14 -27

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“Lil,” Izara said in a supremely even tone, “you are looking well.”

“Why, yes, Iz,” Elilial replied with lurid emphasis, “I am. No thanks to you, of course.”

Izara inclined her head very slightly, folding her hands demurely before her. “I was very sorry to hear of—”

DON’T YOU DARE

Elilial did not speak. Reality rippled outward from her in a shockwave very like the previous disruption which had merged the dimensions, and in it were words, and the full weight of her outrage and derision—and, yes, grief—pressing on the minds of all those present. The mortals without exception stumbled backward from the sudden impact of it, though no physical force had touched them. Izara, by contrast, remained perfectly serene in her bearing, despite the way her clothes and hair were blown back by Elilial’s fury as though she stood momentarily in a high wind.

“Nonetheless,” the love goddess said quietly, “I was. I acknowledge your grudge, and that you aren’t without a point…in a way. But I would not have wished that—”

“Not another word,” Elilial grated. “You’re more a hypocrite than any of them, Izara, and that is truly saying something. If you had a beating heart or a shred of empathy you would have stopped that, at the very, utterly least. More likely would have resisted them with me in the beginning. Or if nothing else, walked away like Themynra did.”

“You were never completely in the wrong, in your beliefs,” Izara said sadly, “but the situation has never for a moment been as simple as you make it out to be. I wish I could make you see that.”

“They’re called principles, Izara,” the other goddess sneered. “I wish I could make you understand that, just because the reality of the concept would probably shatter your consciousness. Trissiny, don’t make me laugh. I am really not in the mood for your slapstick.”

Trissiny had taken two steps forward and had sword and shield up and ready; at being addressed directly, she stopped, not relaxing in the slightest. “Slapstick. I’ve been accused of some wild things, some of them accurately, but that is a first.”

“I’ve never yet personally harmed a Hand of Avei,” Elilial said dryly. “The few who managed to stand before me I sent off with a pat on the head and some motherly advice. They hate that; the outrage is absolutely hysterical. I honestly think you might be the first one willing to share a spot of banter. Eserion and Vesk have really done a number on you, haven’t they?”

“Get back, Trissiny,” Izara ordered. “And don’t you start, either!”

Toby had stepped forward as well, on her other side. Both paladins were still a few steps behind the love goddess, but flanked her in ready stances, staring down the queen of Hell.

“Aw, look how protective they are,” Elilial cooed. “Ready to lay down their fleeting little lives to defend this delicate flower of the Pantheon’s gentility. How utterly precious.”

“It’s all right, children,” Izara insisted softly. “I am not in danger here.”

“Yes, killing a god is not such a simple matter,” Elilial agreed. “Power for power, this waffling little puff of pixie dust doesn’t approach a match for me, or I assure you I’d have snuffed her out without bothering to chitchat. Everything that need be said between us was done eons ago. No, to annihilate a god, you have to get…creative. To sever them from their animating aspect, or simply remove it from the world. Ironically, the Pantheon are far more dangerous to one another than I am—I, at least, care what happens to the people of this planet. Just ask Khar. Oh, but I forgot. I guess you can’t.”

“Mortimer,” Izara said calmly, still holding Elilial’s gaze, “I want you to take the paladins and get back to Ninkabi with all haste.”

“Invulnerable or not, lady, you can’t ask me to leave you here,” Agasti insisted. “Not that. I would far rather—”

“She is stealth and deception incarnate,” Izara interrupted, and for the first time there was an audible strain in her voice. Watching her, Elilial began to smile. “The rest of the Pantheon is not coming—they don’t know this is happening. I can protect you from her for a time, but you must go!”

“Always in such a rush,” Elilial drawled. “Let your boy show off his courage, Izara. After all, how often does the chance for a conversation like this—”

The goddess broke off and physically jumped, stiffening up. Slowly, she turned around, angling her body to finally grant them all a glimpse of the hellgate behind her.

From the barely-visible vortex another figure had emerged, his dark green coat and slightly unkempt black hair ruffling in the breeze caused by air pressure equalizing across the rift. Gabriel was returning his staff to the upright position when Elilial’s burning gaze fell upon him, and he greeted her with an angelic little smile.

“You,” Elilial said flatly, “Did. Not.”

“So! It doesn’t kill gods,” he said. “And now we know.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Gabriel Arquin!”

For all that he had appeared without any of them noticing during the confrontation, Vesk still managed to make an entrance. By the time everyone turned to stare at him, he had already struck a dashing pose and plastered on a big, insouciant grin. It helped that he punctuated his introduction by striking a triumphant chord on his lute.

“You!” barked half a dozen people.

“Me!” Vesk exclaimed happily. “And not a moment too soon, I see! Of course, that goes without saying. A bard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely—”

“I’m gonna punch him,” Trissiny announed, taking a step toward the god.

“Nothing goes without saying with this one,” Elilial added wearily.

“Whoah, now, okay, let’s all settle down,” Vesk interjected in a soothing voice, holding up both hands at them all in a placating gesture. His lute hovered in the air next to him where he’d let go of it. “We’re all one act of careless temper from kicking off entirely the wrong climax for this story. Blood, tears, and suffering, y’all know the drill. But it isn’t time for that yet. Each of these things must happen at the proper moment, otherwise it all goes right to hell.”

“I have found myself wondering, over the years,” Elilial said, glaring down at him, “whether I could begin the process of snuffing you out by getting you into one of your well-trod archetypal narrative paths and them yanking you right out of it by not doing what the story demands next.”

“Worth a try,” he said agreeably, with a little shrug. “Of course, that experiment will probably have to wait. I assume you’d much rather find out who murdered your children, and six other children in the process, not that you care about that.”

“Vesk,” Izara exclaimed.

Elilial shifted without stepping; one moment she stood in front of Gabriel and the hellgate and in the next had seized the goddess of love by the throat and hiked her bodily off the ground. All the paladins and Agasti immediately surged forward, but were just as quickly stopped by a force that was not physical, nor even perceptible, but inexorable all the same. Something was projected by the three gods, some pattern woven right into reality itself, and the mortals present could no more step out of the roles it demanded of them than they could have lifted themselves off the ground by their own hair.

“You do not know,” Elilial whispered, “how treacherous is the ground on which you stand, Vesk. You think you know, but you don’t.”

“Once in a while, antagonists find themselves at common purpose,” Vesk replied, his solemn expression contrasting with the playful strumming of the lute, which he still wasn’t touching. “That secret isn’t mine to keep, Lil, and I’m with Izzy on this matter: despite what you think, there are some lines I don’t care to see crossed, and some offenses that demand to be avenged. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.”

“If,” she growled, “I dance to your tune.” Her grip tightened on Izara’s throat, and the smaller goddess tilted her chin up slightly in response, still without struggling. All of them were beings well beyond the physical forms they now presented; the evidently mortal drama now playing out between them was a manifestation of something happening on a different level entirely. It was difficult to look at directly and impossible to look away from; pressure was building up from the exposure of human consciousness to something it wasn’t meant to experience. So far, all of the mortals held their ground, weapons and magics at the ready, but no one could make themselves intervene by even so much as a word of objection.

“But it’s such a simple few steps,” Vesk said, smiling, “and you do it so well. Come on, Lily, you have your own reasons for wanting everything to fall into place at the right moment. I’m not holding out on you; there are some things that can’t be rushed, and you know it well. You know the forces that can…inhibit the likes of you and I from doing what we wish. These delightful youngsters are assembling a key for me. A key to the ultimate lock. You know the one.”

Slowly and slightly, Elilial relaxed her fingers on Izara’s neck, though her eyes remained locked on Vesk. “You have finally lost it.”

“You can’t do this, Vesk,” Izara agreed, somewhat hoarsely. “It won’t work.”

“It won’t work the way it did for us,” he agreed. “Weren’t we just discussing timing? There’ll be no apotheosis for the kiddos, don’t you worry. The alignment isn’t here yet; the great doom is still coming. But it’s close. The lock can be opened. And there is much to be gained from the opening, with the right key in hand.”

“You know who will be released if they do that!” Izara said urgently.

“Common cause, indeed,” Elilial added, giving her a grudging sidelong look. “Letting that thing out is absolutely out of the question. We worked too hard and sacrificed too much to make sure the monster couldn’t escape.”

“And so the monster won’t,” Vesk said, bestowing upon them all a placid smile which just begged for a slapping. “Because this must be done now, at the right time. Just before the alignment, when true escape is impossible, when there will be no gods present to provide fuel for the fire. When a few sufficiently gifted mortals—like, say, three paladins—can snatch their treasure from the beast, and yank out the key again before she can escape.”

In the silence which fell, the hellgate whistled ominously.

“Let her go, Lil,” Vesk said softly. “Let them go. Once they do what they need to, I’ll have your answer.”

“Oh, you’ll have it,” she said, narrowing her eyes to blazing slits. “But that does me no good, Vesk. I know very well what your integrity is worth. I will make you a deal, though.” A smile lifted one side of her mouth, and for the first time, Izara struggled weakly, lifting her hands to grasp Elilial’s wrist. “We will consider your champions the collateral. Send them in there with your key. If they survive, you’ll owe me the truth. And if I don’t get the truth, Vesk, I will claim them.”

Trissiny finally managed to emit a growling noise from deep in her throat. It was more than any of the rest of them could do. There was no force upon them, no restraint they could feel; the thing holding them back was subtle, ineffable, and felt almost like their own impulses. They stood, and watched, because in this drama they were the bystanders and could not go against their role.

“You’ve struck down brave Hands of the Pantheon before,” Izara said, her voice slightly strained by the grip on her neck—or rather, by Elilial’s grip on something important in her being which looked, to the mortal eyes watching, like a hand holding her throat. “You, and yours, and it’s never profited you in the long run. More will rise.”

“Exactly. I’m not going to kill them.” Elilial turned her eyes on Izara and grinned broadly. “You are. I will take them back to the domain you cast me into, beyond the reach of your power. And there I will tell them the truth. All of it. Everything you did. To the Infinite Order, to me, to those who worked and fought alongside us, to all the people of this world. To them. And once I’ve done that… I will trust their sense of justice. When that great doom comes and I return to claim what’s mine, it’ll be with three of your own paladins leading my armies. Have we a deal, Vesk?”

He raised his eyebrows, seeming unconcerned by her threats and Izara’s plight. “You’re that confident they would side with you?”

“That’s the ultimate flaw in this whole paladin thing, you know,” Elilial replied in a lightly conversational tone. “You two, at least, have better sense than to raise up and empower beings of pure, incarnate principle. You get by with being inherently sleazy and vague, respectively, and your followers don’t stand to lose much by following your asshole example. Maybe Vidius’s new pet would stick by his master; he seems a charmingly irreverent boy. But Avei’s? Omnu’s? Those raised and trained to honor justice, and life? You know what they will do when they learn the truth.” Slowly, her grin broadened into a vicious snarl, and the hand clutching Izara’s throat tightened. “All these years I have respected that unspoken truce. I could have done this at any time, simply abducted the Pantheon’s best servants beyond its reach and stripped away your lies. But you kept your hands off my daughters, and I showed restraint in return. Now, though? We’ve well and truly moved beyond that, haven’t we?”

“Vesk, no,” Izara rasped. “They aren’t yours to gamble with! They’ll never survive what you’re sending them into, and even if they do—”

“But don’t you see, Iz?” he said with a soft, plaintive sigh. “This is the price that must be paid, the suffering that must be endured. We’ve come to that point in the story. Without a cost incurred, it can’t progress. I have worked so hard, harder than you’ll ever know, to ensure the stakes are as bloodless as I could make them. There’s been no way to save everyone, but the kids have made it so far without paying for their success with the lives of their comrades. We need them all to live a while longer, and so the cost comes in the risk I can’t face for them, and the devil’s bargain they can’t even decline. Just because nobody’s died doesn’t mean there are no stakes. This isn’t that kind of story. Yet.” He turned his focus back to Elilial, and swept a bow, doffing his floppy hat. “We have a deal.”

She held his eyes for a moment, simply to make her point, and then abruptly released both Izara and the world. The indefinable pressure holding everyone in place lifted, and immediately all three paladins charged her.

In the next moment all went bowling over like ninepins. She hadn’t so much as gestured.

“That’s an option, you know,” Elilial said pleasantly, turning to sweep a smug little smile across them. “Let’s say you succeed at the insanity your patron, here, is about to drop you into. Then there are two outcomes: either he keeps his word and I get to learn what I need to drive a stake through the rotten heart of the Pantheon…or he doesn’t, which I would say is about fifty-fifty odds, and I get you. I’m the goddess of cunning, ducklings; this is what I do. Any way it shakes out, I win. But there is, of course, one alternative. If you want to arrange it so that I lose, all you have to do is die.” She grinned broadly down at them. “I’m sure you will have no trouble finding an opportunity. Oh, it won’t be so bad! Paladins automatically get seats in the best part of Vidius’s little hive-mind heaven. And your gods won’t really need their laboriously-trained paladins when that great doom hits in a few years, now, will they?”

“So help me,” Trissiny grated.

“Oh, don’t be boring,” Elilial admonished. “Every Hand of Avei blusters and makes threats she can’t back up. What happened to being your own woman? You were off to such a promising start just a moment ago. Oh, and Gabriel: don’t forget your baggage.”

Stepping over to the hellgate again, she plunged one arm into the vortex momentarily, then pulled it back out with a struggling khelminash demon gripped by her hair. Gabriel actually let go of the scythe to catch the woman as Elilial tossed her in his general direction.

The queen of Hell, meanwhile, lifted one hoof to step back into it, her half-disappeared leg an eerie sight where it vanished into the scarcely perceptible swirl of the new hellgate. “One way or another, kids, I’ll be seeing you soon. And just to show you all what a good sport I am, I will do my part from my end to close this exciting new escape hatch you’ve so thoughtfully provided for me. After all, it’s not as if I need any more help to get my way in the world. Ta ta…for now.”

Ducking her head, she slipped back through.

Behind her, the swirl diminished under the combined stares of Izara and Vesk, until with a final soft puff, it vanished entirely into the air.

There was silence.

“What?” Gabriel said, picking up his scythe and grinning at them. “No hug? It’s not every day a guy comes back from Hell, y’know.”

“I cannot believe,” Toby said, staring at him, “you tried to stab Elilial in the back.”

“That motion could hardly have been described as a stab,” Ariel said. “He poked her. In the butt.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vesk repeated, grinning insanely, “I give you Gabriel Arquin! But, ah, anyway… I suppose you’ll be wanting a few questions answered.”

Trissiny had taken two steps toward Gabriel, sheathing her sword and looking very much as if she did intend to hug him. But at that, she abruptly changed course, crossed the distance to Vesk in three long strides, and punched him hard in the stomach.


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14 – 26

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In that moment of absolute tension, Gabriel called on every scrap of education he had received thus far. Val Tarvadegh’s coaching kept him still, kept any hint of his thoughts or feelings away from his face—though it would have been presumptuous in the extreme to assume he could stand before the very goddess of cunning and prevent her from knowing the shape of his mind.

Elilial appeared to be ignoring him for the moment, critically studying the scythe in her hands, which he knew was an affectation. Prince Vanislaas, by contrast, stared avidly, his lips bent in a hungry little smile. That was the look of a vulture observing a dying cow’s last breath. Xyraadi was still prostrate on the ground, her face pressed against the now-dead grass from the other world. Ariel, wisely, kept silent.

There was absolutely no winning here, through either power or strategy. Considering who he was dealing with, outsmarting his foes didn’t appear to be an option either. That left…what?

The basics.

Gabriel knew his failings; it had been repeatedly pointed out to him that his self-awareness with regard to his own weakness was one of his greatest strengths. So he channeled better examples, and put on a mask.

