Tag Archives: Fauna

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“You surrender?” Trissiny said incredulously after everyone had digested that in silence for a moment. “You can’t just… Why on earth would anyone—”

“Why does anyone surrender, General Avelea?” Elilial interrupted with a sardonically lifted eyebrow, her hands still held in the air as if displaying that she held no weapons made her a whit less dangerous. “You’re supposed to be the military strategist here. Surrender is the appropriate action when you are no longer capable of prosecuting a war. My entire organized force present was just wiped out by pixies, because you Pantheon lackeys can never pass up the chance to heap insult upon injury. Kuriwa and Natchua, vicious little knife-eared monstrosities that they are, just tossed everything that remains of my cult into chaos space. You went and maimed my highest general, Avelea.”

“Oh, by all means, cry about that,” Trissiny retorted.

Elilial’s expression grew more grim. “No. No, about that I will claim no vendetta. Kelvreth unleashed his most destructive power against a mass of people including several he knew I was pledged not to harm, and at least one whose well-being is very dear to me. He’s going to stay blind for the foreseeable future; I will not countenance betrayal, nor my subordinates making mockery of my own oaths. Nor do I enjoy the position of owing Omnu a debt of gratitude for correcting that mistake. But the fact remains…” She bared her teeth in a bitter scowl, fangs glinting in the light of the stained glass windows. “I could kill you all, whatever the valkyrie believes. It’s well within my power. Not, however, without harming those I care about and discarding what remains of my integrity, not to mention calling Naiya down on my head. Congratulations, you mongrel horde of scoundrels and thugs. I have no more assets to wield. It has been eight thousand years of ups and downs, but now as the final reckoning looms over us all, it seems I am finally out of this fight, no matter what I would wish.”

She shrugged, hands still raised.

“So. You have my surrender. May you all choke on it.”

“Well, let me make this easier for you, then,” said Trissiny. “No. You don’t get to stop fighting, you miserable old beast. Form up!”

The assembled fighters began to shift forward, but paused when Elilial cleared her throat loudly, putting on a wry smirk.

“Per the Sisterhood of Avei’s doctrines governing the prosecution of war, any offer of surrender in good faith must be accepted, providing the surrendering party disarms and offers no further violence. A commanding officer who orders an attack upon surrendering enemies is subject to immediate court martial with penalties up to and including execution, circumstances depending. That’s article twelve if you need to look it up, Trissiny.”

“’No one negotiates with demons twice,’” Trissiny quoted back. “Sharai the Hammer, fourth chronicle of the Aveniad.”

“Also,” Gabriel piped up next to her, “’no quarter’ is the standard terms of engagement against demons, both for Sisterhood and every national force.”

Elilial smiled pleasantly. “I’m not a demon.”

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel looked her up and down slowly, grimacing. “You’ll do.”

The goddess’s gaze shifted to the side as if scanning for someone in the crowd, and settled on a point by the far wall, nearer a side door to the sanctuary than the front entrance. “Jonathan Arquin!”

Almost everyone turned in that direction, Gabriel and Natchua rapidly and with shocked expressions.

“Very recently,” Elilial went on, “your son deliberately poked me in the rump. Is this how you raised him to treat women?”

At that, most of the eyes present turned back to Gabriel, who went red and began spluttering.

“I—that was—with my scythe! I wasn’t—I was trying to see if it killed her! If anything I stabbed her in the—”

“In the left cheek,” Elilial said archly. “No one’s aim is that bad, young man. Look at the size of me.”

Ruda burst out laughing.

Over the sound of that, the incongruous notes of a lute being strummed echoed in the vast chamber. Out of the crowd as if he’d been in there from the very beginning sauntered a nondescript-looking man in colorful garments of a style a century out of date, complete with a floppy hat trailing a dyed ostrich feather down his back.

“All right, all right, let’s everybody settle down now,” Vesk said lightly, still producing chords from his lute with languid flicks of his wrist. “I do love me a spot of banter, but there’s a time and a place, after all.”

“You,” Trissiny spat, wheeling Arjen around to glare down at the god of bards. “Get the hell out of here before you cause more trouble. You are barely better than she is!”

“I’d have to look up the particulars of the chain of command, General Avelea, but I’m pretty sure I outrank the hell out of you,” he replied, winking.

“Oh, it’s this guy,” Jacaranda said, buzzing lower to scowl at him. “I don’t like this guy.”

“Nobody likes this guy,” Gabriel agreed.

“Hey, now, that’s just unfair,” Vesk protested. “Bards like me!”

“Ehhhhh.” Teal made a waffling motion with one hand.

“All right, that’s enough byplay.” Suddenly he wasn’t just an oddly-dressed man speaking, but a presence projected through the room with psychic force that commanded instant silence. “An offer of surrender has been made by an avowed enemy of the Pantheon. As no other institution represented here has the prerogative, nor the power, to take a goddess prisoner, it falls to a representative of the Pantheon to negotiate the terms of Elilial’s defeat. Or! I don’t suppose you were planning to surrender unconditionally, Lil?” he added, grinning up at her.

“No one,” the goddess said bitterly, “in all of history, anywhere, has ever enjoyed your sense of humor, Vesk.”

“You know, maybe if you gave your foes a little more credit you wouldn’t be in this situation right now, honey bunch. But fine, straight to business. What terms do you offer?”

Her nostrils flared in annoyance while she glared down at him; Vesk continued to placidly strum major key chords on his lute, meeting her ire with a bland smile. Elilial took several long seconds to consider before answering.

“I offer you three concessions,” she said at last, finally lowering her hands. “A complete cessation of hostilities against the Pantheon and all its agents, by me and all those answerable to me, until after the next ascension cycle. The revelation of my full plans for vengeance against the Pantheon. And…” She hesitated, glancing to one side with a disgruntled frown, then drew in a breath as if steeling herself and redirected her fiery gaze to Vesk. “And…my permanent cessation of hostilities against certain members of the Pantheon who…I will now admit…never wronged me. With my public apology, and acknowledgment of fault.”

A stir had rippled through the crowd at each statement, with the largest at the last, but even so they were quiet little disturbances due to the sheer pressure of divinity pushing all those present into stillness.

Some were more resistant than others.

“This is blithering nonsense,” Trissiny barked.

“I dunno, those sound like pretty tempting terms to me,” Vesk mused. “Better than anyone else has ever gotten out of her, anyway.”

“I mean that we are dealing with the literal personification of cunning who will obviously do anything to get out of the corner she is in! There is no possible scenario in which her word can be trusted. The very minute she’s no longer being stared down by you and all of us, she’ll go right back to what she was doing before!”

Vesk shrugged, still smiling. “Her and what army?”

“You cannot seriously think she needs a standing army to be dangerous,” Gabriel protested.

The god struck a minor chord, followed by a light ascending arpeggio. “Your concerns are heard, and they aren’t invalid.”

“But,” Trissiny said bitterly.

He winked at her. “I am going to invoke divine privilege on this one. She’ll abide by the terms; I will personally guarantee it. If she does not, I will personally be accountable to the rest of the Pantheon. Unlike Elilial, I have no convenient way of evading their attention, and Avei barely needs a reason to kick my ass as it is. Does that satisfy you?”

“What do you think?” she snapped.

“Fair enough,” he chuckled, “let me put it another way: does that meet the threshold whereupon you can acknowledge you’re not going to get anything better?”

“That seems unwise,” Toby interjected, the calm of his voice cutting through the argument. “You are placing yourself in a terribly vulnerable position, dependent on the integrity of someone who famously lacks it.”

“I know what I’m about, son,” Vesk said, grinning. “Appreciate your concern, though. Very well, Lil, if there are no objections, I find your terms—”

“This ascension cycle,” Khadizroth interrupted. “When, and what is it?”

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Gabriel added. “After the cycle is vague, even if we knew when that was. How long after? A century? Five minutes?”

“Explaining the basics of ascension cycles is a necessary component of the second clause,” Elilial answered.

“Okay, sure,” he retorted, “but I assume you won’t do that until we come to terms, which leaves us agreeing to what might as well be a blank timetable. No dice.”

“Boy’s got a point,” Vesk agreed, nodding. “A little disclosure for the sake of establishing terms is going to be necessary, Lily my dear. Now there, Trissiny, you see how you can make actual progress by engaging with the process instead of whining about it?”

“And how much progress can I make by taking that lute away and smashing it over your head?”

He blinked owlishly at her. “None, obviously. What would that accomplish?”

“Won’t know until we try,” she replied, baring her teeth in something that was just barely suggestive enough of a smile to be more unsettling than any simple grimace.

“I see why you look to Sharai for guidance,” Elilial said, folding her arms. “That girl was not right in the head, even for a Hand of Avei.”

“If we’re going to do this, answer the question,” Trissiny said, rounding on her. Arjen swished his tail irritably at the repeated turning, but complied. “When is this thing, exactly? And before anyone agrees to any terms, you need to establish how long afterward this truce will hold.”

“I can’t tell you exactly,” Elilial replied, “because that is not a thing which can be known with any precision.”

“Guess.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes.

“She’s right about that much,” said Vesk. “Ascension cycles aren’t on a precise timetable. But generally speaking? Within the next two years, most likely.”

“Oh, that’s some truce you’re offering,” Trissiny sneered.

“You are a mayfly mistaking your eyeblink of an existence for the scope of the world, girl,” Elilial snarled. “I have labored toward this end for eight. Thousand. Years. You don’t even have a mental frame of reference for such a span of time; the very fact of your own fleeting perspective renders you incapable of considering what I am offering to give up. That I have to abandon all my plans with such a short span left only goes to show—”

“Yes, yeah, it’s very sad for you,” Gabriel said loudly, “but you’re the one surrendering, so either give us mayflies something worth our time or we may as well resume pincushioning your ass.”

“What is it with you and my ass, boy?” she replied, causing him to scowl and flush faintly.

“Since eight thousand years is such a vast period of time,” said Trissiny, “I’m sure you won’t object to one thousand years. You grant a millennium of guaranteed peace after this alignment, during which you make no preparatory activity on the mortal plane for the resumption of hostilities.”

“That’s right, Trissiny, you reach for those stars,” Elilial drawled. “I’ll give you a century, in which I and mine will do whatever the hell I please that isn’t overtly hostile.”

“Yes, forget the second clause,” said Toby, then nodded to Trissiny when she turned a frown on him. “Let her make preparations on earth; if she can only make them in Hell, that millennium will end with a new Hellwar.”

“Hm. Good point,” Trissiny grunted. “Fine. But as for your timetable—”

Vesk struck a triumphant chord. “Done!”

“What? No!” Arjen blew out an annoyed snort as his rider turned them both to glare down at the god. “You can’t just—”

“Can, did, and still outrank you,” he said cheerfully.

“Does anyone else think this is all kind of slapped-together for a world-altering historic moment?” Fross chimed, darting back and forth in the air above them.

“That is how they usually occur,” said Khadizroth. “Pomp and circumstance are added afterward by the historians. Solemn gravity in real time is most often in service of the insignificant self-indulgence of large egos.”

“You’d know,” Flora and Fauna said in unison. The dragon sighed, then nodded his head once.

“We have an accord, then?” Elilial asked, staring at Vesk.

“Wait,” Trissiny urged him. “Think about what you are—”

“We have an accord!” Vesk said, strumming a few upbeat chords.

“Well, at least he thought it over,” she growled. “Is it too much to ask that I be allowed to finish a sentence?”

“Tell me about it,” Elilial said with sympathy that earned only a glare in response.

“Actually, my dear,” Vesk said smoothly, “I believe it is your turn to tell us some things. We have a deal, after all.”

“Her only disincentive for breaking this deal is that you, someone she already hates, get punished,” Trissiny said in open exasperation. “This won’t hold starting the second she’s out of sight, so why give it that long?”

“Oh, Trissiny, always so dramatic,” Elilial chided. “On the contrary. Outstanding business between Vesk and myself notwithstanding, we have reached accord in the past. Recently, in fact.”

“Yes,” said Toby. “We were there.”

She smiled down at him. “And I will repay good faith with the same in kind. Vesk, insufferable creature though he is, held up his end of the bargain, taking you three off the hook. You should thank him for that.”

“Excuse me,” said Gabriel, “but we did all the damn work!”

“In ordinary circumstances,” Elilial said more loudly, and suddenly with the intangible weight of her personality commanding silence for her words, “a god cannot simply be killed. To do it requires severing the personality from the aspect—and for most aspects any god has taken, there is just no practical way to achieve this. Khar perished because he was tied to a land and a people which were annihilated. Sorash perished because he was stupid enough to place an incredibly powerful individual with a domineering personality in a position from which she could personally defeat him, thus suborning his aspect of conquest. These are incredibly rare circumstances, virtually impossible to predict, much less arrange. The more vague the concept, the more untouchable the god. How would you destroy duality? The wild? Art? How could you even drive a wedge between these things and their patron deities? From the beginning, my revenge against the Pantheon was simply outside the realm of possibility… Except during the ascension cycle.

“It is a byproduct of the way the Elder Gods created this world and the space around it, the way they folded the dimensions over each other, blocked off our solar system from the rest of the galaxy, and applied the fields of energy that we know as magic. Every eight thousand years, approximately, these amorphous factors align for a brief window in which it is possible for one with the right knowledge, equipment, and power to change the nature of godhood. That is how we killed the Elders, and how I planned to wipe all gods from existence.”

Her smile was a cold and vicious thing, laced more heavily by far with bitterness than humor.

“That is what I was building toward, the intricate plan of thousands of years that you cretins and your allies have wrecked in the space of less than five. Changing the rules so that no one gets to be a god.”

A short silence hung.

“No one?” Toby asked at last. “Don’t you mean, just the Pantheon…?”

Elilial snorted derisively. “I regretted having to harm Themynra, but in the end, it would have been for the best. Scyllith’s very existence is an ongoing crime which urgently needs to be expunged. Naiya’s existence is doing no one any favors, least of all herself. And I…” She grimaced, shaking her horned head. “I have nothing but a singular purpose to hold me here on this world. With it accomplished, why would I want to linger? You don’t need gods, any of you. Gods are things imposed on populations that would be better off commanding their own destinies.”

“Wait,” Trissiny said quietly, staring up at her through narrowed eyes. “You are…”

“As for the rest,” Elilial went on, still curling her lip in distaste, “I can’t defend everything I’ve done, nor will I try to justify any of it. As agreed, though, I will admit to certain specific wrongdoings in pursuing my vendetta. The circumstances around the end of the Elder War and our ascension were chaotic, confusing; some were swept up in events they never desired to be a part of. Some were gathered into the Pantheon’s aegis whom I condemned, unfairly, just because of that association, when in truth they only remained out of desperation to survive in new circumstances they never wanted and could not understand. It was… In truth, it was unjust of me to punish fellow victims of the Pantheon’s actions. And so, to Naphthene, Ouvis, Ryneas, and Shaath, and any who follow them… I am, honestly, sorry. You should have been on my side; I should have tried to reach out to you. I swear that I will never again strike out against you for wrongs that were not yours. It may be that nothing I say or do will ever be sufficient to make amends, but I… Will try. That is a promise.”

This time, the stunned silence lingered as if no one dared to challenge it.

“The bargain is made, and your part upheld,” Vesk said at last, and for once his tone was suitably solemn for the occasion. He nodded deeply toward Elilial, the feather in his floppy hat bobbing. “At least, that which you can fulfill here and now. For the rest… I will trust you to keep to your word.”

“Why,” Trissiny hissed, and was ignored.

“And so at last,” Vesk continued, “there is peace between us. An end to this ancient war, witnessed by all those gathered here.”

“And so it is known when the next war will begin,” she replied, her tone grim. “But for now and until that time… Peace. You are satisfied?”

“Never more so,” he said, grinning. “Go in peace, old friend. And hey, who knows? Maybe during the next hundred years we’ll all manage to work out our differences for good!”

Elilial sneered. “Ugh. You have always been such a pain in the ass.”

A thunderclap shook the cathedral, momentary darkness and a flash of blinding light causing everyone to look away, many shouting in protest. Just like that, Elilial was gone.

So, they discovered after a few moments of looking around, was Vesk.

“So! That sure just happened, didn’t it?” Principia Locke called out, striding out of the crowd and then stepping forward in front of them, clapping her hands to capture everyone’s focus before the mutter of renewed conversation could get out of control. “All right, even with the demons gone, there’s still a city in crisis out there and while many of us don’t have talents suited toward humanitarian work, many do, and many others will be able to find a use for any working pair of hands. I won’t keep you from it long, except to say one thing: Avei wants adventurers.”

“Ex…cuse me?” Joe Jenkins asked incredulously.

“They times, they are changing,” Principia said, smiling lopsidedly. “With the times, war changes, and with war, the Legions. The Sisterhood of Avei is offering recruitment for any who call themselves adventurers and are willing to fight for Avei’s cause, and live by…an admittedly relaxed version of her precepts.”

“Lady, are you nuts?” Taka called out. “Adventurer guilds haven’t been a thing for a hundred years.”

“A gathering of what can only be called adventurers just beat the single largest demon invasion this world has seen since the Hellwars,” Principia replied. “Just because the Age of Adventures is famously over doesn’t mean a new one can’t start; ages are funny like that. If you just like wandering around by yourself being chased out of towns and side-eyed by police because society has no use for heavily-armed nomadic loners, well, you can go on living that way. What I’m offering it housing, resources, funding, allies, protection, and most importantly, purpose. And one thing to sweeten the deal, which I think will prove very enticing to some of you. Right now, at this one time only, the Sisterhood is offering amnesty. We lack the authority to pardon Imperial crimes, but if you join up with Avei, so long as you toe the line and play by the rules, you’ll receive whatever protection the Sisterhood can grant from any past misdeeds. A clean slate. If you think this opportunity is for you, make your way to the Temple of Avei in Tiraas or the Abbey in Viridill and ask for Lieutenant Locke. They’ll make sure you get to me.”

“Well, that sounds good to me!” said a high-pitched male voice, followed by a giggle, and an elf wearing a somewhat bedraggled pinstriped suit came swaggering to the front of the crowd. “I say, sign me the hell up!”

“You,” Khadizroth said coldly, turning to face him.

“Ah, ah, ah, Mr. K, don’t be like that,” the Jackal chided, wagging a finger in the dragon’s face. “You heard the lady! You of all people should be grateful for the offer of a free pass. Consider me your first convert, Prin my darling!” He turned toward the suddenly blank-faced Principia, grinning and throwing his arms wide. “Why, me and all my most recent group of friends would just love to start over in Avei’s service. Ain’t that right, gang?”

