“You know what that is?” Xyraadi sounded skeptical, and perhaps a little impressed.
“One got onto the mortal plane last year,” Gabe said tersely, staring up at the distant shape. It hissed again; even that far away, the sound was like a vibration in their very bones. “My classmates and I killed it.”
“Well, full disclosure, I was one of the least immediately helpful contributors to that effort. That was before I was a paladin. Mostly we just distracted it until Trissiny brought it down.”
“That is the new Hand of Avei? Yes, that sounds about right. A moment, please.”
He lowered his eyes to watch her as she turned around and held out a hand, palm forward, at the mountain behind them. It rose upward from the ground like a wall without intervening foothills, as if the sheets of obsidian had burst right out of the earth itself; the stone at its base was crumbled and obsidian shards lay everywhere, bristling from fractures in the face of the cliff.
Xyraadi began to glow subtly, not unlike the radiance of a divine aura, though of course her power source was very different. Three overlapping spell circles manifested on the ground around her hooves, more elaborate than any infernomancy he had seen—and in fact, rather beautiful. More than the customary fiery orange, they were in shades of gold, white, and pale green, with an inner ring of some fluid script surrounded by two more geometric designs which oscillated this way and that like a shaken compass trying to find north.
Gabriel looked up again. The nurdrakhaan was questing slowly back and forth as if sniffing the air—definite hunting behavior. Worse, it was drifting steadily lower.
“Um, not to rush you, but if that thing happens to spot us…”
“It won’t happen to,” she said without moving. “It was drawn to the magic.”
“…so what you’re doing there…”
“Will draw it faster, yes. Hopefully it will be worth the danger. If not, we will simply have to shadow-jump away, which also has risks. I judge this to be the lesser—aha!” The shifting outer rings around her had lined up, and the writing of the inner one changed. Xyraadi turned back to him with a smile. “This way!”
She set off at a brisk pace, causing most of her spell circle to collapse, but the middle ring remained, continuing to move subtly as though in response to her steps.
“What’s this way?” he asked helplessly, hurrying along behind.
“A passage under the mountains. The nurdrakhaan is too big to fit into holes, so we will simply have to wait it out. It will sniff around the site, and when it finds there is nothing there to eat, it will leave. I much prefer not to shadow-jump, as I do not know the surroundings and we risk landing in even greater danger, if we don’t end up halfway through a rock.”
“Gotcha. So…that’s a neat little spell, there. It works by…conceptualizing a problem and then blasting it?”
“This one is more complicated than the translation spell, but…yes, that basic principle is applicable at multiple levels. Ah, here it is!”
They had passed into a veritable forest of obsidian shards, ranging from pencil-sized to taller than either of them. The profusion of jagged outcroppings made the perfect camouflage for the triangular opening in the wall, especially as it was shaded by a particularly large spike of black glassy stone. Miscellaneous shards crunched under her hooves; Gabriel stepped more carefully. He tapped the palm of his hand against the point of a shard in passing, but while he felt the jab it seemed there was nothing to this stone that would surpass his hethelax immunity. His shoes were another matter, though, and he placed his feet as best he could so as not to impale their soles.
Then the nurdrakhaan hissed again, much closer, and he practically ran the last few steps. Xyraadi had already vanished into the hole.
They retreated a few yards down the tunnel in pitch blackness, her direction-finding circle having winked out upon entering. Once the entrance had shrunk to a triangle of vague yellowish light, Gabriel drew Ariel, who obligingly ignited all her inscribed runes to bathe the area around them in an arcane glow. A second point of light swirled into being right in front of Xyraadi’s forehead crest, this one a clean white.
“Merde alors,” she muttered, looking up and down the tunnel. “This is not an accidental formation.”
“Hm…I see what you mean,” he agreed, following her gaze. Though there were cracks and craters along every surface and little shards of obsidian littering the ground, the formation itself was too straight to have been wrought by geological accident, its triangular shape perfectly equilateral. “It doesn’t look like it’s seen a lot of use lately, though; hopefully the previous residents aren’t around. I can sense demons, but that trick doesn’t work too well here. Like sensing a needle in a haystack. Full of needles. While it’s on fire.”