The posture exemplified by Professor Ezzaniel, Trissiny and Toby: a martial artist’s bearing, fully upright but not stiff like a soldier’s, a stance that conveyed poise and command, and bless Ezzaniel for so laboriously beating that into him over the last two years. The ineffable, inoffensive arrogance of Ravana Madouri and Sekandar Aldarasi, a subtle positioning of countenance which conveyed absolute self-confidence even when such was wildly inappropriate, without being aggressive. Intuitively he felt that a better choice here than Shaeine’s more serene poise.

“Excuse me.” Gabriel borrowed Tellwyrn’s voice, the tone she used that didn’t bother to be peremptory or commanding, but secured obedience through the simple conviction that she would be obeyed because this fact was as immutable as the downward acceleration of velocity resulting from the pull of gravity. He held out his hand in a gesture that was part Ezzaniel and part Ravana and just a little bit Darling, graceful and commanding and a tad effeminate. “That is mine. Return it, please.”

Prince Vanislaas’s red eyes widened notably, as did his smile. The demon lord actually began dry-rubbing his hands together in visible eagerness for whatever was about to unfold.

Xyraadi quivered.

Elilial looked up from her perusal of the weapon to meet his eyes, and Gabriel had the sudden and deeply incongruous thought that she wasn’t nearly as pretty as she could be, even aside from the horns and red skin and such. Couldn’t a goddess take any form she desired? She had rather hawkish features, a nose that was too long for her face, and despite a rather skimpy leather outfit (with metal spikes and buckles serving no evident purpose) she was much more lanky than curvy. Though of course, standards differed across eras and cultures, to say nothing of individuals. He wondered if there was some significance to her appearance, something he could perhaps use. Unlikely, but he wasn’t too proud to grasp at any straw at this point.

“Salyrene’s work,” she mused after a hesitation, returning her gaze to the scythe and slowly turning it over in her hands. “They’re very adaptive, you see; she is the best at what she does. Yes, this thing has a long memory, much of its shape and nature comes from its first master. But your touch is present, as well, Gabriel Arquin. Such…restraint, it has leaned from you. How odd, considering your reputation.”

She could probably hear his heart pounding. Well, hell, just because the game was over didn’t mean he had to concede. Gabriel cleared his throat loudly, raised his eyebrows in an expression he had seen Shaeine and Ruda both use to great effect, and subtly extended his outstretched hand an inch further in a silent demand.

“You know why Vidius is the god of death?” Elilial asked, now smiling down at him. “A coincidental affiliation that was baked right into his very identity when we seized ascension for ourselves. All due to his association with the valkyries. He won Naiya to our side by sheltering and supporting them. Have you ever found yourself wholly dependent upon someone for your very existence, Gabriel? Even if they are less of a two-faced snake than Vidius, it’s a relationship that tends to provoke…resentment. Have your valkyrie friends ever complained to you about your mutual boss?” One corner of her mouth drew upward in a lopsided smirk. “No? You needn’t answer, young man, I seldom trouble to ask questions unless I already know how they end. There’s a warning in that silence, you know. Everyone complains about their boss… Unless they are too afraid to.”

Gabriel experienced a most peculiar sensation. His mouth moved and words fell out, but unlike the habitual blathering habits which had caused him so much trouble over the years, he felt an almost transcendent state of flow, as if he were truly in control in a way he couldn’t even consciously grasp.

“Yes, yes,” he heard himself say in a bored tone, “and thus the seeds of suspicion are sown between me and my patron, and meanwhile there is no need for you to be insulting, madam. If I’m important enough to manipulate, I’m important enough to deserve better than cheap tricks that even Vesk wouldn’t write into a ballad. My scythe, if you please.”

“Oh, I like him,” Vanislaas breathed, pausing to lick his lips. “Such a shame he has the two-faced one’s favor; I dearly wish his soul could return here. He’d make such a splendid incubus. Elilial, my darling, may we restrain him here?”

“Hush, Van,” she said fondly. “Ignore him, Gabriel. You have nothing to fear from me.” So saying, she lightly tossed the scythe in the air, making its wicked length spin once, and caught it on the haft just below the blade, which ended up pointing skyward. Its long, subtly twisted shaft extended toward Gabriel, ending just barely past the reach of his hand. “My high priest nurtures a…pet theory, if you will, that he can somehow turn you three paladins against your masters by slowly introducing you to the truth. I know your gods better than you and I rather think they’ll just kill you if you learn more than they want you to know, but Embras is a good servant and I am willing to indulge him. Much more to the point, I’ve promised Arachne to bring no harm to her students—and that includes by omission and negligence. And…it seems my Vadrieny does rather like you, for some reason. Altogether, these facts mean you are as safe with me as anyone can be said to be, anywhere. For whatever that may be worth.”

He just met her fiery gaze until she came to a stop, before finally stepping forward and extending his hand to grasp the scythe. He’d half-expected her to exert some petty little power move, like moving it out of his reach or using it to tug him off balance, but she simply waited until he had a firm grip and released the weapon.

“Thank you,” Gabriel said with light dignity from behind the mask of Ravana Madouri, regretting that he hadn’t troubled to get to know the girl better. What little he had picked up of her mannerisms was already fabulously useful; the undeserved poise was very appropriate in this situation.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, and the combination of deliberately casual tone and overtly sly expression was a screaming warning of danger, “the same is not true of your little…friend back there.”

Xyraadi quivered again, not lifting her face out of the dust.

“This is a rare treat,” the dark goddess purred. “It is not every day a traitor wanders right back into my web. I don’t begrudge the odd demon struggling to escape this realm, Gabriel; you can plainly see what a mess it is. If I had my way, nobody would have to live here. But the khelminash are another matter. All the trouble I go to, ensuring they have lives of comfort! And truly, Xyraadi’s existence before she betrayed her kith and kin was luxurious beyond the dreams of most of Hell’s denizens. For that, I only ask diligent service; I don’t think that unfair. Yet, not only did she flee at the first chance, but threw in her lot with the Pantheon!” Elilial’s lips drew wider, baring teeth in an expression that no longer pretended to be a smile. “I suppose one betrayer is attracted to others. But to willingly bend knee to beings who despise you? I am torn between simply destroying the little wretch and compelling her to give me a satisfactory explanation first!”

Xyraadi emitted a shrill little groan, quickly stifled.

Gabriel took two steps to plant himself between her and Elilial, deliberately placing the butt of his scythe against the ground, holding the weapon up but not in an aggressive position. “Or you could do neither, and kindly show us where to find the nearest hellgate.”

Prince Vanislaas giggled. That was somehow much more unsettling than if he had unleashed a sinister laugh like a villain in a play.

“Young man,” Elilial said condescendingly, “I don’t know what made you think this is a negotiation, or that you are a party to it. Move aside, please.”

But it was, he realized as she spoke. A being like Elilial did nothing without a purpose and a plan, and there was no reason for her to make speeches in his presence unless she saw a reason for him to hear her thoughts. Still not losing sight of how out of his depth he was, Gabriel nonetheless concluded it best served his interests here to play along.

“Regardless,” he said firmly, switching to a mask of Trissiny implacably facing down a foe (and immediately thinking Toby doing the same might have been a smarter mask to assume but not willing to weaken his position by waffling), “Xyraadi is a friend and has helped me considerably, not to mention that I’m responsible for her being here. I’m not going to allow you to touch her.”

Elilial took one long stride closer, the dead earth crunching beneath her hoof, and loomed over him. Gabriel realized that his instinct had been right; they were playing roles, now, and Trissiny’s righteous defiance best suited the one in which he’d been cast.

“You can’t possibly imagine you are a threat to me, boy,” the goddess said, her voice just above a whisper and yet projecting powerfully over him. “Why don’t you spare yourself some avoidable grief and move?”

He pitched his own voice low and even, but firm. “You can’t possibly imagine that you’re a threat to the Pantheon, lady. Why don’t you?”

In the subtle but swift widening of her fiery eyes, Gabriel had a sudden warning that he’d gone off-script and was about to pay dearly for it.

Then Vanislaas began laughing. Loud and deep this time, wracked by belly guffaws that almost doubled him over.

“Shut up, Van,” Elilial snapped, cutting her gaze to him. It served to break the tension Gabriel had just created, and he wondered how much of this encounter was proceeding according to a script. Between Vesk and Elilial, nothing would have surprised him at that point. “I give you credit for not brandishing your weapon at me, Gabriel, but that appears to be the full extent of your forethought. Why in the hell, pun intended, should I show any compassion to this backstabbing creature?”

Well, it was a slender opening, but he’d take it. “How can you not? If you’re not going to kill me and you think there’s some strategic merit in influencing me, a show of force here doesn’t gain you anything. It’s not as if your power is in question.” Again, his words tumbled out, but they fell smoothly this time and left him with the sense that some part of him was in control, even if it was calculating too fast for his conscious brain to follow. “You can either play right into the stereotype of you that the Pantheon and the Universal Church try to push, or show a little…nuance. Are you the mad monster, or is there maybe something more going on here? Something it would benefit you to have a paladin wondering about?”

“Hmm,” she murmured, her expression calming, and once again that lopsided smirk tugged at her lips. “There may be something to that, after all. But meet me halfway, Gabriel. If you expect me to suspend my retribution on the one under your protection, it’s only fair that you offer me something in return.”

A sudden realization swept in, and both instinct and strategy prompted him to go with it. “No, I don’t think so.”

Xyraadi emitted a plaintive squeak. Elilial took another step forward, now looming over him with more overt and deliberate menace. “Oh? You are a presumptuous one, aren’t you?”

“And you don’t know when to stop,” he retorted. “You just got me to argue out loud why you’re not such a bad sort after all. Really well done, very crafty. I’m pretty sure I’ve had Eserites tell me about that trick. Fine, that’s your win; congratulations. You’re not extracting further concessions from me on top of it. If anything, maybe I should be asking for a favor now.”

Xyraadi reached feebly to tug at the leg of his trousers in a silent plea. Gabriel didn’t dare acknowledge her in that moment.

“Oh, but isn’t he delightful!” Prince Vanislaas crowed. “Please, Lil, can’t we keep him? He’s a little rough, sure, but the potential!”

“Yes, it’s a funny thing,” Elilial said dryly, ignoring her underling for now. “Spend a few thousand years as the actual goddess of a thing and you get sort of good at it. You do surprise me, though, Gabriel Arquin. Based upon everything I’ve heard of you, I really didn’t expect you to pick up on that. Color me…grudgingly impressed.”

“And that’s really good flattery,” he replied in the same tone. “Just the right hint of condescension to make it backhanded and harder to spot. Got me right in the ego.”

“All right, boy, don’t push your luck,” she said, fortunately in amusement. “Xyraadi, have some damned dignity. Your young friend here at least faces certain destruction with his spine in the vertical position, and now look! He appears to have bluffed his way out of it. There’s a lesson in that, if you have the wit to learn it. Van, how is your work progressing?”

“Splendidly,” the demon lord replied in a self-satisfied tone. “While you were playing verbal footsie over there, I’ve intercepted overtures from dear old Mortimer, directed at young Master Arquin.”

“When did you have time to do that?” Gabriel asked in spite of himself.

“Really, young man,” Vanislaas said, arching a condescending eyebrow. “Not everyone performs magic with grandiose and gratuitous gestures and sparkles. The Elilinist tradition of infernomancy is all about subtlety; it is by definition poor technique if anyone standing nearby even discerns that you are casting, much less what you are casting. Oh, but matters are ever so much more intriguing than we first anticipated, my darling,” he added to Elilial. “I presented my replies as coming from little Xyraadi over there, and my hunch was correct: no one was surprised. But Lil, dearest, it is not just Mortimer, nor even mostly Mortimer, working to extract our young friend. I think you will find this a grand opportunity.”


“Oh, no.”

That was the last thing anyone wanted to hear a goddess say under any circumstances, but especially not when they were in the process of boring a hole into Hell. At Izara’s soft interjection, Toby and Trissiny both stepped up on both sides of her and Agasti strode forward from his position on the sidelines, where his expertise had been rendered somewhat redundant by the presence of a deity to handle their dimensional bridge as it formed.

Izara didn’t look at any of them, seemingly keeping her attention focused on the nascent gate, which at that point was still little more than a shimmer in the air. “Stay back, children. This is more than you’re prepared to handle.”

“We’re far from helpless,” Trissiny said tersely. “Is it demons?”

“Is Gabriel all right?” Toby added.

“Back,” she said with enough of a snap in her voice that both obeyed. “We’ve been tricked. I’ve been tricked. That’s always a risk when one deals with Hell, but this…this is worse than I feared. All of you, be prepared to flee. Do not attempt to fight what’s coming.”

“That gate is still forming,” Agasti objected. “If it’s that dangerous, we can still collapse it. Elilial herself couldn’t rip it open without help from this side.”

Izara shook her head, still staring at the distortion before them, which was beginning to take an upright ovoid shape. It was as if heat waves had been captured and formed into a pillar which was being pulled apart at its center to create an opening. “Gabriel is still in there. If we abandon him now, there is no telling when or if we might be able to try again. Not to mention what might be done to him in retaliation if we retreat from this. Some risks…have to be taken.”

The hellgate finished forming with alarming suddenness, emitting a blast of hot, sulfurous-smelling air and a telltale prickle across the skin as loose infernal radiation bled out. The aperture itself remained scarcely visible; if anything, its borders became harder to perceive as they were stretched wide to create a proper door. There wasn’t even a view into whatever lay on the other side. Light was not one of the things which innately traveled through a hellgate, all part of the same dimensional effect that made them difficult to scry through.

Then a figure stepped out, and all of them save Izara retreated further. It was not Gabriel.

She emerged one leg first, as though striding across a threshold, and appeared almost to have to clamber through the low opening, straightening up finally as she crossed fully into the mortal plane. Once there, though, Elilial raised her horned head up to its full height, staring down her nose at the more diminutive love goddess before her.

“Well, well, well,” purred the queen of Hell, and the fiery blaze of her eyes did not conceal the vengeful hunger in them. “Look what we have here.”

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14 – 25

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“Sorry,” he said, rather weakly, as he straightened up under his own power again.

Trissiny carefully released him, drawing back to give Toby a look of concern. “Don’t be sorry. You’re always propping everybody else up; you’re allowed to need a hug once in a while. But, Toby, what you were just saying…”

He found himself avoiding her eyes. “I don’t…”

“We need to talk about that,” she interrupted, her tone firm but not aggressive. “But not right this minute. Right now we need to figure out how to get Gabriel back.”

“You saw what happened,” he said, voice climbing in frustration. “How are we supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to try.”

“Try what? Trissiny, dimensional barriers are not something you can bull through with sheer determination!”

She took another step back, now frowning at him reproachfully. “Toby.”

“Everybody all right?” Fortunately, Agasti chose that moment to return. He strode up to them, straight-backed and alert, tapping his cane against the ground with every step but clearly not leaning on it. Behind and to either side came his two revenant companions, both still with weapons out and peering warily around. “Good, very good. I’m sorry to have ducked out on you, but I had to get Arkady and Kami out of that light show. You accomplished what you needed to, though, and that’s what matters.”

“What are you talking about?” Toby snapped. “We lost Gabriel!”

“Yes,” Agasti said evenly, nodding, “but you prevented that dimensional inversion from spreading, thwarted a demon invasion, and annihilated the infernal corruption that was seeping through before it could poison anybody. None of those are small things; in aggregation I believe they qualify as a pretty big deal. But you’re right, Gabriel is now on the other side, and that must be addressed before any of us can rest on our laurels. Arkady, fire up the carriage, if you please.”

