“Why the hell are we losing now?” Taka shouted immediately upon flashing back into human form, pausing to grimace and wipe at the acrid stains around her mouth. Seconds prior, in the shape of a wolf, she had just torn out the throat of a khaladesh demon armed with notably better weapons than most of them, likely some kind of officer. “We killed the big one! That always works in stories!”
“We?” McGraw muttered, his attention on the next wave of khaladesh which he was pelting with arcane bolts.
“Don’t swallow,” Khadizroth ordered, pausing in his own work to lay a hand on Taka’s forehead. She scowled at the sparks of drifting green magic which momentarily swirled around her, but made no complaint. Nobody sensible turned down a free cleansing after getting a mouthful of demon. “It is the difference between an army and a rabble,” the dragon continued, releasing her and resuming his previous task; he was rapidly summoning more light creatures to attack the demons still trying to swarm them. “Our forces charged in no order, with no plan and without leadership, at an organized counter-force which deftly split us off to be defeated in detail. This is why Hands of Avei are important, even in the presence of allies who can objectively hit harder. While we had a plan and they did not, we were winning. The tables have turned.”
“There’s a lot o’ things I doubt about you, Khadizroth, but your intellect ain’t one,” said Joe, also facing forward and firing his wands as steadily as he could without overheating them. “If you got a plan, I’m all ears.”
“Plans are one thing; most of those here will not listen to me as readily as they would Avelea,” Khadizroth replied. “What we need to do is regroup, and have an orderly force ready for her to direct when she gets back.”
“How sure are we that she’s coming back?” Taka asked pointedly. “I mean, the other two paladins are still here and she got—”
“I have seen Avei’s champions fall in battle,” the dragon said with a thin smile, still conjuring magic against the demons. “Never to anything as prosaic as a great big explosion. And this one was trained by Arachne; she will have numerous tricks up her sleeve.”
“I can’t say I’m not worried about Trissiny,” Toby added, “but I’m not panicked yet. She’s survived worse, and come back to yell at us for falling out of formation.”
“That has also been my experience,” Khadizroth said gravely. “If you will all take my advice, then…?”
“Of course, Lord Khadizroth,” Vannae said quickly and predictably. Beside him, Rainwood rolled his eyes.
Gabriel brought Whisper cantering back up to them after another sweep; he and his scythe had been keeping the khaladesh in the vicinity from forming up, and also taking potshots at any khelminash flyers who got too close with the beams of black light it produced. The khelminash, though generally fearless, had failed to come up with anything that countered that, and were keeping their distance from the upper plaza, where Khadizroth and the much smaller group with them had been pushed back to the magic tree.
“Joe, you trust this dragon?” Gabe asked.
Joe glanced sidelong at Khadizroth, grunted, then nodded. “Here an’ now? He’s smart an’ no friend o’ demons. This is a good time for listenin’ to our elders.”
“I shall try not to disappoint,” the dragon acknowledged. “As I said, we must regroup. I see no bodies on the street from here, so hopefully everyone has taken shelter, but they are now scattered around this city block and beyond. The largest concentration are over there in the trading hall with the civilians and soldiers; being closest and most fortified, that is the least concern. We must gather the isolated groups and individuals, and protect them while bringing them back here. It’s Taka, yes?”
“I don’t recall telling you that,” she said suspiciously.
“Forgive me, but you are teeming with some of the most talkative fae spirits I have ever encountered,” Khadizroth said, pausing in his casting to nod deeply to her. “I need you to call your family, please.”
“My family are—oh, right. I see what you mean.”
With a flash of moonlight, she was gone and a huge, luminous wolf in her place. Taka raised her head and let out a long, warbling howl; immediately, the two spirit wolves which had gathered together with them followed suit.
Within seconds, more howls answered them from the nearby structures. Also, as if at the same cue, several squadrons of flying khelminash switched their maneuvers from sweeping the outlying streets to heading toward them in formation.
“Mr. Arquin,” Khadizroth continued, “how do you feel about antagonizing a large number of incredibly dangerous women into making you the main target of their ire?”
Gabriel barked a sardonic laugh. “Like I’ve been training for this moment my whole life!” Whisper whinnied a challenge and the pair of them charged off, Gabriel immediately disrupting the nearest khelminash formation with several well-placed scythe beams.
