The group materialized in a mostly-open interior space that appeared to have been a pub or restaurant, to judge by the bar along one side and the tables and chairs now smashed against the walls. In the clear space in the center, three startled khelminash demons standing around a summoning circle turned to face them.
The trio hesitated, perhaps confused by the appearance of a group of warlocks and demons of uncertain allegiance, a mistake which proved fatal for them. Natchua, even with all her bestowed knowledge, couldn’t match a highly skilled khelminash sorceress simply because there were so many infernal spells a mortal could not cast and survive, but no demon would ever match an elf for reaction time.
Before the demons could decide on a reaction, darkness swelled as Natchua shadow-jumped several large clusters of the wrecked furniture straight into their bodies. All three fell, pierced like archery target dummies with fragments of table and chair legs. Only one survived the initial strike long enough to whimper in pain. Xyraadi put a needle-thin lance of fire right between her eyes.
“Non, non,” Xyraadi complained. “You take all the fun out of it! One is meant to make a witty remark before dispatching a foe.”
“I don’t know where to begin explaining why that’s a bad idea,” Jonathan muttered.
“Look, there was one right there! ‘Take a seat.’ It was perfect!”
“I reluctantly like your pet khelminash, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered.
“Quiet!” Natchua snapped. “This isn’t an adventure. No fucking banter, for heaven’s sake. Look, we have entrances on both sides of the room. Kheshiri, get up to the roof—from the inside—and see what you can see from that vantage. No flying, and be careful, if their forces are concentrated up here there may be warlocks who can still spot you.”
Kheshiri bowed and went invisible, and Natchua turned to Hesthri. “Hes, any idea what went wrong with your ring?”
The hethelax, her armored form clearly visible after the failure of her enchanted disguise ring, shrugged. “Well, Natchua, I’ve of course been working on it steadily while we were jumping all over the city fighting for our lives, with all that expertise in arcane enchantment that I’ve somehow acquired since this morning.”
“What did I just say about banter?”
“You say a lot of things,” Hesthri replied with a smile. “I listen to some of them. It’s an arcane device and we’ve been neck-deep in infernomancy. It got fried, that’s all.”
Natchua sighed. “All right, split up… Jonathan, Xyraadi, check the door over on that side. Hes, you’re with me. Careful and quiet is the order of the day, we have no idea what’s going on here. Poke your heads out if the coast is clear, and don’t wander out of sight of the door. We’re just getting a handle on the situation right now. Be as shy as trapdoor lizards.”
Xyraadi tugged on Jonathan’s sleeve. “What is a trapdoor lizard?”
“Search me. Let’s be as shy as rabbits, how about that?”
“Oh. What is a rabbit?”
“I know you know what a rabbit is.”
Natchua groaned out loud as the two groups separated, and Hesthri bumped her with her shoulder, grinning.
She carefully leaned her head out, sweeping her gaze around. This door opened onto a side street; apparently she’d sent Jonathan and Xyraadi to the side closer to the square. Thus oriented, Natchua could indeed tell that the noise of battle was coming from near the front gates of the city, though even as she listened, it seemed to be shifting deeper into the central island. Apparently they were making progress, but must have suffered some setback.
The problem with elven hearing was always sifting out relevant details from the vast amounts of data streaming into her ears. For the most part, the speed and acuity of thought with which elves were blessed compensated, but extremely chaotic events such as this one could cause paralyzing confusion. Natchua stepped out into the street, Hesthri right on her heels, raising her head and trying to focus.
The skies were filled with those flying khelminash discs, mostly aiming toward the major concentration of the action. A small cluster might be heading in her direction, it was hard to tell exactly; Natchua shifted her focus to that, watching them.
Then a massive explosion went off high above the city, followed by several subsidiary bursts. Colorful ones.
“Fireworks?” she asked aloud, incredulous.
“Incoming!” Hesthri barked, raising her staff.
A small, disorganized cluster of khaladesh staggered out of a wrecked storefront, immediately turning toward them; Hesthri began methodically firing her staff. Natchua, though, had to turn and leave her to it, as that group of khelminash warlocks was indeed now heading right for them, having been pushed lower by the fireworks and evidently spotted them in the process.
She used the same trick as before, figuring these wouldn’t have been close enough to see it the last time and thus have no counter, and she was right; overloading their discs sent them spinning out of control. This time, though, that had the effect of turning them into infernal missiles headed right at her, and it took some very rapid conjuring of shadow tentacles out of carefully placed portals to grab and fling the oncoming discs aside before they could impact right on her position. She took the time to make sure none of the three warlocks who fell off in the process made it to the ground alive. Important as that maneuver was, it nearly cost her dearly.
