Tag Archives: Azradeh

Bonus #47: The Light of Dawn, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Young lady,” he growled, “go home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ampophrenon gave her something to observe, all right.

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

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

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

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

Still they waited.

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

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

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

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

Because front and center, she was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, please,” Invazradi squalled.

“You shut up!” Azradeh snapped at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, incongruously, Elilial smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus #46: The Light of Dawn, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backers Lanky and Akashavani!

“It’s a mess out there, milord,” the Silver Huntress reported, dismissing the spectral hawk which had just returned to her shoulder into mist. “Our forces are still scattered across the approach; some of the adventurers and light regulars have been able to go over the rocks, but most of the infantry are still pinned down in the passes. Friendlies are converging on the mountain from all over the east, there are contingents from Thacaar on their way from the west, and scattered smaller groups from multiple other directions, mostly adventurer parties. Everyone’s being harassed by demons, though. It won’t take long for the stragglers to be picked off at this rate, and even the bigger groups are drawing more attention from the enemy.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder briefly in acknowledgment and thanks, his scarred steel gauntlet peeking out from beneath the ragged sleeve of his brown robe.

“All according to plan at the moment, then,” he said, turning to Razeen. “You know what that means.”

“It’s all gone to hell on us before,” she replied, raising her chin defiant. “Yet here we stand.”

“Here we stand,” he agreed, shifting his head to look across their assembled forces. They had secured the best vantage in the region, a flat if slightly tilted plateau which looked melted, as if some awesome heat source had scoured away its once-jagged peak. Here in the Wyrnrange, that was likely to have been the case. With some twelve hundred troops forming a ring near the center of the plateau, they were not only the largest concentration of allied forces in the area, but had occupied the only tenable position overlooking the Mouth itself. That made them the target of a lot of demonic attention.

Not enough, though. Not yet.

The Mouth itself was no ordinary hellgate, but the cause of this infernal war. A simple set of standing stones, obsidian from the local mountains, it towered twenty feet in height and almost that wide, enabling the ingress of not only large numbers of troops from Hell, but sizable demons of types which had never before made it to the mortal plane. The allies had secured every minor hellgate possible, but the Third Hellwar would never come to a stop until the Mouth was destroyed and Elilial’s forces denied access to this world. Consequently, it was a heavily if sloppily fortified position, surrounded by a hasty construction of walls and towers, manned by swarms of demons and even featuring some primitive siege engines.

Even as he turned to look, a flaming pitch-coated stone came soaring toward them from one of the catapults and was blasted out of the air by one of his own mages, probably Vadigern himself.

They were being pressed, both by three columns of demons clambering up the plateau’s main approaches and by constant harassment from smaller ones which could clamber up the steeper sides of the mountain, to say nothing of the relentless pressure from above. The Silver Huntress, Ayavi, had already rejoined the mages and rangers in shooting down katzils and bhavghai which spat flame and acid against the shield their priests were trying to maintain.

“I will begin,” he said to Razeen, Vadigern and Rolof, raising his hands to the sides and already beginning to channel divine magic in an intricate working. “You all know the plan. I am sorry to leave our people to face this without my aid, but they must hold.”

Razeen Alshadai, the last living Hand of Avei, held up the crystal-tipped spear she had recently acquired in a salute. “And hold we will!”

“The men trust you,” Rolof added before turning to follow her back to the front, the dwarf’s face mostly hidden behind his thick helmet. “Do your duty, my lord, as will we all.”

Vadigern, ever a man of few words, just nodded to him and turned back around, raising his hands to hurl arcane spells at the swarming demons.

It was ignited quickly once he began, a feat of divine magic more complex than most upon the mortal plane could have achieved. A vast spell circle rose from the very ground around the defensive lines of the soldiers holding this plateau, three luminous rings of glyphs which rotated in alternating directions, and in all the area within, silver mist coalesced out of the very stone. This would help both repulse the demons and invigorate their flagging troops, but it was the lesser part of the purpose.

From the very center of the circle, the spot where he stood with hands upheld, a column of pure light burst up from the stone, soaring to a hundred feet in height, where it erupted into a radiance like the sun. The ankh, an ancient symbol associated with divine magic irrespective of faith, formed out of pure light in midair and hovered above his spot, casting golden light in every direction and filling the air with the pure, shivering tone of bells.

Immediately, a roar went up from the fortress surrounding the Mouth. Demons continued to stream out of the gate itself, but those clustered in and around the fortifications surged outward to attack.

The beacon would provide guidance to his scattered allies, while also drawing the attention of the enemy. Attention, and unrelenting assault. One of the few saving graces of conducting war against demons was the mindless aggression to which infernal poisoning made them prone; even a reasonably competent general could usually outmaneuver an enemy which knew no tactic but frontal attack.

They could hold for a while, having turtled up as thoroughly as possible without actually erecting field fortifications. Their front ranks consisted of the regulars from Stovolheim; dwarves were some of the best heavy infantry in the world, being tough, nearly immovable, and usually possessed of the very best armor and shields. Unfortunately, fighting demons changed a number of calculations, and he had blundered immediately upon adding the dwarves to his forces when a wave of hthrynxkhs had simply vaulted over the dwarves and torn into his archers. Waves of ikthroi and baerzurgs had likewise piled against the Stovol troopers until they were buried by sheer weight. Now, he had them positioned with second ranks of lighter infantry behind, mostly from the League of Avei and the Sorashi Chosen, both to counter such tactics and to surge forward whenever a gap was opened in their lines. Priests were placed at intervals among the second ranks with orders to conserve their magic for shielding against spellfire and delivering unfocused bursts of divine energy to break up massed demon attacks. The rest of the priests stood back in the innermost ring, offering healing and maintaining the shields that kept them from being swarmed from above, interspersed with the archers, mages, and witches who were holding back aerial assaults and intermittently focusing fire on especially large demons which reached the front lines.

It was a tested and true formation, but they were now in the open, isolated from support, and facing what had to be at least six times their number, with the discrepancy growing by the second as more demons streamed through the Mouth. They simply could not hold forever. Of course, the plan did not require them to, but it did call for the defenders to stand their ground under unrelenting assault for an indeterminate time, until they were under the maximum possible pressure and the Mouth’s fortress was emptied of its host.

And his part in the plan, for now, was to stand there and let them. The beacon did not require him to actively maintain it, though he did have to protect the working from attack by warlocks. That took little of his attention, however. For the time being, he had to watch the movement of the demons and let his comrades fight and die while he stood there doing nothing to aid them.

He added this pain to the list of grievances he planned to throw at the Dark Lady’s hooves at the end of this.

The distances involved were not small; it took nearly twenty minutes for the wave of attackers which surged out of the Mouth’s fortress to swarm up onto their plateau from the passes between the two rises, and less than half that for the redoubled efforts of the demons already converging upon them to be broken by their divine-augmented turtle. That at least gave the front ranks a breather, though the pressure from above never let up and in fact grew worse as time went on. Andior’s recent gambit had deprived the demons of most of their sapient fliers until more could be brought through the Mouth, leaving only the katzils and bhagvai to provide them air support. Those, of course, were both dumb animals and demons, so when taunted by the blazing divine sigil they streamed in steadily from miles in every direction. The pressure they exerted wasn’t nearly enough to break the defenders, but it was constant.

Fortunately it was beginning to taper off by the time the main wave impacted the dwarven lines.

And still the fortress was not emptied. Still columns of howling demons poured in through the Mouth.

As the attackers hit, they were given a reminder of why gambits like this were necessary, why demons could not be assumed to be mindless brutes. Timed to coincide with the impact of the horde upon the defending lines, two of the khelminash flying fortresses revealed themselves.

