Trissiny carefully leaned backward, tilting her head to peer outside with one eye without exposing her head to the street, then quickly stepped back into the tavern, tugging Gabriel along with her.
“Well,” she said, “now we know where all those thugs and galoots went.”
“Right outside?” Toby said resignedly. She nodded. “Any sign of the Riders?”
“If so, they’re not mounted or in uniform. Nobody but scruffy men with wands. About thirty-five, at a guess. Ruda, you seem to have these folks more or less in your pocket; can you get them all moving in one direction?”
“Fish in a barrel,” Ruda said cryptically, then winked. “Gimme sixty seconds.”
“You’ve got it, and don’t be in a hurry.”
“You can’t seriously be planning to send these men out there to fight,” Toby protested. “Some of them don’t even have wands. It would be a bloodbath!”
“On both sides, yes,” she said, nodding. “It’s not hard to guess the Riders put those ruffians up to this to soften us up. They don’t want a bloodbath either, not when so much of the blood’ll be theirs. They’re scared. They’re about to be more so.” She paused, watching Ruda, who was now exhorting the men again, and had everyone’s attention. Trissiny lowered her voice. “There’s about to be some noise. Help Ruda keep order in here, and don’t let them fight until the right moment. You’ll know it when you see it.”
With that, she turned and strode outside. The street to her right was clear; all the thugs were approaching from one direction. They had also arrived as a unit, rather than straggling in. Good; that meant they’d been rounded up beforehand and sent here with a purpose. A rabble might do anything at all, but if they fancied themselves an army, they’d break all the more easily when proven wrong.
Trissiny stepped down into the street and strode to its center, then turned to face them. Quite a few grinned and leered, nudging each other and making comments she could tell were suggestive, even unable to hear them. That was plenty to kindle a white-hot rage in her, though she kept it tightly controlled. Some, though, were looking at her much more warily. Quite a few had seen her performance upon the students’ arrival that first day.
She glanced to the side at the sound of footsteps, then scowled.
“Gabriel,” she hissed, “I don’t need—”
“You don’t need help,” he murmured back. “I know that damn well. I need to help. Orders?”
That brought her up short, and she sized him up quickly. He looked grim, unafraid… Well, he had his wand in hand and wasn’t in much physical danger from anyone here. Except her, of course.
“Need to break their spirits,” she said tersely. “Being trounced in melee by one girl will go a long way, but there’s a lot of them. Can you split off a few so they don’t swamp me?”
“So, scare and distract ’em?” He nodded. “Holy shit, I might actually be good for this.”
The mob began shuffling forward. No motive or driving force visible; she could plainly see the differences in their expressions, ranging from hungry to frightened. The moon was nearly full, illuminating the street fairly well—but then, her eyesight was a good deal better than the human norm, especially in the dark. Trissiny unsheathed her sword and began moving forward at a measured pace, alone toward the men.
Then Gabriel was beside her, a few feet away. He raised his wand as he walked, then, to her surprise, lifted his other hand, aiming the tip into his own palm. Glancing sidelong at her, he winked.
“A little trick I picked up from Ruda.”
The crack of the wand firing brought the front-runners up short in surprise; they stared at him, and particularly at his hand, which had just absorbed a wandshot at point-blank range. It smoked faintly, but appeared unharmed. Gabriel, however, had clenched his teeth in pain, hunching forward slightly.
His teeth looked…longer.
Twice more the wand fired; now, all the men before them were staring wide-eyed, and his panting had taken on a deep, rasping quality. Black swallowed his eyes, claws sprouted from his fingertips. Gabriel began pacing forward more quickly, growling deep in his throat.
Trissiny embraced the light. Gabe hissed and jerked to the side, but she ignored him, striding forward, rapidly closing the distance now.
The thugs had come to a complete stop. The front row showed uncertainty on the bravest (or slowest) faces, with outright panic displayed on many. They had been sent here to rough up a group of students and townspeople; now, Heaven and Hell were stalking toward them, shoulder to shoulder. Well, a good six feet apart, which was as close as Gabe could get to Trissiny’s aura without visibly smoking. This was not what these frontier rowdies had signed on for. Several of them tried to turn and push back into those behind.
