“Cover me!” Ruda ordered, charging straight at the hthrynxkh, sword-first. It brandished its own weapon, which seemed to be a black jawbone still full of jagged teeth, and gargled something at her in its own language, which neither of them understood. The hiszilisks awaiting orders nearby also charged, however, forcing Fross to choose between dealing with that and upbraiding her classmate.
She decided the second option could wait for later.
Fross ascended a few feet and shot forward, placing herself between Ruda and the oncoming hiszilisks. Whether they even saw her was debatable, but she rendered it irrelevant by emitting a cloud of freezing vapor that neutralized their wings, sending them squawking to the ground. Despite the number of spells she had been carefully learning over the last few months, in the stress of the moment Fross fell back on what was most familiar, not to mention what cost her the least energy to use. A dozen icicles formed in the air, slashing forward and pinning each demon to the ground. They wouldn’t last long in this climate, especially not driven through Hell-formed flesh, but any of the hiszilisks still alive when they melted wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Ruda was having a harder time of it. In the few seconds which had passed before Fross could pay attention to her again, she had found herself grappling with the hthrynxkh at a much closer range than her rapier favored. They had stumbled into the shade of the cafeteria’s rear colonnade, and the demon had pushed Ruda against the wall; Fross could see her hand gripping its wrist, preventing it from bringing down its weapon, but it had a similar grip on her sword arm. In that position, the demon’s greater height and reach gave it the advantage.
Fross quickly considered her options; most of her commonly-used attacks were out. Electricity would conduct through Ruda, any area-of-effect spell like the icy cloud would strike them both, and impaling it with an icicle risked stabbing her classmate as well as the demon. She had to settle for something much less dramatic.
The hthrynxkh barely reacted to the snowballs with which she pelted its back. It growled, but Fross couldn’t tell if that was in response to her or its struggle with Ruda, who had just kicked it hard in the knee, trying to wrench it to the side and off her. Even down on one knee, it was nearly as tall as she, and was already pushing back upright.
Chiming in annoyance, Fross drew on her stored arcane energy for something so counterintuitive to her that she’d been almost afraid to try it, though the spell itself was quite simple. Basic, even, one of a mage’s most elementary standbys.
Basic it might have been, but the fireball which impacted on the hthrynxkh’s back made it shriek in pain, stiffening and nearly losing its grip on Ruda.
In the next second it started squealing and stumbled backward, dropping the black jawbone and swatting at the girl. Not until they had staggered a few feet away and spun almost completely around, leaving Ruda’s feathered hat lying on the pavement, could Fross see that the pirate had clamped her teeth onto the demon’s throat and was growling and trying to shake a bite loose like a terrier.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Fross said, and was completely ignored.
The hthrynxkh had finally had enough; it relinquished Ruda’s arm to bludgeon and push at her with both hands. That was exactly what she’d been waiting for; she allowed it to shove her away, then calmly whipped up her sword and stabbed it straight through the throat, right where the marks of her teeth were oozing ichor.
“Blech,” Ruda spat, whipping her blade free as the hthrynxkh collapsed. “Thing’s got hide like leather.”
“Yeah, that’s for armor and support; they have kind of frail bones. Ruda, you got demon blood in your mouth.”
“I noticed,” Ruda said, scrubbing black blood off her chin with a sleeve. “Fuckin’ ew. Tastes like coffee, but somehow worse.”
“It’s also really dangerous! Most demons are at least somewhat toxic, and the infernal corruption—”
“Whoop, we got company. Chat later.” Ruda turned, raising her sword, as two more hthrynxkhs rounded the corner of the cafeteria. They paused, apparently startled at seeing the students, but one whistled sharply and the other quickly collected itself, running forward to meet Ruda’s charge with its bone-spear upraised.
“Oh, crud,” Fross complained. A well-directed blast of frost knocked over the shadowlord which had summoned help, and then she was occupied dealing with that help. An entire group of hiszilisks had dived toward them at the signal. Fross sent three successive bolts of lightning through their formation—not natural lightning as wands fired, but a combat spell that sent arcs of it snapping between them, burning them badly even though they avoided the worst of it by not being grounded. No sooner had that small swarm fallen, though, than another came at them.
Those she brought down with a cloud of freezing mist, then had to pause to ice the hthrynxkh again, lest it join its comrade in attacking Ruda, following that up with two fired icicles. One missed entirely and the second only grazed it, but she had to turn and deploy lightning at the grounded hiszilisks before they could get aloft again. In the time that took, the shadowlord took refuge behind a pillar.
Fross was by far the more nimble of them, but she paused to check on Ruda rather than chasing it.
Somewhat to her surprise, the pirate was just finishing off the hthrynxkh she’d attacked; somehow she had ended up holding both her rapier and the pointy end of its spear, which had been broken off in the middle. She was just straightening up from stabbing it in the chest with both—it had several other bleeding wounds already—when its companion let out another, louder whistle.
