Bonus #47: The Light of Dawn, part 2

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The eccentric elf was far from the only one to question the soundness of his plan. Ampophrenon had his own doubts, and did not present it as anything other than a desperate gamble. But no one had a better idea, and it seemed he had earned enough trust among the allies that they were still willing to follow him. He only hoped he would prove worthy of that regard.

Time was not on their side. While the destruction of the last invasion wave was a solid victory, Elilial had the entire population of a world to throw at them, and the Mouth’s fortress was already replenishing its forces, to say nothing of enabling the archdemons and khelminash warlocks to shore up their defenses. Ampophrenon moved immediately to put his stratagem into effect; there was no telling how long they had before the trickle of miscellaneous demons still coming through the Mouth turned into another deluge.

The main body of his troops he sorted as quickly as possible into columns, each with as even a balance of the available assets as he could manage and under the direction of proven officers. The fortress had only one entrance, but they would have their own specific objectives once the gates were breached. The high-value assets he kept with himself at the head of the army, as they would be the first in. He made only a cursory attempt to give out assignments to the assorted adventurers present; it had been his experience that they knew their own strengths (at least, any who had made it alive to this final confrontation) and didn’t tend to work well with regulars anyway. They had ultimately scattered themselves widely, some choosing to join various columns, others joining his impromptu capture teams, and more than a handful drifting off on their own to hunt stray demons or try to infiltrate the fortress their own way.

And so, Ampophrenon swiftly found himself at the head of a massed force ready for their final assault on the powers of Hell itself. He had not resumed his smaller form, and now, from his position at the lowest edge of the plateau, raised his head to its full height. From there he could see the entire assembled army, and they him.

Ranks of soldiers stood at the ready, eyes upon him. Nearer at hand, Sheyann and her shaman were finishing up a mass working ready to be unleashed at his order. Andior and Arachne had already prepared their spells and stood tense and focused, holding onto the destruction they were about to unleash. A green or blue dragon could have discerned more about all these magics at a glance, but even Ampophrenon could see the shapes of them in general. He truly wondered where the elven sorceress had come from, if she was not a high elf; she had conjured as much firepower as the Hand of Salyrene himself. That was a question for another day, however.

“We are all weary,” the dragon stated, projecting his voice to echo across the assembled host. “We are wounded, hungry, and far from our homes, mourning the loss of countless comrades in arms. But we are still here. I am proud to stand alongside each one of you. You, who have marched to the very gates of Hell, enduring untold suffering and joining ranks with many who only a few years ago would have counted each other enemies! Elilial sent forth her hordes to change the face of this world, and looking at you now, I know that she has done so—and before this day is done, she will rue it.”

He lifted his wings, arching their golden span before his waiting soldiers, and raised his head higher still.

“Where before there were the fractious kingdoms of mortals, now there is a host united against evil itself. Over the course of this campaign, we have taught her that our world, our homes, our lives are not hers to take. And now, we go to crush her ambitions finally, and ensure this lesson is one she never forgets!”

Ampophrenon turned his face to Sheyann and nodded once. She nodded back, clapped her hands, and in unison the elves unleashed the craft they had built.

Light blazed from cracks in the very rocks beneath the fortress, green and golden, followed quickly by smoke and gouts of fire where the overwhelming infernal magic suffusing the area fought desperately against the fae. With the power pouring through the Mouth, it had the upper hand, even against the school which trumped it on the Circle, but even as the luminous vines and roots which snaked up to grasp at the foundations and battlements withered and were charred away, the infernal power blazing from the fortress pulsed and faltered. Their spell did not hold long enough to physically damage the structure, but the wards and curses sustaining it fell into instability, some failing outright in explosions of sparks and fire, others struggling to stay solid under the onslaught.

Above them, the constant roiling clouds which had covered the region began to melt. Beginning from the east, where the sun had just risen, streams of golden light cut across the malevolent darkness.

Nearer at hand, the two Dark Riders, eyes luminous but faces otherwise inscrutable behind their black, scarred armor, raised their hunting horns to the shadowy gaps in their helmets. The eerie tone of their horns rang out over the mountains, immediately causing a stir among the assembled troops as the blessing of Sorash descended upon the army. Even Ampophrenon was not untouched by it, attuned to the power of the gods as he was. Fear ebbed away, the pulse quickened, and a rising tide of aggression surged. He had known Sorash’s touch to cause more harm than good in the wrong circumstances, but if ever there was a time for the god of bloodshed to drive an army, this was it. They stood against the fighting core of Elilial’s hordes; this was the last chance for mortal armies to drive back the demons for good. They could not relent here. There would be no half measures, no chance of recouping a loss. Anything less than total victory would mean total defeat.

He let the call of Sorash thrum through him, turning to face the fortress and flaring his wings to their full extent.

In the near distance, as the demons reeled from the fae onslaught, there came a distinctive cry: the shrill keening fury of Elilial’s youngest daughter. Sorash’s blessing would not work for any demons who heard the call, but Vadrieny needed no help to lose herself to sheer rage.

Ampophrenon the Gold roared back, golden fire flickering along his teeth. Behind him, thousands of voices were raised in defiance, the assembled mortal hosts bellowing their final challenge at the damned before their last charge.

With a single beat of his wings, he launched himself aloft and rose to sufficient altitude that he could strike the fortress in a dive, already swelling with indrawn breath and preparing to unleash the fiercest blast of Light-infused dragonfire he could conjure.