A single beam of pure white light burst out of his forehead, flashing across the room to drill a smoking hole in the marble wall of the sanctuary.

The Jackal’s expression froze in a nearly comical look of puzzlement. He blinked his eyes once, and a strangled gurgle sounded in his throat.

He staggered, slumping to his knees, then toppled over onto one side and lay still.

Directly behind him, Jeremiah Shook slowly slipped his wand back into its holster, then raised both his hands in the air, not otherwise reacting to all the weapons suddenly being leveled at him.

“Now, before anybody gets too excited,” he drawled, “let me just explain that that was the assassin known as the Jackal. He’s the shit who’s been murdering police in this city for the last week, for no reason except he could and he thought it was funny. He was also the last known confederate of Basra Syrinx and the main reason she was able to mislead the Army and what remained of the local cops into attacking the only people who could’ve stopped this whole fucking crisis if they’d been allowed to work together. There are several folks here who can vouch for every part of this. So, with that established, I’ll just pose a question.”

He lowered his hands incrementally, still keeping them up and in view.

“Anybody got a problem with that?”

After a moment’s silence, Joe pushed his way through the crowd, wand up and at the ready. He met Shook’s gaze and held it for a moment, then turned, leveled his wand, and put three more beams through the fallen elf’s head.

The Jackal didn’t so much as twitch.

“Just checkin’,” he said finally, holstering his own wand and turning back to tip his hat at Shook. “I’ve learned you can never be too sure with that guy.”

“No,” said Trissiny, pointedly sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “I should have a problem with that, but goddess help me, I do not. All right, that’s enough drama. We don’t know what the fallout from any of this is going to be, but in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a city practically in ruins out there, and countless people who need our help. Everyone move out.”

The whole group responded to her command, for a wonder. Not without a lot of shuffling and muttering, but everyone turned and began moving toward the door.

Khadizroth the Green paused in his own departure as someone caught and tugged on his sleeve. He turned to meet the eyes of Bishop Darling, who leaned forward and pitched his voice low enough that no one but the elves could have overheard through the muffled hubbub.

“Before we join everybody in doing all the good there is to do out there,” Darling murmured, “how’s about you and I go cause one last piece of trouble that only we can?”

Very slowly, the dragon raised one eyebrow.

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15 – 65

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Both mounted paladins did the best thing they could do in that situation: attack.

Whisper, nimble as a mountain goat, bounded down the steps and Gabriel went right for Kelvreth’s hand, as Khadizroth had instructed. Trissiny, however, went straight forward.

Arjen launched himself off the top of the stairs in a far more powerful leap than it seemed he should have been able to perform, arcing through the air right at Kelvreth’s enormous bulk. Even with his preternatural strength, it didn’t carry him all the way, but at the apex Trissiny leaped free from the saddle, golden wings flaring as she hurtled sword-first right at the gigantic demon’s face.

Kelvreth had already twitched visibly as Gabriel’s scythe raked a gash in his wrist, but clearly one did not become arch-general of Hell without being made of stronger stuff than the average being; even the valkyrie weapon did not destroy him outright, nor even his hand. Instead, Gabriel flung himself from his saddle and, on foot, brought the scythe down in an overhead swing to impale the great clawed hand and nail it right to the pavement below, into which the blade sunk with no apparent resistance.

What Kelvreth thought about this was not immediately clear, as that was also the moment Trissiny landed on his face, driving her sword up to half its length in the spot between his eyes.

The demon emitted a non-verbal bellow of pain that made the very air around them shiver, rearing backward. His eyes were still open, and pouring their maddening effect out onto the world, but with them no longer gazing directly at the group atop the stairs the impact was lessened.

Toby chanced a quick look around at the chaos in which he now stood.

Khadizroth was visibly struggling with the effects, his teeth bared and emerald eyes narrowed in focus, but the dragon stood firm and was casting something which he presumably believed would help. He and Toby were the last two in front of Kuriwa’s hedge; the glimpses Toby could gather through it of what was happening behind were appalling.

The Bishops were still together, Bishop Snowe’s face streaked with blood where she had clawed at her eyes. Darling was thrashing and snarling, being held down by his two elven apprentices, who for some reason were still lucid. They had Guild training in grappling and Darling was too far gone to remember his, but they were still elves and also having to fend off the other thrashing bodies in the vicinity; they looked constantly on the verge of losing their grasp on him.

Evidently the dryads were also immune, to judge by Juniper, who was trying to keep herself physically between Ruda and a huge spirit wolf who clearly wanted to fight each other and was taking physical abuse from both in the process. Fortunately Ruda had lost her rapier, so neither had any power to physically hurt the dryad, but that left Juniper with her hands full trying to protect one person in a mass melee.

The entire plaza was a discordant choir of screams, both of pain and rage, and unhinged laughter. Weapons were being fired—a stray wandshot sparked off Toby’s divine shield even as he glanced around—and the sounds of more mundane violence were borne out by passing glimpses of people struggling through gaps in the hedge. There were bodies on the ground, and already puddles of blood.

Icy mist and sleet pounded down on the whole crowd as Fross tried to pacify them the only way she could. It wasn’t a bad idea, given the effect cold had on living bodies, but in the short term the slickened ground was going to make things even worse. At least Fross apparently shared the fairy immunity to Kelvreth’s power.

All this Toby took in with one sweep of his eyes before turning back to look again at the great demon and his two fellow paladins, just in time to see Kelvreth dislodge Trissiny and toss her aside. He couldn’t see Arjen at all; a leap like that probably would have killed a mortal horse or broken his legs, but at worst Arjen would just return to the divine plane, ready to be re-summoned. Gabriel, concluding that holding the demon’s hand down was not helping, ripped his scythe free and began to hack at it wildly, while Kelvreth ponderously reached for him with the other hand, now that he was done swatting Trissiny away.

Khadizroth grated something in a strained voice that Toby couldn’t quite make out, but at that moment he was in no state to answer the dragon’s orders anyway.

He was about to lose close friends, if he had not already, and this utter smashing of the defenders signaled the probable end of Ninkabi, especially on the heels of the revelation that Elilial did have a plan in play here, and a goal for the city. If ever there was a moment for panic, this was it. And so, having trained in the meditative arts since he could talk, Toby emptied his mind purely by well-practiced instinct. He did not struggle against the emotions that pounded at him, or acknowledge them at all, simply letting them flow by. Because this time, he also knew what was coming next.

And there it came.

The by-now-familiar torrent of power rose, like standing in the middle of a sunrise, as Omnu responded to his paladin’s intense peril with his own direct touch. Toby had lived through this holy nova enough times now to know that it was more than just a wild blast of divine light; it could be sophisticated and subtle, carefully healing some even as it annihilated others, and all the while protecting himself from the normal consequences of channeling that much power. And why not? With the mind and will of a god at work so directly, what would be impossible?

But this time, in addition to knowing the nova well enough not to be taken by surprise, Toby knew a lot more about the nature of gods. He emptied himself of distraction and emotion, but not of will or purpose. As the monks had taught him back home, making himself the bed of a river—immutable and serene even as it channeled incredible currents, not a thing to be struggled against, but providing a shape to the flows of thought and of magic. He opened himself to accept the god’s presence, mindful of what a god was: an imprisoned intelligence, bound by its aspects and by the will of those who believed in it. Especially of that god’s paladin.

And this time, Tobias Caine decided what would be the will of Omnu.

Light poured across the upper part of the city, searing away the infernal effect of Kelvreth’s gaze in its first burst and burning against even that titanic demon. Trissiny, Gabriel, and now Khadizroth were all hacking away at him, though the struggle had been turning against them until Omnu’s direct touch pushed it into a stalemate, Kelvreth clearly weakened and trying to protect himself from the glare while also fending them off. The madness was also burned away from the onlookers, leaving them amid the wreckage they’d just made of themselves and each other.

In a way, it was like a microcosm of magic itself: subjective physics, a vast and intricate mechanism by which one person’s idea was crafted into reality, one sub-atomic reaction at a time. With the direct presence of a god as an intermediary, Toby could both sense the situation around him and direct the power with a sophistication that normally would have been utterly beyond his capabilities.

First, he directed the light to avoid harming any of the fairies present despite Circle effects, which was fiendishly complicated work if you were crafting a spell by hand but quite easy for the mind of a god. It would have been nice if Omnu had shown such consideration for Fross and Juniper back in Puna Dara, though. Toby let that thought drift away; it was unimportant, and resentment was good for exactly nothing.

Then, most important, he healed.

The injuries were already both widespread and considerable, many beyond the ordinary means of medicine either magical or mundane. They were washed away in a second, bodies repaired and bolstered beyond their original state to a condition of maximum possible health. Then, a generous—but not excessive, it would not do to addle anyone—touch of the peace of Omnu upon minds that had just been through trauma enough to scar anyone. They were going to need that peace, starting immediately.

But there were others beyond healing.

Several wolves lay dead, and many others Toby did not know, archers and soldiers and police. There was no spark of life in Longshot McGraw, or November. Or Shaeine.

He breathed, letting the power flow through him in the rhythm of his own breath. In, out, bringing calm, balance. Emotions of an intensity that should have buckled him to his knees floated away, disregarded.

Making himself a bastion of serenity, Toby reached deeper into the power. What could a god not do?

Repairing mortal bodies was simplicity itself, even if the spark had left them. The Light did not restore them in quite the same way in this condition, it required deliberate and specific manipulations of matter, but that was well within Omnu’s power.

He pressed further, finding within the god’s presence all the knowledge he needed to do what he meant to. The dimensional barriers thinned, and Toby was examining, through Omnu’s consciousness, the flows of data that made up magic itself—and beneath them, the more primal morass of numbers and forces that was physical reality. He pulled back from that; what he sought wasn’t quite at that level. People who perished within a transcension field did not instantly or completely cease to exist, for a mind was information, and the field was made to recognize and respond to it. The impressions were still there.

It was just a matter of restoring their connections to the physical shell.

At this, finally, Omnu stirred against him. As always, the god communicated only in vague impressions, feelings. This was too far. Loss must be accepted; death was part of life. This was breaching fundamental truths that even the gods knew to respect. For trespassing on Vidius’s domain in this way, the consequences could be dire.

The anger that welled up rivaled the preceding grief in its intensity. After all Toby had been through trying to understand and form a relationship with his god, usually being brushed off, this was what finally made Omnu talk to him? To try to thwart him when he needed that power the most?

That emotion also flowed away, barely noticed. He had no use for it. The process was, in fact, easier in this state, as he could clinically see the role emotion played in human cognition. Separating one strand of mental activity out from another became as simple as sorting beads by color.

Instead, Toby met the god’s resistance, accepted and embraced it. Made it part of himself, of what he was doing. He was the riverbed; he was the serenity which determined the shape of that power. In perfect calm, without resistance or engagement, he overcame the reluctance of the god and continued right on with what he was doing.

And Omnu, mechanistic old thing that he was, fell silent. In the serene and absolute confidence of his paladin acting in an ascended state of mind, his will became what Toby decided it should be.

This shed some light on what had happened to Shaath, as well as why Naphthene feared and hated the idea of being worshiped, but Toby had no time for such introspection. He was here to work.

With his consciousness thus expanded, he noted two black-winged shapes shouting imprecations at him in Esperanto as they fled from the blaze that now leaked into their space between spaces, seizing the shapes of mortal souls before they could dissipate further.

It had only been seconds, all of this intricacy transpiring in eyeblinks thanks to the entirely different relationship Toby had to time itself while in this state, but seconds mattered. He could see there had been some degradation. Very slight, though. Probably, as they were, they would be fine.

He decided there was no reason to settle for “fine.”

Some of the restoration could be done by gleaning data straight from the transcension fields into which those souls were trying to dissipate, but there were elements that did not yield to such reconstruction. Instead, he had to walk them backward through time itself, just for a few heartbeats.

No Scions of Vemnesthis appeared to chastise him. Evidently they could tell when even they were outmatched.

Gently, in meticulous detail, he re-ignited the biological processes of each body, every chemical reaction in each brain, and stitched every consciousness right back into place, bonded to their mortal forms in exactly the manner they had been previously.

Eyes opened, hearts beat, and breaths were gasped.

Toby finally gave them all a tender but firm dose of Omnu’s peace. They were definitely going to need it.

Less than ten seconds had passed while he unmade the worst the general of Hell could do. Now, Toby was still in the grip of Omnu’s power, and free to deal with Kelvreth directly.

He stepped forward, descending the stairs in a serene glide with his hands folded before him, eyes wide open and blazing with pure divine light. Kelvreth glared down at him.

Toby’s golden gaze met the torrent of unfiltered insanity, and pushed it back.

“Paladins,” Kelvreth growled, and under the overwhelming pressure of Omnu’s presence, all the power had been stolen from his voice; it seemed all he could do to project words. “You wield magic tricks you cannot hope to understand. You do not impress any more than she, Tobias Caine!”

Toby paced slowly to the foot of the stairs and stopped, staring up at Kelvreth. Khadizroth had snared one of the demon’s arms in a thorny vine seemingly made from green light, which was trying to pry it up and loose from its grip on the ground. Trissiny and Gabriel were slashing away at his other. Gradually but surely, the demon’s grasp on this plane was slipping.

“You achieve nothing,” Kelvreth grated at him. “It is the wont of mortals to struggle against inevitability. I have come to bring my Lady’s plans to fruition. You will not—”

“I have come to bring peace.”

Tobias and Omnu spoke as one, and Kelvreth of the Eyes was struck down by the force of it.

With an ephemeral roar of pain, he fully lost his grip, and was immediately pulled deep into the half-stable portal. Still determined to maintain what hold he had on the mortal plane, Kelvreth managed to grab the edges of his summoning circle with the fingertips of one hand, bracing the forearm of the other on the ground even as the rest of him slipped deeper. Only his head and one shoulder still emerged from the portal.

“Can you ward me against being pulled into that portal?” Trissiny asked, striding up to Khadizroth.

The dragon finally looked somewhat disheveled by these exertions, but even under such circumstances his equilibrium was already restoring itself.

“If necessary,” he said, his tone asking a question. “A variant of a craft I know to temporarily bar hellgates should secure you for longer than that portal can sustain itself.”

“Good. Please do so.”

“Even with protection, General, you propose a risk. Is this important?”

“I made a promise,” Trissiny said grimly. “Promises must be kept.”

Khadizroth nodded immediately at that. “Exceedingly true; we are nothing without our honor. Very well, General, proceed and I shall guard you.”

She nodded back in thanks, then strode right toward the circle, breaking into a run as she crossed the last few yards. For the second time, Trissiny leaped forward to land bodily on Kelvreth’s face.

Kelvreth growled, shifting his head and almost knocking her loose. Trissiny planted her boots in the slits that made up his nose, actually grabbing the edge of his eye socket with her free hand for support as he tried to tip her off. At some point she had dropped her shield, but still had her sword in hand and was blazing with enough of power to easily protect her from whatever of his gaze managed to eke out past Omnu’s light.

Examined up close, it was difficult to tell what his eyes were, exactly. They might have been swirling portals, or flat stretches of glowing surface. Even protected by the light of the gods, that intensity of infernally powered pure insanity did not easily yield itself to analysis.

Trissiny let go, rearing back and raising her sword in her right hand. In her left, a second sword appeared, identical in shape to the original but formed out of hardened divine light.

“I warned you,” she stated, and plunged both blades straight into Kelvreth’s eyes.

The demon’s scream seemed to be trying to tear at reality itself, and likely would have been almost as maddening as his gaze if not for the constant pressure of all three Trinity gods having their attention fixed here. Kelvreth tried to toss his head to dislodge his attacker, but Trissiny had immediately twisted her swords inside his eye sockets and was now using them to hold herself in place and hang on despite his efforts.

Whatever magic animated him was incredibly complex, and surely capable of restoring itself—up to a point. That point did not extend to combating Avei’s direct touch. Kelvreth twitched and thrashed involuntarily in addition to his struggles as ancient spells inside him unraveled, the magic animated his dread gaze being permanently seared away one layer at a time, causing an internal torrent of explosions that made him heave in agony. Trissiny snarled at him, clinging on and pouring Avei’s power into his shattered eyes. Already the light of them had given away to smoke.

“You’ll need a new name,” she grated. “Kelvreth the Blind. Now go tell Elilial she’s next!”

He finally relented, raising his hands to try to grab her, and with the loss of his grip, the incomplete summoning collapsed. Kelvreth was sucked straight down into what was suddenly a flat stretch of pavement, vanishing from view and from their plane of existence. The final disintegration of such a powerful summoning produced an explosive shockwave that sent Trissiny hurtling away and bodily knocked down everyone present, even Khadizroth. Everyone except Toby, who did not even close his eyes in the face of it.

Only when the demon’s departure was final did Omnu’s grace begin to recede. Toby closed his eyes, then opened them again with their golden glow gone. It was…heady. Even in the aftermath of riding that towering current of divine power, he felt as if he’d been dosed with coffee, or something stronger.

A hand took his, and he turned to meet Shaeine’s garnet eyes. Heedless of the crowd now approaching them from behind, she wrapped her arms around Toby in a hug. He just held her back.

It was good to be alive.

“Yeah, so,” Ruda’s voice came out of the sea of murmurs now rising, “first question that springs to my mind: why the fuck did none of you wise old ancients warn us about that guy’s fuckin’ eyeballs? I coulda really used some advance fucking notice of that!”

“To my knowledge, that creature has never been on the mortal plane before,” Kuriwa replied, pacing forward to inspect the remnants of the summoning circle. “Everything known about Kelvreth of the Eyes was hearsay brought by demons, which are notoriously unreliable. Even so… His gaze was said to pacify and compel demons, rendering them lucid despite the infernal corruption and forcing them to obey his commands. Kelvreth’s eyes, according to what little I knew, were a leading reason Elilial has been able to turn rabbles of demons into armies. I was not expecting…that.”

“Nor I,” Khadizroth agreed. “Else I most certainly would have given warning.”

“Huh,” Ruda grunted, seeming at least somewhat mollified. She strode up out of he approaching crowd, cocking her head to give the dragon a skeptical look. “So how come you shouted not to look when he opened ‘em?”

“Yes, please forgive me if I gave offense,” Khadizroth replied, bowing to her. “Many long years of experience with adventurers have left me with the habit of shouting obvious common sense.”

