< Previous Chapter Next Chapter >
With a unified, resonating hiss that tore the skies, the two nurdrakhaan surged forward at a terrifying speed, undulating rapidly just like eels slicing through the water. Their disproportionately small crimson eyes narrowed to slits and their beaked jaws opened wide as they closed the distance in preparation for their attack, revealing multiple rows of serrated teeth behind the hard beaks themselves.
At this unmistakable aggression, the necro-drake’s momentary unease vanished as if at the flip of a switch. It forgot the warlocks who’d been harassing it for the last half hour; in a single beat of its wings which scattered stray wisps of inky smoke, it launched itself aloft and pelted straight across the prairie, low enough that the wind of its passing disturbed the tallgrass which remained in the wake of its battles with Natchua and the Wreath. Black smoke trailed behind like a comet’s tail and the chaos aberration let out its own eerie howl in counter to the nurdrakhaans’ distinctive hiss.
The massive creatures were separated by over half a mile, but the distance closed in a terrifyingly short span of seconds. At the last moment, the necro-drake beat its wings a final time, shooting upward in order to dive down at the nurdrakhaan, which were less agile in the air and, though they tried to correct, were unable to change course quickly enough to meet the skeletal monster with their menacing jaws.
With an impact that could be felt through the ground a mile distant, the necro-drake slammed into one nurdrakhaan from above, seizing its neck and driving it into the earth. The second demon overshot but swiftly circled back to where the chaos beast was savaging its flailing companion. Rather than attempting again to seize the necro-drake in its beak, it simply headbutted the skeleton at full speed, tearing it loose and sending it flailing through the air.
The necro-drake recovered itself quickly, turning and hurtling forward again, this time at the second nurdrakhaan. Both grappled in midair for a moment before the drake managed to seize the demon with its limbs, clawing at its side and repeatedly slashing at the three of its eyes on that side with its bony tail, while the nudrakhaan hissed in fury and thrashed about. It took the second demon several seconds to position itself properly to seize the necro-drake in its beak and rip it bodily clear.
All three knew nothing but attack. They thrashed and flailed, hurling themselves repeatedly against one another in mindless savagery, only the infernal bindings on the nurdrakhaan preventing them from attacking each other as well. Individually, they were at a disadvantage: the chaos beast was far more agile, both in the air and especially on the ground, and with not only fanged jaws but four clawed limbs and a tail, it possessed far more in the way of natural weapons. But there were two, and each time it managed to latch onto one, the second was there to clamp a massive beak onto its body, to smash it with an armored head or a lash of a flat tail.
In short order, the damage began to accrue—not merely on the landscape, which so quickly accumulated craters and massive gouges from repeated impacts of the huge monsters that a radius of several acres soon ceased to resemble a prairie. The combatants accumulated damage, as well, even the hardened hide of the nurdrakhaan acquiring rents from which seeped acrid black blood that smoked when it struck the ground. The necro-drake’s actual structure was brittle black glass, tenuously held together by ligaments of shimmering magic barely visible through its haze of smoke. It suffered greatly from body-blows which would have pulverized a castle. Its innate self-repair kept it alive, but only just; the sheer physical punishment it received from two colossal, unrelenting demons started to wear it down as none of the spellfire it had soaked up since arriving in Veilgrad could. It was a creature of chaos; much of that magic had misfired or fizzled on contact, doing little harm. The nurdrakhaan, their own inherent magic shielded by Elilial’s intervention, bypassed its defenses by the simple expediency of hitting it.
Repeatedly, unceasingly, utterly disregarding their own accumulating injuries. Demons did not know mercy or retreat. If they felt fear, it only fueled their rage. Not for anything would they stop.
Wisely, all the mortal warlocks observing this had removed themselves further as soon as the necro-drake’s attention was off them. Not so far as to be completely absent from the scene, but they could watch it far more comfortably from a distance of several miles. It was a clear day on the vast prairie, and not at all hard to see the three titans trying to pound each other to smithereens from far enough away not to be in the fallout zone.