At that signal, the two mages unleashed the energies they had meticulously called up. The defenses of the Mouth, already weakened by fae encroachment, were slammed from all sides by a torrent of arcane destruction. Ampophrenon noted in passing how easily he could tell what spell had been conjured by whom. Andior cast the way he did everything: with more style and panache than was strictly necessary. His were the undulating streamers of glowing light which put off pretty multi-colored sparks that ignited persistent fires on everything they touched, including stone and demon flesh. He conjured cylindrical columns of reversed gravity that hurled demons skyward and pulled apart the very stones they touched, and hidden within these distractions, a cunning arcane working that pulled power away from the Mouth itself and set up an unstable feedback which caused the rampant infernal energy present to consume his own arcane spell to the point that it destabilized the surviving infernal wards in the walls. Arachne, by contrast, was unsubtle and direct, even brutal. She called up a galaxy of glowing points all around the fortress, which each streaked downward in a hail of arcane bolts that smashed through walls and bodies alike. Behind them followed a wave of glowing blue orbs that peppered the battlements and ignited like bombs, followed by a third salvo of spherical waves of force she somehow conjured from inside the fortress, sending demons and fragments of masonry spraying in all directions.

It was straight into this firestorm of magical destruction that Ampophrenon dived, emitting a torrent of Lightfire which hit the gates so hard they creaked and buckled even before his own golden bulk smashed into them.

The great iron gates burst from their hinges and slammed into the courtyard beyond, flattening a few unlucky demons, and the very gate fortifications were torn asunder by his impact; one of the towers flanking them crumbled entirely, the other left cracked and shaking, while the stone arch connecting them was hurled in fragments all the way to the Mouth itself.

He was immediately under attack from all sides. Even with destruction raining down on them, demons were never too confused and disoriented to hurl themselves furiously at the biggest target available. Ampophrenon lashed out with fire, with claws, with swings of his tail and incinerating divine spells, making short work of the disorganized demons which tried to assault him.

They were not the true threat, of course. The mages’ work had clearly sufficed to throw the archdemons off their footing, but their retaliation was delayed, not thwarted.

Invazradi was a blazing beacon to his senses, even though she had circumspectly hidden herself within the bulk of the fortress to call spells down on him remotely. No ham-fisted front-line warlock was she, either, but a summoner of intricate magics that immediately put him on the defensive. The chains of sheer infernal fire which had appeared around his limbs were strong enough to hold him momentarily in place even as they burned against the divine power suffusing him. It was the work of just a few seconds’ concentration to pour Light into the gaps in that weaving, causing them to burst apart in explosions of hostile magic, but she had not been trying seriously to hold him down. Just to stagger him for a moment while her sister joined the fray.

Vadrieny actually erupted from beneath a pile of fallen masonry, shooting right at his neck, as she had done before. Off-balance and hampered by the chains he was still dispatching, Ampophrenon had neither room to evade nor concentration to spare for magic to hurl at her. Instead, he shifted his neck to meet her dive face-on, and caught the archdemon in his jaws.

He felt two teeth break as he bit down on her as viciously as he was physically able, then gave her a constrained blast of Lightfire for good measure, violently shaking his head like a dog worrying a captured rodent. Then, with a toss of his neck, he sent the disoriented archdemon hurtling away over the walls.

Azradeh was the leader and strategist among them. Her lack of appearance so far was no coincidence; she would show herself at the moment when her intervention would deliver the greatest impact, likely in conjunction with that third khelminash flying fortress which was still unaccounted for. He would have to trust that he and his allies would be able to contend with whatever she pulled out. Arvanzideen was the stealthy, underhanded one among her sisters, and the Huntsman of Shaath along with the four Silver Huntresses had already been stalking her since long before Ampophrenon had ordered the charge. She would naturally be circling to flank his columns once they were on the move, hopefully not expecting to herself become the prey of fellow hunters. Invazradi was their magical specialist, and already her efforts were slackening as she found herself targeted by both Andior and Arachne, who kept firing beams of pure arcane destruction right into her position, straight through intervening stonework.

That left the littlest sister. Ampophrenon had selected Vadrieny for the brunt of his demonstration precisely because she was an unreasoning brute. Bringing the others to heel was going to take some serious doing. Matching sheer strength against strength, however, he was more than the youngest archdemon could take on—and he, unlike she, was able to act indirectly rather than simply hammering his head against a foe.

She came streaking back at him, screaming in rage all the way, and he turned to meet her, rearing up on his hind legs and disregarding the infernal fireballs which peppered his scales from several demonic warlocks scattered about the beleaguered ramparts.

Her flight veered, however, and Vadrieny’s screech changed in pitch to a keen of dismay as she suddenly went tumbling away on a powerful current of wind that wrenched control from her.

The winds that coursed into the sulfurous fortress suddenly smelled of loam, flowers, and distant forests. Even as Vadrieny went spinning off over the walls again in the opposite direction, frantically beating her wings for control, Sheyann appeared over the fallen gates. The elf was crouched upon a shield-sized maple leaf, which spun and tumbled in the air as seemingly erratically as any falling leaf in the breeze, though she kept her stance on it with characteristic elven agility and even seemed to guide its course into the courtyard. Even as she descended to the charred stones, the leaf slipped out from under her, shrinking back down to a normal size and flying of its own volition into a pouch at her belt right as she landed nimbly beside the dragon.

Vadrieny’s return was heralded by another scream of rage. She soared over the broken ramparts, claws outstretched before her, and shot right for Ampophrenon again.

Before he could unleash another blast of fire, Sheyann gestured contemptuously and Vadrieny once again went sailing off in entirely the wrong direction, this time slamming into the side of a stone tower for which this was clearly the last straw; it collapsed atop her.

“She’s not very bright, is she?” Sheyann said, pitching her voice above the noise of battle. Ampophrenon grinned, then called up a wall of divine light to shield them both from the fragments of masonry hurled forth as Vadrieny once again burst out from beneath the rubble, madder than ever but clearly no worse for wear.

The archdemon lunged across the courtyard at them, wings flared, and was caught and hurled skyward by a sudden updraft which smelled of daisies.