“Oh, up yours,” she said without rancor, grinning. Khadizroth, evidently familiar with Punaji, smiled back rather than taking insult.

“Hand of Omnu,” the dragon said, turning to Toby with a more serious expression, “first of all, my deepest thanks. That was a thing the likes of which I have never seen. Can you do that…at will?”

“No,” Toby said immediately. “No, that is not something I can do except in very severe circumstances. And even so… I’m not sure it’s a good idea to exercise that much power even when it’s possible.”

“Look alive, folks,” Joe called, striding forward and pointing at the sky ahead of them. “We seem to’ve gone an’ made ourselves popular.”

Where they had previously been swarming around the distant spire of the cathedral, a large force of flying khelminash warlocks had peeled away and was heading right for them. Evidently, as Joe had pointed out, they took the defeat of their feared general with the utmost seriousness.

“Wait,” Schwartz called out suddenly. “Where’s Trissiny?”


She had likely been out only a few seconds, Trissiny concluded as her vision swam back into focus. Brief unconsciousness aside, she was disoriented; her last clear memory had been of tumbling through the air, and then…

Right now she was slumped against a large wooden desk which had evidently been smashed by the impact of…well, her, apparently. In front of her was a set of double doors, likewise burst open by the blow. Beyond them was a street, and beyond that another wall of buildings, not the square.

Apparently, she’d been launched over a city block and into the next street, where she and her bubble of divine protection had bowled straight into this structure and come to rest here. That was enough of a calamity to have killed even a paladin, had she not at the time been deep in the grip of Avei’s power, both protected behind an invulnerable shield and pumped to the gills with healing magic.

Thank the goddess for survival, but even so, she felt like she’d been beaten all over.

Wincing, Trissiny started to struggling upright, then fell back with a grunt of pain. Instead, she fell back on lessons taught by Professor Ezzaniel, Taowi Sunrunner, and Shaeine. Check for injuries before moving… Shaeine’s instruction in divine diagnosis greatly expedited the process; Trissiny wasn’t yet good enough to sweep others with any great accuracy, but she could scan her own body using the spell.

Nothing was broken, aside from a few cracked ribs. She was bruised…basically all over. Mild concussion. All in all, nothing a little more divine magic wouldn’t fix.

She channeled it slowly and carefully, directing the flows of power to where they were needed and being careful to avoid either divine burnout or mana fatigue. Thanks to Avei’s grace and her elven heritage, neither seemed to be looming close. Good, she could be back in fighting shape in a few minutes. Regrouping with the others was of the utmost importance.

Trissiny stood again, still wincing in pain, but managing this time. It would take a few more minutes to fully heal all this, healing not being her specialty, but with her ribs and skull seen to she could at least stand up and look around. Actually, she appeared to be in some kind of museum. Hopefully all she’d broken was the reception desk and not an exhibit…

Instinct and Avei’s continued attention slammed her divine shield into place at full strength, causing her already-bruised brain a moment of disorientation which cost her dearly. That shield had just withstood a duel with a lord of Hell and a subsequent fall from the sky, but what hit it now smashed it utterly, the backlash snuffing out her divine magic entirely and sending her hurtling ten feet.

Trissiny’s already bruised body impacted a pillar and bounced off; she couldn’t do anything but lay there, stunned and struggling to regain her breath. At least now she could see what had snuck up on her, though.

On one hand she wore a golden gauntlet that glittered with jewels, some cracked, and others spitting intermittent sparks and tiny arcs of arcane energy. In the other she held an Avenic shortsword with an elaborate golden hilt. On her face was the wild, sadistic grin of someone who presently saw no reason to put up a pretense of sanity.

“Why, hello, Trissiny,” Basra Syrinx purred, striding forward and raising her sword. “Oh, you can’t imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”

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15 – 64

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The dazzling glare of the explosion faded, finally revealing the enormous form of Kelvreth of the Eyes.

He seemed to be humanoid in shape, though only his upper body protruded from the great summoning circle below. Even that rose above the buildings flanking the square; had he emerged fully and stood upright, he could have crossed the length of Ninkabi in a handful of strides. The demon was skeletal but not a skeleton, an emaciated figure with iron-like bone protruding here and there where patches of rusty jade colored skin was missing. In some spots, like on his arms, his outer covering seemed entirely gone, leaving just dark bones and strands of greenish tendon holding them together. His chest was thin as if mummified, though seemed almost carved of one piece, with no suggestion of individual ribs revealed by the skin stretched over it. Likewise, his bald head suggested a skull without exactly being one. The great demon’s eyes were shut, the lids oddly clenched as though it took effort to keep them that way. He had two vertical slits for a nose, revealing a flickering green light within as if his skull were full of katzil flame. Kelvreth’s lower face was a single, triangular shape coming to a prominent point at the chin, with no suggestion of a mouth at all.

“It is just a demon,” Trissiny stated, raising her voice enough to be heard by those on the upper plaza but not shouting. “It’s bigger than the others, that’s all. We are a greater threat than Hell came here prepared to face. Stand firm, and charge on my signal.”

Kelvreth moved ponderously slowly, which was probably for the best; given his size, a hasty twitch could have caused untold damage. While lowering the hand with which he’d caught the shatterstone, he raised his skull as if sniffing the air. His other hand remained firmly planted on the ground outside the summoning circle, the position of that arm and his shoulders suggesting he was using it to push himself up and out of the portal.

“He cannot be allowed to fully emerge,” Khadizroth stated. “At all costs, General.”

“Agreed.” Trissiny raised her sword. “Archers—”

Kelvreth had been slowly lifting his other hand again, and now opened it, palm facing them. His lack of a visible mouth did not prevent him from speaking.

“I would parley.”

All of them leaned backward; the demon lord’s voice was projected like a magical force, resonating in the air and, it felt, in their very bones. Those who could conjure divine shields did so, purely by instinct.

Arjen snorted and pawed one heavy hoof against the broken pavement. Trissiny kept her sword pointed at Kelvreth, drawing back her lips in a snarl as she opened her mouth to reply.

Then Gabriel edged Whisper closer to her, and reached out to lightly touch her shoulder.

Trissiny paused, looking over at him, and he silently shifted his eyes for one instant toward the defenders behind them. She glanced back, taking stock.

By the favor of the gods or simply the overwhelming concentration of powerful magic users present, they had avoided taking any fatalities during the preceding battle, but it had not been bloodless. Branwen, Toby, Shaeine, and most of the fae casters were busy healing wounded hunters and wolves, as well as Merry, Ruda, and Grip. No one appeared to need hospitalization but quite a few of their forces were not ready to spring back into a brawl. More people than otherwise were visibly exhausted, though Khadizroth and Shiraki were both directing surreptitious blessings against weariness at people one at a time.

In fact, their numbers were growing rather than the reverse; the nearby civilians had been gathered into the old trading guild hall at one side of the square, where Imperial soldiers and city police were keeping an active presence around the entrances, most of which were also surrounded by drifts of charcoal where demons had been blasted to death. Now, a single squad of troops had marched over to join them, accompanied by a less orderly cluster of Ninkabi police. It wasn’t much, but they were disciplined professionals wielding modern firearms, and made of stern enough stuff that they had stepped forward to fight despite being visibly terrified by the sight of Kelvreth.

Kuriwa was quickly restoring those of her thorn bushes which had been damaged in the battle, and calling forth more; at a glance it was plain she was assembling a defensive line of them across the top of the stairs. Archers, soldiers, and spellcasters were picking themselves up, and half a dozen whispered conversations were taking place as strategies were quickly hammered out.

Trissiny took all this in with a glance, then met Gabriel’s eyes again and nodded once in acknowledgment, whereupon he eased back again. As they were, most of the defenders could still fight, after a fashion, but every second they could buy to get back into fighting order would make a difference. Finally, she lowered her sword.

“Speak, then,” Trissiny called out to the demon lord.

“Where is the Lady Vadrieny?”

“If you have something to say,” she retorted, “you can say it to me.”

“Trissiny Avelea,” Kelvreth said, his voice still like a physical force bearing down on them all. “Already you show more wisdom than most of your elder sisters. I have personal memory of Sharai, who was called the Hammer.” He shifted the upheld hand forward, holding his index finger close enough to reveal that its protruding black claw was broken off, and the edge of its remaining piece deeply marked with a carved symbol that looked like the upper half of an Avenist golden eagle. “Perhaps the only being I have ever encountered who was too stubborn to be manipulated.”

Gabriel grimaced, shaking his head when the demon stopped speaking. “I don’t suppose the term ‘inside voice’ means anything to you?”

“Did you really come all this way to gossip about ancient history?” Trissiny demanded. Arjen snorted again.

“Even if more careful than most, I see a Hand of Avei is still not a creature of patience,” Kelvreth boomed, slowly shifting his skull in a gesture that his closed eyes and lack of mouth made inscrutable. “Very well. I am called here by a desperate plea to the Dark Lady by her Wreath in this realm. They have labored…ineffectually…to prevent this breach. Alongside mortal defenders, is it not so?”

While Kelvreth had been speaking, so had Khadizroth the Green, though in a bare whisper and with his back turned to the demon, seemingly addressing no one as he poured magic from his spread hands to bolster and heal the rapidly organizing defenders. “That is an active summoning, not a portal, and the summoners on this plane are all dead. We needn’t destroy him, simply weaken him enough that he cannot keep holding himself through it. Target his hands. Spread the word.”

Kuriwa, of course, ignored him, being fully occupied with assembling her hedge into a veritable rampart which bristled with thorny vines poised to lash out on one side and blossoms producing puffs of healing pollen on the other. Shiraki, Rainwood, Vannae, Principia, Flora, and Fauna all glanced at him and then spread out, bending close to others to murmur the message. Fross had also been hovering near the dragon, and at his signal zipped over to land on Trissiny’s shoulder, chiming softly.

At Kelvreth’s final word, Khadizroth turned, striding forward through one of the gaps Kuriwa had left in her hedge to stand on Trissiny’s other side from Gabriel.

“The Wreath have indeed been active here,” the dragon informed her. “It was they who first alerted us to the severity of the threat and sought alliance in addressing it. With the Wreath, though, nothing can be assumed. I would not attest that this was not their goal all along.”

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed, nodding to him, “I’ve also cooperated with the Black Wreath. I am well aware how it always ends up.” The dragon gave her the ghost of a smile.

“The Dark Lady does not seek this invasion,” Kelvreth stated. “She does not seek your deaths. The Black Wreath’s incompetence in failing to avert this shall be punished. Now, I and the Lady’s forces have come here to return our kith and kin to where they belong. Our aims coincide. I seek alliance.”

Trissiny drew in a short breath as a hiss.

“Need me to play demon’s advocate, here?” Gabriel murmured.

She shook her head. “No…the benefit is obvious. Everything in me wants to spit in his face, but… You know the effect demons have on me.”

Toby had emerged from the hedge while they spoke, and now stepped up between the other paladins’ mounts, patting Arjen’s shoulder. “We also know you’re in control of yourself, Triss. You worked hard to get that way; don’t discount it.”

“Deliberate as you must,” said Kelvreth, finally planting his other hand on the ground to help hold himself in place. “Time is not on our side, however.”

Trissiny swept her eyes around the skyline of the city as it stretched out before them from the main gates. About a third of the columns of fire which signified an open hellgate had gone dark; clearly the teams she’d sent were still about their work, or at least some of them. Vadrieny and Yngrid were both functionally invincible, and demons would flee from them anyway. In the worst case scenario, they could finish the task alone at the expense of it taking longer. But Ninkabi’s suffering was already obvious. Dozens of plumes of smoke rose in all directions, and the sounds of screams, explosions, and firearms were a distant but constant discordant music. Even once all the gates were shut, there would still be countless demons to round up and put down, and many would escape to spread across N’Jendo. Some would make it beyond; never mind Thakar, who knew what would happen when they got into Athan’Khar?

Barring another direct intervention by a major god, this was already an absolute catastrophe. Could they afford to turn down any help?

“I welcome opinions,” she muttered.

The crow squawked insistently as she descended to stand right in front of Khadizroth.

“I have made bargain with worse monsters than that in the face of lesser disasters,” Kuriwa said, meeting Trissiny’s gaze. “About such dark deals I can tell you this: even when I got exactly what I wanted, I was left to regret it bitterly, for a very long time if not forever. The need is dire, granddaughter, but think carefully about what ends justify what means.”

“Yeah, like she said, we’ve worked with the Wreath,” Gabriel muttered, staring through narrowed eyes at Kelvreth. “They can’t not screw you over, can they?”

“In the worst case scenario,” Khadizroth added softly, “he and his mistress will turn on us at the most inopportune moment they can arrange. That is not baseless conjecture; you know well, General Avelea, that Elilial and her get are noted for doing exactly that. In the best, they will perform faithfully and use the situation to gain a significant foothold in our world. She would never pass up such an opportunity. The goddess of cunning is constrained by her aspect; I am not certain she can refrain from clawing for advantage.”

“If you try to form an alliance with that thing, Trissiny Avelea, you will be remembered as the biggest fool ever to blunder into Avei’s service.”

Gabriel sighed. “Shut up, Ariel.”

“No. I am correct. She doesn’t have to do anything I say, but for such stakes I will give my advice.”

“She’s always at her most annoying when she’s got a point, isn’t she?” Trissiny murmured, half turning her head to chance a split-second glance behind. In just a few minutes, the assembled adventurers and their backup had regrouped, and now a mix of staves, wands, and arrows were being aimed through convenient holes in the hedge, with spellcasters behind them and both wolves and melee fighters standing at the ready in the gaps large enough for a person to walk through. The formation was still assembling; they just needed a few minutes more to get the last fighters healed and bolstered and in position.

It was a defensive posture, she recognized, but it was well-arranged to lay down covering fire while such as paladins, dragons, and dryads lit into Kelvreth.

If it came to that.

“Elilial has repeatedly invaded this plane in force,” Trissiny called to the demon lord. “Your claim that she didn’t direct this latest incursion lacks credibility.”

“My lady acts with purpose, and favors the subtle maneuver,” he replied. “Her invasions were all in the distant past, in a different time. Do you think either world is as it was three thousand years ago? This carnage does nothing to advance the Dark Lady’s plots, and poses risk to them.”

“And as for those plots,” she shot back, “you represent the single least trustworthy individual in existence, monster. Unless you can offer some very compelling reason otherwise, I have to assume you intend to betray and destroy us.”

“Do you?” His tone as not a tone, exactly, as much as it was a force upon the air. It was hard to detect irony, or any emotion. The question might have been sincere.

“That is not a denial.”

“You will believe what you believe, paladin. The question is whether you can afford to fight two foes, when one could have been your ally.”

She clenched her jaw. “Toby, you’re quiet. Not going to advocate for peace?”

“Always,” he said, pressing his own mouth into a bitter line. “Always for peace. And the ugly truth is that peace only exists where it’s enforced. Ideally through subtler and gentler means, but I can’t think of a single one of those that could work here, Triss. Sometimes… Sometimes, you only get peace by silencing those who want war. And he wants war. Even if he’s on our side here and now, helping him will just give credibility and a physical foothold to Elilial. You know what she’ll do with that.”

“This city burns and dies while we dither,” Kelvreth observed, his bony shoulders twisting as he shifted his weight where both hands supported it. The strain was evident in his posture, as if it took constant pressure to keep himself from being sucked back into the other dimension.

“Khelminash are converging on the cathedral site,” Trissiny shouted. “What do they intend to do there?”

There was a momentary pause, the most expressive breach of composure the great demon’s mouthless, eyeless face had betrayed.

“Nothing that will affect you, or our business here.”

“Pretty much tells us what we wanna know, doesn’t it?” Gabriel commented.

She bared her teeth in what was not a smile. “And why would you want to make a pact with us? Your kind always prefer aggression. Unless you’re afraid of the force we represent.”

“You yap at the heels of gods, child. The most ancient among you are but stalks of wheat in a field. You will be a momentary use, or momentary nuisance, to my lady. She has cause to fear nothing.”

“Consider this,” Khadizroth said quietly. “There are two dryads in our ranks, General. In the worst event, if this goes badly enough that Ninkabi is an unsavlageable loss anyway… Elilial is in no way prepared to contend with Naiya in person.”

“I would really prefer not to think about that,” Trissiny muttered, wincing. Naiya’s rage at the loss of one of her daughters could annihilate a city more thoroughly than even demons.

“Think about it,” he urged. “Please don’t aim for that end, but…it is worth being aware of.”

“Eh,” Gabriel said lightly. “I think we can take him.”

“You were right,” Toby added. “He wouldn’t bother talking to us if we weren’t a threat to his plans. And he was also right, Triss: there’s not a lot of time.”

“They are as ready as can be expected,” Kuriwa stated, then fluttered aloft again, winging her way back behind the hedge.

A few more columns of fire had gone out while they talked. That task was underway; once it was done there would only be cleanup. Only two things represented a concentrated threat at this point: Kelvreth himself, and the increasing Elilinist forces converging on the hidden hellgate beneath the Cathedral.

Trissiny raised her chin, and then her voice. “Very well, Kelvreth. If you are truly here to end this invasion, then be advised that the matter is in hand and your assistance is not required. The Tiraan Empire thanks you for the offer, but reminds you that your armed incursion into its territory is not acceptable. In the name of the Pantheon and the Emperor, you and your forces are required to immediately depart this plane of existence. These are the only terms you will be offered.”

“You believe your allies have sufficiently prepared themselves to assault me, then.” It was still impossible to discern humor in his voice itself, but she couldn’t interpret that anyway except with a sardonic touch.

“We have nothing else to discuss, Kelvreth,” she replied. “Go home.”

“Or in Avei’s name, I will face justice?” Again, he raised his hand from the ground, shifting position to brace himself against the other one, to show her his broken, eagle-marked claw. “You do not impress, paladin.”

“No,” she said more quietly, “I guess you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?”

Trissiny urged Arjen forward until he stood at the very edge of the steps, stomping the ground and clearly eager to charge.

“Then how about this?” she called. “In Eserion’s name, take your goons and get the hell off my planet, or I’m gonna fuck you up so bad everyone in Hell will take one look at you and know better than to try this again!”

The short silence following this pronouncement was broken by Grip’s voice from behind the lines. “I taught her that!”

“It matters not. I have delayed you long enough for my Lady’s ends. This farce is no longer necessary.”

And then Kelvreth opened his eyes.

