Chapter 23

One more joined their number.

Yaretzi was the last, approaching her on the evening when Tupoc and Lord Ishaan’s crews went scouting ahead. The Aztlan did not look any worse for the labors of the first trial, her tanned face without mark and her practical clothes – a sleeveless stripe blouse above a long patchwork skirt, all of it under a thick sailor’s coat – barely scuffed. The earrings dangling from her ears were of the same copper-gold as Tupoc’s, but they were set with blue stones. They drew attention to her sultry dark eyes.

“Turquoise?” Angharad asked, touching her ear as the other woman sat.

Yaretzi looked surprised, even pleased.

“Indeed,” she said. “I was part of the Turquoise Society before leaving Izcalli.”

Angharad cocked an eyebrow.

“I thought Izcalli societies were named after animals,” she said. “Jaguars, eagles and the like.”

“Warrior societies are,” Yaretzi corrected. “Izcalli cosmology separates the world into three spheres, one of which is war. As a diplomat I was part of the second sphere, culture, whose societies are named after precious stones.”

“And the third?” she curiously asked.

“Trade,” Yaretzi said. “In the sense of occupation, not the mercantile, though that is also covered. It is the third sphere and the least, though still above okse – the other, that which is not in the spheres.”

“I will hazard a guess that this is where foreigners are counted,” Angharad said.

“It is hardly our fault that they did not have the good sense to be born Izcalli,” she said, lips twitching.

“I can only apologize for the slight,” the noblewoman gravely replied.

“I will forgive you this once,” Yaretzi allowed. “It is a difference in philosophy, the way the societies are named. A warrior seeks to embody the strengths of their emblem, but that is a personal distinction. A cultural society is named after precious stone because we seek for our service to Izcalli to be just as precious.”

“That is admirable,” Angharad said. “One’s honor is often found in service to that of others.”

It was the fundamental tenet of honor in the Isles, whose root was the High Queen. She was keeper of the honor of all Malan, its beginning and end, and could not die so long as the people of the Isles remained honorable.

“Mostly it teaches us to think differently than warrior society thugs,” Yaretzi said. “There are only so many flower wars you can start before you’re drowning in enemies instead of war prizes. I think our… friend Master Xical never quite learned that lesson.”

Angharad eyed her speculatively.

“But you did?”

“I have spent much of my life learning to read people,” the Aztlan smiled. “Which is why I can tell you with a degree of certainty that Shalini is one of the loveliest people you will ever meet, and also that if she suspects someone might be slight trouble for her Ishaan she will fire a shot into the back of their head without batting an eye.”

Yaretzi’s smile never wavered, though it pulled tight around the yes.

“A strong crew, those two have assembled, but until they have decided whether they are siblings or lovers I would much rather be part of yours,” she said. “It will do wonders for my nerves, if nothing else.”

Angharad choked, both at the glimpse into the private affairs of the Someshwari and the suddenness of the request.

“You can fight?” she coughed out.

Yaretzi stared flatly at her.

“My dear,” she said, “I was an Izcalli diplomat.”

That was fair enough, and so their company added another. They spent the rest of the afternoon preparing supplies and drilling basic formations at Angharad’s insistence, for a crew that did not know their place would only trip each over each other in a storm. Or so Mother had always said. Come evening she was satisfied everyone had elementary understanding of each other’s skill and would know where to stand when violence inevitably came knocking.

Now all that was left was to venture out.

Come morning the divisions had become clearly visible.

Three delving crews sat together for breakfast, and then the handful of spares who did not intend to venture out that day – Tristan, Sarai, Francho and Vanesa. Some off-color jests were made by Remund about why Tristan and Sarai might want to stay behind with only dotards as witnesses, but they petered out in the face of her obvious disapproval. Save for that misstep, the mood was pleasant. Yaretzi got along well with the pair she had shared the Trial of Lines with, though she tread carefully around Zenzele, and while the air between Song and Isabel was yet frosty the Tianxi found much to speak about with Inyoni.

That friendly air was shattered by Sergeant Mandisa, who made a round at every table with a wooden crate full of what Angharad finally saw to be small iron lanterns. None larger than a fist, charming but quite identical. Some Tianxi workshop must make them in bulk. The sergeant showed them the small engraved circle inside where they must put at least a drop of their blood, about where a candle would be were this a real lantern. Angharad pricked her forearm with a knife and smudged a drop inside as instructed.

“Why a lantern?” she asked Sergeant Mandisa.

“Same reason the Twenty Crowns used them,” Lady Inyoni idly cut in.

Angharad stared at her blankly, to the other woman’s confusion.

“Have you never read ‘The Empty Sea’?” she slowly asked.

Ah, the noblewoman thought. That would explain it. It was the third of the Great Works and from what she recalled only marginally more interesting that ‘The Vainglory’ and its incomprehensible mythologies or the endless litany of deaths and disasters that was ‘The Dead Shore’. Angharad had stopped trying to read it after Father admitted that though it purported to recount how the nations of her ancestors had sailed away from the dying Old World and journeyed to Vesper it was a largely philosophical book about the nature of mankind and its reflections on the eponymous Empty Sea.

Lots of finding islands where the lesson was that men were the real monsters all along, she’d heard.

“I began the Works with ‘The Ships of Morn’,” she admitted.

And ended them with the following work, The Madness of King Issay, she refrained from adding. That she had only read two of the nine Great Works was occasionally a slight embarrassment.

“Can’t blame her, I never read as anything half as depressing as The Dead Shore,” Sergeant Mandisa shared. “I’ve written up casualty lists that were more cheerful.”

“But you did read it, that’s the point,” Inyoni grumbled. “It is our common heritage, there’s a reason it’s mandatory.”