“Stop doing that!” she squalled even as she vanished into the sky above.

Ampophrenon took the opportunity to turn in a complete circle, spraying the blast of dragonfire he had prepared for Vadrieny across the battlements themselves, cleaning away what remained of the demons still trying to hold them. That was the point at which three mounted figures, the two Dark Riders and Razeen astride her gleaming divine mount, vaulted over the rubble of the gates and charged into the courtyard with weapons drawn. Ordinarily a Hand of Avei and Dark Riders of Sorash would attack each other on sight, but now the two black-armored figures astride their skeletal steeds flanked the woman wreathed by golden wings, wheeling around fallen masonry in formation to pile headlong into a cluster of demons which rushed out of the Mouth at them.

Shadows swelled nearby and Invazradi appeared, her smooth sheet of fiery hair in disarray and her expression downright hunted. The archdemon started visibly at finding herself face-to-face with Ampophrenon and Sheyann, but before either could attack her, a spray of spider webs formed of arcane blue light snared and yanked her away.

“No!” Invazradi shrieked, tearing them away in a burst of hellfire and racing off toward the fortress as fast as her hooves could carry her. “Leave me alone!”

“Oh, stop your whining!” Arachne called back, zipping out of the shadows beneath a half-fallen tower. The elf was riding a flattish chunk of stone she had conjured to levitate, and accompanied by a formation of floating blades conjured out of pure arcane magic. “Come take your spanking like a big girl!” She pursued the fleeing archdemon back into the depths of the crumbling fortress without so much as glancing aside at them.

“Here she comes again,” Ampophrenon rumbled as a maddened scream swelled rapidly in volume, Vadrieny descending straight at them from whatever altitude Sheyann had hurled her to. “Be so good as to allow me this time, Elder.”

“Of course, my lord,” the shaman said serenely, already turning to call up thorned vines from the very stones around the Mouth, where they seized and constricted demons trying to swarm Razeen and the Riders.

With no one distorting the winds around her this time, Vadrieny shot straight out of the sky at Ampophrenon in her customary faction: head-on, with not the slightest thought for misdirection or maneuver.

He reared up and, dodging to the side at the last second, reached out and grabbed her with one clawed hand.

Before Vadrieny could turn like a seized snake to bite at him, he whipped her around and smashed her into the nearest tower.

Over the next minute, Ampophrenon wielded the captured archdemon like a flail, spinning this way and that and, gripping her by one leg, slamming her over and over into every surface he could find. He used her to knock over a tower and bash a sizable gap in one of the outer walls, raked a rent in the face of the fortress itself with her body, clipped one edge of the Mouth’s frame (causing the swirling surface of the portal itself to ripple alarmingly). Tiring of vertical surfaces, he slammed her over and over into the ground, turning this way and that to always bring her down on a new spot and leaving a fractured crater in the stone floor of the courtyard at each one. Halfway through this she had stopped even screaming in protest; he wasn’t sure she was still conscious. Not that he particularly cared.

Ampophrenon lightly tossed Vadrieny upward, finally letting go, then lunged his head forward like a striking snake at her limply tumbling form. By sheer accident, he closed his jaws over her head, leaving her dangling from the neck down. There he shook her so rapidly and violently a spray of burning feathers fluttered loose to drift away on the hot air.

With a final, contemptuous flick of his head, he spat her straight at the floor at his feet, then slammed his fist down atop her in a punch that drove her bodily into the stone. Then again, and again, hammering the insensate archdemon deeper into the rubble with each hit.

That, finally, got the reaction for which he had been hoping.

The spells were half-formed and dissipated against his innate magic, complex infernal runes burning away in unfocused explosions upon contact with his aura. They were numerous enough that that might have been the purpose, though, as those explosions hit hard enough to rock him back.

Even lunging half-prepared to rescue her sister, Azradeh was less recklessly direct. She shot straight at Ampophrenon’s face with a scream of rage in such a perfect imitation of Vadrieny that he snatched at her with the same reflex he had just developed in dealing with the younger archdemon, but from Azradeh, it was a feint. She veered nimbly to the side, evading the snap of his jaws with contemptuous ease and raking his face with her own claws in passing, barely missing his eye. Even as he spun to face her retreating form, his motion brought his head into contact with an invisible ward she had placed right behind him; the explosion of pure infernal fire knocked him violently backward.

Azradeh’s flight was interrupted by another gust of distracting wind, but she danced skillfully upon the hostile air currents, a glowing rod of purple-tinged fire manifesting in one hand even as she floated. Though she hurled it like a javelin, what flew from her claws at Sheyann was a branching streak of orange lightning which forced the elf to dodge with every scrap of elven agility she could muster, and even so she was singed in passing violently enough to make her lose her step, tumbling to the stone floor.

The archdemon dived past Ampophrenon again, and this time he had learned more caution, exhaling a burst of flame at her in passing rather than risking another physical grab. The invisible rune trap she had tried to lead him into erupted at the contact with Light-infused fire; he was far enough from this one not to be caught as closely in the blast, but it wasn’t the same kind of explosion this time, either. The burst of infernal force was directed, and smashed into him in a focused stream, once more shoving him back.

In his momentary lapse, Azradeh made a dive for the pit into which Vadrieny’s body had been pounded, but she was repulsed by a bell-like tone accompanying a burst of blue light as one of the mages fired a shot across her nose. Though sent tumbling, she quickly corrected and swooped away to perch atop the stone rim of the Mouth itself.

“Before you act in haste, Lord Ampophrenon,” she shouted, “raise your eyes!”

He didn’t need the exhortation. While reeling back from her, he had caught sight of the third khelminash fortress suddenly hovering above the Mouth, blazing with prepared infernal spells ready to be unleashed.