“Don’t look at—” Khadizroth shouted, too late.

They were not eyes, but windows into sheer madness. To meet Kelvreth’s gaze was like staring at the inhabitants of chaos space, like looking into a place where the very rules of reality were so insane and counter to those of the mortal world that simply being aware of them began to peel away layers of the viewer’s sanity.

Even the cavernous sockets in his enormous skull did not contain them. One could not evade Kelvreth’s gaze. Once his eyes were open, they filled the view, filled the sky, filled all of perception, and blasted away all semblance of order.

The three paladins lit up with a furious intensity of divine light, immediately protected by their gods from the psychic onslaught. Khadizroth, Kuriwa, and Shiraki all maintained a semblance of control under the pressure, due to a combination of age, sheer magical strength and familiarity with the emotionally charged nature of fairy craft. All three acted swiftly to propel that calm outward to the others, but it was too late and simply too little.

The carefully rebuilt defensive line of adventurers and soldiers disintegrated within seconds into a massacre as they all turned spells and weapons on one another.

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15 – 62

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The swell of darkness deposited her at the very edge of the plateau, and she immediately dropped to a crouch, grimacing and trying to get her bearings despite the unpleasant prickle of magic. It was everywhere here, the divine and fae—both the schools of power that sought to erase her just by existing.

Xyraadi instinctively wove a net about herself to push back against the forces gnawing at her, igniting a barely visible corona of light in her vicinity. The plateau ahead of her was dotted with old structures that looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Apparently Mortimer had been right; the Order of the Light in this century must be teetering on its last legs if it allowed one of its most sacred sites to look like this. It actually didn’t look as if anyone was here, or had been in decades.

But there was the Great Tree, rising in the near distance from the spot where the Maw itself had once been opened. She had never been here before, obviously, but the Tree had been ancient even in her time, famously grown from a sprig of the World Tree found deep within Naiya’s domain of the Deep Wild. Even at this distance, the wind in its leaves seemed to whisper. Xyraadi had the very distinct impression that the Tree was unhappy to see her here.

“As it ever was,” she murmured, raising her hands with fingers spread to cast a spell circle around herself. “Let’s all kill the nice demon who’s trying to help, can’t let any of the rest of them get the idea they might be able to turn against the Dark Lady. That would be just awful.”

Three concentric rings of light solidified about her at waist level, marked with indicator arrows; they shifted and swayed like the needle of a jostled compass before settling down to point in the general direction of the Tree, helping her home in on what she had come here to find.

“All right, then,” Xyraadi murmured to herself, taking two cautious steps forward.

That was when a streak of orange fire burst upward from behind one of the structures ahead, and she froze. The fireball ascended straight up before spreading her wings and slowing.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi whispered, staring up at the archdemon who was now staring at her. “Why did it have to be that one?”

Vadrieny let out a piercing shriek that echoed from the mountains all around and hurled herself forward in a dive.

“Wait!” Xyraadi shouted, waving her hands overhead. “Truce! I’m a fr—”

She didn’t take the risk of waiting to see whether the force of fire and claws shooting at her planned to break off at the last second, instead shadow-jumping a few feet away. She still felt the hot breeze stirred up by the archdemon’s passing.

Vadrieny banked skillfully on one fiery wingtip, pivoting back around for another pass.

“My name is Xyraadi! I know—”

This time she jumped a good twenty feet distant to evade the next diving attack.

“Would you cut that out?” she exclaimed as Vadrieny recovered and swooped widely around for another pass. “I want to talk! In the name of Avei, truce!”

Arcane magic prickled nearby and by sheer instinct she reached out with one hand and clawed it away.

“Rude!” exclaimed a shrill little voice, followed by a swell of nauseating fae energy and then a barrage of icicles.

Xyraadi melted them before being shredded by their wicked points, shadow-jumped again to evade another swooping attack by Vadrieny, and sourly reflected that this was going about as well as she’d dared hope. On the one hand, her reflexive dismantling of whatever that arcane spell had been might have saved her life, but on the other it probably counterindicated her claims to have come here in peace.

She still couldn’t see who had cast either that or the fae ice spell, either. Nor could she detect any invisibility nearby.

Then a white ball of light darted past, momentarily more visible against an old stone wall than it had been against the daylit sky, and she narrowed her eyes.

A pixie?

“Truce!” she shouted again. “Would you please listen—”

Vadrieny’s screech cut her off, and Xyraadi thought very seriously about just knocking the archdemon out of the sky. She could definitely do that; it wouldn’t even harm her. Damaging a creature like that was beyond her power, but messing up her flight path wouldn’t be difficult. But that would be the unequivocal end of any conversation.

“I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” she shrieked, jumping yet again to evade a wide-area blast of ice. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

Hoofbeats approached with astonishing speed, and she resignedly whirled to face whatever the new threat was.

The new threat looped around her, though, waving his scythe in the air and not at her. Between the scythe, that green coat and especially the shadow-wrought mare on which he rode, Xyraadi had to admit that Gabriel Arquin cut a dashing figure.

“Stop! It’s okay!” he yelled. “She’s a friend, we know her!”

More hoofbeats, and she took the risk of stopping her evasive maneuvers to turn and see. Trissiny’s silver-armored steed was not as fleet or nimble as Gabriel’s, leaving her a few seconds behind.

“This is Xyraadi, we met her over the summer!” Trissiny shouted at the sky, as both paladins guided their mounts closer to hover protectively around her. “She’s a long-standing ally of the Sisterhood.”

“And she saved my butt,” Gabriel added. “Plus all my other parts.”

“Well, okay,” squeaked the tiny ball of light, drifting over to hover near Gabriel. “But she messed up my barrier spell pretty hard. That did not feel good! Have you ever had a a spell you were shaping torn apart mid-invocation? That crap stings!”

“Well, if you were doing magic at her, what do you expect?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“Wait a moment,” Xyraadi exclaimed. “Was that pixie doing arcane magic?”

Then Vadrieny hit the ground right in front of her, talons sinking into the ancient stone with an unsettling crunch. The archdemon folded her arms but not her wings, staring mistrustfully.

“I suppose it really shouldn’t surprise me that you two managed to befriend a khelminash sorceress,” she said, her voice like a choir. “Are you absolutely sure she’s trustworthy? Her people are among my mother’s staunchest allies.”

“She’s earned my trust,” Trissiny said firmly. “Xyraadi, are you all right?”

“I haven’t been incinerated, thank you for asking,” she replied, straightening her robe. “So this has already gone better than I anticipated.”

“I assume something seriously urgent is happening if you came looking for us here, of all places,” Gabriel said, soothingly patting his mount’s neck. The shadow-maned mare was clearly not pleased by Xyraadi’s presence, turning to snort angrily at her with ears laid flat back.

“Yes, exactly,” Xyraadi agreed quickly. “I will explain as much as I can, but we have not the luxury of time. Ninkabi is under severe threat and we urgently need the aid of paladins…” She looked quickly between Vadrieny and the pixie. “…plus whoever else you trust to help.”

More figures were approaching, led by, of all things, an elven woman with black hair wearing bronze Avenic armor. And, to Xyraadi’s surprise, a crow, which lit on the ground nearby and suddenly wasn’t a crow anymore.

“Xyraadi,” she said, tilting her head. “I confess, I never expected to see you again.”

“Kuriwa,” she answered warily. “Still alive, then? Well…good. The more help, the better.”

“Help for Ninkabi,” said the other elf, coming to a stop beside the Crow. “Just out of curiosity, have you been spending any time in Veilgrad recently?”

Xyraadi blinked twice in surprise. “Now, how in the world did you know that?”

Trissiny heaved such a heavy sigh that her armor rasped softly. “Locke, I have a feeling we may be about to break the terms of our field trip and leave the area.”

“I am struggling to contain my astonishment,” Locke answered with a grimace that did not look surprised in the least.

Toby pushed forward out of the gathering crowd, giving Xyraadi a welcoming smile that quickly faded into a more serious expression. “Let’s let her speak, everyone, she took a serious risk by coming here. Xyraadi, how bad is it?”


She set them down in the same nondescript alley where they had originally confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary from Shook, and immediately it was clear that things were already worse than expected.

The first sounds to greet them were screams and wandshots, prompting Hesthri and Jonathan to raise weapons and shift into a triangular formation with their backs against Natchua’s.

“Oh, this is bad,” Natchua muttered, raising her head and narrowing her eyes in concentration. “I can feel… Kheshiri, get a look at the immediate area.”

The succubus shifted to invisibility even as she unfurled her wings, shooting upward and ruffling their clothes with the backdraft.

“No organized resistance near here,” Jonathan muttered, squinting at the mouth of the alley. “I hear staff and wand fire, but just piecemeal. Soldiers would fire in a volley. Natch?”

“There are demons everywhere,” she whispered, her eyes now closed in concentration. “Plus… Fuck. We were right. Multiple open hellgates. Omnu’s breath, there are so many I can’t focus enough to count them. Plus…”

She opened her eyes and turned, the others instinctively pivoting to keep their formation intact. That left all of them looking directly at blank walls, but no one relaxed.

“There’s something big happening in that direction,” Natchua stated. “I think… It’s not a hellgate, exactly, but it’s putting off energy that’s similar enough but distinct. I think someone is trying to summon something. Something large, and powerful.”

Kheshiri popped back into view, hitting the ground just behind them. “This is bad, mistress. This city is under a full-scale invasion. It’s not just randos fleeing from Hell through the gates, either, I saw khelminash in formation on those flying discs of theirs.”

“Flying discs?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Battlefield superiority,” Hesthri murmured. “Three warlocks on a mobile platform, raining spells from above.”

“Plus,” Kheshiri continued, “khaladesh troops, also marching in formation rather than rampaging around. These are Elilinist forces, and they’re organized. But, there are also some of the other kind; just in this area I saw khaladesh fighting with ikthroi and shadowlords.”

“They brought their feuding here?” Natchua breathed. “Oh, no, I do not think so. Well, Kheshiri, seems your big idea about this all being a trick was way off the mark.”

“I maintain my reasoning was sound,” the succubus said, scowling, “but yep, I obviously called that one wrong. Mistress, there is just plain nothing we can do about this mess. No matter how big and bad a warlock you are, this will require organized forces to clean up, lots of them. We need to get out of here.”

“You will shut your mouth and do as you’re told,” Natchua snapped. “Did you get a look at the cathedral?”

“Yes, the spire’s visible from here,” Kheshiri said, her tail lashing in agitation. “That’s going to be an even tougher nut to crack than we thought, because the Dark Lady’s followers had the same idea. The biggest concentrations of them are converging on that area.”

“Typical,” Natchua muttered. “Well… I guess I owe you two yet another apology. After all that, instead of going after Elilial herself… I’m sorry, but I have to do something here. I have to.”

“Natchua, you might just be the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” Hesthri said fondly, looking over her shoulder. “Imagine, apologizing to us for dropping your crazy revenge to protect people.”

“It does seem like a sudden waste of a lot of preparation,” Kheshiri commented.

“Oh, shut up,” all three of them chorused.

“Right, that’s enough standing around,” Natchua added. “Charms on, weapons up. Kheshiri, stay invisible and reconnoiter; kill any demons you have an opportunity to assassinate without risking yourself, but focus on watching our perimeter and bring me any new information that comes up.”

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Kheshiri said sourly, then shot upward and faded out again.

Natchua strode boldly out of the alley into an ongoing firefight, the others flanking her.

Immediately, arcs of lightning flashed across the street in front of her as one woman in a police uniform rapidly retreated, firing her service wand fast enough to risk overheating it. The gnarled, sinewy black shapes of shadowlords already lay smoking on the street, thanks to her and a man with a battlestaff leaning out the door of a nearby pawn shop, but at least a dozen more were still upright and charging forward, their attention grabbed by the show of resistance.

As the trio emerged from their landing alley, a squad of khaladesh demons, graceful and deceptively dainty humanoid figures with clawed feet, thick tails, and curling horns, charged out of a side street and right into the rabble of shadowlords.

Both armed humans, and now a third from a second-story window, continued firing indiscriminately into the ensuing melee, at least until Natchua put a decisive stop to it.

She gestured upward in a lifting motion with both hands, fingers clenched into rigid claws, and an entire forest of bruise-colored energy tendrils sprang out of the very pavement, entangling every brawling demon on the street. Natchua lifted them twenty feet into the air and then slammed the lot back down so hard their bones shattered. The shadow tentacles didn’t stop there, ripping straight through their victims as they vanished back into the ground and leaving them strewn about in pieces, which immediately began to disintegrate into charcoal.

“Holy shit,” exclaimed the policewoman, turning to point her wand at Natchua.

“You need to get people inside,” Natchua barked. “Gather up whoever you can and retreat to a defensible position. Fight only if you must! Demons are pathologically aggressive, and will be drawn to attack anybody who’s violent. Try to hide as many people as you can rescue.”

“Who the hell are you?” the officer shouted back, not lowering her wand.

“The lesser evil,” Natchua said, and turned her back to look down the street in the other direction. “I gather that’s where the cathedral is.”

She could see flying platforms like Hesthri had described, each with three slender figures balanced atop it. They seemed to move in triangular wedges of three platforms each, and dozens were converging on the spire of Ninkabi’s cathedral from the air. Down the street right in front of her, another small company of khaladesh rounded a corner and began moving in their direction. In addition to the khelminash warlocks, the sky was cluttered with the sinuous forms of katzil demons, diving into clusters of buzzing hiszilisks and scorching them to char with gouts of green fire.

“The succubus called it: that’s a much bigger mess to wade into than we were expecting,” Jonathan noted, raising his staff to point at the khaladesh now loping toward them. “Still wanna try for it?”

“Yes…just not yet,” Natchua decided. “It’s not impossible, it’s still the primary target, but we need Xyraadi and the paladins. And the rest of their group; that entire class are serious heavyweights. Let’s hope she can find them quickly.”

She moved her hands in front of her body as if shaping a globe out of clay, and in the space between them a single point of light sparked into being. Natchua abruptly jerked her arms to both sides and it shot forward, bursting alight and casting off beams of white light in all directions as it sped right at the oncoming demons. They tried to break ranks and dodge, but not fast or far enough; it struck the street amid their formation in an explosion that left a crater and seared fragments of khaladesh strewn about the street.

Natchua turned and pointed in the opposite direction. “That way, toward the front gates of the city. See those flying khelminash? I don’t know what they’re trying to conjure up, but I’ll bet putting a stop to it is a good use of our time.”

“We’re right behind you,” Hesthri promised.

They set off up the street at a run, cutting down stray demons with lightning and shadowbolts on their way toward whatever the greater evil was.


Branwen, to the surprise of the rest of them, was the first to step out into the square.

She paused, the others clustering behind her, to take in the scene. Pillars of fire decorated the skyline in ever direction, and from all of them demons were emerging, either swarms of wasp-like hiszilisks or sinuous katzils. There were no other portal altars within view, denying them the sight of whatever land-bound demons were coming out, but even those had already made it into the square.

Ninkabi had been on high alert, which was the only reason the carnage was not a complete massacre. Even the heavier-than-usual police presence was quickly being overwhelmed by ikthroi and shadowlords streaming out of several side streets piecemeal. Fortunately, the two types of demons seemed to pause and attack each other as often as not, but even so, there were already bodies lying on the pavement, and swooping katzils were making it difficult for the police to organize.

Branwen threw out her hand, and a streamer of golden light flew forth, lashing out to wrap around the neck of a passing katzil. It hissed and bucked as she hauled it down to the ground, but stilled upon being drawn into arm’s reach.

“Shhh, shh,” Branwen soothed, actually patting the demon on its beak. She continued to stroke the infernal animal’s scales as the loop of holy magic shifted, forming a collar that hovered about its neck without touching. Then she took one step to the side and gestured again, and her snared katzil shot upward, where it began making wide passes around the front of the historic trading guild hall, where beleaguered officers were trying to herd civilians inside. Bursts of green fire incinerated any other demons trying to get too close.

“Did you ever get around to more than the basic holy summoner training, Antonio?” she asked.

“Not to the point of actually summoning, but I think I remember how that trick goes,” he said, throwing out another tendril of light and seizing a katzil that was in the process of fleeing from Branwen’s thrall. This one struggled more as he reeled it downward. “Vanessa, get out of here.”

“You want to send the warlock away?” Khadizroth asked pointedly.

“Now’s a good time for the Wreath to do what they do,” Darling grunted, still struggling with his quarry. “We’d best stay here and help, but they need to be hunting down and closing those damn gates! Unless you can shadow-jump, K, that’s a job of the highly mobile casters who can sense demon magic directly.”

“You’re right,” Vanessa said bitterly. “I don’t know how much we can do about this, but Embras will have more information. You three… Try not to die.”

Shadows gathered and whisked her away.

“Demons will be drawn to whatever resists them the most fiercely,” Khadizroth stated, striding forward into the square. “The trading hall seems a serviceable place to hide the civilians, as the police have already discovered. Therefore, we shall draw attention elsewhere. Come.”

“Yes, sir,” Darling drawled, finally getting his demon under control. He hadn’t done this since the attack on Tiraas, but the divine spell worked just as well as it had then. Unfortunately, a katzil was about the most potent type of demon he was able to control, and the holy summoner who had instructed him had warned that a skilled warlock or spellcasting demon would be able to disrupt his link, and if he lost control of a thrall it was likely to immediately attack him with near-suicidal rage.

He and Branwen flanked the dragon, directing their katzils to sweep the surrounding area clear of shadowlords and ikthroi, while Khadizroth casually hurled glowing leaf-pods to the ground which caused the spectral shapes of animals to burst into being. Though they looked fragile, they were constructs of pure fae magic, and the stag, bear, and lion he summoned immediately tore into the nearest demons with devastating effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the three of them were drawing more attention. The western edge of the square was a broad flight of steps down to another, lower square on the next level of the city as it descended toward the first waterfalls. Something was clearly happening there; flying discs carrying khelminash sorceresses were moving in a slow circle, their warlocks directing streams of orange spellfire into some working they were creating on the paved area below. They clearly did not welcome the kind of intrusion a dragon and two priests represented, as a whole company of khaladesh demons immediately surged up the stairs and charged at them.

Khadizroth continued calling up spirit animals to harry the miscellaneous demons on the upper square as he led the way further from the trading hall. As he had predicted, most of the demons already up there were now following them.

Unfortunately.

