The days crawled by, every moment a small eternity, and after a week of it, I felt half-mad.
To distract myself, I decided to visit the City of Brass, intent on returning an heirloom we had discovered in Cathinair’s lair, an ornate ring, rubies smoldering with reflected flame, which had once belonged to the noble efreet family Zinlara.
Umbriel and Tarhuun agreed to accompany me to the City, and we headed for the teleportation circle outside of Cradle. The Remidonian soldiers who have encamped there seem to have settled in, and now have an orderly system in place controlling the access to the circle. They record the passage of all those using the circle, and their destination.
(the man who records this is, for no reason apparent to me, chained to the book. I disliked it intensely, but was convinced not to act immediately by my companions. I will look into this further on my own. If the Remidonian army is supporting unwilling servitude…)
In any case, we made no secret of our destination, and let them know we intended to travel to the Plane of Fire. They made no objection to this, though several of the soldiers who overheard approached us before we left, wanting to ask us about being adventurers.
I relayed some small measure of the glories and perils associated with adventuring, which seemed to encourage them, and so I told them to reach out if they wanted to talk in more detail later. No point in letting them wander off unprepared. Perhaps I ought to make a guidebook, though really that’s Yera’s department, if she ever has a spare moment. When I see her again.
The transit to the City was smooth, though there’s no avoiding a certain amount of disorientation with planar travel. As always, the heat made itself known first, inescapable and heavy, and then the exotic mixture of smells that made up the City- smoke and incense and oil. And faintest brimstone.
I felt the tension relax from muscles I didn’t even realize I was capable of tensing. There’s something about this place, for all its oddities, that I really enjoy. Oh, certainly, some of it is to do with the fire, but…it’s also the things I don’t see- the sideways glances. The immediate suspicion. A tiefling, here…just another passer-by. It’s refreshing.
As usual, we were greeted politely by the circle guards, and ushered quickly out of the arrival complex onto the streets of the City. The three of us emerged, blinking, into the light of the Plane of Fire in early afternoon, the skies a slowly darkening orange, and headed toward Umbriel’s favorite inn, the Platinum Emporium, to set up a temporary base in the city.
I really must find someplace less…salacious to stay, if I’m going to be here on any sort of regular basis. Duke Norway is already upset about my reputation (though for Rhollor’s sake, does he really believe I’d do any of that?), I can’t give him any additional excuses, even if I never have participated in the worst of it.
As we made our way to the Azer quarter, we passed a couple of the city’s efreeti archer-guard, who had watched us defeat Cathinair, and paused to speak to them, suspecting that they might be able to advise us on the appropriate next steps.
The archers remembered us as well, and greeted us as friendly acquaintances. We told them of our quest, and asked if they could suggest who we might approach to secure an introduction to the House Zinlara. Their battalion- the Angels of Death- being an especially honored one, they told us their very own Captain might be able to help us. We asked a few questions about the Captain’s tastes (it would be terribly rude to arrive without a gift), and arranged to meet our friends, and their commander, later that evening.
The concierge in the Platinum Emporium was, as always, endlessly accommodating, and was easily able to acquire both the gifts and something for Umbriel to indulge himself in while we waited for our meeting.
I, of course, remained in the common room, and did not…partake.
But the interlude did give me the opportunity to meet a fellow Rhollorian, which was a thoroughly unexpected pleasant surprise! He was an elf, and introduced himself, rather excitedly, as Delvan. It turns out there’s a temple of Rhollor in the City, and Delvan invited us to return there with him, to be introduced to the Cardinal who oversees the church here.
There was, of course, no question that I would be going, but Umbriel and Tarhuun decided to come as well, since there were still several hours until our scheduled meeting with the Captain of the archer-guard.
Our new friend Delvan was clearly a known figure in the City, and as we walked, I could see people noting that we accompanied him, and not liking it. Our shared faith, it seems, is a misunderstood one, even here in the holiest of Planes. Most kept their opinions to themselves, and neither Delvan or I are unused to side-eye (it was nice while it lasted), so we ignored them and they us.
