Having found themself separated from their companions, Dovetail was in something of a hurried panic through the misty dark in which they presently wandered. Half a minute ago, they had been in a large room that was very much not a dark void. Now the room was nowhere to be seen.
When they walked back to where it had been, there was nothing. Just to be sure, they took a few extra steps forward, only to wind up walking directly into a wall. They shook their head as the mist cleared, rattling a loose bolt in their jaw and revealing a large glass screen before them in an otherwise empty chamber made of slate.
On the other side of the glass was a lengthy obstacle course of ice and steel. On one end of the course was a modest stone door, and on the other end was a comfortable cage containing Elma del Ennington. In the center, hanging from a rope, was some kind of tube.
“Hello?” came Elma’s voice. “Is anyone there?” Dovetail could hear her as though they were in the same room.
“I am!” they assured her, and Elma jumped.
“Where? I can’t see anything, I – I’m blind!” She began to breathe heavily.
Gears literally spun in Dovetail’s head as they assessed the situation. “I’m in another room” they said. “This is a test. It’s not about religious faith, but faith in each other. There’s an obstacle course in front of you. I think you’re going to have to navigate it with my help.”
Elma gasped, but took a deep breath. She nodded. “Okay. I trust you, Dovetail. What do I do?”
“For starters, do you feel a handle? You’re in a cage…”
The pair took it slowly at first, with Dovetail instructing Elma a single step at a time as she made her way up a ramp and jumped across a short gap.
“Hey, this isn’t so bad!” Elma said after landing firmly on the ground.
But as Elma scaled a wall with the help of ropes, handholds, and careful description, the pair began to struggle. As the half-elf reached to switch from one rope to the other, her hand missed and one of her feet slipped out of the hold. She yelped as she supported herself by one hand and flailed to reach the rope she had been on initially.
“There’s a mother land gold on your left!” cried Dovetail, “and the rope is rust a spittle fur-burr trout!”
“Speak clearly,” snapped Elma, “please!” After a struggle, she grabbed hold of the rope with both her hands, and took a deep breath. Dovetail spoke slowly, choosing their words carefully. Elma took painstaking, shaky movements the rest of the way up the wall, and collapsed onto the top in a heap.
For several minutes, Elma sat with her legs crossed atop the wall, not yet committing to the balance beam leading to the rest of the course. “Dovetail?” she asked. “Why do you insist on being polite to Kyund? Or rather, why do you insist I be kind to Kyund?”
“I insist on being kind to everybody!” Dovetail said. “It’s the way I was raised.”
“Even if someone is cruel?”
Dovetail faltered a moment. “He – he wasn’t actively hurting you. He just has…disagreements…about your faith. He was trying to be nice about it at first.”
“Civility is not the same as kindness,” said Elma. “Disallowing us to participate in his city’s culture, even politely, normalizes the idea that we do not belong. I’ve seen it before, in the small village where I grew up. It was technically on Grandian soil, but they allowed us to stay on certain conditions. Everyone there worshipped the moons, so they used us an excuse not to allow Cylgin into their cities – ‘Oh, just go to Alithea, they’ll take you in.’ And they stole our labor and our resources, since we did not partake in currency.
“Over time, their demands grew. They always sounded reasonable, polite even. After all, the other citizens had to pay taxes, it was only fair that we handed over our fish and our vegetables, ensuring we only subsisted and never thrived. That politeness only lasted while we played their game. When my sister Faye got the Purple Plague, and I hid our fish portions from the tax collectors so she could have more, they started to take more of everyone else’s to make up for my family’s poor output. When I protested and came clean, thinking surely these men of Sol, god of neighborly kindness, could understand my reasoning, the façade vanished.
“They dragged me out of my home by force, brought me before my people, and beat me with the pole of my sister’s fishing rod. One strike for each of the thirty fish I hid. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life, or so scared. Who knew what they would do to us now that they knew we would watch as one of our own was bloodied before them? I can still hear the sound of the thwack against my skin. I can still feel the hoarse cries in my throat. I still have the scars.”
