Tag Archives: Natchua

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Everyone immediately adopted a combative stance—which in Sherwin’s case, meant fleeing around the corner of the building. The rest of them readied spells, weapons, and shields, both succubi vanishing from sight.

“Oh, please.”

The goddess’s voice was derision itself; she made a single, languid flicking motion with one forefinger. Natchua and Xyraadi’s conjured infernal spells were instantly snuffed out, Jonathan and Hesthri’s arcane weapons and shield charms simply vanished from existence, and Melaxyna and Kheshiri both popped right back into view, looking stunned as if they’d each just been punched between the eyes.

“My armistice is with the Pantheon, governing my relations to them and their followers,” Elilial lectured. “It is worth keeping in mind that you assholes don’t work for any god or cult. I can do whatever I like with you, and no one will be able to call me oathbreaker.”

Natchua drew power for a catastrophic burst of pure destruction which surely would have caved in half the house, had Elilial not effortlessly neutralized it before it could form properly.

“By the same token,” she went on, “I should think it clear by now that you’d all be well and truly suffering if I’d come here for revenge. When I said I wanted a word with you, Natchua, that wasn’t a coy euphemism. It is time—past time—for you and I to have a polite conversation. In private.”

“You’re not taking her anywhere,” Jonathan grated, stepping in front of her.

“You’re sweet, Arquin,” Elilial said condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring her right back.”

Before he or Natchua could say anything else, their whole surroundings changed.

Natchua spun in a circle, conjuring a nascent shadowbolt, but just held it for the moment; this time, the goddess didn’t interfere. She was now alone with Elilial, which was of course her most immediate concern.

“What have you done with—”

“Absolutely nothing,” the horned goddess said with a vague little smile of amusement. “They’re standing right where they were, freaking out about you. It’s we who’ve moved. Welcome to the grand entrance hall of Leduc Manor!”

It was definitely the entryway of a wealthy house in an Imperial style; Natchua had only ever seen it with the ceiling, floor, and most of the walls collapsed, but with the resemblance pointed out she could see the familiar shapes of its boundaries, windows, and the grand staircase sweeping up to a second-floor landing. This place was fabulously rich, draped with heavy velvet curtains, exquisite paintings, ornately embroidered carpets strategically placed upon the polished hardwood floor and marble busts of various members of the House. Being used to Leduc Manor in its current state, it was easy to forget that House Leduc had once had a great deal of money. Actually, still did; it was just that Sherwin didn’t care enough about anything to maintain his home.

“As it was, of course,” Elilial mused, her hooves clopping on the floorboards as she paced slowly across the hall, inspecting the furnishings. “Don’t worry, we have not traveled in time. The last thing I need after this day’s work is Vemnesthis climbing up my ass. He just might be the worst of the lot, but at least he’s never interfered with me personally, and that’s how I prefer it. No, this is…a little space all our own, where we won’t be interrupted.”

From which there would be no escape, she did not have to add. Natchua slowly straightened from her battle-ready crouch and let the shadowbolt fizzle.

“Well, fine then, here we are. Spit it out.”

Elilial was studying a painting of a supercilious-looking human of Stalweiss stock, her back to her guest. “I’m not sure how much Arachne understands about the nature of gods, but I know there are important things she’s not told you. You know, when we killed off the Elder Bastards, we weren’t even trying to become gods? Well, most of us, anyway; I have my suspicions about Vidius. The thing was done by changing the rules of godhood itself. Adding new limits and boundaries which the Elders were already well outside, and rendering them suddenly unable to exist. I told you and the rest of those anachronisms about the importance of aspects today.”

She finally turned around, favoring Natchua with a bland little smile. Natchua just stared icily back.

“It is also true, and this is the part they’ve really worked to keep quiet, that gods are influenced by the consciousness of anyone who draws on them for power. A single worshiper channeling divine magic won’t make any impression on a deity during their lifetime, but a whole society? That’s another matter. We tend to…drift. Change, evolve, subject to the beliefs of those who believe in us.”

Natchua frowned slightly in thought, beginning to be interested in spite of herself.

“Of course,” Elilial continued, “there’s an important counter to this effect which is necessary for us to retain some hold on who we are: paladins. Individuals imbued with a potent spark of a god’s essence have a much more significant impact on us. By choosing paladins with care, we avoid the subtle influence of the masses.”

“Most gods don’t even have paladins,” Natchua objected. “Themynra doesn’t. Vidius only just started… Salyrene hasn’t in a century.”

“Avei, Omnu, and Salyrene call their mortal anchors ‘paladins’ and send them out to be front-and-center in world events, yes. I promise you, though, every god who still exists and hasn’t gone utterly mad or been twisted beyond recognition has done so by having someone in whom they’ve entrusted a fraction of their identity. The ones who keep the details secret are probably smarter. Smarter than I was, anyway.” She turned back toward the side of the chamber, now staring sightlessly at the window. “Mine… Mine were my daughters.”

Natchua drew a deep breath slowly, connecting those dots.

“So perhaps you better understand the state I was in,” Elilial said after a pause. “My anchors slain, except for one whose memories were wiped away, attached to a blundering quasi-pacifist and developing a severe resentment toward me. My core believers, first whittled down to a fraction of their former strength during a years-long process that put them under constant tension and terror, and then finally cast into a place where I could feel no connection to them at all. You have never known me as…myself. Just a shamefully fumbling thing, deprived of most of what made me who I am, not yet aware how defeated I already was, awkwardly careening toward an inevitable catastrophe.

“Very little of what I have done in the last few years can even be counted as cunning, honestly. That whole scheme with you and Chase… Well, I suppose it wasn’t a terrible idea, strategically speaking, but it’s not at all how I have preferred to operate all these years. Reckless, unnecessarily cruel. And right at the end, there, marching demons into Ninkabi under cover of the invasion. I could’ve ended that in Hell, you know, it would have been much simpler to turn my forces on the invaders gathering around those hellgates before they opened. But no, in my desperation, I used such a last-minute brute-force measure that even my own high priest argued with me. Poor Embras… A better servant than I have deserved, of late. Arachne tried to warn me, a couple of years ago in Sarasio, but I was already too far gone to listen. I’m afraid I got a lot worse before I got better.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I see it all now,” Natchua sneered. “None of this has been your fault! You were just crazy from magical bullshit. I’m sure if you go explain it all politely to the Pantheon they’ll understand.”

“Mmmmmm,” Elilial hummed, pursing her lips. “It’s tricky, you know? A god is a vast intelligence, but also a limited one, and one of the few things we cannot clearly see is just how much agency we have. How much of what I do is truly mine? For my part, at least, I prefer to err on the side of taking responsibility.”

“How noble and self-effacing you are.”

“Oh, my reasons are cynical.” She shifted slightly to give Natchua a wry smile sidelong. “When agency and control is at a premium, you have to seize whatever you can. Blaming others for your mistakes can make you feel better, but it keeps you in the role of a victim. It’s better by far to assume responsibility, even for things that aren’t strictly your fault. A failure is an opportunity to improve yourself, if you own it.”

“Thanks for the advice. We done here?”

“I’m offering you explanations, not excuses. I just thought you deserved to understand why some of the things that I’ve done to you happened. It isn’t meant to justify anything.” She turned to face Natchua fully, and to the drow’s surprise, bowed. “With all that said, here’s the truth: I really fucked you over, and you didn’t deserve it. What I did to you was an entirely hypocritical abrogation of my own principles, and I’m ashamed to have used you and your buddy to cause such wanton destruction, especially while I’m always spouting off about the evils of the Pantheon. It probably helps nothing, but here it is: I’m sorry, Natchua.”

“I don’t need an apology from you,” Natchua spat. “As far as I’m concerned, I got mine when I demolished your cult and made you publicly bend your neck to Vesk. That was more satisfying than anything you could possibly say.”

The goddess regarded her in silence, her face expressionless.

Natchua folded her arms. “So you can go ahead and smite me now. Like I told you in Ninkabi, nothing you do to me is gonna un-kick your ass.”

“I have absolutely no intention of harming you, Natchua,” Elilial said mildly. “Ever. I brought you here to explain a few things, including that. Have you ever given any thought to the nature of cunning?”

Natchua threw up her hands, turned, and flounced over to a low velvet-upholstered settee with gilded accents, then flopped herself down onto it and stared mulishly at the goddess.

“People generally have the wrong idea about cunning, and I won’t lie: I’ve gotten great mileage out of that fact.” Elilial began to pace slowly up and down in front of the stairs, the sound of her hooves on the floor alternating as she walked off and on the strip of carpet running toward the door. “Talk about cunning and most people envision some mastermind pulling strings from the shadows, always staying ten steps ahead of everyone else and controlling every factor. That’s a complete fantasy, of course. Absolute control is a laughably preposterous idea. If a plan has more than three steps, they cease to be steps and become items on a wish list. Even if you reduce those notions to a believable level of possibility, that’s describing strategy, not cunning. That’s not what keeps the fox ahead of the hunters.

“Cunning is the quality of not only thinking more deviously than one’s rivals, but doing so quickly, while always in motion ahead of them. It is strategy and duplicitousness coupled with reaction time, the ability to execute a plan by reflex without having to actually form it first. A person is cunning when their instinctive response to a threat outmaneuvers everyone else’s carefully-laid schemes.”

She paused in the middle of the carpet, then turned and came back a few steps to lean against the endcap of the banister, regarding Natchua with a knowing little smile.

“I would say that right now, in the world, there are two people who most exemplify the concept of cunning, apart from myself, and I regret to acknowledge that neither is even in my cult. Archpope Justinian is the perfect exemplar of the more cautious brand. That man has meticulously arranged an entire continent as a game board to suit his ends, positioning himself to defeat every opponent who arises before they realize they’re playing.”

“Sounds like that deep-thinking strategy you were just saying doesn’t count as cunning,” Natchua replied, affecting a bored tone.

“On the contrary, that is exactly why Justinian has outfoxed all the countless people attempting to do the same thing,” the goddess said with a wink. “While they labor to set everything up just so, he patiently and quietly watches the whole, constantly reacting to every development as it happens and gently nudging things where he wants them to go. Not overreaching, careful not to betray his hand, but always watching, always acting. While they scheme and try to plan too many steps ahead, he remains eternally in motion. Some of them are players, many only pieces; he has established himself as the board itself.”

“Why don’cha marry the guy if you love him so much?”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Elilial replied, shrugging airily. “So often one finds oneself at cross-purposes with fascinating people and thus sadly deprived of the opportunity to befriend them. Plus, there is also the nagging little detail that he murdered my daughters.”

For the space of three words, she made her full presence felt, a psychic pressure of darkness and hellfire that conveyed unfathomable depths of rage without putting it on full display. Natchua warily sat upright, gathering her focus to form another spell if necessary.

Immediately, though, the moment passed, and Elilial straightened up and resumed her languid pacing.

“Then there’s the other kind,” the goddess went on, “the cunning of the fox. The aggressive kind that runs and pounces and eternally confounds both its pursuers and prey. I confess a personal fondness for that manifestation of my aspect; it’s a lot more reminiscent of how I used to be, back in the day when we were fighting the Elders. The fun kind of cunning that mostly looks like insanity or stupidity until you happen to notice in hindsight that this one particular maniacal idiot always seems to come out on top somehow. Every daffy thing they do inexplicably creates exploitable opportunities for themselves, and unmanageable chaos for everyone else.”

She paused in strolling away, glancing back over her shoulder with a smirk.

“I would say the person who most exemplifies that quality is you, Natchua.”

For one beat of silence, Natchua gaped at her.

Then she burst out laughing so hard she slumped over on the settee. Elilial turned around fully, watching patiently while Natchua rolled about, clutching her ribs, and finally tumbled off onto the floor.

“Yes, yes, everyone’s been telling you how reckless and capricious you are,” the goddess said with wry fondness, watching her. “It’s not even that they’re wrong, but let’s be real: here you are, having outmaneuvered the very goddess of cunning herself. You’re not the first to have pulled that off in eight thousand years, or even in the last five, but it places you in very rarefied company.”

“You are so full of it,” Natchua wheezed.

“I’ve quite enjoyed backtracking to check up on your progress,” Elilial said, grinning now. “Part of me regrets that I neglected to be watching you at the time, but it all worked out; obviously if I’d known what you were up to I’d have put a stop to it, and then we would both be thoroughly screwed. But you just keep doing these absurd things and then, somehow, winning! Recruiting Hesthri and Jonathan Arquin was a move nobody with an ounce of classical strategic sense would have made, and look how well that paid off. Releasing Melaxyna, likewise; everybody knows not to mess about with succubi, and you should know it better than most. But you trusted your instincts, and here you are. You brought Kheshiri to heel, Natchua. My own Wreath failed to do that; the last time she reared up on this plane I had to deal with her myself after she caused my cult nearly as much damage as you just did. And how did you subdue the most infamously wily succubus in existence?”

Natchua snorted and sat upright, leaning back against the settee. “That? I beat the shit out of her. You call that cunning?”

“You beat the shit out of her,” Elilial repeated, enunciating slowly, “which is something nobody would think to try on a succubus. Everyone knows it doesn’t work at best, and is counterproductive at worst. But you found a way to make such an overblown, dramatic production of whooping her ass that she as close to fell head-over-heels in love with you as that creature is capable of feeling about anyone. True, we’ve yet to see how long you can maintain your grip on her leash, but that promises to be just as much of a hoot.”

The mirth had slid from Natchua’s face now, replaced by an increasingly uncertain frown. It was Elilial’s turn to fold her arms, again grinning down at her and slouching against the banister.

“Duchess Malivette Dufresne is as good a schemer as they come, and she had a deft web woven around you before you even saw her fingers moving. And it all fell apart in one moment because it just never occurred to her that a stateless practitioner of forbidden magic on the run would even consider making herself a public figure. One little speech, and you pulled her fangs harder than anybody has since her University days.

“You’re the real deal, Natchua. Your issue is not that you’re stupid; I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that you’re not crazy. What you are is crazy like a fox. You’ve spent the last month proving it at the expense of people who are by any objective measure a lot smarter than you. That is what I like to see.”

Slowly, Natchua dragged herself upright, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “Now, hold on a second. When you said you needed a… A paladin, or anchor, to stabilize your personality…”

Elilial’s grin widened.

