Over the din of the bustling street market the young boy's cry reached the passing nobleman. "Pardon me, my lord. Are you seeking the god rock? Do you need the courage to take the leap? The blessing of one who passed the test?"
The nobleman ignored him, but the young merchant persisted, obviously recognizing the robed figure's wealth from the quality of his clothes and the confidence in his step. "I have here the tears of Iomedae herself, shed when she learned of Aroden's death!" The boy pushed through the crowd, following the nobleman, waving a tiny vial that undoubtedly contained ordinary water. "My lord?"
The nobleman paid the boy no mind and walked through the throng seemingly oblivious to the solicitations of its eager vendors.
All along the Avenue of the Hopeful it was the same racket. Everyone had some divine relic to sell: a tabard supposedly worn by Iomedae in the Shining Crusade; a barroom dart thrown by a mortal Cayden Cailean; a blood-rusted dagger said to have been wielded by Norgorber himself. They were all fake, of course, but the visitors that streamed down this road every day to look at the Starstone Cathedral didn't know that—or pretended not to out of willful ignorance. Sometimes even the merchants believed the veracity of their claims, their fraud offset by their misplaced good intentions.
Among themselves, the charlatans hocking these wares claim the cathedral is the straight man in their cons. Its very presence adds an air of mystery and divine authority to the propositions, no matter how obvious the counterfeit relics are. How could it not? Inside the towering ancient shrine, suspended in the center of an unfathomably deep pit, lay a chunk of rock that fell from the heavens millennia ago amid the untold devastation of Earthfall. Those who brave the cathedral, passing all of its cunning tests, defeating its deadly guardians, and surviving to touch the Starstone exit the cathedral as gods. Many have tried over the centuries since Aroden constructed the cathedral to protect the holy relic within, but only three have ever succeeded. Unsurprisingly, it is Absalom's most visited tourist spot—the epicenter of the City at the Center of the World.
"Just two silver weights!"
The nobleman was now so far from the desperate tear-merchant that the boy's last cries were all but lost to the sounds of the city. The kid was new to the street and if he didn't soon fall in with one of the many organized rings of counterfeiters and con artists who worked in tandem to move their merchandise, he'd undoubtedly end up like so many others in the Ascendant Court, picking pockets to turn a profit from even the most discerning of customers. Those with experience working the God's Market knew not to waste their time with this particular nobleman, either as a customer or a mark.
Lord Synarr arrived in the city only six months ago, and since then he has walked the avenue every morning to gaze upon the Starstone Cathedral. At first, he was swarmed by kids hawking sacred items and protective talismans, but over time, they learned not to bother. Lord Synarr never spared even a single copper for any of their wares, he never once inspected their goods. He only diverted his attention from the Starstone Cathedral at the end of the Avenue of Hopefuls for the hopefuls themselves—those adventurers, demagogues, and zealots ambitious (or foolhardy) enough to plan their own run on divinity.
In a bid to prove their worthiness, most set up in one of the God's Market's many empty stalls and proselytize to what small audience they can wrest away from their competition. Some preach a message that speaks to a particular listener, or are charismatic enough to enthrall the crowd with their pageantry, and convert real followers from among the masses. On any given day a half-dozen or more hopefuls line the avenue, preaching their new faith, offering indulgences for coin, or performing rituals to prepare themselves for their journey.
For his first few weeks in Absalom, Lord Synarr stopped at each one as he made his way down the avenue, listening to the articles of the hopefuls' soon-to-be faiths before stoically moving on. The enigmatic noble no longer tarries before such aspirants, but he listens carefully to their tirades as he walks past, sometimes even smiling smugly to himself when a hopeful exhibits particular skill at capturing the crowd's attention.
