“I had no idea this was here,” Rook said, keeping a hand on the wall as he crept along the narrow passage.
Tellwyrn half-turned her head to scowl at him, the orb of light hovering over her hand casting eerie shadows across her face. “That’s because you never needed to know. In fact, once all this nonsense is over with, you can forget you knew about it, understand? This is an emergency access.” She turned back to face forward, her continued grousing clearly audible. “If the students find out about this, it’ll be full of beer bottles and bodily fluids by the end of the week. What is it with kids and dark, private places… I should’ve just adopted fifty cats.”
Rook glanced back at his compatriots, none of whom offered a comment. Wisely, he didn’t either.
The tunnel couldn’t have been that long, but already their passage through the cellar of the Ale & Wenches seemed like it had occurred in another life. Down here there was nothing but bare granite walls. Though full of dust and cobwebs, the stone was glossy smooth and seamless, clearly having been bored out of the mountain with impossible precision, no doubt by some arcane craft of Tellwyrn’s. It had no lights of any kind save that which she had brought, and as she kept it at the head of the group, Finchley kept nervously speeding up to outpace the darkness behind him, earning irritated grumbles every time he bumped into Moriarty.
“Ah, here we are,” Tellwyrn said after a long, awkwardly silent hike.
“Finally,” Moriarty muttered.
The appearance of a circular chamber ahead took them by surprise; though their guide’s slim profile concealed little, the darkness and her control of the light source meant none of the three were really aware of their destination until the Professor was stepping out into it.
The chamber was round, gray, and otherwise exactly like the tunnel which led to it, carved from granite as smooth as glass, its surface gleaming in the glow of her light. It was dim even with the glowball present, just large enough to swallow its relatively feeble rays, but not so much that there were any areas left in blackness. That, plus the absence of any corners due to its round construction, made the place less spooky than the tunnel. All three stumbled into each other and nearly lost their footing in their haste to get inside.
Professor Tellwyrn gave them a disparaging look, then stepped onto the low platform in the center. “Well, come on. It’s chaos up there, if you hadn’t noticed. I haven’t time for your pratfalling.”
They crept obediently up the single step onto the small, circular dais. Apart from the open segment through which they stepped, it was encircled by a waist-high rail of tarnished brass, set about half a foot inward from the perimeter. The space was big enough to comfortably hold a person, and was quite snug with four.
“You’ll want to hang onto the rail,” Tellwyrn said, not making any move to do so herself. “Stay away from the open edge and don’t stick out your hands, or anything else you may need later.”
“What?” Rook grimaced at the dusty rail under his hands, shaking a spiderweb off his fingers. “What is this, a teleporter of some kind?”
“Teleportation isn’t safe near a hellgate,” Moriarty snapped. “Otherwise she could have just ported us all there from Calderaas.”
“So what’s the…” Finchley trailed off, having spied the circular hole in the ceiling, sized exactly the same as the dais. Beyond it was only blackness. “…oh, bugger.”
Tellwyrn grinned. “This comes out in the staff lounge, which has a sink. So if any of you are inclined toward motion sickness, I strongly suggest you hold it until we arrive.”
“If we were inclined toward motion sickness,” Rook retorted, “you’d have found out on the RAAAAIIIII—”
There was no preparation or warning of any kind. The stone platform just shot straight upward with a speed that nearly flung all of them to the floor. Except, of course, for Professor Tellwyrn, who folded her arms and balanced calmly in the gap at the front, watching smooth stone walls whiz past as they ascended.
“Been a while since I hung around with soldiers,” she murmured to herself. “Seems to involve a lot more screaming than I remember.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? How’s your head?”
“You didn’t hit my head, just winded me.”
“I’m really sorry about—”
“Fross,” Ruda said firmly, grinning up at her. “Just for future reference, if the options are between smacking me around a little and letting me get eaten and/or landed on by a giant fucking bird-eel-dragon thing from Hell, make with the smacking. I’m fine. Let’s focus on fixing this bullshit.”
“Okay,” the pixie agreed, bobbing down lower. “I’ll work on my fine control. I’m not used to levitating something person-sized with, y’know, precision.”
“Mm hm,” Ruda said absently, crouching behind a pile of rubble as a small group of hiszilisks buzzed past in the near distance.