“Longshot, break off attacking and conserve your energy, please,” said the dragon. “I want you to watch for stragglers coming in; if they are pressed by demons, teleport them to us.”
“Can do,” McGraw agreed, bringing his staff up to a vertical position and tipping his hat. “For a while, anyway. Porting takes it out of a man.”
“I shall bolster you as best I can. Vannae, Rainwood, please prioritize healing any wounded we gather here, and otherwise continue defending this spot. Mr. Caine, can you sweep the surrounding structures and escort survivors back to us?”
“I can,” Toby said, “though I don’t move as fast as Gabe or Triss, obviously.”
Khadizroth opened his mouth to reply, but before he could a column of sunlight plunged down from the sky straight above to illuminate a wide circle next to them, just outside the radius of the tree’s branches. Golden light intensified in the place where it met the pavement, and in the next moment a horse stepped out of it.
She was a palomino, her coat a shade of golden blonde that shimmered as if literally gilded, with a contrasting black mane and tail. The creature might well have been made of sunlight, by her appearance. She wore a plan, well-weathered saddle over a woven blanket of warm brown with green embroidered designs and thread-of-gold Omnist sunbursts in each corner.
“Roiyary!” Rainwood practically squealed, rushing forward to throw his arms around the horse’s neck. “There’s my girl! How’ve you been?”
The mare whickered affectionately at him before gently pulling away and stepping over to an awestruck Toby.
“Good timing,” Khadizroth remarked. “But then, your performance a few minutes ago was just the kind of achievement that often earns a paladin their mount.”
“I have to warn you,” Toby said, gingerly stroking Roiyary’s nose, “I’m not the most experienced rider.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Rainwood said, grinning. “She’s taught worse. Just trust her and let her do the work.”
Roiyary nickered in agreement, turning to present her left side to Toby. He reached up and placed one hand on the saddle horn, and then smoothly flowed upward to land in the saddle as if he’d been doing so his entire life, somewhat spoiling the effect by looking comically startled that it had worked.
The sunlit mare whinnied, reared once, and then charged down the nearest side street, Toby balancing smoothly astride her; one would never guess from watching them that he was a less than expert horseman.
“The gods are with us,” Khadizroth commented. “Good, we’ll need them. Joseph, you know your business well; I caution you to prioritize dealing with ground forces as they approach. Your wands have proved very effective against the khelminash, but for that very reason the more of them you shoot, the faster they will develop a counter to your skill. Try to save those shots for a pressing need. You can judge such for yourself.”
Joe made no reply except to keep shooting.
“We have a solid defense on the ground, but those flyers are going to become a major problem as soon as we have people trying to rejoin us. Kuriwa… Do something.”
She had not been obviously in evidence, but at his demand, the little black crow landed right in Khadizroth’s green hair and pecked him twice on the forehead before fluttering off again.
Before it could become apparent what Mary planned to do, the enormous silver-armored bulk of Arjen burst out of a side street on the lower square, Trissiny astride him and blazing with light. Alongside them ran the lion-sized form of Meesie. They bowled right into a mass of khaladesh who were trying to form up for a charge, creating immediate disarray and ensuing slaughter.
“As I said,” Khadizroth murmured with a vindicated smile, conjuring up another spectral stag to join the fray. “They don’t fall that easily.”
Their campaign grew progressively more difficult the longer it went on, as the encroaching demons began to realize what was happening—or at least, the Elilinist ones, who had some kind of command structure and communication system in place. By the time they arrived at the final portal site on the south bank, there was no question of a swift ambush such as they’d been able to execute at the first few sites. Now, the resistance was fierce.
For Natchua and Xyraadi, massacring khaladesh foot soldiers was not an imposition, and they even had little to fear from the three khelminash sorceresses with the group. Xyraadi observed that these were probably still in training, or they’d be on a flying platform; at any rate, they had nothing to throw at the attackers but a barrage of shadowbolts, which the two warlocks easily deflected. Jonathan and Hesthri focused their staff fire on the khelminash, and they went down in minutes.
Matters became more difficult as, apparently, a warning was passed through the portal and a hulking baerzurg charged out of it. Then more difficult still as a shockwave of fire hurled the already-disintegrating bodies of demons and sheer infernal energy out at them. This, clearly, was one of the rare high-caste baerzurgs who were quite intelligent and able to cast spells.