The grizzled older woman squinted at her.

“The Twenty Crowns, Lady Tredegar, our very own ancestors,” she said with an accusatory pointed finger, “found that our perceptions influence the aether. We associate lanterns with sight, with finding things, and so-”

“Gods will be able to use them to get at you,” Sergeant Mandisa completed. “You know, for the eating.”

Both of her gave her odd looks at the choice of word.

“I was raised Orthodox, they’re not spirits to me,” the sergeant informed them.

“It is your prerogative to be wrong,” Inyoni conceded.

“Hey now.”

“It is not her fault, she was never taught any better,” Angharad ‘excused’.

“And I was going to give you hints about the maze,” Mandisa said.

Inyoni raised an eyebrow.

“Were you really?”

A moment passed.

“No,” Mandisa confessed. “Gods, it’s like getting stared down by my own grandfather. Any moment now you’ll be asking why I haven’t found a husband yet.”

“And why is that, young lady?” Inyoni asked.

Sergeant Mandisa shivered, called the whole affair eerie and fled to another table. Angharad lost the war to keep her grin from showing, though she would admit she had not put up much of a fight. As breakfast slowly came to an end and it became clear that once more Beatris would not be joining them, Angharad’s lips thinned. Isabel had last evening admitted that she had not seen her maid in over a day, not even for meals, and that the Watch had refused to answer her questions. Since she no longer slept in the old stables like the rest of them and her personal affairs appeared to have been removed, it was suspected that she slept in the barracks with the blackcloaks.

Angharad sought and found Isabel’s eye. As they were all at the same table, a common company, it was not breaking the oath she had given Remund and must still heed.

“She may have retired from the trials,” Angharad said.

“And not even asked me for leave?” Isabel said, openly dubious. “The barracks are also where that charming old woman was operated, so there must be a physician’s office within. I expect she is simply sicker than anticipated.”

How much of that was genuine belief and how much was saving face at possibly having been abandoned by her handmaid Angharad could not tell, and now was not the time to plumb the depths of the question.

“Regardless, she is not to be counted among our company,” she said.

To that Isabel could only agree. They would be eight, then, and not nine.

After everyone finished breaking the last of their fast, when her crew went to get their packs, Angharad found herself approached by a pair she had so far had little to do with: Lord Ishaan Nair and Shalini Goel. Save their occasional cordial conversations on the Bluebell they had hardly spent a minute together, so this was unlikely to be a social call. Movement drew her eye and she found Song, ready and armed, already on her way. Isabel was behind her, talking to Remund with a faint air of irritation on her face. Pleased with the prompt reinforcements Angharad turned to meet the Someshwari pair with a polite smile just as Song came to stand at her side, mirroring Shalini.

“Lady Angharad,” Ishaan greeted her.

“Lord Ishaan,” she replied. “Good morning to you.”

“And you,” he easily said.

He looked better now, not at all wan or feverous as he had the days before. The unpleasantness brought on by his contract must have passed.



Their tones were strangely amused, given the banality of the situation. Were this another situation Angharad would have engaged the others in small talk, as her station demanded, but they had more pressing duties to attend to.

“May I be of assistance to you, Lord Ishaan?” she asked.

“It occurred to me that while we will part ways later,” the chubby-cheeked man said, “we could journey to the shrines together.”

The tone was casual, the implied offer was not. Angharad decided to set it out plainly.

“Mutual defense against Tupoc’s group on the way seems agreeable,” she said. “And it would be diplomatic to keep some distance in order to… avoid arguments.”

Zenzele Duma was a lord of Malan, he would no more break a truce than he would shoot a child out of the black, but temper were best left untested if possible.

“Brisk business,” Shalini commented.

“We left our tea and silks at home,” Song replied.

They both ignored their seconds.

“Against Tupoc’s group or other third parties that are not the Watch,” Lord Ishaan counteroffered. “And I would extend the same terms to a common return, should we leave the maze around the same time.”

Angharad could see the attraction in a common return, as they would be the most weak then – tired, wounded, possibly carrying corpses. The first part she hesitated about, for it was unpleasantly open-ended. Third parties could mean a great many things, even if their cooperation was limited to mutual defence.

“Third parties that were not intentionally provoked,” Angharad finally specified.

She would not let her crew be dragged into disputes like a reeve tricked into siding with some Uthukile clan. She had heard the stories, the reeve always ended up shot and then the clans promptly made a peace-marriage so they could begin raiding their other neighbors for cattle instead.

Being appointed a royal reeve on the Low Isle was not what a wise woman called a reward.

“Cautious,” Shalini said.

“Last time my people weren’t, it took four Cathayan Wars to get you out.”

“Savage,” she praised.

Angharad traded a look with Ishaan, sharing in the kinship of being faintly embarrassed of the person they had brought along. They shook on it, as much to avoid more of that than because there was nothing left to quibble over. As they parted ways the Pereduri tried to look for what Yaretzi had mentioned, but mostly she saw that Shalini was protective of the man – which was hardly a revelation.

She informed the others of the bargain struck as they assembled to move out, to mostly approval. Zenzele’s face darkened but even he saw the sense in a protection pact. They set out without further dallying, through openings in the ramparts at the back of the Old Fort. The Watch kept an eye on them from above as they moved across the rubble and onto the uneven bare rock of the cavern floor. It was not so smooth here as it had been before they entered the fort.  

Without lanterns and the pale golden glow from above it would have been trouble to walk: not only were there crevices and clumps but also stretches of some sort of coppery moss that was highly slippery. Lord Ishaan’s crew was waiting ahead, nearly arrayed, while ahead of them both lanterns made it plain that Tupoc Xical and his five had taken the lead.

