Chapter 26

It was as an endless gallery.

The crystal walls fed into each other, promising infinity in a thimble as the mirroring went on and on. The heights were not all the same, the angles askew and there were even slight slopes to the ground to further muddle the senses. Th effect was strong: Angharad had barely taken ten steps before she became uncertain which way she had entered. A pale and silvery glow hung in the air, lighting the way, but there was no visible source for it. Boots whispering across the smooth floor, she boldly stepped forward – after learning that her sword could not cut into the crystal, anyhow. There would be no marking of her path, the opaque rock surprisingly hard for something that looked so delicate.

The first attack came from behind just as she turned a corner.

Her saber came up to parry the blow, but she was hacking into air. The figure on the mirror, which she now saw was her own face distended into something other, smirked before walking out of sight. Sleeping God, Angharad thought. It was going to be even worse than she had thought if the spirit could paint illusions on the mirrors. This place might well become a tomb if she could not even trust her eyes. Her hackles stayed up as she pressed on, thrice more ambushed by nothing. Yet she could not lower her guard, begin to ignore the attacks. It was what the spirit wanted, for her to stop guarding before a real blade came for her neck.

The Pereduri kept to the right as much as she could, occasionally forced to detour, but after how long only the spirit knew – less than an hour, surely? – she began encountering dead ends. After the third in a row she stopped, biting her lip as she met the eyes of her horrid reflection on the wall. Should she leave the edge of the labyrinth? She had thought it sensible to try to keep to the border in the hopes of circling until she found an exit, but now she was beginning to fear she would reach a wall and be forced to backtrack blindly.

“No,” she murmured. “Carry it out to the end, you fool. Half measures are coffin nails.”

She must keep to the plan until she knew for sure it was all dead ends. Walking away from the dead end, she returned to the broader corridor behind it and caught sight of a flicker of movement – another mirror ambush, she thought, but raised her blade anyway.

Steel ground against steel, a clumsily wielded knife slamming down onto her saber’s guard.

Sheer surprise quickening her hand, Angharad pushed back her opponent – a shrieking monster, hideous and twisted – and drew back three steps. She ignored the hundred reflections blooming over every wall, floor and ceiling to keep her eye entirely on the enemy. It looked like no lemure the Pereduri had ever seen, nor cultist: its skin was rotten and its teeth as yellow coral. It wore rags that clinked, as if laden with hidden coins, and held the knife in a guard that Angharad did not recognize. Some ancient art of war, perhaps?

“We need not fight,” Angharad clearly enunciated.

The monster shrieked back and the noblewoman frowned. It seemed intelligent. Perhaps a corpse taken over by a puppeteer lemure? It was when the creature attacked that it came together. It struck by flailing blindly with no stance, care or even understanding that her reach was much longer than its own. That was no strange guard, it simply does not know how to use a knife. And that told her the hidden truth behind the monstrosity. Angharad stepped into the other’s guard, slapping the blow aside with her elbow and smoothly sliding her arm around their neck. They struggled desperately but they were weaker than her, so she squeezed and lowered them to the ground as she kept the knife flailing aimlessly at their back.

After a minute or so the illusion broke, revealing the weeping face of the woman called Aines.

“-please, I don’t-” she was saying, the shrieking turning into Antigua.

Admittedly sometimes the difference between the two was academic. Aines, looking wan and with a purpling black eye on her face, went still in her arms.

“Lady Tredegar?” she croaked.

Angharad released her.

“The maze veils our faces to make us slay each other,” she said, extricating herself and rising to her feet. “This spirit would feed on our bones.”

“I,” the woman began, then bit her lip. “Yes, my lady. May I… may I come with you?”

“You must,” Angharad agreed. “Are all of your companions also in the maze?”

She nodded.

“It was the only way forward for us,” Aines said. “Though the god made us wait before letting us in.”

And so the spirit’s scheme was laid out plainly. It wanted Tupoc’s crew and her own to butcher each other under veil of illusion. I might have seen through the trick were I facing Song or Cozme, for I know the look of their height and weapons, but I know little of those who went with Tupoc. The spirit had waited until her own companions were at the gates of its hall to let in the other group for that very reason, she was sure of it.

“We must find the others quickly,” Angharad grimly said. “Else there will be blood.”

Tupoc Xical was not the sort of man to think twice at slaying any who stood in his way. Aines freely admitted to having been lost – she had brought chalk and tried to mark the walls but it did not seem to take – so they continued her approach. As if irked by being denied a corpse, the spirit set another in their path within minutes. An ogre dripping red pus roared at the other end of the hall, reflections just as fearsome flickering every which way, and it raised its hammer. This one Angharad recognized.

“Ocotlan,” she stated.

Whatever the man heard through the veil of illusion, it was not his name. He roared again and charged. Behind her Aines whimpered, taking steps back, but Angharad breathed out and loosened her stance. The big man was strong and startlingly quick, she knew that from her never-fights with him in her visions, but he fought without polish. At a guess, he had never been formally trained.

Angharad had been and would teach him the difference.

Thirteen paces away she tapped her blade against her left shoulder in a duelist’s salute, gauging the distances carefully. Eight paces. Angharad darted forward a step, startling Ocotlan into swinging early at her, but she had stopped a single step in. The hammer swung before her and once it passed she stepped into his open guard. He was a big man and rushing forward like a bull, but the hammer was heavy and had been strongly swung so his stance was off – training, training, those bad habits were removed only through training. A pivot around his attempt at tackling her, then a boot to the back of the knee.

The big man went down, his weight smashing into the crystal floor.

Angharad leisurely turned around as he rose into a crouch, flicking a lazy cut his way that had him flinching away and swinging blindly at her. She stepped back at that, as if afraid of the blow, and he took that opening to rise back to his feet just as she’d wanted – only for her to dart forward and kick him in the buttocks, back down with his belly flat on the floor. Further back, Aines let out a sound halfway between a giggle and a hysterical fit. Ocotlan, still looking like some deformed creature, flipped onto his back only to find the point of her saber at his throat.