The cafeteria was a shambles. In addition to the shattered windows along its front face, half the roof had been caved in by the nurdrakhaan’s impact. The wreckage provided a convenient path for them, though, between the dangerously exposed facade of Helion Hall and the now-smashed astronomy tower. Between heaps of fallen timber and brickwork, upset tables and chairs and the building’s remaining walls and support pillars, there was plenty of cover for them to creep through. Best of all, the hiszilisks didn’t seem interested in poking around through it, perhaps due to its wrecked state.
“Are we wasting our time?” Fross asked in a hushed tone. “Surely they’re not still planning to meet at the tower. It’s smashed.”
“It was the last plan we had,” Ruda replied just as quietly, peeking out to keep an eye on the demons outside. “Most of it was knocked over the side of the mountain, so the lobby area seems to still be there. And I don’t see any of the others. I’m hoping none of ’em are dumb enough to just mill around out there and get picked off; if we remembered to meet up at the tower, maybe the others will, too.”
“I guess,” Fross said doubtfully. “But we may have to go out looking for them.”
“We’ll check the tower, and if that doesn’t work out, it’s a relatively sheltered place to make a new plan.”
They crept forward through the jumble of broken furniture, keeping a wary eye on the open front of the building. The buzzing of giant wasp wings filled the air, punctuated by bone-shivering hisses from the nurdrakhaan, but there were no voices from their classmates. Also no screams, which was some comfort at least. Ruda moved in short bursts, from one piece of cover to the next, pausing to gauge the situation at each spot. Fross simply stayed low to the ground.
Then something landed right outside.
Both of them instinctively ducked behind an upturned table, then very carefully peeked back out. They were a good ten yards distant, almost half the width of the building, and it was facing away, but the newness of it compelled caution. Humanoid, it was lean and oddly misshapen, as though its lumpy black skin was pulled too tight in places, twisting it off center.
“Uh oh,” Fross whispered, “it’s not just hiszilisks now; they’re bringing in real forces from across the portal. That’s a hthrynxkh.”
“It’s a fuckin’ what?” Ruda spat. “Naphthene’s tits, what is with these freaks and their names? Does Elilial spend her free time sitting around making up impossible new consonants?”
“Colloquially called a shadowlord,” Fross recited. “Sentient demon, high-caste. Non-caster, but possessing limited inherent camouflage and short-range shadow-jumping abilities. Very durable skin, but not magically resistant like a hethelax, it’s all armor. Stronger than they look, but less agile.”
A second hthrynxkh dropped to the ground next to the first, holding a sword that seemed to be made of something’s jawbone. They conferred momentarily in their harsh language, then the first darted off across the lawn, while the second let out a piercing whistle.
A dozen hiszilisks assembled in front of the shadowlord, which began speaking to them. It sounded angry, but that might have just been the effect of its harsh voice and guttural language.
“Round the back?” Ruda suggested very quietly.
“Round the back,” Fross agreed.
They retreated toward the opposite end of the cafeteria. The windows there looked out over the Golden Sea; one had been shattered by the damage that had wracked the building, but the rest had held, having been enchanted to be far more durable than simple glass. Wind whistled through the opening; directly overhead, hidden by what remained of the roof, the nurdrakhaan hissed again.
They ducked around behind the serving counter into the hallway which ran adjacent to the kitchen, immediately picking up speed now that they were out of sight of the open front of the building. Just as quickly, however, they slowed, coming to a complete stop a few yards from the door that led to a small, walled garden area between the cafeteria and the classroom at the base of the astronomy tower.
“Was that left open before?” Fross asked quietly.
Ruda shrugged, creeping silently forward. The door opened outward; she pressed herself against its frame and leaned gingerly out just enough to peek around the edge.
Another hthrynxkh stood with its back to them, not more than ten feet distant, gesticulating and barking orders at several hiszilisks. At each motion of its arm, one of the flying demons buzzed off, but there were still half a dozen present.
“Fuck,” Ruda muttered, pressing her back against the wall inside the hallway.
“Okay,” Fross said quietly, “that’s out.”
“Hm… You said camouflage and shadow-jumping. How far can they jump?”