She smiled and opened her mouth to answer, and then the nurdrakhaan hissed again. Resonating down the stone tunnel, the sound was deafening. It was clearly very close outside.
There was silence for a few seconds before she spoke again.
“You cannot assume it is abandoned because it looks like this, M. Arquin.” Xyraadi thumped her fist against the wall and it practically shattered, forming a little crater from which broken shards cascaded to the floor. The display was all the more impressive due to how spindly her arms were. “Everything in Hell is changed by the infernal radiation which saturates it. This is the magic of corruption, of destruction. Metal oxidizes away in the very earth, so that what would be veins of it underground are only streams of dust trapped in the rock. Stone itself is very brittle—too much so to build with, which is why most structures are made of bone and hide. It is the nature of the infernal to cause mutation, fast evolution; only living creatures are able to grow resistant to it, never anything inanimate. Only biological matter can be used for construction, clothes, tools…anything.”
The nurdrakhaan hissed again, the sound still loud but altered as if coming from a subtly different direction. Still too close for comfort, though. At the very least it gave Gabriel a momentary pause in which to ponder what she had said.
“That would make the entire world incredibly geologically unstable.”
“Earthquakes are common, yes.”
That was not an encouraging thing to hear while they were in an underground tunnel, but he let that fresh worry pass. “But…how can the continents still match up, after thousands of years? All the landmasses would have broken up…”
She gave an eloquent shrug. “I do not have such answers. Maybe no one does. It is said that Scyllith could control the entirety of the realm with only her presence. Perhaps whatever means she used is still active in her absence; perhaps Elilial has taken it over, or created her own. You are not wrong, the land shifts often. But somehow, in aggregate…not too much. Whatever causes this, I cannot imagine it is accidental.”
Xyraadi pointed and drew a line across the floor behind them from a distance; it began to glow faintly yellow, and scrawls of fluid script like before appeared on each side.
“A detection ward. It will tell me if something comes this way—unless it is something also skilled in magic which can hide, so do not become complacent. Never become complacent here. No, raising a barrier is like planting a flag. Everything within miles which can sense magic would flock to answer the challenge.”
“Omnu’s balls,” he muttered. “So, that script… It doesn’t look like the infernal runes I’ve seen in books.”
Xyraadi glanced sidelong at him, her golden eyes gleaming like a cat’s in the low light. “You read many of such books?”
“I’m a paladin, after all. There are some things I’m expected to know.”
The nurdrakhaan hissed again, and both of them cringed.
“It is elvish,” she answered when she could. “I cannot turn my back on my heritage, but I prefer not to associate my life with one bit more of Hell than I can avoid.”
He winced at the surge of guilt, but she wasn’t looking at him, peering straight up the tunnel with her eyes narrowed. “Why do you use infenomancy, then? Uh, if you don’t mind my asking. Feel free to tell me to piss off if at any point something is none of my business.”
Again, an amused smile flickered across her face, seeming to surprise her. “You are a funny paladin, M. Arquin. You remind me more of bards I have known.”
He decided to leave that one alone. “Please, call me Gabriel.”
“Gabriel, then. My people do not have an innate resistance to infernal corruption, like the hethelaxi. Ours is developed, acquired. I preserve my sanity by expending the dark magic from my system.”
“By using it.”
“Exactly. There are powerful rituals that mark the stages of a girl’s passage to adulthood among the khelminash. One converts the subtle, insidious call of the infernal to a more direct form that cannot so easily hide. When I begin to hear the whispers urging me to depraved acts, I know it is time to cast some spells and burn off the power that has built up. Better to keep up a steady use before it gets to that point.”
“Your people sound extremely skilled,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “What are the chances we might be able to get help from some khelminash?”
“Non,” she said firmly. “Terrible idea!”
“Ah. Not nice people—”
The hiss which interrupted him was more distant, and both of them instinctively edged forward.