The Wreath were too enraptured by the spectacle, and perhaps too exhausted as the adrenaline began to ebb from them, to even register surprise when darkness swelled in their midst and Natchua stepped out of midair.
“Everybody okay?” she demanded brusquely, glancing back and forth to get a quick headcount.
Embras Mogul had plucked a strand of brittle winter tallgrass and was idly chewing on the broken end, staring at the awesome spectacle in the distance.
“Lady,” he drawled after a pause, “do you have any idea how illegal that was?”
“A lot less for me than for you,” she retorted. “Hereditary privileges of House Leduc, law of expedient measures in defense of the realm… And that’s before the Throne weighs how much trouble there’d be if they try to come down on a very popular noble for saving an Imperial city. I might have to pay a fine.”
“Fine, nothin’,” he huffed. “You just went from Quentin Vex having a thick file on you to having your very own office at Intelligence of dedicated agents making sure he gets a daily briefing on what you have for breakfast. You’re gonna be someone’s job now, Natchua. Several someones. Ever hear the term Zero Twenty?”
A particularly furious hiss echoed across the prairie, followed by a howl of impotent rage as one of the nurdrakhaan seized the necro-drake’s ribcage in its jaws and arced through the air to slam it into the ground.
“You’re sweet to worry about my well-being,” Natchua said, “which is what I’ll have to assume is going on here since I know you are constitutionally incapable of giving a shit where you stand with the legitimate authorities. It’s the only thing about you I’ve ever been able to relate to. I gather, regarding my earlier question, you all actually are okay?”
“Do you care?”
He turned to her, raising his chin so as to meet her eyes without the wide brim of his omnipresent hat in the way, just watching her with an expression as neutral as his tone. In almost any situation that phrase would be a challenge, or at least sarcastic, but Mogul was strangely subdued. It was just…a question. One by one, the rest of the warlocks shifted their attention from the colossal thrashing taking place in the distance, turning to watch her with the same weary neutrality.
“Course I do,” Natchua replied, shrugging once. “We made a deal, and you did your part. You protected my city, so I protect you. Doesn’t mean any of us have to like each other, but I keep my word.”
Mogul made a broad, chewing motion with his jaw, shifting the tallgrass stalk to the other corner of his mouth, and then nodded once. “Yup. We’re fairly winded, but no injuries. That’s a little bit more exercise than we like to get on our operations, but you are dealing with professionals, here.”
“I think I’m getting a blister,” Rupi complained. “I’m gonna file for compensation from House Leduc.” Vanessa halfheartedly nudged her with an elbow.
“Knock yourself out,” Natchua grunted. “I have a steward now; he strikes me as somebody who could use a laugh. Thank you for holding that thing back, all of you. If everyone’s still shipshape, your part in this is done. Go rest up while I finish this.”
Another surge of shadow and she was gone.
“So, this may go without saying,” Embras announced, turning to the others, “but there’ll be no question of letting Duchess Bossypants get the impression she’s going to order us around.”
He was answered mostly by grins, though not entirely.
“Is it necessary to be defiant for defiance’s sake, Embras?” Bradshaw asked. “She just jumped to nearly within swiping range of that…mess. I don’t know if getting any closer is a smart thing to do.”
“You’re not wrong,” Embras replied, “but ask yourself how confident you are that a girl whose main strategy in all conflict is ‘hit it with the craziest thing you can imagine’ can actually clean this up, instead of inventing an exciting new way for it to be worse.”
Bradshaw sighed heavily.
“I suspect that common sense concerning Natchua will never be the easiest or most pleasant thing to hear,” Hiroshi said with a small smile, and then was the first to shadow-jump out.
They arrived in a staggered formation, materializing one by one over several seconds behind Natchua, who was holding out both hands toward the conflict between the three enormous monsters, which itself was uncomfortably close. She did not look up at them, but at that distance an elf could not have failed to detect their presence, even through the enormous noise of screeching, hissing, and earth-shaking impacts.
“Really?” she said in a sour tone, otherwise remaining focused on her work.
“Well, we’re not allowed to wage war on the Pantheon’s servants,” Embras said reasonably, “or you. Putting down demons and…I guess…other assorted creepy-crawlies is all we’ve got left. And surely you don’t think we trust you to handle this unsupervised.”