“You seem a lot more stable now than you did in the…”

The goddess raised one eyebrow.

Natchua brandished an accusing finger at her.

“No. Fuck you! Don’t even fucking think about it, you sick old sack of lies!”

“Well, it seems I owe you another apology,” Elilial said with a sigh that failed to sound repentant. “I came here to notify you, not ask your permission. I had my little moment of clarity back there in the cathedral when I realized exactly how thoroughly I’d just been thwarted by a pesky drow I had dismissed as an overreaching idiot doomed to destroy herself. I finally realized exactly what had happened to me, and what I needed to do to repair myself. So I did it, right then and there.”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, the least I can say is, it’s working,” the goddess said, her expression finally sobering. “At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that you might deserve to know. But you’ve made me remember what it’s like to live under the heel of oppressive deities, to need to fight back. I would probably have been better off leaving you in ignorance, strategically speaking. It’s just that… A point comes when no amount of strategy substitutes for ethics.”

“You can just fucking undo it right now, then!” Natchua raged.

Slowly, Elilial shook her horned head. “I’m sorry, but no. I was unraveling, Natchua. I was most of the way into my transformation into an unheeding monster, and worse, an idiot. I can’t go back to that. This time I will admit it up front: I am doing this to you without your consent, because I need to. And whatever I have to do to make it up, I will. But I don’t have a choice.”

“I fucking hate you.”

“Fair,” the goddess acknowledged. “Look at it this way: I am handing you the literal key to my fate. You can definitely find a way to use this in your revenge against me. If you decide that’s what you still want to do.”

“So what, you think I’m going to lead your new Black Wreath? Fuck you, I’m not helping you.”

Elilial tilted her head to one side, considering. “I think…I would rather you didn’t. If that’s what you decide you want, I guess we can revisit it, but you’re really not the type I look for in a cultist, my dear. Anyway, no; I don’t need anything else from you, Natchua. Your life is your own, now. Live it in the way that seems best for you. That is all I need you to do, and I’ll accept whatever repercussions that has for me. You could do a lot of good in the world, or a lot of harm. Or if you just wanna help Sherwin rebuild his mansion and settle in with your little harem, you can do that, too. The world is your oyster. And speaking of that, I guess I’d better send you back to the gang before they panic too hard and do something unfortunate.”

“Don’t you dare—”

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, Natchua, call on me. I certainly owe you.”

“Wait!”

Unsurprisingly, she didn’t wait. As before, there was no discernible effect of transition; she was just suddenly back where she had been, in the dark outside the ruins of Leduc Manor, surrounded by her agitated loved ones and Kheshiri. This time, with no demon goddess in sight.

“Natchua!” Hesthri bawled, immediately throwing her arms around the elf’s neck and clinging to her. Jonathan was a split second behind, wrapping them both up in a hug, and despite her own agitation Natchua deliberately sank herself into their grasp. She desperately needed it right at that moment. Somewhere off to the side, Xyraadi was babbling excitedly in Glassian.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Kheshiri exclaimed after a span of seconds that was not nearly enough. “What happened? Mistress, what did she do to you? Are we going after the old bitch for Round 2?”

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua mumbled into Hesthri’s cheek, finally raising her head to stare at the sky between the nearby pines. “Shit. Fuck a fucking… Okay, okay, don’t panic. I can use this. It’s like she said, there has to be a way I can use this against…”

“Natch, are you okay?” Jonathan asked insistently.

She was still staring at nothing, muttering to herself. “I know, I know it’s not what any of you signed on for, it’s basically the worst case… Okay, this is not a crisis. I know there has to be something…”

“Hey.” He finally released her, pulling back enough to raise her chin with one hand and bring her eyes to his. “Natchua, whatever happened, we’re here. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this. Together.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed, still hugging her close and pausing just long enough to press a kiss against her cheek. “Just tell us what she did, and we will deal with it.”

“Talk to us, mon amie,” Xyraadi agreed. “We are still in this fight! What did she do to you?”

Slowly, Natchua dragged her gaze around the group, making eye contact with each of them in the darkness.

“Apparently,” she said at last, “I’m the new Hand of Elilial.”

The wind whistled through the pines; in the near distance, an owl hooted disconsolately. At least there were no wolves howling.

Then Kheshiri began to laugh. In seconds she was screeching in absolute hysteria, folding herself to the ground to pound weakly at the driveway with one fist.

Melaxyna grabbed at her own face with clawed fingers, dragging them slowly down to her chin in a gesture of exasperated despair.

“Natchua, no!”

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15 – 74

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Many of his companions were deeply uncertain about the prospect of Ingvar going off into the woods alone with the Bishop of the Huntsmen, he could see it plainly on their faces. They trusted him enough not to protest overtly, though, when he gave last-minute instructions for them to finish setting up camp and hold steady until his return. For his part, Ingvar was not concerned about his safety. He trusted Andros, and it was more than just an emotional attachment. Even if the day came when the two of them were declared enemies—which was, he was forced to admit, a possibility—Andros Varanus would never do something so dishonorable as try to ambush him in the dark under cover of friendship.

Besides, they really couldn’t stroll far enough that Rainwood wouldn’t hear everything happening, and he more than suspected that at least one or two of the highly capable wilderness trackers accompanying him were going to shadow their footsteps in the darkness. If the same thought occurred to Andros, he made no outward sign.

“Huntsmen and Shadow Hunters,” Andros said suddenly after they had walked in silence till the flickering of nascent campfires was no longer visible through the trees. The darkness was nearly absolute but this was a settled and well-traveled land, a proverbial stone’s throw from a major city; in this forest, it was comfortable to walk in the dark simply by taking slow, small steps to avoid landing in rabbit holes or tripping on roots. At least for experienced woodsmen such as they. “Men and women alike. A dryad, an elf of the line of the Crow. A couple of others to whom I could put no easy label. It is… Quite an assemblage. A thing straight out of the Age of Adventures. And all these people follow you, Ingvar?”

“They follow Shaath,” he replied quietly.

Andros kept his eyes ahead in the darkness; his face, barely glimpsed by occasional beams of moonlight through the leaves, revealed nothing. “And yet, you have not brought them back to any lodge of the Huntsmen, to answer to the Grandmaster.”

Ingvar inhaled silently before answering. “Because those two things would be mutually exclusive.”

He knew even saying it that way was throwing down the gauntlet, but they were both Huntsmen; dissembling did not become them.

Yet, despite his expectations, Andos did not react as if challenged. “What makes you think so?”

“The word of Shaath himself,” Ingvar answered. “We bought him a few moments of clarity today. There were…unintended side effects.”

“I should say so,” Andros rumbled. “The world reels from your side effects, Brother.”

“The howling should be silent now, but…”

“What’s done is done. Do you know there are still riots in Shaathvar?”

“It does not surprise me,” Ingvar said softly. “There will be more, Brother. By Shaath’s will.”

The Bishop half-turned his head to look sidelong at him through the dark.

“The howling will be silent, but not the dreams. By our god’s own power, all who pray to him or invoke his name will know the truth of the wolf pack whenever they sleep.”

Andros’s burly shoulders shifted in a heavy sigh. “You should have let the old wolf sleep, Brother. It would have been kinder.”

Kinder?” Ingvar came to a stop, turning to face him directly. Andros did likewise, his deep-set eyes glinting in the dark. “He was chained. The very god of the wild, chained like a goat for slaughter! He suffered every moment of it, and all because of us. Of all of us, his loyal Huntsmen! Brother, we have been lied to.”

“Do you remember what I said to you, years ago in Tiraas?” Andros asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “It was the first time I took you with me to the Vidian temple. You were frustrated by all their circuitous doublespeak, as any reasonable man would be. But you understood all their underhanded implications, and were savvy enough to hold your own tongue until we were out of their earshot. I said that showed you had a knack for politics, and you took offense.”

Ingvar recalled that day well. From another man he might have called this apparent change of subject a deflection, but such was not in Andros’s nature. He did not speak unless his words were going somewhere to the point.

“You said,” he replied slowly, “that it was a sacrifice. A thing that must be done, on behalf of those who would never thank or respect those of us who saw to the Huntsmen’s political affairs. That it was only for those who could pursue what was right, in defiance of every other desire, for no better reason than because it was right. Because it was necessary, even if at times it seemed…”

He trailed to a halt in the middle of reconstructing that long-ago speech, as another layer of meaning clicked into place given the context of this conversation.

“You knew,” he breathed. “You already know. Who else? The Grandmaster?”

“What have you learned?” Andros asked.

“I believe I asked you first, Brother,” Ingvar retorted, holding onto his own poise by a thread. All this time…

“I know a number of things that you did not, when you set out on your quest,” said Andros. “Looking at you now, knowing even just hints of what you have been up to over the last year, I suspect you’ve learned many things that are unknown to me still. I am only curious how much, if anything, I still need to explain.”

“Did you know that gods can be imprisoned by belief?” Ingvar snapped. “Not just Shaath, all of them wear the chains of their own cults. But they have means of countering this effect; what is unique about Shaath is that these were turned deliberately against him. Did you know that Angthinor the Wise was a liar?”

“Ah.” Andros nodded once. “That I knew, yes. Do you know why Angthinor did what he did?”

That brought Ingvar up short, for it was the one crucial piece of the puzzle he had never been able to learn, and the one that troubled him the most. Angthinor had been a true Huntsman, in fact the very last. He had walked with Shaath, known him not only as a distant figure of reverence, but as a brother. How could he have betrayed him so?

Andros interpreted his silence as the invitation it was.

“Unique among the Huntsmen of his day, Angthinor had a broader field of vision than a simple hunter,” the Bishop said, turning and beginning to walk very slowly back the way they had come, in the general direction of the hill and the camp. Ingvar kept pace alongside, listening. “He was a healer and a scholar as well as a warden of the wild, not unlike the Shadow Hunters of today. You’ve learned much of their ways, I expect. He understood a great deal about what was happening in the world beyond his beloved forests. And most importantly, he was a man such as all Shaathist politicians have had to be ever since: one who recognized right, and necessity, and did not shirk from duties he found painful.”

“Duties,” Ingvar repeated incredulously.

“The struggle between right and wrong is easy,” Andros said evenly. “Only the most craven and pathetic fail to make that choice. A man is tested when he must choose between right and right, when the only option before him is what manner of evil must be accepted. Angthinor made his choice. I have made mine; you have made your own. Only the gods can say if we chose rightly… And, given what you say, perhaps not even them.”

“What greater evil was Angthinor avoiding by doing this?”

“As with the worst evils, one whose victims were blameless. Shaath had no part or responsibility in the travails that wracked the world in those days. Angthinor acted to correct a great imbalance kicked up by Avei, Sorash, and Arachne Tellwyrn.”

In spite of himself, Ingvar froze in surprise. Tellwyrn? He’d found her rather personable and willing to be helpful, if a bit brusque. One could well forget, meeting the woman in person, that she was a contentious figure who stood astride a wide swath of history.

“There were two gods of war in the days before Angthinor’s time,” Andros continued, drifting a bit to the south. He was either heading for the road or taking a roundabout path back to the camp. “Avei was goddess of strategy, Sorash of conquest and violence. They had other philosophical differences, of course: one the protector and champion of women, and one of men. Combined with their other aspects, they set between them the relationship between men and women that has lingered to this day. The one, seeking dominance through craft and cunning, the other through force and sheer strength of will and character. It was certainly not ideal, as it still isn’t…but it was a balance. And then Tellwyrn came along and killed Sorash.”

Andros heaved a heavy sigh, powerful enough to make his beard flutter.

“This is not well-remembered by historians. The Huntsmen have worked carefully to erase it over the centuries, leaning on the Universal Church to lean on the Nemitites, hounding the Shadow Hunters to relinquish certain accounts in their libraries. It doesn’t surprise me that you have not yet heard this account, Brother. Knowledge is not so easily wiped away; you would have found it eventually, but not within a year of looking. The remaining accounts are well buried.”

“Accounts of what?”

“Of what happens to a world when the goddess of womankind is abruptly without a rival,” Andros said bitterly. “Despite their protestations, the Avenists are not champions of gender equality. The Izarites and Vidians both embrace that principle, and you know the contempt the Sisterhood has toward them for it. You know better than most the hypocrisy of Avei’s followers. How hard they work to ease the transitions of twinsouled women, while they cast people like you out into the wild to fend for themselves.”

“I have added knowledge to my training as a Huntsman, Brother, not over-written it. I hardly need a lecture on what is wrong within the Sisterhood of Avei.”

“Then perhaps you can imagine what goes wrong with a world in which there is no check upon Avei’s excesses,” Andros rumbled. “Within a century, it was a world ruled by queens. In more nations than otherwise, a man without a wife had little to no place in society, and one with a wife needed her to make any decision governing his own household. The inciting event for Angthinor himself was being told by the circle of wise women who looked after his own village that herb lore, healing, and the chronicling of the seasons was their work, unsuited for a man. That he, a chosen champion of the wild god himself, should mind his place.”

He fell silent, teeth glinting in the moonlight as he bared them, the two of them emerging from the treeline into a clearing. Off to their right, Ingvar could see the hill with the two campfires atop, casting irregular shadows as people moved about them.

“It sounds,” he said, heading in that direction, “much like what we tell women within our faith, now.”

“And so,” Andros said, weariness weighing heavily on his voice, “there is balance again. Angthinor restored what was lost, at the expense of the god he loved most. Because objectively, his was the weakest and least significant god of the Pantheon, save only Naphthene. Because Shaath had never played a role in guiding the shape of civilizations, and thus, he could still be made to. It has not been a perfect solution, Brother. It was a choice that still deserves to be mourned. But it was made, and for good reason. And those of us who know this secret have upheld it, by the same logic. Even though we grieve the same injustice you do. We accept the chains upon our god, for those chains ensure the freedom of all mankind.”

“Do you not see, Brother?” Ingvar asked, his voice rough with emotion. “Regardless of his intentions, it was not the right choice. An injustice is not corrected by an opposite injustice!”

“And whose is the purview of justice?” Andros asked pointedly. “Even the Avenists will not let one person be both judge and prosecutor. To whom can you appeal for justice when the source of justice itself is the source of your oppression? All that could be done was to push back against her.”

