Part 1: Is There No Solace?
The Anubian’s strides are long and purposeful, and Pallas struggles to catch up.
“Pardon me,” says Pallas, walking up beside her.
Neferu, Death’s champion, turns her head sharply to look at them.
“I was hoping we might walk together,” says Pallas apologetically. “Just for a short while.”
“Walk wherever you’d like,” says Neferu, without warmth.
“We haven’t been properly introduced,” says Pallas.
The Anubian woman regards them seriously. She seems like the sort who does everything seriously.
“Neferu of the Red Sands,” she says at last. “Champion of Death, General of the Pharaoh’s Army. But you knew all that.”
“I did,” they reply cheerfully, sticking out a hand. “I’m Pallas. Champion of Magic, if we must, but I prefer just Pallas.”
Neferu glances at the offered hand, but does not take it. Pallas lets it drop.
“Whatever it is you want,” says Neferu, “I’d take it as a courtesy if you got around to it.”
“Oh,” says Pallas. “Of course. I was just hoping, since I helped you find your trial, that you might be willing to—”
“Helped me?” asks Neferu, incredulous. “How do you figure?”
“Well,” they say, more carefully, “I told you that the First Pillar could be found in the Thanakris Desert, a piece of information that I took, from your reaction, to be novel.”
Neferu stares at Pallas.
“Do you always talk like this?”
“Like what?” says Pallas. “I mean, yes, this is how I usually talk, but I’m curious what you’re referring to.”
“With all those… commas,” says Neferu. “Conditionals, qualifiers, supporting evidence. You talk like a sophist.”
“Ah,” says Pallas. “The sophists at the Academy teach us to talk like them. They seem to feel it’s terribly important. They call it ‘Rhetoric’ and make it mandatory to graduate.”
The ghost of a smile seems to haunt Neferu’s lips, just for an instant.
“Anyway,” says Pallas. “You professed not to know the location of the First Pillar. Although we are not allowed assistance during the trials, we can accept help along the way, and so I disclosed to you what I knew about the Pillar’s location. I find myself unsure how to reach my own trial, and I hoped you might help me in return.”
“No,” says Neferu. “Three times.”
“Three?” says Pallas, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” says Neferu, “because unlike you, I’d be helping the person who got their trial from my own, far less merciful god, and that seems foolish in the extreme.”
“Reasonable,” says Pallas. “And sufficient in itself, honestly, if you don’t want to—”
“No again,” says Neferu, “because I don’t know anything about reaching the Underworld.”
“Hm,” says Pallas. “I was told you’ve actually been there.”
“I have,” says Neferu. “But I got there the old-fashioned way. Took a sword to the head.”
“Ouch,” says Pallas.
“I can help with that,” says Neferu, patting the curved khopesh at her side, “but I don’t figure you’d be interested.”
“Not really, no,” says Pallas. “Alright, that’s two. And, again, more than enough reason—”
“And no a third time,” says Neferu, “because your ‘new information’ didn’t help me in the slightest.”
“It didn’t?” replies Pallas, crestfallen.
“I’ve traveled the Thanakris,” says Neferu, “and I’ve never seen anything that looked like a Pillar of Creation.”
“You have?” says Pallas. “Polydora’s Geography of the Known World says the desert is impassable.”
“I’m sure that’s what Olympian travelers told her,” says Neferu. “What would they know?”
“I don’t know if Polydora consulted any Anubians,” Pallas admitted. “Although if she did, I suppose there is every chance they would keep the desert’s secrets.” They frown. “If the desert is passable, can’t you just go look for the Pillar?”
“The desert is vast,” says Neferu, “and my people stick to specific routes. Obviously this pillar isn’t on any of those routes or I’d know about it. And I’m not about to go wandering off into the Serpent’s Heart looking for it. So it’s no help.”
Pallas blinks, memory suddenly stirring.
“The Serpent’s Heart?” they echo.
“It’s what we call the most dangerous part of the desert,” says Neferu impatiently. “Nothing can live there for long. The only way I’d risk it is if I knew exactly where I was going.”