“We can’t leave!” Trissiny burst out.

“There is a difference between surrender and tactical retreat, General Avelea, you know that well. I told you that this site is under surveillance; Izara’s cult obviously has little in the way of forces to deploy, but they will already be contacting the Sisterhood and likely the Empire about this mess. I would rather Arkady and Kami were out of the area when that occurs, and Ninkabi is farther than I can safely shadow-jump these days. You had better remain on site to settle everyone down when they get here.” He hesitated, then gripped the crystal head of his cane harder and nodded decisively. “I’ll be relying on your protection, because I plan to commit a capital offense in the next few minutes. It will take long enough that I expect the reinforcements to catch me quite red-handed.”

“Mortimer, no!” Kami exclaimed.

“A capital offense?” Toby asked more soberly. “Surely you’re not planning to… What are you talking about?”

“A hellgate.” Trissiny was staring at Agasti, who nodded at her again. “To get Gabriel back from the other dimension, we need to open a door between them.”

“You can’t!” Arkady insisted. “Mortimer, the law isn’t best pleased with you already. If you do this of all bloody things…”

“Arkady, the boy is in Hell,” Agasti said sharply. “Trust me, I don’t plan to throw myself to the headsman; there are extenuating circumstances aplenty, I’ll have the backing of three paladins and I do know a thing or two about weaseling around Imperial prosecutors, as you may recall. But right now we’ve a paladin to rescue and no time to argue. The situation forces me to act now and make plans later, which is hardly optimal, but that’s what the situation is and bemoaning it will change nothing. Now take Kami back to the club, I don’t want you two anywhere near this.”

“Hellgates have to be opened from both sides,” said Trissiny, “that’s why demons aren’t constantly making new ones. How do you plan to get around that? Do you have a contact in Hell who can do it?”

“Several, but none I would trust with or near a nascent gate,” Agasti admitted. “What we have is Gabriel. He’s still right on this spot, just on a different plane of existence.”

“Gabriel isn’t a warlock,” Toby objected.

“He’s an enchanter,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes pensively. “He has Ariel, a scythe which we already know can carve holes in reality, and whatever aid he can summon with Salyrene’s bottle.”

“So, not optimal,” Agasti agreed, “but far from hopeless. First, I will need to contact him…”

Toby had turned to stare again at the empty patch of blasted reddish stone where the temple—and Gabriel—had been minutes ago, but after Agasti’s voice trailed off, he shifted his attention back to the warlock, frowning impatiently. In the next moment, his frown deepened, now in real worry. Agasti was not moving at all. In fact, he didn’t appear to be breathing.

Neither, Toby immediately discovered, was Trissiny. She stood as if immobilized in ice, as did the two demons. The nearby birds and insects had already been silenced by the presence of so many demons, but he realized now that even the grass, wilted as it was by its brief trip to Hell, was completely solidified, disturbed by neither wind nor gravity. In fact, there was no wind, either.

The whole world appeared to have abruptly stopped.

“Godhood has its privileges,” said the voice from behind him just before he could begin to panic. Toby whirled, and found himself facing Izara, who wasn’t even looking at him, but studying the others whom she had just immobilized. “Even Vemnesthis doesn’t try to enforce his rules on me. Please don’t be distracted by the theatricality of this, Toby; it was simply necessary. This conversation will take more time than you have to spare, and it needs to happen now.”

“What conversation?” he demanded, forgetting to speak with proper respect. He felt entirely thrown from his equilibrium, and somehow frayed. Toby’s whole life was about control, serenity, and balance, and at that moment he felt as if every one of those things had been stripped from him, leaving him blindly reacting to events in exactly the way his teachers had all stressed that he should never do. Still worse, there was a significant and undeniable part of him which reveled in the freedom, even despite the pain of losing Gabriel.

Izara finally turned her attention on him fully, and her expression was unreadable. Nothing about her seemed particularly divine, apart from having apparently suspended them in time; she was just a somewhat gawkish young woman with frizzy hair. If he hadn’t seen her the night before Toby would probably not have recognized her at all.

“You never have learned to find a middle road,” she said after a thoughtful pause.

He bit back his first response, and then his second. Whatever conversation she meant, the goddess was right about one thing: he did not have time for it. “Gabriel is trapped in Hell right now. Can you help us bring him back?”

“Of course I can.” She tilted her head minutely to one side. “But why would I?”

Toby gaped in disbelief. “…he’s a paladin.”

“Not mine,” Izara shrugged.

“What is wrong with you?!” he exploded.

“That’s a large question,” she replied, showing no sign of offense at his outburst. “Let’s stick to what’s wrong with you, for efficiency’s sake. You have just learned an extremely wrong lesson, and now stand a hair’s breadth from committing to it, with disastrous results for you, those you care about, and the world at large.”

“Then why are you here lecturing me and not Omnu?” he shot back, practically tasting his pulse pounding on the back of his tongue. Toby felt heady, even a little dizzy, but still there was that strange exuberance.

Izara, for her part, finally reacted, pressing her lips together in a grimace of annoyance. “Because Omnu needs someone to slap some sense into him, which unfortunately I can’t. I’ll just have to settle for you.”

“This is ridiculous,” Toby exclaimed. “My best friend is in Hell waiting for someone to rescue him—”

“I assure you, Gabriel Arquin is not sitting around waiting on anybody,” she said archly. “I would hope you of all people would know him better than that. On the other hand, just a moment ago it sounded like you were about ready to give up on him.”

Toby felt that inexplicable sensation rising, the strange fusion of fury and uncertainty that had so thrown him off his keel but felt so satisfying. For just a moment, he was so tempted to just punch her that his arm actually twitched.

It was hard to say which did more to shock him back into a semblance of self-control: the sheer horrible depravity of striking someone just out of his own ill temper, or the incredible stupidity of trying that on a goddess. Instead, his years of training finally began to resurface, and he breathed. In, out, three times each, until the emotion began to ebb, the clarity to resurface.

“What are you doing?” he asked at last, narrowing his eyes.

Izara blinked at him, languidly, like a pleased cat. “What does it seem like I am doing?”

“It seems like you are deliberately trying to make me angry. And I can see no reason for you to do that.”

“Better,” she said with a slow nod of approval. “Drifting closer to old bad habits, but still an improvement over the terrible new ones you were on the cusp of developing.”

He breathed. In, out. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“You really wanted to slap me just then, didn’t you?” she countered, smiling. “But you didn’t.”

“I would like to think I’m neither a complete monster nor an imbecile. I hope that isn’t too arrogant a thing to claim.”

“I’m glad to see you controlling your urges, Tobias, but have you considered that maybe smacking me would have been the right thing to do?”

He stared at her. “…no.”

“Really, even after such a display of heartlessness?” The goddess smiled a little more widely. “Does the idea shock you so much?”

“I am a pacifist,” he said firmly. “And you are the goddess of love. It’s just a little incongruous to hear you talk about hitting people being the right thing!”

“Well, that’s the core of all this, Toby,” she said. “Neither of us is a pacifist.”

Izara let that hang for a moment while he stared, just wearing that mysterious little smile. Only when he finally drew breath to speak again did she continue, cutting him off.

“The nuances of my followers’ doctrine tend to be above the heads of laypeople. More than most other cults, probably even more than the Eserites or the Wreath, Izarites have stereotypes applied which preclude people from really understanding what they believe. Yes, my people assiduously avoid violence—in no small part because we have the Avenists and Eserites and Vidians and Shaathists and even, yes, the Omnists, to take up arms for us at need. In that circumstance, our efforts are better bent toward increasing the love in the world than fighting for it. But some of the incidents I most bitterly regret have come from the doctrine of love urging or even forcing my followers to become passive victims of violence. And as for love itself… If you love someone, Toby, you place their needs above your own. And in many relationships, there comes a time when the thing someone most needs is a swift kick in the ass. Metaphorically, of course. Usually.”

He shut his mouth, belatedly becoming aware that it was open. “But I…”

“Now, there is a pacifist tradition in Omnism,” she continued. “Such as the Sunset Way sect which produced Chang Zhi. There are others, though, and have been many others which have fallen from practice over the centuries. You, Toby, were raised by the most common sect of your faith on this continent. So common are the Cultivators that many in the Empire don’t actually know there are other interpretations of Omnist doctrine which are considered legitimate.” Again she tilted her head, back the other way this time. “Adeche N’tombu was a Cultivator. I assume I don’t need to remind you how his career as Hand of Omnu was spent?”

“Omnu,” Toby said stubbornly, “is a god of peace.”

“Peace can mean a lot of different things, several of them mutually exclusive. We were talking of pacifism. You have a very poor grasp of what that means, Tobias Caine. Of what it is, and what it is not. The truth is, you don’t even know any pacifists. Who are your colleagues, your examples? Teal Falconer? That girl is a walking disaster—not because she harbors an archdemon, but because she refuses to control it. She relies on her drow princess to smooth her way, and on her demon counterpart to terrorize anyone who defies her. There is no strategy in it, no plan. She isn’t a pacifist, she’s just averse to conflict.” Izara folded her hands, gazing intently at him. “Just like you.”

“You—those are two terms for the same thing! Why even split that hair?”

“Conflict aversion is a personality trait. Pacifism, like any ism, is political. It is a belief about what the world should be, and an attempt to make it so. To hold a belief is to disrespect the choices of others, for it demands that you impose your will on creation. It requires discipline, sacrifice, courage, and above all, strategy. Toby, the best guidance you have ever received was in your first martial arts class at Arachne’s school. Emilio Ezzaniel is one of the deadliest men alive; has he ever seemed to you a violent person?”

“That’s… I mean, that’s not unfamiliar. A lot of martial artists can be described that way. The great ones, anyhow.”

“And have you not seen the significance of that? Ezzaniel explained the true nature of peace to you that day: that it exists when those who hate to fight are better able to fight than those who love to. And you brushed him off.”

“I listen to Professor Ezzaniel,” Toby protested, hearing the defensiveness in his own voice and hating it. The creeping euphoria had all faded from him now, leaving him only off-balance and unfocused, confused.

“The greatest pacifist paladin of recent times,” Izara said softly, “was not Chang Zhi, who never accomplished much but to try to lead by example. No, that was Laressa of Anteraas, who once overthrew a corrupt governor by arranging to have his enforcers beat her bloody in a public square while she distributed famine relief supplies to the poor. It took conviction, courage, and a great willingness to suffer for her to go through with that—but more importantly, it took significant cunning to meticulously arrange all the pieces of that drama and ensure they would collide at exactly the right moment. Its result was a popular revolt and overthrow of her enemy the next day, leaving her in a position to guide Veilgrad into a more peaceful era.”

He couldn’t find anything to say. Izara watched him for a moment, then continued.

“You’re not a pacifist, Toby. You have no plan, no strategy. You just hate it when people fight and try to stop them when you see it happening. What does that accomplish? Teal has her archdemon; you have your holy nova. The pressure builds up, caused by stumbling from one crisis to the next, until in your incompetence you’ve backed yourself into a corner from which your only possible action is a huge explosion of power.”

Toby sat down in the grass, no longer able to look her in the eye. She just pressed inexorably on.

“You know the answer you need; it’s in your training. The Sun Style is all about redirecting your enemy’s own force to control his movements. Avenist battle doctrine is about defeating an enemy by controlling their options, and holds that the highest strategic victory is to prevent an enemy from going to war in the first place. The great game of Houses that your friends Shaeine and Ravana have learned from the cradle is about control of a much more intricate variety, but even in the ruthlessness you saw from the nobles of Calderaas, there was an underlying ethic of subtlety above force. The Vidian doctrine of masks is all about control of the self, extended outward to control the external forces which act upon the self. The Eserites and Punaji seek to restrain those who would harm them through intimidation and fear—to control others with only the specter of violence, so that they can commit as little actual violence as possible. Even Arachne keeps the Empire and the other great powers of this world off her back with strategic acts of grandiose disruption punctuating a general policy of carefully not rocking the boat. Control, control, control! Every person or faction or philosophy you have encountered which has an actual impact on the world does so by the same maxim your trainers in the Sun Style hammered into you from your earliest practice: control the encounter. You’ve been so close, Toby. In Puna Dara you seemed to grasp it more closely than ever yet.” Finally she hesitated, as if to draw breath, then shook her head. “But today you came so close to throwing it all away. Control, Toby. Grief, pain, and fear are real, and valid, but you must control them. Otherwise, they will control you.”

Slowly, he lifted his head to stare plaintively up at her. “…why is it you? Why is every other god coming to…” Toby had to stop and swallow against a painful lump in his throat. “Why won’t he ever talk to me?”

Izara heaved a sigh, then stepped over to sink down into the withered grass beside him. There, she leaned comfortingly against his shoulder. There was still no discernible aura of power about her; it might have been any slightly-built young woman pressed to his side. Somehow, that mundane warmth seemed much more comforting.

“Because he needs a swift kick in the ass,” she said wearily, “and I can’t give it to him. Oh, not because he’s a more powerful god than I am, or because he is and has always been a stubborn old ox, though both those things are true. The truth… The truth is, Toby, we are vulnerable in a way, more to our followers than to our enemies. I think it’s a fine thing that godhood comes with strictures and limitations. I remember the Elder Gods, and what absolute power with no restraints does to people. But we end up being shaped by the belief of those who act in our name. Omnu can’t change. I can smack him upside the head to my heart’s content, but it won’t accomplish anything. He wouldn’t even be annoyed more than a moment later, he’s always been a forgiving sort. Omnu is paradox, Toby, and it’s not entirely his fault. In life he was always vague, standoffish and mystical, and between the solidification of those traits and their enshrinement in doctrine, you’re left with a god whose idea of communication is sending you warm feelings.”

“I don’t understand what you’re telling me,” he said weakly.

“That divine nova of yours?” Izara rested her head on his shoulder. “It really is Omnu’s power; you simply can’t channel that much sheer divine magic unassisted, you’d incinerate yourself. But that he sends it to you in those extreme moments… It’s not so simple as him having a plan, Toby. It’s more that he reacts when you have a need. You are the kick in the pants he needs. Please don’t think I don’t care about you, because I do. Truly, I do. But in you, I see a real chance for my old friend to…wake up. And Vidius is not the only one of us who is growing concerned with the way things are. I have been reminded, recently, how I myself have allowed individuals to rise within my cult whom I would have disdained to be in a room with in my own mortal days.”

Toby stared up at Trissiny, standing frozen in time before him. Really studying her, in a way he rarely did anymore. It was funny, how quickly one could grow to take people for granted, once one was used to having them around. He remembered Trissiny in their earliest days at the University, the uncertainty and vulnerability she had displayed, the bluster with which she covered it, the rigid and frankly bigoted shades to the conviction that powered her. Now, in armor again, he could still see the contrast. She stood square and tall, but without any of the tension and stiffness she used to carry. Her expression was intent and pensive as she listened to Mortimer, but underneath the focus there was calm, totally unlike her borderline fanaticism of just two years ago. It was all right there, subtle but so plain when he really looked, even when she was suspended like a sculpture.

Trissiny had grown so much. They all had. Gabriel and Fross were practically different people. Juniper was in the grip of so many transitions it was hard to say how she might end up. He wasn’t sure whether he had only recently come to detect the care and compassion in Ruda, or the warmth and humor in Shaeine, or whether they had themselves grown more comfortable in those traits. Even Teal, despite Izara’s criticism, was slowly evolving into her own woman despite the pressures upon her.

Could he say the same? Had he really changed? Looking back, Toby found, to his shame, that he could see little that was new in himself except his ever-growing uncertainty.

Izara was right: he did nothing but react. Without a plan, and without focus, just constantly wandering about trying to be a calming presence wherever he was. He knew without self-aggrandizement that he had had a positive influence on his friends. But to the world at large? What could he really achieve by just being the nice guy? How many people could that help?