A short scrum occurred, those bringing up the rear refusing to retreat—whether they were more motivated or just couldn’t clearly see what was coming at them she couldn’t guess, and didn’t care. It brought panic to the front-runners when they realized they couldn’t flee, and that was when the first wandshots came.
Two sparked against golden light a foot from her, the shield snapping into place unbidden. For millennia, armies had known not to waste arrows on those who walked in the shelter of Avei’s hand; clearly the same protection worked against wands. Then somebody shot Gabriel, bringing him to a stop—for a moment.
Black eyes bulging in fury, he parted his jagged teeth and let out a howl that chilled even Trissiny’s spine, then charged forward with the speed of a pouncing mountain lion. She flew into motion only a second behind, her speed overmatching his. Training, or elven blood? Whatever the reason, they hit the crowd simultaneously.
Gabriel almost instantly went down in a flurry of fists. Hethelaxi were nearly unstoppable and all but invulnerable, but no physically stronger than the human norm, and in a berserker fit, Gabriel didn’t seem to possess an iota of the fighting technique she and Professor Ezzaniel had laboriously beaten into him. Still, a berserker with merely human strength, unbreakable claws and a complete immunity to pain was more than their rabble of an enemy was prepared to face. Trissiny was dimly aware, in her periphery, of men falling, cursing, bleeding, but she had her own to concentrate on.
A fist glanced off her divine shield even as her metal shield bashed the first man aside. One approached her from the right, wand upraised. She took his hand off at the wrist with her sword, its ancient and visibly pitted blade sharp enough to split hairs with the light coursing in it, then ripped it through his throat on the backswing.
Trissiny hesitated, for just a moment. It was bound to happen sooner or later, probably sooner, but…she had never killed anyone before. That moment caused her to soak up another lightning bolt that would have struck her heart if not for Avei’s protection, and she flew back into motion.
To say that this wasn’t ideal was vast understatement. The only remotely workable technique for fighting a group was to maneuver them so that you could face them one at a time; she now did the opposite, wading right into their midst and laying about with sword and shield. Her goal wasn’t a clean victory, though, but terror and confusion, and she certainly achieved that. Wreathed in Avei’s light, Trissiny was physically invulnerable, but she quickly became so pressed by the crush of bodies that just staying upright demanded most of her concentration, leaving actual combat as an afterthought. By that point it hardly mattered, as her plan was succeeding admirably; these men were trying to get away, not to attack her.
Then the crowd broke and managed to scatter, fleeing back up the street whence they had come. Trissiny regained her balance, swiftly taking stock. Six men down, four dead, three from sword wounds. Gabriel lunged onto the back of the slowest straggler, bearing him to the dusty street, then fortunately lifted his head to sniff the air before he could began ripping into the man. Already his claws and lower face were stained with blood.
Unfortunately, he fixed his eyes on Trissiny. In that glare, in the subtle shift in his expression, she knew that whatever progress she had made in her relationship with Gabriel, the demon inside him remembered her all too well.
“Gabe,” she said firmly, “I don’t know whether a blast of divine light will drive back the demon or just kill you. Don’t make me put you down.”
He snarled, tensing himself to spring.
Then Toby was there, gliding past her and right at the halfblood. Gabriel shifted his focus, baring his teeth in a warning growl, but Toby strode right up to him, reached out and laid a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder.
Claws gripped his arm, then dug in, tearing Toby’s sleeve. Blood began to flow. Trissiny tightened her grip on her sword, taking a step forward, but Toby flung up his other hand to stop her, not taking his eyes off Gabriel. He didn’t draw on his own light, either to heal or protect himself; he only tightened his grip.
“It’s me,” he said quietly.
Gabriel panted, blinked his eyes. Then again. He shook his head as if to dislodge something; when he opened his eyes a third time, white showed around their edges. The transition back was slower, but he got there, finally straightening and removing his grip from Toby’s arm.
“Thanks,” he said eventually, out of breath, then looked over at Trissiny. “You, too.”
“Me?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Well. You could’ve just killed me.”
“She wouldn’t be the only one,” Toby snapped, light flaring from the puncture wounds along his forearm. Gabriel flinched and stumbled back from him. “What were you thinking? Gabe, you just killed someone! Your demon blood is not a weapon. Even if you could control it, half-demons do not get to go on violent sprees in the Tiraan Empire! Do you want to get dealt with by a Church hit squad?”