“Only a few feet, it’s more for combat maneuvering than travel. Limited, like I said.” The pixie fluttered back down the hall. “Speaking of camouflage, I have a stealth spell. Not true invisibility, is the problem; I don’t think it’ll work here. We’d have to get too close to him to sneak by. Should work on the other side, though, there’s more room to maneuver out there. If we head back to Helion Hall we can go in and look for…I dunno, something. Tellwyrn’s office is in there, she’s bound to have—”
Fross chimed in alarm, buzzing back toward the door, through which Ruda had just stepped, drawing her rapier. She came to a stop right before the opening, muttering to herself.
“That surprised me. Why did that surprise me? I’m supposed to be the fast learner here…”
Hiszilisks scattered at her passing, but Vadrieny didn’t pause to deal with them. She flitted to the broken-off second floor of the erstwhile astronomy tower, then from there to the spires atop Helion Hall, then to a precarious perch in a swaying elm tree, pausing at each spot to peer around desperately. There was a brief golden flash that suggested Toby or Trissiny in the corner of her vision, but it was gone when she turned to look for it again. Nothing but buzzing demons and the hissing of the nurdrakhaan.
Nowhere a glimpse of silver.
Frantically she took wing again, swatting a particularly slow hiszilisk out of the way, and cut a wide arc over the descending terraces of the campus. Everywhere demons. Not a sign of her classmates. Not a hint of the silver glow of Themynra.
A low groan rose involuntarily in her throat, emerging as a thin keening.
She’s fine, she’ll be fine, Teal said anxiously within her, failing to convince either of them. She’s smart, she’ll get to shelter. There are all kinds of buildings. She knows the campus.
Vadrieny landed too hard on the battlements of Ronald Hall, causing the partial collapse of a stretch of crenelated stone that would have sent Tellwyrn into a towering rage in any other circumstances and would likely pass unnoticed now. The hiszilisks were gleefully causing havoc wherever they landed; they weren’t strong enough to do much to the stone buildings of the campus, but Vadrieny could see small fires in a dozen places, to say nothing of smashed windows and fairy lamps. And that wasn’t even touching the damage to the cafeteria and astronomy tower.
Then her attention was caught by the arrival of more demons.
They were lean black figures whose shapes she recognized immediately. Shadowlords; used by Elilial’s forces as shock troops, but likely to be operating more as guerillas, considering the origin of this particular demon army. At least a score of them were descending onto the campus from the hellgate, each carried downward by two hiszilisks, with more steadily appearing. Several had already landed by the time she noticed them, and were clearly giving directions to the smaller flying demons.
Vadrieny sank her talons into the stone.
“We have to fight.”
“Teal,” she said in anguish, “she’s out there. Maybe alone, maybe hurt. These will be setting out to search the campus; they’ll find her. They’ll find her faster than we can, due to sheer numbers.”
Teal was silent inside, radiating terror for Shaeine, and beneath that, deep reluctance at what her other half was suggesting.
“We can’t negotiate with these,” Vadrieny insisted. “Demons only understand force. But they’re bringing in those of higher rank now. If we make our point to them, they may call a retreat.”
We can’t. Please…
“I know,” Vadrieny whispered. “Love, I know. But… She’s out there.”
There was a heartbeat of abject stillness within, then a rush of pure sorrow.
The archdemon drew in a breath and let it out slowly through her fangs. “Go deeper inside, Teal. You don’t want to see this.”
No. I’m as responsible as you. I won’t hide.
She found nothing to say, simply sent her a rush of love, which was returned in kind. Both were spiked with fear and remorse.
Then Vadrieny, the last princess of Hell, flared her wings and let out a scream that shattered windows remaining all over the campus.
She launched herself forward, zooming straight at a cluster of four hthrynxkhs, surrounded by a buzzing throng of hiszilisks. Before they could react she had seized the closest in both hands, talons sinking deep into its armored flesh, lifted it up, and tore the creature in half, flinging its pieces away.
Two shadow-jumped a few feet back from her, raising weapons; the third actually dropped its obsidian knife, raising both hands.
“Wait! I surr—”
A swipe of her claws ripped its head clean off, sending the remainder of its body tumbling end-over end across the lawn.