Three separate squads of hiszilisks turned sharply, coming at them from multiple directions.
Luckily, Fross’s education among mortal society had equipped her with appropriate commentary for just such a situation.
“Shit fuck crap damn hell!”
Her attacks were less effective because they had to be faster and more diffuse; she had no shielding spells (that was pretty advanced arcane work, well beyond her level), and wouldn’t be able to protect Ruda if the demons closed with them. Clouds of ice, balls of fire, arcs of chain lightning all lashed out, wounding and driving back their attackers but not doing significant damage to any one group. A single hiszilisk fell from the air, and she couldn’t spare the attention even to discern what had brought it down.
“You come to my world?”
The hthrynxkh staggered out from behind the pillar, Ruda right on top of it, her features twisted in rage. It caught its balance, settling into a fighting crouch, but she pressed forward, lashing out with her sword. The demon actually caught the blade, then howled in shock and pain as she ripped it free of its grip, severed fingers flying. Apparently there was enough magic in its being to be extremely vulnerable to mithril, which it had likely never encountered in Hell.
“You come to my campus, attack my friends, and get into my fucking face with your greasy-ass hide and you fucking little bug-thing asshole buddies?!” Ruda screamed, slashing wildly. That was no proper rapier technique, but despite the lightness of the blade, she was opening wide gashes on its tough skin with each blow. The demon staggered away from her, now trying to turn and flee in earnest.
Fross diverted her attention from that to send a much more serious cloud of ice at the closest group of hiszilisks, which had gotten entirely too close for her liking. Not close enough that the spell had the full effect she wanted, but they spun out, several plummeting to the ground and the rest drifting away from her. The other two swarms had coalesced into a single unit, which actually made her job easier. Two flashes of chain lightning brought down a handful of them, convincing the rest to circle away and try from another angle.
The hthrynxkh let out a squall that demanded her attention. Fross threw a desultory fireball at the retreating hiszilisks before turning to stare.
Ruda had chased it out from under the awning and into a tree. Into the tree, literally; the demon was groping at the broken-off shaft of its compatriot’s spear, which had been thrust through its belly into the trunk behind. It shrieked again when Ruda drove her rapier straight through its upper chest. The fact that it managed suggested they didn’t keep their lungs in the same place as mortals.
She was snarling savagely now, flecks of foam actually forming at the corners of her mouth.
“You want a piece of mortal life? Well here it is, you little shit!”
Ruda drew back her fist and punched the demon hard, right in the face. Its head rocked backward, cracking against the tree trunk. Then she pulled back and struck it again…and again. She kept up the barrage of blows, roaring the whole time, punctuating her words with punches.
“You came! To the wrong! Fucking! Town!” The demon jibbered pitifully, trying to ward her off with both hands, which she ignored. “I’m not! Some easy! Meat! I am a MOTHER! FUCKING! PIRATE! QUEEN!”
The crack which followed was loud enough to be audible despite the buzzing and yelling going on in all directions. The hthrynxkh’s head deformed under Ruda’s final blow, her fist sinking deep into the center of its face. Foul-smelling ichor spurted out through its nose and mouth, leaking from the eyes and ears, and finally the demon slumped, falling still.
Fross realized that she had been staring at this spectacle in shock for several long moments, and she wasn’t the only one. The nearby hiszilisks had fallen into a stationary hovering pattern, watching.
Ruda stood with her fist embedded in the shadowlord’s face for several seconds, panting so heavily that her shoulders heaved. Then, quite suddenly, she stepped back, seized the hilt of her rapier and yanked it loose, causing the hthrynxkh’s corpse to slough forward over the spear haft still pinning it to the tree. She turned, grinning insanely, and pointed her sword up at the assembled hiszilisks.
“All right, fuckers, there’s plenty for everyone. Form a line.”
Instantly, they broke formation, turning and buzzing away from her at top speed.
Ruda laughed loudly. “Candy-assed little daffodils! C’mon, partner, let’s go find something else to kill.”
“Whoah, hold up!” Fross protested, buzzing down lower. Ruda’s eyes were alarmingly wide, her pupils narrowed to pinpricks, and she was baring her teeth like a coursing hound. “Ruda, you’ve ingested demon blood. A small amount, but it’s clearly affecting you.”
“Bullshit, I’ve never felt better in my life!”
“Uh, yeah, that’s the euphoria and aggression. You’re drugged.”
“I don’t get drugged!”
“And I’m still curious about the mechanism behind that but right now I bet it’s the only reason you’re not dead. Infernal biomatter reacts very badly with—”
“Oh, blah blah yackety horseshit,” Ruda snorted, stalking off toward the corner of the cafeteria and the main lawn beyond. “You can scholarize on your own time, right now there’s…a…”
She slowed to a halt, swaying, and abruptly crumpled to the ground, dropping her rapier.