His own troops were only just reaching the fortress on the heels of the few heavy hitters who had been the first in. The fastest wave of adventurers was already taking the walls, dealing with surviving demons and joining the fray at the Mouth itself where more reinforcements were streaming out of Hell. The main columns were still coming, though; some were to take up positions outside the fortress while the rest entered and divided themselves among its perimeter to secure the space and have their casters dismantle the wards still protecting it. Now, though, they were within range of the khelminash flying fortress’s weapons. The soldiers were on the march and not expecting that kind of attack from above. Even if some of the clerics and mages among them managed to put up shields, it was unlikely to be enough.

He could take the thing down, but at the cost of leaving himself vulnerable to Azradeh. It was not arrogance to acknowledge that he was the most physically potent asset the allies had; if he fell, the entire plan would unravel. There was currently no sign of Arachne, Andior, or Sheyann. Razeen and both Riders, having been granted a reprieve by the adventurers joining them at the portal, had seen both Azradeh and the flying fortress but could reach neither; they were melee combatants.

Azradeh raised both hands above her head, a blazing orange rune glowing between them. Matching symbols lit the air in a ring around the khelminash fortress above as its inherent weapons were further augmented by her spell.

“One chance, lizard!” the archdemon called. “Step away from my sister and bow your head before me. Then, perhaps, I will—”

The runes limning the fortress pulsed simultaneously with the one in her grip, and for a blinding instant, they were connected by a visible torrent of blazing magic which, during its brief existence, transitioned from infernal orange to arcane blue.

Azradeh tumbled limply off the gateway to hit the ground in front of it, unconscious.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” Andior called down from the flying fortress’s ramparts as he appeared upon them and struck a pose. “I’m keeping it!”

Ampophrenon grunted, pausing only to watch Razeen and both Dark Riders swarm Azradeh’s prone body, then bent and reached into the hole he had just pounded.

Vadrieny finally looked quite bedraggled, her dragonscale armor hanging off her in shreds. The archdemon was struggling weakly to extricate herself from the wreckage, and blinked her fiery eyes blearily up at Ampophrenon as he lifted her out of it. Grasping her torso in one fist, he held her up so they were face-to-face.

“Young lady,” he growled, “go home.”

Then he hurled her into the portal with all the strength he could muster, adding a blast of dragonfire to speed her along.

“The message is sent,” he declared. “Are we ready?”

“One accounted for,” Razeen reported, stalking over to him and dragging Azradeh along by a grip on her hair. She hurled the archdemon contemptuously to the ground and planted the crystal tip of her divine spear against her back right between the wings. Azradeh’s limbs were bound by chains of dark iron which streamed luminous mist, cruel weapons of the Dark Riders that would keep her both weakened and in constant pain.

A sparkle of blue light upon the air heralded the arrival of Arachne and Invazradi by teleportation. “Two!” the sorceress said, looking inordinately pleased with herself despite her dress being rent almost to rags and about half her hair burned away. Oddly it was the archdemon who appeared the more traumatized of them; not only was she too bound up in glowing chains and reams of what looked like spider silk to move, she was wide-eyed and appeared to be trembling. More bindings covered her mouth, fortunately. “Ah, Sheyann, there you are. I was almost to worry.”

“Well done, Arachne,” the shaman said, limping up to them. “She tried to flee, I take it?”

“Tried to get hostages,” Arachne replied, her face falling into a scowl. “She got her claws on Chucky again.”

Sheyann turned such a stare on Invazradi that the bound archdemon actually whimpered. “Is the boy…?”

“He has lost no limbs and not very much blood. He will have some bad dreams, I think.”

“I see,” the Elder replied coldly. “Razeen, if you would be so kind?”

“Remember we need them alive, Elder,” Ampophrenon cautioned.

“Not to worry,” Razeen assured him, and then brought her spear down in an overhead arc, slamming the broad flat of the blade atop Invazradi’s head. The archdemon crumpled without a sound.

“Why could she be not that fragile before?” Arachne complained. “If ever I have to deal with these annoying kids again, I want them to be pre-beaten-up by wizards and dragons and paladins. Much easier.”

“Lord Ampophrenon!” Andior called from atop his captured flying fortress, pointing at the distance. “Last one accounted for! Torol and the Huntresses have Arvanzideen pinned, but I think the could use your aid to bring her to heel.”

Ampophrenon rose, spreading his wings. “It will be my pleasure!” He took to the air and set off in the direction the Hand of Salyrene had indicated, to grab the last archdemon and finally finish this.

With their targets secured, he stood guard over the Mouth itself, preparing to face what he knew would come out of it. The sudden arrival of a badly-beaten Vadrieny followed by a blast of Lightfire would send the message loud and clear, but they should have the luxury of a little time to prepare. Elilial was still Elilial; even in a vengeful rage, she would observe and plan before acting.

Ampophrenon gave her something to observe, all right.

Arvanzideen had been harried and frustrated to the point that she was much easier to grab than her sisters had been, though upon seeing Ampophrenon coming she had tried to flee. That lasted until Andior unleashed the khelminash fortress’s full arsenal upon her, and after that the dragon had hauled the insensate archdemon back to join the rest.

Now, all three were on their knees in the courtyard, facing the portal, and covered in thorn vines summoned by Sheyann and sustained by several of her fellow shaman. Those thorns pricked supposedly invulnerable flesh, inflicting a constant torrent of fae magic that kept the three weakened and vulnerable. As added insurance, they had Razeen, both Dark Riders, the two surviving Huntresses and Torol holding weapons upon them. Ampophrenon had made it clear that while he wanted them alive, no one was to hesitate in killing them if it became necessary. So far, all three had opted to be cooperative.