Chang Zhi was spoken of with tremendous reverence within Omnu’s faith, as perhaps the perfect spiritual role model. When he pressed himself, though, Toby couldn’t come up with anything of significance that she had actually accomplished.

“I’m such an idiot,” he said aloud. Without recrimination or angst; it was just an observation.

“You’re no more of one than someone your age should expect to be,” Izara replied, a note of humor lightening her voice.

“I don’t…know…what to do with this.”

“I would recommend following the examples of your friends. Trissiny has looked beyond the boundaries of her original faith for valuable perspective. Gabriel is becoming, if anything, a specialist in versatility. The truth is, Toby, that the traditions which raised you have let you down. It’s not that they are without value, but such limited perspectives may not work in the world anymore.”

Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you. That’s really good advice. Do you really think I can…” For that matter, what was it she was asking of him, exactly? “…save Omnu from himself?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say he needs to be saved, any more than you do. As his paladin, you are a focus for his personality; your growth can only benefit him as well. But simply as a man, you are very much like Omnu was in mortality. Kind, warm, gentle…a little bit bland and aloof. I just want you to be the best person you can, Toby. Hence…all of this.” She waved a hand at the frozen scene around them. “I’m not in the habit of such insistent interventions, but you came right up to the edge of a terrible precipice. The potential loss was more than I could bear to think of.”

“I see your point.” Toby nodded, then carefully gathered himself and stood, gently dislodging her. He turned to offer the goddess a hand up. “Thank you, Lady Izara, for all of this.”

“Please don’t be so formal,” she chided gently, even as she took his arm to rise. “I never have learned to enjoy being called Lady.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to compromise, then. I don’t think I can bring myself to call you Izzy.”

She grinned at him, and then suddenly the air moved again.

“…which will be the trickiest initial part, as—oh!” Agasti’s voice cut off mid-explanation for the second time to Toby’s ears, though it was the first to everyone else’s. He, Trissiny, and the two revenants both turned to Izara in surprise.

“Please,” she said, raising both hands, “no genuflections or other time-wasters. In theory, the Pantheon aren’t meant to intercede and solve mortal problems in person, but for this sheer concentration of paladins, extenuating circumstances, and backlash from one of my own projects, I have decided an exception is in order. Now, let’s get our young friend back here before he meets something he is truly not prepared for.”

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Pausing to move

I apologize for the late notice.  It had been my intention to post chapters this Monday and Wednesday as usual, before embarking on my three-day drive across the country, only missing this Friday.  Unfortunately I have discovered that I severely underestimated how exhausting it is to pack one’s entire life into a truck.  After a day of sorting and packing thirteen years of accumulated stuff I am too tired to function and my efforts to produce a chapter are not bearing fruit.  And I’m not even done packing.

TGAB will be on a short hiatus for this week only while the author finishes packing and then moves from Missouri to Oregon.  We will be back next Monday as usual.  I am very sorry to disappoint everyone.

I’ll try to keep in touch during this odyssey, as I am able to get online; if you want to keep abreast of my movement, watch this space for updates.

In the meantime, everybody stay safe and take care of yourselves.  I will try to do the same.

14 – 24

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“You know what that is?” Xyraadi sounded skeptical, and perhaps a little impressed.

“One got onto the mortal plane last year,” Gabe said tersely, staring up at the distant shape. It hissed again; even that far away, the sound was like a vibration in their very bones. “My classmates and I killed it.”

“Really.”

“Well, full disclosure, I was one of the least immediately helpful contributors to that effort. That was before I was a paladin. Mostly we just distracted it until Trissiny brought it down.”

“That is the new Hand of Avei? Yes, that sounds about right. A moment, please.”

He lowered his eyes to watch her as she turned around and held out a hand, palm forward, at the mountain behind them. It rose upward from the ground like a wall without intervening foothills, as if the sheets of obsidian had burst right out of the earth itself; the stone at its base was crumbled and obsidian shards lay everywhere, bristling from fractures in the face of the cliff.

Xyraadi began to glow subtly, not unlike the radiance of a divine aura, though of course her power source was very different. Three overlapping spell circles manifested on the ground around her hooves, more elaborate than any infernomancy he had seen—and in fact, rather beautiful. More than the customary fiery orange, they were in shades of gold, white, and pale green, with an inner ring of some fluid script surrounded by two more geometric designs which oscillated this way and that like a shaken compass trying to find north.

Gabriel looked up again. The nurdrakhaan was questing slowly back and forth as if sniffing the air—definite hunting behavior. Worse, it was drifting steadily lower.

“Um, not to rush you, but if that thing happens to spot us…”

“It won’t happen to,” she said without moving. “It was drawn to the magic.”

“…so what you’re doing there…”

“Will draw it faster, yes. Hopefully it will be worth the danger. If not, we will simply have to shadow-jump away, which also has risks. I judge this to be the lesser—aha!” The shifting outer rings around her had lined up, and the writing of the inner one changed. Xyraadi turned back to him with a smile. “This way!”

She set off at a brisk pace, causing most of her spell circle to collapse, but the middle ring remained, continuing to move subtly as though in response to her steps.

“What’s this way?” he asked helplessly, hurrying along behind.

“A passage under the mountains. The nurdrakhaan is too big to fit into holes, so we will simply have to wait it out. It will sniff around the site, and when it finds there is nothing there to eat, it will leave. I much prefer not to shadow-jump, as I do not know the surroundings and we risk landing in even greater danger, if we don’t end up halfway through a rock.”

“Gotcha. So…that’s a neat little spell, there. It works by…conceptualizing a problem and then blasting it?”

“This one is more complicated than the translation spell, but…yes, that basic principle is applicable at multiple levels. Ah, here it is!”

They had passed into a veritable forest of obsidian shards, ranging from pencil-sized to taller than either of them. The profusion of jagged outcroppings made the perfect camouflage for the triangular opening in the wall, especially as it was shaded by a particularly large spike of black glassy stone. Miscellaneous shards crunched under her hooves; Gabriel stepped more carefully. He tapped the palm of his hand against the point of a shard in passing, but while he felt the jab it seemed there was nothing to this stone that would surpass his hethelax immunity. His shoes were another matter, though, and he placed his feet as best he could so as not to impale their soles.

Then the nurdrakhaan hissed again, much closer, and he practically ran the last few steps. Xyraadi had already vanished into the hole.

They retreated a few yards down the tunnel in pitch blackness, her direction-finding circle having winked out upon entering. Once the entrance had shrunk to a triangle of vague yellowish light, Gabriel drew Ariel, who obligingly ignited all her inscribed runes to bathe the area around them in an arcane glow. A second point of light swirled into being right in front of Xyraadi’s forehead crest, this one a clean white.

“Merde alors,” she muttered, looking up and down the tunnel. “This is not an accidental formation.”

“Hm…I see what you mean,” he agreed, following her gaze. Though there were cracks and craters along every surface and little shards of obsidian littering the ground, the formation itself was too straight to have been wrought by geological accident, its triangular shape perfectly equilateral. “It doesn’t look like it’s seen a lot of use lately, though; hopefully the previous residents aren’t around. I can sense demons, but that trick doesn’t work too well here. Like sensing a needle in a haystack. Full of needles. While it’s on fire.”

She smiled and opened her mouth to answer, and then the nurdrakhaan hissed again. Resonating down the stone tunnel, the sound was deafening. It was clearly very close outside.

There was silence for a few seconds before she spoke again.

“You cannot assume it is abandoned because it looks like this, M. Arquin.” Xyraadi thumped her fist against the wall and it practically shattered, forming a little crater from which broken shards cascaded to the floor. The display was all the more impressive due to how spindly her arms were. “Everything in Hell is changed by the infernal radiation which saturates it. This is the magic of corruption, of destruction. Metal oxidizes away in the very earth, so that what would be veins of it underground are only streams of dust trapped in the rock. Stone itself is very brittle—too much so to build with, which is why most structures are made of bone and hide. It is the nature of the infernal to cause mutation, fast evolution; only living creatures are able to grow resistant to it, never anything inanimate. Only biological matter can be used for construction, clothes, tools…anything.”

The nurdrakhaan hissed again, the sound still loud but altered as if coming from a subtly different direction. Still too close for comfort, though. At the very least it gave Gabriel a momentary pause in which to ponder what she had said.

“That would make the entire world incredibly geologically unstable.”

“Earthquakes are common, yes.”

That was not an encouraging thing to hear while they were in an underground tunnel, but he let that fresh worry pass. “But…how can the continents still match up, after thousands of years? All the landmasses would have broken up…”

She gave an eloquent shrug. “I do not have such answers. Maybe no one does. It is said that Scyllith could control the entirety of the realm with only her presence. Perhaps whatever means she used is still active in her absence; perhaps Elilial has taken it over, or created her own. You are not wrong, the land shifts often. But somehow, in aggregate…not too much. Whatever causes this, I cannot imagine it is accidental.”

Xyraadi pointed and drew a line across the floor behind them from a distance; it began to glow faintly yellow, and scrawls of fluid script like before appeared on each side.

“A barrier?”

“A detection ward. It will tell me if something comes this way—unless it is something also skilled in magic which can hide, so do not become complacent. Never become complacent here. No, raising a barrier is like planting a flag. Everything within miles which can sense magic would flock to answer the challenge.”

“Omnu’s balls,” he muttered. “So, that script… It doesn’t look like the infernal runes I’ve seen in books.”

Xyraadi glanced sidelong at him, her golden eyes gleaming like a cat’s in the low light. “You read many of such books?”

“I’m a paladin, after all. There are some things I’m expected to know.”

The nurdrakhaan hissed again, and both of them cringed.

“It is elvish,” she answered when she could. “I cannot turn my back on my heritage, but I prefer not to associate my life with one bit more of Hell than I can avoid.”

He winced at the surge of guilt, but she wasn’t looking at him, peering straight up the tunnel with her eyes narrowed. “Why do you use infenomancy, then? Uh, if you don’t mind my asking. Feel free to tell me to piss off if at any point something is none of my business.”

Again, an amused smile flickered across her face, seeming to surprise her. “You are a funny paladin, M. Arquin. You remind me more of bards I have known.”

He decided to leave that one alone. “Please, call me Gabriel.”

“Gabriel, then. My people do not have an innate resistance to infernal corruption, like the hethelaxi. Ours is developed, acquired. I preserve my sanity by expending the dark magic from my system.”

“By using it.”

“Exactly. There are powerful rituals that mark the stages of a girl’s passage to adulthood among the khelminash. One converts the subtle, insidious call of the infernal to a more direct form that cannot so easily hide. When I begin to hear the whispers urging me to depraved acts, I know it is time to cast some spells and burn off the power that has built up. Better to keep up a steady use before it gets to that point.”

“Your people sound extremely skilled,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “What are the chances we might be able to get help from some khelminash?”

“Non,” she said firmly. “Terrible idea!”

“Ah. Not nice people—”

The hiss which interrupted him was more distant, and both of them instinctively edged forward.

“Finally, it is leaving,” she muttered. “That was very fast, for as much magic as happened out there I thought it would sniff about for hours. No, Gabriel, my people are as…nice…as anyone, I suppose, and far more so than most in this realm. But they are all, all dedicated to Elilial. Khelminash cities are caste systems designed to support populations of my race, the elites, so that we do not have to work and contribute to the running of our own society. So that we are free to form the backbone of the Dark Lady’s sorcerous forces. Each city is ruled by a few Rhaazke, and various tiers of work are done by khaladesh, hethelaxi, and horogki. Any khelminash we find will be very delighted to meet a paladin of the Pantheon and an exiled traitor. That would go very badly for us.”

He drew in a slow breath, considering which of several ideas to voice first, and suddenly a hiss so loud it made both of them clutch their ears filled the air. The light at the end of the tunnel was muted by a huge shadow, and in the next moment the entire tunnel shook from an impact. The crunch of stone was terrifying; shards of obsidian rained down all over them.

Ariel’s light abruptly winked out. “Gabriel, if that thing hunts by sensing magic, it may be particularly drawn to the arcane. I am going into a dormant state. Please reawaken me manually when the danger has passed.”

“I should have thought of that,” Xyraadi hissed furiously, pounding a fist against her own forehead crest. “Stupid, stupid! I am too out of practice at this…place. The careless die here! We can make no more mistakes!”

Another thunderous hiss blasted down the tunnel, accompanied by a horrible scraping noise from outside.

“We’re in deep shit if it collapses the tunnel,” Gabriel said. “How risky is it to retreat further?”

“Not as bad as taking our chances outside! At least anything we meet in here will be animal, maybe intelligent. There might be fungus but there will be no plants. That is the only upside.”

The mountain shook from impact, so many shards fell outside that the noise was clearly audible. The light at the entrance changed again as it was partially obscured by debris.

“Wait, why the hell are plants worse than animals? I thought you said things here would try to eat us!”

“Everything will try to eat us, Gabriel! Including the plants! At least things with a brain can be intimidated, tricked, maybe reasoned with. A plant will just attack, regardless.”

A thought struck him. “Wait, speaking of animals. Nurdrakhaan aren’t sapient, are they? They one I saw before didn’t react to Vadrieny except by trying to eat her.”

“Vadrieny?” she said incredulously. “If you saw that fiend and survived, it is much more impressive than surviving a nurdrakhaan!”

It hissed again, and then the tunnel shook so hard the beast had clearly rammed its head against the mountainside. Clearly, this was no time for that conversation.

“Just answer the question!”

“Yes, it is an animal and a very stupid one! All that muscle and a brain the size of a squirrel’s. Why?”

“It’s like you said,” he replied, already laying out his book of enchanting paper, spell chalk and vials of dust. “An animal can be tricked. If it likes arcane magic, I’ll give it arcane magic.”

Xyraadi loomed over his shoulder, watching while he worked. Gabriel scrawled glyphs and diagrams as quickly as he could without sacrificing accuracy, hurried on by the hissing. At least the thing had stopped headbutting the mountainside, at least for now, but the way the shadows kept passing back and forth across the tunnel entrance suggested it was pacing in midair outside, clearly not about to go anywhere.

Fortunately, none of what he was doing was particularly complex; the bulk of this was simple levitation, directional charms, and pretty illusions. The only chancy part came when he had to attach a power crystal, which meant both affixing it to the proper piece of the paper he was using with twists of copper wire—delicate work when the very air kept shaking around them—and designing the entire rest of the enchantment he was crafting to sustain the presence of such an unnecessarily powerful magic source without overcharging and going up in smoke. He laid it out with as much power as he dared risk; there was no point in this if the bait wasn’t juicy enough to be tempting.

“I fancy that I know a little bit about arcane magic,” Xyraadi said, “but I recognize absolutely none of that. Still, I refuse to believe this little toy poses any real threat to that beast.”

Gabriel had to brace himself against the wall with one hand while a long steady grinding happened as the nurdrakhaan apparently swiped its entire side against the mountain face above them, vibrating the whole tunnel. With his other hand, though, he held up his just-complete paper glider, marked by patterns of spell chalk and adhesive enchanting dust all connected to a central power crystal that was really way too potent for this task.

“The times,” he said, “have changed.”

He hurled the glider forward, and the moment it left his fingers it burst alight. In the confines of the tunnel its glare was almost too blinding to appreciate the prettiness of it—though Gabe couldn’t take credit for the design, which he had taken straight from an enchanting trade magazine. The illusion took the form of a large bird made of blue light, scintillating in shades of violet and white. It immediately soared off down the tunnel, swerved out through the opening, and vanished.

“What?” Xyraadi exclaimed.

