Tag Archives: Athenos

14 – 15

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In the end, it was unbelievably simple.

They proceeded down the sloping bridge toward the ledge, the door, and the demon, keeping to a walking pace despite Schwartz’s original idea of rushing their foe’s entrenched position. Toby didn’t need to have had Trissiny’s upbringing to see the flaws in that plan, and besides, those fireballs hit hard enough to impair his balance even at a walk.

Another impacted the shield and he hesitated, gritting his teeth. Waves of golden light rippled from the spot, characteristic of an infernal spell striking a divine shield. Contact with matter and arcane energy would simply weaken it, but no matter how tightly woven the shield, touching the infernal would trigger some disruptive effect.

“You all right?” Schwartz asked from right behind him. Toby didn’t need the bracing hand against his spine—it wasn’t as if he was about to fall over—but there was comfort in the tangible reminder that a friend had his back.

“Yep,” he said, eyes narrowed in concentration, and stepped forward again. This time he made it another three paces before another massive fireball exploded against his shield. It was followed swiftly by two more, a veritable volley. The demon grew more aggressive the closer they got.

“Just saying, if you need more juice I do know the conversion charm that’ll let me feed fae energy directly into your shield…”

“Appreciate it,” Toby grunted, stepping again and pausing to weather another blow, “but power isn’t the problem; Omnu isn’t about to run out. Don’t suppose you’ve got anything to treat burnout…”

There came an ominous hesitation.

“Uh…yes, actually, but also no.”

“Do tell,” Toby suggested, making four quick steps and pausing again in time to weather another explosion. Those things weren’t going to break his shield unless he really dawdled, but they hit hard. The combination of their sheer kinetic force and the explosive effect of two opposing schools of magic crossing made the whole shield quaver and gave him unpleasantly physical feedback with each hit.

“I know a spell that’ll numb you to the effect of burnout so you aren’t inhibited by it until it becomes…um, lethally dangerous. So, no, nothing helpful.”

Toby gritted his teeth again, absorbing another blast, and then pressed forward. “Schwartz, why would you even know a spell like that?”

“It’s meant to be an offensive spell! Believe me, nobody does that to someone they like.”

“That doesn’t really answer the question.”

“I, um. I had to really go digging in the archives to find that one. I’m under advice from someone schooled in the arts of war to equip myself against a divine caster.” The conversation and their progress was interrupted by another hit. “…which is a long story, and why don’t we table that for a less under fire sort of occasion?”

“Good idea,” Toby agreed, making sure to file that away for an actual future discussion.

“DIE!” the demon bellowed, this time hurling two fireballs simultaneously.

They both halted, not just because the double impact created a wash of flame to both sides of the shield and caused Toby’s balance to momentarily waver, but because this was the first time the demon had spoken, or demonstrated any intelligence or intent beyond its desire to throw explosions at them.

A pause ensued, in which it panted visibly, slightly hunched. Apparently there was a good reason it didn’t usually chuck two spells at once.

“It can speak,” Schwartz said unnecessarily. This was answered by a series of squeaks from Meesie that, impressively, was clearly sarcastic, which had not been the first time Toby was surprised by the little elemental’s ability to communicate without words.

Unfortunately, Meesie was not the only member of the peanut gallery.

“Well spotted!” Athenos said with clearly forced enthusiasm. “With that keen eye for detail, it’s no wonder you were drawn to the Collegium. I’m sure the odds of you incinerating yourself in an easily avoidable summoning accident before the age of thirty are much less than they appear.”

“How would you like it if I dropped you into this bottomless pit we’re currently crossing over?” Schwartz suggested.

“Based on the last time that happened? I wouldn’t love spending the time down in the Tower’s underbelly. It gets weird down there. On the other hand, it would mean not accompanying you…fine young people…the rest of the way to the top. That’s a thinker, all right.”

“He really is worse than Ariel,” Toby marveled.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz muttered, shuffling along behind while they crossed as much ground as they could during the demon’s momentary lapse, “talking swords are known to be missing the personality centers for empathy and compassion, but there’s also significant holdover from the original personality used as a template. It’s possible Athenos was just made from a bigger jerk than Ariel.”

“I can’t speak for that other arcane can opener you so rudely dragged into my domain, but I can attest that my mortal incarnation was a real piece of work. I retain no memory of that, of course, but his antics have continued to influence events even here. That guy getting used to make a talking sword was not a coincidence, I’m sure.”

Toby braced himself against another explosion; the demon had clearly got its breath back. “How self-aware of you.”

“No, just aware. I am a separate entity, not a piece of him.”

Apparently their foe had its second wind, now; five more impacts struck the shield in quick succession, forcing them once more to stop completely while under the barrage, and then for a few seconds more as the haze of smoke, sparks, and lingering golden flickers around them cleared.

“This thing is really a puzzle,” Schwartz observed when they were able to press forward again. “Usually the magically gifted demon species are the smaller, daintier ones. Even baerzurgs are mostly pretty dumb, with just a few casters per colony. It clearly has incredible mana reserves, though! No warlock could have been casting such potent spells almost continuously for—”

A demonstration of those potent spells interrupted him.

“He,” Toby insisted a moment later, “not it. Come on, Schwartz; we even know he’s sapient, now.”

“Before you get too comfortable up on that high horse,” Athenos interjected, “what makes you so sure it’s a he?”

“Well, look at him!” Toby said shortly.

Actually, the demon looked more like a minotaur than anything: at least eight feet tall, incredibly muscular in build, balancing on enormous hooves and even wearing the traditional hide loincloth. Its horns were long, curved, and pronged like antlers, though, and its head more resembled a dragon’s than a bull’s. And instead of fur, it had lustrous scales in patterns of green and bronze.

“Yes, look at it,” Athenos agreed. “It’s obviously somewhat reptilian in nature. Why would it have breasts? And what makes you think females of its species are smaller and slimmer—or that this one isn’t a smaller, slimmer variant of whatever it is? Projecting your own assumptions onto demons, which come from a plane of pure chaos, is an exceptionally ignorant practice.”

“He sort of has a point,” Schwartz said grudgingly.

Toby just sighed. “Are we close enough yet? I’m not about to burn, Schwartz, but I can feel the strain building…”

A momentary hesitation answered while Schwartz did a quick estimate. “It would be better if we could make it another yard or so. At that point I can be relatively certain.”

“Another yard it is,” Toby replied grimly, stepping forward.

He kept going, this time, dividing his focus to maintain balance while his shield was hammered with a succession of fireballs, while he felt the subtle pulling of his divine magic reacting to the spell Schwartz was forming right behind him. That effect Toby had never particularly noticed before; already the Tower had been strangely educational. Divine magic embodies the principle of order. That was not how any of his teachers had put it, but it made so much sense. As a thing of order, it was predictable and behaved according to natural laws. As another form of energy flared up nearby which it was the nature of the divine to consume and negate, the power glowing around him unthinkingly shifted in its direction. Not enough to destabilize his well-formed shield, but even so, he tightened his focus.

“Okay, this has to be close enough,” Schwartz muttered. “Can you distract him for a second?”

“It,” Athenos corrected cheerfully, and Toby couldn’t even have guessed whether the sword was trying to be accurate or simply annoying. Ariel tended to be both, and so far, Athenos seemed to be basically like Ariel, but more so.

Pushing all that aside, Toby raised his voice and called to the demon, which was only a few yards away, now. The whole time he had been half-prepared for it to charge up the bridge at him, but it was either constrained to stay by the door or preferred to attack at range. Even when he addressed it from this close, it did not move.

“You have to know that’s useless by this point,” he said, projecting his firmest tone. “This is not a contest you are equipped to win. Stop attacking, and let’s talk about how we can all resolve this problem together. It doesn’t have to end in violence.”

Of course, he realized his mistake instantly: demons were creatures defined by infernal magic, by its seething, clawing imperative to destroy. It compelled them to ceaseless, senseless, unrelenting aggression. Some had means of coping with or sublimating the urge—the Rhaazke through Elilial’s grace, the Vanislaads by channeling what would otherwise be bloodlust into compulsive mischief, the hethelaxi through their berserk state. For more of them than otherwise, though, the expression of infernal nature was very simple.

They wanted it to end in violence. Whether they could win was simply not a factor.

Even so, Toby couldn’t help hoping that he could resolve this challenge peacefully. Even knowing that his plea had been a cover for Schwartz’s sneak attack. Even despite his strong suspicion that Schwartz had been right in that this was a test of character, not of magic. None of this was straining either of their magical capabilities, but it was forcing them both into exactly the thing they were both most disinclined toward, the thing the infernal itself most infamously expressed: direct aggression.

“YOU WILL DIE!” the demon howled, raising its hands overhead and beginning to conjure something much nastier than those fireballs, to judge by the way streaks of shadow and fire began to coalesce in the space between them.

“What a splendidly single-minded chap,” Athenos observed lightly. “Not to be pedantic, but so far we’ve no compelling reason to believe it is sapient. A moderately sophisticated golem can parrot simple ideas like that.”

Toby was spared having to either answer that or deal with whatever the demon was about to hurl at them by Schwartz deploying what he had been working on.

What he flung over the side of the bridge looked for all the world like a desiccated leaf; Toby wasn’t enough of a botanist to recognize the kind, but it was one of those which ended in a sharp tip, the reason for which became clear a second later. A gust of pure, fae-impelled wind rose from nowhere, caught the leaf, and directed it with far more precision than any wind actually blew fallen leaves. It shot as straight and true as an arrow, striking the demon straight on the broad target of its chest and imbedding itself up to half its length in the creature’s flesh. Obviously, leaves would not penetrate those glossy scales under normal circumstances, but what was fae cleaved through what was infernal like a red-hot ax through water, leaving behind steam and bubbles as the destruction continued even after its passing.

Steam and bubbles were exactly what arose, to Toby’s horror. Actually, the gout of what rose from the wound was more like smoke, a dark and acrid jet of gas as if the demon were a balloon filled with something noxious which Schwartz’s improvised weapon had just punctured. The bubbles were worse, though. The scales around the puncture point warped, then black liquid began to seethe out from that spot, as whatever the beast was made of boiled.

“Schwartz,” Toby gasped in protest.

“Oh, dear,” Schwartz muttered, peeking over his shoulder. The golden shield discolored their view of what was happening, but left the picture all too vivid for comfort. “I…may have overdone it a tad.”

“A tad,” Toby snapped over Meesie’s shrill agreement.

The demon, obviously, had lost concentration on what it was conjuring, and clawed frantically at its chest, where tendrils of dark magic were spreading visibly outward from the puncture wound. Its bellowing was familiar to them by now, but it had risen two octaves in pitch, the over-the-top rage changed to unmistakable pain.

“No, no, that’s not right at all,” Schwartz protested frantically. “It’s—there’s no way the reaction should be that extreme! I had to spitball it a little because I don’t know that demon species particularly but by the simple quantity of the infernal magic it was casting that spell should have just…just disrupted it!”

“Appears to be well and truly disrupted,” Athenos replied. “Good job.”

“But that’s too much!” Schwartz exclaimed. “I—I didn’t mean for that— Wait, was this it? Did I just fail the magic test?”

“The Tower’s tests can be fairly brutal, but they are brutally fair. You had no means of gauging the quantity of magic needed that accurately, therefore the Tower would not have expected you to. Clearly, this is not that kind of test.”

The demon—their victim—threw its head back to howl in gut-wrenching agony. Now, green light blazed from the wound in its chest, then tracked along the dark veins which had streaked out all along its scales. With sickening clarity, Toby recognized the pattern it made. It was like the spreading of roots through the ground—or like the spreading of cracks in a shell that was just about to shatter.

“PLEASE,” the demon wailed, its booming voice purely piteous now. “PLEASE, NOT LIKE THIS!”

“Oh, gods,” Schwartz whispered.

“Uh oh,” said Athenos. “You may want to pour a little more oomph into that shield—”

“NOT…LIKE…”

The explosion, blessedly, was nothing like what you’d expect from a living being inside which a bomb had gone off. The substance of the demon simply disintegrated, vanishing into dust and mist, which was sprayed outward by the shockwave of sheer magic which blasted forth. Despite Athenos’s warning, it caused barely a ripple on Toby’s shield, the divine magic being quite unimpressed by the fae. What erupted from the demon’s form was not bone and viscera, but life. For an instant there was the luminous green afterimage of a tree swirling outward from amid the eruption. Then light coalesced into form, and the tree was there.