Natchua turned back around to find Hesthri standing her ground, not against the now-dead khaladesh troopers, but a figure mounted on a black horse barreling down on her with his scythe raised to swing.
“NO!” she roared, throwing forward both her hands as if the sudden surge of adrenaline that wracked her had taken over completely.
A veritable tidal wave of shadow swelled up out of the ground, impacting Gabriel and Whisper and halting their advance, then sending them tumbling backward. The eerie horse screamed in rage, staggering back to her hooves with her rider hanging on for dear life. They had righted and re-oriented themselves in seconds, but at that point Gabriel at least had the presence of mind to rein in his furious mount, finding Natchua planted firmly in front of Hesthri with her arms spread out to bar the way.
“Not this one, Gabe!” she shouted. “She’s…with me.”
Hesthri grabbed her from behind, peeking over her shoulder.
“Oh,” Gabriel said irritably, trying to regain control of his dancing steed, who clearly wanted to continue the attack. “Well, sorry about that, then. You know, I’m pretty sure this is exactly why Trissiny told you and your lot to stay on the south bank! How’s it going with the portals?”
“South bank’s cleared of them,” she said. “When we left there were only a few of the rest still active. They should be finishing up soon.”
“Good, then we can start mopping all this up,” he said brusquely, turning Whisper away. “Everyone’s regrouping in the front square; get your team back together and join us when you can. But approach carefully, or maybe send your demons somewhere they won’t get automatically shot.”
With that, they wheeled and galloped back the way they had come.
Natchua carefully turned, wrapping Hesthri in a quick hug. “Yeah. Hes, there will be time; Gabe’s probably one of the more indestructible people here. But that conversation will have to wait, we’ve…”
She trailed off, raising her eyes, then narrowing them to make sense of what she was seeing. Hesthri, after a moment, pulled back, first frowning at Natchua and then following her gaze up at the sky.
“What…are those colored lights? And do I hear music?”
“Pixies,” Natchua said in disbelief. “Where did they all… Holy shit.”
A small phalanx of three flying discs, carrying nine warlocks, crested the row of buildings alongside them with an escort of tame katzils. Watching this array of infernal power being swiftly annihilated by a swarm of glittering, chiming glow balls was a sight to behold. Their sprays of lightning, water, wind and ice did half the work, but the pixies themselves latched on like piranhas, searing away the very infernal magic of which the demons were made and leaving nothing but a few specks of drifting charcoal.
“Inside,” Natchua said urgently. Hesthri required no encouragement.
Everyone else had already regathered in the pub, including Kheshiri.
“Okay, I really hope you saw that,” the succubus said upon Natchua’s return, “because there’s no way you’ll believe it otherwise.”
“Yes, I did,” Natchua said, frowning. “Are you two okay?”
“Please, I’m not so easily rattled,” Kheshiri replied, tossing her hair.
“I’m fine,” Xyraadi assured her, visibly shaken for the first time since the battle had begun. “What are those things?”
“Pixies,” said Jonathan. “Natchua, do you have the slightest idea where they came from?”
“Not even a glimmer, but fairies swarming this city will put a stop to a demon invasion pretty damn quick. Unfortunately, more than half of us are demons.”
“Welp, all this appears to be under control, then,” Kheshiri interjected. “I say we haul ass back to Veilgrad—”
“Quiet, Kheshiri,” Natchua snapped.
“Yeah, didn’t think so,” she muttered before subsiding.
“Regrouping with the others has just gone from a problematic idea to a non-starter,” Natchua continued. “We need to keep under cover. And… What’s left of the Elilinist forces, between all those adventurers and now the pixies, are as distracted as they are ever going to be.”
“Then this is our opportunity,” Jonathan said, nodding. “We get to the cathedral and get the drop on whoever’s there.”
“This is what we all signed on for,” he interrupted her with a faint smile. “We know the risks, Natch. You set all this up for the chance of one surprise strike on Elilial. Right now, her whole command structure is concentrated in one spot, with their defenses in tatters and under constant pressure.”
“There will never be a better opportunity,” Xyraadi agreed, her face settling into an expression of grim fervor. “There is no telling what will happen to us, but like he said, we all knew that in advance. Now, we can hurt her. Such a chance won’t come again.”
“Um, excuse me,” said Kheshiri, “but if you—”
“You wanted to be part of this so badly you had to blackmail your way here,” Natchua interrupted her. “Welcome to the team, Shiri. I’m not unreasonable; if you think you’ll stand a better chance with the pixies and your own former partners up in the square, you have my permission to go try.”
“…you’re kind of hot when you’re being a sadistic bitch.”
“Not just then,” Hesthri said innocently, patting Natchua’s rump.