The surrounding hiszilisks shot away in all directions, desperately putting space between themselves and the raging archdemon.
The last two shadowlords were still shadow-jumping in retreat, but they could go only so far at a time. It was only seconds before Vadrieny got her claws on one, sinking them deep into its ribs and dragging it closer.
“You don’t surrender!” she screamed directly into the flailing demon’s face. “This is my world! You leave, OR YOU DIE!”
She tossed it straight up into the air, seized it by one of its ankles, and set about swatting hiszilisks out of the sky with the still-shrieking hthrynxkh. Only for a few moments, though; the hiszilisks were a mere distraction. Spotting another shadowlord, Vadrieny dived at it talons-first, screaming a challenge.
Deep inside her, Teal watched it all in silence.
The nurdrakhaan hissed its displeasure, trying to flick her off with its fin, which didn’t quite reach. Trissiny, gritting her teeth, braced one booted foot into the corner of its jaw, where the edges of its beak didn’t quite close, gripped her sword firmly with her right hand, and with her left, punched it hard in its lowest eye.
The beast hissed like never before, thrashing up and down in midair. For a moment she thought she was about to be shaken loose, but her sword held in the groove in its facial armor left by one of Vadrieny’s claws, and she actually managed to wrap the fingers of her other hand around the lower edge of its eye socket.
That, needless to say, made it even madder.
Bucking up and down, and then from side to side, it failed to dislodge her, though in those tense moments the simple act of hanging on consumed the entirety of Trissiny’s attention.
She was beginning to have second thoughts about this idea.
Failing to remove the pest that way, the nurdrakhaan changed tactics. Its flight leveled out; the smoother motion gave her a much needed moment to gather her bearings. She lifted her head, chancing a peek forward at its course, discovering at the last possible second that they were diving straight toward a very familiar sight.
Trissiny wreathed herself in a golden shield, pouring every iota of power she could summon into it; the sphere cut right into the armored face of the nudrakhaan, prompting an enraged hiss, but did not dissuade it in the slightest. She ducked her face against its steaming carapace, tightening her grip as best she could, and shielded so fervently she could feel the beginnings of heat in every nerve, as the monster smashed face-first into the stone bridge connecting the campus to Clarke Tower.
It was a split-second’s utter chaos; the impact jarred her, both physically and in the auric senses connecting her to the golden shield. For a moment, she couldn’t even be sure which way was up.
A moment later, she opened her eyes to discover that “up” was precisely where they were going. The bridge plummeted in fragments toward the plain below, the tower spinning slowly as it drifted off into space. Then she could spare no more attention for the wreckage that had been her home for most of the year.
Her sword had worked itself loose in the impact; both her boots had been knocked free. She clung to the nurdrakhaan’s eye socket with the fingers of her left hand, flailing with both feet to regain purchase as it arced around upward, ascending straight toward the hellgate.
Going through that, she reflected, would be less than ideal.
Before she could get a firm grip, however, the nurdrakhaan shook itself again, more violently this time, and suddenly she was gripping nothing. Trissiny tumbled head-over-boots through the sky, hurled almost straight upward, the slight arch of her flight probably not even enough to send her off the mountain.
Or such was the best she could figure; no amount of martial training had prepared her to keep her wits under conditions like these.
Light flared as her shield snapped reflexively back into place; golden wings stretched outward behind her, stabilizing her descent.
She had barely a second to realize she was plummeting straight toward the open maw of the nurdrakhaan, rushing up to meet her.
Trissiny kicked backward, adjusting her body at the last possible second to be sure to meet it sword-first.
“No!” Toby shouted impotently as the glowing light of his fellow paladin winked out above the monster’s head.
“Hrrash k’vankhthrazk! Hkhaasha vnarr!”
He whirled at the voice, finding himself being approached by three shadowlords, the nearest leveling a spear at his heart. It had an obsidian head, the haft made from what was unmistakably something’s leg bone, despite being black. The creature holding it looked twisted, misshapen, its scaly hide worked into uneven ridges and lumps as if it didn’t fit properly over its lopsided frame.
“No,” he whispered again.
Black, leathery lips drew back over yellowed fangs in a mocking grin, and it drew back its spear to strike.