“Finally, it is leaving,” she muttered. “That was very fast, for as much magic as happened out there I thought it would sniff about for hours. No, Gabriel, my people are as…nice…as anyone, I suppose, and far more so than most in this realm. But they are all, all dedicated to Elilial. Khelminash cities are caste systems designed to support populations of my race, the elites, so that we do not have to work and contribute to the running of our own society. So that we are free to form the backbone of the Dark Lady’s sorcerous forces. Each city is ruled by a few Rhaazke, and various tiers of work are done by khaladesh, hethelaxi, and horogki. Any khelminash we find will be very delighted to meet a paladin of the Pantheon and an exiled traitor. That would go very badly for us.”
He drew in a slow breath, considering which of several ideas to voice first, and suddenly a hiss so loud it made both of them clutch their ears filled the air. The light at the end of the tunnel was muted by a huge shadow, and in the next moment the entire tunnel shook from an impact. The crunch of stone was terrifying; shards of obsidian rained down all over them.
Ariel’s light abruptly winked out. “Gabriel, if that thing hunts by sensing magic, it may be particularly drawn to the arcane. I am going into a dormant state. Please reawaken me manually when the danger has passed.”
“I should have thought of that,” Xyraadi hissed furiously, pounding a fist against her own forehead crest. “Stupid, stupid! I am too out of practice at this…place. The careless die here! We can make no more mistakes!”
Another thunderous hiss blasted down the tunnel, accompanied by a horrible scraping noise from outside.
“We’re in deep shit if it collapses the tunnel,” Gabriel said. “How risky is it to retreat further?”
“Not as bad as taking our chances outside! At least anything we meet in here will be animal, maybe intelligent. There might be fungus but there will be no plants. That is the only upside.”
The mountain shook from impact, so many shards fell outside that the noise was clearly audible. The light at the entrance changed again as it was partially obscured by debris.
“Wait, why the hell are plants worse than animals? I thought you said things here would try to eat us!”
“Everything will try to eat us, Gabriel! Including the plants! At least things with a brain can be intimidated, tricked, maybe reasoned with. A plant will just attack, regardless.”
A thought struck him. “Wait, speaking of animals. Nurdrakhaan aren’t sapient, are they? They one I saw before didn’t react to Vadrieny except by trying to eat her.”
“Vadrieny?” she said incredulously. “If you saw that fiend and survived, it is much more impressive than surviving a nurdrakhaan!”
It hissed again, and then the tunnel shook so hard the beast had clearly rammed its head against the mountainside. Clearly, this was no time for that conversation.
“Just answer the question!”
“Yes, it is an animal and a very stupid one! All that muscle and a brain the size of a squirrel’s. Why?”
“It’s like you said,” he replied, already laying out his book of enchanting paper, spell chalk and vials of dust. “An animal can be tricked. If it likes arcane magic, I’ll give it arcane magic.”
Xyraadi loomed over his shoulder, watching while he worked. Gabriel scrawled glyphs and diagrams as quickly as he could without sacrificing accuracy, hurried on by the hissing. At least the thing had stopped headbutting the mountainside, at least for now, but the way the shadows kept passing back and forth across the tunnel entrance suggested it was pacing in midair outside, clearly not about to go anywhere.
Fortunately, none of what he was doing was particularly complex; the bulk of this was simple levitation, directional charms, and pretty illusions. The only chancy part came when he had to attach a power crystal, which meant both affixing it to the proper piece of the paper he was using with twists of copper wire—delicate work when the very air kept shaking around them—and designing the entire rest of the enchantment he was crafting to sustain the presence of such an unnecessarily powerful magic source without overcharging and going up in smoke. He laid it out with as much power as he dared risk; there was no point in this if the bait wasn’t juicy enough to be tempting.
“I fancy that I know a little bit about arcane magic,” Xyraadi said, “but I recognize absolutely none of that. Still, I refuse to believe this little toy poses any real threat to that beast.”
Gabriel had to brace himself against the wall with one hand while a long steady grinding happened as the nurdrakhaan apparently swiped its entire side against the mountain face above them, vibrating the whole tunnel. With his other hand, though, he held up his just-complete paper glider, marked by patterns of spell chalk and adhesive enchanting dust all connected to a central power crystal that was really way too potent for this task.
“The times,” he said, “have changed.”
