The dazzling glare of the explosion faded, finally revealing the enormous form of Kelvreth of the Eyes.
He seemed to be humanoid in shape, though only his upper body protruded from the great summoning circle below. Even that rose above the buildings flanking the square; had he emerged fully and stood upright, he could have crossed the length of Ninkabi in a handful of strides. The demon was skeletal but not a skeleton, an emaciated figure with iron-like bone protruding here and there where patches of rusty jade colored skin was missing. In some spots, like on his arms, his outer covering seemed entirely gone, leaving just dark bones and strands of greenish tendon holding them together. His chest was thin as if mummified, though seemed almost carved of one piece, with no suggestion of individual ribs revealed by the skin stretched over it. Likewise, his bald head suggested a skull without exactly being one. The great demon’s eyes were shut, the lids oddly clenched as though it took effort to keep them that way. He had two vertical slits for a nose, revealing a flickering green light within as if his skull were full of katzil flame. Kelvreth’s lower face was a single, triangular shape coming to a prominent point at the chin, with no suggestion of a mouth at all.
“It is just a demon,” Trissiny stated, raising her voice enough to be heard by those on the upper plaza but not shouting. “It’s bigger than the others, that’s all. We are a greater threat than Hell came here prepared to face. Stand firm, and charge on my signal.”
Kelvreth moved ponderously slowly, which was probably for the best; given his size, a hasty twitch could have caused untold damage. While lowering the hand with which he’d caught the shatterstone, he raised his skull as if sniffing the air. His other hand remained firmly planted on the ground outside the summoning circle, the position of that arm and his shoulders suggesting he was using it to push himself up and out of the portal.
“He cannot be allowed to fully emerge,” Khadizroth stated. “At all costs, General.”
“Agreed.” Trissiny raised her sword. “Archers—”
Kelvreth had been slowly lifting his other hand again, and now opened it, palm facing them. His lack of a visible mouth did not prevent him from speaking.
“I would parley.”
All of them leaned backward; the demon lord’s voice was projected like a magical force, resonating in the air and, it felt, in their very bones. Those who could conjure divine shields did so, purely by instinct.
Arjen snorted and pawed one heavy hoof against the broken pavement. Trissiny kept her sword pointed at Kelvreth, drawing back her lips in a snarl as she opened her mouth to reply.
Then Gabriel edged Whisper closer to her, and reached out to lightly touch her shoulder.
Trissiny paused, looking over at him, and he silently shifted his eyes for one instant toward the defenders behind them. She glanced back, taking stock.
By the favor of the gods or simply the overwhelming concentration of powerful magic users present, they had avoided taking any fatalities during the preceding battle, but it had not been bloodless. Branwen, Toby, Shaeine, and most of the fae casters were busy healing wounded hunters and wolves, as well as Merry, Ruda, and Grip. No one appeared to need hospitalization but quite a few of their forces were not ready to spring back into a brawl. More people than otherwise were visibly exhausted, though Khadizroth and Shiraki were both directing surreptitious blessings against weariness at people one at a time.
In fact, their numbers were growing rather than the reverse; the nearby civilians had been gathered into the old trading guild hall at one side of the square, where Imperial soldiers and city police were keeping an active presence around the entrances, most of which were also surrounded by drifts of charcoal where demons had been blasted to death. Now, a single squad of troops had marched over to join them, accompanied by a less orderly cluster of Ninkabi police. It wasn’t much, but they were disciplined professionals wielding modern firearms, and made of stern enough stuff that they had stepped forward to fight despite being visibly terrified by the sight of Kelvreth.
Kuriwa was quickly restoring those of her thorn bushes which had been damaged in the battle, and calling forth more; at a glance it was plain she was assembling a defensive line of them across the top of the stairs. Archers, soldiers, and spellcasters were picking themselves up, and half a dozen whispered conversations were taking place as strategies were quickly hammered out.
Trissiny took all this in with a glance, then met Gabriel’s eyes again and nodded once in acknowledgment, whereupon he eased back again. As they were, most of the defenders could still fight, after a fashion, but every second they could buy to get back into fighting order would make a difference. Finally, she lowered her sword.