“When you can’t help being an evil thing,” Gabriel said quietly, “sometimes the only way to be a good person is to keep yourself pointed at the bad people.”
Toby looked almost pained. “Gabe…we’ve been over—”
“You two can have that out later,” Trissiny said curtly, striding past them toward the crowd of men now pouring out of the tavern. “We have more immediate concerns.”
“Damn, that was quick,” Ruda said by way of greeting as she approached, then lowered her voice, stepping forward to within whispering range. “You were supposed to leave some for us to fight. Remember? We need to let the locals drive off the Riders, bringing them together was only half the battle.”
“We’re a long way from done, yet,” Trissiny said grimly.
“That was all them out-of-towners,” one of the men said.
“Yeah,” piped up another, “where are the White Riders?”
Trissiny raised her voice. “Everywhere else.”
The hush that fell as they paused to consider her words proved her right. The sounds were faint with distance, but the crack of lightning, the cries of horses and people were now audible, and sounded from every side.
Some of those cries were unmistakeably women.
“Coming here, you left your homes undefended,” said a new voice. As a unit, they whipped around to behold an elf perched atop the wooden awning over the tavern’s sidewalk. “You aren’t the only ones looking to finish this tonight.”
During the idle days of his youth, before he had attained the mature age of twelve, Jasper had fantasized about being the man of the house, of saving his family from some kind of attack. Bandits, maybe, or marauding prairie cats. Centaurs, wild elves, the villains in his personal inner drama didn’t matter, so long as they served to distract him from the tedium of chores.
Nothing was ever as fun in real life as it was in his head.
“Jasper Wilcox, you get back in here right now!” He knew his mother’s no-nonsense voice, and a powerful part of him quailed at it now. Even worse was the ring of undeniable terror in her tone—fear for him, he knew, not for her. For once, though, he couldn’t obey. He was the man of the house. Pa had told him so. It had been to take the sting out of his being too young to go to the meeting, and he was well old enough to realize it, but those words meant something. Jasper would protect his home and his family. All of them.
Boomer whimpered, the hound dragging himself toward Jasper on three legs, the right hind one mangled and burned almost beyond recognition by lightning. Beyond, three mounted figures in white cloaks whooped, firing wands into the air as they rode back and forth, playing up the spectacle they made in the darkness, lit by moonlight, their own wandshots and the flickering of the fires they’d caused. Patches of dry grass smouldered, as did pieces of wooden fence they’d shot.
Jasper kept his pa’s staff leveled at them, his one-handed grip clumsy, as he stopped and knelt next to Boomer. “There you go, boy, it’s okay.” It was not okay. The dog had to be in unimaginable pain, and…he had no idea what to do now. He couldn’t carry the hound and hold his staff in any kind of ready position.
His mother screamed his name again, and this time lightning flashed past him, not close enough to singe, but painfully bright. He wasn’t holding the only staff in the house, after all. It also didn’t come dangerously near the wheeling Riders, but they chose to take offense anyway, and two returned fire, lightning bolts smashing into the farmhouse. Its fieldstone foundation would hold, but most of the house was wood. The porch had already collapsed into burning rubble, and his sisters had nearly run out of water to throw on the smoking patches elsewhere. Snarling, Jasper grasped his staff with both hands, raised it and squeezed the clicker.
It was a good shot; he wished his pa could have seen it.
Unfortunately, it was useless.
Lightning slammed directly into the lead Rider’s chest, flashing off something that rested there; the horse whinnied and tossed her head in displeasure, and for a moment, a hazy aura of static lit up the Rider in the night. Then the energy of the shot dissipated, leaving him unharmed—and now focused on Jasper.
They had deflector charms. Well, of course they did.
“Brave, boy,” the man called out. His voice was muffled by the hood, by distance and the ambient noise; Jasper wondered if he’d have recognized it, otherwise. If this was one of his neighbors. “Stupid, but brave.”
He wheeled his horse around again, not charging at Jasper directly, but the boy knew that wouldn’t matter. The man guided his horse with his knees, aiming both wands. Jasper was frozen. He wanted to fire back at least once, just so he wouldn’t be shot down like a rabbit, but his fingers wouldn’t obey. All he could do was watch his death take aim.
Then Hell plummeted from the sky.