The journey was uneventful, though the atmosphere was stilted from nerves and tension. It was about a quarter hour from the fort that the slope of broken shrines began, Lord Ishaan informed her. After they left behind the great pillar the Old Fort was nestled against, it was largely open grounds between them and the ruins. Only a few jutting rocks, usually covered in that copper moss, broke up the barren landscape.

The beginnings of the maze were not clear, for though every piece of this place had been built by men the place itself had not – whatever haphazard spirit had seen fit to cast everything down in a pile cared not for gates and paths. Rubble and loose stones, sometimes entire slices of structures like arches and pillars, rose in a soft slope that inch by inch turned into a mountain within the mountain. So many temples and shrines and pavilions had been thrown atop one another that she could not tell where the ruins of one ended or began, leaving her with the impression that she truly was looking at a mountain.

There were dozens of half-open shrines that might have served as a gate, Angharad saw, but only three whose entrance was open beyond the first few feet. The three shrines the Watch had told them of: one marked by a lion, another a dove and the last a serpent. Tupoc’s crew was already slipping in a narrow crevice between two walls along which a broken mural of a serpent slithered. It felt a little on the nose for the Aztlan to choose the Serpent Shrine, in all honesty. Her musings were interrupted by Lord Ishaan, who offered her his hand to shake. She did.

“We explored the Lion Shrine yesterday,” the dark-eyed man said. “We will again today.”

“Good luck,” Angharad replied.

“And you.”

Theirs was, then, to be the Dove Shrine. It was in the middle of the three between a painted and sculpted arch to the left, adorned by roaring lionhead, and the narrow winding path that Tupoc was leading his fellows through. The way into their own shrine was broad stairs half-covered in dust and rubble, going up twenty feet into a collapsed arch – which would easily be climbed over, leading into yawning open gates whose sides were covered with intricate bronzes of doves at play. A hall continued into what she thought might be the shrine proper, while above the gate the mountain of ruins continued to rise.

A mere half a foot above a column had toppled backwards, stuck between two laughing monkey statues, and above those heads was a window where a yellow light trembled that – Angharad shook her head. She could spend a lifetime finding new paths here and barely scratch the surface. She would have to trust in the explorations of the Watch. She turned to glance back at her company, finding it grim-faced and ready.

“Forward,” she simply said. “Let us see what the shrine has in store for us.”

The stone here was unsettlingly dry, she noticed, not at all like the natural cavern floor they had walked on. It was as if the spirits of this place had licked up even the dew. Though Angharad went forward with a lantern, after passing the broken arch and entering the hallway she found it was hardly needed: lights burned on the walls at regular intervals, small trembling flames inside eggs of glass. It was surprisingly beautiful, especially when the light shone along the edge of the bronze reliefs adorning the walls: they showed feathers, the Pereduri thought, though some of them bent folded strangely.

They went down the corridor into a larger chamber, whose dusty floor was touched with old footsteps. The Watch, she decided. A flicker of movement at the corner of her eye had Angharad reaching for her new blade, a solid saber that was not at fault for not being the sword she wanted, but when she looked it was only an empty glass egg in a corner. The bare stone of this place was unsettling, so she pressed on without waiting longer.

This was, the Pereduri knew within a heartbeat of entering, the heart of the Dove Shrine. The chamber was the largest yet, at least thirty feet wide and as long, with elaborate decorations. The first few feet of the floor were bare stone, but beyond that a tiled floor in blue and bronze led all the way to another bare stretch and a cramped door at the back – but it was the walls that drew the eye. They were covered in dizzying murals of bronze tiles, painted so that great swirls of dark colors would envelop eyes and feathers, and exquisite perches of bronze extended at irregular intervals.

Angharad moved aside from the entrance but was careful to stay on the bare stone. The spirit of this shrine would reveal themselves soon enough: the only way out of this room seemed to lead into a much smaller chamber, perhaps the way out. Her instincts told true. The moment the last of them, Zenzele, entered there was a small flutter. Eight pairs of eyes turned to the same perch, where the spirit had deigned to reveal itself.

It looked like a dove, but now finally Angharad understood the strange gilding from earlier: every single feather was made of intricately folded paper, patterns within patterns, and she was careful not to look at them too long. If the powerful storm painted on the mural was any hint, there may be danger in staring. The dove spirit flicked its paper-fathers, eerily bird-like.

“Supplicants,” it spoke in a voice like fluttering paper, “you enter the shrine of-”

Angharad winced. That had not been a word, at least not in a way a woman’s ears could hear. Her companions seemed to have fared no better.

“By ancient accord,” the dove spirit continued, “for a wager you may take my trial and win right of passage.”

“And what is to be your trial, spirit?” Lady Inyoni called out.

The dove rustled with anger, paper feathers inflating. Spirits often enjoyed the unearned deference that was being called a god, but Inyoni had done no wrong. The sole god was the Sleeping God, they who would one day wake.

“Cross the tiles of my shrine,” it said, “without standing on water.”

Angharad eyed the tiles, seeing no water. Did it mean the blue tiles instead of the bronze? That would be easy enough since they alternated, which meant there was likely some sort of trap. Given how singularly well suited her contract was to avoid making such a mistake, however – it was nothing glimpses ahead would not see her through – then she ought to begin. It would be a good example, besides. Only before Angharad could so much as say a word she was interrupted.

“Let me,” Isabel said, stepping forward.

Surprise, Angharad’s among them.

“There is no need to-” she began, but the dark-haired beauty shook her head.

“There is,” she replied. “I am not unaware that my skill at arms is lacking compared to most here. I must then be ready to risk my life on tests of cleverness to compensate. It is only fitting.”

There were many approving faces at that, enough that Angharad curbed her instinct to insist that someone else should take the very first trial. It would be disrespect twice over: first of Isabel herself, who was acting with honor, and then of everyone else in this crew for implying that their lives were not of equal worth. She kept her worry off her face.