It stood tall, held off the ground by a root system which managed to be reminiscent of the erstwhile demon’s thick legs and somewhat stumpier tail. Branches spread outward from the point in what had been its chest, the central fork in nearly exactly the spot where the initial wound had been struck, rising to a canopy of pale, fluffy leaves. Even the branches unsettlingly suggested the outline of spread arms and an upraised head.

Softly, the leaves began to fall in the silence.

After a moment, Toby dropped the shield. For a time, they could only stare. Even Meesie was silent.

“But,” Schwartz said feebly, at last. “B-but that…that wasn’t what…”

Toby stepped forward, crossing the remainder of the bridge at an even pace. He came right up to the tree, reaching up to rest his hand on its bark. It was smooth, papery, like a willow, though a warm golden-brown in color. Embedded in its trunk was a disc of glowing crystal, an odd yellow-green.

“I thought we’d have time,” he said aloud, to no one in particular. “The plan was to subdue the demon. I thought we could…figure something out. Find a way not to kill him.”

“I…tried,” Schwartz whispered, finally stepping onto the ledge right behind him. “I don’t understand why that… Toby, that spell was barely a nuisance. It’s an Emerald College standard against demons, used to disrupt casters. It…stings them, makes their spells fizzle. And that’s the more delicate, magic-using demons! Baerzurgs or hethelaxi don’t even notice it. Why would…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Schwartz,” Toby said quietly. “It was a good plan. As far as you knew, it would have worked. This is just…the Tower.”

“Seems to have gone better than it might, even,” Athenos offered. “If that thing was that overly sensitive to hostile schools of magic, just think what could have happened if you’d hit it with a divine spell. They’d be scraping you two out of cracks in the ceiling. Probably using me, given my luck.”

Toby whirled and grabbed. He had learned and drilled techniques for disarming opponents who were actively trying to kill him; twisting a magic sword out of the limp grasp of a spell-shocked witch didn’t even count as effort.

“Why?!” he demanded, holding Athenos up before his face as if by staring into the sword’s hilt he could make it feel the weight of his fury. “What was the point of that?!”

“If you are asking me to explain the Tower’s decisions, I really cannot help you. That is not an evasion; I would do so if I could. Explaining is my whole function. Understand, the Tower is the construct designed to discern what you need to be tested on and devise trials to do so; I am a construct of far, far lesser sophistication. Basic human emotions are often more than I can parse. I will say,” Athenos added in a more pensive tone, “I fail to grasp the utility of any of that. Especially that last bit, with the pleading. That little touch seemed…quite unnecessarily cruel.”

Slowly, Toby lowered the blade, meeting Schwartz’s eyes. Meesie, still silent, was leaning her entire weight into the witch’s cheek, rubbing her head comfortingly against him like an affectionate cat.

Schwartz blinked, cleared his throat, and adjusted his glasses, clearly grasping for some semblance of poise. “Ahem. Ah…well. I guess…what’s done is done. Let’s just get this damned thing open and get out of here.”

He strode over to the door, pointedly not looking at the magical tree he had created even as he had to step around it. The door was quite simple in design, the only impressive thing about it being its dimensions. There were no visible hinges, but the two stone panels were marked by a line down the center. Straddling this, at chest height, was a metal panel with a round indentation the size of a dinner plate.

Schwartz frowned at the door, then tried to tug at every part of it into which he could get his fingers, first the crack and then the edges of the panel. Nothing made the slightest impression on it. Toby stood back by the tree, watching him and feeling vaguely…disconnected. It seemed there ought to be something more helpful or at least productive he could be doing. But Schartz didn’t seem to want help as much as he wanted to be distracted from his thoughts, and Toby, for the moment, just wanted to stand there and try to come to grips with his own.

“Augh!” Schwartz suddenly roared, making Meesie jump nearly off his shoulder in fright. The witch pounded both his fists against the door in pure frustration. “What the hell now? There’s no lock, not even a latch. What more do you want from us?!”

“Uh, Schwartz?” Toby said carefully. He reached up to grasp the crystal disc lodged in the tree’s trunk, finding to his surprise that it came free as smoothly as if it had been carefully laid there with a jeweler’s precision; he’d expected to have to wrestle it loose from the wood. He held up the glowing plate of crystal. “Is it just me, or does this look to be about the same size as that indentation, there?”


Stepping into the swirling portal was a daunting prospect, but it wasn’t as if any of them had anywhere else to go. Contact with the door was nothing like stepping through a door, though—or through a magic portal, for that matter. The sensation was exactly the same as that which had taken them all into those testing chambers: impact, vertigo, the sense of falling, and then suddenly new surroundings.

Or, rather, old ones.

All four stood in the central chamber of Salyrene’s Tower, blinking in confusion in the dimness. It was quiet and cool as before, with the vast space soaring up above them, crossed by bridges, and the huge statue of the goddess herself directly in front, the broad Circle of Interaction diagram inlaid into the floor in black marble spreading out. They stood on the platform that had been the elevator which brought them here, and Trissiny had just put her first foot outside it.

The four of them froze, turning, to stare wide-eyed at each other.

Then Schwartz crossed the platform in two long strides and wrapped his arms around Trissiny. Without hesitation she hugged him right back. They stood that way in silence while Meesie cooed softly, leaning over to gently pat both of their faces.

Gabriel let out a small sigh, stepping over to lay a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “Hey. You okay?”

Slowly, Toby nodded, then shook his head, then closed his eyes and shrugged. “I’m…not hurt. Neither of us are. But that was… Gabe, this Tower has a sadistic streak. How about you? Are you guys…?”

“We’re fine,” Gabriel said quickly, though if anything he looked more alarmed than he had a moment before. “We had to do something…annoyingly counterintuitive to get out of that room, but I dunno if I’d say sadistic. What the hell did it do to you?”

“Can we not?” Schwartz’s voice was slightly muffled by Trissiny’s hair, but he lifted his head and spoke more clearly. “Please? It’s over, I would much rather leave it at that.”

“I don’t know if we can not, is the thing,” Trissiny said, pulling back from him with a soft sigh. “Supposedly we’re here to be tested. We’ve just discovered this Tower won’t hesitate to rip us apart or sort us into arbitrary groups, or… Who even knows what rules it plays by, if any. I think we’d better compare notes, while the opportunity exists. No telling when it suddenly won’t again.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Toby said reluctantly. “Sorry, Schwartz, but she’s right. This isn’t over. If anything, that was just the very first round. Better safe than…even sorrier. The thing that most strongly jumps out at me about what we just experienced was that it was completely pointless.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said emphatically, nodding at him. “Pointless is exactly the word I would choose. I don’t even know what the Tower is meant to be testing with that…that…”

“What jumps out at me,” Gabriel said with a frown, “is that we all landed back here at the same time. Did you guys have to deal with a forest full of caplings?”

“Caplings?” Schwartz exclaimed. “If only! I would kill to—” He cut himself off abruptly, going pale as a sheet, and Trissiny looked up at him in concern. Meesie cheeped softly, burrowing her face into his hair.

“That’s what I thought,” Gabriel said, nodding. “Different rooms, different tasks, otherwise why split us up? It’s pretty hard to believe that we’d all finish them at exactly the same instant. So…?”

“I believe,” said Athenos, “I told you specifically that in this Tower, Salyrene’s will trumps all competing influences—even those of Vemnesthis. I’m quite certain I mentioned that in particular.”

“You!” Trissiny barked, leveling a finger at the sword and not seeming to make note of the fact that he was in Toby’s hand now rather than Schwartz’s. “Explain that! What was the point of…any of it?!”

“As I was just informing your marginally less tedious friends,” Athenos said in a particularly long-suffering tone, “I do not and cannot know. The Tower yields different trials for different heroes. It is unusual that you would be snatched off the platform for a preliminary test before even reaching any of the lowest doors—unusual, but not without precedent. I cannot explain why the Tower thought that necessary, much less why it chose those particular…events. Though I don’t disagree with your assessment; the specific purpose of what we just experienced eludes me. I am as hesitant as you ought to be to guess what is in store for you next.”

Light blazed through the dimness, and they whirled to confront its source. The giant statue of Salyrene had opened its eyes, and they gleamed white, as had the smaller statues below. Given its size, those lights were like a sunrise in the shadowed chamber.

“My Tower is built to teach,” the statue said. Its voice was the same as its smaller counterparts, though as with the eyes, much larger. It was not deafening, though; it simply filled the wide open space with an almost tangible presence. “This, children, is a place of learning. As with all tests in such places, these are meant both to impart lessons and to gauge how well you have learned them. But there is more, much more, to learning than testing. You, in particular, needed a little preparatory study before embarking on the true series of trials. The Tower composed a short lesson for you, for each of you, on the necessity of trying solutions which are outside your normal mode of acting. Things, specifically, that you are reluctant to do on your own.”

“Oi!” Gabriel shouted, stepping forward and brandishing a finger at the talking statue. “Just where the hell do you get off?”

“Gabriel!” Trissiny hissed. “Do not chew out goddesses! How many times in an average week do you want to get smote?”

“Oh, let me vent,” he snorted. “It’s just another jabbering automaton, like those little ones down in the entrance puzzle and that freaking pest.” He actually drew Ariel and whirled to point with her at Athenos.

“Oh, really?”

It had been the statue which spoke, and Gabriel’s eyes suddenly went wide. Slowly, he turned back around to face her.

The statue spread her arms, and…changed. It was a most disorienting thing to behold: at the same time the goddess appeared to expand till her presence filled every iota of space in the Tower, even as she physically shrank from the enormous size of the statue to one barely twice as tall as Gabriel. Hovering in the air above them, arms extended and legs gracefully poised like a dancer, her shape emitted a blinding flash.

Light pulsed out from her in visible waves like ripples in a pool, and she changed. The sense of her awesome, enormous presence vanished, causing all of them to suddenly start breathing again and then notice that they had momentarily stopped. At the same time, the stone exterior melted away, leaving her mostly bare skin an inky black, crisscrossed by constantly shifting patterns of multicolored light. Slowly, she drifted down to alight gently on her toes upon the stone floor before them.

Salyrene was, unsurprisingly, quite beautiful when she took mortal form—in the sense that a woman might be attractive, not to mention the highly aesthetic effect of the light-on-darkness that was her outer skin. Her clothing was a sheer diaphanous robe which, in truth, seemed little more than strips of cloth that concealed little and flowed about her as if underwater, seemingly woven from sunlight and cobwebs. She had no hair, her skull smooth and perfectly round. Though of course nothing of her ethnic descent (if such things even still mattered to an ascended being) could be determined from her skin, Salyrene had the broad nose and lips of a Westerner.

Right at that moment, those features were set in an imperious stare.

“So! What, exactly, do you kids think you are doing in here?”

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14 – 13

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Her first order of business was to find a tenable position. Right here, Trissiny was surrounded by this maze of decayed greenery, in which anything could hide—and ambush her. Turning in a slow circle and raising her eyes, she followed the line where the walls connected to the vaulted ceiling. There was no sign of any sort of door from this angle, but she did discover that she wasn’t in the center of the room.

The floor appeared to be flat stone where she was standing, but even a casual glance around revealed that it was far from even. Trissiny scraped at the dirt with her boot in the nearest spot where it seemed to rise upward, and found the variance in the terrain to be nothing but piled loam, with a layer of leaves and occasional mushrooms atop, seemingly arranged to shore up the root systems of whatever trees were nearby. In fact, now that she looked, the “hills” were subtle rises around a stump or tree, none growing more than a foot off the ground at most.

So there would be no high ground to speak of. And climbing one of these trees for a better view was a bad idea; with their roots sprawling over a stone floor instead of digging into the earth, she could very well tip one over. Especially wearing armor.

The next best option was to limit her chances of being flanked, so Trissiny turned and headed for the closest wall. This necessitated a circuitous course through a lot of blind obstacles, between the trees and the hanging moss. She kept both sword and shield at the ready, and kept her eyes in constant motion.

Tiny little flickers of motion kept catching the corner of her eye. Nothing she could identify once she looked directly, which quickly began to wear on her nerves. The Guild had taught her to watch for that and trust her instincts; unless you were congenitally paranoid, according to Style, having the feeling that you were being followed or stalked usually meant that you were being followed and stalked. This forested room was a whole different game from the streets of Tiraas, though. Those little flashes might have been insects, lizards, birds, any number of things that belonged among trees. But any such mundane creatures would be readily seen and not hide when looked at.