“Ruda? Ruda!” Fross buzzed about her frantically. Ruda’s eyes were rolled back, her mouth flecked with foam. She wasn’t convulsing, at least, so probably wouldn’t choke… Fross chimed discordantly in wordless dismay. Why didn’t she have healing potions stored in her aura? A first aid kit, at least! Her entire social circle consisted of reckless people who attracted danger.
“Medic! Healer!” she called, fluttering in frantic circles above her fallen classmate. “Trissiny? Juniper! Shaeine! Help!”
A loud buzzing and rapidly approaching cries alerted her. A whole throng of hiszilisks were zooming toward her, apparently drawn by her shouts. The pixie came to a stop, staring up at them.
“Oh, great,” she muttered. “Didn’t think that all the way through, did we, Fross?”
“Now where are they all going?” Vadrieny asked, frowning, as a flock of hiszilisks buzzed past overhead.
“Look,” said Toby, pointing at the corner of the cafeteria. From the space beyond, there came a flicker of bluish light. A group of hiszilisks vanished around the corner, another approaching from above. Whatever it was, they seemed awfully attracted to it. “You think that’s one of…”
“Must be,” Gabriel said tersely. “We’ll catch up, Vadrieny, go.”
She was already aloft, diving through a flock of flying demons in passing and scattering them, sending a couple to the ground in pieces. Gabriel and Toby followed at a run. They were no match for her airborne speed, but reached the corner in only a few moments, rounding it at full tilt.
They took in the scene without slowing. Ruda, on the ground; Fross above her, defending desperately. The pixie lashed out with ice, fire, lightning and beams of pure arcane light, but it wasn’t enough. Though she heavily outclassed any of her attackers, their numbers were inevitably overwhelming her, and her very spells were creating a spectacle that seemed to constantly attract more.
Vadrieny cleaved through an oncoming flight of hiszilisks, circling around to smash the formation of a second group, but more still streamed around her on all sides. Gabriel took aim with his wand and let loose a gout of hellfire that reduced an entire squad to ash.
Still more were coming. It was almost as bad as the students’ first stand against the initial charge, and this time they hadn’t the benefit of Shaeine’s shield.
“Get in there and flare up,” Gabe ordered tersely. “It’ll weaken Fross but it might help Ruda.”
“But you and Vadrieny—”
“She can take it, and it’s just pain. I fight better from range anyway. Hurry!”
Toby redoubled his speed, pulling ahead—he’d always been in better shape than Gabriel, and even having the hellfire coursing through him under control didn’t augment his actual attributes any more than berserking had.
A wash of gold light spread outward from Toby, causing Fross to flutter drunkenly toward the ground for a moment and several hiszilisks to peel off, screeching in distress, but the bulk of them slowed only slightly.
They weren’t going to be fast enough.
One demon dived in, taking advantage of the pixie’s momentary lapse in cover fire, landing atop Ruda and raising his stinger. Gabriel and Fross shouted in unison, both too far away.
Juniper had to have come at a dead run, judging by the speed with which she was skidding. She slid in on one hip, pouring her full weight and momentum into the hiszilisk in a kick.
It departed the scene horizontally so fast they didn’t even see it move, leaving one wing and a splatter of icor behind. The demon smashed through one of the pillars outside the cafeteria, making a crater in the brick wall behind it.
A silver shield slammed into place above the group, forming a disk against which a squadron of hiszilisks bashed themselves. Shaeine came running in right behind Juniper, her robes flying behind her; she reached the fallen pirate about the same time Gabriel did. With that, the shield flexed, forming a hemisphere, the edges coming to the ground around them and sealing them off from their attackers.
Vadrieny landed at the apex of it, threw back her head, and let out a long scream.
The buzzing demons whirled away, screeching in dismay, their siege broken. In moments they had cleared the area.
Gabriel considered demanding why she hadn’t just done that in the first place, and decided nothing worthwhile could come of it.
“Yeah, you better run!” Fross shouted, then immediately contradicted herself. “Get back here! I’m gonna hex you so hard eighteen generations of your descendants will piss themselves at the sight of fireflies!”
“I think you’ve been hanging out with Ruda too much,” Gabriel informed her. “Toby, how is she? Safe to move?”
The bubble vanished and Vadrieny hit the ground beside them, immediately sweeping Shaeine up into a hug. For a wonder, the drow didn’t offer a word of protest.
“She’s poisoned, not injured,” Fross reported. “Carefuly, Toby, it’s basically pure infernal magic. Holy healing might cause a bad reaction. She got blood from one of them in her mouth.”
“She bit one?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Man, I wish that surprised me more than it does.”
“Oh, this sounds I’m better suited to treat it, no offense, Toby.” Juniper knelt over Ruda, grimacing. “Sorry ’bout this, Ruda, I don’t know another way to do it.” Gently tucking a hand behind Ruda’s neck, the dryad lifted her head and kissed her full on the mouth.