All around them, the shattered fortress swarmed with soldiers and clerics, dismantling the last remaining infernal wards and traps and administering a systematic cleansing. It was an ultimately futile measure as long as the Mouth remained active, as the infernal radiation blaring out would just corrupt everything all over again, but keeping up the steady flow of divine magic was necessary just to make this area relatively safe for mortals to be in. Ampophrenon’s presence helped, especially as he deliberately extended his own shining aura to help protect his soldiers. Even so, it would be necessary to meticulously cleanse everyone after this.

The Mouth had gone quiet, swirling before them in ominous silence that was as good as a warning that Elilial’s eyes were upon them. Azradeh had a smug look on her face which said the same. Andior and Arachne had joined him before the portal, as had over two dozen scattered adventurers, helping to keep watch on the captives and the Mouth itself.

Still they waited.

“Enough of this,” the dragon rumbled as the minutes stretched on with no response. “Razeen, bleed one of them.”

The Hand of Avei grinned and pressed the tip of her spear against Azradeh’s throat.

The Mouth burst alight, finally revealing what had been prepared behind it. The perspective of the thing changed, a size-distorting effect commonly associated with the physical presence of gods stretching its capacity. Though its physical boundaries remained the same, suddenly there gaped before them an aperture through which an army could pass.

And there was indeed an army behind it, visible through shimmering waves of heat and magic, a fresh horde of thousands of demons stretching away from the expanded portal. At the forefront stood towering monstrosities which could surely not have fit bodily into the wrecked fortress, much less through the portal itself—and yet, undoubtedly, they would.

Because front and center, she was there.

Elilial stepped out, leaving her minions as a silent warning just on the other side of the gate, facing them alone and with no sign of fear at the forces arrayed before her. It was not as if they were a physical threat to her.

“Reconsider,” the Queen of Demons advised, fixing her burning gaze on Razeen.

The Hand of Avei curled her lip disdainfully, and for a moment Ampophrenon feared she would behead Azradeh out of sheer spite. But an Avenist understood nothing if not discipline, and after an ominous pause she lifted the blade of her spear away.

“Mother,” Azradeh said with impressive calm, given her position. “I apologize for this shameful display. Is Vadrieny all right?”

Elilial held up a finger, and the archdemon instantly quieted.

“Did I not so respect your intelligence, dragon,” the goddess said, “I might conclude from this little diorama that you think you have me at a disadvantage. But no—a smart fellow like you surely understands that what you are threatening me with is inciting a wrath like NOTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE.”

Her voice, at the end, ceased to be a voice and became a force, rippling creation itself backward with the sheer intensity of its rage. Ampophrenon could feel his assembled soldiers quailing behind him.

He reared up on his hind legs, towering over Elilial, and roared, spreading both his wings and his aura to suffuse the entire area with Light. The goddess just stared at him ironically, but the gathered mortals rallied, and the general backward movement which had begun ceased.

“Your threats mean nothing,” Ampophrenon thundered. “You’ve played your hand long since, wretched creature! You have nothing else to offer but more destruction—nothing we haven’t seen in plenty, and nothing you did not fully intend to do anyway. If you have nothing to speak but empty bluster, then still your sly tongue and listen. This is the compromise I offer you: instead of pursuing the complete destruction you so deserve, I am willing to call a cessation of all hostilities. Withdraw your vile minions and close your portal, and I will refrain from teaching you the pain you have inflicted on countless mothers already. Or press for whatever victory you think you can attain, and I swear you will pay for every inch in the blood of your blood.”

She met his stare, and the force of her personality was like a tsunami. Ampophrenon the Gold stood against it, unflinching.

Elilial shifted her gaze from his, to pan it slowly across the assembly, taking time to study each gathered foe in turn, from the paladins to the meanest adventurers.

“Arachne,” she said at last, pressing her lips together in disapproval. “I see you wasted no time in getting neck-deep in trouble.”

“You should not burn down the world, Lil,” Arachne explained in a reasonable tone. “People live here. Also, it is nice! Have you seen the forest? Very pretty.”

In the ensuing pause, everyone present turned to stare at her.

“I will not forget that you dared to lay a hand on my daughters, elf,” the goddess stated flatly.

“Your daughters needed to have been spanked more,” the sorceress retorted. “I will not forget that I had to come after you and do it myself! Do I look like a person who should be responsible for other people’s kids?”

“Enough stalling,” Ampophrenon rumbled. “I will have your answer or your blood, demon queen.”

“No.” Elilial turned a knowing smile back on him. “You’ll have what I choose to give you, and be grateful for that much.”

“Mother, please,” Invazradi squalled.

“You shut up!” Azradeh snapped at her.

Ampophrenon rustled his wings. “You try my patience.”

“You call my threats empty?” the goddess said scornfully. “We both know you—”

He whipped his tail around, infusing the spaded tip with a glowing torrent of Light, and drove it through Arvanzideen’s wing, pinning her to the ground and blasting a wave of divine magic through her. She screamed, a sound of agony that made many of those assembled clutch their ears.

Elilial surged forward, the artifice washed away from her face by a mask of rage, already reaching for Ampophrenon. He was attuned enough to the ways of gods to know that the physical manifestation he saw, her hands going for his neck, was only a paltry reflection of the forces being aimed at him. Meeting her eyes, he roared, and twisted his tail, grinding the stone beneath Arvanzideen into gravel and mangling her wing.

“Stop it!” Azradeh shrieked. “Pick on me, you beast!”

“Heroes,” he thundered right into Elilial’s face. “If she moves, they all die.”

The chorus of approbation that answered him was downright eager. Dark Riders did not speak, but one pressed the tip of his black sword so hard into Invazradi’s side that droplets of smoking blood welled up.

Slowly, Elilial gathered herself, drawing back from him. In her silence, Invazradi whimpered and Arvanzideen emitted choked noises of suppressed pain. Azradeh twisted in her bonds to glare venomously up at Ampophrenon, ignoring the spear and the black sword pressing their tips to her throat from different angles.