It did not help that the constant chatter of animals all around both obscured any possible sounds of someone creeping up on her and emphasized the incongruity in her surroundings. She could hear a profusion of animals in all direction and see not a single one.

Trissiny made sure to regularly turn and look behind her as she moved.

She reached the wall in relatively short order, though, which brought a little relief; at least it meant there was one direction from which she wouldn’t be ambushed. Craning her neck, Trissiny studied the surface all the way up to its ceiling, then knelt to prod at the floor where dirt and old leaves had drifted up against it. This was surely a cathedral-sized room, and appeared to be roughly square. There was light, but no windows or visible lamps. The wall itself appeared to be of the same huge granite blocks as Salyrene’s Tower.

Which wasn’t really a surprise; apparently the Tower hadn’t seen fit to let them choose their own trials. And apparently, it didn’t want her having help.

Well, her next decision was just a coin toss. After glancing back and forth, Trissiny went left, not for any particular reason. If there was an exit, it would surely be along the wall, and by following the wall she would come to it eventually.

At least, that was what logic told her. Another little voice told her there was no way it was going to be that easy.

She took a moment before starting out to memorize the nearest tree; fortunately they were all of unique, contorted shapes which made this prospect a little easier. That way, if there were shenanigans afoot which meant the exit wasn’t on the outer wall, she would know when she got back to this point. As she progressed, Trissiny kept glancing at those same little flicks of motion as they happened, still with no result, and making sure to check behind herself. The noise, the sense of being hunted, they all bore down with an almost physical weight. She was prepared to handle greater stress than this, thanks to moving meditation techniques from the Abbey.

How closely was this “trial” tailored to her, specifically? Trissiny chewed on that question while progressing steadily along the wall. This definitely put her well out of her element, but if the Tower was trying to crack her through psychological pressure, it had picked the wrong woman.

When she caught one, it came as a surprise to them both. At a distinct twitch of movement only a few feet distant, Trissiny whirled, snapping her blade up to point at the threat. Caught in the act of slipping back into hiding, it paused, quivering, and then stood up.

It was…a mushroom. Just under two feet tall, a thin stalk with a broad cap, shuffling on stubby little legs and with spindly arms and no face that she could see. It seemed to quaver indecisively for a moment, then suddenly hopped up and down in apparent excitement, waving its appendages.

“…caplings?” she said aloud. Yes, these were the little fae monsters from the Crawl, the ones on Level 1 of the descent. Creatures suitable to stock a dungeon, but of the absolute minimum possible threat level. Trissiny groped inside her own brain for what she knew of them, which was little; her class had discussed the caplings only briefly, as Juniper’s presence had made them automatically honored guests among the fungal fairies and they hadn’t had to do anything about them at all. Suddenly, she had a new appreciation for the Crawl’s aggravating insistence on learning lessons and doing things the hard way.

The capling tilted its head back, and a gap in its upper stalk opened, clearly a mouth of sorts. That was right, Juniper had said the hunted in packs, so it would eat like an animal rather than absorbing nutrients like a mushroom. But then the little creature emitted a long, undulating whoop unlike any of the squeaky shroom-people she remembered from the Crawl, and Trissiny instinctively raised her shield.

She did not recognize what animal was supposed to make that noise; it sounded more at home in some kind of jungle than any landscape with which she was familiar. But she had been hearing it off and on ever since arriving in this room. Trissiny straightened, lowering her shield at the lack of any aggression from the capling, and looking around with new eyes.

The mushrooms…they were everywhere. From tiny specimens barely bigger than her thumb to growths even larger than the capling in front of her, they clustered around the trees, sprouting from gaps in the root systems and the tops of stumps. If caplings hid among them, if they were the source of all those invisible animal noises…

Before she could digest the implications of this, the capling reached up, sticking a tiny hand into the fleshy frills at the base of its cap, and withdrew something which glowed brightly. Trissiny didn’t get a good look before the little fairy chucked the object right at her.

“Hey!” Trissiny ducked behind her shield again, and the projectile bounced off it with a thunk. “What the—”

The whooping sound came again, but rapidly diminishing in volume. She peeked out from behind the shield, just in time to see the capling’s shape vanishing among the trees.

“Trissiny?”

She perked up at the voice—one she actually recognized. “Gabriel!”

Immediately, Trissiny cringed at her own impetuousness. It seemed she was being tested under fae terms, and fairies were known to be tricksome creatures, as she had just been vividly reminded. But in the next moment he came crashing out of the underbrush nearby, grinning at her with his divine weapon in one hand, diminished to its wand form, and Ariel in the other. “Oh, thank the gods, I thought I was alone in here.”

“Me, too,” she said, smiling back and lowering her own weapons. “I take it that means you haven’t seen the others?”

“Not hide nor hair,” he said, coming up to her, slightly out of breath. “I only just heard you shouting. Speaking of, why? What happened?”

“Oh, right.” She glanced past him in the direction in which the fairy had gone. “I encountered one of the residents. I think they’re what’s making all these animal noises, and the little flickers of motion you barely catch at the corner of your eye.”

“I hadn’t seen anything like that,” he said, turning to follow her gaze and therefore missing the wry look she gave him. Well, after all, Gabriel had had neither Avenist nor Eserite training; she supposed his cursory Vidian education wouldn’t have focused on alertness to movement in his vicinity. “In fact, I was wondering about that. It sounds like we’re in some kind of damn jungle, but I can’t see anything but plants. You think they’re some kind of…wait, what did you see?”

“Plants,” she said significantly, “and mushrooms.”

Gabriel turned back to stare blankly at her. “What? Aren’t mushrooms plants?”

“Gabriel.”

He had the temerity to give her an impish grin. “I’m kidding. You think the mushrooms are making all these hoots and hollers?”

“Just the ones that are actually caplings, I suspect.”

His eyes narrowed. “Caplings…? Oh, you mean those mushroom creatures from the Crawl that Juniper liked so much?”

“I caught one moving,” she said, nodding. “It made that shriek like a bird or monkey or whatever it and threw something at me.”

“Huh.” Still squinting, Gabriel shifted his gaze to the left in that was she’d noticed him doing when he was wrestling with one of his enchanting problems. “They can mimic animal sounds? The ones in the Crawl didn’t. Did Juniper tell us they could do that?”

“Not that I remember, but I just saw it happen,” she said, suddenly distracted by recollection, and knelt. “Move your foot, please.”

When he shifted his boot to the side, the glow re-emerged. There, pressed into the loam by his footprint, was a jagged shard of crystal little bigger than her forefinger, a sickly yellow-green in color and glowing intensely. Trissiny sheathed her sword and carefully picked it up, straightening and holding the object up between them.

“What the capling threw at you?” he said.

She nodded, frowning at the crystal. “It didn’t throw hard, but look at this thing. Could put somebody’s eye out… I’m not sensing any divine or infernal magic from it. Can you?”

“Nope,” he replied, “nor any arcane enchantment. Ariel?”

“I detect no direct magical presence, which is telling,” the sword replied. “If it had even fae magic, at least one of the three of us—most likely myself—would be able to discern it by the effect that made on the energies of the other schools. It appears to be magically inert, yet it is glowing.”

“Could be a purely physical reaction,” Trissiny suggested, now lightly bouncing the crystal on her palm. “There are things in nature that glow.”

“It is also not radioactive, if that is your concern.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“Of course you don’t,” Ariel said with a touch more condescension than usual. “More likely, it is part of the inherent magic of the tower, which will not register to my magical senses so long as we are within its grasp as it constitutes a part of the baseline of our existence.”

“And that means,” Gabriel said slowly, “it’s probably necessary to solve this puzzle.”

“Puzzle?” Trissiny raised her eyebrows, then turned and looked expressively around at the twisted little forest.

“Yes, puzzle,” he insisted. “Think about it, we’ve already established that’s how the Tower likes to test people.”

“One of those puzzles in the entry chamber was a pure combat test,” she pointed out.

“Sure, but it’s one you and I smashed through with basically no effort, and I note that we’re the ones stuck in this particular room. Do you really think the Tower’s going to give us problems to solve that we’ve already proven we’re good at? Athenos made it sound like us being paladins meant we were gonna get the hard stuff.”

She frowned. “Oh, great.”

“Yep,” Gabriel said, nodding. “So yeah, puzzle. We’re locked in a room, and supposed to do…something. It involves caplings and that crystal.”

She sighed and slung her shield onto her shoulder by its strap, then shifted the shard to her left hand to keep her sword hand free. If they weren’t going to be fighting, the shield wouldn’t be as necessary, but Trissiny generally felt better when she had swift access to her sword. “All right, well… We haven’t seen enough pieces of this puzzle yet to even guess how to solve it, so I guess we’d better keep looking. I was following the wall; that’s where the door is most likely to be, and something tells me when we find the door, we’ll find the heart of the puzzle.”

“I already feel more at ease,” Gabriel said with an annoying grin. “If all this hullabaloo is just caplings playing some kind of game, that’s a lot less dangerous than half the stuff I was imagining.”

“I didn’t come here to play games,” Trissiny grunted, stalking off along the wall. “Come on.”


“Well, wherever they are, I hope they’re having more fun than we are,” Schwartz said sourly, then cringed as another colossal fireball impacted the rock behind them.

For a moment, Toby’s glow brightened by reflex, creating a tingling sensation in them both as it burned away the wash of infernal magic which came with those balls of fire, then he deliberately dampened it down enough to create no visible shine above the rocky barrier. Likewise, Schwartz reached up to grab Meesie and place a finger over her mouth, stifling her outraged squeals. She could easily have squirmed free of his grip, but seemed to get the message, laying her tiny ears back in displeasure but not struggling.

The crackle of flames slowly receded from the rock; those explosions left little fires everywhere, which burned for a few seconds with no visible fuel. Both held themselves still and silent, hardly daring to breathe. After a few heartbeats, there came a powerful snort from across the chasm, followed by the rhythmic stomp of massive hooves as the demon resumed its pacing.

Schwartz let out a sigh and slid down to sit with his back against the wall. “Okay. Obviously, we’re meant to get past that thing.”

“It’s a demon, not a thing,” Toby said quietly, squatting on his heels.

Schwartz scowled in annoyance. “You know what I mean. Look, I’m just vocalizing the situation in detail; it’s a problem-solving method that works for me. Feel free to contribute, but not to nitpick.”

“Fair,” Toby agreed with the ghost of a smile.

“We’re in a square chamber,” Schwartz mused, letting his eyes wander around the high stone walls and vaulted ceiling for a moment. “Obviously part of Salyrene’s Tower.”

“I thought I made it clear you wouldn’t be permitted to leave the Tower until you passed all the challenges it arranged for you,” Athenos interjected.

Schwartz ignored him. “All of this is very obviously themed. Black volcanic rock, erratic growth, the general evidence of destruction. Even the air is orange, to say nothing of the giant flipping demon. This is clearly an infernal test.”

Toby nodded in agreement. “Also, take note of the way these rock outcroppings are arranged around the floor up here. We encountered something that looked very similar in the Crawl, though that one was full of hellboars. The arrangements are obviously artificial, since no volcano put them here. Their seeming randomness lays out a perfect obstacle course for a fight to range across the area, just enough obstructions to make it interesting.”

“I’m starting to see the shape of it,” Schwartz murmured, frowning deeply, “and what I see troubles me.”

“Me, too,” Toby said, matching his frown. “I don’t care for being pushed into battle.”

“No, I mean…it’s too simple,” the witch said. “Too obvious. This is a test, a trial, right? In the chamber down below, we had to think critically and…well, laterally. If everything points at it being a straightforward fight, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that as soon as we try that, the real hammer will come down. Do you have anything to add?” he asked, holding Athenos up.

The sword’s runes flickered blue, looking faded and sickly in the faint, reddish mist which hung over the room. “It’s good that you are thinking outside the box, so to speak. I’m not here to solve your problems for you, however. Good luck.”

“Why are you here, exactly?” Toby asked pointedly.

“As you discovered in the vault below, I serve as a key to access new areas of the Tower, and to explain its nature and functions as such questions become relevant. At my own discretion, I may provide assistance with…certain challenges. But I’m certainly not going to tell you how to solve the very first one you are dropped into. I’m not a member of your party, boys, keep that in mind. I’m an impartial observer representing the interests of the Tower and its goddess.”

“And what does it mean,” Schwartz demanded, “that you’re with us and not with Trissiny or Gabriel?”

“All trials are individualized. I have never seen this one before, and likely wouldn’t recognize whatever they are facing, either. Rarely does the Tower repeat itself with a new adventurer. It means, in short, that they are there, and not here.”