Today, Lord Synarr witnessed a Keleshite trade prince offering a golden scabbard to Golinarth, the hulking hopeful who always wears a wooden skeleton mask and claims to have come back from the dead to become the god of second chances—one more rube offering wealth for miracles that would never materialize. A few yards further down the avenue, Ryni the Jest, a prankster hoping to become a god of mirth, gave the stern noble an unreciprocated wink of acknowledgment before turning his attention back to the butt of his public ridicule. The lord had his suspicions that the clown never actually intended to attempt the Test of the Starstone, but was simply amassing followers to start his own cult of personality.
A half-orc woman with a lilting accent offered Lord Synarr a score of rings, pendants, and bracelets tied to a velvet pillow. "Welcome back, my lord. Taking the test today?"
The noble didn't flinch, continuing his leisurely stroll toward the cathedral without a second glance in the merchant's direction.
"I got a new one, I did. Lets you walk on air." Her arm shot toward the end of the avenue like an arrow loosed from a hunter's bow. "Fttt—straight over the pit!" Recognizing that her daily pitch to her regular "customer" would have the same results today as it had the last six months, she turned her attention seamlessly to a wide-eyed gnome wearing Mwangi fashion to Synarr's left. "How about you, chum?"
Lord Synarr doubted any of the woman's jewelry was even magical, much less powerful enough to help someone cross the yawning expanse that separated the Starstone Cathedral from the surrounding city. Some fool, he was sure, would slip the ring on and dive headfirst into the abyss, cursing the merchant the whole way down. His dark eyes twinkled at the thought. One more shrine for the cathedral of the Failed, if even that.
Finally arriving at the edge of the chasm, Lord Synarr stopped for a moment and looked at the ancient temple. He was not the only one to hesitate near the precipice, and he had noted other regulars with their own routines in his time performing this daily ritual. Very few of them had lasted longer than a month or two, either giving up on their hopes of godhood or having perished in the attempt. Lord Synarr would be neither distracted nor a failure; he had one shot, and he would only attempt it when the time was right.
The robed lord turned to the left and walked around the chasm, the same route he took every day.
As he walked, his gait embodying both purpose and tranquility, Lord Synarr's thoughts turned to the temples adorning the grand plaza surrounding the pit. Iomedae and Cayden Cailean, two of the four whose apotheosis occurred mere yards away, had monuments here, built by their faithful as testaments to their success. A bridge spanned the chasm between each temple and the Starstone Cathedral, a physical manifestation of the gods' connection to the Starstone through which they attained divinity. The ascended god Norgorber, second after Aroden to pass the test, was far too secretive to put his temple out in the open. Those, like Lord Synarr, who studied the Starstone Cathedral could guess in which direction Norgorber's temple lied from the alignment of the third bridge, which appeared to point toward nothing in particular.
Lord Synarr ended his circuit of the Ascendant Court each day before the ruined fourth bridge across the mighty chasm. The missing span once pointed to the city's great temple to Aroden, who had raised the Starstone from the ocean depths along with the entire Isle of Kortos and in so doing captured his own spark of divinity. Though the bridge and even Aroden himself are gone, the temple still stands, now serving as the Chelish embassy. Despite the addition of the infernal insignias of House Thrune, Lord Synarr could still make out symbol of Aroden's eye that was once emblazoned above the grand entry, a negative outline in old dirt and moss.
The noble ended his daily stroll here to remind himself of his own mortality. While Lord Synarr welcomed the dignity and experience the gray in his hair and the lines at the corners of his eyes indicated, he could too easily allow the comforts afforded by his vast wealth distract him from the unwelcome truth that unless he passed the Test of the Starstone, he too would die. Though Aroden, god of humanity, may have died, Lord Synarr would not, he told himself.
His gaze turned from the repurposed Arodenite temple toward the towering cathedral at the city's heart. From this vantage point, he didn't see the gulf separating him from the home of divinity, and the sights and sounds of the bustling metropolis fell away. With the focus of an owl trained on its unsuspecting prey, he was aware only of the Starstone Cathedral and the power within. And just like every other day, he said one word, quietly to himself, before turning and walking back to his stately manor and the day's extravagances.
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