They preferred not to become targets until they had engaged an enemy. The relatively small fortresses that could be brought through the Mouth seemed to have limited power, and the warlocks piloting them could not maintain their Cloak of Shadows while doing anything aggressive. Now, one of them began reaching out through subtle flows of infernomancy to probe at his beacon. Those were easy enough to deflect, and despite their caution they inadvertently revealed which was behind it, as the other fortress opted instead to pelt his northwestern lines with spells.

The priests shifted to put up stronger divine walls in that direction and he focused his attention on the other fortress, so far doing nothing except effortlessly deflecting their efforts, while also watching for a sudden attack from them; the khelminash were lucid enough to exercise actual strategy, and it wouldn’t have marked the first time he had seen them draw off priests in order to hit them from behind their divine shields. There was still the third fortress that he knew had come through the Mouth, which was still cloaked somewhere in the vicinity.

Not that he could have done anything, had they chosen to attack. He had to stand, and wait, and not reveal himself until the time was right.

The mob manning the walls around the Mouth was finally thinning out. Their reinforcements through the portal itself had not abated, but he had already concluded he would have to act before they did. It was the fortifications that posed the problem; the infernal wards and counter-spells in them were enough to threaten even him. They could be dealt with, but not while he was dealing with all the other demons. For now, he just had to get them out from behind their walls and exposed.

The khelminash fort assaulting them listed and began to drift away as it was hammered by arcane spellfire from Vadigern and his fellow mages, and its inherent magic began to falter until more judicious pressure from the witches in their ranks. Both began to retreat, the damaged one drifting downward as it did so. Damned khelminash; they just couldn’t throw their lives away like all their vile brethren. It was a blessing that they were rarely seen on the mortal plane.

To the surprise of probably everyone involved, it was the second fortress which was destroyed first, even as the damaged one drifted out of range. The barrage of arcane fire that pierced its walls came from off to the northeast; clearly some of the allied forces trickling in were heavy hitters, and not too distracted by all the demonic harassment to contribute to the battle. The fortress’s hellseed core collapsed in an explosion that sprayed chunks of stone in all directions, felling friend and foe alike within the range of its fallout.

The circular lines had shrunk, pressed in from all sides. There they had stopped, the lines having retreated to leave the outermost edges of the divine spell circle beyond their feet, which created a blessed ground that weakened any demons which approached. That gave the defenders the chance to firm up, but inevitably they would be pushed back again. If the line broke entirely and demons swarmed into the center it would be all over, but it would not come to that. Should that seem imminent he would take action early to prevent it, even at the cost of denying them a decisive victory over the Mouth’s fortress. So long as the allies survived in some form, they could continue to fight. There just weren’t enough left from the shattered kingdoms outside the Wyrnrange to reinforce them again. If the forces here were lost, the world was lost.

He could tell the moment was near. The walls were all but emptied, only a relatively few stubborn and/or clever demons remaining in their shelter. Still the fortress gates were open and providing a path for the constant stream pouring out of Hell to join the offensive. Elilial must have just massed another sizable force on the other side of the Mouth, preparatory to invading. They just wouldn’t stop. Already the demons’ numbers had nearly doubled since he had launched the beacon, even with the constant attrition they suffered from piling against his defenses.

Then they faltered.

Immediately he cast his vision upward, linking his consciousness to the beacon itself to gain a bird’s eye view of the area. From there he could see the many groups of mortals converging on their position, having been freed to move by the distraction the beacon provided; almost no stray demons were bothering with anyone else when so enraging a target blared a challenge at them.

More importantly, he was right: the flow of forces out of the Mouth had slowed. Whether they were truly running out or had paused temporarily for some logistical reason on the other side, he did not know and did not wait to find out. Much more of this and his lines would begin to buckle. This was the moment.

He re-oriented his perception to his body, and in a swell of magic, launched himself straight upward, soaring up to almost twice the height of the beacon itself. For a bare second he hovered there, a figure in battle-scarred armor beneath a cowled robe of plain brown. Probably none but the still-hidden third khelminash fortress even noticed him.

At least, until he revealed his other form.

Colossal golden wings spread over his armies, and he poured magic into the beacon. A pulse of pure divine energy flashed out from the circle in all directions, bodily sweeping back the demon tide and burning many of them to ash. It gave his beleaguered lines a breather, but more importantly, it put the frontmost ranks of demons far enough from his own people that there would be no friendlies caught in his next move.

With a roar that echoed from mountain to mountain to the horizon, Ampophrenon the Gold descended upon the exposed demon hordes in an apocalyptic fury of fire and Light.

Plunging downward, he pirouetted neatly on one wingtip, whirling in a tight circle above the ring of his defending forces and spraying the demons surrounding them with a constant stream of fire. Dragonfire in its un-augmented state was one of relatively few heat-based magics that burned through infernal defenses on its own. Demons favored fire themselves, and stood up well to arcane and even fae variants. He, though, had long since so infused himself with divine energy that it was a major component of the flame he breathed. The fire he exhaled across the demons was so fierce and so anathema to them that they did not burn so much as dissolve. Nothing but dust was left to stain the rocks.

To their credit, whoever was leading the demons reacted swiftly, bolstering the defenses around the fortress. Infernal magic did not provide shields as such, but more power swelled in the wards until the sheer infernal energy radiating outward from the walls took on an almost physical force, dispersed through an array that skillfully mirrored the layout of the fortifications themselves. It wouldn’t do anything to actually strengthen the walls but would bolster the demonic defenders and pose a threat to anyone trying to assault the keep.

He couldn’t spare a second to do anything to counter it. His desperate gambit had bought him a single window in which to annihilate as much of the enemy’s forces as he could. Nearly all were outside the fortress’s protection, and most had converged to make a single, conveniently massed target. He would not have time to hunt down stragglers; it was now or never.

Ampophrenon spun in wider circles, spraying streams of divine flame in three more passes before he had burned away the entire forces encircling his on the mountaintop. More demons were clustered on the approaches, and he diverted himself to dive onto each, blasting every path in its entirety with a wide spread of fire to cleanse it of demon filth. Some at the edges might have survived; there was just no time to be meticulous.

Maneuvering in midair at the greatest speed with which he was able, it was the work of moments to clean off the approaches, and then he set to work on the main body of demons.

Spells and missiles peppered him as he descended, but nothing this rabble could throw would pierce either his hide or his magical defenses. He had to track back and forth against this much larger horde, pivoting repeatedly to scour them off the face of the earth. Again, he prioritized speed over thoroughness, but even so, an army that had to have been sixty thousand strong disappeared to ash in minutes under the force of his fury. Almost before he knew it, he had created a scorched but clean reach of stone where there had been a hellish army leading right up to the outermost wards surrounding the fortress itself. By the time he got there, he had already enjoyed the rare sight of massed demons trying to retreat. They wouldn’t flee from anything they could fight, no matter how hopeless the odds, but even the demons could plainly see they were contending with a force of nature.

And still, he was free to rain destruction on them. Banking away from the painful burn of the magic radiating out of the fortress, he considered whether the extra moments he had somehow been granted would be better spent making another pass to clean up any surviving demons or unleashing an attack on the Mouth’s defenses themselves. He surely didn’t have much time before—

She was moving at well over the speed of sound; even his reflexes barely saved him. He was able to put up a strong enough divine shield that the impact wasn’t instantly catastrophic, but she still smashed through it and got a grip on his neck, even as the force of the hit sent them both tumbling half a mile away.