“That’s immensely helpful, thank you,” Schwartz grunted.

Toby edged over to the jagged barrier of igneous rock behind which they were huddled and very carefully raised his head to peek over the top.

The two of them had been deposited in different spots, but both were on the upper floor of the room and had quickly found one another; there wasn’t anything else up here except the erratic maze of rough black stone set up atop the Tower’s floor of much paler granite. This floor, however, only covered about half the space. Past the barrier in front of them, which blocked off most of the drop, was a chasm whose bottom they hadn’t been able to peer into. There was only one bridge of rough obsidian extending down to the lower level, itself an outcropping of rock rather than another smooth floor. The door out of the room was positioned on that, and pacing back and forth in front of it was a demon.

“Do you happen to know what species it is?” Schwartz asked.

“He is of a species I don’t recognize,” Toby replied, slipping back down. The brute hadn’t spotted him this time, fortunately; every time it had caught sight of either of them, it had hurled pumpkin-sized fireballs that exploded and strewed patches of persistent flame in all directions, not to mention a general haze of infernal magic. “He’s built a lot like a baerzurg, but clearly not one of those.”

“Looks more like a minotaur to me,” Schwartz opined, turning and poking his head up over the barrier. “Albeit with scales instead of fur, and those horns are much larger than—”

He broke off and hurled himself flat, Toby doing likewise, and a second later another fireball sailed past overhead. This one missed their improvised parapet entirely, arcing above them to impact the far wall.

“Smooth,” Athenos commented. “Your grasp of strategy is truly a wonder to behold. Hey—get this thing off me!”

Meesie had scampered down Schwartz’s arm and begun biting furiously at the sword’s leather grip. Schwartz looked down at them for a moment, then gently laid Athenos on the ground, careful not to disturb the elemental who was still going at it with all her teeth and claws. “Sorry, I’m not here to solve your problems for you. What do you think, Toby?”

“Well, it’s not like we can just rush the bridge,” Toby said with a sigh. “If we had Trissiny, or Gabe’s scythe… Maybe that’s the thing. The challenge could be that we have to link up with them before we can solve it.”

“In that case, they and therefore we have a problem,” said Schwartz. “The magic sword which serves as a key to this place is in here with us. All right, Meesie, enough. I think you’ve made your point.”

She looked up, whiskers twitching. Then with a tiny snort and a final swat of her tail to Athenos’s pommel, the glowing rat turned and scampered up Schwartz’s robes, reaching her customary perch on his shoulder in seconds. There, she looked superciliously down at Athenos and gave him one last derisive squeak.

“Silly me,” the sword said irritably, “for thinking the last imbecile who got in here was the greatest headache I could ever possibly have to endure.”

“Yeah, you’ll want to avoid tempting the fates that way,” Toby replied with a faint smile which faded almost immediately. “Well, if we have to get down there but can’t… What if we bring the demon up here?”


“Oh, I get it,” Trissiny said with a heavy sigh.

They stood before the obvious door out of the chamber, an enormous stone portal in a metal frame. Across the dividing line where its two halves met was a round panel made to house a large piece of crystal. They knew that because a few of the shards were still stuck around its edges, the same color and material as the glowing piece she had retrieved from the capling.

“So they have the pieces,” Gabriel mused, holding up their fragment as if by putting it in front of the disc he could figure out where it would fit in the finished whole. “We have to first get them from the caplings, and then reassemble it, and…I guess that’ll open the door. That’s honestly more straightforward than I was expecting.”

“In what twisted fantasy world is that going to be straightforward?” she demanded in exasperation, turning to gesticulate at the forest behind them. “We’ve got to find every one of the little…”

Trissiny trailed off, and Gabriel turned to follow her gaze. Suddenly, they were not alone.

Three caplings stood at the edge of the cleared area around the door, lurking hesitantly in the shadows of trees.

“Uh, hi there,” Gabriel said, and held up the piece of crystal. “I don’t suppose you guys would be interested in handing over…”

He broke off as all three suddenly bounded out into the open. Trissiny raised her sword, but the caplings weren’t attacking. In fact, two jumped up and down, emitting a mismatched pair of birdcalls. The one in the middle, however, waved its arms frantically overhead.

The two paladins looked at each other in confusion, and then back at the fairy.

Apparently growing frustrated, it made beckoning motions at them.

“You…want us to follow?” Gabriel said, taking a step forward. Immediately, though, the capling reversed it gestures, waving at him to stay back. It turned to point at one of its fellows and made a loud croaking noise like a frog. The other capling reached into the frills of its own cap and pulled out another crystal shard.

Trissiny started to step toward it, but before she could get more than one pace the capling tossed the shard in a shining arc; the one which had been waving at Gabriel had to hop into the air to catch it, but then it did a little celebratory dance, waving the crystal piece overhead.

“Okay, whatever else you can say about that,” Gabriel said, grinning broadly, “look me in the eye and say that’s not the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen.”

“Remember Fross’s first solstice party?”

“…you’ve just always gotta be right, don’t you. Smartass.”

The middle capling, meanwhile, turned and tossed the shard to the third one, which missed its catch and had to dive to retrieve it from the fallen leaves. The capling which had had that shard in the first place dashed for it as well, but was too far away, and number three got the prize and bounced back upright, whooping like a crane in triumph.

Then the one in the middle once again turned back to Gabriel and began waving its tiny arms again while the other two chased each other around the nearest stump.

“Oh, you want the…no, sorry,” Trissiny said. “We need those to wait don’t you dare—GABRIEL!”

Grinning, he tossed the shard. It was a gentle throw, which the capling caught without difficulty and immediately began rolling around on the ground in celebration.

“Have you lost your mind!?” Trissiny shouted. “We have to collect those things! How are we going to do that if you give them back to the—ow!”

Another shard struck her on the temple and she whirled, raising her blade. The caplings just continued to dance about, making their miscellaneous animal calls and apparently having a blast. One threw the shard back to Gabriel, who immediately tossed it to a different one, now grinning widely.

“I figured it out!” he said, turning to her.

“Do not say what I think you’re about to say,” she warned.

“Aw, c’mon, it’ll be fun.”

“I hate fun.”

“Trissiny, I used to think you were born with a stick up your ass,” he said, playfully punching her armored shoulder. “I’ve come to realize, though, you work hard to keep it there. Well, it won’t kill you to un-clench for a little while.”

“You’re proposing that we stop and play catch with a bunch of annoying little fairies?” she snapped.

“Some combination of catch and keep-away, I’m not real clear on the rules. But that’s exactly the point, don’t you get it?” The smile faded, and he turned to face her fully, his expression growing serious. “The Tower hasn’t given us an easy test, just like you thought. It’s exactly what Vidius told me I should be doing more of: screwing around.”

“He didn’t tell me to do that!”

“Well, I’m telling you now.” He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “This is a trial, a test. It’s making us do something that’s hard for us…hard, but important. Trissiny, when was the last time you played tag?”

“I can’t believe you—”

“I’m serious. When?”

To her surprise, the expression in his eyes was serious.

“When I was fifteen,” she found herself replying in spite of herself. “Actually…it was the day Avei called me. Right before that, at the Abbey, the girls were scuffling on the lawn. I used to…”

Gabriel smiled again, but more gently, and gave her a little shake. “Hell, I used to do nothing but goof around. That was before I had actual responsibilities, though. I get it, Triss, believe me I do. But maybe… Maybe we got in too much of a hurry to grow up, and did it too far, or too fast.”

“Gabriel, this is beyond asinine,” she protested. “I’m not going to run around engaging in playground games with a bunch of caplings.”

At that, his impish grin returned. “You are if you wanna get out of here. C’mon, Triss, pick up the crystal. Looks like you’re it.”


“Okay, this isn’t working,” Toby called, ducking behind another pillar of rock while fireballs pounded the area in front of him. “We’ve tried taunting, pleading, reasoning, formal challenging… He’s not biting the bait. Have you got any other ideas?”

Schwartz stood a few yards distant behind another large chunk of stone, near one of the traps he’d laid on the ground. They had peppered the entire area with fae circles, sigils, and objects, ready to be triggered against the demon once they got it to chase them into the maze—which it had steadfastly refused to do, simply remaining on its platform and answering any challenge with a barrage of explosive fireballs.

“Schwartz?” Toby prompted as the last explosions petered out and the witch continued staring into space. “Are you okay? Were you hit?”

Meesie sat upright, patting Schwartz’s cheek, but she pointed at Toby and squeaked imperiously.

“I believe,” said Athenos, currently in Toby’s hand, “the insufferable little rat wants you to let him think.”

“We’re wrong,” Schwartz said suddenly, his eyes snapping into focus and meeting Toby’s. “We’re going about this all wrong.”

“Yes, so I gathered,” Toby said wryly. “Have you a better idea? Because aside from forcing him into a trap—”

“We need to attack.”

“Schwartz,” he said patiently, “we decided that’s exactly the thing we don’t need to do, remember? It’s an obvious trap.”

“That’s not the trap.” Schwartz turned to him, shaking his head. “I get it now. The trap is…all this. Us. The Tower challenges us, Toby. We’re supposed to…to test our boundaries, to learn and grow. Think about it: you and I would naturally try to do anything but charge the giant demon in a brute force attack. You always want to seek the peaceful solution to any conflict, and I approach problems like…well, like problems. I’m inclined to fall back on cleverness and tricks rather than…”

“Rather than suicidal charges,” Toby exclaimed. “Good. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we can’t reason with that demon—which I don’t truly believe, anyway. We would have to get down the bridge—”

“We haven’t tested those fireballs directly against one of your divine shields.”

“…and then deal with the demon himself.”

“You’re a master martial artist, and we both specialize in forms of magic which would be incredibly harmful to it. Toby… This is it. This is the test. Sometimes we don’t get to handle things the way we want to. Sometimes you just have to fight.”

Toby shook his head stubbornly. “There is always a better way than that. Always.”

“No, there’s not,” Schwartz retorted. “Believe me, I sympathize, but it’s true. Sometimes there just plain isn’t. The most terrifying creature I ever met wasn’t a giant fire-throwing demon, and it wasn’t an amalgamation of undead souls left in Athan’Khar by the Enchanter’s Bane. It was a smart, skillful, highly professional woman who cares for nothing but herself and simply cannot be reasoned with. And I’ve spent months letting her run amok because I’ve been trying to build up a clever ploy to deal with her rather than…dealing.”

“I don’t—”

“Toby, don’t you see?” Schwartz said, and his voice was suddenly filled with the strangest mix of desperation and bone-deep weariness. “This is exactly the same mistake you and I keep making. The demon isn’t the challenge, here. We are.”

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14 – 12

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“Uh.” Schwartz, nonplussed, peered at the sword in his hand, then helplessly over at the others. “We can’t exactly…do that.”

“You’re clearly resourceful enough to have broken in,” Athenos retorted. “Give it a go.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda the thing,” said Gabriel. “The way we got in…doesn’t leave a way out.”

“Your problem, not mine.”

“The tower is here to test adventurers, right?” Trissiny said. “Well, we’re here, and we’re—”

“You were not invited. The goddess has no time for walk-ins.”

“What’s she got to do that’s so very important?” Trissiny retorted. “Listen, our business is important, and this tower of yours is just a means to an end. If you don’t want us tracking mud on the carpets, fine; all we need is to talk to Salyrene.”

“Oh, is that all you need,” the sword replied with ponderous sarcasm. “A personal audience with the goddess of magic, apropos of nothing. I’ll repeat: the Tower is closed. Get lost.”

“Well, I say,” Schwartz grumbled, scowling at the sword now. “Your help would be appreciated, but if it comes down to it, we can just use you to unlock the elevator and proceed. What are you going to do about it?”

“Ahem?” Ariel’s voice cut through the gathering argument, and a moment later she slid free of her scabbard, untouched by Gabriel. The black saber drifted up into the air and did a slow pirouette, her blue runes glowing steadily with arcane magic. “I advise you not to handle a sentient weapon which doesn’t like you. We are far from helpless. The enchantments may vary, but some form of motive charm is standard.” Gabriel plucked her from the air, sliding her back into the sheath while shaking his head.

“What. Is. That.” If anything, Athenos sounded positively enraged now. “You brought another— All right, I have had enough of you clowns.”

“I think we’ve all gotten off on the wrong foot here,” Toby interjected, stepping closer to Schwartz, holding up his hands placatingly and using his most soothing voice. “Everyone, please relax. We know talking swords are made with a lack of empathy; there’s no need to get hostile just because Athenos is a little abrasive. Now, can we start again?”