“Just don’t get in the way,” Natchua snapped. To summon the nurdrakhaan, she had used a scaled up version of the basic katzil summoning and binding spell—it had required exponentially more power and certain parts of the matrix were fiendishly complex in comparison, or anybody could have been able to do it, but the result had been a spell that worked more or less the same, including having a built-in mechanism to banish the creatures back to their own plane at will and familiar controls the caster could leverage to direct the demons.
After leaving them to soften up the necro-drake for a few minutes, she now seized those reins actively, not least because the chaos monster was softening them in turn and the whole idea was to finish this business as efficiently as possible. It took her a few false starts to get the hang of it; the process was very similar to the intuitive control she had over her own muscles, but there were inherent mental barriers against applying that to two entities separated from her physically, with very different types of bodies and startlingly simple nervous systems, and through whose senses she could not see directly. It was both intuitive and counter-intuitive, and it was not at all helped by the fact that she was trying to pin down a thrashing monstrosity which did not at all want to cooperate.
But in the end, the nurdrakhaan were huge, and bulky, and Natchua’s own personal lack of subtlety in her approach to life found a harmony with their simple minds and the task at hand.
One of the gigantic demons got a firm grip on the necro-drake’s long neck; under her careful control, it was light enough not to shatter the brittle glass of its “skeleton,” which would have just freed the monster and caused its self-healing ability to restart the whole struggle. Natchua directed that nurdrakhaan to bury its nose into the earth itself, pinning the necro-drake down by an inexorable grip right behind its head, exactly the way one would hold a venomous snake. This mostly denied it leverage, though there remained the problem of its four legs, tail, and wings, all of which could be used to push off from the ground.
She settled that by having the second nurdrakhaan curl itself up like a sleeping cat and sit on the chaos beast. That, ironically, took more doing, as nurdrakhaan did not normally touch the ground at any point in their life cycle and the demon had trouble parsing the concept. But Natchua prevailed, and soon enough the necro-drake was weighed down by an iron grip on its neck and the huge bulk of a coiled beast flattening it against the earth. It continued to struggle, but ineffectually. There was little it could do but twist its head very slightly from one side to the other, and claw helplessly at the ground with its talons.
“Damn,” one of the Black Wreath warlocks murmured from behind her, followed by a low whistle from another.
Several of them drew breath to protest as Natchua stepped forward toward the pile of monsters, but ultimately decided against bothering to argue with her. They did catch on, eventually.
She strode up until she was less than her own height distant from the necro-drake’s nose. It snapped its jaws at her, its attempts to lunge forward carrying it only a few inches, which were immediately pulled back. Even the impact of its teeth were practically a thunderclap at that proximity.
“You’re not very smart, are you?” she asked aloud. “I suppose there’s no point in asking you to explain yourself. Do you even know who sent you here, to do this?”
It parted its jaws to scream in helpless fury, trying to twist under its attackers. The question was rhetorical, anyway; now that she finally had the luxury of examining the necro-drake up close, Natchua could tell at a glance that it had no sapience. She was not versed in chaos magic, save for Professor Yornhaldt’s warnings that it was an inexact science at best and incredibly likely to backfire. Chaos did not submit to containment and could only with great exactitude to coaxed to flow in certain directions. From an academic perspective she could appreciate the incredible skill that had gone into this creation.
Not that that was going to stop her from smashing it until barely fragments remained.
More to the point, regardless of one’s own magical specialty, one could always discern the presence or lack of a mind in a magical creature. Magic was information, and so was thought; a discrete intelligence was a raging bonfire within the flows and currents of whatever spells shaped a being. This one’s barely constituted a flicker. Modern arcane golems were more intellectually sophisticated.
With time and care, she could undoubtedly have examined the necro-drake in enough detail to discern its weak points, the flaws in its component spells which would cause it to collapse if struck in just the right way. Whether she had the time was debatable, but she sure as hell lacked the inclination.
Natchua summoned the shadows to her, held both her hands forward, and poured pure shadow magic into it.