Things were quiet for a somber moment. “I’m so sorry, Elma,” whispered Dovetail.
“It’s okay,” she said “I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I know not all Sol worshippers are bad news, I’ve gotten along well with even some of the more devout Solarians. But when I meet a man who reminds me of the ones who hurt me…it’s difficult to contain myself.”
Dovetail processed all of this for a short time. “Do you want me to be mean to Mr. Kyund, too?”
Elma chuckled. “No, Dovetail. It’s alright to be polite, so long as you still fight for what’s right. Wow, that was a rhyme and a half!” She cleared her throat. “All I ask is that you respect my temperament.”
“Consider your peppermint reflected!”
The half-elf rose to her feet steadily. “I knew you’d come around. You’re a sweet little metal thing, Dovetail. Now, shall we keep going?”
Elma was able to cross the beam with caution and poise. Thereafter, she grew more confident in her senses. Clearing the monkey bars and crawling through the correct tunnel of three choices was almost no struggle at all. As she climbed and jumped her way up the platforms leading to the strange tube in the center, Elma found herself delighting in this once-harrowing challenge.
“This is actually pretty fun,” she said. “You’re no Bagel, but we make a decent team!”
“Absolutively! Speaking of Bagel, I wonder how he and Kyund are doing with their challenge…”
“What could you possibly know about the Cylgin?” snapped Bagel as he hung painfully from a ledge he could not see. Kyund had led him astray in a maze of planks – purposefully, Bagel was sure – and the pixie had nearly toppled to his demise. The wound in his torso stretched against his skin as he pulled himself up, threatening to open once again.
“More than you know,” Kyund grunted. “Back when…hmph, it doesn’t matter. Turn around, slowly. Yes, good. I see now that there’s a short hop that I could not make out at first. Don’t scowl like that, why would I try to kill you? I’m in a room with nowhere to go.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Bagel as he took a leap of faith, relieved to find solid ground beneath him when he landed, “maybe your constant aggression makes me doubt you’d suddenly become a font of good will.”
“Do you want to make it out of here or not, tiny man? Take a few paces forward. Do you feel how the path splits, like a ‘v?’ Take the left branch. Carefully, yes. That hanging tube is just ahead. You’re going to need to perform a most challenging maneuver here. If I’m seeing this right –” “What do you mean if?” “—the road stops just ahead, and the nearest floor is a way to your right. You need to jump and hang onto the tube and swing to the right in order to land safely.”
Bagel tensed. “You’re sure? There’s not another way around? That’s way harder than anything so far! Maybe this tube is a red herring.”
“Sol does not place ‘red herrings.’ Maybe it is a trick of your moon goddesses, however…”
Bagel huffed. “Or a trick of a treacherous kamenclo.”
“You may stand on that ledge and freeze to death here, or you can trust me.”
“That’s not the easy choice you’re making it out to be. At least if I fall, it’ll be quick.” Every movement stretched Bagel’s nerves taut, and his step back as he prepared to jump set his muscles screaming. Without sight or flight, Bagel felt less like a four-hundred-year-old pixie and more like an infant.
Before he could think about it much more, Bagel pushed himself off the ledge and reached out before him. He had less than a second to recognize the feeling of the sleek metal tube in his hand, adjust his position, and hold on. The tube snapped free of the rope that held it as Bagel twisted his body to swing the rope rightward, granting unexpected and unwanted momentum as he tumbled onto the next walkway in a heap. He just rested there on his back a moment, panting.
Kyund breathed a sigh of relief.
Bagel still wasn’t sure what this tube was, but like everything else in this course, it felt sized for a pixie. Perhaps it was simply meant as a walking stick, so he could use his own senses to navigate the environment more effectively. He did this as he completed the maze of half-finished walkways.
“You were going to tell me a story earlier,” Bagel said. “Why you know about the Cylgin. I will endeavor not to be argumentative.”