“Very well,” Athenos said curtly. “Welcome to the Tower of Salyrene, which is not currently accepting visitors. Go away.”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, turning to stare expressively at Gabriel, who shrugged. Meesie clambered halfway down Schwartz’s arm to hiss menacingly at the sword until Schwartz picked her up with his free hand, depositing her on his other shoulder.

“I realize this is something of an imposition,” Toby continued in his calm tone. “It is for us, as well, believe it or not. We really would prefer to be done with our business as quickly as possible and with a minimum of trouble caused for anyone. Especially Salyrene. But I’m afraid we don’t have the option of just leaving. So why don’t we try to meet in the middle, here? If you’re willing to work with us, hopefully we can keep the disruption minimal and be out of your hair. Ah, your…metaphorical hair.”

“And you think it’ll be as simple as that?”

“Well,” Toby pointed out with a smile, “we did get into the place. Surely that shows we have some measure of capability.”

“Ah, yes.” The sword’s voice was suddenly weighted with even greater disdain. “Just like every clod who discovers a gimmick, you imagine yourself to be unique. Let me clue you in, then: people have been breaking in here almost the whole time it has been closed off. Starting eighty-odd years ago with that walking incendiary bomb Tellwyrn and just getting more obnoxiously wacky from there. We had an actual incubus running around in here for who knows how many years. Just last week some screwloose kitsune clawed a hole in the outer barriers and dropped off a transmogrified ex-dryad as if this were some sort of puppy rescue. The fact that Salyrene is not interested in the Tower and its visitors does not, unfortunately, make it inaccessible; it only means her attention is not focused here, and therefore things tend to unfold in a way she absolutely did not intend when originally designing the place. This Tower’s innate magic is more sophisticated than anything else in existence, but it is still no substitute for the active oversight of a goddess. So if I seem wildly unenthused by the prospect of shepherding you clods through here, understand that it’s not a personal judgment. I don’t know you, and even less do I care to. It’s because what you’ve brought me is the very great likelihood of a big, ugly, stupid, pointless, nigh-disastrous waste of everyone’s time!”

A stunned silence fell after his rant came to a close. It was, ironically, Meesie who broke it, with a shrill whistle.

Toby cleared his throat. “I certainly understand—”

“You understand nothing,” Athenos snapped. “You know what? Your buddy there was right. If you choose to unlock the elevator and help yourself to my Tower…fine. There’s really not much I can do to stop you. Oh, there’s a little I can do, but I won’t. My function here is to guide those being tested, even when they are a useless, unwanted pain in organs I am very lucky not to possess. But know this: you’re walking into a danger of which you weren’t forewarned. Nobody is overseeing this place, and it has neither pity nor the capacity to stop. There’s nobody at the top who will grant you a reward for succeeding—if you ever do. Once you ride that elevator to the Tower proper, you can’t come back down. You will be in there until you complete its trials and escape, and escape is the only prize it’ll offer you. So before you decide to charge ahead, I suggest you think very carefully about whether this is a good use of your time. Why are you so sure you’ll succeed, and more importantly, why would you bother?”

“Well,” Gabriel drawled, “as to the second part, we are on a quest mandated by a god of the Pantheon. Granted, it’s just Vesk, but he still counts. And as for the first, we’re paladins.”

“Well, they are,” Schwartz clarified. “I’m simply a witch of the Emerald College, helping out. But these are the hands of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius.”

“Hand of Vidius,” Athenos said scornfully. “If you want to think I’m an idiot, that’s your lookout, but I’ll ask you not to speak to me as if I were an idiot.”

“You’ve been locked up in here for quite a while, haven’t you?” Trissiny asked.

“Obviously.”

She shrugged. “Well, things are changing out there in the world, but I don’t know how to convince you…”

“You don’t need to,” Ariel cut in, “he is simply being obstreperous now. We are well equipped to discern and examine auras in our proximity, and Gabriel’s is unmistakably that of someone with an exceptionally powerful connection to the divine. Given that he is also obviously, to senses such as ours, a half-demon, logic dictates that this was done at the personal intercession of a god. Therefore, paladin.”

“That conclusion is hardly inevitable,” Athenos huffed. “Still… Fine. Your time and lives are your own to waste. Who knows, if Vesk is the one who sent you here, perhaps you can coax Salyrene to take a personal interest again. That would be a great relief.”

“Very good, then,” Toby said quickly before any more bickering could ensue. “If we’re all on the same page now, we might as well proceed. Schwartz, lead the way!”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Schwartz said, still looking somewhat bemused and holding the sword a bit awkwardly. He turned and crossed the chamber to the elevator, where he paused, holding up Athenos and peering hesitantly at the metal plate with the slot in it. “So, ah… I just…insert…you?”

“If you are perplexed by a simple key-and-lock interface, you are going to have a very hard time climbing this Tower,” Athenos snipped. “I suggest you take a moment to reconsider this course of action.”

“He’s even ruder than Ariel,” Trissiny observed.

“Maybe very slightly,” Gabriel said in a solemn tone.

Schwartz, suddenly scowling, lifted the sword and pressed its tip against the slot in the panel. He had to try a couple of times, being unused to handling blades at all, much less against such a precise target, but once the tip caught, he shoved the sword home in a single motion. Athenos stopped with an audible thunk with about three quarters of his length in the mechanism.

What remained visible of the runes lining his blade flashed blue. Then, as if spreading from contact, so did another set of runes on the metal panel surrounding him, which had not been visible at all moments before. In fact, they appeared to hover half an inch from the surface of the panel. They rotated in a full circle, and the whole slot did likewise, twisting Athenos’s handle and forcing Schwartz to quickly release it. This was an eerie sight, as there was nothing constituting a moving part on that flat piece of metal. As soon as the slot and sword had rotated all the way back to their original position, the bars separating them from the elevator abruptly withdrew—not through any mechanical process, but all dissolving from the top down, each seemingly washed away by a descending sparkle of light.

“Flashy,” Gabriel remarked, raising his eyebrow.

Athenos flickered again as he responded, still stuck in the wall. “You’d better get used to that. The goddess of magic is many things, but ‘subtle’ does not usually rank among them. Once again: as soon as you ascend to the main floor of the tower, you are good and there until it finishes with you. Last chance to reconsider.”

“It isn’t really up for debate,” Schwartz grunted, grabbing Athenos again and tugging the blade free of the wall. “We’ve already established that going back where we came from isn’t a feasible option, and that’s not even considering the divine quest we still have to fulfill. Onward and upward!”

“Hang on,” Trissiny said suddenly as he started to step into the opened elevator. “I have some questions. I wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about this Tower before we go charging headlong into it.”

“Finally, a note of circumspection,” Athenos said with the first approval he’d shown any of them. “Congratulations. You are now my favorite adventurer in at least the last century.”

Trissiny bit back her first retort, which was to the effect that his personal opinion was of no interest to her. If Athenos functioned more or less the same as Ariel, nothing was going to rectify his uncooperative attitude and snapping back at him wouldn’t even hurt his feelings. Still, there was no point, and definitely no good in getting in the habit. Gabriel was grinning at her as if following this entire line of thought, which earned a wry grimace from her in reply.

Instead she moved on to her actual concerns. “First of all, I want to know exactly how this Tower works—”

“Then I hope you have several decades to spare for the relevant education, and have brought someone willing to explain it all.”

Trissiny gritted her teeth, ignoring Gabe’s silent laughter, and pressed on. “Not the details of how the magic works, I’m just curious about the broad strokes. If Salyrene is not here, and not paying attention to what happens in the Tower, how is it supposed to test people? You strongly implied the trials are still working.”

“The Tower of Salyrene is a thing more of magic than of substance. Its function is to test adventurers. Obviously, this works better with its creator overseeing the tests, but it does not stop working simply because she is absent. You lot solved a Circle of Interaction puzzle to get this far; dare I hope that, unlike my last intruder, you at least understand the basics of magical theory enough to know what I mean by ‘subjective physics?’”

Trissiny nodded. “Yes, magic is a process of imposing subjectivity on physical reality so it can be altered by thoughts.”

“Close…enough,” Athenos said with only slight disdain. Which, given the way he’d acted so far, bore out his claim to like Trissiny the most of all of them. “Therefore, the Tower of Salyrene is a structure entirely of purpose. Subjectively, it determines what the most appropriate test is for whoever is in it, and provides that. So, to head off what I expect your next question will be, no I do not know how you will be tested. To be clear, I wouldn’t help you cheat anyway, but the truth is that I literally cannot. We will find out what your tests are when they begin.”

“That sounds…far-fetched,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Are you sure Salyrene is actually absent and not just…sulking?”

“Sulking.” The sword’s tone was utterly flat. “A goddess of the Pantheon.”

“That was literally the word Avei used,” Gabe replied with a little grin.

“If your theory is that she’s actually here,” Schwartz said, frowning reproachfully, “maybe keeping thoughts like that to yourself might be a good idea.” Meesie nodded, adding a chirp of agreement.

Gabriel cleared his throat and hurried on. “What I mean is, you’re talking about analyzing people based on practically no data, determining the extremely vague concept of their needs, devising an entire trial system for each on the fly… I was willing to accept that idea if there was a goddess specifically doing it, but you want me to believe this Tower has that process automated? It really stretches my credulity.”

“Actually,” Schwartz replied, adjusting his glasses with his free hand, “what you’re talking about would be fairly simple to set up given a sufficient quantity and mastery of fae magic; these kinds of intuitive functions are arguably its primary advantage over the other three schools, Circle negation effects notwithstanding. And if there is one place in all the world where there’s sufficient magic…this is it.”

“That thing in the Crawl that gave visions,” Toby added, “seems to have done more or less the same, albeit maybe not to the same extent. So we know the theory works.”

“Hm,” Gabriel grunted, looking unconvinced, but he nodded at Trissiny and offered no further comment.

“So, based on that,” she said slowly, “as you said, the Tower is actually more dangerous without Salyrene’s oversight.”

“The Tower is…not exactly dangerous,” Athenos admitted grudgingly. “I…enhanced the facts somewhat for effect, previously. It is definitely more chaotic, and intruders have been able to take advantage of that. The incubus I mentioned caused no end of trouble in precisely that way; without Salyrene’s personal attention, there exists the prospect of such foreign dangers arising. But the Tower itself is designed to be explicitly safe. For one, all your biological needs will be suspended while you are in here.”

“I say, that’s handy,” Schwartz chimed in. “And I was just starting to notice that myself! I haven’t felt even slightly hungry or tired since we arrived.”

“And I haven’t needed to pee,” Gabriel added. “I was a little worried about that. Guess it’s Horsebutt’s tomb all over again.”

“Heshenaad,” Toby corrected, then grinned at Gabriel’s scowl.

“Furthermore,” Athenos continued with mounting annoyance, “part of the Tower’s innate systems are designed to protect adventurers from any injury which may occur in the course of testing. In this place, Salyrene’s will trumps all other laws, including those of the other gods. Should you be lethally or debilitatingly maimed, either by a test or more likely through your own clumsiness, a time-reversal effect ordinarily available only to Scions of Vemnesthis will restore you to a point before it occurred with your memory intact. In this way, you not only survive your errors, but learn from them. The Tower is, ultimately, an enormous teaching device.”

“Well, yay for more education,” Gabriel commented. “You mentioned you had Tellwyrn come through here? You might like to know that she runs a University now.”

“…and isn’t that just the icing on the cake,” Athenos said in pure disgust. “Someone needs to notify Avei that there is no justice in the world.”

“Anyway,” Trissiny said loudly, “that sort of brings me around to my other question. What happened to the other people who’ve broken in here while Salyrene wasn’t running it?”

“That depends on the individuals. As I said, they climbed the Tower. All of them managed it…eventually. In the old days, the goddess would sometimes evict someone if they proved particularly dense or their conduct became personally objectionable to her, but now? All the Tower knows is to test, and try, and keep doing so until its subject has passed all their allotted trials and is allowed to leave.”

“So they all did succeed, in the end?” Toby asked in unfeigned interest. “I suppose that’s a positive sign. How long does it take, on average?”

“Again, it depends. I have had idiots stuck in here for literally years.”

“But you said a dryad was dropped off here last week,” said Schwartz, “and also that no one’s there now. She managed it that fast?”