“There’s an old scroll…” says Pallas, thinking furiously. “It’s mostly nonsense, about the supposed details of how the gods made Eucos—”
“You think it’s nonsense?” asks Neferu, seeming genuinely shocked. “That’s… blasphemy.”
“Thaeriel might say so,” Pallas replies. “And perhaps Malissus would as well. But Elyrian would hardly punish me for questioning that which can be questioned. As I said back in the Arena, the story contradicts reality. The world is round, and the sky is an infinite space, not a flat cloth that needs to be held up by a pillar. These are well supported and widely accepted facts.”
“It sounds like you don’t put any stock in this story,” says Neferu.
“I didn’t, previously,” says Pallas. “But the God of Light just told us to our faces that this place exists, so I’m willing to reexamine my assumptions.”
“Fair,” says Neferu. “You really don’t have to help me, you know.”
“I know,” says Pallas. “So this scroll, the Eucogenesis, is supposed to have been handed down by the gods themselves. It teaches that there are seven Pillars of Creation. The First Pillar is supposed to hold up the sky, and the gods set dragons to guard it so that no one would undo their work.”
“Dragons?” echoes Neferu. “Plural? Thaeriel only mentioned one dragon.”
“That’s what the myth says,” replies Pallas, shrugging. “Thaeriel would know better, I suppose, and he always tells the truth. Although…”
“The God of Light has been known to lie by omission,” says Pallas. “In some stories, anyway.”
“Great,” says Neferu. “Does your Eucogenesis say anything about where this pillar is?”
“I’m trying to remember the exact wording,” says Pallas, mentally scanning through the scroll. “It says the First Pillar is located… ‘where the pharaoh’s gaze pierces the serpent’s heart.’ It never made any sense to me, but if the Serpent’s Heart is a place…”
“It is,” says Neferu. “This ‘pharaoh’s gaze,’ though… I’m not sure what to make of that.”
“Perhaps it just means you need a pharaoh to find it?”
“Ha,” says Neferu. “That would be lucky.”
Pallas cocks their head.
“Oh,” says Neferu, shaking her head. “No, not really. Kidding.”
Neferu tenses, as though steeling herself for something painful.
“Thank you,” she says finally. “That… does help.”
“You are most welcome,” says Pallas.
“I still can’t help you with your trial,” says Neferu quickly.
“I understand,” says Pallas. “Your reasoning makes sense to me, and even if it didn’t, it’s your decision, of course.” They hesitate. “I was wondering, though…”
Neferu exhales impatiently.
“What’s it like?” asks Pallas. “Being dead?”
Neferu thinks for a moment.
“Boring,” she says finally. “Except when it’s harrowing. So… a lot like being alive, really.”
Pallas laughs, then sobers.
“Is there no solace there?” they ask quietly. “No Fair Meadows, no Hall of Heroes? I never took Xenagon’s Thanology for fact, but if you’ve actually been there—”
“There’s the Blessed Rest,” says Neferu. “But only Anubians go there, and even then only a handful of them.” She frowns, seeming suddenly to realize just how bleak that sounds. “Look… I only saw the Anubian afterlife. It was everything I expected, Sothek and Anhotep and my heart weighed against a feather. I didn’t think anything of it, but… maybe the Olympian afterlife is down there too. I wouldn’t know.”
Pallas nods, a lump forming in their throat.
“You’re worried about someone in particular,” says Neferu quietly. “Gods, I’m sorry, I’m being boorish. You helped me even though you didn’t have to, and now you’re looking to me for reassurance and I’m giving you nothing.”
“I prefer knowledge to comfort,” says Pallas. “Always.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer on either count,” says Neferu. “I… lost people too. My whole squad fell in battle that day. The others weren’t in the Blessed Rest with me, although they died every bit as bravely. I don’t know what became of them, or why.” She shakes her head, seeming suddenly much older. “So… Thank you, again. And I’m truly sorry I can’t help you in return.”
“I appreciate that,” says Pallas. “I suppose I’ll see for myself soon enough. Still not ready to try the quick way, though.”
“Can’t say I recommend it,” says Neferu. “Good fortune in your trial. I think I can get away with that much, at least.”