“Stay down,” Angharad mildly said. “The illusion will dispel.”

Whatever it was he heard it made him flinch, but he was more afraid of the blade a single hair’s breadth away from piercing his throat: Ocotlan did not move. Twenty seconds later the Aztlan’s broad face replaced the ogre’s, sudden understanding lighting up those dark eyes.

“Tredegar,” Ocotlan grunted. “I should have known, who else-”

She pressed the tip of the sword against her throat and he fell silent. No mercy for this one, who had been Tupoc Xical’s right hand since they first made common cause on the Bluebell.

“You will follow me,” Angharad said. “You will obey my orders. You will not, under any circumstances, kill inside this labyrinth.”

The big man snarled.

“If you think-”

This time the point drew a drop of blood. She met his eyes, letting every inch of her indifference to his continued existence show in her gaze.

“You seem under the misapprehension that this is a negotiation,” Angharad mildly said. “It would be best to correct that mistake.”

The tattooed man then decided he was willing to take her orders, after all.

Fancy that.

Their next encounter was not a fight.


Isabel was in her arms a heartbeat later, wrapped closed and tight. Over the infanzona’s shoulder she saw Song rolling her eyes at them. She smiled at the Tianxi, seeing she was unharmed, and it was returned. She drew back from Isabel to examine her for wounds, finding that she had been struck. Her lip was bloodied and a little swollen, like someone had punched her in the face.

“Are you all right?” she worriedly asked. “You were attacked?”

“Mistress Song struck me before the illusion was broken,” Isabel told her. “Naught but a trifle.”

Angharad’s eyes flicked to the other woman, whose empty expression must be hiding embarrassment. It must be a powerful illusion the spirit had woven to fool even her silver eyes.

“We getting a move on?” Ocotlan grunted. “This is sickening.”

Sometimes, Mother had taught her, a crew gets a man that is simply a bad seed. If you cannot get rid of them, there is only one thing for it.

“Ocotlan,” Angharad very mildly said, “it sounds as if you are trying to tell me what to do.”

She half turned, Isabel still loosely in her grasp, and met the big man’s eyes.

“Surely you would know better than to do such a thing.”

There was a long moment, then the tattooed Aztlan looked away.

“I was just saying,” he muttered. “Meant nothing by it.”

Step on them, Mother had said. Hard and often, so that the seed will never sprout into a weed. When she turned back, Angharad found Isabel looking at her with wide eyes and the slightest of flushes to her neck. She swallowed, meeting the infanzona’s green gaze, and would have lost herself in it if not for the inconvenient awareness that they were far from alone. Clearing her throat, the Pereduri released the other woman and straightened her coat.

“Let us go forward,” Angharad said. “The others might be in danger.”

They did, and immediately it made a stark difference to have Song with her again.

“Yaretzi and I were split when a slab fell between us,” the Tianxi told her. “I came across Ruesta after and mapped out what I could – I believe the hall is broadly a square and we have gone around the entire right half of the labyrinth. It would mean we are now following the edge of the left half.”

“Then it is only a matter of time until we find the end,” Angharad mused. “It must be at some extremity.”

“Yes,” Song murmured, “and that worries me.”

The Pereduri almost asked why, until she thought twice of it.

“You believe we were guided towards each other on purpose,” she said.

The other woman nodded.

“You have proved able to subdue others without shedding blood,” she said. “And as for me…”

She discreetly tapped her left temple, meaning the eyes. Yes, Song’s ability to see through some of the trickery would be most unwelcome. The Tianxi’s speculation that they were being guided towards the way out of the maze so they could not help anyone else seemed entirely believable.

“Then we must keep a careful eye out for any attempt to herd us away from a passage,” Angharad murmured. “There may well be others behind such a thing.”

Another tense few minutes treading mirroring halls followed, their fears proving more and more true: now the fake reflections were not only attacks but also feigned to be walls or dead ends. The spirit was trying to keep them on a path and would have entirely succeeded if not for Song’s quiet directions. It came to an apex after Angharad turned a corner only for the Tianxi to go still, then raising the butt of her musket and smashing at a wall. There was a crack, to their common surprise, and three strong hits later a small sheet of crystal that had seemed a wall fell to pieces.

“New walls are growing,” Song flatly told them. “I am beginning to suspect that this place is no shrine: it is the god’s own body.”

A disquieting thought for all, but when Angharad announced that the hallway the spirit wanted them to avoid must surely be explored none argued. Their curiosity led them to three turns nearer to the heart of the mirrored hall, where horrid noises echoed. The noblewoman hurried ahead, blade out, and found two false monsters savaging each other. One seemed a lupine horror of scarred flesh and smoke, the other an automaton of rusted bronze dripping green oil – the smoking thing was hitting the other in the stomach, its knife on the floor.

“Stop,” Angharad shouted.

Neither turned or seemed to hear her. An illusion of nothing at all, she thought. Four more steps and the bronze creature traced a circle of burning light on the other’s skin, drawing a bloodcurdling scream out of it, and staggered a step back before raising its blade. She shouted again but went unheard, the monster that could only be Remund striking – only for the blade to be shot in the side as Song’s musket thundered. It shattered.

Not before an inch of it went into the other man’s belly.

The veiled Remund let out a sound like metal being ground, turning towards them in what she knew was fear even through the illusion. The other man staggered back clutching at his wound, and this was no time for carefulness. Angharad barreled between them, pushing the wounded down and slapping away the knife Remund tried to sink into her side. She struck him the belly, as she had done his brother, and as he folded shouted for someone to help the hurt man. Remund, still letting out that infernal noise, feinted low. She let it whisper near her leg, then harshly slammed the top of her head into his nose.