Gabriel turned his back, scanning the skies with his wand up. The hiszilisks appeared to have taken Vadrieny’s warning seriously, and they weren’t being approached by any shadowlords. In fact, the only hthrynxkhs in sight were corpses. “Is everyone okay? What happened?”
“We went to the astronomy tower,” Shaeine said, standing on her own now, but still pressed against Vadrieny’s side, with one clawed hand resting on her waist. “It was the last plan we had, and we hoped the others would gather there.”
“We were trying,” said Fross. “Is she gonna be okay?”
“Pleh,” Juniper said, straightening up and grimacing. “Yeah, I got it all. Yuck. Why in the world would she bite a demon?”
“It probably made more sense in context,” said Toby.
“Fuck!” Ruda abruptly sat bolt upright, snatching up her sword from where it had fallen next to her. “Fucking—where the— Oh. Hi, everybody. Did we win?”
A deep hiss from the nurdrakhaan, somewhere out of sight, made them all freeze.
“We’re working on it,” Gabriel said tersely.
“Where’s Trissiny?” Juniper peered around, her forehead creased in worry. “She’s the only one still missing…”
“Trissiny…” Toby broke off at another distant hiss, then straightened his shoulders resolutely. “…is better prepared than any of us for exactly this kind of situation. We’ll assume she’s fine until we learn otherwise.”
“Okay,” Juniper said, nodding, and turned back to Ruda. “How do you feel?”
“Oddly refreshed,” the pirate reported, scrubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Good,” said Teal, still with her arm around Shaeine; Vadrieny had only just receded. “What possessed you to bite a demon?”
“Teeth are an excellent natural weapon when you’ve got no others available,” Ruda said dismissively, climbing to her feet. “Never mind that, you see that asshole nailed to the tree? I punched his fucking skull in!”
“Bet that’s not the part that made you collapse.”
“Fuck you, Arquin.”
“He’s not wrong, though. At least when I do it I don’t faint afterwards!” Juniper’s grin faded as they all turned to stare at her. “…right. Too soon. Sorry.”
“We’ve got a breather here,” Gabriel said, “but it won’t last. Plan still stands; let’s get to the tower and under what cover there is, and try not to attract more attention till someone important comes through the portal. Once we can get our hands on an officer or warlord or whatever they’ve got, we’ll be making progress toward getting rid of them.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Teal, nodding.
“Why the fuck are we taking orders from Arquin?” Ruda demanded. “And… Holy shit, your eyes are black. How are you talking at all?”
“First part because he’s talking sense, and I think we can wait to hear the second part until there’s less of a crisis going on,” Toby said. “It’s a good idea, let’s move.”
“Uh, guys?” said Fross. “We’re waiting for a bigger, more important demon, right? How’s that look?”
They turned and craned their necks in unison, staring up at the portal. Another wave of a dozen hthrynxkhs was descending, each borne aloft by two hiszilisks, but behind them came a lizard-like creature with feathered wings, bigger than a horse. It dived almost straight down, giving them a view of the hulking, bronze-scaled demon astride the saddle on its back.
“That looks promising,” said Gabriel with a smile. “Vadrieny, if you would?”
“Uh…why do you have a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge?” Rook asked, gripping the staff he’d been offered.
“This is a college,” Tellwyrn said, handing the last weapon to Moriarty. “Why wouldn’t there be a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge? Now keep close, I may need some covering fire if I have to do anything complicated.”
She led the way out into the hall, striding toward the lobby.
“As long as we don’t have to get into any kind of conveyance with you, sure,” said Finchley. “In fact, I am never, ever doing that again. If the options are ‘ride with Tellwyrn’ or ‘get eaten by demons,’ I’ll just take poison and hope they choke on me.”
“Most of them don’t eat people,” said Tellwyrn. “They might make an exception for you, though. I hear melodrama makes the meat sweeter.”
The door of a nearby classroom burst off its hinges and a scrawny, black-scaled figure burst into the hall, hissing at them. All three soldiers let out wild yells, bringing up their weapons and unleashing a barrage of lightning.
Two seconds later, there was silence. The tips of the staves smoked slightly, and the smell of ozone hung heavy in the air. Black char marked huge swaths of stone surrounding the now-scarred doorframe. In the center of it, the demon clutched at its chest as if feeling for wounds.
Then it exploded. Bits of gore and scaly leather splattered the floor around them, held back from the men by an invisible shield.
Standing a couple of yards to the side of them, Tellwyrn lowered her hand, which had been pointing at the demon. She wasn’t even looking in its direction, but staring at them in disbelief.
“Um,” Finchley offered weakly, “…I think these are misaligned.”
“That was a shadowlord,” she said. “They have a proper name, but it just sounds like a throat full of phlegm. Stealth and short-range teleportation, plus very resistant skin, but rather brittle bones. Try to shoot them from a distance if you see more; if they close with you, don’t bother trying to cut them. Use blunt force.”
“Except we don’t have any cutting or clubbing weapons,” Rook protested.