Xyraadi grimaced in concentration, barely managing to gather the loose infernal magic into a single point, which she sent hurtling right back at its caster. The blast of pure entropic destruction rocked the baerzurg back a few steps, but not for nothing were those creatures considered to be impervious.
“Incoming flyers, twelve o’clock!” Jonathan barked, raising his staff to fire at the flying disc which topped the roof just beyond the portal to charge at them.
Two more followed, and they were entirely unimpressed by his lightning bolt, which one of the sorceresses swatted contemptuously to the side.
“Take out the portal,” Natchua growled. He and Hesthri both repositioned themselves, firing rapidly at the portal altar which was being physically blocked from their view by the armored baerzurg, with whom Xyraadi was rapidly exchanging spells.
Natchua was almost pleased by the intervention, having an idea she had developed a few portals ago by watching the flying discs. Reaching out with her mind, she could feel the complex infernal spells powering those devices. Complex, fully self-contained, and warded against meddling—by lesser warlocks than she, that was. There weren’t many gaps in the coverage that could be exploited, but there was a relatively open entry point in the spell lattice where they had to draw power from their pilots.
She simply poured an uncontained blast of pure, unfocused infernomancy into the networks, and the three platforms immediately continued doing what they were doing, but about five times as hard. As they were currently swooping down on the mortals below, this sent them accelerating well beyond the ability of their pilots to control. Two slammed into buildings to either side, the third overshooting them and impacting the ground behind in a deafening explosion.
Then either Hesthri or Jonathan scored a lucky hit, and with the last altar’s destruction, the portal winked out.
With a bellow of rage, the baerzurg caster charged bodily forward, shrugging off the bolts of viridian fire with which Xyraadi pelted it, and stepped right into the invisible spell circled the sorceress had been surreptitiously creating on the ground while keeping the other demon busy with spellfire.
The baerzurg was abruptly crushed like a tin can in the depths of the ocean, its impervious biological armor crumpling inward to a ball the size of a pumpkin, which landed on the ground, oozing black ichor.
A gurgle from behind in the sudden quiet was all the warning Natchua got; she turned just in time to see one khelminash sorceress, a survivor from the final crash, crumple to the ground, clutching her bleeding throat. Behind her, Kheshiri faded into visibility, holding an evil-looking dagger carved from something’s claw, which she had clearly looted from one of their foes.
“You have no idea how satisfying it is to murder these smug bitches,” the succubus commented.
“Au contraire, I have seldom felt anything so therapeutic,” Xyraadi rejoined.
“Yeah, no offense,” added Jonathan, “but are you just…better than all of these others? ‘Cause I notice we’ve been burning through ‘em pretty rapidly, and you don’t even look winded.”
“These are soldiers,” Xyraadi said contemptuously. “Trained and drilled to fire a prescribed sequence of spells in unison. Very dangerous in large numbers, but not individually impressive warlocks. I am a specialist, an artist.”
“Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered, “get aloft and double-check we don’t have another target.”
“I told you that was the last one, mistress,” Kheshiri said petulantly.
“You also told me these portals weren’t going to be opened,” Natchua snapped. “Do it!”
It was hard to perceive the succubus’s emotions directly with all the infernal magic flowing about, but this one time Kheshiri wore her petulance openly on her face. But she did, after a cursory bow, shoot upward with a powerful flap of her wings while fading back to invisibility.
“I think she is right, though,” Xyraadi murmured, stepping over closer to Natchua. “I can feel no more portals nearby.”
“Me, either,” Natchua admitted. “I just like making her jump.”
“Ah, yes,” the other warlock said, grinning. “It is good for her character, n’est-ce pas?”
“If that was the last one, what next?” Hesthri asked, also stepping closer and transferring her staff to one hand so she could slip her other arm around Natchua’s waist.
“Back to square one,” Natchua said, squeezing her back. Jonathan approached them from behind, tucking his staff into his elbow to rest a hand on each of their shoulders. It had been non-stop fighting for who knew how long, since they had set out from the square at the other end of the city. This moment to breathe was very much needed. “The cathedral and the ancient hellgate secured under it is still our main target, and it’ll also be the focus of the Elilinist demons coming in. Assuming the other teams have been doing their jobs, they’ll be low on reinforcements, but…”
A whoosh of air passed over their heads, and Kheshiri popped back into view as she landed nearby.