“Be careful,” she said instead.

“Of course, darling,” Isabel smiled back.

She then stepped forward, gathering her skirts, and approached the edge of the tiles straight-backed.

“God of the land, I ask you for terms,” she called out.

The dove spirit shuffled on its perch, what looked like feathers shivering at first glance in truth an intricate dance of paper folding and unfolding.

“I already gave them,” the spirit replied, its voice like pages being strummed.

“Then there will be no imposition in speaking them anew,” Isabel firmly insisted.

The spirit flicked its paper-feathers irritably, likely irked at having been robbed of starting another game entirely without telling anyone.

“There are sixty-four tiles on this floor,” the dove spirit said. “You must cross from one side to another without ever standing on water or leaving the tiles.”

“God of the land, I would accept these terms,” Isabel said. “I offer for my wager this lantern.”

She presented the small iron lantern touched with a drop of her blood.

“What offer you in return?”

“Peaceful passage unhindered through my shrine for all who stand in this room,” the dove spirit said. “Until your death.”

“God of the land,” Isabel replied, bowing respectfully, “I accept these terms and wagers.”

“Then you may undertake my test,” the spirit allowed. “Begin.”

Only Isabel did not immediately step onto one of the tiles. Instead she went looking through the bag she had carried, taking out a long and thin rod of metal – almost like a hollow fishing rod. The dark-haired beauty paced along the length of the tiles as everyone made room for her, eyes considering, before she pressed the tip of the metal rod on a blue tile – the fourth from the left on the first row. After nothing happened, she stepped onto the tile. Angharad’s heart stammered, but after a long moment it became plain Isabel was safe.

Methodically, Isabel began prodding other tiles.

Angharad was not sure of the rhyme or reason to it, for she tried not only tiles ahead of her but also the one to her left – only for that one to immediately crumple. Like a flower closing, the thin covering of paper of the tile bunched up and revealed the painted river underneath. Several of them breathed in sharply. There was the mentioned water.

“No supplicant you,” the dove spirit hissed, its voice like paper ripping. “Thief, thief, thiefthiefthief-”

Halfway across the board, one of the tiles shivered. In the heartbeat that followed it was no longer a tile but a gaping hole of shimmering darkness. Gloam, Angharad realized. A pit of Gloam. Nothing but death could come of stepping into that.

“It never promised to leave all the tiles,” Lord Zenzele noted. “We should have thought of that.”

“It is angry,” Song evenly replied. “And might never have acted such had Lady Isabel not been so obviously forewarned of this test.”

It was, Angharad admitted, likely she had been. The blind groping around seemed instead to have been Isabel looking for a particular pattern – perhaps there were several and she was trying to find out which she was dealing with? Certainly, after moving twice in a diagonal to the right and revealing two more paper tiles she moved with much more certainty. Only the dove spirit was angry, hissing its spiteful accusation of thief as it sowed another Gloam pit every minute or so. It was trying to box her in a corner, cut her path across, but though Isabel’s slightly shaking hands revealed fear her eyes were steady. It took bravery to take such a test, Angharad thought, even forewarned. Unlike her, the infanzona had never been trained for peril.

It was rather attractive to see that Isabel Ruesta was the kind of woman capable of gambling with her life, if it came to it.

For all the dove spirit’s anger, its tricks and test were no match for the stratagem plied against them. Within ten minutes Isabel set foot on the bare stone, victorious in the challenge posed to her. All eyes turned to the spirit, whose spitting anger was no great augury.

“Thief you are,” it screeched, paper twisted and bent. “Thief and victor. Get out of my sight.”

They hurried across careful to avoid the lingering pits of Gloam, which the spirit pointedly did not remove. Isabel’s nerves were soothed by the time Angharad joined her but her cheeks were still fetchingly reddened. There were some congratulations from the others as they left the large chamber for the smaller one behind it – little more than a dark room with a large bronze dove within it, which all took care not to touch. It felt like the idol of the shrine. Beyond that a hole in the wall led into a slice of golden light, a small barren garden where the glow from above cast shadows on the dusty ground.

They all breathed easier out there, away from the spirit and its anger at being beaten.

The garden was quite petty, for all that it was desolate and the earth covered in a layer of dust, but as they took the time to look around Angharad found why it was the Watch called this place a maze: there were easily three paths they could take, perhaps four. On the other side of the garden, beyond an elegant arrangement of stones a short, curved bridge over a deep crevasse led into what must be another shrine. To their left a slender path circled around what looked to be a forest of columns jutting out from a raised temple ground, while to their right a large slice of toppled stairs served as the first of a series of platforms to climb past the garden wall to what looked like a winding path.

“The columns look like the path that most advances,” Remund Cerdan pointed out.

He had been quiet today, almost withdrawn. It was unlike him, but then he was surrounded by strangers that were not beholden to him. Master Cozme had not left his side even once.

“It also looks like a larger temple,” Inyoni told him. “Could mean a stronger spirit.”

“If we take a test every hundred feet none of us will live to reach the gate on the other side of this cavern,” Song noted, “so I would argue against the shrine beyond the bridge.”

“Agreed,” Zenzele grunted. “Unless Lady Ruesta’s… luck would extend there as well?”

Isabel shook her head.

“I have never heard of this garden,” she said. “The end of the Dove Shrine was described to me as large courtyard with collapsed sections revealing tunnels.”

“It would not be much of a maze if it could so easily be mapped,” Master Cozme said. “Lady Tredegar, your opinion?”

“The broken stairs intrigue,” she admitted. “It seems to be that from up there we may well see the temple grounds anyhow, so come worst we could advance there better informed.”