She slammed into the ground between him and the Rider, hard enough to shake the earth. Wings of pure flame stretched from her shoulders; she spread her arms wide, flexing black claws, and screamed.
It was a sound like the cry of a great hunting cat, or like a falcon—somehow both, but also like nails down a chalkboard, and above it all, hideously musical, striking harmonies that should not have been existed. It was the most horrible, beautiful thing he’d ever heard.
Jasper hunched to the ground, clasping both hands over his ears before he even realized he’d dropped his staff; Boomer howled in protest. Behind, his mother had fallen silent. That was nothing, however; the Riders’ horses went straight into an unreasoning panic, shrieking in abject terror and bolting off in three separate directions. Two of the Riders managed to keep their saddles, but the one who’d been charging at Jasper without the benefit of hands on his reins was flung loose as his mount wheeled mid-charge and fled.
There was an audible crack when he struck the ground. He didn’t move.
The creature straightened up from the crouch in which she’d landed and turned to face him, and Jasper very nearly pissed himself. His mind didn’t want to make sense of what he was seeing.
Aside from the wings and the claws…and the fiery hair and, he now saw, burning eyes…she was a girl. No older than his sister, surely, kind of pretty, and dressed in an expensive-looking man’s suit. Then she smiled at him, showing off terrible fangs, and he felt the blood begin to rush to his head.
“A-are you a demon?” It was the only thing he could think to say.
“Yup,” she replied. Her voice… It was like listening to a choir. “Good eye, kiddo. My name’s Vadrieny, and I’m here to help.”
That made so much nonsense he didn’t even bother trying to formulate a response. The demon didn’t seem to expect one; she lifted her head and raised her voice. “We could use a healer here.”
“One is already working,” said a new voice, and suddenly there was an elf standing there, in dyed buckskins, holding a wand in one hand and one of those hatchets of theirs in the other. A tomahawk, Jasper remembered belatedly. The elf strode over to him, smiling much more reassuringly than the demon had, and knelt to sweep Boomer into his arms. The hound, who usually didn’t take to strangers, feebly licked at his hand. “We’d best get her new patient to her. Your family is safe, Mr. Wilcox; your sister was burned along one arm by lightning, but the shaman feels she is in no danger. Yours was a very brave stand. Come.” He set off toward the house. Jasper stared after him, torn, then looked back at the demon.
She winked, flexed her wings once, and then shot into the sky with a mighty push of them. He followed the orange streak she made, heading to the north and the nearby Jensen stead, where the distant snapping of lightning could still be heard. Then, with nothing else for it, he turned and jogged after the elf, pausing only to snatch up his staff.
“Your house is only mildly damaged, compared to some, and is the first we have secured,” the elf said. “With your permission, may we use it as a staging area? There will be other wounded, some who cannot be best treated in the middle of a battle.”
“I—that—I mean, of course. Anything we can do to help.” Jasper was keenly conscious that he was being addressed with the respect of one man to another. Any other time, he’d have managed to savor it. “Ah—sir, what’s happening?”
“That is still an open question,” the elf said solemnly. “A great deal of carnage and suffering. With luck and the aid of friends, we will soon be rid of the Riders and have some peace, but it is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Then they were stepping into the scorched kitchen, where another elf, a woman, sat at the table with Maribelle, binding her arm in bandages, and his mother swept him into an embrace, trying to sob and scold at once. So much for being the man of the house.
He found he minded a lot less than he’d have thought.
There was barely a second’s stunned silence before the shouting began.
“Listen,” Trissiny said firmly, but no one even heard. “Hey!”
It was no use. The crowd began to break up, despite her exhortations and Ruda’s curses, men heading in different directions toward their own homes.
Lighning stabbed twice into the sky from the tip of Gabriel’s wand. Hadn’t he dropped that when he’d shifted? Or maybe it was another wand he’d picked up; there were several now lying in the street.
“Listen up!” he shouted, glaring around at them. “You wanna save your families? You listen when the Hand of Avei starts talking strategy.” He nodded to her, and Trissiny realized she was still glowing. She pushed a little more energy into it, not missing the way the men zeroed in on her. The visible reminder that the gods were with them might be the only thing holding this crowd together. Their fear and anger was palpable, as was the primal urge to rush off to and protect their homes and loved ones.