Natchua sighed. “Always with the banter. Is it always like this?”
“When it’s good, it is,” Xyraadi said, smiling.
“Well, we have no more time to waste. In or out, Kheshiri, make your choice.”
“Oh, I’m coming,” the succubus said, not without annoyance. “Wouldn’t be my first impossible dilemma, and I’m definitely not passing up the chance to see egg on Elilial’s face. I’ll just be in charge of getting as many of these clowns out alive as possible, shall I?”
“Get us as close as you can, Xyraadi,” Natchua ordered.
The sorceress grinned and raised her hands. “I will see what I can do.”
Darkness swelled, then receded, and they were once again outdoors, in the shadow of a great complex of domes and minarets. They stood in a small, walled-in vegetable garden, close to a door. Most of the surrounding view was blocked by the walls and the bulk of the cathedral itself, but what they could see of the sky was clear of both demons and fairies.
“What’s this?” Jonathan asked, raising his staff and sweeping his gaze around the area. “Looks like somebody’s cabbage patch.”
“This is the Omnist garden attached to the cathedral’s kitchen, and what are you doing here?”
All of them whirled to face a wood elf woman with black hair, who had definitely not been standing there a moment ago.
“Oh, hello, Kuriwa,” Xyraadi said in a resigned tone. “Since I doubt you have changed much in six hundred years, I would guess that we are here for the same reason you are.”
Mary the Crow scowled at them. “Well, I suggest you forget it. I have waited too long for this to have it bungled by a crew of miscellaneous infernal reprobates.”
“Miscellaneous?” Kheshiri said haughtily. “Never in my life have I—”
“Hush,” Natchua snapped. “Kuriwa, is it? Well, I haven’t waited nearly as long, but I’m not about to pass this up, nonetheless. I have business with Elilial.”
“She’s not in there, child,” Mary said condescendingly.
“But something important to her is. I don’t know what it is, yet, but I intend to go in there and deprive her of it.”
The shaman opened her mouth to retort, but Natchua barreled on.
“And if you’ve got the same idea, then the question is whether you want to spend you energies doing that with a little unexpected help, or waste them trying to stop me?”
“Girl, I am an elder shaman,” she said, exasperated. “Why do warlocks ever think they have anything with which to threaten me?”
“You cannot take her on, Natchua,” Xyraadi interjected. “And don’t look so smug, Kuriwa. She can absolutely delay you long enough to waste this chance, and probably draw the Wreath’s attention here. There’s no time for this. We have the same goal; it is foolish not to join forces.”
“There’s a hellgate under the cathedral,” Natchua said while Kuriwa narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “An ancient one—”
“I am well aware of that,” the shaman interrupted. “I was alive when it was created. It surprises me that you are… But yes, that will be where the Wreath and any demonic leadership are concentrated. I’ve already investigated their defenses, and I can assure you that this is where you stop. Aside from the divine protections on the cathedral itself and especially around the sealed hellgate site, the Wreath have additionally warded themselves against shadow-jumping. It is not impossible that they can be ambushed, but not by any warlock. So if you wish to help, return to the—”
“Supposing we’re willing to take the risk and waste time explaining to everybody there that we’re on their side before there’s a friendly fire incident,” Jonathan stated, “that’s not going to do us any good against all these damn pixies, wherever the hell they came from. We can’t be any help out there. This place is another matter.”
“Hey, that’s a good point,” Kheshiri said innocent. “And on the same subject, what’s the big heap shaman doing screwing around here instead of helping everybody else? It’s not like there’s any reason she needs to be afraid of pixies.”
Natchua folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.
The wood elf exhaled slowly through her nose. “I go where my abilities are put to the best use.”
“Us, too,” Natchua replied. “And like he said, that is here, not there. I assume you have a plan for getting close to the hellgate?”
“Of course I do!”
“Then deal us in. If you can just get us to the site, you’ll have a lot more assets to field against the Wreath. Or, as I said, you can squander this opportunity for both of us trying to slow me up, because regardless of anything else you do, I am going in there.”
“Natchua, is it?” Kuriwa mused. “You really are a splendid example of your people.”
Natchua narrowed her eyes. “That wasn’t called for.”
“Fine,” the shaman said, suddenly curt. “I suppose your bumbling presents less of a hazard down there when the Wreath are as likely to suffer from it as yourself than up here, wasting my time. But most of this group will have to stay behind.”
“Awfully convenient,” Hesthri remarked.
“You would find it much less convenient in proximity to that hellgate,” Kuriwa retorted. “It is sealed by, in essence, having a constant wellspring of divine light poured through it. Disabling that will be the Wreath’s priority, but it will take them considerable time and effort and until it is done, that site is not safe for demons to be near. You and your human friend may accompany me, warlock. The rest of these had better hole up nearby, ready to escape.”