“Perhaps that was true, then,” Ingvar breathed. “But today, Brother, the world has changed.”

“Indeed, you might well have made all this thoroughly moot.”

“I don’t mean that. Hours ago I stood with a host of warriors from all across this Empire and beyond while Elilial formally surrendered to the Pantheon. And, as a last parting shot, revealed to all of us exactly how to kill a god.”

Andros stopped walking, turning to face him, his bushy eyebrows rising in a mute question.

“A god can be destroyed when they are severed from their aspect,” Ingvar said, meeting his stare intently. “Do you understand what this means, Andros? Angthinor did not thwart Avei; he squandered the only chance to punish her tyranny for good. If her aspects are called into conflict with one another, she can finally be hurt. If she devotes herself to injustice and will not recant, even Avei can be made to pay the price.”

Andros was silent, his eyes now narrowed in thought. Ingvar watched him consider it quietly for long moments, until finally the Bishop turned and mutely resumed walking, this time heading straight for the camp.

“Veisroi intends to call a Wild Hunt against you,” he said abruptly after a dozen steps. “I convinced him to hold off until I could try to persuade you. I gather, Brother, that you have no intention of turning away from the path you’ve chosen.”

“I am not Angthinor,” Ingvar stated, “and this is not Angthinor’s world. My choice is simply between right and wrong. I stand with Shaath and with the truth. I will not be swayed by threats.”

“If you were,” Andros said, nodding, “that would be the first thing in all of this that would make me think less of you, Brother.”

They passed through the last of the trees ringing the hill and began climbing its bare sides back to the campsite, curious faces already gathering to watch them come.

“You must know—even the Grandmaster must—that getting rid of me would not make this end,” Ingvar said as they ascended the last few yards. “The dreams will not stop. The truth can no longer be suppressed, Brother. Veisroi can try to scapegoat us if he wants, but it will only add to his problems.”

“Perhaps,” Andros mused, coming to a halt at the edge of the firelight. “But remember, Ingvar, that Veisroi is both hunter and politician. He too clever to destroy you outright. So long as he has you to point at and call enemy, he believes he can maintain his grip on the Huntsmen.”

“And on you?” Ingvar asked quietly.

There was silence, as Andros met his gaze for several seconds, then turned his head to look around at Ingvar’s assembled followers. Finally, he turned back to Ingvar directly and inclined his head, once.

“I wish you good fortune, Ingvar. Whatever else must come between us in the future, you have nothing but my highest respect. To me, you shall always be a Brother. And truly, I hope that you succeed.”

“But,” Ingvar said softly, “you will not join us?”

Slowly, Andros shook his head. “The world you seek to make is a better one, a world I would very much like to live in. But even with all you have gathered to your cause, I do not believe you can succeed. You are not the first, and will not be the last. There are many things I have seen in the hidden archives which convince me your cause is doomed. I will mourn you, Ingvar, when you fall, as I would any brother of mine. But I must remain behind to ensure the world does not fall with you.”

Ingvar let out a soft sigh. “The world has already changed, Brother. Truth can no longer be fought as it has been in the past. Veisroi does not understand this, and that is why he will fail.”

“Warn your friends, the Shadow Hunters,” Andros advised. “If the Grandmaster cannot rally enough support against you to suit him, they make a very convenient target.”

“They are called the Rangers,” said Ingvar, “and it is time for the Huntsmen to address them as such. I know it is convenient for the Grandmaster to have a mocking epithet to throw at them, and so that is the first of his weapons I shall take away. From now on, we are the Shadow Hunters, and it’s a name he and his followers will come to fear.”

Andros nodded once, then held out his hand. One last time, Ingvar clasped it in his own.

“My fortune smile on your hunts, Brother,” Andros said.

“Walk in peace with the wild, Brother,” Ingvar replied.

Then Andros released him, and with no more ado, turned and strode back down the hill, heading for the road.

“So…we’re the Shadow Hunters now?” Taka asked skeptically once the Bishop had disappeared into the trees. “I’ve gotta say, it sounds a little… What’s the word? Contrived? Melodramatic?”

“Pompous,” November suggested.

“I’d just have gone with ‘silly,’” Tholi grunted.

“I was hoping we’d be the Wardens,” Dimbi added. “That’s got a ring to it!”

“Oh, I kinda like that one,” Aspen agreed.

“Well, the Rangers have carried both names for centuries and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm,” Ingvar said with a thin smile, still watching the point where Andros had disappeared into the darkness. “Labels can be weapons, as I just said. Just because we’re confiscating one of Veisroi’s doesn’t mean we have to take it to heart.”

“Don’t listen to the naysayers, Ingvar, I thought you handled that very well.”

There was a general yelling and scattering as everyone whirled to face the person in the middle of their camp who had definitely not been there a moment ago. Even the wolves fled, whining and circling around behind their two-legged companions.

The reaction of spirit wolves was the only indication of anything fundamentally wrong, aside from the fact that they all recognized her. Unlike her previous performance in Ninkabi, she had no towering presence or metaphysical weight, no aura pressing down on their consciousness. She was just a lone woman, albeit one with dusky crimson skin, horns, and hooves.

Tholi nocked an arrow and drew it back, taking aim straight at her heart.

“I’m curious, Tholi,” Elilial said in a pleasant tone, “and this is a serious question, no fooling. Suppose you shot me with an arrow. What do you think would happen next?”

Tholi’s expression took on a sickly cast as he found himself in the classic dilemma of either losing face by backing down or starting a fight he had no prayer of winning. Generally, Ingvar preferred to let young men get themselves out of that crevice and learn the hard way not to get back in it, but this was no time to take risks.

“Don’t waste your arrows, Tholi,” he said, stepping in front of the young man and directing his gaze at the queen of demons. “What do you want?”

“Why, the same thing I always want,” she said lightly. “To use you in my schemes. Pay attention, everybody, I’m going to teach you a trick.”

“No, thank you,” Ingvar said firmly. “We want nothing to do with infernal craft.”

“Oh, good heavens, no,” Elilial replied, grimacing. “Can you even imagine? The last thing this poor beleaguered world needs is more unprepared fools playing around in Scyllith’s toolbox. No, if you lot take to dabbling in infernomancy—and seriously, don’t—you won’t learn about it from me. On the contrary, I think you’ll find this rather wholesome. Why don’t you come over here, little friend?”

This last was not directed to him, but off to the side. Ingvar followed her gaze to behold a bobbing ball of cyan light drifting closer at her urging.

“Me?” the pixie chimed uncertainly.

“No need to be shy,” Elilial said, beckoning him and smiling. “I wanna show you something. Are you up for a little game?”

“Ooh! I like games!” All his hesitation abruptly gone, the pixie shot forward, swirling eagerly around her.

“That’s the spirit!” she said cheerfully. “Now, I’m pretty sure this is a game you’ve already played, but personally, I never get bored with it. Everybody stand back, we’re gonna have another round of Destroy the Demon!”

She held out one hand, palm up, and clenched it into a fist, and just like that, a sulfur-reeking rift opened on the ground for a split second, just long enough to discharge a snarling khankredahg demon.

Again, everyone except Ingvar and Aspen retreated, most shouting in alarm, but Elilial just pointed at the snapping brute even as it whirled on her. “Go get ‘im!”

“Yay!” the pixie cried happily and zipped forward, stunning the khankredahg with a miniature arc of lightning.

In the next moment, he was swirling eagerly around the demon, siphoning away magic and making the increasingly frantic creature shrivel right before their eyes.

“Surprising little creatures, pixies,” Elilial said to Ingvar and the others while watching this macabre spectacle. “Some of the most vicious predators in existence. They mostly eat each other, but… I don’t know what that screwloose firecracker Jacaranda did differently this time, but the pixies she made today aren’t culling one another like her previous batches did. In fact, though I haven’t yet looked closely enough to ascertain how, I’m pretty sure there are more of them than there were this afternoon. Even so, an awful lot of those out there already have a taste for demon, and their instincts compel them to go straight for the kill.”

“What exactly are you suggesting to us?” Ingvar asked, beginning to suspect he already knew.

“They didn’t get every demon,” Elilial said, sourly twisting her mouth. “Mostly just mine. The ones that fled Ninkabi were the others, the invaders I was trying to mop up. Hundreds made it out and are spreading in all directions. Most won’t last long; the Empire and the Pantheon cults are actively hunting them, and there are also lots of wild pixies hereabouts. But quite a few are good at keeping themselves hidden. Something has to be done about that.

“My Black Wreath have always served the purpose of cleaning up stray demons and warlocks on the mortal plane, but as of today, the Black Wreath functionally does not exist. Someone has to pick up the slack. So the question is, Ingvar: is your struggle with the Huntsmen going to be a purely political one, and purely for the sake of putting yourself in power instead of Veisroi? Because I certainly won’t judge you if so; it goes without saying I have no respect for that guy. But on the other hand, if you want your little reform movement to stand for something more…” She gestured languidly. “There’s work to be done. There are demons to slay, there are perfect shiny attack dogs fluttering around all over just waiting to be tamed and put to work, and now you know how easy that is. If you wanna get a head start on making a name for yourself, you know what to do.”

“I don’t trust you,” he said flatly.

“Well, obviously,” she replied, grinning. “I wouldn’t be bothering with you if you were an idiot. All I can promise you here is that I’m not asking you for anything and you won’t be hearing from me again. If you want to take up the charge against the demons, that’ll suit my purposes splendidly. If not, I’ll find somebody else. Think it over, Shadow Hunters. Hm.” She screwed her face up pensively. “You know, now that you pointed it out, that name does seem a little overwrought. Ah, well, that’s your business, not mine. I have another urgent appointment tonight, so I won’t keep you any longer. Good hunting!”

She snapped her fingers and vanished in an entirely unnecessary shower of crimson sparks.

“It’s a trap,” Tholi said immediately.

“How?” Taka demanded.

“Aw, is she gone?” the pixie chimed, drifting over toward them. Behind him was nothing but a patch of charcoal where the demon had apparently been drained of every spark of its life essence. “Shoot, now how’ll I know if I won?”

“It sure looks to me like you did,” Ingvar said with a smile. “What’s your name, little friend?”

“Name?” The pixie zipped about in a tight circle as if momentarily agitated. “I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think pixies have names.”

“I know one who does,” Ingvar said gravely. “Everyone deserves a name.”

“You think so? Well, that sounds pretty neat! What should my name be?”

“Names are serious business,” said Ingvar. “We should talk for a bit, and think about it. Your name is important and we don’t want to rush it. Would you like to stay here with us tonight?”

“Well sure!” the little fairy chimed. “I like you people! And your wolves are fluffy and shiny, my two favorite things!”

“Um,” Rainwood cleared his throat. “That appears to be a lightning pixie. Just saying…”

“Yes, please refrain from zapping anybody,” Ingvar requested.

“Well, sure, I wouldn’t do that. It seems to hurt people. You guys are my friends!”

“Yay,” Aspen deadpanned.

“Let’s get some rest while we can,” Ingvar said, turning to the others. “I will take the first watch, along with our new friend here. We’ll try to talk quietly. Everyone sleep fast and hard, for dawn comes early. And with it, we hunt.”


The eldritch shadows departed and it wasn’t a whole lot brighter in their absence, except behind and far below them where the lights of Veilgrad extended out into the prairie from the foot of the mountains.

“Zut alors,” Xyraadi groaned, gazing up the path at the dim shape of Leduc Manor. “Look how much more uphill there is! Natchua, we really must rebuild the ward network so we can shadow-jump directly in.”

“It’s on the to-do list,” Natchua assured her, patting Hesthri’s back. The hethelax leaned against her for a moment, but said nothing. She had been quiet since her and Jonathan’s conversation with Gabriel, and Natchua was torn between wanting to know exactly what had happened and not wanting to rip open any more scars tonight. “Well, standing here groaning isn’t getting us to bed any faster.”

She set off up the path, and everyone followed. Neither succubus took flight, though they could have made it to the house in seconds; Natchua suspected they just weren’t emotionally capable of passing up any crowd that might be a source of juicy gossip.

“Natchua,” Xyraadi said suddenly, her voice more serious, “now that we are… Well, now that it’s over, I am thinking very seriously of taking Lieutenant Locke up on her offer. I do not know how to not be fighting. And it would be good to work with the Sisterhood again. That Trissiny Avelea impresses me greatly; she is already a much wiser paladin than Trouchelle ever was.”

“I think that sounds like a good use for your abilities,” Natchua said with a smile. “You certainly don’t need my permission to do anything, you know. I appreciate you letting me know, though.”

“Of course, I would not abandon a friend and ally without a word.”

“I think that was a shot at you, Mel,” Kheshiri said sweetly.

“Cheap, tiresome, low-hanging fruit,” Melaxyna replied in a bored tone. “Bring your A-game or don’t talk to me at all.”

Xyraadi glanced back at the succubi momentarily. “I mention it also because I thought you might consider the offer yourself, Natchua. You, and any of us here.”

“I…” Natchua hesitated, looking at Jonathan. “I never thought about…”

“The idea has its good and bad points,” he mused. “It would be something to do. I have to say, I’m startled to find this whole campaign of ours over. I thought for sure that’d only happen over everybody’s dead body.”

“Hence why I mention it,” Xyraadi agreed. “A sudden lack of purpose is bad for the spirit, take it from one who knows. I am not saying you have to do what I do, but it is a possibility to consider.”

“Hard pass,” said Kheshiri. “I’ve done all the work under priests I care to, and the last Avenist I met was gibbering batshit insane.”

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Natchua said automatically. “And I…will consider it. But just to reiterate: not one of you—except Kheshiri, whose ass I own—is beholden to me. I brought you all out here to do something, and… Well, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it’s done now.”

“I will go where you go, pretty one,” Hesthri said, slipping and arm around her waist.

“Same goes,” Jonathan chuckled and pressed against the hethelax’s other side. He was sufficiently larger than them that he managed to drape his own arm around both her shoulders and Natchua’s.

“Yes, there’s also that,” Melaxyna said lightly. “It’s been good to put on my dusty old Izarite hat after all these centuries. I have a lot of work still to do, making a functioning person out of Sherwin. And I confess, I might not have encouraged the three of you to have a go at it if I’d known you weren’t all going to die within a few days.”