“Yes, about that,” the succubus said, folding her wings back. “I still see five pillars of fire, but none on our bank of the city. The strike team and Vadrieny are clearly faring well—we’re just better. The hellgates should all be cut off within minutes. But there’s more trouble, mistress. All the khelminash who’d been converging on the cathedral have moved away; they’re attacking the square inside the gates, up where we started from. I can’t see details from this far but it looks like a pitched fight.”
“That’s not good,” Jonathan stated, frowning. “Avelea’s plan was to push forward through the city. If the fighting’s still concentrated at the starting point, it’s all gone wrong.”
Natchua drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long hiss through her teeth. She was so close to something important to Elilial she could taste it.
“It sounds like an opening,” Hesthri said, looking at her inquisitively. “If the forces are being drawn away, the cathedral site is vulnerable.”
They were all looking at her, with varying expressions. It was true; this was exactly the opportunity for which she’d assembled them here.
Scowling, Natchua shook her head once. “Not while we have friends and family under attack. I’m not going to sacrifice anyone who hasn’t signed up for it specifically. We’d better go help them. Xyraadi, you’re better than I at jumping; find us a landing spot.”
Another baerzurg charged in through the broken gap in the wall, and Juniper punched it square in the chest.
The massive demon staggered backward, a fractured dent in its chest armor, and fell right into the gap in the stones through which it had come. Juniper brushed back the charred remains of her hair, planting her feet in a balanced stance and waiting for the next one, which did not come. She was severely singed and soaking wet, due to the demons discovering that setting fire to her was the only thing that worked, and Fross constantly dousing her in a freezing mist to compensate.
Ruda stabbed the last of the fallen baerzurgs behind her which was still twitching, causing it to fall still. The slender mithril blade of her rapier pierced their hide as easily as if it were paper; she had been finishing them off after Juniper brought them down. “Is that the last of ‘em?”
“There are no more large footsteps outside,” Shaeine reported. “I would not call this over, but I believe we have earned a breather. Juniper, we have never tried this, but if you are willing to risk Themynra’s judgment, I believe she would deem you more than worthy of healing, fairy or not.”
Juniper shook her head, eyes still on the tumbled gap in which the last baerzurg slouched, still twitching. Ruda stalked past her, rapier at the ready. “I don’t need it yet, Shaeine, but thanks. I’m more pissed off than hurt.”
Ruda speared the creature directly through the eye, causing it to emit an incongruously high-pitched squeal as it died. She yanked the blade out and turned to rejoin them, absently wiping acrid ichor off on the hem of her coat. “I dunno what this place was supposed to be, before, but it was not built with a siege in mind. We got way too many fuckin’ entrances to guard already without these assholes making more!”
“This is the main trading hub,” said the police captain who’d joined them, looking haggard but still unbent. He had wands in each hand, but had stepped back to let the students cover the baerzurgs coming in through the wall after they’d lost two soldiers learning that lightning weapons did absolutely nothing to them. “You’re right, it was designed for accessibility, not defense. Ninkabi’s outer walls have never been breached, for all the good that does us now.”
“City’s got lots of natural choke points, with all those stairs and bridges,” Ruda said, giving him a grin, “but yeah, that’s no fuckin’ help to us in here.”
“Hey, guys!” Fross zipped back over to them. “The dragon is trying to rally everybody out in the square.”
“More baerzurgs,” Shaeine said tersely. “Heading this way. They’ll be here in minutes.”
“Those fuckers need a hobby,” Ruda complained.
“They’ve got one,” Juniper said with a sigh. “Us. Guys, the soldiers can’t hold off baerzurgs. I’m glad things are going better out there, but I don’t think we can afford to regroup with the others while we’ve got those things coming in and civilians to protect in—uh, hello?”
To her amazement, as well as that of the others, one of the beleaguered refugees had scampered forward out of the crowd to wrap her arms around Juniper in a hug. She was a filthy, underfed, and generally ragged-looking young woman with bare feet, garbed in threadbare castoffs and clutching an ax handle with which she had nearly clonked Juniper on the head.