There was a sufficient concentration that even the fae workings he’d left were beginning to vanish; despite being an excellent counter for demons, they clearly were as fragile as they appeared, and the infernal-addled beings now on the attack did not hesitate to throw their lives away piling onto the translucent shapes. The sheer numbers were overwhelming them.

“Not to overwork you, Khaddy,” Darling grated, guiding his katzil to strafe the front line of khelminash closing on them, “but we could use something bigger…”

“Try to buy me time,” the dragon ordered.

They managed to decimate the first line of the attackers with aerial fire before the next rank harpooned both katzils to the ground. Their golden chains flashed out of being upon the demons’ death. Darling and Branwen exchanged a flat look, and both of them lit up with divine shields. All around them, the last four remaining spirit animals trampled the last of the loose ikthroi; their cousins had managed to deplete a good five times their number, but now both sides of the melee were almost exhausted.

Khadizroth was busy drawing a spell circle on the pavement with a leafy branch he had pulled out of nowhere. Branwen planted herself in front of him; Darling drew his wand and fired shot after shot into the khaladesh, which only seemed to make them madder.

A bare three yards before the charging demons piled into the priests’ shields, Khadizroth paused in his work to gesture. Cold wind rose around them, suddenly carrying with it bladelike autumn leaves, and ripped into the phalanx. The fae-driven leaves tore through flesh and armor alike, slaughtering the demons even as the wind bowled them bodily over backward.

In seconds, the entire force was decimated.

“I feel like we’re redundant here,” Darling commented to Branwen.

“You are not,” Khadizroth replied before she could, already back at work on his circle. “Every second I am distracted from this is precious. Damn Kuriwa and her curse, but I cannot work as fast as I should.”

“We’ll be…oh, bollocks,” Branwen cursed uncharacteristically.

The next wave to charge at them was only five demons, but these were a good eight feet tall, writhing masses of tentacles and heavy pincers stomping forward on heavy legs.

“Well, hey, smaller numbers’ll be easier for us to block, as long as the shields hold,” Darling said lightly, shooting one of the things twice. The wandshots slowed it, but that was all. He couldn’t even see its face, if it had one. “I don’t suppose you can command this particular caliber of ugly?”

“Khroshkrids,” she said curtly, “and no. Try to burn that one down before they get here; I think we can stop four with our shields alone. They hit hard but are not very durable.”

Indeed, the fifth wandshot made the targeted khroshkrid stumble to one knee, and two more caused it to slump over, twitching. Unfortunately, even before the rest reached them, another squad of khaladesh topped the stairs at a run.

Darling gritted his teeth, pouring energy into his shield in anticipation of the impact of tentacles and claws. Even with the intermittent pace of reinforcements from the khelminash up ahead, they were soon going to be overwhelmed just by sheer numbers. “K, may need to interrupt you again—”

Of all things, a white wolf dashed past him. Then another, and suddenly there were over a dozen of them swarming forward, great glowing beasts which charged fearlessly at the hulking demons.

“Oh…kaaay,” Darling said, blinking. “I don’t get it, but I’ll take it.”

He had never actually seen wolves take down large prey in the wild, but these clearly fae beasts showed how the power of the pack was more than a match for a moose or bear. They snarled and lunged, distracting and infuriating the demons while others dashed in behind to hamstring and bring them down.

Then one of the wolves about to be trampled flashed white and became a slim young woman with short dark hair, planting herself in a kneeling position with one arm upraised. A divine shield flashed into place around her, as well as a hardlight construct in the shape of an Avenic shield in her grasp. Both shields soaked up the blow of the descending pincer; she didn’t even flinch. It created the opportunity for two more wolves to flank the khroshkrid, savaging its legs to pull it down, and then another wolf flashed as it approached at a run, changing to the shape of a woman with pale green hair who rammed into it with her shoulder.

Under the dryad’s onslaught, the demon was utterly pulverized, its fragments already drying to charcoal as they sprayed the oncoming khaladesh behind.

Then more people were darting past Darling from the city’s open gates, a mixed group of cloaked Rangers and Huntsmen of Shaath, skidding to a halt to draw bows.

The first volley of arrows ripped the oncoming khaladesh apart. By the time they’d fired a second volley, the attackers were done.

One particularly large white wolf loped up, changing to human form as it approached. A form Darling recognized.

“Antonio,” Ingvar said with a grim smile. “I am surprised at how unsurprised I am to find you in the middle of this.”

“I get blamed for everything,” Darling complained. “Ingvar, I’ve got a rousing chorus of ‘what the fuck’ I wanna sing you later, but for now I am just damn glad to see you and all the rest of this…I don’t even wanna know, do I?”

“What exactly is the situation here?” Ingvar asked, turning to scowl at the flying khelminash sorceresses.

Two wood elves, one with a goatee and the other with short black hair, had also approached; the bearded one spoke. “Lord Khadizroth, if we might assist?”

“Please,” the dragon said fervently. Both stepped up beside him, raising hands and adding streams of pure fae energy into the glyphs he was embossing on the pavement.

An arcane sparkle in the air heralded the arrival of an Imperial strike team, led by a mage who took one look at the situation and shouted, “What in shit’s name?!”

“Hellgates,” Branwen reported. “Lots of them.”

“Well, that explains it, all right,” said Tholi. “This looks to be a challenging hunt, Brother.”

Everyone whirled, the various hunters raising weapons, as the shadows swelled out of nowhere right next to them, but what materialized was Vanessa, along with Grip, Thumper, Vannae, Schwartz, Jenell, Flora, and Fauna.

“Omnu’s balls, you were not kidding,” Thumper stated, drawing his wands and staring at the nearby demons. Vannae immediately scurried over to join Khadizroth and the other elves, followed a moment later by Schwartz.

“Young lady, I thought I told you to go find your fellow warlocks,” Darling said severely to Vanessa.

“Luckily for you, old man, you’re not the boss of me,” she replied with a thin smile. “I told you three not to die, and as I expected, you were doing a piss poor job of it. Here are your buddies; try to manage a little longer this time, cos this is all the reinforcements you’re getting.”

She sketched a mocking salute and shadow-jumped out.

“I like her,” Grip remarked. “Prolly gonna end up punching her teeth out before all this is settled, of course.”

“Incoming,” the warlock attached to the strike team reported in a clipped tone. Another phalanx of khaladesh was topping the stairs, this one much larger. Hunters drew arrows again and the four Imperials readied spells.

Before they could attack, the demons were hit from the rear by something which exploded with the force of a mag cannon burst. Khaladesh were hurled into the air like dolls, those who weren’t incinerated outright in the initial impact. Only those at the edges of the formation survived, but as quickly as they regained their footing and tried to turn on their attackers, they were felled by a barrage of staff fire and shadowbolts.

Whatever had dared to skirt their formation finally drew the full attention of the khelminash sorceresses, and one platform broke from the group, the warlocks turning to pelt the area with fireballs.

Their platform was seized by a single giant tentacle of shadow-magic which sprang up from the ground below and yanked it out from under them, then while all three plummeted screaming to the ground, whipped about to smack it against the next in the formation.

While the warlocks were forced to turn and subdue that, three figures dashed up the stairs, hesitating only momentarily before making a beeline for the group assembling around Khadizroth.

“Hold,” Ingvar called, raising one hand. “These don’t smell of enmity.”

“Excuse me, they don’t fuckin’ what?” Thumper demanded.

The drow woman in the lead waved frantically at them as she approached, the staff-carrying man and woman behind her half-turning as they ran to take potshots at the khelminash.

“We have to stop them!” Natchua shouted. “Whatever fairy magic you’re doing here, pour it into the middle of—”

She broke off, whirled, and reached out with both hands, just in time. One of the khelminash trios had just conjured up a carriage-sized ball of fire and hurled it in their direction. Natchua swept her hands to one side, and it veered off course to slam into the unoccupied middle of the upper square.

“What?” Captain Antevid demanded. “What are they trying to do?”

It seemed the khelminash had decided to suspend their operations, though, and most of the flying discs broke off, coming in their direction. A dozen points of multicolored light appeared around them as infernal spells were gathered.

“Khad, now would be a good time!” Darling shouted.

“Yes,” Khadizroth agreed, striding into the center of his meticulously-arranged spell circle while Schwartz and the elves backed hastily away. The dragon stomped one foot upon the spiraling central rune.

Seven tree trunks of luminous white wood sprang from the ground all around him, shooting upward and bending in the middle to twine into a single colossal tree. It shot skyward, branching out in all directions and spreading its canopy over the entire square. Pale green light shone from the white tree’s fern-like leaves, filling the air with a healing, floral scent and the soft sound of whispers.

At the sheer intensity of fae magic which roiled out across the square, the incipient attacks of the warlocks fizzled, the foremost disc wobbling and then careening drunkenly to the ground to crash against an abandoned carriage. The woman with Natchua gasped and buckled to her knees, clutching her chest, and as the drow and Jonathan whirled to catch her, a flickering outline of another person intermittently betrayed itself behind them.

“Hey, is she okay?” Branwen asked, raising one hand. “I can—”

“No!” Natchua and Jonathan shouted in unison.

“That is a demon, wearing an arcane disguise charm,” Khadizroth stated. “Hethelax, I believe. Hello, Kheshiri.”

Shook’s head snapped around. He clenched his fingers on his wands, but pressed his lips together into a line and said nothing.

“Excuse me,” said Schwartz, “but at this point I’d say we’ve worked with enough friendly warlocks—well, maybe not friendly, but clearly allied…”

“Yes, I concur,” Khadizroth said, nodding and raising a hand. Immediately Kheshiri’s outline vanished again and Hesthri straightened up, gasping for breath. “My apologies. We are in no position to turn away any potential allies, I fear. This tree will buy us a moment of sanctuary, but by the same token it makes this spot a target, and I cannot say with certainty how long it will last against a prolonged assault. We must use this time to formulate a plan.”

“Hey, you guys should really see this,” called Jenell, the only one among the growing group clustered under the dragon’s tree who was turned to face Ninkabi’s front gates instead of the beleaguered city beyond them.

Being mounted, Trissiny and Gabriel were the first to arrive, with Vadrieny and Yngrid swooping in above while Fross darted about the paladins. Behind them came the rest of their class at a run, accompanied by Principia and Merry in full armor, lances at the ready.

“As I live and breathe,” Darling cackled. “Hey! I thought you lot were on vacation!”

“Dunno whatcher talkin’ about,” Billie called back, riding on McGraw’s shoulders as their group brought up the rear. “This here’s where the demon invasion is! What the hell did ye think was my idea o’ fun?”

Mary fluttered down to settle on Darling’s shoulder, where she ruffled her feathers and croaked in irritation.

“You said it,” he replied sympathetically.

“Somehow, your Grace, it just ain’t a surprise to find you here,” McGraw drawled. “Really seems like it should be, but it is not.”

“Why do people keep saying that to me?”

“People have met you,” Grip replied.

“General!” Khadizroth called, striding forward out of the group toward the new arrivals, ignoring Juniper and Aspen as they ran squealing right past him to hug.

“Holy shit, is that guy a dragon?” Ruda asked.

“These hellgates are conjured through some highly improvised combination of necromancy and modern enchanting equipment,” Khadizroth said, ignoring her and fixing his attention on Trissiny. “Each is beneath one of those columns of fire. They are numerous, but fragile, and highly unstable. We’ve found that destroying the altars to which they are synced on this plane will cause a backlash that destroys the other side as well. So long as we reach them all before they stabilize and become permanent, we can shut all of this down.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said, nodding to him. “That’s the best news I could hope for. Natchua! Xyraadi says you know something about the source of this?”

“There’s an ancient facility under Ninkabi’s central cathedral,” Natchua called, striding forward through the crowd. “Apparently there’s some kind of sealed hellgate there. We think that’s where the Tide cult that created this mess is concentrated. So do the demons; a lot of them are heading in that direction.”

“Will shutting that down shut all of this down?”

“It is far too late for that,” Khadizroth said gravely. “There are too many gates, and not all under Elilinist control. Before we can even begin cleaning up the demons, every one of these portals must be destroyed.”

“There are both Elilinist demons and various other factions coming through,” Natchua added. “Don’t get me wrong, there are no allies here. They all need to die. But they’re working on culling each other, which helps a little bit.”

“All right,” Trissiny said, turning Arjen to face the city and the stairs down to the lower plaza. “First things first…”

Before she could go further, the assembled flying khelminash began to chant, loudly enough to be clearly audible to those clustered under the tree. They spoke in alternating groups, one syllable each.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Mes dieux, non,” Xyraadi groaned, pressing one hand against her forehead crest.

“Wait a second,” Branwen exclaimed. “They’re not saying—”

The chant rose, the assembled masses of khaladesh demons gathered below the flying sorceresses adding their voices. Around them, a sullen red glow had begun to rise from whatever the warlocks had been crafting upon the square.

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“KEL!”

“VRETH!”

“Kelvreth of the Eyes,” Vadrieny stated. “Elilial’s chief general. One of the greatest demons in existence.”

“Oh, good, that’s all,” said Weaver, deadpan. “For a sec I was worried.”

“ALL RIGHT!” Trissiny roared, raising her sword into the air and projecting above the noise. “I want three groups of highly mobile fighters to destroy those portals! Vadrieny and Yngrid take the north bank, strike team take the central island, Natchua’s group the south bank. You will move as quickly as you can from one portal site to the next. Shut them down, and only fight as much as you must to protect yourselves.

“We do not have the forces to contain the city or even gather up civilians—the best thing we can do is draw attention from them. Demons are compelled to attack anything which attacks them, so you will demand their attention! Hit every infernal thing you see with everything you have. No quarter, no hesitation, and maximum destruction! We will press west till we reach the cathedral, slaughtering every invader in our way, and drawing the rest to face us. The best thing we can do to protect the city is to buy the defenders time by forcing every demon to turn and face the most destructive force here: US.”

A tremendous pulse burst out from the lower plaza, sending a gust of wind and sheer kinetic energy across the city, pushing all of them bodily backward a half-step. The branches and leaves of the dragon’s tree rustled, whispering in protest.

Below them, a single, skeletal arm rose, by itself twenty feet in length, formed seemingly of gigantic iron bones bound together by pulsing green sinews. Its clawed hand came to rest upon the top of the stairs between the plazas, and the assembled demons’ chanting rose to a frantic pitch as they chorused Kelvreth’s name over and over.

“Tall fella, ain’t he?” McGraw said laconically, puffing on a cigarillo.

“Pushing ourselves against that will definitely suffice to gather their attention,” Shaeine observed, her expression eerily serene.

Hunters drew arrows, soldiers and enforcers readied weapons, casters of all four schools began charging spells, and a dozen wolves raised their melodic voices to howl a fierce counterpoint to the demonic chanting.

“We are not going to charge at the warlord of Hell,” Trissiny thundered, drawing her lips back in an animal snarl. She brandished her blade and burst alight, golden wings flaring. “WE GO THROUGH HIM!”

Arjen trumpeted as they galloped forward, and with a combined roar, the assembled forces with her hurled themselves into motion, charging into Ninkabi and straight into the teeth of Hell.

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The darkness receded, leaving them in the more brightly-lit basement storeroom under Branwen’s borrowed townhouse. Immediately, weapons and spells were aimed at them, then just as quickly relaxed when those present saw who had arrived.

“All right, what happened?” Grip demanded in an exasperated tone.

“Now, why would you assume something happened?” Sweet retorted, grinning. “What, can’t six people abruptly shadow-jump in after deciding not to gather everyone here without y’all assuming something’s gone terribly wrong?”

“Well,” Khadizroth said evenly, “if you feel relaxed enough to joke, I gather the situation is not urgent.”

“You’d think that, but no,” Grip snorted. “Apprentice, this is an important piece of Guild lore: sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate to punch the Bishop in the nuts.”

“Basra happened,” Branwen interjected before Sweet could reply. “You know those soldiers she was going to gather and bring to our location? Well, she certainly did that, as we discovered when they began shooting down the door. They had also blocked shadow-jumping somehow; we escaped through a basement tunnel and came back here as soon as we were far enough from the effect for Vanessa to use her magic again. Are you all right?” she added solicitously to the warlock. “If it is anything like teleportation, moving this many people must be tiring.”

Vanessa just curled her lip slightly and stepped away to join Bradshaw against the far wall.

Meesie, for once not on Schwartz’s shoulder, came scampering out of the stone scale model of Ninkabi on which she was setting and arranging tiny glowing seeds, squealing and pointing accusingly at them.

“I trust I don’t need to interpret that?” Schwartz said dryly.

“Kid,” Grip replied in the same tone, “with all respect to your pet fire-mouse, you never need to interpret.”

“You’re both Bishops, which is more than can be said about Basra anymore,” Schwartz said, glancing at Grip but still facing the new arrivals. “It might have taken some doing, but surely you could have explained…”

“And that is why they opened with shooting,” Sweet said with his good cheer undiminished. “Not only do Bran and I have official standing, we’re both quite good at talking our way out of confrontations, and Basra knows this about us. Whatever she told the troops, they were in a ‘shoot first and ask questions never’ kinda mood. Flora and Fauna overheard some chatter about the Wreath. Mighta been awkward if they’d gotten close enough to see Vanessa’s robes.”

“Well,” Schwartz suggested, “maybe that’s an opportunity. If we can get word to the soldiers, and prove she lied, she’ll be vulnerable!”

“She won’t be with them,” Sweet said, ruefully shaking his head. “Remember, thanks to me, Basra is wanted by the Empire. I made damn sure the local authorities were notified of this, since I came here more than half expecting to find myself standing over her smoking corpse explaining it to the cops. No, she’ll have mobilized the Holy Legion and used them to plant a lever under the police and the military.”

“This is my fault,” Jenell whispered, clenching her fists. “If I hadn’t told you to…”

“Now, let’s have none of that, apprentice,” Sweet said, his smile finally fading. “I told you at the time, it’s not your responsibility. This is on me. Hell, I even instructed everybody to kill that twisted bitch on sight, and then I went and let her maneuver us again. I was right the first time, and if we do get a glimpse of her again, go right for the jugular. But for now, this is the situation we’re in.”

“Where is Embras?” Vanessa asked.

“At the secure space,” Bradshaw replied, “seeking to commune with the Dark Lady. Our magical work here is not done, but it is trending in such a direction that Embras thought playing that trump card had become a better use of his time than continuing to work here.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound promising,” Shook muttered.

“Bad, is it?” Sweet asked.