“Years is an outlier,” Athenos acknowledged. “It is more likely to be a matter of hours or days, in most cases. And…the dryad proved a far more adept adventurer than I’d have expected based on her initial foray. The Tower did go easy on her; it was mostly a succession of logic puzzles and very basic Circle of Interaction effects. I suppose there is a hidden advantage for the ignorant and/or stupid, as the Tower does not test people beyond their capacity.”

“Can you offer at least a guess as to what kind of tests we’ll be facing?” Toby asked.

“That is not one of my functions,” Athenos replied, audibly smug. “I will warn you not to expect the daffy dryad treatment. For three paladins and a witch, this is not going to be easy.”

“Great,” Gabriel muttered.

“At this point, I think we’re just procrastinating,” Trissiny said, “and his ominous portents of doom aren’t helping. Unless someone else has any immediately relevant questions?”

“In fact, I rather think you’re right,” Schwartz agreed. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we get finished. So! Onward and upward, for real this time!”

He led the way into the elevator, Meesie squeaking a charge and pointing forward from atop his head. The others followed with a bit more reluctance, especially after having listened to Athenos’s dire predictions, but as had already been established, it wasn’t as if they could do anything else.

No sooner had Toby, the last in line, stepped inside than the metal bars re-materialized with the same glittery effect in reverse. It was crowded with four of them in there, but by unspoken agreement they all stood clustered together, nobody taking a seat on the padded benches provided.

“Hey, there’s no roof,” Gabriel commented, and they all looked up. Indeed, the elevator shaft stretched upward for an unknowable distance. It was far enough, at least, that they could see nothing but light at the top.

Then the elevator lurched once, making Schwartz and Gabe stumble, and began smoothly rising.

It accelerated rapidly as it went, enough that the passage of the stone walls outside was a little alarming; given the cage-like construction of the elevator, they could probably have reached through to touch them, and at that speed had a fingertip sanded off for their trouble. The trip was made even more unnerving by the fact that those walls were decorated with glowing patterns in orange, gold, blue, and green. They must have been arranged in static positions along the stone shaft, but when viewed at speed they formed smoothly shifting images evocative of the four schools of magic. Flickering flames, uncurling vines, exploding stars and shimmering figures all were features, most passing by so quickly they were barely-understood afterimages almost as soon as they appeared.

“You weren’t kidding,” Gabriel muttered, barely audible with the hum of their passing. “Flashy stuff everywhere.”

“You have hardly seen everywhere,” Athenos replied dryly.

The elevator began to slow, just as the distant light above them started growing in intensity. Its speed had diminished to a smooth crawl by the time the upper borders of the vehicle passed what turned out to be an open gap in the floor of the chamber above. Or would have, had they remained attached; in actuality, the cage walls clicked against a thin lip of the portal above and were pushed downward as they rose. When the elevator finally came to a stop, it was with its metal floor perfectly level with the floor of the tower, leaving only its partial ring of padded benches standing up around them.

This, finally, was clearly a tower. The chamber in which they now stood was vast, and octagonal in shape. There was nothing in the center except the little platform on which they stood, and a broad Circle of Interaction diagram spreading around them, laid into the gray stone floor in black marble. Somewhat ominously, they were standing right in the middle of the innermost circle, where the destructive forces of opposing schools of magic met with the most explosive effect.

The height of the tower was truly impossible to guess. All around them was relative dimness; there was no visible source of the light, but it was enough to make their immediate surroundings visible. Above, however, the empty tower stretched away into darkness, its entire length crossed by bridges set at varying angles. They vanished into the blackness no less than ten stories above, with no hint at how much further it stretched.

Closer at hand, spiraling staircases climbed the outer walls to a balcony which ringed the inner space about two stories up. The four doors which branched off from this, each corresponding to one of the four points on the Circle diagram, were large enough to be clearly visible from their position.

Directly in front of them was another statue of Salyrene, depicting her exactly as those down below had. This one, however, showed her only from the waist up, and even so was tall enough that the smooth crown of her head nearly met the balcony above. With her glowing eyes fixed right upon their point of arrival, that was the most unnerving thing of all.

Once again, the silence was broken by a tiny, shrill whistle of awe.

“You said it, Meesie,” Gabriel agreed.

“And now, here you are.” There was something vaguely menacing about the smugness in Athenos’s tone. Even dangling from Schwartz’s limp arm, the sword’s flickering runes managed to convey leering satisfaction. “Best of luck to you, heroes. I expect you shall need every bit you can grasp.”

“You,” Trissiny ordered, “be quiet. When we have questions, we’ll ask them. Otherwise, if you’re not going to make yourself useful, at least refrain from being a pest.”

“Oh, of course. Far be it from me to disrupt your trials. This is, after all, my very purpose in life.”

“When you referred to climbing the tower,” Gabriel said, craning his neck back to peer into the climbing abyss of darkness above, “did you mean…all the way?”

“What you seek is at the top,” Athenos confirmed. “Each trial you pass will grant you another level of ascent.”

“This,” Gabriel said slowly, “is gonna take a while.”

Toby sighed, and rolled his shoulders. “Well, I gather at a glance that it starts about the same way that puzzle down below did. Four doors, four schools. Shall we pick one and get started?”

“The divine would be that way,” Trissiny said, pointing at the arched doorway just visible about Salyrene’s stone head. On the floor directly in front of them, there was indeed the circle marked by the ankh symbol. “Start there, again? At minimum, that seems most likely to be a trial that won’t punish us too much.”

“It’s as good a place to begin as any,” Schwartz agreed, Meesie nodding eagerly.

“All right, then,” Trissiny said, and stepped forward between two of the benches and off the elevator platform.

Whatever hit was like the impact of a stone wall, if she’d fallen on it from a great height. Blinding white light exploded in her eyes, and then she was slammed onto her back on the ground.

Onto…soft, crunching leaves, piled upon dirt.

Trissiny rolled to her feet, grunting in pain at the lingering soreness this antagonized, but not allowing herself to slow. She was now standing in a forest.

No…a room.

Stone walls rose all around in the near distance, and there were even windows in them. Above stretched the vault of an arched ceiling. These features were not what leapt out at the eye, however. All around her stood a profusion of trees—twisted things covered with dark, gnarled bark, mostly leafless and covered with climbing vines, streamers of hanging moss decorating their bare branches. A profusion of mushrooms sprang up from around their base, some reaching waist-high on her, and most in poisonously vivid colors which contrasted sharply with the overall gloom. What leaves there were seemed to be on the ground, dried out as if they had fallen long ago.

And it was loud. Trissiny couldn’t identify half the animals she heard; the profusion of crickets, birds, chatters and whoops and the occasional distant scream made an overall din that was all the more unsettling because she couldn’t actually see any of the creatures making the noise.

Oh, wait, no, there was a pair of glowing eyes watching her from the shadows in the roots of the closest tree.

Altogether, this scene was so disturbingly ominous she had to conclude it had been deliberately designed to be.

And she was alone. There was no sign, anywhere, of her companions.

Trissiny sighed and drew her sword. “Typical.”

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14 – 11

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“Well, it doesn’t look much like a tower from here,” Gabriel observed.

In fact, it was a tunnel. An apparently natural one, complete with lichen, dripping water, and a general unpleasant dankness. It was also noticeably cooler than the temple in Vrin Shai had been. Their view of the uncut stone walls was made eerie by the color of the light: there was none inherently present, but Meesie’s fiery red and Ariel’s luminous blue runes cast enough shifting illumination for them to at least see each other’s faces, barely.

“Herschel knows what he’s doing,” Trissiny said, her voice echoing slightly off the stone walls. “And Avei did prompt us in this direction. If we made some kind of mistake…we’ll deal with that.” She trailed off, and none of them pointed out that if they’d made some kind of mistake they could be absolutely anywhere. “I guess for now, all that’s left is to pick a direction.”

“That way,” Toby said, turning and pointing. The tunnel extended into blackness in both directions; he had selected the angle that sloped upward. “We’re obviously underground. If we want a tower, we want to go up.”

“That reasoning’s as sound as any,” Gabriel agreed. “So, uh… Should one of us put up an aura? Because this mood lighting is all very romantic, but I will trip and break my neck if we try to shuffle through this cave with only Meesie and Ariel for light.”

“Your neck is unbreakable,” Ariel replied. “Ingrate.” Meesie squeaked chidingly at him.

“I guess that means me,” Trissiny said dryly. “If we don’t want to risk someone burning out, given we’ve no idea how long this might take.”

“Or we could take it in turns,” Toby suggested.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “If I might?”

While they all turned to stare at him and Meesie cheeped smugly from his shoulder, he held out a hand, palm up. Wind rose in the tunnel, followed by sparks of light, whirling into a vortex suspended above his palm which coalesced into a single glowing orb. It illuminated their surroundings as cleanly as a fairy lamp.

“Rule of thumb,” Schwartz said in a self-satisfied tone. “When the objective is to conserve energy, let the witch do it. My power sources are all external.”

“Nicely done!” Gabriel said, sheathing Ariel and clapping him on the shoulder. “All right, off we go, then. We’re not getting any closer to Vesk’s doohickey by standing around here.”

As it turned out, they almost needn’t have bothered with the light. After a scant few minutes of walking, the tunnel abruptly turned into a paved hallway, with glowing chunks of crystal set into the walls at intervals. Schwartz paused, glancing back at them, and then dismissed his glowing orb. In its absence, the steady gleam of the lamps provided ample light. They did not resemble conventional fairy lamps, which contained glowing elements within a glass housing; these were solid crystals which produced light at a considerable intensity. If anything, they were brighter.

Directly ahead, the corridor ascended steeply in a granite staircase. They all paused just before climbing it, to study the moon-and-stars sigil of Salyrene engraved on the floor at its foot.

“Welp, guess this is the right place after all,” Toby remarked.

Trissiny let out a soft breath of relief. “Whew. Not that I doubted it,” she added hastily at Schwartz’s dry look.

The stairs were a tad steeper than stairs usually ran, but it was not a long climb; in fact, they ascended for scarcely twice their own height before it opened out onto a clean, octagonal chamber, just inside which the four stopped, staring around. Meesie let out a low noise that sounded an awful lot like a whistle of awe.

Much of it was hidden from view by its sheer size and their perspective, but it was obvious at a glance that the entire floor of the chamber was decorated with a Circle of Interaction, set in black marble amid the pinkish polished granite of which most of the room was constructed. Directly in front of them was the lowest circle, complete with the wreath symbol of infernal magic. Above head height the walls had not been carved, and the domed ceiling rose in a staggered mess of stalactites; obviously this chamber had been hewn from an existing natural cave. More of the glowing crystals were set in the stone walls at regular intervals, and scattered artfully among the natural formations above.

From the center of the Circle diagram, the small innermost ring indicating the point where opposing schools of magic interacted at their most explosive, there rose an octagonal stone plinth. Thrust into this for half the length of its blade was an ornate longsword, its crossguard and pommel golden and in an apparently elven design—unusual, as elves favored curved swords—and a series of runes marking the length of its blade. Surrounding the sword, as if growing from the top of the pedestal itself, was a crystal, transparent by clouded.

“That has to be the most bardic thing I’ve ever seen,” Gabriel remarked. “If there’s not an epic adventure story about a sword thrust into a pedestal and then encased in crystal, there ought to be.”

“Well,” said Trissiny, pacing toward the frozen sword and peering around, “that wasn’t the only way to come in.”

They trailed after her, surveying the edges of the chamber even as they made their way toward the encased blade. In addition to the stairwell from which they had emerged, there were four wide gaps in the walls, each positioned midway between two glyph points on the Circle diagram; each had a statue of Salyrene as she was usually depicted in Pantheon artwork, with the added detail that each statue’s eyes glowed a steady white. The statues seemed to split the hallways, which curved away to either side of every one, their destinations out of sight around the bend.

“Hey, look at this,” Toby called from up ahead. The rest followed him to the opposite side of the chamber from their entry point, where another doorway was blocked by a grille of bars that appeared to be solid gold. The group clustered around, studying this. Beyond it was a tiny chamber, octagonal as this one and lined with benches bearing opulent red velvet cushions.

“Looks like an elevator,” Trissiny observed. “Newfangled devices as we know them, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Salyrene had such things in her Tower thousands of years ago.”

“I’d hesitate to draw conclusions about that,” said Schwartz. “She’s never been shy about borrowing inventions from her followers, and rearranging her Tower would be exactly as difficult for her as thinking.”