Toby’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he bared his own teeth.
The spear plunged forward. He caught it just behind the head, spinning, and yanked the demon forward into its own thrust. As it staggered past, he stepped neatly out of its path, wrenching the weapon from its grasp, and thrust the butt of the spear between its legs, twisting and sending it tumbling to the ground.
The two behind it charged him.
Toby flared alight with golden power, causing both demons to hiss and stumble, closing their eyes against the glare. The Sun Style didn’t favor offensive strikes, but it was the work of seconds to sweep the legs out from under one and tip the other over backward.
All this had drawn extra attention, however. The first hthrynxkh had regained its feet and was circling him warily; two more, armed with weapons of obsidian and bone, were dashing toward him. Worse, a sizable swarm of hiszilisks was assembling. They seemed to be holding off for the moment, perhaps to give the shadowlords their prerogative to strike first.
“This is not your world,” he said, hearing the snarl in his own voice and not hating it as much as he should. “This realm belongs to the gods. I will not have this…this barbarism.”
The nearest hthrynxkh snarled and lunged; Toby jabbed it straight between the eyes with the butt of the spear, knocking it to the ground, senseless. It was the most brutal strike he had ever performed against a living being.
“I will not have you here!” he roared, twirling the spear overhead and slamming it point-first into the ground in front of him. The light rose in his aura, first blinding the nearby demons, then pushing them physically back while they shrieked in protest, some beginning to smoke.
“I. Will have! PEACE!”
It was as if the sun rose where he stood.
Golden light burned with such an intensity that even he couldn’t see. Demons screamed, steamed and tumbled backward, but couldn’t move fast enough to escape; there was no outrunning light. It rose all around, flaring outward with kinetic force the blasted the grass flat in all directions.
Toby could feel the burning at the edge of his consciousness, knew what it heralded, and didn’t care.
But before it could grow worse, the light just as suddenly winked out.
It seemed he should have been blinded by it, but he stood, not even blinking, in a clear space in front of the smashed cafeteria. A few shards of obsidian lay on the ground nearby, even the bone and sinew to which they had been attached gone now; it had been demonic in origin, too. The shadowlords and hiszilisks were gone; even the corpses piled up from the party’s earlier confrontation had vanished. There was only ash, dancing on the wind.
Gabriel’s attempts to climb back onto the uppermost terrace had only attracted more hiszilisks to him. His wand had kept them at bay for a while, but he hadn’t found where the other one had fallen when he’d been thrown by the nurdrakhaan’s impact, and now he wasn’t even sure where he was. The demons had quickly figured out that he could only shoot at one of them at a time, and it was easy enough to get behind someone who had no one left to watch his back. He found it very difficult to navigate with three wolf-sized demons actually climbing on him.
He flailed, staggered, managed to shoot himself in the shoulder in his efforts to get them off, and succeeded in dislodging one. Mostly by pure luck, he shot another dead as it attempted to zoom in to fill the recently opened space. Past the jumble of legs and wings clinging to him, he spied a tree, and lurched toward it.
Spiny legs pinned his left arm to his size and mandibles pinched at him in two places, but for all their tenacity, these creatures didn’t have the magic it would take to actually pierce his skin. That magic would have killed them even faster than it would him. He wasn’t as utterly screwed in this situation as most of his friends would have been, but he was still not in control.
He managed to reach the small copse of trees, one of which had been uprooted and knocked over somehow, and turned, slamming his back against the trunk of an oak. The hiszilisk clinging to him from behind screamed in protest. Gabriel stepped forward and bashed it again, and then a third time, until it finally let go.
He managed to turn, aim, and shoot it through the chest before it could get up.
Then the one climbing on him on the front bit him right on the crotch.
Howling in outrage, Gabriel leveled his wand at it, then thought twice.
In that moment of hesitation, its tail lashed forward, the stinger driving right into his eye.
Even his soft tissue wasn’t vulnerable to physical damage, but it definitely wasn’t impervious to pain. That was the last straw.
The roar that tore itself from his throat was no longer human. He whirled, flailing furiously and peppering the entire area with wandshots. Beams of light arced out in all directions, actually driving back the swarm. Eyes totally black, roaring and snarling, Gabriel quite by chance laid his free hand on the hilt of the sword hanging at his waist. Purely on instinct, he ripped it free of its sheath and hacked at the creature clinging to him.