“Worse,” said Khadizroth, finally turning away from Flora and Fauna, who had been staring fixedly at him since their arrival. He made a soothing gesture in Vannae’s direction, prompting the shaman (who had looked like he wanted to charge them) to retreat to a corner of the room opposite the two warlocks. “Our additional avenues of inquiry have not borne fruit yet, but thanks to Mr. Schwartz’s knowledge of new developments in Salyrite practice that even I was not aware of, we have managed to refine the sophistication of our existing divinatory methods. So I cannot tell, exactly, how long it has been going on, but in examining these portal sites through this new lens, we have found that their energy output is rapidly increasing.”

“Not consistently or uniformly,” Schwartz added. “It’s quite fascinating, really! We have been trying to nail down a pattern, in case that might point us to a source, but so far it seems pretty random. We’re working with the idea that something on the other side is probing at them. It’s as if they’re wandering around, looking at all these nascent portals to find which ones will be easiest to pry open.”

“Excuse me,” Shook snapped, “but which part of that doesn’t sound like those fuckers are about to blow?!”

“That was the conclusion to which Mr. Mogul came,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Hence his departure. I begin to share his assessment. At this point, our time might be better spent on urgent damage control rather than investigation.”

“Yeah,” Shook said bitterly, “except the warm bodies we need to fuckin’ do that are out trying to murder our asses instead of looking for demon portals.”

“As to that,” the dragon mused, shifting his attention to Darling, “a thought occurs. Syrinx’s duplicity has, indeed, painted a large target on you—specifically, I should think, upon the Bishops. There are ways to leverage being a target.”

Sweet grinned broadly at him. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, K-man?”

Khadizroth nodded. “For once, Bishop, I believe so.”


“Ready,” Jonathan reported, stepping into the kitchen with Hesthri at his side. “As we’ll ever be, anyhow.”

Natchua smiled at them both even as she looked them over. “Wow. Where’d you get all that stuff?”

Both were carrying lightning weapons; in addition to Jonathan’s personal Army-issue staff which he’d brought from Mathenon, Hesthri had a battlestaff propped over her shoulder and both wore wand belts with, in addition to holstered wands, clipped-on shielding charms and enough extra power crystals for any conceivable firefight. Hesthri’s staff was a bit heavier than his, and looked fancy, with a rich mahogany varnish, a baroque silver-plated clicker mechanism and fanciful engraving around its handholds and butt end, complete with silver inlay.

“Ah, well, you know,” Sherwin answered modestly, “I just figured, they are sort of, if you squint at it sideways, in the employ of House Leduc. At least, I believe my lawyers can make that case in the very unlikely event that the Throne takes issue with me opening my House armory to civilians.”

“Oh,” Hesthri said worriedly, “is that…illegal?”

“Significantly less than you being here at all,” Jonathan said, leaning over to plant a kiss on her forehead plating.

“The reorganization after the Enchanter Wars included a lot of laws about who’s allowed to have what sort of soldiers,” Sherwin said with a shrug. “I can’t say I give a damn, I just try not to draw Sharidan’s attention. That ship may have sailed, though. I see you found enough that’s still in working order, Arquin? Like I said, it’s all been collecting dust for a good fifteen years.”

“Yes, and that took its toll, but fortunately your House armsmaster knew what he was doing, back when there was one,” Jonathan replied. “A lot’s pretty decayed but the only problems with this stuff was drained charges, and luckily there were plenty of power crystals still magnetically sealed. These are some nice shielding charms,” he added, producing another from a belt pouch that looked identical to the ones on his and Hesthri’s belts and tossing it to Natchua. “Not cutting edge anymore, but way better than what we had when I was in the service. Reactive shielding; you prime it by pressing the rune, there, and then it’ll ignite whenever any source of energy gets too close to you. Including kinetic energy, so it’ll block spears and arrows, too. These suckers even work in the rain.”

“Why aren’t they more commonly used, then?” Natchua mused, turning it over in her hands.

“Because even twenty years later they’re still expensive,” he said, grinning. “That’s why they’re so bulky, too; takes not only shielding magic but a detection array and some really sophisticated logic controllers. Intelligence and the Imperial Guard use ‘em, and some of the richer House guards, but they’re not practical for a whole army. Back when these were made they were worth more than a Falconer carriage.”

Sherwin shrugged. “Sounds about right. My family never kept many troops, but those they had always had to be the best of the best. More for showing off than for any actual fighting.”

“I don’t know why you think I need a shielding charm, anyway,” Hesthri said sardonically. “Or have you really gone all this time without noticing I’m a hethelax?”

“And as such,” he said firmly, “you are vulnerable to divine magic. An arcane shield is the best counter to that.”

“Neat!” Kheshiri said brightly from her chair by the fireplace. “Where’s mine?”

Everyone turned to stare at her.

“Logistically speaking,” said Natchua, “you are a spy, not a brawler. If anybody ends up shooting at you at all, you’ve already failed. Are you planning to fail me, Kheshiri?”

“Why, that could never possibly happen, my mistress,” the succubus simpered. The muted amusement pulsing through her aura heightened slightly; evidently she was not truly worried.

The small sound of a throat being cleared interrupted Natchua’s pondering before she could wonder too much about Kheshiri’s motivations. All three of the hobgoblins had just crept into the kitchen; the other two seemed to be trying to hide behind Pizzicato, who herself appeared to be physically trembling. “Uh, so,” she squeaked, then paused to clear her throat again before continuing in a more normal (though still strained) tone, “scuze me if this is, y’know, presumptuous, but… Do we get fancy magic weapons, too?”

Natchua blinked. “What? You aren’t coming. There are likely to be hostile warlocks and demons, and who knows what else. You girls are here to fix the house, I’m not sending you into that bedlam.”

She froze in astonishment as they all rushed forward and embraced her legs from all sides, leaving her standing amid a waist-high hobgoblin huddle.

“Um?” Natchua asked.

Then they broke and scurried back out of the room in a tiny stampede, leaving her staring after them in confusion.

“What the hell was that about?”

“It was about Hell,” Hesthri said, stepping up next to Natchua and sliding an arm about her waist. The drow absently hugged her back, leaning against the demon’s warm frame while she listened. “In any tribe or colony or city-state or whatever that has horogki, whenever there’s a large-scale battle they get sent in first.”

Nathua frowned. “That’s bonkers. I can’t imagine hobgoblins are very effective shock troops.”

Hesthri shook her head. “They’re thought of more like…ammunition. Natch, you are far and away the best boss any of those young ladies ever dreamed they might have.”

“Doesn’t sound like that’s a high bar to clear,” she muttered. “All right…wait, where’s Mel?”

Sherwin cringed. “Oh, ah…yeah. She…asked me to tell you goodbye.”

Natchua instinctively squeezed Hesthri, who squeezed her back. Jonathan stepped over to them and rested a hand comfortingly on her shoulder.

“Just…goodbye?” she asked, forcibly keeping her tone even. “That’s it?”

He nodded. “I’m afraid…yeah. I don’t think she’s one for drawn-out farewells. I gave her an old heirloom of the House, a Wreath shadow-jumping talisman, so she could go whever she wants to be. Sorry if that was presumptuous, Natchua, I just felt… Well, hell, I owed her that much. I’m really gonna miss her,” he added with a dreamy sigh.

“Pathetic,” Kheshiri sneered. “What child of Vanislaas sneaks away right when things are about to get really interesting?”

“Most of them,” Natchua shot back, “and on that note, shut up.”

“I don’t want to make this worse,” Jonathan said quietly, “but we are talking about a succubus now on the loose in the world, with that magic armor you gave her and apparently now a jumper charm as well. That’s gonna be a nightmare for somebody down the line.”

“Melaxyna…is a friend,” Natchua said tightly. Both he and Hesthri squeezed in closer at her tone in silent comfort. “I’m under no illusions about what she is, but Sherwin’s right. I owe her that much.”

“Even though she left you?” Hesthri asked quietly.

“Our pact was very much up front. She was only going to stay with me until I could gather more allies and resources, and she was to be free to get away from any fighting before I launched any kind of attack on Hell’s forces. And now…here you all are, and here we are, heading into exactly that. Mel kept up her end, and even warned me not long ago that she would be leaving soon. She’s played fair. I just…wish I could’ve said goodbye.”

“Right, well,” Sherwin cleared his throat awkwardly. “I didn’t wanna ask, but… I notice you came back missing someone, as well.”

“Yes,” Natchua agreed briskly, gently disentangling her arms from around Jonathan and Hesthri. “Xyraadi is also getting us some help. There aren’t many people out there who even can storm the kind of citadel we may need to, but fortunately she knows just the ones.”

“Who does she know, apart from…” Jonathan trailed off, his eyes widening. “Oh.”


“The good news,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh, “is that they are not in this Last Rock.”

“That is good news,” Mortimer agreed, leaning over to study the diagram wrought in lines of shifting orange light atop the obsidian surface of the scrying table. “They may or may not have mentioned you to Tellwyrn, but even in the best case scenario a khelminash shadow-jumping into the vicinity of her school would be asking for an instant and lethal response.”

“C’est incroyable,” she muttered. “Arachne Tellwyrn, running a school. If I am unlucky enough to see this firsthand I think I will still not believe it. But that brings be directly to the bad news. This site, the location of the great hellgate that caused the Third Hellwar and the blessed tree…”

“The Desolate Gardens?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, dear.”

“I don’t suppose,” Xyraadi said, grimacing, “that this site is, in this century, administered by someone a bit more easygoing than the Order of the Light?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mortimer replied sympathetically. “The Order is not what it was in your day, though. Frankly it’s not much of anything anymore, in terms of its relevance to world events, but it is not dead and still looks after the Desolate Gardens. I believe it is a usually quiet place; they do not station any soldiers there anymore. Likely no more than a few priests.”

She heaved a sigh. “Merde alors. A few priests will be bad enough…”

“You have three paladins who remember and will speak for you, my dear,” he reassured her. “It is a bit outside my own effective radius, but if you will kindly handle the shadow-jumping, I shall be glad to—”

“Mortimer, no,” she said firmly but with a smile, turning to face him and placing a slender hand on his shoulder. “As far as such people as that will be concerned, you are just a warlock, no different from me in terms of telling friend from foe. It makes no sense at all for us both to risk the wrath of the Order. The danger is here, in Ninkabi; a warlock who knows the city as well as you may be exactly what it needs in the very near future.”

“I dislike leaving you to face such a risk on your own,” he said with a grimace, reaching up to pat her fingers. “But you are right. And as I said, if you can find Arquin, Avelea, and Caine, they will vouch for you.”

“Yes, that will be the real challenge, n’est-ce pas? All I have to do is shadow-jump into one of the most sacred places on earth, with a deep and dire history of demonic activity, administered by militant clerics who will attack me on sight with lethal intent and listen to nothing I have to say, and hope I can find the right holy people before being burned to ash.”

The old man closed his eyes, wincing. “I dearly wish I could say that was an overly dramatic assessment…”

“Oh, it is suitably dramatic, yes,” she said, smiling. “But not all bad. Very much like old times, in fact. Ah, I find I have missed the call of adventure! If I do not see you again, Mortimer, know that I have been deeply grateful for your friendship over these last weeks. It has made all the difference in the world to me.”

“And to me, as well,” he replied, smiling. “So let us decide here and now that this is not a goodbye. Whatever befalls, there and here, we have many more interesting conversations ahead of us.”

“It is a date.” The demon leaned forward gently to press a light kiss to his cheek, then stepped back and vanished in a swell of shadows.


They bounded across the landscape like silver gusts of wind, the wolves forming a tight arrowhead formation with their various human companions dashing alongside. Rangers and Huntsmen alike shared space, their numbers mingling without tension and without separating back into their distinct groups. Though they still wore the unique regalia of each order, an unspoken threshold had been crossed in their allegiance. They now followed Ingvar, right into the teeth of an evil for which they did not yet have a name, nor anything but his word that it lay ahead.

Even the Rangers’ animal companions kept up with the impossible pace set by the pack, all of them spurred on by the fae blessings laid over them. Across fields, through forests and over streams, the expanded pack moved faster than a diving falcon. Though they avoided any roads on which they could have proved it, they cleanly outpaced even the newest enchanted carriages; galloping horses could not have kept pace with them. Fae magic could do only so much to speed travel, and it was no shadow-jumping or teleporation, but they would reach their destination far sooner than unaided mortal legs could have achieved, whether those legs came in groups of two or four.

The pack slowed, following Ingvar’s lead, as they reached the apex of a ridge and that destination finally lay before them.

Wolf and human, elf and hound and lynx, they straggled to a halt, staring at the descending landscape ahead. The sea was out of sight in the distance, the river to their left, just beginning to flow deeper into its rocky bed in what would become the plummeting canyons and waterfalls of Ninkabi far ahead. The city itself stood at the very edge of view, its famed spires a jagged monument rising against the afternoon sky.

The wolf in the lead shifted to regard the elf who paced forward to stand next to him, then in a flash of light stood on two legs once more.

“This is a great gift, Elder Shiraki,” Ingvar said, nodding deeply to him.

Shiraki shook his head. “Twas within thee that the power dwelt, young hunter. I serve merely as a guide. Thou needst not my guidance to perform this work again; now that he has seen it done, Rainwood can awaken the blessing of speed, and extend it to thy brethren. With time and practice, mayhap thou canst learn to perform this feat without a shaman’s aid.”

Darkness swelled to their right, and the strike team materialized alongside them on the ridge.

“Dare I hope you’re only coincidentally heading in this general direction?” Captain Antevid asked in an even more sardonic tone than usual. “Because you lot are pointed right at an Imperial city of significant size.”

Ingvar raised his head; he did not sniff the air, though his face stilled in concentration.

“Ninkabi, yes,” he said quietly. “Whatever gathers there is evil of a depth I have never encountered before. It blemishes this land, and threatens the city and wild alike. We will suffer no desecration of this world,” he added, raising his voice. “We hunt!”

Wolves howled in response, and he was lunging forward even as he returned to a four-legged form in a flash of concentrated moonlight. They were off, dashing toward the distant city in league-eating bounds that carried them swiftly from sight.

“They hunt,” Antevid sighed. “Well, then! I guess you get to visit home a little earlier than planned, Lieutenant Agasti.”

Maehe clenched her jaw, then gestured with both hands, raising shadows around the team and whisking them away.


The small group materialized in a dingy space barely reached by the sunlight, strewn with old trash.

“Ah, home sweet home! If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all: filthy alleys, just like mama used to make,” Sweet said, inhaling deeply through his nose. Immediately he coughed and turned to scowl at the necromantic altar attracting flies against one wall. “Phew! That’s new, though. Guess we’re in the right place. Help me out, Vanessa, where are we relative to…anything?”

“The city’s most prominent square isn’t far in that direction,” she said, nodding at the stone wall next to them. “This is the back of the historic merchant guild hall along its north side. It’s the widest open space in Ninkabi, just inside the city’s main gates, and heavily trafficked. If you want attention, it won’t be hard to get from here. If you’re sure you are prepared for what the results of that attention will be,” she added skeptically, panning her eyes across the three of them.

“Our plan does rest upon assumptions not quite proven,” Khadizroth acknowledged, nodding to her. “One, that the soldiers will be wise enough not to attack a dragon on sight, and two, that if they are not so wise, their attempts to do so will be ineffective.”

“And three,” Branwen added, “that Antonio and I can talk some sense into them while they’re taken aback. If these soldiers have been told to look for warlock craft, showing them this should divert their attention.” She directed a displeased look at the reeking altar of bones.

Vanessa shrugged. “Well, your funeral. Just so there’s no ambiguity, if this turns into a shooting match I will be instantly leaving you all here.”

“You’re an absolute dear to be concerned,” Sweet said gallantly, “but don’t you fret on our behalf. Now, I believe we need to ask you for one final favor.”

“Yes, I remember the plan,” she said, stepping back and kneeling, chalk in hand, to begin drawing a summoning circle on the pavement. “I’m going to call up a katzil. That should be sufficient to draw attention.”

“Kind of small, aren’t they?” Branwen asked.

“Oh, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of fellow demonologists,” Vanessa said acidly. “They’re only small when seen from below. Which is often, because they fly and spit green fire. Trust me, a katzil will draw eyes. If there’s already a legion of troopers in the city looking for demons to slay, this’ll bring them running.”

“Stop,” Khadizroth said suddenly, turning from his perusal of the altar to frown at her unfolding diagram.

“I thought we decided time was a factor, here,” Vanessa retorted, continuing to draw.

“Stop!” he repeated, stepping forward and smudging out part of her work with one foot. “Your circle is interacting with—”

A shockwave of heat blasted across them, sending old newspapers fluttering about the alley. A hole opened in the air above the bone altar, a shimmering space of uncertainty that seemed to overlook some fiery abyss. Above that, a single column of wavering fire shot skyward, taller than a minaret.

All three humans backed away, instinctively throwing up arms over their faces against the furnace-like heat, Branwen and Sweet snapping divine shields into place as well. Only Khadizroth stood against the blaze. With a single contemptuous gesture, he sent a torrent of floral-scented wind into the portal with the force of a hammer.

The altar was shattered, pieces spraying across the walls, and instantly the portal snapped shut, the flame and light disappearing.

“It seems,” Khadizroth commented in the ensuing stunned silence, “destroying the altar suffices to snuff out the portal even once it has opened. That makes sense. Hellgates can usually be closed if it is done before they have the chance to stabilize. This suggests that whatever holds them open on the other side is even more fragile than these, otherwise it would have to be closed from both ends. This slapdash infernomancy seems frail enough that the shock of a unilateral disruption does the trick.”

“Good to know,” Sweet said, tilting his head back and pointing. Though the alley’s shape cut off most of their view of the sky, they could see two more columns of fire beyond its ends, directly to the west and east. The distant hubbub of traffic and crowds audible from the other side of the old guild hall had suddenly begun to prominently feature screams. “I’m afraid that information is about to be very pertinent.”

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15 – 60

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The fully detailed model of Ninkabi, from minarets to canyon depths, hovered in the center of Mortimer Agasti’s study, wrought of pale orange light that was too steady to truly resemble fire, though the dozens of points of purple light scattered throughout it did flicker and pulse. At a gesture from Xyraadi, the model began to slowly rotate in place, giving them all a view of the miniature city from every angle.

“Of course,” Xyraadi said after a weighted pause, “I will have to jump to one of these to be sure, but I can find no error in my analysis of the spells. Mortimer?”

