I know that having a bunch of ham-fisted powerhouses for friends means I’ll probably never have to back it up. Nobody gets to choose their family, and I sure as hell didn’t choose any of you weirdos—except Teal and Vadrieny, who already know this—but you’re as dear to me as any being alive and not for anything in the cosmos would I give up a single one of you. So I offer you the Blank Mask, and may it serve you at need. I’m just as glad to be rid of it.”

They were all grinning widely in return as the plain gray mask floated forward to join the others. Ruda chuckled aloud.

“Man, it really says something that the single most touching thing I’ve ever been told included calling me a blithering idiot.”

“Well, say what you will about this group,” Gabriel agreed, “we know who we are! And Shaeine, just, wow. You almost look like a different person! I wish I’d gotten to see you smile like that before, it makes you twice as gorgeous. I mean!” he said hastily, eyes widening as they shifted to look at Teal. “Not that I was—you know, I would never… Aw, crap.”

“Oh, look,” Juniper teased, “Gabe did an awkward.”

“At this point,” Trissiny said innocently, “shouldn’t we just call that doing a Gabriel?”

“Thank, Triss, that’s great.”

“I don’t mean to be a wet blanket or anything,” Fross chimed, “but is it maybe a bad idea to interrupt this inexplicably powerful sacred ritual with jokes and bickering?”

“Well, this is an extremely personal sacred ritual,” Toby replied, still smiling, “in a way the metaphysical and surprisingly literal embodiment of us. Looked at from that perspective, it might not work at all if we didn’t.”

“Okay, yeah, I’ve got no counterpoint and wow isn’t that just a little telling.” Fross fluttered forward a couple of feet to the accompaniment of laughter. “Since I’m already talking, then, I guess I’ll go next! So, irrespective of how this ceremonial thing works out, I’m already really grateful to Gabe for having this idea because of the vigil part last night. I’ve been learning and growing such a tremendous amount in just the last couple of years that I feel like an almost unrecognizably different person than I was when I first came to Last Rock, but I’ve never really stopped to look inward and think about why and how I’ve changed. Last night I realized I’m just not a very introspective person in general, and I feel like that might be a character flaw which I should watch out for in the future… But anyway, I feel like I’ve gained some valuable perspective here and I’m very glad for that. You all probably remember how I spent the first semester basically trying to memorize every rule and use that to get by in society?”

“The University isn’t exactly society,” Trissiny answered when the pixie paused, “but I don’t think I’ll ever forget you trying to teach us century-old adventurer slang on our first Crawl delve.”

Fross emitted an amused arpeggio of chimes. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I mean. The thing is…it stems from the place I come from, what pixies are like, and how I’m inherently different. Not just the arcane magic thing, though I’m certain that’s connected. I had the chance to reflect a bit on this when Juniper and Aspen and…Professor Ekoi and I went to the Deep Wild a while ago.”

“You did what?” Gabriel asked, blinking.

Fross chimed again. “Long story, but anyway. There’s just not a lot to pixies, intellectually. As annoying as it is when people are surprised that I’ve got a functioning mind, I can’t a hundred percent blame them. Pixies are flying bundles of magic and emotion, and given how much I hated living that way I’ve tried really hard to devote myself to intellectual pursuits. And I regret none of that! Probably because all this has come along before I had the chance to find a way to really get myself in trouble with it, which I’m sure I would have because it seems like a core lesson of all history and psychology is that every virtue becomes a fault if you let it run away with you.

“What really struck me after spending a night pondering on it is how much I’ve been shaped as a person, and not just an intelligent being, by you guys. It seems like everything I’ve learned about functioning as a person in relation to other people was shaped by this class, and I’m suddenly incredibly grateful that I was in a class with you specifically and not a lot of the other people we’ve met, because wow. People can be pretty awful. Shaeine’s right, all of us can be ridiculous and weird and flawed at times, but when it comes down to it? You guys are the family I wouldn’t have known to ask for if anyone had told me beforehand that I needed one, and I’m so grateful for you.

“In the end it wasn’t hard at all for me to see the mask I’ve been hiding behind. And you know what, I still appreciate it. It’s a very useful quality which, no offense, most of you could use a little more of. But I’m glad for this chance to introspect, and see how I shouldn’t over-rely on one trait at the expense of others that are also valuable. So I’m taking off the Mask of Logic, and sharing it with you, but it’s a mask I plan to wear again. A lot. Maybe not as much, though.” She paused, then chimed discordantly. “I’m sure you can’t see but I’m totally doing that ceremonial gesture Gabe told us about. If this produces a pixie-sized mask I’m really gonna laugh.”