“It is the most difficult path,” Remund Cerdan objected. “If any of us should miss a jump…”

“Sweat is good for the soul, Lord Remund,” Inyoni snorted. “I agree with Lady Tredegar.”

Most, if not all, did. They set out for the path to the right. Climbing atop the toppled slice of stairs was not difficult, neither was the leap atop what looked like the roof of a ruined stone gazebo. From that roof to the top of remarkably fat column was trickier, given the smaller size of where they might leap, but after Angharad stayed behind to help Yaretzi make the jump the others followed suit and their company was lucky enough no one fell. The Pereduri was not certain the height would be enough to break a leg, unless one fell at a very bad angle, but it certainly would have hurt.

The edge of the garden wall was the last jump, going into a slightly lower stripe of tiled roof that swiftly got covered by the edge of a collapsed rotunda. It was easy enough, if you were careful not to slip on the tiles, and after that the path needed no jumping at all: they circled around the edge of the rotunda, seeing the temple under it and worrisome flickering lights, before climbing up an angled walkway past a series of arches. It seemed that had cut above many trials, which was good news if they could find a way down. Unfortunately the paths kept going up. They doubled back after stairs heading down led to a barred iron gate, then shimmied along the side of ziggurat while strange shapes prowled in the too-pale grass below. Yet for all that they kept rising, they also kept advancing – and without tests!

Their luck came at an end when the fallen-but-whole aqueduct they were using as a road crossed a gap to bring them straight at an open gate, flanked by two waterfalls with no other path in sight. They gathered near the gate – it was pitch black inside – and shuffled awkwardly. It must have been at least an hour and change since they took the first test, it felt as if they had begun anew.

“Nowhere to go but forward, it seems,” Song muttered.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Lady Inyoni replied.

She was, Angharad saw when she turned, kneeling by the waterfall to the left.

“The current is weak and the water shallow,” the older woman told them. “We could get around the test through the waterway, if we are not afraid to get wet.”

There was some debate, but at the end of the day they preferred shuffling leg-high in the wet with their bags held above their heads than trying their luck with another spirit. It was as exhausting to wade in the water, even against so light a current, but the dimly lit waterway eventually led to a luminous series of pools nestled between shrine walls so high they might as well have been cliffs. The water was deeper in the pools so they kept to the sides, and it looked like a dead end until Song found handholds carved in the side of a cliff. They led about twenty feet up, to a cleverly hidden nook that was the entrance to a tunnel.

There was not much space up there, so after Angharad and Zenzele joined Song there they had to shout down to talk with the others. Song was convinced the tunnel was not a god’s lair, insisting there was no shrine mark, and she was convincing enough the others agreed. It helped that no one wanted to go back through the waterway if they could help it.

The tunnel turned sharply to the left through what felt like solid stone, eventually reaching open air and revealing a large domed temple in the distance, atop series of airy stairs. To get there, however, they must make their way along a thin ledge that faced an elegant red mosaic on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. Looking down, Angharad saw only mist and the sound of distant water. It did not look like a fall one would survive.

“It does not seem impossible, if we take our time,” Remund Cerdan said. “There is space between the stone and the mosaic to hold on.”

Taking a second look, Angharad saw he was right. More than enough to hold on to the top of the mosaic. The infanzon did not offer to make handholds with his contract and she did not ask – there was not yet a true need to reveal the details of his power, not with an alternative at hand.

“It would be a waste to turn around now,” Lord Zenzele agreed. “We are almost a third of the way through, I believe. Even if we cover only half as many grounds this afternoon, at this pace by tomorrow we would have a path to the end of the maze.”

There was some excitement at that idea. If they had a path, well, the need for ten ‘victors’ could be seen to more leisurely. They could choose the tests undertaken, aim for those giving the best chances of survival. With most in agreement, they got to crossing. Only Song seemed less enthusiastic, and Angharad held back to speak with her.

“Nothing practical,” the Tianxi told her before she could even ask. “It’s the mosaic that trips me. It clearly was part of a shrine at some point, but it no longer is.”

“The Watch mentioned some of the shrine spirits die,” Angharad reminded her.

“That is a dangerous thing, Angharad,” Song murmured. “When a god returns formless to the aether, they leave behind an impression of themselves. It is rarely a kind thing.”

The Pereduri was tempted to dismiss this as Republican superstition but Song had earned better than such talk.

“I will keep an eye out,” she promised.

For once she chose to stay in the middle of the company instead of taking the lead, before Zenzele and behind Yaretzi. Rising on the tip of her toes, she took a look at the space above the mosaic but it was empty save for old dust. She still kept a firm hand on her contract, pulling at a glimpse before she began moving across. Nothing. Again when Inyoni had crossed all the way, Isabel right behind her, but still nothing. Once more, she told herself when halfway through, and-

(Teeth and claws and a blood-curling scream, between Yaretzi’s hands, and she slipped)

-she was already moving by the time the spirit popped out, catching Yaretzi by the collar of her coat and forcefully pressing her against the mosaic as she trembled.

“STEADY,” Angharad shouted over the screaming thing. “Remember it cannot directly hurt us.”

It was not even touching Yaretzi’s hands, she saw, its claws carefully avoiding any contact.

“Lords,” Yaretzi gasped, shivering as she clutched the stone. “Oh, Lords.”

Angharad’s eye stayed on the spirit, whose screeching began to lower in pitch. It looked like a hound eaten up by wriggling worms, half rotten, but the worms did not move and neither did its eyes. After a few seconds the screeching cut out entirely and the creature went still as a stone. That is not a living spirit, Angharad thought. It was not as… aware, or complete. After another few heartbeats it began to crumble from the inside, collapsing into clumps of dust. The stink of them was atrocious, like a rotten corpse. The noblewoman cast glimpses ahead a few more times as they crossed, but there was no second ambush. They made it across without deaths.