The hiss that followed started as crushingly loud as any they’d heard, but it also faded rapidly as the nurdrakhaan soared away at top speed, still hissing.

Xyraadi was staring up the tunnel with her mouth slightly agape. After a second, she turned her incredulous expression on Gabriel. “That’s…that’s it?”

“I’m a little surprised that worked,” he admitted. “I never succeed with the first thing I try.”

“What was that?! Did you summon a…a phoenix or something? Did you have a phoenix in a soul prison in that coat?!”

“Whoah, no, nothing like that! It was just a bit of levitation and illusion with some guidance charms. And,” he added, grinning, “a really excessive power source. I figured if that thing goes to magic and especially likes the smell of the arcane, it would chase the glowing, fast-moving thing that smelled interesting. That’s what a particularly dumb predator will naturally tend to do. Like a dog chasing a carriage; it has no idea what it’ll do if it actually catches one, it’s just instinct.”

“…how long will your birdie keep it away?”

“Well, as long as it keeps following, I guess. It’s not going to catch it; that thing has hardly any mass and a whole order of magnitude more power than it needs. That charm is designed for festivals, they’re used to accompany fireworks displays. It will naturally do aerobatics around other objects in the sky while avoiding any midair impact, including with the nurdrakhaan, and it’s quicker and more nimble. I charmed it to keep heading west.”

For another long moment, she continued staring at him. Then, to his surprise, she grinned broadly. Khelminash, it seemed, had pronounced fangs.

“Ah, it is almost like old times. One only feels alive when death waits around the next bend, no?”

“Oh, that’s right,” he said, blinking. “You were part of a real classic adventuring party.”

“What, and you are not? Every paladin is an adventurer, by definition.”

“Uh. I think…you are gonna have some serious acclimating to do, when we get back to the mortal plane. A lot has changed in six hundred years.”

“Eh.” Again, she shrugged, a fabulously expressive gesture which somehow contained more nuances than he could even begin to tease out. “It was like that for me, the first time I came to your realm. I am nothing if not flexible. Now, come, we had best make haste. It will not be long before something else comes to investigate all the magic which has been happening here.”

He followed in silence back to the entrance, which fortunately had not collapsed, though the nurdrakhaan had done a number on it. The tunnel’s mouth was half-buried in fallen fragments of jagged obsidian, making a pile which looked like it would slice to ribbons any fool who dared try to shift it.

Xyraadi did just that, anyway, after cautioning Gabriel to turn away. It seemed she was not inclined toward subtlety by that point, to judge by the explosion she used to blast the path clear.

“Won’t that thing have bought us some time?” he asked, following her back out into the sullen light. She sky was yellowish and smoke-colored; he couldn’t actually see the sun. If there even was a sun here. “That racket had to be audible from miles around. Surely nothing else would want a piece of the nurdrakhaan.”

“They would starve to death if it were so simple,” she said rather brusquely, trotting toward the temple. The poor grasses and wildflowers lay blackened and dead from infernal exposure by now, but at least the nurdrakhaan hadn’t destroyed the edifice itself. “They hiss and express their presence like that to catch prey, Gabriel. You must not think anything here is like it is in your world; the infernal taint alters everything biological. Among other things, it prompts unreasoning aggression. Only sapient demons will flee or hide from danger, and even so, only those taught to from childhood. Animals will respond to a threat, any threat, by attacking. Nurdrakhaan eat very well, indeed.”

“You know what?” he said philosophically. “I don’t think I like it here.”

Xyraadi gave him a truly indescribable look. “Welcome to Hell, Gabriel. Everything here wants to eat everything else. Every meal is a battle, and every creature is well-equipped to fight. On your world there are carnivores and herbivores; here, only predators, some of which eat plants. The chief thing that distinguishes sapient beings is their means of coping with this place. They are either fanatically devoted to Elilial who protects and supports them, or obsessed with escaping to the mortal plane.”

“You’re saying there’s nothing and nobody here who even might help us?”

“Only, perhaps, a ghost that your god has consigned here, and there is little enough they could do. They either get captured by my people or other spellcasting demons and used as power sources, or impress Prince Vanislaas and become his children. Lucky us, we do not need much help. The big problem before us is that we cannot leave from this spot. This is where your warlock waits, across the barrier, and he is our only chance of getting out again.”

They had arrived back at the spot on the temple lawn where he had first summoned her, approximately. It was hard to tell, with as much damage as the vegetation had suffered, but the size and shape of the disc of mortal land still made for a good reference point. Gabriel drew his scythe and Ariel, turning in a circle to look around. Not much had changed; he could see the damage the nurdrakhaan had made in the cliff face nearby, but the surrounding forest of spike-trees and giant carnivorous mushrooms were still there, as were the ruins of the ikthroi settlement around the temple grounds.

“And that,” he said, “means we’re sitting ducks. We have to hold this ground, and other creatures coming… Well, it’s a matter of when, not if. Right?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Worse, the magic I will have to do… Well, any magic will bring attention. I must try to reach across the barrier and achieve communication with your warlock friend. That work will draw very specific trouble. Intelligent demons, trained in magic.”

“Khelminash?”

“If we are very unfortunate,” she said grimly. “I cannot say how near a khelminash city might be. This is the continent where Tiraas is on your world, yes?”

“This spot in particular is in N’Jendo.”

“I don’t even know what that is. I have never been to this part of the world before, on either side of the barrier. And if I had… After six hundred years, I would not know where the closest khelminash city might be.”

“Okay. Since keeping our heads down isn’t going to be possible anyway, I’m going to wake Ariel up. She can help in a fight and she’s good with magic.”

“A wise plan,” she agreed, even as he channeled an arcane spark into Ariel’s runes in just the way she had taught him previously.

“Ah, good, we are not currently being digested. You continue to surprise, Gabriel.”

“Missed you too,” he said. “Here’s the situation: Xyraadi needs to reach across the dimensional divide to make contact with Mortimer, and we need to keep hostile demons off her, because we know damn well they’ll come.”

“Of course they will. Your scythe will prove immensely valuable, provided our next foes are not also zeppelin-sized. The nice thing about being stranded in Hell is that the mindless destruction for which you are best equipped is actually the correct course of action against most of the troubles likely to assail us.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. Xyraadi, any idea how long this will take?”

“None,” she said, already sitting cross-legged on the ground, which looked rather peculiar with her hooves and digitigrade lower legs. She held out her hands to either side, and more of her modified infernal circles began to blossom into being, decorated with incongruously lovely elvish script. “It is very much situational; a person can do this for months before catching the attention of anyone on the other side. This is a better scenario than most, since there is a powerful warlock in this space just across the barrier who is hopefully already looking for us in turn. But much is uncertain.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll…keep watch, then.”

Xyraadi closed her eyes, and the magic around her continued to form.

“Think I should try setting out wards?” he muttered.

“I wouldn’t,” Ariel advised. “We’ve already seen that using arcane magic here draws attention. It will happen anyway, it seems, but there’s no use hastening the arrival of enemies. Let the khelminash take advantage of as much time as we can buy her. By the way, how did you get rid of the nurdrakhaan?”

“Oh, that. I taught it to play fetch.”

“…Gabriel, if it has escaped your notice, I am not one of your wisecracking student adventurer friends, nor one of your smirking Vidian cleric colleagues. I am certainly not your lack-witted dryad bedmate. Your sense of humor is entirely wasted on me.”

“That’s exactly what makes it funny, partner.”

“Shadow-jumping!” Ariel suddenly said in a louder tone. “Something is—”

She was cut off by Xyraadi, who leaped straight up from her meditative posture, allowing her careful spell circles to collapse in a tangle of sparks and smoke. “Run! Run, now!”

“Ah, ah, ah. Stay a while, and let us talk, yes?”

Gabe whirled, planting his feet by instinct in a stance Professor Ezzaniel had drilled into him: feet braced, scythe upraised behind him ready to swing, Ariel held in guard position in front. Scythe-and-saber wasn’t exactly a traditional combat form, but both Ezzaniel and Trissiny had been pleased to help him work out some basic positions and moves. The golden shield he threw up around himself sparked and hissed constantly against the ambient infernal power, and he immediately regretted it—but held on, since dropping it just as suddenly would convey weakness which could be a deadly mistake here. Still, that was going to strain his capacity for divine magic very quickly. It also meant Xyraadi couldn’t get too close.

He stared at the being which had appeared in front of him, and the being stared back.

By skin tone and general facial features, the creature might have been a drow; it was as black as the obsidian mountains, slender of build and delicate of face. In fact, Gabe could not at a glance assign a gender to the intruder, in part because of the combination of flowing white robes and padded crimson longcoat of odd cut which obscured the lines of his or her body. Unlike a drow, however, the new arrival had rounded humanlike ears and long hair as black as their skin. It was the eyes which were most striking: pure, featureless red eyes, just like a red dragon’s.

“Hello,” he said after a mutually contemplative pause, finally letting his shield down. Val Tarvadegh’s voice whispered in the back of his memory, priceless coaching on social rhythms telling him the timing to make it seem like a deliberate conciliatory gesture and not a loss of face. “That is a really nice coat.”

“Why, thank you!” the unidentified demon said with a broad smile. They had perfectly white, even, apparently human teeth. “And the same to you, my young friend. You must have quite the story to tell! How ever have you managed to bring yourself and a temple of Izara here? And…is that…”

They leaned to the side, peering past him, and Gabriel fought down the urge to shift and try to block the view. That would seem not only hostile, but childishly petulant. Both instinct and training warned him that any display of weakness here could be lethal.

“Why, it is!” the demon said, still smiling in evident delight. “Little Xyraadi, come home after all these years, yes? I cannot imagine why you are not long dead, child, much less what made you think returning here was a good idea.”

Gabriel shifted his head enough to bring Xyraadi into his peripheral vision without letting the other demon shift out of it. She was standing stock-still, not casting any spells, and staring with extremely obvious terror. That was not a good sign.

“A very nice coat,” he repeated pointedly. “Given the general resource scarcity in Hell, shall I assume this is someone important? Or at least rich?”

She swallowed convulsively before answering in a very small voice. “This is Prince Vanislaas.”

“Ah,” Gabriel said, turning his full attention back on the Prince and forcing a pleasant little smile. Shit. Shit. “What a lovely surprise, I never expected to have the honor. I believe we have an acquaintance in common, your Highness. Do you recall Malivette Dufresne?”

“Truly, the delicious surprises just keep coming today,” Vanislaas purred, pacing slowly forward. Gabriel just barely repressed the urge to retreat, and did not lower either of his weapons. “What a charming young lady! I so rarely have such well-bred visitors. How is dear Vette getting along? She’ll have graduated from the University by now, yes?”

“Some time ago,” Gabriel agreed politely, shifting his heels, and subtly raising his scythe higher. At that, the demon finally halted his approach, smirking. “I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with her at length, but I believe she is quite well.”

“And what a courteous young man you are,” Vanislaas remarked. “Half…hethelax, yes? Yet fully mortal. And somehow, here. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t that a valkyrie’s scythe?”

Gabriel was spared having to respond by Xyraadi letting out a wail and hurling herself to the ground. He started to turn again to see what had happened, but something tugged insistently on his scythe. Tightening his grip, he twisted, finding it inextricably stuck, and managed to pivot without letting go to put himself in a position from which he could see both demons and also whatever else had seized his weapon.

The next moment, he sort of wished he hadn’t.

“His name is Gabriel Arquin,” Elilial said with a coy little smile, shifting her fingers on the haft of the scythe just below its blade, “and I am just dying to hear him explain all this.”

And with that, she yanked the scythe out of his hand.

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14 – 23

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“What?!” Trissiny exploded in pure disbelief. “How?! Why did—”

“Wait,” Agasti interrupted her, straightening up and snatching his cane out of the earth. “Something is—”

His infernal spell circle abruptly collapsed, with all the violence for which that school of magic was famous. The glowing lines, already burned into the ground, began exploding like a series of embedded firecrackers, hurling ash and clumps of sod in all directions and causing Agasti himself to stagger, being caught in the middle of it. Both revenants surged protectively toward him, but Toby was both closer and faster, snatching the warlock and hauling him bodily out of the radius as the circle continued to disintegrate.

“It’s still going on!” Agasti gasped even before getting his feet back under him. “The instability is not confined to the circle. No more holding back, we need divine magic. Now! As much as you can!”

Trissiny needed no further urging, and her armor, sword, and shield coalesced around her out of pure light. Her aura flared into being, wings and all, pushing outward with an intensity that it rarely showed. Toby’s effort, by comparison, was muted. The glow sprang up around him as well, but for all that it pushed outward nearly as far as Trissiny’s, it was without the same ferocity. His contribution didn’t compare at all to the divine nova he had sometimes unleashed at Omnu’s bidding.

Smoke rose from both of them, accompanied by a harsh buzzing in the air, as their channeled power annihilated loose infernal magic from the vicinity. Agasti retreated with a nimbleness that would have been unbelievable when they had first seen him the night before, muttering and gesticulating rapidly with his cane. He charred another spell circle in the ground a few yards distant, then swiftly moved on to cast another while the first formed a smoky vortex above it, channeling infernal radiation into its center to be contained. The warlock carried on laying down grounding circles as quickly as he could, while his two revenant companions hovered protectively near him, unable to approach the paladins due to the light.

Between the three of them, they were making headway against the energy bleeding out of that transposed patch of Hell, but that unfortunately was not the worst of their problems.

The distortion rising from the ground around the circle was at first glance easy to mistake for heat waves in the sun, at least until it began spreading outward and reached the paladins. Their divine light did nothing at all to disrupt it, but the reverse was not true. Trissiny stumbled as if struck, her aura flickering, and Toby’s was momentarily snuffed out entirely by the disorientation.

When it reached the first of Agasti’s grounding circles, the entire glyph disintegrated in a cluster of minor explosions just the way his original spell circle had.

Worst of all, where the slow-moving wave crept past, it changed the ground from the mundane meadow to the heat-blasted stone of the hellscape on the other side. Bit by bit, the patch of hellscape was growing, the dimensional swap expanding one foot at a time.

“This is not a side effect!” Agasti shouted, retreating further. “Someone on the other side is pushing this out. They must have been watching the site for an opportunity. Get ready to fight, I have no idea what’s going to come through!”

It was a very peculiar sight, the surrounding hills and mountainside being erased by what seemed to be a flat plateau. As the effect expanded, structures began to appear, towers and fences seemingly made from gigantic bones encircling the temple site. None of that commanded their attention, however, as the demons shimmered into being starting when the growing circle had stretched only a few yards out. More and more came as it spread; though the five of them, revenants included, had not been shifted into Hell when the dimensional ripple washed over them, the beings on the other side had evidently been preparing for exactly this.

Trissiny, ever the tactician, immediately charged at one of the figures standing in a glowing glyph carved into the ground and chanting with his hands upraised. A guard of five demons surrounding him surged to meet her, and proved no match; they actually burst into flames on contact with her aura, and she only bothered to dispatch the one which was bodily in her way before ramming her sword to its hilt in the chest of the summoner. At no point had he paused in his working, and died as his flesh burned away and dissolved into charcoal from the spot where she impaled him.

That drew the attention of the others. The creatures surrounded them by the dozens, brandishing weapons made of bone and in a few cases hurling balls of explosive fire. They were a little bigger than human-sized on average, covered in chitinous scales and plates of natural armor, and wearing nothing but hide loincloths. The entire throng was clearly standing by, ready for battle, with casters positioned evenly around the circle where the temple had stood, chanting and obviously causing the dimensional effect to continue expanding.