In fact, the flash of light seemed somewhat muted as the color of Fross’s bright aura reduced it to an anomalous flicker in context, but the Mask of Logic itself was full-sized to match the others. Its oval shape was the same, though its eye and mouth holes were simple, narrow rectangular slits, the mask’s porcelain white surface marked with angular geometric patterns in pale blue that were reminiscent of Fross’s addition to the protective circle around them now.

There was a short, pensive pause while they watched the five masks spin in their slow midair circle, the stylized faces seeming to study each of them in turn as they passed by.

It was Juniper who broke the quiet, stepping forward and unconsciously fingering her new sunburst pendant.

“I’ve really appreciated hearing all this,” the dryad said quietly. “Maybe I’m pretty self-centered, but I guess I never really understood that you were all grappling with these issues, too. You’ve all matured a lot and changed some while I’ve known you, but all of you always seemed… Well, it seemed to me like you understood what you were going through in a way I never did. Now I kinda feel like I was wrong about that. Um, no offense meant.”

“None’s taken,” Trissiny said a little wryly. “That’s a really valid observation, Juniper.”

“The more I learn,” Gabriel intoned with utter solemnity, “the more I understand that I understand fuck all about anything.”

“The more I learn,” Ruda added in the same tone, “the more I understand that Gabe knows fuck all about anything.”

“Your parents didn’t stab you nearly enough growing up, Ruda.”

“Guys,” Toby interjected. “Please go on, Juniper.”

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “I like this. It’s…gentle. I sort of appreciate how we are as a group, how we can joke and needle and even be a little hostile and yet there’s always this unspoken certainty that we’re safe together. It’s…a nurturing context that I badly needed, and I’ve only just learned how much.”

She hesitated, her expression wavering, and then steeled herself, squaring her shoulders.

“I started my personal adventure among society thinking that living by impulse and animal instinct made me natural and right, and all the rest of everything civilized people did was aberrant and I didn’t have to respect it. And…immediately I started to realize how wrong that was, but I hid from it for a long time. Until things built to a head and I couldn’t anymore, and…well, you were all there.” Juniper paused to take another deep, steadying breath. “I don’t know how much better I’ve done since then. I’ve tried. I’ve succeeded some…failed a lot. I’ve done some good and a lot of harm. The truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or how to be a person. But… But I feel, for maybe the first time, like I’m getting there. Like I can afford to make mistakes, and be wrong sometimes, and it’ll be an opportunity to learn and grow and not just another disaster. Almost everything I understand about how to not be a monster, I got from you all. You’re my family, more than Naiya or even my sisters have ever been. You’re the forces that have shaped me the most in directions that I’m proud of. I will always be grateful for you all.

“And so.” She lifted her hands to her face, closing her eyes. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna keep trying. And I now formally disavow this crutch, this lie that I’ve used to hide from reality. I will not touch it again. Maybe it will be of some use to you. I don’t really see how, but I mean to do my very best to be a good friend, and try to give you all the support you’ve given me. As a person, not as a vehicle for magical bullshit. And I will do all that, whatever happens, without hiding behind the Mask of the Wild.”

It emerged from nothingness in a flash, a deep crimson mask painted in the countenance of a great fanged, snarling mouth. Notably, it had no eye holes, only painted-on eyes with slitted snakelike pupils. Rather than just letting it go as the others had done, Juniper pushed it firmly away from herself. The action didn’t seem to affect the speed of its motion as it joined the rotating circle of masks.

Ruda took one stride forward even before Juniper had retreated. “Well! Sorry, Tobes, maybe this is selfish but I just don’t wanna be last.”

“It’s okay,” he said, smiling at her.

“So, real talk,” she said, tucking her hands into her pockets. “I feel a little like Shaeine in that I mostly had my shit sorted before I ever met you guys. Which is not to say the last two years haven’t been life-changing and revelatory, but more in the sense of giving me context than changing who I am. I, uh…” She cleared her throat. “Okay, truth is, I kinda let my guard down on this back during the hellgate crisis. Just with Trissiny, though. I mean, honestly, for someone I mostly wanted to stab from the moment we met, that girl really turned out to be a sister to me. In the sense that I never asked for or wanted her but god damn if my whole world wouldn’t fall apart without her.”

“I love you too, Ruda,” Trissiny said, grinning.