“Speak, then,” Trissiny called out to the demon lord.
“Where is the Lady Vadrieny?”
“If you have something to say,” she retorted, “you can say it to me.”
“Trissiny Avelea,” Kelvreth said, his voice still like a physical force bearing down on them all. “Already you show more wisdom than most of your elder sisters. I have personal memory of Sharai, who was called the Hammer.” He shifted the upheld hand forward, holding his index finger close enough to reveal that its protruding black claw was broken off, and the edge of its remaining piece deeply marked with a carved symbol that looked like the upper half of an Avenist golden eagle. “Perhaps the only being I have ever encountered who was too stubborn to be manipulated.”
Gabriel grimaced, shaking his head when the demon stopped speaking. “I don’t suppose the term ‘inside voice’ means anything to you?”
“Did you really come all this way to gossip about ancient history?” Trissiny demanded. Arjen snorted again.
“Even if more careful than most, I see a Hand of Avei is still not a creature of patience,” Kelvreth boomed, slowly shifting his skull in a gesture that his closed eyes and lack of mouth made inscrutable. “Very well. I am called here by a desperate plea to the Dark Lady by her Wreath in this realm. They have labored…ineffectually…to prevent this breach. Alongside mortal defenders, is it not so?”
While Kelvreth had been speaking, so had Khadizroth the Green, though in a bare whisper and with his back turned to the demon, seemingly addressing no one as he poured magic from his spread hands to bolster and heal the rapidly organizing defenders. “That is an active summoning, not a portal, and the summoners on this plane are all dead. We needn’t destroy him, simply weaken him enough that he cannot keep holding himself through it. Target his hands. Spread the word.”
Kuriwa, of course, ignored him, being fully occupied with assembling her hedge into a veritable rampart which bristled with thorny vines poised to lash out on one side and blossoms producing puffs of healing pollen on the other. Shiraki, Rainwood, Vannae, Principia, Flora, and Fauna all glanced at him and then spread out, bending close to others to murmur the message. Fross had also been hovering near the dragon, and at his signal zipped over to land on Trissiny’s shoulder, chiming softly.
At Kelvreth’s final word, Khadizroth turned, striding forward through one of the gaps Kuriwa had left in her hedge to stand on Trissiny’s other side from Gabriel.
“The Wreath have indeed been active here,” the dragon informed her. “It was they who first alerted us to the severity of the threat and sought alliance in addressing it. With the Wreath, though, nothing can be assumed. I would not attest that this was not their goal all along.”
“Yes,” Trissiny agreed, nodding to him, “I’ve also cooperated with the Black Wreath. I am well aware how it always ends up.” The dragon gave her the ghost of a smile.
“The Dark Lady does not seek this invasion,” Kelvreth stated. “She does not seek your deaths. The Black Wreath’s incompetence in failing to avert this shall be punished. Now, I and the Lady’s forces have come here to return our kith and kin to where they belong. Our aims coincide. I seek alliance.”
Trissiny drew in a short breath as a hiss.
“Need me to play demon’s advocate, here?” Gabriel murmured.
She shook her head. “No…the benefit is obvious. Everything in me wants to spit in his face, but… You know the effect demons have on me.”
Toby had emerged from the hedge while they spoke, and now stepped up between the other paladins’ mounts, patting Arjen’s shoulder. “We also know you’re in control of yourself, Triss. You worked hard to get that way; don’t discount it.”
“Deliberate as you must,” said Kelvreth, finally planting his other hand on the ground to help hold himself in place. “Time is not on our side, however.”
Trissiny swept her eyes around the skyline of the city as it stretched out before them from the main gates. About a third of the columns of fire which signified an open hellgate had gone dark; clearly the teams she’d sent were still about their work, or at least some of them. Vadrieny and Yngrid were both functionally invincible, and demons would flee from them anyway. In the worst case scenario, they could finish the task alone at the expense of it taking longer. But Ninkabi’s suffering was already obvious. Dozens of plumes of smoke rose in all directions, and the sounds of screams, explosions, and firearms were a distant but constant discordant music. Even once all the gates were shut, there would still be countless demons to round up and put down, and many would escape to spread across N’Jendo. Some would make it beyond; never mind Thakar, who knew what would happen when they got into Athan’Khar?