Then, incongruously, Elilial smiled.

“I have what I needed from this campaign,” she said in a suddenly lazy tone, making a languid gesture with one hand. “You shall have your terms, dragon. Release my children and go simpering back to your Pantheon with your hollow victory. The portal will be dismantled, and I will leave you to enjoy the improvements I’ve wrought in this world while you were busy…babysitting.”

He met her eyes for a few seconds longer, then yanked his tail from Arvanzideen’s wing, noting how the sound she made caused her mother to flinch even through her mask of control.

“We have an accord,” the dragon said aloud. “Justice is delayed, Elilial. Not thwarted. The arc of history is long, and all actions yield consequences. Remember that.”

“Oh, yes,” she agreed. “Yes, they do. One day, Ampophrenon, I will enjoy reminding you of that lesson.”

“This is boring,” Arachne said loudly. “I will settle it: his dick is bigger. There, done. Now take your dumb kids and go back where you belong, you crazy bag of fire!”

It was not the end to the Third Hellwar that Ampophrenon had anticipated, but it would give the mortal world room to recover. And for now, that would be enough.

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49 thoughts on “Bonus #47: The Light of Dawn, part 2

  1. I like how Puff uses adventurers optimally. Just kind of corral them in the general direction of the enemy and try to keep them out of the way of your own soldiers, and they’ll probably help in some way.

    Kind of like how the Thief’s Guild operates in some ways, which is how you know adventurers and thieves won’t tend to get along.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve been thinking on this more and more, and I’m beginning to suspect the secret Elilial holds against the gods is something to do with the afterlife.

    We’ve seen a *lot* in this universe so far. We’ve seen expanses beyond time, we’ve seen Hell itself, we’ve seen the altered souls of dead humans made into demons, we’ve seen a horse die and be offered a purpose beyond death, we’ve seen a rogue mage killed dozens and mutilate a Valkyrie to try to bring back the dead.

    But you know what we’ve never seen? Not once? (Correct me if I’m wrong). The actual afterlife. Aside from Elilial’s modification and repurposing of incubi/succubi souls, and souls like Trissiny’s mount who chose not to go to the afterlife, we have not seen *anything* of what’s beyond the veil of death. Oh we’ve been told there’s something there. We’ve been told it’s super technologically advanced and that the gods have barred it off to prevent humanity from invading it in the same way the demons try to emigrate from Hell. But have we actually, y’know, *seen* any of it?

    I’m trying to work from the assumption that Elilial has at least *some* ethical leg to stand on here. That *something* is worth the Hellwars, the death and destruction she’s wrought. And given the scale of her slaughter … I just can’t imagine any justifiable goal being a material change in the world. It’s got to be something deeper.

    Like, say, if the afterlife wasn’t real or was a con in some way. If immortality (or at least ammortality) is possible, a la how elves and incubi/succubi and dragons function, but the gods are intentionally withholding that from humanity because they need their souls for fuel or something, *that* would be the kind of thing I could see Elilial using to justify the Hellwars. If everyone is going to die in the end anyway, actual permanent no-afterlife-for-you deaths, and your only possible hope of subverting that monstrosity of a system was to send some of them to their deaths faster … well, they were going to die anyway.

    Even if it’s something not as sinister as using souls as fuel, even if it’s just something along the lines of “the continuation of self into the afterlife does not exist in a meaningful sense”, and Elilial thinks the gods should be actively working to stop humans from dying when they’re not, that’s the kind of thing I could see motivating the Hellwars.

    Of course there’s no way the Hellwars were actually a push to conquer the world, there’s some deeper strategy underneath, but the cost of the Hellwars still needs justifying regardless. And this is just about the only thing I can imagine being revealed at the end of the story which would make me go “huh, maybe Elilial had a point”, which seems to me what this story has been building up to.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. My best guess is much simpler: We know that the pantheon can decide the properties of what “divine” magic does and how it acts inherently, as we learned from discussion of what it does to half-demons and how this may–or did?–change. What if the gods could also change the, “makes everybody irrationally, viciously, angry, causes cancer, and generally destroys stuff,” aspect of infernal magic too, and didn’t for some reason? Even if that’s a really, really good reason, it’s still pretty much writing off the hells as a horrifying prison full of inexhaustibly angry and dangerous things.

      As vague support for my guess, I can’t imagine why else Elilial would have decided it was worth invading and taking over the hells unless they were just supposed to be a source of personnel she found useful and was a bit sympathetic to.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Pretty sure Elilial didn’t invade Hell, but was banished there and then took over. I also don’t think the Pantheon can modify infernal magic, because they’re not the source of it. Scyllith is; likely only she can modify it.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. @lightdefender
        They apparently did have the power to redefine what a god even is, to the point that this killed most of the preexisting ones. That should’ve given them at least some influence over it, even if only indirectly through influence over Scyllith to use to change, compel or bargain with her. More than that we don’t know, beyond the fact that apparently there was some cause or causes of disagreement that lead both Elilial and Themynra to split from the pantheon proper. It would be an amazing letdown if it was over something stupid and unreasonable on Elilial’s part.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Spoilers for Scion, Part 4 below


        “The afterlife,” the valkyrie began, “is a dimensional plane like the prime material plane upon which you were born. The Elder Gods set it aside for the purpose of…well, power. You know, I’m sure, that magic requires a sapience to be initiated?”

        “She’s one of the best theoretical arcanists of her era,” Tellwyrn said. “You can skip the review.”

        Evaine made a wry face at her before turning back to Cyria. “Very well. That, doctor, is the reason the Elders began harvesting and storing souls. In the suspended state which is normal there, they have no will as such. They can be used to create magical workings on a scale no mortal caster could even dream. And now, that vast soul battery is under the control of the Pantheon.”

        “Why,” Aradidjad asked faintly, “is every new thing I learn more horrific than the last?”