The other side was a broad walkway leading up into the airy stairs they had seen earlier. At the end of the steps stood a large domed temple, whose crumbling stone gates were cracked open. Though they were surrounded on all sides by walls so high as to feel as cliffs, there was a sense of open air to the walkway – helped along by the golden light falling from above – that she found enjoyable. She was not alone in that opinion. When Angharad suggested they stop for a meal, as it should be nearing noon, the notion was popular. After that excitement during the crossing all could use the time to settle their nerves.

The fare obtained from the Watch was simple but filling, but there was little conversation. The looming silhouette of the temple was too stark a reminder of what they must soon do.

When they set out Angharad felt sharper for the rest, taking the lead as her crew began climbing the stairs. This particular temple, she saw, was not so ruined as others they had crossed. At the top of the stairs the entrance boasted a floor of elegant turquoise patterns – she shared an amused glance with Yaretzi at the coincidence – and though the gates were broken the antechamber beyond them was a splendid thing. The walls were tiles of moonstone and serpentine, touched with streaks of gold and iron as if someone had painted with the liquid metals.

Age and use had worn a slight groove in the floor that led out into a massive chamber, at the threshold of which Angharad cautiously slowed. Isabel, right behind her, softly gasped at the sights. Not without reason.

The temple was as a single segmented chamber under the great dome they had seen from outside. A polished black marble floor – so polished it seemed a mirror – reflected the exquisite insides of the dome above, a riot of ticking golden gears as an enormous clock. The machinery there connected to the lower chamber on golden threads and pulleys, a hundred mechanisms of gold and iron moving in a strangely harmonious disharmony. Several of the machines on the ground were so large they effectively segmented the room, casting moving shadows on the marble as golden lanterns whirled above. Not a single part of it made a sound.

Angharad slowly stepped onto the marble floor, others following behind.

“Well,” Lady Inyoni said, “at least there’s no need to ask where the spirit is.”

She followed the other woman’s gaze and found that, in her study of the room, she had somehow missed the silhouette sitting cross-legged at the center of it all. It looked like a man, at first glance, but only that for though the contour of the silhouette was perfect, the inside was a madness of copper – gears and wheels and twitching pistons.

“Welcome,” the spirit said, voice like ringing brass.

It seemed much friendlier than the last, so Angharad returned the manners in kind.

“We thank you for your welcome, honored elder,” she said.

The spirit twitched, though there was nothing animal about. It twitched like a clock losing a gear, a carriage tumbling off the road.

“Manners,” the spirit said, surprised. “It has been long.”

There were no eyes inside that silhouette, but somehow she felt the weight of its attention anyway. She came no closer, for politeness did not mean harmlessness, and the others stayed close but behind the invisible line her presence had drawn.

“You seek to cross my temple, yes,” the spirit said. “This can be done, but there must be a test.”

“I would hear the terms of it, honored elder,” Angharad said.

The clockwork spirit twitched again, but this time there was a grinding metal sound and it spit out something. A small golden gear tumbled against the floor, rolling until came at a halt.

“Everything,” the spirit said, “must be measured. Must be earned. Two or more, hold my gear for the agreed amount of time.”

Angharad frowned. That sounded much, much too simple. It twitched.

“And live to the end,” the spirit added. “Victory so long as one survives.”

It was with a fresh eye that Angharad considered the machinery all around them. She now grasped that every part might be used to try and kill her. The Pereduri politely asked for clarification, learning from the spirit that the more of them agreed to take the trial the shorter the time that must be survived would be. Time where the gear was not being held by a living participant would not count towards the total. For all its friendliness, she thought, it was looking to feed.

“Manners,” the spirit approvingly repeated. “I will give reward, good terms. Only they who hold the gear will be in direct peril.”

Angharad blinked in surprise, thanking the spirit before going to confer with the others. Opinions varied.

“Best to go around, I say,” Remund Cerdan said. “It is a large temple and not so ruined, which I cannot trust.”

“If we do not go through here, we may well have to go back through the waterway to find another path,” Zenzele said. “I will not say the test is without risks, but which would be? We will have to take one sooner or later.”

“We can choose who goes in,” Cozme mused, stroking his beard. “It makes the business more manageable, I agree.”

“I would rather take another swim than try this,” Yaretzi frankly said. “Never trust a well-fed god.”

“It seems a test of skill,” Inyoni noted. “Dangerous, yes, but in some ways the fairest kind we may undertake.”

The split was slightly in favor of the attempt. Two against, three for. Isabel desisted from expressing an opinion since she would not be taking the test, saying it would be unseemly, and that left Song as well as Angharad herself. The two shared a look, Song grimacing but not advising against. Dangerous, then, but not impossible to her all too seeing silver eyes.

“Let us attempt it,” she said. “Volunteers only.”

That Angharad should participate was not in doubt and neither were Zenzele and Inyoni’s addition. Master Cozme received Remund’s hesitant permission, but Yaretzi was the true surprise. The Aztlan shrugged at her inquiring look.

“If it must be done, then I would tilt the odds in our favor as much as I can,” she said.

Angharad smiled back, charmed by the sentiment. She was rather pleased Yaretzi had joined their crew. Five of them would need to survive five minutes, beginning the moment one of them picked up the golden gear from the ground. The Pereduri cautiously made certain that the lanterns illuminating the temple would not be snuffed out, which the spirit agreed to speak in the terms. It was, for all its hunger, inclined to fair play. The wager was simple enough: there would be no lantern on the line and a victory would grant all present safe passage across the temple until all who took the trial were dead. Though five would participate, only the individual holding the gear when the test ended would be considered a ‘victor’.