He had it off in seconds, but didn’t stop there. While the hiszilisks twitched and squealed, he pummeled it artlessly with both the sword and his wand, which was still spewing wild bolts of power. He slashed, bludgeoned and blasted for nearly a minute until he was assaulting little more than a black smear and scattered chunks of smoldering meat, before finally pausing to look around.
At some point, the remaining hiszilisks had decided to seek less deranged prey. He was alone.
The half-demon planted one foot on the fallen tree, brandished both weapons in the air, and let out a wordless roar of triumph.
“All right, that is enough of that.”
Suddenly, impossibly, the sword twisted in his grip, its blade flaring bright white. It plunged straight downward, stabbing through his foot and pinning him to the tree.
He was too shocked even to scream.
“You are completely out of control, boy, and your allies are scattered to the wind. I’d be content to leave you to your fate, but I will not be carted back to Hell as some kind of trophy. Centuries down in that wretched hole were bad enough. So against my better judgment, I am going to help you, hellblood. Now, let’s see what we have to work with.”
Gabriel clutched the sword’s handle, frantically trying to pull it out of his foot, grunting and snarling with each jerk. He might as well have been trying to pick himself up by the hair for all the progress he made. All the while, and though his berserking mind made little sense of it, the voice carried on in his ears.
“Ah, an enchanter. Not a good one, but it’s something. A cleric would be better, though obviously that’s not possible for you… An arcanist can’t do much with infernal magic, but the infernal can take power from the arcane. Hm, you can’t actually use that power, though, can you? Ah, part hethelax, I see. Well, perhaps there’s a workaround we can use.”
Desperately, he fired a furious salvo of wandshots at the sword, succeeding in drilling holds in the log, blasting his own shoe to fragments and not so much as singeing the leather wrapping its hilt.
“We can’t use your aura to power your spells, but vice versa? Ah, yes, the problem is you lack cognitive control over your infernal nature. It comes out as this…imbecilic carrying on you’re doing right now. Shuts off the brain completely. This you can’t do anything about, it’s a venting mechanism; if we blocked it you’d be overwhelmed by your own aura and likely combust or something. But we can change the way it vents. Ah, yes, I see how it can be done. I’m using your own skills, of course; I’m no arcanist. You could have figured this out yourself if you weren’t so afraid of your own nature. But perhaps that’s wise of you. Oh, stop that,” the voice added in disgust as he leaned forward and gnawed on the sword’s handle. “You’re like a dog, even more than most humans. Right, I’m going to use your own stored arcane energy to effect a small change in the connection between your aura and genetic code. This is the most fundamental essence of your self we’re playing with, here, so I imagine this will hurt quite a lot.”
In the next second, he completely forgot about the sword pinning his foot.
Pain subsumed every inch of Gabriel’s body, and then clawed its way into his mind, and into something which lay beyond that, beyond what he could have found words for even had he been capable of words at that moment.
He arched his back, thrashing and heaving helplessly with the throes of agony, howling at the sky. His whole body twisted, tensing and twitching against itself in existential protest. His eyes, black and fathomless, bulged so wide they seemed on the verge of popping out entirely.
And then, for just a moment, they flared orange.
Fire raged across his vision, then just as quickly subsided, and Gabriel straightened up, blinking.
Confused, he looked around, taking stock. His clothes were ripped in dozens of places and his left shoe was a ragged, scorched mess about to fall off. Only the enchanted green coat Tellwyrn had given him seemed to have survived undamaged. But…survived what?
The memory wasn’t there. He’d been swamped by demons… Which were now gone. He still had the wand in his right hand, and the black sword in his left. There was the faint memory of a voice talking to him from a great distance, but it flittered away like a barely-remembered dream when he tried to focus on it.
He swiveled in place, staring around. Demons were everywhere, gleefully wrecking the campus. Neither that nor his confusion over what had transpired in the last few minutes could hold his attention, however; he could feel pressure building up inside himself, as if something in his core was burning, growing hotter and causing him to expand beyond the volume he could safely hold. Flames licked at the edges of his vision.