The idea had come from Kheshiri, the way the succubus had laboriously suffused her own being with shadow magic to better illuminate and control her own component spellcraft. It had taken her months, though. Most people thought shadow magic was limited by the paucity of the long-dead magic fields whose remains it was collectively composed of. Natchua, though, knew a trick.
You had to both recycle the shadow magic continuously—something that would not occur to most practitioners because none of the four primary schools could do that, given how they interacted with sapient minds—and augment one’s supply by reaching for the shadow residue held in other dimensions, a skill available only to warlocks, as drawing power and creatures from Hell was all part of their stock in trade, and no one else’s.
Shadowbeam was a spell that rarely saw the light of day, so rare was the warlock who suspected it existed, much less knew the method. Its base effect was similar to the garden variety shadowbolt, except in a continuous stream rather than a single discharge. In this case, Natchua prolonged its duration significantly by dimming the components of the spell which added its kinetic force and neurological pain. She simply cast a steady stream of bruise-purple darkness straight into the necro-drake’s face.
Shadow magic poured into it, flooding its aura, filling the spaces between its component spells and causing them, as it had with Kheshiri, to stand out in stark relief to her subtler senses. Natchua still could not make heads or tails of most of what she saw, but doing this, she could more clearly discern the presence of chaos. She felt it, trying to seize and twist the massive inflow of shadow magic, and being actively countered by the direct effort of the goddess now looking over her shoulder.
From Elilial she sensed nothing directly, but knowing the Dark Lady was watching so closely regardless made her equal parts angry and uneasy.
More to the point, she could finally discern the source. It was an incongruously tiny thing, for such a powerful creature as it inhabited, but there it was: the merest sliver of absence, pushing against all the magic around it. She could get a vague sense of the way the necro-drake’s component spells had been ingeniously balanced against that constant pull and one another to float around that tiny seed of chaos without being drawn in or destroyed, while all other magic done at it would be instantly countered. All magic not aided by the hand of a god, at least.
It was just one little speck, embedded in the skull, right between its chaotic eyes. One minuscule source for all this horror.
She started to reach out with one of her shadow-tendrils to extract the thing, then thought better of it. Instead of a scalpel, Natchua summoned a hammer: a burning, entropic spear of infernal power, which she hurled straight into the center of that chaos spark. Guided by Elilial’s own protection, it struck true, smashing right through the will of chaos to twist reality around itself.
That careful balance of spells was suddenly not so carefully balanced at all. In a chain reaction taking barely two seconds, they failed, imploded, and burst, spraying fragments of shattered black bone in every direction—save straight forward, as Natchua pushed against the explosion with a shockwave of her own power. Both nurdrakhaan dropped, the one holding the necro-drake’s neck diving straight down and half-burying its head in the soil, the other thumping to the earth. Around them washed a pulse of pure darkness which immediately dissipated, the vast well of shadow magic with which she had suffused the monster rushing out and back to its source now that it had no spell matrix to inhabit.
Natchua took two steps backward, and reached out with her mind to nudge her two demon thralls. They rose up from the ground in silence, leaving her to examine the scene. Where they had pinned the necro-drake there was nothing but a shallow crater, with flecks of broken obsidian strewn outward in all directions. No taint of chaos or infernomancy remained among most of the wreckage, but she could still feel that tiny shard, somewhere. Natchua frowned and started to kneel down to look closer. That had to be found and dealt with, urgently. It shouldn’t be too hard, now that she had time to work…
Then an entirely new kind of roar split the sky, accompanied by a rapidly approaching beat of wings. Several of the gathered Wreath yelled in alarm, and Natchua shot back to her feet, turning to face whatever the hell was happening now.
She barely spun in time to catch it; dragons could move with impossible speed when they wanted to.
An enormous golden form descended from the sky like a diving falcon, seizing one of her captive nurdrakhaan in his claws and bearing the hissing demon to the ground. At the edge of her awareness, Natchua could clearly hear familiar voices shouting her name, but she had no time to listen to that.
With Elilial’s laughter ringing gleefully in her head, she lashed out in sudden fury.