“Let us make sure the minutes mentioned are the same we know,” Inyoni prudently suggested.

The spirit proved this, counting one with them and agreeing that all minutes would be the same length. With that last precaution out of the way, Angharad agreed to the terms.

“Good,” the spirit said, twitching. “Begin when you would.”

But instead of moving, she remained frozen. For a moment, when the spirit had twitched, she had thought she glimpsed something inside its neck. Teeth and red flesh, swallowing. Only she saw nothing of it now, only the clockwork spirit, and she ignored the beating of her heart. Staring too long at spirits was never for the best. She had volunteered to be the one to first take the gear, so she slowly approached it. Slowly enough she could risk more than a glimpse. Angharad thought of dark waters, of the coolness enveloping her, and sunk deep.

(Angharad Tredegar picked up the gear and the chamber came alive.

A forest of cylinders rose from the seamless floor, golden edges like blades turning so quick they were a blur, and a tapestry of golden thread twitched above. Scythes began to fall like pendulums, sharp wheels shot forward and though Angharad danced across the danger she was cornered. She passed the gear to Inyoni after a minute, but the spirit had been methodical: it was cornering them, leaving obstacles in the way. Inyoni passed to Zenzele to avoid a narrow death, who took three steps before he was crushed by a weight. Yaretzi lost her head trying to take the gear from his corpse and-)

She broke the foresight and let out a wet gasp, body shivering as if she had been drenched in ice. She could feel wetness against her eyes but knew it was not tears. Discreetly as she could, she wiped the beads of blood before they could trail down. A flex of her power told her she could still glimpse but that already she was nearing her limit for the day. It had been worth it, to learn that the spirit was not only using the machines but would be leaving them there: every attack on her was an obstacle afterwards, and it would be very easy to get cornered were she not careful.

“Ready?” she called out.

“Ready,” Inyoni shouted back.

She took the gear.

By the time her back straightened the clockwork spirit was gone and the whirling golden blades rising from the mirror-like floor. Breathing out, ignoring the shouts of surprise from her allies, Angharad kept an eye on the machinery around her. A twitch of thread told her the scythe would be coming down a heartbeat before it did, but instead of fleeing she stepped behind one of the risen cylinders. The golden scythe from the ceiling slammed into the whirling blades, the two traps scrapping each other with cacophonous noise. A glimpse told her it would be the wheels next.

Some kind of clockwork engine on the other side of the chamber twitched, shooting out a sharp iron wheel towards her – and then similar machines did the same from three other sides.

“Steady,” Angharad murmured.

The longer she stayed in the center, the harder it would be for the spirit to corner them. Like in her vision, the purpose of the wheels was to force her to leave cover and the moment she stepped away from the scrapped cylinder scythes began to fall one after another. Left, she caught as she stepped around a spinning wheel and a blade filled the space between two whirling cylinders. Right, she saw as a pulley tightened and a bar of solid iron swung through where she had just been standing, rising back up to the ceiling as the arc went all the way through.

A cylinder unlatched itself from its base and wildly went spinning, lethal golden blades scrapping at the floor, and as Angharad fled back towards space filled by a scythe she realized she had been caught. Above her a large mass of gold was being aligned, enough to crush twice over. Thankfully, the others were not far. She chose her successor.

“Zenzele,” she shouted, and threw the gear.

The Malani lord almost fumbled the catch but caught it against his coat. His aunt stayed close, ready to bail him out at moment’s notice, while Angharad breathed in relief and circled around. The test had gone on long enough all had noticed the danger of letting yourself be driven into a corner, so the grisly ends she had seen need not come about. Master Cozme had prudently moved around the scrapyard she had made in the center, positioning himself to have much ground to give when his turn came, so it was Yaretzi that Angharad came close to. She was counting under her breath.

“Over halfway there,” the Aztlan told her.

They stayed together for a while longer, as Zenzele struggled and passed the gear to his aunt – who promptly passed it back to the better-prepared Cozme Aflor. There the spirit struck relentlessly, smashing weights and pistons and scythes after the soldier with a fury Angharad never not seen even in the vision. It wanted a kill. Pieces of machinery went flying, another danger to keep an eye for. She had to pull back Yaretzi when a broken piece of wheel almost took her in the side, though the Aztlan fumbled on her feet and almost tripped her into a spinning cylinder.

“Careful,” Angharad chided, steadying them both.

“Sorry,” the diplomat murmured. “This is… out of my experiences.”

You and I both, she thought. Cozme saw his death writ ahead, so he passed the gear back to Inyoni. Yaretzi, perhaps shamed by the fresh mistake, darted close so the older woman could toss it. She broke into a run, scythes falling in her wake, and as they all felt the trial coming to a close they neared the corner where it would all end.  The spirit lost all subtlety, dropping weights not to kill but to close off paths, and Yaretzi handed the gear to Zenzele. Angharad staked out good open grounds to finish the last of the time, then dipped close to the Malani.

Only he did not pass it, did not have the time to look for that: all four of the cylinders around him unlatched in quick succession, at the right moment in the spin to converge towards him. Angharad cursed, unsheathing and striking at the closest but finding herself too weak to even slow it. Yet Zenzele, impossibly, threw himself down between whirling blades and emerged with only his coat and back cut up as the cylinders violent collided. Already a weight was being aligned above, but his aunt stole the gear out of his extended hand and stepped away.

“TEN,” Yaretzi shouted.

They had it, Angharad saw. Inyoni had an open stretch ahead of her, leading straight into a corner but so long as she did not run too quickly – and the cylinders around her stopped. Angharad glimpsed ahead, ignoring the heat in her veins, but it was a second too late.

Duck,” she shouted.