“No, your work is perfect,” the old laywer said, slowly shaking his head, eyes fixed on the model. “I understand why you were confused at first; it’s not like any other portal spell I’ve ever seen. Clearly unconventional methods. But ultimately the effect of a dimensional warp is obvious. The only natural parallel is the gravitational field of the earth itself, or the sun. None of these have found a matching indentation on the other side and so can’t bridge the dimensional barrier, yet, but what they are is unmistakeable. Gods be merciful,” he added in a near whisper. “There must be almost forty of them.”

“According to Kheshiri,” said Natchua, “this is most likely the work of a shadow cult called the Tide, surreptitiously orchestrated by Archpope Justinian. She has a theory about what those actually are.”

All three warlocks turned to look at the succubus, who smiled as if pleased by the attention.

“I still don’t think the intention is to open any actual hellgates,” she said. “Mind you, it is just a theory, but I’m confident in my reasoning. Have I ever told you, Mistress, about the Belosiphon affair?”

Agasti straightened up, his eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Did you say Belosiphon?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied with relish, her tail beginning to sway. “In point of fact, his skull. Justinian sent me and the rest of his little adventuring party to retrieve it from its resting place up in the Badlands, and quite deftly manipulated Bishop Darling into doing likewise with a rival team he was financing. There was a lot of guerrilla-style back-and-forth, and though I missed out on the final showdown, I understand it was quite the spectacle. Flattened most of a town.”

“Are you saying the Archpope has his hands on the skull of Belosiphon the Black?” Agasti demanded.

“Oh, yes, but as it turns out, he always did, it was never seriously contested, and that is my point. The damn thing was in Veilgrad the whole time—that was why it had that chaos crisis—and he was just using the oracular portent that business kicked off to test two groups of fighters against each other to see how we performed, possibly thin our numbers a bit, and experiment with how well he could plant information to lead Darling on a mockingjay hunt. That is what Justinian does.”

“You suspect these gates are a ruse,” Agasti said thoughtfully.

She nodded. “Justinian likes to control every detail from behind the scenes. A demon invasion is something he couldn’t possibly control. But the appearance that one might be imminent? I mean, Xyraadi may be an exceptional warlock, but she detected this from the other side of the Empire. Others must have spotted it, not least the Inquisition, who are specifically looking. Having the Tide create a credible threat and manipulating several rival factions to move in and destroy them, and probably ‘accidentally’ erase any trace that could link the Tide directly to him? Now, that would be a classic Justinian plan.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Well. Your reasoning seems consistent, but considering the potential stakes, I am not inclined to dismiss the possibility of at least some of these gates being activated.”

“Especially not at the word of a succubus?” she retorted with a wry smirk.

“Correct,” Agasti replied, unfazed. “Also, a person does not attain and hold a position like Archpope while pulling off the sort of schemes you describe by being predictable. Trust me, I speak as an old man who has avoided the long list of people who’ve wanted to knock me down a peg for a good few decades. Never assume a clever man will continue doing the same things he’s done before. Often enough, the point of establishing a pattern is purely to feint one’s enemies into a misstep.”

“True enough,” she conceded lightly. Natchua glanced sidelong at the succubus, noting the surge of sheer irritation that pulsed through her aura. That particular emotion could be in response to any number of things; without having insight into Kheshiri’s actual thoughts, it didn’t reveal much.

“Then the only obvious course I can see is to shadow-jump to each of these sites and try to destroy the portals, one at a time,” Xyraadi said, frowning. “With so few of us, that may be…impractical.”

“Not least because somebody is skulking about in alleys making these things,” Natchua added. “I’m confident you or I are more than a match for whatever bargain-basement warlockery is at play, here, but getting into a magical fight with any rival infernomancer raises its own risks. I doubt very much that you would be able to talk your way out of being apprehended by cult or Imperial personnel, Xyraadi.”

“By the same token, it’s not as if we can report this to the authorities,” the khelminash replied.

Kheshiri cleared her throat. “Cut off the head, and the serpent dies. I can tell you where Syrinx and my old crew are hiding out. They may have gathered more intelligence in the last couple of days, maybe even on where this group is based.”

“What would you say are the odds of that?” Natchua asked.

The succubus smiled, an expression full of malicious amusement. “Frankly, slim. Syrinx is a cornered animal and the rest are alternately falling apart from internal pressure and busy playing political games between Syrinx and Snowe.”

“If we are willing to risk a fight,” said Xyraadi, “apprehending one of the cultists creating these portals could yield results.”

“Unlikely,” Kheshiri retorted. “The Tide in Tiraas weren’t much for talking. The shadow-jumping leaders were a little more coherent but the lot of them were dosed up with something that kept them almost pathologically focused.”

“Well, we have to do something!” Natchua exclaimed.

Agasti inhaled slowly through his nose, staring at the model of the city with both hands clasped atop the crystal head of his cane. He let out the indrawn breath in a single muffled burst of a sigh.

“There is already a hellgate in Ninkabi.”

All three turned to stare at him.

“Excuse me, did you say in?” Natchua asked. “That can’t— Cities have been abandoned due to having one of those too close, let alone inside the walls!”

“This is a secret of the highest order,” he said solemnly, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “One of those secrets kept in part because it is so old. And that, as it happens, is how I happened upon it. My rather unique career has led me to comb through suppressed and nearly forgotten archives of lore with a particular bent for anything pertaining to infernomancy as it is dealt with in history and law. N’Jendo has a long-abandoned but very interesting historical association with the warlock’s craft that almost no one knows about anymore. But yes, Natchua, this gate is within the city proper—and in fact, is part of the reason there is a city here. You may have noticed that ‘across a pair of canyons’ is an odd and awkward place to build a metropolis.”

“Go on,” she said warily.

“Centuries ago,” Agasti narrated, his gaze growing unfocused, “N’Jendo was a land pressed on all sides by enemies. The orcs regularly attacked in force from Athan’Khar, Tidestriders raided from the coasts, there were constant border skirmishes with the tribes in Thakar, and even the Deep Wild occasionally coughed up some fairy madness. Occasional help came through the passes from Viridill, but the Sisterhood then was also pressured by Athan’Khar and Tar’naris, and even the Tira Valley in those days was a morass of warring city-states that demanded their attention. Our distant ancestors turned to dark bargains and desperate measures to protect themselves. In small ways at first, but as the early, careful warlocks met with some success, they eventually moved on to creating a gate, deep within an island plateau separated from the rest of the land by the river canyons. A fortress-temple complex was erected over it, and then, given its secure location, the local amenities necessary to service something like that. Then teaching and training facilities to which other tribes would send warriors and magicians…” He smiled humorlessly, still staring at the floating model without seeming to really see it. “The actual tribal dialect is long extinct, but in my research I encountered mention that the name Ninkabi originally meant something like ‘necropolis.’”

“City of death,” said Kheshiri. “I like it!”

“Of course you do,” Natchua muttered.

Agasti sighed again, and lifted his head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “Well, I’m sure the full history was very interesting; even the surviving fragments I was able to dig up were quite the ride. But it’s not germane to our concerns, so I’ll summarize, and I suspect you can guess how it goes anyway. The ancient Jendi initially had great success in destroying their enemies; that is the lion’s share of what infernomancy is good for, after all. And then, once it was good and too late, they began to learn the costs. The resolution involved an entire crusade from Viridill, with concurrent missions by the Omnists up in Onkawa. Of course, as you’re aware, an established hellgate cannot simply be closed, and it was decided that trying to seal off and bury the portal would lead to disaster, positioned as it was in a highly defensible position that a demon horde would love to get their claws on. The fortress complex remained inhabited and used, and eventually, the same process occurred; the devastated city was rebuilt in order to provide for its needs. And ultimately, as the secret of what was hidden under it was deliberately suppressed, it evolved into a typical modern city, albeit one with somewhat fanciful architecture owing to its position.”

“I don’t see how something like that could be forgotten, even if established powers tried to make it so,” Xyraadi protested. “Minor hellgates can often be dismissed with a cursory watch, if they are not easily accessible from the other side, but something like what you describe? If factions in Hell knew there was a valuable position on the mortal end they would never cease pressing to retake it. The Sisterhood would practically have to establish a permanent war front around it.”

“In this case,” he said, “the gate itself was…plugged, somehow, by the then Hand of Salyrene. I have not been able to find any record of the method used, and believe me, I looked. Alas, my investigations were hampered by the need not to tip off the Nemitites what I was digging up. In the course of my career I have several times found it necessary not to reveal how much I know; being aware of certain dangerous secrets would give certain entrenched powers the excuse they’ve longed for to land on me. But yes, the gate is…not sealed, I don’t think, but subject to some magical effect that prevents it being a prospect from the other side. Apparently something that required that singularly powerful spellcaster to accomplish, as it hasn’t become standard practice in shutting down hellgates elsewhere. And even so, the site is not buried or abandoned. Its oversight was jointly administered by secretive elements within the Avenist and Salyrite cults. The most recent documentation I found of the gate’s existence was from nearly three hundred years ago, when its administration was handed off to the Universal Church.” He hesitated. “That was when Ninkabi’s central cathedral was built.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Natchua groaned.

Agasti nodded. “Right on top of it.”

“Hmm hm humm hm hmmmm,” Kheshiri murmured, half-stifling a grin by chewing on her lower lip. “You know, just for the sake of argument, if I were going to train and house a super-secret cabal of drugged-up disposable shock troops who know some basic infernomancy, an ancient hidden underground fortress around a secured hellgate would be—”

“Yes, we get it, thank you,” Natchua snapped. “Well, great. That sounds like an incredibly promising lead, but what the hell are we going to do about it? It’s not like any of us can even walk into a Universal Church cathedral, much less root around in its basement looking for a secret and no doubt heavily fortified door to Hell. Something like that would be as close to warlock-proof as anything in the world could possibly be.”

“We are back to needing allies,” said Xyraadi.

“Well, there’s the Inquisition,” said Kheshiri, “but in my opinion that would be a major roll of the dice. Khadizroth and the gang would move on such a facility if they could, but Syrinx is working for Justinian, after all. And I strongly suspect the purpose of putting her in charge of that group is to see how many of them die as a result. I wouldn’t swear she’s actually assigned to do what she claims to be, and I definitely would not assume she’s interested in doing what Justinian wants rather than using him as a cover for her own antics.”

Natchua absently dragged her fingers through her hair, turning away to begin pacing in thought. “Nobody in any position of authority would listen to us. Mortimer, surely you have connections in the government?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “A fellow in my position could never survive without them. But those are strings not easily pulled. It would take some doing to get any action initiated—and more importantly, time.” He turned his eyes back to the model of Ninkabi, with its dozens of incipient hellgate sites flickering angrily. “I hesitate to assume we have enough time. Unfortunately I don’t have a better idea.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know of an ancient secret back way into this hidden fortress?” Kheshiri chirped. Agasti just gave her a sardonic look.

“Merde alors,” Xyraadi said with a heavy sigh. “All right… Natchua, you are either going to like this very much or not in the least little bit. I know just who we can call on for help.”


The safehouse wasn’t much less tense for being less crowded. After Bradshaw had shadow-jumped back to Branwen’s Izarite-supplied borrowed residence with Schwartz, Grip, and Jenell in tow, another Wreath agent had been dispatched to serve as the point of contact with the Eserite holdout. Vanessa was less overtly displeased to be there than Bradshaw had been, but she elevated aloofness to an art form, blithely rebuffing even Branwen’s attempts to strike up a conversation. The warlock simply lounged in the most comfortable chair in the front room of the townhouse, reading a penny dreadful and seemingly ignoring the rest of them.

Flora and Fauna lurked in the same room, ostensibly keeping a surreptitious watch out the front windows but making no real effort to conceal that they were taking turns keeping an eye on Vanessa, who continued to ignore them. Shook paced through the house’s rooms and corridors very much like the caged animal he felt like. Branwen, after striking out with Vanessa, had set herself up in the kitchen and begun baking cookies, of all things, filling the room with soft humming and the clatter of utensils against mixing bowls. Sweet just wandered about with a lot less nervous energy than Shook, making idle chitchat with whoever was nearby and even including Vanessa in some of his jokes. She ignored that, too.

There had been a brief period in the early afternoon when it was quiet in the townhouse, as Sweet and his apprentices had gone to the local Guild headquarters to bring the Underboss up to speed on the situation and Shook had hidden himself in a bedroom, disliking Vanessa’s chilly company and not trusting Branwen to make small talk without adding layers of skillful manipulation which he knew himself ill-equipped to outwit.

Now, though, the tension was beginning to simmer, and neither Branwen’s homey act nor Sweet’s lighthearted banter were doing much to diminish it. Any time they were in proximity, the mutual dislike between Shook, Vanessa, and the two elves was like a tangible weight in the air, not lessened by their refusal to engage in overt backbiting.

It was a combination of desperation and boredom that drove Shook to meander over next to Vanessa’s chair and speak to her. “Can I ask you a question?”

She looked up from her book at him and raised one eyebrow, and already that was not going the way he’d expected. The woman had given Branwen a single snide comment and Sweet a couple of disinterested grunts before ceasing to react to them at all; he had honestly not anticipated any response.

“No,” she said evenly before he could speak again, “I will not retrieve your succubus for you.”

Shook grimaced reflexively at the very unpleasant mix of emotions that idea brought up. Unpleasant not least because a part of him still desperately wanted Kheshiri, and no amount of knowing better and despising his own weakness made that little whining voice shut up.

“That is absolutely the last thing I want, thanks,” he said quickly.

“No, I will not summon you another succubus.”

“I don’t want a fucking succubus!” he exclaimed. “I’m lucky I survived the last one!”

“No,” she drawled, “I will not go to bed with you.”

He paused, closed his eyes for a moment, and deliberately breathed in and out. “Look, lady, if the answer is ‘fuck off, I don’t wanna talk to you,’ that’s fine. Understandable, even. You can just say so, no need to make a production of it.”

She stared at him inscrutably for two more heartbeats, and then, to his surprise, closed her book. “What’s on your mind, Thumper?”

Well, shit, he hadn’t actually thought this conversation would be allowed to happen. Shook straightened his lapels unnecessarily, hating himself for being nervous and awkward like some damn teenage virgin, but having come this far he wasn’t about to compound his weakness by running away.

“Hypothetically,” he said, looking at the front window rather than her face, “as a woman, I mean… If some guy had been, uh, checkin’ you out and you didn’t really appreciate it, would… I mean, if you hadn’t even noticed. Would you feel better if he apologized, or wouldja rather just not know?”

The silence stretched out. A moment later, Shook had to look away from the window because the two elves stationed there had turned to stare incredulously at him. He brought his gaze back to Vanessa’s face, which he found chillingly devoid of expression.

She let the awkwardness hang for another handful of seconds before speaking.

“Are you drunk?”

“I wish,” he muttered. “Sorry to bother you.”

Shook jammed his hands in his pockets and turned to retreat. To his chagrin, Sweet was now in the room, standing just inside the door from the kitchen munching on one of Branwen’s fresh cookies. He was holding another, which he offered as Shook slouched over to join him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting it. Still warm; Shook didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but you couldn’t turn down fresh homemade cookies right out of the oven. “Y’know, talking to women is a lot easier when it doesn’t matter what they think.”

Flora and Fauna both turned to look at him again; he’d kept his voice deliberately low, but they were elves. Shook hid his expression behind a big bite of cookie. It was some kind of citrus and spice confection, surprisingly delicious. He couldn’t decide whether it was incongruous or incredibly appropriate that Branwen Snowe could make great desserts.

Sweet shrugged and swallowed the bite he was chewing. “You do realize where you’re getting tripped up is thinking that talking to women isn’t exactly like talking to everyone else.”

Shook pondered that while chewing. He finally swallowed, then nodded. “Yeah, that tracks. With that in mind, I stand by my observation.”

A faint smile of amusement flickered across Sweet’s mouth. “Still an enforcer at heart.”

“Yup.” Shook nodded slowly, staring at the front door but not really seeing it. “And will be til I die.”

Sweet studied him sidelong, nibbling a bit more of his cookie before speaking again. “Apropos of nothing, Thumper, when you were last hanging out with Khadizroth, did he do any significant magic at you?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, anything,” he said, shrugging. “Just curious.”

“Well…” Shook hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason to dissemble. “There was that night right after I was attacked and lost the reliquary. He used fae magic on me for cleansing, which I figure’s a damn good deal when you’ve been fucked up by warlock shit.”

Vanessa glanced at him sidelong before returning to her book.

“And,” Shook added, frowning in recollection, “I think after that… Yeah, he did a little something to help me sleep. I was pretty worked up, which I think is understandable. K gave me some mojo for calm and rest.”

“I see,” Sweet mused.

Shook frowned at him. “But seriously, why do you ask?”

“Well… When somebody’s had powerful fae magic done at ‘em and then starts showing surprisingly rapid shifts in—”

“Hey, Sweet,” Flora interrupted, turning from the window, “I think we’ve got trouble.”

Sweet immediately straightened and strode across to them; Vanessa set down her book, watching. “What kind of trouble?” the Bishop asked.

Fauna had leaned over to press her ear against the curtained window; Flora took a step away, speaking just quietly enough to be plainly heard. “Large groups of people moving into the buildings opposite us, and both sides of the street out of view of the windows. We figured that was the troops Syrinx was going to bring us… But then, they started talking.”

“It is the troops Syrinx was bringing,” Fauna reported. “Local police, Imperial Army, Holy Legion. She went all out. And…the officers are giving last-minute orders to take this place by force.”

Vanessa shot to her feet, tossing the book aside. “Exactly how much can elves hear?”

“It’s less about what sounds they can detect than how well they can pick out individual noises from the background, especially in a city,” Sweet said, apparently calmly. “You sure, girls?”

“It’s a bit garbled at this distance,” Flora replied. “But…”

“Yeah,” Fauna said, turning from the window to give him a grim look. “We’re sure. They’re primed to storm a Wreath stronghold, specifically.”

“Oh, look,” Branwen said bitterly from the doorway behind him. “Basra helped.”

“Yep,” Sweet chuckled. “That was a bad call on my part. Well, ladies, battle stations, if you please.”

Flora grabbed the fairy lamp fixture by the door and yanked it sideways, causing a loud THUNK to echo through the room as heavy bars hidden in the door frame slid out from above and below into slots in the steel-reinforced door itself, securing it in place. Fauna gave the curtain cord two short tugs and then a carefully measured three-second pull, and a low hum of arcane magic rose in the room, shielding charms in the window frames buzzing to life to reinforce the glass.