“Good fortune to you as well, Neferu of the Red Sands,” says Pallas.
“Just Neferu is fine,” she replies. She holds out a hand. “Farewell, Pallas.”
Pallas shakes her hand, and the champions go their separate ways.
Part 2: Down to the River
Pallas, Champion of Magic, pauses at the mouth of the cave and eyes the greenish mist seeping out. Ominous. Very ominous.
But then, this entire quest is ominous. You will descend into the Underworld and face champions of my choosing, the Goddess of Death said. Defeat them, or remain there forever. She had at least confirmed that they could be defeated. What she hadn’t done was tell Pallas how to actually get to the Underworld, which had necessitated a lengthy but enjoyable library visit. Now they are here—at one of the few known gates to the Underworld, armed with the knowledge of how to get in. And out again, hopefully, if all goes well.
Pallas reaches into their purse and fishes out a large coin, a golden funerary obol stamped with a skull. They sigh and put the coin in their mouth. It is cold and heavy on their tongue. They take a deep breath, their nose itching at the scent of sulfur, and step into the cave.
The darkness in the cave quickly grows oppressive, and Pallas sets a trio of magelights swirling around them to light the way. The lights’ usual blues and purples turn sickly in the pale green mist.
The sound of languidly flowing water grows louder up ahead as Pallas follows the winding cave down to the river.
“Come on, Pallas!” says Keno. “I’m going down to the river to catch frogs.”
“We have lessons in less than an hour,” says Pallas, looking up from a book and squinting at the shadows outside. “We’d miss them.”
“Then we’ll miss them!” the lanky boy replies. “Come onnnnn!”
“I like lessons,” says Pallas. “Besides, I’m already in trouble.”
Pallas has been censured for unauthorized spellcasting again, this time for inadvertently creating a sizable sphere of complete silence on the edge of the commune green in an attempt to secure a little peace and quiet. The elders say it should fade soon, although they’ve been saying that for a few days now.
“Fine,” says Keno. “You won’t tell on me, will you?”
“No,” they say finally. “Have fun.”
And then Keno is gone.
Pallas sits by the murky underground river and waits, the golden coin uncomfortable in their mouth. They do not have to wait long. A flat-bottomed skiff emerges from the mist and slides to a halt beside them, and a gaunt, robed boatman steps out without a word. The boatman’s face is concealed by a hood, and he carries a long oar.
The boatman tilts his head as though listening, and Pallas’s heartbeat suddenly pounds in their ears. They flinch and point to their mouth.
The boatman reaches up, parts Pallas’s lips with cold, skeletal fingers, and takes the coin.
“Your fare,” says Pallas, running their tongue over their teeth to get the taste of the coin out of the mouth. “I think you’ll find I’m expected, down below.”
The boatman stares for one long moment, then nods and steps aside. The boat does not sway when Pallas steps in and sits, nor when the boatman boards and takes his place at the stern. The boat glides gently from the shore, cruising through the green, murky waters of the River of the Dead.
“Lessons in a few minutes, Pallas.”
Pallas looks up from their book once more to find Nemyra, an adult mage who often rounds up the children for lessons.
“I’ll be there,” says Pallas, as though they already knew, although in fact they’d been engrossed in their reading and might well have missed midday lessons without the reminder.
“Have you seen Keno?” she asks.
Pallas considers for a moment, then shakes their head.
“Hm,” says Nemyra, frowning. “Wonder where he’s gotten off to.”
Pallas shrugs and goes back to their book, and pretends that they do not feel guilty.
“Don’t suppose you get many passengers like me,” says Pallas. “Alive, I mean.”
They’re nervously filling the silence, a habit they’ve mostly shaken during their years at the Academy of Mystic Arts. If you’re talking, you’re not learning. One of the only things of value Pallas’s least favorite sophist had ever taught them—a terrible attitude for a teacher, as it happens, but endlessly useful for navigating a variety of other difficult situations. But there is something about this cavern, the chill mist rolling off the river, the boatman who is certainly no living mortal standing still and silent behind them, that discomfits them intensely.