Inyoni tried. But every golden blade set in the cylinder came flying out, like a spray of shrapnel, and she could not avoid them all. Two in the leg, one in the torso, and still Angharad held out hope until the older woman stumbled back and fell – revealing the golden blade splitting her skull in half, dug deep between her eyebrows. The corpse toppled down less than a foot again from Zenzele, bloodied and weeping, whose hand clawed as his aunt. He ripped the gear out of her hand, and a heartbeat later machines went still.

The test had come to an end, Zenzele Duma its victor.

After, when the grief and the recriminations and the weeping had ebbed low, they gathered themselves and began the trek back to the Old Fort, carrying Inyoni’s mangled corpse.

Thus ended Angharad’s first effort against the Trial of Ruins

14 thoughts on “Chapter 23

  1. Earl of Purple

    The clockwork god was brutal. The trick may be that paths with less shrines have more potent gods waiting on them, but I don’t think we know enough to be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Crash

        This feels right.

        The movement itself should be random, otherwise it would not be a maze at all. If a path could be traced, the Watch would presumably do so.

        An easier path, then, should be nothing but a trick


  2. Wandering Ideas

    This chapter was great. I was on edge during it all, thinking everything was going too well and then near the end I thought ‘Yes everyone is going to survive the chapter’ and then Inyoni dies at the last literal second, clearly being Zenzele is suffering

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Someperson

        Could be.

        For the most part, the prices of contracts other than the ones held by our main characters seem to tend towards more physical things, like eating chalk or just generally being exhausted or out of it after drawing heavy on a contract. I don’t get the sense that most gods or spirits or whatever you want to call them actually have the power to twist fate consistently.

        Then again, Fortuna does it on a regular basis without any apparent difficulty ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ so either that is more evidence that Fortuna is special somehow, or this sort of ability is more common than I think.


  3. CantankerousBellerophan

    What does it say about this world that nobody is surprised to find fully-functioning clockwork palaces among nameless ruins? Ignore the fact that, somehow, enormous clockwork machines have been moved across vast distances to this apparent dumping ground of dying gods without damaging the clockwork itself. Our protagonists certainly are ignoring that logistical detail, so the answer may well be a socially-accepted “nobody knows how or why this was done, much as it is with other precursor artifacts of Vesper.” No, the mere fact that such a thing exists and goes unquestioned is interesting enough to interrogate all on its own.

    Antediluvian machines are apparently rare enough to be nigh-limitlessly valuable, but common enough that everyone knows one when they see one. Furthermore, Vanessa is a mundane clockmaker, once capable of mimicking the form, if not grand scale and function, of these devices. The knowledge of how to build these machines is clearly lost, but they appear to have inspired imitation all the same. Everyone knows what clockwork is, that it can be used to make devices of great scale and utility, and that the knowledge of how to bridge the gap between pocketwatches and large-scale aetheric manipulation is lost.

    But the machines still function.

    Maybe it’s just magic. The machines work, despite nobody knowing how or why, because the Antediluvians were beings of incredible arcane might far beyond the common man. But that is a clearly unsatisfying answer. The clockwork god is a far better one.

    The thing about clockwork is that it is extremely inflexible. Turing complete, yes, and thus able to do just about anything, but a given clockwork device will only ever perform one function. To “reprogram” a clockwork machine is to build an entirely new one. Unless, of course, you are the god of the clockwork shrine. Able, apparently, to edit the form and function of the machines in its domain at will.

    Such a being could clearly make machines of arbitrary size and power, given enough to work with. Perhaps it once did. All modern relationships between spirits and humans are either transactional or adversarial, but why must it be that way? And why assume it always has been?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From the guy who interrogated Tristan’s perspective, spirits expend energy in order to appear to / pact with / inhabit humans. If this is in fact the case (with Fortuna as a hint that it may not be), then individual spirits would be motivated to be paid back for that energy.

      Adversarial and transactional relationships are more likely in the presence of an explicit exchange of resources like that. Generous spirits would run out of juice and be out competed by grasping ones. As this trend accelerates people will begin to relate to all spirits as grasping, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy (a formerly generous spirit who found its kindness drawing only suspici0n might become grasping, etc)


  4. Spencer

    I don’t get why they’re heading back. Did I miss something? Why not camp for the night, bury Inyoni, and move forward in the morning? Why give up their hard-earned progress?

    I also don’t understand why there is a single victor to the challenge. Isn’t the goal just to pass the maze alive? Is there some extra status given to the victor of each temple?

    Finally, why did they split up into three parties? If it takes ten people to open the final gate, why would you set out with less than ten in your party? Especially given that trials can be undertaken by some representatives on behalf of everyone (which should have been known to Isabel at a minimum), the logical strategy would be everyone in one party together.


    1. Earl of Purple

      I wouldn’t want to sleep surrounded by starving dying gods, even ones that I’m assured can’t hurt me. Second, by going back they can bury or cremate Inyoni around other people, and not surrounded by desperate gods- and the ground’s likely going to be softer too, and less likely to collapse a shrine on my head or break into a ruin or whatever.

      There’s a single victor because the passage bartered for lasts as long as the god decides- and if they force the deal to last as long as the victor’s alive and with the group, the gods get another chance at the souls of those seeking passage.

      Third, they split up because they don’t trust each other, and some of the tests can wipe out a whole group. If Angharad hadn’t impressed the clockwork god with her politeness, it could have easily sprung the trap on everyone instead of just the group that volunteered. And also, assuming everyone goes back and meets back at sanctuary, they can now discuss what they’ve found and potentially coalesce into a larger group and take what they think is the safest route, rather than everyone risking it on a single path that might wipe out everyone without scouting ahead for potential easy routes and friendly-ish gods.


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