“Excuse me,” the dryad said in annoyance, gently but inexorably pushing her off, “but I’m kind of busy, here. Please step back with the others and concentrate on not dying. Hey!”
The woman surged forward again as soon as she was pushed away, giving Juniper another hug, this time accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, but then retreated of her own volition without having to be moved a second time.
“I think she is just grateful,” Shaeine suggested. “She is right, though, miss. It’s about to be very dangerous here.”
“Whoah!” Fross had to dart higher in the air as the ragged girl began hopping about in excitement, apparently trying to catch her. “What are you doing? Please don’t grab!”
“Oh, this one,” said the officer distractedly. “Mute beggar. She’s a little nuts, homeless people usually are. Lady, do you need to be restrained?”
The homeless woman turned and brandished her ax handle menacingly at him.
“That’s a yes, then,” he said in clear annoyance. “Ontu, Disrimi, get this—”
“Wait!” Fross chimed, descending again. “Wait a second, please…”
She fluttered down to hover right in front of the woman, who raised her hands again, gazing at the pixie with a rapturous expression. This time, though, she did not snatch, finally dropping the handle to cup her hands gently around Fross’s buzzing form without touching her. She brought her face forward till her nose was nearly touching Fross, smiling with a joy so intense it looked nearly painful. A tear cut a swath through the dirt staining one of her cheeks.
“Yeah, pixie shiny,” said Ruda. “Fross, you may wanna lead your friend back over there with the other civvies if you don’t wanna lose her.”
“They’re coming,” Shaeine said, expression intent as she faced the broken wall. The others still could not hear the approaching baerzurgs, but took her at her word. “Do you see any way we can seal up that wall in the next…sixty seconds?”
“Nope,” Juniper said tersely, rolling her shoulders. “Same song, new verse, just like the first. Should go a little smoother now we’ve had some practice.”
“Hey, guys,” Fross chimed softly, still cradled in the homeless woman’s grip. “Um. How much do you trust me?”
All three of them turned to study her curiously.
“It is not a question of how much,” Shaeine answered. “We trust you.”
“Yeah, jinglebell, you got more brains an’ heart than any of us,” Ruda agreed, grinning. “If you got an idea, we got faith.”
“Okay,” Fross said, emitting a descending arpeggio of chimes like a sigh. “All right. I’m gonna play a…a hunch, here. If this all goes horribly wrong, you can take turns kicking my ass later.”
“How,” Juniper asked sardonically. “Do you know a spell to enlarge it?”
All joking ended as Fross fluttered upward out of her new acquaintance’s cupped hands, producing the small flicker of light that accompanied her withdrawal of something from her aura storage.
The Mask of the Adventurer dropped down to land in the ragged girl’s hands.
“Whoah!” Ruda said in alarm. “I, uh… Fross?!”
“Okay, having said all that, I guess we can’t complain now,” Juniper added, “but what are you doing?”
“It’s gonna be okay,” Fross chimed, addressing both them and the woman now curiously turning the mask over in her hands.
“Time’s up,” Shaeine stated, and in the next second, the stomping of enormous feet sounded just outside the broken wall. Moments later, the dead baerzurg tumbled forward, knocked inward by a blow from without.
Juniper dashed forward, meeting the next demon to push in through the gap with a haymaker that sent it spinning right back out. Then the dryad herself was knocked backward by a counter-punch more than hard enough to fell a tree. She stumbled back, regaining her footing, but in her moment of distraction another baerzurg pushed its way into the building. A wall of silver light immediately slammed into it, halting its advance only momentarily but giving Juniper time to gather herself and attack again.
“Don’t worry about that,” Fross said to the woman now frowning at the artifact in her grasp. She raised her eyes to look inquisitively at the pixie. “Just…clear your mind. Whatever you’ve been through, try to put it aside. Remember who you are. We need the real you.”
Her expression grew more pensive. She adjusted her grip on the Mask, raising it toward her face, then hesitated again, looking uncertainly at the pixie.
“It’s okay,” Fross chimed soothingly. “Remember. It’s gonna be okay.”
She blinked once, then nodded slowly, and finally pressed the Mask against her face.
Light roared through the old hall, fanning out in a shockwave that washed harmlessly over all of them and smashed the three baerzurgs which had just forced their way in backward against the wall.