Except for the demons. Awful creatures. A number of them heckled us as we walked, shouting foul things about our own ancestry and heresy about Rhollor in a mix of Common and Abyssal. Delvan notably winced, but didn’t seem inclined to take any action.
I…could not, quite, match his restraint. The things they said…!
That being said, it seems even a flock of vulgar demons will slink away if they find themselves being publicly shamed by a tiefling girl two feet shorter than they, fluent in Abyssal and perfectly capable of correcting all their heretical nonsense in it too.
So it didn’t come to blows, and I didn’t let them keep saying such things. Totally fine. All worked out.
But a devil- not one which had been heckling, but one lurking in the crowd- followed us as we finished our journey to the temple, and popped up in front of us just before we set foot on the grounds. Papers swirled around him, flashing contracts popping into view and then disappearing back into the current twisting around his arms and chest. He grinned at us, a sharp, quick thing, and sketched a brief bow.
“And how may I serve…?” he asked…looking straight at Umbriel. “You called?”
He did what?!
The devil scowled. “Mortals. Always wasting my time.”
He turned to me with a terrifying swiftness, the annoyance melting off his face like it had never been there, to be replaced by a salesman’s smooth confidence.
“Perhaps there’s something I can offer you instead, darling?”
I opened my mouth to refuse- of course I do not deal with such as he- before catching a brief and almost certainly purposeful glimpse of a name on one of his contracts. Berenthia. Mother.
He caught the direction of my gaze, and smirked.
“You have nothing for me, creature.”
“Oh?” his grin grew, and he let the same contract flash before me again. “Do I not, Abaraxia Therai…?”
Oh, great Hells, he knows my name?
“N-no. You don’t. I have no need of you.”
Curse the hesitation in my voice. I know he heard it.
The devil just laughed, long and loud, shaking his head.
“Sure, kid. Call me when you change your mind.” A puff of brimstone, and he was gone.
Another took his place almost before the air had cleared, a shorter figure in a dark hooded cape, which spoke questioningly to Umbriel in the same glittering language as the devil had used before. This time, Umbriel replied back in the same language, and they began what seemed likely to be an extended conversation. I do not know what they said to each other then; Tarhuun and I withdrew to the temple, with Delvan, and left them to it.
The Rhollarian temple in the City of Brass is a multi-story affair, built in the same golden metals and marble as the rest of the city, adorned with those creatures and symbols most sacred to the Lord- flames, the ram, phoenixes near identical to the one branded on my palm.
Delvan lead us through the tall doors, into a cathedral just preparing for the sundown mass; since the Cardinal would be performing the service, we settled into the pews for mass. Delvan apologized for the delay, but after our encounter with the devil, outside, I was more than happy to have a moment to gather my thoughts and bolster myself with the familiar and comforting rituals of my faith.
The service here was much the same as the one back home, the words of the sermon echoing in my memory in unison with the Cardinal’s homily. The voice was different, of course, and the Cardinal- a salamander with gleaming bronze skin- had a slightly different cadence, but even so, he spoke here, so far away from home, of the same thing I heard each evening: of the return of the sun to its rest, sleeping beneath the horizon as it does each day, and of the lighting of the hearthfires, as we honor the gifts of the Fire Lord even in the darkness of night, and he blesses us with his Holy presence, never fully absent even at our world’s darkest.
By the time mass ended, and Tarhuun and I were ushered back into a private room behind the main cathedral, I felt warm and comforted. So what if a devil knew my name? It’s not as though I’m an entirely private figure these days, a lot of people know of me.
(And how many know your full name, the one even the other tieflings don't know..?)
We waited in the room for a few moments before the door swung open again to admit the Cardinal, still regal in his vestments from mass.
Delvan scrambled to his feet to perform the introductions, and I found myself blushing with the sudden realization I had no idea how to properly greet my superior in the church. It had simply never come up in the temple at Cradle.
Somehow I doubted my usual greeting for Alcadizzar would be quite appropriate.