        “Because you messed with time and blew up Calderaas,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “Hush up and listen.”

        “Still working on those people skills, I see,” Evaine said cheerfully. “Anyway, doctor, don’t worry—things are much better since Vidius took over. The souls of the dead aren’t being used for anything, just allowed to exist. And no longer in neutral suspension, either. The afterlife is just…bliss. Pure, existential happiness. Except!” She held up one finger. “The few souls my sisters and I are sent to gather… They retain a consciousness and individuality. Not just everyone is added to that roster, because, well… The world would be filled with them, and it would have all the same problems as the mortal plane. The honored dead are given a paradise in which to live as people, and even that requires an awful lot of maintenance, even for the comparatively few of them.”


        So a former soul Matrix, supposedly now reformed as best possible, with a Valhalla style VR simulation for the special ones.

        Honestly that sounds like the best they can do under the circumstances, and from a narrative perspective I doubt the big reveal about the Big Lie is gonna come in an infodump in a bonus chapter.

        Personally, I think they fucked with free will in some fundamental way. Not sure on specifics but it’s the only thing I can think of that could have a ‘justifiable’ explanation, but still infuriate/horrify people enough to cause them to turn against the gods.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. We haven’t seen the afterlife, per se, but we’ve heard things about it. I seem to remember that most people are given endless undifferentiated bliss . . . but aren’t truly conscious, or something. Kind of like a drug fog, maybe? Possibly there’s no metaphor that would really work.

      However, special people–Paladins, a few others–get a true afterlife, with continuity of memory.

      There was a reason the Elder Gods set this up, too. Not exactly fuel, I don’t think, but they derived some benefit from it. I’m kind of reminded of the was the technocore used “the creativity of dying minds” in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels.


    3. From what I remember, the Elder Gods created a sort of afterlife in which the ‘souls’ of the departed were joined together into a battery to be used for power.
      Vidius and his pantheon changed that (or so they say) to give the dead an approximation of heaven.
      The valkyries can cross over and bring back people, although not quite back to the world of the living.


      1. From what I remember Vidius created a heaven for only a very small percentage of the dead. Also it read to me at the time that the reality bending powers of the gods effectively were powered by the souls of the dead. Like they were being used as extra processors. Sort of like when Vidius reset the Little Rock Campus. He just clicked his fingers and countless minds were set to doing all of the little things to put things back to where they belonged.
        But I might just be making all of that up.
        I’m at work so can’t do an archive dive to find any evidence at the moment.


    4. I mean it’s quite obvious what the pantheon did. They introduced the thing that kills everyone that knows about what happened after the ascension. That killed everyone of their allies that was helping them fight the old gods.


      1. I’ve always thought that the answer was even simpler than all of that :

        The gods ascended. They weren’t gods that rose up to defeat the Elder God’s, they were just random schmuck who had the know how to become gods. Play that logic out and you have to start really questioning why anyone would follow them. What makes them so special that they deserve worship and to be followed?
        Avei was just a soldier, Omnu was just a gardener, Vesk just a bard.

        There are soldiers and gardeners and bards that exist in the modern world. What makes them any less worthy of being gods, other than the fact that someone got their first and monopolized the job?

        Simple truth and a favorable spin is all Ellial should need to absolutely devastate the Pantheon.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @KageLupus They weren’t “just random schmucks” they were heroes, everyone knew them, and then when they ascended everyone that knew them knew they became gods and perhaps had some knowledge of what happened. Then they died because of what they did to stop people knowing what happened after the ascension. And that is what made Elial try to destroy them, because they were monsters and destroyed everyone that knew them.


  3. …do we already know what she wanted out of this campaign? Because her apparent satisfaction has me worried about what the hell she did. Pun intended.


    1. I think it was a cover for introducing the Black Wreath. I seem to recall that being the purpose of at least one of the Hellwars, at least, though I may be misremembering which one.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Not sure, I could be forgetting something but the only guess I’ve got is to establish/re-establish the Black Wreath in the mortal realms. Beyond that I couldn’t say before reading the chapters that gets written in. If I’m (remembering correctly?) right about that, maybe it was good that the Sorash vs Avei wars happened, if that stopped the extermination of the Black Wreath: Presumably Elilial would have launched another hellwar to re-establish the Black Wreath, again, in that case.


    3. Based on Arachne’s appearance and interaction with Elilial here, I’m guessing that the purpose – or at least one, because why would the Goddess of Cunning launch a war with only one objective – was breaking Scyllith.


    4. Remember she’s a schemer. It doesn’t matter what her goals were or how well they were accomplished. There’s no way she’d tell her enemies anything but that everything went exactly as she planned.

      Her response could mean anything from actual complete success to just trying to instill some paranoia among her enemies after everything else failed. I read it as the latter, given the situation she was in.

      Also, is Elilial the only good we’ve seen who has children? What’s different about her that made that possible? (Or maybe just the pantheon has a pact not to have kids?)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t get enough of Arachne’s backstory!
    Can we please get more of that? I just love the reactions of everyone when she… just acts like herself, really.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Arachne was fun and interesting back when she sounded like a drunk teenager mouthing off. Fun and interesting in the sense of the supposed ancient Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times”) but fun to read about occasionally. The part about it that amuses me most is how she keeps giving everybody reasons to think she’s stupid when she was probably as sharp at this point as she ever was.

    I have to wonder about all the spell artillery that was used though: From the descriptions I am not sure how they didn’t get to the point of making the blood and meat-goo soaked rubble bounce and blow away as dust. What kind of construction is designed to withstand many, simultaneous tunnels being blasted through it? Or did it fizzle, because the circle-of-interaction problems robbed it of most of its effect? This scene doesn’t seem to make much sense if the magical stuff is as useful as a good mortar battery, except if maybe the battle happened at all because they didn’t dare to use the good stuff too close to the gate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I remember my circles correctly, Infernal tends to beat Arcane, but loses to Fey. The arcane spell barrages probably did *some* damage, but it was much reduced thanks to the infernal wards that the fortresses had.