“Excuse me?!” Natchua exclaimed.

“You took relationship advice from the succubus?” Jonathan added incredulously.

Hesthri gently poked a chitin-armored elbow into his ribs. “You weren’t complaining when she had her mouth—”

“Public!” he interrupted, jostling her.

“From the good succubus,” Natchua clarified.

“Do you mean good as in morally, or as in superior?” Kheshiri demanded. “Because you’re wrong either way, but I do like things to be clear.”

“Oh, not to worry,” Melaxyna chirped, waving her tail happily. “You three are a surprisingly stable unit, for a tripod. A bit more guidance and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make this work as long as you like with no further help. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

“And yet,” Xyraadi murmured, “not even the weirdest group of friends I have ever had.”

They topped the last rise in the path and slowed to a stop, finding Lord Sherwin himself sitting on the front steps of the manor amid all the construction materials despite the late hour.

“Sherwin?” Natchua asked as he jumped to his feet. “What are you still doing up?”

“Natch, everybody,” he said urgently. “The hobs are already hiding—you’d better get out of here before she—”

The manor’s doors burst open, and framed within them, backlit but a halo of seething orange flame, stood Elilial.

“There you are, you little beast,” she said, pointing one clawed finger at Natchua. “I want a word with you.”

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15 – 73

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A hand came to rest on Toby’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.

“Yep, I had a feeling a whole city full of people in need would bring this out. Do we need to go have The Talk, Toby, or are you gonna go eat something and rest without having to be carried?”

“Hi, Gabe,” Toby said without looking up. “Your concern for my well-being is noted. And it’d carry more weight if you hadn’t just ambushed me from behind while I’m working with a knife.”

“I’ll admit it, I’m willing to play a little rougher with you than with people who can’t twist me into a sailor knot one-handed. The heck kind of potato is this?” Gabriel added, stepping up alongside Toby and picking up one of the tubers he was slicing.

“They’re taro,” he said, pushing the slices he’d just made into the pot next to his cutting board and taking the root from Gabriel’s hand to begin cutting it up. “They grow in the northern Tidestrider isles and Onkawa. Apparently they’re a delicacy this far south, and a whole bunch were just donated, so in the stew they go.”

“Seriously, man,” Gabriel said, leaning forward over the table to catch Toby’s eye. “If you’re already back here doing this instead of out there laying hands on the injured, I know you must be feeling the burnout. For the umpteenth time, you can help fewer people if you exhaust yourself trying.”

“You’re a good friend, Gabe,” Toby said, smiling and continuing to chop. “But no, I’m… This is something different. The priestess in the trauma camp said things were under control and gave us that exact speech, sent all the light-wielders away to rest up for tomorrow. I do like to be helpful, but right now I have some stuff on my mind and doing repetitive tasks in relative quiet helps me think.”

Relative was the key word; Toby had set himself up in an improvised pantry attached to an equally improvised kitchen, where vegetable stew and flatbread were being prepared on portable arcane ranges and hastily-built brick ovens for the overnight shift of relief workers who’d just arrived fresh from Viridill and Jennidira. Being in a large canvas tent, there wasn’t much in the way of sound protection, just chest-high barriers of crates walling off this corner. They could see and hear everything outside, but it was a little island of semi-solitude amid the bustle of the aid workers’ camp.

“Oh, yeah.” Gabriel started to lean against the table, then immediately backed away when it shifted under his weight. “I have been asked to relay a loud complaint to Omnu via you about messing in valkyrie business. Personally, I’m quite happy how all that went down, but, y’know. I did promise to pass it along. I don’t suppose this is related to…?”

“Yeah,” Toby said quietly, eyes on his work. “That wasn’t Omnu. It was me.”

The soft, rhythmic swish and thunk of the knife going through taro into the cutting board filled the few seconds of silence.

“You can raise the dead now?” Gabriel finally asked in a very careful tone.

“Of course not. But Omnu can. He’s a god, why wouldn’t he be able to? He just won’t. Ordinarily.”

“There are…a lot of really good reasons for that, Toby. Death is one of those things that can’t play favorites.”

“You don’t need to explain to me why death is important to life. Everything lives because something else dies. You think these taro plants wanted to be yanked out of the ground and chopped up for stew? The balance has to be respected or it will break. No death, no life. I get it.” He swept the slices into the pot and picked up another root. “And there’s a lot else that was wrong with that, too. It turns out that with the combination of Omnu stepping in to handle a crisis with a holy nova, some basic meditative techniques of mindful awareness, and the knowledge of how gods and their consciousness actually works… I can pretty much take over. Make him do whatever I want him to do.”

He sliced up two more taro roots before Gabriel spoke again.

“Maybe you really shouldn’t be doing that.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Toby said with a sigh. “Good gods, do I not want that kind of power, or the responsibility that goes with it. It’s easy enough to just say I won’t do it again, but… Omnu only steps in that way when the need is extreme, and in a crisis, with me already knowing how… I honestly can’t swear I’d never think it was necessary again. But you know what?”

He brought down the knife harder than before, almost like a cleaver, taking off a large chunk from the top of the next root. Gabriel glanced down at it, then back up at Toby’s face.

“I am not sorry,” Toby said, quietly but with fierce emphasis. “People were dead, and now they aren’t. My friends were gone, and now they’re back. Even knowing that was a bad idea and a wrong thing to do, even being scared of what it means, I have zero regrets. If anything… My entire spiritual journey over the last few years has been learning what it actually means to be peaceful, but not passive. How it’s necessary to act, how the way of peace means finding gentle means to impose your will, not being free from the responsibility to do something. And Omnu? He doesn’t even talk to me. We go on an absurd quest and meet half the Pantheon, and never a peep from him. I ritually invoke him to seek his advice and all I get are warm fuzzy feelings. If I don’t get to sit around meditating and growing vegetables like I was raised to want, why should he? Who should be taking more responsibility and more action than a god?”

Toby finally set down the knife entirely and planted his palms on the cutting board, bracketing it and the half-chopped root. He stared down at them, seeing something far away.

“When it all comes down to it, I find I resent Omnu. Never mind regret, I feel vindicated. And that… That’s pretty alarming, Gabe. I feel like I’m at the beginning of a road that goes places I know I don’t want to go, but I’m not sure if I can actually turn around anymore.”

Gabriel rested a hand on his shoulder again, silently.

“Thanks for listening,” Toby said, finally looking up at him with a wan smile. “Look… I wanna work and chew on my thoughts for a while to sort this out. Would you mind being an ear again, later, when I have more of a handle on it?”

“Absolutely,” Gabriel said immediately. “I mean, not at all. I mean, you know what I mean. I get it, this has been a day of heavy stuff and as much as I kind of hate myself for the selfishness of it, it’s pretty helpful having all this work to run around doing while it processes. Just had a chat with my parents that was even more revelatory than the fact of them being here, and…” He hesitated, looking past Toby at something just outside the tent. “And what timing, looks like the next item on my agenda just showed up.”

“Wait, did you say parents?” Toby looked up at him, blinking. “Plural?”

“Yeah, that’s gonna be another of those conversations.” Gabriel patted his shoulder. “You gonna be okay here for now, then?”

“Yeah, I’ve got food to prepare and a space to think, that’s all I need. You?”

“This is gonna get more awkward before it gets less so,” Gabriel said with a sigh, finally tearing his gaze from what had been holding it outside the kitchen tent to give Toby a wry grimace. “We can both have that long talk once everything’s a bit more settled.”

“It’s a date,” Toby said, smiling. “Don’t forget to get some rest tonight.”

“Goes double for you.”

He went back to chopping roots in peace while Gabriel navigated his way around the stacks of boxes, skirting the edge of the open tent so as not to interfere with the people cooking, and stepped out of the glow of its fairy lamps into the relative dimness of Ninkabi’s front square. Most of the streetlamps had been destroyed what with one thing and another, but various temporary sources of light both magical and burning were set up around the centers of activity, and the towering willow Khadizroth had planted in the very stones glowed in the darkness with a soothing blue-green radiance.

“Natchua,” he said, striding up to where she was hovering outside the kitchen tent, “I want a word with you.”

The drow actually winced. In stark contrast to her usual demeanor, she looked fidgety and nervous, and now seemingly afraid to meet his gaze, despite having clearly come here specifically to seek him out.

“Gabe,” she said, pausing to swallow heavily. “So, uh, Jonathan tells me you’ve had…a…conversation.”

“It was barely an introduction,” he said tersely, strolling off into the dimness between two tents and leaving her to follow. “There is a shit ton of stuff that urgently needs doing in this city and no time for the in-depth conversation that’s gonna need to be. So, I know the basics, and then we all went to help out where we could.”

“Right.” She followed him to a quieter and dimmer space behind the row of service tents, up against one side of the old trading hall, and there he stopped. Natchua drew in a deep breath and deliberately straightened her back. “Well. Look, all this is—”

“You know what, I really don’t think I’m ready to talk about ‘all this’ just yet,” he interrupted. “I wanted to ask you about something else.”

“I…yeah, sure,” she said, lowering her eyes. “Fair. I know you don’t like me, so…”

Gabriel sighed quietly. “I always liked you, Natch.”

She looked up again, blinking rapidly. “Wait. Really?”

“I dunno how subtle you thought you were being with that ‘edgy angry deep drow’ act but in all honesty it was amazingly obvious to everyone on campus that you were grappling with serious issues of your own. Issues of upbringing and heritage that caused you to act like an ass to everyone you met. Believe me, I can relate to that. I always figured, you and I could have some great conversations once you’d figured out some of your stuff and were ready to. But then you were gone, so…” He shrugged.

Natchua was staring at him with her mouth slightly open. “You…never said anything.”

“You know, most people aren’t Chase Masterson,” he replied acerbically. “If you lash out at everybody who approaches you, they will very quickly learn not to bother. Even I figured that out immediately, and let’s face it, I’ve never been the most socially astute person.”

She dropped her gaze again. “Well, ouch. And fair. I just… Look, I never meant for any of this to happen, I just—”

“Omnu’s breath, I just said I don’t wanna talk about it,” he exclaimed. “I just said that! Okay, you know what, fuck it, fine, let’s rip off that scab. I get it, okay? Every sexual relationship I’ve ever had took me by surprise. Life is complicated, and shit just happens. It pretty much hurts just to exist most of the time and you have to grab whatever happiness you can find because the gods only know when there’ll be any more. You may be a sketchy weirdo, but I trust my dad to know what he’s doing, probably more than anyone else in the world. And even if he doesn’t, a girlfriend half his age is the kind of mistake the guy’s more than earned. Eighteen years of being solely responsible for me can’t have been easy. I understand, Natchua. I’m not mad at you, or him; if anything I’m a lot more concerned about that demon than I am about you. But it’s weird, all right? This is fucking weird, and I have had zero time to process it, and I am not ready for this conversation. Okay?”

Natchua’s mouth had fallen open again, but she finally shut it with an audible snap before saying in a much more level tone, “That demon is your own—”

“She’s nothing to me,” he said curtly. “My dad obviously sees something in her and his opinion counts for a lot, so… I will give that a chance. But whatever there is between Hester and me is in the future. All I know right now is what it’s like in Hell and what kind of person survives there.”

“Hesthri,” Natchua corrected, “and she’s something to me right now. I don’t need you to like her but you need to refrain from insulting her in front of me.”

Gabriel hesitated, then let out a surprised little bark of laughter. “Well, fair enough, you’re right. My apologies. But anyway, if we can finally refrain from having this conversation I keep telling you I’m not up for, I wanted to talk to you about something else in particular.”

“Well, sure,” she said more hesitantly. “What do you need?”

“As I understand it, your whole deal is you have basically all the knowledge of applied infernomancy, right?”

“All of the Elilinist tradition,” she said warily. “The Scyllithenes have other methods, and there are demon-only spells I know but can’t actually use without blowing myself up. None of it was my idea, either, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you stay out of infernal magic. I can attest that it brings nothing but trouble.”

“I was recently informed,” he said, “by a source I would consider extremely knowledgeable but dubiously trustworthy, that there’s a method by which I could channel my own hethelax blood to form a kind of mental screen against telepathy.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes in thought. “Blocking telepathy? Well… Yes, actually, and it would barely constitute infernomancy. Hethelaxi already passively channel the magic in their blood into an intermittent berserk state; the trick is using mental discipline to control that, create a sort of wall of pure rage and aggression that surrounds your mind and blocks any efforts to peer into it without affecting your thoughts. Actually, that should be a lot easier for you than for any other full or half-hethelax, what with the divine magic you’re also carrying. And whatever knowledge of Vidian mental techniques you’ve picked up, even I know the higher practices of that are all about cultivating two different mental states at once.”

“Not…exactly,” he murmured, also frowning pensively, “but close enough. Although… I don’t think that would work. I’m talking about a powerful telepath, someone capable of penetrating any mental defense.”

“Telepathy, actual telepathy, is usually divine magic,” she said warily. “Exactly what or who are you worried about trying to read your mind?”

“This is paladin stuff, Natchua. Trust me, the less you know, the better.”

“Gabriel…”

“I’m serious, it’s not something you need to be involved with. If that means you can’t help me, then… Well, okay, I’ll look somewhere else.”

“No,” she said quickly, “no, I think I’d rather you ask me. At least I won’t try to trick you into something dangerous, and most people who know infernal magic would. All right, so you can’t just block telepathy; there actually is another way, using a variant of the same method. It’s considerably more difficult, though.”

“I’m all ears.”

“You’d still be using the firewall defense, sort of. Except instead of a blank surface of pure emotion forcibly keeping people out, you’re cultivating a superficial layer of false thought. The idea is that anyone peering into your mind will see what looks like you reacting predictably to whatever’s going on around you, and so they don’t bother to look any deeper. So your real thoughts remain hidden by subtlety rather than brute force.”

“I see what you mean,” he murmured. “That sounds like it’d be a lot of work to set up. But…it might just work.”

“It’s a tricky habit to cultivate,” she agreed, nodding. “Like I said, you’re probably in a better position to do this than basically anyone, but you’re still looking at some major mental discipline. Expect a lot of time spent in meditation and thought exercises. I can show you the initial method, but after that point, you’ll probably get better help from Toby and Shaeine when it comes to disciplining your mind to do this without you having to constantly focus on it. Um… How soon are you expecting to need to use it?”