I bowed, and murmured something about what an honor it was to meet His Eminence, and that I brought with me the formal greetings of the Church of Rhollor in Remidon, trying not to let him see my nervousness.
“Be welcome, child,” the Cardinal said, kindly, gesturing for us to sit. “Praise be to Rhollor for bringing your spark to join us in the greater inferno. I am Cardinal Keldivar.”
Tarhuun introduced himself as a soldier of the King of Remidon, and I introduced myself simply as Abaraxia, paladin of Rhollor.
The Cardinal nodded, and spoke again.
“Our purpose here in the City of Brass is to be the beacon fire illuminating the dark plots of demons and devils that wind through this city’s heart. Especially,” Keldivar said, watching me for my reaction, “one devil in particular.”
The only devil anyone expects me to know is Mother. But…the overarching Rhollorian church is directly concerned with her too, not just those of us in Cradle?
(The prophecies. Am I truly…?)
“Mother, I presume. She does seem to be everywhere.”
“Yes. It's become clear that we will need to be able to access the infernal planes to continue to be effective. But the efreeti control the circles, and so they control that access.”
“I may well be able to do something about that. And I would certainly be happy to assist the church.”
The Cardinal smiled, reaching over and picking up a few items from behind his chair.
“Excellent. Please, take these. We are prepared to share our resources. And this, a gift for you, from the Church.”
He handed me a gorgeous Holy Book of Rhollor, red leather bound in brass and gold, icons hand painted behind crystal in the corners of the front and back cover, which immediately became one of the most beautiful things I own.
The other items he set on the table in front of us- a selection of bubbling potions, two neat bags of currency, and a component pouch.
This last item, Keldivar pushed over to Tarhuun, saying something in draconic, which I have heard often enough to recognize, but do not speak. I can see why so many wizards learn language spells- I speak five languages the old fashioned way, but look at me- twice in one afternoon!
We remained a little longer, speaking to the Cardinal of the state of the church in Remidon, and of the holy sites near the border of Mechanus, where Rhollor’s flame glows in the heart of the great machines. One day, I’m going to go there. When the world stops needing saving for a moment of two. We can take a pilgrimage.
As dark began to truly fall, we thanked the Cardinal for his time, and excused ourselves to prepare for our meeting with the Captain. A young tiefling girl, maybe 14, white horns curling out of midnight blue hair, opened the doors for us, and lingered for a moment after we exited, watching us with starry eyes. Was I really ever that young? I grinned at her, and waved, at which point she made a small startled noise and leapt back inside, the doors slamming shut. Umbriel was waiting for us outside the door to the temple, and we made our way back to the inn.
I chose to approach the meeting as a diplomat, not a soldier, and so I wore a long red dress and my white and gold high-collared tunic. I carried my swords, but left the plate in my bag of holding. Tarhuun wore his dress uniform; Umbriel chose to remain in his usual armor, though he has lately taken to sporting one of the Brass City’s tunics over the whole thing as well. It would do.
We met with our archer friends, Red and Blueby, and they lead us to the Captain as promised. The Captain of the Angels of Death seemed rather skeptical when we entered- it’s become very apparent it’s unusual for foreigners of any sort to have direct contact with efreet nobility here- but I told him the honest truth of why we wanted to speak to the Zinlara House, and Red and Blueby told him of our gifts, and his attitude thawed rapidly. He agreed to reach out to them immediately, and offered to allow us to stay and wait for a reply.
The reply came quickly. Zinlara was quite interested indeed in discussing the return of its lost heirloom, and we were to be brought to their estate immediately.
The Zinlara made their home in the Efreeti Quarter, and it was immediately apparent when we entered it- firstly, because only a handful of non-efreet walked there, so we were certainly drawing attention, and secondly, from the buildings themselves, which grew increasingly more ornate and opulent as we walked.
We were ushered into the estate and into the presence of a severe and distinguished older woman, who introduced herself as the Countess Zinlara.
“I hear you have something of ours?” she said, once we had returned the social courtesies.
I drew the ring out of my bag, holding it out in my hand. The rubies caught every fragment of firelight in the room, and blazed in scarlet glory. The Countess made a satisfied sound, nodding once.