Ampophrenon roared in outrage and pain, tossing his head as he fought to turn his wild horizontal fall back into a glide. She ignored all this, clawing and biting at his scales like a maddened badger—a flying badger whose talons could rend steel and who shrugged off all but the most overwhelming magics.

He took no chances with half-measures against this one. The dragon pumped his wings once, shooting straight upward, then rolled over in midair at the apex of his ascent and beat them again, hurling himself toward the ground at the greatest speed he could manage.

He hit the side of a mountain back-first, throwing up the most resilient divine shield he could manage right at the moment of impact, crushing her beneath the overwhelming force of his Light and the unyielding rock below.

The rock gave before either she or the Light did. In fact, the impact made a sizable crater beneath them, but she was crushed even deeper into the stone. At least the blow dazed her enough that she let go, and he was able to hurl himself forward and away again, leaving what must have been half the mountain to crumble atop her.

Ampophrenon shot across the air to the nearest mountainside, where he landed on all fours and nimbly spun to face his attacker. Already she was clambering out of the wreckage they had made of the mountain.

The dragon spread his wings, roaring a warning at her.

Vadrieny fanned her own, and screamed right back, a brain-clawing sound that made the very air shiver in pain.

The detestable little brute was clad in the only armor that could stand up to the kinds of abuse to which she subjected it, and even so it was already ragged and beginning to fall apart. That would be adding insult to injury, but the sheer insult of dressing herself in dragonscales was unmatched to begin with.

She gathered herself, crouching to lunge across the gap between them, and Ampophrenon blasted her with a concentrated stream of Light-infused dragonfire, pounding her bodily back into the crater.

It was an open question whether enough of that over a prolonged period could have really harmed the archdemon, but this was not the day he got to test it. Almost immediately he broke off his attack and shot upward, evading another sneak assault.

Azradeh was generally more circumspect than her sister. Her approach was not nearly so fast or violent, enabling him to dodge her, but also giving herself wiggle room to adjust her dive to avoid piling face-first into the stone. She wheeled away to join Vadrieny, and he took the opportunity to retreat.

He did not actually know whether he could defeat two archdemons alone; he had not had the opportunity to face off against one. Most of the seven were too careful to risk themselves against the relatively few foes who could actually threaten them, and they kept a firm grip on the rest—like Vadrieny, who lacked the sense to retreat from danger and only wasn’t dead already because she obeyed orders from her elder sisters.

Regardless, this was not the time. He was not merely a warrior of the Light, but a general, and there was too much at stake here for him to go haring off in pursuit of one or even two targets, no matter how significant.

Apparently, Azradeh agreed. As Ampophrenon soared back to the mountain on which his forces were assembled, two much smaller figures flew in a wide arc to avoid him as they returned to their nearby fortress.


As it turned out, the forces massing beyond the portal really were depleted. They continued to trickle forth, but at nowhere near the previous rate. Slowly the fortress’s defenders were replenished, but in one fell swoop Ampophrenon had annihilated the bulk of what was meant to be another wave of invaders sizable enough to overrun yet another kingdom. It had been cheap in military terms, given what it had cost him in the lives of his own troops, but even this victory did not end the war. There was still the Mouth itself, and breaking its defenses would not be a small task.

The beacon remained lit, and over the next hours, the scattered forces of the mortal allies converged on the flat mountaintop even as the demons slowly bolstered their own numbers again. The remainder of Ampophrenon’s own troops were among the first, and he inwardly cringed at their numbers; fully half had been lost to demon attacks on the way there. Splitting up his army among the scattered adventurer teams to disguise their strength had worked, insofar as it had baited the demons into overconfidence and ultimately cost them their entire invasion force, but the butcher’s bill had been even more than he feared.

Not only his own army had answered the call, though, and the allied encampment swelled with each passing hour.

Adventurers there were aplenty, of course. They weren’t much good in massed combat, but Ampophrenon had found their chaotic approach a useful counter to the even more chaotic methods of the enemy; demons and adventurers didn’t take orders well and might do just about any fool thing. The gangs of wandering, heavily-armed malcontents and loners at their worst made a serviceable distraction enabling him to execute actual strategy against the demons, and at their best proved instrumental in pulling off surprising victories. The best adventurers, after all, were known for succeeding when by all rights they should not be able to. Without performing an actual head count, he estimated close to two hundred had gathered. He would definitely find uses for them.

In terms of actual soldiers, he gained a force from the Western tribes almost two-thirds the size of his own spellcaster-backed infantry. They were light and agile, able to cross the forbidding mountains with good speed; mostly spearmen, archers, a few swordsmen and a dedicated corps of shaman, with the added benefit of a smattering of priests. Three separate parties of Rangers had arrived, forming an additional seven hundred troops, as well as a surprising contingent of elves under the leadership of an Elder called Sheyann, whom Ampophrenon had not met but knew by reputation.

Typical. He needed heavy infantry and divine casters, so of course the gods had sent him a bunch of the finest scouts and archers in existence. No time did he waste on complaints, however. War was not chess; one maneuvered against circumstance as much as against the enemy general.

There were some real boons among the late arrivals, however. Sheyann herself was a significant asset, even in comparison with other elven shaman. Three more Silver Huntresses had turned up, as well as an actual Huntsman of Shaath, and two Dark Riders of Sorash. His forces also gained some significant arcane firepower; Andior Caladaan was not dead, as Ampophrenon had feared, but arrived looking somewhat the worse for wear and no less pleased with himself for it. Like most Hands of Salyrene, he could be a trial to deal with, but as he had been the one to singlehandedly bring down that khelminash fortress, Ampophrenon was inclined to let him strut a little. Sheyann’s party also brought the most surprising arrival yet, a powerful high elven sorceress who spoke with an accent the dragon couldn’t place, and also seemed to be slightly crazy.

“Wow,” the woman introduced to him as Arachne said, gazing at his towering golden bulk with a childlike expression of glee. “Are there any more like you at home? A few of these and we will maybe spank Elilial right where the sun does not shine!”

Standing right behind her, Sheyann sighed and shook her head, but did not intervene. Ampophrenon decided to assume it was a serious question.

“None who can be here in time to help,” he said, keeping his powerful voice to a courteous low rumble. “My brethren are unfortunately difficult to persuade that Elilial’s depredations are any concern of theirs, and even those with the sense to lend aid… Several have already fallen. Ramandiloth, Syranorn and Khadizroth are aiding from a distance, assaulting the Dark Lady’s forces elsewhere to help buy us this opportunity. What you see,” he added, straightening up and sweeping one wing to indicate the assembled mortal forces, “is what we have to work with.”

“Hm…maybe not so much, to attack Hell,” she observed.

“That’s not even on the table,” Razeen replied, leaning on her spear. “Our mission here is to stop the invasion, not launch our own. The portal must be destroyed.”

“And for that reason,” Ampophrenon said, nodding first to her and then to Andior, “the arrival of powerful mages is most welcome. We will sorely need experts in portal magic. I am grateful to see any help from the high elves; you alone are more than I expected.”

“High elves?” The woman blinked at him in apparent confusion, then turned to peer over the heads of the surrounded soldiers at the mountain range beyond. “Well… I guess this is as high as I have ever been. I have spent more time under mountains than on top, now that I consider on it.”

Ampophrenon stared at her. Sheyann caught his eye, made a face, and shook her head again, so he decided to leave that alone.

“What is your plan, exactly?” Andior interjected. “Because despite the difference in its scale, that is still fundamentally a hellgate. We can probably disrupt it by destroying it physical housing, but that will only destabilize the rift and then I have honestly no idea what will happen. To truly close it we must have someone working on the other side.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, “so my idea was maybe not so wrong, yes?”