Nearly a dozen converged on Trissiny, doing nothing but slowing her as she pivoted and tried to make for the next caster. For all their preparedness, this group was clearly not ready to contend with something like a paladin. Agasti, doubtless the first to discern the pattern, felled two more casters in rapid succession with precise shadowbolts, but then had to defend himself from a massed counter-attack with waves of fire and kinetic force. His efforts were supported by blasts of lightning; Kami had retrieved a battlestaff from the carriage and Arakady drew two wands from within his coat, both stepping up beside their patron to fire arcane destruction into all who threatened him.

In the sudden furor, none of them even noticed that Toby was simply standing, surrounded by a shimmering glow, and staring.

“So. This is your doing.” The air was filled with screams and spellfire; no one heard his soft voice.

The light that erupted from the Hand of Omnu was nothing like the steady expansion of the halo which had heralded his divine nova in the past. It burst out in a violent shockwave, the force of it knocking every demon in the vicinity to the ground, most shrieking in pain and several catching fire. It did not have the pure intensity of Omnu’s nova, either; that would simply have incinerated them.

But Toby wasn’t done.

Arkady and Kami had also fallen at the first impact, and now Agasti seized each of them by one arm and in a swift swell of shadow, all three vanished. Trissiny had been rocked slightly by the force of the divine spell Toby unleashed, but it did not hit here with anything like the impact it inflicted on their attackers. She pivoted on one heel to face him, then froze. Toby wasn’t looking at her; she could not tell where he was looking. His eyes were completely obscured, emitting a golden glow with an intensity like the sun’s.

The demons were already rallying, even despite their obvious pain at the haze of divine energy now covering the site. At least the expansion of the piece of Hell had stopped, every remaining caster having been felled by the blow. In fact, it began to retreat again, the blasted ground giving way to tallgrass and wildflowers which were already wilted by their momentary trip to Hell.

Before any could launch another coordinated attack, shapes appeared in the air around them. Scythes, hovering unassisted, seven of them. Barely had they manifested before they began moving.

Trissiny hurled herself flat to the ground, covering her head with her shield and leaving her defensive aura alight, but none of the blades struck her. Instead, directed with uncanny aim, they swept through the horde. Wherever a demon was cut, it instantly exploded, leaving nothing but ash upon the wind.

It was over in seconds.

Trissiny raised her head warily. Smoke and ashes drifted on the air around them; Toby’s aura flickered as the circle walling off this patch from its home dimension passed back over him in shrinking. It did not dissipate this time, though. The golden scythes now drifted slowly around them, tumbling end over end as they orbited the Hand of Omnu. They had cut down even the bone structures, leaving only shattered and charred fragments to vanish back into Hell as the circle shrank.

The very air sang, filled with a tone like distant bells.

“I understand it now,” Toby said expressionlessly. His voice resonated almost like Ariel’s, as if there were a second, deeper voice speaking in unison. “It’s so simple, I don’t know why I struggled with it for so long. Omnu is life. Omnu is peace. Omnu is paradox. Omnu’s real path is navigating the tension between opposites. Because the truth is as Avei has always taught it. As Vidius has known. There is only one true peace…and it is the opposite of life.”

Trissiny stood, leaving her sword and shield lying on the charred ground behind her. The original patch of Hell remained, a hardened circle of ground where the temple had been, but the dimensional ripple seemed to be fully dispelled now. She strode right up to Toby, pulling off her silver gauntlets and also letting them drop.

She took her fellow paladin’s face in both hands. He was standing like one of the stone figures of Salyrene, staring with empty glowing eyes at some nothing in the infinite distance. He did not resist, however, as she tugged his head gently down to face her.

“Toby,” Trissiny whispered, “stop.”

It was like staring into a furnace. There was nothing behind his eyes but the light. Not a flicker of expression or acknowledgment on his features.

She squeezed lightly, shifting her hands to slowly brush her thumbs across his eyes. Enough mortal reflex remained despite whatever trance he was in that they closed, cutting out the light which blazed onto her own face.

“Please, stop.”

Trissiny changed her grip again, releasing his face and pulling him closer. She wrapped an arm around his back and tugged his head down to rest it against her shoulder.

The distant music of the Light faded. Golden scythes dissolved into sparks and swirls of unfocused energy. The glow which hung over the whole scene like fog dissipated, giving way to simple, wholesome sunlight.

With its passing, Toby seemed to come back to life. His breath caught, came unevenly in little bursts for a moment, and then faltered entirely into shuddering gasps. Weakly, he clutched at Trissiny, and she just held onto him, holding him up even as his legs failed.


“You did this on purpose,” Ariel accused as soon as things settled down somewhat.

Gabriel took his time before bothering to reply, turning in a circle to make sure there were no more enemies waiting. A few had lunged at him before being swept away in that ripple their chanters were creating; the four who had jumped the wand now lay dead nearby, three little more than skeletons decorated with parchment-like scraps of old skin, all that the scythe had left of them. The fourth was more well-preserved, having been impaled through the heart by Ariel, whom he now plucked from the air. They had spent quite a bit of time on the charms that enabled her to float and fight independently; this wasn’t the field test he would have preferred, but at least it had worked.

When the demons began vanishing and an expanding patch of real-world ground appeared in their stead, he had immediately realized what they were doing and what it probably meant for the mortal plane. Gabriel had failed to think of any countermeasure in time, but fortunately, it proved moot; in only moments, the circle had shrunk right back to its original boundaries, and not only was every last demon gone, most of their bone structures had been shattered. Bless Toby and his holy nova.

The less uplifting news was that with no control over whatever magic the demons had used to create that effect, he and his friends were still stuck on opposite sides of the dimensional divide. Which was good for them, but his own situation was less cheery.

“I’m morbidly curious how you came to that conclusion,” Gabriel finally answered, sliding Ariel back into her sheath and turning another slow revolution to take a more careful look at his surroundings. The geography sort of mirrored that of the real world; there was a towering mountain range to the east, but unlike the Wyrnrange this appeared to be entirely made of gigantic shards of obsidian, and the fires of volcanic eruptions flickered in their heights. Gabe wasn’t well-versed in geology but he had a feeling that wasn’t right; then again, there was no reason to assume the basics of mortal life were applicable here. For example, the forest which spread to the north and south of the flat area in which he stood consisted of trees that seemed to be entirely thorns, some people-sized (and slowly oscillating as if seeking prey) and swaying tree-sized mushrooms whose conical caps contained giant, tooth-lined mouths. As he watched, one snapped at something flying past.

“Because you were just announcing your awareness that something terrible was going to go wrong with that entire enterprise, because you are generally reckless, and because you have a stubbornly self-sacrificing tendency that invariably makes you place yourself between your friends and danger. Whether or not that suits the strategic needs of the situation.”

“Well, I guess you’ve got my number,” he said lightly. “All right, immediate practicalities. After the Crawl I’ve started carrying stores of food, water, and potions in my bottomless pockets, so I can survive for a while. I’ve always heard there’s not even any water in Hell.”

“There is, but it is not plentiful and you would not be advised to drink it. Nor is the food safe. You are extremely resistant to infernal radiation, between your hethelax blood and the divine magic granted by Vidius, but surviving here is not a long-term prospect. We need to return to our own plane posthaste.”

“Easier said than done,” he murmured. Demons were constantly trying to escape from Hell, and at a glance he could already see why. If it were that easy, it would happen a lot more often. “Okay…let’s see what we’ve got to work with. Apparently these guys have been building their little nest around the temple site to try to cross over if anything happened to the dimensional phenomenon merging that spot. They sure were well-prepared. Do you know what species this is?”

“Ikthroi,” she said as he bent over the most well-preserved dead demon. Apparently when they died in Hell they didn’t dissolve into charcoal. “Sapient, slightly larger and significantly stronger than the human norm, possessing an inherent but quite minimal capacity for infernomancy. During the Hellwars these were by far the largest contingent of Elilial’s ground forces, but sightings of them have diminished markedly in the centuries since. None have crossed any hellgate since well before the Enchanter Wars. Either they fell from Elilial’s favor or their population was culled for some reason, we have no data on this in our realm.”

“I’m impressed you knew even that much, considering how long you were collecting dust in the Crawl.”

“Then I suppose we are very fortunate at least one of us listens in Tellwyrn’s history class. I see no way this can help us now, however. That was all I know of them, and it hardly prepares us to glean useful information from this settlement.”

“Well, don’t worry, we’ll get out of this yet.”

“Your blind optimism is beginning to grate.”

“Relax,” he said, grinning in spite of himself, and reached into one of the inner pockets of his coat. “We’re here working for Vesk, remember? Nothing we’ll be tested with is any worse than we can overcome.”

“We. Are. In. Hell!” Ariel sounded openly angry for the first time he could remember. “Vesk has no power here! Vidius has no power here! None of the rules apply, Gabriel; it’s just you and me and whatever you’ve brought with you. To the extent that Vesk’s stupid quest still makes a difference to us, the pattern thus far established only raises the risk that we will encounter Elilial herself! I assure you, she will be far less cordial than the gods you have met to date. A paladin isolated and vulnerable in her domain is exactly the kind of opportunity to hurt the Pantheon she rarely happens across.”

“Okay, you’re not without a point, there,” he said more soberly, withdrawing the bottle Toby had given him. “Still, remember that I wasn’t totally unprepared for this.”

“Desperate as we are I hate to naysay, but do think about what you’re proposing to do. Whoever’s in that bottle is going to be stranded in Hell right along with us.”

“Ariel, how could somebody be in the bottle?” he exclaimed. “You’re an arcane assistant, you should have better sense than that. More likely the bottle is a physical representation of some active spell. Salyrene said to open it when the need was greatest, and that help would come.”

“Oh, of course, you know best. The vivid proof of that is all around us.”

“I get no respect,” he muttered, and pulled the stopper.

The bottle instantly unfolded itself like a peeled banana, its glass surface vanishing to leave him holding a chunk of crimson crystal. The most confusing part of this experience was that the crystal was significantly larger than the bottle had been. The thing itself he recognized, having seen it quite recently.

“Of course, on the other hand,” Gabriel acknowledged, hefting the huge rough-cut ruby, “I suppose someone could be in the bottle.”

“Isn’t that the same crystal Schwartz used alongside me in his portal ritual?”

“I’m pretty sure. Aside from looking familiar, that would be just the narrative touch Salyrene would throw in if she was trying to steal Vesk’s thunder, like she said. I guess filching an artifact out of Avei’s vaults was just icing on the cake,” he added, remembering the acerbic comments both goddesses had made about each other. “What kind of demon did Sister Astarian say this was? And the name… I remember it starts with a Z.”

“Xyraadi, and it is probably spelled with an X, the demonic language being gratuitously absurd even in translation. She is a khelminash demon. I am forced to admit that this actually represents excellent help. They are extremely sophisticated infernomancers, and Xyraadi will not only be able to guide us through this dimension, she is one of few demons to have permanently escaped it in the past. Let us hope she isn’t terribly grumpy after being in that thing for six hundred years. I can attest that one is not at one’s best after a long period of time spent magically inert in a dank hole.”

“Perfect,” he said in satisfaction. Gabriel braced his feet and raised the ruby up above his head in one hand, where it glinted sullenly in the diffuse light. With the other, he planted the butt of his staff against the ground, leaning on it in a dramatic pose. “Xyraadi, ally of the gods, you are called upon again! Come forth in our hour of need!”

Something thankfully in the distance screamed. A gust of wind surged up, ruffling his coat and carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

“Please tell me this is inappropriately-timed humor,” Ariel said flatly.

“Well, what the hell do I know about soul prisons?” he snorted, lowering his hand. “How am I supposed to get her out of there?”

“Step one, ask the talking sword. Step two, break it.”

“…wait, really? That won’t hurt her?”

“Her physical body can’t be locked in a crystal any more than yours can, Gabriel. It’s like the bottle, a complex spell effect given physical form so that even a magically untalented boob can make use of it, at need. Just shatter the crystal, the suspension effect will dissolve, and she will be restored to her proper form. At least, assuming the Topaz College followed its standard practices, and those have not deviated too severely in six centuries.”

“You know what they say about assuming,” he muttered, but knelt to place the soul prison on the ground, then hefted his scythe.

“Not with that!” Ariel barked. “You know what that thing does! She’s hardly any use to us dead.”

“Hm, good thinking,” he agreed, shrinking the scythe down to its wand form and putting it away. “That makes the leverage a bit trickier, but still doable.”

“Oh, look,” Ariel said sourly as he knelt again, raising her over the crystal. “I even brought it on myself this time.”

A saber wasn’t the ideal tool for breaking rocks; at the blow, the prison bounced away sideways. He did succeed in cracking it, however, and apparently that was all it took.

The crack spread, emitting white light, and with a disproportionately violent bang the crystal exploded. Gabriel staggered back, throwing up an arm over his eyes, but there were no fragments. Just a shower of sparks and a tremendous billow of smoke, which quickly drifted away in the breeze.

When it was gone, standing where the ruby had landed, there was a demon.

She had emerged with her back to him, and her head twisted this way and that as she peered about, causing the waves of purplish hair cascading down her spine to shift and shimmer. The demon wore a surprisingly modest dress, in deep green cloth with wide sleeves and blue embroidery at its hems; it fell to ankle level, revealing cloven hooves and the swaying tip of a prehensile tail. She was taller than he, quite slender of build. For some reason, the sight of her put Gabriel in mind of a gazelle, despite the deep crimson color of her skin.

“Quoi?” she sputtered in a low alto. “Qu’est-ce que— Non. Non non non! Je suis encore en Enfer!? Pourquoi? Qui a fait ça?!”

She whirled around, catching herself at the sight of him, and Gabriel again took a wary step back. He carefully kept Ariel lowered, the sword not in a threatening posture. For a moment, he and the demon studied each other. Like Elspeth, she had a bony crest rising from her forehead and making her hair almost invisible from the front. Her eyes were yellow, rather like a wolf’s. Aside from that and the red skin, her fine, narrow features would not have looked out of place on most of the people he’d known growing up in Tiraas.

“Vous,” she said finally. “C’est de votre faute, n’est-ce pas?”

“Uh…” Gabriel subtly extended Ariel out to the side, causing the demon to step warily back, but he tilted his head toward the sword. “That…doesn’t sound like demonic to me. In fact, I would swear I’ve heard something like that before…”

“It’s Glassian,” she replied. “Remember, that was the country in which she lived and served a Hand of Avei’s party.”

“Tanglais?” The demon’s golden eyes had locked onto Ariel when the sword spoke, then widened in comprehension and respect. Drawing in a deep breath, she straightened her back and inclined her head to Gabriel. “Excusez-moi. Je m’appelle Xyraadi.”

He swallowed, then nodded back. “Um… Hello. Uh, jama pell Gabriel Arquin.”

Xyraadi wrinkled her nose at him, her upper lip curling in a pained expression.

“If you ever meet someone actually from Glassiere,” Ariel suggested, “don’t do that.”

“No respect whatsoever,” he groused. “From anyone! Ever!”

Xyraadi cleared her throat, and held up one hand toward him, palm forward. “Un moment, s’il vous plait.”

She took two mincing steps back on her dainty hooves and closed her eyes, raising both hands with the palms extended to the sides. Flickering lights rose in a circle around her.

“Okay,” Gabriel muttered, edging away, “I know this may be a crazy thing to be saying considering I deliberately called her here, and besides she was trusted enough by the Sisterhood to be sealed away in case they needed her again and a demon would have to be unbelievably virtuous for that to happen… But she is a demon and we’re in Hell and she’s immediately casting something. Am I wrong to feel nervous?”

“No,” Ariel replied, “but make decisions with your intellect, not your feelings. That was modern Glassian, Gabriel. After six hundred years a language will drift till it is nearly unrecognizable, unless its primary speakers are elves. This suggests her fluency is due to a magical effect. Given the circumstances, I suspect she is enabling herself to communicate with us.”