“Don’t strain yourself,” Kyund mumbled. He cleared his throat. “I spent the first half of my years in Garthcester, a coastal Grandian colony tucked between Dol Belvargamar and Barlagtelen. From the time I was little more than a pebble I served as a baritone in our choir when I wasn’t apprenticing as an architect. Nessa, the woman who taught me my craft, was as devoted to Sol as I was. She taught me that order and stability were mandatory attributes in a kind world as much as they were in a sound building. She taught me that one’s work and one’s passions should never be at odds, and if you can bring them together in any way, that is the happiest way to live. She taught me a great many other things that I also hold dear.”
“She sounds like a wise woman.”
“She is. I wanted to show her how I appreciated her took her lessons to heart by writing and performing an original song to Sol, to be sung at a festival which honored Seader, our local demigod. We were designing the gazebo and stage on which the artistic offerings were to be presented, and Nessa was very excited about the presentation. The look of pride in her eyes when I told her of my plans fueled my creativity for weeks as I composed and practiced my song, and designed the perfect venue.
“Seader was a mermaid and an ardent follower of Sol, but he also protected local sea elf settlements from krakens and pirates, which earned him popularity among the Cylgin in the region. This meant that every year during the festival, our notably pious and insular settlement would see its greatest annual influx of visitors in the form of your fellow moon worshippers.
“The cohabitation was largely peaceful, but my kin did flinch at the ostentatious disposition of the Cylgin. As such, we were always having to put additional rules into place. No roughhousing, no public nudity, no littering, no noise pollution after sundown outside of designated festivity zones. Nothing unreasonable. Yet you can guess how they bristled at the increase in regulation.
“On the morning of the festival, I strolled across Garthcester with my sheet music clutched to my chest. ‘Ode to Form,’ my song was called, and it told of how Sol worked through Nessa and myself and those around me to mold me into the greatest version of myself.
“I was stopped along the road by a group of garish elves who said they had a question for me about the festival. The Cylgin made me uncomfortable, but I obliged nevertheless. They asked me why everyone’s drinks were inspected as they came through the city’s gate. I explained that the previous year there had been excessive drunkenness, and our horoscopists were only ensuring a reasonable alcohol content. The elves asked me, ‘isn’t revelry the point of a festival?’ I suggested that they revel in a way that did not disturb the peace. They scoffed. Why even have a festival I we were going to hamper it with all these rules, they asked. I explained that the rules existed to ensure that everyone could have the best possible time; a happy middle ground for all people. Again, they scoffed.
“‘Rules are just a way to oppress people,’ one of the elves insisted. ‘It’s not about a middle ground, it’s about punishing people who might think differently than those in power. Fortunately, there’s something we Cylgin know about rules. They’re illusions. Illusions that fade away as soon as someone opposes them with enough gusto and poise.’ Another elf reached forward and snatched my sheet music from my hands. When I floundered to get it back, she gave it to another.
“They asked me what I was going to do about it, I said I’d call the guard. Only they correctly pointed out that the guards had much to care about today, and a stolen song would not be handled with enough urgency. As I grew flustered and angry, the elf holding my music said I was going to have to break a rule of my own in order to get it back. I lunged for him, and he took a step back. As my outstretched hand fell just shy of my music, I flexed a muscle I didn’t know I had to reach just a little further. My pyromancy awakened as my first ever burst of flame erupted from my palm, incinerating ‘Ode to Form’ and burning the hands of the thief.
“The elves fled the scene right away, leaving me there agape and aghast. Shame and anger burned through me like never before in my life as flame leaked from within like fiery tears. I didn’t attend the festival that day, and I didn’t use my pyromancy for years. In one act of cruelty, the elves rendered me terrified of my own gifts.”
Bagel reached the end of the maze as Kyund reached the end of his story. “I’m sorry to hear that,” said the pixie. “Truly. But those delinquents are not representative of the Cylgin. Every faith has rotten followers.”
“Hogwash!” snapped Kyund. “They weren’t just some hooligans, following their whims. Those elves cited the same ideology that all the Cylgin follow; a distaste for rules and an emphasis on following their base desires.”