“And who would you propose to abandon in Hell?” Razeen demanded. “Would you do it?”

“I have not seen Hell,” the elf mused. “Could be interesting. Demons are not very good company, though. How close is the least far hellgate from here? Maybe I can walk back that way.”

“I…wasn’t seriously asking…” The Hand of Avei looked a little unnerved by the sorceress’s apparent willingness to sacrifice herself.

Arachne frowned at her. “Then why do you open your mouth? This seems like not a right time for jokes.”

“Peace,” Ampophrenon rumbled. “Tensions are inevitably high in this situation, and we have gathered together many who would not voluntarily seek one another’s company. Remember our need, and why we have come here to stand as one. There is no time for infighting.”

“Well said, Lord Ampophrenon,” Sheyann agreed. “The question remains, then. How can we prevail?”

“I have a plan,” he said gravely. “But it is unconventional, and risky.”

“Your unconventional and risky plans have brought us this far,” said Razeen.

“I have just confirmed that there are two archdemons leading the defense of the Mouth’s fortress,” he continued.

“Three,” the taciturn Huntsman, Torol, interjected unexpectedly. “Arvanzideen is prowling these mountains.”

“Four,” Sheyann corrected in a quiet tone. “We have recently encountered Invazradi as well.”

The dragon nodded. “Four, then. Even better than I had hoped.”

“Better?” Arachne blinked twice. “More archdemons is more good how?”

“It is better,” he said, “because we do have someone on the other side who will shut the Mouth for us. Elilial herself.” He paused to let the murmuring at this subside, and chose to ignore Andior’s sudden delighted grin. “I will ask her politely to cease hostilities and close her portal. And she will agree,” he growled, drawing back his lips to bare rows of glittering fangs, “because she has previously betrayed her only true weakness. If the Dark Lady wishes to see her children again after this day, she will submit to the Light.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, nodding sagely. “So we are all going to die, then.”

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Bonus #13: Along Came a Spider, part 1

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3006 years ago

Shiraki crept through the forest as quietly as he could—quietly enough that none of the mortal kind would have noted his passing, but that was not what concerned him. A fellow elf could have heard his approach, and he didn’t attempt to increase his stealth to obviate that risk. If he met other elves here, they would surely be equally cautious, and it was better that he find them before something else did.

He was not particularly worried. The demons were cunning, some of them, but there were no known types that could match an elf for stealth, at least not out in nature. Between his natural lightness and agility and his burgeoning shamanic skills, he would know of any demons in the area long before they knew of him. There had been no sign of any since he had been separated from the human alliance at the battle to the south.

The forest lay along the base of the Dragon Peaks, climbing the mountains until they became too steep and rocky to support trees, and fading away into the prairie to the west. He didn’t know if any help could be expected from the plains tribes; some had come to join the alliance, but those who hadn’t would probably insist on keeping to themselves. They had very likely retreated into the Golden Sea, anyhow.

There had been no known demon activity this far north; they were concentrated in Viridill, the Tyr Valley and the plains of the West, where humans lived. Elilial had shown herself willing to make use of whatever tools were available to her, but she concentrated her efforts as always on humankind. Groves too close to the battlefields had been burned, elves killed or displaced, but for the most part, those who chose not to participate had managed to flee.

Shiraki had little patience for such isolationism; they all had to live in the world. His mother had called him childish and hotheaded, and other less kind words, but he had chosen to actively resist the demons. Now, as he made his way northwest through the forest toward the meeting point, he kept his senses fully alert. The forest was filled with the songs of birds and insects, the chattering of squirrels; there was no hint of the enemy here. Even creeping invisibly, demonkind alarmed animals badly enough to create evidence of their passing. Still, he was wary of meeting humans who had sworn themselves to Elilial’s cause, and also on the lookout for fleeing refugees or potential allies he could bring to the meeting.

There were few other souls out on the road; he sensed several at a significant distance, and didn’t deem it worthwhile to divert to meet them. When he crossed the Old Road and beheld one of his own kind a dozen yards ahead, however, he paused.

Her slender build and upward-pointed ears caught his attention, and he stopped to study her closely. The woman wore a robe that barely qualified as such; it looked like it had been stitched together from old flour sacks. The stitching was fairly well-done and it fit her, but it was dirty and ragged to the point of falling apart. Most interestingly, she was trudging along the Old Road toward the north, away from elven territory, yet swiveling her head rapidly to stare at any source of noise as she went. In the few minutes that he silently watched, she gave wary attention to several songbirds, and jumped violently when a squirrel began chattering directly over her head.

Shiraki managed not to laugh, despite the inherent humor of the picture. Between the ragged attire—and, he now saw, the lack of shoes—and jumpy behavior, it seemed most likely this was a refugee. She doubtless did not need any further grief.

He turned, pacing slowly up the road toward her. He did not attempt to disguise his footfalls, though they were naturally light even for an elf’s. The woman’s attention was fixed on the squirrel, almost as if she’d never seen one before, and he got within six yards before she heard him and spun around.

She was rather pretty, even squinting suspiciously at him. Shiraki would not have admitted it, but while he had joined the effort against the demons out of a genuine desire to help, he entertained some daydreams of what might come of such adventures. For example, he was old enough to take a mate and interested in finding someone suitable. Coming across a woman of his own kind apparently in distress in the woods raised possibilities which he tried earnestly to ignore.

“Well met,” he said politely. “Are you in need of help?”

“Help?” she said carefully, as though unsure of the concept. “Help… I do not think so, no. I am also not in need of being robbed, thank you.”

Shiraki couldn’t help laughing, though he tried to stifle it when her lips narrowed further. “My apologies,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to rob you. I simply thought you looked a little…ah…”

“Poorly dressed and lost?” she said dryly. She straightened from her defensive crouch, however, and her expression opened a little bit.

“Thank you, I was looking for a more polite way to say it,” he replied with a rueful smile. “Are you hungry? I have enough waybread to share.”

“No, thank you. I ate a…thing. An animal. Um, big, shaggy, four hooves…” She put both hands to her temples, forefingers extended, pantomiming horns.

“A…a bison?” he said, fascinated. How on earth had she grown up without learning what a bison was?

“If so, then yes,” the woman said, lowering her hands.

“You ate the whole thing?”

“Most. Some parts, they are not good for chewing. Others I am not sure what to do with.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s for the best; you should be fine for months with that much energy in your aura, unless you do a lot of magic. This is relatively stable country, but things are bad elsewhere; there is no telling how scarce food may be in the near future. Do you do magic?”

“Why do you ask?” she demanded, expression suddenly suspicious again.

“Mere curiosity,” he said, then placed a hand on his chest and bowed. “I am Shiraki.”

She mouthed his name ostentatiously, eyes losing focus, as though afraid she would immediately forget it.

“And,” he prompted gently after a moment, “you are…?”

Her gaze sharpened, snapping back to his face.

“I am what?”

“What is your name?” he asked, grinning. This was possibly the most surreal conversation he’d ever had, but he sensed no threat from her.

“Name,” she mused, her eyes drifting. “My name? Hm…”

“You’ve forgotten?” he asked, his grin broadening.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “…you can call me Arachne.”

“Well met,” he said again. “Are you traveling anywhere in particular, if I may ask?”

“You may ask,” she said, then turned and pointed up the road. “That way, I guess. I am not lost.”

“No?”

“No,” she said emphatically. “I do not know where I am, but I also do not know where I am going, and I have no schedule. So… Maybe very lost. I do not feel lost.”