“You can do that?” he asked, fascinated. “Using infernal magic?”

“I can,” Xyraadi said suddenly, opening her eyes and lowering her hands. “The infernomancy involved would kill you even if you managed to learn it, Gabriel Arquin. The craft of my people is built around the embodiment and objectification of problems as constructs, which are then attacked, corroded, corrupted—that at which the infernal excels. In this case, the language barrier.”

“That’s absolutely amazing,” he said sincerely. “Nobody on the mortal plane can do anything that sophisticated with infernomancy!”

“In theory, they could,” she replied, allowing herself a pleased smile, “but they would be dead from exposure long before amassing the necessary skill.”

“Why Glassian, though?” he asked. “I mean, if you suddenly pop up in Hell itself…”

“Let me pose to you a hypothetical question, M. Arquin,” Xyraadi countered with a wry twist of her mouth. “Let us say that you are conversant in two languages. One is the tongue constructed by the goddess of cruelty, deliberately designed to be difficult and unpleasant, both to speak and to hear. The other is a tongue of poetry, which when spoken sounds like singing even when you are complaining about your taxes. To which would you prefer to default?”

“Well, I guess I can’t argue with that.”

“Wonderful,” she said, smiling thinly. “Then, if I have satisfied your curiosity, M. Arquin, perhaps you will do me the courtesy of indulging mine. I am most eager to learn why you have brought me here!”

He reared back at her suddenly strident tone, raising his free hand. “I’m sorry! Genuinely, I am. I didn’t want to come here myself, but, ah… This is a bit of a story.”

“Ah?” Xyraadi folded her arms and pursed her lips. “Then be so good as to proceed, before something comes to eat us.”

“…how likely is that?”

“It is not likely,” she said flatly. “It is certain. That is how things are in Hell. Perhaps, if I understand what is going on, I will be able to help when it does!”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Fair enough. The short version, then. I suppose I should start by telling you I’m the half-demon Hand of Vidius…”

Khelminash had no eyebrows, save for bony ridges above their eyes which did not move. Xyraadi managed to look incredulous regardless, but the expression faded as he recounted, as efficiently as possible, his journey with the others on Vesk’s instructions, finishing with their current predicament. When he trailed to a stop, she was silent for a moment, digesting it.

“So they really did keep me,” she murmured at last. “I more than half expected the Sisterhood to throw my soul chamber into the Azure Sea the first chance they got. How long was I locked away?”

Gabriel drew in a breath, bracing himself. “Six hundred years.”

She flinched. Only slightly, but it was enough to make him wince in sympathy. Xyraadi turned, staring out toward the west where the horizon was lost in a yellowish smoggy haze.

“Then everyone I ever knew is long dead.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“Ah, well,” she said with forced lightness, lifting one shoulder in a peculiar half-shrug. “Everyone I loved was already dead, that was why I asked to be put in the crystal. The rest, I will not miss. More immediately!” Xyraadi turned back to him, now smiling with more sincerity. “I have excellent news, M. Arquin! It seems you may not have irrevocably doomed us both.”

“Oh, thank the gods,” he said sincerely. “I love it when I haven’t irrevocably doomed something. I’ve learned to really appreciate those occasions when they come along.”

Her expression grew amused, but she continued. “Getting out of Hell means passing through a hellgate. This is usually not possible, because they are typically heavily guarded on this side and always on the other. If one wishes to cross over, one must usually make a new hellgate.”

“That tends to make people on the other side pretty mad,” he noted.

“Indeed, that is a drawback,” she agreed solemnly. “Another is that this cannot be done unilaterally from either side. However! By your account, you are in league with a powerful warlock, who should be waiting in roughly this physical place, right across the dimensional barrier. And now, you have another powerful warlock right here.” She spread her skirts and crossed her hooves in a graceful curtsy. “If I may be forgiven for boasting.”

“If you can actually do that, I think you’re entitled to boast a little,” he said fervently. “But doesn’t that require coordinating across the dimensional barrier?”

“Ah, yes,” Xyraadi said, nodding and looking more pensive. It was peculiar, trying to read her face; her eyes and lips seemed quite expressive, but the lack of movable eyebrows made her countenance oddly opaque. “That is tricky. But not insurmountable.”

“Well, if nothing else,” he said, drawing the wand from within his coat, “I have a—”

A sound split the air, a terrible sound seared into his memory. It was like a hiss, if a hiss was a bellow; a strangely subtle noise which occurred only on the very edges of hearing, and yet was powerful enough to make the ground vibrate.

“Ah,” Xyraadi said ruefully, “it took longer than I expected. And we pay for that reprieve now, for it is even worse than I feared.”

A shape appeared high overhead from the sulfurous clouds roiling above the obsidian volcanoes, a languidly undulating silhouette in the murk that resembled an eel. It was a small shadow, but Gabriel knew from experience that that only meant it was far away. He remembered very well how big they were.

“Aw, man,” he groaned, staring up at the nurdrakhaan. “I hate those things.”

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14 – 22

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If the ability to evade questions was a characteristic of a good lawyer, Mortimer Agasti must have been a very good one indeed.

Not that he was anything less than a perfectly gracious host. Agasti put them up in his own apartment for the night; it proved quite luxurious, though there were only two guest rooms and Toby and Gabriel had to share. The warlock was most apologetic about this until they reassured him that this was their customary arrangement back in Last Rock.

At some point while no one was looking, Verniselle and Izara both absented themselves without fanfare or farewell, in the customarily inscrutable manner of deities. None of the paladins enlightened Agasti as to his friend Nell’s true nature, since obviously she would have herself had she ever intended to. From then on, aside from the revenant Arkady, it was just them and Agasti.

Over a sumptuous dinner, over dessert and tea afterward, at breakfast the next day and then during the long carriage ride to the north and east out of Ninkabi, he kept up a vivacious conversation with them, somehow constantly turning any query into his own history back upon them. Their quest thus far, as Vesk had ordained it, was related by the time dinner was done, with Agasti sharing an insightful back-and-forth with them about the nuances of the various gods and cults they’d encountered over tea afterward. He kept up his inquiries after that into the next day, though. Never pressing and always retreating politely at the first sign of hesitation, but just as constantly deflecting any subject from himself and back to them. Over the passing hours they ended up describing a lot of life in Last Rock, relating stories of their various adventures under Tellwyrn’s tutelage, and even reminiscing about their respective upbringings in Tiraas and Viridill.

As the hours drifted by in pleasant talk, even Trissiny began to forget her initial wariness. Agasti himself seemed to be growing younger right in front of them; energy began to fill his voice and movements, his steps lost their shuffle, and even his posture straightened up. It was as if the man were drawing a new enthusiasm for life simply from their presence.

“It seems to me that there is a running theme to your quest thus far,” Agasti said as the carriage rumbled through the hilly N’Jendo countryside, drawing steadily closer to the Wyrnrage. It was a particularly bright day, sunny and warm now that the sun had finally climbed above the mountains, and they were constantly serenaded by birds and cicadas. They had long since left the Imperial highways and were now traveling along an ancient dirt track riddled with potholes and clumps of hardy weeds, perilous enough to jeopardize a wagon wheel. Agasti’s carriage, however, was an exquisite Falconer custom job, whose interior was rather like riding in a mobile opera box; it also had the very best shock absorption enchantments on the market, and they might as well have been gliding for all the difference the road’s condition made. “Now, ordinarily, that’s exactly the kind of thing I caution young folks against; the mind always wants to see patterns, often where there are none, and you must guard against that tendency or end up fooling yourself. You kids are working for Vesk, though, and there’s nothing a bard loves like a theme.”

“Actually, I’d picked up on several possible themes to this,” Gabriel said lightly, “but I’m curious which one stuck out in your mind, Mortimer.”

“I had the opposite impression,” Trissiny grunted. “The more I learn of this business the more it seems like Vesk is aimlessly yanking our chain. Especially since Salyrene clued us in about the real nature of that key.”

“And yet, here you still are,” Toby said in his mild tone, giving her a smile.

“…there’s a lot to be learned from this,” Trissiny replied, almost grudgingly. “I’ve made way too many mistakes in life to pass up a chance at education. No matter how annoying it is.”

“You generally seem too hard on yourself, Trissiny,” Agasti said. “Don’t be afraid to give yourself credit where it’s earned. You acknowledge your prejudices and work to overcome them, and that isn’t a small thing, not at all. Far too many people go their entire lives never once admitting to themselves that they have prejudices. The mark of a fool is that he thinks he understands himself and his life. But yes, Gabriel, I did pick out one theme in particular: you keep meeting gods. Meeting them, and gaining insight into their thoughts.”

“Which has been a priceless opportunity, of course,” Toby said, nodding. “You think that’s what Vesk intended?”

“I know a bit about the structure of stories,” Agasti replied with a mischievous grin. “You’re closing in on your third piece of four, which would make this, say, the opening of the third act. The themes of this story are established by now, but I strongly suspect you won’t find out what Vesk was actually after until the very end. Take heart, though; I firmly believe you will learn that truth eventually. A deity who thinks in stories won’t be able to resist explaining everything once you reach the denouement.”

“Third act, hm,” Gabriel murmured, gazing out the window at the passing countryside, his expression suddenly a dour contrast to the sunshine. “That means the really painful part is coming up soon.”

“You also know a bit about stories, I see,” Agasti said. “Remember the one really comforting thing about working for Vesk: in a story, the heroes have to reach the end. In real life, anything might happen and the world always has something lying in wait to crush you, but in a story? Vesk will test you to the very limit of your capabilities, but no farther.”

“That’s actually more of a comfort than you make it sound,” Trissiny said dryly. “Capabilities are there to be tested.”

“And expanded,” Agasti replied with an approving nod. “Returning to the theme: you already represent an unprecedented unity among the cults. In past ages, various different paladins would be at each other’s throats when the crossed paths more often than they worked together.”

“Someone mentioned that to us,” Toby noted.

“Also worth noting is the unusual branching out of skills that has begun,” Agasti continued. “The Hand of Avei, a trained and fully accredited member of the Thieves’ Guild. The Hand of Vidius, also an arcane enchanter.”

“Not much of one, yet,” Gabriel demurred.

“And you have been studying for what, two years? Skills like that take time to build, Gabriel. And your companion, there, will be a great help in progressing them.”

“I have already,” Ariel stated. “He has been a far less hopeless pupil than I first assessed. I aspire to eventually make a reasonably competent enchanter of him, presuming he does not get killed first. For a supposedly invulnerable man, that prospect keeps looming larger.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabe sighed.

“I don’t wish to be presumptuous,” Agasti said seriously, “but may I offer a suggestion?”

“We’d be glad of your advice,” Toby replied. “You’ve been extremely insightful so far.” The others nodded agreement.

“I think,” Agasti said in a pensive tone, “it would suit you to take advantage of the opportunities the gods have given, and develop your skills beyond what is normally expected of your divine role. Trissiny has made an admirable start in that direction. There is further you could go, however,” he continued, turning his face to her directly. “For example: as a half-elf, you have a much higher capacity for magic than the average human. Have you done much to leverage that?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” she said slowly. “I know the basic healing and shielding I was taught at the Abbey, and had some additional study with Professor Harklund at Last Rock. I’ve gotten pretty good at making hardlight constructs… Mostly, though, I’ve focused on skills that use my hands and my brain.”

He nodded. “You already have a suite of abilities that an enemy would not expect, and that is an advantage. Don’t overlook your magic, however; the divine is more versatile than ninety percent of its users give it credit for. Those shields, for example, can be an offensive measure as much as a defensive one if you use them with some creativity.”

“Now, that we’ve seen in action,” Gabriel said eagerly. “Shaeine is crazy good with shields, to the point she’s as much a long-range fighter as a healer in our team. Oh, and she also has this trick where she can touch someone on the forehead and put them to sleep.”

“Ah, yes,” Agasti said, nodding again. “That’s another thing: mind magic is the province of the divine. For the most part, that is a highly specialized discipline, used for either mental healing or unimaginable cruelty, but there are a number of simple tricks that are very handy in a variety of circumstances. That sleep spell, for example.”

“But that’s Themynrite technique, isn’t it?” Trissiny objected.

“It would be more accurate to say there is a Themynrite technique for it,” Agasti replied. “Similar spells are also widely used by the Citrine College and the Order of Light; I have also heard it rumored that the shadow priestesses of Scyllith know that trick. And it is only one example.”

“Why is that, I wonder?” Toby mused. “That mind magic is divine, I mean. I don’t really see a correlation.”

“Why, the divine is all about order,” Agasti said with a smile. “And minds… The truth is, most of the contents of our own minds are invisible to us. We are aware of our thoughts, yes, but not of the underlying processes by which those thoughts are created. Most of a person’s mind is inscrutable and not meant to be consciously contacted. If you poke your own perception into someone else’s brain, what you find will either seem like nonsense or possibly damage your own sanity. It is by imposing order that one influences the deeper workings of the mind. Building barriers and structures to channel energies, create patterns out of chaos.”

“That sounds like a quick way to completely destroy someone’s sanity,” Toby said, eyes wide.

“It is definitely a thing one should not attempt without considerable training,” Agasti agreed firmly. “But as I said, there are things you can do with mind magic that are not very intrusive—like, for example, put someone to sleep.”

“Shaeine also knows some diagnostic magic,” Trissiny mused. “I’ve seen her check a person’s mental and physical condition…”

The carriage veered slightly, leaving the road to park beside it, and came to a halt.

“Ah,” Agasti said briskly. “Here we are, then. Out we go!”

They clambered out into the sunshine, and the old man was not the only one who moved stiffly after that long confinement; it had been a good two hours’ drive from Ninkabi. Both the revenants who had accompanied them stepped out of the driver’s compartment, moving smoothly and without hesitation. Evidently there were benefits to the lack of a mortal body.

Patchy stands of trees covered the rolling foothills of the Wyrnrange on this side, casting intermittent shade. They had come to the very foot of the mountains, or one long outcropping of them at least; the entire West sloped down from the Wyrnrange to the sea, and N’Jendo was mostly rocky country where steppes and jagged peaks cropped up all the way to the coast, and beyond it in the form of islands. Here there was a little glade, tucked into the shadow of a mountain and braced between two steep hills, each crowned with trees. In the shade between them sat a disused temple.

It was of a style common to old-fashioned Avenist and Izarite architecture, a round structure of granite with a domed roof, braced by columns. The temple was obviously abandoned, the path up to its doors overgrown, the doors themselves hanging open and one listing crazily off its hinges. What had once been a garden out front was now a wild tangle of bushes, flowers, and small trees, and climbing vines had covered half the structure. For all that, though, it seemed to be in good repair, the broken door notwithstanding. The stone was not broken or even cracked, at least not visibly.

“We won’t be disturbed here,” Agasti said, planting his walking stick in front of himself and leaning on it with both hands. He did not appear to need the support; his spine was fully straight, now, making him look much taller than he had the night before. The stick was topped by a crystal sphere in which white light slowly swirled, now shadowed by his grip. “When I had to abandon the temple, the goddess placed a protection over it. Any living thing which does not already know of its existence will overlook it, and others in the vicinity will be encouraged to turn elsewhere. Even animals won’t approach.”

“It all seems so peaceful,” Gabriel said, taking a step forward.

“No closer!” Agasti said sharply, and he froze. The warlock continued in a more moderate tone. “Allow me to explain. The magical working over which I lost control was a channeling of divine and infernal energies together into a pattern. My mistake caused the nascent shatterstone to explode half-made, unleashing its full effect—which, being unfinished, was not at all what it was meant to be. I had unfortunately succeeded all too well in creating a balance between those two types of energy, and when I hastily removed myself from the equation, they continued to draw until it stabilized.”