“A staff is a clubbing weapon, you shambling simpleton,” she exclaimed. “Someday I need to pin you to an examining table and try to figure out how your ancestors managed to breed. Stay behind me and… You know what, just keep those staves pointed at my back. That’s probably my best bet for not getting shot.”
She stalked off into the lobby. The three crestfallen soldiers followed her after a moment’s silent brooding.
Tellwyrn led the way through the lobby and out onto the front steps of Helion Hall, where the group paused for a moment, taking in the spectacle. The hellgate swirled above them, its surrounding funnel of clouds glowing faintly orange and flickering with the afterglow of red lightning. Hiszilisks buzzed everywhere in the near distance, though there currently appeared to be none close to the ground on the uppermost terrace.
“Hm,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, planting her fists on her hips and peering around. “What we need is…ah, yes. Perfect timing.”
The red-scaled lizard dropped like a stone, banking at the last possible moment with a dramatic sweep of its colorfully feathered wings and settling to the ground on the lawn just down the steps. It hissed loudly, shaking its frilled head, and the hulking creature perched on its neck stepped down. Nearby, more shadowlords dropped to the grass, released by the hiszilisks that had been carrying them.
Tellwyrn bounded down the steps of the Hall, strolling forward to meet the demons and looking totally unconcerned. Behind her, the soldiers crept forth more warily, weapons up.
The baerzurg stomped up to her, grinning. “This land is claimed in the—”
“You are on my lawn,” Tellwyrn announced.
The demon paused, apparently surprised, then narrowed its already beady eyes, looking her up and down. “I could crush you with one hand.”
She burst into gales of laughter. The baerzurg scowled heavily; around him, the shadowlords looked at him, and then each other, as if uncertain what to do. They likely weren’t accustomed to being greeted this way.
“Who dares to stand in my way?” the baerzurg demanded finally.
“My name,” she said, her laughter cutting off instantly, “is Arachne Tellwyrn.” She tilted her head forward, peering up at the demon over the tops of her spectacles. “And you. Are on. My lawn.”
“Tellwyrn?” The demon’s eyes widened. “Oh—I didn’t—I mean, nobody told us… That is, perhaps we can—”
And then a streak of flame flashed past, and he was gone. Screaming triumphantly, Vadrieny arced back up into the sky, the baerzurg flailing as it dangled from one of her claws.
Professor Tellwyrn blinked her eyes twice in astonishment, before a thunderous scowl fell across her features. “Did that spoony bard just—”
The hiss that sounded from above was enough to shake the very ground.
“Oh, fuck,” Rook said, looking upward.
The assembled shadowlords, coming to the same conclusion, whirled and fled. The three soldiers bolted, too, diving past Tellwyrn and all attempting to huddle behind her slender frame. She turned, watching calmly, as the titanic shape of the nurdrakhaan bore down straight at them. It was listing sideways in flight, one of the air sacs behind its head burst open and trailing streamers of fire, and seemed to be falling more than flying.
Tellwyrn lifted one hand and made a swatting motion.
The beast was wrenched to one side in midair, its bulk hitting the ground just in front of Helion Hall and pulverizing the pavement. It continued to slide past, tearing up ground as it went, its armored face plowing into the cafeteria and demolishing that entire half of the building. The thrashing coils of its body smashed into the front of Helion Hall, crushing the decorative stonework and collapsing the atrium and a good chunk of the structure behind. The entire structure rumbled, more distant rockfalls sounding as some of the pieces which abutted the edge of the cliff apparently fell off.
The silence which fell when the nudrakhaan finally stopped moving was quite sudden, and seemed absolute in comparison to the havoc of its landing, even with the buzzing of hiszilisks forming a constant backdrop.
Then, just behind the ruptured air sac, a line of gold appeared between two plates of the creature’s armor. They flexed outward, emitting a much brighter glow along with a gush of smoking black blood that withered the grass where it fell. The fragments of armor pulsed twice, then one suddenly tore loose entirely, falling to the ground. It landed, smoldering, inches from Professor Tellwyrn.
Trissiny Avelea staggered out, completely coated in ichor, and bent double, dropping her sword and shield to lean on her knees with both hands, panting.
“Young lady,” Tellwyrn said severely, “you are so very grounded.”
“’m fine, thanks f’r ask’ng,” Trissiny wheezed. “Sec…”
She straightened up, and a blaze of brilliant gold shone out from her. Acrid smoke billowed up as the demonic effluvia coating her boiled away, sending the three soldiers staggering backward away from the stench. In its aftermath, as the light slowly died down, she rolled her neck and shoulders, shaking her arms, a dozen bruises and cuts fading from her skin.
“Right,” the paladin said more crisply, bending to retrieve her weapons. “What’s the situation?”
“Grounded,” Tellwyrn repeated.
“You…you killed a nurdrakhaan,” Moriarty all but whispered, staring at her in awe.
“Yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly, “irritating and generally obstreperous as she is, one tends to forget that a Hand of Avei is very serious business indeed.”
“Last time a nurdrakhaan came onto this plane, it took four strike teams, an Imperial mag artillery unit and the Ninth Silver Legion to bring it down,” Moriarty said, still staring. “They suffered seventy percent losses.”
Tellwyrn turned to him, finally looking surprised. “You know your history.”
“Yes, well, it turns out there’s a trick to it,” Trissiny said. “They’re only impervious on the outside.”
“Uh huh,” the Professor said skeptically. “And did you have some kind of plan that involved this outcome, or did you just stick your sword—”
“Would you mind holding your usual sarcastic commentary until we’re out of this?” Trissiny interrupted. “My friends are probably still in immediate danger, and I need to find them.”
Tellwyrn snorted. “Oh, they’re in danger all right, but it starts after I get rid of the demons on my campus and have you all to myself. As far as the demons themselves go, they seem to be doing just fine.”
“Huh,” said Gabriel, staring at the fallen corpse of the nurdrakhaan. Its bulk hid most of the lawn behind it from them, the part that wasn’t embedded in what little remained of the cafeteria. “How about that. What do you suppose happened to it?”
“I think something it ate disagreed with it,” said Toby. For some reason, he was grinning widely.
“Killing me will change nothing!” the baerzurg raged. “More will come!”
“Hush,” Vadrieny ordered, planting a claw on his chest just below the mouth. He was lying spread-eagled on the grass, four small silver shield spells pinning each of his limbs to the ground. “Do you know who I am?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the demon spat. “We do not recognize your authority!”
“As far as you’re concerned, buttercup, her authority is absolute,” said Gabriel, leveling his wand at the creature’s face. He was feeling dizzy and spent, the modified berserking state having passed while they had been relatively still. As much of a relief as it was not to have that maddening pressure building up in him, he was left drained, which had never happened before. Not to mention that the ability to cast hellfire through his wand would have been very useful right about now. Still, he kept himself upright by necessity and force of will. “Now then, you are going to tell us how to cancel this invasion and send all your creepy buddies back where they came from.”
The baerzurg gnashed its jaws, but their position on its upper chest meant it couldn’t get them around anything. Even Vadrieny’s foot was out of his reach. “And if I do not?”
“That outcome will not occur,” Shaeine said placidly, folding her hands at her waist. “All that is yours to determine is what happens to you before you comply.”
Toby looked distinctly unhappy with the way this conversation was turning, but had the poise to keep silent about it. Fortunately he was standing out of the baerzurg’s limited range of view.
“Trissiny!” Fross shouted suddenly.
They turned to behold the paladin striding toward them with a relieved smile.
“Hey!” Toby said, his own expression changing to match hers. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll do,” she said, grinning. “Is everyone okay?”
“It’s really good to see you,” Gabriel said sincerely. She gave him a surprised look, then smiled again.
“We’re here too,” Finchley added from behind her.
“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “Why are you here?”
“Fuck if we know,” said Rook, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Ask the boss lady.”
The three of them parted to admit Professor Tellwyrn, who was staring at the students with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.
“Ohhhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.
“Oh, you have no idea,” said Tellwyrn. “But we’ll deal with that later. Since you are here, we can see about closing that damned hole.”
“No!” the baerzurg squawked, struggling against his bonds. “That is our opportunity to—”
“Oh, shut up!” Tellwyrn snarled, pointing at it.
There came a sharp pop, and suddenly there was nothing held down by the tiny shields. A patch of bronze skin lay on the grass, with a spiraling streamer of bones, organs and muscle arching upward toward the roof of the half-collapsed cafeteria. It hung for a moment in the air, then collapsed, splattering a trail of black blood across the lawn.
“What the fuck,” Gabriel whispered. “Why do you even know a spell like that?” Finchley turned away, bending over and retching.
“That,” said Tellwyrn, “is what happens when you try to teleport this close to an active hellgate. Actually you normally have to be a lot closer, but this one is freshly opened and the whole area is dimensionally unstable. Don’t ever attempt it, for reasons you can see.”
“But we were gonna interrogate that guy!” Fross protested. “He was our leverage to get the rest of the demons to back down!”
“Oh?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Hum. That’s not a bad plan, actually. Regardless, it is now superfluous, as I am here. I am going to show you the proper procedure for closing a hellgate.”
“If you could do that, why is all this even happening?” Ruda demanded. “You coulda just—”
“Because,” Tellwyrn said caustically, “when all this started I was operating under the assumption that I would have Imperial strike teams to perform the procedure from one end, not untried students for whose safety I am responsible. The Empire is not sending help, however, and you idiots are here, so we’re going to make the best we can of this. Provided you can follow simple directions, this is over.”
Suddenly, everything went still.
The droning of demon wings was silenced. The very movement of the wind over the mountain froze; the slowly rotating pattern of clouds above halted in place, the red flashes ceasing. A pale glow fell over the campus, rather like moonlight, casting everything in a silvery luminescence. After the sickly illumination of the hellgate, it was a refreshing sight.