He couldn’t keep the bemused smile off his face; it was all he could do to withhold the barrage of questions he wanted to ask. Arachne was the most puzzling individual he had ever met. She spoke elvish like someone who had learned it in a dwarven university: stiltedly formal, with a truly inexplicable accent and occasional lapses in grammar.

“Well,” he said, “this is the Old Road, skirting the narrow area between the Golden Sea and the Dragon Peaks.” He pointed at the mountains to the west, visible through the trees. “Further north it comes out onto the plains, then the desert, and if you follow it all the way you’ll eventually come to the Dwarnskold mountain range. The subterranean dwarven kingdoms are beneath that.”

“Eugh,” she said, making a face. “I do not want to go beneath anything. I was in Tar’naris…briefly. It was more than enough. You mention a sea? I have not seen one of those yet.”

“Well… The Golden Sea is just a name. It’s actually a prairie.”

She snorted. “Then why call it a sea? That is confusing.”

“I agree,” Shiraki said. “Unfortunately, if you don’t wish to go underground, this road doesn’t lead anywhere useful. The Dwarnskolds are all but impassable, and there’s nothing beyond them anyway but the ocean.”

“Hm. Where are you going?” she demanded.

He hesitated. She was an odd duck, to be sure, but nothing about her suggested she was in league with the enemy. They had spies, but only among the humans. No elf would aid the forces of Hell.

“I’m meeting up with some allies in the mountains not far from here,” he said after a moment. “The force of humans I was attempting to help were overrun by demons. I spirited a few away, but it was all I could do. I need to get news and orders and figure out how to proceed. Everything is in chaos at the moment.”

“Demons?” she said sharply.

Shiraki nodded slowly. “Yes, demons. Are you not aware of the war in the south?”

“I am aware there is a war,” she said carefully. “No one has explained it to me and I did not hang around and ask. Other people’s wars are not my trouble. A war with demons?”

“Elilial has launched a major incursion,” he said, frowning. “The humans have suffered serious losses, entire kingdoms overrun. Those remaining have help from the elves, and even the orcs. This has been going on for three years. Where have you been?”

“Not here,” she murmured, then nodded as if deciding something. “Very good, if it is demons, that is a different thing. I can help you to fight! Let us go see your friends.”

“I suppose I can bring you to the meeting,” he said slowly. “We are certainly in no position to turn down allies. It’s not far from here, just into the foothills. Less than a day.”

“Good,” she said decisively. “You lead, then.”

“Are you…sure you want to?” he asked. “With all respect, you don’t look to be in fighting shape. There is certainly no disgrace in finding a safe place to hide, if you are not a soldier.”

“Not only soldiers can fight,” she said cryptically. “This talking is not you leading the way, Chucky.”

“Shiraki,” he enunciated, frowning.

“Yes, I said that. Which way?”

He sighed, but nodded to her and stepped off into the bushes. “Northwest, this way. The walk is mostly uphill. Be certain, though; once we reconnect with the group, we’ll be out in the wilderness, and likely proceeding straight from there to another battle. You may not have another chance to back away.”

“I am doing nothing important anyhow,” she said, following him. “It is worthwhile to help, it seems to me. I do not like demons.”

He laughed again, in spite of himself. “Nobody likes demons.”

“Really?” Arachne chuckled. “You have met everybody?”

Shiraki glanced back at her. “After today, I think I may have.”


They made excellent time, reaching the rendezvous point in a sheltered hollow at the foot of a low peak not long after sunset. Shiraki hadn’t been certain what to expect upon arriving; who made it to the meeting would depend a great deal upon how things went in other parts of the front. He was pleased to see almost half a dozen humans and elves, but less pleased to find them under the de facto leadership of his least favorite Elder.

“And you brought her here?” Elder Sheyann said disapprovingly, her hair ruffling slightly in the faint magical wind that kept their conversation private. Such tricks were a necessity when one wished to speak behind the backs of about elves who were close enough to be seen. After everyone had exchanged greetings and preliminary news, she and Vaisza had pulled Shiraki aside to discuss his new companion, who was down below, talking with Mervingen the wizard in her off-kilter elvish while Lord Kraanz looked on, bemused.

“She was willing to help,” Shiraki said, trying not to sound defensive. “Can we afford to turn down allies? Besides, the alternative was to leave her wandering in the forest. Elder…I’m not entirely certain she’s right in the head. I don’t think it would have been right to just leave her behind.”

“If she is unstable enough to be a threat to herself in the forest,” Sheyann said with an edge to her tone, “what makes you think bringing her into a war is in any way a kindness?”

“I’m not certain she is,” he said, straining for patience. “All I know for certain is that she wants to fight the demons.”

“You know nothing for certain, Shiraki,” Sheyann said in exasperation. “She told you she wants to attend this meeting and join our cause. This unknown and frankly weird individual who turns up in the middle of a war? A war against a foe who is the embodiment of cunning? Surely I don’t need to explain to you what a spy is, young man.”

“I’m not wrong, then?” Vaisza interjected in her lightly accented elvish. “That elf is rather…peculiar?” The Huntress tilted her head, directing her gaze at Shiraki.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said fervently, glad of the opportunity to wiggle out from under Sheyann’s interrogation. “I don’t know where she learned to speak, but I have never heard an accent like that. And the whole walk up here, she made me identify every tree, bush, bird and insect we saw. She didn’t know what any of them were. A wood elf! It’s as if she fell from the moon or something.”

“Hm,” Vaisza murmured, frowning at Arachne, who seemed to be having a conversation with Kraanz now, with Mervingen serving as translator. It was hardly a surprise that she knew no human tongues, considering that she barely seemed to know elvish. “I hardly think she is a spy, then, Elder.”

“Oh?” Sheyann raised an eyebrow.

“The central role of a spy is to avoid notice,” the Silver Huntress explained. “A spy would craft a role that we would recognize, and do everything possible to resemble something we understand well, so as not to court our attention. This… Being an odd, out of place figure whose very presence raises questions, this is not good espionage. Elilial is too crafty to make such a blunder, and doesn’t employ agents who make such blunders. No, I suspect she is exactly what she claims to be.”

“And what does she claim to be?” Sheyann asked pointedly, turning back to Shiraki.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t seem to want to talk about her past. Believe me, I asked. The woman is barefoot and dressed like a knapsack; it’s not hard to imagine she’s running from something of which she doesn’t care to be reminded.”

“Hm,” Sheyann murmured. “And she was on the road north, from Viridill?”

“Yes. She mentioned Tar’naris, too; she had been in the south, but didn’t know what the war was about, so she can’t have been there long. She also didn’t know where the road led. Honestly, Elder, she doesn’t seem to know anything. It’s like talking with a child in a woman’s body. A rather sharp-tongued child,” he added ruefully.

Sheyann shifted, letting the wind vanish, and he half-turned to follow her gaze. Arachne was coming toward them.

“Hello!” she said, waving. “You have decided I am not a secret monster now?”

Sheyann smiled slightly. “Not conclusively.”

Arachne grinned. “Heh. I like you. I have been told the news by these humans, why there is war. Very strange thing for Elilial to do, is it not? But obviously, no, she cannot be let to do this. I very much see the purpose of stopping her. But why are we here in the mountains, when the demons are way far south?”

Elder Sheyann glanced at Vaisza before replying. “At the core of the matter is that an armed invasion is very uncharacteristic of Elilial; she is the goddess of cunning.”

“Yes.” Arachne nodded. “I know who she is.”

“The war, we believe, is a false front,” Sheyann continued, folding her hands. “War breeds chaos; it makes the perfect cover for any number of nefarious activities. We, and others who have organized together for this purpose, are trying to ascertain her true motive, and thwart it.”