Barring another direct intervention by a major god, this was already an absolute catastrophe. Could they afford to turn down any help?
“I welcome opinions,” she muttered.
The crow squawked insistently as she descended to stand right in front of Khadizroth.
“I have made bargain with worse monsters than that in the face of lesser disasters,” Kuriwa said, meeting Trissiny’s gaze. “About such dark deals I can tell you this: even when I got exactly what I wanted, I was left to regret it bitterly, for a very long time if not forever. The need is dire, granddaughter, but think carefully about what ends justify what means.”
“Yeah, like she said, we’ve worked with the Wreath,” Gabriel muttered, staring through narrowed eyes at Kelvreth. “They can’t not screw you over, can they?”
“In the worst case scenario,” Khadizroth added softly, “he and his mistress will turn on us at the most inopportune moment they can arrange. That is not baseless conjecture; you know well, General Avelea, that Elilial and her get are noted for doing exactly that. In the best, they will perform faithfully and use the situation to gain a significant foothold in our world. She would never pass up such an opportunity. The goddess of cunning is constrained by her aspect; I am not certain she can refrain from clawing for advantage.”
“If you try to form an alliance with that thing, Trissiny Avelea, you will be remembered as the biggest fool ever to blunder into Avei’s service.”
Gabriel sighed. “Shut up, Ariel.”
“No. I am correct. She doesn’t have to do anything I say, but for such stakes I will give my advice.”
“She’s always at her most annoying when she’s got a point, isn’t she?” Trissiny murmured, half turning her head to chance a split-second glance behind. In just a few minutes, the assembled adventurers and their backup had regrouped, and now a mix of staves, wands, and arrows were being aimed through convenient holes in the hedge, with spellcasters behind them and both wolves and melee fighters standing at the ready in the gaps large enough for a person to walk through. The formation was still assembling; they just needed a few minutes more to get the last fighters healed and bolstered and in position.
It was a defensive posture, she recognized, but it was well-arranged to lay down covering fire while such as paladins, dragons, and dryads lit into Kelvreth.
If it came to that.
“Elilial has repeatedly invaded this plane in force,” Trissiny called to the demon lord. “Your claim that she didn’t direct this latest incursion lacks credibility.”
“My lady acts with purpose, and favors the subtle maneuver,” he replied. “Her invasions were all in the distant past, in a different time. Do you think either world is as it was three thousand years ago? This carnage does nothing to advance the Dark Lady’s plots, and poses risk to them.”
“And as for those plots,” she shot back, “you represent the single least trustworthy individual in existence, monster. Unless you can offer some very compelling reason otherwise, I have to assume you intend to betray and destroy us.”
“Do you?” His tone as not a tone, exactly, as much as it was a force upon the air. It was hard to detect irony, or any emotion. The question might have been sincere.
“That is not a denial.”
“You will believe what you believe, paladin. The question is whether you can afford to fight two foes, when one could have been your ally.”
She clenched her jaw. “Toby, you’re quiet. Not going to advocate for peace?”
“Always,” he said, pressing his own mouth into a bitter line. “Always for peace. And the ugly truth is that peace only exists where it’s enforced. Ideally through subtler and gentler means, but I can’t think of a single one of those that could work here, Triss. Sometimes… Sometimes, you only get peace by silencing those who want war. And he wants war. Even if he’s on our side here and now, helping him will just give credibility and a physical foothold to Elilial. You know what she’ll do with that.”
“This city burns and dies while we dither,” Kelvreth observed, his bony shoulders twisting as he shifted his weight where both hands supported it. The strain was evident in his posture, as if it took constant pressure to keep himself from being sucked back into the other dimension.
“Khelminash are converging on the cathedral site,” Trissiny shouted. “What do they intend to do there?”