She felt something break.

They backed away from each other after that, the veiled Remund clutching at a nose she could only assume was bleeding, and Angharad slowly moved her saber to be pointing his way. The man paused. Just as slowly she placed the saber on the ground even as she heard Aines and Isabel helping move the wounded man behind her. Remund exaggeratedly put away his knife and she let out a sigh of relief, finally allowing her fingers to loosen.

A heartbeat later both illusions broke, leaving her to look at Remund Cerdan clutching a nosebleed with eyes still wild and wide.

“Fuck,” he said, finding her face. “I should have known from the saber it was you, fucking fucker gods.”

The cursing was particularly virulent by the end of the sentence.

“I wish I could have done it without hurting you,” Angharad said, which as close to an apology as she would give.

A moment later Isabel was brushing past her – sparing a smile as she did – and making a fuss over a pleased and surprised Remund. She took the opportunity to look back, finding that the wounded man was Aines’ own husband. Felis, for that was his name, looked badly off. Not only did he have old cuts from yesterday but he was still bruised from Zenzele’s rage and now he had a gut wound. Relatively shallow, to Angharad’s eye, but gut wounds were always a nasty business.

“No,” Aines was insisting. “We must leave the blade in or the wound will bleed you out. We’ll get you back to the fort, then the doctor-”

“I don’t know if I can walk that far,” Felis moaned. “Not like this. Is Lan-”

“Not here,” Aines sharply said, the worry in her voice thinning. “Come on, up on your feet.”

Angharad looked away, finding Song coming to stand by her side. They shared a grimace.

“We must get him out of here as quickly as possible,” the Tianxi said. “That wound may kill him otherwise.”

She had known that without needing to be told, but it went against her instincts to leave when she would be abandoning others. Tupoc was out there, ready to kill if he had not already, while Yaretzi, Master Cozme and Zenzele were yet to be found. Of Tupoc’s crew the surviving twin, Lan, would still be out there as well.

And Augusto, thoughthatone dyingwould hardly be a loss.

The Pereduri closed her eyes, trying to find a way through. She could think of none that did not involve reaching safety and then doubling back through the labyrinth to the Old Fort so that the Watch physician might see to Felis’ wound. If Tristan were with them it might be different, but… I must speak with him again, Angharad thought. Surely he has had long enough to rest by now. The dilemma ate away at her. Condemn Felis to death or abandon some of her comrades to the possibility of that very same fate? Angharad shivered, a coolness calm and patient spreading through her veins.

The Fisher was watching. Waiting. Where would honor lie?

“We must go soon,” Song murmured. “Felis will only get worse and it is a long way back to the Old Fort, especially if Aines is the only one going back with him.”

Angharad had not even considered that Ocotlan might abandon his comrades, though perhaps she should have. There seemed to be little enough affection between them. Would the spirit even consider them companions under the writ of the bargain? Their like always tried to- Angharad stilled. There it was, her third path.

The Pereduri opened her eyes as the Fisher’s presence withdrew. Disappointed.

“We head for the end of the labyrinth,” she said. “As fast as we can.”

Song’s silver eyes considered her a moment.

“As you say.”

It was not even ten minutes before they reach the end of the crystal hall.

The spirit wanted them out: by the last stretch there had been no false reflections trying to lead them astray, as if the entity was encouraging them to leave. The wounded Felis trailed behind, helped to move by his wife and Isabel’s kindness, but not so far as to ever be out of sight. The final part of the mirrored hall was a straight line leading to a glittering arch, a glimpse of a strange cavern lying beyond. Angharad put a spring to her step, ensuring she was the first to leave the labyrinth, and gestured for the others to stay behind after she did.

Traces of silver light shone on the arch, the spirit revealing its presence.

“Honored elder,” Angharad said, “I have reached the end of your hall.”

“Victor,” the spirit said. “Leave. Unhindered. With. Companions.”

Then she gestured for the others to come out, which they hesitantly did. The silvery glints faded but Angharad cleared her throat.

“You are going back on your bargain,” she said.

The lights returned, flaring bright.


“You are hindering my companions as we speak,” Angharad evenly said. “Those yet within the hall.”


The sound was like crystal being smashed, ice cracking under your feet.

“If I claim them such, who are you to gainsay me?” she said. “I give you their names: Cozme Aflor, Zenzele Duma, Tupoc Xical-”


“-Yaretzi of Izcalli, Lan of Sacromonte and…”

She paused. Tupoc Xical was as far as she was willing to stretch the boundary of truth, mostly so he could not stay in the hall and kill others. Augusto Cerdan she would not claim as a companion even by the loosest of definitions.

“… and that is all,” Angharad finished. “I expect them led out of the hall without trouble.”

“YOU WILL NOT DENY ME,” the spirit hissed.

The lights disappeared and silence followed. The world breathed in, stillness hanging by a thread, and then there was a thundering crack.

In the distance, a span of the crystal hall’s ceiling collapsed.

It was the first stone of an avalanche. The labyrinth began falling apart as if someone had ripped out its seams, walls tipping over or bursting into pieces. It did not turn to rubble, it was not so widespread as that, but what had been a neat hall turned into a yawning ruin over what could not have been more than thirty seconds. Angharad felt gazes burn into her back as one last bit of ceiling plummeted down.

“Lady Angharad,” Remund delicately said, “did you just anger a god so deeply it broke its own shrine out of spite?”

More than that, if Song’s assertion about the crystal hall had been true.

“It appears the hall is no longer breaking,” Angharad said, strategically ignoring the infanzon’s words. “Are there volunteers to look for survivors with me?”