This time the shadowbeam carried the full force of its unmodified base spell, and with all the loose shadow magic still lingering in this area, it had enough impact to bodily rip the gold dragon off his target and shove him physically into the sky like a blazing comet. Dragons might be the universal masters of magic, but the shadow schools were a wild card against which few casters could be prepared, especially for exotic spells like the shadowbeam which hardly any would ever encounter. She sent the dragon hurtling a good three hundred feet straight into the sky before he gathered himself enough to counter her attack with a rock-solid shield of divine light, and then a pulse straight back at her with ran right down her beam of shadow magic and dissolved it.
Natchua allowed that, only holding onto it long enough for the divine attack spell to be soaked up by her shadowbeam before striking her directly. She only needed a few seconds to do the needful, anyway.
Not for nothing was the banishing spell worked right into the summons and control matrix, ready to be activated at an instant’s need. One should never bring forth demons without the ability to put them back down. Both nurdrakhaan seemed to dissolve from their heads backwards as the fiery collars of light suddenly raced down their sinuous bodies, dissipating past their tails. Behind them sounded a pair of thunderclaps, staggered by less than half a second, as air rushed in to fill the void left by the two huge creatures being returned to their home dimensions.
That was all the time it took for the dragon to be back.
This time, instead of coming at her with fire and claws the way he had the nurdrakhaan, he landed on the ground right in front of her, lowered his head and roared in fury, a show of surprising restraint she attributed to those same three voices still shouting desperately at her and him both.
“Wait, wait, Lord Ampophrenon, she’s a friend!”
“It’s all right, stop attacking, both of you—”
Instead of whatever no was supposed to mean in this context, Natchua shot straight upward on another pillar of conjoined shadow tentacles holding her by the legs, till she was at eye level with the towering divine beast. He bared his fangs fully, emitting trickles of acrid smoke, his luminous citrine eyes narrowed to furious slits.
Natchua drew back her hand and slapped him hard across the tip of his nose.
Obviously, that did nothing physically to the dragon—in fact, her own hand hurt quite a lot after impacting his surprisingly hard scales—but he blinked, shook his head and snorted, apparently out of sheer surprise.
“What the hell is your problem?” she bellowed right into Ampophrenon’s face. “You show up immediately after a crisis and the first thing you do is attack the people who just solved it? Who raised you?”
“She did not just do that,” Rupi said in an awed tone from behind her. Natchua wondered for a moment what any of the Wreath were still doing there, only belatedly realizing that the unpleasant tingle at the back of her neck was a divine working spread across the area. One quick mental push revealed that the dragon had blocked shadow-jumping, no easy thing to do. But then, he was a dragon.
“Everybody stop!” Trissiny shouted, finally clambering up Ampophrenon’s neck from where she’d apparently been seated and grabbing him by the horns, a position from which she could command both his attention and Natchua’s. “This is clearly a misunderstanding! Natchua, could you not be yourself for five minutes until we straighten this out?”
Behind her, Gabriel slid off Ampoprhenon’s neck and tumbled gracelessly to the torn-up prairie below, followed by Toby, who landed beside his sprawled friend with catlike agility.
“Well, look here,” Natchua spat, “a dragonload of paladins. Exactly what I needed half an hour ago.”
“If you think we coulda got here faster, I’d like to know how,” Gabriel complained, getting to his feet and dusting dirt, ash, and shards of necro-drake off his coat. “Gods, what a mess. What’d you do this time, Natchua?”
“Your job is what she did, boy,” Embras Mogul commented, and Natchua very nearly turned around and pegged him with a shadowbolt for his trouble.
Ampophrenon the Gold shifted his pointed head to look directly at the leader of the Black Wreath and all his assembled followers, then snorted again.
“I sense the taint of chaos here,” the dragon rumbled. “Am I to understand that you put it to rest?”
“No thanks to you,” Natchua retorted.
He bared his fangs at her once more. Each was longer than her forearm, and he had a lot of them. “You, a spellcaster, destroyed a threat most notable for its imperviousness to magic? You will explain yourself, warlock. Explain quickly, and for your own sake, explain well.”