A Guild safehouse’s defenses were designed along a “don’t see” philosophy; with the door and window precautions engaged, the fastest way in would be to break down unguarded sections of the walls. Nearly all attackers would waste time trying to force open what were usually the weakest parts of a house’s outer walls.

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sweet,” said Shook. “Your decision made sense at the time. I thought so, and I’m otherwise totally down for the ‘kill Syrinx’ plan.”

“Of course it did,” Branwen said wearily. “This is what she does. In the moment, in that situation, while she was being calm and controlled and her skills were useful, it made perfect sense to let her help. And then this happens.”

“Well, spilled milk,” Sweet said cheerfully. “Vanessa, how many people can you shadow-jump at a time?”

Vanessa was already frowning heavily. “I…can’t, Darling. My shadow-jumping is blocked. That requires some major magical intervention.”

“Why, Basra, you sly minx,” he murmured. “That’s it, I’m definitely killing her next time I have eyes on her, I don’t care if it’s in a room with Justinian himself. But that’s then; this is now! Any measures that block shadow-jumping are pretty targeted, as the large-scale ones like we used in Tiraas a couple years back tend to draw a lot of attention. We just need to get you some distance from this spot. Come along, folks!”

“You want to…hide in the basement?” Vanessa asked warily, even as she trooped along in his wake with everyone else down the kitchen stairs.

“Don’t forget, this is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse!” Sweet replied, still with evident good humor. “Just let me…ah, I believe this is it.”

In the wine cellar, he crossed directly to the far wall, flicked a small fairy lamp on and then back off, and pulled one dusty bottle off a rack.

Immediately, the section of brick wall to which the rack was attached slid backward with a low rumble, leaving a dark gap with another staircase descending into the unknown.

“How did you know that?” Branwen exclaimed. “How much time do you spend in this city, Antonio?”

“Some features are standardized up to a point,” he said, winking. “Come along, down we go. It’ll take them a while to get into the house once they’re ready to move, so we should have a bit of a head start. By the by, on that subject, I don’t suppose any of you happen to hail originally from Ninkabi?”

“Are you serious?” Shook demanded. “Sweet, you’re talkin’ to two elves and the four palest people on this side a’ the mountains.”

“Hey, you never know! We’re all one big happy Empire, after all. I suppose,” he added wryly, “that means none of you happen to know your way around the tunnel system under this city.”

They all stared at him in silence.

From above there came a percussive crash as a lightning weapon was fired at the heavily reinforced front door.

“Welp!” Sweet said brightly, ducking into the tunnel, “I guess this’ll be an adventure.”

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15 – 58

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“Once again, ‘any moment’ is not technically incorrect, but it is overly dramatic,” Bradshaw said with the strained patience of a perfectionist having to continually clarify. “The most accurate description of the situation is that we do not know what the trigger for opening the portals is—yet. I recommend all haste, but not panic. Clearly, something has prevented the portals opening at least this long, and we are working to figure out what.”

“Haste but not panic is the right action in almost any circumstance,” Grip said in a deceptively lazy tone, eyes on the dismantled wand she was cleaning. “Including if, for example, there were twenty-odd demon portals in the city that might open any fucking minute.”

“Grip, play nicely with the other kids,” Sweet reproved. “Bradshaw’s doing us a big solid and these stakes don’t allow for any infighting. What is it you need from us?” he asked the warlock.

“Embras and the dragon simply want to stay in communication,” Bradshaw replied a little less testily. “Khadizroth did mention Mr. Schwartz as a possible assistant in his own efforts. He and the elf seem competent but they are trying to chase multiple leads at once and the aid of another shaman couldn’t hurt.”

“I say, that’s a point,” Schwartz agreed, reaching up to stroke Meesie, who had started squealing in alarm. “Though I’ll admit the prospect of working under a green dragon is both tremendously exciting and rather terrifying.” His familiar bounded onto his head and began gesticulating wildly, keeping up her shrill commentary. “Meesie agrees,” Schwartz added solemnly. “It’s also worth keeping in mind that we have, ah, something of a history. Given what happened last time our paths crossed his…” He trailed off, looking over at Branwen.

“I have found Lord Khadizroth an eminently reasonable being,” she said with a reassuring smile. “He is well aware of what happened that night and bears us no grudge over Ildrin’s actions.”

“Makes sense to keep the finger-wigglers on the same page,” Grip mused. “Well! If that’s how it’s gonna be, I’d like to come along. You, too,” she added to Jenell. “This is an invaluable learning opportunity.”

Jenell opened her mouth, apparently found nothing to say, and shut it. Her tutor grinned wolfishly at her.

“I am of course honored at the opportunity to serve as your personal taxi service,” Bradshaw said in an exceedingly dry tone.

Shook cleared his throat. “For what it’s worth, I agree with the Bishop about Big K bein’ more or less reasonable. He doesn’t flame-broil people who don’t create a need. You, Grip, run a very significant risk of creating a need if you park yourself in a room with him for five minutes.”

She rolled her eyes. “If you can hang around with this dragon without setting him off, Thumper, any actual grown-up with a shred of functional impulse control should be fine.”

He clenched both fists and she grinned again.

“Peace,” Sweet exclaimed. “What did I literally just say about infighting?”

“Right,” Shook agreed, deliberately relaxing and straightening his lapels. “Sorry.”

Sweet gave him a tiny sidelong frown as if perplexed by that, but Schwartz hastily continued the discussion before it could be diverted any further.

“On that note! Just logistically speaking, might it not be best to combine both groups entirely?”

“How about no,” Flora and Fauna chorused. Schwartz turned to them, blinking in surprise, and Meesie sat bolt upright in his hair with her head tilted.

“Actually, the idea has merit,” said Bradshaw. “It is not without issues, though. Syrinx is supposed to be specifically finding Darling and company, and neither Embras nor Khadizroth want her coming at us. Not to tell you your business,” he added directly to Sweet, “but I wouldn’t want her sniffing after you unless you’re accompanied by some heavy-hitters. Also, given the increasing uncertainty and the fact that blithely trusting Syrinx to hold up her end of a deal would be hysterically stupid, it may be a good idea for the two Bishops to try to mobilize whatever there is of their cults in Ninkabi.”

“What exactly are Izarites supposed to do about a possible demon invasion?” Jenell asked scornfully.

“Protect and heal people,” Grip answered. “A priest is a priest, when it comes to demons. There’s value in other talents than yours, apprentice. Do not open your mouth if nothing’s gonna come out of it but ego.”

“So…are you in favor of blending the two groups or not?” Schwartz asked Bradshaw.

The warlock tilted his head from one side to the other in a waffling motion. “Thinking on it, I don’t see how a complete blending is workable. But we may want to reconsider who to station where. And we should definitely try to keep both groups in contact.”

“We are not interested in being under a roof with Khadizroth the Green,” Fauna stated.

“Or Vannae,” added Flora.

The discussion continued, almost immediately veering into argument again and then back, while Shook discreetly wandered around the perimeter for the room to stand next to his own Bishop.

“Sweet,” he murmured, “can you spare a minute for a talk? In private?”

Sweet looked at him, raising his eyebrows, then shrugged. Saying nothing, he straightened up from his slouched pose against the wall and slipped out through the door. Shook fell into step behind him.

They were ensconced in a safe house used by the local Guild, on loan to Sweet for the time being by Ninkabi’s Underboss. While the argument carried on in the sitting room, Sweet led the way through the kitchen and down the short flight of steps beyond into a dusty but surprisingly well-stocked wine cellar, slapping a switch in passing that made a single dim fairy lamp come on.

“Thanks,” Shook muttered once they were both over the threshold. There was no door, but the distance and intervening halls muffled the conversation out front to a bare murmur. “This is… Okay, there’s obviously more important stuff going on, so shut me up as soon as something interesting happens. But while we got a breather I…” He inhaled deeply and self-consciously straightened his suit again. “I wonder if I could… I mean, you are a priest. I just wanna bend your ear in that capacity.”

Sweet leaned back against the wall next to the door and folded his arms, keeping his expression calm. “Well, you know we don’t have much of a confessional tradition, Thumper, but I fancy I’m a pretty decent listener. What’s on your mind?”

He took a few steps to the end of a wine rack, then turned and paced back the other way. The words were hard to dredge up, but he was keenly aware that this was an inopportune time; the clock was ticking, as assuredly was the Bishop’s patience.

“Spending a couple a’ years with Kheshiri around really fucked me up,” he said abruptly, straightening up and making himself look Sweet in the eye. “I’m… Well, she’s gone, and I’m better off, obviously. Been thinkin’ over a lot of stuff as I have time, getting a handle on how bad she screwed me up an’ trying to undo some of the damage. Khadizroth has helped with that.”

“I will just bet he has,” Sweet said mildly.

Thumper heaved a sigh. “I’m not a moron, Sweet. The dragon’s got an agenda, same as anyone, but in his case… Augh, that’s a whole other conversation. It’s just… Okay, well, first things first: you tried to help me out a lot back in the day an’ I pretty much blew you off. I been thinkin’ back on a lot of real good advice I’ve been given by several people, including you. Better late than never, I guess. So, before anything else happens: thanks, Sweet, for trying. And I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

One corner of Sweet’s mouth turned upward and his eyes softened. He nodded once, gravely. “You are welcome.”

“But what I keep comin’ back to,” Shook went on, turning his head to glare at the wall, “is that… Well, that. All that was long before Kheshiri came along and as bad as she screwed with my head, she wasn’t the start of it. I… Sweet, I’ve fucked up a lot. And looking back, I’m not even sure, a hundred percent, how much of everything I thought I knew was bullshit. I’m pretty sure it’s at least some of it. I dunno where to draw the lines. All I’m absolutely confident of is I’ve really fucked up.”

“Why?”

Thumper snapped his eyes back to him; Sweet was still regarding him with the same bland look. “Huh?”

“Why, specifically, have you habitually fucked up?”

He breathed in, slowly, and back out. The reactive surge of anger was not appropriate. It was a good question. Sweet was trying to help, just as he had years ago.

“That, right there,” Thumper said flatly after a moment. “I get too mad and I don’t handle it well. Better’n I used to, but… I, uh, also think… I absorbed a lot of Alan’s views about the world an’ I’m starting to think some of ’em may be kind of…incredibly wrong.”

“I’ll help you out a bit, since this is progress,” Sweet said evenly. “You have a long pattern of blaming everybody but yourself when you fuck up, Thumper.”

He inhaled and exhaled again. Then a second time, suddenly aware that the anger he was feeling was something he’d summoned, subconsciously, because it was easier to deal with than shame. “Yeah, I see that now. Specially the last couple years… I had it worked around in my head how the Guild had turned against me because of Keys’s lies, and… This thing with Justinian, I thought if I could get some results from him… I dunno.”

“Keys’s report from Last Rock was some seriously troubling shit, Thumper,” the priest stated tonelessly. “You wanna offer me some insight on that?”

Thumper looked away from his eyes again, crushingly aware it was simple cowardice and unable to summon up the strength to do better. “Keys…irrespective of anything else, has always been an insufferable piece of shit and you know it. I’m not gonna cop to anything she said until I hear the full details of it.”

“Well, that is not the response of a man who’s done nothing wrong,” Sweet retorted, and Shook just barely managed not to flinch. “So that tells me what I need to know. The fine details are Style’s problem.”

“I’m…I’m trying to do better, Sweet,” he said helplessly. “I’ve fucked up, I know it. I just…I want a chance to make things right, if I can. How do I get outta this, and earn that?”

Sweet’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. Then straightened up, shaking his head. “If that’s where this is going, Thumper, I don’t have time for it.”

Shook felt the betrayal like a stab in his chest. “But—”

“Has it ever once crossed your mind that there are things you just don’t get out of?” Sweet held his stare, and this time he found he actually couldn’t look away. “You crossed a line with her, Thumper. It’s a universal line everybody in every civilization in all of history knows not to cross, and you did it anyway. There is some shit that is just not excused by a bad upbringing. And then you ran instead of facing the consequences like a man. What you’re asking me now is to keep not facing consequences, and whatever progress you’ve made, that shows me it’s not enough.”

Shook finally lowered his eyes, fully occupied by the plummeting feeling inside himself. Sweet wasn’t done, though.

“I always approve of anybody trying to improve themselves, but in your case, the appropriate time for this was a decade ago. And especially before you interpreted an enforcement mandate as an excuse to get handsy with a fellow Guild member. Redemption is for the bards, Thumper. It’s a pretty story device that works well enough for made-up people in imaginary stories, but in real life? Nothing that’s done can be undone. Actions have consequences. Everybody fucks up and we’ve all got blood on our hands; character is measured by how you face responsibility. And you are still trying to duck out of it.

“You wanna man up, finally? You need to make peace with the fact that the consequences of your actions may be extremely final, Thumper. Facing them might not be something you come out the other side of. And you especially need to internalize the fact that this is what you’ve chosen. If you still don’t have the wits to see how you’ve created your own situation, or the guts to take your medicine…”

Sweet shrugged again, and turned to step into the stairwell.

“You can try running again. Gods know it’d be less paperwork for us. I can’t promise how far you’d get, but it might be far enough. There’s big shit going down, Thumper, and everybody has more important things to deal with than you. It’s your call. But if you’re really serious about doing better, then you know what you have to do. If you’ve got it in you.”

He climbed the stairs in silence. Thumper saw his legs hesitate at the top before he finished ascending, and returned to the others.

Shook turned his back to the doorway. His fists were clenched so hard his nails were cutting into his own skin. Breathe. In, out… Calm. Except this time there was no calm there. He was fighting a losing battle with the anger.

No, he realized, not with anger, not anymore. Sweet, with a few piercing sentences, had managed to take even that from him. Nothing Khadizroth had taught him had left him prepared to cope with shame.

The footsteps on the stairs behind him were softer. Oddly, for once in his life, Shook couldn’t find it in himself to care who was creeping up on him from behind.

“I think that was partly the situation talking,” Branwen Snowe murmured, stepping up into his peripheral view. “I have never known Antonio to be deliberately cruel.”

A bitter laugh tore itself from Shook’s throat, and not just because there were obviously things about Antonio she didn’t begin to imagine. “Ah, hell, ain’t his fault he’s right. I mean…well, you know what I mean. I guess you were listening in on most a’ that?”

“I apologize for intruding on your privacy,” she said with evident sincerity, reaching up to rest one hand against his upper arm. Her blue eyes were soulful and kind; in that moment he could almost forget the dozens of tiny signals he’d picked up over the last few days that Snowe was as cunning a creature as Syrinx in her own way. “Priestesses of my faith experience the emotions of others much the way you do smells in the air. Except I can’t just hold my nose, so to speak. It’s impossibly difficult to be around someone who is in as much pain as you are and not try to do something about it.”

For whatever reason, the conversation was helping. Maybe it just gave him something other than his own inadequacy on which to focus. Shook ran through another breathing exercise, then unconsciously smoothed a hand over his hair. “Yeah, well. Thanks for your concern, Bishop, but I figure I’m all confessed out for the time being. ‘less you have a wildly different interpretation than Sweet did…”

Still gazing up at him, she shook her head slowly. “I’m not going to contradict anything he said. Ironically, an Avenist would have told you much the same; I’ve always been amused by how similar your two faiths are beneath the surface. I do have my own set of biases, though, Mr. Shook. I’m an Izarite.” She laughed softly. “Not a very good one, but still.”

At that, he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Whaddaya mean, not good? How come they made you the Bishop, then?”

“There’s a reason the Brethren don’t much care for politics,” she said softly. “Izara’s way is to do what good you can, right where you are, for whoever you can immediately reach. Me? I have always been a…big picture person. I believe deeply in the power of love, in how much the world needs more of it. I’ve never been able to content myself with the needs of the moment, though.”

She smiled, an expression so warm and caring he actually found himself believing it. Her small fingers gently squeezed his bicep. “I think, Mr. Shook, you might be an authentically bad person.”

It was truly amazing how much that actually hurt.

“I don’t say that lightly, or about many people,” she went on seriously. “Antonio was not wrong, about responsibility and justice. But I can’t make myself think that is the most important thing. However flawed you are, Jeremiah… I believe you are becoming aware of that, and earnestly trying to do better. And to me, that is what’s important. It’s not my prerogative to speak for anyone you may have hurt. In the big picture, though, I consider the good a person can go on to do more valuable than any punishment that can be levied against them.”

She closed her eyes, shook her head slightly, and let out a tiny huff that was just a shadow of a rueful laugh. “The Guild, the Sisterhood…not many will see it the way I do. But I hope that’s worth something to you, at least.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Calm was a choice. Surprisingly, he found it more within his grasp now.

Gently, he removed her hand from his arm and stepped back. “Right. Cos I’ve got all these forces circling that’ll take me down, but maybe with you I can still be spared, is that it?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“Look, your Grace, I already know you’re smarter than you like to appear. I also know you’re hard enough to come all the way out here to try to kill a former colleague of yours. None of that’s a criticism, mind you, because frankly I think it’s a goddamn shame we still haven’t managed to put a knife in Syrinx’s eye. But enforcement is as much about drama and manipulation as force. More so.” He gave her a humorless little smile, noting how blank her face had gone. “Due credit, it was a good recruitment pitch. An’ cos I like you, I’ll offer some free advice: don’t try that again on another Eserite enforcer. They’ll all see through it, an’ some’ll take offense.”

Thumper took a step back from her and inclined his upper body in a shallow bow.

“You really are more than meets the eye,” she said with a rueful smile. Gods, she was still doing it.

“I thank you for the kind words, Bishop. Dunno how sincere they were, but it helps nonetheless.”

Again, that gentle expression. “If I wanted to lie to you, Jeremiah, I would have spared your feelings.”

“Well, then.” He nodded, and turned to head for the stairs. “Best get back, there ain’t much time for screwin’ around.”

Thumper kept his gaze fixed straight ahead as he climbed back up into the kitchen and turned toward the living room and the still-ongoing argument therein. A thought had just occurred which put a little of the steel back into his step.

Unless they all had some very good luck very soon, this city was likely to shortly be filled with a thousand screaming, hell-crazed reasons not to have to go back to the Guild and grovel for Keys, Style, and Tricks. He was aware this was still a cowardly way of thinking, but it was cowardice he could meet with a wand in hand and blood under his nails, and right at that moment, that sounded like a compromise he could accept.

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