Isabel quickly agreed, predictably joined by an irritated Remund. Song stayed behind to keep an eye on the others. The three of them went into the ruins, scaling rough-edged crystal to wade through the destruction. It was dangerous and exhausting work, for now sharp pieces littered everywhere, but it must be done. For all that their help proved largely unnecessary: Master Cozme found them before they him, having bruised from a falling chunk of crystal but otherwise fine. Next came Zenzele and Lan, the latter having been cut shallowly across the arms by a blade.

“The illusion did not cover blood,” Zenzele told them. “I saw it must be a person and not some monster.”

“And a good thing he did, if I had kept running I would have been under that,” Lan tacked on.

She pointed a length of ceiling twenty feet long and three feet thick. Death would have been instant. Isabel escorted them back through the ruins, leaving Angharad with Remund. The youngest of the Cerdan brothers had been quiet since Isabel’s departure, but he eventually gathered his courage and spoke.

“Should we find Augusto,” Remund said, “something will need to be done. Preferably without others around to interfere.”

Angharad studied him for a moment, then nodded.

“I never finished my duel with him,” she said. “Honor can be made to wait, but never abandoned.”

“Then we have an understanding,” the infanzon smiled.

Only it was not Augusto they found but the other two. Tupoc and Yaretzi were both wounded, but he the heavier of the two. She had a shallow wound on the upper arm, but he had a very thin cut across the cheek and a slab of crystal seemed to have fallen on his foot. Both had weapons in hand, he his segmented spear and Yaretzi a long knife.

“The test is at an end,” Angharad called out. “Lay down your arms.”

Tupoc smiled, but not at them.

“You first, Turquoise,” he said, drawing out the word mockingly.

“Now,” Angharad insisted.

“Or don’t,” Remund casually said. “I rather like our odds.”

Even in the face of their threats Tupoc did not waver. It was Yaretzi who lowered her long knife.

“Peace,” she said. “There is no need for violence.”

“You have,” Tupoc mused, “the most delightful sense of humor.”

“Enough,” Angharad said. “Let us leave this place, there may yet be peril.”

Tupoc put down his spear.

“Have my boon companions all survived, then?” he asked.

“There is one yet missing,” Angharad blandly replied.

“I wonder who it might be, for you to have such an expression on your face,” Tupoc drily said.

He rubbed his chin.

“Still, best to tend to my surviving flock for now,” he said. “I shall leave you to it, Tredegar. For a time.”

He strolled away, only slightly limping despite what must be cracked if not outright broken toes, and left them standing in the ruins. Angharad would have admired the gall, were he not so vile a man. Yaretzi thanked them for the help but had no intention of staying to look for Augusto. She waited until Tupoc was ahead enough she would not have to walk with him and left. The Pereduri continued to comb through the ruins with Remund, but after ten minutes she was forced to admit that there was no sign of Augusto Cerdan.

“He might have died in the collapse,” she finally said.

Remund shook his head.

“Cerdan do not die easy,” the infanzon said. “I will believe him dead when I see a corpse, not a moment before.”

Whether that was sentiment or fear she knew not, but either way she cared not to argue against it. Despite their efforts they could not seem to get close to where she had entered, anyhow, for the way the hall had collapsed had closed off entire sections in practice if not in the absolute sense – it might be possible to topple great crystals or clear sharp fields, given enough time and labor, but both were in sharp supply.

“I cannot see a way back,” she admitted.

“We could scale some of the crystals using my contract,” Remund mused. “But not all the way, it would take too many rings and for too long.”

The only way was forward, then. They could have looked further, but aware there was only so much time to waste here in the ruins Angharad gave in to the practicalities of their situation and they headed back to the others. There she found the crews had split again, Tupoc smiling widely.

“Lady Angharad, we were just speaking of you,” he said. “Have you found path backwards through the hall?”

“There is none,” she said. “Perhaps given time and effort we might be able to make one, but even then for some of us that passage would be… unfeasible.”

She did not need to glance at Felis for him to hear what she was saying.

“We will have to go around, then,” Tupoc casually said. “As I am told you set out to safeguard our lives through bargain with the god, I would return the courtesy. Shall our crews make common cause, at least until a path back to the Old Fort is found?”

It was her instinct to deny him, to insist on their crews going separate ways, but she tempered the urge to answer in haste. The cavern spread out before them was poorly lit, what little light there was coming from pits where translucent blue crystals glowed, but from what Angharad could see there was only one way out. Regardless of her desires she might well be forced to share a road with Tupoc’s crew, so it would be best to settle the relationship between them first.

“I would agree to a truce until we find a path back to the Old Fort,” Angharad said. “Extended to all now present.”

Tupoc glanced at his followers, their exhausted mien and eagerness to avoid confrontation, and snorted.

“Alas, poor Augusto,” he said. “I accept your terms, Lady Tredegar.”

They lingered a little longer in the cavern, preparing to leave, until Felis snapped at his wife. Many looked away in discomfort, Angharad catching only that the man believed his latest wound to be shallow and insisted he would be fine. She was joined by Zenzele, who discreetly drew her attention to a quiet conversation between Tupoc and Ocotlan.

“Are you any good with a musket, my lady?” he asked.

“Passable at best,” she admitted.

She was not untutored, that would have been a grave lack in a noble, but had never taken to it the way she had the sword.

“Shame,” Zenzele mused. “Someone really ought to put a shot in that man’s skull.”

“We are under truce,” Angharad flatly reminded him. “By my own word.”

“We are,” the Malani agreed. “Until we aren’t. The weeds that we do not pull up in this trial may well come to haunt us in the next, Lady Angharad. It might be best to act rather than be acted upon.”

She met his eyes squarely.

“If such a thing is to be done,” the Pereduri said, “it will be after the truce is finished. I will brook no chicanery in this.”

Zenzele Duma hummed, then looked away.

“We still have time,” he said. “For now. Keep it in mind, that is all I ask.”