“Ah!” Arachne grinned. “Very clever! I like it! I think I am perhaps less helpful than I thought if this is the case, though,” she added more thoughtfully. “I am good at fighting, and good at scheming, but to scheme well one must know the situation and the territory, yes? I do not know very much about how things are, here.”

“We’re glad of any help anyone is willing to offer,” Shiraki assured her. Sheyann gave him a long look.

“This group is only planning to stay here another day,” Vaisza added. “We cannot afford to waste time; others have yet to report in, but we must lay plans and continue moving. Tomorrow we will hold our meeting and decide our next steps, and must proceed without anyone who has not arrived by then. The goddess grant that they are only delayed,” she added more quietly.

“Goddess?” Arachne perked up visibly. “Which?”

Vaisza blinked. “Which…goddess? I am a Silver Huntress. I serve Avei.”

“Oh,” Arachne said, disappointed. “I do not need that one… Ah well. I will look around, if we are going to wait until tomorrow.” She turned and meandered off toward the front of their little valley, where they had a view over the darkened forest and the plains beyond.

“Did she just say what I thought I heard?” Vaisza demanded.

“Yes,” Elder Sheyann said with a sigh, “and no, I have no more idea than you what it meant. What a fine catch you’ve brought us, Shiraki.”

He sighed and walked away from her. It was a risky degree of rudeness to show an Elder, but his patience was wearing out. Really, of all the people to be stuck in the mountains with… He dearly hoped Elder Onnaue was all right.

“So you have decided to trust her, though?” Vaisza asked behind him.

“I have decided not to chase her away,” Sheyann replied. “It makes sense to be up-front with her about things she will inevitably learn anyway.”

“Good evening, Lord Kraanz,” he said politely in Tanglic to the burly human as they passed each other.

Kraanz paused, glancing over his shoulder at Arachne, who had wandered toward the edge of the valley where it descended in a sharp incline toward a mountain trail below. “Interesting find, there, lad,” he said, straightening the bearskin draped over his shoulders. “A word of advice: if you go picking up every pretty pair of legs you come across, sooner rather than later you’ll find yourself holding an armful of crazy.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Shiraki said gravely, concealing his amusement. Arachne had recently given him some practice at that. “I wonder, since you have raised the subject… You’ve spent time in Tar’naris, is that not correct?”

“Aye, it is,” the man replied with a grin that showed several missing teeth. “Twice as a raider and once as a slave. There was some overlap, there.”

Shiraki nodded. “I’m trying to figure out where our guest hails from—she has a most peculiar manner of speech. Tell me, does it resemble the drow accent, to your ear?”

“Fraid I’m of little help to you, lad,” Kraanz said with a shrug. “I can’t make much sense of your tongue. Didn’t sound overly familiar when she talked, but I’d not swear I’d recognize the jabbering of the drow who used to prod me with a whip, either.”

“I see,” Shiraki murmured. Well, it had just been a thought. What were the odds she could have come from Tar’naris, of all places? Peculiar enough that she had been there at all; the drow had little use for their surface cousins even as slaves.

“Hey,” Arachne said suddenly from up ahead. “Are we expecting sneaky enemies? Because I think that bird is a person.”

“Where?” Sheyann demanded, striding past Shiraki and Kraanz toward the edge of the valley.

“There,” Arachne replied, pointing out into the darkness. “Little black bird.”

“What’s she saying?” Kraanz demanded.

“She sees a suspicious bird,” Shiraki explained, his eyes on the two women.

“She sees a bird? In the dark?”

“Look at its aura,” Arachne was saying. “Way, much too huge for a little bird. But also concealed, so you do not notice unless you are looking.”

“You’re right,” Sheyann noted. “I see it now, too. It would be suspicious enough, anyway. Crows do not fly at night.”

Crows? Shiraki felt mingled hope and trepidation well up.

“It is called a crows?”

“Crow.” The Elder half-turned to give Arachne an unreadable look. “In the singular, a crow. How did you happen to notice its aura? You’re right, it’s barely perceptible; one would have to be looking closely.”

“Because you know it is a crow,” she replied quietly, still staring at the bird. Shiraki could see it now, too, coming straight toward them. “You see something you understand, and you do not look closer. Me, I must look at everything. Someday I will understand what everything is and be as blind as everyone else. Or dead.” She shrugged. “It is all one, I suppose.”

The crow cawed hoarsely as it approached, swinging down into the valley, where it settled to the ground a few feet from them. Suddenly it was not a bird standing there, but an elf woman in battered leather armor, with black hair tied back in a taut braid.

“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said, permitting open relief into her tone. “Well met. What news?”

“Little, I’m afraid, and not overly bright,” replied the shaman. “I am pleased to see you safe, Sheyann. And Shiraki.” She nodded to each of the humans in turn before settling an inquisitive look upon Arachne.

“Hello!” the new arrival said brightly.

“This,” Sheyann said in a careful tone, “is a new associate Shiraki found. Kuriwa, meet Arachne.”

“Indeed.” Kuriwa narrowed her eyes. “The pleasure is mine…Arachne.”

“I guess so?” she replied, tilting her head. “You have a suspicious look. Does everyone think I am going to poison them?”

“Forgive me,” Kuriwa said smoothly. “Matters being as they are, I have grown mistrustful of surprises. As I said, my friends, the news is not good. The Circle seems to have been discovered by Elilial’s forces. Her Black Wraiths have moved against several of those we have placed within the human lands she has overtaken.”

“That is grim news indeed,” Sheyann said, frowning.

“What is she saying?” Kraanz demanded. Shiraki stepped over next to him and began translating in a low tone while Kuriwa continued.

“Talivar, Lady Keress and Noslin I have confirmed slain. I was able to reach Misareth in time to extract her from Caladel, but I was not so fortunate upon trying to rescue Anzar.” She sighed. “He…will live, I believe, but the Wraiths used a poison on him of infernal make. Unless this war drags out longer than we can permit it to, his part in it is over.”

“Bloody hell,” Kraanz cursed. Vaisza was already whispering prayers for the dead.

“We clearly must change our strategy, then,” said Sheyann.

“Yes,” Kuriwa agreed, nodding. “I have come to propose a new one. The Wraiths are now hunting us; I suggest we retreat, and let them think they are driving us away.”

Shiraki paused in his translating to ask, “What earthly good could that do?”

“These Wraiths,” said Arachne. “They…hide? Like your Circle?”

Kuriwa gave her another piercing look. “They are Elilial’s cult among the humans. Yes, they must hide themselves.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. “A good plan, then, Chucky. We play the easy targets, they come out to chase us, yes?”

“That is my hope,” Kuriwa said.

“It’s pronounced Shiraki,” Sheyann murmured.

“Shee-rah-kee,” Arachne said carefully. “Thought I was saying that. Sorry, Chucky.”

He sighed heavily and went back to translating for Kraanz. Mervingen tried to bury a chuckle under a cough.

“Retreat to where, then?” Vaisza asked.

“Initially, here,” said Kuriwa. “This rendezvous point is far from the front and easily secured. When more have gathered, I wish to send an expedition to Svenheim, since we are close to the road leading there.”

“That’s all but asking us to leave the field entirely,” Vaisza said sharply.

“For the time being, yes,” Kuriwa agreed. “But it is an action toward specific purpose—two of them. Recruiting the dwarves to the cause will be a major victory; Elilial’s numbers are already flagging, but so are the human armies. Another mortal force will turn the tide. Additionally, being such a valid tactic, it is a believable reason for the Circle to pull back, and also a solid provocation for the Wraiths to pursue us.”