Suddenly, understanding clicked into place. He took aim with the wand, and a beam of pure orange fire, pencil thin and intense enough to melt stone, blazed out. Deftly, he cut a rapid zig-zagging pattern through an approaching cluster of hiszilisks, and a second later, they were tumbling to the earth in scorched pieces.
Gabriel lowered his wand, awed. He understood. It was the berserking, the defense mechanism that hethelaxi had evolved against infernal corruption, channeling the hellfire in his blood in a way that didn’t drive him mad or destroy his body. Except it was channeled further now, somehow reaching through the pathways he used to access arcane magic. It still raged in him; it still demanded an outlet. He had to spend this power or it would overwhelm him again, taking away his ability to think. But he could spend it now.
Had he done this on instinct, somehow? He would never have voluntarily gone messing around with his own nature that way. Any enchanter knew better than to try to enchant himself; in the history of magic, that had led to a handful of towering successes and thousands of horrific tragedies.
Whatever the reason, it was done, and he hadn’t the luxury of standing around in introspection. Hellfire raged in him, demanding an outlet.
Gabriel stalked forward, channeling his inner fire through the black enchanter wand and laying waste to any hiszilisks which buzzed too close to him. He could control it far more finely than the wand’s native power, creating walls and spirals of fire, even directing fireballs that chased after their targets. All the while, he peered around, taking stock, his thoughts driven forward with the same frantic energy that fueled his magic.
The nurdrakhaan was hissing and flailing about high above; he dismissed that for the moment as it didn’t seem interested in him. He couldn’t see any of his friends… This was a disaster. None of them could last long alone.
Then a screaming streak of fire flashed past overhead. Gabriel stopped, his eyes tracking her path. She dived down onto a fleeing shadowlord and in seconds was airborne again, leaving her prey in pieces partially ground into the dirt. He could see evidence of several such attacks in the near distance.
Vadrieny soared back out overhead, and he calmly leveled his wand, directing a bolt of power straight into her path.
The fireball exploded on impact, sending the archdemon tumbling skyward. She recovered her balance in midair, screaming in fury, and dived straight down at him.
At the last second she adjusted her flight so as not to hit directly, landing hard enough to crack the pavement before him.
“Have you lost your mind?!” Vadrieny howled into his face.
“HAVE YOU LOST YOURS?!” he roared right back at her. The archdemon actually reared back, momentarily shocked into silence. Gabriel didn’t give her a moment to recover. “You’re flailing around killing them one by one! What do you think that’s going to accomplish? There are hundreds, and more keep coming! We have to assemble our friends before they’re picked off!”
“I am trying to keep them safe!” she shot back. “We have to drive the demons back—”
“You aren’t driving anything anywhere! Stop for a moment and think. They started with shock troops, then sent more dangerous ones. Eventually someone important will come through. We need to get him when he lands, and not just kill him but control him, and for that we need the group back together!”
“I can’t find them!”
“Then let them find us!” He thrust his wand skyward, letting loose a geyser of pure hellfire, venting off the pressure had had been building up during the conversation. Vadrieny took a step back, looking warily up at the gout of molten energy. “You’re a living fireball; the others can see you clearly. They’d have grouped up on you already if you would quit flying around! Get back aloft and stay in a holding pattern above me while I make my way back to the cafeteria lawn. Watch for Toby, Trissiny and Shaeine; you’ll see their magic as easily as they’ll see ours. We’ll gather whoever’s there to meet us and then find the rest, and then we will deal with the asshole behind this bullshit when he shows his face.”
Vadrieny blinked her glowing eyes. “That’s…actually a really good—”
“Go!” he bellowed, pointing skyward again. To the surprise of both of them, she did, shooting upward and settling into a glide above him, circling like a vulture while he stalked up the stairs to the next terrace, lashing out with his wand at any hiszilisk that came near.
They reached the lawn just in time to be momentarily blinded by an impossible corona of golden light. Gabriel paused, shielding his eyes until it subsided, then blinked at the lone figure standing in front of the wrecked cafeteria amid a swirl of ash.
“All right,” he said to himself with a grin. “That’s two.”
He set off toward Toby with long strides, wand at the ready and Ariel still hanging from his hand, forgotten.