“No idea,” he admitted. “But when it comes to preparedness, getting started sooner is always better than later.”

“And when it comes to getting the drop on somebody with greater knowledge than you, all you need is one moment of surprise,” she said, nodding. “All right… Let’s go find a place to sit down and I’ll walk you through it.”

“Perfect, I know a cleared-out alley just over here. C’mon.” He turned and headed off, skirting the side of the trading hall, and Natchua followed.

“Whatever you’re into, just be careful,” she said primly after a moment. “You know how your father and I worry.”

Gabriel slammed to a halt and turned, fixing her with a flat stare.

Natchua tried for a grin, which gradually melted into a pained grimace under his silent gaze.

“Right,” she said eventually. “We’re not there yet.”

Very slowly, he raised his eyebrows.

“…we’re not going to get there, are we.”

“Just shut up and walk, Natchua.”


Naturally, when it came time to rest, they had retreated from the city. Ninkabi remained such a buzzing hive of activity even after full dark that it had taken nearly an hour of walking to reach a site the pack felt was sufficiently wild to let them relax. Ingvar selected a bare hilltop, as they were not trying to conceal their presence, since it afforded a good view both of the city and the nearby highway leading to its gates. It would not do to be snuck up on by any new turn of events, given the many surprises that had come over the last few days.

Elder Shiraki had remained inside the walls, stating that he could put off fatigue for several days more and would not fail to lend his aid when so many needed help. Rainwood remained with them, though.

“What do you make of that,” Ingvar asked the shaman while others behind them wearily but efficiently set up two campfires for the whole group to huddle around. He had helped gather wood, and watched long enough to satisfy himself that the groups were not separating again. To his satisfaction, Huntsmen and Rangers continued to mingle, along with the more disparate members of his own party. Even the wolves showed no hesitation and were now all flopped down and snoring amid their human pack. It had been a long day for them, as well.

Now, he and Rainwood were watching tiny colored lights dancing in the darkness all around. As they looked on, a trio of them—pale blue, green, and orange—buzzed close and then began circumnavigating the base of their hill, chiming happily all the while.

“This is going to shake some things up,” Rainwood mused, studying the pixies. “It’s probably for the best that they all left the city, but… Look at them, spreading out in every direction. They’ll be all over the West in weeks, and gods only know what’ll happen when they get into Athan’Khar. I suspect they’ll be welcomed in the east; lots of witches in Viridill, descended from refugees who settled there after the Enchanter Wars.”

“My impression today has been that they are generally not like Fross from Last Rock. They seem… Childlike. Almost dangerously so.”

“No almost about it,” the elf said gravely. “They are notoriously simple-minded and playful, and for beings that spew pure elemental energy, that could be dangerous. Fortunately they’ll probably avoid human civilization, since enchantments have become so prevalent and they won’t like to be near arcane magic. That’s probably why they left Ninkabi once the demons were all taken care of. No, I think the biggest impact this is going to have is on the practice of fae magic. There are Viridi witches and elvish groves to the east, and Tidestrider wavespeakers to the west. Pixies have always been among the most sought-after familiars a shaman could have; the sheer power they supply is infinite, the most direct line to Naiya that’s available to mortals. It’s bottlenecked a bit by how much they can channel at any one time, but… It used to be if you wanted a pixie familiar you had to go through the Deep Wild, which was very likely to kill you, and into the Pixie Queen’s grove, which was almost certain to kill you, befriend one, and then get back out through more Deep Wild with a loud fairy in tow guaranteed to attract everything that even might want to kill you. It was only the rare and already powerful who pulled that off. Now, suddenly, there’ll be dozens, hundreds of practitioners with pixie familiars. I can’t even begin to guess how this will change things.”

“Change is constant,” Ingvar murmured. “We don’t have to like it, we just have to embrace it, or be crushed beneath its feet.”

“Cheerful,” Rainwood said dryly. “Hm… I wasn’t sure before, but I think the person coming toward us from the highway is heading for us deliberately.”

“Person?” Ingvar asked. Behind him, several heads were raised at that, and Aspen and Tholi came forward to join them. “Well, we are setting up camp on a hilltop. I can imagine people would be curious.”

“Not many people are out being curious in the middle of the night, near a recently-attacked city,” said Tholi. “Not people with good intentions, anyway.”

“I mention it because I’m pretty sure he was tracking us specifically,” said Rainwood. “And that’s suggestive. This group leaves a very distinctive trail.”

“So it does,” Ingvar murmured. “Well, then. If we are to have a guest, let’s be hospitable. Dimbi, November, would you please set aside a portion of that flatbread for a visitor?”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Dimbi snorted. “Set the women to do the homemaking. Gonna revert to tradition after all, Ingvar?”

He turned to give her a wry look. “I made a request of the two people who are carrying the food. But if you’re going to make an issue of it, I can have Tholi take over.”

Dimbi laughed at him, already obligingly laying out another portion of dried meat and fruit on a spare piece of flatbread.

“Thank you,” Ingvar said politely.

It was a wait of only a few more minutes before the single traveler came into view of human eyes, lit by the firelight. Ingvar began to have an odd certainty who was coming, even before he drew close enough to reveal his bearded visage, or the traditional Huntsman’s regalia he wore.

“Brother Andros,” Tholi exclaimed in surprise.

“Tholi,” the Bishop of Shaath rumbled, pausing to study him up and down. “So this is where you ran off to. Well, I am glad to see you in good company.”

“Welcome, Brother,” Ingvar said, stepping forward and offering a hand.

Andros Varanus came the rest of the way, holding his gaze, and clasped his offered wrist in the traditional manner. “Ingvar. It is good to see you, as well. I had begun to fear that I never would, again.”

“Another Huntsman?” Taka asked, peering critically at the new arrival. “You missed all the fun.”

“Taka, don’t be rude,” Aspen admonished, earning an incredulous stare in response.

“Indeed,” Andros agreed, releasing Ingvar’s hand and turning to frown in the direction of Ninkabi. “She speaks an awkward truth. While the whole world reacted to dire threats and met a foe against whom my skills as a Huntsman would have been sorely needed, I was stuck in Tiraas, dealing with magical and political affairs, and only arrived here after it is long settled. It is a sobering moment, when a man is forced to recognize exactly the kind of useless old man he will one day become.”

“That’s needlessly grim, Brother,” said Ingvar with a small smile. “I’ve learned, somewhat against my will, that one is never too old to change when the need for change becomes severe enough.”

“Yes,” Andros said evenly, turning back to him. “Yes, I understand you have learned a great deal since you set out on your vision quest. We have begun to hear word in Tiraas, already, of the changes you bring.”

“Awkward truths,” Ingvar agreed softly.

Andros held his eyes again, studying him closely, then nodded once. “Walk with me in the forest, Brother. There are things we must discuss.”

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15 – 71

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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 – 70

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The silence hung, a teetering weight that threatened to crush them all when it finally toppled. But only for a moment.

“Child,” Elilial finally said, her voice at once quiet and projecting with an unearthly power that fairly rattled skeletons, “there is a lot going on here that you don’t understand.”

Vadrieny half-turned and lifted one wing to glance over her shoulder at the two elves behind her. “Natchua and Kuriwa did something to piss you off. I’m guessing deliberately.” She turned back, fixing the goddess with her stare and baring her fangs. “I’m also guessing in retaliation for things you did to them. So now you plan to retaliate right back, yet again. I gather you’re not aware that Natchua is Shaeine’s cousin?”

Elilial had opened her mouth to interrupt, but hesitated at that, a flicker of unguarded emotion crossing her face for a bare instant before it closed down again. “In the very broad strokes, sure. It’s the details of—”

“The details are where you drag the truth to be executed by a thousand tiny cuts without saying anything that can be called out as a lie.”

Again, the goddess looked momentarily startled. “What did you say to me?”

“They tell me I was always something of a thug,” Vadrieny growled, flexing her claws. “I get the impression you’re not used to me understanding things, or calling out your bullshit. But I’ve been at a school the last few years, mother—a good one, run by someone who can physically push me around and has zero patience for bullshit in any form except her own. Two years and change, mother, that’s what it took to make a thinker of Vadrieny the brute. And that just makes me wonder why you apparently never tried.”

“Think we should give them some privacy?” Natchua murmured to Kuriwa. The elder gave her a sidelong glance, then returned her attention to the unfolding drama, saying nothing.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Elilial stated, her body language shifting subtly to convey a silent threat, though her tone remained starkly even. “You have never been easy to handle, child, but I did better than anyone else could have. And I will not have the entirety of our relationship casually dismissed by someone who doesn’t even remember it.”

“And whose fault is that?” Vadrieny snarled, snapping her wings once.

Elilial took one step forward, her hoof impacting the marble floor with a sound that echoed through the cathedral. “I am pursuing answers to that right now, child. Whoever interfered with—”

“Oh, someone else is always to blame, aren’t they?” the archdemon spat in disgust. “No responsibility for the one who put us all in that position in the first place.”

“How dare you?” the goddess thundered, taking another step. This one hit the ground hard enough to send cracks radiating out through the marble. “I am the very reason you—”

“YOU ARE THE REASON I DON’T HAVE SISTERS!” Vadrieny screamed back.

Elilial froze, her whole face a mask of shock and rage. The two locked eyes, glaring with an infernal intensity that seemed to hum physically in the air.

“You’re unraveling right in front of us, Lily-chan,” a new voice said far more calmly.

Everyone present looked up at the black shape which floated serenely in through the window Vadrieny had just smashed. She circled down to the floor like a falling leaf, scythe dangling almost casually from one hand.

“Go away, little vulture,” Elilial snapped. “This is family business, and none of yours.”

“The business of death always follows your footsteps, Lily-chan,” Yngrid said lightly as she lit on the ground.

“Desist calling me that,” the goddess exclaimed. “Which one are you, even? I’m fairly certain your master won’t be pleased to find you on this plane.”

“You know why she’s the goddess of cunning?” Yngrid inquired, turning to face the other three and directing a cold shoulder to the deity. “With the ascension, their aspects formed out of whatever concept was foremost in their personal identities. This one started out as a petty thief. She used to break into Naiya’s laboratories, looking for drugs.”

“…drugs,” Kuriwa repeated in a complex tone that hovered between amusement and disbelief.

“Mother caught her, of course,” Ygrid said with a grin. “Every time. And then made her play shogi until she won a game, and let her go. It wasn’t until later when she recommended Lily-chan to Avei’s little resistance group that we realized Naiya had been training her to circumvent Infinite Order security systems.”

“Enough!” Elilial exclaimed, bending forward to reach for Yngrid. “Be silent or be silenced, you little pest!”

In the next moment she had jerked back with an audible gasp, clutching the hand which the valkyrie had just raked with her scythe. The gash it left wasn’t like the marks of Vadrieny’s claws; it blazed with golden light and didn’t close up nearly as quickly.

“Impetuous, violent, aggressive,” Yngrid lectured, wagging the scythe at the goddess. “You are not acting like yourself at all. The Lily I remember would never have confused me with a twenty-year-old boy playing with a hand-me-down weapon. My sisters have reaped scarier things than you. Or did you forget why Rauzon cast us out in the first place?”

“Are you following any of this?” Natchua muttered to Kuriwa.

“It would be easier if you’d hush,” the shaman hissed back.

“This kind of ambush is well beyond Natchua’s extremely limited intellect,” the goddess sneered, still cradling her hand. The cut was healing, gradually but visibly, though it continued to blaze with loose divine magic. “My own daughter, Kuriwa? Even Scyllith would be impressed by the sadistic streak you’ve developed.”

“Imagine,” Kuriwa replied evenly, “to have offended the vast swath of people you have and still assume I am behind every measure of retribution levered against you. Flattery will not spare you my further vengeance, you hateful old thing.”

“She didn’t bring us,” Vadrieny agreed.

“I brought them,” a new voice added, its owner popping into existence alongside the others with no further fanfare.

“What next?” Elilial exclaimed. “Who do you…”

She trailed off into silence, staring quizzically down at the new arrival, who was covered from crown to toes in a suit of gnarled, glossy black armor that looked like demon chitin; it clung close enough to display a very feminine figure, also adding segmented links to protect her tail and cover its tip in an oversized stinger, though it left her spiny wings bare.

Then it faded, seeming to melt back into her milky skin to reveal her true features, and the grim stare she leveled up at the goddess.

Natchua gasped. “Mel?! You were supposed to go somewhere safe!”

“I couldn’t, though,” Melaxyna said, giving her an apologetic little smile before resuming her flat glare at Elilial. “I’ve remembered some things, in the course of trying to dissuade you from this idiot, lunatic crusade of yours. Making yourself the enemy of a deity is every bit as bad an idea as I kept trying to persuade you, Natchua. And it forced me to recall the days when I, as nothing but a feeble mortal woman and then a disembodied spirit, spat in the faces of Izara, Avei, and Vidius in that order, for no better reason than that they were fucking wrong. And I had to ask: when did I become such a pitiful coward?”

“Is that so much worse than a pitiful ingrate?” Elilial retorted. “Everything you have, everything you are, is thanks to me! You should be dead, but because of my generosity, you survive to pursue your revenge. I even granted you freedom to do so in your own manner, when it would have been so very easy to keep you and all of your brethren on a tight leash. Most of my advisors and generals continually urge me to do just that, and yet…”

“And yet,” said Vadrieny, “your generosity always takes the form of using someone else as a disposable tool in your own schemes.”

“You were supposed to be better!” Melaxyna shouted before the goddess could respond. “All your talk about standing up to the gods and their injustice, and what are you? For millennia you’ve cut a swath of destruction across the mortal plane, slaughtering who knows how many innocents in the name of your glorious revenge. You’ve not even tried to alleviate the suffering of all the demons—that is, the people who are native to your own home, because they’re ever so much more useful in their current state! The Pantheon are murdering, hypocritical tyrants, but you are not different. If you can’t clear even that bar, you and your whole rebellion are just pointless. And you’ve never even really tried.”