“Yes. We are interested. And what is your price, then?”
“Small favors for one of your power, Countess. First: I would like you to allow me access to the nine teleportation circles that lead to the Hells.”
The Countess snorted. “Your kind always does end up wanting to go back, don’t you? Well, it doesn’t concern me what you do or why. I can get you access at least up to a certain level; after that, I’m sure you’re a resourceful sort. Done. And?”
I hesitated for a moment, an idea forming. Why not?
“Second, I would like a small home here in the City. A place of my own.”
This request caused the Countess to give me a mildly curious look, but she shrugged, flipping through some papers.
“I’ve several minor properties I rarely visit here in the Quarter. You may pick whichever strikes your fancy. What else?”
I smiled, curtseying and holding out the hand with the ring.
“Third, I merely ask that we might continue our friendly relation with your House in the future. I’m happy to have been of service.”
Countess Zinlara took the ring, looking mildly bemused.
“Well, of course. But surely you should have some sort of treasure, it is a valuable thing, I know how adventurers are. Here…this old thing is a nice enough bauble, if you like.”
She picked a ring off of the table next to her and passed it to me. It was a lady’s wedding ring, a slender gold band with a large diamond set above it. There was an inscription on the inside; I could see a number of characters I recognized as Primordial, but I didn’t know all of the words.
“A vow, from my second husband.” she said, carelessly. The Countess recited the vow in Primordial, the words crackling like fire, and then again in Common, slightly mocking, “with this ring, not even death shall part us”. She barked a laugh, rolling her eyes. “He didn’t even get the wording right. But then, that tells you all you need know of him, doesn’t it?”
I will admit, I barely heard her, gazing down at the lovely ring and twisting it about to view the inscription, the elaborate Ignan words showing me how much I still had to learn about the language. After a moment, I heard another laugh, this one more genuinely amused, and when I looked back at her, she was watching me.
“I know that look, girlie. There’s some man, then?”
“I-” Oh, Hells, why lie? It’s not like the whole of Remidon doesn’t already know. “Yes.”
“And you are a fool over him, aren’t you. Sweet young thing.” the Countess chortled, clearly in an excellent mood. “See how you feel in a decade, I say. Well, keep the ring. Might it work out better for you than it did for my second husband..”
After we left the Countess, we resolved to return to Remidon. Tarhuun mentioned that he had a question for Alcadizzar, so we returned to the temple.
The Alcadizzar in the temple when we arrived was the other one (Al, for this one); I could feel it in the very air around him. I held back, uncomfortable, as Tarhuun and Umbriel spoke to him about a plan to bind the teleportation circles against incoming teleports from specific types of beings, this, apparently, having been part of Tarhuun’s conversation with Cardinal Keldivar. Al confirmed what Keldivar had said, and advised on additional necessary components (including brimstone harvested from hell. Well, I suppose we’re going there anyway.)
Umbriel raised an eyebrow, looking at me. “Not even going to say hello to your boyfriend?”
“It’s not…he’s not really my…I don’t want to…” I took a deep breath. “He’s not real.”
“You know….it does hurt when you say things like that, Abaraxia.” Al said, quietly. “I know you don’t feel the same way about me as him, but…I still feel exactly the same way about you.”
It struck me like a blow. Gods, how were we supposed to navigate this without breaking each other? He was, and he wasn’t, and I needed him in my life, and I missed the real one down to my bones.
“Al, I…I’m really sorry. Can we maybe talk? Privately?”
Sometimes, all a relationship needs is a frank talk, though it is no one’s business but ours precisely what we spoke about. What Al and I have is not the same as my relationship with Alcadizzar; it cannot be, because in so many ways they’re so different. The world looks vastly different from a perspective of months than centuries. But they want the same things at their core, and they feel the same way, and I love him. It will work. We’ll be okay.
My life has gotten so very complex, and there are no longer any simple choices. Rhollor grant me the clarity to find the brightest path through it all.
Don’t we all deserve a happy ending?