“Seriously?” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “Now?”
Shadows gathered, the darkness of the night air itself seeming to take form and twist, as though momentarily opening onto a place where matter existed in more than three dimensions, and a figure stepped forth onto the lawn.
He towered high above, more than twenty feet tall, dressed in a sweeping black coat and battered, wide-brimmed hat. His narrow face was lined by a thin beard, and in his left hand he carried an enormous scythe.
For a moment, all was silent as the god stared down at them, and then he grinned.
“Arachne!” Vidius exclaimed with evident delight. “Always good to see you. I’m sorry I haven’t dropped by to look over your new place yet. You know how it is. Busy, busy.”
“Well, your timing is abysmal as usual,” she said, folding her arms. “I’m in the middle of redecorating.” Tellwyrn panned her gaze sourly around the ravaged campus. “…apparently.”
“Ah, yes, had a bit of a tiff here, haven’t we? Why don’t I help you straighten up a bit?”
And just like that, everything was fixed.
The cafeteria, astronomy tower and Helion Hall stood as untouched as they had that morning. Nothing was on fire anywhere; there was no sign of the dozens of smashed windows, uprooted bushes and other petty acts of vandalism inflicted by various demons over the course of the evening. Not a single corpse remained, from the enormous nurdrakhaan to the runtiest hiszilisk. It seemed there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place on the whole campus. It was a lovely late spring night, clear and with a faint, cool breeze.
Above, there were no swirling clouds, no eerie light of another world, no skin-crawling leakage of infernal energy. No sign the hellgate had ever existed.
“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.
“Yes, gods are amazingly useful on the very rare occasions when they decide to show up and damn well do something,” Tellwyrn said.
“Have a little respect!” Trissiny exclaimed shrilly. “You are in the presence of—”
“Ah, and you must be Ms. Avelea,” Vidius said, bending down and tipping his hat politely to her. “A pleasure. I appreciate the thought, but I really don’t need to be defended. It’s quite all right, Arachne and I go way back. I know very well she doesn’t mean any harm.”
“You know more than we do, then,” Juniper said.
“That’s rather the point of divinity, don’t you think?” The god of death smiled down at the dryad. “Or at least one of its biggest perks.”
“I know you didn’t come here just to be helpful,” Tellwyrn said. “What do you want, Vidius?”
“You really shouldn’t talk to him like that,” Moriarty muttered, looking ashen. Nobody paid him any heed.
“Well, you’re correct, Arachne,” Vidius said, his expression growing more serious. He straightened up and rested the butt of his scythe against the ground. “The hellgate and the events of today—both here and elsewhere—came as a surprise, even to us. Of course, that in and of itself is enough to indicate Elilial is on the move, and yet I have firm evidence that even she was taken aback by what happened here. Apparently there are other powers working behind the scenes, powers that support neither the Pantheon nor Hell. This is far from the first hint of such recently. A great doom is coming, and we must be prepared to meet it. To that end, I have been…studying something.”
“Something?” Tellwyrn asked dryly, raising an eyebrow.
“A possibility,” Vidius replied. “The prospect that I—that we—have been wrong. I don’t have to tell you that the world is changing rapidly, I’m sure. The gods are considering how we should and must adapt to the new realities. All but the most hidebound of us are deeply involved in this, but I, for my part, have been looking at…older errors. Things that have gone far too long uncorrected. Indeed, we have clung to ideas even when they seemed imperfect because so much depends upon our constancy. What hope can we offer the mortal world if we ourselves are always changing our minds? The sudden need for change, then, has provided an opportunity.”
The god smiled. “Gabriel, how are you?”
“Confused as hell,” Gabriel answered promptly.
Vidius laughed. “Get used to that, my young friend. Seriously, I’m not just joshing with you. Life is a confusing and constantly surprising muddle. It’s about when you decide you have everything figured out that you start to be consistently wrong. Knowing the truth of one’s own foolishness is the beginning of all wisdom.”
“Um… Okay,” Gabe said after a moment in which no one else spoke.
Vidius’s expression grew more solemn. “I cannot speak for any of my kin, Gabriel Arquin, but for my part, you have my apologies, inadequate as they are. The way you have been treated your entire life is frankly unjust; this treatment of all who share the blood of demonkind has, I now judge, been the cause of more harm than good in the world. I can only hope it is not too late to correct it.
“I have another purpose here, tonight: the gods need to be more in touch with the mortal world than we truly can be, now more than ever. My brethren have a number of means of keeping themselves grounded, so to speak… Means which have served them well but which I have never thought appropriate to my own designs. As the world changes, though, those designs change with it, and I find myself needing a representative. Someone resourceful and brave, who understands very well the principle of duality. After watching you for a time, I believe I’ve found my man.” He grinned again. “What say you, Arquin? Would you like to work with me?”