He hurled the glider forward, and the moment it left his fingers it burst alight. In the confines of the tunnel its glare was almost too blinding to appreciate the prettiness of it—though Gabe couldn’t take credit for the design, which he had taken straight from an enchanting trade magazine. The illusion took the form of a large bird made of blue light, scintillating in shades of violet and white. It immediately soared off down the tunnel, swerved out through the opening, and vanished.
“What?” Xyraadi exclaimed.
The hiss that followed started as crushingly loud as any they’d heard, but it also faded rapidly as the nurdrakhaan soared away at top speed, still hissing.
Xyraadi was staring up the tunnel with her mouth slightly agape. After a second, she turned her incredulous expression on Gabriel. “That’s…that’s it?”
“I’m a little surprised that worked,” he admitted. “I never succeed with the first thing I try.”
“What was that?! Did you summon a…a phoenix or something? Did you have a phoenix in a soul prison in that coat?!”
“Whoah, no, nothing like that! It was just a bit of levitation and illusion with some guidance charms. And,” he added, grinning, “a really excessive power source. I figured if that thing goes to magic and especially likes the smell of the arcane, it would chase the glowing, fast-moving thing that smelled interesting. That’s what a particularly dumb predator will naturally tend to do. Like a dog chasing a carriage; it has no idea what it’ll do if it actually catches one, it’s just instinct.”
“…how long will your birdie keep it away?”
“Well, as long as it keeps following, I guess. It’s not going to catch it; that thing has hardly any mass and a whole order of magnitude more power than it needs. That charm is designed for festivals, they’re used to accompany fireworks displays. It will naturally do aerobatics around other objects in the sky while avoiding any midair impact, including with the nurdrakhaan, and it’s quicker and more nimble. I charmed it to keep heading west.”
For another long moment, she continued staring at him. Then, to his surprise, she grinned broadly. Khelminash, it seemed, had pronounced fangs.
“Ah, it is almost like old times. One only feels alive when death waits around the next bend, no?”
“Oh, that’s right,” he said, blinking. “You were part of a real classic adventuring party.”
“What, and you are not? Every paladin is an adventurer, by definition.”
“Uh. I think…you are gonna have some serious acclimating to do, when we get back to the mortal plane. A lot has changed in six hundred years.”
“Eh.” Again, she shrugged, a fabulously expressive gesture which somehow contained more nuances than he could even begin to tease out. “It was like that for me, the first time I came to your realm. I am nothing if not flexible. Now, come, we had best make haste. It will not be long before something else comes to investigate all the magic which has been happening here.”
He followed in silence back to the entrance, which fortunately had not collapsed, though the nurdrakhaan had done a number on it. The tunnel’s mouth was half-buried in fallen fragments of jagged obsidian, making a pile which looked like it would slice to ribbons any fool who dared try to shift it.
Xyraadi did just that, anyway, after cautioning Gabriel to turn away. It seemed she was not inclined toward subtlety by that point, to judge by the explosion she used to blast the path clear.
“Won’t that thing have bought us some time?” he asked, following her back out into the sullen light. She sky was yellowish and smoke-colored; he couldn’t actually see the sun. If there even was a sun here. “That racket had to be audible from miles around. Surely nothing else would want a piece of the nurdrakhaan.”
“They would starve to death if it were so simple,” she said rather brusquely, trotting toward the temple. The poor grasses and wildflowers lay blackened and dead from infernal exposure by now, but at least the nurdrakhaan hadn’t destroyed the edifice itself. “They hiss and express their presence like that to catch prey, Gabriel. You must not think anything here is like it is in your world; the infernal taint alters everything biological. Among other things, it prompts unreasoning aggression. Only sapient demons will flee or hide from danger, and even so, only those taught to from childhood. Animals will respond to a threat, any threat, by attacking. Nurdrakhaan eat very well, indeed.”
“You know what?” he said philosophically. “I don’t think I like it here.”