“I will tolerate a lot from my last daughter,” Elilial breathed, her soft voice at odds with the oppressive darkness which coalesced in the dome above her. Smoky night descended on the cathedral’s open space, leaving her towering form a stark shadow limned by the faintest haze of hellfire and her luminous eyes blazing high above. “But not from a recalcitrant creature of my own creation with delusions of significance. I hope you enjoyed your little outburst, Melaxyna. It was your last.”

“Then fucking do it!” Melaxyna spat, flaring her wings aggressively. “That’s the other thing I learned from Natchua: you don’t need to be a god to wound a god, you just need to hit unexpectedly at the right moment, and be willing to face the consequences. It seems like you would’ve known that, when you were fighting the Elder Gods! Well, you may have forgotten, but I haven’t. Do your worst. I am done bending my neck to gods that just betray me.”

“Before you do your worst,” Vadrieny said evenly, moving to plant herself between Elilial and Melaxyna, “I will warn you once: you don’t touch anyone here, unless you want to find out exactly how much damage I can do to you. Maybe I can’t finish you off, but I swear I will never stop until I either find a way or you do it to me.”

The darkness receded somewhat, and the shape of Elilial’s burning eyes shifted, hinting at consternation. “Vadrieny… No matter what you do to me, I will never harm you. You have to believe that.”

Vadrieny snorted, and then faded, flames and claws receding to nothing.

Teal Falconer adjusted the lapels of her suit and the Talisman of Absolution pinned there. “Yeah, she doesn’t wanna talk to you anymore. But let me just add a point of argument: Vadrieny was wrong about one thing. We do have sisters. Heral and Nahil don’t replace anyone who’s lost, but they have the advantage of a mother who requires them to do their familial duty without spending their lives like pennies at a carnival.”

She arched one eyebrow superciliously as a collective indrawing of breath sounded from the others present. Natchua let out a low whistle.

Elilial’s expression reverted straight to fury, and the oppressive darkness gathered in intensity once more. “Teal,” she hissed. “Of all those from whom I would expect a little gratitude.”

“Thank you for the puppy,” Teal said solemnly. “I love him. And especially, thank you for bringing my Shaeine back to me. With that established, you are being a colossal prick right now, and playing the guilt card when I’ve literally just caught you about to murder one of my friends and another of my friends’ annoying grandmother is a really cheap move.”

With ponderous speed, the giant shape of the goddess bent forward through the looming darkness, bringing her face down closer to peer at Teal through narrowed eyes as if seeing her for the first time.

“You,” Elilial said slowly, “are sassing me.”

“Would you rather go back to the clawing?” Teal asked wryly. “Because that’s not off the table.”

“You,” Elilial repeated. “Sweet little Teal, the perennially passive, who makes a full-time career of taking Vesk’s name in vain. All these years you’ve idolized bards while never living up to the trope, and now this… This is the moment you pick to start acting like one?!”

Teal tucked her thumbs into her pockets, shifting to a cocky, lopsided stance, and grinned. “Well what, I ask you, is more bardic than being a pain in the villain’s ass at the most inconvenient possible moment?”

Elilial straightened back up far more quickly. “I have just about had enough of you mortals and your nonsense. I won’t see any harm done to my daughters, but—”

“Don’t even finish that threat,” Yngrid said scornfully. “There’s nothing you can do to me, and Vadrieny and I can hurt you enough to put a stop to whatever else you might try. You’ve lost this one, Lil.”

“Honestly,” Natchua added, “flying into such a rage over people rightly pointing out what an asshole you are. Your options here are to back the fuck off or embarrass yourself with more sheer pettiness.”

“Begone, creature,” Kuriwa said with withering disdain. “You are beaten. Take it with some grace, for once.”

“Well, if I am so beaten,” Elilial hissed from within her cloud of pitch darkness, glaring fiery rage down at them, “I will just have to deliver a last lesson to several of you on why I am not to be trifled with by presumptuous ticks.”

A single ray of light pierced the darkness, a scintillating beam that shimmered with every hue of the rainbow within a fierce glow of pure white, and impacted the goddess square in the face. It erupted in a cloud of sparkling glitter which banished her unnatural darkness as neatly as if someone had flipped the switch on a fairy lamp.

Elilial staggered backward, actually coughing and waving sparkling clouds away from her face, causing the million tiny motes of light to swirl around her. She was now covered from her horns to her waist in a glimmering coating of pixie dust.

“REALLY?” the goddess roared in sheer exasperation.

“Hey, is this her?” inquired a new voice, belonging to the creature which had just zipped in through the broken window and now hovered in midair right in front of Elilial. Garbed in a resplendent gown of pastel hues, she might have passed for an elf, if not for her exceptionally long ears, purple hair, and the buzzing dragonfly wings which held her aloft. “Sure looks like her. Are we fighting her, or what?”

“Oh, I also rounded up some more help,” Melaxyna said innocently.

“Uh, actually,” Natchua answered, “I think we’re mostly just telling her off at this point.”

“Oh, well, okay then,” the fairy said agreeably, then buzzed closer to Elilial’s face, leveling an accusing finger at her. “Hey, you, are those your demons out there? What’s the big idea with that? Have you seen the mess they made? This is a city, you jackass! People live here!”

Elilial blinked once, then snorted loudly, causing a puff of glitter to shoot out from her face. She snapped her fingers and abruptly the mess coating her vanished. “What the hell are you supposed to be?”

“My friends call me Jackie,” the fairy said haughtily, “but to you, I’m the fuckin’ Pixie Queen. I don’t know what you’re eeeeyaaaaugh what is that?!”

She suddenly buzzed away from Elilial, circling higher in the dome and pointing a finger at Yngrid.

“It’s okay!” Melaxyna called. “She’s on our side!”

“Actually, Jacaranda,” Yngrid added, “I’m your older sister.”

“The nuts you are!”

“It’s a long story,” the valkyrie said soothingly. “I’ll explain it when we have more time.”

“ENOUGH!” Elilial shouted. “What is with you people!? I am the goddamn goddess of hellfire, and I can’t even finish a sentence in here!”

“No, you’re the goddess of cunning,” Yngrid said more soberly, “and like I said, you are doing a very poor job of that right now. You don’t act at all like yourself, Lily.”

“What part of this perfidy is out of character?” Kuriwa sneered.

“All of it,” the valkyrie replied. “The shouting, the magical theatrics. She was always so composed, always pointedly pleasant even to her foes. Playful, and fond as a bard of wisecracks. Not to downplay the very real enmity here, but… She is not well. Not at all.”

“Want me to zap her again?” Jacaranda offered.

“Better to take the opportunity to finish her off,” Natchua added.

“You think it’s so easy to kill a god, you arrogant speck?” Elilial spat.

“It’s not,” said Yngrid. “Destroying a god means severing them from whatever empowers their aspect. Exactly how to do that depends on the aspect; speaking as the resident expert on death, even I wouldn’t know where to begin killing cunning.”

“But if, as you say, she is trapped in a pattern of behavior that is anything but cunning,” Kuriwa said softly, “perhaps this is an opportunity.”

“Oh, just try it, Kuriwa,” the goddess hissed. “I would love nothing more.”

“Does seem odd she’s letting us talk at her instead of attacking or retreating,” Melaxyna murmured. “You’re right. Something is wrong here.”

“I’m not the only one standing here talking,” Elilial retorted, spreading her arms wide. “Well? Since my dear offspring is so adamant that I not destroy you, the ball is in your court. Care to try your luck, any of you? Or am I not the only one who needs to cease posturing and walk away?”

The cathedral’s doors burst open, and the first thing that came through was the towering shape of a woman in silver armor astride a barrel-chested horse.

“Oh, yes,” Melaxyna said pleasantly. “When I said I gathered more help, I wasn’t talking about the fairy.”

Trissiny rode her steed straight toward the confrontation at the center of the open space. Ninkabi’s cathedral was laid out in a circular, open plan unlike the long rows of benches common in Tiraan churches; there was ample room for the crowd of people who followed her in to spread out, quickly positioning themselves to cover almost half the chamber. They had all come: students, enforcers, hunters, wolves, elves, miscellaneous adventurers, and now a sizable contingent of Imperial soldiers, local police, the members of three strike teams, and even a smattering of hastily-armed citizens of Ninkabi.

“If I heard that offer right,” Trissiny called, her voice ringing through the chamber as she stood at the head of her army, “I will take you up on it.”

“Of course you would,” Elilial replied with heavy condescension.

“Even gods cannot flit between the planes willy-nilly,” said Yngrid. “Hell is sealed; she requires a gate to escape there. I don’t know what keeps her in this corporal form, aside from possible simple stubbornness, but as long as she holds it…”

“One does not simply slay a goddess,” said Khadizroth the Green, stepping up alongside Trissiny. “But with a sufficient force, one can perhaps…”

“Beat the living hell out of her?” the paladin finished with a grim smile.

He quirked one corner of his lips in agreement. “At least until she has had enough.”

Elilial clenched her fingers into fists, setting her face in a snarl of barely-contained rage. Again, the darkness gathered, like a storm cloud forming in the cathedral’s dome, this time accompanied by an unsettling sound like claws across the fabric of reality just outside the range of hearing, a noise that was more sensation than noise. Within the blackness, her glaring eyes blazed with increasing intensity until they were too bright to face directly.

Khadizroth shifted aside as Gabriel and Toby moved up alongside Trissiny, both mounted; Roiyary stood as placid as a daisy against the sheer weight of evil pressing down on them, while Whisper pranced and pawed, eager to charge. Golden light rose from all three paladins, expanding until it pressed the darkness back.

Behind them, weapons and spells were readied, wolves bared teeth, and over a hundred mortals positioned themselves to have the clearest line of fire at the dark goddess. Not one person moved to retreat.

Then, unexpected, it all began to fade.

The darkness receded, the fiery light of Elilial’s gaze dimmed, and even her clenched posture slowly relaxed while it became more visible out of the disappearing shadows. Trissiny narrowed her eyes in suspicion, not relaxing in turn, but the goddess just continued to draw down her display of menace until there was nothing left of it.

Just the towering form of the Queen of Demons, staring down at her would-be attackers with a slight frown of contemplation, her horned head tilted quizzically to one side.

Then, just as suddenly, she smiled, and shifted her arms.

A stir of preparation rippled through those assembled as shields ignited and weapons were raised further, but still Elilial did not attack.

In fact, moving with deliberate slowness, she raised both her hands into the air alongside her head.

“All right,” said Elilial. “I surrender.”

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15 – 69

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They proceeded one step at a time through the labyrinth of the cathedral and the spaces under it, every stride carrying them as far as they could move in a straight line before having to turn and navigate around a corner or obstacle. It was especially disorienting because this method of travel moved them straight through closed doors and other temporary obstructions; apparently only features which were permanently in place were actually real, here. Over the course of five minutes, Kuriwa led them on a dizzying descent through passages, stairwell, locked doors, and hidden chambers, long past the stone construction of the cathedral complex and deep into the living bedrock under Ninkabi.

Until finally, they arrived in a chamber awash in energy which refracted and scattered light so badly in this space that they could make out nothing of what was below. They were on an upper lip of stone surrounding a pit of what looked like a scintillating soup of gold and orange beams.

“Are we there yet?” Natchua asked.

Kuriwa gave her a look while leading the way off to the side where they could crouch behind a low wall separating them from the melange below. “I will open the way back to our plane. Keep silent while we take stock of the situation.”

“You don’t have to explain the obvious to me, for future reference.”

“I have learned not to assume that about the young, the infernal, or drow.”

She made another slashing motion, carving a distortion in the air, and they slipped through back into reality.

“—maimed, possibly permanently. The Dark Lady is unhappy, Mogul.”

“We’re all unhappy, Khrisvthshnrak. I dare to presume that you’re not planning to hold me responsible for the actions of paladins, since I know the Dark Lady wouldn’t do anything so silly.”

“Mind your words, human. Are your lackeys any closer to finishing their work?”

“You can see their progress as well as I. Do you want this done quickly, or do you want your forces to survive the passage?”

The two elves were still crouched on the same ledge, but the character of the light had changed from a morass of apparently solid illumination to a steady glow of pure gold. Right next to them was the corpse of a human in Holy Legion armor stained by the pool of blood in which it lay, with more of the same scattered along this upper balcony.

As one, they carefully raised their heads just enough to peek over the side.

The long, rectangular chamber was predominated by the hellgate itself. While hellgates in general were invisible fissures in the air, this one was encircled by a carved stone doorway, circular in shape and more than a full story tall. It was heavily engraved with sigils and runes, all of which put out the steady golden glow which lit up the whole room. More of the same shone from carvings on the dais upon which it sat; at each of the four corners of this rose an altar topped by a huge chunk of faceted quartz, which blazed with the brightest intensity of any of them.

All of it had been heavily worked over. Erratic cage-like structures of something black that looked organic in its organization had been placed over each altar, and all the carved symbols in the stonework which put off divine light. None were fully obscured, but the purpose of the growths to contain their magic was obvious.

More corpses were strewn about, both Holy Legionaries and a few priests in black Universal Church robes. Most had been unceremoniously shoved into the edges of the room. One corner was entirely piled with bodies in oddly nondescript brown robes.

Those present and still alive were either Black Wreath warlocks in their ash-gray robes or demons. The warlocks were at work on complex spell circles they were creating, both free-standing designs in cleared stretches of the ground and an ever more intricate pattern being crafted around the dais of the hellgate itself, doubtless to finish suppressing the divine effects keeping it sealed. Armored khaladesh demons stood guard while three khelminash sorceresses paced among them, supervising and adding occasional corrections.

Two more figures stood at the very edge of the dais, on the cleared path leading from it to the chamber’s door: a dark-skinned human man in a vivid white suit, and a towering, muscular Rhaazke demon with bands of metal encircling her forearms.

“I thought you said demons couldn’t get near this.” Natchua kept her voice below a whisper, barely a breath; no one but another elf could have heard it, even from right alongside her.

“They have worked faster than I expected, to suppress this much of the divine effect,” Kuriwa breathed back at the same volume. “This must be most of the Wreath who remain alive on this continent; they have been badly culled in the last several years. That man is known to me: Embras Mogul is their leader. I don’t know that demon, but Rhaazke are Elilial’s uppermost lieutenants and she seems to have some authority over him.”

Natchua grinned viciously. “Every head of the hydra, on one convenient chopping block.”