“But we are a peaceful people. We are not the selfish hedonists many believe us to be. We merely seek beauty, love, and freedom.”
“It always starts that way.”
“Can we just focus on the obstacle course?” asked Bagel, tapping the tube on the ground. “I may be blind, but I can see this isn’t going anywhere.”
“Fine,” Kyund grumbled. “There’s a small gap just ahead. Then you’ve got an incomplete staircase coiling around a tower. Yeah, right…right there, you got it. Careful…keep to the left, it curves. Stop! Okay, you’re going to need to jump…” After a time, as Bagel dangled from a loose platform near the top of the tower, Kyund said: “What about you, little man?”
“Mmph?” asked Bagel as he pulled himself up, nearly losing grip of the tube in the process.
“What is it that makes you so superior to me?” he asked. “You know an awful lot about Sol for one who deplores him so.”
“’Understand thine enemy,’” quoted Bagel, “’so thou might come to love or undermine them as needed.’”
“Quit playing games. Or I won’t tell you what’s up ahead.”
Bagel grew silent and went about the perimeter of the circular tower, feeling along the edge with his tube for a way forward. Finally he found one, only it dropped sharply, though at enough of an angle to slide down or descend very carefully. He could see Kyund clearly in his head, stone face twisted into a smug smile. Bagel was proud, but he wasn’t looking to die.
“Alright,” said Bagel, returning to the center of the circle and sitting. He fiddled with the tube a moment, and realized that it had a lid on one of the ends, like it might be holding a scroll. “Alright…you want my story? It’s a long one, but I’ll give you the good parts. You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I’ve lived a long, long time. Long enough that I was there on the frontlines of the Orichalcum Wars over two centuries ago.” Kyund made a sound that was difficult to read. Maybe surprise. Maybe disgust. The narrow minded tended to dislike the elves’ and pixies’ tendency to be much older than they appeared.
“I wasn’t a soldier, mind you. Not that pixies can’t fight – we make excellent cutthroats, so I’ve heard. I was located in Dolfeya, commonly known as the Dol Woods. As a child, I had spent half a century at the Northern Home of the Daughters of Sol, a cloister dedicated to Sol among the woods. He wasn’t exactly unpopular there, but it was the only holy site dedicated to Him that I knew of; the Dolfeya natives tended to worship spirits of the forest and the abstract concepts of nature rather than any particular deity, and elves were slow to convert. We didn’t try.
“Life there had been pleasant. I learned a lot there about the world, and about myself. We worshipped Sol our own way there, so far removed were we from Grandia and so intertwined were we with the Dol and the Cylgin and the Orsonists. When the girls there realized that I was not among their number, they did not think me odd or reject me. They said my gender suited me, and that my eyes shone a little brighter after I’d discovered myself. Even the teachers accepted me, after some effort.
“When news came out that the dwarves and Dol elves had gone to war, and that Dolfreya was being burned and mined at an alarming rate, I returned to the Northern Home to render my services as a teacher, a preacher, and a minor medical scholar, having learned many things about poultices and herbal remedies in a short stint among the Dil elves. It was a scary time there in the woods, but the Daughters remained steadfast.
“Together we fortified the border of our land, gathered food for the elves protecting their borders, and healed the wounded we found on our scouting runs. It was this last thing that others found controversial. Most of the wounded repaid us kindly, whether by giving the adults weapons and armor, or by spreading the word that our cloister was a neutral zone. But at the end of the day, a healed dwarven soldier was another soldier fighting against the elves, and a healed Elf Militant, as the anti-war crowd called them, was just prolonging this bloody feud. But still, our reputation was ultimately positive, and many saw us as a beacon of hope in a desperate time.
“One of our patients gave us an idea. He was a traveling dragonkin merchant, wounded on his way through the forest to reach a small port town; might have been Garthcester, actually. He mentioned that down south, in Grandia, they were itching to get in on the orichalcum, but they couldn’t find a legitimate excuse to send aid without taking a potentially disastrous political stance. But if we spread word of our cloister, they could send us help and intervene for spiritual reasons. And so we did, writing letters to nobles all over Grandia requesting their help fortifying our little oasis.