The boatman does not respond, so Pallas rolls a bit of their robe nervously between their fingers and peers down into the river. Down in the murk, there are wispy little water plants—no. Not plants.
Hands. Human hands, grasping at the boatman’s oar but unable to find purchase. Then the murk parts, and Pallas makes out a face beneath the water, pleading for help—
Lessons are done for the day and the sun is low in the sky when the sounds of shouting and crying rouse Pallas from another book. For a moment they assume it is some simple scuffle among the children, but then they hear adult voices in the tumult. They frown and close the book.
There is a group of adults coming from the direction of the river, carrying something together. All of them are grim-faced. Some of them are crying. One of them, Keno’s father, wails and tears at his clothes. Pallas wants to turn away, but they cannot.
Pallas catches a glimpse of the adults’ burden, finally, and sees what they already know they must—
The boat lurches to a stop on an unremarkable bit of shore obscured by mist, jolting Pallas from their unhappy memory. They look sharply at the boatman.
“Is this it?” they ask, as lightly as they can, but the boatman still does not respond. “I see.”
With a nod of thanks, Pallas steps out of the boat, their sandals crunching on a beach of rough volcanic sand. The boat shoves off without a sound, leaving Pallas alone on the shore.
“Hello?” says Pallas. They raise their voice, but it is swallowed by the mist. “I am Pallas, Champion of Magic, and I am here to face my trial.”
Then a huge shape looms out of the mist, a three-headed monstrosity with six red eyes and two vast black wings. The Guardian of the Underworld regards Pallas hungrily, then lets loose a blood-curdling howl from all three throats.
Thick fog swirls up from the ground, coalescing into spectral humanoid shapes, then taking on more specific forms, with hands, eyes, faces—familiar faces. Elder Procris. Grandfather Taikon. They arrange themselves in a loose phalanx. At the forefront is a small shade, a child, dripping with muddy water that seems to come from nowhere.
“Hello, Pallas,” hisses Keno. “You should have been there, that day. You should have saved me.”
Pallas lifts their chin.
“I am sorry,” they say, voice wavering. “I regret it deeply. But I wasn’t there, and I couldn’t save you. I’ve long since made my peace with that.”
“Your peace?” wails Keno’s shade. “What about mine?”
“I will do what I can,” says Pallas. “Let’s begin.”
As one, the shades rush forward to attack.
Part 3: What You Carry With You
Pallas thinks quickly as the phalanx of shades rushes toward them. Their task is to defeat the shades—as well as, possibly, the three-headed Guardian of the Underworld—and they still have no idea how exactly to do that.
A quick blast of flame shoots from their fingertips and sails harmlessly through the shades’ spectral bodies—no surprise there, but good to confirm. A psychic attack likewise does nothing—spirits have will, but their sense of self is limited. The shades keep coming.
Pallas is hesitant to use necromancy here in the House of the Dead, but it really is the only way to deal with spirits. Just another reason why the Academy’s ban on necromancy is so foolish. Even staid, hidebound Thaeriel lets his priests study how to banish spirits. Fortunately, Pallas has never been one for obeying rules, and knows more than a few spells of necromancy.
They reach out with their magic, into the realm of ghosts, and shred the shades with spectral talons. The ghosts scream as they are torn apart. Behind their fading forms, the Guardian grins with all three mouths.
The shades rise again from the gray, volcanic sand and resume their attack.
Even in death, they may fall, the Goddess of Death had said. But how?
The shades are too close now, and Keno’s shade rakes one spectral claw across Pallas’s arm. The sleeve is unharmed, but the arm goes numb in a wave of searing cold.
Pallas stumbles backward and casts a ward spell against spirits—more necromancy, technically, but of a purely defensive variety—and a wall of blue-white light springs into being between them and the shades. The shades crash against it and tear at it with their claws, ripping holes that knit closed as fast as the shades can open them. That won’t hold forever, but it gives Pallas some time to think.
“It’s your fault,” growls Keno’s shade, through the veil of light. “Your fault I’m dead.”