“Clever,” Arachne mused.

“Yes,” said Sheyann, watching Kuriwa closely. “I could see this plan working, perhaps.”

“It is not all quite so simple as that, of course,” Kuriwa said. “Rather than leaving you to cool your heels in the mountains for weeks, I mean to gather the others here myself. That…will be difficult.”

“You are surely not considering bringing them through the place between places,” Sheyann said sharply.

“Desperate times,” Kuriwa said with a shrug. “Desperate measures.”

“I would think carefully about just how desperate we are!”

“I have,” the shaman said, meeting her stare. “Am I known to take risks unless they are needful?”

The Elder sighed. “What do you need from us, then?”

“Merely to hold this position, and prepare it. There will soon be more people here—they will be tired and likely quite stressed. Can you gather some food, prepare medicines and places to rest?”

“We can do this,” Sheyann nodded, glancing around at the others. “It will be much better than simply counting the hours.”

“Game is not plentiful here,” Vaisza offered, “but I can begin hunting.”

“None for me, if that helps,” said Arachne. “I ate a bison not long ago.”

The Huntress whipped her head around to stare at her. “What do you mean, you ate a bison?!”

“I don’t know.” She cocked her head, turning to Shiraki. “That is what Chucky said it was.”

He sighed, as did Sheyann; Kuriwa just stared at her blankly. It wasn’t exactly a secret, but elves did not prefer to discuss their metabolism with humans, whose process for taking in and storing energy was entirely biological. As a consequence, they had to eat virtually all the time, or risk starvation. The elvish way of turning large quantities of food into energy for long periods of time was, of course, far more efficient, but pointing out to humans the ways in which they were inferior seldom led to productive discussions.

“If you are agreed to this,” Kuriwa said, “I will proceed to the others. Time is of the essence.”

“Travel safely,” said Sheyann, bowing. Kuriwa nodded in return, then ascended on a flutter of dark wings.

“Not much for socializing, is she?” Kraanz commented.

Elder Sheyann sighed again. “It seems we have some work to do, my friends. For now, though, I suggest we rest. All this will be better approached in the daylight.”


Almost immediately after breakfast he was already regretting the entire situation. Somehow, with demons on the rampage, the Black Wraiths stalking their allies and a mission to the mysterious dwarven kingdoms looming ahead, Shiraki found himself gathering firewood. Well, it wasn’t quite as dull as it could have been, considering the “help” he had been assigned.

“And…this one will become a tree?”

“It is a tree,” he said patiently. “That’s a sapling, a juvenile tree. Leave it alone; there’s not enough there to burn properly, and it’s better to let it mature into a full-sized pine.”

“How long will that take?” Arachne asked.

“Several years.”

“Hmph. We need wood now.”

“Nature is not always accommodating,” he said gravely. Her ignorance of absolutely everything had long since ceased to be charming and was, by this point, no longer even funny. She really was becoming an aggravation.

“How long until this one turns into a tree?”

“That is a rose bush,” he said wearily. “That’s about as big as they get. It’s not the right season, but the flowers are—don’t put your hand in there! It has thorns!”

“This is annoying,” she said, retreating from the rose bush and glaring at it suspiciously. “We are just to gather wood that has fallen off branches? This will take forever.”

“This is just for our campfire,” Shiraki said, picking up another stick and tucking it under his arm with the others. “When we get to gathering stores of wood for when the others arrive, we’ll need tools to fell one of these trees. One should be plenty for our needs.”

“Shiraki,” she said quietly.

“You got it right,” he said in surprise, turning to her. She was staring grimly past him, however. He followed her gaze and immediately dropped his meager armful of firewood.

The woman who had appeared silently among the trees might have passed for a slender human as far as most of her features went. Even the hooves were not a complete deal-breaker; there were a number of fairly common curses that had that effect. Her hair, though, was a sleek sheet of orange fire, hanging down her back and trailing along the ground behind, where it somehow did not set the underbrush alight. Her eyes, too, were infinite pits of flame.

He drew his tomahawk and belt knife, stepping in front of his companion. “Arachne, get back. Go find Elder Sheyann.”

“That’s very noble of you…Shiraki, was it?” The woman’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen women speaking in harmonious unison. “But there is no need to be so hostile. Why don’t we have a calm, quiet discussion?”

“Arachne, go,” he said urgently. “We’ve nothing to gain by dallying with demon filth.”

She moved faster than even an elf could track. One moment he was standing in front of Arachne; the next, the woman’s fingers were around his neck. They were far too long and had far too many joints, encircling his throat and beginning to squeeze off his air supply. He struck at her arm with both weapons, to absolutely no effect.

“You are a rude little knife-ear,” she said calmly. “And for your edification, it’s archdemon.”

“Excuse me,” Arachne said tersely, “he cannot breathe. Let go of his neck, please.”

The archdemon turned her head, examining the elf. “I thought you were told to fetch the Elder? Go do that. I believe it is she with whom I wish to—”

A sudden wind howled through the forest, bringing with it the incongruous scents of flowers, fresh water and moist earth. The demon’s fiery hair was sent streaming out behind her and she grimaced, relaxing her grip somewhat. Shiraki gasped for breath.

“The Elder is here,” Sheyann snapped, striding toward them. “Unhand the boy and say your piece, demon, then go. I’ve no patience for your kind.”

“Just so,” the demon said, grinning unpleasantly. She had extremely large fangs. “But I think I will hold onto him for a few moments more, yes? Otherwise, what motivation have you to be polite with me? I am Invazradi, third daughter of the Queen of Hell, and I have been following this elf-pup for days. Now that we are all here, I believe we should discuss this little…Circle of yours.”

“Done asking politely,” Arachne announced, pointing a finger at the archdemon.

The entire world rang like a bell.

Shiraki found himself lying on his back in the carpet of fallen pine needles, blinking and gasping for breath while waiting for his vision to clear. He was free of the demon’s grasp, however. Raising his head, he beheld Arachne, still with her arm held out, and Sheyann staring at her with an expression of shock that would have been quite gratifying under less dire circumstances.

The pine tree into which Invazradi had been slammed finished toppling with a crash, while the archdemon got back to her hooves, glaring murder at Arachne.

“That,” she snarled. “Was. A mistake.”

“Why?” the elf asked innocently. “I did not miss.”

Invazradi struck with that impossible speed again, but rebounded off a sphere of blue light that sprang into being around Arachne with her impact. She staggered backward, and Arachne made a sharp gesture with her fist.

A glowing cobalt orb materialized above and slammed downward, smashing the archdemon into the forest floor.

“I am trying to be nice to people,” Arachne said in a conversational tone, making complex motions with her fingers. Threads of blue light snaked out from her hands to twine about Invazradi’s hooves as she tried to get up again. In the next moment, the shrieking demon found herself suspended upside down in midair, her glowing hair trailing among the fallen needles. “I am alone in a new place and it is hard to make friends. But you, big girl, I think you can take it, yes?”

Shiraki scrambled back to his feet, scuttling around behind Sheyann before he realized he’d done so. The Elder, for her part, planted herself between him and the sorceress and archdemon, arms spreading slightly as if to make a barrier with her own body.

Sorceress. He could identify, now that he had time to think, the distinctive prickle of arcane magic being used. She was clearly far more powerful than Mervingen, or any mage he’d encountered. How?

“My mother will have your hide in strips to make bootlaces!” Invazradi howled as more blue threads bound her arms to her sides.