“Running off in different directions is exactly what the Riders want,” she said, projecting from the diaphragm without shouting. It wasn’t the first time she’d addressed a crowd of rattled would-be soldiers, though the stakes here were very different from the war games back at the Abbey. “What they fear is this, all of us standing together. You cannot let them separate you and cut you down. We will deal with them. Now. Tonight. What’s the situation?” She turned and directed this last to the elf on the rooftop, then managed not to flinch when she discovered two more of them to either side of him.
The first elf tilted his head, staring down at her quizzically. “A halfling paladin? Now I’ve seen the—”
“REPORT!” Trissiny roared.
He flinched back, but the female elf to his left answered. “Riders are terrorizing the outlying farms; they haven’t moved into the streets proper, so most of the houses are safe. They’re spread thin, using terror tactics, guerrilla hits and cheap theatrics. We are moving right now to hamper them.” She grinned savagely. “They have mounts and better weapons, but we are a lot better at this game.”
“About thirty accounted Riders, dispersed around the edge of the town. Twenty-five tribesmen have come to help, including five shaman. They are attending to wounded. Plus, we seem to have picked up a dryad, archdemon, pixie mage and drow priestess, as well as a couple of miscellaneous humans who’ve come to help. They fight well.”
“Right.” Trissiny nodded firmly, shifting her attention back to the men. “This is what we’re going to do. I want two groups; move in both directions down this avenue to the outskirts of town and past. Get outside the Riders’ range and spread out with wands up. From there we sweep back into the town, pushing them before us into the middle. You,” she added, turning back to the elf. “Can you instruct your people to form the flanks and press inward at an angle from both sides of each line? I need outriders to make sure they are pulled into the trap.”
“It will be done,” the woman said, snapping her fingers. Both the other elves took off, bounding onto rooftops and then out of sights in opposite directions.
“You’re bringin’ em into the town?” Mr. Strickland said uncertainly. “We just wanna get rid of the bastards!”
“No,” Trissiny said firmly, turning to face the crowd of men fully and planting her feet. Her sword was still in her hand, stained with blood; she lifted it to point at them. “We do not want the Riders driven out of Sarasio. Then they just become someone else’s problem later. We will pull them into the middle, surround them with our own numbers, and we will end them.”
A roar of approval went up, startling her. The patriarchs were already at work following her orders, pushing the men into two groups.
“Better have Trissiny lead one party and Ruda the other,” said Gabriel. “Each needs one person in charge who knows tactics.”
“And has a good shoutin’ voice,” Ruda agreed, grinning.
“And,” he went on with some reluctance, “I had better go with Triss.” All three of them turned to look at him in surprise, and he set his jaw grimly. “If I have an… Episode… Trissiny can put me down if it needs to be done.”
“You trust her not to if it doesn’t need to be?” Ruda said skeptically.
“Gabriel… I can go with you,” Toby said. Gabriel was already shaking his head.
“We need one light-wielder per group for healing and shields as needed.”
“I… I see your logic,” Toby said reluctantly. “It’s just… I’m used to being the one to look after you, y’know?”
Gabriel stepped over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I know. I love you like a brother, you know that?”
Toby clasped his hand. “I do. You know I feel the same.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “And… That’s why you can’t do it this time. This is gonna be a battle, with people’s lives on the line; you can’t waste time talking me down.” He turned to look at Trissiny. “I’m gonna do my best to stay out of the line of fire, but… If it comes down to it, I know you won’t hesitate to do what needs doing.”
She had just finished cleaning her sword, and slid it back into its sheath. “You’re a fool, Gabriel Arquin.”
“Wow,” said Ruda. “Way to kill the mood, Shiny Boots.”
“I’ve known that since the day we met,” Trissiny went on, ignoring her. She stepped forward and reached out, squeezing Gabriel’s shoulder briefly with her gauntleted hand. “But I also thought you weren’t a good man, and I’ve rarely been so dramatically wrong about anything.”
The silence that followed verged upon awkwardness, but everyone smiled. Tentatively, in three cases. Ruda grinned widely, then opened her mouth to speak.
“Ma’am?” Strickland approached, tugging the brim of his had respectfully to Trissiny. “We’re split up and ready to move.”
“Good,” she said firmly, stepping away from Gabriel and nodding to him, then raised her voice to be heard by all those present. “Princess Zaruda will lead your group; the other will follow me. Let’s put an end to this, people. March!”