The thrum of her wings was a much more powerful counterpoint to Fross’s as she surged forward, her violet hair and diaphanous gown streaming behind her. The three baerzurgs barely had time to get back to their feet before she threw her hands forward, and streams of sparkling dust poured out with the force of geysers. One nailed each hulking demon right in the chest, and they each exploded in harmless showers of glitter.
A fourth tried to push in through the wall, and met the same fate.
Ruda lowered her sword. “…huh.”
The graceful woman held aloft on dragonfly wings descended to the ground, then turned around to grin at them.
“Jacaranda!” Juniper shrieked. This time it was she who dashed forward, and the Pixie Queen caught her in a hug, laughing as the two of them spun around.
A moment later they parted, and Jacaranda raised a hand for Fross to flutter forward and settle down in her palm.
“Oh, Fross,” she whispered, tears glittering in her eyes. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“I’m just so glad to see you’re okay,” the pixie squeaked. “I was really worried. I didn’t feel good about…y’know, leaving you in that place, but Kaisa said… I mean, Kaisa’s kind of insufferable, but she’s usually right, which just makes it worse but also I’ve found it’s best to do as she says even when it doesn’t seem to make sense because it mostly works out all right.”
“Yes…that tower was no fun,” Jacaranda agreed, gently drawing her hand forward so Fross could hug her cheek. “But it was just the no fun I needed. Thank you. And you, too, Juniper. You saved me.”
“Aspen’s here, too,” Juniper said. “Well, uh…somewhere. It’s kind of a mess out there.”
“Yes, so I see,” Jacaranda said archly. “Demons. Ick, they’re everywhere. I do not like demons.”
“That is a commonly held opinion,” Shaeine said gravely.
“Here.” Jacaranda buzzed off the ground again, swooping over to pick up the fallen ax handle and hand it solemnly to Juniper. “Look after my stick, please. It’s a really good stick. I want it back.”
“Uh…okay?” the dryad said, nonplussed.
Jacaranda winked at her, gave Fross a final smile, then turned and shot out through the open front doors of the training hall, leaving behind a faint trail of glitter which slowly dissipated in the air.
“Okay, so,” Ruda said pleasantly, “is anybody gonna explain to me what the fuck?!”
She tore right through the closest formation of khelminash flyers, sending them spinning away in all directions. The Pixie Queen turned to pirouette in midair, spraying mocking streamers of fairy glitter at the warlocks, before shooting straight upward with a whole squadron of enraged sorceresses in pursuit.
As she rapidly gained altitude, she turned this way and that, pointing her fingers and blasting long sprays of sparkling pixie dust in the general direction of wherever she could see any concentration of demons in the air. The pure fairy magic did not agree with them at all; being demons, those who weren’t smashed outright from the air by her attacks turned and came straight at her in a vindictive fury.
She climbed ever higher, and the ripples of attention spread outward, demonic aggression compelling them out of formation to face this new threat. Glittering and giggling, Jacaranda made for a very obvious target.
Being faster than they, she quickly put space between them, so that when she finally came to an abrupt halt to hover in the sky above the city, there was a great deal of distance between her and her nearest pursuers. Shadowbolts and other infernal spells reached her long before they did; the Pixie Queen yawned contemptuously as the magic fizzled out just from coming too close to her.
Only when they were almost upon her did she suddenly fold in upon herself, pressing her wings flat against her back, wrapping arms around her torso and hunching her legs in a midair fetal position. Before she’d even had time to begin falling, she exploded.
Jacaranda went off like one of Billie’s fireworks, spraying a massive ball of shooting streamers of multicolored flame in all directions, vaporizing the approaching demons and continuing downward, while she herself remained completely unharmed at the epicenter of the blast. Each of these streaks of light exploded in turn, setting off chain reactions that caused an ever-spreading shower of sparks to drift downward over the city.
Except that unlike actual fireworks, they did not dissipate. Every one of those tiny points of light carried on floating downward, and as they grew closer to the ground, a vast chorus of tiny chimes could be heard. This was followed shortly by gouts of fire, water, lightning, ice, air, and other elemental spells when they descended within range of the nearest demons.
Jacaranda hovered in place, gazing smugly down at her handiwork.
Demons began to perish in droves as thousands of furious pixies streamed down into the streets of Ninkabi.