The other shades are speaking too, about whatever failings of Pallas’s they can point to that might have made their lives harder or their deaths swifter. Pallas finds this easy to ignore, after a lifetime of practiced inattention to bad-faith criticisms. Keno… is harder to dismiss.
“You should have told them where I was,” says Keno. “You should have come and looked for me.”
“Be quiet,” says Pallas. They create a sphere of perfect silence around themself and sit down to think, watching the shades soundlessly rip into the ward-wall. A few small, ragged holes have formed that will not seal, so Pallas doesn’t have much time left.
Physical attacks of any kind seem to be out, including magical ones. The shades have no form, no substance. Mental attacks likewise. And spiritual attacks—well, it’s no surprise that hadn’t worked, is it? Ghosts can’t die, only be banished to the afterlife, and that’s where they already are. Banish them, even utterly destroy them with death magic, and they will only reemerge here, by the river.
Keno’s face is twisted with rage, his hands curled into claws that rip into Pallas’s ward spell. Another few seconds and the shades will be through.
“Your past is what you make of it,” Pallas mutters suddenly—something they’d once been told by Grandfather Taikon, whose shade is silently clawing holes in Pallas’s ward spell even now. “You choose what you carry with you.”
Pallas stands, eyes clear. They drop the ward and the zone of silence, and in the moment before the shades reach them, they speak a potent spell—not of necromancy, but of transmutation. Their specialty, the art of making things what you wish them to be. It doesn’t usually work on spirits, but here, in this place…
Every single one of the shades shrinks and solidifies, condensing into a perfectly ordinary rat. Behind them, the Guardian of the Underworld vanishes, replaced by three rats with their tails tangled together, squealing in protest. Pallas mutters a quick spell, an old sailor’s charm, to undo the knot, and the three rats skitter off together.
Pallas bends down and reaches out toward the rat that was once Keno’s shade.
“I truly am sorry,” says Pallas. “I wish I had been there that day. I wish I’d broken my word and told them where you were. But I didn’t. I can’t offer you that, not now. All I can offer is my genuine regret… and a chance to see the world again, for a little while.”
The rat’s nose twitches, and it stares up into Pallas’s eyes for a long moment. Then it skitters up Pallas’s arm and perches on their shoulder.
“Go on, shoo,” says Pallas to the remaining rats, who scatter into the mist.
They turn back toward the river—only to find the menacing, horned figure of Malissus herself, the Goddess of Death, blocking their way. Here, in the seat of her power, she is vast and personal all at once, the coldness of Death masked by an all-too-human smirk.
“Hello, my lady,” says Pallas. “You’re not going to make me actually kill the rats, are you? Look at them—they’re thoroughly routed.”
“The task is done,” says Malissus dismissively. Then she nods to the rat on Pallas’s shoulder. “But that soul is mine.”
“This,” says Pallas, petting Keno’s fur, “is a perfectly ordinary living rat. It does not belong in the Underworld.”
Malissus grits her ivory teeth.
“Fine,” she says. “But its true form is that of a shade, and if you try to transmute it again—”
“I know,” says Pallas. “It will revert, and then presumably it will wind up back here.”
“Death will not be denied.”
“Not forever, anyway,” Pallas agrees, with what cheer they can muster. “Did you know what I would do?”
“I was hoping you would die,” says Malissus. “Now get out of my realm. And tell Elyrian that whatever he’s planning… it’s not going to work.”
Pallas blinks. Elyrian has told them nothing about the purpose of the trials, nor about what comes after.
“Is he planning something?” they ask. “More than usual?”
“Ask him yourself,” says Malissus. “This contest is a sham. We all know it. If there’s a point to all of this, Elyrian and Thaeriel haven’t seen fit to reveal it. Not even to you, apparently.”
“Apparently,” says Pallas. “Thank you, my lady. Your realm’s hospitality is as lacking as one would expect, but I do believe I have learned something.”
“Of course you have,” says Malissus acidly. “The boatman will be along shortly.”
Then she is gone, vanished into the mist. Pallas sits down by the river to think, absentmindedly petting the rat on his shoulder. Together, they wait for the boat that will return them to the land of the living.