Ruda flipped her off, which only make her smile wider. “Here’s my truth: I’m the destined leader of what looks a lot like a doomed nation, and before I came to Last Rock I’d mostly made peace with the fact that the Punaji people were going to fall apart with me at the helm and that was just that. And when I said as much to Shiny Boots back then, she pointed out that we, this group here, are a passel of the most well-connected heavy-hitters in the world and something I could rely on for help. To change even the inevitable. It was…a nice thought. But then… But then you all came to Puna Dara with me…well, even if it was just most of you…and suddenly it wasn’t a thought anymore.”

She stopped, closed her eyes, and was utterly still for a long stretch of seconds. The rest of them just watched patiently until she was ready.

“I’m so fucking scared,” Ruda finally said, her voice cracking. “I can’t do this. I have no idea how to save my people, but I have to try, and I was so sure I would obviously fail. The first time I killed a man, my papa sat me down and told me how important it was to have family, people I could trust to be close enough to be vulnerable with. I listened, then, but I didn’t learn. It took you preposterous fucking assholes to really make me understand. When I say I’ve come to rely on you all, both now and in the future, it’s not because you’re an adventuring party of demigods and titans and shit that could tear apart an empire with your bare fucking hands. Well, all right, not just that, not even mostly that. It’s…” She scrubbed angrily at her eyes. “Fuck. My whole life has been projecting this…this mask of strength and savagery and it’s so fucking exhausting. I’m so grateful for you. It’s not easy for me to let it down, but…I know I can. I can be vulnerable, with you guys. And that means everything.”

Ruda inhaled deeply, her breath shuddering a bit, then rubbed at her eyes once more before putting her hands to the sides of her face. “I will always need the Storm’s Mask, but fuck am I glad to be able to take it off once in a while.”

And she did, pulling it away with a flash of light. The mask in Ruda’s hands glittered cerulean, it surface jewel-like with surprising depths like the sea itself. The single jagged white line of a lightning bolt descended from its crow to between its eyes, where it forked to bracket a snarling mouth. Ruda held it up and out slowly, in a gesture of more reverence than she showed to almost anything, and it drifted into place with the others.

“We may be a bunch of blithering weirdo assholes,” Gabriel said, “but we’ve got your back, Ruda. All the way.”

“That’s what family means,” Shaeine agreed, wearing an open smile that seemed to delight in its own existence. “Your people are our people, your problems our own. I’m sorry I didn’t get to help at Puna Dara last time. Next time somebody threatens your home I’ll be right there helping you fuck ’em up.”

“Okay, that’s even weirder than Boots coming back all smug and thiefy,” Ruda replied, grinning helplessly even while continuing to wipe away tears. “But y’know what, damn if I don’t dig it.”

Toby glided one step forward, but then just stood unobtrusively for a few moments, wearing a gentle smile while the group subsided and calmed on its own time, gradually turning their attention toward him.

“I’m very comfortable being last,” he said frankly. “That’s pretty much the theme I’ve come down to after spending a night contemplating on it. I’ve always been one to put others first, and I’m okay with that about myself. Even, as Shaeine once pointed out to me, when I take it too far; nobody can help anybody else if they use themselves up first. Virtues really do become vices when you stretch them past their natural end point. I’ll try to do better at remembering my place, relative to others, and looking out for myself. But honestly, one of the things I cherish about this group is how I get to just…take care of you guys. Because you take care of me, even when I forget to.”

He paused to grin broadly, the expression slowly subsiding to a softer smile as he continued. “I say this without pride or false modesty: I’m a good person. I don’t consider that a source of pride, even. I believe that people are good, that if you guide them away from mistakes what lies underneath is something fundamentally virtuous. Everything good about me was given to me by others. Because I had the opportunity to be raised by monks, and trained in virtue from the cradle, rather than having to develop selfish habits just to survive. A principled, austere childhood is an enormous luxury. I am very grateful for what I was given.

“But good or not, I am a very flawed person…as much as anyone, I think.” Toby’s face grew sober, and his eyebrows drew together. “That insight has been really important to me, the fact that you can take a good trait too far and make it a bad one. I’ve been guilty of that. Worse… This doctrine of masks has been a real eye-opener to me, and I’m very glad for having spent the night meditating on it. Because that’s exactly the stupid thing I have done my whole life. Not just abusing the kindness and calm I was taught to my own detriment, but using them…misusing them to hide from myself, and from reality. I’ve had a series of rude shocks and a serious talking-to by an actual goddess recently about how I’ve spent my whole life twisting the virtues of peace around to make myself functionally useless, and now that I’ve spent some time really contemplating it, I feel like I understand what I did wrong. How the truth has been in front of me the whole time. How, specifically, you have been a huge blessing that I’ve completely squandered from the moment I met you all. I’m deeply ashamed, and deeply sorry.”