    2. There’s a big difference between stupid and ignorant; the latter is temporary and easily remedied. Arachne is exceptionally ignorant here, which may in some way help explain why she later in life sets up a school to help remedy even more ignorance.


  6. This chapter shows us that Elilial is quite happy to sacrifice other peoples’ children in the name of her glorious war against the Pantheon, but she draws the line when it comes to her own kids. No matter what we learn about the rest of them, there’s one god that I can say for certain is a bastard.

    Justinian made the right decision when he killed the archdemons. Now Elilial finally knows the same pain she inflicted on so many others, and her children will never harm another mortal soul.


    1. Frankly that isn’t exactly abnormal. It’s fine as long as its the other guy paying the price. The moment it becomes personal though…


      1. Byzantine:

        Oh, it’s definitely normal. But it does undermine Elilial’s whole “Pantheon are the real baddies” narrative.

        Elilial may have a legitimate grievance, but she doesn’t actually care about the little people who get hurt when she goes to war against her old friends. From a mortal perspective, she’s an evil goddess because she doesn’t care about collateral damage.


      1. We don’t know that for sure (AFAIK), it’s just highly likely, for a few reasons. Firstly, we know he’s already interfering with the Gods and planning *something* big. Secondly, of the major players we’ve been introduced too (Justinian, the Empire, Ellial, Tellwyrn, Mary the Crow, and a few dragons), he’s the only one who is crazy enough to do it. The Empire/Sharidan has shown no desire to “make it personal” with Ellial, and also doesn’t seem to have the magical skill/power to do it. Tellwyrn could do it, but knows not to fuck with Ellial’s kids (and also appears to be genuinely sympathetic to Ellial). Mary the Crow *was* willing to kill one of Ellial’s kids, but that was just one kid, was during a Hellwar, and she was talked down by Tellwyrn. It could be a dragon, but all of the ones we know aren’t that dumb. Finally, it could be a so-far unknown or small-time character, but that’d be a bit of an asspull.


  7. Now I have to wonder, why was Vadreney the “retarded” archdemon, did that have any bearing on her and Teal’s survival, and did the mash-up with Teal clear up some fog in her mind? Because she seems perfectly capable of reason now and I think at one time it was mentioned she was soaking up the University lessons along with Teal.


      1. I don’t thinks she is really dumb, I just believe she is just hard-headed. We haven’t seen her before merging with Teal. Although, Embras did talk to her like she wasn’t that big on tactics.


    1. Early Vadrieny looks spoiled and mentally lazy. She could probably have learned feints and other maneuvers like her sisters, but she just attacks and relies on her strength and near-invulnerability instead.

      Humans tend to lose some ability to learn as they get older, and never using an ability tends to result in it atrophying, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lil defined things differently for her children using some kind of magic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s pretty weird that one of the daughters of the goddess of cunning, shows some of the worst thinking and strategy.


    2. I don’t think she was mentally deficient in any way, she was just brutal and straightforward. A lot like a dryad, really. When your mom spoils you and 99% of the things you fight are easily killed, it’s easy to disdain strategy and magic in favor of “hit it harder!”

      Liked by 2 people

  8. What I find myself most curious about is the subject of Sorash. What was Sorash’s faith like? What were his principles?

    Most germane to the subject at hand: To what degree are the Dark Riders Sorash’s chosen agents? Are they, like, full-on Paladins like the Hands? Or are they something similar but lesser, like the original Huntsmen and the Silver Huntresses? And why the hell are they so… Like That?(by which I mean, faceless, mute, and devoid of outward indicators of individuality)


  9. Seeing how powerful puff is makes me wonder why they’re aren’t that many Gold dragons, I know that they’d probably never want to be beholden to the gods, but it’s such a cool power source.


    1. I’m not entirely certain about the mechanisms involved, but I think color depends on mentality at least to a degree. If you are the kind of dragon that would want to be a gold just for the power, you are more likely to actually become a red.

      At least that was the impression that I got. Someone else might be able to give a better explanation.


      1. I think it’s like picking your major at uni… whatever magic you use primarily is the color you become. If you switch later on, your color changes as well.

        The mentality isn’t very important… a cruel, arrogant and power hungry dragon could still pick any school of magic. It’s probably just the divine that comes with additional checks and balances since while it’s mostly automated, divine magic still has the gods overseeing its use.

        Puff wants to become a silver dragon, it’s his greatest desire. Too bad none of the gods are going to empower him. Neither is Elilial/Scyllith going to create another black dragon.


  10. Hey, I apologize for not getting back to you earlier, but you asked me to point out where Gabe used infernal magic to keep himself from falling. I couldn’t give you an exact quote or the exact chapter, but it was when Vadrieny flew him into orbit. Maybe it was awkward wording, or maybe it was me misreading it, just wanted to point it out just in case.
    Also I do have a question about infernal magic. It was implied that you needed to form a pact with a demon to use it, but then later it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, so I think I may be misunderstanding something. Do you or do you not need to form some sort of contract with a demon to use infernal magic?


    1. In that case Gabe didn’t use any magic to keep from falling, Vadrieny carried him high enough that gravity didn’t automatically bring him back down until she gave him a push. He was basically helpless the whole time.

      A pact with a demon is not necessary to use infernal magic but it’s highly advisable, as infernal magic is incredibly dangerous to handle and demons are the most skilled teachers. The demons that are willing to teach do so with an agenda, though, so that has its own additional dangers.


      1. Just how far around the planet do the transcension fields extend? How close was Vadrieny to accidentally killing all three of them here?


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