It was arguable whether to plan on an attack immediately following the end of the truce, as Zenzele had been implying should be done, would be a breach of honor. It was a fine line, for in some sense to plot was to act, but it would not be going against the words exact. Yet these were a hiltless sword and not one she wanted to grow used to wielding. If there was to be war upon Tupoc Xical, she thought, let it be done the right way. Not cloak and dagger business, barely keeping to the finest lines of honor. Unsettled, she sought out Song so the two of them might take the vanguard.

She found the Tianxi leaning near the opening in the cavern wall, cloak pulled tight around her as she kept an eye on Felis and Aines. The married pair had, at least, ceased arguing.

“What is it you look for?” Angharad asked.

“Trouble,” Song replied. “But it is too late to avoid, I think.”

“It has been a long day already,” she tiredly agreed.

“We may have to pass the night out here, if we do not find a good path,” the Tianxi told her. “It would be wiser than to force a trip back when we are all tired and making mistakes.”

“I would avoid sleeping out here if we can,” she muttered. “There was something about that spirit, Song, that unsettles me still.”

“So you noticed as well,” the other woman approvingly said.

“There was something wrong with it,” Angharad said. “You said the hall might be its own body, I recall. Why would it wound itself so, however much I angered it?”

The Tianxi’s face was grim.

“I begin to wonder if it was not a body instead,” she replied.

Did she perhaps mean a corpse?

“A dead spirit, like the screeching thing we encountered?” the noblewoman skeptically asked. “It seemed too cogent for that.”

“The Watch told us that the gods in the maze eat each other,” Song said. “What if it not so simple as devouring, though? What if instead of consuming the vanquished, the victor… hollowed them out, so to speak.”

“A puppet,” Angharad slowly said. “You mean to say that this was a dead god’s shell with another playacting through it.”

“That would make it well worth to collapse the hall for a chance at of one of us dying,” Song said.

“But why feign to be another?” she asked. “I see no gain in it when it could simply place its own test instead.”

“I do not know,” the Tianxi admitted. “There is something off about the Trial of Ruins, Angharad. The way it is built, the rules of it. For there to be multiple paths for us to take but the requirement of ten victors at the end? It encourages us to go into smaller groups, fewer than ten, and take risks.”

“What would the blackcloaks gain by seeing us dead?” she asked. “The Dominion of Lost Thing is a method of recruitment, they would not want to throw away lives aiming to swear themselves to the Watch.”

“That is what bothers me most about it,” Song said, brushing back a strand that had come loose of her braid. “But it is not in here we will find answers.”

“Victory makes a moot point of that mystery,” Angharad said. “Best to triumph first and then spare the time to turn over the stones.”

She could see Song disagreed but they did not argue the point. They fell in together, taking the front as was becoming their habit. Their assembled company left behind the eerie cavern, heading into a broad tunnel whose walls occasionally sprouted the same translucent crystals. A few minutes saw their presence thinning, however, until they were entirely gone and the natural stone of the walls turned ornate. Every inch of them was sculpted, faces snarling and grinning. Beasts and men and devils, hundreds of eyes leering at them from every direction.

Every slice of lantern light revealed bared teeth and unblinking stares, as if their advanced was being spied upon.

“I’ve felt less threatened by people threatening to cripple my legs and leave me to die,” Lan noted. “Are we sure we want to keep going this way?”

“There is no other path,” Song replied. “Unless you want to try your luck with the ruins?”

“Hint taken,” Lan cheerfully replied.

She heard Zenzele snort. Setting aside her own misgivings, Angharad put a spring to her step. Song at her side, they sped through the tunnel until it narrowed so much they had to go in a line instead. Squeezing just past the narrowest point – so tight she had to suck in her breath – she stumbled out into great temple grounds. A rounded chamber spread out before her, its bottom floor a display of iridescent pools and stone gardens while slender steps led up to levels circling around the chamber that were filled with Someshwari prayer cells. The pools were fed by waterfalls, the same iridescent waters falling and casting many-colored light around them.

Stone lanterns hung from the walls, all sculpted to look like a beast’s mouth and filled with a trembling light.

“Gods,” Song gasped out, emerging behind her.

“It is beautiful,” Angharad admitted.

But it might prove dangerous even if a spirit had yet to make an appearance. They got out of the way so the others could follow them in. When Tupoc squeezed through, the noblewoman noticed with a start that the shallow cut on his cheek was now nothing more than a scratch. His limp remained, but it did not seem as bad either. What manner of contract was this? Felis and Aines followed behind, the man batting away his wife’s help – though, in truth, he did not seem in such dire straits as believed. While obviously in pain, now that the blade shard had been removed and a makeshift bandage put in place by his wide he seemed in no danger of bleeding out.

He had been lucky, then, or Remund had struck poorly.

Ocotlan was the last through, and after a minute of struggling against the walls it became plain he was too large to pass. To Angharad’s muted amusement he had to take a hammer to the sculptures before he could squeeze through and even then it was a narrow fit. Song had her musket in hand while the shrine entrance was taken a hammer to – and Angharad kept her saber close – but no spirit deigned to show.

“It might be abandoned,” the Pereduri mused. “Though that seems strange, for it is hardly a ruin.”

“There is more than one way for gods to die in this maze, Lady Tredegar,” Tupoc nonchalantly said. “It seems to me the god of this place might have been better served by a fortress than a palace.”

“We are deep in the maze,” Angharad conceded. “It seems likely the strife between spirits would be harshest here, where fewer of the trial-takers reach.”

If the spirits could not feed on the ensouled, they must feed on each other.

“Best to keep our guard up anyhow,” Master Cozme said. “There is little safety to be found outside the Old Fort.”