Kuriwa’s expression was more subdued, though Natchua thought it reflected much of the same dark satisfaction. She wondered what this woman’s grudge against Elilial was, but this was no time or place for such questions. “A pitched battle is not to our advantage. Whatever we do must cause massive damage to them in a single strike.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes in thought, then lifted her head again to peek over the edge and take in the scene before ducking back down. She glanced at the distorted line where their exit to the space between remained open. “Can you stifle all infernomancy in the room?”

“Simplicity itself, in other circumstances. The loose divine magic in here makes that more difficult, but they themselves have suppressed it enough that I believe I can manage. You have an idea?”

She nodded. “Here’s the real question: can you do that without suppressing my magic?”

Kuriwa gave her a sidelong look, and Natchua could almost see the gears turning in her head. Neither of them knew a thing about the other, after all. But in the end, neither had anything to gain by turning on the other, or they wouldn’t have made it this far.

The shaman produced what looked like an acorn from within one of her pockets and held it out. “Do not make a sound.”

Natchua accepted the nut, and immediately discovered why that obvious warning had been necessary. The instant it left Kuriwa’s fingers, it blossomed into a twist of vines that wrapped around her lower arm like an extravagant bracelet, producing thorns which plunged straight into her skin. Not a drop of blood welled up, apparently being consumed by the vine itself. She gritted her teeth against the pain, but at least that subsided after a second.

Kuriwa nodded once when the vines settled into place. “There.”

“All right. Keep this…uh, aperture here open. As soon as you’ve done whatever you do to banish infernal magic, I’m going to attack. I will try to hold their attention and without their magic I’m pretty confident I can handle them, but I’d rather not underestimate this lot, so stay on alert. You’ll need to finish the job if I fail.”

The shaman nodded once more. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

Kuriwa closed her eyes, inhaled slowly, and began whispering under her breath so silently that even Natchua couldn’t make out any words.

There was no sign from the elf of the moment approaching, but when it came, the signal was inescapably clear. The entire room seemed to shift as if tilting, and the color of the light changed, growing misty as if thickening. Immediately, warlocks yelled and staggered backward from their work where infernal spell diagrams began to collapse in showers of sparks and smoke.

Natchua stood up fully, gazing down on the panic, and noting with particular satisfaction the way the demons, even the Rhaazke, suddenly staggered as if drunk. One of the khelminash collapsed entirely.

She reached within herself for the familiar fire, the seductive whisper of the infernal, and it was there. In fact, in this state, she could tell the broad shape of how that bracelet of thorns worked, how it anchored her magically to the default state of the mortal plane while the whole rest of this room was suspended in the midst of being shifted somewhere else.

For a fae user, this Kuriwa certainly seemed to know a lot about dimensional magic.

Then Natchua shadow-jumped straight down into the midst of the chaos.

“You,” spat the Rhaazke, stepping unevenly toward her. “Meddling—”

She remembered Scorn, from the campus at Last Rock, both the sheer physical strength and her unusual magical aptitude. This creature looked to be bigger, likely much more experienced.

Natchua flicked her fingers, and a dark tendril of magic sprang up out of the very stones, coiling around the Rhaazke and lifting her bodily off the ground. Then slamming her into it, thrice in rapid succession.

“Young lady,” said Embras Mogul, seizing her attention. He held up both hands in a placating gesture. “I know it’s chaos up there. I’m not sure what I can say to convince you, but I will swear any oath you require that we are only trying to help. We didn’t do this.”

She turned to look pointedly at the big pile of bodies.

“Well, yes, we did that,” he said with a shadow of a grin. “Those idiots called themselves the Tide. They were organized by the Universal Church of the Pantheon, and they were the ones who built all those hellgates. Not us. We are trying to fix this.”

In other circumstances, despite everything, she might have let him help. But Natchua knew the demonic invasion was even now being massacred by swarms of fairies, and a counter-force led by the paladins was on its way to this very cathedral. The Wreath’s help was not necessary, even if she hadn’t just caught them in the act of trying to open this hellgate to admit more of Elilial’s forces.

So she just smiled. “I know.”

Natchua gestured with both hands, and the entire room swarmed with shadow tendrils, snatching up every remaining demon and warlock, including the two trying to sneak up on her from behind, whom she could only assume had never dealt with elves before. The tentacles whipped them disorientingly through the air, keeping each of their victims fully occupied and too dizzy even to protest, while they systematically hurled each one in turn into the breach Kuriwa had made.

There were about two dozen warlocks, and almost half as many demons. It took almost a full minute, even moving at the speed of elvish reflexes, to consign every last member of the Black Wreath to the twisted netherworld between dimensions. But the instant the final khaladesh soldier had been hurled through, the twisting in the air abruptly ended. With a final gesture, Kuriwa sealed shut the opening between planes, locking them in.

Natchua exhaled slowly, dismissing the shadow tendrils.

“When you said you were uncertain about taking them all,” Kuriwa called down to her, standing up behind the stone balustrade, “was that an example of drow humor?”

“Actually, I was expecting…more. My plan should have worked, but my plans never just…work. They’re the Black Wreath. Shouldn’t they have been able to come up with something?”

“Eh.” Kuriwa vaulted over the edge and dropped down to land lightly on the stone below. “Their reputation is overblown. By themselves, by the Universal Church and the Pantheon cults, all of whom benefit from making the Wreath seem terrifying. In truth, if you’ve ever encountered a Scyllithene shadow priestess, Elilinist warlocks are just not that impressive.”

She paused in the act of inspecting one of the dark growths massing over a corner altar to give Natchua a sidelong look.

“I’m not a Scyllithene,” she said irritably.

“I didn’t ask.”

“Yes, you did.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly, then stepped back and simply gestured with her hand.

All around them, the black tendrils began to burn away. What began with currents of her fae magic was quickly taken up and completed by the innate divine power of the place.

Natchua grinned broadly, staring with savage satisfaction up at the glowing hellgate portal. “I have to say… I didn’t expect to make it this far alive. Hell, I wasn’t so sure about making it this far at all. But it’s done. The entire core of the Wreath, Elilial’s main officers from Hell…”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Kuriwa warned, watching the black brambles finish burning away. “Gods may be standoffish creatures, but Elilial will definitely notice this. And you just stuffed our escape route full of our enemies. This far underground, they may survive for a few minutes, but the demons will already have drawn that place’s inherent defenders. No one in the vicinity of Ninkabi is going in there for the time being.”

“Complaints, now?”

“It was worth doing,” Kuriwa said quietly. “Even if the cost…”

“This divine magic won’t interfere too badly with shadow-jumping,” Natchua said. “Now that the Wreath’s spellcraft is gone, I can get us back to the surface. From there—”

“From there, we should make for the paladins and their army,” Kuriwa said firmly, holding her gaze.

It took Natchua a second to catch on, but then she nodded. Given what might be after the two of them any moment, best to draw it away from her friends in the cathedral.

That, finally, caused her a pang, but she suppressed it. At least they would survive. In a way, that made it perfect. Natchua had fully expected to lead all of them to their deaths in this endeavor. If, in the end, only she and this odd shaman came to grief… Well, that was for the best.

“Hold onto your ears,” she advised, raising a hand and raising the shadows.

They subsided, leaving them in the great domed space of the cathedral’s main sanctuary, a gorgeous fresco dominating the ceiling above a ring of lovely stained glass windows.

That was all the time they got.

The shockwave bowled both of them over physically, and then the overwhelming psychic presence of a god-sized mind finished the job. She manifested in a tower of flames, looming over them at a height which dominated even the vast cathedral’s space.

An enormous hand seized each of them, hauling both elves aloft, and Elilial brought them both up before her face. At that proximity, her bared fangs were easily as long as Natchua’s leg.

“Kuriwa,” the goddess spat in a voice that made the whole chamber tremble. “I didn’t curse you nearly hard enough the last time. Ah, well, live and learn.”

“Elilial,” the shaman replied with amazing dignity, considering the situation. “It has been eight millennia; I suppose you’ve not learned, since we last met, to recognize that your actions have consequences, or that you bear any responsibility for them.”

The goddess brought the wood elf closer to her face, snarling so widely Natchua suddenly wondered if she intended to bite Kuriwa physically in half.

It was probably just a reaction to the emotional stress of the last half hour, but Natchua surprised herself even more than the other two by beginning to laugh.

When Elilial’s gaze fell upon her directly, the pressure of her simple attention was tangible, a force that seemed to be trying to blast away her mind like a typhoon striking a sandcastle. She only laughed harder.

“Oh, I remember you, little one,” Elilial purred. “I dearly hope you enjoyed your precious little prank, Natchua. That was the last pleasure you are going to have in what I intend to be a very long existence.”

“You know, it’s all about the ability to manage expectations,” Natchua cackled. “It’s not like I was ever going to kill you or anything! But I hurt you, Lady in Red. Ohhh, yes, I did. Me, the little nobody you tried to use up and throw away. I wrecked your day good and proper, and now you get to spend the rest of your long eternity dealing with it.” The laughter welled up again, wracking her so hard she might have fallen had the goddess’s fist not been holding her arms pinned to her sides. Even so, it didn’t stop her from choking out a final sentence. “I win, asshole!”

One of the stained glass window was smashed to powder by a huge streak of fire which slammed into Elilial like a descending meteor. In the next moment, both elves were dropped. Natchua didn’t quite manage to sort herself out in midair enough to avoid a painful impact on the marble floor, but she was buoyed at the last instant by a cushion of air which smelled of moss and autumn leaves.

She couldn’t even spare the attention to thank the shaman for the rescue, staring up at the spectacle of Elilial staggering backward and trying to throw off the burning shape now savaging her with enormous talons. Finally, she succeeded in hurling her away.

The archdemon landed right in front of the two elves, spreading her wings as if to shield them from the goddess.

Elilial bore ugly scratches across her arms, face, and upper chest, oozing a black ichor that evaporated into smoke before it could drip far. Those cuts receded almost immediately, sealing back up as if they’d never happened. Seeming to ignore them, the goddess was staring down at the interloper with a stricken expression.

Vadrieny contemptuously flicked her claws, scattering droplets of ichor which hissed away to nothing in midair.

“So,” she said. “You can bleed.”

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15 – 68

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The group materialized in a mostly-open interior space that appeared to have been a pub or restaurant, to judge by the bar along one side and the tables and chairs now smashed against the walls. In the clear space in the center, three startled khelminash demons standing around a summoning circle turned to face them.

The trio hesitated, perhaps confused by the appearance of a group of warlocks and demons of uncertain allegiance, a mistake which proved fatal for them. Natchua, even with all her bestowed knowledge, couldn’t match a highly skilled khelminash sorceress simply because there were so many infernal spells a mortal could not cast and survive, but no demon would ever match an elf for reaction time.

Before the demons could decide on a reaction, darkness swelled as Natchua shadow-jumped several large clusters of the wrecked furniture straight into their bodies. All three fell, pierced like archery target dummies with fragments of table and chair legs. Only one survived the initial strike long enough to whimper in pain. Xyraadi put a needle-thin lance of fire right between her eyes.

Non, non,” Xyraadi complained. “You take all the fun out of it! One is meant to make a witty remark before dispatching a foe.”

“I don’t know where to begin explaining why that’s a bad idea,” Jonathan muttered.

“Look, there was one right there! ‘Take a seat.’ It was perfect!”

“I reluctantly like your pet khelminash, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered.

“Quiet!” Natchua snapped. “This isn’t an adventure. No fucking banter, for heaven’s sake. Look, we have entrances on both sides of the room. Kheshiri, get up to the roof—from the inside—and see what you can see from that vantage. No flying, and be careful, if their forces are concentrated up here there may be warlocks who can still spot you.”

Kheshiri bowed and went invisible, and Natchua turned to Hesthri. “Hes, any idea what went wrong with your ring?”

The hethelax, her armored form clearly visible after the failure of her enchanted disguise ring, shrugged. “Well, Natchua, I’ve of course been working on it steadily while we were jumping all over the city fighting for our lives, with all that expertise in arcane enchantment that I’ve somehow acquired since this morning.”

“What did I just say about banter?”

“You say a lot of things,” Hesthri replied with a smile. “I listen to some of them. It’s an arcane device and we’ve been neck-deep in infernomancy. It got fried, that’s all.”

Natchua sighed. “All right, split up… Jonathan, Xyraadi, check the door over on that side. Hes, you’re with me. Careful and quiet is the order of the day, we have no idea what’s going on here. Poke your heads out if the coast is clear, and don’t wander out of sight of the door. We’re just getting a handle on the situation right now. Be as shy as trapdoor lizards.”

Xyraadi tugged on Jonathan’s sleeve. “What is a trapdoor lizard?”

“Search me. Let’s be as shy as rabbits, how about that?”

“Oh. What is a rabbit?”

“I know you know what a rabbit is.”

Natchua groaned out loud as the two groups separated, and Hesthri bumped her with her shoulder, grinning.

She carefully leaned her head out, sweeping her gaze around. This door opened onto a side street; apparently she’d sent Jonathan and Xyraadi to the side closer to the square. Thus oriented, Natchua could indeed tell that the noise of battle was coming from near the front gates of the city, though even as she listened, it seemed to be shifting deeper into the central island. Apparently they were making progress, but must have suffered some setback.

The problem with elven hearing was always sifting out relevant details from the vast amounts of data streaming into her ears. For the most part, the speed and acuity of thought with which elves were blessed compensated, but extremely chaotic events such as this one could cause paralyzing confusion. Natchua stepped out into the street, Hesthri right on her heels, raising her head and trying to focus.

The skies were filled with those flying khelminash discs, mostly aiming toward the major concentration of the action. A small cluster might be heading in her direction, it was hard to tell exactly; Natchua shifted her focus to that, watching them.

Then a massive explosion went off high above the city, followed by several subsidiary bursts. Colorful ones.

“Fireworks?” she asked aloud, incredulous.

“Incoming!” Hesthri barked, raising her staff.

A small, disorganized cluster of khaladesh staggered out of a wrecked storefront, immediately turning toward them; Hesthri began methodically firing her staff. Natchua, though, had to turn and leave her to it, as that group of khelminash warlocks was indeed now heading right for them, having been pushed lower by the fireworks and evidently spotted them in the process.