There was a momentary pause, the most expressive breach of composure the great demon’s mouthless, eyeless face had betrayed.
“Nothing that will affect you, or our business here.”
“Pretty much tells us what we wanna know, doesn’t it?” Gabriel commented.
She bared her teeth in what was not a smile. “And why would you want to make a pact with us? Your kind always prefer aggression. Unless you’re afraid of the force we represent.”
“You yap at the heels of gods, child. The most ancient among you are but stalks of wheat in a field. You will be a momentary use, or momentary nuisance, to my lady. She has cause to fear nothing.”
“Consider this,” Khadizroth said quietly. “There are two dryads in our ranks, General. In the worst event, if this goes badly enough that Ninkabi is an unsavlageable loss anyway… Elilial is in no way prepared to contend with Naiya in person.”
“I would really prefer not to think about that,” Trissiny muttered, wincing. Naiya’s rage at the loss of one of her daughters could annihilate a city more thoroughly than even demons.
“Think about it,” he urged. “Please don’t aim for that end, but…it is worth being aware of.”
“Eh,” Gabriel said lightly. “I think we can take him.”
“You were right,” Toby added. “He wouldn’t bother talking to us if we weren’t a threat to his plans. And he was also right, Triss: there’s not a lot of time.”
“They are as ready as can be expected,” Kuriwa stated, then fluttered aloft again, winging her way back behind the hedge.
A few more columns of fire had gone out while they talked. That task was underway; once it was done there would only be cleanup. Only two things represented a concentrated threat at this point: Kelvreth himself, and the increasing Elilinist forces converging on the hidden hellgate beneath the Cathedral.
Trissiny raised her chin, and then her voice. “Very well, Kelvreth. If you are truly here to end this invasion, then be advised that the matter is in hand and your assistance is not required. The Tiraan Empire thanks you for the offer, but reminds you that your armed incursion into its territory is not acceptable. In the name of the Pantheon and the Emperor, you and your forces are required to immediately depart this plane of existence. These are the only terms you will be offered.”
“You believe your allies have sufficiently prepared themselves to assault me, then.” It was still impossible to discern humor in his voice itself, but she couldn’t interpret that anyway except with a sardonic touch.
“We have nothing else to discuss, Kelvreth,” she replied. “Go home.”
“Or in Avei’s name, I will face justice?” Again, he raised his hand from the ground, shifting position to brace himself against the other one, to show her his broken, eagle-marked claw. “You do not impress, paladin.”
“No,” she said more quietly, “I guess you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?”
Trissiny urged Arjen forward until he stood at the very edge of the steps, stomping the ground and clearly eager to charge.
“Then how about this?” she called. “In Eserion’s name, take your goons and get the hell off my planet, or I’m gonna fuck you up so bad everyone in Hell will take one look at you and know better than to try this again!”
The short silence following this pronouncement was broken by Grip’s voice from behind the lines. “I taught her that!”
“It matters not. I have delayed you long enough for my Lady’s ends. This farce is no longer necessary.”
And then Kelvreth opened his eyes.
“Don’t look at—” Khadizroth shouted, too late.
They were not eyes, but windows into sheer madness. To meet Kelvreth’s gaze was like staring at the inhabitants of chaos space, like looking into a place where the very rules of reality were so insane and counter to those of the mortal world that simply being aware of them began to peel away layers of the viewer’s sanity.
Even the cavernous sockets in his enormous skull did not contain them. One could not evade Kelvreth’s gaze. Once his eyes were open, they filled the view, filled the sky, filled all of perception, and blasted away all semblance of order.
The three paladins lit up with a furious intensity of divine light, immediately protected by their gods from the psychic onslaught. Khadizroth, Kuriwa, and Shiraki all maintained a semblance of control under the pressure, due to a combination of age, sheer magical strength and familiarity with the emotionally charged nature of fairy craft. All three acted swiftly to propel that calm outward to the others, but it was too late and simply too little.
The carefully rebuilt defensive line of adventurers and soldiers disintegrated within seconds into a massacre as they all turned spells and weapons on one another.