“But infernal magic is drawn from the caster,” Trissiny said, frowning. “It didn’t sap you dry?”

Agasti shook his head. “It switched to the purest source in my absence, drawing power from Hell directly through the network of divine channels I had created.”

“So…” Toby unconsciously fell into a braced stance. “You created a hellgate?”

“Nothing so straightforward, I’m afraid,” said Agasti, staring at the old temple. “A hellgate is simple enough; I could have informed the Sisterhood or the Empire to come lock down the site and accepted whatever punishment they imposed for my carelessness. No, this is something…unprecedented. I do not fully understand what transpired, much less how—obviously, or I would have prevented it—but the result was a merging. In this place, the mortal and infernal planes are somehow layered onto each other. That temple exists in both, simultaneously.”

Silence fell; even the singing of the cicadas was distant. Apparently the insects were not inclined to approach this place. Arkady came to stand behind Agasti’s shoulder, folding his hands behind his back, while Kami continued unpacking a picnic lunch from the carriage.

“Then why isn’t the whole area crawling with demons?” Trissiny asked finally. “No offense, Mortimer, but that seems hard to credit. I don’t even sense any infernal magic; if what you say is true, this whole area should be blazing with it.”

“Oh, you would sense it and worse if you drew too close,” Agasti said, his shoulders heaving in a small sigh. “I spent as much time as I dared nosing around the site to try to understand what I had done. As best I can tell… This event is somehow frozen in the middle of the process of creating a hellgate.”

“I get it,” Gabriel said, nodding slowly with his eyes fixed on the temple. “Just like shadow-jumping, or any dimensional portal. There are two basic steps to the process: create a link between two locations, and then bore a hole across it.”

“Precisely,” said Agasti. “What seems to have made the difference is the equipment I was using. The power is flowing through that piece of Elder God machinery, and through some twist of fate fell into perfect balance and created a stable loop. The gate does not form, nor do the energies dissipate.”

“So what happens if we remove it?” Trissiny demanded.

Agasti shook his head again. “I must admit that the possibilities are endless. Nothing in the lore I have studied even hints at an event like this happening before. The likelihoods, however, are only two. Either the hellgate will finish forming, or the rift will collapse without forming at all.”

“We’ll get the gate, won’t we,” Toby said quietly. “Thanks to Vesk and his story.”

“That still doesn’t explain the lack of demons,” Gabriel said, turning to Agasti. “They usually want out of Hell like rats want off a sinking ship. Or did Izara’s concealment apply in that dimension, too?”

“That would only have drawn Elilial’s direct attention, and then who knows what might have unfolded,” Agasti said with a wince. “This place isn’t as unwatched as it appears, but the eyes on it are scrying from safe distances; I presume the same is true on the other side. It is difficult to approach for reasons beyond Izara’s intervention. As a consequence of the transposition of both forms of energy into the wrong domains, this site resists the approach of any source of divine magic. Theoretically, the reverse should be true on the other side: anything infernal would be unable to draw near. The fact that none have bears out that theory; since everything in Hell is saturated with infernal magic, there is nothing magically neutral which could enter the space. It really is the most fascinating phenomenon,” he added morosely. “I have often wished I could study such an event without the taint of guilt I feel for having so corrupted a piece of the gods’ creation.”

“Wait,” Trissiny said, turning to him. “If nothing divine can approach, how are we going to get in?”

“The three of you do practically radiate with divine magic, it’s true,” Agasti agreed. “I have a theory, however.”

“Oh, good,” Ariel commented. “A theory. About this singular and completely enigmatic phenomenon which you now propose to prod with a pitchfork.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel snapped. “Go on, Mortimer.”

“The nature of this entire phenomenon is balance,” the warlock explained. “It is divine and infernal, kept in balance so they do not explode. Adding power of either kind should theoretically cause one to annihilate the other, but this thing is stable and resistant to interference; if it could have been disrupted from the other side, it would have by now. This has sat here for nearly three years, and if there is one thing the forces of Hell do to perfection it is disrupt. That gives us some leeway. In most infernal workings the slightest misstep is, by definition, disaster, but this one will actively seek to uphold its own balance, which means that small errors on our part should not destabilize it completely.”

“At least, not till we yank out the linchpin holding it all together,” Gabriel interjected.

Agasti nodded. “I have thoughts about that, too, but first things first. An infernal working by me, accompanying a divine presence, will hopefully enable that presence to enter the radius without triggering the backlash. So long as your divine presence is balanced with infernal…escort, so to speak, you should be able to enter.”

“Balance,” Trissiny muttered. “Okay, I get it. What’s this backlash you’re referring to?”

“This is a temple of Izara, after all,” Agasti said with a grimace. “Or was. A priest attempted to join me in cleansing it; his presence at the border of the event caused, well… It was most peculiar. The effect was confined to the boundary, as if it were a shield, but it was clearly the explosive reaction of divine and infernal magic coming into uncontrolled contact. After some probing, he tried to force his way in, and that’s how we discovered the intensity of the reaction increases the more force is applied to it. Balance, as we have discussed.”

“Brute force is rarely the best solution to any problem,” said Toby.

“That will get you in,” Agasti continued, his hands tightening on the head of his cane. “At least one of you; I have my doubts whether I can safely muster enough infernal power to counter the presence of two paladins, much less three. And…I think it will have to be Gabriel.”

“Point of order,” Gabe said, raising one hand. “If you’re counting on my bloodline to balance this out, there’s no magic in hethelax heritage.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Agasti replied. “There is incredible magic in hethelax heritage, it is simply not in a form you can wield to your own ends. But that bloodline insulates you from infernal power, that is its entire point. The most potent demonic magic is that which grants resistance to infernal corruption, and this is the reason holy summoning as a field even exists: none of those magics can be extricated from their sources, only used as they are. The defenses of such as the Rhaazke, the Vanislaad and the hethelaxi are inimitable and inseparable from the beings imbued with them. Since your specific demon bloodline, Gabriel, is prone to preserve balance and protect you from corruption, I think it will be a help. But that is the lesser consideration. I believe the key to pulling out the key fragment is your scythe.”

“I’m getting good mileage from this thing lately,” Gabe said agreeably, pulling the wand from inside his coat and extending it to full scythe form. “I suspect you’re right, now you mention it. We already know it can cut dimensional barriers.”

“Which makes even more sense, now that we know it originally belonged to a valkyrie,” Trissiny added. “They can slice Vanislaads right out of this dimension with those weapons.”

“It will be a matter of examining the original working, what remains of it,” Agasti said, “and severing very specific flows of magic. I believe if you are properly informed, and careful, you should be able to collapse the event in the direction we want, causing it to disintegrate and separate the two dimensions again. I will provide the most detailed instructions I can, and your sword will be most helpful; she was made specifically to serve as a guide and assistant in complex magical workings.”

“Just for perspective,” Ariel said, “you are proposing to send a frankly mediocre enchanting student to perform surgery with a farm implement while straddling a nascent dimensional rift.”

“That was a little melodramatic, but not strictly wrong,” Trissiny added. “Let me just point out that not doing this is an option on the table. Right now that thing is stable. Would it be so terrible to leave it that way? I think we’ve established that Vesk doesn’t actually need his trinket, and I’m not sure that our character development or whatever is worth taking risks with Gabe’s life and a potential new hellgate.”

“She’s right,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Gabriel now. “Gabe… This is going to go badly, I know it. It’s like you said, this is the part of the story where the disaster falls.”

“And how many times are we going to find ourselves on the cusp of an unpredictable disaster and be able to predict it?” Gabriel countered. “Guys, this is what paladins are for: taking risks, and righting wrongs. Who knows how long that thing can remain balanced? Vesk and his key aside, this seems like exactly the sort of business we were called to address. Yes, it’s dangerous and we could all die. None of us signed up without knowing that.”

Trissiny bit her lip, saying nothing. Toby heaved a sigh, then reached into his own pocket and withdrew the twisted glass bottle Salyrene had given him. “All right. If you are going into that thing, you’re taking this with you.”

“Hey, I’m the one with the magic scythe and the talking sword and the invincible demon blood,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Don’t you think I should leave some advantages for the rest of you?”

“Take the bottle,” Toby snapped, pushing it against his chest until Gabriel obeyed. “It’s just basic sense, Gabe. If something—when something goes wrong, you’ll need to be the one with access to additional support.”

“I confess I am having second thoughts about this, myself,” Agasti said worriedly. “I hadn’t dwelled on it, but as you say, Vesk’s hand on these affairs is ominous. If this were a story…”

“If it were a story,” Gabriel interrupted while tucking the bottle away in his pocket, “a paladin wouldn’t hesitate to head into danger, not if it meant banishing evil from the world. So, since I am terrified shitless myself here and holding on by a thread, let’s please stop jabbering about that and get down to the practicalities.”

“Once again, Gabe,” Trissiny said, “you don’t have to—”

“We’re all protagonists here,” he interrupted. “You keep that in mind. Just because I’ll be the one going into danger doesn’t mean you two don’t have a part to play. We can’t back down, guys, not now. If there’s going to be a disaster, let it be in this peaceful little backwater that nobody knows about so we can learn the lesson now. Otherwise, you know damn well it’ll happen when something major is hanging in the balance.”

“We’re not going to be working for Vesk forever,” she pointed out. “Don’t get too used to working on story logic, and definitely don’t try to apply it to the future!”

“But we’re going to be paladins, and we’re going to make mistakes. As people keep reminding me, learning from your mistakes is how you get better at…anything.” He managed a smile, almost successfully hiding the nerves preying on him, and turned to the warlock. “So, Mortimer, what’s the plan?”


The plan involved a great deal of tense waiting, from their side.

Agasti sat cross-legged in the center of a sprawling ritual circle, his cane driven into the ground in front of him and his eyes fixed on the orb at its head. Flickers of flame extended forward from the subtly glowing glyphs and lines surrounding him, outlining the path into the temple Gabriel had taken. Unlike arcane and fae circles, which were inscribed with charged materials, he had simply burned the pattern right into the ground.

Both revenants hung back, at the warlock’s orders, hovering about the carriage. They clearly didn’t like leaving him alone, but he had insisted that the proximity of more demons would imperil the extremely delicate balance he and Gabriel had to maintain.

Toby kept a balance of his own standing upright with his hands folded behind him, gazing blank-faced at the temple. It was an aspect that might have appeared callous and disinterested to an observer who did not recognize meditative practice in action. Trissiny, who was also schooled in meditation, preferred to pace.

“Do you sense anything?” she asked, her course bringing her up behind Toby.

He shook his head mutely.

“…he’ll be fine,” she said to herself. “Gabe’s resourceful. It’s not like a hellgate would suck him in, if it turns into that. The backlash of infernal energy wouldn’t hurt him, anyway.”

“He’s doing well,” Agasti said suddenly, not looking up from the crystal ball before him. “Careful, little cuts. Clearly he’s used to doing precision work. The sword is causing me to have to exert a little extra effort…”

“The sword?” Trissiny rounded on him. “What’s wrong? Does he need help?”

“No, no,” the warlock said tersely. “Ariel’s helping him detect the flows of infernal magic, he can’t see them directly. The infernal is reacting to her own arcane emissions. Very minor variables, nothing I can’t compensate for.”

She drew in a deep breath, nodded, and resumed pacing.

“I think I see what he meant,” Toby said suddenly. His voice was very quiet, almost a whisper, but Trissiny instantly turned and came back to rejoin him. “About us having a part to play in this.”

“Yeah, I feel real useful out here,” she muttered.

“Story logic,” he said, eyes still fixed on the temple in which Gabriel was carefully making incisions in reality. “As people, we contribute nothing to this. As characters…”

“I refuse to understand Vesk’s perspective on this, Toby. It’s insultingly nonsensical.”

“There’s nobody in the world who matters more to me,” Toby said quietly. “The way of peace discourages attachments. Not forbids; Omnu is a god of life and warmth, too, and people can’t live without having bonds. But… I grew up an orphan, trained as a monk, became a paladin. It’s a lonely path. The monks tried to separate me from Gabe, too, but I put my foot down.”

“Good,” she said. “You both needed that friendship.”

“I see it clearly now, suddenly,” he whispered. “Somehow in all the trouble we’ve gotten into, I’ve never had to just stand here and watch Gabriel risk his life. It’s like looking at this relationship from the outside. I don’t know what would happen to me if something broke that bond.”

“If this really were a story,” she said nervously, “you should really not be talking like that. It’s just tempting fate. Aggressively.”

“I was already thinking it,” he said with a minute shrug. “Damage done, narratively speaking. Gods, I’m already tired of thinking that way, I can’t wait to be out from under Vesk’s thumb.”

“I hear that,” she replied fervently.

“The realization just made me wonder,” he said softly. “If what we’re risking out here is what Gabriel means to us… What is he to you?”

The wind picked up faintly, hardly enough to disturb her hair; just the slightest whisper of breath, as if to emphasize the silence which fell. There was nothing said for a time, and they both stared at the temple, waiting.

“My conscience,” she said suddenly in the quiet, and Toby finally broke his poise, turning to her with a look of surprise.

“Wait,” Agasti said, frowning. “Something is wrong.”

“Here it is,” Trissiny growled, extending her arm.

Toby grabbed her wrist. “Don’t! Summoning your sword is divine magic, you could upset the whole thing.”

She bared her teeth in a snarl at the unfairness of it all, but nodded.

“Gabriel, cease that,” Agasti said urgently. “Get out of there, please, there’s an additional influence at work.”

“Influence?” Trissiny asked sharply.

“Gabriel!” The warlock’s frown deepened, and finally he lifted his eyes from the crystal. “I’m not getting through, the connection is fraying. GABRIEL!” He finally raised his voice, shouting at the temple. “GET BACK HERE!”

“What is happening?” Trissiny demanded.

“Someone else is trying to intervene,” Agasti snapped, “from the other side. He is on the very cusp of disentangling the dimensions, but— There’s no time, call to him!”

“GABRIEL!” Toby roared, projecting powerfully from the diaphragm.

Trissiny actually charged forward, ignoring Agasti’s warning. As she came abreast of the place where the fire-tracks from the spell circle petered out, however, her divine shield flared alight unbidden, sparking and putting off a corona as if it were under attack from all sides. Trissiny herself slammed to a stop, staggering backward.

Gabe appeared in the temple’s broken door, his coat flaring behind him as he pelted full tilt toward them. Barely had he crossed the threshold, however, when the entire world flipped.

From a mortal perspective, it was a powerfully confusing thing to behold. That one fragment of creation changed in a way that called to mind a thing being turned upside-down, or backward, or perhaps inside-out. What actually moved, however, didn’t move at all physically, but simply transposed itself with a piece of…something else. Just being close enough to observe it brought waves of vertigo.

But whatever the phenomenon, the result was obvious. When the effect collapsed, the dimensions had re-aligned, but instead of the meadow and the temple, they were now staring at a patch of hard reddish stone, marred by outcroppings of jagged obsidian. The mortal and infernal planes had separated, all right, but in that place where they had been merged, each piece was now on the wrong side.


He skidded to a stop, tucking the mithril fragment into his pocket and raising the scythe in his other hand. Beyond the little meadow, where the world had once been, there was now a blasted scape of stone, thorns, and towers of what looked like bone. The sky was a sulfurous yellow, and the air, notably hotter than even the Jendi summer afternoon, stank of brimstone.

More immediately, standing all around the circle in which the forsaken temple stood, were demons. Dozens of them, all staring hungrily at him.

The Hand of Vidius braced his feet, hefted his scythe, and readied himself for whatever came next.

“Well, I’ve Arquin’d myself good and proper this time.”

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