“I don’t think you’re squandered, Toby,” Fross chimed.

“Let him get this out,” Trissiny said softly.

Toby smiled at both of them in turn. “Thanks, Fross, Triss. The thing is… Peace is good. Compassion is good. Serenity is good. I was taught to think they are the ultimate good, the core of life, and I still don’t think that’s wrong. But they’re not the only good. And worse, they become an easy mask for apathy and laziness and fear. If you dwell too much on peace, you can very easily start using that to hide from the world and from responsibility. From reality. From…the practical truth that Professor Ezzaniel laid down for me from day one, that I’ve taken an inexcusably long time to really accept: peace doesn’t happen unless someone forces it to. And that is the thing: you, as a group, are basically the best role models I could have had when it comes to controlled, careful, mindful, principled violence. Even at your worse, all of you are constantly trying to be better, to do better, both for yourselves and more importantly for others, and I’ve consistently betrayed that example. Looking back, the whole time we’ve known each other, I have been at my worst when I’ve tried to lead and teach you instead of watching and learning from you, which has been most of that time. I’m glad for however I’ve been able to help you, but the way I’ve wasted the example you’ve set is just shameful. I appreciate each and every one of you, as individuals, and all of you as a whole, and I have never appreciated you enough. I resolve to do better from now on.”

He lifted his hands, closing his eyes and letting his expression relax into a meditative calm. “There is great value in serenity, and I hope you can gain some from what I give up to you now. But there’s a dark side to it; serenity is a hair’s breadth from fatal passivity at its best. May you get good use from the Mask of Serenity in the future, as I have, and as I will. I must stop using it to hide from myself, and I thank you for teaching me that. I’m sorry it took me so long to listen.”

Toby pulled it away from himself, and then was holding the final mask. It was a gentle, matte gold, its carved mouth set in a faint smile, with a branch of dogwood flowers painted across its surface. He held it up with one hand and pushed it away, and it took its place with the others, the circle shifting to settle into its ultimate rotation of eight masks.

“Something about the sight of that, though,” Ruda murmured. “Just…those faces. It’s kind of uncomfortable. They don’t even look like people, but I can see how each one of them is one of us.”

“I can, too,” Juniper agreed. “I think…it’s because we know each other.”

“I feel kind of raw,” Trissiny said frankly. “It’s weird… I’m not used to ‘exposed and vulnerable’ being a good feeling.”

“It’s a good sort of pain,” said Shaeine. “Like the burn after good exercise.”

“Well, Gabe?” Toby asked, turning toward him. “How much is the rest of the ceremony thrown off by being, ah, unexpectedly physical?”

“I think,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, “the thing to do is just continue and let whatever’s going on sort itself out, the way it’s been doing. Shaeine was right, it’s a bad idea to start something like this and leave it half-done. Especially if it starts getting more real than you expected.”

He cleared his throat, deliberately marshaling his expression, and instinctively they all sobered as well, embracing the gravitas of the moment.

“This is about intimacy,” Gabriel said, his voice now ringing with purpose. “We are exposed to one another by lowering these masks, and baring our true faces. But it goes much deeper than that, and will continue to do so going forward. By sharing these masks, by explaining them, we grant to each other the opportunity to wear our own face, to see through our own eyes, to suffer our weaknesses and gain our strengths. We are bonded to one another through this. Whatever happens in the future, we have been open, together, and nothing will undo that.”

He paused, watching the masks spin, as did they all.

“And let’s be honest,” Gabriel said with a sudden grin. “The point was for this to be about us, and it could only be truthful this way: with a lot of aimless, time-wasting dicking around and fooling about with incredible powers we don’t understand. But hey, we made it work. We will make it work. I love you all, and I’m honored to be by your side.

“Truth is, guys…the world’s a mess. With the great doom and all, and also a million lesser forces trying to carve out a place for their own petty ambitions. Maybe it’s more of a mess now than it always is, but then again, maybe not. We can’t know that and aren’t qualified to judge it. We can’t save the world; as powerful as we are, even the gods have their limitations and we sure as hell have our own. But we can help. We’ve made ourselves better, and made each other better, and with all our various nonsense up till now, we’ve even made the world around us a little better. And that is all that’s asked of anyone, all that’s required of everyone.