She used the same trick as before, figuring these wouldn’t have been close enough to see it the last time and thus have no counter, and she was right; overloading their discs sent them spinning out of control. This time, though, that had the effect of turning them into infernal missiles headed right at her, and it took some very rapid conjuring of shadow tentacles out of carefully placed portals to grab and fling the oncoming discs aside before they could impact right on her position. She took the time to make sure none of the three warlocks who fell off in the process made it to the ground alive. Important as that maneuver was, it nearly cost her dearly.

Natchua turned back around to find Hesthri standing her ground, not against the now-dead khaladesh troopers, but a figure mounted on a black horse barreling down on her with his scythe raised to swing.

“NO!” she roared, throwing forward both her hands as if the sudden surge of adrenaline that wracked her had taken over completely.

A veritable tidal wave of shadow swelled up out of the ground, impacting Gabriel and Whisper and halting their advance, then sending them tumbling backward. The eerie horse screamed in rage, staggering back to her hooves with her rider hanging on for dear life. They had righted and re-oriented themselves in seconds, but at that point Gabriel at least had the presence of mind to rein in his furious mount, finding Natchua planted firmly in front of Hesthri with her arms spread out to bar the way.

“Not this one, Gabe!” she shouted. “She’s…with me.”

Hesthri grabbed her from behind, peeking over her shoulder.

“Oh,” Gabriel said irritably, trying to regain control of his dancing steed, who clearly wanted to continue the attack. “Well, sorry about that, then. You know, I’m pretty sure this is exactly why Trissiny told you and your lot to stay on the south bank! How’s it going with the portals?”

“South bank’s cleared of them,” she said. “When we left there were only a few of the rest still active. They should be finishing up soon.”

“Good, then we can start mopping all this up,” he said brusquely, turning Whisper away. “Everyone’s regrouping in the front square; get your team back together and join us when you can. But approach carefully, or maybe send your demons somewhere they won’t get automatically shot.”

With that, they wheeled and galloped back the way they had come.

“He…that’s…”

Natchua carefully turned, wrapping Hesthri in a quick hug. “Yeah. Hes, there will be time; Gabe’s probably one of the more indestructible people here. But that conversation will have to wait, we’ve…”

She trailed off, raising her eyes, then narrowing them to make sense of what she was seeing. Hesthri, after a moment, pulled back, first frowning at Natchua and then following her gaze up at the sky.

“What…are those colored lights? And do I hear music?”

“Pixies,” Natchua said in disbelief. “Where did they all… Holy shit.”

A small phalanx of three flying discs, carrying nine warlocks, crested the row of buildings alongside them with an escort of tame katzils. Watching this array of infernal power being swiftly annihilated by a swarm of glittering, chiming glow balls was a sight to behold. Their sprays of lightning, water, wind and ice did half the work, but the pixies themselves latched on like piranhas, searing away the very infernal magic of which the demons were made and leaving nothing but a few specks of drifting charcoal.

“Inside,” Natchua said urgently. Hesthri required no encouragement.

Everyone else had already regathered in the pub, including Kheshiri.

“Okay, I really hope you saw that,” the succubus said upon Natchua’s return, “because there’s no way you’ll believe it otherwise.”

“Yes, I did,” Natchua said, frowning. “Are you two okay?”

“Please, I’m not so easily rattled,” Kheshiri replied, tossing her hair.

“I’m fine,” Xyraadi assured her, visibly shaken for the first time since the battle had begun. “What are those things?”

“Pixies,” said Jonathan. “Natchua, do you have the slightest idea where they came from?”

“Not even a glimmer, but fairies swarming this city will put a stop to a demon invasion pretty damn quick. Unfortunately, more than half of us are demons.”

“Welp, all this appears to be under control, then,” Kheshiri interjected. “I say we haul ass back to Veilgrad—”

“Quiet, Kheshiri,” Natchua snapped.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” she muttered before subsiding.

“Regrouping with the others has just gone from a problematic idea to a non-starter,” Natchua continued. “We need to keep under cover. And… What’s left of the Elilinist forces, between all those adventurers and now the pixies, are as distracted as they are ever going to be.”

“Then this is our opportunity,” Jonathan said, nodding. “We get to the cathedral and get the drop on whoever’s there.”

“I realize—”

“This is what we all signed on for,” he interrupted her with a faint smile. “We know the risks, Natch. You set all this up for the chance of one surprise strike on Elilial. Right now, her whole command structure is concentrated in one spot, with their defenses in tatters and under constant pressure.”

“There will never be a better opportunity,” Xyraadi agreed, her face settling into an expression of grim fervor. “There is no telling what will happen to us, but like he said, we all knew that in advance. Now, we can hurt her. Such a chance won’t come again.”

“Um, excuse me,” said Kheshiri, “but if you—”

“You wanted to be part of this so badly you had to blackmail your way here,” Natchua interrupted her. “Welcome to the team, Shiri. I’m not unreasonable; if you think you’ll stand a better chance with the pixies and your own former partners up in the square, you have my permission to go try.”

“…you’re kind of hot when you’re being a sadistic bitch.”

“Not just then,” Hesthri said innocently, patting Natchua’s rump.

Natchua sighed. “Always with the banter. Is it always like this?”

“When it’s good, it is,” Xyraadi said, smiling.

“Well, we have no more time to waste. In or out, Kheshiri, make your choice.”

“Oh, I’m coming,” the succubus said, not without annoyance. “Wouldn’t be my first impossible dilemma, and I’m definitely not passing up the chance to see egg on Elilial’s face. I’ll just be in charge of getting as many of these clowns out alive as possible, shall I?”

“Get us as close as you can, Xyraadi,” Natchua ordered.

The sorceress grinned and raised her hands. “I will see what I can do.”

Darkness swelled, then receded, and they were once again outdoors, in the shadow of a great complex of domes and minarets. They stood in a small, walled-in vegetable garden, close to a door. Most of the surrounding view was blocked by the walls and the bulk of the cathedral itself, but what they could see of the sky was clear of both demons and fairies.

“What’s this?” Jonathan asked, raising his staff and sweeping his gaze around the area. “Looks like somebody’s cabbage patch.”

“This is the Omnist garden attached to the cathedral’s kitchen, and what are you doing here?”

All of them whirled to face a wood elf woman with black hair, who had definitely not been standing there a moment ago.

“Oh, hello, Kuriwa,” Xyraadi said in a resigned tone. “Since I doubt you have changed much in six hundred years, I would guess that we are here for the same reason you are.”

Mary the Crow scowled at them. “Well, I suggest you forget it. I have waited too long for this to have it bungled by a crew of miscellaneous infernal reprobates.”

“Miscellaneous?” Kheshiri said haughtily. “Never in my life have I—”

“Hush,” Natchua snapped. “Kuriwa, is it? Well, I haven’t waited nearly as long, but I’m not about to pass this up, nonetheless. I have business with Elilial.”

“She’s not in there, child,” Mary said condescendingly.

“But something important to her is. I don’t know what it is, yet, but I intend to go in there and deprive her of it.”

The shaman opened her mouth to retort, but Natchua barreled on.

“And if you’ve got the same idea, then the question is whether you want to spend you energies doing that with a little unexpected help, or waste them trying to stop me?”

“Girl, I am an elder shaman,” she said, exasperated. “Why do warlocks ever think they have anything with which to threaten me?”

“You cannot take her on, Natchua,” Xyraadi interjected. “And don’t look so smug, Kuriwa. She can absolutely delay you long enough to waste this chance, and probably draw the Wreath’s attention here. There’s no time for this. We have the same goal; it is foolish not to join forces.”

“There’s a hellgate under the cathedral,” Natchua said while Kuriwa narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “An ancient one—”

“I am well aware of that,” the shaman interrupted. “I was alive when it was created. It surprises me that you are… But yes, that will be where the Wreath and any demonic leadership are concentrated. I’ve already investigated their defenses, and I can assure you that this is where you stop. Aside from the divine protections on the cathedral itself and especially around the sealed hellgate site, the Wreath have additionally warded themselves against shadow-jumping. It is not impossible that they can be ambushed, but not by any warlock. So if you wish to help, return to the—”

“Supposing we’re willing to take the risk and waste time explaining to everybody there that we’re on their side before there’s a friendly fire incident,” Jonathan stated, “that’s not going to do us any good against all these damn pixies, wherever the hell they came from. We can’t be any help out there. This place is another matter.”

“Hey, that’s a good point,” Kheshiri said innocent. “And on the same subject, what’s the big heap shaman doing screwing around here instead of helping everybody else? It’s not like there’s any reason she needs to be afraid of pixies.”

Natchua folded her arms and raised her eyebrows.

The wood elf exhaled slowly through her nose. “I go where my abilities are put to the best use.”

“Us, too,” Natchua replied. “And like he said, that is here, not there. I assume you have a plan for getting close to the hellgate?”

“Of course I do!”

“Then deal us in. If you can just get us to the site, you’ll have a lot more assets to field against the Wreath. Or, as I said, you can squander this opportunity for both of us trying to slow me up, because regardless of anything else you do, I am going in there.”

“Natchua, is it?” Kuriwa mused. “You really are a splendid example of your people.”

Natchua narrowed her eyes. “That wasn’t called for.”

“Fine,” the shaman said, suddenly curt. “I suppose your bumbling presents less of a hazard down there when the Wreath are as likely to suffer from it as yourself than up here, wasting my time. But most of this group will have to stay behind.”

“Awfully convenient,” Hesthri remarked.

“You would find it much less convenient in proximity to that hellgate,” Kuriwa retorted. “It is sealed by, in essence, having a constant wellspring of divine light poured through it. Disabling that will be the Wreath’s priority, but it will take them considerable time and effort and until it is done, that site is not safe for demons to be near. You and your human friend may accompany me, warlock. The rest of these had better hole up nearby, ready to escape.”

Natchua hesitated, searching her face; Kuriwa’s expression was implacable.

A hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to look up into Jonathan’s eyes.

“It’s your call,” he said quietly. “Whatever that is, we’ll back you up.”

Kheshiri opened her mouth, and Xyraadi slapped the back of her head.

“I need…” Natchua closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again to meet his gaze. “I need you to stay with the others, Jonathan. You can all probably evade detection, but if not, three demons…”

“Look better with a human who can vouch for ‘em,” he finished. “Not much better. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you nobody likes a warlock.”

“Gabriel’s out there, and all three paladins know Xyraadi. If you’re discovered, distract and delay, tell whoever you meet to check with them. I doubt there are many people in this cathedral, given what’s been happening under it, but…”

“Understood.” He pulled her forward into a hug, and Natchua squeezed her eyes shut, clinging to him for a long moment. Another body pressed against her from behind, Hesthri’s patches of chitin plating digging into her in spots. She made no complaint.

“All right, let’s get moving,” Natchua said briskly, extricating herself. Kuriwa was watching now with a raised eyebrow, but thankfully said nothing. “You four need to huddle up somewhere inside, out of sight; we’ll collect you on our way back out. The first step is to get through this door. Kheshiri, can you pick a lock?”

“Course,” the succubus said, sauntering forward. She lifted the latch and swung the door outward. “Why, what of it? Surely you didn’t think a church would lock the back door to its enclosed garden?”

Natchua was spared having to answer that by the need to keep up with Kuriwa, who strode right in.

“Jonathan’s in charge,” she ordered as they all filed into the large stone kitchen. This cathedral must have an attached monastery or something to need such facilities; she wasn’t well-versed in Tiraan religion. Maybe they fed the poor, too? Omnists did a lot of that. “Jonathan, you know everyone’s strengths. I trust you to listen to them. Xyraadi is our resident expert in several fields.”

“Don’t I know it,” he agreed. “Be careful, Natchua. For once.”

“I will see what I can do,” she said dryly. “What’s the—”

Kuriwa raised her hand and made a vertical slashing motion, and something odd appeared. It was a weird line of distortion in the air that bent light oddly around it, distorting vision like water on one side.

“Step carefully,” the shaman said cryptically, sliding around to one side of it, and then slipped through as if passing a corner.

Natchua wanted to look once more at the others, but didn’t risk the time. She followed, studying the line uncertainly; it wasn’t at all clear how one was supposed to get through it, as it looked exactly the same from the side angle.

But then, she was through, as if just approaching it with intent was enough to effect the passage.

She was still in the kitchen, though now with Kuriwa again. The others were still visible, but vague and wavery, as if they were underwater; the three demons were surrounded by visible coronas of orange light.

“Do I want to know?” she asked.

“The space between spaces is very dangerous,” the wood elf replied, busily casting a small ritual circle on the ground in front of her with nothing but her bare hands. “It can be used for rapid travel, however, by those who are careful. With the right craft, one step here can cover many miles on the mortal plane.”

“That seems like it could be problematic indoors.”

“Precisely, hence my preparations. We can reach our target in but a few steps, but they will have to take us through the corridors of the cathedral and the complex beneath it with great precision. This must be arranged in advance. Ah, there we have it.”

“That was quick.”

“I am good at what I do,” the woman stated flatly. “Hold my hand, and do not let go.”

Natchua hesitated, but reached out to grasp her outstretched hand as offered. Kuriwa gripped her fingers, raised a foot to take a step, and then they were elsewhere.

“That’s disorienting,” Natchua muttered. “Is it—whoah.”

“Don’t look at them,” Kuriwa ordered. “Don’t react to them.”

They were in an outdoor gallery with broad archways opening onto the cathedral’s main sanctuary now, a position which provided glimpses of the sky. A sky which, in this place, consisted of colossal eyes and tentacles, writhing hungrily.

“Are you serious?!”

“Extremely. They are not real, strictly speaking. The sky monsters were placed there by the Elder Gods to prevent people from mucking about in this space; only the valkyries are impervious to their gaze. They do not actually exist except in the presence of a sentient mind which can perceive them. The more attention is paid them, the more real they become, until eventually they will attack. So yes, try to ignore them as much as you can. This is another reason your friends could not come; the infernal compulsion of demons resonates powerfully with those things, and draws their rage almost immediately.”

“Shit,” Natchua muttered. Kuriwa actually gave her hand a little squeeze, then took another step and moved them again, deeper down and inexorably toward their final confrontation.

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