Natchua hesitated, searching her face; Kuriwa’s expression was implacable.
A hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to look up into Jonathan’s eyes.
“It’s your call,” he said quietly. “Whatever that is, we’ll back you up.”
Kheshiri opened her mouth, and Xyraadi slapped the back of her head.
“I need…” Natchua closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again to meet his gaze. “I need you to stay with the others, Jonathan. You can all probably evade detection, but if not, three demons…”
“Look better with a human who can vouch for ‘em,” he finished. “Not much better. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you nobody likes a warlock.”
“Gabriel’s out there, and all three paladins know Xyraadi. If you’re discovered, distract and delay, tell whoever you meet to check with them. I doubt there are many people in this cathedral, given what’s been happening under it, but…”
“Understood.” He pulled her forward into a hug, and Natchua squeezed her eyes shut, clinging to him for a long moment. Another body pressed against her from behind, Hesthri’s patches of chitin plating digging into her in spots. She made no complaint.
“All right, let’s get moving,” Natchua said briskly, extricating herself. Kuriwa was watching now with a raised eyebrow, but thankfully said nothing. “You four need to huddle up somewhere inside, out of sight; we’ll collect you on our way back out. The first step is to get through this door. Kheshiri, can you pick a lock?”
“Course,” the succubus said, sauntering forward. She lifted the latch and swung the door outward. “Why, what of it? Surely you didn’t think a church would lock the back door to its enclosed garden?”
Natchua was spared having to answer that by the need to keep up with Kuriwa, who strode right in.
“Jonathan’s in charge,” she ordered as they all filed into the large stone kitchen. This cathedral must have an attached monastery or something to need such facilities; she wasn’t well-versed in Tiraan religion. Maybe they fed the poor, too? Omnists did a lot of that. “Jonathan, you know everyone’s strengths. I trust you to listen to them. Xyraadi is our resident expert in several fields.”
“Don’t I know it,” he agreed. “Be careful, Natchua. For once.”
“I will see what I can do,” she said dryly. “What’s the—”
Kuriwa raised her hand and made a vertical slashing motion, and something odd appeared. It was a weird line of distortion in the air that bent light oddly around it, distorting vision like water on one side.
“Step carefully,” the shaman said cryptically, sliding around to one side of it, and then slipped through as if passing a corner.
Natchua wanted to look once more at the others, but didn’t risk the time. She followed, studying the line uncertainly; it wasn’t at all clear how one was supposed to get through it, as it looked exactly the same from the side angle.
But then, she was through, as if just approaching it with intent was enough to effect the passage.
She was still in the kitchen, though now with Kuriwa again. The others were still visible, but vague and wavery, as if they were underwater; the three demons were surrounded by visible coronas of orange light.
“Do I want to know?” she asked.
“The space between spaces is very dangerous,” the wood elf replied, busily casting a small ritual circle on the ground in front of her with nothing but her bare hands. “It can be used for rapid travel, however, by those who are careful. With the right craft, one step here can cover many miles on the mortal plane.”
“That seems like it could be problematic indoors.”
“Precisely, hence my preparations. We can reach our target in but a few steps, but they will have to take us through the corridors of the cathedral and the complex beneath it with great precision. This must be arranged in advance. Ah, there we have it.”
“That was quick.”
“I am good at what I do,” the woman stated flatly. “Hold my hand, and do not let go.”
Natchua hesitated, but reached out to grasp her outstretched hand as offered. Kuriwa gripped her fingers, raised a foot to take a step, and then they were elsewhere.
“That’s disorienting,” Natchua muttered. “Is it—whoah.”
“Don’t look at them,” Kuriwa ordered. “Don’t react to them.”
They were in an outdoor gallery with broad archways opening onto the cathedral’s main sanctuary now, a position which provided glimpses of the sky. A sky which, in this place, consisted of colossal eyes and tentacles, writhing hungrily.
“Are you serious?!”
“Extremely. They are not real, strictly speaking. The sky monsters were placed there by the Elder Gods to prevent people from mucking about in this space; only the valkyries are impervious to their gaze. They do not actually exist except in the presence of a sentient mind which can perceive them. The more attention is paid them, the more real they become, until eventually they will attack. So yes, try to ignore them as much as you can. This is another reason your friends could not come; the infernal compulsion of demons resonates powerfully with those things, and draws their rage almost immediately.”
“Shit,” Natchua muttered. Kuriwa actually gave her hand a little squeeze, then took another step and moved them again, deeper down and inexorably toward their final confrontation.