They agreed that drinking of the iridescent water seemed a poor idea and that it would be best to avoid touching it at all. Avoiding the bottom floor, they held close to the sides and went up the stairs. The prayer cells were adorned with stone mats, with exactly one relief carved into the wall of rooms of otherwise bare stone. Not a speck of dust in sight. The way out of this temple must be further up, Angharad decided when it became clear there was nothing but cells on the first level. They had gone underground quite a bit since the clockwork temple.

Tupoc gestured for them to halt just before they reached the second floor, already reaching for his spear.

“Something ahead,” he murmured. “Prepare.”

Though she resented how close to an order his words were coming, Angharad did not deny the sense in them. Sword in hand she crouched on the stairs, pricking her ear as she heard footsteps approach. Breathing out, she glimpsed ahead.

(Tupoc pulled the blow before it took her in the throat but Shalini shot him twice in the eye, hands like lightning.)

“Wait,” Angharad exclaimed, getting to her feet. “They are not enemies.”

The muzzle of a pistol peeked past the corner, followed by Shalini’s surprised face.

Tredegar?” she asked, then looked past her to the rest. “Huh.”

The Tianxi soldier Yong, sword in hand, joiner her a moment later as Tupoc laid his spear on his shoulder. Their entire crew was there, she realized. She sheathed her sword.

“Peace,” Angharad called out. “It seems we have matters to discuss.”

Tensions ran high, but with no crew inclined to fire the first shot a truce was established. Lord Ishaan revealed they had found an easy path deep into the maze, past a trial of illusions that saw Acanthe Phos cheat copiously with her contract, but that after that a series of dead ends had kept them on a road straight to this very temple – though they came in through the fifth level. They had been here for hours now and it took little prompting for the Someshwari to show Tupoc and Angharad why.

“This is it,” Lord Ishaan said. “We thought them the only way out of the temple but we must have missed your entrance.”

“It is now a dead end anyhow,” Tupoc told him. “The god collapsed its own shrine for spite of failing to take our lives.”

Angharad only half paid attention to their talk, eyes on the gates Ishaan Nair had led them here to see. Three great circles of stone, looking almost like man-sized Aztlan calendars with all their complex radians and concentric circles. Around the rim of every gate was an elaborate stone contraption, each bearing a single needle pointing inwards and moving so slowly around the gate it seemed still if you did not pay close attention.

“- waiting until it opens,” Lord Ishaan said. “The fourth floor is the most luxurious, so we prepared to camp there.”

“You believe the gates will open, then?” Angharad asked.

“They will,” Tupoc replied in his stead. “This is a cyclical calendar, though I do not recognize the god it is dedicated to. Regardless, the engravings give clear time of prayer.”

He tapped the first gate with a finger.

“The seventh hour,” he said, then moved to the others. “The tenth. The fourteenth.”

“We came to similar conclusion,” Lord Ishaan evenly said.

“Odd hours,” Angharad mused. “The sequence does not seem obvious.”

“Numbers dedicated to the god, I assume,” Tupoc said. “Whichever that might be.”

A second look at the speed of the needle and the hours the Izcalli had spoken of allowed her to gauge how long there was left, which was not until tomorrow.

“It seems we will all need to spend the night here,” she finally said.

“Indeed,” Ishaan Nair said. “A more elaborate truce seems in order.”

It was not a difficult bargain, as none were inclined to fight. Lord Ishaan was given right to take the earliest gate in exchange for allowing them to share the fourth floor with his crew – the Someshwari admitted there were water wells and genuine sleeping chambers on it, a luxury they all desired – while Tupoc offered to take the third gate in thanks for her ‘invaluable help’ through the crystal hall. She misliked the ironic tint to his words, but not enough to refuse the offer.

After that, they all settled in for the night.

The room on the fourth floor were much preferrable to the prayer cells, as Ishaan had said.

There were wooden beds – without sheets, but Angharad had her own bedroll – and her chambers had a stone basin that she filled with water from the closest well. Most lovely of all was that every room had doors, which could not be locked but could at least be closed. Sleeping chambers were claimed in clusters, all three crews sleeping close and away from their competitors, so she saw little of the others save for a smile shared with Brun. At once tired and energized, she retired early to her room and found herself laying on the bed while looking at the ceiling.

The air was oddly warm here, enough that even in an undertunic and underclothes she could not decide whether she wanted to be inside the bedroll or not. The dim light coming from a small hole in the ceiling did not help, tracing by shadow the silhouette of everything in the room. Rolling around restlessly, she tore her gaze away from the disturbing mosaic on the ceiling that showed black birds falling from the sky like rain and closed her eyes. Surely if she kept at it long enough sleep would ensue. Angharad did not want to approach tomorrow tired and- she reached for her blade the moment she heard the level lock of her door begin to move.

Unsheathing the saber silently as she padded across the room on bare feet, Angharad pressed against the wall to lay in ambush. The scabbard she propped up against the wall, breathing in shallowly when the door to her chambers opened and then just as quietly closed. The assassin took one step, a second and Angharad struck – only for her blade to halt a hair’s breadth away from the throat.

Isabel Ruesta looked down at the steel and swallowed.

“Angharad,” she whispered.

Isabel, she realized, wore nothing but a pale sleeping shift. Sleeveless and with a low neckline that pulled taut at the breasts, pressing them up to draw the eye. The dark-haired beauty’s cheeks were rosy and there could be no doubt as to why another woman who come into her rooms at this hour so dressed. A night visit, and the tension went out of her shoulders – she was not unfamiliar with this game. She took away the blade.

“Isabel,” she replied, then hesitated. “We cannot.”

There was no telling who might be watching, in this strange temple, and too many potential eyes. Tupoc would be looking for anything to hold over her head, and she was not sure Lord Ishaan would refuse an opportunity to sunder their crew. Which a shared bed between them might well achieved, however unfair it might be: Remund would be livid, and if he left Cozme would go with him. Isabel’s eyes widened with surprise, and something altogether colder before the infanzona wiped it away.