“Your mother does not wear boots,” Arachne said reasonably. “You did not get those stompers from papa. Now, you go back to her, and give my compliments, yes? And also a message. I will not like to have to spank anymore of her badly behaving brats, please.”

“No,” said a new voice, and Kuriwa stepped out from behind a tree. In her hand was a spear with a golden haft, its head a single carved piece of crystal. The entire thing put off a subtle light that drove away every shadow in their vicinity without seeming to glare upon the eyes. “Now that she has finally shown her face, she need not carry a message. She will be one.”

“No,” Invazradi whispered, sounding truly unnerved now. Her glowing eyes were locked on the spear.

“You… Kuriwa, you conniving snake,” Sheyann hissed. “Was this what you were after this whole time?”

“One thing,” the shaman said mildly, striding forward. “Thank you, Arachne. Hold her steady, please.”

“Do not come any closer, please,” Arachne replied. “And put that thing somewhere else. Our point is made; she goes home, now.”

“No,” Kuriwa said icily, “she does not.”

With a soft whoosh of wings, yet another figure descended through the trees, landing lightly beside them. “All right, everyone, that’s just about enough of that,” she said cheerfully. Shiraki heard a soft whimper, only belatedly realizing it came from himself. The new woman had the same polyphonic voice and hellfire-filled eyes as Invazradi. She had birdlike talons for feet, though, and her hair was an ordinary if glossy black. Wings spread from behind her shoulders, feathered like a bird’s in shades of deep purple and midnight blue, though small claws were visible at their joints.

“Azradeh!” Invazradi squealed. “Help!”

“You shut up,” the second archdemon said disdainfully. “You’re an embarrassment. Now, if you would be so kind as to release my sister?” she added directly to Arachne.

“You take your sister and you go very much away, this is clear?” the sorceress said severely. “We are having a nice little camping in the woods. Only with friends. She is rude.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” Azradeh said with a wry grin. She, too, had vicious fangs. “For what it’s worth, had this gone at all the way she planned you would all be dead without having to listen to her.”

“I hate you so much,” Invazradi snarled.

“Yes, yes,” Azradeh said soothingly, patting her leg. “The bindings, please?”

Arachne considered the two of them thoughtfully for a moment, then flicked her fingers. The blue threads instantly vanished and Invazradi plummeted to the ground with a strangely musical squawk.

“Now, let us all get along, yes?” Arachne said mildly. “The crow lady over there, I think she is here to murder somebody. I have a feeling it is not her first time, no?”

“Quite,” Azradeh said, nodding gravely. “And then, of course, there’s you.”

“Yes,” Arachne replied, holding her gaze. “There is me.”

“So, nobody gets what they wanted, but everybody gets to live another day. An acceptable compromise. Come, sister, we should find a private place for me to chew you out before I hand you over to Mother. Honestly, how you contrive yourself into these debacles is beyond my imagining.”

Invazradi glared at her, then panned her hateful stare around at the elves, finally settling on Shiraki.

“I will see you again,” she promised, then took two steps backward and vanished abruptly, leaving behind a puff of sulfur-scented smoke.

Azradeh tilted her head in a way that showed she was rolling her eyes, despite her lack of visible pupils, then disappeared in the same manner.

There was a moment of silence.

“That was a good plan,” Arachne said finally. “You are lucky I am so disagreeable, Kuriwa. I do not think you and your spear could have matched for two of them.”

“Quite,” the shaman said curtly. “I suppose I should thank you for that. Though had the second not intervened, you would simply have botched the only chance we are ever likely to see to remove an archdemon from the playing field!”

Arachne tilted her head inquisitively, glanced at Sheyann and then back at Kuriwa. “Have you met Elilial?”

“I’ve not had the pleasure,” the shaman said dryly.

“I have,” Arachne said firmly, “and I am happier being not her new hobby. The archdemons, they are her children, this is true? You kill the goddess’s child, she comes after you with everything she can bring. I would maybe be willing to make Avei this angry with me, but Elilial? That is not a clean death. She will make you watch as everything you love is slowly torn to shreds before allowing you to die. If she is in a hurry.”

“And while she was doing that,” Kuriwa said in exasperation, “she would be distracted, focused away from her main goal and open to attack! I am willing to bring that upon myself if it means the opportunity to remove the dark goddess from the mortal plane permanently.”

“You, I note, were not the only person here,” Sheyann said sharply. “You would not hold the entirety of the blame in her eyes. How very strategic for you to make that choice on behalf of the rest of us, Kuriwa.”

“Yes. Well, anyway,” said Arachne, bending to pick up one of Shiraki’s fallen sticks. “You two have things to discuss, so I will leave you to do that. Obviously the plans must change again. Do we still need firewood? I would hate to have gone stomping in the woods for nothing. My feet have become very disgusting.”


Later, the two elders watched from a higher peak, ostensibly keeping a lookout for more demons, while the party below packed away the meager camp, preparing to set off for a new, hopefully more secure location. Their chosen vantage was angled such that the wind made them inaudible even to the elven ears below.

“If you are sure,” Sheyann said quietly. “It still seems awfully risky to me.”

“I am willing to risk my own safety at need,” Kuriwa replied. She was seated cross-legged on a boulder, hands folded in her lap. “I promise you, I am more careful with the lives of others. The groundwork was laid beforehand; Elilial’s wrath would have fallen entirely upon me. Well. It was not a total loss. Those two have learned a little humility and may be less aggressive… And I did go to the trouble of retrieving the spear. Perhaps I will give it to a Hand of Avei. It can still do some good against the demons.”

“Hm,” the other woman said noncommittally. For a few minutes, they gazed down in silence. Eventually, though, she spoke again. “I hardly know what to make of that…sorceress. She seems by turns childlike, insane, and…terrifying. Does anything she’s said ring familiar to you? I can’t help feeling I would know more if I could place that accent…”

“She troubles me,” Kuriwa whispered.

Sheyann looked over at her, narrowing her eyes. “You sound as if you mean that quite sincerely. She is a mystery, yes, a potentially alarming one. What is it you know that I don’t, Kuriwa?”

The elder shaman shook her head slowly. “Little that is conclusive. Just enough to raise many unsettling questions. I know what the word arachne means. Or what it once did.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow.

Still staring down at the group below, Kuriwa continued softly. “In the aftermath of the Elder War, there was a celestial game of round-the-bush. The Pantheon banished Elilial to Hell, first of all. Within two centuries, she organized a coup and in turn removed Scyllith, banishing her to the mortal plane, and specifically the depths of the Underworld. Meanwhile, Themynra, foreseeing these events, had insinuated herself into the realms of the drow, converting all those near the surface to her worship and creating a barrier between Scyllith and our lands, leaving Scyllith with nothing to do but suborn the remaining drow.”

She turned her head to gaze directly at Sheyann. “Two Elder gods survive to this day… But there were three not slain by the Pantheon, and one whose fate is not known. Before Scyllith and Themynra divided them up between themselves, the drow worshiped a goddess of many arms and many eyes. What became of her, I can only guess. Nor do I know the fate of the last spider priestesses.”

Sheyann had fallen totally still. Kuriwa sighed softly, turning again to look down at the valley.

“Show her kindness, Sheyann.”

“Of…of course,” the Elder said, shaking herself lightly as if rousing from a dream. “I would do so for any soul who needed—”

“No,” Kuriwa said firmly. “You would be kind to any soul in need. Show her kindness. If several of the possibilities I see are true, she may not understand, at first, what it is. We may all be in a great deal of trouble if she does not learn.”

Below, while Shiraki folded tent canvas into bundles, Arachne paused in her own packing to turn and look directly up at the two elders. Before turning her back to them again, she smiled.

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