Xyraadi gave him a truly indescribable look. “Welcome to Hell, Gabriel. Everything here wants to eat everything else. Every meal is a battle, and every creature is well-equipped to fight. On your world there are carnivores and herbivores; here, only predators, some of which eat plants. The chief thing that distinguishes sapient beings is their means of coping with this place. They are either fanatically devoted to Elilial who protects and supports them, or obsessed with escaping to the mortal plane.”
“You’re saying there’s nothing and nobody here who even might help us?”
“Only, perhaps, a ghost that your god has consigned here, and there is little enough they could do. They either get captured by my people or other spellcasting demons and used as power sources, or impress Prince Vanislaas and become his children. Lucky us, we do not need much help. The big problem before us is that we cannot leave from this spot. This is where your warlock waits, across the barrier, and he is our only chance of getting out again.”
They had arrived back at the spot on the temple lawn where he had first summoned her, approximately. It was hard to tell, with as much damage as the vegetation had suffered, but the size and shape of the disc of mortal land still made for a good reference point. Gabriel drew his scythe and Ariel, turning in a circle to look around. Not much had changed; he could see the damage the nurdrakhaan had made in the cliff face nearby, but the surrounding forest of spike-trees and giant carnivorous mushrooms were still there, as were the ruins of the ikthroi settlement around the temple grounds.
“And that,” he said, “means we’re sitting ducks. We have to hold this ground, and other creatures coming… Well, it’s a matter of when, not if. Right?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Worse, the magic I will have to do… Well, any magic will bring attention. I must try to reach across the barrier and achieve communication with your warlock friend. That work will draw very specific trouble. Intelligent demons, trained in magic.”
“If we are very unfortunate,” she said grimly. “I cannot say how near a khelminash city might be. This is the continent where Tiraas is on your world, yes?”
“This spot in particular is in N’Jendo.”
“I don’t even know what that is. I have never been to this part of the world before, on either side of the barrier. And if I had… After six hundred years, I would not know where the closest khelminash city might be.”
“Okay. Since keeping our heads down isn’t going to be possible anyway, I’m going to wake Ariel up. She can help in a fight and she’s good with magic.”
“A wise plan,” she agreed, even as he channeled an arcane spark into Ariel’s runes in just the way she had taught him previously.
“Ah, good, we are not currently being digested. You continue to surprise, Gabriel.”
“Missed you too,” he said. “Here’s the situation: Xyraadi needs to reach across the dimensional divide to make contact with Mortimer, and we need to keep hostile demons off her, because we know damn well they’ll come.”
“Of course they will. Your scythe will prove immensely valuable, provided our next foes are not also zeppelin-sized. The nice thing about being stranded in Hell is that the mindless destruction for which you are best equipped is actually the correct course of action against most of the troubles likely to assail us.”
“That’s what I’m hoping. Xyraadi, any idea how long this will take?”
“None,” she said, already sitting cross-legged on the ground, which looked rather peculiar with her hooves and digitigrade lower legs. She held out her hands to either side, and more of her modified infernal circles began to blossom into being, decorated with incongruously lovely elvish script. “It is very much situational; a person can do this for months before catching the attention of anyone on the other side. This is a better scenario than most, since there is a powerful warlock in this space just across the barrier who is hopefully already looking for us in turn. But much is uncertain.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll…keep watch, then.”
Xyraadi closed her eyes, and the magic around her continued to form.
“Think I should try setting out wards?” he muttered.
“I wouldn’t,” Ariel advised. “We’ve already seen that using arcane magic here draws attention. It will happen anyway, it seems, but there’s no use hastening the arrival of enemies. Let the khelminash take advantage of as much time as we can buy her. By the way, how did you get rid of the nurdrakhaan?”
“Oh, that. I taught it to play fetch.”
“…Gabriel, if it has escaped your notice, I am not one of your wisecracking student adventurer friends, nor one of your smirking Vidian cleric colleagues. I am certainly not your lack-witted dryad bedmate. Your sense of humor is entirely wasted on me.”
“That’s exactly what makes it funny, partner.”
“Shadow-jumping!” Ariel suddenly said in a louder tone. “Something is—”
She was cut off by Xyraadi, who leaped straight up from her meditative posture, allowing her careful spell circles to collapse in a tangle of sparks and smoke. “Run! Run, now!”