“I had not thought you so cowed by House Cerdan,” she evenly said.

Wounded pride bled out every pore. Angharad would have fared no better, had she been refused after sneaking in dressed so flatteringly.

“If this were the Old Fort, I would take the risk regardless,” the Pereduri admitted. “But it would be too easy to get caught here, the doors so close, and there are no sanctuary rules to keep blades out of hands should it happen.”

“We would be twice as likely to get caught at the fort,” Isabel sulked. “The blackcloaks are everywhere.”

She had looked pleased, though at the admission. And soon followed with a sly look, stepping close and pressing her cheek against Angharad’s collarbone. Awkwardly, still holding the sword, she wrapped her arm around the infanzona.

“It would be dangerous to return so quickly to the hall,” she wheedled. “Surely you would not want to risk that.”

Angharad’s eyes strayed down a slender neck, to the rounded valleys pressed up by the cut of the shift and felt the test of her resolve.

“It would be too risky,” she allowed, swallowing.

Isabel pressed a kiss against the side of her neck, hiding her face as she whispered.

“And a few kisses, would you deny me that?”

There she held firm.

“It would not stop at that,” Angharad said. “We both know that.”

Isabel snickered against the crook of her neck, a sensation that had her shivering.

“Perhaps not,” the infanzona admitted. “But hold me a while, at least. I would feel your skin against mine before you send back into the cold.”

And Angharad could not find it in herself to again argue against something she wanted so very much.

To that request, she acceded.

Angharad woke to shouting.

We were caught, she thought for a heartbeat, but there was now warmth besides her. Isabel was gone. Relief warred with disappointment over that, though both were scattered by the continued clamor. She stumbled out of her rooms, scabbard in hand, and in the hallway found a dozen from every crew on their feet and armed. Accusations and denials were heatedly exchanged, but she only saw why after a few more steps forward. At the center of the commotion, Aines lay on the temple floor.

No longer breathing, for someone had cut her throat.

15 thoughts on “Chapter 26

  1. Earl of Purple

    Oh, no. Poor Aines; I suspect Felis, as only Tristan knew that part of their game. Yet that also seems too easy, I can’t think of any other suspects. Not good for Tupoc’s crew, two down so quickly.

    I also find myself wondering if perhaps his contract is another thing entirely, a boon from the candle priests of aether machinery or some such thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. morroian

    Great chapter, probably my 2nd favourite Angharad chapter behind the one with Fisher. So it seems others are coming to the same conclusion as Tristan that all is not as it seems with the trial. I’m very interested in reading what happens. On Aines could it be the same person that tried to frame Tristan?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wraith

    I’m beginning to have a certain suspicion that a number of incidental details and incidents are in fact connected.

    If we assume that the two night murders of women we’ve seen so far in this story share a common cause I have a bit of a crack theory as to who is truly responsible: our good friend Brun.

    We have lots of weird details with regards to Brun: he gets twitchy and seems…unusually prone to killing, what with the defeated hollow on the bridge and that moment when Augusto Cerdan betrayed the band. He gets hungry surprisingly quickly. He was seemingly courting Briceida under false pretenses. He’s extremely evasive about the true nature and function of his contract and his god is ‘loud’. He seems like a bit of a social chameleon with how Tristan notes he’s got some sort of agenda. Additionally, we know whoever killed Lan’s sister had a contract that could put people to sleep, which rules out pretty much every contract holder we know of save Brun and Ishaan Nair.

    None of this is precisely conclusive but it would tie a lot of things together if something to do with Brun’s contract involves hunting and killing people, given that it is said to be more sensitive to people than hollows and more sensitive to hollows than animals. It doesn’t truly seem to be good for tracking like Acanthe’s is, which suggests another purpose.

    There’s another element which lends credence to the two murders being connected. If we consider why Aines may have been targetted, and ignore the possibility it is Felis who killed her, there’s a certain criteria that makes her selection very plausible. If someone wanted to kill a person who was not an asset in the maze, and who did not already have a trial victory so far, who would be targeted? The only people who fit both categories are arguably Aines and Lan. If Lan were the one murdered, it would immediately lead to suspicions that the two killings were connected and the person framed for her sister’s death isn’t around to blame.

    This is all a really long post to say that a lot of circumstantial evidence and vague assumptions would make Brun’s complicity in these murders make a lot of sense. I could be totally off base but my suspicions have been raised.


  4. CantankerousBellerophan

    It occurs to me that we do not know the nature of Isabel’s contract. We have been told it is for ensnaring the affections of others, but nothing else. So far, it has not been used to twist someone’s sexuality (hence its complete lack of effect on Tristan), but it cannot be certain that is truly a limitation.

    Furthermore, we do not know the mechanism of action. Is it illusion, making her appear perfect in the eyes of others at all times? Direct mental manipulation of her targets? Something like the Fisher’s boon, allowing Isabel to see the emotional impacts of her actions prior to taking them? None can truly be ruled out. All we know is that she is a manipulator. As Tristan noted, she is a snake who wants to eat other snakes.

    I obviously approve of this, but wonder at the cost.

    Moving on, there is one mystery about this entire place which nobody has yet considered: the question of entropy. So far as we know, new energy, in the form of defeated competitors, is only introduced to the closed system of the maze sporadically. At least ten souls are required to survive this trial in order for anyone to advance, which implies very few souls are lost, proportional to the number of gods imprisoned, per year.

    So what is staving off entropy? We know gods can devour each other, but the multitude of gods even at the back of the maze implies this is not a common occurrence. If it were, then at some point through the centuries all of the gods would have been consumed by one, with only one shrine remaining empowered. After all, systems of consumption trend ever towards monopoly. Are we to assume that a single soul can sustain a god for years? Likely not, given the insistence by the Children of the Red Eye upon the provision of many. Is there something preventing gods from eating each other? Are the Watch adding more gods to the mix without telling anyone, using it as a secret prison for forces they could not vanquish?