Gabriel gaped up at the god. “As…are you asking… You want me to be a…a…”
“For lack of a better term, a paladin, yes.” His smile widened. “The Hand of Vidius, the first of the line.”
There was total silence for a long moment, everyone gaping in shock at either Gabriel or Vidius. With the exception of Tellwyrn, who looked mildly intrigued.
“I can’t be a paladin!” Gabriel exclaimed at last. “I’m a demonblood! There’s no way for me to even touch divine magic, it would kill me!”
“The pool of energy you refer to as divine magic,” Vidius replied, “is the remains of the previous generation of gods, the Elders. As far as its inherent traits go, it is not normally accessible to mortals—with the exception of dwarves and some gnomes, due to a genetic quirk. Other races draw on the divine through the auspices of the gods, according to our own discretion—which, as you have had cause to observe, varies by deity. Themynra has fewer and entirely different rules than the Pantheon. Even Scyllith’s followers can wield the divine light, and in the same breath as they channel infernal power. The light of the Pantheon burns demonkind because we will it to be so.” He paused, then nodded slowly. “I now judge this to be in error. What I am asking, Gabriel, is that you help me prove it to my brethren. That means you will have my personal blessing and protection. Those who make the rules, in short, can make the exceptions.”
“But…why me?” Gabriel whispered. “I mean… If we’re going to be frank, here, I’m kind of a dumbass much of the time.”
“You do seem to have trouble listening,” Vidius agreed.
“Oh, you can’t begin to imagine,” Tellwyrn muttered.
“I was just saying,” the god continued, “that I consider the awareness of one’s own flaws to be a great asset; it’s something relatively few people your age possess. Yes, you have flaws aplenty, but you know it, and you know them. That sets you apart from the herd, Gabriel. As for the rest… I do have my reasons, and my plans. If you choose to accept, you will learn more with time. Be warned, though, that this is not a small thing I’m asking.” He nodded once to Toby, and then to Trissiny. “You are more personally acquainted with the realities of a paladin’s life than most, I think. Your path won’t be like theirs; I don’t plan to do everything the same as Omnu or Avei. It will involve great danger, however, and great sacrifice. Be sure.”
Gabriel lowered his eyes, staring aimlessly into the distance. Toby stepped forward, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. Finally, Gabe raised his head.
“Well, what the hell, I wasn’t gonna have much of a lifespan anyhow. Might as well make a difference, right?”
“That’s the spirit,” said Vidius, grinning.
There was a flash in midair, a small fountain of sparks, and another scythe appeared, hovering in front of the god’s face. It was sized for human hands, and appeared very old and roughly-made, only its solid black haft distinguishing it visibly from any farmer’s implement. Slowly it descended through the air to hang in front of Gabriel.
“By this is our pact sealed,” said the god, solemn-faced now. “Take your weapon, Hand of Vidius, and with it, the first steps toward your destiny.”
Gabriel lifted one hand, hesitated for a moment, then squared his shoulders resolutely. He reached out and grasped the haft of the scythe.
The moment his fingers touched it, the weapon shrank, shifting form, and in the next moment Gabriel was left holding a long, black wand with an uneven shaft.
“We both have a lot to learn in the days and years to come,” said Vidius. “We’ll get started on that soon. For tonight, you have a victory to celebrate, and well-earned rest to acquire. I will leave you to that.”
The god tipped his hat again. “A pleasure to meet all of you. Gabe, Arachne, I’ll be in touch.”
He was gone with as little fanfare as he had come.
The wind whispered softly around them; even in the god’s absence, no one dared to so much as breathe. Gabriel was staring, wide-eyed, into space, apparently seeing nothing.
“Gabe?” Trissiny asked hesitantly.
He swallowed once, lifting his head, and turned to meet her eyes.
Slowly, almost hesitantly, he began to glow. Golden light blossomed around him until he was lit by a blazing corona of divine energy.
In the middle of it, tears began to slip down his cheeks.
Toby and Trissiny stepped forward in the same moment, each draping an arm around Gabriel’s shoulders.
“I don’t even know how to feel,” Gabe whispered.
“You have time to figure it out, brother,” Toby said, giving him a gentle shake. “And… Man, I am just so damn proud of you.”
“Yes,” Professor Tellwyrn intoned softly. “This is going to change absolutely everything. Not just for you, Gabriel; the repercussions of this will rock the world. You have time, indeed, though not much. Not as much as you’ll need, perhaps. We will work on it. You’ll have a great deal of help, and you will learn what you need to know, hopefully before it’s time for you to call on that knowledge. All that’s in the future, though. Right now, you need to focus on the present, because I AM PERSONALLY GOING TO ASS-KICK EVERY ONE OF YOU LITTLE BASTARDS DOWN THE MOUNTAIN AND BACK!”
The entire freshman class shied away from her, Fross darting behind Juniper.
Ruda cleared her throat. “The gods made us do it.”