“And aid did come. Within a moon cycle, a small militia arrived in Dolfreya to defend the cloister. It wasn’t long before they extended this purpose to ‘protecting Dol’s land.’ Before long, we looked a lot less like a refuge and a lot more like a barracks, and a knight captain named Edward Bottlehelm even made himself at home among our ilk. He praised us for our spiritual commitment, but took issue with one facet of our operation; if we kept healing the Elf Militants and the dwarven invaders, we would prolong the war, which was of course not Sol’s way. It was making some of our soldiers and refugees uncomfortable to host wounded enemies within our walls – it wasn’t neighborly, they always said.
“The leadership, myself included, remained steadfast in our practice, so the soldiers began to distance themselves from us and our purpose. What they wanted was a swift end to the war, and a reward in the form of access to Dol’s orichalcum mines. We didn’t fit into that picture. Nearly a season later, after the Grandian soldiers had built two other sizable encampments within the woods, they decided to cut us out of it.
“We had our suspicions about what our friends from the south might pull, but we never expected a full-on attack. When their men appeared in our little meadow in the dead of night with torches and axes, we were caught entirely unawares. With hardly a fighter among us, we had little choice but to meet with Bottlehelm, and hear his demands. His demand was simple; complete abandonment of the Northern Home, and immediate relocation to their two encampments. We told them we would think about it, but all we discussed back within our walls was a way to get out of this situation.
“As I stared out up at the stars, wishing Sol would give me his guidance, I saw it; there in the moonless sky, a Theallation clear as day. It was Mercial’s Doublet. Every child in northern Penscarop knows the chorus of Mercial’s Call.”
“‘Run, little kitty, run little kitty,’” Kyund sang under his breath, “‘The hounds’re gonna get you and it won’t be pretty.’”
“I saw the wisdom in this, as much as I hated it. They waited for us to emerge from the front, so we used this opportunity to flee from the back. It didn’t take long for the soldiers to hear the panicked children, and they set the torch to the Northern Home almost immediately. Those who could fight, including the wounded in our beds, stayed behind to delay Bottlehelm. As far as I know, they died for their selflessness. Following Mercial through the woods took us on a dense and bumpy path, both frustrating and painful to navigate. We surely wouldn’t have made it without their aid.
“After over an hour of running, I began to doubt this would lead us anywhere valuable. I felt foolish. Had I let these children down? Just before hopelessness convinced me to turn around, I saw my faith rewarded. Up above the trees I saw a wooden sigil: two overlapping crescent moons. With a resurgence of hope and energy, I urged everyone up the hilly path before us. At the top were a series of huts, built so precariously they seemed about to slide downhill. It was their church in the center that caught my eye – the church of the Cylgin.
“The elves there welcomed us with open arms. When the swords and torches made their way up the hill to their homes, they remained steadfast that we were part of their people now, and that theirs was a neutral party. The soldiers left, and I have been faithful ever since.”
“Hm?” asked Bagel. “Is that all you have to say?”
“It is a good story,” said the pyromancer, “and my heart goes truly to your hardships. But those men do not represent Sol.”
Bagel slammed the tube against the ground. “What!” he snapped. “They came to aid us because we worshipped Sol. They expelled us in His name. How can you say that?”
“Because Sol does not represent anyone in wartime. His kindness is a peaceful kindness, and cannot be said to –”
“I’m not talking about Sol! I’m talking about you! His followers! This is what you do every time you face criticism. You’ll use neighborly kindness to justify all the hate and discrimination in the world until one person goes too far. Suddenly that one instance of religious prejudice has nothing to do with Him.”
“You’re just hateful.”
“It’s happening right now, you enormous lunk! Why is it okay to expel Elma and I because we bother volunteers, but not to expel the enemy wounded because they might upset the allied wounded?”