“Uh oh,” Gabriel said, stepping forward and placing his fingertips on the metal panel set along the right side of the elevator door. It had Salyrene’s moon sigil set in its top, and below that, a deep slot. “Am I crazy, or does this look to be about the perfect size and shape to fit…” He turned around and pointed at the sword suspended in crystal. “…that?”

They all stared at the sword, then back at the elevator door. Schwartz reached out, gripped the bars with both hands, and gave them a good firm shake, which accomplished precisely nothing. At their stares, he shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

Trissiny prodded experimentally at the slot with her own sword; only its tip penetrated. The leaf-shaped blade widened too much to fit.

“Try Ariel?” Toby suggested.

“Do not stick me in that hole,” Ariel snapped. “It’s a puzzle, obviously. This place is sacred to the goddess of magic; that’s not a tumbler lock. Only the proper sword will open it.”

“Puzzles,” Gabriel grunted, turning and trudging back to the pedestal. “All right, let’s have a look at this, then.”

While the rest watched from a circumspect distance, he paced in a complete circle around the plinth, finding no significant features on any side. Stepping back, he gingerly tapped the crystal with the tip of his scythe. It made an unpleasant ringing sound, but aside from that, nothing happened.

“Well, we finally found one thing that scythe can’t kill,” Toby remarked.

“And isn’t that just a little alarming,” Schwartz murmured. “It cut through time and space itself, not to mention the exterior defenses of this tower.”

“Well, ultimately, people are supposed to be able to get in the tower,” Gabriel said reasonably. “This, though… Obviously we’re expected to do something in particular to get the sword out, and Salyrene doesn’t want us cheating. I guess it makes sense it’s going to be harder to brute-force the puzzles here than in the Crawl.”

“Let’s not try,” Toby said firmly. “As I recall, that approach made the Crawl mad enough to nearly dump us all in a bottomless pit, and it’s just barely conscious. Salyrene doesn’t want us in here in the first place; now that we are, I suggest we refrain from tweaking her nose any more than necessary. Look, this place is for testing adventurers, so obviously there’s a solution. And since nothing’s apparent in here, it’s clearly through one of these doorways.”

“Or all of them,” Schwartz said, his expression eager, and rubbed his hands together. “Well, tallyho, then!”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but followed him along with the others through the gap positioned between the divine and fae circles on the diagram. There they all clustered together, studying the statue of the goddess and glancing up and down the two hallways.

“This way,” Toby decided, stepping to their left.

“Any particular reason?” Gabriel asked.

“Extrapolating from the architecture,” Toby said, “these side halls loop around to meet again at the four cardinal points. Each corresponding to one of the schools of magic, which suggests the shape of what we’ll find beyond. If I’m right about that, this direction leads to the divine.”

“Sounds good to me,” Trissiny agreed, and set off in that direction without waiting for further discussion.

Toby was, indeed, right; the curving hall arced all the way around, and right at the point where it was directly behind the elevator another doorway opened up onto a chamber beyond. This was a tall, round space, most of which wasn’t visible from the door because the entrance was about a story below its main floor. Curving staircases wound around from each side of the entrance, and directly before them, set into the wall, was another statue of Salyrene with glowing eyes.

As soon as they stepped into the chamber, this one shifted her gaze to face them and spoke, making Gabriel and Schwartz yelp in surprise.

“Divine magic embodies the principle of order,” the statue said. Though clearly made of stone, her hands and facial features moved as fluidly as flesh while she lectured them in a resonant alto that had an echoing quality very like Ariel’s. “It is associated with serenity, harmony, preservation, and the spirit of law. This form of magic is the gift of the gods of the Pantheon, formed by them from the energy released when the sinister Elder Gods were destroyed for their crimes against the people of this world. Today, the divine is accessible through the auspices of the gods, and wielded by their followers to protect themselves and their fellow mortals against all evils which might assail them. But clerics must be wary, and treat the divine light with the greatest respect. Draw too greedily upon it, and it will burn both body and soul.”

The statue returned to its base position and fell silent.

“…Lady Salyrene?” Trissiny said hesitantly.

“That is not she.” It was impossible to tell if Ariel’s voice was particularly scornful; it had that aspect most of the time anyway. “Your recent encounters with gods may have given you unreasonable expectations; most are not terribly modest in person. Salyrene, in particular, has always been a strutting cockerel. Were you in her presence, you would know. This is clearly an automated enchantment she left behind to greet adventurers.”

“So far, so good,” Gabriel said cheerfully, turning right and beginning to climb the curving steps. “Let’s go see what else she left for us!”

The stairs twisted all the way around the chamber, till they met at the top, opposite the door down below, on a small landing connected to the round platform which filled most of the chamber. This was strewn entirely with wreckage. Fragments of crystal and stone, ranging from fist-sized to bigger than their heads, littered the whole surface. They stopped and stared around at this in mute confusion.

“So,” Schwartz said at last, scratching his head, “it’s…broken? Whatever it is?”

“Well, you did say nobody’s been in here or heard from the goddess in a hundred years,” Gabriel said. “Crap. What now? Should we go try one of the other rooms?”

“Wait,” Toby said suddenly, narrowing his eyes. “Look at those fragments.”

“We’re looking,” Gabe said wryly. “There’s not much else to see.”

“No, look. Whatever this was, it wasn’t wrecked, at least not the way something made of stone and crystal would be. There’s no dust, no tiny chips. These are all…pieces. Irregular in shape, but it looks like the should, theoretically, still fit together.” He turned to face, them, and grinned. “Divine magic embodies the principle of order. Well, what we’ve got here is chaos. To embody the divine, we have to fix it!”

“You mean…rebuild that…whatever it is?” Trissiny said, raising her eyebrows. “Oh. Won’t this be fun.”

“Puzzles,” Gabriel snorted. “Themed puzzles. Tell us again how this place isn’t a dungeon, Schwartz.”

“’I told you so’ loses much of its weight when everybody agreed with you in the first place, Gabe,” Schwartz retorted, grinning and pushing back his sleeves, Meesie cheeping in excitement atop his head. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s build us a thingumajigger!”


It was easier than it looked, in the end. The sprawl and disorder of the fragments was deceptive; once they started sorting them, piecing them back together was surprisingly straightforward. Clearly they had been designed for that purpose. By far the hardest part was the sheer size and weight of them. These were, after all, chunks of stone, some of them pumpkin-sized. As a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle it proved not very challenging, but as a sheer test of strength and resourcefulness it quickly became apparent why this was used as a trial for veteran adventurers.

They had their means of overcoming it, though all of them had to get creative. Schwartz’s magic was the most versatile, both boosting their physical ability to lift and move stone and providing aids in so doing, in the form of powerful bursts of controlled air which provided erratic but serviceable platforms. He also tried to use some seeds which he claimed would have grown into trees and vines that could support them better, but these failed to do anything; apparently the inherent divine magic of the chamber was interfering. Fortunately, they had other resources. Gabriel’s arcane glyphs turned pages from his enchanting book into invaluable levitation devices, and Trissiny was even able to conjure hardlight constructs that served as scaffolding, though they didn’t hold long under pressure.

The structure was an obelisk, apparently carved of white marble with its center hollowed out to leave a stone frame, the interior being filled with crystal. The faces of this were decorated with deeply engraved glyphs and runes which none of them could read. The moment Toby, suspended atop floating glyph-pages with the aid of a sustained windburst from Schwartz, set the capstone in place on top, the entire thing pulsed once with light, and then was suddenly whole. No lines were left to mark where the pieces fit together.

“So…that’s it, then?” Gabriel said uncertainly while Toby hopped to the ground beside him. “Based on how flashy that was, I’d have thought we’d get some kind of…I dunno, announcement. At least a bell ringing or something.”

“Let’s go back to the central chamber and see if anything’s changed,” Trissiny suggested, already leading the way.

They paused at the statue of the goddess, but it seemed she had nothing else to say to them. In the central room, though, something had indeed changed: on the massive Circle diagram, the ankh symbol representing divine magic was glowing with intense golden light. The same illumination filled the ring around it, creeping along both arcs of the outer circle and down the central lines to the stone plinth in the center. In fact, it looked strikingly reminiscent of the spell circle Schwartz had made back in Vrin Shai to get them here.

“Oh! Oh oh oh I see!” Schwartz’s robes fluttered as he rushed toward the pillar, excited as a child. “Let’s go do the infernal chamber next!”

“I’d’ve thought you’d want to see the fae one,” Gabriel commented.

“Well, yes, sure, but look!” Fairly dancing in eagerness, Schwartz pointed at the glowing lines on the ground. “The divine magic travels along here to reach the center, see? The central circle where the sword is, the one that on the Circles of Interaction diagram represents opposing reactions. The explodey kind!”

“So,” Trissiny said, beginning to catch some of his enthusiasm, “we activate the opposite one, it travels up to meet this in the middle…”

“And the force of it shatters the crystal and frees the sword!” Toby finished, grinning.

“And,” Schwartz added, “there’s at least a possibility we can free it with only two schools, which would spare us having to deal with all four trials! Come on, come on!”

He set off through another of the wall portals at a near-run, Meesie clinging to his hair, and almost slipped as he turned to scamper around the corner toward the chamber opposite the one they’d just completed, directly behind the stairwell through which they had first entered.

The entrance was identical to the other one, complete with a statue of Salyrene which came alive and adressed them at their approach.

“Infernal magic embodies the principle of chaos,” she intoned. “It is associated with aggression, destruction, corruption, and mutation. This form of magic was created by Scyllith, one of the last surviving Elder Gods and the goddess of light, beauty, and cruelty. Though limited in its applications, the infernal is unparalleled in effectiveness at the few uses it has, and is accessible to all intelligent beings who understand how to reach out and touch it. But warlocks must be wary, and treat the powers of hellfire with the greatest respect. The slightest mistake or mishandling of the infernal dooms the careless practitioner to a most agonizing, and inescapable, fate.”

“Is she going to explain every kind of magic as we come to it?” Gabriel wondered aloud. “You’ve gotta figure anybody ending up here of all places would already know this stuff.”

“Well, we aren’t supposed to be here,” Toby pointed out.

“And we already know this stuff,” he replied. “How the heck would anybody even get in here, invited or not, without knowing a lot about magic?”

“Oh, you know a lot about magic, do you?” Schwartz asked, grinning as he brushed past Gabriel up the curving stairs. “Got nothing more to learn from the very goddess of magic herself, have you? Must be nice.”

“All right, point taken,” Gabe muttered, following.

Atop this platform were four stone gargoyles. They were hideous things, apparently carved from black marble, but didn’t appear particularly magical at first glance.

“Okay,” Toby said, frowning at them. “So, the last one was about order, and we had to repair something that was broken. This one’s chaos, and there are unbroken statues. So maybe we just…smash them?”

“There is absolutely no way it’s that easy,” Gabriel said skeptically.

As if he’d invoked the magic words, a roaring nose erupted from the gargoyles, and each of their eyes burst alight with seething orange flame. The statues began moving, and unlike those of Salyrene, these did so with a horrible grinding of stone on stone. Their movements, furthermore, were clearly aggressive, rounding on the four intruders and baring fangs and claws.

“Called it!” Gabriel shouted even as the three boys backpedaled frantically toward the stairs.

Trissiny, however, did not retreat. Instead light flared up around her, coalescing into her silver armor, shield, and the sword already in her hands. “Now this is my kind of trial!”


“What in the blazes did that steward polish this with?” she was asking incredulously a few minutes later as they made their way back toward the central chamber again. “Look at me, I’m practically glowing.”

“I believe that’s a light-refracting alchemical polish,” Schwartz replied, experimentally poking at an un-scuffed patch on her breastplate. She had picked up only a few scratches, leaving the rest of her armor to gleam blindingly wherever the faintest light touched it. Altogether that had not been one of their more significant battles, though Gabriel’s scythe had proved far more efficacious than Trissiny’s sword. Though slow and not smart, the gargoyles were made of stone, and there was a limit to how much damage she could physically inflict. His weapon, on the other hand, destroyed the magic animating them as neatly as it did everything else. The whole thing was over in seconds, before she had a chance to get properly beaten upon, as she was now complaining.

“I think he’s right,” Gabriel agreed, not bothering to hide his amused grin. “See, it actually creates a molecule-thin protective layer over the metal that catches and magnifies any light that hits it.”

“Look at this!” she exclaimed, waving her arms and sending reflections cascading along the walls. “I’m not wrong, am I? Isn’t this just a little excessive?”

“Well, yeah,” Schwartz agreed, “that stuff is intended for jewelry. Enough to coat a suit of armor must’ve cost a blooming fortune.”