    I think that the most likely. It would explain why they summarily execute anyone forming a contract with one of the bound gods. It might be privy to secrets the Watch desires kept. Were that the case, though, why feed the prisoners at all?

    What do the Watch want? If it’s power, they already have it: their members are seen as inviolable by all but the most desperate. If it’s prestige, there are none more prestigious. They are well known as the slayers of Saints. If it’s money, this trial does not get it for them, not commensurate with the significant resources expended on maintaining their presence on the Dominion. If it is maintaining the status quo, however…

    We already know at least one god which desires an end to it. The Fisher desires freedom, and the Watch are currently positioned to be the ones keeping it contained. It seems, for now, that gods have no concept of solidarity, working as they do through individual human champions working at cross purposes with each other and usually for those maintaining the circumstances of their oppression. If they collectively wanted more freedom, they are not seeking it effectively. What if the Watch are helping to maintain that, too?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. passerby

      the watch seem to be guardians of a sort, specifically against dangerous gods getting out of hand. in which case that may well be half their purpose with this trial, keeping things stagnant so these gods don’t get out of hand, providing less energy than they use up fighting. the idea that consumption leads towards monopoly only works if one can get a significant step over the rest and stay there, but if the system is more like crabs-in-a-bucket then it’s much harder, if a god get’s too far ahead then other gods may well unite against the threat. the trial takers then serve a useful purpose, one they test for some skillset the watch desires, two failed trial takers provide energy to the system though potentially less than is used in a year, and three they give a focus for the gods to be distracted by since there are nice clear rules to getting energy that doesnt involve fighting another god and failure is on the god who placed the test. (i actually think the crabs-in-a-bucket idea is likely if indeed the crystal god was a puppettered shell, hiding how much accumulated power you have would be the way to get ahead enough to devour the other gods, and using shells to collect would let you do that)

      as for the fisher… the fisher seems to be something monstrous, a combat capable future seer is ridiculously dangerous if it actually enjoys fighting and devouring humans. and it looks very much like part of the watch’s job is keeping the bottled evil bottled up rather than all the gods, after all they do have contracted people in their number, likely with some powerful contracts too given the watch handles saints.

      in any case I’d expect us to find out the why’s of this place as things move forwards. between tristan trying to find out about the mechanisms above, and angharad the maze itself with both hopefully getting through the trial in time.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. john

      The Blackcloaks haven’t been around forever, so their infrastructure need not be in a state of perfectly sustainable equilibrium. Perhaps the half-life of divine decay is considerably longer than this structure has existed, so that most of the original set are still present. Hungry desperation would then be due to long time horizons and the security paradox.
      We know contracts often come with costs per-use, and maintaining mere visibility can eventually exhaust weaker spirits. Perhaps the gods of the Trial of Ruins get some lesser sustenance by playing along and acknowledging a victor – enough to recoup operating expenses, but not get ahead.
      We know shrines sometimes close because gods inside are sated, and the Fisher’s “sagacity” can be loaned out, or even permanently lost. Perhaps when sufficiently bloated with soulstuff they involuntarily reproduce by fission: two or more new gods dividing the would-be monopolist’s modular aspects among themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. wraithdream

    I’m beginning to have a certain suspicion that a number of incidental details are in fact connected.

    If we assume that the two night murders of women we’ve seen so far in this story share a common cause I have a bit of a crack theory as to who is truly responsible: our good friend Brun.

    We have lots of weird details with regards to Brun: he gets twitchy and seems…unusually prone to killing, what with the defeated hollow on the bridge and that moment when Augusto Cerdan betrayed the band. He gets hungry quickly. He was seemingly courting Briceida under false pretenses. He’s extremely evasive about the true nature and function of his contract and his god is ‘loud’. He seems like a bit of a social chameleon with how Tristan notes he’s got some sort of agenda. Additionally, we know whoever killed Lan’s sister had a contract that could put people to sleep, which rules out pretty much every contract holder we know of save Brun and Ishaan Nair.

    None of this is precisely conclusive but it would tie a lot of things together if something to do with Brun’s contract involves hunting and killing people, given its sensitivity to people in his vicinity. It doesn’t truly seem to be good for tracking like Acanthe’s is, which suggests another purpose. If his god is ‘loud’ because they’re hungry…


      1. greycat

        The rule was that if you entered a contract with any of the gods in the maze, you had to tell the Watch about it as soon as you returned. I always wondered why. Maybe so the Watch could arrange to have you killed? Or maybe something less cold-blooded, like keeping extra eyes on you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Earl of Purple

        @greycat: Maryam said to Tristan she was warned against making a contract with a Ruins god, as most that don’t hide it are executed. Those that try to hide their new contract are executed when caught, and I suspect they are always caught. The Watch I think have ways of knowing who has contracts and who doesn’t, and use them at every stage of the trials.


  6. DsylexicWofl

    I think that Angharad killed her. Hear me out, pretty sure that everyone knew that Isabel was going to her room when the pov went to that time, we know next to nothing about her contract.

    We know its manipulative in nature, and that it is very subtle, subtle enough that Angharad has barely noticed its effects. Isabel gerself is very manipulative, as Tristain says, and it would not surprise me if her contract has a trigger for sleeping with someone, or just sleeping around her.

    Which would also tie in to the first death on the island, the twin being killed while everyone slept and Tristain feeling that the sleep was forced.


    1. greycat

      For Isabel’s sake, I hope it doesn’t turn out that her contracted god claims a life every time she has sex. That’s some epic level tragedy.


    2. Sinead

      But Fortuna would have observed Tristan doing the murder if you are thinking she made him do the murder sleep-walking.

      Or are you thinking she got the valet to do the murder sleepwalking and then hide the knife?


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