“Ah, ah, ah. Stay a while, and let us talk, yes?”
Gabe whirled, planting his feet by instinct in a stance Professor Ezzaniel had drilled into him: feet braced, scythe upraised behind him ready to swing, Ariel held in guard position in front. Scythe-and-saber wasn’t exactly a traditional combat form, but both Ezzaniel and Trissiny had been pleased to help him work out some basic positions and moves. The golden shield he threw up around himself sparked and hissed constantly against the ambient infernal power, and he immediately regretted it—but held on, since dropping it just as suddenly would convey weakness which could be a deadly mistake here. Still, that was going to strain his capacity for divine magic very quickly. It also meant Xyraadi couldn’t get too close.
He stared at the being which had appeared in front of him, and the being stared back.
By skin tone and general facial features, the creature might have been a drow; it was as black as the obsidian mountains, slender of build and delicate of face. In fact, Gabe could not at a glance assign a gender to the intruder, in part because of the combination of flowing white robes and padded crimson longcoat of odd cut which obscured the lines of his or her body. Unlike a drow, however, the new arrival had rounded humanlike ears and long hair as black as their skin. It was the eyes which were most striking: pure, featureless red eyes, just like a red dragon’s.
“Hello,” he said after a mutually contemplative pause, finally letting his shield down. Val Tarvadegh’s voice whispered in the back of his memory, priceless coaching on social rhythms telling him the timing to make it seem like a deliberate conciliatory gesture and not a loss of face. “That is a really nice coat.”
“Why, thank you!” the unidentified demon said with a broad smile. They had perfectly white, even, apparently human teeth. “And the same to you, my young friend. You must have quite the story to tell! How ever have you managed to bring yourself and a temple of Izara here? And…is that…”
They leaned to the side, peering past him, and Gabriel fought down the urge to shift and try to block the view. That would seem not only hostile, but childishly petulant. Both instinct and training warned him that any display of weakness here could be lethal.
“Why, it is!” the demon said, still smiling in evident delight. “Little Xyraadi, come home after all these years, yes? I cannot imagine why you are not long dead, child, much less what made you think returning here was a good idea.”
Gabriel shifted his head enough to bring Xyraadi into his peripheral vision without letting the other demon shift out of it. She was standing stock-still, not casting any spells, and staring with extremely obvious terror. That was not a good sign.
“A very nice coat,” he repeated pointedly. “Given the general resource scarcity in Hell, shall I assume this is someone important? Or at least rich?”
She swallowed convulsively before answering in a very small voice. “This is Prince Vanislaas.”
“Ah,” Gabriel said, turning his full attention back on the Prince and forcing a pleasant little smile. Shit. Shit. “What a lovely surprise, I never expected to have the honor. I believe we have an acquaintance in common, your Highness. Do you recall Malivette Dufresne?”
“Truly, the delicious surprises just keep coming today,” Vanislaas purred, pacing slowly forward. Gabriel just barely repressed the urge to retreat, and did not lower either of his weapons. “What a charming young lady! I so rarely have such well-bred visitors. How is dear Vette getting along? She’ll have graduated from the University by now, yes?”
“Some time ago,” Gabriel agreed politely, shifting his heels, and subtly raising his scythe higher. At that, the demon finally halted his approach, smirking. “I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with her at length, but I believe she is quite well.”
“And what a courteous young man you are,” Vanislaas remarked. “Half…hethelax, yes? Yet fully mortal. And somehow, here. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t that a valkyrie’s scythe?”
Gabriel was spared having to respond by Xyraadi letting out a wail and hurling herself to the ground. He started to turn again to see what had happened, but something tugged insistently on his scythe. Tightening his grip, he twisted, finding it inextricably stuck, and managed to pivot without letting go to put himself in a position from which he could see both demons and also whatever else had seized his weapon.
The next moment, he sort of wished he hadn’t.
“His name is Gabriel Arquin,” Elilial said with a coy little smile, shifting her fingers on the haft of the scythe just below its blade, “and I am just dying to hear him explain all this.”
And with that, she yanked the scythe out of his hand.