“And I thought I was so clever for leaving it behind,” she growled.

They emerged into the broad octagonal chamber, and slowed. As expected, the infernal symbol now glowed a burning orange, projecting its radiance along the circle to the sides and forward to meet the divine beam from opposite. Indeed, there was a cascade of sparks and the odd crackle of lightning wreathing the central pillar now. In fact, there were visible cracks in the crystal which housed the sword. Not large ones, though, and no sign of them growing.

“Bollocks,” Schwartz said feelingly, then suddenly grinned and rubbed his hands together in that way he’d taken to doing lately. Atop his head, Meesie repeated the gesture, squeaking in eagerness. “All right, then! Fae next!”

“Whatever you say,” Gabriel replied airily, following him across the room to another curving corridor. Trissiny fell to the back of the column, still grumbling to herself about her improbably glossy armor. Such showiness was not appropriate to Avenist sensibilities; she would have to find time to scuff herself up good and proper before any Legionnaires or priestesses had a chance to see her.

As before, they were greeted by the resident statue of Salyrene upon arriving in the fae chamber.

“Fae magic embodies the principle of organic growth,” she informed them. “It is associated with empathy, creativity, rejuvenation, and nature. This form of magic was created by Naiya, one of the last Elder Gods and the matron of the wild. Ordinarily, fae magic is not directly accessible to mortals, but is touched through the auspices of fairies, beings of magic also of Naiya’s creation. Whether by making use of fae-blessed objects or by establishing relationships with fae beings, the practitioner’s craft is a matter of forming connections, and nurturing them. But witches must be wary, and treat the wild magic with the greatest respect. Fairies are unpredictable, fickle, and often vengeful; to deal with them risks carnage as much as it promises blessing.”

“Well put,” Schwartz said approvingly, already bounding up the stairs toward the top of the platform.

Fittingly, this one was covered in trees, a collection of stumps and leafy branches, with the odd boulder arranged beneath them and a thick carpet of moss covering the stone platform itself. Hefty mushrooms sprouted here and there, both from the lush surface of the moss and from the various wooden surfaces. Trees, ferns, and rocks were arranged in a rough horseshoe shape, opening toward the landing on which the staircases terminated, with a pool in the center.

“Hey, look!” Gabriel said, grinning and pointing at a large blue mushroom sprouting from the roots of a tree. It had the distinct conical cap studded with refracting crystalline growths identifying it as a glittershroom.

“No,” Trissiny said flatly.

As if in response to her voice, life burst into evidence all over the display. Dozens of tiny creatures were suddenly everywhere, poking their heads out of hiding places beneath leaves and behind rocks. They filled the air with a cheery cacophony of chirps, whistles, and croaks. Birds, lizards, fish, and frogs were all in evidence. Except…

“Okay, so here’s a question,” Gabriel said, tilting his head to one side. “Why are there birds in the water and fishes in the trees?”

“Something tells me that has to do with what makes this a puzzle and not just a cute diorama,” said Toby.

“Yow!” Gabriel had experimentally reached out toward a fish flopping about on top of a tree stump, and it hissed and sank all its impressive teeth into his finger. “What the fuck! You little— It bit me! I’m bleeding!”

“You’ll live,” Trissiny said dryly.

“I am a god damned hethelax half-demon,” he snapped, shaking his affronted finger and glaring at the unrepentant fish. “I’m supposed to be impervious!”

“Not to fairies, you aren’t,” Schwartz said with a smile, and stepped over to kneel beside the stump, gazing at the little fish. “Come on, guys, I see the test. We have to help all these little fellas back to their proper habitats.”

Trissiny slowly extended her hand toward a colorful songbird which was fully underwater and emitting a stream of bubbles. She immediately pulled it back when the creature began thrashing so violently it sprayed water in all directions. “I don’t think they want help.”

“Fae magic is about empathy, about connections,” Toby said, now grinning. “We have to coax them. Just gotta be gentle, and make them understand we mean them well.”

Trissiny stared at him, then around at the shrieking, splashing, scrabbling zoo before them. “…how about I go wait in the sword chamber? Or get a head start on the arcane trial?”

Gabriel patted her on the pauldron with his bitten hand. “Come on, Triss, take off your gauntlets and try being nice. Looks like we’ve got a lot of friends to make.”


Trissiny made a go of it, but to the surprise of no one, least of all herself, she was ultimately the least productive during that trial. This was in large part because the entire thing annoyed her and, according to Schwartz, the little creatures they were supposed to be helping could sense that agitation. Ultimately, she managed to fish a bird out of the pond, stroking it with a fingertip until it stopped flailing, and set it gently in a ready-made nest half-hidden in the fork between two branches. That experience brought a genuine and unguarded smile to her face, especially when the bird cheeped ather in obvious gratitude as she retreated. Her only other contribution, however, involved being bitten right on the web between her thumb and forefinger by a particularly snap-jawed fish, and hurling it violently into the pond. After that, Schwartz banished her to the landing.

He and Toby, unsurprisingly, were having a whale of a time playing with the cute little animals. Even Gabriel seemed to get in on the fun of it, though he collected quite the assortment of bites and peck wounds on his fingers in the process. Meesie was surprisingly helpful, considering that she was a shrill and energetic creature made of fire who was slightly larger than any of the woodland creatures they were trying to help. These clearly were not natural woodland creatures, though, and responded quite positively to the little elemental.

Still, it took longer by far than piecing the obelisk back together had; more of them than otherwise either ran or attacked when approached, and required a fair amount of gentle crooning to calm them enough to be helped back where they belonged. When it was done, though, it was just as sudden as with the other trials. Toby gently deposited the last tree-bound fish back in its pond, and as if a switch had been flipped, the entire thing went silent. Every tiny creature hid away, and stillness descended upon the whole scene.

“Finally,” Trissiny snorted, already stalking down the stairs.

She ignored the snickering behind her, leading the way back across the central chamber and to a gap on the other side. They all glanced at the sword display in passing; the fae symbol was alight in radiant green, now, but didn’t seem to be doing much to the spot where divine and infernal energies were still burning uselessly against the crystal. Running low on patience with this entire business, she didn’t slow until they had wound their way through the passages to the other side of the complex, the last side chamber, and one more talking statue of Salyrene.

“Arcane magic embodies the principle of intellect,” it said when they had all clustered around. “It is associated with mathematics, independence, amorality, and progress. This form of magic is…of mysterious origin. The arcane is readily available to all, and can be harnessed and exercised by any who know the basic method. It has no inherent risk or drawback, inflicting no direct harm on its user as a cost of its power, though the power of the arcane is limited by what a practitioner can gather, shape, and deploy—a capacity which must be gradually exercised over time to improve. But mages must be wary, and treat the luminous science with the greatest respect. Mortals are often their own greatest tormentors, and hubris inflicts its own punishment. That which expands the power of the mind promises great advancement, and the prospect of a stunning fall.”

“Is it just me, or was that more ominous than the one about infernal magic?” Gabriel asked while they edged past the statue up the stairs.

“The luminous science,” Schwartz mused. “I like that! Never heard it called that before. I’ll have to remember it for my friends in the Sapphire College.”

“Well, you’re already the first Salyrite in a century to see this place,” said Toby. “Don’t gloat too much, Schwartz; that’s how you lose friends.”

“Ironically,” the witch said with a sigh, “lately most of my friends are thieves, bards, soldiers, priests…”

“Sounds like a well-balanced team!” Gabriel said cheerfully, stopping as they arrived at the top of the platform. “You’re shaping up into quite the classic adventurer!”

“Please don’t encourage him,” Trissiny groaned. “More to the point, what is all this now?”

This was a sweeping array of glowing, colored glass balls suspended in the air. It formed a wall encircling nearly the whole platform, leaving only an opening for them to enter from the landing. Nothing visible was holding the balls up, but they were arranged in a perfectly neat grid. In contrast to that orderly structure, their colors seemed to be distributed without pattern; some were red and some blue, roughly half and half, but they were an apparently random assortment.

Gabriel stepped forward, raising a finger.

“Why is your first impulse always to poke something?” Trissiny demanded.

He paused to grin at her over his shoulder. “Hasn’t led us wrong yet.” And with that, he tapped a blue bead.

It didn’t move, but instantly changed color to red—as did the four beads directly above, below, and to either side of it. Or rather, three of them; the one which had already been red switched to blue. Gabriel withdrew his hand, frowning.

“OH!” Schwartz actually hopped up off the ground in excitement. “I know what this is! I saw an enchanted children’s toy like this in Tiraas. You touch one to change the color, and it changes the ones around it as well. You have to keep doing that in the right pattern to get the whole thing one solid color!”

“You saw a children’s toy,” Toby said slowly, “like this.”

“Um…based on this basic principle, yes. It was, I’d say, several orders of magnitude less expansive.”

“A logic puzzle. Well, that suits the arcane, I suppose.” Trissiny drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly, turning to sweep her gaze around the long wall of glowing beads. “This…is gonna take a while.”

“All right, let’s divide this up into quadrants,” Toby said, stepping over to one side of the wall. “Everybody pick a spot and get to work.”

“Which color are we trying to turn them?” Gabriel asked.

“Blue, I should think,” said Schwartz. “It is traditionally associated with the arcane. And not just traditionally; arcane spell effects tend to be blue unless specifically modified to be otherwise.”

“Then we have a plan,” Trissiny said, taking a spot next to Toby. “Let’s not waste any time.”

It did, in fact, take them even longer than the fae test, but oddly she found it much less onerous. Schwartz, Toby, and Gabriel carried on joshing and playfully bickering to pass the time while they tapped beads, but she fell silent, losing herself in the work. She found it to be unexpectedly meditative. It was simple, rational, orderly. So unlike all the messy problems that came from dealing with people. As the minutes passed, Trissiny found herself slipping into a state familiar to her from martial arts practice, a kind of serene focus that activated every part of her mind while soothing away the irritation that had been growing, what with one thing and another, ever since they’d arrived here.

Privately, she resolved to herself to find one of those toys next time she was in a major city.

The trickiest part turned out to be where their respective regions of space abutted; merging their individual fields of blue involved some backtracking and blurring of the borders before they could correct the discrepancies that sprang up when two patterns ran into each other. There was no sun, of course, and none of them owned a pocketwatch, so they couldn’t gauge precisely how much time had passed, but Trissiny estimated it was close to an hour. By the end, when Gabriel and Schwartz were working on the last piece near the bottom of the wall between their individual regions, the boys had grown quieter and downright irritable. Well, not Toby, of course, but the other two did not come from a meditative tradition as he and Trissiny had.

“Thank the flipping gods,” Gabriel groaned as the last four beads switched colors, creating an unbroken wall of blue. “I was about ready to—”

He broke off, eyes widening, at the unmistakable sound of an explosion from the central chamber, slightly muffled by distance and the intervening walls.

“Hopefully,” said Schwartz a little nervously, “that’s a good thing? That is pretty much what we wanted, after all.”

“Well, we’re not going to find out standing here,” Trissiny said briskly, picking up her shield and starting down the steps.

It was, indeed, exactly what they had hoped. They’d missed the explosion, but that was probably for the best; it had thoroughly pulverized the crystal. Pale shards of it littered the entire chamber, strewn across the floor and quite a few lodged in cracks in the walls. Gabriel whistled, flicking one of these with a fingertip.

In the center, atop the pedestal, the sword now stood unprotected. All four of them approached and gathered around it, gazing with a blind of uncertainty and suspicion.

“Well,” Toby said finally, “I doubt it’s a trap. That doesn’t seem in Salyrene’s character. Schwartz, she’s your goddess, after all. Would you like to do the honors?”

“Suppose I may as well,” he agreed, “as the only non-pacifist here who hasn’t already got a sword. Here we go!”

He grabbed the hilt, paused to take a breath, and pulled. It came cleanly out with a soft rasp of steel against stone, leaving him holding the weapon and grinning. Its long blade was marked by runes embossed in some black material almost all the way to its spaded tip.

Schwartz had just opened his mouth to speak when the runes along the sword began to flicker blue, and a resonant, masculine voice emerged.

“Welcome, adventurers, to the Tower of Salyrene. Here the worthy come to be tried, tested, and if not found wanting, rewarded. I am Athenos, a servant of the Tower, and guide to heroes throughout their trials within.” There came a short pause, and then the sword continued, in a much less sententious tone. “Now, I don’t know how you reprobates got in here, but kindly return me to my pedestal and sod off back wherever you came from. We’re closed.”

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