“Do better. Be more. Keep on trying, and give it your best. That, my friends, we can do.”

The masks began to whirl faster. The students instinctively braced themselves as the orbiting circle continued to accelerate, and then light and shadow began to be drawn in as though by their very gravity. The circle of masks shrank, pulling ever tighter, and even the circles around them followed suit. Sunbeams and drifting feathers appeared to focus their descent onto a single point just above Ruda’s rapier, wisps of silver light streaming toward the same point from where they rose from the ground. The arcane traceries shifted inward, followed by the almost imperceptible ring of shadows outside them, and then even the tiny flowers springing up from the stones. Faster, deeper, everything was gathered toward a single point, the very wind around them rising and blowing inward as the gentle sound of harmonious air through leaves rose to a gale pitch.

It took only seconds, eight masks and multiple sources of light and magic coalescing to a single point. When it was all fully compressed, the thunderclap that split the air drove all of them to their knees, causing even Fross to plummet to the ground.

Disorienting as that was, though, it was no worse than that; the group slowly pulled themselves back up, blinking and taking stock, none of them hurt.

Ruda’s rapier lay untouched upon the stones. There were no more flowers or unusual light effects, only the soft sound of leaves rustling high above, and the pale light of early dawn rising in the east.

And in the center, still hovering in the air and slowly rotating, was a single mask.

It didn’t look much like any of the eight which had coalesced to form it: the mask was of wood, pale and polished with a deep reddish grain. Its small mouth opening seemed to show a neutral expression, but its eye slits were curved upward in a way that suggested a smile. Its only decoration was a rounded tracery of softly glowing silver lines over its left side, encircling the eye and descending to one corner of its mouth.

“So…what the fuck?” Ruda inquired.

Fross drifted closer. “Okay, well… Remember when I said the Mask of Mirrors was incredibly magical and I couldn’t tell how?”

“Yes,” said Trissiny. “I take it this is the same?”

“Not really the same. All the other masks were the same. This… You guys can sense it too, right? Those of you who are used to detecting magic?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly, straightening up. “Magically speaking… That thing is like standing next to the sun.”

“I’m pretty sure it incorporates all four major schools and a good bit of shadow magic,” Fross agreed, bobbing excitedly in the air.

“Okay,” Ruda said, nonplussed. She bent to pick up her sword, giving the hovering mask as wide a berth as she could in the process. “So…what are we supposed to do about it?”

“Well, after all, there’s only one thing you’re supposed to do with a mask,” said Teal. Having helped Shaeine to her feet, she released the drow and took three steps forward, reaching out toward the mask.

“My love, please,” Shaeine said, wearing open worry on her face. “Don’t be reckless.”

“I don’t…think…I am,” Teal said pensively, hesitating with her hand outstretched by not quite touching the artifact yet. “I’m open to correction if anyone disagrees, but I don’t believe this is about risk. It’s about…trust. Gabe? Any Vidian insight?”

“Well, masks are obviously sacred in Vidianism,” Gabriel said slowly. “And that is obviously something incredibly powerful. I think that’s two different things, though. This isn’t about Vidius, all things considered. It’s about us, and possibly the nature of magic itself. I think…you’re right, Teal. No, let me be more accurate: I feel you’re right. Trust is a good way to describe it.”

“Be careful, Teal,” Trissiny urged.

“This did start with Teal, after all,” Toby said quietly. “It became about all of us, but it began with us trying to offer her our support. It’s fitting if that’s where it leads, as well.”

“Yeah, be careful,” Juniper agreed, “but do what you need to. We’re all right here for you.”

Shaeine glided forward and embraced Teal openly from behind. She pressed a small kiss against her wife’s ear, then rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do what you must, beloved. You face nothing alone.”

“Thank you.” Teal closed her eyes momentarily, leaning her head to rest against Shaeine’s for a few seconds, then straightened up. “All of you.”

The mask did not react to her touch; she was able to pull it from its place suspended in the air without resistance. Teal slowly turned it over in her hands, studying it from all sides, while the rest of the group edged forward, watching in silence.

Then Teal Falconer raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and plunged into another Age.

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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.”

“Triss…”

“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 – 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 – 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.

CT-61

FIDELIS AD FINEM

REQUIESCAT IN PACE

“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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