“I relented,” said Kyund. “I don’t want to have this conversation if you’re going to raise your voice. You need to take the decline like a slide. You walked past a bucket; it may be full of lubricant. It ends in a ramp, and there are obstacles on the way – small walls. I will direct you when to –”
“No!” shouted Bagel. “I’m not taking your advice anymore. I have this stick, I will figure it out.”
“You will die,” said Kyund. “What possible reason would I have to hurt you?”
“Who knows! You’ll probably rationalize it later by saying my yelling wasn’t very neighborly.”
“Well. It’s not.”
Bagel took a step forward, and immediately began to slide down the hill more quickly than he imagined. He lost his footing, and fell into a painful roll at once, clutching tightly to the tube, which pressed roughly against his chest and chin as he went. He cried out in pain as he hit the first wall.
“To the right!” yelled Kyund. “Now left, quickly.” Bagel adjusted his trajectory and narrowly missed another obstacle. With Kyund’s direction, he dizzily avoided the ensuing obstacles, but the pixie was concerned that he’d cracked a rib and hurt his jaw. “You’re going too slow,” said Kyund, “you’re not going to make the –“
Sisters guide me, thought Bagel as he felt the ground disappear beneath him. Praying the gap was short enough, Bagel held the tube over his head. It snapped into place, making a perfect bridge between the two sides. He exhaled a painful sigh of relief, and shimmied over to safety.
The wall to Dovetail’s right opened with Elma completed her obstacle course. It opened into a tall, angular chamber with several darkened walls and one bright one adorned with a vibrant, luminescent painting. Illogically, Dovetail could not have told someone how many walls this room had. Was it four, six, ten? Their perception was impaired by whatever magics governed this temple.
Standing before the enormous painting was Kyund. He cradled a bruised Bagel in his arms.
“I can see again!” cried Elma. “Whoa, are paintings always this – Bagel!” She ran to her friend with abandon. He fluttered weakly into her arms. “Don’t strain your wings, pikaya.” Elma glared at Kyund. “What did you do to him, rocky?”
“Perhaps you should ask your cohort what he did to himself.”
Dovetail leaned over Elma, examining the pixie closely. “He will be okay,” they affirmed, “but you’re going to need to hold still as much as you can, Bagel. Your jaw and chest are heavily bruised, but I don’t think you’ve broken anything. Just relax and you’ll recover quickly.” Bagel groaned.
Set into the painting, which pictured celestial bodies in the night sky, was a slate door. In lieu of a handle, the door contained a Tutelary Seal. Kyund opened up the tiny tube Bagel had brought, and examined the paper within. His patience broke like a dam, and fire began to pour out of the spaces between the stones composing his body.
“Kyund?” said Dovetail.
“Lies!” he barked, letting the paper drift to the floor. “Blasphemy and lies!”
Dovetail kneeled and caught the paper before it landed. They examined as they rose, being sure to keep the note away from the erupting pyromancer. The paper appeared to be part of the description of the painting, which depicted a massive winged woman standing atop the Warm Moon, comprised entirely of the moon’s orange glow. She was blowing a kiss at a star, her breath forming glowing strands of solar wind.
“Thea, the Warm Moon, breathes life into Sol”
“Maybe it isn’t a lie,” Dovetail suggested, handing the slip to a curious Elma. “We can’t prove anything about either of your faiths using present tools for astrological observation. Perhaps the people of this temple know something we don’t.”
“They know only falsehoods,” growled Kyund. “Sol is a god of love and creation. He is nothing to these hedonists who only take!”
“More like a god of arrogance and pleasantries!” shouted Elma. “You reject every truth you don’t like! What’s so wrong with Thea being the St—”
When Kyund opened his mouth to interrupt, a jet of flame erupted from his mouth. The fire rising out of his body grew longer and brighter, until the heat was white-hot. Elma almost took a step back, but a sense of awe stopped her. Dovetail stepped between Elma and Kyund once again as the latter exploded in a blinding flash.
Everything in the room went white. When the light faded, only three remained.
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